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Yes, Master Sound Designer Drew Schlesinger Is Also a Musician



An interview: his latest album releases are both very new and very old

You know how interviews often start with “You may not know his name, but you know his music?” Well, with sound designer Drew Schlesinger, it’s “You may not know his name, but you know your own music that uses his patches.”

And after listening to Lost Childhood Vol. 1 and Lost Childhood Vol. 2 – yes, we recommend that you do, because they’re really good – you’ll also know his music.

Drew has been creating patches for synths, effects, and software starting with the Casio CZ-101 40 years ago, spanning 30 different manufacturers. The list of instruments and processors he’s worked on fills four 2-column pages!

But as you’ll read, he only used… well, no spoilers for the very first question! And we did manage to sneak in a couple of programming tips questions that you won’t want to miss. – NB

This man programmed sounds you’ve used in your music.

What tools did you use to make these albums, and why did you wait 30+ years to release them?

All the music on the albums was done with just two Casio CZ-1s, a Roland MC-500 Sequencer, and Roland R-880 Effects Processor in real time direct to DAT. There was a total of 16 voices available (eight per CZ) with the two mono CZ outputs feeding the R-880 and the final stereo mix with all processing recorded in real-time to DAT. There was no overdubbing, multitrack or mastering.

Drew Schlesinger as he appears today

Why I waited so long, I don’t know, maybe I didn’t think they were good enough to release. It was after Emika heard the songs, loved them, and said she wanted to release them on her label that I realized it might be good, it should be two albums, and I found the right track ordering that it all came together. I have her to thank!

Drew Schlesinger circa 1993, when he recorded the Lost Childhood albums

Do you start by assembling a template of sounds?

In most cases I would start with one sound that inspired the core composition and then create a lot of new sounds for the piece as I was composing. I didn’t use any presets, all the sounds were created new as the music evolved. It was pretty interactive, the music inspired the sounds and the sounds also inspired the music.

Given that you’re known as a sound designer/programmer, then, what are the starting points for your pieces – those sounds, melodies, just noodling… ? Or do you picture a soundscape?

All of them really. In some cases I had an idea for a piece or a feeling I wanted to convey and would make a sound that I found emotive of that feeling. In other cases I started with a simple melody or chord progression based on a sound I had created. Some of the pieces were totally inspired by the sound and were one-time improvisations, like “Dream” and “Clouds.”

Drew Schlesinger as he appeared somewhat before the release of Lost Childhood Vol. 2

But core to the whole project was to create new, unique, and personal sounds that nobody had heard before with just the two CZs. I recognized they were capable of such a huge range of sounds and I wanted to really explore the CZz sonic capabilities as a synthesist, sound designer, and composer all together.

Musicians tend to approach several steps as mostly separate processes: programming/tweaking/assembling a template, composing/recording/sequencing, mixing, mastering. Do you often tweak the original sounds instead of reaching for, say, EQ or compression?

The core of everything centered on manipulating and balancing the tone, timbre, and level of the sounds in the CZ itself, and also creating custom algorithms in the R-880. Since all the music was a composite mono mix coming out of the two CZs, there was no way to process individual sounds. The R-880 was like a mini-recording and mastering studio and the two mono CZ outputs were run through a custom algorithm per song doing all the EQ, effects, mixing and processing in real time. There was no multitrack or overdubbing, just a final stereo mix to DAT.

One of the first things one notices about your album is the clarity. Can you offer any words of wisdom that apply to mixing synth music more than other instruments?

Happy you think so, as that was a challenge. It came (and often comes) down to careful listening and programming of the core synth sounds themselves. There could be six or eight different versions of a single sound that were called up with a midi patch change command that would be darker, lighter, or softer, as there was no real time control of sounds with the CZ!

You needed something to sound different or fit better, make a copy, and modify the patch to fit. Also, doing all the effects in real time forced me to hear the entire song as a finished product as it was being created. So the goal was to get a very balanced sound ,since it couldn’t be changed once completed.

Your lead melody patches always grab you right away (not that the other ones are bad!). Could you go through some of the things you have going on, for example in “Friends?”

There were two things I wanted to achieve with melody sounds – first to have them be unique timbres, and second to have them hopefully elicit the emotion I was trying to convey. It was usually crafting the lead sound to fit the song’s feeling, the sonic context of the piece, and not have it sound like something someone’s heard before.

You played the parts live, but do you step-enter or use one-finger patches?

Everything was played live as MIDI into the MC-500 Sequencer. I’d sometimes use quantization after a part was played, but in many cases not. I came from a background of recording on a 4-track, where pretty much playing everything is mandatory. But there are clearly parts that were quantized to get a more even and consistent timing.

Schlesinger in 1979

Another unique aspect of your music is the grooves, for example in “East”. But in general, do you think in layers?

I do think in layers for sure, and for a number of the songs I started with trying to create a kind of groove, but there are no drums. It was more often a bass part. A couple of pieces have some sparce percussive or bass drum tones, but nothing like a drum machine.

Also in “East,” you have a little “blip” sequence part. Do you program things like that on instruments’ sequencers or in a DAW?

That’s an example of a rhythmic noise or nontonal part that was played on the keyboard and then quantized in the MC-500. I really tried to combine tonal and non-tonal sounds that were inspired by artists like Brian Eno, Morton Subotnick, the band Cluster, and others. They all either added these little ear candy noises, or in the case of Mort it was all non-tonal. His sounds were just brilliant and he’s a big influence.

“Jungle” may be the world’s first funky ambient piece. Could you talk about how you came up with it?

That’s a piece that was influenced by the late Jon Hassel. I wanted something that was “foreign” sounding and third or fourth world, to use his term.  Again, it’s mostly the bass and lead that provide that feeling and groove with some percussive parts and noises.  It was more of a constructed, layered piece, as you mentioned before. 

When you’re programming factory sounds for a new instrument, is your first goal coming up with patches that exploit its unique capabilities, making it sound large and impressive, or… ?

All of them actually. There are a few main goals when making presets for a new synth, which absolutely includes showing off the unique capabilities of the instrument, something that sets it apart from other devices. The other goals are to make sounds that are musically useful and inspiring. I can pretty much always hear where I think a sound could be used in a musical context and hope that the end user finds a place for them in their music. 

Let’s say someone just wanted to program a huge, impressive sound (like some of yours for the GForce Oberheim SEM), where would you start?

When going for big sounds, a lot of times it’s finding the right combination of oscillator waveforms and timbres. One trick is to use pulse width modulation and if possible scale the speed of the PWM modulation so it’s not out of tune in the low register and gets faster as you play up the keyboard. A couple of detuned pulse width modulated oscillators at 16’ and 8’ with some vibrato, a sweeping lowpass filter with some resonance (not too much), and a bit of chorus and delay gets you there.

If you have more than two oscillators, I’ll usually add a sawtooth or wavetable. It’s the careful mix and balance of the fundamental oscillators as a starting point that’s the basis in my opinion.

Do you start out thinking of the function a sound you’re going to program will fill, e.g. “lead,” “sequence,” “pad,” etc?

Yes, absolutely. I’ll usually be asked to create between 25 and 50 sounds for a project, and I know from experience that I need to cover a bunch of categories: lead, pad, ambient, bass, motion ,and the like. I always try to make sounds that I know I would use and I can hear where they would fit in a song I might create.

The goal is always to try and inspire players, which is pretty much the goal of all musicians I guess… to try and inspire people with sound and song.

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