Chipmusic • Featured • Interviews • software

Oliver Wittchow Interview pt1

nanoloopFor our third interview, I was lucky enough to talk to a gentleman who needs no introduction, Oliver Wittchow, developer of the highly respected Nanoloop music software. In the first part, we talk a little about Oliver’s background, the very first performance using Nanoloop and the port that never was. A quick thanks to Peter and Matt who suggested a couple of very interesting topics for questions. This interview was conducted by email over a period of about a month and I would like to thank Oliver for his time and detailed answers.

LB – What music software had you used before you designed NL? Were you into tracking on earlier machines?

OW – I used Fasttracker a lot for playing around. I never really liked the tracker interface but in the early and mid 90s, Fasttracker was the only program I knew that united an efficient sampler and sequencer. I also used Generator (the very first version of what is known as “Reaktor” today) to generate the samples I used in Fasttracker.

LB – Did you try any alternative interfaces before you went public with NL?

OW – During the first few months I tried a number of concepts but soon found the 4 x 4 matrix was optimal for gamepad operation and pattern based sequencing.

LB – Did the idea for the interface come before the sound engine?

OW – Initially, a friend started with a simple sequencer while I wrote a synthesizer – both in BASIC. The synthesizer was text based: You had to enter values for eight harmonics and after a minute of calculation, the corresponding wave form was displayed on the screen and played as simple tone. The same concept is still present in Nanoloop 1.5‘s wave form editor. So sound came first, but I soon realized that the Game Boy sound chip already produces great sound as it is and therefore the interface would be the interesting part.

LB – Do you have an art background at all? The interface is really very elegant.

OW – Nanoloop was my Pre-Exam (half way to diploma / master but not a bachelor) work at Hamburg Fine Arts University. So, yes, there is an arts background.

LB – When was the first release of Nanoloop?

OW – The first public performance I did with Nanoloop was in spring 1998 at a “lo-fi contest” at the Liquid Sky club, Cologne. I started selling it in late 1999, initially only within Germany. Worldwide sales began in 2000.

LB – NL seems really well suited for live use. Did you design it with this in mind?

OW – Yes, absolutely. It was designed around the endlessly playing loop and not the finished track. The structure of the file menu is also optimized for mixing patterns live, but the core is the sequencer where you shift around notes and improvise, like in a game.

LB – Was the Game Boy Camera much of an influence?

OW – I bought a Game Boy Camera in Japan a few weeks before my first performance with Nanoloop. I didn’t find the interface too original and was not impressed by the unstable timing (more stable than Nanoloop though which was not more than a rough sketch at that point). However, it allowed me to try how Game Boy music can sound. On my holiday in Japan I played GameBoy Camera in a small round and that was quite a great experience which encouraged me to continue Nanoloop development.

LB – Did you have anyone beta test it at all? I would guess there weren’t many people doing Game Boy music when it first came out.

OW – Of course I asked some friends to try it and the first version was 0.8 beta. But 1.0 was still rather buggy.

LB – Did you consider any platforms other than Game Boy for a release?

OW – I started to develop a version for Japanese mobile phones in 2001 but never finished it due to the technical limitations of the Java software platform. Which is a shame because those phones had really nice Yamaha FMsoundchips. There are many interesting platforms for electronic music, but I think the original Game Boy has an outstanding position among them. Its ultra dry sound and the casual interface make it *the* prototype for digital music. It perfectly represents a whole era, just like the Theremin stands for the early days for example. It’s hard to find a platform of similar quality. However, I’m currently working on two non Game Boy projects too.

LB – Non Game Boy projects sounds very interesting, if you can talk about them are they ports of NL to other platforms or totally new projects?

OW – One is software, one is hardware. Both are in a very early stage.

LB – How did you get involved in deving Nanoloop for Japanese phones?

OW – I thought cellphones would be the next logical step because they are even more common than the Game Boy and they are audio devices by their very nature. In 2001, the first programmable, Java-enabled phones appeared in Japan (i-mode with iAppli), about 1-2 years ahead of Europe. I stayed in Japan for few weeks anyway, so I got one of these phones and started programming. I was not familiar with Java and had to learn the hard way how it works: You are restricted to a set of high-level functions and can’t build your own. The only available function for sound would play a MIDI-file (with embedded FM-synth commands for the soundchip) but there was no way to stream sound – which is the basis for any sequencer application. I managed to generate files dynamically and play them seqentially, but there was always an unacceptable gap and jitter after each loop cycle. It just didn’t work. Overall it was an interesting but very expensive experiment. I learned a lot about keitai culture/technology and got really deeply into FM synthesis and finally Onsen.

LB – You mentioned a “Lo-Fi contest” in the Liquid Sky club in Cologne. Was the contest only for music or Lo-Fi art as well? Do you remember any other artists involved? Did you record the first ever Nanoloop performance?

OW – The contest was for music setups with the only limitation being size. All entries had to fit on a sheet of A4 paper. I remember one guy who brought a matrix of chemical test tubes, filled with different levels of water. Below the tubes, there was an array of small electric heating plates which were controlled real-time. When a tube was heated, the water started boiling and made a sparkling sound. Some tubes were closed with rubber corks which popped up when the water boiled. Due to the different filling levels, the sparkling and popping sounds had different frequencies for each tube so that he could actually play melodies via the popping corks and create some very fine and crispy sparkling pads. The sound was recorded with one or more mics held in place very close to the tubes. A very elegant concept I think. It was also entertaining to see the artist operating the device carefully, yet hectically while producing such ultra minimal ambient music.

As for my own performance, my girlfriend recorded it on video. I can’t find the tape anymore but I’m rather sure it still exists. It Would be nice to see / hear the birth of Nanoloop wih the crowd (about 100-200 people I guess) freaking out to the very rough sounds of the first prototype. At that time I had bad flu and a slight fever, I was a little dizzy and sweating a lot during the performance.

LB – You stayed in Japan almost exactly the same time I moved out here, do you have any lasting memories of the place?

OW – My girlfriend is Japanese and we go to Japan every couple of years. There are many things I miss frm my first stay. The first that comes to mind is the ability to buy excellent food on every corner (soba or takoyaki at the subway station, onigiri and a decent wakame salad at the combini and iced green tea from the vending machine). My favorite place was an onsen hotel in the mountains near Kyoto. I was also impressed by all the audio input from bleeping and speaking machines – often in minor tunes which create a bright but soft atmosphere, for example the melodies traffic lights play for the blind.

In the second part of the interview Oliver talks a little about Nanoloop’s Japanese following, The “Nanoloop Concept” and Nanovoice. It will be up a little later this week.

17 comments to Oliver Wittchow Interview pt1