We recently sat down to talk with John Lehmkuhl, the sound designer behind Pluginguru.com and many classic Korg synths.
VL: Can you tell us a little about your background as a sound designer? How did you get started?
JL: My parents owned a music store in Eastern Oregon and the Yamaha DX7 was introduced while I was working there. My parents decided to stock the DX7 and the store’s piano tuner and myself drove to Portland for a 3 day training presentation that included Bo Tomlin (DX7 Guru). I learned a lot from this adventure! I also had a Minimoog and a 4-track reel-to-reel during high school – so I’ve always been into making interesting sounds.
I also have to give partial credit to playing video games. I have never been afraid of technology and part of my passion for technology comes from the hours and hours I used to play video games as a kid in-between music lessons!
VL: So how did you get started with Korg?
JL: After junior college, I moved to Seattle, taught music classes and did sales in the piano and synthesizer departments of a music store chain called Evans Music / MIDI City. Korg’s west coast product specialist, Ben Dowling found me working at this store and asked me, “Would you like to work for Korg?” The M1 had just came out and was massively popular. I had sold 30 in the first couple of months. Ben couldn’t handle all of the demands of the product specialist work. So I flew to New York, met Korg management, and did an M1 “dog and pony show” which impressed them. They hired me and helped me move to Los Angeles.
When I was working at this store in Seattle, I made custom patches for everything we sold. My concept was that customers will stay loyal because we make these custom sounds and only provide them to our customers. We were hugely successful: our synthesizer department was making more money than the stores’ acoustic piano sales! I also taught synthesis and programming lessons to our customers which further cemented their loyalty. When I joined Korg, I sent my custom M1 sounds to Japan. The second card released for the M1, the drum card, was all my sounds!
Pretty much from that day on I was full time voicing. The T-Series, The Wavestation, Triton, Trinity, O1W, KARMA, OASYS, KRONOS, all the Wavedrums and so many other instruments. I have enjoyed a truly wonderful working relationship for over 24 years with Korg and a few select other companies.
VL: You mentioned video games earlier. What do you think of artists like Skrillex that are using chip tune and other sounds from video games?
JL: I love the new frontier of sounds we’re diving into! We’re kind of leaving the analog paradigm of sawtooths, squares and triangles and moving to more of the Massive, Razor and other more complex waveform based sounds. Razor and Massive are a new generation of synths that rely on more complex building blocks, wavetables and other synthesis forms that are different than what you find in analog synths.
VL: Yet at the same time we are also seeing a resurgence of cheaper analog gear like the Minibrute, Korg Volca or Moog Minitaur.
JL: Yes, very true. I have a Minimoog and love it’s huge beefy sound. You still hear a TON of analog sounds in today’s dance music as well. A lot of the guys who are into the smaller Korg and Arturia synths also buy stomp boxes to help them do cool sound manipulations. Let’s not even start talking about the explosions happening in the modular synthesizer market!
VL: When did you start PlugInGuru.com?
JL: The website went live and the first patches were sold in 2009. The first library was a bank of patches for FM. I had the concept of doing this site for quite a long time, but the Internet was not really able to support the video side and I’m not the most web savvy person! Fortunately, I did some music with an opera singer in Los Angeles. A guy in Australia loved our music and we started an internet-based friendship. I still haven’t met him in person. Since he’s a professional designer he helped me to do the web design– so without his help, I’m pretty certain PlugInGuru.com would never have happened!!
My goal with this site is to create inspiring sounds and to share knowledge in free video tutorials that help “Plug-In” people with knowledge on how to operate these complex software based synthesizers. I think the model of patches and free videos to support them differentiates my libraries from everybody else. Most patch library companies sell patches with very little support. I’ve now done patch libraries and videos for Razor, Massive, FM8, Omnisphere, Absynth 5 and Sylenth 1 with incredible feedback from people around the world!
VL: The Toxic FM8 library is surprising due to its gritty, aggressive sounds which are not usually associated with FM synthesis.
JL: I saw all these videos of people creating “Skrillex” type sounds by adding multi-band EQs and doing tons of automation programming and thought, “There has to be an easier way!” I did some research and found an easy way to get the sounds to scream with just the modulation wheel. People really seem to LOVE this library because of the raw and rude personality of the patches.
VL: How do you approach programming on a new instrument?
JL: I believe each instrument has its own spirit, it’s own voice even if it is 100% electronic. When I sit down with a synth I first make a mental list of what my tools are. How complex is the engine? How flexible are the modulation routings? How much control do the envelopes have? How many and what types of effects? Some synths are more flexible and give me more places and ways to explore.
This might sound bizarre, but my goal when I create a patch is to make it play more as if it was an acoustic instrument even if it’s a synthesizer patch, I want there to be some interactivity between the player and the machine. I am trying to find ways through controllers or touch that it will give the synth a unique speaking voice.
Omnisphere is one of my favorite current software synths to program. It has two very flexible oscillators and each one is connected to a fully programmable chain of effects. Parameters inside the synth engine can change parameters in the effects. It’s one of the few synths where you can do some really cool stuff like have a delay with a resonant filter that is controlled by the LFO of the patch. I hope more synthesizers continue to advance the concept of the effects being integral to the sound, not just icing on the cake!
VL: So what are you working on these days?
JL: I am working on a drum library called MegaMacho Drums. It is a Kontakt 5 and Kontakt 5 Player instrument. It’s all cool and huge sounding drum kits! I have been doing dance oriented drum kits for Korg since all the way back to the M1 so I’m really excited to finally be doing my own drum kit library. I really put my heart and soul into this library.
MegaMacho Drums is something you could use in all sorts of dance tracks as well as many other genres of music. What’s cool is the combination of drum samples and a powerful user interface we designed for Kontakt 5. It has filters, six different effects, distortion, a transient designer as well as two convolution reverbs and a delay that are assignable per drum sample. You can process the entire kit globally or you can program all these different parameter settings for each drum. I’ve been working on it for 6 months, it has over 2,000 drums, this cool user interface and over 100 MIDI files grooves that work with these unique kit maps.
VL: Sounds exciting, we’ll look forward to checking it out. Thank you for talking with us today.
JL: Thank you. This has been fun!