Electronic music pioneer Mark Verbos makes tactile machines for tactile music built on a lifetime of working on and with sound. In January he launched Verbos Electronics engineering mass-market modular synthesizers with an emphasis on the interface and the very real human connection they have for artists. As an artist and designer, Verbos is deeply invested in the process of how art is made and the culture that grows around it.
New Ancestors: What is the philosophy behind the synths you make?
Mark Verbos: If there is a philosophy behind what I do, for me as a designer, I think that the synthesizer, the technology isn’t as important as the interface. The reason we use these things is because they are living things that we have in front of us that we reach out and touch. There’s a tactile interaction we have with them, they heat up, they get warm, we see what the settings are and we feel what the patches are.
N|A: That’s a good image, they do get warm and have a weight, it’s the kind of thing that really doesn’t make a difference to the sound but it is important because it affects the music you make, the choices you make in the moment.
MV: Exactly. As a musician you develop a relationship with your instrument over time. You learn to play that instrument in a very specific way, do things with it responding to its anomalies. For musicians, the relationship to the instrument can be overwhelming. A concert violinist might never have the violin leave his side. To me there has to be a human element in a piece of art for it to be worth paying attention to and the human element in a electronic music is how you interact with this thing while creating it.
N|A: Let’s draw that out a bit, what is the process of making electronic music like this?
MV: I’ve always felt that the process of making electronic music doesn’t have a song-writing phase, a sound design phase and a recording phase. The creating of the sound and the melody are intertwined so it’s always felt to me that my recording engineer hat wouldn’t come off as an artist. The whole process of electronic music is in a lot of ways an engineering music. There a lot of ways to think of the studio as an instrument and maybe one of the most famous examples was dub because it put the engineer in the position of being the creator. Somehow the hands on aspect of the interface with analogue synthesizers was always more relevant to me in this way.
N|A: Electronic music first emerged at the same time as dub, but for most people, dub, or maybe just Jamaican music in general, was all about being ‘down to earth’, ‘human’, ‘spiritual’ and electronic music was ‘cold and harsh’, which is similar things people complain about with new digital music.
MV: Every major turn in music has followed some kind of technological jump. With dub, there were a lot of creative tricks, things that were being done that nobody outside of that studio understood. So there was magic, someone like Lee Perry or Scientist, one of these dub guys actually had his own tricks where they get more and more communist about how music was made. I love this idea of sound systems having dub plates that no one else had so you had to go to that sound system because they had music no body else had. I love the idea of them making music that’s suited to the specific crowd and you can’t hear anywhere else. There is something deeply moving in that.
N|A: A secret garden.
MV: I also genuinely don’t believe that anybody could listen to a finished record and tell me exactly what it was that made it, particularly now with so much being sophisticated emulations. So, really what’s behind the panel could be anything. That being said, obviously different things sound different and interact in different ways and we all have preferences about certain kinds of distortion and characteristics of sound so it does matter what the electronics are but the reason that I’m drawn to analogue synthesizers and not designing software is because of the physicality. If you’re living off of presets and tools that are open to anyone, that to me is what sets it apart from dub or early electronic music more than a sound thing, you need that secret language.
N|A: This isn’t really about any one way to do it then or analogue over digital?
MV: No, I don't think there is anything inherently more sincere about chasing the sound of a certain drum machine or certain kind of software. The people who are really successful as musicians or producers—the ones who get called visionary—are the ones that continue to adapt and find enthusiasm in all of the new variations and just keep adding to the tools they use. Someone like Brian Eno has been involved in this whole thing since the sixties and each step of the way he’s been able to see everything for what it was and grab onto the best parts of it. He also found ways to use things that didn't sound how everyone else used it which made a lot of his music stand the test of time in ways other people stuck on the novelty of new gear maybe couldn't grasp. I think there are good things to get from everything.
N|A: That's important because that's really about learning tools from the inside out, using what's available but not following the trends because they are invariably hated or simply kitsch down the road.
MV: As an instrument designer, I have to be able to look at any music making device and really without bias figure out what makes it special; what is the essence of this thing that makes it desirable. Analogue versus digital as an audio thing is meaningless. Again, the interface is everything. The way we feel when we work is more important than anything. We have to remember we are making instruments, music making devices for other people to be creative with so when I design I'm trying to empower someone else to make art. It should be intuitive to operate, it should be inspiring and make people want to go back and play with it again.
When I was kid and just getting into music, I would go to bed at night thinking of all the ideas I had wishing there was more time I could spend doing it. Or when I was at school, just wanting to get out and go make music because I was so excited to get on this equipment and do the Thing. That's what I want to inspire in people. Its very easy to make tools that are powerful and have every feature known to man but then forget about making them engaging, making them something you want to figure out and are desirable. To me, if your decisions are made by anything other than the human interaction then they're wrong. There are so many other decisions you could make but it really clutters up the process and has more to do with tools than instruments.
N|A: That’s a good breakdown: instruments are inspiring, tools are efficient. A lot of design today is done in the name efficiency, which often complicates these other more ambiguous relationships you are talking about.
MV: A lot of times there are layers of interface, which seemingly simplify the experience but are actually complications that remove you from that moment and if what you want is that moment more than the outcome, then it’s a problem. For me, the process of how we use something connects us to the experience of those specific sounds and ideas, because really as an artist, what should be important to you is the process not what you’re going to get from it when it’s finished. It’s about making the process more creative more enjoyable for you.
N|A: What I like about what you’re saying is that we get hung up too much on the idea of sound or the style, your focus is far more on the artist in the studio and how the studio functions for her or him.
MV: Definitely. When you’re using Live for instance, you loop material and stretch it and move it around so you’re no longer confined to the way it was in the analogue studio. If that’s your process, that’s your process but for me I need to have that interaction outside the screen. This comparison of getting your hands dirty versus digital methods, I don’t mean that one process is better than the other but that developing or continuing these other processes is still valuable.
I also don’t think it’s nostalgic if it’s for a process or a device that’s from before your time. It’s something else. It’s not like the kids who are buying my synthesizers grew up using them and it was taken away and now they are seeking out reclaiming something they lost. It’s not about getting back to something, they are getting into to for the first time now, its happening now. These sounds and these machines, using them in the way they are designed still has visionary possibilities.
N|A: But you can’t get away from being accused of being nostalgic, even just buying a vinyl record carries that accusation.
MV: When you unpack it though, more often then not these accusations come from people trying to sell you things and foster that desire for the new. And really what that comes down to is a specific kind of desire for getting more stuff, not creating deeper relationships to what you have in front of you. What makes a physical record worthwhile, as a piece of art, is just a different thing than streaming music and it that has a different value.
This is the same thing as when instruments changed to having memories and not having control over the individual parameters. There are a lot of advantages to that, being able to save torturous patches and call them up. Prog-rock bands had to lug ten keyboards on stage. Now you can just have one and have a new preset for each song. But when if you want to be a more experimental musician, using these instruments and have that freedom to mess with it and see where it takes you, as soon as you take away the control over those parameters, the inspiration to really challenge everything fades pretty quickly.
N|A: So, there's a balance then between what some might think of as tortuous controls and things that are really simple to use but maybe get stuck where you last left them?
MV: Most people never re-program the sounds. If you're making a painting and you start with the same basic sketch on the canvas, most likely your paintings aren't really going to change too much. The tendency is to just click through the pre-sets and see what happens. Forcing yourself to build it from scratch each time, you're opening yourself up to unexpected directions. It's just a different way of working; of wanting to work. I just offer the suggestion that the process of making the melody or whatever and the process of creating the sound are intertwined. If you start with a blank slate you are committed to always changing and never doing the same thing twice.
N|A: In this sense, you're kind of flipping the script. The newer ways of working where you start with presets and grids actually kind of keep you stuck to the past. These older instrument designs, force you to move forward.
MV: I'm trying to make it so you're drawn to that idea. The essence of the instrument is dealing with what it means and forcing you to ask yourself what the building blocks actually are.
N|A: Right, you could go fishing with radar and find the fish right away or you can go fly fishing. Getting there is half the fun, as they say.
MV: If you like painting with oils and everybody says don’t bother, you can get an app for that, this doesn’t make your desire less valid. It’s still a perfectly valid way to make art. It's easy to forget though that the ‘customer’ isn't as deeply wrapped up in it as you are. As a designer it's easy to lose track of that but at the same time, how we design has an effect on how people create. In that way you're actually designing behavior.
N|A: Right, and there's a very real conversation to be had well beyond music as to the way technology affects human behavior both positively and negatively. We all like to think that we're in control all the time and the machines are neutral, but of course the machines we use change our desire. Those machines are made by humans with specific ideologies and we change to fit those desires.
MV: Clearly there is more money to be made in software but I would very much hate letting the market decide what I should do. There are always going to more people who want the quick and easy route. I would rather make what I believe in and have it fail than cave on what I believe in. That's probably just being raised in underground music skeptical of the mainstream. It just doesn't seem like the pay-off for selling out is good enough.
N|A: This brings us to the state of the industry, or really, the sate of underground music. The economics of it and whether there really is any point in thinking about musicians as being a profession. As someone who has worked as a sound engineer recording through analogue and into the digital era you’ve come up through a lot of different waves. How do you view the roll of music and artists not necessarily looking to play the pop game but wanting to be the kind of experimental artists you’re talking about who grow and discover processes over a long period of time like you did?
MV: During my rise to being a musician there were a lot of roadblocks that involved money and access. There was a time when only a select group of people had a computer. Now your grandmother is on the internet. I remember when I went to Eastern Europe as a techno DJ, it was the beginning of a scene from Slovakia and the Czech Republic making techno records and I imagined them having like the studio that guys in Chicago had in 1986, really outdated, cheap and whatever they could get in a pawn shop. It didn’t occur to me that actually no, that’s too expensive, they have like a 386 PC that was out of date and software that they stole and did everything on a computer. Somewhere between the 90’s and whatever you call that next decade, somewhere in the 2000 shift it no longer was a privilege to have a computer in the same way and it became cheaper to have the computer music software, because you could pirate the software, and then you could have a studio for free, versus having to buy even the cheapest gear.
N|A: That’s really empowering, at that point, electronic music really does become accessible and a new kind of folk music.
MV: A hundred years ago you have a piano in the corner of the house and when it was time to listen to music someone in the family sat down and played the songs. Then when recorded music became available, listening to music became putting on a record or listening to the radio or whatever and music evolved into this arc where we ultimately have ended up back at, ‘why would I want to listen to someone else’s music I’ll just make it myself?’ This is really putting Garage Band in the same place that the piano in corner of the family house. It’s back to people would rather make their own music in a recreational way. Maybe the weird thing isn’t that people don’t buy records anymore, maybe the weird thing is that they ever did.
N|A: And still, more people consume pre-recorded music than ever before. This is all the really amazing part of what’s happened in music that one hand it has really inspired a culture of creators but on the other hand you still have so much power amassing under huge corporations. Only now it’s not major labels but Google and Facebook and companies that aren’t really what we think if as being in the music industry. How do we reconcile these utopian ideals for creators with these larger exploitive empires when the money still isn’t tricking down to sustain real independent voices?
MV: Part of that is that we as participants in this culture have to be more selective about what we support and also about what opportunities we take on or what things we get involved in. As it is now, our desperation rules everything. I imagine, maybe I’m wrong, there was a time when these cult artists had more power and the option of saying, ‘no, we won’t have our music in your ad’ because there was a whole independent system to help them. People who really believed in certain labels and were invested in the culture.
N|A: That’s an important point but we shouldn’t be overly nostalgic for or romanticize a ‘golden age’ of indie rock which was still heavily limited by both sexism and racism.
MV: You’re absolutely right. It’s not about going back to something; it’s about taking the best aspects and thinking about the future. The best among the independents acted as patrons to artists, took risks those artists couldn’t even when that art didn’t necessarily have an audience or wasn’t fashionable.
The music industry hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s turned into Taylor Swift who can sell millions and millions of records and fan collection-wise, branding wise, endorsement-wise can be more successful than anybody has ever been. Small bands end up playing the same game and there just isn’t enough money to go around.
N|A: Brands, corporations and advertisers are really filling this role of financial support you’re talking about.
MV: And that comes at a cost. The other option is you’re in a van playing shows for eight people in between updating your Kickstarter campaign and if you get sick or you get old enough to worry about these things maybe that’s the end of your music career. And what about the people who don’t ever go on the road? You’re not going to be able to take a break and live off the work you did even if people are still consuming it, which a lot of musicians were actually able to do. There isn’t a lot of action in the middle. But, at every moment, even if what is happening is patently insincere, in the end the sincerity will rise to the top. The special things will rise to the top. I like to hope anyway.