Tuesday, June 18, 2019

✨Phase84: Universal AU 🎶

With the revamp of Phase84 becoming a universal Audio Unit (you're welcome, iPhone users!), we wanted to take a few minutes and interview the creator, Louis Gorenfeld. To learn more about Phase84, Louis shares some additional thoughts here. 

Retronyms: Why did you want to make Phase84 into an Audio Unit?
Louis: AudioUnits on iOS are really exciting; for years I was hoping to see an audio plug-in format on iOS like we have on desktops and laptops, and as soon as I saw AU was coming to iOS, I thought, "We need to do a version of Phase84 for this." There are a few things that give plugins like AudioUnits or VSTs an advantage over IPC-based technologies, like Interapp or JACK; first, they integrate with your music software. You load your song project, and all the plugins you use load with it. It appears inside your music software, as if it were built right into it-- there's no tabbing over to a different app. Second, you can have more than once instance of any given plugin instrument, where with Interapp you're limited to one. There's also a general bonus when it comes to reliability.

R: What are some aspects of the app that make it unique from other synths?
L: I don't know how many people know this, but Phase84 started out life as Digits VST. When I designed that synth, I wanted to make something that was a bit different, and something that I would want to use in my own music. So, I started out basing it on one of my favorite semi-forgotten synth technologies: Phase Distortion. 

Phase Distortion was invented in the 80s by Casio, for their CZ line, and the idea was to create something competitive with Yamaha's patented FM. In the process, Casio created something that had some of the sonic characteristics of FM, but also captured some of that "Moog style" sound of subtractive analog synthesizers as well. But I already had a real Casio CZ synth, so I wanted something that was a little different. I put a few twists on it: The "resonance waves," if you have experience with those, work very differently on Phase84 than on a Casio CZ. 

I also generalized the waveshaper-- the heart of a Phase Distortion synth. What this means is that you don't just get a few simple waveshapes, but can customize them further with the "skew" knob. There's also a Pulse Width like on analog synths, which bends the waveforms even more. All of this adds up to a synth with complex oscillators, and that's before you add in the optional analog-style filter: I didn't want "clean" or "creamy" with this filter. It's decidedly dirty, adding a bit of that analog sound but it's also just nasty and overdriven. And it has an unusual feature: You can select different filter curves, all the way down to a 6db/oct filter that still has resonance. So, my approach to filtering was quite different from many other synths. 

Between all of these features, there's just a ton of sound molding potential that you didn't find in the synths that inspired it. Finally, one feature I like a lot is the Unison knob. Many synths have this, but there's something about Phase84 that just comes to life when you use it. It's also randomized in a way, so that the voice spread is a bit different with each note. This lends an organic characteristic to the sound.

R: What does creativity mean to you?
L: Wow, that's a hard one! Creation, in the literal sense, is the act of bringing into existence something that wasn't anywhere in the universe before. It's crazy to think about, right? If you write a song, this thing you're building might not have even existed in your mind an hour before, and suddenly it pops into the world. But what makes it creative I think is when you put your own twist on it. When you channel part of yourself into it, or you combine two things that hadn't been combined before, that's what makes  it creative. And some people take this as, "Oh, I have to do something radically different." But a lot of times, this just comes out of you doing things however you do them. You might start out even trying to clone a song you like, but at some point that inspiration strikes and you say, "But what if it went this other way instead?"

R: Can you tell us about your background in music? What kind of music do you play and create?
L: I write jazz-funk and chiptunes, sometimes both at once. I never studied music formally or had lessons, but I grew up banging on an old upright piano. At some point, we got Instant Music for our Amiga computer, and that had these music scale and chord guides, and that helped me get comfortable with different scales and song progressions. Eventually, I was writing freehand, turning all the guides off. When we got a modem, I got into trackers, and for a couple decades wrote music on those, swapping tracks with people across the Internet. That scene was ultra competitive, but what was cool about it was that you'd trade music files, not just MP3s. So, you could see all these different approaches to how they used the software. These days, I have a room full of synths and use Reaper, but Digits/Phase84 is still my go-to workhorse synth. 

R: Who are your biggest musical influences at the moment?
L: I love video game soundtracks-- a lot of the soundtracks for Japanese arcade games really keep 70s/80s jazz fusion alive, but they have this edge that the albums that inspired them never had. A lot of times, you listen to fusion like Return to Forever or T-Square, and it sounds a bit pleasant. But, since video games have to keep the tension on, they take that fusion base and they just make it rock more, or there's more dissonance. 

Speaking of having an edge, I also love Herbie Hancock, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jan Hammer. Outside of jazz fusion, I've always been inspired by 90s electronica (FSOL, Fluke, Prodigy), metal-leaning classic rock (Deep Purple, or Slash-- who is also self-taught-- was kind of a hero), funk (Funkadelic has amazing guitar solos and keyboard lines), and heavy multilayered loop-based golden-age-of-hip-hop stuff like Public Enemy.

R: What's an interesting or hidden feature within Phase84? How do you imagine a user might want to incorporate it into iMPC Pro 2?
L: Phase84 adds a lot to Pro 2. The sheer versatility of it means it'll fill in almost any gap: need a phat synth bass? An electric piano or strings? A nasty sweep? Thick pads? G-funk lead? It covers all the bases and then some. And its CPU usage is quite low, so you can rack up a bunch of them on most iOS devices. This makes it a great complement to Pro 2's beat-centric sampler engine.

Phase84 is available now on iOS as a universal app. 

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