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Interview with sound designer Simon Stockhausen

The multi-faceted and wide-ranging oeuvre of Simon Stockhausen has embraced all manner of projects and styles, including jazz and improvisational collaborations, countless compositions for ensembles and chamber groups as well as work for major European theatre companies and orchestras. In 2009 he further extended the range of his musical endeavors with the creation of a sound design company through which he produces sounds, patches and libraries for software synths and plug-ins, serving sound designers, musicians and post production professionals.

You are a trained musician, successful composer and well-known artist. How did you find your way to sound design?

There wasn't a key experience or specific reason. I began to twiddle with my first Minimoog at the age of nine, then other synths followed, the first 4-track machine and so on. I was always on the lookout for new sounds, ones I hadn't heard before. When the first portable DAT recorders appeared, I began collecting and processing field recordings which I then integrated into my, to that time rather unique-sounding, strident music. This was intriguing to me.

Actually, I've always considered music composition and sound design as a single entity. I still feel the same to this very day. Much of my film scoring as well as the more recent orchestral and chamber musical compositions combine music with sound and noise.

I received my first commercial sound design commission with 18 from a company in Cologne and for Roland's legendary D-50. They paid me with a D-50 plus controller. But only about five years ago did I decide to focus professionally on sound design. Initially, I produced for various companies and online libraries until I launched my Patchpool page, which was the best decision I've ever made.

What is your approach to designing sounds? Do you have a preset or sound clearly laid out before your inner eye before you begin?

Yes, of course, this already starts with the sampling. For example, for Granular Symphonies I wrote down notes for the majority of musicians and vocalists, composed phrases and textures, everything that couldn't work on the spur of the moment.

I've always considered music composition and sound design as a single entity

Anyhow, I begin to create sound pairs when I have all the samples together, just like with Padshop Pro presets that have two layers. In most cases I already know how I'll be using the granular engine, filter types and modulations before I program the sound. Of course it happens that I'll make unplanned changes, but that's because programming is a part of the compositional process, allowing for intuitive deviations.

All the banks I make require prep work, too. Granular Symphonies was no exception: programming 250 presets would have been impossible without having a master plan to refer to.

You've been dealing with granular synthesis and the sonic possibilities it offers sound designers for some time now? What fascinates you most about granular synthesis?

Delving into granular synthesis began around 2005 when I had completed the transition from hardware to software-based productions and began working with NI's Reaktor. Software applications were getting better, computers faster and at live shows I was able to feed instruments through granulators and distribute quadrophonically over the entire concert hall. This is what I also used for my previous two orchestral pieces for which I process orchestral sounds live by mainly using granular synthesis.

Programming is a part of the compositional process

Being one of the first to sample (my first Casio sampler from 1987 had 1.5 sec memory and 8-bit resolution) the decoupling of pitch and time was a great breakthrough. The old AKAI S1000 already had time-stretching before then, but it just sounded so brilliantly unnatural. I'm fascinated by the generation of abstract sound clouds, forming individual sound particles using pitch, duration, form and temporal fluctuation. Once you're in the sonic microcosm there's no holding back on creating totally new, wild yet very musical textures.

Next to the additive and spectral resynthesis, granular synthesis is today the most fascinating form of synthesis for me. I'm happy that with HALion 5 you guys added the capability to granulate multi-sampled instruments. My compliments to the team of developers!

What is your concept behind Granular Symphonies?

Creating fascinating, organic worlds of granulated sounds with a focus on orchestral-symphonic soundscapes (cello, violin, brass) that can be used by wide spectrum of musicians and sound tinkerers.

The emphasis lies on the organic sound. That's why you won't find any purely electronically generated sounds in this bank. Almost all samples (the derivatives too) were without exception created with musical instruments, voices or natural noises. Only few machine sounds were used to contrast this acoustic-organic cosmos.

Each sample in Granular Symphonies was recorded exclusively for this set. What's so special about your samples and samples in general used for granular synthesis?

Granular synthesis also granulates the ambient noises and unwanted frequencies that come with sampling acoustic instruments and the like. This can be interesting but also very annoying when sounds are rendered useless. One of the reasons to be absolutely sure that the sounds are clean and filtered. Breathing, string scratches, chair noises, valve sounds, etc. were eliminated after the recording to have a pristine basis for granular synthesis. Occasionally I suppressed certain frequency spectrums more than I would have for a standard audio mix only to form the granular sound clouds exactly the way I'd imagined it. This is also true for field recordings. Beautiful bird song recorded in the woods I consider only useful for granulation when removing wind and ambience substantially beforehand. Otherwise everything sounds so out of phase, metallic and over-electronic that the entire bird is ruined.

Once you're in the sonic microcosm there's no holding back

You made the demos for Granular Symphonies. Can you tell us something about the creation and the formation (number of instances etc.)?

Composing the demos is my reward when working on sound libraries. I can try out the sounds in a musical context and see what's possible. Creating demos usually begins with an improvised track which I then refine, edit and enhance by using other components. Sometimes I'll keep the improvisation as is though. It's important for me to only use the sounds from the bank, using volume automation but no processing, i.e., no EQs, compressors external effects, etc. I'll place a limiter on the master outputs and that's it.

For the main demo of Granular Symphonies I was planning on using as many sounds as possible, in their compressed form in order to present them in there symphonic-granular splendor. 27 Padshop Pros are working the magic and the piece is composed rather than improvised. Not all 27 Padshops are playing simultaneously otherwise this'd have been granular overkill.

There are also quieter, more dream-like demos in which I try to provide as little additional information as possible in order to be able to perceive each sound in its beauty.