As Chief Sound Designer for Roland and founder of Spectrasonics, Eric Persing has created some of the most widely used sounds in modern electronic music. He tells Kevin McDaniels how he turned sample CDs into big business, and reveals how some of the exotic sounds on his Spectrasonics discs were created.
"I've always considered myself a musician first, with sound design being only a means to create and express a musical vision," reflects Eric Persing. "The two concepts have only been separated in recent years. I think the best sound design is always going to come from someone with a musical perspective, and sound designers are not always musicians these days."
Perhaps it's this musical perspective, combined with a dedication to producing sounds of the highest calibre for use by musicians, that has made Eric arguably the top designer of sound libraries in the world. As Chief Sound Designer for Roland Corporation, a position he maintains despite the rigours of running his own company, Eric created many of the patches for the groundbreaking D50 and JV1080 synthesizers. And at his own company Spectrasonics, the Rolls Royce of sample‑library producers, Eric's sound‑design acumen has overseen the creation of such classics as Symphony Of Voices, Liquid Grooves, and Distorted Reality, the best‑selling professional sound library of all time.
Enjoying a bumper year, Eric has just wrapped up Roland's latest synthesizer entries, the XV3080 and 5080. He is also putting the final touches to Spectrasonics' soon‑to‑be‑released epic Vocal Planet, part two of a worldwide bid to create the most extensive collection of vocal sounds ever assembled.
From Chapped Lips To Hollywood
The son of a San Francisco choral director, Eric started playing piano in the sixth grade after a "disastrous relationship with the trumpet" and chapped lips! He found himself drawn to the rich tonal possibilities of the piano. Then, in 1975, he played his first Minimoog and immediately felt that he had found his calling.
"It was all over at that point," says Eric. "I began devouring everything I could on the subject of electronic music. In contrast with today's concept of synths as studio tools, the idea of playing the synthesizer as a musical instrument was my goal. To do this, you needed to learn keyboard technique, music theory and how to make and create your own sounds — remember, presets didn't exist yet. I just figured that making sounds was part of learning the instrument."
After moving to Los Angeles and starting to work as a session player in the studios, he soon came to realise that "almost no one, not even the famous keyboard players, knew how to use their instruments. Since I had a knack for creating sounds, it opened a lot of doors for me."
The number of doors it opened was, indeed, immense. The roster of artists Eric has worked with reads like a Who's Who: Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones, Danny Elfman, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, James Newton‑Howard, Eddie Jobson, Michel Colombier, Diana Ross, Arif Mardin, Chaka Khan, Larry Carlton, Hans Zimmer, Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson, Randy Newman and Celine Dion. He has also produced records for a number of jazz and gospel artists including Mezzoforte, Roby Duke, the Katinas and Richard Souther. Asked to pick his proudest achievement in the studio, Eric selects Brazileiro by Sergio Mendes. "That was the most inspiring project I've been a part of. Incredible music and great people are my favourite combination. To work in that environment for more than a year was a priviledge," says Eric about the album, which received the Grammy award for World Music in 1993.
Opening Doors At Roland
But Eric's greatest opportunity came not from an individual artist, but the Roland Corporation. Shortly after the introduction of MIDI in 1984, Eric was working in a Southern California music store that had every conceivable keyboard and synthesizer but, due to an unfortunate location, no customers. As a result, the sales staff at the store had plenty of time to experiment and learn all the gear. As Eric recalls: "When the Roland MSQ700 (the first MIDI sequencer) was introduced, no‑one at Roland could figure out how to use it. Because of all the time we had at the store, we figured out a lot of weird tricks. Like if you played the parts from a Jupiter 6 and powered up the MSQ700 last in the MIDI chain, you could get a multitimbral, multitrack sequence playing. I know that doesn't sound like a big deal now, but at the time it was pretty mind‑blowing. So we put these awesome demos together with every instrument in the entire store MIDI'd together. Anyway, Roland started sending their employees down to our store to get trained on their own gear by us. Tom Beckman (then President of Roland US) came down to see what was going on, and I gave him the big demo and he dug it. He asked me to demo at the '84 NAMM show and then I was in."
Eric's first project as Chief Sound Designer for Roland was to design the patches for the MKS80 Super Jupiter and JX8P, and he has played a major part in the distinctive Roland sound up to the present day. He personally created a majority of the patches for such landmark units as the D50, S‑series samplers and the JD800 ("It's all my fault" says Eric in mock apology for the D50's ubiquitous Fantasia, Digital Native Dance and Soundtrack patches). As Eric's session and production work expanded, he became a consultant to Roland R&D Japan, a relationship which has continued to the present day. The Roland sound‑design team has increased in numbers as the number of factory presets has grown, but Eric has remained as the final authority for selection, review and tweaking on their pro instruments.
"Since Roland synths like the XV5080 now come with over 1000 factory patches, I'm part of a larger international team of sound designers which is headed up by 'Ace' Yukawa of Roland R&D Japan," says Eric. "After all the patches have been created by the International team, it's my job to rate them and put the finishing touches on the factory set. I just finished up tweaking the patches for the new XV3080 and 5080, and I've been involved with the Variphrase project for a long time. It's nice to see these things finally coming out. Both projects have been about seven years in the making."
Into The Sampling Universe
Eric also oversaw the development of all of Roland's worldwide sampling sessions and created the Roland factory CD‑ROM libraries. Despite the quality of these libraries (as evidenced by their continued residence in many a film composer's collection) the projects generated a certain degree of frustration. "We were doing difficult work at the now‑defunct Roland R&D in Los Angeles," describes Eric, "spending years creating these massive CD‑ROM libraries for Roland's 700‑series samplers. But as a hardware company, Roland didn't really view sample libraries as their core business. As a result, the Roland CD‑ROMs didn't reach very many people. It just wasn't important for a large company like Roland to advertise them. Of course, many people became familiar with our work through the hardware products like the Sound Canvas, the 1080s and Expansion Boards, but few heard the original 'hi‑res' versions we created on the Archive and Project series CD‑ROMs."
As the early '90s progressed, Eric saw a growing market for sounds to fill ever more cost‑effective samplers, and watched as the soundware industry sprang into life as an exciting new field. At the same time his session work as a synthesist was beginning to change. More and more artists and composers were buying instruments like the 1080, as opposed to hiring a synthesist to bring his or her own rig to the studio and create fresh sounds for their project.
"In a way, I was putting myself out of work," says Eric. "So I figured, if people are going to buy sounds instead of hiring me to do custom stuff, I might as well be the one selling them the sounds!"
Eric, with his wife Lorey as co‑partner, founded Spectrasonics in 1994 and set up UK distribution with Time & Space. With five phone lines in their kitchen, the pair started small and took charge of everything themselves: product development, manufacturing, marketing, sales, shipping, dealer support, and customer support.
"We had no idea how difficult it would be when we started the business," Eric reflects. "My wife and I worked 7am to 3am, seven days a week. It was totally overwhelming."
Fortunately, the fledgling startup business had a great initial line‑up. "Our first library was Bass Legends," says Eric, "which was only possible because of my friendships with Marcus Miller, John Patitucci and Abraham Laboriel. They had a lot of faith in us, and it has gone on to be one of the best‑selling discs of all time. At the same time, my good friend Bob Daspit (whom I mentored in the sampling arts at Roland R&D) had gone to work for Hans Zimmer as his personal sound designer. Bob is also a wonderful guitarist and had created a custom guitar sample library from Hans' extensive collection of guitars. We also found an amazing group of people in Singapore who were working on this incredible exotic library. We helped them finish it and that became the hit Heart of Asia. So we were blessed with three outstanding products at the inception of Spectrasonics."
Developing The Theme
A focus on theme, according to Eric, is one of the key factors that distinguishes his company's products from the herd of sample libraries out there. "I learned quickly that it's the concept and title of the library that capture people's imagination. Since Distorted Reality didn't have any famous players associated with it, I was initially unsure if it was a good idea or not. I thought we'd only sell a few copies. But because the concept of 'distorting reality' appealed to so many different kinds of musicians, it has become our best‑seller by far."
Another Spectrasonics library, Liquid Grooves, proved more problematic. "We thought the concept of 'Liquid Grooves' would be great, but we really had no idea how to make rhythms sound 'liquid'. Three weeks before the introduction at the NAMM show, all we had was a title and cover art. So we rushed into the studio and started experimenting, commanding the drummers "OK, now think liquid!"
"It was a big challenge," says Eric, "but the creative part of it was very rewarding. It wasn't until all the experiments with Wavedrums and live elements were sampled and remixed that it really came together. It was a very time‑consuming process, but it's another one of our products that gets a great deal of use out there."
Besides a focus on theme, Eric attributes his success to a commitment to high‑quality, useful sounds. "It's not actually that hard to make a weird sound any more," says Eric, "but truly inspiring, unique and useful sounds are an entirely different matter. It takes a lot of patience."
Some Assembly Required
Patience is also required in recording, editing and processing the truly staggering number of samples required for a professional sampling product. Spectrasonics compounds this by retaining only a fraction of the samples initially gathered. For example, on Distorted Reality 2 Eric developed about six gigabytes of material over a three‑year period that never made the final cut.
The forthcoming Vocal Planet was an even greater effort. Four years in the making, Vocal Planet is really the second half of the epic vocal collection that began with the well‑known four‑CD‑ROM Symphony Of Voices collection, which features cathedral‑recorded choirs, boys' choirs, and samples of classical vocalists. The project was spun off into two parts when Eric realised the immensity of the undertaking. The two works, combined, provide the most comprehensive collection of vocal samples ever assembled, demanding over 75,000 samples of 500 singers from which to draw the final material. Vocal Planet renders the vocal utterances of ethnic singers, from Gaelic and Celtic folk singers to moaning Mississippi delta bluesmen, jazz and gospel choirs, to the otherworldly drones of the Tuvan throat singers (who can each sing multiple notes).
One of many challenges of the project was that Tuvan throat singing is a dying art, with only 30 or so authentic singers left in the world. According to Eric, "The Tuvan throat singers were one of the things on my wish‑list if I could have any sound for Vocal Planet. But we had no idea how to contact them in outer Mongolia! Then one day someone called and told us the throat singers happened to be in town doing a tour with the Smithsonian Institute. They agreed to do the sampling late that night and were on their way back to Tuva the next morning!"
The Shrinking Studio Plan
Surveying both the past and future, Eric has much to be proud of. Most Spectrasonics releases remain chart‑toppers — some of them seven years after they were first shipped. How many recording artists can say the same thing? What's next? Aside from the imminent release of Vocal Planet and the Roland XV synths, expect the release of new Classic Drumming series titles from Spectrasonics. These CD‑ROMs will be activated for Groove Control, a proprietary method of developing sample libraries created by Spectrasonics and ILIO that allows users independent control of tempo, pitch, feel, and even changing the pattern of a stereo drum loop, without relying on any external software or programming aside from your sequencer.
His studio might get a makeover as well. In a break with the gear‑head tradition of acquiring ever more pieces of equipment, Eric is seriously considering slimming down his studio. "I'm relying more and more on software and computers," said Eric, "I'll probably get rid of some hardware processors and synths, but never my treasures like my 200‑pound, 1976 Yamaha CS80 and my Moog."
Reflecting on the radical breakthroughs taking place in software sound synthesis and effects processing, Eric seems a man at ease with the new technology. "It's a whole new world," he says. "This year we ran our entire Frankfurt show from a Powerbook. We were at NAMM just a couple months earlier and that wasn't possible."
Spectrasonics Secrets: Distorted Reality
"The 'Behemoth' sound in the Oceanic Beds section was created by vocoding a sample of waves lapping on a boat dock with a fuzzed didgeridoo drone run through a JP8080 band‑pass filter. By drawing a continuously changing relationship between carrier and modulator in Hyperprism's 'Blue window', the sound becomes alive and voila: ominous Loch Ness Monster.
"'Insulator' was the sound of the paper insulation being blown by giant hoses into my studio walls during its construction. I miked it from the inside by taping PZM mics to the walls. The sound was only available for a few seconds, so I had to be ready. By lowering the pitch of the left side and reversing it, the result is something like being at the bottom of a quicksand pit as it is being filled!
"Many of the ambient sounds on Distorted Reality have no source at all, but were generated by letting six or seven effects processors feed back on one another for hours. How? Subtly change the send levels to each feedback effect (which in turn feeds another effect, and so on...) and then walk away — recording to hours of DAT tape. Come back with fresh ears in a few months and edit the best bits. Those beds can then be used as fresh source material for further processing and layering in the sampler or computer.
"'Scrape Chords' was created by bowing a ride cymbal with a cello bow and processing the result in BIAS SFX Machine's Velvet Chords program, which allows you to amplify and tune the overtones in the cymbal to musical intervals. A very organic effect.
"The flipping fury of 'Neuroscan' was the result of taking a basic sound generated in GRM Tools, and doing dozens of plug‑in process in tiny sample chunk increments. By repeating this hundreds of times (and using the Premiere envelope in Peak to radically crossfade the effects every few milliseconds), you hear about one thousand different effects in less than two seconds. The human brain can't process this much audio information, so the 'strobe‑like' end result is extremely intense to listen to.
"The lo‑fi glory of 'Shortwave Strings' was captured by taking a streaming Internet broadcast of a 1930s public‑domain radio drama and running it in real time through the TC Fireworx Ring Modulator algorithm and then through a miked Leslie 147. The ring‑mod forced the old radio orchestra to a strange new key, and the Leslie supplied the spinning ambience.
"'Firewire' is actually a 'prepared' Hohner D6 Clavinet. By opening the clav's tuning panel you can play the strings and pickups (in this case, plucked and scraped with a screwdriver!). With my other hand, I fingered harmonics just as you would with a guitar. Layer and detune multiple takes in the sampler and set up velocity switching for the various harmonics and you're 'firewired'!
"'Milky Bells' was created in Metasynth by running a celeste sample through a colour‑enhanced photograph of the Milky Way tuned to a microtonal scale. The result is tuned bells rippling across the stereo spectrum with the same density as the astral phenomenon.
"'Operawaves' was the result of vocoding recordings of Pacific surf with an operatic soprano as the carrier. You end up with singing ocean foam!"
Spectrasonics Secrets: Ethno Techno
This upcoming ILIO library was produced and remixed by Persing and features lots of wild instruments and techniques from percussionist Bashiri Johnson.
"One great moment in the studio happened on the groove 'I'm not sure about this' when we decided to try the sound of ripping masking tape as the backbeat of the groove. So Bashiri was ripping away in time with the music and I was compressing the daylights out of it, to give it some punch. What we didn't realise was that the headphones in the room were live and very hot. When Bashiri would rip the masking tape, all of the phones would feed back, making the metal instruments in the room resonate and feed back more, all triggered with more and more intensity by the ripping tape bursts. This is combined with me screaming with joy over the talkback and you've got one of those special 'one‑time only' sounds!"
Spectrasonics Secrets: Vocal Recording
Symphony of Voices
"How'd you get that 'Guttural FX' drone? Simple... record 80 men gargling in a cathedral (the hard part is trying to keep everyone from laughing!). How about the infinite falling vocal effect of 'Vertigo'? Have 40 sopranos cover their ears (so they can't hear one another) and have each one sing a slowly rising and falling pitch, effectively becoming 40 independent pitch LFOs. It's enough to make you sick!"
Heart Of Asia
"Where do you find these great ethnic singers? Believe it or not, sometimes we just ask people if they can sing. On a road in Nepal, we passed a old peasant man carrying a huge load on a cart. We introduced ourselves and asked him if he could sing something for us. He sets down his load, we press record on the portable DAT and what comes out of mouth is one of the most powerful and passionate voices I've ever heard! He finishes his song, packs up his load and goes on his merry way!
"What you're hearing on 'Wild Tibet' is actually a horse freaking out in the middle of a Tibetan parade. Not only were we lucky enough to record it, but the horse was crashing in time with the parade music! Not much chance of a second take on that one!"
"The Blackfoot Native American Indian pow‑wow singers were understandably reluctant to be recorded by 'white men'. So before granting permission, they required us to introduce our children to the Chief of the reservation. The reason for this is that they believe that a man's character can truly be judged by seeing what his children are like. Not a bad idea, really...
"Another great find on Vocal Planet came from a place where we wouldn't have normally looked — the grocery store! We noticed a young bag‑boy was making all manner of weird mouth noises while bagging our groceries. So we asked if we could record him. He was so excited about it that he wanted to give us his whole repertoire of strange vocal noises, but that he had to do it privately (with no one looking). So we dropped off a DAT machine and a mic and he went into his closet and a week later gave us over an hour's worth of incredible effects like 'Wind in a wheat field', 'Dentist Drills' and even 'Harmonic Wind multisamples'! His stuff ended up being some of my favourite sounds on all of Vocal Planet!
"Working with singers quickly teaches you much about the possibilities and limitations of the human voice. Tell a singer to sing the highest note of his range — 20 times, at pianissimo with a slight vibrato — and you'll see what I mean!"
Spectrasonics Secrets: Liquid Grooves
"We tried quite a few odd things on Liquid Grooves. We used a large, thin metal sign and bent and kicked it in time with the grooves. The resulting 'swoosh' became a signature sound of some of the grooves.
"I'm always on the lookout for good‑sounding ceramic flower pots — don't take me to a gardening shop if you want to leave quickly! Those pots on LG weren't Udus, but were all originally holding flowers. It's too bad that you have to buy the flowers just to get the pots sometimes... We got the resonant 'Bottle' sound by close‑miking the opening of a plastic Coke bottle and flicking it.
"Sometimes we used open‑ear headphones to intentionally 'leak' a groove track into a soup pot. The leakage resonates in the water and as you roll the water in the soup pot, the groove turns liquid!
"We found a great technique for recording the Korg Wavedrum. If you only use its electronic output, the sound is dull and lifeless. As strange as it sounds, we miked the head of the Wavedrum for the live hand/stick noise and mixed it with the electronic output run through an Innovonics Limiter. The instrument has too much dynamic range otherwise. It's a really powerful instrument when recorded this way."
Spectrasonics Secrets: Bizarre Guitar
"The beautiful ambience beds on Bizarre Guitar are primarily Peter Maunu doing 'sound on sound' passes with the old Electro‑Harmonix Looping Delay box. Its 11K sample rate removes all semblance of any attacks, and the reverse function turns his linear phrases into pads. There really isn't anything else that sounds like that strange box. He would then multitrack these Electro‑Harmonix pads to make complex stereo beds that I would sample and further process.
"How could a guitar make that 'Secret City' massive orchestra‑type hit? Try layering about 16 samples of the shock noise of a guitar being plugged in to a wide‑open amp on '11' and radically tune down each sample by six or more octaves. Snip the sample starts to give hard attacks. Tune each layer to make a powerful chord and you've got it."
The equipment list for the Spectrasonics studio reads like a gear‑head's dream. Favourites amongst Eric's sizeable synthesizer collection include the Access Virus, the Prophet VS, his collection of Waldorf synthesizers, and a 1976 Yamaha CS80. "It's my favourite axe to play, because of the awesome polyphonic aftertouch and that sensuous ribbon," explains Eric.
For effects processing Eric is a fan of the Roland SRV330 reverb, an item that "gets missed by most people, mainly because it doesn't say Lexicon on the front panel." For distortion tricks Eric often uses a rare Boss GL100 guitar preamp: "It's basically the history of Boss pedals in one rack space."
Mixing, until recently, was done on some "very odd, custom‑made analogue mixers made by a guy named Mo West," reveals Eric. He recently purchased a Roland VM 7000‑series mixer, however, taking him one step closer to an all‑digital setup.
- Roland S760 and S770
- Kurzweill K2000
- Bitheadz Unity DS1 (running on an Apple Macintosh G4)
- Access Virus
- Clavia Nord Lead
- Doepfer modular synth
- Emu modular synth
- Moog Minimoog (modified by Studio Electronics)
- Oberheim SEMs
- Polyfusion modular synth
- Roland JP8000 prototypes & production units
- Roland JP8080
- Roland JD800/990
- Roland Jupiter 8
- Roland JV1080 and 2080
- Roland MKS50 Alpha Juno
- Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter
- Roland System 700 and 100m modular synths
- Roland MC303
- Roland MC505
- Roland TB303
- Roland TR808
- Roland TR909
- Korg EX8000
- Korg M1R
- Korg Mono/Poly
- Sequential Circuits Prophet VS
- Waldorf Wave, Microwave, Microwave XT
- Yamaha CS80
- Arboretum HyperEngine
- Arboretum Hyperprism plug‑in pack
- Arboretum Ionizer
- Arboretum Raygun noise‑reduction plug‑in
- Antares Infinity
- BIAS Peak audio editor
- BIAS SFX machine effects
- Emagic Logic Audio Platinum
- Emagic Sound Diver synth editor/librarian
- GRM Tools plug‑in pack
- Opcode Vinyl, Vocode & Filter plug‑ins
- Propellerheadz Rebirth soft synth
- Prosoniq SonicWorx Artist effects
- Steinberg Magneto tape‑saturation emulator
- Steinberg ReCycle sample editor
- Thonk soft synth
- Region Munger
- Transfer Station
- Samplifier sample transfer software
- Sound Morph
- Sound Hack audio editor
- Unisyn synth editor
- Waveboy Voder
- AMS RMX reverb
- API 5502 equaliser
- Boss GL100 guitar driver
- Boss SE70 multi‑effects
- Dimension beam controller
- Euphonics mixing console
- Eventide DSP4000 & H3500 harmonizers
- GML stereo parametric EQ
- Innovonics compressors
- Langevin passive equalisers
- Lexicon PCM70/80/480 reverbs
- MXR Distortion Plus
- Quest custom mixers
- Roland Dimension D & C processors
- Roland RSP550 multi‑effects
- Roland RSS10 3‑dimensional effects
- Roland SDE330 delay
- Roland SDX330 chorus
- Roland SRV330 reverb
- Roland SVC330 vocoder
- TC Electronics Fireworx multi‑effects
- Summit tube mic preamps
Distorting Reality: Then And Now
"Weird sounds by me," is Eric's modest description of his collection of otherworldly ambiences, textures and far‑out grooves known as Distorted Reality. Since its release in 1995, the sounds of Distorted Reality have made their way into countless albums, TV shows, movie soundtracks and other productions. In fact, although sales figures for the sampling industry are not published, Spectrasonics' information suggests that Distorted Reality is the best‑selling professional library of all time.
Naturally, after such a mega‑blockbuster, Eric was prompted to create a sequel, which was released last year as Distorted Reality 2: Darkness and Light. Eric wanted to create something new, but related and complementary to the first collection. As a theme he chose to explore the extreme contrasts of 'Dark' (aggressive, angry sounds) and 'Light' (beautiful and subtle colours) — hence the title. To differentiate with the first library, he tried experimenting with different materials, such as metals, wool, and paper, as source recordings.
The most significant differences between the two collections, however, are the developments that have occurred in the world of software synthesis and signal processing. "It takes a lot of time in the analogue world," says Eric, "and that affects the creative process. On DR1 we were proud when we had used three or four signal‑processing passes on one sample. With DR2 it wasn't unusual to process sounds 50 or even 100 times."
Diving into the deep end, Eric took full advantage of the capabilities offered by such programs as GRM Tools, Hyperprism and Metasynth. "There are no analogue equivalents to things like Metasynth," says Eric, "where I can turn pictures into sounds and literally paint tonal colors. It's awesome, sort of like the Photoshop of sound design. I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of what is possible. I'm also heavily into Unity, which is not only an excellent sampler, but an extremely cool sound‑design tool. Along with working on Distorted Reality 2, I created most of Bizarre Guitar using Unity and Peak on a PowerBook, working outdoors with a battery powered MIDI keyboard. It's a very cool way to work, and gives you a different perspective than always being in the same spot in your non‑virtual studio.
"There are still great aspects about the analogue, old‑world techniques," Eric adds. "One is the sound. As good as the computer stuff is (and I think it's very good) there tends to be a kind of sameness or one‑dimensionality to what comes out. The analogue stuff is still more three‑dimensional sounding. When I had completed the majority of my computer work for DR2 I noticed that even though I had used a myriad of techniques and programs, there was still something lacking in the collection. When I started to run my computer‑generated stuff through analogue filters and pedals, the sounds really came alive. So what you're hearing on DR2 is often a hybrid of both approaches.
"The other thing is performance sound design. Many of the sounds on both DR1 and DR2 come from very long recordings of my 'sound design jams'. Basically, my setting up a bunch of synths, samplers and effects feeding back on one another for hours on end. That kind of real‑time interactive stuff is very hard to do with computers."