An Interview with Giorgio Sancristoforo

Giorgio Sancristoforo is a very enthusiastic artist, musician, audio engineer and software developer based in Milan, Italy. Giorgio incorporates Max/MSP into all his projects whether they are his interesting audio applications that sell for a modest price or his more artistic projects such as sound design for a large-scale composition culled from the sounds of Milan.

You have quite an extensive and varied background.

Yes, I guess so [laughs]. I actually came from the sound engineering part of music originally. I was trained at SAE College. After that, I began to teach Max/MSP and synthesis there. I have used Max/MSP since the year 2000. So I’ve been a user for ten years now. I have worked in many different fields of audio and video. For example, I did a lot of commercials, both as video editor and as a sound engineer/designer.

Then I also work in music production, of course. I have played music since I was sixteen years old. I started off with guitars and organs doing mostly psychedelic music back in the ’90s.

Back around 2006, I dropped doing commercials and I started making documentaries as director. Those documentaries were focused on electronic music. I was both the author and director.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Karlheinz Stockhausen the same year he died.

That must have been incredible!

Oh yeah, it was quite an honor.

Did you get some good words of wisdom out of him?

Of course, many words of wisdom.

There was one thing in particular that he said, that I find truly inspiring and made me think a lot about the hopes and fears that we, as musicians and composers, have towards the audience. I have the quote here somewhere… ah, yes.

“We should not worry about how many people can already understand or hear what is happening. Leave it to the nature of man’s evolution. Man will develop, always towards the unconscious so to make it conscious. He will develop always towards discovery. He’s curious, basically man is curious.
That is very important. So don’t worry about how large the public is and how you can push it, you don’t need to push it. If something is exceptional, it will find spirits, one by one, who’ll become interested in the exceptional. And then that multiplies by itself.”
Karlheinz Stockhausen, 2007

Wow, thanks for sharing that. I’m sure most of our readers will find that inspiring.

I think it is worth contemplating.

I also did an interview with the people from the RAI Phonology Studios. RAI is the national television here in Italy. Back in the ’50s, here in Milan, the national television also hosted radio, of course, and they had one of the biggest electronic music studios in the ’50s. So much so that they had John Cage there, back in 1955 or ’56. We hosted many composers such as Henri Pousseur and others. This tape music center was focused on contemporary music in the night, and in the day it was used for television broadcast.

So I managed to bring classic electronic music into a documentary aired by Italian MTV. That was a real challenge. We made a book and a DVD out of it.

After that, I spent some time studying photography.

You do everything. You’re so busy!

[Laughs] I do keep busy.

When I started with music, I felt that something was missing, and eventually discovered it was video. So I began working with one of the biggest post-production facilities here in Italy, Marina Studios.

Marina Studios was a full THX facility built with the help of Skywalker Sound. So I had the chance of working with the top audio and video technology, such as Euphonix System V, and digital film, back in year 2004—with 2k technology. So I had a great deal of learning on the top machines, top technology.

It was about that time that I started developing Max/MSP patches for my work, making plug-ins and software apps—which I still do today.

I’ve started making electronic music back in 1997. In 2006 I’ve started my interest in multimedia installations. I was a self-taught musician, not trained in music. So I decided to try making installations and contemporary music with electronics and software.

So Max/MSP was the most important tool I had, for ten years!

Did you learn Max/MSP in a class? Did you just come upon it by yourself?

I am self-taught. I did study some C Sound, back in my college days, but it was not very satisfying for me. I found it clumsy. I don’t like the fact that you have to write the code. It was hampering my way of producing music.

I did have a great deal of experience with modular synthesizers, back in 2000, with Eurorack modular synthesizers like Doepfler from Germany. So I just studied Max/MSP on my own. I actually ended up teaching Max/MSP at SAE College. It’s something I still do.

Do you think your experience with modular synthesis helped you to learn Max/MSP?

Indeed, yes. It was important, because I already had a kind of workflow, a modular workflow, with modular synthesizers. So going into virtual patching wasn’t that big of a deal, for me, not too difficult.

Of course, there are many differences between analog synthesis and Max/MSP. Max/MSP is far more capable of creative modulations and possibilities, but I think they are very similar. It’s much easier for somebody who learned modular synthesis to approach Max/MSP.

So, you took to it easily?

Well, I wouldn’t say easily, because of course Max/MSP has such depth, so can have a tough learning curve. Sometimes you can get stuck in a problem, and it requires some time to understand and fix the problem.

But I would say that it was not so hard, because Max/MSP has these incredible things like the All button where you can instantly see a patch showing you what an object can do. So it’s pretty straightforward if you understand the basics.

The biggest problem with Max/MSP, of course, is the number of objects involved, and the number of possibilities. It’s like “Wow, I can do so many things. I have to learn so many objects.” So the problem is one of memory, remembering every kind of object you’ve used in the past. I think that one of the most important things to help people in learning Max by them selves is studying other’s patches. Especially the small patches, because when they become too big, it’s difficult to understand what’s really happening within them.

But it’s not a problem of workflow. The software itself is very straightforward and not so difficult to learn. With small examples, and the great documentation of Max/MSP, it’s possible to learn. Of course, it would be better to learn it at school, but I didn’t have the chance at that time—there were no classes of Max/MSP back in 2000, in Italy.

So, it does take some time. I think that I spent the first year learning through trial and error. Then I started arranging things, and putting stuff together, and eventually started making software.

Do you have favorite objects in Max/MSP?

I would say matrix~ and matrixctrl.

I always think modular. I like to use these objects to create complex audio feedback lines together with tapin~ and tapout~.

I find the ramp message to matrix~ is extremely useful to create long, smooth crossfades between signals.

Also, negative values with the *~ are great to create 180° phase signals. This can be handy, I often use reverbs out of phase.

There’s also a trick I use to play many soundfiles simultaneously and in sync. Rather than using 10 or 20 groove~ or sfplay~ objects, try to use one single sfplay~ with a multichannel .aif file. Using sfrecord~ you can create up to a 28 channel aif file!

What is your Gleetchlab software?

Gleetchlab is a software app I developed in Max/MSP which is basically a tool for manipulating sounds in real time. For this reason I see it as a live performance software. But many people use it also as a studio composition tool.

It has the possibility to granulate sounds, or reading sounds in random ways, and transforming sounds, putting them together in many different ways. And of course it can also work with multi-channel surround. Which is one of the greatest possibilities of Max/MSP!

This patch was originally built in, I think, 2005, and I’ve kept updating since. It’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. I have a lot of users from all over the world. I would say something like 10,000 people using it. I have a lot of downloads, in forty countries, worldwide.

How much do you sell it for?

Ten euros. Which is just a little bit more than 16 dollars, or 13 dollars?

Depending on what day it is…

[Laughs] Of course!

I did something with it that is a bit strange. I didn’t code within the software the possibility to save the settings of the patch. Which means that every time you use it, you have to start from scratch. It was intentionally taken out from the design, because my vision with that software was that that was the best way to create new sounds, by starting from scratch every time.

If you use presets, or stop a session in the middle of the night and want to take it up again in the morning, it’s never as good as the first time. After a while, users started to appreciate the idea of a limitation in software technology. Which, I guess, is kind of strange but…

Everybody has software that can save your patches and presets, but it is, I think, a good idea to wipe out this feature in my software, so that people are forced to study, and to go deeper into the software. To feel that what they are doing is much more similar to live improvised music than recorded composition.

From time to time people write me, telling me that Gleetchlab is great because you cannot save it. That’s so inspiring. I made something people can use to think in a different way about software and music itself.

It’s all too easy now, in software. We sometimes need limitations to make better things, to challenge ourselves.

Don’t people write to you and complain that you can’t save?

Well, some do of course, like, ‘Oh my God, I boot a software, and there’s no save function.’ But it is stated very clearly in the manual, and on the web site. Most of these complaints are “Please put a save function in the next update” and I say, well, no, it’s not a good idea. If you try a little harder, you’ll see there’s a reason that I want it this way, and you might find it very useful if you understand my intent. And most of them, they really appreciate it—eventually.

I want to build original software. Things that may be a little crazy, but original. I really understand how Don Buchla designed his synthesizers. He just made it his way, and I think he was right. He didn’t make something like the other manufacturers were doing, like Moog and others like that. He made it his way. I think it’s a good attitude to have toward software. More or less, I think that software today is very conservative.

Your Berna software looks really interesting. It’s basically a recreation of a 1950’s era electronic studio?

Well, Berna is very recent software. I made it one year ago. Basically, I studied the electronic instruments we had in Milan back in the ’50s, and other equipment that was available in Cologne, in Germany, and at WBR Studios. The goal of the software was to give students and professors of contemporary music, a tool that would simulate of that kind of 1950’s studio.

So with Berna, you basically do electronic music the old way. With sine oscillators, and the very few processors that were available at the time, like gates or fixed filter banks, and of course, tape recorders. To make some music with it, you have to spend a lot of time creating a bunch of virtual ‘tapes.’ You can edit them on a different software, and then bring back the edited ‘tape’ in Berna.

I think it’s the most accurate way to describe electronic music of the ’50s. I had a lot of feedback with this software, even from, for example, the Royal College of Music of Stockholm. Some professor wrote me back saying he was very interested in my work.

The Electronic Music Foundation did a good job in spreading the word, and a lot of people got interested in this software.

And of course, even this one is sold for just 10 euros. It’s think it is a small price for a nice environment, which brings you back to 1955 or something like that.

I want to talk about your current art piece, the Audioscan Milano.

This is the bomb, I think is how you say it in San Francisco [laughs.]

Audioscan is my first experiment with a contemporary music institution, which is called AGON. They present a lot of contemporary music events with great composers. They also work with La Scala Theater, which is one of the most famous theaters of the world. I was lucky enough to win this grant from them. We also had the Councillor for Culture interested in this work.

Basically, Audioscan is a massive work of sound design. For three months, we recorded every single street in Milan. We are talking 1,580 streets recorded. Which is, I would say, about 80 percent of the whole metropolitan area.

For seven months, some collaborators of the university and I have transformed these street noises into musical sounds using some software I’ve written with Max/MSP. The software is called Translator, and basically it is an array of 46 bandpass filters that have one VCA each. So I can extract from noise, the harmonics that I want to use.

We use a MIDI keyboard to define the frequency of the first harmonic. Once we have this frequency, we also have all of its upper odd and even harmonics, with these 46 filters. By adjusting the VCA of each bandpass filter, we can obtain any kind of sound we want. So we can make pads or violin-like sounds, from cars, or people walking, all the sounds you can find in the street.

The sound design was a very big process, as I said before, it took us seven months. After that, we used instruments we built with Max/MSP to create ambient music. So we used this street noise, which is basically a scrap from society, and we created actual music out of it. It isn’t just Musiuqe Concrete, we made real ambient music, which sounds pretty soft, mellow.

Audioscan is not just this music, which we performed live on May 27 in Milan, but at the same time, we made an installation that will be shown at Palazzo Real, which is the Royal Palace here in Milan, from May 20 to May 30. This installation is made also with Max/MSP/Jitter, and some Flash.

Basically you have a map, on a large touch screen, and you can navigate through the city and listen to all the different sounds of a street. We also have a kind of mixer where you can mix the sound that we have transported from the city, and make some music. So on one side it’s a map with all the raw sounds of the city, and on the other side it’s transformed into music that people can mix themselves and enjoy.

The installation sounds fantastic. I wish I could be there.

There is a big buzz here actually, because now the music was chosen by the mayor of the city to go at the Shanghai Expo. Basically, my music, the Audioscan music, will be the official music of Milan at the Shanghai Expo.

Congratulations! Has Max 5 added anything that was useful for these newer works?

Well the presentation mode and the new graphics are a huge step forward, because an important field of my work is creating user interfaces together with acoustic ideas.

The way we relate with software, the way we get a feedback from it, it is indeed important and I hope that Max/MSP will keep evolving this aspect further and further.

I suppose that some of Marshall McLuhan’s statements about the role of the eyes in our electronic, electric driven society didn’t come true as he thought: we’re still a visual society. So much so that our most advanced audio tools require a great deal of visual information. I feel that new user interfaces are even more important than new synthesis techniques.

Of course we can still discover new worlds of sounds, but the best part of the job will be creating new ways of interaction, new visual and tactile relationship with those worlds. Sensor technology, OSC and augmented reality, of course, also have a great role in this perspective.

So, what’s up next for Giorgio Sancristoforo?

My next work is entirely recorded and filmed in a huge steel foundry. The project—which is an offspring of Audioscan—is a black and white film in super8 along with a live quadraphonic music performance. We will be presenting it in numerous film and music festivals in 2011.

So this summer I will be working to create a Max/MSP patch that I will use live together with my Buchla 200e—which is very special, having 7 audio inputs with envelope followers and pulse detection. It will be fun!




Giorgio’s Website

Interview by Marsha Vdovin and Ron MacLeod for Cycling ’74.

An Interview with Giorgio Sancristoforo

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