The Virtual Ornaments of An Innovator
Producer, mixer, remixer, writer & artist Carmen Rizzo
By Randy Alberts
Typically there’s room for doubt when someone claims that a new product has changed their life. Yeah, right. But when that someone is one of today’s best, busiest producer-musician-remixers around who helped forge an entirely new Grammy category, and their product rave is about a musical instrument—their favorite synthesizer—who’s to doubt it?
“Oh yes, Rapture has absolutely changed my life in how I make records,” says Carmen Rizzo, who four years ago led the way in creating NARAS’ new Grammy Award category for Best Electronic Album. “My life is all about making records and, really, I just can’t work without Rapture anymore. Every time I use it to come up with a sound I think, ‘Wow, I would’ve never come up with that sound without Rapture!’ Rapture opens up your mind to new things you just would’ve never thought of without it.”
Carrying the torch for electronic music with the help of BT, Crystal Method’s Ken Jordan and others was but one gem in Rizzo’s prodigious creative vein of music, concert, radio, t.v. and film sound achievements. Himself a two-time Grammy nominee, the short version of Carmen’s credits list reads like a who’s who of diverse talents and idioms: Coldplay, Alanis Morissette, Cirque du Soleil, Seal, Ryuichi Sakamoto, k.d. Lang, Pete Townshend and acclaimed British director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas In The Mist). Rizzo scored his first film soundtrack, The Power of the Game, for Apted’s documentary about the German soccer team’s 2006 World Cup win; released two critically-adored solo albums of his own (The Lost Art of the Idle Moment and the new Ornament of An Impostor); co-founded, produces and frequently tours with the world beat/electronic fusion band Niyaz and, currently, is among many pursuits DJ-ing a radio set heard by 14 million listeners each month on the highly influential KEXP.org/Seattle.
“I’d like to think that people come to me for something different, for something unique,” says Carmen. “The Cakewalk synths definitely make that easier for me to accomplish.”
Within Sight of the Hollywood Sign
A husband and father who donates 10% of his new album’s sales to a different charity each month, Rizzo owns and produces, writes, mixes and remixes in his Studio 775. There’s a close-up view of the intersecting street signs of Hollywood & Vine right outside his workspace window.
“Be it audio plug-ins for EQ, compression and effects or virtual instruments, every producer and musician has their favorite go-to tools they use on everything they do,” he says. “Rapture is one of those tools for me. It’s there no matter where I’m creating music. On the road with my portable laptop rig or at the audio workstation here at Studio 775, honestly, Rapture is in pretty much everything I do.”
Both Rapture and Dimension Pro, another go-to tool in his virtual instrument quiver, have been integral to Carmen’s latest projects of 2008. Listen for both on his solo album, the new Niyaz CD (Nine Heavens) and in his latest tracks for The Song Story, a documentary about his experiences discovering online and then producing three unsigned artists. The show will air on HBO and/or network television later this year. And, speaking of media credits and new awards categories, he also has plenty to say about Rapture’s own recent achievement, as well.
“It totally deserved to win that award,” Rizzo remarks when asked about Rapture’s win of the coveted MIPA (Musikmesse International Press Award) for Best Virtual Synthesizer of 2008.
“That’s a big deal because, until now, Rapture had been the most underrated synthesizer out there. Now everyone knows.”
Cakewalk Synths On Both Sides of the Street
Not everyone, including Carmen Rizzo, knew until last year another important fact about Cakewalk’s Rapture and Dimension Pro—that both synths play and sound just as killer on a Mac as they do on a PC. Surprised when he first heard this, Rizzo was quick to alert many of his fellow electronic musicians, producers, mixers and remixers to this.
“When a friend finally told me about how great Rapture is, and that it’s on the Mac, my first reaction was, ‘No way!’” laughs Carmen. “That was my biggest surprise. So as soon as I got Rapture, then Dimension Pro, I’ve ever since been telling all my friends and colleagues—like BT and Junkie XL—who mostly all use Apple systems that they’ve got to first realize these synths can be used on their Macs. Then secondly that, regardless of platform, Rapture and Dimension Pro are just amazing instruments.”
Rizzo explains further that he and most of his friends had for years assumed Cakewalk’s products to be PC-only and, for that reason alone, they had always associated Cakewalk’s decades-long PC legacy as being just for the that side of the street.
“That’s exactly why a lot of us are only now beginning to understand the most important thing,” Rizzo adds, “that Rapture, Dimension Pro and the other Cakewalk soft synths are Apple friendly, too.”
User-Friendly & Passionate Presets
Rizzo says Rapture’s user interface is easy enough to use that even the novice can just tweak a few knobs and adjust a preset to dial in something they like. But extremely synth savvy users can go further to find something even more original waiting for them just beneath Rapture’s top-layer control panels.
“If you dig deeper into Rapture, you can really sculpt the sounds that you hear in your head.”
It’s probably safe to say that at least some of the credit for Rapture’s 2008 MIPA award goes to how far Cakewalk’s programmers went in coming up with some of the best sounding preset patches a synth’s ever sported. Though no one—hardcore electronic music producer or novice user alike—likes admitting it, there are those confident enough in their own musical writing and programming chops to cop to giving preset props where props are due.
“You know I hate to admit this because a lot of us don’t like to use the factory presets of any instrument or plug-in,” laughs Rizzo. “But the presets on Rapture are just unlike those found on any other instrument I’ve ever used. Sure, Cakewalk works hard at making those presets sound as good as this synth can be but no one, including myself, ever want to just depend on that. But I just have to say that the presets on Rapture are really outstanding. Every preset I bring up is just so close to what I want in the end that often I don’t need to really tweak many, if any at all of those presets’ parameters much at all. It’s not really saying such a bad thing to admit that, is it?”
No Carmen, it isn’t. Rizzo points to many of the great effects programmed into some of Rapture’s presets: Bit reductions, imaginative delay lines, and the way in which some presets make great use of Rapture’s six Elements to create multi-faceted, evolving sounds within any one given preset. All this merely inspires him as a jumping off point into his own sonic excursions with Rapture, though sometimes the jump isn’t that far from preset to final album track.
Whether he’s working on his own albums’ tracks or someone else’s using Rapture or Dimension Pro, this busy producer/artist likes giving credit where credit is due.
Better Songwriting through Technology
“There are some very good moving, evolving pads in Dimension Pro,” Rizzo adds. “My writing partner Jamie Muhoberac and I often get inspired by these sounds when we’re first writing a song or parts for a song. We’re often writing entire songs that are completely initiated and inspired by those sounds in Dimension Pro. I’d say, in fact, that at least three songs on my new album Ornament of An Impostor were completely inspired by, even created within, those sounds in Dimension Pro. The same thing can be said about Rapture, as well, on many of the tracks on this album.”
More than any other song element, the secret weapon, really, for any great electronic music artist and producer is their signature drum, percussion and rhythm grooves. And not surprisingly—or is it?—Rapture comes through here, as well, for Carmen.
“The drum sounds in Rapture are another overlooked thing about this great synth. The kits that come with it are pretty amazing. I often use Rapture for drum parts. Rhythm means a lot these days, especially on really good productions, and the drums are the secret to every great electronic music song. There isn’t any one tool out there for drums where you can say, ‘Oh yeah, I only use this for my drums.’ Every producer has many tools behind their overall signature drum and rhythm sound. But I will say that on just about every rhythm thing I do these days there are some elements of Rapture in it. Most people I know and work with don’t even use synthesizers to create their drum parts at all but, like me, once they try Rapture, then they do.”
The Synthesized Glue In A Producer’s Toolbox
When asked to get specific about his fav features in Rapture and Dimension Pro, Rizzo is a bit stumped. He refers to each as “the glue” in his everyday audio and music project work and, thus, could anyone building musical foundations for a living possibly retrace everywhere in each song where, and how, they glued one melody to another? But he does for instance say that, when pressed, he likes the way he can use Dimension Pro’s built-in step sequencers to export MIDI to his DAW of choice.
“I like that you can drag-and-drop the MIDI of those sequencers into a track and then manipulate that MIDI further,” he says. “That’s a really good, useful tool for me. Say you have an arpeggiated step sequencer rhythm going on in a Dimension Pro sound that you like, but you’d like to manipulate just one or a few of the events of that a bit further to make it perfect. Just drag that MIDI into your own sequencer and take it away from there.”
Anything else you’d like to say about Cakewalk’s award-winning virtual instruments, Carmen?
“Between Rapture, Dimension Pro and the company’s Zeta 3, which I use on my Dell PC, I’d like to say that I just really love what they make at Cakewalk. I really support the company. Truly, the tools they make have really changed my life, they’ve changed the way I make records, which is my life. I can go to those instruments and know, without a doubt, that I’m going to come out with something I like that’s very unique and perfect for the song. I can’t say that for every other virtual or physical instrument I use today.”
“Like I said earlier,” Rizzo concludes, “I’d like to think that people come to me for something different, to make their records or films or shows sound unique. I pride myself on that, and the Cakewalk synths definitely make that whole process easier for me to accomplish with every production I complete.”