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Frederick Rousseau: born to synthesize

Not many people can claim to have played in front of 2.5 million people. Frederick Rousseau can. He was up on stage with Jean Michel Jarre at the Paris La Defense concert in 1990 – at the time, the biggest gig in the world. Twenty-one years on, he's a key player at audio/music research institute IRCAM, writes Dave Robinson.

Not many people can claim to have played in front of 2.5 million people. Frederick Rousseau can. He was up on stage with Jean Michel Jarre at the Paris La Defense concert in 1990 – at the time, the biggest gig in the world, writes Dave Robinson.

He helped build the first polyphonic sequencer for Jarre, and joined him on tour at his famous Concerts in China in 1981. But this Frenchman has a unique track record, working with not just one synth legend but two: in 1982 he was invited to assist Vangelis with the Blade Runner soundtrack. He stayed with the Greek maestro and oversaw the technical side of Jon and Vangelis’ seminal Friends of Mr Cairo album at Studio Davout. “We went into Musicland in Paris and bought every synth in the shop,” he recalls.

A successful musician and composer in his own right, Rousseau has spent the last three years working with IRCAM, the renowned contemporary music and audio research institute located beneath the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Recently, Rousseau brought third-party developer FLUX into the frame: now FLUX is converting IRCAM’s creations into tools suitable for the modern workflow, as well as marketing and selling the products. The first three IRCAM Tools plug-ins are called Verb, Spat and Trax: Verb was reviewed in the January 2011 print issue of PSNE.

What is your role at IRCAM?
“When I arrived here my first job was to identify technologies in all the boxes from 30 years of research. Research at IRCAM had been, literally, carried out, put in a box – done. I said to them, you have amazing equipment that we can [exploit], because people want this kind of original technology.

“My main position is ‘research valorisation’ – I’m taking the technology and taking it to different companies. I have to push IRCAM, which has researchers in five departments including spectral analysis, modelling synthesis, acoustic treatments, to finalise things. IRCAM work in its own [programming] code (MATHLAB or Max/Msp), whereas the industry wants C++; I have been pushing them for three years to do that, rather than them just putting things back in the box.”

Has IRCAM undertaken ‘valorisation’ before?
“Yes, but working with people like Rolex, making the sound of the ‘tick-tock’ of a watch two years before Rolex goes on to make the watch. I said OK, but you need to get this technology to the music and cinema business, the sound engineers need it. So I did this deal with FLUX – because IRCAM is not able to design, market and sell [its product] because it is a research institute – then we give FLUX the code, they do the rest.”

What’s it like inside the IRCAM ‘bunker’?
“It’s funny, if you look at pictures of IRCAM from late ‘69-‘70, you feel that IRCAM was 10 years ahead of its time – everything was digital, computers, things like that. If you look at keyboard magazines from this period, you see modular Moogs, analogue synthesizers, but nothing digital.

“Now, that advance is shorter; it’s more difficult for IRCAM to stay ahead. The only thing we have proven is that IRCAM’s code of IRCAM is better quality than all the rest. If you compare the time-stretching algorithms we have at IRCAM with those of [a leading commercial developer], IRCAM is amazing.

“When I first turned up there, the only thing I knew was Zappa Boulez [1984 album The Perfect Stranger – Frank Zappa’s music recorded at IRCAM with Boulez conducting]. I discovered the contemporary music there, and an amazing quality of sound designing. The code reflects this: making high-quality sound for contemporary music requires better code than you need for rock music, you see!”

What of the FLUX deal?

“My main difficulty [at first] was to find a company that respects IRCAM’s methods. When I met FLUX, I knew it was right. We have signed a deal for seven years. We will make two new products per year – so we will finish with between 10 and 15 products issued from IRCAM research.”

You’re worked with Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre – that’s rare, isn’t it?
“You normally have to choose your camp! I started with Jarre, the Concerts in China, 60,000 people in 1981. We developed the first polyphonic sequencer, the MDB with eight CVs and gates. I made Zoolook with him – and I played keyboards and programmed the Fairlight sequences. It was an amazing experience for me and certainly the last great album he made.

“Then I had a phone call from the guy at Dreyfus Records, he said, ‘You kill my artist! This album is a piece of shit. No hits…’ And I said, ‘Sorry, I think we’ve made a really interesting album’.

“Finally Zoolook had some success, then Jean Michel called me for the next album, and he came up with Rendez-vous and I said sorry, I am not [a] fan, you can do that without me! And I decided with friends to create Studio MEGA in Paris.

“The next time I saw Jarre was for the 1990 show for La Defense, and I re-did all the intros, all the sequences. Two and a half million people in Paris, what an experience!”

And what of AKA Evangelos Papathanassiou?
“I programmed the synths for the Blade Runner soundtrack. The Yamaha CS80 work is pure Vangelis, but he wanted to have something modern and electronic for Blade Runner. The DX7, the PPG, different synths were coming out, but he didn’t want to touch anything apart from the CS80. So he called me. When I arrived in the studio in London he had the CP80 classical piano and the DX7 on the top. This was the beginning of MIDI, of course. Vangelis said, ‘It doesn’t work this DX7, I put the MIDI in but nothing happens’. I checked the MIDI cable, which was in the DX7 and I followed the cord, and I came to a jack – he’d put a jack on the Audio output! [Laughs] I said, ‘It cannot work like that! It is a digital signal!’ He said, ‘Well that’s a piece of shit…’ [Laughs] And after that we had fun for more than 20 years. He is a real amazing guy and a great artist.”

Of the IRCAM material you are looking to commercialise, are there tools that are going to come out which we haven’t seen anywhere else at all?

“We are going to make a stretching [plug-in] because we have an amazing engine for that. There will be a physical modelling engine to create sound libraries, that will run in Kontakt or similar; and a reverb that works directly with the impulse response, not through convolutions.

“We have something we have called Identity Converter. You talk for a few hours into the machine. The machine will record you and analyse you. Then I take the microphone and I talk… but it’s your voice coming out on the speakers. In real-time.

“To make the demo, we’ve been analysing Charles de Gaulle speeches and using Nicolas Sarkozy’s speeches to trigger it… and it’s de Gaulle speaking. This is real-time spectral analysis and replacement. It’s an interesting technology for video games and film. When I talked to Oliver Stone, he said he could use this with his actors: he’s always adding lines afterwards. With this technology, he wouldn’t have to call them back – he could generate the extra lines from the recordings he already has.”

You said you were disappointed that there wasn’t enough new stuff here at NAMM.
“What I love is being surprised. This is my 30th NAMM – for the first 15 years I was surprised. The main surprise I saw this time is the Fairlight coming back!”

Roland have a virtual accordion. I thought being French, that might appeal?
“That’s cool but it’s not a revolution.”

Tell me about your own studio – after all, you’re a successful musician in your own right.

“I had a studio but I’ve closed it for the moment. I keep the idea that I had with Vangelis, to make a studio in glass – completely transparent. So when you are playing in the middle of the night you are directly linked to the cosmos. Nothing can destroy your improvisation.”

Your house is on fire and you could run in and save one piece of technology. What will it be?

“I don’t care – I leave everything burning because this event will give me new ideas. I never look at the past – I want to keep going forward. What is that point of making IRCAM Tools aged 52 years? Because I need things that I’ve never had before. Never look back.”