'Scanner' Robin Rimbaud

E&T meets Robin Rimbaud, an internationally acclaimed technologist of music.

We all strive to portray our individuality through differing musical tastes and are keen to purchase the latest portable devices. Minidisc players discarded, we accessorise the latest iPhone and compare how long we each stood in the queue to purchase it, proud to announce that we are modern and discerning.

In fact, we're so busy living our lives that we forget that sound surrounds us all the time, nestling in our subconscious and whispering its messages in a potent hidden language. With over ten years of experience, the creative music department at Bath Spa University is teaching students how to master sound and target our very minds, without us even realising it.


Robin Rimbaud is an internationally recognised electronic sound artist otherwise known as 'Scanner' because, with the help of police scanners and mobile phones, he picks up radio and phone signals in the airwaves and uses them in his compositions. Not only does he teach Music Technology at Bath Spa University, but he has also played a pivotal role in the establishment of a similar department at the University of Plymouth.

He was keen to tell me that in many ways the course is quite unique. Not only does it offer the students a new skill, tutoring them in the essentials of making music such as exploring pitch and composition, but, almost more importantly, it helps students to use what they have learned and then apply their new found skills to get work in the outside world.

Among unusual projects - like designing five new car horns for use in America, Rimbaud has worked in some of the world's most prestigious arenas, including the SFMOMA (USA), the Hayward Gallery (London), the Pompidou Centre (Paris), the Kunsthalle (Vienna), the Hanoi Opera House (Vietnam), the Bolshoi Theatre (Moscow), the Tate Modern (London) and the Royal Opera House (London).

For Rimbaud, music is a contemporary language that tip-toes through our subconscious, breaking the barriers of culture and race to carry an internationally recognised message. From the alarm clock we all take for granted in the morning, regardless of our age, to designing sounds for the latest model of car.

How often do we really think about the sounds in our environment and what do they tell us on a subconscious level? How could anyone design a sound universal enough to wake us all?

Rimbaud explains that not only does the alarm have to be universally accepted by everyone alike, but subconsciously we associate sounds with a whole range of products. From the ugly irregular frequencies produced by an emergency-response vehicle, to the upbeat tempo of the latest television commercial. Even the sound used in our cars reassures the drivers of their choice of vehicle and seems to murmur safety, reliability and comfort. 

Much like an artist standing before a canvas, Rimbaud explains that writing music is an intuitive process. While a lot of students get drawn towards the idea of designing sounds for the latest video game (in the hope of attaining free samples), they also learn that perhaps there is more to music than they had at first thought.

Using Macs, which are the standard technology platform, along with software packages such as, Logic-Studios or, Pro-Tools, students can tentatively experiment with mixing sounds and giving their compositions structure. From clear, crisp, carefully recorded noises to the accidental recording of his mobile phone while in the supermarket, Rimbaud seeks inspiration at every opportunity.

Technology of sound

To begin understanding how a software package such as Pro-Tools works, it is important first to understand the fundamentals of sound itself. This can be explained through the example of a drum. When a drummer lifts his arm he gains potential energy, which changes to kinetic as he strikes the taut skin of the drum, causing the surface to vibrate.

The vibration then sends out three-dimensional waves, like ripples in a pond from the source of the sound, causing the eardrum to vibrate. The nerves in the eardrum then send impulses back to the brain. This is, of course, what everyone perceives as sound and it travels through the air as longitudinal waves.

When an instrument plays a sound, it doesn't just produce one single pitch but a whole multitude. Due to the differences in each instrument, caused by materials and the structure of the instrument itself, it can produce different sound waves.

In the graph above we can see that when a note is played it 'attacks' to a maximum volume, decays to a lower level, which it sustains, and then releases back to silence. The pattern of attack, decay, sustain and release is known as the ADSR envelope and it differs for each instrument we play.

Due to the shape and material of each instrument, a unique wave shape is created and it is when the ADSR envelope is modified that sounds begin to mutate to create an entirely new and often unexpected aural experience. For example, if a piano wave shape was to be altered, it could be made to sound more like that of a tuba - almost unrecognisable from its former self.

The frequency of a wave stipulates the pitch, so a wave shape with a greater frequency will produce a higher note. To get a higher note in a drum, the skin must be tightened so it will vibrate more rapidly when struck, causing a higher frequency. In turn, the larger the drum, the lower the pitch will be, as the frequency will naturally be lower.

 In the graph below left, it is noticeable that the violin's spiked waveform produces a sharper sound, while the smoother wave of the piano produces a purer sound, closer to that of a sine wave.

Now it is easier to understand how software like Pro-Tools works. By taking recordings of a piano and mixing it with that of a bird singing, we can mutate noises until strange and unusual sounds are produced.

Pro-Tools: Engineering music

Having made some television commercials, Rimbaud has also been asked to work with much more unusual projects such as radio static recordings to portray the thoughts of an autistic man. His clients often specify a list of attributes they wish the music to contain such as 'energetic', 'melancholy' or 'slow'.

"I'm very good at interpreting what people want," he says. From assessing the environment, such as the space itself, to the intended audience, Rimbaud tells me how he was approached by some admirers of his work and asked to 'engineer' some wedding music in Croatia. As well as taking note of the logistics - such as the technology available and the space itself - his aim was to construct "something passionate, romantic and moving - something to make the guests cry".

For his live performances, Rimbaud usually uses an Intel-based Apple MacBook Pro along with a controller keyboard. As the sound is produced inside the computer, the keyboard acts as a controller that sends MIDI information to the MacBook.

To edit and manipulate his music, Rimbaud often indulges in Pro-Tools, also used by students at Bath Spa University. Pro-Tools is a software package which offers the availability of over 70 instrument effects, giving quite a new meaning to the word 'virtual'.

Not only can it simulate vibrating strings, the body type of the instrument and whether the sound has been initiated by a bow, pick or hammer, it has over 8GB of audio loops to help inspire the up-and-coming artists, although, in Rimbaud 's case, this probably isn't necessary.

In addition, the latest version allows artists to print MIDI data as actual musical notation, with its 'elastic pitch' function allowing the changing of keys.

Darren Atkinson, a graduate of Bournemouth University in TV and film production, and lecturer at Trowbridge College, explains how he uses the software to create a Buzz-Track audio file when filming a period drama. "We used the software to remove any modern noises in the background, such as aircraft flying overhead," he says.

This is accomplished by listening to a selection of sound waves before deciding which frequency needs to be deleted, while taking into consideration that this could affect the dialogue of actors on screen.

The 'Buzz-track,' is used as a filler and Darren thinks that actors sometimes have to record 'non-diegetic' (in-studio) sound and then synchronise it with the actors' lips in the film. "One way that background disturbance can be combatted is to use a close microphone rather than a boom," he explains.

Manufactured by Digidesign, Pro-Tools offers a digital workstation where the artist can record and edit his music. It has been used by Linkin Park and Sting, among others.

Information can either be recorded or imported in a range of formats, such as MIDI files, and all the basic functions of the software are controlled with either edit or mix windows, providing the artist with a graphical representation of the music. It is primarily here that audio can be manipulated or edited.

In August 2005, a company called Avid acquired the company Wizoo - developers of software-based virtual instruments - and announced the creation of AIR (advanced instrument research.)

Avid then started producing and developing virtual instruments and plug-ins for use with Pro-Tools 8, causing Pro-Tools to be the first version to include an entire virtual instrument library including MINI Grande Piano and Boom, a beat box. 

Despite the availability of such competent software, Rimbaud asserts that it is his attitude that has thus far helped him in his work. He views himself as having an 'aesthetic mindset', which helps him with his projects.

Where is it, though, that technology and art meet, I was asking myself after my conversations with Rimbaud? It is probably in the fact that we no longer need to spend hours mastering a dozen musical instruments, instead we can gather inspiration from our surroundings and use our creations to send messages - not in bottles, but in a soundscape that we cannot possibly ignore.

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