From Absynth To Plasmonic – Interview With Brian Clevinger

Once upon a time, there was Absynth. Designed by Brian Clavinger and originally released by his company, Rhizomatic, as a web download in 2000. This virtual synthesizer was then acquired and distributed by Native Instruments. In short, Absynth was a semi-modular synthesizer with the ability to layer multiple synthesis techniques, in order to create otherworldly sounds and textures. To put it mildly, Absynth was one of the first, if not the first software instrument that made me say WOW!

Vintage pic from Macintosh Repository

Absynth was recently discontinued by Native Instruments, but the story doesn’t end here. Over the past years, Brian Clevinger and his Rhizomatic Software have worked on a new, inspiring software synthesizer, called Plasmonic, finally released in late 2020. Quoting the author, “Plasmonic captures the complex acoustic resonances of Physical Modeling, expands on it with more familiar elements of Subtractive Synthesis, and adds a few unique twists.”

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In these 23 years since the release of the original Absynth version, the music software world has changed a lot, but with Plasmonic Brian Clevinger has proved once again to be able to create wonderful, inspiring tools for the electronic music community.

At a glance, Plasmonic’s interface might look dated, but the sound design possibilities, MPE support, the always-useful 8 macro controls (just assign them to your controller knobs and enjoy!) and the cool effects, make Plasmonic a worthwhile investment. You can learn more and try/buy Plasmonic from the Rhizomatic website.

As a small tribute to the man who let us have such a great sound-making time, we asked Brian some questions about his Absynth memories, the development of Plasmonic, Brian Eno, MPE, and more…

– First of all, let me say that I think the whole electronic music community should be grateful to you for your work on Absynth, and for the inspiration and excitement it gave us in the early days of VSTs and later on. Would you share with us a few memories from the early Absynth days, and what they meant to you?

Thank you! One nice thing that’s happened since NI removed Absynth from their product line is I’ve gotten more in touch with musicians using Absynth, I’ve received hundreds of messages. I honestly had no idea so many people were still using it after all these years, it’s very moving.

So some Absynth memories… A few weeks after I released Absynth 1.0, I got an email from one of Bjork’s main collaborators saying that they were using Absynth every day while making Vespertine. I was a huge Bjork fan, so that was the moment I really felt like I’d made it. Vespertine is still my favorite Bjork album. I met so many interesting people in the early days of Absynth!

At the time of Absynth 1, all the big workstation synths had a piano sound in preset #1, so I thought Absynth should too, but something unusual! The first preset of Absynth 1 was called Banshee, it was a simulation of sweeping a brush across open piano strings. I don’t know if anyone got the joke, but it was interesting to watch musicians’ reactions when they played it, after a few notes they’d look confused and say something like “wait, this isn’t sampled, it’s synthesized isn’t it?”.

– You’ve recently released a new synth, Plasmonic. How does it feel to be an active “indie” developer again and how is the software synth market changed over the years?

I’m enjoying my freedom, I can do whatever I want and I don’t have to convince anybody of anything. It’s much easier to be independent now, 20 years ago people still bought software in boxes at a store, and cross-platform plugin development was very difficult.
Absynth came out when softsynths were a very new concept, most people weren’t aware of the possibilities on the horizon. There were few virtual instruments available, so it was a clean slate. Of course today the market seems totally saturated. However, I still think it’s possible to create something new and better than what’s come before, still many unexplored possibilities!

– What were your goals when making your new synth?

When I listen carefully to almost any acoustic sound, it’s like looking into a deep well. There are always details and movement at the threshold of perception that one usually doesn’t notice, but that make the sound alive. So that’s the kind of detail I wanted in Plasmonic.
I also wanted it to be very playable and expressive. Each note can bring some degree of surprise in an organic way, like playing any acoustic instrument does. I wanted the musician to be able to form the kind of relationship with Plasmonic that happens with a good physical instrument.

– I remember reading an interview with you, where you were mentioning the influence of Brian Eno’s early ambient work on the sound concept behind Absynth. Would you say the same about the otherwordly qualities of Plasmonic’s sound, or would you mention some other influences?

Eno pioneered using long out-of-sync loops to generate always-changing ambient pieces. In Absynth you can apply this idea to very long breakpoint envelopes, so each parameter evolves in it’s own way with it’s own loop-time. This can make amazingly organic soundscapes, especially if you have a lot of very long envelopes going.
Eno’s so curious about sound. He built a number of crazy electro-acoustic resonators, I remember seeing him present a speaker he’d built with a latex cone. That’s the kind of thing that inspires me!

– I love how expressive Plasmonic can be (and the fact that it’s so MPE-friendly). Speaking of MPE, what’s your opinion on it, from both technical and performative points of view?

MPE was a must, and I wanted it to be deeply integrated in Plasmonic. MPE makes it possible to play the sound continuum, which has always been difficult with keyboard-based instruments.
Getting this kind of continuous control was always a big problem for electronic music. Somewhat ironically, one of the first electronic instruments, the Ondes Martenot, had the best continuous pitch and intensity control up until the Haken Continuum was released. So MPE is an important milestone I think.
However, it’s maybe too demanding to have each finger controlling pitch and pressure all the time (at least for my fingers). It kind of slows performance down. I liked playing the Ondes Martenot, left hand controls intensity and right-hand controls pitch, which is similar to the way a lot of acoustic instruments work. That’s just my experience though.

– I also remember reading you’re not a fan of presets. But don’t you think that complex synths like Absynth or Plasmonic, quite intimidating especially for inexperienced users, risk being used mostly as preset machines?

Lol, I must have said that a long time ago…

– What kind of improvements/updates can we expect from Plasmonic?

There will be a content-related update in the near-term. I can think of quite a few things I’d like to improve/add to Plasmonic, but there’s other stuff I need to finish first.

– Is there some other product you’re working on?

Right now I’m working on a multi-effect that I’m quite excited about! But I’m not going to say anything more about that yet.
I hope that it will be possible to continue Absynth in some way, but at this point I have no idea. If it’s not possible I’ll just have to make another monster synth to fill the gap left by Absynth…

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– Last but not least, let’s talk music: do you mind sharing with us your top 3 desert island albums?

It’s impossible to narrow it down to 3, so this is pretty random…

Knower: Think Thoughts. Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi are my favorite musicians in the world.

Eno: On Land. I could listen to it every day and not get tired of it. People think of it as dark and scary, but to me it’s more about deep memories of places and times.

And finally Martha Argerich playing Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit

Thank you Brian for your words and for the inspiration you keep giving us, we look forward to checking out what’s coming next from you!

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