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Aroon Karuna

Experimental musician, intellectual property attorney

in lawyer, mac, musician

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Aroon Karuna. I'm an experimental musician and intellectual property attorney.

As an attorney I've been primarily preparing and prosecuting patent applications, with other forays into litigation, copyright, trademark, licensing, and more. My clients have lately been tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area (I live in Oakland). My background in computer science helps me understand and write about the software technologies I work with. I've also been patent counsel at multinational companies, specifically Wolfram Research and GE Healthcare.

As a musician I've gone by several names over the years, but primarily I've been recording and releasing albums under the name Vapor Lanes since 2008 ('vaporwave' incidentally became a thing around 2011; there may be some minor overlap, but my music doesn't really belong in the genre). My two full-length releases of note are Hieratic Teen, an album released as 12" vinyl under the Usonian label, and A Thin Film, released as a cassette under the Big Sleep label. Both are densely layered drone-ambient-noise works, and are still available in digital and physical formats. My next project will be much more sample-based, albeit sampling and mangling my own synths and drum machines and field recordings, rather than sampling others' works. It will likely be released under the name Winter Lanterns.

I tend to favor sounds that are drifting, disorienting, woozy, broken, gritty, lush, noisy, and lovely. I like programming synthesizers to sound like all of these things at once. Some of my music aims for that My Bloody Valentine quality - at lower volumes, it sounds ambient and hazy, and at higher volumes, it sounds massive and noisy. Ideal for arty horror films or atmospheric games (hit me up, I'm open for projects.)

Lately I've been working with the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, who commissioned me to compose pieces for their video materials and promos - here are a few examples of my work in that context. It's been exciting working with a group of people who encourage me to get weirder and stretch my boundaries.

What hardware do you use?

As an attorney: typically it's whatever my workplace's IT department has in store for me. When I'm given a choice, I prefer a MacBook and my trusty Samsung S7 Edge (voice recording of interviews, checking email, etc.) I also use a Hobonichi Weeks planner. As some patent examiners are old school, I still use a fax machine sometimes.

As a musician: I use a Heath & Allen ZED-12FX for mixing my various bits of gear and recording them via USB into the computer. I don't have any studio monitors, since I'm sensitive to working in an apartment building that transmits sound like crazy. Instead I do all of my monitoring with a pair of Grado SR325s. They may not be the definitive 'flat-sounding' professional studio headphones that you're supposed to use, but they've got an extremely pleasing and richly detailed sound, and that matters more to me. In travel and non-studio situations I like Master & Dynamic ME05 in-ears.

I started out strictly using software since it was all I could afford as a student, but after purchasing my first dedicated hardware synthesizer in 2008 (the Dave Smith Poly Evolver), there was no turning back. I know many people swear that software sounds as good as hardware synths these days, but to my ears, really well-made hardware synths are capable of raw, unpredictable, and lively sounds I can't coax out of any application. Just as important, they provide a tactility and instant hands-on immersion, allowing me to play and understand them like actual instruments with a minimum of menu navigation and fussiness. There's nothing inherently wrong with a powerful program that has a workflow similar to Excel, and I use such programs sometimes, but there's something to say about immediacy, muscle memory, and instrument proficiency. I'm also just deeply in love with the paradigm of modular synthesis - routing control voltage with a spaghetti mess of patch cables, instantly designing something complex, odd, and accident-happy. Real modulars, virtual modulars, mod matrices. Patch and see what happens as you go. Brilliant!

The main three pieces of gear in my setup at the moment:

  1. Arturia MatrixBrute - this interview with Marc Doty about his love for the MatrixBrute contains no hyperbole. This synthesizer was released in late 2016 and I have no doubt that it's one of the great classics of our time. As he says: "If you're interested in non-musical synthesis and sound design, you have a semi-modular system of complex functionality and interconnection that would rival, or even outdo, some of the studios of historical experimental synthesists!" This is the most exciting and immediately satisfying piece of gear I own at the moment (excluding my modular, maybe), and I haven't even scratched the surface of it yet.

  2. Dave Smith Prophet 12 - a modern polyphonic analog/digital hybrid that has vast sound-shaping capabilities. Anything on the synth can be routed to any modulation destination simply by holding down a button and twisting a knob of your choice, which makes this nearly as flexible of a semi-modular as the Matrixbrute, in its own ways. This is the go-to workhorse synth that I use, and the 12 voice polyphony combined with the rich sonic character means I can create dense, wide, evolving pads and drones.

  3. Modular synth - my eurorack modular is somewhat minimal, fits in a portable 2-row tolex suitcase, and currently looks something like this. I resisted going the modular route for a long time, even though I was fascinated with it, because I was concerned that it would be a bottomless money pit and that I would constantly expand it beyond all reason. But it turns out that I'm more satisfied with a small, useful curation of modules that I can really understand and explore with limitations and all. Like most people, I will probably swap out some modules that turned out to be less useful than I anticipated, and get some new ones that excite me in different ways. That's part of the fun.

  4. This modular synth has a Moog Mother-32 as its foundational module. It provides all the basic modules you'd want to start out with in top-notch Moog quality, including an oscillator, filter, envelope, mixer, LFO, sequencer, and keyboard, and provides 32 patch points that allow the instrument to really get experimental when combined with, say, a Make Noise MATHS. I've emphasized a "modular within modular" focus within my setup - the Qu-Bit Nebulae allows you to custom-load PureData and CSound patches you've designed, and the Patchblocks module allows you to load patches from a virtual modular environment. So the hardware modular itself contains software modular capabilities that extend it further, and then you can interface with a computer and use, say, Reaktor modules to get even deeper.

Other much-loved pieces of gear that I own and use:

  1. Elektron Machinedrum - modern classic drum machine. Elektron's signature parameter locks changed my musical life forever.

  2. Elektron Analog Four - a 4-voice analog synth that allows each voice to be programmed and sequenced separately. You can control and sequence your modular, too, and all with those glorious parameter locks.

  3. Teenage Engineering OP-1 - this looks like a kid's toy, but it's surprisingly deep and powerful, and sounds simply amazing. They've been constantly updating the firmware to add new synth engines, drum machines, and features since they first released it.

  4. Nord Modular G1 - the G1 comes in the form of a cute hardware synth with keyboard and knobs, but under the hood is a virtual modular that you can program on your computer. With a virtual modular, the only real limitation is processing power. So with the Nord Modular, you can create a modular synth of 50+ modules that all patch together in complex ways, and make it 4-voice polyphonic if you want. This translates to near-limitless sound design. The only downside is a distinctly digital rather than analog character, but it's a classic mid-90s Nord sound that has its own vintage appeal.

  5. Madrona Soundplane - this is a controller, but it's not a MIDI controller. Instead it's MPE, which means multidimensional polyphonic expression. It communicates across x, y, and z (or pressure) dimensions, all of which are assignable to various parameters of your software or hardware, and all of which respond to multiple touches on an individual basis (similar to polyphonic aftertouch). And it's especially fast, reactive, and expressive in ways that MIDI controllers aren't. It's also a beautiful instrument - a smooth walnut surface that feels great to play.

And what software?

As an attorney, I like OmniGraffle for creating patent figures. Google Patent is a godsend for no-nonsense searching and downloading of patent materials. I'm fairly boring and utilitarian - I use Microsoft Word for most of my work, even though it frustrates me more often than not. I'd use something nifty like WriteRoom or Scrivener, but ultimately I have to be able to use something that inventors, attorneys, and examiners also use, because I'm sending and receiving tracked changes on my documents. Word is the industry default.

As a musician, I started learning how to use music software in the 90s with Cakewalk Pro. I recorded my first album in 2000 using Sound Forge and FL Studio (then called FruityLoops). I discovered the power of VST plugins shortly after, then Ableton Live around 2004. Live really changed everything for me, and for the electronic music world in general, I think. So at the moment I record all of my hardware into Live, process the individual tracks with a mixture of Live's built-in plugins and third-party VSTs, and mix and master inside of Live as well. Then I'll also sequence software instruments in Live. Finally, I'll "play" Live while recording to spontaneously modify effects and routings in real time. The main part of my computer workflow outside of the Live environment is Audacity, a free, open source program I use for sample editing.

My other favorite software:

  1. Native Instruments Reaktor - Reaktor always seemed cool, but relatively impenetrable to me. I wanted to learn it because it's such a powerful way to design sounds and instruments from scratch, but I never could find the time to sit down and really learn it over the course of months of study. With the release of Reaktor 6 in 2015, though, that all changed. The new Blocks system essentially puts a virtual eurorack modular in your laptop. It's very accessible if you've ever used a modular synth, and it sounds great. Plus, Reaktor users are constantly creating and sharing new modules and instruments based on the blocks - some interesting creations are a Music Thing Turing Machine recreation, a Buchla-inspired software modular, and Mark II-inspired serial music synth.

  2. Madrona Aalto - For my money, this is the best software plugin instrument ever made. It's got a west coast complex oscillator, vactrol emulation, and a generous "patch zone" for easily patching together various elements in a semi-modular fashion. It sounds as good as some of the hardware I've got, which is something I wouldn't be able to say about most plugin synths. Pairing this with the Madrona Soundplane controller, you've got a match made in heaven. A hardware controller designed from the ground up to play well with an amazing, unusual software instrument.

What would be your dream setup?

Pretty much what I've got now, I suppose! In the short term, I'm really looking for a powerful sampler - Elektron's Octatrack MKII is what I've been eyeing when I can set aside some funds for it. The Digitakt sampler is great too; I tried it out for a month, but decided it was so wonderful that I wanted the more extensive feature set of an Octatrack. Other neat-looking things I wouldn't mind trying out: the Volca FM, Organelle, Axoloti, Behringer D, and Deckard's Dream. I'm also waiting for a Soundplane eurorack module, which Randy of Madrona Labs is hard at work on. I'd like an updated version of the Nord Modular, maybe in eurorack format, with extensive, programmable CV capabilities. I'd like some ice cream.

Rather than more stuff, though, I'd simply like more time - more time to learn PureData, dig further into the Nord Modular software, build instruments with Reaktor, bliss out on my hardware modular, and understand the MatrixBrute on an intuitive level. And simply, more time to just play and record and experiment, in whatever form is available to me. In the end, it's all about exploration and expression, and I value every bit of time I can spare towards that.