SoundBytes Interviews the Inimitable, the One and Only, Torley
Torley is a prolific creator of youtube music videos who has many fans. If you’ve never encountered him, you should get to know him. This interview should serve as a great introduction.
by David Baer, Jan. 2014
Approximately four years ago, I was searching the web for some information on Native Instruments’ Pro-53 software synthesizer. I happened upon a YouTube video in which an exuberant young man was going through Pro-53 presets one by one and riffing on what he found there. The presentation was clearly unrehearsed and some seriously well-developed keyboard chops were on display, as well as some inspired improvisation. And let’s just say that he was … ahem … colorfully dressed and leave it at that.
So it was that I encountered Torley for the first time in one of his ongoing series of Project Preset videos. Torley has become known to many as a prolific YouTube videographer. His offerings are mostly focused on some aspect of music, usually electronic. He has several performance tutorials to his credit that have in excess of half a million views. If you’re thinking of spending money on a synth, checking first to see if there’s a Project Preset on the instrument is always a good idea.
Soundbytes tracked Torley down and he agreed to give us the interview that follows.
Soundbytes: First tell us about your background, musical or anything pertaining to how you became the YouTube serial videographer that you’ve become known as.
Torley: In a nutshell, it all began at the age of three when my mom sat me down at the piano and my feet were still too short to reach the pedals. Along the way I went through formal, sometimes very rigorous classical training. I’ve been sad in recent years with my former teachers dying off one by one … that’s been one of those passages-of-life things.
In my mid-teens, I eventually discovered electronic music through its natural technological proxy, the computer. I wanted to “paint” with a broader spectrum of colors than what the piano afforded me. And by this time I had gotten more serious, hearing in the mid-90s about the new electronica revolution that was coming Stateside. As you probably know, that sort of fizzled or didn’t meet expectations, only to comeback mainstream in the last few years with dubstep and the whole EDM thing. Everything is so cyclical.
In the early 2000s, I cultivated a huge interest in cyberpunk and virtual worlds, Second Life in particular, and I joined SL during a period of depression where I felt just isolated from human contact hoping for a greater transhuman future where people who are disabled, or differently-abled are able to thrive. I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or as it’s known now, high-functioning autism – labels are such a funny thing. I was just thinking of ways to be self-empowered and to help inspire others. And so the video part of it comes partially through that, because in my job, working at Linden Lab for Second Life, I found it difficult to explain this virtual 3D world in text, and still pictures didn’t do a whole lot better.
So I thought: show the world as it is. I would narrate, make some videos and capture my energy and love for the creative possibilities here. That later crossed into … by the way, another big part of this, why I was so depressed, is because of loud exposure to noise. I had (and still have) hyperacusis, and my hearing is quite distorted at times. I have crackling in my ears and I don’t hear the full audio spectrum the way most people do. And so I went away from music for a while. Things got better after several years – they are better than they were before, but it’s still there. And likely always will be. So that’s how I started making videos. I thought to myself that in a lot of the videos that I see, I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm. It really feels dry, but I want to feel raw, unbridled passion for sounds.
I have such a huge, huge respect for sound designers. I have my favorites, of course – people like Eric Persing … he’s like Zeus amongst the whole pantheon of contributors to the field, he and his team, including that piano-burning madman Diego Stocco. Then there’s the eloquent cool of Jeremiah Savage. I recently did a Project Preset for Kinetic Metal, his Native Instruments Kontakt sound bank, which is this wonderfully playable exploration of really other-worldly alien instruments. For me it’s not enough to have weird atonal sounds, I like to phase-shift them into catchy melodies, and an exemplar forerunner, among all my influences, is the weirdness yet accessibility of the Doctor Who theme.
SB: So you mentioned that you worked for a game company. Is that what you currently do in your “day life”?
T: Yes. Linden Lab, maker of games and not just games … we call them “shared creative spaces”, kinds of virtual worlds, places where people can build stuff and create art together and have wacky fun – making bizarre physical creations, toppling them over, sharing photographs, all sorts of electrifying things!
SB: So what’s your specific role? Do you work on sound for those projects?
T: Sound is part of it. This is lovely because you can’t get someone away from what you’ve always wanted to do. I always wanted to be a multimedia designer. So that’s what I do! My formal title is “Senior Multimedia Designer” I do the video promos and tutorials, publicity stills too, among others. I’ve done original music and sound design in various productions … I want to get more into doing music for the games and the worlds themselves. Part of the immersive experience and “whole package” that wows the Residents, the users who inhabit these spaces, you know? So that all comes together nicely.
SB: Regarding your videos on YouTube, there seems to be two easily identifiable types: your Project Preset videos, and your performance tutorials (like How to Play Music That Sounds Like Phillip Glass). But there are other types as well. How would you characterize these:
T: I suppose a third category is like this hodgepodge, this potpourri, the chop-suey of miscellaneous stuff of anything goes. Historically I started my channel show game footage and miscellaneous personal experiments as well as some Second Life stuff (before I transferred that into the company’s domain). And nowadays I suppose I’ve been more infrequent with video updates because I work a lot on music offline, and harbor a growing frustration with traditional keyboard controllers.
SB: Care to expand on that thought?
T: I enjoy “conventional” piano-style keyboard controllers for what they are, but especially after doing a lot of Project Preset productions, I feel that we’re held back a lot by their limitations. So that’s deterred me from videos and made me very angry! (You might not characterize me as a person of rage, but I’m a human being with all sorts of emotions.) The fact that polyphonic aftertouch and pitch-bend are still comparatively rare is a strong clue to the ridiculousness of the situation — why can’t each finger readily act like its own singer in a choir, or player in a string quartet? Or even how one can bend strings independently on a guitar as has been well-established for hundreds of years? It’s such a natural way to behave, yet this is one instance where the history of MIDI works against progress.
The instruments that do make these things possible are comparably expensive: the Haken Continuum, the Roli Seaboard, the Touchkeys, the Soundplane. I’ve also had some recent thoughtful correspondence with Roger Linn about his Linnstrument. In a parallel universe, perhaps these advances are far more widespread and electronic music is correspondingly a lot more nuanced and articulate. I may decide to get one or more of these “3D” instruments in the coming year, cash willing, but it still boils my blood that they haven’t succeeded for the masses. I don’t like to be alone or “elite” playing a wonderful tool – as “serious” of an instrument as it may be – I’d prefer to participate in an enriched and expanding community that has the experience firsthand. I know education is part of the game (like how Photoshop was but an obscure niche before Adobe evangelist Russell Brown, hard to believe). Perhaps a peripheral development will push them forth, like what iPad has done for touch (alas, no pressure sensitivity) music-making. In the meantime, what debilitating limiters to moving music forth.
SB: Am I right in saying that tutorials are the most popular of your video offerings? The two that I’ve looked at have an impressive number of views … in the neighborhood of a half million each, I believe.
T: It’s a serendipitous thing. That Phillip Glass video happened just because one day I was playing like that and I love the music of Phillip Glass. So I asked my wife to come record it – just capture it. So that was never meant to be a really structured tutorial or anything. It just: hey, I have some discoveries that I’m just freaking out with joy over and I want to share them. The energy waxes and wanes, so it’s important to grab it as it comes.
I think it helps when there’s an unexpected topic or something that is popular in the mainstream like Auto-Tune – I had an Auto-Tune video that I just did for laughs. People like to see me have fun and I love to see them enjoy that.
SB: Let’s talk about Project Preset. How did it get started? Amongst all the ones you’ve done, do you have any favorites?
T: Yeah, I’ve got favorites! It began because I do a lot of personal videos like a scientist might keep methodical records of lab work, cataloging all of the evidence and discoveries you make. It began as a private thing, but then I began to realize that it was too good a thing to just keep to myself. I thought other people would like to hear some of the sounds, because a lot of demo tracks for a lot of synth presets … argh, they don’t even capture some of the articulations. There are certain things I’m drawn to … I love to hear portamento glide, for instance. Morphing timbres is another. Certainly sounds that are instinctively and intuitively familiar but you’ve never actually heard them before – yet you could’ve in another timeline. Call it “sonic ontology”, if you will.
So, expanding on my favorites … I love the alien instruments … I mean there’s obviously some popular categories that I don’t relate that much to, like some mainstream trance and big genre sounds. The stuff that really speaks most to me are these sort of almost outer-worldly, time-traveling instruments. Think of how we refer to an erhu as a “Chinese violin” or Spock’s Vulcan harp, even – it’s these fascinating degrees of relatiivity. So I love stuff that is a combination of, what they call in Spectronsonics’ Omnisphere, psycho-acoustic sounds, the really neat granular synthesis stuff that sounds smooth and gritty like a million raindrop particles being shaped by telekinesis. Jeremiah Savage’s Kinetic Metal – that’s another great example of warping household objects into tonal magic, so that is a recent favorite.
And of course I definitely love the Bob Moog Tribute Library for Omnisphere due to the unity in diversity of who contributed, but I’m biased because I won that contest.
SB: You’ve anticipated my next question. Let’s talk about the instrument you won [pictured to the right, photo courtesy of Torley], how you won it, and so on.
T: Such an honor! I am so humbled beyond words. Even two years later, that whole thing has left such a positive and impressionistic effect on me that I still feel it daily. My gratitude is as constant as the sun rising. So, what happened was that I read about a contest – it was on all the music sites, it was everywhere. Eric Persing and his merry band are synonymous with great sound design and synthesizers. I grew up on the classic Roland sounds – the XP-50 because I missed the D-50 boat – so that had always been a part of my childhood. So this is the equivalent of (in any field) having a hero and then being recognized by your hero … I’m still blown away by it. Anyway, so I read the contest rules and thought “there’s no way I can just make one song for this”.
SB: Tell us more about the contest … what did you have to submit for consideration?
T: This was associated with the homage to Bob Moog that Spectrasonics was compiling. He was one of the original gods of synthesizers, period. Any one of us in this field of electronic music – if you don’t know Bob Moog, you’re not committed to continuing those roots. So, basically it was “make sounds highlighting this library”. That was the challenge. But I thought: I can’t just do one song – this is too big, too high above me. I am an ant, a peasant in the Zardoz-like cosmic visages of Bob Moog and Eric Persing … and all that lineage. So I decided I needed to make an album called “OMG: Amplify the Awesome”, referencing nuances in the history of electronic music – from past to present to future – reflected in the tracks … but in my own way and not getting too imitative. It’s like gazing upon a picture then setting it aside and trying to draw it months later, where your unique imagination fills the gaps. I worked for several months on the project – I think it was from spring to fall – it was just a blur at the time. I wish I could have done more … I slacked for part of it … played a lot of video games with my brother at one point. But that also inspired me because game soundtracks are an important part of electronic music.
And I did a lot of methodical research about what first inspired me to “do” electronic music. For example, Switched On Bach. I used to listen to the cassette tapes that I borrowed from the library. There’s a touch of that in there, a tribute to Wendy Carlos in the track “Bach-Us”, and I went further with “Torley touches” like rapid pitch-bending, or what I call “swooping”.
So I sent it in. I think it was a couple of months for the judging period. And then I was notified that I would be one of the finalists. I didn’t want to set too many expectations or get my hopes too high, it’d be annoying superfan action like dressing up in a yellow suit and trying to photo-bomb Bryan Cranston every day. But then one day Eric Persing, the man himself, rang me up. I mean, I love what he does and I love him as a human being. He’s so positive; he’s got so much incredible energy and this larger than life smile.
They flew me to Asheville, North Carolina. So when we met, I just hugged him. Two of his crew, Bob Wilson and Tolga Gurpinar, were also there to meet me. Just great guys. For me, it was really like meeting the gods. To know something I did touched them is mind-blowingly humbling, and on top of it to find out what humble and beautiful people they are? What a life-changer.
Speaking of life-changers, I need to emphasize how important my wife, Ravenelle, is. There’ve been countless occasions in which I was about to give up, and she was there to cheer me on to keep moving forward. When I felt depressed and alone, I met her in Second Life and she made my days so much sunnier. I never expected to find her, but there she was, giving me her all, and now I can’t be without her. I wooed her with piano concerts over Skype. She taught me about her life experiences and gave me hope. As my hyperacusis got better and I slowly inched back into making music after we moved in together, she provided balance and nurturing. Rav would consistently challenge me to always be better, even when I let her down. She has taught me patience and humility, and about true love in a real relationship. We haven’t had a moment quite like when Tabitha King staged an intervention for Stephen King’s drug abuse or various Sharon and Ozzy parallels, but we’ve traveled through a lot of light and darkness together.
To geek out on another Doctor Who reference, there’s the Impossible Girl Clara, who saves the Doctor in his many incarnations and he doesn’t realize it until later. Ravenelle has saved me during numerous aforementioned events in this interview. I couldn’t have done Asheville without her as my companion, from packing everything we needed for the trip, to her awesome driving skills, from attending an amazing Amon Tobin concert with the Spectrasonics guys, to transporting the OMG-1 back during one of the longest colds in my life. That OMG-1 shrine? She led the way in decorating it. She inspired many of my tracks and I’ve sampled her voice many times, like in “Tropical Owls” and “Voltriad”. Our conversations inspire what I’ll do next — why, she’s interwoven into the very space-time fabric of my music!
More recently, when I grouse about MIDI controllers, she challenges me to design my own; she really believes I can do it. She’s a fantastic visual artist and the creator of my album art. (I’m reminded of ValhallaDSP’s Sean Costello and his wife Kristin’s partnership.) And yes, she even finishes my sentences while I’m brooding or analyzing a moment. So, honey, if you’re reading this, I know I’ve taken you for granted because you’ve been as omnipresent as the air I breathe — I don’t have any excuses, just that I’m sorry, and you’ve given me the strength to be here for you.
SB: Let’s get back to your videos. For someone who has never encountered your YouTube videos, what would you recommend they first sample?
T: I’d start with the newest, because that represents where I am. And then you can move backwards through that, and search for what interests you. I like hearing from individual people about how they first encounter my stuff, whether it’s through a Project Preset video or some other type of production. When I have expectations tend to get disappointed. So I’m always delighted when someone sends me a message with those specifics. I love hearing that I’ve done something that affected someone positively – that’s good vibes. Give back to the universe, man.
SB: OK, but how does someone find those recent videos? The YouTube search system seems to be a roll of the dice. The results are unpredictable. Is there an accessible list somewhere, a definitive Torleography?
T: I’m grateful for YouTube in general but the interface is ugly. So for quick-access, go to torley.com and scroll to down to video section, which simply shows my newest. There’s a player button so you can see more. But like I alluded to, people who don’t know me yet usually search YouTube for something like “philip glass” or “cyclop” and then start browsing others of mine. Apparently it’s addictive.
SB: OK, final question: is it Torley, fashion refugee, or is it Torley, fashion visionary?
T: [Laughter all around] I’ve always loved bright colors. So I’ve gotta go with both. Why can’t I be a visionary on my own island? I like to think of it like I’m bobbing to shore on an island and there’s some sort of cargo cult there. They have suitcases holding God-knows-what, and I open them and they’re filled with the kind of clothes I like to wear. And I’m amidst these colorful Tiki sculptures. I like the Hawaiian shirts and Thai silk shirts … those patterns and textures, I love that! That is the kind of energy I carry when making music, and my fashion facilitates the mood.
SB: Torley, I must say that this has been fun for me. You’re even more enjoyable to talk to than to watch on YouTube. Thank for so much for taking the time.
T: David, it’s been awesome chatting with you too. I need to call out – in setting up this interview – how much I appreciate your politeness and your followup. So many people drop the ball when they claim “I’m going to get back to you”, and no matter how technologically advanced our computers and synths get, being responsively friendly is always in style. I hope your other interviewees have this impression, and I’m looking forward to reading more SoundBytes. 🙂