Feature Interview: Jordan Rudess Talks SampleWiz, Dream Theater and Apple Logic

There's a handful of musicians that really push the boundaries. For anyone that knows of Jordan Rudess, it'll come as no surprise that he is one of them! Jordan talks SampleWiz, Dream Theater and more  

Jordan Rudess and Dream Theater need little introduction! I caught up with Jordan over Skype in the midst of the final stages of SampleWiz's development, finishing the latest Dream Theater album and literally hours before he was about to jet off on a solo tour. A typical day in the life of...

There's perhaps a handful of musicians that really push the boundaries. For anyone that knows of Jordan Rudess, it'll come as no surprise that he is one of them! But it's not only through his recordings and live performance that he dazzles with his musical wizardry. Jordan is also the creator of some very special iOS apps for musicians that stand out from the crowd. MorphWiz was a runaway,  critically acclaimed success. But he didn't rest on his laurels, and if you know anything about Jordan, you already knew he wouldn't! Instead he's been busy developing another revolutionary app for iPhone and iPad called SampleWiz.

In this exclusive interview for The MPV Hub, Jordan talks openly about his musical influences, Dream Theater, playing live with our very own Steve H, SampleWiz for iPhone & iPad and his love for Logic Pro and all things macProVideo.com. 

RS: Welcome Jordan Rudess! Thanks for making time to do this interview for the macProVideo.com Hub.

JR:  Awesome! It’s nice to be here with you.

RS: Who were your musical influences in your childhood?

JR: Well, I started out as a classical pianist. I started playing at the age of seven and when I was nine I found myself auditioning for the Juilliard School of Music, Preparatory division. Basically this began a very serious childhood practicing many hours in the day and really focused on classical piano and, I guess, one of the most serious conditions that would be possible at the Juilliard in New York. That really lasted until I was like 17 or 18 and then I started to get interested in other kinds of music. People in high school started turning me on to Progressive Rock like Genesis, Gentle Giant or ELP. 

One of the turning points for me was when my friend showed up at my house with a Moog Sonic 5 synthesizer. They thought I should see it because they knew me only as a classical pianist but they wanted to see how I’d play this instrument. So that really changed the way I thought about things because the whole idea of having one hand on the keyboard and the other turning knobs was fascinating to me and I thought it was awesome. 

I started to get very deep into this new kind of music I was checking out and I remember this other big turning point was when I heard the Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus album. It showed me that keyboards could indeed play the super powerful role in music instead of just the piano kind of sounds or the Jazz idiom where things are maybe a little lighter. This showed me that this can seriously be ballsy and strong and rocking and so that’s when I started to get out of the classical side a little. It got to the point where I showed up at a lesson at the college of Juilliard where I was playing a Chopin piece and after about 5 measures, my teacher took away my music, but I’d only been playing the piece from a 30-page book for one week. I said “Wait, I need the music!”. She said, “No. No, no. You need to memorize this music in a week!”  So, I started out as a classical musician, moved into progressive rock and these days I’m very much an electronic music man as well. 

RS: So, what artists are you listening to at the moment?

JR: Well, at the moment in terms of electronic music I’m a big Autechre fan, I love artists like Murcof. The whole thing started out for me with Aphex Twin—a lot of guys like that. I’m also a big fan of Richard Devine who is more of an underground artist and sound designer.

RS: What musical projects are you involved with now? I hear you’ve been working on something special with Dream Theater?

JR: Yes. Dream Theater takes up a bunch of time but I also do a lot of other things, like I’m leaving in a couple of days to do a solo tour—just piano and keyboards—which is really fun for me and kind of goes back to my roots. So, I try to keep my solo career alive and make my own albums. So between Dream Theater and my solo stuff I keep busy and I also try to do other things, sometimes working with other people. I’ve always been interested with what one can learn from working with other musicians...

RS: Rumor has it that you also play live with our very own Steve H.

JR: Yeah! That’s one of the collaborations that I really enjoy and we are able to get deep into the electronic music world. So I do that with Steve H occasionally and also with Richard Lainhart, whom you know... I think?

SteveH and Jordan Rudess exploring musical boundaries live

Steve H and Jordan Rudess exploring musical boundaries live

RS: Oh Yeah! [Ed: Richard is a great guy and one of our most valued trainers and Hub authors!]

JR: Yeah, Richard is probably the most active person on the Electronic music circuit that I know. He finds electronic music festivals that one didn’t even know existed! (Laughs) So I try to keep that going as well, because I have so many musical interests that it’s important to me to put my energy into working with other musicians.

The other thing is my projects for my iOS Apps. Working on SampleWiz has opened by yet another sonic door because even though it’s an iPhone and iPad app and might be thought of as a smaller type of thing, there’s things within SampleWiz that we’re doing that really shake it up a bit. You really can’t do on grander more professional desktop applications and hardware devices! 

RS: I’m glad you mentioned your iOS apps! I’ve been loving playing with the beta of SampleWiz and I’m very curious to know what inspired you to create it and who is the target audience for SampleWiz?

JR: When we created MorphWiz it got things going for me in many ways. It gave me a chance to really sink my teeth into designing an iOS app and understand what I really wanted to accomplish in doing it. My goal here is to create something that changes things up a little bit and allows people to think of these devices as opening up creative possibilities and maybe new expressive possibilities in ways we couldn’t really think about before in previous instruments. So, I’m always thinking about what can I do on this device that just couldn’t be done before because of what it is —in terms of it [an iPad or iPhone] as an instrument. 

There are some basic concepts I try to keep in mind. One is that I try to make something that coordinates both the audio and visual world. You’ll notice with SampleWiz and MorphWiz there’s always this coordination between those two worlds. That’s really important to me. An example would be on SampleWiz you play a note and there’s a glow under your finger. But if you have a certain amount of release time on the envelope you’ll notice that the glow also follows the release time exactly. Or, for example, in SampleWiz’s envelope window... there’re three ways to play a sound in SampleWiz: the main keyboard, the waveform or in the Envelope’s ADSR. In the ADSR window when you press down on a note there’s a little glow that follows the line of the envelope showing you visually exactly what is happening at every moment in that envelope for every note that you play! So that’s my way of using visual responsiveness to kinda bring things together.

The ADSR Envelope in SampleWiz

The ADSR Envelope in SampleWiz

In MorphWiz we selected different graphic images to represent the waveforms that MorphWiz creates. It’ll actually morph between the audio and visual waveforms at the same time. For example, if you’re going from a sine wave to a square wave and you start your finger at the bottom of a vertical grid on a note as you push your finger up it will literally morph the sound and the visual element at the same time. Anywhere you touch on the screen it’ll do that for each note independently.

So it's that kind of coordination that is really important to me when I think about creating applications for these devices. 

The other thing that’s really important to me is that I want it to be fun. Really fun! I was talking to my Development partner, Kevin Chartier, about the fun element the other day. And we were coming to an understanding that we’re thinking about it being fun and that’s great, but it’s probably not really kids who are buying the apps so much. Even though we hear about babies and young people enjoying them, it’s generally for a wider market. MorphWiz sold for $10 and it looks like SampleWiz will be the same. But that’s not necessarily an impulse buy for a kid who’s holding an iPod Touch. 

But even so, I like the idea of being able to turn it on and be able to scroll through some presets and smile because there are some cool things that are going to happen, it’s just going to be fun. So, the goal was to make a friendly application that musical, that’s fun, that’s trippy and that just basically makes you smile.

SampleWiz: Fun and trippy and

SampleWiz: Fun and trippy and "basically makes you smile"

RS: Well, it does all those things for me! And I’m already trying to envisage ways I would use SampleWiz for live performance. Have you used SampleWiz live and if so how do you use it in your setup?

JR: Well, I haven’t used SampleWiz live yet just because we’re still in beta and we’re still working on it and also because I haven’t been on tour. But now I’m going to be hitting the road and I’ve got all kinds of cool plans for SampleWiz. I run a lot of different samples from my keyboard rig. I see it as a perfect way to trigger some of these cool sounds I need to get out there. I have, as part of my rig, a really cool keyboard stand being designed that can do 360-degree rotation and can be tilted to different angles... it can be tilted to face the audience which is awesome. But as part of that stand I’m having a nice arm built for the iPad so I’ll be able to have it on hand at any point.

In fact, I used MorphWiz when I was last on the road and did some interesting things with that. 

RS: So, when you play live soon, will you have to make a conscious decision beforehand about whether you use MorphWiz or SampleWiz. Or perhaps you’ll just need two iPads?

JR: That’s a good question. I’m in the process of designing a new instrument that’s like a keytar version, which I can strap on and have a bunch of these devices so I can walk around and jam. So that’s the next phase of it as well!

RS: There’s obviously a lot of thought that goes into creating your iOS apps and I love the way you’re pushing the boundaries for musical creation. How long has it taken you to develop SampleWiz?

JR: It’s such an interesting process. SampleWiz has been in the works for about 6 months at this point. It’s moving a little bit faster than MorphWiz did because my partner who does the programming, Kevin Chartier, has been working full-time on this stuff now so he’s able to get a lot done. You know this is such a funny world, the whole iOS app development world. Kevin could literally crank out an app to put on the store in 2 days. I mean he could write something that wouldn’t be a MorphWiz or SampleWiz but it could be fun. And there’s certainly apps like that on the store that you go and download 'cause they’re fun and you never really play with them again because they’re just so simple. 

But apps like SampleWiz or MorphWiz, these are things that we invest a lot of time in. You’re talking 6 or whatever months and we’re on the phone every day for hours just brainstorming and allowing ourselves to become inspired about what we really want this to do. And as a company that’s only two guys, one that’s a musician and one that’s a programmer it’s hard to put the cap on things. It’ll be like, “Oh my God, I just had another idea...” 

Another screen to manipulate and playback audio samples  in SampleWiz

Another screen to manipulate and playback audio samples in SampleWiz

I’ve always been someone with a lot of inspiration and ideas about the way these instruments or controllers should work. I’ve been so excited about it all that it gives me the energy to move forward to take the time I need to make an application that I think has a real inspiration behind it, not just something which is trying to be like a sampler that we’ve seen before. To me these devices are like “wow, this has shaken things up! I can do stuff here that I’ve never done before, so how about if we try this!” Finally my partner Kevin is the kind of guy who is not only a numerical magician, but he’s also the kind of guy that goes, “Wow, I like that! Maybe let’s add this to it. It’s not that hard, just give me a few hours and I’ll send you a build and we can try it!".  So it’s very exciting.

RS: So are MorphWiz and SampleWiz exclusively available for iOS devices? Or do you see your apps going on Android devices or even the Mac App Store?

JR: Yes, we definitely are interested to expand our world. We’re looking into Android and because all the programming in SampleWiz has been done in OpenGL, I think that makes it even more possible to bring things into other platforms. So, I’d love to see a SampleWiz on the Mac App Store. We’re two guys but we’re working hard to do things like that, for sure.

RS: Once SampleWiz hits the iOS world do you have any other apps planned?

JR: Well, we have a list which is like miles long. But what I’d like to do first, after SampleWiz is released, is go back and release a whole list of features (for SampleWiz) to be released as updates and organize a series of in-app purchases of some cool sounds I’ve made, and some from developer friends. Also, I’d like to go back to MorphWiz and re-think that and just try to give some love to those programs because these apps deserve it and the people who invested in them deserve more attention.

So, there’s that but we’ll also continue designing and making new things as well. At this point what’s been great is that between MorphWiz and SampleWiz we’ve gotten a grip on a lot of the technology that can be used in the future because they’re two different engines. SampleWiz is obviously a sampling engine and MorphWiz is more a synthesizer playing waveforms and morphing. There’s a lot of stuff in those two apps that can be used for the future of this company. 

RS: So we can expect SampleWiz to hit the App Store in June?

JR: Yes, definitely. You can’t predict how long Apple will take to release something, but we’re looking to submit this to the store in a couple of weeks (Mid-June at time of writing). So we should see it really soon!

[Ed: It has just been released. Buy SampleWiz here!]

RS: So back to Desktop Music. Which of your DAWs, 3rd-party synths or hardware studio equipment do you find essential parts of your musicmaking workflow?

JR: There’re a couple of things I find essential. One is a program I use to do all my piano stuff. It’s called Ivory by Synthogy. It’s a wonderful plug-in. It’s my favorite piano in the digital world. I use it for all my work and as a matter of fact I use it in my tours and solo shows, too. 

In the studio I find myself really gravitating towards Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere instrument plug- in. That’s my go-to plug-in. Out of all the things I have that’s the one I always find myself using and thinking, well, let’s see what’s there! 

There are some other things I go to a lot... For this last Dream Theater album I started to use a lot of the Vienna Symphony Orchestral Library. It’s very nice and helped a lot. And I’m also a really big fan of Native Instruments; they make such great, great stuff.

RS: So what is your DAW of choice?

JR: I’m a Logic guy. Years ago I was invested in Digital Performer, but as I started to get more interested in electronic music I had the feeling there were different ways...or just to get other things going I tried Logic and thought it was really cool. So, I’ve been having some fun with that and I’ve been using Logic for the past few years.

RS: Yeah! I’m a Logic guy, too. It’s my weapon of choice.

JR: Is it? Yeah, it’s a different kind of a head space and sometimes I find that some things that were easy for me in other worlds are a little harder almost in Logic. But there’s always maybe 5 ways to do it! (Laughs)... I mean there are some definite challenges I find with Logic  but yet I really love it. I think it’s so awesome and think there are some aspects that are so cool. 

RS: Me, too. One area of Logic I love is the Environment. I'm always delving in there.

JR: Oh yeah! Steve H’s domain, right? One of these days when I take a year off from work I’m gonna go over and try and understand how he’s doing some of that stuff. Incredible stuff!

RS: Have you checked out his Logic TNTs? A lot of Steve’s Logic secrets are unveiled there!

JR: Oh, God. Don’t tell me about it. I find it all so fascinating but don’t have the time to get into it right now...

So many Logic tricks can be discovered in SteveH's Logic 304: TNT3 Reloaded tutorial

So many Logic tricks can be discovered in Steve H's Logic 304: TNT3 Reloaded tutorial

RS: Well, talking about macProVideo.com, I know that your tutorial for us, called Keyboard Wizdom, was very popular. Any chances of a follow-up tutorial by Jordan Rudess for macProVideo.com?

JR: Thank you. Yeah, definitely. You know we’re talking about all kinds of possibilities. One possibility is to do an in-depth course on SampleWiz which could be really fun! So, Steve H and I have been bouncing around some ideas. 

You know, I love you guys. I think what you’re doing with online education is just outstanding. I’m not just saying that! That [macProVideo.com] is the reason I even met Steve H and became associated with all of you is because I was also a customer. And I got a really good feeling and really good information from what macProVideo.com is doing. So, I’d like to continue my relationship with macProVideo and I’m happy to be involved and to be doing this interview with you right now. I think it’s great and I love watching macProVideo expand and being recognized by a lot of people around the world. I think your team is awesome and you really deserve it.

Jordan Rudess' Keyboard Wizdom Video tutorial

Jordan Rudess' Keyboard Wizdom Video tutorial

RS: Thank you! Our team will be thrilled to hear that. So, we’ve got a wide audience that come to us to learn music production via our video tutorials and via written step-by-step articles on The Hub. Many of these people are looking to break into the music industry. What advice would you give to anyone trying to make music into a career?

JR: That is such a big question these days. It depends what you’re doing and I think the music business is in such a strange state right now. You know CD sales are just really tanking and it can be hard to go out and play live. It’s not easy to be a musician these days... But I don’t want to discourage anybody because I think making music is one of the joys of life. I just want to point out we’re in a tough place. I think over the next 2-3 years things will straighten out as the record companies start to figure out what the next generation of putting out music is all about. 

So, that being said, there are some things I think people can do to make their lives easier and to kinda get down the road in a smooth fashion. People are very responsive to being able to see and hear musicians. A lot of people are still thinking old-school, "Oh. I’ll just put up here or there and someone will hear it and they’ll really like it.". But these days we need more. Let’s talk about this from the position of a band that is trying to make it. People want to see the band... not just on some crappy camera from the corner of a room where the sound is all distorted. I really believe that one of the things that people should be thinking about is capturing their music in a way that captures both the audio and video very well.

I’m not talking about a professional level shoot or recording session. I’m talking about musicians who want to be seen and heard investing in something like a Zoom Camera - Q3HD or similar where you can capture good sound and video. Once you’ve got that kind of a mindset where you allow your audience to see and hear you well, then it’s time to really learn how to work the internet. It’s such a wild jungle out there, but it is possible to be smart at it. I think for a young musician it’s really important to not only be able to represent your product clearly and well but also to learn good ways to share it get it out there and become noticed.

RS: Final question for you: What do you do when you’re not making music, recording albums, touring, dreaming up and designing music applications?

JR: I crawl into bed and hope that I get enough sleep so when I wake up the next morning I can do it again!! (Laughs). Because my life right now is absolutely nuts between doing Dream Theater, getting ready for a solo tour, trying to release SampleWiz... you know it’s like, nuts. And then I also have a wonderful family: two daughters, one of whom is going off to college next year and you know...it’s a busy life! 

RS: Yes! It sounds like it. Well, thank you so much for making the time to do this interview. We really appreciate it! 

JR: Thanks man! I appreciate your time as well. 

[Ed: - Check out SampleWiz by Jordan Rudess here on the iTunes App Store.]

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & the macProVideo Hub. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic (and a self-confessed Mac fanatic) he's taught teachers, professional musicians and hobbyists how to get the best out of Apple's creative software. He has been a visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University's Teacher training pro... Read More


Want to join the discussion?

Create an account or login to get started!