Interview – Sound Designer Extraordinaire, Nori Ubukata
SoundBytes talks to Nori Ubukata, the prolific sound designer who has been bringing us the Historic Synth Giants series for SynthMaster and much more.
by David Baer, Sept, 2014
Nori Ubukata (pictured right) came to my attention when a series of very fine sound expansion packs for SynthMaster started showing up on the KV331 Audio web site:
He was on to something that completely tickled my fancy: producing libraries dedicated to recreating memorial synthesizer experiences from the past. His series entitled “Historic Synth Giants” pays tribute to the legendary synth masters that thrilled and influenced many of us … ahem … of a certain age. The masters are all there: Wendy Carlos, Tomita, Vangelis, Keith Emerson, and on and on.
In addition to the Historic Synth Giants, Nori has compiled delightful libraries of Pop Hits, Dawn of Electronic Music, and more. Nori seems to currently favor sound design for SynthMaster, but he has had a lengthy career in sound design that allowed him to become the prolific master sound designer he is today. We tracked Nori down to learn more in the interview that follows.
SoundBytes: Tell us about your musical background – how did it all begin?
Nori Ubukata: My first instrument was piano. One day when I was five years old my parents took me to watch the film “Sound of music”. Afterward, I strongly demanded that my parents buy me a piano … it’s the beginning of my history of music. On the day of my first lesson, my piano teacher noticed that I have been given a sense of absolute pitch. I played some song from the film in exactly the same key as the original.
SB: Well, since you mentioned absolute pitch (and we assume that’s the same thing as “perfect pitch”), I would like to talk about something I was going to save for later. You are an accomplished Theremin player, an instrument that I assume critically demands a great sense of pitch accuracy. Is that the case? Please tell us about how you were drawn to learn this unusual instrument.
NU: Yes, absolute pitch and perfect pitch is same thing. In order to play Theremin, this gift was really helpful. I always know whether the pitch (note) I am playing is correct or not. However, there is a long story of how I came to the Theremin as my main instrument to play on the stage. I started to play Theremin after I got fed up playing keyboards. I noticed that Theremin is a completely free tuning instrument, which means that Theremin is a totally opposite instrument from pre-tuned keyboard instruments like piano and organ. Sometimes, I play non-equal temperament music such as Harry Parch’s 43 tone scale on Theremin. Of course, controlling Theremin pitchwith great accuracy is really difficult, but not impossible to me.
SB: We’ll get back to keyboard instruments later, but let me first ask you about the Theremin/synth hybrid instrument you are designing. Please tell us more about that.
NU: The Theremin is an absolutely great instrument in the style of playing and its idea. However there are so many points to be improved, for example, timbre control, envelope, modulation, etc. I was playing Theremin and Synthesizer together with control voltage, but it was tough to manage them at the same time. So I got the idea about how to combine these two instruments in the single cabinet and manipulate them on the same panel. On the other hand I also got some other special ideas, but this is not the time to disclosethem.
SB: Well, we’ll all be anticipating more information about this new instrument with considerable interest. But let’s get back to conventional keyboards – synths in particular. What drew your interest away from the piano to electronic sound production?
NU: Quite simple. The sound track of the film “A Clockwork Orange” by Walter (Wendy) Carlos, knocked me out (Oh my goodness, in Japan, that film wasn’t rated – so a 13 year old boy could watch that! Lucky me!). I wasn’t interested in rock or pop music but only classic and film music when I was early teenager, but the music of that movie placedme into another dimension. Then I have started to collect any music in which synthesizer is featured. Obviously, rock music was huge part of that (but I didn’t like “Son of my father” of Chicory Tips at that time 🙂 – now? I love it!!). So, I was not only into the synthesizer, but also Mellotron, Hammond, Farfissa, RMI Electronic piano, Wurlitzer – those are a few of my favorite things. I wasn’t attracted to Rhodes and Clavinet so much in those days. I don’t know why. To be honest, I was rather more interested in playing mainly than in sound production at that time because I couldn’t buy any synth or any other electronic keyboards – those were too expensive! So I bought a cheap acoustic guitar and a contact pickup then, playing Uriah Heep instead of playing organ pieces when I was a junior high school student.
SB: But at some point you clearly developed an interest and skill in synthesizer sound design. How did that come about?
NU: Actually I don’t know why. I assume it’s growing up slowly in my life. If I mention about this in short lines … I could say that the frustration for the specification of all the synths made me a good sound designer. Fortunately, I was involved in the first sound designing for Yamaha DX7 by chance. I experienced a lot at that time. I was trying to create so many kinds of sounds. So, this experience opened the door of the deep world of sound designing and pushed me into it. However, even with FM synthesis, I wasn’t satisfied. I think I’m a paranoid. 🙂
SB: Well let’s move on the subject that first brought you to my attention: your ongoing sound sets for SynthMaster that recreate various important segments of the synth landscape: Dawn of Electronic Music, Historic Synth Giants and Pop Hits. I love this concept – these sets are uniformly a treat. What was the inspiration for starting down this path?
NU: When I was teenager I only had a YAMAHA CS30, SS30 (String Machine) and Roland Jupiter-4. Those are great synths but they didn’t have enough functions to make the sounds that I wanted, such as Wendy Carlos, Keith Emerson, Tomita. Afterwards I played many synths like the Prophet-5, Jupiter-8, ARP2600, Prophet-T8, Minimoog, Matrix-12 and many FM synths (the Yamaha DX Series). Those are all excellent synths; but even with them, I couldn’t get supreme satisfaction ultimately. Some important functions were always missing on every synthesizer. I’m too greedy for the sounds, to be sure.
After I had started working for Arturia, I had planned to release “Synth Heroes” series with the Origin synthesizer because it has an ability to satisfy me. That was the beginning of my recreation work. Origin is quite good for that, but it still was not the right platform because of some limitations in its functions (yes I’m a paranoid).
SB: So you eventually settled on SynthMaster as your platform of choice. What motivated you to go in that direction?
NU: One day, after I left Arturia, I found that SynthMaster is most capable synth for this project. This is because SynthMaster has amazing functionality, such as the number of oscillators with a huge library of waveforms (it appears to have only two on the surface, but there are sixteen oscillators behind the scenes), It has seamless curvature-controllable, well-designed filters with filter drive-level control and three points at which to get the filter distortion (plus wave shaping). Then there is seamless curvature-controllable EGs, very strong EQ, a key-scaler, which has crazy numbers of breakpoints and of course an almost limitless assignable matrix modulation, etc., etc. And I noticed that phase is also controllable by one of the effects, which the designer of the synth probably didn’t intend (I found it thanks to a bug!!). I could simulate an original sound even if it’s recorded through the guitar or bass amplifier.
So I started to try cloning great historic synth sounds. And I saw I was right about SynthMaster. On the other hand, the process and the effort of recreation refine my technique of synthesizer sound designing. It’s exactly: “Developing new ideas based on learning from the past” – it’s an old oriental proverb. So I like this work very much.
SB: So can you describe your process? By that I mean everything from how you choose a sound to clone to the means by which you achieve a match in SynthMaster?
NU: Well, to put it In a nutshell,I follow my instinct and try to reproduce the sound that I like. In actual process, it’s not so difficult if I know what synth is used for the target sound – just to find the correct wave form, set the parameters in the right way, and design the first draft. Then go into the details in monomaniacal way. If I don’t have an idea which synth is used, I just listen to the sound carefully, sometimes cut the segment and playback repeat, repeat, repeat and repeat until I find the way to recreate it. Sometimes I use a spectrum analyzer to see the frequency response. Sometimes I know “This sound is not possible to recreate with SynthMaster”, even though I try because in the process of “Mission Impossible” gives me many hints to sound creation and It always good education.
SB: Are there more Historic Synth Giants or other “homage” type libraries in the pipeline or do think you’ve exhausted that source of inspiration?
NU: Still there are tons of sources, especially Wendy and Tomita. I think, someone suggested me to recreate the sounds of Rush (so I put it on my candidate list). I am also happy to receive requests for other new content to be recreated.
SB: What advice would you offer to someone who wants to become an accomplished synth sound designer, someone who wants to become the next Nori Ubukata?
NU: I repeat: “Developing new ideas based on learning from the past”. Keep replicating like an art students who replicates masterpieces of classic drawings at the museum. And also, try “Mission Impossible”. For example, no one will think it possible to create a Mellotron-violins sound with an analog synth having two VCOs. But you may try beyond your limit. This is my suggestion and this is what I have been doing all my life. With this kind of effort, you will be able to create any sound whatever you want very easily.
SB: Nori, we thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We wish you success and very much look forward to seeing your Theremin/synth hybrid instrument become a reality.
NU: Thank you too! And the hybrid Theremin/synth is in progress in collaboration with French synth building maestro Mr. Yves Usson and Swiss engineer Urs Gaudenz. I think we will be able to introduce our new instrument that is based on the Theremin in a few months.