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Interview with Jordan Rudess

Jordan Rudess has a lot going for him. In fact he could be considered an industry trend unto himself. Blessed with a great ear and the natural dexterity to play difficult things at phenomenal tempi, Jordan also has a quiet confidence, but laid back personality. These traits combined with an astonishing work ethic and consummate professionalism make him a pleasure to be around and great to work with.

His music is very well documented in many recordings with the band Dream Theater, with his work as a sideman with Steve Morse, David Bowie, Annie Haslam, and Vinnie Moore, as well as his solo projects.

In addition to all this he has a profound interest in new music technologies and a knack for incorporating them into what he does in the studio and on stage. It is these two traits that have coalesced into a new venture for him, called Wizdom Music. Their first product MorphWiz has been a phenomenal success on the iPad charts. It has won the Billboard "Best Music Creation app" and it's an Electronic Musician 'Editor's Choice.'.

He was kind enough to do an interview during a break in the recording of the next Dream Theater CD, which is being done somewhere east of the Rockies.

What was the first music that you really enjoyed?

The first music that I got into in a pop way was the Beatles. My mom would buy me all of the Beatles and Dave Clark Five stuff, and I just had a whole pack of 45s sitting in a little drawer by my bed that I would throw on and enjoy. That was the first pop music.

I was also really into playing songs. I started to get into being able to improvise on the chords, which was from the beginning. Mom would bring home sheet music, like guitar music, with just the notes and the chords written down but no real piano score.

I never really thought about it. One day someone said to me, "How are you playing all of that. You know when you're just looking at the notes and the fact it's like a C major chord." "Well, what do you mean 'How am I playing that?'" I didn't know that it was any kind of a unique skill to be able to just see a chord and make something up. Later I was like, "Oh you mean that's like, something special?" I would also read books with lots of show tunes and whatever my mom brought home, I would play.

Of all of the classical pieces that you've played what's given you the most enjoyment?

One of my very favorite composers is Chopin, because he wrote really beautiful piano music. He was a composer that understood the resonance of a piano, how it really could sound. What the magic was of a piano. I love to sit and play a Chopin nocturne and that type of thing. Another favorite is Debussy. He's also a composer that really, really understands the magic of the piano. And he wrote some beautiful piano music as well.

Where did your inspiration for using synthesizers and technology come from?

Well it came from things like Tangerine Dream. I loved the Ephedra album. It was pretty cool. You know I would say like Emerson was a very big influence in keyboard playing. But with the synthesizer, it was more of a Morton Subotnick-kind-of-thing, the things that I liked about the synthesizer. I used to listen to Tonto's Expanding Head Band. I remember that was kind of cool.

I guess my first electronic instrument was a Panther organ. One of these double manual organs probably when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old... In the early 70s I heard about the Moog. I started to post all kinds of pictures of different Minimoogs from different magazines in my bedroom at home. Like I had pictures of like Rick Wakeman with his synthesizer. Or like Patrick Moraz. You know, cutouts from all of the magazines at the time and I really, really wanted that instrument. So in about 1974 my father convinced one of my uncles to, uh, invest in buying me a Minimoog... And I loved it. That really changed my life.

Because I was such a serious classical musician, when I discovered the Minimoog, it was kind of like, "Oh my God, everything has changed," you know? It was no longer we're limited to putting your hand down on a note and having to be stuck on that one note. So I just loved the idea of having things just kind of like moving and morphing. I usually had one hand on the keyboard and the other hand was just turning knobs. When I was on my own doing what I loved, I was more into crazy stuff. And then later I settled into the progressive rock thing.

The next instrument I got was a Taurus bass pedal. And soon after an ARP String Ensemble. That was my first real rig.

That must have been a prog-rock band.

That was, well it was really at that point a duo. I was doing a lot of playing with this one other guy but we weren't playing much typical music. When I discovered the Minimoog I was more into my own kind of space music, really. I was friends with Sal Gallina, who is no longer with us. He was the guy that was very instrumental in creating the WX7 and the Lyricon, and he was kind of a wild, crazy guy. Sal figured out how to make a pedal for me that basically controlled a couple of things on the Minimoog, and one of the things was pitch. So I remember I would always play, but I would always hint at pitches and things that would always be bloating, you know?

What are your thoughts about what is happening with technology and musical instruments these days?

Well the fun thing is that we're kind of involved in a world that things are constantly evolving and changing. You wake up every day and go, "Wow, I wonder what the next really fun thing is going to be." And the sounds keep getting better, and the synthesizers keep getting better, and the plug-ins get better. It's something that makes hanging out on the planet extra special. Knowing that the next toy is going to be even better than the one you had the previous day.

Given what life is like on the bleeding edge of technology, how do you reconcile that with the need for stability when you are working.

Really, it is one of the challenges, because I love to put my hand on the latest thing and a lot of times I just find myself kind of exploring it and then going, "Okay that was really, really cool" and then I just don't have time and I have to put it down. There are plenty of instruments that I've tried and maybe I even did something with and enjoyed, and I think they are really great, but I can't always be playing them.

A good example is something like the Continuum, which I use onstage and I absolutely love. It's a big inspiration for a lot of the things I do and I'm also involved in many of the aspects of what it even does. But I kind of got to a point where I figured out some cool things to do with it and then had to move on to other things. And then when I go back to play the Continuum, I used it to the point that I had a chance to do my thing with it. I mean, that's just reality because we only have so much time in a day.

But if someone told me, "Jordan, there's this laser-controlled multi-touch screen" I would go, "Wow show me that. I totally want to see that." So I'm passionate about the future and different ways to control music, and I want to put my hand, literally on these things. Part of it is just to experience it, because it is a passion but just to also gain some information because I am interesting in the future of controlling sound. That's really what it is.

One thing I have noticed about your adaptation of technology is the amazing way that you use the octave up and down buttons while you are playing. Is that something you actually practiced as a technique?

Well first of all, doing the octave-switch thing, I would just try and get some cool things done, whether it's just doing arpeggios. I wouldn't say I worked in anything that definite when it came to learning something like how I wanted to use octave switches. Maybe I would just work on the timing of playing arpeggios that went up a few octaves then back down and use the octave switches for that as a timing thing really. That had to be worked out. It's almost like a pitch wheel or something. At some point they just said, "I want to figure out this pitch wheel," so maybe you just start using it and come up with some small exercises. But I probably have more formal pitch wheel type exercises than I do the octave switch exercises. It's interesting that you even brought that up, because I've never really thought about that element of things. I don't know if anyone has ever really asked me about that, but that's kind of cool because it is an important part of playing some instruments.

You know because I've had to play a lot of smaller keyboards it's something that I just realized was a very important part of getting around on a small keyboard. Like for instance if you're playing on a Korg Nano keyboard or something like that, it's the only way you can do something interesting. So somewhere along the line, not necessarily on that, I developed some idea of what I really wanted to do if I was faced with a small keyboard. So I would say in a way that I practiced it, because at some point I needed to accomplish doing something cool and getting around. So working octave-switches, even if it's on something like my Zen Riffer, which has the Keytar like thing that I play in my group, it doesn't have that many octaves, so I have to use an octave button so it's an important part of my getting around on these things. And on my music app, MorphWiz, I have octave-switches on it because you might want to put an octave on the plain surface but you might want to jump around.

That's a great segue. Let's talk about MorphWiz. What was the inspiration to do it in the first place?

I remember just hanging out with my iPhone when the apps were first starting to be developed, and somebody came out with a very basic piano app where you could just touch a key and make a sound and I thought, "Oh my God, this is so awesome." It just triggered a whole bunch of ideas in my head, and I just started to get really, really involved in checking out everything that anybody was doing. I felt this creative explosion really to the point where I would just sit there and play all of these different apps on my iPhone and make whatever sound would come out of them, and my wife literally thought I had lost my mind, because not that long ago we bought this really amazing Steinway D Grand piano, and here I am sitting on my couch playing with the iPhone and making whatever little sounds. She thought I had lost my mind. "Why aren't you playing your piano? Why are you making those stupid sounds?" and I was like, "No, no this is so cool. It really is cool.".

Through the Internet I met a guy named Toyo Bunko from Moscow who has this company called Amidio. They do some cool stuff. We started to talk and I could see that he was a very interesting and creative person I was heading to Moscow with Dream Theater so I had the chance to get together with him.

We started to think of this cool idea which turned into an app called 'JR Hexatone', which is an awesome sound sequencing environment that really specializing in IDM-ish kind of glitchy electronic kind of music. You're kind of putting these hexagon shapes all over a playing surface. And you can do all of these things. You can make them stutter and you can make them repeat in interesting ways.

So I just really started to envelop a lot of time in this world and started to reach out to a lot these people and actually get involved with helping out with different apps and doing things.

I had been dreaming and talking about how I wanted to control sound in this vertical kind of way for a long time. One day my neighbor Richard Lainhart called me up and said, "Jordan you have to go check out Keyboard Magazine because there's an article on this thing called the Continuum." And he said, "It's exactly what you've been dreaming about." So I flipped through the Keyboard Magazine article and was like, "Yea this does sound like it." So I called up Lippold [Haken] directly and he sent me one just to work on, and I was like, "Yea this is similar to what I was thinking.".

So Lippold and I started to work together on some ideas, like the way the Continuum handles pitch and does this very interesting pitch rounding. So, after being involved with that and figuring out some really cool things that I wanted to do with something like a Continuum, when I saw Bebot from Normalware, I thought, "Wow, let me work a little bit on this because we could do something similar to that on an iPhone.".

So I work with Russell on a similar thing and we kind of fine tune the whole idea of the way it was handling pitch, and how you could slide from one pitch to another and round the pitch where your finger stopped and you had an option to round the pitch when your finger first hit the note and we got something that was really, really cool, and so that was one thing. We were very involved and working on that together. And then along came this other little app that was called 4D Synth, it's not even in the store anymore. But it interested me enough that I reached out to talk to the guy who made it and the guy who made that is actually now my partner in my app business. His name is Kevin Chartier. And he and I really hit it off. His app was very simple, but I could tell he was a very nice guy and knew what he was doing. And he was very interested in helping me follow through with my vision of what I wanted. So he and I started working, and you know, eight months later or so MorphWiz was born.

Eight months of development time... Nice! How is it going now?

We've had a great year. We got the Billboard Best Music Creation App Award and we got the Electronic Musicians Award for whatever it is, best music app. We got the Best App Ever Music Award for 2010. It's been a great year. We've got a lot of response. And had a lot of fun. The funny thing is, I'm sure you can relate to this, I got into this because I like cool things. I like making sound and having good tools and I had some ideas and so I followed that and the next you know we've got a product that people are responsive too. And I think part of it is that I can actually play it and I can show people what this vision is. Kevin can do amazing things with his numerical magic and he gives me tools that relate to my vision, and I can perform with it and get some musical results. That combination is turning out to be, you know, a lot of fun and also successful.

Would you say that the people that are buying MorphWiz are mostly musicians, or is it introducing the idea of playing to people that haven't played a musical instrument before?

Yea, that's the amazing thing about it. This product is geared toward anybody who wants to experience the joy of making sounds and creating some kind of cool, interesting, trippy visuals. I find that our customer base is anywhere from a three year old first touching the iPhone or the iPad to a professional musician who just thinks it's awesome to have that kind of unusual control of his notes. So I made it to be something that would just be fun. That was the idea. Something fun that also had this kind of really unique and expressive capability that's not really seen anywhere else.

These things are totally setting up the future. They're capable of doing things that are different than anything else has done before." So for me, I'm looking at these surfaces going what can I do on this? How can I make this into an expressive instrument? This is a new kind of situation. So I tried to create something that wasn't an imitation of something, that wasn't just a toy, that actually had some substance for maybe thinking about how can we create a new, next generation musical instrument. So that's kind of where it's coming from. And people seem to respond to it.

Are you thinking about any other mobile platforms?

We're definitely thinking about other platforms. We are looking at doing something for the Android system. I think it would be really cool because a lot of people out there would like to play with something like MorphWiz on that system.

How does promoting a product like MorphWiz compare to promoting your music?

It's funny you know. Sometimes when I'm doing the MorphWiz kind of thing, it brings me back to the days where I was working for Korg or Kurzweil as a product specialist. The difference now is that this is my company and it's my thing. It's a big difference there. But sometimes I'll get a feeling like, "Yo, here I am demoing product again," you know? That maybe I should hire somebody else to do this.

It's got to feel good that it's your own.

I get a lot of pleasure out of turning people on to what I've created and making sure that it's being shown in the best light. So that's really important to me and that's really fun. I'm so excited about this whole explosion in creativity in the app world. I really think about it all the time. It's a big part of what's going on in my head these days.

What can we expect from you next?

Kevin and I, we love to just talk and brainstorm and think of new ideas. And I can't tell you how many different avenues of creativity that we have in our heads. It's just like a list of "ok when we get done with this we can do that" and I think that they're all really cool. So I expect that if everything flows as it should that the next at least few years are going to be filled with a lot of fun stuff coming from my world.

KVRaudio is primarily focused on software plug-ins, so what's your favorite software plug-in and why?

My favorite software plug-in is Omnisphere, because it's very intuitive and there are more guaranteed great sounds than in anything else I have used. I just know that there's just so much sonic goodness within that plug-in. I can go to any category that I might be interested in or working in, and I know all of the sounds are going to be really great. It's just a matter of finding one that's maybe right for what I'm doing.

The reality is that I'll be in the studio working let's say with Dream Theater and if we need a sound, "Okay give me a pad" and then I go to Omnisphere. "Okay give me something that's like a drone thing" and I go to Omnisphere. "Give me something that's spooky and weird," ok I go again to Omnisphere. There's a lot of good stuff in there and I just trust it. I know that the sounds are fantastic.

I love Ivory, of course, and if I had to choose another soft-synth I would say Alchemy from Camel Audio. That's an amazing program. It's so powerful. You feel like you're playing with nature when you go in there and start using their whole added synthesis stuff. It's crazy.

Given your experience with music technology products, what advice would you give to musicians that are starting to use technology?

Right, well one of the things that is kind of tricky today is that there's so many plug-ins, there's so much stuff. It's not so much like the old days, when there weren't as many choices of instruments or plug-ins to play. Now you can be completely swamped, even with free plug-ins. And the thing is that most people, they never bother to learn anything deeply about what they're working on. They might scratch the surface of a soft synth. Just maybe know how to change some of the patches and never know what's under the hood.

My philosophy is that the better you know your gear the easier it is to make music with it. Over my professional life I've really learned certain instruments. When I worked for Korg I would only use an M1 sometimes, or a T1. And I learned how to get the max out of these tools, and they weren't even as powerful as they are today. But on stage with Dream Theater over the last few years I've used a Korg Oasys, and I really learned how to use that. I can accomplish a lot on that instrument.

So I guess my recommendation for young people who are starting out with technology is, yes there are a lot of tools, but figure out what you really need to do and try to get your hands on something that has some power and learn how to use it. And just get a lot out of it. It's not always about "I've got to have all of this different stuff," and a lot of this stuff is very, very powerful. It's just a matter of spending some time and making the most of it. Somebody could just have Live and just do stuff right within that. They could totally survive have a great time making music and not have to go elsewhere.

The DX7 only had 32 patch slots...

That's right. And that was a very powerful instrument in itself if you know how to use it.

Other than Dream Theater what are you doing musically these days?

I just returned from Venezuela. I went down there to premiere this piece that I wrote, called Explorations for Keyboard and Orchestra. I performed it with a youth orchestra. It was a lot of fun.

When I'm out of the studio with Dream Theater I'd like to find a good orchestra, perhaps in Europe, to perform it with. I've got some possibilities with people I'm talking to but that would really interest me, because I can kind of taste it, the joy of playing with an orchestra. and the piece I wrote was pretty hard, it's challenging.

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Chris & Jordan @ NAMM

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