Few companies in our industry have had the output that Rob Papen has had with his company, Rob Papen Inspiration Software. He and his partner Jon Ayers have released 9 products in 7 years. This is a real accomplishment for a very small company, especially when they must continually maintain the existing products for the various OS platform changes that have occurred.
Developing and distributing 9 products in 7 years requires an understanding of the market's needs, the creativity to envision solutions, and efficient engineering to execute on the ideas. Starting with Albino, which was created in cooperation with LinPlug, Rob Papen has produced a string of highly differentiated synthesizer plug-ins that are striking in their GUIs and noted for their sound and superior patch design. His products are being used by a broad group of music producers. His most recent product, Blade, introduces yet another new human interface approach to additive synthesis.
Rob is in the final stage of finishing a book/DVD intended for young producers and also fellow synth freaks making use of his own subtractive softsynth, Predator, as a model. It is a general training about subtractive synthesis.
Rob Papen grew up in Echt, which is in the southern part of the Netherlands near the German and French borders. (Note: Rob says proudly that Echt is near Maastricht, which is the home of Andre Rieu, the Dutch violinist who sold more records worldwide than Michael Jackson last year...?!). In fact when he goes jogging he goes back and forth between the Netherlands and Germany and when he speaks his particular dialect (mixture of Dutch, German, and French) people can't understand him in Amsterdam.
What role has music played in your life?
Of course a very big role. Music can touch your soul, which makes it an unique communication form between humans. Music was always in our house. My father was a big fan of soul music like Otis Redding and others. I remember a tape of "Me and Mrs. Jones" (Billy Paul) that he played a lot. It still gives me Goosebumps. Another one was Timmy Thomas - Why can't we live together.
I started playing synthesizer because of Giorgio Moroder. I really like the Theme from Midnight Express. I wanted to be a pilot when I was 12 because I was intrigued by the massive amount of knobs and dials, and meters, and then I saw Jean Michel Jarre on television and I saw the same amount of knobs and buttons, but they came with sound coming out of it.
Later on I dove into more heavy synth music like Klaus Shulze, Tangerine Dream, and of course Kraftwerk. In contrast I listened a lot to the American group Little Feat. I thought they were amazing group, and so tight at the time. I joined synthesizer bands in the 70s and early 80s in the Netherlands. We actually had a #1 hit in parts of Europe with one of the bands, called Nova. So, I have always taken a music-first approach to everything I do.
Did you learn engineering in school?
No. I was too busy twiddling the knobs of synthesizers to be a good student. I got my first synthesizer and started making music improvisations when I was 15. I couldn't finish school because I was so busy with music. There were lots of ups and downs. I worked in a music shop and then I started doing preset work for other brands like Waldorf (Microwave I), Access (Virus a and b), Ensoniq ASR-10 and E-mu.
I had lots of ideas about what I would do if I could make my own synthesizer. All I needed was to find a programmer. And I did when I met John Ayres through a mutual friend. He is absolutely the best programmer I could imagine. There doesn't seem to be anything that is impossible for him.
We released our first product, Blue, in 2005.
Do you have traditional music training?
Yes, in the 70s in Netherlands the home-organs where a hype. I disliked to play from paper and am still very slow music reader. But it helped of course… and basic rules of music are important to know. Instead of playing the songs of the book, I preferred to improvise. I started at age 12 and wanted to play synthesizers. My first synthesizer landed at age 15 and I had to deliver morning newspapers to get part of the money. The rest my parents arranged, although at that time they did not understand what I liked about synthesizers. I drove my mother crazy with the odd sounds I was making.
What made you decide to create plug-ins in the first place?
Building your own instruments, with my own ideas and features. The moment I started working together with Jon Ayres it all fell into place. Nothing is impossible with Jon, even if I have odd ideas which have not been done before.
What is unique about your background that defines the products that you are making now?
I'm a synth freak and a musician. My contributions are as a GUI and sound designer, and as an artist. Perhaps early on my interest in the magic of knobs and dials was an influence, but now I keep the musicality of my products prioritized ahead of the features. I get easily bored and I alway like to discover new roads to travel on.
Maybe your interest in being a pilot helped. It looks like you could enter transponder codes into some of the those display fields on the Predator GUI….
I wanted Predator to be heavily featured, but also easy to use, and a logical expression of subtractive synthesis. I think of it as a more American style synthesizer like a Oberheim OB-8 or Prophet V, as compared to a Roland synthesizer like a Jupiter 8.
With the new version of Predator we added some newer "silky" filter types that make it possible to design more Roland-like sounds. So you can use Predator as a way to hear the influence that different filter types have on the overall sound. I have a lot of different products out now and each of them seems to attract a different kind of music maker.
Blue is a different story. There are some hidden gems that make it different from other FM based synthesizers. On a normal FM synth for example you can't change the pitch of the Operator.
What was the genesis of Blade? Are you a big fan of slasher and vampire movies?
(Chuckles) Sometimes I have a feeling or a mood. Because you can change the harmonics in such an extreme way you can get some really harsh and cutting sounds, so I called it Blade.
Human input to the sound was the starting point. Some reviewers have called it Additive Synthesis, which is partly right, but the essential idea was totally different. What I wanted to do was create a way for real human input with the synthesizer. You have envelopes and LFOs, which are the modulators that change the sounds, and the normal input is either the keyboard, the notes you play, the velocities, etc. I thought let's make something where you draw your own movement and use that as a modulator and the XY pad is perfect for that.
With Blade you have far more control over the sound. Normally in the classic way with an XY pad you can control the cutoff frequency and the resonance, maybe volume and that's it. But, I wanted to also control the sound of the oscillator so that's why we are using the Harmolator concept, so we can dynamically change the harmonic content of the waveform. You can draw your own movement. You can record it. You can MIDI timebase it. That was the spirit, not creating yet another additive synthesis plug-in.
How do you go about creating patches when you first start with a new synthesizer? Do you have a process that you go through?
I simply start and lose feeling for time. Sometimes you get great results from the start and sometimes… there are hidden surprises (sound wise) in a new product. It is the best and most beautiful part of my job. Enjoying the birth of new sounds. So it is a process of joy and sometimes a process of panic… because so much needs to be discovered… so less time.
Do you have any particular favorite hardware synthesizers?
Given that so many music producers use your products do you see this trend increasing?
Many top producers already use my products for a very long period, from the moment I released the first soundset in 1991 (which was the Signature set for the Waldorf Microwave I). For them I produce quality tools, like a good hammers, saws or nails… if you compare that to a carpenter.
Of course many new young producers are rising, which is great! So I hope that they also discover and use my products. We grow each year, so are very well on track.
Where do you see the most growth for your company?
I think our future is not only making new products, but also teaching how to use them. That will be a focus here starting in September. After finishing this project I will have more time for tutorials, next to making presets for the products and developing new products.
Any final words of advice?
The trouble with computers is that there are too many possibilities. I think that is a curse. People don't end up learning and completely understanding their gear like they used to. I am hoping my book will help with young synthesizer players understand their synthesizers better so that they can have more fun with them. It's meant to be for training. So that the reader will see the logic behind the massive number of knobs and dials and be more comfortable with making or tweaking their own sounds. I do a lot of product training and I teach quite a bit so I have some experience to draw from.
Rob's new DVD/Book instruction set will be available in September.