Interview: Brian Cass on Sound Design, Reaktor and Controllerism

Brian Cass is on the cutting edge of music production technology. Founder of Overclock Inc., sound designer for Puremagnetik and MPV Trainer/Expert are just a few of the hats he wears.  
Brian Cass is on the cutting edge of music production technology. Founder of Overclock Inc., sound designer for Puremagnetik and MPV Trainer/Expert are just a few of the hats he wears. We sat down with him between his busy schedule to talk about his musical background, working for Native Instruments and Ableton, his brand new Reaktor tutorial-video for macProVideo as well as his friendship with the late Richard Lainhart.

Rounik Sethi: Hi Brian. Tell us about your music-making background.

Brian Cass: My father played guitar, did some surf rocking in the 1960s. He taught me to play Pipeline and House of The Rising Sun when I was 7 or 8. But I also spent a lot of time playing with a synthesizer on a Commodore 64 music program. I didn't know what a filter or envelope was, but I was learning from experimentation and all the while loving all the bizarre music in the other C64 games. Somewhere in between the two, I became really interested in making music both with guitars and computers, especially in combination with each other.

RS: You've been involved in some important projects (API & Native Instruments) can you tell us more about these and what was involved?

BC: I ended up working for API when they were just about to step into the digital world. They needed someone that specialized in studio computers and DAWs, but also knew their way around an API console and had real studio experience. There I was involved with the SmartAV console that came to them by way of an Australian manufacturer and also the A2D pre-amp that they were working on. I didn't do any technical work under the hood of the A2D, but I was able to provide a lot of guidance from a user perspective.

After API, I worked for NI just as they were getting into hardware products. They already had the original Guitar Rig, but they were finishing up the Rig Kontrol and the first Kore controller. I was a good match due to my obsession with guitars and computers. Not to mention I had already been really into Reaktor by that time. I ended up as the NYC regional product specialist for several years.

RS: So, talking about API and analog goodness: I believe you worked with the late and great Richard Lainhart in some capacity. Can you tell us about that?

BC: Yes, Richard was a great synthesist, musician and human being. I met him when I was working with his neighbor Jordan Rudess. We would go out for sushi with Richard whenever I was out there. After a while, Richard and I got to talking about his Buchla synth and we decided to make a Puremagnetik series based on his synth and his patches. While I was working with him I noticed that his room was also full of marimbas, vibraphones, mallet Kats, etc... So we got to talking about percussion instruments and I learned that he had spent some time as a jazz vibraphonist! From there we went on to do several mallet samples together. 

The week after Richard's unexpected passing, I spent several days editing these long sustained loop samples that we had recorded of Richard playing his Vibraphone with a violin bow. This sort of editing is always meditative and somewhat soothing as you listen through long sustained chromatic scales, paying attention to every detail. But in this case it was especially therapeutic for me. It was almost like I was able to have one last conversation with him, even if I was only listening.

Brian Cass

Brian Cass

RS: You've worked with Puremagnetik since the beginning. How did that come about? 

BC: Micah Frank and I knew each other from the first few Warper Parties in NYC, which we helped to get going with Moldover and DJ Shakey. We then worked together at NI, we travelled together doing product demos at conventions, music stores and studios. At some point we both started contributing sound design. I believe it started with FM8. 

After that we started doing more sound design content for NI and also Ableton. In 2006, he launched Puremagnetik. The idea was to provide small monthly sample packs, on a subscription basis. They were small enough that you could learn it before the next one came out. In the beginning I just helped casually by giving him an idea or two, but before long he was having me record source material. Slowly, I became more and more involved and eventually was building my own packs start to finish. The past two years I've contributed almost half of the new packs for Puremagnetik.

RS: What do you have planned for the future on Puremagnetik? 

BC: Well, we've just finished the B-System series, based on Richard's Buchla. We've got a few more MalletPaks to release that also feature Richard. We also just released GuitarMachine, which is a set of recordings I made using my custom-built live guitar rig.

And I've starting stocking up on some other interesting instruments for this year's Puremagnetik catalog. I don't want to spoil any surprises, but there are some classic analog and digital synthesizers in the mix, as well as some really out-there stuff I had never even heard of before I started researching for new instruments to sample... As of this month we started something new: EXS Universal. The idea is that it allows users to download our samples and import them into whatever sampler they want. Most software will import EXS these days, so hopefully it works out well for anyone that isn't using one of our 3 regular formats: Kontakt, Logic and Ableton.

RS: So, how did you get involved with

BC: Jordan Rudess recommended me to Steve H, as a guy that knew a lot about a lot of things. I think it helps that I've done a lot of teaching, although never in an online format before. To be honest, I had been approached by a few online tutorial websites and never really had much faith in them. But with Jordan's recommendation, and a quick call to Richard to see what he had to say about MPV, I was convinced this was the place to get involved.

Brian Cass in psychedelic mood

Brian Cass in psychedelic mood

RS: Great! And after the success of your Ableton TNT series, your new Reaktor tutorial for MPV is highly anticipated! For those who aren't familiar with it, can you break down what Reaktor is and why Reaktor is useful for digital musicians?

BC: Reaktor is amazing. I've been using it as a studio and performance toolbox for many years now. Sometimes it's something simple, like a phase inverter, a stereo width reducer, a MIDI converter. Sometimes it's a complicated performance ensemble that takes months or years to perfect. 

There are a lot programs out there these days for the braver electronic musicians: Csound, Max/MSP, PureData, etc. For me, Reaktor is the best solution. Mostly because the existing modules sound so good, but the flexibility is still wide open. I love that I can bring up any one of the filters with a quick key command and it sounds good immediately. In some of the other programs, you really have to spend time doing the math to get a good musical filter, but in Reaktor everything is very musical already. I think that NI has done the right thing by providing a TON of factory content with Reaktor. There are many users who will never need to look under the hood, because the factory content is so varied and usable. But for those that do go under the hood, there is virtually no limit to what you can do.

RS: What will your audience expect to have learned after following your Reaktor tutorial?

BC: The new Reaktor tutorial skips over the factory content and gets directly into the structure and signal flow within Reaktor. Whomever watches it will learn to make a basic signal generator and then build it into a musical synthesizer, piece by piece. Along the way, they will also learn a bunch of shortcuts and tricks of the trade. I wasn't able to go all the way down to the Core Cell level in this tutorial nor was I able to cover everything in the module spectrum, but I do hope that this tutorial is well received and we are able to continue with some more advanced Reaktor tutorials. I have plans outlined for at least two more tutorials after this one!

RS: What music software do you use on a regular basis?

BC: My usual workflow goes like this:

1. Track demos in Ableton, do some tempo adjustments, arrangements, experiments.
2. Bring polished demos into Nuendo on the studio PC.
3. Track keeper parts in Nuendo, running Ableton, Komplete, Puremagnetik goodies on a sidecar Macbook for additional programmed parts.
4. Mix in Nuendo, mostly using plug-ins from UAD (the tape emulators really are amazing), Sound Toys, Izotope.
5. Bounce out stems and elements from Nuendo.
6. Load all the bounced bits back into Ableton to perform live with my Ableton/Reaktor template.

Brian in the studio

Brian in the studio

RS: And, I know you're a big fan of hardware for live performance. With 'Controllerism' on the rise, what do you use in your studio and live to control Ableton?

BC: I have been building my own basic MIDI controllers for a while. It's always nice to have just the controls you need; no more, no less. But some of the newer controllers are pretty amazing. I have a Novation Launchpad and an Akai APC40. Both of them blew me away when I first got them hooked up to Ableton. One of my biggest pet peeves is having to look at the computer screen on stage. I'd much rather be focused on something tangible when I'm performing, and both these controllers are perfect for giving you visual feedback. 

In the studio I always have my trusty Axiom 25 hooked up to the Ableton machine. I have some templates setup where the drums are set to trigger from the drum pads and an assortment of keyboard sounds are available on the keys. I use it constantly to flesh out an idea or to communicate musically to a band I'm working with.

RS: What tips would you share for budding up-and-coming sound designers?

BC: A good painter's talent is not just in their steady hand or ability to mix paint, it's in their ability to see the world in a special way and break it down so that they can recreate it on canvas. The metaphor should be obvious but the sound designer, like the musician, needs to be a champion listener.

RS: Thanks Brian! Can't wait to check out your new Reaktor tutorial-video.

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More


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