Rob Jackson A/K/A Crème Douche bypasses pedals, amps, and even laptops, pushing the modern guitar envelope into a world of pure iPad apps. His gorgeous soundscapes are all guitar generated initially, but are morphed by the latest iOS technology into luscious orchestral sounding opuses (opi?) (opera?). As to the provocative name: it just means shower gel.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I’ve always been more interested in tones and textures than playing fast and fancy stuff. For a few years, I scraped by working as an accompanist and arranger for singer-songwriter types or Americana type bands. I’m a huge Bill Frisell fan and people tell me that comes through a bit in my playing. On a really good day I could do a passable impression of a pedal steel player on a really bad day, which used to get me a few gigs as steel players are very rare in the UK. At one point I had four string benders on my Telecaster. I also did the live looping thing, but I was more into chords and melody than ambient soundscapes.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
Funny you should ask. The other day I was looking back and thinking, “How on Earth did I end up being a back-up guy for these heartfelt, mellow mainstream types when I grew up listening to Adrian Belew, DEVO, King Crimson, Tangerine Dream, David Torn and Frank Zappa?” The interest in more experimental music, especially electronic stuff, has always been there.
When I got fed up with playing the mellow stuff, being flat broke, I got what some people might refer to as a proper job. I floundered around, buying various bits of technology, hoping I’d discover a sound of my own. Nothing inspired me until I discovered the iPad and the Borderlands Granular and Animoog apps. They allowed me to explore new guitar territory in a way I never would have thought possible back when I was teaching myself the guitar part from “Whip It” on my little acoustic guitar.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
I’ve mentioned a few early influences already. I generally gravitate towards something that has a story to tell or evokes some kind of emotional response. I listen to a lot of soundtrack music: the John Williams original score for Star Wars contains some of the most romantic and beautiful orchestral themes I have ever heard. By contrast, I’m gobsmacked by the incredible sense of impending doom [director/composer] John Carpenter created with just two or three synthesizers, playing two or three notes. Contemporary dance is another great source of inspiration.
Atomos by A Winged Victory for the Sullen is probably my favorite recent release: it’s a master class in the art of nothing left to take away, versus nothing left to add. I’ve also been a long time fan of Low, who make achingly gorgeous music that can and will make you cry. Closer to home, I’m constantly inspired by my fellow iPad musicians on our Facebook group. Being able to hang out, albeit virtually, with the developers that wrote the apps you’re making music with is pretty inspiring too.
What is your signal path?
It’s super simple. My guitar goes into an iPad via the iRig HD. I don’t use any pedals or foot controllers. I think the headphone outputs from the latest generation iPads are pretty good, so I take a signal from that into a Radial’s stereo multi-media DI for recording and playing live. The DI has an option to take a split headphone signal out for better monitoring. I’ve got the whole rig zip-tied and velcroed to a Pedal Train pedal board. My stage set-up and teardown time is less than 60 seconds.
What is ToneStack?
ToneStack by Yonac is one of the major players in the iPad guitar amp and pedal emulation scene. As soon as I tried their combo of a Big Muff and Echoplex into a Fender Twin emulation, I was sold. That’s my base guitar tone. My theory is that the guys at Yonac must really like those pedals and Fender amps in general because they sound and feel fantastic. The ToneStack app resulted in me selling several thousand dollars worth of boutique hardware pedals. I often smack my forehead hearing people moan about twenty dollar iPad apps or five-dollar in-app purchases, when guitarists can spend 500 bucks on just a reverb pedal.
Are you using Tonestack instead of Audiobus?
I am, in so much as I find ToneStack to be rock-solid as an IAA effects and instrument host. I often use it outside the context of guitar. It has the added convenience of having built-in effects that I like to use on the Animoog and Borderlands, so I don’t have to run additional apps just to add a bit of reverb. In fact, the only other effect that I generally use that isn’t built-in to ToneStack is the Ostinator looper.
How do you set up Borderlands for minimal processing of the Animoog timbres?
You just turn everything up: grain cloud voices up to 32, Delay up to 3000 ms and Overlap up to 1. I generally leave the grain options on random direction, with a Hanning window and left-right grain pan. The final trick is to reduce the X and Y to a very small area. I rarely go above a .03 square. This gives me surgical precision to capture the exact part of the waveform I want to hear and allows me to play the clip almost like a virtual keyboard by targeting specific notes or chords. For example, if you record an octave of a pentatonic scale, you should be able to clearly see five distinct notes.
This is the basis of what I do with Borderlands Granular. A few people were surprised that when I use it like this, it doesn’t really sound very—well—granular and I play “normal” music. With so many voices, a long delay time, and focusing on smaller areas, I get something that is more like a granular delay with a very exciting stereo image—essentially 32 grains of your original sound pinging around all of the place. Right now, this is my favorite sound in the world.
What is represented in this screenshot?
From left to right, we’ve got the ToneStack noise gate with the threshold maxed out; that’s my lazy way of not disabling the microphone and line inputs. Then we have Borderlands Granular as an IAA instrument followed by Ostinator looper as an IAA effect. Finally, we have ToneStack’s lovely take on the classic EMT 140 plate reverb.
How do you record your compositions?
To be honest, the YouTube videos are really just demos, so most of the time I just hook-up an iPad to my MacBook and record the video and audio direct to QuickTime via the USB Lightning cable which works great. Anything more complicated, I’ll go line-in via an Apogee Duet.
With the exception of “Silent Night,” everything’s one take and played and recorded live, so if I don’t use QuickTime, I’ll grab audio with TwistedWave. For tracking, I really like MultiTrackStudio as a powerful DAW that doesn’t get in your way. On “Silent Night,” I think there are eleven tracks of Animoog in total.
Are the Borderlands moves recorded or played in real time in the video (if so – how are you recording so we don’t see your finger)?
A bit of both actually, I might use the Borderlands Granular motion recorder to play a chord progression, and then play a melody or additional part in realtime. As most of the demos are QuickTime screen grabs, you don’t see my fingers, but if you’ve used Borderlands before, you can work out what I’m doing when the cloud border circles change color. There are a couple of videos where you can see what my hands are doing: the very first “Welcome to” MIDI Guitar demo, and the latest “Borderlands Granular x 2” video. In the first demo, I’m playing chords on Animoog with my guitar using MIDI Guitar and playing a top-line melody on the same Animoog instance using the touchscreen.
In the dual Borderlands video, I motion record a chord change on the first iPad, then switch to the other to play a melody and bass line in realtime.
How do you link MIDI Guitar to the Animoog within the iPad?
Like most of my setups, it’s super simple and super reliable. You just launch both apps. Animoog recognizes MIDI Guitar and vice versa. You go to the setup screen on Animoog and select MIDI Guitar as a MIDI input source. From MIDI Guitar, you scroll through the output route options till you see Animoog. Next time round, Animoog should just work, so it’s just a case of flipping through a few options on MIDI Guitar on its super-simple one screen UI and you’re good to go. I have to say the tracking on MIDI Guitar is fantastic and I’m not at all afraid to use it live. The thing I like most about it, is that it allows me to play chords that would be near impossible to play on a conventional keyboard, never mind an iPad one—unless you’re [Dream Theater keyboardist] Jordan Ruddess. If you listen to the opening chords on the x2 video, they were recorded using MIDI Guitar triggering Animoog, simultaneously layered with fuzz guitar in ToneStack. You can maybe hear there are some voicings in there you wouldn’t normally associate with three-finger keyboard chords.
What do you mean by Animoog “custom guitar timbres only?”
I could talk about this for hours! When I started on this road I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could source all my audio from the guitar, even though the end result might not sound like a guitar.” The trouble was, I liked synth sounds too much and had fallen in love with Animoog already. I started to understand how Animoog stored and structured its sounds. I got part way there and it turned out other folks on the excellent iPad Musician Facebook page had also been coming at it from various angles. Next thing you know, the main developer of Animoog appears and fills in all the missing pieces of the puzzle—how cool is that?
I then spent about a month sampling, chopping, and re-sampling guitar waveforms so I could load them into Animoog. Basically a timbre is a 16-cycle audio file of a specific length that Animoog uses as a wavetable. There are eight timbres in a preset and the 2D display on Animoog is a direct representation of moving through these tables using paths, orbits and the touchscreen itself. So I’ve got fuzz tones, clean tones, flanged harmonics, scratches, scrapes—you name it! I then spent another month or so trying to assemble these timbres into usable sounds; my rule was that I had to use the guitar timbres only. I couldn’t bolster up a patch with a bunch of detuned saw waves or whatever; if I needed a saw wave, I was going to have to figure out how to create one with my guitar and then create a timbre file with it. To my surprise and delight, it works and I’m really pleased with some of the sounds I’ve managed to get.
Ironically, my patches sound more synth-like than guitar-like and I actually like that. Animoog imparts its own character via the filter, effects and so on. It all seems worthwhile when I get comments that my tones don’t sound as digital or clean when compared to other iPad synths. It appeals to the OCD side of my nature to know that under the hood those synth sounds are actually coming from little snippets of fuzz guitar and the like that I spent hours looking at and listening to.
How are you powering all those apps (ToneStack, 2 Animoogs, Xyntheszr at once in the iPad without glitches?
The iPad Air 2 is very capable, but I’m still mindful to not stress it too much, especially in a live setting. More recently, I’ve been inclined to split some of the work over to another iPad. Having said that, I did a gig last week with just the Air 2 running ToneStack, MIDI Guitar, Animoog and Borderlands with no problem whatsoever. I think my setup is quite modest compared to iPad-based performers who have several MIDI controllers, two or three synth apps, a drum machine, a sequencer, and maybe some effects all routed through Audiobus.
That’s when things can get a bit wobbly. Luckily with the apps I use, and the style of music I do, I don’t need such a complex array of apps, effects and routing options, but can still make quite a lot of noise if need be.
Any plans for a recording?
Yes indeed! I’m just coming to grips with the dual Borderlands rig featured in the video, so I’m hoping to get some more gigs lined up in the New Year. I plan to record everything, then cherry-pick an EP or album’s worth of material from those shows. It will be 100% live, using just Borderlands, Animoog, and guitar. I also want to do more stuff integrating MIDI Guitar because it’s fun to smash out a fuzzy power chord, and then hear this crazy Animoog patch swirling around it—it’s better than Marshall stack feedback! In the meantime, I’ll keep sharing random stuff on YouTube, so please stay tuned.
I really loved this interview, thank you for doing it. And thank you Rob for sharing all your insights. This is exactly the kind of stuff I think a lot of us watching from YouTube have been asking for in the comments.
I am amazed at the amount of work you have put into those timbres. So I won’t ask you to upload and share! However have you considered contacting the folks at Moog to have an IAP of your timbre added?