An Interview with Vlad Spears

By Marsha Vdovin

There’s something about the kind of mind that looks for something beyond presets and conventional loops. I enjoy the mind that explores that intersection between computers and music. I’m very curious about what drives people to be artists.

Daevlmakr sells a suite of plug-ins created in Max/MSP. I was able to spend a lot of time with Vlad Spears for this interview because he lives nearby in San Francisco. I knew Vlad was a kindred spirit when I read the Daevl licensing agreement:

You must agree to Question Your Beliefs whenever you use the DAEVLPLUGS. While engaged in direct use of the DAEVLPLUGS, you are not to question the beliefs of others, only your own…

Question Your Beliefs about:

  • religion
  • politics
  • natural resource use in a closed system
  • the differences between humans and other animals
  • your self-worth
  • monogamy/polyamory
  • the definition of family
  • capitalism
  • socialism
  • self-governance
  • good and evil
  • your own creative abilities
  • the difficulty of change
  • money, security and happiness
  • the power of a single human being to change the world
  • reality itself

(download the complete license by clicking here)

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in two vastly different places simultaneously.

One was the broken land of the Akron/Canton/Cleveland triangle in post-industrial Ohio. Once a blue-collar paradise, by the time I arrived it had crumbled back into prehistory: head-high grass, dinosaurs wandering through backyards, dragonflies with 2 meter wingspans, ruined and rusting machinery overgrown by crawling vines. To this day I feel most comfortable in empty warehouses and abandoned factories.

The larger place, the place I spent most of my time and experienced most of my development, was on the inside of books. It began with fantasy and Lovecraftian horror, and then moved into science, science fiction and philosophy.

I carried my bubble of modernity and technological utopia with me everywhere. Once I was of age I made a crow’s line for San Francisco and my real growing up began.

What was your childhood like?

I was incredibly curious as a kid, a trait that has stayed with me. I learn just to learn. It feels good to put new ideas in my head. Everything is an experiment; every moment is a new world. Once teenage lightning struck, I found my youthful rebellion against tradition solidifying into honest iconoclasm. If it didn’t make sense, I came up with new methods, like cutting most of high school to hang out in the computer labs at Akron University and Kent State. I’ve found a large dose of iconoclasm and wide swaths of experimentalism that are exactly called for when working with Max/MSP and Jitter. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: a large dose of Max/MSP and wide swaths of Jitter when working with experimentalism and iconoclasm.

What are some of your first creative memories?

Lego was an early love, as was taking apart anything I could get my hands on and putting it back together in new ways. I remember being around seven years of age with a large spool of stolen black string that I used to create a web of connections between everything in my room to which it could be attached. I created a pocket universe of patterns and spatial divisions, my imagination populating it with all manner of Lego denizens and combinatory rules for moving along the threading. I knew it was finished when I couldn’t escape because I’d threaded myself in. There was nothing left to do but sit in the center and enjoy the creation. Construction of imaginary micro-realities as early training for future Max/MSP development?

Are there things, people, and experiences from your childhood that you think have influenced your creative work now?

I was raised by the written page. I started reading early and it kept me from getting into the easier forms of trouble in an environment where trouble was the only form of entertainment.

If I had to name parental influences, I’d shout out to Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Roger Zelazny, Douglas R. Hofstadter. When I was nine I reached for a space opera on the higher shelves of a used bookstore. Heinlein’s “Stranger In A Strange Land” literally fell from the top stacks and landed directly in my hands instead. Heinlein gave me humanism and the overwhelming realization everything imaginable is possible. If you can conceive it, it not only can exist, somewhere it already does. We are a living science fiction novel. Sturgeon taught me even our darkest impulses may have a core of love. Zelazny passed along the secret rainbow of a changing reality in every step I take. Hofstadter’s “Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” gave me a grounding in logical tools for representing and working with the concepts and strange loops presented by the above.

It may seem strange to cite fiction authors as influences rather than musicians or programmers, but their works shaped the way I approach everything in my life, from relationships to musical composition, time planning to time travel, artistry to action, living in the moment to patching in Max/MSP.

Also, sounds of unidentifiable origin have always been a major drive. I’ve collected unusual audio on cassette and digital media for as long as I remember, and still have a collection of tapes from my childhood “sound hunting adventures.” It’s the new and unexplained which always catch my ears and imagination. When samplers were gigantic hardware beasts I remember hearing the Poke In The Ear With A Sharp Stick CD-ROM series and thinking “How did they make these sounds? It has to be some kind of magic. I’ve never heard anything like this before.” They were so different they were singular and inspiring.

When did you start making music (acquiring synths)?

I am a child of the 80s. I bought a Casio SK-1 when it was released in 1985, and created songs on a Yamaha 4-track cassette deck. The SK-1′s 8-bit sampling at 9.38 KHz created gorgeous grit and aliasing that was then rounded and compressed by tape saturation and the degradations of multiple bounce-downs. My sonic aesthetics were highly influenced by these processes. I still use the Casio SK-1 in every track: sometimes through layers of Daevl.Plugs or a hardware effect chain or both, sometimes bits and pieces blown into the Machinedrum, sometimes just a single hit clipped from one of the on-board rhythms… it is always in there somewhere.

What are your musical influences?

Wide and never-ending… if we’re talking about other musicians, I resonate with works by Brian Eno, the whole Skinny Puppy cabal, Bauhaus and its offshoots, David Bowie, Monolake, Curtis Roads, Amon Tobin. Listening to a third or fourth generation cassette copy of Eno’s and Byrne’s “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” on a big silver boom box while alone in an abandoned industrial center was a seminal experience.

My greater influence comes from the miasma of sounds we all swim through every day, what Lennon meant when he said, “I can groove to the sound of electricity in the house or the water pipes.” I hear melodies in the metal on metal of the subway as we take turns at high speed. I pick up rhythms from the bangs of construction ricocheting off surfaces of skyscrapers in San Francisco in a gigantic, real world multi-tap delay. Dissonant beats of engines idling next to each other create foundations for entire works. Blendings of sky traffic with voices on the sidewalk amidst wind rattling whatever it can pick up provide endless symphonies. I could listen to the sound of falling water forever.

I have flashes where the entire world around me meshes into one song, everything in its place and in its moment.

How did you find Max/MSP?

Mid-2003 I fell in love with the sound of Abildgard’s Droid-3 synthesizer. Made in the Netherlands, it’s a tiny monster for making very digital, very dirty sounds. Abildgard hadn’t received export permission, so the only way I could lay hands on one of these little beasts was to join the development team.

I created the Droid’s Macintosh OS9 patch editor using Max/MSP. The Droid-3 has no internal sound storage, so all patches are created and stored on your computer, with edits accomplished via MIDI messages to the synth. I used Max/MSP not only to create the editor, but also to reverse engineer the Droid’s binary file format and analyze sysex information. To prove I was serious in my intentions, I sent a working version of the editor to the Droid’s mad scientist, David Filskov, which I had created without having a Droid in hand to test with. Max worked brilliantly for the purpose and I learned something new almost hourly in the endeavor. Shortly after, my little Droid black box arrived and I worked on refining the application. One of the joys of Max is always working with live code. If something isn’t working, you don’t find out during or after compiling… you know immediately.

This was also the time of my first real interactions with the Max/MSP/Jitter community through the Cycling ’74 mailing list forums. This accumulated group knowledge and support available to everyone is priceless. I could not have accomplished the Droid-3 project without them.

Vlad Discusses Max/MSP Plug-in Development

How long did it take you to learn how to use it? Is there a good story here?

I had been using Max/MSP for three months prior to creating the Droid-3 editor. My initial introduction to Max/MSP was through Cycling’s Pluggo suite, which I use for the twisted sonic fun it embodies. I learned about the Max/MSP sound laboratory through my Pluggo exposure and immediately dove into the deep end. I spent several weeks working through the documentation and tutorial material, chapter by chapter. It was fascinating and provided an excellent foundation for developing my own working methods. I don’t sleep very often, but during my first year with Max/MSP I slept even less. When I did, I dreamt of Max patching.

The sounds of the world, the rhythms and melodies inherent in all of nature, are the sounds of chaos equations and fractal processes. It’s the sound of life itself. I began using Max/MSP to explore this realm and found I could apply the uncertainty and “random” instability of these algorithms to a more sterile playing field: synthesizers and digital samples. Over three years I developed a personal toolkit filled with many MIDI mangling and digital signal processing Max/MSP patches, almost none of which had any counterparts in commercial audio software offerings.

I believe in changing the world through local changes. The first place for local change is your own immediate working environment, so I polished my toolkit and made it intuitive to control, minimal yet effective and visually pleasing to myself. This process led to the encapsulation of many patches as plug-ins, for the efficiency of using my toolkit within Ableton Live. From there it was just a small leap to releasing them as the Daevl.Plugs.

Max/MSP/Jitter is a bottomless rabbit-hole. I still don’t feel I know the full capabilities of this Wonderland, even after all the above and using it every day. For me, the real key is knowing that if I can imagine it, I can likely create it in Max.

Was there a distinct moment when your focus shifted from making music to making plug-ins?

Spending all your time creating music-making tools in Max/MSP and none of your time actually making music is a well-known trap amongst the patcher obsessed, but I see it as part of one long compositional process. As I’ve been refining the Daevl.Plugs I’ve also been creating music and generating elements for further creation. During testing of the Daevl.Plugs alone I’ve amassed several gigabytes of raw materials: improvs, jams against other material, wandering compositions. I never destroy, only transfigure and transmogrify. I save everything. There are jewels hidden within the most innocuous of sounds, moments of divine madness in every 30 second or 30 minute piece. When we think about the process of writing music, we don’t often consider the gestation period, the back and forth of ideas, the traveling of a trillion miles of wiring and all the circuits piping electrons around… I’m just making this part of my writing process open and available to everyone in the form of the software I’m creating.

The plan is to release two sets of plug-ins, then expand Daevlmakr into musical releases. To this end, the Daevl.Plugs have been wonderful for connecting with the larger community. In the first part of 2008, I’ll have a track appearing on The Sound Machine, Ian Lizandra’s good-for-whole-world project benefiting the Roald Dahl Foundation. Ian’s project pairs musicians with abstract visualists, many of them also users of Max/MSP/Jitter. We connected when Ian was one of the very first Daevl.Plug users as Beta Two Agonist.

Droid Edit patch

You have quite an arsenal of analog synths. Did learning Max/MSP increase your understanding of analog synthesis and your approach to programming sounds?

I was knowledgeable in the basic principles of synthesis before I found Max, but my exposure to Max/MSP brought me to Curtis Roads’ “The Computer Music Tutorial,” a book which really cemented everything I knew before into a foundation for development. With Roads’ book in hand and Max/MSP on my trusty PowerBook, I began experimenting with methods of synthesis I had no idea existed. Max/MSP let me concoct anything I needed to for both synthesis and analysis.

What Max ultimately moved me into was thinking of my studio and system of synths itself as a Max/MSP patch given physical form. The entire studio is in fact one massive instrument, one giant synthesis and compositional machine. I have a group of Max patches in continual growth, which sit, in the MIDI data stream just to watch, learn and then interact. My ultimate goal is to develop a “spirit in the wires” who will work with me and bring unexpectedness to the compositional process. My perfect household is one where I have no idea what’s going to greet me when I open the door upon returning home. My perfect studio is just like that, only more so.

What are some of your favorite Max/MSP objects?

I love [uzi], the daring duo of [matrixctrl] and [matrix~] and the ever gorgeous [ubumenu]. [uzi] lets me blast data around everywhere, as fast I can. It’s the ultimate power launcher outside of the audio domain. [matrixctrl] and [matrix~] because together they’re a wonderful, elegant way to route signals. Non-binary mode in [matrix~] makes for smooth gain changes without clicks, something all of us want, and with [matrixctrl] as interface I just click and drag for connections. I use this pair often in my patches for the Monome 40h. They’re both swanky, grid-based controller representations. [ubumenu] I use as both an interface object and as a storage place for generated lists that then become control elements farther into the patcher hierarchy.

Do you make your own objects?

I used to create special-purpose objects using CodeWarrior back in the Mac OS9 days. It’s much more efficient to create cross-platform now in Java and JavaScript. I regularly use various objects I’ve coded up, like probability gates and mathematical generators. I’m also particularly fond of [jsui] for creating custom interface objects.

Do you have particular patching styles in Max?

Vlad’s patching evolution:

1) Started messy.
2) Moved to messy with clean up.
3) Embraced segmented patch cords and sensible object placement as a paradigm.
4) Now I’m obsessive compulsive about in-the-moment, clean patching with clear signal and data flow designated by colors.
I utilize tons of comments and subpatchers containing supplementary information on the purpose of the patch, used methods and other possible but unused methods, third party objects involved, etc. This makes it easy for my future selves if deeper remembrance of the patch is needed. Part of Max’s beauty is its ability to deliver fast results with a minimum of tricky work once you learn the foundations of patching. Future-proofing your patches takes longer, but I’ve found the time required to keep it clean and well documented now results in much greater time savings later when trying to figure out just what the me of three years ago was thinking.

EQ Animator from Triad

How do you interface with the outside world? Sensors? MIDI? Audio detection?

I bring in, send out or generate control signals in many ways. I use [send] and [receive], MIDI and ReWire extensively in my own patches and musical systems for communication between themselves, hardware and Ableton Live. DroidEdit communicates through MIDI CC, in most cases paired messages to extend the range from 128 to 256 values. Balron takes in OSC messages from the Monome 40h, converts them to MIDI note on/offs, then spits them back out to whatever synthesizer is listening. Most of the Daevl.Plugs run scalable peak detection on incoming audio to trigger changes in their chaotic processes. This has turned out to be an effective way of intuitively tailoring trigger points to source audio.

I do have a dream of creating robotic musical helpers sending commands back and forth via OSC over wireless. Perhaps after the next couple projects.

You are obviously interested in sub-cultures. How do keep your edge? How do you keep from being swept into the vortex of popular and consumer culture? Myself, I find it really hard.

I don’t actually protect myself, but I do have a single tactic to create thinking space: I don’t watch television. Buckminster Fuller thought television would revolutionize our educational system world around, allowing us to lift all of humanity into a new world of ability and accomplishment. Sadly, the video waves were grabbed by giants intent on mind control for profit. I haven’t put network programming in my head for over a decade… one day I turned it off and just never turned it back on. Suddenly I had time again for reading, writing, making music… creation! It’s amazing how many irreplaceable heartbeats a person loses sitting passively immersed in the flickering drug.

I see sub-cultures as systems of shared spaces, ways of filtering and making sense of the enormous streams of data reality sends our way. I don’t keep them out, I take what parts of them I find useful or interesting and re-use them. What makes goth? What makes hip-hop? Look at drum ‘n’ bass: a reaction against the tyranny of four to the floor dance music, but the formula for qualification as strict drum ‘n’ bass was so tight it immediately opened the style up to other forms with only marginal resemblance, usually by way of an off-kilter kick or rib-rattling bassline… you’ll also see those appear in techno, some forms of rhythmic ambient, rap and hip-hop, which lots of drum ‘n’ bass lovers here in San Francisco listen to. At what point does a track stop being drum ‘n’ bass and turn into another style?

I like to find those transitional zones, plant my feet inside them and examine the larger system from there. How did goth merge with the oontz of euro-trance? How did disco infiltrate industrial? Taking the system as a whole, you find not just the mechanics of stylistic evolution, but of cultural and social integration. For all the efforts of the Mainstream Music Machine to channel every one of us into segregated consumer segments to maximize profit, we still take what we want, when we want and do whatever we wish with it. Undead breakdancers pop locking to 8 bit chipcore? How did *that* happen? I’m reminded of William Gibson writing in Neuromancer, “The street finds its own uses for things.”

Vlad Discusses Daevlmakr Plug-ins


What lies in the future for Daelmakr and Vlad Spears?

The lab expands, the experiment grows… it’s alive!

Daevlmakr will be releasing a second suite of transmogrification plug-ins, also built with Max/MSP. There are Instrument Racks coming for Ableton Live’s Simpler/Sampler, based on small monsters of the vintage synthesizer world: the Casio SK-1 and VL-Tone, the Stylophone and Texas Instrument’s Speak & Music.

I’ll be contributing a track as Wolf Interval to The Sound Machine project and playing gallery openings with artist Glenn Gibson using a minimal rig of the Monome 256 and a MacBook Pro running Ableton Live, Max/MSP/Jitter patches and the Daevl.Plugs. Daevlmakr will be releasing brand new audio works, and there are a couple top-secret plug-in and musical projects brewing.

I’d like to establish a patching circle skunkworks in the San Francisco Bay area, so please get in touch if you’re an interested local user of Max/MSP/Jitter, Pd, Quartz Composer or Processing.

Thanks, is there anything you would like to add?

Giant telepathic thanks go out continually to all existing and future users of the Daevl.Plugs, The League of Extraordinary Beta Testers and The Cabal of Cunning Advisors, Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain of Monome, David Filskov at Abildgard, the elektronic masterminds at Elektron, the distinguished denizens of the Max/MSP/Jitter forums and all the wunderkinder at Cycling ’74.

Vlad Spear’s website: http://daevlmakr.com/

Vlad Spear’s interview videos by Marsha Vdovin and Ron MacLeod for Cycling ’74.

An Interview with Vlad Spears

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