Jordan Rudess is a musician who finds himself in a unique position. His main claim to fame is being the keyboardist for the Grammy Award nominated band Dream Theater as well as a successful solo artist and session musician. However, for the past couple of years, Jordan has made a name for himself as a designer and publisher of some of the most creative musical instrument apps available for Apple’s iOS devices. I talked to Jordan recently about how this melding of music and technology came to be.
Jordan described how his love for Yes guitarist Steve Howe’s use of the lap-steel guitar inspired him to seek out alternative ways that synthesizers could be played.
“I’ve always been very inspired by Steve Howe’s playing of the lap-steel. He’s playing these terrific melodies and his approach to bending pitch and the musicality of that makes you realize that a fretless instrument like the lap-steel guitar is king. It’s like the human voice.
For many years, I dreamed about a way to have what could be considered the best of both worlds; the fretless world where notes can slide from one pitch to another and also the world of definitive notes on the piano. In my mind I saw a vision of how that was possible.
A few year’s back, Dream Theater was on tour with Yes, and I remember spending some time with Steve Howe. He showed me how to play the lap-steel guitar, how to hold the little bar and hit the string. I’d never played a lap-steel before and I’m thinking “I’m going to get one of these”.
It turns out, my late neighbor Richard Rainhart, had in some previous life played the lap-steel. So when I bought my own lap-steel, he came over and showed me how to play it. I took that lesson, practiced it out and went into the studio with Dream Theater for the Octavarium album. I came up with something that I could play on the record as well as play live.”
Photos by Darko Boehringer
About the same time that Jordan was learning to play his new lap-steel guitar, stories about a new keyboard controller called the Haken Continuum were appearing. An article in Keyboard magazine caught Jordan’s attention.
“The world changed when my neighbor Richard called me and asked if I had seen the article about the Haken Continuum in Keyboard magazine. He said that this thing very much does what I’ve been dreaming of. I went back and read through some of the advanced technical stuff that was part of that article and thought “Oh wow, I get it”.
I called the creator and inventor of the Continuum, Lippold Haken. Lippold sold me a Continuum at that time and I helped to develop some of the ideas concerning the way pitch was handled based on the dreams I’d been having all those years.
Lippold deserves so much credit because he built this instrument that basically has the idea of moving around in this fretless, three-dimensional way. When you go left or right, you control pitch. If you also
move vertically, you can control whatever parameter you want. If you press into the surface, you can control volume by the pressure of your fingers. I was fortunate to work with someone who was responsive to my ideas and was able to program some of the things I was thinking of. That was the beginning of seeing some of my individual vision come to reality.”
Technology catches up:
Jordan began to use the Haken Continuum onstage during Dream Theater’s Octavarium tour. Around the same time, a new technology was emerging that could help make his dreams a reality. That new technology was Apple’s iPhone with its multi-touch screen.
“When that first came out, it hit me intensely and opened up channels of thought. I started to reach out and see what was going on in that world which was very fast moving. Russell Black, who’s a wonderful guy from Australia, had a very nice system with an app called Bebot that used the idea of vertical control. I began to work with Russel on some of my ideas. He put pitch intelligence into Bebot which really helped it to be a musical instrument.
In the middle of exploring that world and meeting the players, I met Kevin Chartier, who is now my partner in my company Wizdom Music. He and I see very eye to eye on things and we share a lot of vision. Besides that loveliness of vision, Kevin is an amazing programmer and can do so much of what we can both imagine. We have a great partnership and have managed to create some really cool things based on my ideas for interesting ways to control sound.”
Wizdom Music’s apps:
Jordan and Kevin’s first app together was a synthesizer that exploited the creative possibilities of the multi-touch screen available on all iOS devices.
“The first app that Wizdom music released was MorphWiz, which took ideas from existing apps like Bebot and added more opportunities for expressive playing. MorphWiz uses synthesis to create incredibly expressive sounds. It allows the user to move their fingers across the screen to control not only sound but also provide beautiful visual feedback to your playing.”
The next app released was SampleWiz which took many of the expressive ideas of MorphWiz and added the ability to sample and manipulate real-world sounds. A distinctive feature is the ability to record sound with the device’s internal microphone, then play the sound by running your finger along the waveform in order to manipulate the pitch of the sound.
Finally, Geo Synthesizer was released. Jordan explains,
“We started working with this very “out of the box”, wild guy named Rob Fielding who’s a bit of a genius himself. He had produced an app called “Mugician” and he put it out there for free. I brought Rob in to create something together and we came up with Geo Synthesizer. Again, we worked on putting the pitch intelligence behind it that we had been developing all this time.
Geo Synthesizer, of all my apps to date, is probably the most performance friendly app we’ve produced. You can fly on it. You can let your fingers go nuts and it will follow you and track you. The bending is almost unbelievable. You can do these wild pitch-bends. You stop your finger and it’s in tune. The vibrato feels right.
The interface is kind of like a guitar with rows and frets. Each row is an interval of a fourth away. If you are coming from a guitar background it’s fairly easy to wrap your head around. It’s a combination of guitar/keyboard thinking. To be able to fly on an iPad and create music like that is big. You have this thing that’s a powerful, professional instrument.”
With the release of Geo Synthesizer, Jordan has instigated the design of three unique instruments that help push the boundaries of what a musical instrument is and how it can be played expressively. We discussed the limitations of designing musical instruments on a platform that was never meant to be a musical device in the first place.
“With the iOS stuff, you have this great device that does so much. It’s not developed to be a musical instrument but was developed to be an all purpose kind of a thing.
One of the things that prevents iOS devices from being true musical instruments is that they do not respond at all to pressure. The higher-ups have got to care for that and a lot of them want to put that kind of thing in the device. I also think we could use a slightly bigger surface. The iPad is playable but it’s still a little small. Maybe something that’s twice the size or one and a half times the size of the iPad would be really cool.”
The wider world of music apps:
Where does Jordan see music app development going in the future?
“There are all these “all in one” apps like NanoStudio, GarageBand, Native Instruments iMachine, and MusicStudio. I’ve tried them all to see how they work, what people are doing and see how they are integrating technology. I don’t use these kinds of apps to flesh out musical ideas while on tour and in my hotel room. For the most part, when I’m composing music, when I’m really doing something “serious”, I like to be in front of my keyboard. I’m a keyboard player when it comes down to it and I think my fingers are an extension of my mind. There’s nothing like composing at the keyboard, for me.
When I’m using my iPad, I’m more interested in finding interesting ways in doing something creative, cool, trippy and visual, in being able to express a melody in an interesting way. Perhaps doing something wacky with a sample with SampleWiz. All the different approaches, all the cool new ways to control sound are what interest me about the iPad, not so much the fact that you’ve got this thing you can take with you and put together a little demo or something. It’s all great, I support it but it’s not how I create my music.
That being said, I’m always amazed by what Apple is doing, especially with GarageBand. I’m flattered that I might have provided Apple some inspiration with my own apps, like with the new string instrument that they put out in GarageBand. It’s a really cool way of being able to express a chord or touch and get a different inversion. They care about music so much there. There are so many musical people at Apple who have the sensitivity and sensibility to do really good things. I think they should reach out and ask me as well before they do something!”
A bigger bag of tricks:
With three apps under their belt, what else is Wizdom Music working on?
“I’m actually working on two new apps. I’m working on an app with Tobias Miller, a very talented programmer who’s done a lot of his own apps in the App Store such as LiquiPad. With this new app, you’ve got all these planets. Each planet can generate a sound which influence particles that knock into the planet. These particles in turn influence the planet and bounce off the planet. For each planet, you can choose the orbit, the size of the planet, and the tonality.
The other app we’re working on is a utility for SampleWiz. It will allow you to get very deep into the sonics of a sample. You can do things like get a hundred thousand points of automation inside of a ten second sample. You can freely draw your automation, you can put in points and you can put in steps.
In addition to all that, you can also convert one kind of automation to another. You’ve got things like formant filters in it to get vowel-type sounds. It’s got bit crushers and ring modulaters and other types of filters and ways to change the pitch. Basically you’re just drawing everything. The end result can be moved into anything that will play a .wav file or an .aiff file. You can put it directly into SampleWiz so you can play it in SampleWiz or GeoSynth.”
The wider market:
Besides Apple’s iOS devices, Jordan talked a bit about branching out into the wider world of alternate platforms.
“Microsoft is a great company and they are also doing so many interesting things. Now that I’ve established Wizdom Music, I’m interested to find out what people are doing with technology. I’m interested in taking our technology and making it as far reaching as possible. This includes people all around the world who use Windows and don’t have an Apple device.
There are also people that use Android systems that don’t have an Apple device. The issue of latency (the lack of immediate feedback that can make musical apps difficult to use) that is associated with Android devices is not the same on every device. My partner and I are wading through that problem right now, figuring out what devices we can begin development on. Once we do that, we’ll make a decision about the Android platform.”
The impact of Wizdom Music:
Jordan Rudess and his partners at Wizdom Music are helping to define the cutting edge of music creation. Jordan’s familiarity with music technology has allowed him to see the ways we might create music in the future.
“One has to wonder what Apple will actually do for musicians. Wizdom Music is looking at this. What can we give to musicians that’s going to be the best musical tool for the music of the future?”
With visionaries like Jordan Rudess, musicians have a bright future to look forward to as we get to increase our palette of unique ways to create, play and manipulate sound.
Photos by Darko Boehringer