Perfect Sound Forever


His world of electronic wizardry
interview by Derek Pyle
(April 2017)

Emile Tobenfeld's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer (KCS) for Commodore 64 was a revolution in MIDI sequencers. Eventually following the KCS with the equally powerful Omega II program for Atari, Emile Tobenfeld aka Dr. T offered a number of innovative MIDI sequencing programs and patches through his company Dr. T's Music Software, playing a significant role in the world of mid to late 1980’s electronic music.

Despite a dedicated following of jazz musicians and while being the preferred sequencer of early electronic musicians like Black Dog, Emile stopped creating new software in the early 1990’s. Shifting his attention to visual mediums, Emile spent two decades working for Boris FX on their Boris Continuum Complete, creating filters and plugins for programs like Abode After Effects. In between playing me music and showing me his recent art, I talked to Emile in his Arlington, Massachusetts home about the history of Dr. T and his trajectory as an artist, musician and programmer.

PSF: How did you first get interested in music software?

Dr. T: In 1977, I was at somebody's house where they had an ARP Odyssey and I got addicted. I saved up my money and bought one, although in retrospect I probably should have saved up more money and bought ARP 2600.

I had some modifications made to the ARP Odyssey, so I could make it a little more flexible. Then I started building and badly hand-wiring my own electronic music modules. At the time I was able to pair my job down to 32 hours a week, so I had a lot of time to do my photography and my music and build my stuff.

So fast forward to the end of 1983. The [Yahama] DX7 comes out. It's a keyboard-based instrument and I'm not a keyboard player, which was a bit of a handicap. The great thing about analog is it's in real time. The bad thing about analog is if you have a complicated system, you basically make a patch and you're lucky if you can use it on another piece that same day. The next time you come back to it, you can't get that patch back, unless you're really much more anal than I am.

So the DX7 had this really nice sound engine, very complex envelope for its time – envelope, generation, stuff like that – and you could remember stuff, but you couldn't edit it on the computer yet and you couldn't sequence it on the computer yet. Go forward a little bit to 1984. At the time, my means of transportation to work was a white motorcycle.

PSF: What were you doing for work at this time?

Dr. T: Generic software development, business software. Anyway, I wake up one morning and I had a dream that I'd gotten into a motorcycle accident. I leave for work thinking, I'll be extra careful today. But when it's time to ride back from work, I've forgotten about the dream. I see a car signaling for a left turn. I see the driver looking straight at me. What I didn't see was that the driver was looking into the sun and couldn't see me. The bike got wiped out, I got a few scratches, nothing significant.

That evening there was a demonstration of some music software at a local music store. I wasn't going to go because I was sure it was going to be crowded, but I went anyway. It was crowded. But they said they would give me the programming interface for their hardware models so I could write my own. I think the accident was sort of the kick in the pants I needed to do that. I went from working 32 soft hours to working 32 soft hours a week plus as many as I could cram in hard hours, working on my Commodore 64 software.

PSF: What was the hardware that was being demonstrated?

Dr. T: It was amazingly a sequencer that had recording and overdubbing, but no editing. The idea was you stick a card in the back of your Commodore 64, and you've got the sequencer, so you're getting a regular Commodore 64's basic interface. But I found out from them how to write software so I could use it for the interface part without the sequencer part. Then I wrote two programs. One was the first version of what I called the Keyboard Controlled Sequencer, meaning you could control it from the computer keyboard.

I was trying to go against the tape recorder metaphor that everybody else was using, like a recording studio where you open up tracks. I wanted to be able to do that, but I wanted more to be able to have control – playback was really what I was after.

PSF: When you begin your company, Dr. T's Music Software, what's the current technology look like? What's the context?

Dr. T: My context was always improvisation based on texture and timbre, and a little bit on rhythm. I know melody when I hear it, but I don't know what notes are being played. I know good harmony when I hear it, but I have no idea what chord is being played.

In my exploration of many art forms, if there's something I don't think I'm going to be good at and I don't think it's going to be fun for me to learn – even if it's fundamental to the art form, like melody is to the music, or learning to draw a straight line – I try to find a way around it. My philosophy is that I'm not interested in being mediocre at anything. So I get better at the things I'm good at rather than beating myself over the head about the things I'll never be more than mediocre at.

PSF: What were some of the instruments you first made electronic music with?

Dr. T: Basically an ARP odyssey, some percussion and a microphone, and a whole lot of home built electronic instruments. Synthesizer modules – oscillators, sequencers, this and that. They weren't intended as standalone instruments, they were things that you could patch together. Basically I had a modular synthesizer set up with an ARP Odyssey plus a lot of badly home built stuff, and it was a lot of fun. I liked setting up a pattern that sort of repeated, but I would try to set it up in such a way that you could sort of tell what the rule was, but it really hard to tell exactly what the rule was.

The technology was basically that MIDI had just been developed. There were a handful of keyboard instruments that would send MIDI, and [my software] was a way of freeing you from the need to use a patch right away – because my system was far too complex and chaotic, and I was not anal enough to keep track of where I was going.

I wanted to do MIDI music, but the only software that was on the market didn't let you edit, didn't let you enter the stuff in manually. I'm not a skilled keyboard player so it's really not useful for me to just be able to record and not edit what I record. More useful for me would be able to enter the stuff in, even in X-Form, and play it back.

There are a number of threads here. There was the DX7 thread, which was just to make an editor for this instrument that I really liked. There was the sequencer thread, and one of the chief aspects of that was wanting something that had an open-ended playback system.

The way I set it up, even on the first Commodore 64 version of the program, it was something called Open mode. And there was Track mode, where you could record like a tape recorder. Open mode was more interesting. The idea was that a sequence could start another sequence, which could start another sequence. So you could create complex structures, and you could interact with them.

For example, when I press key A, this sequence starts, and that's going to start sequence B and sequence C. Then I can press key B or press C to stop the sequences they started, or I could have five different sequences and play them all at the same time, turning them all on or off as I want.

I was into the fact of it being an open-ended system for freeform and structured improvisation. Which of course wasn't most people wanted to do with the software, but from the beginning I wanted something that I could use for my music. If I could sell it, that's great. If not, it's still worth doing. But because the sequencers that were out in 1984 were so primitive, even though my user interface was much more complicated, a lot of people were going to my software because you could do stuff with it.

PSF: So even though they weren't necessarily using it for this open-ended improvisation, you still offered more than the other programs.

Dr. T: Yeah. The first MIDI software didn't even have an event list. That was the first thing I wrote. You could make a list of the notes that were going to play and how long they were going to play for and how much time was going to pass between that note and the previous note, and you could edit that.

I've always been into conceptual improvisation, like, “What if I can do this? What happens, what does it make me want to do, what does it make me think about?” My electronic music from the beginning was never song oriented, it was always texture and timber and sound and rhythm oriented.

Our first sequencer came out and enjoyed some success because it was the first decent sequencer on the market. Shortly after that, Roger Powell (of Utopia) came up with a PC sequencer that had some of the same things that we had.

PSF: Was he aware of your work?

Dr. T: We eventually became aware of each other. I don't know who found who.

The other thing was that I started with the Commodore 64, which was the most inexpensive personal computer at the time. Then I moved to the Apple II. For some reason our Apple II software – which ran more smoothly than the Commodore 64, because the OS was better – never caught on. I never knew why.

PSF: Were there other folks creating software for Apple II?

Dr. T: At the time, all the other people had the tape recorder metaphor and nothing much else. But ours didn't catch on.

PSF: The tape recorder metaphor is creating a digital multitrack?

Dr. T: Yeah, a digital multitrack where each track consists of instructions for an instrument to play. Typically, you would have one track per instrument, but you were not forced to – for straight-ahead music it would make more sense to do it that.

One of the things that we did, which was good and bad, we knew from seeing other software that the operating system of the Atari was very slow. You had to rewrite the operating system to be responsive. Plus on a fixed 40 by 400 screen, multiple windows take up a lot of space. So I make the decision that we're going to just do the best sequencer we can for this machine, which meant not using the operating system's windowing system. Basically we take over the screen and talk to the screen directly, which is fine if you're the only application running. In a modern environment with multiple applications running, obviously you can't do that.

PSF: Were you the only ones doing that?

Dr. T: We were the only ones going directly to the screen, and going directly to the screen saved an awful lot of overhead. One of our early tasks, people wanted a graphic editor. We used what was called piano roll notation. One of the things that I insisted on because I'm so into dynamics, when we did piano roll notation each note not only had the piano roll, it also had a little stem that told you how loud the note was playing. Or in more precise terms, how hard the key was being hit when you played it, or how hard of a key hit were you simulating. And that was really very fast, because again you had an awful lot on the screen before it slowed down.

I had a tendency to get carried away, so I also added a thing to the program called Programmable Variations Generator, which was very cool but we probably could have made just as much money making a much simpler version.

Basically, the idea of the Programmable Variations Generator – let's say you had a two bar phrase, you could tell Programmable Variations Generator, ‘every time you play the phrase, change one note by this or that rule, with some randomness in it.’ Then you could generate a sequence consisting of as many repetitions of that motif as you wanted, each one being varied from the previous one, so the motif would seem to mutate.

One of the things that I never got around to doing, which I really wanted to do, was to make it interactive as opposed to being an editing process. Both Open mode playback and the Programmable Variations Generator were pretty unique ideas I don't think anybody has entirely topped. I think Ableton Live comes close.

We kept refining the Atari stuff. It was one of those projects where in terms of accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish, in terms of the program, we were very successful. But in terms of money it would have made more sense to skip that and put all that energy into a PC or Mac sequencer. We did do a Mac version of the sequencer but it wasn't really good. In the Mac, you really had to use their metaphor in order to be successful.

PSF: At the time, what was the reach of your software?

Dr. T: I don't remember. I don't think we were up there with Cubase or Logic, because they had more “intuitive” user interfaces, but we had a decent market share. The problem was that we didn't succeed in moving to a platform that would take us into the future, which was too bad.

PSF: Do you still hear from musicians who used your software?

Dr. T: Every now and then, yes. I know some of the Brooklyn-based jazz people like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby used the software, way back when.

PSF: You mentioned there are even people who twenty or even thirty years later, they're still writing to you and wanting to connect with you.

Dr. T: There are a few people who just swear by the software and say it's much better than anything else they see out now. Given that it doesn't playback samples, at least directly – now all the sequencers can do a combination of multitrack audio and multitrack MIDI, which we didn't have. But we had a lot of things. The graphic editing had some nice stuff, and editing Control Change Messages. We had this little mixing module – a lot of good stuff, it was just on dead end platform.

PSF: What do you think of the state of music technology today? Do you keep up with it?

Dr. T: I don't keep up with it, but I would say this. In 2003 or 2002, I was mainly focused on video at the time, but partly, inspired by the possibility of collaborating on sounds with a friend of mine – Neil Leonard, who’s a really good sax player and computer musician – I bought a Nord modular synthesizer and got totally addicted to it.

PSF: What did you do after Dr. T?

Dr. T: I was friendly with the trombone player George Lewis, and he was teaching at UCSD so I went up to San Diego and visited him. While I was hanging out there, I saw this really good program of experimental films. I thought, “This is what I want to do next.” I started doing video, just myself, and writing some very primitive plugins in this very primitive programming environment that came with Adobe Premiere. I was trying to figure out how to get into video freelancing, which I never succeeded at because my stuff was too weird.

But at one of the networking meetings I went to, I met this guy named Boris who had this company called Boris FX and I thought maybe he could use me. I sent him an email and he said, “That sounds interesting, come in, let's talk.” I was with that company as a consulting engineer for 18 years. Early on, I had a lot of freedom. I made a lot of stuff that I really wanted. Sometimes it was like, “I'm getting paid to do this?”

PSF: What would you say was your guiding creative vision?

Dr. T: When I started doing electronic music, I was basically saying, why don't people improvise with the timbre of the synthesizer instead of just playing a keyboard? There wasn't enough music of that type being made.

Let's go back to my photography, because that was a bit earlier. I would go the light shows and the experimental films in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. I would go to New York to the Fillmore East and see the Joshua Light Show, and when I came back to Boston, the Boston rock clubs had a mediocre equivalent. But I wanted to see this more often. How can I guarantee that I see it as often as I want? Make it myself. I started making these weird colored slides so I could always have a slideshow.

Likewise with electronic music. When I got into it, it was like, well this kind of conceptual timbral improvisation doesn't seem to be happening very much. If I want to hear it, I have to make it myself.

PSF: What drew you to this textural aspect of music?

Dr. T: Well, the fact that I never had a trained ear, and I listened to a lot of weird jazz and the Grateful Dead. First time I saw the Grateful Dead (was) in 1969, about two weeks earlier I had gone to the Jazz Workshop which was a jazz club on Boston Street at the time. I saw the Tony Williams Lifetime with Tony Williams, Larry Young on organ, John McLaughlin on guitar. The room was half full and half the people left. The other half gave the band a standing ovation.

Two weeks later, I go see the Grateful Dead. Much larger room, not completely packed as in sold out, but pretty crowded. Everybody's enthusiastic and I'm sitting there saying, “These guys are as fucking weird as those guys, but they get an audience! What's going on here?”

I like “in” music and I like “out” music. But my favorite music, my favorite art, is in and out at the same time. It's open-ended but there's some structure to it.

PSF: Would you say were you a hippie?

Dr. T: When I was in graduate school there was a young math professor, he would say, “Drop halfway out.” I think that's one of the wisest pieces of advice I ever got. Don't throw away your education, don't throw away any chance of ever making money, but stay true to your soul. Drop out to that extent. That's basically what I've been trying to do all my life.

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