This interview was originally published on Neon Vice by Lucy Black (February 20, 2015).
Today I'm joined by Juan Irming, the brains behind Amplitude Problem. Juan is a brilliant and talented producer that you're definitely gonna want to check out if you haven't already. He has put out a lot of great music over the past few months starting with "Introducing Neals", a collaboration with the famed nerdcore rapper, YTCracker and several other talented musicians. Also, you Peakers might remember his absolutely fantastic instrumental take on "Into the Night", which was a definite highlight of "The Next Peak: Volume I". Now, Juan is back again with a full album for us, which was just released on February 10th on Retro Promenade. "Blue Bots Dots" is an absolute blast to listen to and is an album you should pick up right away. It's available for Name Your Price on Bandcamp and is also available to purchase/stream in all the other popular places (iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, Spotify, etc.).
Hi Juan! Thanks for joining me for this interview! You just released "Blue Bots Dots" on February 10th ... how has the release been so far? Has the reaction been what you had hoped for (or has it exceeded your expectations)?
It's been absolutely great! My friends in the chiptune/blip-blop and nerdcore communities have shown great support, and I'm making lots of new friends in the synthwave/retrosynth scene who seem to dig that my album is a little different from some of the usual cloning going on out there. The album appears to be bringing back some good memories for the old demosceners and my Computer Corner homies as well. If the latter was the only thing I achieved with Blue Bots Dots, it would still be enough for me.
How long have you been working on Blue Bots Dots? What was your inspiration for this work?
I had made up my mind back in 2013 to release an album by the end of 2014, but I wasn't sure exactly which direction I was going to take. Then, in February, 2014, after a decade of being a YTCracker fan, I bumped into him while playing Rust (blessed be the Rustgod). Eventually we started talking music and I learned that the vision for his groundbreaking concept album was a synthwave/hip-hop mashup. I sent him a track and he said some very encouraging words. So, I kept sending him more songs and he accepted me onto the Introducing Neals team as a producer. I ended up producing half the album. I'll probably never be part of a more important project than Introducing Neals; it's an outstanding story that deals with present-day politics and technology through a retro-future lens.
Once it was clear that YTC had all the songs he'd need from me for Introducing Neals, I had such momentum with my songwriting that I just kept going until December of 2014. I changed tactics a bit because I knew the Blue Bots Dots songs would be instrumental, which meant I'd need different instrumentation and compositions (especially in the verses), but overall I continued in the synthwave style, albeit with a bit more chip and video game-iness.
Somewhere along the line, I was surprised to find out that I was composing songs about some very specific things in my past. This was not just going to be a collection of random songs, but something with a purpose. Suddenly I knew exactly what this album had to be and what topics I needed to cover.
It also became obvious that Blue Bots Dots deserved something more than "just" the music, so I decided to deliver what I call a "full album experience", which is really just a pretentious way of saying "cool website". But the point was to create a place where the listener can go view the album art (front and back), read the liner notes including a guest essay, view the beautiful pixel art animations I commissioned from Valenberg, and hunt an easter egg while they're playing the album. I think music benefits greatly from complementary visuals and text, especially in this age of what feels like throw-away digital music streams appearing on your device from nowhere special. Music can be a sonic journey with a visual destination.
While looking over your release notes on your website I couldn't help but notice a lot of mentioning and thanking going to Anders Ekström (aka Damokles). In fact, I believe from what you've told me is that "OK Firetown" is dedicated to him. Could you tell us a little more about how you two met and how he's helped you over the years musically?
Anders, known in the synthpop world as Damokles, is my musical Yoda. We met at Computer Corner, an Atari home-computer store in Malmö, Sweden back in the mid 80s. The Atari ST had a built-in MIDI interface and was therefore a very popular system for running the first few incarnations of Cubase.
We ended up spending quite a bit of time in his OK Records studio, which was located in a small town whose translated name would be Firetown. So, OK Firetown. Boom. I picked up a lot of Anders" musical style through those studio sessions where we'd play around with his Roland S-50 and other now ancient gear. I've been a Roland fan since then and only briefly did time with an E-mu Emax II before running crying back to Roland. I love their key action and combined pitch bend/modulation controller, which I make heavy use of in all my improv.
One of the most important points in time was when I asked Anders to press record on Cubase and just jam on the piano. I ended up with a 30-minute MIDI file containing pure gold, no, platinum. As a hacker who loved reverse-engineering code, it was natural for me to do the same with this MIDI file. For the first time, I could see exactly how these musical spells were created, which scales were sweet-sounding, what truly good rhythm was, the criticality of dynamics and how to combine it all to make a song come alive. With tons of practice, it elevated both my piano game and compositional techniques. It really primed me for music school, but more importantly, it's an inescapable part of my musical DNA.
Damokles is not someone who's trying to recreate 80s synth music. He's making the genuine thing he always has ever since that era while keeping it fresh and fun.
You were also telling me that this whole album is dedicated to Peter Christensen, who was a co-owner of Computer Corner. Could you tell us about your time at Computer Corner and the influence Peter had in your life?
Peter was one of the two owners of Computer Corner, Johan Fristedt being the other. At age 12, a classmate told me this new computer store had opened, so I went to check it out. I used to hang in all of the computer stores in town back then but they'd all kick me out when I sat down to code on their precious machines. Peter and Johan were different; they let me do my thing.
I wrote a simple program on an Atari 130XE that displayed "COMPUTER CORNER" on the screen, cycling through different colors and moving the text up and down. Peter and Johan thought it was so cool that they put a TV in the storefront window with a computer running my code! In a sense, it was the first commercial program I wrote and I couldn't believe it. At night, when the store was closed, I used to go there and peek in at my running program from the sidewalk. I'm sure it looked way cooler in my head than in reality. Super-talented pixel artist Valenberg captured this scene perfectly in his incredible animation.
I was going through a very rough time in school and Peter and Johan arranged so that I could work in the store rather than attend class. I forget how many lines of code I wrote there and how many hours I spent, but it was a turning point in my pretty miserable life. These guys believed in me and I took that and ran with it.
As I mentioned, I met Anders through the store, and many of my oldest and best friends as well, directly and indirectly. Peter passed away at a way-too-young age in 2013, without my having said what needed to be said. That is the biggest mistake of my life and Blue Bots Dots is dedicated to him.
It seems that music runs in the blood of your family. I've heard some impressive guitar playing from your cousin, String Operation and your son, San Dingo, just released a HIGHLY impressive album a few weeks ago on Retro Promenade. Congratulations, that's so cool! What's it like having so much talent in your family? Do you guys all like to jam together for fun?
String Operation is an excellent live player and did the LA scene in bands back in the 90s. He's really the reason I chose Musicians Institute, specifically, for my schooling (he studied guitar there). His guitar parts give some of my tunes a different color that I'm very much into. Synths and electric guitars are made for each other. Very complementary.
As for San Dingo (Max), I don't even know where to begin. I'm so proud I can't put it in words. He's light-years ahead of where I was at his age in terms of compositional technique and mixing. Him releasing a quality EP on a cool label this year at age 18, and placing at or near the top in production contests, gives me high hope and expectations for his future.
When all three of us find ourselves in the same spot here in San Diego, it's not rare for the guitar, keys and harmonicas to make an appearance in a blues-y jam session.
In an upcoming interview with YTCracker and Dicepticon you said that you have been "beating up pianos since [you were] a toddler and got [your] first keyboard, a wood grain Casio MT-30, in the very early 80s". I think that your experience really shines through in your music. With music being such an important part of your life since you were little, did you make it a priority to get your son interested in it or was that something that just happened naturally?
Thank you! It was deliberate, but truly, it didn't take much. Since birth, he was brainwashed with Commodore and Atari blip-blop songs and synth remixes thereof, along with pretty much every other category of music from classical to big band to metal. While he went through a guitar phase, he's always been naturally drawn to the keys since I first gave him a toy keyboard as a toddler. We've been doing scales and chords and harmony and theory for a long time. I'm proud to say he's a Roland man just as his fanboy father. I suppose he never had a choice.
Can you tell us a little about what your experience was like at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. I hear that your son will be following in your footsteps and attending this school later this year. What can he expect his learning journey to be like?
I airdropped into Hollywood from Sweden at age 17 to study keys at Musicians Institute's KIT program. Within a couple of days, I was tricked out of $10 by a lady who would "return it to me at 4 PM by the Burger King". I actually went there and waited. It was a solid introduction to LA. That, and learning that the ice cream on American pancakes is butter, and that a scoop of butter is really too much butter to put in your mouth at once.
Musicians Institute was great. Cat Gray (of James Brown, Prince and EW&F fame) was one of my teachers and he could make a Moog do scary things. My roommate Ross Retzler (who went on to become the drummer for The Bootcuts) and I lived in a frightening apartment complex where the cockroaches made the laws. We never got them under control but one of our Swedish neighbors did a bit better because he was willing to employ kitchen knives in the futile war against the tyrannic arthropods.
My band, which did ska covers of The Doors songs, made it to the Battle of the Bands. One of the tracks was "Hello, I love you". As the keyboardist, I was assigned the role of playing the fall/rise at 1:15. We rehearsed it six million times. Then, we performed it to perfection in front of 500 people until one minute and fifteen seconds into the song. I forgot to play the fall/rise and there was just silence for the longest five seconds of my life.
The school taught me a lot, especially theory, and I'm super excited for Max to experience it starting this fall. He's going for audio engineering, which is a smart move. One thing I was clueless about in school, and that I have made sure my son understands fully, is how crucial networking is in the music business (as in many others). If you don't do it deliberately and wholeheartedly, you're relying on chance that something will fly, and statistics are against you. This will be his biggest challenge; I'm not worried about his music/audio learning.
Tell me a little about your setup. What kind of gear do you have? What kind of DAW do you prefer to use? Also, do you like to use VSTs? What are your favorites?
After soundtrackers and Cubase, I jumped to Reason back at version 2 some 13 years ago and I've used Reason ever since. I have an embarrassing number of Rack Extensions (Reason VSTs) but I use pretty much all of them. I love the PX7 synth (a soft DX7), the Chip64 synth, Rob Papen's Predator synth, the Softube TSAR-1 reverb and Radical Piano.
My main hardware consists of a beefy ASUS desktop PC hooked up to dual screens, Roland A-800PRO keyboard controller, ADAM A7X studio monitors on IsoAcoustic isolator stands, AKG K712 PRO studio headphones and RME Babyface audio interface rocking double-balanced Canare Star Quad cables. In addition, I have a pile of lesser studio monitors and consumer-grade stuff that I test on.
You were someone that encouraged me to get a Tascam for field recordings. What kind of Tascam do you have? What have you used it to record so far? Are there any recordings we would recognize from one of your released tracks?
It's a DR-40E, which I enjoy. I've used it to record audio for sound effects like sword clangs, closing prison doors and gunshots (all the fun stuff that happens in video games). But my best moment with it was when I put it in the dirt on the roadside and recorded the engine music from my Ducati Streetfighter as I rode past it a number of times, late at night, without being arrested. Downsampled versions of those became the motorcycle sounds in the Blue Bots Dots title track.
For how long have you been a cactus aficionado? Please elaborate in as much detail as possible.
I've been a cactus fan forever. I had a Gymnocalycium cultivar in my room as a kid; it looked cool and otherworldly. I have eaten a cactus burrito. I use cactus stickers on Facebook because that's how I roll.
What kind of music have you been listening to lately? Also, I'm curious, who are your biggest musical inspirations besides the people you mentioned above?
Recently, I've been listening to some San Dingo, Damokles, YTCracker, Pentatonix, Týr, Alphaville, Cypress Hill, Nine Inch Nails, Daft Punk, Phaserland and OGRE. And I listen to Commodore and Atari blip-blop songs and modern synth remakes of them pretty much daily.
So, aside from Damokles, my biggest influences are without a doubt Commodore 64 composers Rob Hubbard, Ben Daglish, Martin Galway and Maniacs of Noise. In addition to those gods of early computer music, I'd say Public Enemy, Kraftwerk, JM Jarre and Nine Inch Nails, with the latter three having a pretty profound impact.
You have already made quite a splash in the synthwave community over the past couple months with your contributions to "Introducing Neals" and "The Next Peak: Volume I" along with your album, "Blue Bots Dots". What else can we look forward to from you this year?
I'm doing a retro-pop EP with singer Elijah Lucian, which is a lot of fun. There's no political message or real purpose other than it being kind of dance-friendly and lighthearted. It's a nice change of pace even though people will definitely recognize many of the musical underpinnings from my past work. Another very exciting thing will be contributing to some more Retro Promenade compilations. Also, ideas for a future album are taking shape in my murky mind but it's really premature to go further into that. I'll just say that it will likely be much darker than Blue Bots Dots.
What is the music creation process like for you? I know that some people like to start off with a particular instrument. Is there anything in particular that you do each time? Could you walk us through your process?
Practically all of my songs start out as piano pieces, though occasionally the right bass or synth sound lets me know I have a song. Most of my inspiration comes from piano improv. Sometimes a bass line emerges from the piano, other times a melody and/or chord progression. Once I'm feeling it and have refined it a bit, I record it and then the quest for proper instrumentation begins.
At this point, depending on what surfaced, I'll have either a hook or a verse. I'll flesh that out a fair degree as a final test to see if it'll work. If it sounds good, I'll write either a hook or verse to complement what I started with. They're usually pretty contrasting because I just prefer that alternating effect; it's almost like a macro call-and-response. Once all of this is established, I move on to the intro and outro, and a bridge if suitable. Some amount of my leads are improv and not deliberately composed. The leads on "Wet Pavement Blues" and "Blue Bots Dots" are (cleaned up) improv and so are the verses and the outro on "A Squadron of Plastic Spaceships", to name a few examples. Another instance is the lead synth 2/3rds into my "Into the Night" remake on Retro Promenade's Twin Peaks compilation.
I have a mental checklist I go through when I create and fine-tune a song. Some are rules, kind of, but I'll quickly break them if it's in the best interest of the song. Here are some questions I'll ask myself during the composition process:
- Is it melodic and catchy? (I'll break this one if it's something aggressive or particularly dark.)
- Have I achieved interesting harmonies and interplay between instruments?
- Is each instrument "having fun"? This one is a bit harder to explain but basically I try to look at each stem in my song as an individual musician. So the question becomes, is the person playing that part having a good time? Are they throwing in some variety on the fly because they don't want to be stuck on the same exact pattern for the entire song?
- Is the percussion dynamic, meaning lots of variation in levels. I practically never have two kicks, snares or hihats in a row with the same volume, for example. I ask myself this question toward the very end of the writing process because that's when I'll know what the percussion needs to do to complement the rest of the instruments. It's pretty rare for me to let the drums take the lead.
- Does the intensity of the track build up steadily from beginning to end? (I'll break this rule if the end calls for calming things down again.)
- Is the song short enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome? Is it short enough that a listener will want to play it again? Asking myself if a song is short enough might seem kind of strange, but I'd rather someone go "I want to hear that again" than get sick of it toward the end.
As far as the mixing process goes, I have one unbreakable rule:
- If there's vocals, they win. Nobody likes trying to figure out what a mumbling person is saying and the vox needs to be clear in the mix for the same reason, or the song will be annoying.
Likewise for mastering:
- Good dynamic range with no over-compression. At least DR10. For me, nothing insta-kills an otherwise good song like low dynamic range.
If you could give some words of wisdom to musicians that are just starting out on their musical journey, what would they be?
Network, network, network.
Listen to a broad spectrum of music and recognize the difference between taste and quality. This will make your mind receptive to outside ideas without knee-jerk reactions interfering. Actually, apply this to everything in life.
Become an expert at an instrument. (Obviously the keyboard is great for electronic music.) Being able to get what's in your head out in the atmosphere quickly and accurately is very valuable. Doubly so once you can do it in real-time during improv. This is helpful not only to live players but studio dwellers like myself as well. It will help you write much more interesting music much faster.
Study music theory.
Do a large amount of work but release only your best. Impatience will kill your plans. To quote Ira Glass: "It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It's gonna take a while. It's normal to take a while. You've just gotta fight your way through."
Buy the best gear you can afford, because you'll buy it later anyway. (What's affordable is an entirely different conversation.)
Thank you so much for your time, Juan. Your answers were very thoughtful and also humorous to read! I hope that other producers will find your words insightful and inspiring too. Is there anything else you'd like to say before we part (i.e. any shout-outs, plugs, etc.)?
Thank you for having me. You asked some very good questions that I apparently didn't have short answers to. Shout-outs to everyone in San Secuestro. Free Neals. Hack the planet. SYNC forever.
Don't forget to check out Amplitude Problem's new album, "Blue Bots Dots" along with his other recent works! Your ears will thank you!