Workspace and Environment: Keith Fullerton Whitman

I was born in Bergen County, NJ, where I grew up (Hillsdale, to be precise). I went to college at Berklee in Boston, where I’ve stayed for the last 20 years (the Boston area, not Berklee). Currently I have an office & a studio space in Porter Square in Cambridge (just a few blocks north of Harvard) & there’s another set of workstations in my apartment in Somerville about 2 miles away. Although these days I tend to do most of my music-work at home (recording at least).

I started making electronic music on a vic20 when I was 10 years old ; then the Atari 400/800/st, then Mac’s, etc … I love music, I always seem to find new areas & techniques to explore & I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by people (although less actual & more virtual these days) who at least share some of my interests. I’m largely motivated these by other people continuing to ask me for music ; I have a hard time saying no …

Favorite Hardware
The two items I’ve been using the most this month are a Tascam dp-008 digital 8-track & a Soundevices mix-pre-d … I bought the Tascam on a whim, but it’s proven to a be a great stand-alone multitrack (it fits with a Cloudlifter CL-2 on a shelf mounted to a mic-stand! It’s tiny) ; I’ve been recording loads of music on it, which is always the sign of a good piece of gear. I picked up the mix-pre-d to do higher quality location recording (previously i’d just been using a Sony PCM-D50 & was considering the standalone phantom power source, then realized this cost almost as much as the mix-pre-d) but its ended up being a pretty powerful workhorse – works beautifully as a mic pre, a usb recording interface, a preamp for feeding decent audio into a dslr for video, a mid-side decoder … the list goes on.

Favorite Software
It’s been AGES since I’ve gotten anything new, or even updated my DAW setup at the studio (I’m running Logic 8 & MAX-MSP 4.5, there’s a UAD-2 card in the main machine). Everything is running smoothly & it sounds great, so stasis is the best course … wait, I did get some of those Valhalla DSP plugins recently, those are great (the room one is especially good) … I was really into that Tobor experiment Berna package for a while, although I quickly realized I VASTLY preferred doing those sorts(s) of things in hardware ; still, it was a cool idea for a software suite. Oh, and the madrona aalto is really, really great for a software synth.

Workspace and Environment
The studio space in which I do most of my computer-oriented music work doubles as the warehouse of the distribution company I run ; all of the stock is there, along with my personal record collection … endless inspiration right there. That said, people are always knocking on the door looking for records & that can sometimes get in the way of deep concentration. The space is gorgeous, in a big mill building. After 6 it clears out & it’s whisper-quiet (other than the commuter rail trains going by) … 30 foot high ceilings, good light.

They’re important ; I never set out to make the different workstations ergonomically feasible, but often things get shifted around to be a little more comfortable. The best ergonomic choice I made was to just set up a bunch of different workstations for different tasks ; that way I’m not always using the same set of muscles, sitting in the same position, focusing on the same screen at the same distance for 12 hours a day. I have a “standing desk” at the office where I do things like assemble records, plus there’s a big packing bench which is great for projects where I need to lay out a bunch of different things temporarily … the “synth desk” is also a standing desk ; a bar table with storage underneath for cables & whatnot. I find standing while doing creative work really helps to focus on what I’m doing at any given time.

I’ve chosen to stay in Boston as it’s extremely pleasant here. there’s a great, small, tight-knit scene for the sort(s) of music that I make & enjoy that doesn’t suffer from the delusions of grandeur you’d get in a larger city ; I guess that’s why I love it here – people just going about their lives, working on their craft. The winters are brutal, which is great as I tend to do most of my creative work for the year while sequestered inside. I’m actually fairly antisocial … I can go days at a time without seeing anyone other than my partner & our cats.

Ideal Location
I think this is it! Having the time & resources to get deep into projects without too much temptation to go out every night. That sounds like heaven to me …

I tend to move apartments every couple of years, which is actually a great thing – it’s nice to re-assess what you’re using & what’s gathering dust every so often, pawn off anything that’s not being used. Since moving to boston for good in 1993, I’ve moved home/studio about 8 times. I’ve been in the porter sq. office for 4 years now, this apartment going on 2. I almost always had one of those Omnirax or Middle Atlantic workstations, but I noticed after a while I was getting neck & back pain from always craning my neck up to see the monitor on the top shelf. Now I use bar-tables with storage underneath, much better, plus it forced me to stand … plus those $49 staples “computer desk” stations, which I find very comfortable (you just have to remove the upper shelf).

I often work in very conceptual ways … having the hour or two going back & forth from the home/studio to the office/studio every day, away from all of my gear & whatnot, to think about possible approaches & ideas is crucial. I don’t really make notes or diagrams, but I tend to think about something I’d like to try & map it out in great detail mentally before I begin. specific to the modular, I’m constantly re-working the portable case that I take out on the road. pretty much every week I’m swapping something out for something else. I like to approach it as a series of little micro-patches. Right now, in the 90hp 12u I have in the Monorocket mx-6, there are 7 self-contained sub-patches which all speak to each other in different ways. but it’s constantly changing from week to week.

First piece of Hardware
Hard to say … the vic-20 was prob the first I remember using to actually make music, but I remember saving up my paper route money to get a Casio CZ-1 when those came out. Actually, I remember having Casios before then (def. an MT-68 ; i have a different one now & still use it all the time) – I know I had a TR-505 at one point too, a fostex cassette 4-track, then, later, a Tascam Syncaset 8-track cassette & the matching mixer. I really wish I still have both of those!!! The sound you got out of that mixer was incredible ; the channel distortion …

Last Piece of Hardware
This week I picked up a Boss DR-55 drum machine – super interesting as it has two clock-outs (one sends a 16th note, the other follows accents programmed into a given rhythm) – it’s been fun to clock a modular patch with it, maybe send the clock through a few 4ms rcd’s, but then have the audio of the drum machine to play around with as well … very cool.

I went to see a band a few weeks ago at a “big” rock club ; They played “playthroughs” as the between-band music throughout the night. It kind of freaked me out, actually. I’ve had music on TV, in video games, and in movies as well. Whenever i hear something out of context, I usually get very disoriented …

Extra Curricular
I do a bit of sound-design here & there ; nothing I really pursue, but it’s nice when that work lands in my lap. Last year I did a few pieces for a few games & some sound-design for one of them … it was based on the seven chakras, and I did sound for the final, “crown” chakra level. Did a bit of research on the root frequencies & tunings, which made it this interesting mix of science / psycho-acoustics and music. I’m quite happy with how it turned out …

Keith Fullerton Whitman

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