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Interview with Don Robertson (1988)

In 1988, Robertson predicts the computer-based music production industry of the 1990s

by Ben Kettlewell

Ben Kettlewell is a composer and multi-instrumentalist and author of the book Electronic Music Pioneers. This is a transcript of a live interview that was broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) radio in 1988.

Ben: A musician who used the Synclavier II in his groundbreaking recordings produced during the 1980’s was Colorado composer, Don Robertson, one of the pioneers of the crossover between electronic, ambient, and new age music.
     Don Robertson, a composer and software designer, explains why he chose the Synclavier to record his albums exclusively. He created, recorded, and edited all of his albums directly from his one music workstation. He discusses his use of the instrument to emulate sounds of different instruments and create unique timbres. He discusses how the computer memorizes the melodies and how he constructs complex musical scores on this instrument. He also talks about other systems which help the composer create, orchestrate, and store complete musical scores in software-based systems.
     Don, you compose your music entirely on a computer musical instrument. How did you choose this instrument to realize your compositions?

Don: The first time I heard about this instrument was around 1982. It was hard for me to believe the description I read, concerning the use of it, and what it was capable of doing. And when I heard it, I couldn’t believe my ears. It was the first musical instrument I had ever listened to that used a computer to create the sound. So, the sound was very different from other traditional and electronic instruments I had worked with and listened to. Since the computer is the instrument, it can control all the compositional parameters and that makes life much easier for a composer. You can tell it to do something, and it quickly accomplishes the selected task and saves a lot of time. It makes a lot of things possible that would never have been possible before.

Ben: Can you describe some of the functions that you incorporate into your work?

Don: First of all you can use the instrument to create the sounds of many other types of instruments including traditional instruments and many new types of sounds that traditional instruments cannot create. For instance, you can plug a microphone into the Synclavier and have someone come into your studio and record a single note of an oboe or violin. Then you can play the same sound back, which is CD quality, on the keyboard, and the sound that is produced is exactly like the instrument you recorded. You can also create your own sounds by telling the computer what type of sound you want and what type of waveform you want to create. You can duplicate many instruments that way, as well as create new ones that had never been heard before. I create all the sounds for the piece that I’m composing, and then the computer memorizes the melody. So, I simply play the melody on the keyboard and the computer plays it back. It can recreate the performance in different keys, different time signatures, and different sounds for the melody. For instance, if I originally conceived it as an oboe melody, and then I realized it would sound better as a French horn melody, I can change the arrangement with the push of a button. So, you can see with this high-quality sound, and all the other compositional benefits, that the Synclavier is truly a standalone music workstation. As a composer, it is an indispensable asset. The instrument creates the sounds, memorizes the melodies, prints out a score, and performs the piece not-for-note, just the way it was originally conceived and easily produces variations on any aspect of the performance. As far as a professional machine with these capabilities becoming available to composers for less than twenty thousand dollars, I think we will have to wait a few years, as developments in micro circuits are accelerated, circuits are miniaturized, computer speeds are increased, and software-based systems are refined.