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Interview with Roger Linn

Interview with Roger Linn

Roger Linn DesignRoger Linn is a designer of electronic music products, best known for his creation in 1979 of the first digital, sampled-sound drum machine, the LM-1 Drum Computer, as well as its successor the LinnDrum, both used on countless hit recordings during the 1980s. He also created the popular MPC MIDI Production Center products with Akai in the 1990s, and more recently the AdrenaLinn series of beat-synced guitar processors from his current Berkeley, CA -based company, Roger Linn Design.

First off, how did you get into the musical instrument business? What was the original inspiration?

I was a guitarist and songwriter in L.A. in the '70s, but also had a strong interest in the personal computers that were starting to appear. In making my song demos, I could play guitar and bass and fake my way on keyboards, but drums were always the most difficult to play and record. There were some simple drum machines on the market, but they didn't sound very good and weren't programmable. So I hooked up my computer to a drum sound board from a Roland drum machine and wrote a simple program that permitted the programming of beats on the screen, but the sound wasn't very realistic.

The field of digital audio recording was just emerging with the 3M/BBC digital tape recorder, and it occurred to me I could store digital drum recordings in computer memory instead of tape because the sampling time requirement for all the drums added up to only about a second. I built a prototype and all of a sudden, recording artists who wouldn't return my calls as a guitarist were calling me asking to buy one for $5,000. So in 1979 at the age of 24, I figured it was time to change careers and started Linn Electronics to produce the LM-1 Drum Computer.

Did you formally study software programming or just figure it out as you went along? How did you go about building the first production units?

I took a couple of classes, and read a few books. The first units were built by out-of-work musician friends in the living room of my house. I borrowed some money and used deposits from advance orders that I received from people like Stevie Wonder, Leon Russell, and Herbie Hancock.

When did you know that the Linn Drum was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the music industry?.

It was very gratifying to hear it on hit recordings and to think that something I made was influencing music. Once it started showing up in recordings by Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Devo, Bruce Hornsby and others. As a lover of music, I figured I had done something right. :).

How would you summarize the changes to our industry that have occurred since then? Would you say that all the changes in music technology have been for the better?.

We live in a wonderful time because the tools to make great music and recordings are cheap or free. When I think of the old hassles of aligning tape machines, failures of huge consoles, cutting tape with sweaty hands, ground loops caused by lots of audio cables and more, I am so happy to simply open Garage Band and create. Some people say that the old limitations made for better music, but I don't see how a poor but talented musician ever benefited from not having access to expensive recording studios. I think technology is wonderful and democratizing, and I can't wait for the future to come faster.

Also, some people say that music isn't as creative today. While I think that music isn't the collective zeitgeist as it was in the '70s or '80s, there's a tremendous amount of creativity today. The difference is that it's now the era of the long tail so you must look a little harder within the vast ocean of available recordings to find the particular form of musical creativity that resonates with you. If you're willing to do a little hunting, there are some wonderful ideas out there.

Tell us about AdrenaLinn Sync Version 2...

AdrenaLinn SyncIt is our first plug-in and it's based on my AdrenaLinn guitar processor hardware product. AdrenaLinn Sync Version 2 uses two basic synthesizer components--a low frequency oscillator and looping step sequencer--to modulate a variety of filters, as well as volume and pan. This sounds simple and commonplace but what makes AdrenaLinn Sync v2 different are many little details that enable its unique sound capabilities.

For example, using a random LFO to modulate a flanger produces uniquely beautiful tones, but this normally produces clicks and pops at the transitions, and smoothing them merely causes undesirable fast pitch swings. In AdrenaLinn Sync v2, you never hear such undesirable artifacts because our flanger has a unique algorithm that eliminates them transparently, so it simply works as you expect it to. There are many such little details inside that the musician never has to think about. Instead, she can simply take a stroll through the well-crafted presets without encountering any surprises that spoil the magic.

When did you first start coupling your technology to the plug-in platform? Why did you do it?.

Customers of our AdrenaLinn hardware guitar processor have been asking for a long time for a plug-in. A plug-in version of AdrenaLinn's beat-synced effects is a natural fit for computer players because everything in a computer is always in sync by its very nature. After years of AdrenaLinn hardware models, I felt I had a unique take on beat-synced effects. And now that AdrenaLinn Sync v2 is done, people seem to enjoy the surprising and inspiring nature of the sounds it makes.

What is your philosophy about copy protection?

I guess I see it as a necessary evil. Like any small developer, I'm just trying to make enough money to pay for doing what I love.

What goes into making a software product as opposed to a hardware product?.

Writing software for modern computers is so much easier than for hardware devices because the tools are so much more refined. I far prefer software to hardware products and am known for hardware products only because I got into the game at a time when hardware was required to do what I wanted to do. But I love the idea that software represents a perfect heavenly ideal (in which there is no difference between an original and a copy) as opposed to the earthly world of imperfect hardware copies (in which each copy is slightly different and each may have unique problems to manufacture). I guess I'm a perfectionist at heart.

How do you decide what to do?

How do I decide what to do? Sometimes it's difficult to decide what features to include or leave out, because I get so excited by the possibilities. Ultimately, I try to put myself in the shoes of someone using the product, particularly those who are more musically talented and less tech-savvy than I, and ask the question "What features and controls best permit this person to achieve the creative and inspiring music he intends?" I try my best but often miss the mark.

What have you learned about the way that musicians work with your hardware products that you have applied to your plug-in products?

Although a graphic knob on a plug-in's screen is more difficult to turn that a hardware knob, they do the same thing. I've learned which controls musicians want to adjust quickly and try to include these same controls in both cases. One thing I enjoyed in AdrenaLinn Sync v2 was creating the control panel, which is rendered in true 3D instead of using a set of Photoshop shading tricks as in other plug-ins. I think that when users see this beauty on the screen, it better invites them to discover the beauty that's inside.

What can people expect from you next?

The product I'm most excited about is the LinnStrument, a new concept in human interfaces to musical instruments. I made a brief video of the prototype and it received 150,000 YouTube views in the first month alone, suggesting that the tipping point may have been reached for acceptance of new interfaces for music.

You can see the video and learn more about the Roger's product at www.rogerlinndesign.com



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