Richard Devine: Inside the Modular Mind of a Synthesis Pioneer

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Richard Devine is on the cutting edge of sound design and electronic music. He has remixed top artists like Aphex Twin; released his own full-length albums on Detroit Underground, Warp, Schematic, and Sublight records; and performed ear-tearing music mayhem worldwide. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, he has composed music and contributed sound design for a wide array of films, television ads, video games, and most recently, Google’s new virtual reality platform, Daydream.   

In addition, Richard's work has been featured on new software and hardware titles from many major audio companies, including patches and samples for many of the tools in iZotope’s Creative Bundle.


How did you first get into electronic music?

I initially got into electronic music when I was in high school. I was listening to a lot of early industrial music like Coil, SPK, and Skinny Puppy and I eventually became interested in more abstract electronic music after inheriting my friend's old record collection. From there I discovered the music of Morton Subotnick and John Cage. Then, I started to get into sound design and new approaches to musical composition. I began composing my own recordings and started to buy more gear. This was between '92 and '97. I got my first computer in '98, and started working in the digital domain.


You’re very well-versed in the early, academic electronic composers. Who or what turned you on to this music?

Like I mentioned, I really love the music from Morton Subotnick and Stockhausen. I was initially turned on to their music through a close friend of mine named Tim Adams. He was my analog synthesizer tech for many years. He introduced me to the world of academic composers. From that point I started to study more composers and find out about new labels and electro-acoustic music. Academic electronic composers of today still intrigue me and I constantly find new ideas from this area.


You got a record deal pretty early on; what is the history of that?

I never really had any intentions of releasing my music. I was just exploring sound and doing it more as a hobby. I was approached by Drop Bass Network in '97, who wanted to release a collection of tracks from me. At that point, I was still building up my studio and learning new recording techniques. As things progressed, I was approached by Communiqué, Schematic, Chocolate Industries, and Warp Records.


You’ve performed some of your music in 16-channel surround along with Trevor Wishart. How was that experience for you?

That show was put on by Cycling74 and Asphodel Records in San Francisco at Recombinant Media Labs. Naut Humon had asked me if I was interested in doing the show with Trevor Wishart, and I was totally blown away. Trevor is one of my favorite composers, and I'm also a fan of his DSP algorithms within the Composer’s Desktop Project. The show was a complete success. I basically divided it into two sections that were 45 minutes each. At Naut’s facility he has it set up to work in 16.8 (with 8-subs), so I converted some of my 5.1 mixes to take advantage of that. It was a mind-blowing experience hearing my music in 16.8. Think of a multi-dimensional asteroid field of sound.


You also have an education in graphic design under your belt. Has that affected the way you go about doing sound design?

I have always approached sound in a visual way. I like to apply the principles of design that I learned in my 3-D classes at school to sound. The visual elements like repetition, color, tone, rhythm, and texture can all be directly applied to sound. Visualizing sound has helped me shape it and control it in ways that set my approach apart from other sound designers and composers.

 

Visualizing sound has helped me shape it and control it in ways that set my approach apart from other sound designers and composers.


Your Instagram feed is chock full of experimentation with found sound—including one a few days ago about Ambisonic ocean recordings. Are you incorporating any of these sounds into your music creation?

Yes, I have been doing a lot of research lately in the field of Ambisonics, as I am currently working on a project for Google doing virtual reality audio for the new Daydream platform. I have been going out to various locations around the country capturing Ambisonic recordings using the SoundField 450ST MKII system and Sound Devices 788T portable recorder.

I have become really fascinated by the world of Ambisonics in trying to capture a perfect immersive 3-D audio experience of some location.  


Are there any tool recommendations or tips you could give to someone just getting started with location sound recording?

The first tip would be to get out there and do as much recording as possible, and try and capture as many perspectives as possible. I would get a portable recorder like the Zoom H6 or Sony PCM-D100. These are super-portable handheld recorders; I always carry one of these in my bag wherever I go. I love Sony for fast quick recordings of spaces, objects, or nature capture. The quality of the built-in microphones is incredible. I have recorded great material just with this setup because it is quick and easy.

Another tool that I would recommend getting is iZotope RX Advanced. All of my field recordings end up here—getting cleaned up and edited for use in my sessions. The built in functions to remove unwanted reverb, and improve the quality of on-location recordings with the De-reverb tool is indispensable. The Spectral Repair function for removing unwanted noises from field recordings is magical and insanely useful.


You’re also quite a collector of synthesizers. What are some of your favorites?

Wow, there are so many classic synthesizers that I have grown to love over the years. Some of my favorites have been the Access Virus TI, Hartmann Neuron, Clavia Nord G2, Roland V-synth, Alesis Andromeda, Korg Radias, and my Devilfish modified Roland TB-303.


How did you make the transition into using computers as a synthesis and composition tool?

It all started back when I discovered Native Instruments Reaktor. It was called Generator back then. I was looking for software that would allow me to make my own instruments and samplers. It was one of the first environments that would allow you to do that. I was extremely impressed with the versatile range of modules you could choose from to create your own instruments. I built many ensembles in Reaktor. Then after this I started to get into other software packages like MAX/MSP and the Kyma system. It started to really pick up and software synthesizers and composition tools really took over the music industry. I became increasingly interested in the new tools and started using them more and more in my day-to-day compositions and projects.


Have you used any of the iZotope plug-ins as compositional tools?

Yes, I love all of the iZotope plug-ins. I have really been enjoying Trash. I love the wide range of parameters and control for adding high quality distortion effects to sounds. I love how you can chain pairs of distortions together or apply distortion independently to specific frequency bands. It’s my secret weapon of choice for destroying drum kit sounds and string textures.

 

[Trash] is my secret weapon of choice for destroying drum kit sounds and string textures.


You’ve worked extensively with some of the more esoteric software applications, such as Supercollider, Csound, and the Composers’ Desktop Project. What drew you to these tools originally?

I am constantly searching for the most interesting and exotic sound design tools for my own music and sound design projects. I have always loved environments where you have options to manipulate the sounds in as many ways as possible. Csound and SuperCollider are two software environments that allow you to choose from a list of objects or opcodes and then let you fully customize your signal flow. You can make some really advanced sound processing engines and sound generators.


Any words of advice for aspiring electronic musicians?

Stay in school!


Check out some of Richard’s Devine’s Ambisonic field recordings on his SoundCloud account, or listen to a symphony of frogs in the rain here:

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