Interview: Rob Papen, Synthesis Pioneer Talks Tech

From a young age, Rob Papen set himself up as a musical pioneer. First with his involvement with band Peru and then as a sound designer for hardware synths and his own popular plug-ins.  

So when did you decide to start creating your own synths and plug-ins?

I was working in a music shop after we'd had hits with Peru and Nova, and I was excited by the PPG synth and then I heard the 19” version of the Waldorf Microwave, but was a little disappointed by the included presets. So, I contacted them and suggested making a signature sound set by Peru. So, that was my first sound set that we released. Then I noticed how house and techno were on the rise and I made a very harsh and nasty sound bank for the Microwave called the Techno card which was a big success! 

After that, I made sounds for Ensoniq and then I started doing sound sets for E-mu which also went well. In Europe I was becoming better known sooner than in America. I made some of the first Access Virus presets. Every preset which has 'RP' inside of the name is one of mine. That's already a long time ago - 15 years ago. So many people know me from these.

I had a lot of ideas, which were very creative and musical, but I simply had to work with the tools the manufacturers gave us. 

What made you think about making software synths?

I didn't only want to create my own presets, I had ideas on how features should be presented too. One example is chord mode in the arpeggiator. When I was creating presets for the Access Virus, I asked them to please implement chord mode, and they were saying 'What's that?' They didn't add it at that time. So, I hacked chord mode by using the LFO to trigger the amplifie, and I had a few presets in the early days which were the kind of things I wanted to do using a chord mode. So instead of the classic arpeggiator it triggers the chord. It was frustrating that I had a lot of ideas, which were very creative and musical, but I simply had to work with the tools the manufacturers gave us. 

Rob Papen holds his Jupiter 8 protectively!

Rob Papen holds his Jupiter 8 protectively!

So I knew I could add all the ideas I had with my own software instruments. For example, there were early analog synths where you could save the chord in memory, but only until the synth was powered off. So, I wanted to have the chord memorized in the preset, so you could use it as a sound tool, and you have that in Blade and Predator. It simply has a different feel than playing the chord manually and it's stored in the preset itself. Another thing you can find in Predator is the sequencer/arpeggiator has a tune row which means you can place a single note on individual steps and thus have a monophonic sequencer. Also in Predator. each step has its own velocity value setting, or you can mix in the input of your keyboard. All these are little things I've found very important. 

What is your goal when developing software? Do you have a concrete idea what you want a synth or effect to achieve sonically?

Well, it's pretty much a very spontaneous and creative process. I have a lot of feedback from professional users and our entire user base. But when I have an idea I start developing it on my own. The basic idea pops up and then I discuss this with Jon Ayres, who is the main programmer and see what is possible. 

It's how Predator was born. During my teaching synthesis course, I found out that people like synths that are not too complex. If it's too complicated, users drift away. So, the idea for Predator was to have a main screen that shows every essential synth part available and then only a few additional pages to make it easy to use. Still, if you look at Predator, and are not used to synths, then it's still a lot of dials. But, if you're a bit into synthesis it's possible to pick it up intuitively. 

My challenge is to still have cool features which set it apart from the rest. For example, we have two filters onboard and the second filter you can use in split mode. This is really wicked. Basically, filter 1 and 2 are essentially the same, apart from the cuttoff frequency. So, if in filter 1 there is envelope modulation it's also on filter 2 with the same filter time. Only the cuttof frequency is different and you have left/right panning which if used can create some amazing stereo sounds. It opens up a whole new soundscape. That's what I like about Predator: it's easy to use on the surface, but the little details make it wicked. I like to do these kinds of things that are out of the box but still musical.

I found out that people like synths that are not too complex. If it's too complicated, users drift away. So, the idea for Predator was to have a main screen that shows every essential synth part available and then only a few additional pages to make it easy to use.  

Want an excellent sounding synth? Look for this logo on the box!

Want an excellent sounding synth? Look for this logo on the box!

Who designs the interfaces for your plug-ins?

How things should be laid out is essentially my idea first. But, we use a graphic designer who makes the dials, font type and graphics. With interfaces we're still evolving... Now we're working on Blue 2 which in terms of how you select presets is a bit more like Punch. So our design process is always growing. 

Our most controversial graphic design for a plug-in is Blade. We have people who love it and people who hate it. But on the other hand it's a very edgy synth and has a new approach for new things. It can sound fantastic or awful, so perhaps it should look controversial. Still is should be a very good and controllable synth. Everything is there on the screen. You can even have a version of 150% in size (same as Predator) to help people with bigger screens.

What challenges do you face developing for multiple plug-in formats?

There are so many formats it's very time consuming. On Mac we have VST, AU, RTAS and AAX. So these are four formats we need to support.

And what about Reason's Rack Extension format? I noticed you've begun developing or this new format too.

Yes, that's going very well. Our plug-ins have been very popular on the RE store. I think Propellerhead did a good job keeping their own format because Reason as a host has its own rules and working system. It's important when making music you have a system which is reliable and stable, so that's something that helps make Reason so popular: it's very straightforward and self-contained. 

It was quite a challenge making Predator into a Rack Extension, because it has over 160 dials and it almost didn't fit! At that time the RE format didn't have the ability to switch between panels. Whereas with Predator it has the ability to switch between the arpeggiator and the free modulation screens to save space. That was impossible in the RE format... But in the end everything fits into the rack and when I look at it now I see some advantages over the VST version. In the RE version you can see all the three effects at once. The dials aren't as glossy as the VST simply because there's no space for it. But, it's a workhorse and a very accessible synth with tons of presets. 

Rob Papen playing the keys.

Rob Papen playing the keys.

Out of these five plug-in formats is there one which is easier to develop for?

I should ask our programmer! I think essentially it'd be easier if everything was VST, the initial plug-in format. For us it would save much time with one format. We want to support everyone from Pro Tools to every VST host. It'd be great if there was one format only!

Where do you see the future of plug-in formats going? Do you think it'll evolve into many more formats or narrowed down into fewer, maybe one or two only?

That's a good question. It's very hard to predict. I don't think there'll ever be one format as everybody wants to have a format that is specific to their host, that does special things, like in Reason if you put the mouse over a control it tells you what the control's value is. That's different for Logic or Pro Tools. 

What do you think about the rise of the iPad as a music-making tool?

It's a different market. It's a nice notebook or textbook for working on ideas. But audio-wise, I'm not very impressed with what comes out of it compared to a laptop with a good audio interface and good software. Blade and Predator would be impossible to run on an iPad simply because the CPU is not powerful enough. For punchy, powerful sounds and good audio quality you need a powerful CPU. 

Blade and Predator would be impossible to run on an iPad simply because the CPU is not powerful enough.

As processors in iPads and other tablets become powerful can we expect to see Rob Papen plug-ins coming to this platform?

Well, we've already looked into it but the feeling I had is that it is cool, but right now we need CPU power for our products and the definition of the quality of the audio. I think it'll take some time to get there.

Maybe on stage it'd be cool to have an iPad and play Predator. I mean you can already do that now... You know from one point of view I'm a bit of a purist i.e. I don't want to compromise on sound. 

I have an original Korg MS-20 here, so I know exactly how it sounds. Compared to a MiniMoog the MS-20 was a budget synth and was weaker in its sound... it was never a high quality synthesizer. It still has its own sound and we had a number 1 hit using it. So, even if a synth is not of very high-quality it depends on the musician and the music! So, we're keeping an eye on the whole iPad thing and how that's developing. But, right now I think you need a good computer, audio interface, host and plug-ins. That's it. Another thing is I would love to have a 15 or 17” iPad. I find the size a bit too small right now.

The Korg-MS20 despite being carried by Rob is not as portable as his eXplorer II collection!!

The Korg-MS20 despite being carried by Rob is not as portable as his eXplorer II collection!!

I know you've a lot of amazing analog gear in your studio. Tell us about some of your classics.

I started out with the Korg MS-20 and the SQ-10 which was the very first synth I purchased. They were the first affordable synths. Without these I'd never have gone this route and I wouldn't be talking to you now! Imagine in 1978 the MiniMoog cost about €4,000. So a 15 year old would never have been able to afford that. Now you have a $1 synth on an iPhone!

I remember one day we were in the studio and the Linn Drum computer arrived. We had KR-55 and the 808 electronic drum machines. But the Linn Drum totally shocked us when we pressed a button and a snare came out of the speakers. It was amazing! 

Do you use plug-ins or hardware, or a combination, when working on your own productions?

When I make music I simply do my own thing... My last CD was released in 2004 so it's about time I make some music again. I just do the things it's fun to do. When I look back at my earlier career, we simply just did our music, didn't care about anybody else and just had fun. Now, musicians have to go to an A&R manager and he has his opinion... At that time we just made the music and afterwards the record company picked it up. Now, if somebody likes it then great, if not then it's ok.

In terms of plug-ins and synths, we have trillions of presets, so I like to start from scratch. I take Predator for instance or Jupiter-8, arpeggiate a line, improvise and make a raw song base. It's a bit like composing with guitar where you make a raw song base that way and not with a complete studio setup. It's similar for me: I compose with minimal things and then work it out in the studio with complete production tools. 

Sound-wise I can make everything using my plug-ins, except for some sounds from my older Microwave, which are so typical I often use the original and record it as audio. But I use the Jupiter 8 regularly as I'm totally married to it and I love its sequenced sounds. But most of the hardware I don't use as I'm pretty lazy and if you can do it with software then it's faster and easier. So, yes I have a lot of analog gear, but I don't always use it. It depends on how I feel that day: I go with the flow.

What about hardware controllers? Do you use any?

Yes, it's important. I use my old Virus B as a controller for changing the sounds in Predator, Blue or Blade. I always like to tweak the dials that way. Combining the mouse and MIDI controllers is fantastic. 

I recently purchased the Nektar Panorama as I use Cubase and it integrates nicely. It has a very nice keyboard and good pads. I also have the E-mu E4K keyboard which is a very nice keyboard to play. For changing the presets and sounds I use the Virus B - so I don't use its onboard sounds anymore, but purely for being able to control the cutoff frequency and the envelopes connected to the software synthesizers. It's a brilliant combination. 

You mentioned Cubase. Is there a reason why you use Cubase?

Well, my first program was the Pro 24 on Atari. Then I used Notator from C-Lab and then I had Logic, but when they dropped the PC version I switched to Cubase SX and I was very satisfied with that, and now I use Cubase 7. I think all DAWs are very competitive in the way they work, but as I'm working on new products daily and wanting to make music, I'm happy with Cubase. 

One of the big new projects is called Prisma. I can't reveal anything about it yet, but it'll generate some very nice sounds. 

You mentioned earlier you're working on Blue 2. Are there any other products you're working on you can tell us about?

One of the big new projects is called Prisma. I can't reveal anything about it yet, but it'll generate some very nice sounds. It focuses on... Certain parts... I don't know what will be out earlier, Blue 2 or Prisma. And Blue 2 has a few cool, new features which you can also find in Blade. For example, the XY pad which is also useful in FM synthesis... The preset section will be with banks of 128 presets. We have a bank manager, new filter types and other cool stuff. 

As well as supporting all the formats from VST, AU, RTAS and RE, we'll also have support for AAX 64-bit for when Pro Tools 11 comes out. 

Not only do you have a large user base, but also some very high-profile users too, from producers like Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten and George Michael.

Essentially when I started out I was a producer's producer because the top producers know me from the Access Virus or E-mu work I did, so I think in the pro-users I have a lot of happy users. In the last two years we've begun mentioning that on my website. I also try and communicate with them to get feedback, like with DJ Headhunterz.

I think my presets are very focused on music making, so even if the preset is not 100% right for them, it only needs to be adjusted a little bit to get it fitting in their music. A good preset doesn't have to be spectacular from the start. Sometimes, for example in SubBoomBass, a preset might be ok - but not exciting - until you put it in your music and that's when it sounds good. The basis for my success is that I have created a lot of useable and musical presets.

Discover more about Rob Papen's Plugins here:

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


Great interview! I met Rob at this year's Winter NAMM and was amazed at how he happily demonstrated a few of his products for me and members of my band. We weren't dealers or distributors or buyers, but he took his time and seemed to truly enjoy showing off his wares for probably the millionth time at the show. Thank's Rob!!
Slightly OT, but there's a demo song of Rob's (it might be ten years old) called "When The Angels Sing At Christmas" that I still listen too ALL THE TIME (tonight in fact) that is just an amazing piece of music. And some of my favorite Virus C sounds are his also. Looking forward to getting his RE. : >

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