Brendon Bussy

Ulrich Müller (Interview Part 2) – A Long Tradition of Skeptics and Inventors

Posted in Interview, Music, Sound by Brendon Bussy on December 6, 2011

[This is a continuation of an interview – read part one here.]

Cape and the Eternity: 48nord - Ulrich Müller (e-guit, laptop, devices) & Sigi Rössert (e-bass, laptop, devices) with Patrick Schimanski (drums, voice, laptop, devices) pic Franz Kimmel

Part 2 – A Long Tradition of Skeptics and Inventors
In which Ulrich describes the technological development of his practice as well as the future of music.

BB: I’m most intrigued by the evolution of your performance set up. I find it interesting that set ups ‘settle down’ after much change and experimentation into something which feels like a complete ‘system’ or instrument. Being that this isn’t the first setup you’ve worked with, what would you regard as the elements crucial to a useful setup?

UM: It was constant change over many years that led me to the point at which I now consider my setup as a complex instrument which I constantly develop.

A journey from guitar and back
It all began when I was a rock musician. This meant heavy amplification, a set of nice guitars and a couple of standard stomp boxes such as phaser, flanger, vibrato, wah wah… and a great sound. Then I stepped into this strange world of experimental music which actually brought me far away from playing guitar for a couple of years. In those days I took lessons in composition, wrote a few pieces for ensembles, some electronic stuff and realized a lot of rather big sound and multimedia installations. Years later playing guitar came back to me (thanks to my 48nord partner Sigi, who encouraged me to return to the instrument).

Honestly I started rather shy after these years of having paused, things taking their time for me to feel again like a halfway serious guitar player. This new approach was very soon accompanied by my first experiments with computer controlled sound processing. This new development reached a first peak around 2004, when 48nord met George Lewis and became part of his project for „Cybernetic Improvisors“: „Sequel“. This was a major step for me towards the world of processing, by using extended reactor patches and already at that time Ableton’s „live“. But there was still a dissatisfaction: The sound.

As a former Rock musician, I was imprinted with the experience of working with great and brilliant sound, and the sound quality I dealt with in the experimental music world of those days wasn’t satisfying at all. It sounded all more or less raspy, no deepness and a lot of unintended crackling because of overloaded cpu’s. So the day came when I decided to change my setup again and to start the rather ambitious project to rebuild my favorite reactor patches with analog devices.

200 pounds
To make it short, it worked. I spent a lot of money, bought tons of high-end devices, such as a couple of „Moogerfoogers“ (especially the unequaled ringmodulator), the Toadworks „Phantasm“ phaser (best phaser ever), and exotic stuff like devices from „Last Gasp Art Laboratories“ or the incredible Ooh LaLa „Synthmangler“ and many, many more. All in all I had two floorboards plus two percussion tables packed with stomp boxes. For the amplification I used the great Engl „Screamer“ combo with an additional 2 x 12“ cabinet. The guitar was a musicman „Axis“.

This was really great, great sound but there was a little blemish: the whole shit had a weight of about 200 pounds.

Impossible to carry, impossible to transport by plane without spending a fortune just for overweight. A dinosaur of a sound that cost me at the end two slipped disks, not to speak about the money. This had absolutely no future for a travelling musician. But the day came when I discovered that the world of digital sound had made a couple of steps towards better sound quality, and now I´m very lucky with my new setup.

Regarding this whole development I actually can’t say what is crucial for a useful sound setup and what not. There is just one thing to consider: one has only two hands and two feet and that´s it for operating your setup. So one should be economical with all these devices in order that they don´t turn into an obstacle for playing one’s instrument (if an instrument is part of your set up that is). Things must be very well balanced with ergonomics an important and serious issue in order to keep control.

BB: Could you describe your current performance set up?

Lots of plug – ins

1.macbook pro + Ableton live 2.Faderfox 3.Novation Launchpad 4.Korg nanoKontrol 5.Keith Mcmillan SoftStep 6.Morley mini volume pedal 7.Moog guitar

UM: I play the Moog guitar with Moog´s unique pickup system.

These pickups create an electromagnetic field (like an e-bow) which makes the strings constantly vibrate with adjustable intensity. But not only a single string. It works with all six strings and with the amazing option to „drive“ through the harmonic spectrum of the notes by using the obligatory expression pedal. This creates very rich sounds and the ‘endless’ sustain opens up fantastic possibilities for all kinds of drones. The inbuilt moog lowpass filter is also great and makes even weird wah wah effects possible.

Next my laptop – a macbook pro. For performances I use „Ableton live“ as the main program and lots of plug-ins. As audio interface I use the „Duet“ by Apogee which has very good sounding a-d-a-converters. I don’t use a guitar amp any more as I now instead need full range amplification and speakers for the processed sounds especially when they are combined with samples. So instead I improve the „naked“ guitar sound by processing it with the Line 6 „Pod farm Platinum“ plug-in and Native Instruments „Guitar Rig“. This is the very first level of processing.

For more sophisticated experimental processing I use Max/MSP and Reactor plug-ins, stuff like Sugarbites „Turnado“, and the amazing „Izotope Spectron“ filter. For live adjustment of Ableton’s main functions and processing tools I use three controllers: the „Faderfox“, the Korg „nanoKontrol“ and Keith Mcmillan’s masterpiece: the „SoftStep“ footcontroller, an incredibly versatile tool. As I mentioned I work also with samples and with Ableton’s great functionalities as a sample player. These samples are mainly made out of processed guitar sounds and some noisy synthesizer stuff. I launch them with the Novation „Launchpad“ which allows me also to access Ableton’s „Simpler“ – an easy to use sampler plug-in.

I sometimes record my guitar playing during improvisations, then put the recording into the „Simpler“ sample player, and play it back at different pitches using the „Launchpad“, riding through the recorded sound wave with the „Faderfox“ midi x/y-controller. Very nice tool. Lastly a Morley mini volume pedal and a mxr smart gate are the two analog components of my setup.

BB: With the many of tools available to the experimental performer (software and hardware), as well as the openness to working method, do you ever wake up in the morning and think “Today I’d just like to play guitar”. Are the many options ever a hindrance?

The world of unexpected sounds
UM: No, they were never a hindrance apart from the normal obstacles while learning to operate these setups. It was always fun, once I had reached a certain mastery by handling them.

There is of course from time to time this dream popping up, where I just take a nice guitar (maybe from a caliber like the Gibson ES 175) and a small, handy amp with great tube sound (like the Mesa Boogie „Transatlantic“) and that´s it. A dream of purity and simplicity.

But then I wake up and become aware that even though I started with classical guitar when I was a child and took from time to time lessons in jazz guitar (to get deeper into the incredibly sophisticated world of jazz’s harmonic and scale orientated thinking and feeling) I´m neither a classical nor a jazz player.

Deep in my heart I’m still a rock player. And since being influenced by Jimi Hendrix when I was a child and making my first steps as a guitar player, sound is still the center of my musical cosmos. It was to work with sound, which led me to the world of experimental music. And to create and listen to unheard and unexpected sounds is still the ultimate adventure in my life.

BB: Finally. Over your career you’ve surely seen much change. Could you make any predictions for the evolution of experimental music, or any music for that matter? Are there any major paradigm shifts over the horizon? Will the music being made in 10 years time even vaguely resemble what we recognise as music today?

A long tradition of skeptics and inventors
 I don’t think that we have to be alert to major changes in the music. In ten years there will still be the same 20 people who are enthused by experimental music while the rest of the world is listening to mainstream.

But I´m in no way resigned. I even think that there is a generation of young musicians growing, which is again much more interested in content than their direct predecessors.

But presentation and publishing of experimental and therefore difficult art, relies on subsidies and in these days of ongoing financial crisis nothing speaks for a sudden increase of the budgets for experimental music. Which means that in ten years we will stay more or less in the same corners in which we were before. But we will still have fun with what we do.

I also don´t think that there are major paradigm shifts to be expected. My mentor and teacher Josef Anton Riedl is now more than 80 years old. In the fifties of the 20st century he was one of the pioneers of experimental electroacoustic music (running the „Siemens-Studio for Electronic Music“ which was a milestone in the history of electroacoustic music). And when we talk about musical production in those days and today I cannot see any bigger difference but the size of the gear and the speed of processing data.

The basic questions are still the same: how to create great sound and convincing musical structures which are adequate for the media and meanings we use. How to deal with composition, with improvisation, closed and open forms and comprovisation. In order to gain results which update all these aesthetic considerations, and questions in a way appropriate to our present.

So far we are part of quite a long tradition of skeptics and inventors and this gives me against all odds a rather good feeling for the future.

Cape and the Eternity: 48nord: Ulrich Müller (e-guit, laptop, devices) & Sigi Rössert (e-bass, laptop, devices) with Patrick Schimanski (drums, voice, laptop, devices) pic Manuel Heyer

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3 Responses

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  1. φphi said, on December 9, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Wow, the Siemens Studio. I have a few recorded tracks from their archives which have somehow survived my numerous Escom-insprired system crashes.

    The theme of replacing weighty matter-based effects units with subroutine-based ones is hardly unfamiliar, but I’m way too prejudiced to be able to comment. If there does ever occur what Ulrich refers to as a paradigm shift, I hope this involves materiality, even if it is in a form not readily recognised now. Gallium arsenide gates, anyone?

  2. brendon said, on December 10, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Well, what I can say is that a wish for complexity can translate into complex hardware systems, which in Ulrich’s case resulted in an unwieldy setup. So in his case a transition to digital made sense. And of course a transition like this doesn’t rule out having additional hardware for studio use etc. But air travel has pretty much ruled out hefty systems, unless you’re metallica of course.

    My personal wish is that ‘subroutine based systems’ will introduce new ways of working rather than just be light weight emulations of hardware. There will always be a mix I guess (evolution is always necessarily messy), but rather than replacing the hardware, I’m thinking here of completely new ways of thinking opening up many new possibilities, and inevitably, new kinds of music. It’s hard to imagine what this might be, but gesture based systems for example, enhanced with near infinitely fast processing speed (quantum computing?), could introduce serious genre bending. Not to speak of cerebral hookups. All very science fiction and futurist sounding, but my personal preferred future would be pretty messy – with newer and older technologies side by side (I guess just as we see today – electric guitarist plays with sitar player).

    And even systems which represent completely new ways of thinking rather than new tools. I once read a science fiction story where the only music being produced was ultrasonic (nothing within the normal hearing range). Being that it was written in the early part of the 20th century, the instruments were all acoustic 🙂

    (check this link out for an amusing description of weight loss due to max msp:

  3. 100 greatest guitarists said, on December 22, 2011 at 8:42 pm

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