Interview with Matt Robertson (Programmer/Producer/Orchestrator/MD for Björk)

10 Oct 2013
Matt Robinson
Matt Robertson is a multi-talented programmer/producer/orchestrator/sound engineer and synth enthusiast (he has his own“Anablog” where he features and reviews analogue synthesizers), and on top of this he was Björk's MD on her “Biophilia” tour.

 

We caught up with Matt in a rare pocket of his free time to have a chat with him about all of his different roles, what equipment he uses in the studio/live and more…

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and what you do!

I guess mainly I’m a freelance programmer/producer/orchestrator, probably in that order. I have multiple different roles within a lot of the projects that I do – I think because of the nature of the music industry now, a lot of people are doing what used to be three different peoples’ roles (partly because of budget and partly because of time), and if you can send a job to one person and get them to do a bunch of things, then that’s great! That’s those jobs done. 

The project that I’m doing at the moment is a nature documentary with a very strong music handle. I’m doing synth sound design, some programming and orchestrating, so it’s pretty varied, but it means that quite a small group of people can do a project and complete it really quickly.

That’s the majority of what I do.

It’s similar with the live side of things too. What I do with Björk is also a multi-role position – I play keyboards and synths on stage and some electronic music stuff, but I also MD the show, put all the music together for the choir and do some of the arrangements for them.

Out of all of the things you mentioned, which do you enjoy doing the most?

I like messing around with synths! I’ve always been really fascinated by electronic sounds, so I think that’s where my background really is. I started being a piano player but then got into little synths twenty years ago, and weird noises that go “woaawww!”. Over the years, I’ve been collecting old bits of gear with lots of knobs, sliders and cables. Any opportunity that I can get to make weird synth noises is great.

A friend of mine, Steve Price, did the score for The World’s End (the new Simon Pegg film). One of the things they wanted in it was a whole bunch of synths, like a radiophonic workshop/50’s Doctor Who-style sound palette, so Steve sent me over the score and said “can you just make a load of things to make this sound like it’s in the 1950s?” I said, “yeah great!”

I love those kinds of projects, because I just get to sit in my studio and make character noises and put them through spring reverbs. It’s a lot of fun!

Can you tell us a bit about your first ever synth, and what it meant to you?

My first ever synth was a Roland SH09 that I got when I was about 16, and what I really liked about it was the fact that I could make all the sounds off the first Jamiroquai record on it! It was a very ‘clean’ synth I guess – it was the opposite of the Korg synths, which were much more gnarly. I had the Roland for a couple of years, and then the teacher at the school I was at found a Korg MS20 in the skip, and I thought “this is a totally different synth!” Matt Robinson Focusrite Novation All the features were the same, basically, but the sound of it was completely different, and so I then started getting into discovering different synth sounds – how the architecture is broadly similar but the sound world is totally different. I’d had both those synths, which are gloriously monophonic, for 20 years, and then I started thinking it would be nice to be able to play more than one note at a time. I then got a Juno 60, which was second hand and wonderfully cheap at the time. The really cool thing about buying these kinds of synths in the early 90s was that they were literally around £30, because everyone was getting rid of them and buying Korg M1s and other similar synths. It was only in early 2000/2001 when synths suddenly started to get stupidly expensive. I distinctively remember that when I had the SH09, you could buy a Minimoog in the back of Future Music for £300, and there were loads of them – now they’re around £2,500-£3,000!

I started getting into the more ‘polyphonic’ synths, bought and sold a bunch of synths, and recently I’ve been getting into the whole Eurorack thing – just because it’s totally open architecture synthesis. Most of the synths I had were fixed routings, so although you might be able to send the envelope to 3 different places, those were the only 3 places you were ever going to be able to send it. So I started getting really interested in the Modular gear, where you can plug anything anywhere, and that’s sort of where I’ve got to.

Talk us through the equipment you have in your studio – which pieces of gear are the most fundamental to your day-to-day work?

I generate pretty much all of my sounds from analogue synths, but as there’s no way to recall them (and you never get the same sound twice out of them), for me the easiest thing to do if I actually want to perform with that in any way is to make lots of recordings.

For live, it’s a two stage process – I’ll use all of the analogue gear to do the sound generating and creation, and then use Ableton, Launchpads and MIDI controllers to translate that into a system that I could actually perform with. The controllers are integrated in the production side of things as well, although not quite as much. Sometimes I’ll make a bunch of noises on the modular synths, put them into Kontakt or the Ableton sampler and use the Novation Zero SL MkII to manipulate it in different ways from how I could on the actual modular synth. For me, all of the controller equipment is more of a live manipulation tool than a studio manipulation tool.

I’m putting together a live set at the moment where I’m using all of the multi-tracks of the songs that I’ve done, and then trying to come up with ways in Ableton to have some sense of control over the sounds, and which don’t mean taking all the synths with me!

With the controllers in other live set-ups, such as for Björk, what does each unit control?

The Björk show is pretty unique - every song is very different from every other song. Dave Bracey (FOH) and Manu Goodwin (monitors) both use DiGiCo live desks, so you can do all sorts of massively complicated routing and then just recall it from one song to the next. My Ableton set-up has got an 8 I/O audio interface on it, but from one song to the next I might have totally different audio coming in and different audio coming out. Because of that, all of the stuff that I’m using also changes its role.

On stage the Zero SL MkII is in front of me, and it’s usually doing things like delay sends and filters – sometimes it will be filtering feeds from the electronic drum kit that Manu Delago (Björk's drummer) is playing. I’ll get his audio coming to my rig, and then I’ll mess with it, and that will go to FOH. Other times it will be just manipulating samples that I’m triggering myself, and sometimes it controls the Tesla Coil lightning machine too.

I mainly use a 61 key SL MkII as a keyboard controller but I’ve got a couple of assignments on it as well. I started off having a template for every song but it just got way too complicated, so what I’ve done now is made all of the mappings on the Zero SL MkII and the SL MkII keyboard the same – they’re just assigned to different things in Ableton. It’s covered in Dayglo tape and Sharpie markings, so I’ve got some idea of what does what. It means I can do things from one side or the other on stage.

Matt Robinson Focusrite Novation
How does the Launchpad fall into your set-up?

I’ve got a Launchpad that sometimes I use to trigger one-shot samples, or to do the more conventional ‘scene launch’. Some of the songs are very fixed structurally because they have video content to them which you can’t really change, so we’ll tend to play though those ones. There are other songs where we have a bit more leeway, so scene-launching with the Launchpad is pretty amazing for that too. There’s also a couple of songs where I use it to fire little MIDI patterns/events to some of the organs and celeste/gamaleste that we’ve got on stage, which are MIDI controlled acoustic instruments.

Although I use it as a ‘launcher’, the Launchpad is also really good for visual cues – it means that people can see things light up which is very important, because then the audience think “oh! That’s where that sound comes from!” Otherwise, I think a lot of it is very obscure – you can hear all of these things happening and you can see people doing things, but it’s very difficult to tie up who is doing what. Anything that lights up is good – the more lights, the better!

Do you use the MIDI controllers the same way in the studio as you do in a live situation?

In the studio set-up, it’s a bit different – I’ve got a bunch of different templates for the Zero SL MkII. I’m actually using it way more complexly than in the set-up for Björk – on the one hand I’ve got some presets that literally just swap the MIDI channel output, and then I’ve got a bit of software called “MIDI Pipe” which routes the MIDI from the Zero SL MkII into a CV converter which then goes to each of the different synths in the studio, so I can just press buttons on the Zero SL MkII and control anything that’s in the room which is cool!

That comes out of one MIDI port, and with the other MIDI port things are assigned to the RME mixer, which lets me swap templates on the mixer and change levels etc. I don’t have a patch bay in my studio, so the mixer is basically my patch bay. For example, if I want to set up a recording rig and send something to an effect or a bit of outboard, I do it in there and route it back into the computer. The SL MkII keyboard also lets me control all of that stuff (basic MIDI controller numbers etc.). The third side of it is using it as a standard MIDI controller for Logic – I’ve got some environments set up to let me do useful things like harp tuning and arpeggios.

The Zero SL MkII is doing three separate things, but it’s totally become the ‘control centre’ – I haven’t been able to find anything else that lets me do that. A lot of the modules in the studio don’t have keyboards attached to them, so I’ve found it really helpful to have one controller keyboard and be able to route that to everywhere really quickly – so I can literally press one button to access a particular synth. It makes it very quick and easy.

How are all of the synths connected together? There’s so many in here!

They’re all routed through a 16 track CV and gate sequencer, so there is CV and gate that goes to everywhere, and then the MIDI routing swaps the CV and gate output of the sequencer – the routing is all done on the hardware sequencer [Sequentrix Cirklon]. It’s partly controlled by the SL MkII keyboard, and partly controlled by Logic.

Although there’s this huge revival in synths and analogue synths, there are actually very few people that are coming up with ways to integrate them into a modern studio environment in a way that is elegant, quick and easy. Without that, I’d have to have some sort of clunky MIDI patch bay! The other great thing about the Cirklon is that it lets me do a whole bunch of pattern sequencing without actually having to do it in Logic or Ableton. 

I’ve put a lot of hours into trying to make access to a complex system simple – I’m really into this idea of everything being plugged in, ready to go at all times and being really simple to route things from one place to another. For me, the Novation controllers let me do that. On the one hand, they’re simple and you can just pull up a template and assign all of your controllers in Ableton to do whatever you like, but on the other hand you can be a lot more complex in terms of routing – those kind of things for me are hugely important, because it lets me have a really complicated routing set up but actually be able to access it really quickly. It’s massively flexible!

What was your first experience with Novation equipment?

I had the first generation Remote SL 61, and at the time it was pretty much the only controller you could get where you had that amount of freedom of assignability of controllers. Even just the fact that it has 2 MIDI outputs on it was huge – now so few things have MIDI on them, I guess it’s not such a big deal. I’ve found it really useful just to have a controller where I can go “this fader is always routed to this place”.

Which DAWS do you mainly use?

Ableton and Logic. I use Ableton for everything that is live, and Logic for everything that isn’t. Logic allows you to be a bit more ‘tweaky’ with things. A lot of the work that I do is on film projects or orchestral projects where you’ll end up with these gargantuan sessions, and Logic has a great way of visually arranging things so you can still keep track of where things are in the project. If you want to do a live show, though, it’s got to be Ableton!

I noticed you have the Focusrite ISA 430

Yes! The old one and the new one. I love them – that’s basically my front end for everything, and I have the 1176 on the insert of it.

I love the ISA 430 MkII - it's basically my front end for everything.

Particularly in the patch-bay-less, computer driven studio, having a couple of inserts on a bit of analogue hardware is really, really useful. I think they’re great – I’ve recorded pretty much everything through the ISA 430 MkII for about 6 years now. Having a decent front-end analogue EQ is really nice.

I’m also into mobile recording – I use three OctoPre MkII Dynamics in a rack in my mobile rig. I do a lot of jazz location recordings – I did a record around 18 months ago for a band called Phronesis, which was a live gig they did in London. Their next album is going to be a live recording and I’ll be doing in November – we’re going to record two shows on consecutive nights. I think that’s a really fun thing to do, because it’s the opposite of the film music world where everything is very stretched out, and you have 30 options on every single event – if you go and record a live gig, you start the gig, press record and that’s your schedule! Of course there’s mixing and a little bit of editing, but it’s a totally different mentality in production to studio or film music production. I really like the two aspects of those different worlds.

I’ve used the OctoPres MkIIs for quite a few mobile recordings, and they’re great.

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