Interview with Progtronic
An Interview I did a couple of years back…pretty cool, I needed to add it to the new site I hope you enjoy it.
I caught up with Progtronic aka Rick Richards and asked him if he would like to share with the Reason community how he went about making The Evolve album which was totally recorded, mixed and mastered in Reason 4, that’s right Reason 4 and a little about how he got into music. For those of you who do not know of Progtronic I hope that this interview might inspire you, I know it did for me.
Rick is a great musician and in 1992 he won the Keyboard Reader Soundpage Contest, not an easy task, with his song Aliens Among Us. I picked up his album Evolve which comes with a Bonus DVD-ROM that includes Progtronic’s entire back catalog of music. 15 albums (167 songs) including two previously unreleased albums, bonus and rare tracks…Amazing! So lets get on to the interview shall we….
LR: So can you tell us a little bit about how you got into music and any kind of training you may have had?
Progtronic: Music is sorta in my genes. Almost everyone in my family was a musician of sorts. Before I really became a musician though.. I started out recording friends that were in High School bands. My equipment was a really lame setup of a couple of very used cassette decks and a cheap mixer. I’d overdub takes back and forth on the decks through the mixer, until all the parts were recorded. I have always had a pretty good ear for sound, so I made the overdubbing work pretty well, for the most part.
I soon became interested in learning to play an instrument myself. I really wanted to play with synths, but they were too expensive back then (late 70′s). So I started playing the baby grand piano my parents had just bought. I did try taking some music lessons early on, but I couldn’t deal with the restrictions I felt that I was under. Theory, scales, modes, structure, patterns, etc… I just wanted to experiment and do my own thing.
Stupid of me, in hindsight. If I had bothered to learn all that stuff I might have made a decent living later on, scoring music for video, film and games. The upshot is that I developed my own unique style, not really influenced by anything other than my own experimentation. So, I really have no formal training.. I’m a total hack.
Anyway… I started writing music right away. It was terrible.. I didn’t really play very well, but worked the best I could with what I had. My parents eventually bought me a cheap, cheesy Casio keyboard (eight pre-programmed sounds and rhythms!) to add to the piano stuff I was recording. With that, I was able to add some bass and rhythm parts. I also scraped up enough allowance money for a Synsonics drum machine. It had four playable drum pads and could be programmed with a few custom rhythms. It sounded terrible.. but I used it a lot.
For my High School graduation, my mother bought me a Korg Poly-800 synth. That was my first serious hands-on with a real synthesizer.. and I went crazy with that thing. Started writing and recording dozens of tracks (with my, still crappy, cassette overdub setup) and compiling them into albums. A few years later I was able to afford some better gear. Bought a big mixer, 4-track cassette recorder, hardware midi sequencer, a couple more midi keyboards and a real drum machine. Added on to that over the years with a couple more racks of gear, including more synths, samplers and effects. That hardware midi studio got me through many years of music production and several albums.. until I really couldn’t stand the hassle anymore. I never knew what I was gonna have to deal with everytime I fired all that gear up. Crunchy mixer pots, bad cables, buggy hardware. And that constant need for more and more gear to try to keep up with the modern electronic prog rock music I was trying to produce.. was just too expensive and really out of control. I couldn’t deal with it anymore, and just packed everything up. Stopped producing music for a few years. Got more serious with my job in graphics and website design, and sunk my head into that for a while.
Then, one day I got a Mac magazine with a demo disc of Reason 1.0 in it. I had heard about it from a friend of mine, but hadn’t seriously looked into it. Loaded it up, and played around with it for about an hour.. then immediately bought a copy. That changed everything for me musically. I could basically do everything I used to do with my old hardware midi-studio, minus the hassle.. all on one machine, at a fraction of the cost.
LR: Listening to your music I am very impressed with the sounds you come up with, what or who influences you when doing your sound design?
Progtronic: Sound design for me is generally influenced by the genre I’m working in, and the mood of the song itself.. and where it takes me. I’ll program synth sounds based on what I’m hearing in my head for certain parts of a production. So the process just kind of feeds off itself. I’ll tweak patches until they fit just right in the mix.
LR: Who influences those great drums and how do you go about programming them in?
Progtronic: Drum sound and rhythm programming kind of follow the same path as my synth design. The genre dictates the style and basic sounds.. and I’ll tweak them as I work through the song.
LR: Can you give us a little insight to how you go about producing your music?
Progtronic: I like to work linearly through a song. First I decide on the genre.. work up an intro in my head, which determines the kinds of sounds I might need.. then start designing and tweaking a few synth patches and drum kits.. and eventually start getting some actual note data into the piano roll. I’ll either play parts into the sequencer with my keyboard controller, then pop open the piano roll and tweak.. or just write them in directly with the mouse. I work through each part of the song in a linear fashion, tweaking everything (sounds, effects, mix.. etc) as I go. I’ll just repeatedly play back what I’ve done so far, until I can sort of hear the next part pop into my head.
LR: Listening to your Evolve album I really liked the sound of the mix, how did you go about getting everything mixed and mastered?
Progtronic: By the time I get to the end of the song, everything is pretty much fully tweaked and mixed (as a pre-master). I make sure everything is well separated and transparent. Then.. I add my mastering tools to the mains, and begin the mastering process. I go through and tweak levels and frequencies of the various parts of the mix determined by the mastering preset I have setup. I like to use basic custom master presets I make, that I know will generally work for the genre I might be working in. The Prog Rock stuff I do needs some low end boost and light compression/limiting to preserve dynamics.. and the Metal stuff needs rolled off lows, scooped mids, light highs and super heavy compression and limiting, till it melts faces.. etc…
Working backwards through the mix, from a basic mastering preset.. helps me keep all the music sounding like it came from the same studio. Otherwise you get too much variation from track to track on a single album. I know most engineers actually tend to master entire albums worth of tracks, at a time, with one set of mastering tools at once.. but that’s never worked out well for me. I prefer to break it up and keep them individually mastered. Mixing against a common master preset for each tune, helps me keep things in order.
LR: What is your favorite synth and why?
Progtronic: Thor was my favorite Reason synth. It had the best bang for the buck, in terms of sonic possibilities.. all in one module.
LR: Can you give us a little insight to how you went about sampling your guitars into REASON?
Progtronic: For my Reason guitars and basses, I used a variety of samples I’ve collected over the years. From audio and digital sample cd’s (Akai, Roland, etc..), Reason Refills, various samples off the web.. and even some I sampled direct myself (previously.. from actual guitars, recorded into my old hardware samplers.. then converted to aif’s for Reason).. then, created a bunch of custom refills from all that material.
From there, they were ready to be processed and played through various Combinator instruments I built in Reason. Just about every kind of electric and acoustic bass and guitar you can imagine.
LR: With all the guitar work you do in the Evolve I have to ask, who is your favorite guitarist?
Progtronic: I have too many favorites to pick just one.. Al Di Meola, Steve Vai, Alex Lifeson, Ian Crichton, Michael Romeo, Jeff Beck, Neil Schon, Ronnie Montrose, Steve Morse, Dave Mustaine, Dimebag Darrell, Van Halen, Allan Holdsworth, Tony Iommi, Marty Friedman, Frank Zappa, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc..
LR: I understand that you are know using another DAW but could you tell us a little bit about your next album?
Progtronic: My Next Album will be full-on, METAL! It’ll be Instrumental, Technical, Death Metal.. with a Gothic, Arabian twist. It’s taken the bulk of my career to get to the point to where I could finally pull off a fully Electronic, Metal album. Had to wait for technology to catch up to what I’ve been wanting to do since my very first album (SimItar; Subliminal Self). Metal guitars are really difficult to simulate, and it’s still no replacement for the real thing.. but the emulation is close enough now, that I feel comfortable releasing an album featuring them.
LR: How do you go about the timing structure of your songs?
Progtronic: Not sure if you’re referring to time signatures, or song structure.. so, I’ll address both. I don’t really do anything fancy in terms of time signatures.. Almost all of my tunes are 4/4. Only a few are in 3/4. I like to work off the grid a lot within it though, so sometimes it sounds like a complicated time signature.. but it’s still only a 4/4. Makes it easy for me to maintain a groove, and wrap back around to the one, in the middle of the chaos.
Regarding song structures.. they are kind of all over the place. Sometimes I’ll do a song that never repeats anything. Some tunes might have a more traditional verse, chorus, bridge thing going on. I generally prefer working with complicated structures though. Progressive themes are more interesting to me, than traditional pop/rock structures.. or electronic styled looped phrases.. though I’ve done that as well, with some dance styled music, just not too often.
So, generally I just work through from beginning to end.. and just go where the music takes me. That method probably accounts for the Cinematic style my music tends to have. It’s like I’m sort of building a soundtrack to the themes that are building in my mind.. as I work through a song.
LR: What drums and bass did you use on Evolve, did you sample them or were they refills?
Progtronic: Some samples were converted to custom refills from a variety of audio and digital files.. and some came from commercial refills. A few tracks used the Reason Drum Kits refill.. and the rest of the songs used custom kits that were made up from a random collection of drum samples (some from commercial refills, some just single samples from audio cd’s) I had converted to refills over the years.
Some of the basses were from a few commercial refill packages (can’t really remember which ones), and some were, again, from my personal library of samples I had collected over the years and converted to refills. Sorry I can’t be more specific. I literally have multiple stacks of audio and digital cd sample libraries sitting here in my studio.. and I have no idea which ones were specifically used for that particular album.
I even have a bunch of sample cd’s and refills I had bought, just before giving up Reason, that never really got any use. I was just in the process of starting to convert them, when I finally called it quits.
I was like a sample disc/refill junky. I had also just bought a ton of high quality sound effects samples, that I had just converted to refills.. and never used. So, to answer your question.. I’m not exactly sure what I used.. and some were sampled/converted from audio and digital data cd’s, and some were commercial refills.
LR: How much of your music was recorded just using Reason?
Progtronic: The 3 albums that are 100% Reason are: In The Beginning, Evolve and Reason Demo’s “Reason Demo’s” was more of an EP.. but you get the idea. They can all be bought on the “Evolve/Retrospect” CD/DVD 2-disc combo package from CDbaby (the DVD only comes with the physical CD purchase.. not the digital download. There are a bunch of extra tracks I did with Reason alone as well, mostly remixes and.. a bunch more that aren’t available online anywhere I can find.
Well there you have it some good insight into a great musician who recorded 3 albums of amazing music in Reason with his last one being Evolve album totally in Reason 4 which I find amazing and I am sure you will too when you sit down and listen to it. Learn Reason thanks Progtronic for taking the time to answer some questions and hopefully it will inspire you to make some great music! Thanks Rick!
P.S. I bought the Evolve/Retrospect CD/DVD Combo Pack and it’s amazing, a true diamond in the rough. Just knowing that someone can make such quality music like this it’s so inspiring and I have all his 3 albums in my music collection and listen to them often, hours of amazing beats, harmonies and cord progressions with sizzling leads that are second to none. Stop by Progtronics website and listen to his music and know it’s Reason 4, pretty amazing ..you will want it.