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Tony Rolando: Breakin' is a Memory

Make Noise Founder on New Album + Creative Process

Ryan Gaston · 05/03/22

If you've stumbled across this article, odds are that you'd agree that music can be deeply powerful and personal. It can be transportive—and in some very special cases, it can cause you to engage with your memory in an uncommonly direct way.

Music can break through your focus on your immediate surroundings and churn up visions of forgotten times, often bringing a hazy fog of emotion surrounding them. Sometimes these emotions are intrinsically tied to the time and place from which the memories originate...but sometimes, these emotions are new, emerging because of how the memory relates to the present, and where you are now relative to where you were then. It can be confusing, and it can be quite beautiful. And if nothing else, it provides fertile territory for further thought: why do our memories change over time? Why does the emotional context of an event change each time it is remembered? And, when an old memory spontaneously emerges, what should we make of all of the new, unexpected details it brings along with it?

I don't often start articles or reviews by asking these sorts of emotional questions; but it's difficult to talk about Tony Rolando's music without addressing ideas like nostalgia, intentionally engaging with memory, and the many ways in which memories gradually change over time. I recently met with Tony to discuss his new album Breakin' is a Memory, out now on Important Records. The casual conversation took a number of turns, so rather than publishing a transcript of our talk, I'm using this space to discuss some of the insights I gained—both about Tony's concerns as a musician, and about how the album came to be altogether. What can we learn from the thought processes behind this music?

If you haven't yet heard Breakin' is a Memory, I'd strongly recommend giving it a listen with undivided attention. Take yourself somewhere comfortable and quiet, and settle in for a full-length listen—and once you've re-emerged, feel free to keep reading.

Tony Rolando : Musicianship + Instrument Design

I expect that most of our readers are familiar with Tony Rolando: he is the founder and lead designer of Make Noise, and many of us are much more familiar with this aspect of his work than we are his music. Recent interviews have shed a lot of light on his background as a musician—definitely check out this video on Make Noise's YouTube channel, this interview with Reverb, and this interview with Podular Modcast for some more perspective on this part of Tony's history. I'd like to use some space here, though, to talk from the perspective of someone outside Tony's life, who has been keeping up with his work for the better part of the last 15 years.

From the perspective of a Eurorack enthusiast, it's difficult to overstate Tony's influence on the current state of modular synthesis altogether. For many, instruments like the Shared System, 0-Coast, and Strega are providing completely new, exciting, and inspiring ways of engaging with sound. Yet other designs have proven to have such enduringly useful utility that they're part of an enormous number of modular systems, including the ubiquitous Maths.

For myself, Make Noise designs were a tipping point that in some ways overturned my entire music-making process: they were the instruments that first convinced me to take the "plunge" into modular synthesis. But beyond that simple fact, I've always felt there is something more at work behind them. Every knob seems to be scaled exactly the way that feels right, and every parameter seems to have an ideal control voltage response range. While not every module layout can necessarily be described as being immediately intuitive, they do have a seemingly consistent underlying logic that, with some time, can become second nature for the player. And in the meantime, up until the point that you really intuitively know these designs as a musician, there's another particularly special form of magic at work. For me, these instruments nurture a sense of exploratory play, leaving me excited to try new patch points, twist knobs, and push buttons because I don't know what to expect. Once you know the instruments, of course, it's easy to get them to behave predictably; but it's equally easy to dive into a more "blank slate" perspective, letting these instruments guide, surprise, and—in many cases—delight you...even after years of playing them.

So why am I rambling about instrument design in an album review? Well, I think it's important to note that, until recently, we hadn't seen any wide releases of Tony's music. But given the strong degree of musicality baked into Make Noise's instruments, it felt certain that a thoughtful musician must have created them. As such, I always wondered what music might emerge from the person who designed these instruments, and how much the sonic identity of the music would be tied up in the nature of the instruments he created. With 2021's Old Cool Echoes and new album Breakin' is a Memory, it seems we have at least part of our answer.

When talking with Tony, I went in with an enormous range of questions, which I hoped would magically flow together somehow. Looking back, I feel the core nature of the questions was actually fairly simple, though. I wanted to know why now was the right time to start releasing music. I was curious where he finds inspiration, and how that guides the creation of music. I was curious how his own instruments play into his creative process. And I was curious about the element of nostalgia—how memory plays out as a source of inspiration and a compositional tool. For the rest of the article, I'm going to ruminate on his responses to those ideas.

Why Now?

First off...why was now the right time to start releasing music? The answer turned out to be a confluence of many factors.

For many years, keeping Make Noise running took priority over other creative endeavors. Running the business—while creatively rewarding in its own way—left little time or energy available for music-making. But as Make Noise hired more people, and as the business became more self-sufficient in the last decade, more of Tony's time and creative bandwidth was freed up for pursuing personal passions. It wasn't until he was able to step back a bit from certain aspects of the day-to-day business that some of the required mental space cleared up.

Tony Rolando + Alessandro Cortini collaborating during Strega's development—image via Make Noise on Instagram Tony Rolando + Alessandro Cortini collaborating during Strega's development—image via Make Noise on Instagram

All the while, other friendships and collaborations were fueling his drive to start making music. In our conversation, Tony referenced his collaboration with Alessandro Cortini (which ultimately led to the creation of Strega). He indicated that being close to Cortini was a sort of spark that fueled his own creative energy, almost as if seeing Cortini's constant creative drive strengthened his own.

Another number of factors tied into this as well—in 2019, Tony broke his foot while skateboarding, and as such was forced to slow down and sit still in an unprecedented way. He took this opportunity to return to recording music after around a decade away from it...which, according to his recent interview with Podular Modcast, led to dozens of recordings. He started to share these with friends, gaining encouragement from his peers to keep going. And, in 2020, as the pandemic began to settle in, Tony buckled down and recorded the sessions that would eventually wind up on both Old Cool Echoes and Breakin' is a Memory.

So, there wasn't really a master plan at work that made now the perfect time to start releasing music. It was simply that life naturally evolved in this direction: having encouragement and inspiration from friends, having a broken foot, and having enough mental bandwidth to be creative is all it took to get started on these projects.

Getting Lost

The remainder of my questions didn't have quite as straightforward an answer. When discussing process and inspiration, the boundaries between theory and practice can be quite blurry—after all, musicians following their intuition seldom abide by hard and fast rules. Nonetheless, it's always fascinating to try to understand where musicians look for inspiration and where musical ideas originate.

I first asked Tony if he was the sort of musician that gets a musical idea and goes to the studio to realize it, or if he's the sort of musician that sits down at an instrument and freely explores it in order to discover musical ideas. He claimed he is more of the latter: for Tony, music-making is more about following than it is about guiding. As for where the inspiration for a specific track or piece originates, it seems to vary quite a bit. However, after some discussion, it seemed that a common starting point was about discovering new context for familiar things—be that by re-discovering old media, returning to a forgotten recording session, coming back to an unattended modular synth patch, or re-contextualizing his relationship with a familiar instrument or playing interface by trying to use it in a new way.

He specifically cited old talk show interviews or forgotten movies, for instance. Through a process he described as "digital spelunking," he digs through the Internet Archive and obscure corners of the Web to uncover old, forgotten media. This could become the spark for a musical idea, or audio samples could literally be used as the very basis of a track. This could also come from mining old Geocities MIDI files, or by digging through obscure sample cartridges for long-out-of-date rack samplers. Rediscovering once-mundane, now all-but-forgotten cultural artifacts and granting them renewed importance is one of the many ways Tony seems to find inspiration.

Tony Rolando in his personal studio, with Yamaha CS-80 and Strega Tony Rolando in his personal studio, with Yamaha CS-80 and Strega

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the discussion, though, came when asking what felt like a very plain question. I asked Tony if he felt his own instruments had particular strengths or weaknesses in his recording process, if there was a specific reason he might reach to one of his own instruments to achieve a musical task, and if there was a specific reason he might reach to another instrument rather than something he had created. While I expected an answer about specific techniques, I instead received an answer about mindset.

Tony spoke specifically about "feeling lost" as part of the music-making process: stumbling into a scenario where you're not quite sure how to orient yourself, forcing you to make exploratory decisions in a way based on intuition rather than muscle memory or musical instincts formed by habit. Feeling lost means that you're able to get out of your head as a technician and instead rely on your ears and instincts. According to Tony, one of the pitfalls of using his own instruments is that, because he knows them so well, this feeling of "lostness" can be elusive. It can be difficult to be creative on equipment that you're extremely familiar with if you're the sort of musician that often gains inspiration through experimentation. So, how can you discover this feeling without resorting to using completely different gear on each project?

Tony pointed to an experience recording Old Cool Echoes to explore this idea. His specific example involved using the Waldorf Quantum to dive head-first into non-standard tuning systems. Tony stated outright that he isn't an expert on experimental tuning systems, and like many of us, is by far most familiar with the sounds and tonal colors that come from the 12-tone, equal-tempered tuning system. But by simply selecting a microtonal tuning system on the Quantum, suddenly the keyboard meant something different than usual; suddenly, different harmonies and melodies could emerge; suddenly, this very familiar way of making music could produce completely different results. Because of its novelty, Tony was able to explore more freely, without making the same types of snap judgments one makes when working with more familiar materials.

Luckily, modular synthesizers (and many other types of electronic instruments!) are all about this kind of re-contextualization. Even if you're familiar with a piece of gear, it's quite possible to patch things in a new way, choose a new signal path, re-arrange your modular case, or try to control parameters in a new way. In Tony's example, even re-contextualizing a single musical parameter (i.e. pitch/harmony) was enough to tap into a mindset where here could explore and find a new way of listening and making music.

Breakin' is a Memory and the Sound of the Past

The last concept I wanted to talk about is nearly inescapable when listening to Breakin' is a Memory—the concept of incorporating nostalgia and memory into the way we listen and make music. This is already obviously part of Tony's process...diving through the internet to find old talk show interviews, for instance, is obviously a nostalgic process. But there's more to it than just digging up material from the past from this very literal lens: much of it instead has to do with creatively interpreting some of the more unreliable and colorful aspects of memory altogether.

One of the strongest sensations in Tony's mind as he made the record was the fact that tiny, insignificant things—an image, a smell, a sound—have the capacity to trigger sudden, unexpected bursts of vivid, colorful memory. Sometimes, the simplest trigger can cause you to recall something so clearly and completely...even if it's something you hadn't thought about at all for years. Often, these types of memories feel much larger than life: they're more colorful, more emotional, more terrifying, or more beautiful than they possibly could have been as they were happening. But...memory can do that. It can present something real as being something much more grand than it actually was. It can turn something simple into something cathartic.

But what are we to make of the discrepancies between what actually happened and how we remember it?

Breakin' is a Memory is full of steadfast sequences and nostalgic chord progressions shrouded in layers of corrosion and fog-like haze. From the album's first moments, the constant hiss of recording equipment noise floor is a clue that what we're hearing isn't an event as it is happening: instead, what we're hearing is a recollection. From there, vast, indistinct echoes drip off of clean, articulate synth tones, forming a sound world that at once feels crisp and new, yet dusty and old. It's something of a sonic contradiction...and in a sense, it's a quite appropriate contradiction. Digging through a dense sonic fog to hear the core sound from which the fog originated—listening to echoes repeat and gradually deform—hearing sequences shift in shape and break apart—hearing wavering melodies fading in from and into the distance—this is all so beautifully aligned with the idea that familiar memories are often different than the reality from which they began. Granulated samples of vintage synth sounds become a way of removing the most familiar aspects of their tone, leaving behind something recognizable, yet foreign.

Exploration + Commitment

I'm particularly stricken by Breakin' is a Memory. It's easy for a synth-centric record to come across like a technical demonstration. Especially given that it was created by a synth designer, it seemed possible that this music would be a showcase of techniques by the Make Noise instrument's ultimate "power user." But in fact...that isn't what this record is at all. Instead, it's a carefully-crafted journey; it's welcoming, and it's unpretentious. It's beautiful, cathartic, and, despite its motoric rhythms and surreal soundscapes, it feels undeniably human.

What can we take away from the sounds and techniques behind this album? For one, I think it's important to keep in mind that no one process is the right way of making music. Tony Rolando didn't sit down and make these records with rigid rules about what gear to use, how to record it, whether it should be played live or overdubbed: instead, we get a sampling of all sorts of techniques, all sorts of instruments, and all sorts of workflows. And yet, despite this lack of rules, in the end, it still sounds cohesive and continuous. So how did that happen?

I'd wager that much of this record's consistency of sound and tone has to do with Tony's commitment to a concept. In our discussion, he mentioned that finding the title for a new piece of music can be a strong point in guiding your decision-making about how the piece should unfold. This feels uniformly true of the whole album. Every sound, every texture, and every transition feel like they very cleanly serve a central theme, albeit a hazy one: it's about distorted perception, the passing of time, the degradation of memory, and the way that recalling the past can make it feel much larger than life. From hunting down old samples and deconstructing the sound of familiar poly-synths, to re-contextualizing familiar musical interfaces, it all somehow fits.

But at the same time, I suspect that Tony wouldn't necessarily say that adhering to a concept is necessary for making music. I don't get the sense that he's operating like a prodigy with a singular, grand vision: he's a regular person who enjoys making music, exploring whatever might be inspiring to him at the time, and, perhaps most importantly, he can look at his own work with a critical eye. Tracks began as simple exploratory tinkering in the studio. The records don't present one-shot performances; they were the top picks of dozens of recordings, with added layers, processing, and refinement.

Why do I say all this? Well, I simply think that this record is a great example to follow for anyone making music. Don't get too tied up in following "rules." Try to listen to things with fresh ears. Follow whatever you care about or find inspiring at the moment, even if it doesn't necessarily seem cool. Just...pursue whatever fascinates you with sincerity, dedication, and intuition, and you might just wind up with something as beautiful as Breakin' is a Memory.

Breakin' is a Memory is out now—check it out on your preferred platform, or on Tony's Bandcamp page for digital/streaming (or even a silkscreened T-shirt!). And of course, scope out Important Records to grab a copy on vinyl before they're all gone.