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One Sound Design Trick with Lightbath


June 26, 2024
by GForce Software

Composer and improviser Bryan Noll explores time and space with his musical project, Lightbath. Taking inspiration from Brian Eno‘s view of composers as gardeners, Noll plants musical seeds with his synthesizers and, through improvisation, guides their development and growth into pieces that unfold in the present moment.

Bryan developed his sound and process as Lightbath by making YouTube videos showing the physical act of coaxing music out of his colorful boxes of wires, knobs, and lights. As Pitchfork puts it: “Once you have submitted to these videos, it can be hard to pull yourself away. The artfully unpretentious demonstrations… occupy a strange, sui-generis niche: Featuring balmy sounds, blinking LEDs, and low-key set-dressing, they are part performance, part tech tutorial, and part audio-visual wallpaper.”

Lightbath, who contributed to VSM IV and GForce Oberheim OB-X‘s sound design, kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

That’s like asking a Deadhead if they have a favourite Grateful Dead song. There are just so many, and you can’t choose just one! 

But if I had to choose a single synthesizer, it would be the Roland SH-101. It was my first synth, so it’s the lens through which I see all others. I bought it in the late oughts after discovering Warp Records and learning that so many of my favourite sounds from Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher came from that simple little synth.

However, if I were to choose a synth more uniquely suited to my work, it would be my new studio modular synthesizer, housed in the massive 6-row 168hp cabinet by Needham Woodworks. It’s just so flexible and quite the opposite of the SH-101. Where the 101 is a fixed-architecture single monophonic VCO and single envelope, the modular system can be just about anything. With it, I love exploring non-linear ways of generating pitch and rhythm and working with subtle yet complex modulation to get everything feeling like a unified organism. 

Which of your GForce Oberheim OB-X patches do you consider your personal favourite?

I love my ‘Hold On A Minute‘ patch for OB-X. It’s an attempt to get a mostly fixed architecture synth to behave more like a modular.

Is there anything, in particular, you liked about GForce Oberheim OB-X?

What’s great about GForce Oberheim OB-X is how friendly and approachable it is. On the surface, it reads as a simple two-VCO synth with a separate filter envelope, plus chorus, delay, and reverb. But if you dare to delve into the XLFO and XADSR section, you can build some simple semi-generative patches like ‘Hold On A Minute’ and ‘Sparkle Motion’ that encourage you to play slow, long tones, or slow down the tempo, latch a few notes in the random arp, and just listen. I also love utilizing Aftertouch subtly, so if you’re playing any of my patches, lay into the keys and notice what happens.

The first patch I made on OB-X was a bit outside the usual Lightbath zone. I knew that Van Halen used the original synth on ‘Jump,’ so I made a tribute called ‘Might As Well.‘ I love making tribute patches when working on a commission like this. OB-X can get such a nice shiny sound, so some of my brighter tributes are reminiscent of The Knife and some older Oneohtrix Point Never, which give some variety to my usual warmer Boards of Canada-inspired ones.

Do you have any tips for getting great-sounding patches?

Making tribute patches can be a good exercise. Once I understand the basics and can get around on a particular synth, I’ll find inspiration by copying some classic sounds I love. 

But when exploring a new synth, I’ve got to understand what I’m working with first, so I’ll load an INIT patch and listen to the character of the VCOs and filter. Next, it can be good to experience the envelopes to get a feel for the response. How snappy can they get? How long can they get? How does the curve feel? Once I understand those components, it can be fun to start exploring the modulation options, which can really tie the room together.

In the case of VSM IV, I began by previewing all of the sample banks and favouriting the ones that really spoke to me. After that, it was about finding satisfying combinations for the two layers and using filter, EQ, and effects to enhance the theme or vibe I was going for.

One practice that has emerged is subverting standard conventions by exploiting specific properties. I have a VSM IV patch called ‘Lone Transmission‘ that isolates the noise that’s part of the ‘Orchestron Cello Mono‘ sample. Once high-passed, it reminded me of radio static, which conjured the image of a broken radio in some post-apocalyptic scene. When I get a clear vision like that, it’s easy to run with it. I also love naming patches and adding written notes to help tell more of the story, and I’ll take the opportunity to make a pun or a joke that hints at the underlying inspiration or tribute. 

Where can readers find more info about you?

https://lightbath.com