Saturday, October 10

10 Questions with Benedict Roff-Marsh

Benedict Roff-Marsh is the sound designer behind the fantastic Elektro-357 Reason Refill and the SynthStudio Packs VST intruments. He's also an accomplished musician with multiple records under his belt in genres ranging from ambient to metal. I mailed him a list of questions and these are his answers:

-  where do you live and what's the music scene like there?

Brisbane Australia. And to tell you the truth I have no real idea. I used to go see local bands and the like a bit but no more. The only bands I currently see now are in rock & roll dance clubs - just on the QT they are not always so good. We are going to see Country singer Adam Brand in a few weeks - he should be good as he is a pro.

There have been times where Brisbands were exciting but now I just don't know. I know when I was in that scene I found the bands to be very inward looking - not actually wanting to achieve - chugga chugga chords and bashing drums was enough for them.

-  what was your first instrument?

Probably a recorder. I did try violin and several times started on my Father's harpsichord. I loved music from an early age but somehow I couldn't feel that vibe I heard on tapes and the radio in my playing. Of course I didn't stick with things long enough to become Mark Knopfler so...

-  when and how did you discover Reason?

I was aware of Reason from the start. I was interested in the theory but still happy with my Emax II, Casio CZ-1000 and other bits and pieces driven by Opcode's Vision.

Years later I was in my music store and there was a second hand copy of Reason 1. After poking it I thought why not. The Mellotron sample did help as I thought that it could be my path to being Tangerine Dream. Interestingly I have rarely used that sound - except on the "Grand River" track on my site.

-  Tell me about your home studio set-up.  Do you use hardware and software?

I'm all software now and have been for around 7 years. I used Sonar + Reason for a while then Reason 2.5 solo. Got annoyed (with my own limitations I think) and swapped to Energy XT and VST but that has paled. Reason has so much better workflow. Now with V4, Combinators and the almighty Thor (I feel a "Rock Star" film moment in there) the sound is really great. In time I will go Record too.

-  In addition to your Reason refill (which we will talk about in a bit) you also design your own VST instruments, did you go to school to learn how to do this or are you self taught and what programming language do you use?

Nope, none of the above. I'm too DIY for school - I blame it on growing up in the time of Punk. Give me a bit of time and I'll find my own way.

I have taken the easy road and use SynthEdit which is like Lego. I plug the modules together and the system does the 10101110101110101010 for me. My part is really in the vision, architecture and user interface.

-  You also design websites, I've found that a lot of the people I've interviewed for this series have multiple talents involving creativity and find it interesting that you also have a design background.  Do you see the two as being related (music and design), or are you of a completely different mind set when doing one or the other?

Thanks for noticing. My background is really sales. To me design flows from there.

Yes it is common that musicians are active in another creative discipline. It follows for several reasons a) it is hard to make a living as a musician, b) the skills you develop in music are close to those of other creative tasks so you try to do one of those things so you don't hate yourself so much.

My mindset is similar in both jobs I guess. To me making websites etc is about building a sales flow and a piece of music is a flow of feelings or images in sound. Read my websites and I think you will see I am equally passionate about both.

-  On your latest release, Cassini,  you are marketing it as a commercial soundtrack, the user buys the record and for the purchase price can use one of the songs in a commercial use situation.  What a great idea!  Economically speaking, I believe that it's this kind of strategic marketing that's going to be the future of music.  How's the reception to this been and where did you come up with that unique idea?

Thanks. I have always wanted to write for film and documentaries so this strikes me as a way to show that. So far reception has been low. Selling music now is close to impossible on the net. The whole approach is changed.

As a kid I listened to the radio and then wanted to own some of those records for the song or the look. Now there is no real radio for much of what is out there. The tribes are fractured and spread out so reaching your audience and ensuring they buy your souvenir is almost impossible. Also the album as an artform is almost lost. We are living in a time like the 50's where artists had songs and toured in package shows. The album was unique to the time from the late 60's to the mid 80's.

-  I saw on your website that you've also worked as a car salesman.  My brother sold car's for a few years and on the day he was hired his boss called over another employee and said "Mike, I'd like you to meet Mark, Mark this is Mike your replacement, pack up your shit, your fired."  I'd imagine the cutthroat car sales business would serve well in the music world, has it?

Yes, I had that pleasure. The sales industry is traditionally rough. Cars are right up there on the bumpy scale. I think that the sales industry in general is it's own worst enemy. Slowly the internet may be helping change that with the engagement people can have through Blogs, Forums and the dreaded Facebook. Trust is now a valuable commodity, far more so than control.

I think learning to sell properly is good anywhere. I have to admit that I do think in terms of sales as I develop new products like ReFills and SynthStudio Packs. I hope to make people's lives better and try to show that in sales material like my website. But if people don't see a better life coming from having my products then they shouldn't buy them. When doing the actual building though it all comes down to getting my idea and passion on the bench.

-  I really enjoyed checking out all the songs attached to your Props profile (15!)  The songs all have a space theme and are a sort of cross between modern ambient and 80's synth-pop.  I especially enjoyed "before the light" and "mars lander".  Your latest album "Cassini" also has a space theme: "following the Cassini probe as it journeys to Saturn..."  First of all being a sci-fi buff I dig the space theme and am wondering if you find it easier to work on tracks when you have a pre-conceived concept or does the concept come in after working on the music for awhile? 

Thanks. I love space and robots. I grew up with The Buggles, ELO, Vangelis and Gary Numan so where else could I go? I don't do Techno (I tried but I sound naff) so that is me.

I often write a track or three and then a theme will present itself. I then try to work to that theme. I start writing a piece and when it needs a name - first saving or final rendering - I have a few run-throughs to see what ideas bubble up. Bingo!

-  I had the chance to check out some of your patches from Electro 3-57 and what initially impressed me was your FM patches.  I think FM synthesis is one of the hardest kinds of synthesizer architecture to come to grips with and your "Church Bells" and "FM Swept Pad" are great examples of what can be done with  FM synthesis in the right hands.  First of all both patches are true FM synthesis in that neither uses a filter (which most traditional FM synths lacked)  and they actually share similar settings, but show a good range.  What can you tell me about these patches and more over about how you go about designing sounds in general?  Any tips?

I had a DX-100 for a while. I refused to let it beat me. It was a pain to program but I had some sounds that it was just wonderful for: a string, a bell and an aah. I guess starting with the Casio Phase Distortion made the FM concept less alien.

I am a natural purist in everything - not that FM shouldn't have filters but then it isn't really FM-strict anymore. "Church Bells" I am proud of because I have always wanted to make that sound. FM is great for that because with only a few Operators you can create a big blaze of harmonics such as a bell has. The timbre is controlled purely by envelopes. The "liveness" in the sound comes from the very short delay and a fast vibrato - because bells vibrate and shimmer. The "FM Swept Pad" is really a variant of the bell patch. FM, like all synthesis, can be very expressive with only a few parameter changes.

I think in sound designing (and probably anything else for that matter) the magic comes in paying attention to detail. Sound is very similar but it is in the subtleties that we find distinction. Our brains are great at recognizing subtle meanings (when we aren't being lazy). Put in detail that differentiates your voice from that of others and you win. Being lazy shows so you lose.

Overall I build sounds from one of two approaches:
• Sculpture - start with something wild and untamed and like a lot of sculptors say look for the shape and form that is in the stone and try to free it best I can
• Addition - have an idea and then use my existing skills and knowledge to build as close as I can to that thing
In reality I tend to use both methods in turns as appropriate to getting the sound that feels polished, interesting and usable. I also try to make sure all my patches have variation so that they are more like instruments than simple use-once patches.

-  Two other patches that I loved from Electro 3-57 are "LogicSystem" and "Drum Kit 1".  LogicSystem is sort of in the bleeps and bloops / mad scientist range and is the kind of patch that initially interested me in synthesizers.  While "Drum Kit One" is the classic analog drum kit sound (dig the snare!)  What are your favorite kinds of patches to create?

LogicSystem is actually a tip to a Yellow Magic Orchestra spin-off of the same name. That snare is pretty splashy.

I am obsessed with making "piano" patches and I don't really know why. I spend far too long on them and they aren't where I think I am best. I love making strings and stringy pads. I also always look for those Jon Lord (Deep Purple) organ sounds. Almost every patch becomes a labor of love.

Here's a sneak preview Thor patch from my current project called "Crystal Plants", based on a Blake's 7 episode. I think you'll like this one:

Crystal Plants.thor

-  You've released multiple albums under different guises, VST instruments and a great Reason Refill, what's next for Benedict Roff-Marsh?

I think music will stay under my true name - unless I suddenly get good at Trance :lol:

I am working on a new VST pack SSP IV which is focused on my love for dirty old analog synths. there is a 4-OSC monster that is wonderfully unruly and a very simple Phaser that is making me happy. I am also working on a new ReFill which is firmly thinking "space" so lots of pads, noises and yes some pianos - my best yet. Immersing myself in Reason and the glory days of monophonc analog has helped me learn a few new tricks so the sound is definitely not thin or too clean ;-)

Thanks for the great interview Benedict! For more information and to pick up Elektro 3-57 go to:


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