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Nord meets Bach - Interview with Robin Bigwood
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Nord meets Bach - Interview with Robin Bigwood

Robin Bigwood originally formed the group Art of Moog in 2018 to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the seminal Switched On Bach album. Since then, they have continued to perform live, most recently at the Baroque at the Edge music festival in January 2021 where they utilised not one, but three Nord Wave 2s for the concert. In this article, we talk to Robin and ask him about his long love of the synthesiser and why he chose the Nord Wave 2 as the ideal instrument for his latest projects.

What got you into the synthesiser?

 

My earliest memories of listening to music was as a kid in the seventies when my dad would be bringing home vinyl records by Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre and Tomita and they really appealed to me, much more than any other music I was listening to at that time. And, as I approached my teenage years, I became more obsessed with synths and electronic music in general. But those were the days when, to get a synth even remotely decent, would cost the price of a car or more, so I never had any proper instruments at that time.

So, what was the first synth you owned and were there any particular models you aspired to?

 

The first synth I ever owned was a Casio VL-Tone which I bought from John Lewis in Bristol when I was about nine. When that first came out, I would be frothing at the mouth with the thought of going and playing on their demo model in the shop. I've actually still got it in a drawer, still in its original box.


I then got a Casio CZ1000 which was like the CZ101 but with full-size keys and then, when I was sixteen, I got an Ensoniq ESQ-1 which was my first decent synth that you could really do something useful on. It was analogue with digital oscillators, eight-note polyphony and a sequencer. I would sync it in a rudimentary fashion with a drum machine and a four-track tape machine that I used to borrow from school during the summer holidays, so I recorded a lot of my early music using that. It was just another world! 

Around that time I was certainly always aware of better gear. I remember going to a shop in Bath that sold Moog synths and they had the Prodigy in the window and I lusted after that, but that would have been about £900/ £1000 then, just for a little mono synth! It would have been fun to have but it's not really going to take you on that much of a musical journey. And then of course, you just had to turn on Top Of The Pops and there was the Prophet 5 which was just a dream machine.  

 

The other place you would see synths being played on the tv would have been The Kids from Fame. Bruno Martelli in his cellar pretending to sound like an orchestra but, in reality, those synths could only really produce a few bloops and blips! Absolutely ridiculous to say it but, as a seven or eight year old, I suppose that guy was a bit of a hero too!

 

But the synth that somehow appealed to me back then, although I’ve never actually got to play one to this day, were those Yamaha CS mono synths - the CS20 or CS30 with the big cheeks either end of them, which had loads of performance controls and were very hands-on. I recently heard a demo of somebody playing a CS60 that had just been restored and it is a wonderful sounding synth. It has a very narrow character to it but it’s just absolutely lovely. You couldn’t put a foot wrong with it. So those were the synths, as a child, I would really have given anything for.


Coming up to date, what is in your current studio set up?

 

I have two mono synths – the Moog Sub 37 and the Sequential Pro 3 SE which you can raise the front panel up on, like the Mini Moog. It’s a great synth with a lot of different characters so you can make it sound very sweet and cute, but you don't have to do very much to it before it's total mayhem! I also have a Tasty Chips GR-1 granular synth which is actually based on a Raspberry Pi chip. It’s a weird synth but absolutely beautiful. You can create a lot of happy accidents on that. Then I have a Moog Matriarch and a small Eurorack system in an Arturia case, which is mostly geared towards effects processing. I also have a Nord Piano 3 which I love. And then I have my Nord Wave 2.


"I don't think we have ever used a sound that was even based on a preset, everything just comes from initialised patches." - Robin Bigwood


Vintage over modern?

 

It would be lovely to play around with that vintage stuff. A friend of mine has got an original Prophet 5 which I spent some time with, and it is fascinating but, to be honest, I don't go dewy-eyed over the old gear. I think the new gear is way better. Like a lot of things, the supposed superiority and the advantages of the old gear is kind of imagined. There was a funny instance once with one of the videos we made with the group. On the recording, I had used a really beautiful complex moving pad sound I created on my Nord Lead A1 but, when we came to make the video, I didn't have the A1 with me, so I ended up miming with an OB6 instead. And someone commented on the video saying “Oh, yeah, only an OB6 can sound like that”. I thought if only you knew the truth – if you had seen me playing an A1 you’d have said “oh yeah, that digital garbage”. But because it looked like I was playing some kind of aspirational synth, people went to pieces over it!  

 

Of course, I wouldn't turn down an old synth if somebody wanted to give me one but, actually, I'm quite happy not to work or play live with them. A primary concept with Art of Moog was that we were really happy to just utilise synths that had loads of memory and had the ability for USB backup. What we are creating within the group is so dependent on the equipment that it would be impossible to just slot in another different instrument out of the blue. We thought that, by using current gear, if something gets broken or lost, you would stand a much better chance of sourcing a replacement at short notice and then you could just load your sounds back in. So I feel like I am pretty immune to this analogue versus virtual analogue business. I’m looking at it more from a practical point of view.

 

I know Virtual analogue is perceived as a naughty word, but just listen to it for what it is, don't believe the anti-hype. And I say to people just watch Glastonbury, turn on Later with Jools Holland. You’ll see a red synth on every single set. Every session player worth his salt has a Nord under his arm. And I tell you what, God forbid, if the house was burning down then the Wave 2 is the one I would grab, no question.

What are you looking for in a synth?

 

For me, it’s the feedback you get from an instrument - that immediacy which really appeals to me, because my own approach within the group is to make every sound from scratch. I don't think we have ever used a sound that was even based on a preset, everything just comes from initialised patches. Just the other day I noticed that about 50% of our sounds are actually based on sawtooth waveforms because that just happens to be what comes up when you initialise a program. But still, within that, there is a massive scope and range for creation which just goes to show that, as with those old analogue synths from the 70s and 80s that only had sawtooth and square waves, that is not a limiting factor.

 

That is why I've absolutely loved the Nord stuff since I started using it, which must have been over ten years ago now, massively predating even the formation of this latest project. Going way back, I think the first model I probably tried would have been a Lead 2 or the original Wave. And even, back then, I was thinking, my god this is a proper synth, really to the point, absolutely exposing all the functions that you really need and not a lot of crap that you don't. And, like with the Nord Piano 3 as well, I just love the fact that you sit down at it and there’s actually not that much to play around with but, what there is just sounds really fabulous.

 

There might be a perception with the Nord synths, like the Lead A1s that we started off with and now, with the Wave 2s, that somehow the feature set is not as big as some of the Japanese rivals. But to me that is a positive. Perceived limitation is a real advantage because you work much tighter and you work much more efficiently. And, also, I like the idea of knowing every bit of gear that I own back to front, as opposed to feeling that there's this feature set that is stretching away from me into the beyond.  And I like the idea that we’re getting more into synths that do encourage you to program, or at least delve into and to really dismantle presets.

"Everything we know now about synths and workstations and DAWs over the last 50 years started with that album". - Robin Bigwood

How did the Art of Moog project come about?


The whole idea for the group was actually almost a bit of a whim because, for twenty years, most of my playing work has all been in the classical world. And although I was writing for SOS alongside that and doing lots of recording and production jobs, those two worlds never really crossed over. But then this opportunity came along for a festival in London that was all about Bach and the theme happened to be ‘time shifts’ - looking backwards and looking forward. So, I was in the pub one night after a gig with the guy who was organising the festival, probably about 9 months before it happened, discussing what the concerts were going to be like and the possible content and I suggested playing Bach on synths. And the moment I said it I thought s*** that's actually going to be the 50th anniversary of Switched on Bach! So, of course, the organiser was all over that and said yeah let's do it. So, the whole idea for the gig existed before we even had any of the synths!  



In its initial stage, we thought it was just going to be a novelty. I’d been toying around with just buying a Sub 37 which was the most affordable Moog at the time, it predated them releasing any of their modular stuff. So, I got one of those and then, of course, it quickly transpired that you're not going to be able to tackle much repertoire on just one mono synth! You're going to need at least four poly synths and you’re also going to need more people in order to play everything. So, then, it was all about trying to source what equipment we could in the most economical way possible. I tried out loads of synths, none of which quite hit the mark, until I bought a second-hand Nord A1R. And as soon as I found that, I thought, this is the business and I ended up buying another two.

 

Having three of the same synth definitely helped with the programming. But it was also because the A1 was just right for reproducing those Wendy Carlos Moog type sounds. And the A1 isn’t a rompler so there was none of that sample replay aspect with it, it was just a pure synth.

 

And, in parallel with getting the gear, we had to recruit people who could play it. And, because some of the Bach stuff is pretty damn difficult to play, it had to be people from the classical crowd who already knew that style of music. But, when they came on board, they didn't have any synthesis experience at all so I had to give it all to them on a plate. I had to say “here’s your synth, use this sound and you just need to play these notes”. It was a colossal amount of work in those early stages. Well, it still is!

Switched on Bach

If modern music was born on the night Robert Johnson met the Devil at the crossroads, then the modern synthesiser was born on the day Bob Moog presented his new invention to Wendy Carlos. Carlos used this new instrument to create the Switched on Bach album which bought the sound of the synthesiser to the World’s attention and the rest, is synth history.

It was the first time that the vast majority of people in 1968 had ever heard of synths. Up until then, the best that they'd ever heard were bleeps and bloops on film soundtracks like Forbidden Planet. So to hear these electronic sounds doing something really agile and articulate, I mean that must have been mindblowing at the time. I was aware of it, as were a lot of people, because it was used as the theme tune for the Antiques Roadshow tv show on the BBC for years and years. So there was always that novelty aspect to Switched on Bach. It could put a smile on your face because it was so incongruous. This quite high-faluting music coming with these almost comedic sounds sometimes and I think that's probably why I liked it as a child, that whole soundscape really appealed to me. I remember I bought the album on vinyl when I was about twelve and actually, can you believe this, heartbreakingly, I've lost it ! I've turned the house over, looking for it. It's such a shame, I’ll just have to get another copy.

 

Watching some old documentaries of Wendy Carlos over the weekend, there was a really weird history with that because, by the early 80s, she had completely abandoned the Moog and started using additive synthesizers instead. She's on record saying that the Moog Modular is crude, it's too thick sounding and uncontrollable. Well, yes, if your goal is to try and recreate the sound of orchestral instruments. But that was never the magic, that was not what most people were responding to. They were responding to the fact that it was new and it gave you a new way of listening to classical music. And that’s what we are trying to do within the group - to create familiar music using sounds that have never been heard before, so it's bringing that whole history back. Everything we know now about synths and workstations and DAWs over the last 50 years started with that album.


With such unique sounds - How do you approach the sound creation and do you do all the programming yourself?

 

 

I do actually. For me, the arrangements always precede the sounds. If you take an orchestral piece by Bach, the first job is to figure out how the hell do you get three keyboard players and a wind synth player to recreate all those textures because, often, there's more moving parts in the original than we've got hands available. You might have to make some decisions to boil things down or to even abandon a part completely. So there is this tortuous part of the process where I'm thinking - how do you make this person’s right hand be a violin and this person's left-hand be bassoon, what are the orchestral ranges within the piece and do they overlap. And, for me, that was one of the game-changers on the A1 and now the Wave 2, because they’ve got such great layering and splitting capabilities. Having four parts is a whole different world to a bi-timbral instrument and, a lot of the time, the left and the right parts of the splits need to be at precisely the same pitch or the lower part of the keyboard needs to play a higher sound than the high end, which fries your brain a bit until you get used to it ! Once I'm convinced it can all work and what parts each person will be playing, I then try and get a concept of the sounds.  

 

I would normally start with either lead sounds or bass sounds, but I’m certainly not trying to recreate original instruments. If it was a bowed cello part, it may end up as a bass type sound with some white noise added. I just try to create sounds that will harmonize and complement each other and that will be interesting and will also rest the ear for the listener. With this type of music, you could easily have movements that are seven or eight minutes long and there's not going to be the time for the continuous change of timbre and layering that you would get in a pop production, so you’ve got to make your sounds really work. They’ve got to have a lot of expressivity and a lot of colour change within them but, also, they need to have some complexity so they could survive being listened to for five or six minutes. Loads of people have ‘Switched on Bach’ performances on YouTube because it’s easy enough to get a MIDI file of a Bach two-part invention and then fire that out to a couple of mono synths, and I love that stuff, but those limited sounds couldn't sustain a whole evening.  

 

And, with all the various controls and morphing that need to be incorporated, I have different ways of working with the other musicians. Sometimes I would mark their scores so, for example, if there's a crescendo in the music, they see that they have to push the pedal, even though they don't really know what's happening. Obviously quite a lot of water has gone under the bridge now and those guys do have a much better idea about what all the controls are doing. And Annabel, who plays the wind synth in the group, is actually pretty conversant on synths now and is making up her own sounds.  

 

It's got to the point these days, where I still do all the programming and I still do all the arrangements. But, when I give it to them, I now put very little in the score. I just say “at one end of the pedal or the Modulation wheel it's like this, and at the other end it's like that” and then I really just let them discover the possibilities at that point. And what I'll often find is, what I think would work well when I'm sitting at home programming things, doesn't work well once we start rehearsing it and so the first rehearsal is usually 50% musical discovery and 50% reprogramming. And that’s why I wouldn’t use workstations because they're not immediate enough, there’s not enough feedback coming from those interfaces. Somehow, the idea of the hands-on subtractive synth model still gives you everything that you need and it is still unsurpassed.


Why did you choose the Wave 2 for your latest project?

 

The Wave 2 came out of us using the A1 because we already knew that synth like the back of our hands and I’ve still got an A1 and there's no way I'm ever getting rid of that because I just love it to bits. I think in terms of synths having a sweet spot, the A1 is just one big sweet spot so you can almost not put a foot wrong with it. And, I think with the Wave 2, we're finding it's also got just the right combination of the very likeable sound quality and the same really wide sweet spot.

 

I suppose the things that appeal to us about the Wave 2 is the fact that it had the bigger five octave keyboard, aftertouch and the display with the naming which just makes a huge difference. Before that, we had to keep a spreadsheet going with the setlists and all the patch numbers for each song, so the Wave 2 is much better in that respect. And, just like the A1, you have this instrument which is really direct, gives a lot of feedback, and, although it is virtual analogue, it's got that vibe about it. It’s not over complicated.  

"I really think the Nord Sound Library string machine provision is underrated. The Mellotron and string machine samples are brilliant. We are using those all the time as Oscillator starting points, just as much as we would use the traditional oscillator wave shapes"

Obviously, there's any number of synths where we could say the same thing about, but what is crucial for us on the Wave 2 is its multitimbrality - the four synth layer basis, because it can be used in so many different ways and it is so absolutely integral to the sound programming to begin with. You could regard the four different Layers as four parallel synths in the same way as on a modular synth. So, if you think “what would it be like if I layer another oscillator and another filter over the top of this sound that I already have”, well then you just enable another Layer and you do it and that's all running in parallel together. And the concept that you can have Programs where you've got four equal component parts, that's astonishing. Either grouped together, or just having a vastly different sound on each individual Layer. I had an OB6 and I loved it but it's such a limited synth at the end of the day. It was two oscillators and a filter and that's it. If you wanted to layer a sound on top of it, then you were reaching for another synth and patching it in via midi and the whole concept of doing that several times over was very time consuming, whereas, it’s a matter of half a second to enable a Layer on the A1 or the Wave 2.


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use Layers

Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use the Group Function


So, that's the first thing - its Sound design potential through layering. But then, equally as important, is the ability to morph between those layers which we use constantly. We will have two layers enabled where one is at maximum volume when the pedal is back, and the other is at maximum volume when the pedal is forward and they, essentially, dovetail so you can have these smooth transitions between two wildly different sounds. You combine that with the sound design type layering and also the fact that you can have two bi-timbral patches on either side of a split. I just don't think there's any other synth that really offers that functionality, other than a workstation. And to set all that up on a workstation would just be a devil of a job. It would make you want to lose the will to live! There’s just something about the Wave 2 and that four layer, quad-timbrality that is brilliant. It doesn't overwhelm you, but it provides you with so many possibilities.


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to Split the keyboard



That Morph function on all the Nords to me is just total genius - the way that the synths allow you to use an expression pedal to do a lot of the work while you're playing. It’s like a mod matrix but without any of the headaches involved. And that is why we have ended up with everybody using, first of all the Lead A1s and now the Wave 2's in the group because of the Morph function. What we are playing is so busy, sometimes there is no time to use your hands, so we've got stacks and stacks programmed into the Pedal Morph function. The pedals are modulating sometimes eight, nine, ten parameters at once. They could be bringing layers in and out, bringing in effects, taking them away, changing envelope times. Even controlling parameters within the oscillator section, such as changing the wave shape or Oscillator sync. And now, since we've got the Wave 2s, aftertouch is doing a load more as well. The Morph function is a game changer.  


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use the Morph Function

 

Another reason why we were happy to move to the Wave 2s from the A1, is because the oscillators are that bit more flexible, especially with the Sample replay. I really think the Nord Sound Library string machine provision is underrated. The Mellotron and string machine samples are brilliant. We are using those all the time as Oscillator starting points, just as much as we would use the traditional oscillator wave shapes, just because they have that bit more ‘lived in’ quality, that bit more motion baked into their character and it's absolutely fitting for the sound world that we are working in. Even on the A1, which didn't have the sample functionality, that was still capable of producing really beautiful string machine emulations, often because of the ensemble or chorus effects. 


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use the Oscillator Section

Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to Import Samples

Do you use the new Arpeggiator features?

 

Yes, I actually love that musical style with the hard quantized sequenced replay. If you have a backing that is arpeggiated or sequenced and then you add the expressive elements over the top, then that can sound really magical. We did something like this in the recent gig where one whole part of the arrangement was created with two layered arpeggiated sounds on the Wave 2 so everybody had to keep tightly locked in with that click, essentially.  

 

And that is happening more and more in the material that we’re doing now, though it does bring up those questions of whether we need to synchronise the instruments together. Perhaps if we were working in the studio you could look into clocked parameter changes, clocked LFOs clocked envelopes, that kind of thing. It certainly opens up possibilities but we're always trying to avoid actual backing tracks. We don't want to just be playing over something that will be the same every single time. That's why it's so nice to have those really flexible arpeggiators and the layered arpeggiators on the Wave 2 because you can really start to mess around with all that kind of thing.


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use the Arpeggiator

Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use Zig Zag and Pattern Mode


Having said that, synchronising multiple elements on individual Wave 2s using the Master Clock function is something we use all the time. We've got Programs that are actually just arpeggiated, delayed sounds going through 100% wet delays and 100% wet reverb. The idea is that, when you are introducing expressive elements, what you are really doing is changing the clock division of those synced elements. So, when you press your expression pedal, the arpeggiator is cycling up through crotchets, quavers and semiquavers and so is the delay, and what comes out are these amazingly complex pad type sounds. But they're not actually pads because there's no sustaining sound in there, it's all achieved by morphing those clocked functions.


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use Master Clock

Nord Wave 2 Arpeggiated Pads - Robin Bigwood

EQ

 

Some of the more subtle features on the Wave 2 are great too. Having EQ on your repeats is really useful and having chorus and ensemble on your repeats as well is bloody wonderful! And, actually having EQ on the synth itself is massive! You’d never think that a two band EQ could be so useful. But it so is because, whatever nuance you think you can achieve with the different filter models, you achieve another further stage, again, when you are EQ-ing. You might have a bass sound that is just right but it's somehow a little bit too insistent, so you can boost the bass a touch, roll off the top end a lot and that thing then just sits so much better in the mix. And it’s massively easier and quicker than trying to do that on a mixer and saving a scene or, god forbid, doing it on an analogue mixer and then forgetting to set it during a gig.  


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: How to use the EQ section

 

But the Layer architecture, for us, is huge and, even for other material that I work on at home, I'm just as likely to be using the Layers independently or multi-timbrally. Also, the Wave 2 takes the Split aspect further than the A1, so that you can genuinely have multiple zones as opposed to just one zone either side of a single point and we are using that a lot. We've got a lot of Split setups driven from the Wave 2, because each of the players in the group also has other gear, such as a mono synth or a vocoder, so you might have two zones occupying four octaves and the Upper octave is a silent zone that is driving external instruments. I’ve got patches where half the keyboard is my vocoder and the other half is the Wave 2. I don't know any other synth that gets close to that versatility and that is why the Wave 2 is so important and so useful to us.

Do you use the Wave Shape functions in the Oscillator section?

 

I use that a lot. And the fact that you can achieve so much variation in character before you even hit the filter is massive. For example, that Super Saw section is amazing, brilliant. But the thing that I loved is some of the more remote possibilities in the Sync Mode like the Chop Saws which are unbelievable! That would be extremely tricky to achieve on other synths, maybe on the Moog One with, what they call, a ‘triangle core oscillator’ where you could make complex wave shapes that moved around. But that would be 10 minutes work whereas on the Wave 2, it's like 10 seconds. And to be able to introduce motion through LFO or morphing to those sounds, we are using those constantly. 


Wave 2 Speedy Tutorial: Analogue Oscillator Overview


Using the Dual Filter Mode

 

Another little trick that we are using a lot on the Wave 2 is the dual filter mode where you've got the split high-pass and low-pass. That is just totally given to all those SEM filter sounds, all those Oberheim filter sounds, where you get that kind of high-frequency leak - that sizzle on top of a warm low pass sound. And what other synth does that, apart from an OB6?

Have you created any of your own Samples yet?

 

No, not for this current project. But I have done it for the Piano 3 because, with some of the classical work I do, you often need an organ sound. Some years ago, I had a beautiful old organ on loan for a couple of months and I sampled it and added it to my Piano 3 sample library, just so that I could take it around as a rehearsal instrument. And then if people ask what sound is that, I can tell them precisely what original Flemish organ it was copied from. There are totally different values in the Classical world and people get very uppity about what it is that they're playing along with. If they felt that they had to play along with your typical terrible cheesy church organ sound, then that would just never work. So, I haven't put anything into the Wave 2 yet, but I should consider it.


Nord Sample Editor 3: Creating Mapped Sample Instruments

What are you working on at the moment, and what’s in the diary for the future?

 

Like all musicians my work was hit for six by the pandemic, and Art of Moog inevitably had all its 2020 gigs cancelled. But we are hoping to be able to play a handful this summer, fingers crossed, which is a nice prospect. The flip side of lockdown was being able to develop some new material though, spend a lot of unhurried time with my synths, and get my home studio setup really humming. It was also a relief, in some ways, to be able to draw breath after what had been a hectic few years. Alongside Art of Moog I have another project on the go, much more electronica/pop-oriented, and nothing at all like Switched-on Bach! It’s with a brilliant singer who I met on a classical gig, but she also works in the experimental/electronic field, and we’re going to try to do something that perhaps hasn’t been done before. I wish I could say more, but it’s really in the early stages still and I’d better keep my mouth shut until we have some demos out at least. It’ll still have an important live synth-playing element, as well as really heavily-treated and manipulated acoustic instruments and voice, alongside elements prepared in the studio. But, to be honest, I’m just really looking forward to getting out and playing again.

A big thank you to Robin Bigwood for this interview and for giving us a great insight into his rich musical background and setup! If you'd like to find out more, please visit the following websites:


Art of Moog

Art of Moog trailer

Switched On Bach album

Bob Moog/Wendy Carlos interview

Wave 2 Speedy Tutorials Full Playlist

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