If you're a fan of Make Noise gear, or if you've just been around in the Eurorack scene for a while, odds are that you're familiar with Walker Farrell. In his capacity as a Make Noise employee, he wears a lot of hats—beta testing, writing manuals, and, perhaps most visibly, creating content for the always-entertaining and informative Make Noise YouTube channel.
If you've seen a handful of Make Noise's videos, you might already have an idea about Walker's personality and interests. Walker's videos run the gamut—over the years, what seemed to start as a channel mostly dedicated to user manual-like module overviews has grown into gathering point for creative and curious musicians to learn about classic electronic music techniques, to re-contextualize their understanding of familiar techniques and devices, to learn about unconventional ways to interact with sound, and even to mentally re-frame how we think about making music altogether. From my perspective, it feels like Make Noise's approach to education and inspiration has powerfully developed their overall image...they make musical instruments, sure, but they also focus significant effort on outwardly encouraging playful experimentation, and continuously reminding whoever is listening that making music and playing with sound can be fun.
By my estimation, it takes a particularly interesting and special type of musician / thinker to ask the big questions: "What if I record myself making a sandwich? How do we simulate time travel? What is the Noise Floor of the Universe?" Even outside his work with Make Noise, Walker is an interesting and thoughtful musician with a dry wit, impressive resourcefulness, and a touch of goofiness. He was kind enough to take time to E-mail back and forth with us about a wide range of topics from his own background and his involvement with Make Noise all the way to general thoughts about the nature of electronic music education and technology's growing impact on how we experience music. The following are a series of splendidly thoughtful answers to some of our biggest questions, with plenty of amusing anecdotes and insights along the way.
Walker's new album Live from Home is out today, March 12th—so be sure to check it out! A collection of live performances from home during the pandemic, this release has everything from acid basslines to Ciat-Lonbarde noisescapes, deconstructed piano textures, glockenspiel improvisations, and plenty more. Give it a careful listen, or perhaps let it roll as you contemplate an interesting interview with the artist...
Background, Asheville, & Make Noise
Perfect Circuit: Hey Walker! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Let's start with a little bit of background—what led you to work with music and sound? Did you start out with an interest in electronic music specifically, or no?
Walker Farrell: Thanks for having me! Well, I had music in my ears from the start. My parents told me they purposefully listened to Erik Satie leading up to my birth, and those works still hit me on a primal level. I have vague memories from childhood, particularly of listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue on a little red and blue cassette player while I lay in bed at night, to keep my mind occupied because I had pretty bad insomnia as a kid.
When I was nine or ten I saved up my allowance for a Sony Walkman specifically so that I could listen to a cassette of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced that I had dubbed off my dad’s copy. As far as I can remember, the effects and playing on that album represented the first time I started to recognize the manipulation of sound specifically, and I wanted to play the electric guitar. For some reason I thought that was out of reach so I asked for some kind of electronic keyboard with guitar sounds. I had a 61-key Casio with various sound effect presets, for a Christmas present. Then I started to take piano lessons and the deal I made with my mom was that after a year of piano lessons I could switch to guitar. After that year I didn’t want to give up piano either, so I saved money again this time for a really janky 3/4 size electric guitar and a tiny little amplifier, and dedicated myself to both instruments.
By this time we also had a computer. I was composing piano music and for maybe my 13th birthday I got a music notation software to make it easier to do drafts (I was getting pretty serious about it). It was like the Finales or Sibeliuses of today but much much cheaper, clearly made for kids. Nonetheless it opened a lot of possibilities for me. I used this software to make multitrack MIDI compositions far beyond what my human hands could play. I contributed some tracks to some internet rando’s Heretic levels, which I never saw in action because I didn’t own the game. I also started downloading freeware, doing things like loading executable files into sound editors to see how they sounded, copying, pasting, speeding up, reversing, etc. I made hip hop pause tapes. And at some point I messed around with a freeware version of Rebirth, getting into the simulated X0X grooves. Somewhere I read about somebody, probably Aphex Twin, making their own devices as a kid, and I excitedly took apart my Casio to try to alter it, but I had no resources or guidance so all I really ended up doing to that was taking magnets to various parts of the circuits and hearing the effects.
PC: So when did you start working with synthesizers?
WF: Although I had tweaked some settings in freeware softsynths, I can definitely say the real ground zero for me was encountering a display model of a Korg MS-2000 at some Guitar Center-like store. I was 17. I stood there tweaking knobs for hours. I couldn’t believe this was real.
I’d read about Moog synthesizers, I knew that Dr. Dre and P-Funk and others used them, but again this was still kind of the dark ages of the internet and I had no avenue to go to find out any more than that. Moog synths weren’t in music gear catalogs at the time (this was before Bob Moog revived the company) so I didn’t know where else to go. When I found that Korg it was the first time I had my physical hands on a knobby synth and it was a sea change in everything. I convinced my folks to go halvsies on it with me for a graduation present, and I just lived in it for a long time. I played it in a band in college too, while also starting to slowly acquire sampling and recording gear. I was super into hip hop and also into psychedelic, um, music. I made multitrack recordings in my dorm room all the time, pulling samples from everywhere I could think of and layering on the most whacked out synth lines I could muster. Most of it no longer exists of course.
PC: What about modular synthesizers in particular? What was your first encounter with these instruments like? Why have you gravitated toward modular synthesis over time?
WF: After I got out of college I had a long period that was sort of directionless. I knew I wanted to work with sound and I was specifically interested in synthesizers, but I didn’t know what to do with that. I sort of fell into the vintage synth market for awhile, but it was a lot of risky and expensive purchases with little reward. Modular synths, as far as I had been led to believe to that point, were a thing of the past. I’m actually not sure exactly how I discovered that there were people still making them. I decided to take advantage of the sort of “payment plan” that the 5U Dotcom synths had as an option at the time. My first encounters were … confusing. There were so many things I thought I understood that I learned I did not when I had to patch it up myself. The big one I remember is that I did not understand at all how a VCA works, and that may well be the core concept of most synths. Cracking that nut really opened my mind.
It wasn’t long before I realized expansion was going to be limited in the 5U format in the space I lived in. I built it up for a couple years and was starting to run out of space. I discovered Eurorack when I saw a picture of Robert AA Lowe in Wire magazine, perhaps 2010? After a brief dabbling in cross-format patching, I gradually changed over to the more portable format. At this time The Harvestman, Tiptop, Make Noise, and of course Doepfer were all taking off. Reading Doepfer manuals was another big door opener in my mind. The idea of using things like Boolean Logic and sequential switches for composition seemed so wild to me, and so appealing.
But yeah I guess the biggest reason I gravitated toward modular synths over time is that once I figured out the basics of working them I always felt like every sound and patch was mine, in a way that hardwired synths never gave me. I got to make all the decisions, and that was dangerous and exciting.
PC: You also live in an interesting place in the history of experimental art and music—Asheville, North Carolina. Black Mountain College, the Moog factory, and now Make Noise HQ are all there. Is this a coincidence? Did this play any substantial role in your artistic development?
WF: It is a coincidence. My wife is from Asheville, which is why I moved here initially. I tried a few times over the years to get the Moog Company to notice me and it always fell on deaf ears. That’s not an impugnment of Moog; I didn’t really know what I was “doing with my life” at the time even though I was getting very good at patching and explaining patching. I’ve made friends with a lot of Moog employees since then.
I was also a big modular head and a Make Noise customer for years before realizing the company was located in my town. In the summer of 2012 I encountered Tony Rolando at a Moog Foundation tent at a summer street festival, more or less at random. At that time there were not really physical modular “scenes” outside of the biggest cities, and I was probably one of a very few people in Asheville who used modular synths. I began coming up with any excuse I could to knock on Make Noise’s door and talk to Tony. At that time the company was very small, just a few people, and located in a cramped single-room building. It wouldn’t really work that way if somebody did the same thing today, as friendly a company as it is.
Anyway, shortly thereafter, my sister-in-law put the foot in me to try for a job at Moog again and for the first time out loud I said, “I’d rather work for Make Noise.” I gathered up my courage and sent Kelly (Kelbel, Make Noise CEO) and Tony a letter, Kelly interviewed me and they offered me a part time internship. That was indeed the most significant moment in my artistic development (obviously for my “career” too such as it is). I think that they recognized me pretty quickly as an expert musical user of their instruments, and Tony started consulting me on designs, bouncing ideas off of me, giving me things to test etc. Getting that up-close view of his design process has had a huge impact on my personal artistic aesthetic and process. And I should also say that the work ethic exemplified by Kelly and Tony is also a big influence on me. They are expert at making smart business decisions while very purposefully making sure that they are staying true to their values and vision. This is a tough line to walk and they have done so in an admirable way as the company has grown in the years I’ve worked for them.
Black Mountain College is also an institution here and several of the names associated with it are influences, the most obvious example being John Cage. I’ve also been honored to be involved with the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center for a number of projects. Tony and I did a presentation on tape music and microsound there a few summers ago to a standing-room-only crowd; I helped design the installation/performance for the John Cage Room at ReHappening 2018, my buddy/colleague Rodent and I did a quadraphonic modular performance for a BMC+AC festival and later reprised the performance in the museum. Jeff and Alice at BMC+AC have been really awesome every time I wanted to do anything and I am really looking forward to the day when live events become a thing again so we can continue working with them. They even paid for a permit for us to do Modular on the Spot in the big square in downtown Asheville and then hosted it in the museum when it was rained out. Hopefully we can make that version of MOTS happen for real next year, fingers crossed!
PC: What / who do you consider to be the major influences on your artistic and educational work?
WF: Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Hip Hop, Jazz, William S Burroughs, Bill Watterson, Kurt Vonnegut, Diego Rivera, Donna Haraway, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Prince Paul, Björk, Luc Ferrari, Eliane Radigue, Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Wendy Carlos, Tony Williams, Hank Shocklee, Laurie Spiegel, Ursula Le Guin, Shigeru Miyamoto, the Simpsons, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, John Cage, Questlove, Kodwo Eshun, Tony Rolando, Grant Richter, Dieter Doepfer, Tom Erbe, Joanna Newsom, Kelly Kelbel, Alissa De Rubeis, Felisha Ledesma, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Karen Barad, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Pauline Oliveros, Jimi Hendrix, Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Nobuo Uematsu, Trent Reznor, David Bowie, Rashad Becker, Curtis Roads, RZA, Jorge Luis Borges, and pretty much everything and everyone else.
Music & The Evolution of Technology
PC: Can you tell us about your latest release Walker's Acousmatic Variety Hour? How did this record come to be? What was your approach to making it?
WF: This one had a bit of a gestation period. The recordings were mostly made haphazardly whenever I was playing and had something I wanted to hit record on – it didn’t begin life as a project with a name or identity. Probably half of it is patches I created while doing (many many hours of) beta testing on Make Noise modules that have since been released. A good example is “New Jack Sandwich – Dijon Stretch Mix,” which is built from a recording of a practice session for a single-performance project called New Jack Sandwich that I did with Devin Booze. It was a five-part multi-instrumental piece that also involved an indeterminate performance by audience members. This session was a part where he played squeeze box and I played Dobro. I was testing the Radiate controls on a QPAS prototype with a time-stretched Morphagene Reel of this practice session, and the harmonic motion through the squeezebox drone at different rates with the Radiate parameters made a sort of contrapuntal melody that I sunk into for a long while.
There are also a lot of field recordings. Most of the pieces with heavy field recording elements have names like “5th stercase chamber,” “25th chamber” etc. with the idea that a chamber is a physical space, and also as a low-key tribute to Wu-Tang Clan, some of whose classic cuts (“4th Chamber,” “7th Chamber”) are just named after specific chambers from their 36 chambers of perfected styles. Considering the many styles in this “variety hour” this seemed like an appropriate reference.
I also included one longer piece (“Helioplasm”) that I had previously released, on Nathan Moody’s The Wrong Side of Mystery. That compilation had been pulled off Nathan’s Bandcamp and I wanted the piece to still be available so I put it on here too.
In sequencing this I was thinking a lot of classic hip hop from the 88-92 era, when CDs were starting to become popular and producers were sequencing records on the macro level in the same patchwork-but-organized way they did the tracks—lots of scraps arranged into a cohesive whole. I’m thinking of De La Soul Is Dead, Fear of a Black Planet, Paul’s Boutique...I took that folder of scraps and then arranged them into one big hour-long collection. Some of them I overlaid on top of each other, taking note of ebbs and flows and fitting them together based on that. A few segments appear early and are then reprised later in the hour in a different context.
I originally compiled this record for an hourlong web radio show but it was turned down because I had not realized they were asking for a single hour-long original performance. So I sat on it for awhile. I decided to release it as a record and contacted a visual artist I respected to do the artwork for it. We had it all worked out but then they ghosted me once the pandemic hit. I’m not mad about it of course, but then a lot of things happened in 2020 in the world and for various reasons I didn’t want to put too much shine on my own music. In the fall I finally decided that I needed to release it before the material became so old that I was embarrassed by it, which seems to always happen eventually with everything I do haha. So on that note I found my old high school senior picture, which people always seem to love when I show it to them (much more than the amount of love I got for my appearance at the time it was taken, I should note), and made it the cover. It must have been subliminal that the text I use looks like Twin Peaks credits – I didn’t notice that til other people pointed it out to me, but it’s undeniable, and yes I’m a Peaks fan.
PC: We know that, in addition to working with modular synths, you work in the realm of computer music as well. Do you find that your approaches differ based on the tools that you use? Or is it all part of a single, central practice?
WF: I’d say it’s kind of both. I have dabbled in trying to run everything as one big hybrid instrument and I usually find it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I get into a different mindstate with different instruments. I enjoy building things in Max, for example, but for me it doesn’t really have the extemporanous quality that patching does. So I aim to make something that puts all the typing and calculations behind me and lets me play without thinking about the “algorithm” or what have you. I guess you could say I make instruments with Max rather than making compositions with it.
At the same time there is a through-line of phrasing and dynamics that I bring to any instrument I’m playing, whether it’s acoustic or electronic, melodic or otherwise. I think that element stems from my lifetime of playing the piano, which remains my “favorite” instrument even though I can’t play it at the same level I do synthesizers.
I also tend to develop music for the situation. In the past few years most of my purposeful composing, patching, and playing has been preparations for specific performances. In all cases I develop an outline and then improvise. I like to play with as little safety net as possible; I like the raw danger. Playing for livestreams during the pandemic hasn’t really been the same.
PC: Perhaps along those same lines, the history of electronic music is tightly interwoven with the development of technology. What is the role of a tool/electronic music instrument in the compositional process for you?
WF: For each instrument I play I have a specific way of interacting with it on mental, physical and spiritual levels, to different degrees for each. I guess I could say that playing instruments for me really puts those three planes of my existence into one space where they all become the same thing. If I’m composing something that needs particular types of sound then I’ll reach for particular instruments, but I guess my primary goal with any instrument is to reach the skill level where I can confidently improvise. I have not reached it with recent additions like Dobro or glockenspiel, but I have it down with piano and modular.
PC: What, in your opinion, are some of the most groundbreaking developments in music technology of the 21st century?
WF: Interesting question – It’s hard to say to what degree “ground is being broken” when you don’t have the hindsight yet. I do think the availability/accessibility of synthesizers and computer music tools, along with the ease of information flow via the internet, has made it much easier to figure out what you’re doing and what you want to do. The Eurorack modular format pre-dates the 21st century, but the “explosion” of it since 2007 or so has now made it so very possible to mix and match a previously-unthinkable amount of synthesis techniques and interface designs and get to know your own instrument on such an intimate and personal level. For me it’s to the point where I don’t really think of synths that don’t have patch cables as even being synthesizers.
Maybe the biggest impact of technology is the ongoing de-commoditization of music. Recording and distribution are so cheap now that being a professional musician is a near-impossibility for most people, but being a highly proficient amateur is very doable. Not that I have any say in it, but I think this is a good thing in the end; I’d rather see many many people having the tools and knowledge to be musicians in ways that satisfy them, instead of having a few heroes that we all gather to worship.
PC: Over your years of experience, how do you see a modular synthesizer today vs when you started exploring the format?
WF: This may be unusual but I don’t really see that it’s that different. I’ve kept my own system relatively the same size for the last ten years, and I only swap things out when something really peaks my interest. I think the biggest difference is that today’s digital modules are much more powerful in terms of sample rate and “sound quality” than they were back then. I’m still just as enamored by old designs. I have a clone of a Serge Wave Multiplier circuit in my case, Grant Richter’s MegaWave...
I might need to roll that back a bit though, because for my own practice the newer version of René, and the Morphagene, have been big enough leaps in digital capability that they changed my whole approach to patching and now my system is basically a case centered around each of them. They do the same things their predecessors (earlier René and Phonogene) did but with such leaps in memory and depth that either one can now carry multiple pieces in a performance much more easily.
Knowing the Rules | Breaking the Rules
PC: Since education appears to be an important part of what you do, can you share how your approach to teaching electronic music has changed/developed over the years?
WF: I took as much of an “ego-less” approach as I could early on in videos, trying to always focus on technique and knowledge rather than shining a spotlight on my own personality. As time went on and I started doing more face-to-face events, workshops etc. I kind of had to realize that there is no extracting my own personality and approach from it. So I have gradually made a couple changes to my process. One change was the conscious decision to embrace my own presence and personality instead of trying to hide it. This was partially decided for me, as sometime in 2019 Tony asked that I start appearing in front of the camera in my videos. I was hesitant for any number of reasons, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable in front of the camera I’ve started to feel glad that this change was made.
The second change is intertwined with the first – it is an attitude that I already had infused with my practice, but decided to make explicit after my friend Alissa DeRubeis (formerly of 4ms and the S1 Synth Library) pointed out her version of it to me – namely the attitude that the “teacher” is also a student and that we are all learning together. Together these two gradual changes have led, I think, to a greater emphasis on portraying my personal explorations with the instruments and inviting people to sort of hang out with me in this learning space so we can explore together. To some degree I’m playing a character onscreen, because that is the nature of film and of working from a script, but I strive hard to make this character as authentic to my real-life personality as I can. I’ve been feeling this out as I went, but I think especially during the pandemic and with so much social isolation happening, it seems to have resonated with a lot of our viewers and created a comfortable, familiar, and also adventurous and exciting space for people to be in.
PC: Staying on this topic, what do you find to be the most challenging part in teaching electronic music?
WF: I’ve usually been lucky to have an audience that sought this education out and had a deep interest in it, so I don’t find it difficult most of the time. We’ve done 0-Coast workshops with laypeople, and that has been really helped by the fact that the instrument makes a great teaching tool in the way it is laid out.
PC: It appears that both in your educational videos for Make Noise, and your personal artistic practice you often reference methods and philosophies explored within 20th century experimental music—concepts like microsound, musique concrete, acousmatic sound, minimalism, etc. How do you see these frameworks fitting in the context of today's electronic music? Do you believe that newcomers to electronic music might benefit from knowing about the history / extant techniques of electronic music?
WF: I think they fit in exactly to the extent that people want them to. I hold contradictory beliefs on this kind of thing: I don’t buy into cliches like “you have to know the rules to break the rules”—I think we can find value in people’s expression regardless of whether they have taken the time or had the resources to educate themselves on things like this. At the same time I personally have a thirst for knowledge about music that’s been made before and that’s being made now, and I find it valuable to mentally digest it, get inspired by it, and share what knowledge I gain with anyone else who might find it interesting.
PC: I personally feel like you've taken Make Noise videos to a fascinating new level this year—with videos like Noise Floor of the Universe, Sandwich Time, and plenty of others. It seems like you've branched away from strictly talking about electronic music technique and into interesting philosophies / concepts from outside the world of strictly electronic music. How do topics like reduced/intentional/Deep listening, phenomenology, and perception of time relate to music-making? How can electronic musicians specifically benefit from thinking about these topics?
WF: To me, art is a very important process for understanding my relationship to the world. Creating and expressing feels healthy to me in the same kind of way that getting physical exercise or eating nutritional food does. I have a long relationship with philosophy too—I have a degree in it—and I’ve increasingly found that doing process videos on techniques is relevant to my ongoing process of understanding my place in my community and in the world. I’m kind of coming at this with the assumption that, no matter what your specific musical goal is, your personal life can benefit from the kinds of contemplative practices you’re talking about here. And your music probably can too—even if you’re making a totally different kind of music from what you hear in the video.
The “Noise Floor of the Universe” video was originally a piece I wrote for an issue of the Make Noise zine that we planned to release alongside the 0-CTRL. It was a “hammock thoughts” essay for sure, but one that kinda encapsulated my worldview at the time, especially as things were just starting to be upheaved by the pandemic. Since there was no physical event to hand zines out at, the zine got canceled and I decided to make a “video essay” of it. The “Sandwich Time” video had similar origins—I was making a sandwich in my kitchen and decided I wanted to record the sounds. Then it occurred to me that I could probably make a whole video out of it. I decided to go over-the-top with the absurdist nature of it and originally was going to make it a three-video series. But I think two was the right number :)
Those videos are lower in the view counts on the channel, but they are the ones people bring up to me the most, so I plan to keep doing videos like that. They may not be selling something or even describing particular techniques, but they seem to create a lot of thought and conversation and that’s valuable too.
PC: What do you think about notation practices for modular synthesis or electronic music making? Do you know of any good practices?
WF: Bana Haffar’s "Shed" is a great example of a multimedia notation system that is true to its inspiration and can actually be read and understood by a competent performer. But like many electronic pieces, the piece is such a specific arrangement that the notation system is not universal to the point where it would be transferable to a wholly different composition—it’s very specific to this one.
In general I think the quest for a notation system is kinda upside-down. With electronic music the note itself is no longer really the atom of the music. If I need to re-create a patch I just make a list of all the connections and assume that I will have enough knowledge to make it sound good again. I made an exhaustive catalog of a patch I called “Intersection Points” back in 2015 and I did put it back together for a couple later performances...but the other thing is that if the system changes, as modern modular systems often do, then it will need to be re-created. I no longer have some of the modules used in that piece, so if I were to re-create it now, I would make a lot of alterations on the fly. Perhaps it’s worth a try, actually!
PC: If you had to give one advice to someone just starting out with modular synthesizers, what would it be?
WF: No patch is perfect, and every patch means something.