An interview with Michael Riesman

The Philip Glass Ensemble was founded in 1968 by one of the most influential – and controversial – contemporary composers, Philip Glass. Michael Riesman is the Ensemble’s Musical Director and technological mastermind, and also plays keyboards.

On February 25th 2012, the Ensemble delivered a rare 5 hour long performance of Music in Twelve Parts to celebrate Glass’s 75th anniversary. This musical marathon also marked the first public run of their new live rig based on Bidule. Michael Riesman gracefully shared with us his experience with the Philip Glass Ensemble and their migration process to Bidule.

Here's a short interview with none other than Michael Riesman

You’ve joined the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1974. I guess the live rig has changed a few times over all these years. Could you share with us how your setup has evolved until the latest pre-Bidule setup?

When I joined, the keyboards consisted of 3 Farfisa Mini-Compact organs. That was it.

Over the years of my involvement, the Ensemble went through a series of migrations to new hardware. The first was the replacement of one of the Farfisas by a Yamaha YC45-D dual manual electric organ, a wonderful machine with touch sensitivity and adjustable percussive attack. After that, we added an Arp Explorer synthesizer. Next came a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, then an Oberheim OBXa, then a Yamaha Dx7 (one of the first in the US, hand-carried back from a tour in Japan), then an Emulator I sampler (serial #002), then a Roland Juno-106 and a Roland JX3P, and an Emulator II sampler, and then, as we adopted MIDI controllers and rack modules, a Roland Super Jupiter, a Yamaha TX-816 rack and a YTX-802, several Oberheim Matrix-6R. and a number of Akai S-900 samplers, later replaced with Digidesign Samplecell I cards running on Mac IIs.

Finally, the last pre-Bidule rig, initially set up in 2004, ended up consisting of a TX-816 rack, 2 TX-802s, 2 Matrix 6Rs, 5 Matrix 1000s, and a PC hosting Synthogy Ivory for piano sounds, all fed into a Pro Tools 5 system running on a Mac G4 4-slot computer housing 2 Pro Tools cards, 2 Samplecell II cards, and an instance of Soft Samplecell. The Pro Tools rig was just for mixing (no sequences or other virtual instruments or audio playback), with the hardware fed into 3 888 interfaces and the Samplecells fed directly into the TDM bus and showing up as inputs (cards) or Rewire instruments (Soft Samplecell) in Pro Tools. Performer 5.5 was used as the front end for MIDI, because Pro Tools had a problem with our Aphex trigger-to-MIDI converters, which did not (by default) send any note offs. In Pro Tools, the MIDI buffer would eventually fill up and crash Pro Tools because it was keeping track of all the note-ons without note-offs. This drove me nuts in rehearsal until I finally figured out what was going on and took Pro Tools out of the MIDI equation and all was well. I still to this day don’t use Pro Tools for any MIDI.

What were the main reasons to change the rig again?

Age of equipment. We have started to see some hardware failures. The G4s and the Pro Tools cards and interfaces and Samplecells are still healthy, but we have had failures of power supplies and other problems with the Yamaha and Oberheim gear. Parts are no longer available so we have been buying up used units on eBay just for parts. The writing has been on the wall now long enough; it was time for a major overhaul. Plus, I have been the only one capable of troubleshooting OS 9 software issues and the rig as a whole as this whole system is a relic and younger engineers don’t know anything about it, and that was in itself a reason to move on.

I guess you considered various solutions for the new rig. What convinced you that Bidule was the best option for your needs ?

It was clear the future was all in-the-box. I looked at every possible option, including migrating from Mac to PC. I had already discovered Bidule and was using it as a host for samplers and virtual instruments in my studio rig, and had used it also in a few small live shows outside of my work with the Ensemble. Among products considered were Max-MSP, Ableton Live, Mainstage, Rax, and Forte (on PC).

I thought we might have to end up using Max-MSP due to the complexity of the patches we would need, but as I looked harder at Bidule and explored its capabilities fully, I came to see that it could do everything I needed to do, and furthermore, it was elegant and efficient, and its learning curve was gradual enough to be inviting to someone coming to it for the first time, as would be the case for our sound crew and anyone else I brought in to help with the migration.

How does the new rig look like now and what do you like the most about it?

The new rig consists of 7 Mac Mini mid-2011 servers, each connected to an M-Audio ProFire 610 interface for MIDI and audio. Each player in the Ensemble has his own dedicated computer. I chose this Mini model because it has a quad-core processor and dual 500GB internal hard drives. I’m not using any server functions on it. The second internal drive is a clone of the first, maintained by Carbon Copy Cloner; whenever the machine boots up, the clone is updated and older files archived. All computers are run headless via Ethernet from a MacBook . All machines have identical software loads, except for their manual IP addresses and desktop pictures which have the computer name embedded in them so I can tell which one I’m looking at. I have written a number of custom Applescript applications as front ends for rsync to manage synchronization between machines, a subject worthy of a separate discussion, so I won’t go into that now.

What I like most about the new rig is how compact and simple it is. We are going to be saving a lot on shipping. For redundancy, because all units are essentially identical, we will carry only one spare MINI and one spare ProFire 610. In a pinch, if more than one unit should fail, we could press laptops into service as substitutes. All 7 of the Minis and the spare fit into a single vertical-mount 4-space rack shelf unit. The ProFire 610s fit 2 to a 2u shelf. Additionally we have 2 8-port Gigabit switches on another shelf (2 because we actually need 9 ports, counting the controlling machine, but of one of those should fail we could still function). An interconnect panel for audio and MIDI on the back of the rack finishes out the hardware.

On February 25th, the Philip Glass Ensemble did a very rare performance of Music in Twelve Parts. I was not able to attend but I read most articles about this 5 hours performance and the critics was quite unanimous: They all loved their experience. Congratulations!

It was a wonderful show from our side too.

This event also marked the very first time you go live with a brand new rig hosted by Bidule. How did it go from your perspective?

Flawlessly. Bidule performed as hoped. Just in case, we had brought along the old rig and it was standing by backstage. Because we had a tight rehearsal schedule, if there had been a problem with Bidule or any aspect of the new rig, I wanted the option to bail out and resolve it later. But that wasn’t necessary and the old rig was never fired up.

“Here are screen shots of the Keyboard 1 (Riesman) patch for Music in 12 Parts. What I have done for all players is to move all zone mapping out of the keyboard controllers and into Bidule, so that the only information needing to come from the keyboards is patch change numbers, notes, and MIDI controller data. By doing this, we can use almost any model of keyboard as a controller.”

There are some placeholder elements – there were actually no samples in use in this patch so the Kontakt stuff is idle. There’s a 2nd MIDI input shown too which is unused here, but in some shows players have 2 stacked controllers so as to have access to more simultaneous zones. Alpha and FM8 receive patch changes directly. FM8 handles these changes internally per instance. Alpha, however, uses a disk-based system for loading patches and since all patches are stored in a series of directories with 128 patches per directory, I use Bank Transpose to select which directory a particular instance will access. The modules with names like “Farf LH” or “Bass” are audio mixers. Some of these feed EQs or filters on the way to the Gain modules which are the last stage before the output. The modules “FM216″ and “FM802″ are multiple FM instances, the first with 2 and the latter with 4, which are stacked up as they are in our hardware synth setup.”

In Music in 12 Parts, Keyboard 1 uses only 5 patches. The numbering (there are empty lower slots) is due to needing to maintain all the current old-system patch change numbers which are written into our parts. In other shows players can have dozens of patch changes. These patches determine which devices will receive MIDI, and assign MIDI channels to the outputs going to Kontakt. (Alpha and FM8 always just use Channel 1). Because parts of Music in 12 Parts are also performed as part of Philip Glass Ensemble retrospective shows, this set of sub-patches will eventually become part of the PGE Retrospective master patch. The Kontakt Piano shown was just for testing.”

This particular patch shows the idle Kontakt channelization mechanism and a group called Zone mute by CC, which I made to be able to toggle a particular zone using Controller 64, normally sustain which is unused in Music in 12 Parts.

It also shows a chain passing any controller info from the master keyboard of a dual-keyboard setup to the second keyboard’s zones, idle here.”

Do you have any feature you’d like to see in a future version of Bidule ?

I am really pleased to say that I really cannot think of anything I wanted to do with Bidule that I wasn’t able to accomplish with it as it is now. The only thing I had been thinking I might need to ask for was a way to use Bidule as a MIDi-controlled amplifier. The issue is that both in the hardware days (Yamaha, Oberheim, Samplecell) and now, there is no standard for MIDI volume, meaning that the curve for different manufacturers is arbitrary, and if you are combining different sources, as I do, they won’t track MIDI volume in sync. For example, if MIDI volume value 127 is 0 dB, how many dB down is MIDI volume 64? In the past, I had to use matrix modulation in the Oberheims and Samplecells to match the curve of the Yamahas, which I took as the standard only because they couldn’t be adjusted. Now with the instruments I’m using, Native Instruments Kontakt and FM8, and LinPlug Alpha, the volume tracking problem persists. So, instead of contorting one thing or another to equalize volume curves on the MIDI side, I discovered without having to ask for it that that I could simply use the MIDI volume parameter as the source for a Bidule gain module. Problem solved.

What’s next for Michael Riesman? Any upcoming project you’d like to share with us ?

The big thing at the moment is that I’m the music director for the revival of Einstein on the Beach, currently on a world tour, and next in London, Toronto, New York, and UC Berkeley.

We’re not using any MIDI for that. We decided to use stand-alone keyboards only, to simplify the audio setup. That’s the way we did it in 1976 with Farfisas and a Yamaha YC45-D. Now we are using Kurzweil PC3K8s with which I am very happy. But they can work for this show because the sound palette is relatively simple with hardly any sampling. This wouldn’t do for the full Ensemble repertoire we’ll be using Bidule for.