Interview with Ivo Ivanov of Glitchmachines (Part 1)

Published on June 2nd, 2015

For our 2nd interview we reached out to Ivo Ivanov of Glitchmachines. Ivo was kind enough to give us very detailed responses which we believe you will find very interesting. We have split this interview in two parts and the second part will be released later this week. Enjoy the first part below!

Tell us a bit about yourself who are you and where do you come from?
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1975. Both of my parents were in show business at the time though I still had a relatively normal childhood aside from moving a lot. After leaving Bulgaria with my mother, I lived in Munich, Germany for about 5 years until we re-located to the the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986. It took some time to adjust, as I had absolutely no prior experience speaking English, but I eventually integrated relatively easily.

I’ve been a musician all of my life and took an interest in audio engineering at the young age of 15. In those days, I played a lot of guitar but also had a strong interest in Industrial music, which eventually lead me in the direction of early house, techno, breaks and trance. I was a rave DJ throughout most of the 90s and once I lost interest in that, I had the opportunity to tour the country as a professional keyboard player with the band Snake River Conspiracy.

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Ivo Ivanov

Eventually I went back to school and earned my Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Audio Engineering from the Expression College for Digital Arts in California. School was a great experience since it allowed me to fill all the knowledge gaps I had accumulated over the years while studying audio on my own. I was awarded with an AES Tech Award scholarship and the first ever Game Audio Network Guild scholarship. After school I spent five years working with the SAE Institute of Technology in San Francisco, where I was the Head of the Audio Technology and Electronic Music Production programs and ultimately became the Campus Director.

I now live in Minneapolis with my wife and two young children where I work out of our home, mostly concentrating on Glitchmachines and doing the occasional sound design project with other plugin and soundware companies. From time to time I also do guest lectures and private lessons.

In the Audio Spotlight interview last year, you said that you like to create “abstract alien technology or foreboding drones” instead of more regular sounds. Do you like science fiction or where does this preference come from?
Yes, I’m a big sci-fi fan. I love the films, video games and books in this genre and I frequently find myself inspired by the associated concepts and overall aesthetics. I’m also very intrigued by the topic of extraterrestrials and ufology, as I tend to feel there is still very little we know about our origins and the universe in general. These types of subjects are probably my most significant source of inspiration, so the themes find their way into most of my creative work.

In the interview you are referring to, I mentioned this because I wanted to make the distinction that this was my technical specialization and area of interest. There are guys out there like Frank Bry and Tim Prebble (both of whom I respect immensely) who are also sound designers, but they focus more on what I like to refer to as “photorealistic sound”. In other words, they deal with the production of real-life field and foley libraries. I recently released a sample pack called Idiom, which kind of goes in this direction but it’s aimed mostly at musicians and is generally a lot weirder than the typical field & foley library.

I’m not that motivated to venture in that direction too much further because, creatively and artistically, I’m more drawn to abstract and designed sounds that usually have some form of electronic flair. For example, I could definitely see myself enjoying working on a sci-fi video game, as where doing the location sound for a documentary really doesn’t interest me.

You seem to use quite a lot of “indie” software. Where do you find these gems?
Many people ask if I have some stash of “secret weapons” that nobody else has, and this is simply not the case. I get why people like the concept of having a secret weapon, but you can already have the technical and creative advantage without these things if you just spend the time to broaden your knowledge and skill set. I guess I just don’t really believe in taking shortcuts.

As far as the plugins I use go, I mostly just keep my eyes and ears open. I do a lot of research and find little gems along the way but they are honestly nothing that anyone else couldn’t find if they just did a little bit of research. Ultimately I don’t think good sound design or production in general should rely on special or secret tools to be compelling. Sure, certain tech will make things possible that could elevate the results to new heights, but generally speaking I like to keep myself from being restricted by a particular set of resources. Not only does this help me keep myself challenged, but it also helps me stay away from becoming too comfortable. I really feel that the more time we spend in our comfort zone, the more likely it is that our output will eventually become stale and predictable.

Back in the day (and maybe this is still a thing, I don’t know) I used to see these engineers who would be clutching their beloved iLok keys with all of their special plugins that they can’t live without. I always found this amusing because to me, it seemed like a real weakness to rely so much on specific tools to get great results.

"...no amount of fame or talent gives you a license to act like a sociopath."

It seems that music software developers tend to stay more in the background, when compared to IT startup people, who are sometimes (rather ironically) referred to as “rockstars”. Do you have any explanation for this?
I think it’s somewhat subjective and I don’t necessarily know what goes on in the IT world. Generally speaking though, I find that the people behind the scenes are never truly seen as the rockstars anyway. The irony is that they are often the ones responsible for the real “magic”. I think it’s the collective perception that the end users (musicians, sound designers, etc) are the only ones capable of being creative with the tools, while the developers are just the socially awkward nerds that “only” know how to write code. I would argue that this is definitely not the case since most of the developers I know are not only artists themselves, but also technically far more knowledgeable than most musicians.

I can’t speak for anyone else directly on the topic of stardom, but I personally try to stay pretty level-headed. In general, I let go of the need to be a rock star years ago and I tend to prefer to stay pretty quiet and focus on my family life when I’m not working. I put myself out there when necessary, but I learned not to feed off of the attention too much because that can lead to problems. It’s important to me to stay connected with my fans because in the end, we are all just people and if they are inspired by something I’m doing then I’m happy to acknowledge them out of sheer respect and gratitude. So I tend to answer messages and reply to comments, as where I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues simply ignore people.

Sure, from time to time I get some very rude or ridiculously long and demanding messages, but even then I try to be as patient and kind as possible. In the end, I think that no matter if you’re behind the scenes or in the spotlight, famous or unknown, it’s crucial to stay humble and understand that you’re just a person like everyone else and no amount of fame or talent gives you a license to act like a sociopath.

How did you get into the music software business? Have you programmed anything else before?
It was really just a natural progression. For the first 5 years, Glitchmachines was exclusively about circuit bent hardware. Later on, I switched gears and turned the company into a soundware brand, selling mostly sample packs. A couple of years later, I organized a collaboration with my good friend Thomas Hennebert (who was then running his own plugin company called Inear Display) and the project was so well received that I quickly realized Glitchmachines needed to evolve once again. One thing lead to another and I eventually convinced Thomas to team up with me. He consequently closed up shop at Inear Display and came aboard to work with me exclusively at Glitchmachines.

Today, I very much consider him as one half of Glitchmachines, and his friendship and contributions to the company are invaluable to me. I don’t actually have a programming background - this is where Thomas comes in. He is the talent behind all the programming of our plugins. Of course we work extremely closely together on every minute detail, but I don’t do any of the actual coding yet. That said, I’ve started studying C++ and I will soon become more involved in the programming process, but this will take time since jumping right into C++ is no minor challenge.

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Glitchmachines original hardware

What was your main reason to start your own company?
I started Glitchmachines in 2005 mostly as a hobby. I became interested in circuit bending around 2003, and soon thereafter I began to experiment by bending some things myself. When a couple of my friends saw my work, they encouraged me to make some units for sale, which got me thinking. My wife was going to college at the time, and I was just starting the process of going back to school as well, so it seemed like it would be a worthwhile endeavor to start a small business building these weird machines.

I took a look at what other people were doing (in these days there were only a handful of circuit benders out there selling devices) and I decided that I wanted to make instruments that also looked very different - perhaps more futuristic - as if they were manufactured, in a sense. This aesthetic was more interesting to me than the more weathered, steam punk look of the devices I was seeing from other builders. The name Glitchmachines just came naturally, for obvious reasons.

cataract
Cataract

Soon, I was posting pictures on MySpace along with audio examples, and people were very fast to place their custom orders. Eventually I made some custom units for some famous people that found me on MySpace, and my work showed up in some magazines and everything escalated from there. Fast forward to today, and Glitchmachines has basically become the pinnacle of my career. I now work from home and this gives me a lot of freedom that I didn’t have in the years I spent working for other companies. Most notably, it gives me more time to be with my family, which is the most important aspect of my life. Moreover, I really enjoy what I do and even though it’s extremely challenging on many levels, sometimes crushingly so, it’s essentially my dream job and that’s what keeps me motivated to keep pushing forward.

What effect plugins, other than your own, do you like to use?
I really love the Valhalla DSP stuff. Mr. Costello is just a master at what he does and I can’t say enough nice things about his work. I also really like Tom Erbe’s SoundHack plugins. Two of my favorite and perhaps most personally used plugins come from 2C Audio: B2 and Kaleidoscope. I like Sonic Charge a lot also, and I’ve been enjoying their Permut8 and Bitspeek plugins since they were released.

I’m a big Chiptune and lo-fi effects fan, so I own and love Chipsounds and Chipcrusher by Plogue. Was heavily into using Alchemy from Camel Audio until the sad news of their recent closing. Actually it was nice to read your interview with Sinevibes as I’ve been very interested in their stuff. I greatly admire their design aesthetic, but I have yet to spend the time really checking out their plugins. I look forward to that.

For any sort of dynamics processing I am very happy with the Fab Filter plugins. Reaktor gets quite a bit of use in my studio as well. I worked on some projects with Twisted Tools in their first few years and I still think they make some of the best Reaktor ensembles on the market.

Lastly, even though it’s not a plugin, I have to say that I’m a huge fan of Renoise. Most of the time for work, I’m usually in Ableton Live because I’m so fluent with it that I can always work faster and more efficiently than anywhere else. Over the years, I’ve had extensive training in Pro Tools and Logic as well, but they are not my preference, as I find Live to be much more streamlined for the type of work I typically do and the overall design and workflow of the DAW really resonate with me.

"Things that sound too similar or not compelling enough get tossed out immediately."

How do you define the goal of the sound effect you’re trying to create? Is there some kind of a reference sound, or is it all in your head?
I usually start with a theme in mind - typically this is relevant to the project that the sound belongs to. This in itself will lead me in a certain direction. Focusing strongly on this theme, I do quite a bit of experimentation to see if I can yield some results with the right feel. Once I feel confident, I generally just try to make as many sounds as possible while the creativity is flowing. This is important to me because it allows me to think more spontaneously. So in that sense, I make an effort to compartmentalize my workflow in order to focus on one task at a time. This seems more in tune with how our brains work and it has been very effective for me. For example, when it’s time to create, I create and nothing else.

Later on, I go back to very carefully analyze the resulting sounds and I typically throw away a large chunk of them. Things that sound too similar or not compelling enough get tossed out immediately. This is also a really efficient way for me to quality control my sounds, so to speak. I see other designers that work from the ground up and that’s never really worked as well for me. For example, you have to make fifty sounds and you make each one sequentially until you get to the last and then you’re done. To me this is a slower workflow that leaves too much room for me to become overly analytical, which to me is the greatest enemy of creativity.

So if I had to make fifty sounds (although usually it’s more like a thousand) I will make two hundred sounds and then laster come back to pick fifty of the best ones. Most of the time, the rejects simply get deleted. This is only a part of my workflow, but it’s the core of how I feel I’m able to create more diverse and focused results. Of course, a lot of my process is pretty abstract - that is, the decisions I make are 40% technical and 60% intuitive.

I have learned to listen to myself more and I think this has given me an advantage because once any doubt enters into the picture, I find that it induces a negative downward spiral. If something doesn’t work, I throw it out and move on. I find this to be a valuable exercise in general, as it tends to minimize the inflated value we tend to subconsciously place onto our creative work.

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Recording future sounds at the farm

Do you compose and release music under an artist name?
No, but I often wish I had the time to. The closest I’ve come to writing music in the last 5 years are the audio demos you can hear on the Glitchmachines website and/or SoundCloud page. I’m relatively content with this, as those demos give me the opportunity to create something musical without the expectation of being a legitimate “artist” and releasing albums or EPs and playing shows.

At this point in my life I’m no longer interested in performing live, but I do still enjoy to share my creations with others. For example, I essentially consider my more recent demos for Convex and Subvert to basically be full songs. In fact, I’ve been refining some musical concepts for many years that can be heard in these tracks and if I were to write an album today, those two tracks are indicative of what it would sound like. Of course a legitimate album would sound much more refined, with more cohesive mixes and proper mastering, etc.

Other demos like the very lengthy loop showcase I made for Cataract, focus more on the melodic ideas I’ve been accumulating over time. Some people have criticized this demo for being a departure from my style, but I think that maybe they didn’t realize that these are more stripped down ideas that had to be functional as loops. If you go through and listen to all of my demos, going as far back as the projects I worked on with Twisted Tools (you have to visit my personal Soundcloud page for those) you’ll definitely get a feel for my style and ideas.

Anyway, I always contemplate the idea of releasing a proper album, so keep your eyes open as it’s not completely out of the question. In fact, we’re even toying with the idea of adding a music section to the Glitchmachines website. At this point, I’m pretty certain that I would release music under my own name rather than trying to associate it with a moniker. This is mostly because people already know who I am, and creating a new artist name would feel like starting from the beginning again, which doesn’t seem logical. On the other hand, I often fantasize about releasing something totally anonymous.

Part 2 of the interview