Deru – Sound and Atmospheres
by Markus Thiel
Benjamin Wynn aka Deru surprises with an extraordinary approach to soundscapes and dense textures that draws the listener instantly into his musical worlds. Apart from his career in electronic music he also earns highly acclaimed credits as a composer and sound designer for various TV-series and movies including Avatar: The Last Airbender or Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness for which he was acknowledged with an Emmy Award nomination. We talked with Ben about tools, techniques, and personal influences.
Who or what tipped the initial scales for you to become a musician?
I played trumpet and piano in grade school, but I didn’t get really passionate about music until I got turntables and started DJing in eighth grade. I became fully absorbed in the techniques and aesthetics of the music and I eventually wanted to try making my own. The moment that really sealed the deal for me though was when I got my first sampler, an Akai MPC2000. The ability to transform sounds, even by simple pitching or filtering, blew my mind. My passion for transforming and playing with sounds has stayed with me ever since.
Before music, I was interested in photography, and being able to make complete songs that I could listen to whenever I wanted to be felt more in line with making a print that I could hang on my wall. Having the ability to transform materials and make collages felt more akin to the art world than playing an instrument in a band or orchestra. I could make all of the decisions and didn’t have to rely on others.
Can you outline your development as a musician and artist from your personal point of view?
My first real passion for music started with Hip-Hop, but I quickly discovered a love of using technology to transform sounds and make music. That passion developed further when I found out that I could study electronic music, and I ended up getting a degree in music from the California Institute of the Arts. That environment opened me up to so many different styles of music and ways of thinking, and being surrounded by that much art and music was an experience that I can’t understate. I got deeply into electronic music, and eventually, and literally, all kinds of music. While I was there, I wrote a collection of pieces that became my first Deru record, and after graduating I wound up scoring for picture and worked on TV and film projects ever since. Working collaboratively on large projects and going inward to focus on my ideas is a balance that I strive to maintain.
What are your inspirational sources for Deru?
That’s a bit of a tough question because as it feels like so many things have inspired me at this point, but I’ll pinpoint a few of them: my love of sound and texture, and the joy I have when being able to control these things. Beauty mixed with a bit of sadness. I learned that the word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek words meaning “home” and “pain” and I find that beautiful. And another way to answer this question might be to list some seminal albums for me: early DJ Krush records. Bjork’s Homogenic (and Mark Bell’s production on it). Acelayone’s Book of Human Language. Steve Reich. David Lang. John Luther Adams. Speedy J’s A Shocking Hobby. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man. Gorecki’s No 3.
Can you describe your unique approach to composing, sculpturing sounds and scapes?
I’m not sure how unique it is, but I think I’m interested in where technology and human emotions meet. So, when I’m designing sounds or writing for instruments, I’m thinking about how they make me feel and where I can take them. Technical ideas are just ways to lead me to interesting sonic places, and the emotions that I’m trying to convey take over at some point after that.
That’s a very interesting point of view, particularly in an era where technology seems to take over every aspect and niche of human life. What about the importance of tools to you? Do you tend to limit the means?
This is a big topic for me. On the one hand I fully subscribe to the idea that deep knowledge in a few tools is better than shallow knowledge in many, but on the other hand different tools make me think and work differently, so the results often end up being different as well, which is often beneficial.
I try to take the fine line between these two extremes. I do spend a lot of time learning and trying out new tools, but I also try to remember that tools are not the end result but a path towards it. So, the reality is that I spend a lot of time learning complex tools like Max/MSP, live coding languages, modular synths, etc., but only because they allow me to realize ideas that would be very hard to do without them. I try to pick the simplest tool that will accomplish the result in the fastest way possible. Sometimes that means that I need to spend half a year learning a coding language, but hopefully the end result is one that I find valuable and could have only been produced that way.
And lastly, I am often in awe of the amount of amazing tools being released these days. The challenge now is not in finding powerful tools but deciding upon which ones to limit oneself to.
Which tools do you use the most during production? What do you rely on?
The single piece of software I use the most is Cubase Pro. I’ve used it or Nuendo for a very long time which means that I’m fast with it. The customizability mixed with the extensive keyboard shortcuts means that almost any function can be called upon quickly. When tools get in the way of doing something efficiently then I get frustrated and Cubase rarely gets in my way for too long at this point.
Next down that ladder are plug-ins, of which I use many. On the top of the list would be things like UVI Falcon, most of the FabFilter plug-ins, Cypher2, Kontakt, Reaktor (as well as most of the Native Instruments plug-ins), Unfiltered Audio, Melda Productions, UAD, etc. After that it’s Max/MSP, and the live coding language Tidal Cycles, which I’m currently learning. I also use Ableton Live for playing out and for quick sketches, and I’m getting into the Monome Norns, which has various patches running SuperCollider and Lua on a small hardware device. There’s also a ton of software that I use only for certain situations.
What’s next on your path? From a creative point of view, where is Deru heading or drawn to from here on?
I’ve been working on a piano album for a Yamaha Disklavier (an acoustic piano that can be played by a computer) for a year or two now. I’ve been building sequencers and exploring different techniques for programming/playing it. Most of the sequencers I’ve been making have been in Max/MSP but I’m also getting into a few live coding, text-based languages. One is called Gibberwocky, which integrates with Max/MSP with very little effort so it’s relatively immediate. The other is called Tidal Cycles, which is a powerful tool for creating complex rhythms relatively quickly and efficiently. I’m using Tidal Cycles on the piano album, but even more so on the other project I’m working on which is all about rhythm and drums. The piano record will be acoustic and mostly quiet and reflective, and the beat album will be at the other extreme: electronic, distorted and bassy.
Cubase has proven a flexible tool for both of these projects. I can pipe the generated multi-channel MIDI through Cubase to record it and edit it later. It also serves as a hub for audio routing, recording, mixing, editing, etc. It’s been flexible enough for me to use it for detailed scoring to picture to an audio and MIDI hub for recording and editing, and the way it handles multichannel MIDI is the best I’ve come across.