Interview: Kevin Chartier Tells the Tale of MorphWiz and the Instruments of the Future
(ShackMan | Posted 2010-11-30)
It's hardly unbelievable to find that Kevin Chartier, co-creator of MorphWiz and partner in Wizdom Music with Jordan Rudess, spends well over 50 hours each week writing code. It's his full time job during the week working with the US Geological Survey in Florida, and then his “spare time” job at night working on the latest patches and updates and crazy ideas from Jordan's head, making them a reality. Or at least as close as he can. It's also hardly unbelievable to find that he's a perfectionist, rewriting code sometimes 15 times over from scratch until it runs better than he envisioned, and not surprising to find that he's a musician as well. It wouldn't take a psychiatrist to start thinking that he's probably a workaholic, guzzling a gallon of coffee a day to hold up baggy eyes, lacking social skills as much as he lacks sleep, with pale white skin wishing to see the sun a little more than for that distance between the car door and the office.
But Kevin is far from stereotypical computer nerd. Interviewing him is like interviewing Robin Williams: you get stories, and side-stories, and anecdotes, and after an hour and a half I had enough to write a small autobiography. There's a very childlike energy to him when he punctuates phrases with “and this is SO COOL...let me tell you about this one.” He thanks his wife for keeping him sane, and especially for dragging him outside so that coding doesn't completely consume him. He admits that without her, he might not get out much. Naturally, we did the interview in front of our respective laptops, inside, over Skype. What follows is, I'll admit, paraphrased for length and for the fact that oftentimes Kevin just drops into rapid fragments of sentences to get all of his thoughts out from simple excitement. I never once felt like he was bending my ear, though. He just likes to tell stories. Here's some of what he told me.
MGR: Well, you've got an app at #1 on the Apple charts, with several awards to back that up, and from what I hear, plenty more to come. You might be the most unfamously famous guy in the app industry right now. How did you get here at what...28 years old?
Kevin: I'm 30, actually. I finished my Bachelor's degree a long time ago...wow, 8 years ago, now...in Music Engineering, which I usually have to explain to people. When I left college I didn't have any plans for a job, so I just moved to Nashville, which is a really cheap place to live, by the way. So I just went there with about $6,000, found an apartment and tried to get into the music business while loading trucks through the night at UPS. After a few years, I was working in IT for UPS, and I realized that I was better at computers than music. An opportunity came up to work as a Geographical Information Programmer for the University of Florida, and they offered to pay for me to get my Master's degree at a nearby school (Nova Southeastern) while I worked there. What's funny, though, is that I couldn't even get into the Master's program I wanted to get into. I wanted to study Computer Science, but they wouldn't accept someone with a Bachelor of Music undergrad degree, even though I had a minor in Computer Science and several graduate level CS courses under my belt.
MGR: “Qualified but not qualified?”
Kevin: Something like that. I worked for UF for a few years after I finished my Master's and I started a Ph.D. program in Geomatics. It was interesting, but not something I wanted to make a career in. So, I ended up leaving and I now work for the USGS writing data processing and visualization programs for scientists who do groundwater modeling. Now, when I was working at UF I was working around the clock on my major and projects for work, but working with USGS, I could leave my work at work and actually come home. So naturally instead of relaxing I found something else to do and I wound up sitting in front of a computer again (laughs). I started with some Android development, but I thought it was too clunky, so I got a Mac and an iPod Touch and started working on some music applications. I got one in the app store after some work called “4D Synth” that had the same basic layout as MorphWiz does now with pitches across the screen, a horizontal and vertical grid, and tilt functionality. Still, it was very limited sonically and had at best a primitive interface.
Jordan already done JR_Hexatone with Amidio by then, and he'd recently made a really long video about Bebot exploring the possibilities and you could tell he was really excited about it. He e-mailed me about some of the features he'd like to see added to “4D Synth,” and that was really how we started working together. It's no longer avilable, though; I took it down once MorphWiz started taking shape. So I'd update the program and send it to Jordan, who was always very positive, but he's always have a way to make it even cooler. That was all the way back in last December, and even in the course of a month there was a huge difference in the program's functionality. After a while it started to sound and feel like a legitimate musical instrument, and we finally got the program out on June 17th. And that's the story of the beginning of MorphWiz.
MGR: Now when you two work together, do either of you share duties with code or ideas, or are you each bound to your strict roles?
Kevin: Jordan doesn't write the code. I write the code. It'd be crazy for somebody who spends as much time practicing as he does to learn a programming language as well, but it's been a strange experience for me because even though I wrote the code, it almost feels like the program happened underneath me, because Jordan obviously had been thinking about this for a really long time. For example, when the Haken Continuum came out, he was so excited. And when I got the chance to go visit him, I finally had the chance to play one. And I realized that a really great musician has these musical ideas floating in his or her head. And your instrument is a way to express those ideas. Every instrument to a degree is limiting and every instrument to a degree is expressive and lets you do these really cool things. I'm excited to be a part of MorphWiz because it does give you this expressiveness that you can't find other places. One other thing we're working on right now is note transients. Right now, the attack (transient) portion of the notes for MorphWiz isn't terribly interesting. We let the user set the attack speed, but right now that's just a curve that fades into the oscillator. We're actually looking into sampled attacks to spice things up a bit, sort of in the style of Roland's D-50. Also, one of the real issues for MorphWiz has been dealing with latency. It's something we're totally aware of and really working on. That came out of the way we designed it in that there were things that we were shooting for in terms of expressiveness and other things had to go by the wayside. And in that particular case the pitch rounding turned out ridiculously complicated...well, not really, but it was really simple after I rewrote it...14 times. From scratch.
MGR: That sounds like a lot of work.
Kevin: Yeah. And that was after a 45 hour work week. I literally put in a 16 hour Saturday to do it. But it's worth it to work with somebody like Jordan. Because you know he's working just as hard on the other end.
MGR: So you've mentioned once or twice that there are things that you're aspiring to do but can't because of the hardware right now. Can you tell us about some of them, or are they currently G-14 Classified?
Kevin: Well, we knew that was going to happen from the start, that if we had everything put together the way Jordan envisioned it, the program wouldn't even be able to start. And that isn't to say anything bad about the Apple iOS platform. We use it because it's the best out there. People always ask me, “Why haven't you written any of this for the Android?” The answer is simply that it wouldn't be as good. Sure if we had some huge company behind us with scores of programmers, then maybe, but for right now, considering that I have an “office” in my house with my Mac Mini and an iPod Touch, I'm pretty happy with what we've done.
MGR: Wait a minute. Rewind. You don't even have an iPhone or an iPad?
Kevin: (laughs) Nope, but that's a funny story. For most of the development of MorphWiz I had a 2nd generation iPod touch, and I figured since it's the slowest of the bunch, as long as it runs on there, it runs on anything. I'd borrow my wife's iPhone 4G sometimes when I need to test things. Over the course of development, I also bought a 3rd generation iPod Touch, and I permanently borrowed by brother's 1st generation Touch. I haven't been without new devices though – I boutght an iPad the day it came out. We quickly realized that the iPad was a HUGE deal for musical instruments like MorphWiz, so we rewrote the interface for iPad right away. Our initial release was on the iPad. Then shortly after the release, I also got an iPhone 3G for troubleshooting, which, since the release of iOS 4.0, is now the slowest of the bunch. So I technically still don't have an iPhone because the 3G doesn't get service, although I did buy a 4th generation iPod Touch so that I could test the retina display without needing to steal my wife's iPhone 4. I haven't had a shortage of Apple products around the house to say the least.
So yeah, we definitely have ideas working right now that go far beyond what MorphWiz is presently. It's just that, like any programmer, we all want more processing power, and our ideas are always pushing the limits of what the hardware can handle. One of them is this concept of morphability in real time. Imagine taking a trumpet and having the ability to modify it on the screen with your fingers to change the timbre of it. Being able to pull and stretch valves, bend it out, add creases in the bell or flatten it any which way, until you're left with this Frankenstein trumpet. But when you have this kind of modeling, all you have is a big old set of coefficients, and when you have a big old set of coefficients, you can interpolate between sets of coefficients. So, you can have a Frankenstein trumpet over her, a folded-up trombone over here, and a regular violin on another side and be able to slide between pitch-mapping axes between them all, or essentially play a brass and violin trio across all three.
MGR: Now since it's all MIDI-based, I've heard rumors that you might attempt to use OSC (open-sound control) to connect to various MIDI controllers or devices. Is this happening?
Kevin: Well the initial version of MorphWiz is not MIDI-based, but we have made some big strides on the MIDI front. Right now, we actually have a prototype of MorphWiz that uses the CoreMidi API that Apple released in version 4.2. We're also planning on supporting Line 6's MIDI-Mobilizer. Still another thing that we're working on is the idea of visual echoes, of being able to see each echo fade away in full color as it passes into the background. This especially goes along with Jordan wanting it to be a full audio-visual and an educational experience, something that excites more than just your aural and tactile senses by giving you a visual representation of the notes you're playing.
So there are all these phenomenally cool things out there. Anybody who works with computers and sees the power of what you can do with the software knows you always want more power and every idea that you get implemented...as soon as you're done with that you think, “Oh wow, we did this. What else can we do and where can we go from here?” So I'm excited about what we can do as we learn more about designing these instruments and also as the power of these devices increases.
MGR: So we have all this to look forward to, and even more. Now, another thing I thought about was that since Jordan and you have both worked with Dr. Lippold Haken (inventor of the Haken Continuum)-
Kevin: Actually I haven't yet. I've played one of the boards though when I went up to visit Jordan.
MGR: Well, out of curiosity, since both instruments, your MorphWiz and the Continuum, are based on the same concept of three-dimensional control, is there a posssibility of a full-size version of MorphWiz, or maybe even a partnership between the three of you?
At this point Kevin, as he had done so many times in the interview, began to overload with fragmentary thoughts about having dedicated hardware to cut down on latency, a full 8 octaves and even a pressure sensitive screen to allow measurement of not only the weight of your finger on the board but also the dimensions of the area of your finger that is touching the board. Sure, he claims to be little more than a vessel for Jordan's ideas, but he has the spark of a visionary, without a doubt – continuously thinking, “You know, that would be really cool,” and then the all-important follow-up, “Let's try it!”
Since we originally did this interview, Kevin and Jordan now have SketchWiz up and running in the app store, and Jordan Rudess also has a video of it up on YouTube, improvising with it. Check it out on YouTube . Also enjoy Jordan's first SketchWiz song on YouTube (featuring the SketchWiz puppet!).
Last but not least, Jordan and Kevin will both be appearing at San Francisco MusicTech on Monday, Deceber 6th, at Hotel Kabuki. The event will last from 9AM-6PM, and Jordan Rudess will be a featured speaker this year.
While that's the end of this feature, I have no doubt I'll be hearing from Kevin and Jordan again soon to discuss what else they've created. The only hints to the future of Wizdom Music I'm at liberty to give at this point are “Sketches” and “KeyWiz.” To my readers, stay creative, and keep experimenting. If it sounds wrong, do it again.
James Rushin is a bassist, keyboardist, writer, and composer living and working in the Greater Pittsburgh area. He has performed with Selmer artist Tim Price, Curtis Johnson, guitarists Ken Karsh and Joe Negri. His compositions have been featured at West Virginia University and Valley Forge Christian College. He will be spending the Fall and Winter months working on playwright Frank Gagliano's Voodoo Trilogy and Bodoni County Songbook, as well as a full-length album with his latest project, Shutterdown.
Got questions? Comments? James can be reached as ShackMan in the Music Gear Review forums, or you may e-mail him at James.Rushin@MusicGearReview.com.