WaveDNA Interviews Michael Hetrick
“Always think of yourself as a beginner. The field is always shifting and changing, and the moment that you think of yourself as an expert is the moment that you lose touch.”
Michael Hetrick is a very busy man. He is the owner of Unfiltered Audio, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara, a teacher, an electronic musician under the name The February Thaw, and a developer with Slate. Recently, WaveDNA worked with Michael to make Liquid Rhythm work in conjunction with Unfiltered Audio’s G8 Dynamic Gate. We interviewed Michael about his work, life, and the release of his newest product, Sandman.
What was it that first got you into music and, more specifically, electronic music?
I’ve been into music for as long as I can remember. My parents had me take music lessons when I was 3, but those didn’t stick. In second grade, I asked for a guitar, and I took it up with an almost religious devotion. In fourth grade, I started playing drums for the school concert band.
I had sort of two stages to getting into electronic music. Initially, around sixth grade or so, I started creating rhythms on my computer, solely for the sake of practicing drums. In eighth grade, Radiohead put out Kid A. It was the strangest thing: I was at the store and had never listened to Radiohead, but the album art just drew me in. I bought it, took it home, and had my brain kicked in. It was amazing! What’s funny, though, is that wasn’t necessarily what made me start making electronic music. I ended up reading a lot of interviews that Radiohead were doing, and all of them mentioned Warp Records. So I ended up going back to the store, picking up some Squarepusher, Autechre, and Aphex Twin albums. Things got kind of hazy and now I’m here.
From attending high school in Ohio, what was it that attracted you to Nashville and then to California?
Nashville was appealing to me for my undergraduate degree since it was within driving distance of Ohio and also because of the huge music population there. I spent time interning at studios and learning a lot about the industry’s practices for recording and releasing, which was a huge change from the bedroom recording that I was used to. California was funny because I only moved there to join the MAT department at UC Santa Barbara. I had no idea that Santa Barbara was such an incredible place, or that Los Angeles was filled with plug-in developers. I make it a point to drive down to LA each month to go to shows. I highly recommend the Celebrate Everything concert series in Glendale, which is focused on modular synthesis and hardware-only performances (no laptops!).
What’s also funny is before I left Ohio, I figured that no one was really into modular synthesizers in my hometown (Canton/Akron area). Right after leaving, I find out that there’s a gigantic NE Ohio synth community that has meetups all the time!
Tell us a little bit about your research with Curtis Roads and how working with such a renowned electronic composer and academic authority has influenced you.
Meeting Curtis was such an intimidating moment. He’s had such a profound effect on our field, and is a total perfectionist. From a composer’s standpoint, I was blown away when I first saw his studio. He has next to no gear, hardware or software. He makes such incredible music, and he makes it with a bare minimum of tools. As someone who bought tons of plug-ins and gear, it was a very humbling moment. I’ve made it a requirement for every Unfiltered Audio plug-in to sit down with him and ask for honest criticism. I’ve also made it a side-quest to ensure that every UA plug-in has some microsound component.
From a more general standpoint he’s made me a more focused individual. He has such an authority that it’s been inspiring to me to be better at what I do. In the Spring, we teach a class together here at UCSB. It’s an all-levels introduction to hardware modular synthesizers. I think that it’s been a lot of fun for the both of us.
Where do you see plugin development heading in the future?
I think WaveDNA already has the right idea with Liquid Rhythm. I think as computers get faster, we’re going to see a lot more users and developers move towards modular software solutions similar to Max and Reaktor. For users, the modulars offer a lot more flexibility, while it cuts out a lot of the frustration of C++ for developers. I also think it opens the door for a lot of extremely creative designers that don’t have a background in C++.
On a larger time-scale, I expect a big movement towards web-based music making. My colleague Charlie Roberts created an incredible language called Gibber that allows for the live coding of music inside of a web browser. That proved to me that pretty intense DSP can happen inside of a browser.
How did Unfiltered Audio come to exist? How did you meet Joshua and Ryan?
I met Josh and Ryan here in the Media Arts and Technology department at UC Santa Barbara. Our department has artists and engineers from all sorts of backgrounds, but the three of us were all audio guys that wanted to write software and turn research into usable programs instead of just papers. We initially focused on creating Rack Extensions for Reason. The SDK is very easy to work with, and gave us a lot of confidence when it came time to create Renoun Reverb, our first commercial product.
Unfiltered Audio has had a lot of success with G8 Dynamic Gate, what makes G8 unique as a gate plugin?
I like to think of G8 as an amplitude toolkit that just happens to do gating really well. It was inspired a lot by my usage of modular synthesizers, especially with finding many uses for less-specialized modules. A gate is really an envelope generator, a comparator, and what would be called a VCA (voltage controlled amplifier), except we’re not using voltages in our plug-in! This thought was what inspired G8’s alternate behavior modes. One-Shot mode allows it to be used as a transient shaper or a percussive envelope generator, while Cycle mode gives it the ability to be used for granulation or AM synthesis.
The MIDI features were also inspired by modules. There’s a lot of focus on triggers and timing signals for modules. I wanted G8 to communicate with other plug-ins in a similar fashion. It can send out MIDI notes based on threshold detection or by internal generation with Cycle mode, making it a very capable rhythm generator and groove extractor. It also receives MIDI notes, which makes it a rhythm gate.
You also have an exciting new product called Sandman. What is Sandman and what was the inspiration behind building it?
Sandman was a mash-up of a few modules that I really wanted to see in software form. The primary inspiration behind Sandman is TipTop Audio’s Z-DSP, which is a digital effects module that reads programs from cartridges. It comes with a bunch of delays, each with a different flavor. What makes it so exciting, though, is a Clock input. This isn’t a tempo input, but actually an input that controls the processor’s clock, allowing you to manipulate the sampling rate of the current algorithm. I found this to be a very exciting sound, as it combined pitch-shifting, time-stretching, and sample-crushing into one input jack.
I also threw in some ideas from Make Noise’s Echophon (buffer freezing) and Phonogene (variable fidelity buffer), along with Harvestman’s Tyme Sefari (Start and End point control). Despite all of those influences, I wanted to make the interface as simple and intuitive as possible. G8 was a very maximalist approach, but I wanted Sandman to feel more like a guitar pedal.
How have you used Liquid Rhythm and integrated it into your software?
It’s a pretty incredible piece of software. I ended up using it for generating drum patterns for use in our Sandman demos. What I like so much about it is the fact that it sits comfortably between pure control and pure generative. As an example, there’s a great module called Grids by Mutable Instruments. It uses a “map” of drum patterns. The main problem with Grids, though, is that you don’t really provide any control of your own. You hope to land on a good pattern that fits your piece.
I’m a bit more of a control freak, so I prefer a tool like Liquid Rhythm that allows me to build something from scratch exactly as I intend, and *then* go into creating evolutions and chaos. I really dig the BeatWeaver and GrooveMover tools for precisely that reason.
I mainly use Liquid Rhythm in standalone mode. I do this because I like to only work with one tool at a time when I’m composing, which is part of the reason I like having hardware around. It really allows me to focus on one specific task and encourages me to reach a point where I hit export, instead of leaving around a lot of experiments. I was really happy to see that Liquid Rhythm caters to that mentality, since it offers a lot of great export options. I’ve started to build up a Liquid Rhythm folder filled with MIDI clips and drum loop stems.
For the readers who don’t know, what is The February Thaw? How has your education and software work influenced the evolution of your personal sound?
The February Thaw is the name that I have released all of my music under since high school. It’s been a weird evolution, starting off with a lot of more rock-focused work and moving towards academic electronics. It’s always been a fairly quiet thing that I’ve done on the side just to scratch that music-making itch. I’ve never performed live under the name, and the only money I’ve made off of it was licensing a song for a bikini commercial (No joke!). It’s been getting some attention lately due to my involvement with the modular community. I had a track released on Make Noise Records for their Shared System Series, which was a huge honor. I love that company. I’ve also been using the name recently for Unfiltered Audio demos.
So, I would say that it’s definitely been influenced by my research and software development. I would also say the opposite is true, as some of our products have come out of Max patches that were developed for February Thaw tracks.
As a PhD candidate, teacher, artist, programmer with Slate, iOS developer, and business owner, how do you manage your time and what takes priority?
I’m getting married in April, so you can also add planning a wedding to that list! In all honesty, I think a lot of it has to do with really loving what I do for a living. A lot of the time, my PhD research consists of analyzing synthesizers and talking to musicians that I grew up listening to. I’ve wanted to make plug-ins since high school, so I often remind myself that I’m doing my dream job. With the Slate contract, I get to put my name on the Raven, which is one of the most well known pieces of hardware in the recording industry. All of that keeps me going, along with tons of coffee.
What advice can you give to the electronic musicians who are reading this? How can our readers connect with you and follow your work?
My advice is to follow every road. Electronic music is the most exciting genre, as there are absolutely endless possibilities to explore. Go out and listen to everything, and don’t be afraid to spend lots of time making things that only you would want to listen to. I would also say to always think of yourself as a beginner. The field is always shifting and changing, and the moment that you think of yourself as an expert is the moment that you lose touch.
When I was developing Sandman, I sent out the first beta after two months of very intense development. I was convinced that I had heard everything that the plug-in had to offer. When the first tester sent me back a sound demo, my first thought was “How on earth did he make this?!”