Game of Sounds
Illustration by Evgenia Nikolova
Ivo Ivanov is a sound designer and founder of Glitchmachines: an experimental audio software and sound effects company. In our conversation with him we find out what is the common ground between music and engineering and what keeps him so busy these days.
Tell us a little about yourself: your childhood, your education, where you grew up, etc.
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1975. My father was a famous showman, and my mother was a model, so I was introduced to the entertainment world from the beginning. I started playing piano at the age of 6, and that’s when my love for music really began. Family dynamics changed, and this lead my mother and me to relocate to Munich, Germany. Eventually, another big life change prompted us to relocate to the United States in 1986. We bought a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and that’s where I grew up and lived until very recently. I was 11 when we moved to the States and did not speak the language at all, so it was a big adjustment on many levels, but I eventually found my way. Music and sound were always a driving force in my life, and I eventually earned a Bachelor of Applied Science Degree from the Expression College for Digital Arts in California. I now live in Minneapolis with my wife and two children, and I run my own company as well as work as a freelance sound designer for advertising agencies and video game companies.
How did it all start — your relationship with music?
The foundation of my connection with music came from my grandmother and mother, who taught me to play the piano at an early age. For a large portion of my early childhood, I was exposed almost exclusively to classical music, and I think this really solidified a strong base for my musical pursuits. When we lived in Germany, I was into video games and electronic music, and this evolved my interests even further, as it lead to my passion for sound design, synthesis, recording and all things related to audio. Over the years, I have also spent time playing the guitar and percussion instruments and have generally been very involved with music and musicians for as long as I can remember.
What exactly is a sound designer and how did you become one?
A sound designer can be various things depending on the context. Sometimes it’s merely someone who adapts existing sound effects to video footage. Such a designer would have access to a large database of pre-recorded sounds to draw from, almost like the way a cook uses spices and ingredients. A sound designer can also be someone who develops original sound effects based on a particular context such as a video game element, an animated character in a film, or even more obscure things such as automobile interface sounds (like the prompts you hear when you are inside your vehicle). Some sound designers also create patches for things like synthesizer keyboards and software plugins. In my case, I am a little bit of everything, but I specialize in the creation of custom sound effects for music production and game audio, particularly for the sci-fi or horror genres. I was always interested in sound design because I found things like sonic tone, texture, structure and character just as interesting as musical melody, arrangement, harmony and feeling. In fact,
Even in my early years, I would experiment with plucking and tapping the strings of our piano, in an effort to explore the range of tones this could produce.
Can you tell us more about Glitchmachines?
Glitchmachines started as a hobby project and eventually evolved into my brand and company. In 2004, I began experimenting with circuit bending, which is the art of hacking vintage circuits in order to turn them into bizarre sound generators. For example, talking toys like the Speak & Spell or old Casio keyboards like the SK-1 would be taken apart and the circuit boards would be rewired in ways that would impose a short circuit which would cause the unit to audibly glitch. These glitches sound incredibly interesting and can be turned on and off by switches, thus turning them into strange instruments with exciting new sonic landscapes to explore. After about a year of experimenting with this, Glitchmachines was born. What prompted me to create the brand was merely serendipity and circumstance. At that time, I was going back to school, and I realized that I could sell my creations rather than, perhaps, working at a coffee shop, and that’s how it started. Quickly, and almost exclusively through social media, my creations were seen by musicians and engineers who wanted to buy them. I eventually made 350 of them completely by myself, over the course of about 5 years. Once I completed my studies, things changed and I knew that I couldn’t build instruments anymore for a variety of reasons. However, at that point, Glitchmachines was already becoming a recognizable name, so I decided to keep it going. At that point the company shifted to what it is today, which is a boutique brand that specializes is forward-thinking sound effects and creative audio software.
How did you choose to switch from “physical” instruments to software-based ones, and would you ever go back?
Overall, it was a matter of logistics. First and foremost, my hardware instruments never really made much of a profit. They were so labor-intensive to produce that I was ultimately losing money in the process. Not only this, but my daughter was born around the time things shifted, and she was a big part of my decision. I did not want to expose her to all of the toxic paint, solder fumes, electronic parts and plastic debris that was associated with working on these instruments. Not having a proper workshop also influenced this decision. Anyway, I did not go back to college so that I could continue to build hardware in my bedroom. My primary goal was to work as a sound designer in game audio, so this transition all happened in parallel to things that revolved around this goal. I have certainly thought about getting back into hardware on a larger scale, such producing synthesizer modules for example. However, this implies resources that I simply do not have, so it’s very unlikely that I will go in that direction in the foreseeable future. Software is also quite difficult to deal with on many levels, but at the same time, it’s a lot more manageable than producing hardware, which in turn involves manufacturing and distribution, as well as all sorts of other things that occupy space and cost a lot of money. As far as circuit bending goes, I have no plans to pursue it further simply because it’s too time consuming from a financial standpoint.
Have you ever been involved with music in its “cоnventional” form?
Yes, absolutely! Aside from playing piano for most of my life, I also played guitar for around 8 years and was in lots of bands. In 2000, I played keyboards on tour with a band called Snake River Conspiracy, who were signed to Reprise Records. This allowed me to experience the rock star life for a while, but ironically, I walked away feeling like it was not for me. Even though it was mind-blowing to have the opportunity to perform in front of 30,000 people and to travel the country in a top-of-the-line tour bus and all of that, I realized that this lifestyle really wasn’t what I wanted for myself. Incidentally, I met my wife around the time that I returned from tour, and that’s where things really started to align for me. At that point, I began the journey toward education in a very determined way. It’s where I concretely made the decision to pursue sound design as a serious career.
Who are some of your favorite artists: musicians or other?
When it comes to electronic music, I’m a huge fan of Autechre. I’ve always considered their sound very architectural, and that’s what has continued to fascinate me about their work. They never follow trends and consistently push the envelope, and I have the deepest respect and admiration for them as artists. One of my favorite electronic albums of recent times, not related to Autechre, is “Libet Tones” from Vaetxh. Currently, on a regular day, I listen to a lot of Chiptunes and Instrumental Metal. With regards to Chiptunes, I am constantly going back to FX3 by Virt. Virt, whose real name is Jake Kaufman, recently scored the game Shovel Knight, and I consider this to be an absolutely masterful soundtrack. I also frequently listen to various soundtracks from the Metroid, Castelvania and Mega Man series. On a totally different note, one of my favorite groups that play actual instruments is Jaga Jazzist. In my opinion, every single track, and ultimately every one of their albums, is a masterpiece. Some of my favorite New Retro Wave artists are Power Glove, Lazerhawk, and Gatekeeper. A couple of my favorite Instrumental Metal artists are Animals as Leaders and Keith Merrow. The list goes on and on, but those are the first that come to mind. Other than music, I am a big fan of modern art and I visit museums with my family whenever possible. A couple of my favorite artists of all time are Mark Rothko and Andy Goldsworthy.
You’ve made custom instruments for lots of artists, can you name a few?
I made a lot of custom instruments for Richard Devine. He was always a big inspiration to me, so when he took it upon himself to contact me for custom work around 2007, I was both shocked and extremely flattered. Today, we occasionally work on the same projects together, which is amazing because I respect him tremendously. He’s an exceptionally good sound designer and a very kind person. Other notable owners of my instruments include DJ Derrick Carter, who bought one of my earliest instruments on eBay. Also, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who is best known for his work with Beck and Nine Inch Nails. He is an incredibly accomplished musician, and I’m really pleased to have had the opportunity to build several custom instruments for him. Incidentally, that’s how I wound up making an instrument for Trent Reznor; Justin commissioned me to make it as a Christmas gift for Trent. There are many others, and I even had to, unfortunately, turn many away after things shifted toward software.
Reinventing the past has been pretty hip in music recently, but what do you think about its future? What is going to be the next big thing?
Look what’s happening with cassettes now. It’s hilarious in a way because I remember having to deal with cassettes as it was one of the only ways to buy music. While I appreciate the nostalgia behind it, cassettes are by no means sonically superior. It will be interesting to see how long the charm lasts this time around. We have a way of idealizing the past and re-interpreting it from today’s perspective. In some cases, I think that can be very rewarding and entertaining! I mentioned New Retro Wave earlier. This genre is essentially all about a re-imagination of 1980’s Synthwave and New Wave, among other things. The funny thing is that the aesthetic is way more refined than it actually was in the 80’s. Actually, that’s kind of why I like it — it’s like a hyper-stylized version of all of the best parts of the 80’s. Unfortunately, society generally has a way of squeezing the life out of such trends, and they quickly make their way into car commercials and other mainstream media. Soon, they are discarded again in favor of something new, and the cycle starts again. You see this everywhere, especially in art. Anyway,
Sometime in the coming decades, younger generations will come along that will re-invigorate today’s technology and aesthetics. Maybe mp3s will be the next big thing again, twenty years from now when they have been long extinct. I can’t predict how this will look, but I’m eager to observe it from afar.
You are also an educator, can you share some details on that?
When I graduated from college, I found that my job offers in the field of game audio were very limited. For example, I had an offer to work with Electronic Arts, but the pay was so preposterous that I had to turn down the opportunity. After a lot of similar situations, I wound up looking elsewhere, and this ultimately took me to the SAE Institute of Technology in San Francisco. They were still building the facility when I interviewed, and I got hired as an Instructor before the school was even functional. In fact, I helped with various aspects of building the campus and the studios. You could say I found my stride very quickly because I was promoted through the ranks rapidly, and was ultimately given the position of Director of Education. This meant that I was responsible for all of the academic courses, including all of our Instructors and anything to do with the educational aspects of the school. Eventually, I took over as the Campus Director, which then put me in charge of the entire facility. Overall, this was a valuable experience on many levels, but I knew that it was not what I was interested in doing on a long-term basis. After nearly five years with the Institute, I left to fully pursue running Glitchmachines, and that’s what I have been doing every since. I occasionally take temporary teaching jobs elsewhere, such as Pyramind in San Francisco, Slam Academy in Minneapolis, and even private lessons, but I only do this on a very limited basis depending on my availability.
We suppose your work is also your hobby, but apart from sound, what are your other interests?
Audio is definitely my biggest hobby, but I do like to clear my mind of it on a regular basis in order to re-charge and keep an even perspective. I’ve actually been an avid fan of video games every since way the distant days of the Atari 2600, and I’ve been deeply passionate about video games every since. In fact, they were a big reason why I got interested in sound design and synthesis in the first place. Video games encompass many of my interests such as art, music, sound and technology in general, and they have been a big part of my life for that reason. In that sense, you could say that video games have always been synonymous with audio to me. However, I’m not one of these guys that sits around in their underwear all day playing games! I stay very involved with my family and two young children. I suppose most people don’t think of this as a hobby, but some of my absolute favorite and most memorable activities revolve around my family. I also love to ski and swim, and generally spend time outdoors hiking, running, cycling, playing with my kids, and ultimately, enjoying nature.
I’m currently working on the follow-up to my sound pack Biоmorph. This new one will be in a similar style (i.e. sci-fi/alien aesthetic), and I’m quite excited about it because these are my favorite type of sounds to design, and this project has been on my list for a couple of years. I am also finishing an album, which is a big milestone for me because it’s the very first album I’ve managed to create in all of the 20+ years that I’ve been making electronic music. It is the culmination of years and years of ideas and experience, and it’s something I’m truly proud of. It’s set to be released in this coming Spring/Summer 2016. Aside from this, I’m currently working with an agency as a Senior Sound Designer for mobile games, and I’m looking forward to upcoming projects with them. There are various other things in planning, but nothing I can talk about publicly just yet. If you are interested in checking out my past work, including photos of my hardware instruments, head over to my personal website at: www.ivanovsound.com