Jordan Rudess on Playing with New Toys

(ShackMan | Posted 2010-08-20)

Jordan Rudess on Playing with New Toys

Itís hard not to call getting to meet Jordan Rudess one of the highlights of my musical career so far. Heís a very thoughtful man, who chooses his words carefully, and as such I did my best to reproduce the interview word for word below. Heís all about figuring out new software and new gadgets, and he was only too eager to jam for a bit on the MorphWiz, his new iPad and iPhone application, among other things, including his thoughts on the state of the home studio and his ventures into collegiate electronic music. The whole interview was done on the Dream Theater tour bus right before I saw them live, followed by Iron Maiden. Overall, it was a great night. Hereís what Jordan had to say.

MGR: You spoke recently in a Microboards press release about the new G3 about how producing at home and building a home studio is becoming cheaper and cheaper, which could be a pretty big understatementÖWhat way do you think this is all pointing?

JR: More and more things are moving into the home studio. Itís been happening for a long time, and the Microboards unit is just a progression of that, which just gives more power to the individual musician. The first thing that happened is that we started to see the big studios go away, and more people learned how to use things like Pro Tools, Digital Performer, and Logic, to create their own music, and at this point itís gotten to a point where people just do their music at home. Being able to manufacture your own CDís at home is essentially the next level. And I donít really expect that it will ever completely replace anything. I canít sit there and rattle off 1,000 or 2,000 CDs unless I want to quit my day job. But for me to make 50 or 100 or a couple hundred CDs and use them for whatever, be it some kind of sale, or my conservatory, is really great, because you donít have to go out and start using other distributors and manufacturers. It definitely brings things closer to home, and itís a bit more personally controllable.

MGR: Is there still room for analog studios, since this is all digital?

JR: There are still some people who believe in and support analog gear, but there arenít a whole lot of them. Itís a specialized group.

MGR: Now you also have a new App out called the MorphWiz, which is making use of greater processing power, among other things, on the iPad. Could you tell us about that?

JR: I think that the technology is really changing a lot, especially this new multi-touch technology that Apple just came out with. For them to make multi-touch technology available to everybody through the iPhone and the iPad, and make it so widespread, just opens up the world to all these creative possibilities. Itís something that Iím really excited about, because when I first got my iPhone and I realized what it would do, I thought, ďThis is really gonna change everything.Ē And slowly but surely you started to see musical things happening. I remember when I first saw the little piano keyboard and played a few notes on the piano on the iPhone, I went, ďOkay. I get this.Ē *grins* It immediately caught my eye and my ear and my imagination, and I started to get involved with all the people who were doing this kind of work.

MGR: Man, I still have to get on that bandwagon.

JR: Itís SO amazing. And thereís a guy in Russia whom I met with a company called Amidio, and we did an app called JR_Hexatone. Itís a rhythmic sound sequencer. Itís perfect for any kind of glitchy, IDM music, you know, electronicÖitís really trippy. I worked with a bunch of things. I worked with an app called Bebot, which is a quite popular app for the iPhone.

MGR: I know that one! Did you help create that?

JR: Well, what happened was that Bebot was created by a very nice fellow named Russel Black in Australia. And then I saw the original version of it, and hence got very involved with it. I started to help him with a lot of features, so as Bebot developed and kept on getting updated, we started putting in all of these features that we were discussing together, soÖI helped to create it once it was off the ground. Then out of that, I found my way into a partnership with a guy by the name of Kevin Chartier, who is down in Florida, a really amazing programmer, a really cool guy, and we started to talk about some ideas that I had that were based on an instrument that I play called the Haken Continuum. We started to talk about this and realized that we could build something that was really cool, a little Bebot-like in the sense that it would have this vertical control that let you play notes on vertical lines and maybe fade in a note on the line or morph the sound or have different scales. But also we wanted to explore the world of how visuals interact with music, so MorphWiz is all about bringing together the audio and visual domain as one world, which, in many ways it already is, but the technology allows us to move even further in that direction and let people play with the relationship a little bit better.

For instance, with MorphWiz youíre able to start a sound. Letís a say itís a particular kind of sound Ė a sine wave, which is a very smooth waveform. We have visual representations of what the sine wave looks like. So, say you want to go from that smooth sine wave and go to a sawtooth wave form, and you want to do it over time. MorphWiz will, as youíre moving your finger across the vertical axis, morph that sound from one waveform slowly or quickly to the other. Now, if you touch different points of the vertical line, it will play all those different points immediately. Every note, then, is independent, so you can play a C and have that be a sawtooth waveform, an E and have that be somewhere in between, and a G and have that be a sine wave, and then move them all, and everything shifts. So it shifts visually because youíre watching the shape change, and youíre also listening to the sound change.

So this (the iPad) does a lot of fun things, but of course, the most fun is my application. I might be partial, but itís also true. *laughs* Notice that, every time you change patches, it brings up a different background and different artwork. Sometimes they have note lines and names, some have no lines or names. And you can have up to 10 different touches on the application. You set the sounds, the visuals, everything about it and just save it just as easily as you would on a synthesizer. You can put whatever scale you want on the surface, up to six octaves and down to one, and you can even skip notes completely. It even autotunes your notes, so that even if your to the right or to the left of the line, it tunes you at whatever speed you set. You can turn that off as well, so that it does not recognize sliding at all and all of the pitches are locked. Either way, through a small technological miracle, you can still use vibrato. Itís all very intuitive and natural feeling for not having keys.

(At the time of this interview, the MorphWiz had only been out for a few weeks and was already topping the application charts at the Apple store.)

This multi-touch technology is whatís really making it work. It used to be so expensive. You needed to buy a Lemur or a kind of touchpad that was at least $1,000 to even explore that kind of thing.

MGR: And now itís a $10 application. Now, speaking of the iPhone, you actually performed on one recently at Stanford University. How was that experience?

JR: Well, one of the things they specialize in electronic music there is teaching musical applications and how to program music on iPhones and iPads. Itís a very interesting program because not only do they teach them, but theyíll actually have concerts where the students get to show off what they have created. The concert that I was part of was actually called SLORK; it was a concert of music all done with the studentsí software that they created on Mac computers. One had what looked like waterdrops on the computer screen, and you could tilt the computer screen and see and hear the waterdrops moving around and all the cool sounds they made. Another one had a program that would translate nearby sounds so that you could bang on something, and it would translate it through the speakers into a timpani or some kind of instrument. There was all this wild and crazy stuff going on and I was showing this MorphWiz off.

MGR: And youíre using it on stage as well, nowÖ

JR:Yeah, I actually use it on stage in the show tonight.

MGR: Now, you were known for a long time for having a very small stage setup with just one Kurzweil 2600, and a footswitch to run through all the patches. Now how has your stage setup evolved over the years and why? Especially with all the extra keyboards that youíre usingÖ

JR: Well, I still generally use the same approach. My live approach has always been to use one really powerful keyboard that can really get the job done, so I can generally focus all of my attention in front of me, and Iím not just going all over the place with my hands. In the old days, the big thing was to be playing about 8 keyboards and have a whole huge setup with the Mellotron, the B-3, to the piano to the whatever. Itís not where Iím coming from. Iím coming from knowing how to program a powerful, computer-based synthesizer to get the most out of it. So in the old days when I started with Dream Theater, it was actually the K-2500, which the changed to the K-2600, which then became the Korg Oasis, which is what I use now. That sits on top of a rotating stand which was designed by a guy in Holland named Patrick Slaats. In addition to all that, I also have my Haken Continuum and a Zen Riffer, which is kind of like a keytar. Both of those go through a couple of V-Synth Racks. The main sounds that you hear, though, are all coming from the Korg Oasis.

MGR: Very cool. Now, is your studio set up mostly the same just to get used to all of it for the stage?

JR: Not at all, actually. My approach to that is really the opposite. Iím really into as many different instruments as I can play with, all the orchestral sound design, all the different software I can get my hands. Itís just a big party for me, really, to have it and play with it all. Iím kind of in that world where I can give feedback to a lot of the companies and sometimes represent some of them. Iím very involved with Spectrosonics right now, and Iíve performed at the last couple of NAMM shows for them. When Iím in the studio, anything is fair game. Iíll have my computer, my Mini-moog, my Roland, Kurzweil, Korg, what-have-you, but then the big job comes down to when I realize, ďOkay, Iíve spent all my time using all these toys. Now how do I do this live?Ē

What I end up doing is I end up spending a lot of time sampling all the unique sounds that I canít get any other way. For instance, I use a sound called the ďBurning Piano,Ē which is from Omnisphere, which is from the Spectrasonics library. Thatís how the ďBlack Clouds and Silver LiningsĒ album starts out, with that Burning Piano sounds. I didnít want to use my computer on the road, so I sampled it and put it inside the Korg Oasis.

MGR: And storage space for sounds was one of the big breaking points for you when it came to switching keyboards.

JR: Yes, definitely. I definitely have more room to put samples. I was running out of space, but now even the Oasis is getting old.

MGR: So weíll be looking to see where Jordan goes next, right?

JR:Oh, we all will *laughs*. Thatís for sure.

James Rushin is a bassist, keyboardist, writer, and composer living and working in the Greater Pittsburgh area. He has studied bass with Jeff Mangone and Andrew Kohn, and 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. His contest winning essays and short stories have seen publication in and around the Tri-State area.

Feel free to e-mail James with comments, questions, concerns, at

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