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Adding new meaning to DIY: An Interview with Moldover

Moldover and
the ConnecTable

Despite the awesome possibilities they bring to the studio, using computers can sometimes be a problem. Ask yourself how many times you have started up your computer with a musical inspiration, and before you know it you're immersed in a technical nightmare, and whatever idea you had is long gone. Now imagine dealing with both at the same time. Which brings us to Matt Moldover AKA Moldover, who somehow manages to combine engineering design, product testing, and performance into a big personal musical mash up.

Talk about fearlessness. He basically creates his own tools, and tests them in front of an audience. This is not an activity for the meek, or weak of heart. He makes music too. A new collection called Four Track.

Do you have an engineering background?

No, I have a degree in composition electronic music from Berklee College. The electronic stuff is all self-taught and mentorship kind of things.

Did you ever run into Stephen Webber when you were at Berklee?

Yes, indirectly. He exposed me to a lot of Turntabalism. He brought out; DJ Shadow and DJ Swamp, who are both great turntablists, and it was mind blowing to see this totally alternative take on performance. It directly inspired a lot of my performance ideas. I wanted to develop proficiency working with machines to make music, and I started getting inspired by artists like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin who produce their own records and releases as individuals. I wanted to emulate what they did, but I also wanted to keep the performance as a big focus. That's what I loved about turntablism. I wanted audiences to know what I was doing on stage.

What brought you to the Bay Area?

After Berklee I moved to New York City and played in bands for a while. There was a heavy metal fusion kind of thing, a Latin thing, a trip-hop thing. I had played in a drum'n'bass band in Boston for a long time and I played in a Latin fusion thing, a trip-hop girl-fronted band. Ultimately they were all just frustrating experiences.

It was like a year or a year and a half after quitting all the bands that I got serious about my solo performance thing. I got into doing extreme turntablism-inspired stuff with controllers and software, and I got ahead of the curve. I was improvising multi-layered mashup mixes on the fly like Giant Steps blended with Pachelbel's Cannon with a classic breakbeat and something kind of pop like Van Halen on top.

So I had my solo project together, I started to become popular with the controller thing and it became more practical to pull up my roots and relocate. I had started going to Burning Man in 2004 and loving it, and San Francisco is kind of a hub for that culture. The deal breaker was when I fell in love with a girl in SF, and that's when I moved.

How did Controllerism come about?

One important move I made was to coin a term for what I was doing: "Controllerism," kind of an analog to Turntablism, but a broader concept, suggesting that "the controller" (which can be many things) is the instrument of the next generation. I made this video {see below}, that was kind of a how-to video, with a DMC-style performance routine using one of my controllers and some custom software I'd developed. I made this whole elaborate demo explaining everything I had done, and in effect beginning to define-by-doing, what a controllerist was. I get a lot of cred from serious music-makers for that.

youtube.com/watch?v=L2McDeSKiOU

The Frankencontroller - Moldover's DIY Keyboard

Moldover instruments mashups have included keyboards, guitars, knob and fader controllers, and even microphones.

One of your first was the Frankentroller. How did that come about?

This thing came to be called The Frankentroller. It started as a Novation Remote two-octave keyboard. I hacked it into a combination of hardware to make into a new kind of performance device.

I was exploring more expressive touch sensors, like this Kurzweil Ribbon Controller and the Korg Kaoss Pad. I started splitting their surfaces up into zones, and using them to manipulate FX on loops. I wasn't playing melodies or anything, just triggering and manipulating pre-recorded sounds as a turntablist does. Everything I was doing at this point was a tactile enhancement, nothing electrical under the hood.

The original Remote25

Moldover's Frankentroller

youtube.com/watch?v=uqs59UrA11c

Why did you replace some of the black keys with these pads?

I was using a technique that the turntablists use called "crabbing" where they take the cross fader and they use their thumb like a spring to add resistance and then they tap the other side of the fader really fast with the next three fingers, gating the volume of a sound. I started doing that with the black keys on the keyboard because the spring and the short-throw of those keys gives you that same action. By replacing the black keys with bigger pads I could get three fingers on there for crabbing, and I could also hit up to five pads at the same time. I could do all these weird rhythmic patterns gating all these different sounds together.

What's the first thing you did from the ground up?

The Mojo was my first made-from-scratch MIDI controller. I started it in New York and finished it out here. That's made 100% from scratch, so I learned how to source components and draw enclosures. It outputs standard MIDI over USB which I map to software running on my computer. I use Max to map it to Live running on my computer.

Mojo on the drawing board

Mojo Finished

Did you learn Max before or after Ableton added it to Live?

I learned Max a bit in school and then I got away from it and used Native Instruments Reaktor for my early controllerism stuff. When Ableton began supporting VST plugins, I began using Reaktor to build custom software devices, which I found much easier than Max. I got back into using Max when Max for Live happened some years later.

How do you align the world of building instruments with making music? Do the two disciplines ever get in the way of each other?

It's wearing two very different hats, but I learned to enjoy those differences. Usually making controllers is more hands on; more about time in the workshop; more about cutting things out of aluminum or wood. The music (at least the way I make it), is a little bit of guitar and controller, but usually lots of clicking around on screens in software and recording/editing/designing stuff. To me it feels kind of like a balance to do both activities.

Obviously a lot of prep work goes into a performance of electronic music, but on stage it's hard to be astounded by someone with a QWERTY keyboard, as opposed to a traditional music instrument. Are you trying to create an element of virtuosity with the interaction with a computer?

That's exactly where I'm at. And you're right—it became more about preparation than actually studying how to play an instrument because you often have to build the instrument. There's the whole software side the Mojo too. The controller is just a hardware interface for a carefully organized array of sounds, and different FX designed to process different kinds of sounds, and then complex mappings to control it all intuitively so you're not hunting and pecking, but you're really jamming and wailing, so to speak.

Moldover's DIY Guitar

Moldover's original instrument of choice is electric guitar, so it would follow that he would find a way to hack them as well, by adding MIDI controllers, Kaoss pads, etc.

Tell me about your Robocaster guitar?

The Robocaster

After a few years into the official beginning of controllerism, I got tired of playing with samples and mashing-up other people's recordings. I went back to writing original music and eventually I started experimenting with the combination of controller and guitar.

The Robocaster went through several prototype phases and turned into a custom made signature guitar produced by Visionary Instruments. It's a hybrid instrument: a standard electric guitar, and a super-ergonomic MIDI controller. It's got gaming buttons, touch-strips, knobs, faders, switches, motion sensors, a pressure pad and a joystick. Everything is carefully arranged to work with the gestures guitar players already use.

I use it to control FX; with this incredibly complex chain of guitar foot-pedals, modeling them all on my computer in software (Native Instruments Guitar Rig), and controlling them with my hands instead of my feet. I've come up with some unique sounds and playing techniques that make The Robocaster feel to me like a truly new instrument.

youtube.com/watch?v=DRuGVfy5eDk

Editors note: The Robocaster has taken a life of its own and spawned the Guitar Wing MIDI controller from Livid for people like me that prefer DBSE (Done By Someone Else).

Livid Guitar Wing

How did you get started on the jambox concept?

I started making Jamboxes in 2005, just as a fun way to re-use the controllerism work I was doing for performance. I split up all my carefully tweaked sounds and FXs across a bunch of different controllers, give them to different people, and let them jam out for fun.

In the beginning I made the Octamasher. It was a one of a kind, eight sided, audio... "thing". You know, you wind up looking for words to describe a new kind of "thing" and make it fit some existing mold like "interactive installation", or "sound sculpture", but after I developed it and started making other things like The Octamasher, I got to the point where I was just like, "Yea, I'm just going to call this a 'musical instrument' like all my other instruments".

I wanted the culture and the idea of it to propagate like with controllerism, so it needed a recognizable term—a category for this kind of instrument. Jambox is what I came to. Anyway, The Octamasher was the first, and it was so much fun because it benefited from all the deep design work I did on my performance setup. I got loads of gigs setting it up at festivals and parties, and it led to me making a whole series of instruments, each exploring a different concept of what a Jambox could be (The Syncomasher, The Minimasher, etc.).

youtube.com/watch?v=f6VJ6RXroNE

It seems like it's the tip of the iceberg for this category...

The ConnecTable

Now I'm developing one I call ConnecTable. There's a Mac Mini strapped in under the hood. It's running Ableton Live and Max. There is a multi channel audio interface so all the sounds are separated spatially among the speakers. There is a patch bay, so you could run it out to a bigger sound system, and there are built-in headphone outputs for each station.

So the idea is to have four different people interacting with it at the same time?

Yes. I've done them with all different numbers of stations and different levels of difficulty. I've also done different musical themes also because it could be samples from popular, or independent artists; it could be more generic sounds like a synthesizer or drum hits. This is the fourth major iteration of my jambox design work. I want to design something I can duplicate more easily, so that there could be more of these out there. I want my jamboxes to be something simple, that lots of people have access to, and brings back this kind of folk music ethos to music making.

When you say folk music you mean like passing the guitar around at a party?

Absolutely. Folk music is what happens when regular folk make music casually with their family and friends. I want to bring back the communal aspect of music making. I've heard plenty of people say "oh no, I'm not a guitar player", but I don't want anybody to say "I'm not a jambox player. I can't do that."

Moldover's DIY Microphone

Moldover's creativity even extends to the microphone, the feature set of which (convert sound into an electronic signal) hasn't changed much since it was conceived in the 19th century...

DIY Mic

My new record Four Track is all vocal-based pop songs; so I'm singing on every track. I'm not the world's greatest singer, but I'm a pretty good controllerist, so I thought that by combining the two I'd at least come up with some original ideas.

There are buttons mounted on a microphone, but the cool thing is this design that uses an XLR jack as an anchor, and there's another anchor here, so you can use any mic, and still get it in and out of a microphone clip in performance.

I went through this whole, "What's the vocal controller going to be?" and a lot of people were like, "Man, I love how I can just see everything you're doing. The buttons are just pointing right at me". It's gone through a few other designs and there is still a lot of room for this to develop.

What other music projects are you working on?

Mickey Hart and the Grateful Dead have been hiring me to work on their collection of electronic madness. I helped DJ Shadow get his controllerism rig together for his summer tour. Most of my time now is spent preparing for the release of my album Four Track, and the videos and tour that will go along with it.

Cool. San Francisco and the Grateful Dead...

Yea, not where I expected to wind up, but definitely a San Francisco experience. (Laughs)

A DIY musician's workshop

moldover.com

Check out Moldover's new music, Four Track.

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