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From Monotron to Infinity

Interview with Zack Scholl aka infinite digits

HannesHannes

Life is full of coincidences. One day this album pops up in my Bandcamp feed. It’s an album called at the place, by an artist called infinite digits. Something seems familiar about the name, but for the moment I don’t give it much thought and just listen. The music catches my attention. It’s melodic and pleasant, but successfully manages to stay above the cheesiness line in an interesting way. The sound has a captivating “retro-analogue” (for lack of a better term) vibe, but I can’t hear a direct attempt at recreating any historical genre. Then I realize that infinite digits is also the person who made my current favourite script for the monome norns platform: oooooo, which, by the way, is also the script with the most brilliant name on the aforementioned platform. My next thought is: “I need to interview this person!”

The person behind infinite digits is Zack Scholl, a biophysicist, coder and musician with a broad set of artistic interests. Turns out, there’s more to this album than what I had initially thought, but we’ll get to that in a minute!

This interview is a bit of an experiment. In the past I have usually done interviews by sending emails back and forth. It’s convenient, but takes away the more casual, conversational nature of the interview.
Recently I subscribed to this great newsletter called Tone Glow. They appear to simply transcribe their interviews as they are, without any editing. While this makes them sometimes a bit lengthy, they really do a great job at capturing the feeling of a live conversation. Inspired by that, we did the whole interview using a text chat platform. I later lightly edited it but kept most of it intact.

So, without further ado, here’s Zack Scholl, aka infinite digits!

Hi!

Hi Hannes!

Great, It seems to work!

How are you doing?

Fine thanks! How are you?

Pretty good, it’s a nice morning here in Seattle, you are in France?

No, I’m in Italy, in the North, where the Alps begin. Not too far from Venice.

Ah! I see. I’ve never been there but would love to go sometime, when the world is upside up again.

It’s lovely, yes! Can definitely recommend it. But yes, that might take a while.

Everything’s on standby here as well.
I gotta say, I’ve really enjoyed your comics about COVID, you are an amazing artist!

Thank you very much! Really glad to hear that. It’s mostly Marc’s [Weidenbaum] merit though. It was his idea. And it feels good to do some things like this again. I have been purposefully avoiding comics for the last 10 years.

I make little comics too – I submit them to The New Yorker, but so far they have all been rejected (almost 40 rejections so far).

Yes, I saw your cartoons! I took some time yesterday to look through your website and listen to your albums!

Ah, thanks!

Lots of cool stuff. I got quite hypnotized by your NASA album.

Oh yeah! I love that one. It was my very first, well second, but first really-conscious effort towards an “album”.

At the Place is an interesting album from many points of view. Not only is it an exercise in technical reductionism and simplicity, it’s also an album made with partially self-made tools, something I’m always been interested in. Besides all the technical stuff, it’s just an incredibly enjoyable listen! How was this album born? Did you set out with the idea to create something using the simplest instruments you had, or was it more about trying out your creations, like oooooo and miti?

It was a mixture!

The entire album was probably born out of playing around with a norns script I was working on in early August, 2020 – barcode. That script takes a sample and plays it back at many speeds, filling up the stereo field and frequency space.

I was playing around with barcode on different things – wine glasses, wind chimes, etc. Then, one day, I tried the Korg Monotron Delay through it. And it blew my mind! It sounded so good, that then I knew I had to make a song with this thing.

Yes, I was pretty surprised when I read that the whole album was made with a Monotron!

I could go on for a long time about the beauty of the Monotron. But it was impossible to use because of the ribbon controller. I couldn’t play two notes and have them be in tune using just my fingers.

I regret having sold mine, but yes, the ribbon was the culprit!

The ribbon can be overcome though!

I learned with some research that Korg designed it to be hacked – literally, with specially designed PCB pads you can solder wires to. So I soldered wires and wrote some code with a cheap DAC and old Rasberry Pi, to automatically convert MIDI to voltage to control the monotron. No more ribbon controller!

Then, around that same time, I was working on oooooo, like you mentioned. And I realized I could use that script for a neat looper. I could loop one note at a time from the monophonic synth and it could give it polyphony, as well as give it lots of space in the stereo field.

The MIDI sequencer you mentioned, miti, is something I built a while ago as a way to harness my natural tendency to write down songs in just sequences of notes. I have a whole document filled with notes like “CEG ACE” which indicates a CM – Am [chords] loop. miti is nice because it understands that syntax and just makes my life easy.

So you wrote the music in miti, and then used oooooo to layer the parts and build up the songs, didn’t you?

Exactly, I have a little formula for this process actually if you’d like to hear it.

Sure!

Actually “exercise” is a better word.

First, I find a chord progression I like – usually four chords to start. For example, in the song “everything” the chords are Em, CM, GM, DM. I write three notes for each chord down on a piece of paper. Next, I select one note from each chord that will form a neat melody, then cross those notes out. Then I continue until all the notes are gone. This will end up in three little melodies that, when you stack them in a looper, form the three chords.

Except for the first song on “at the place”, all the songs are built this way, for the first three phrases.

I need to try that!

I highly recommend it! It makes the chords enter the song in a really dynamic way.

After that I add in a lower register and upper register, usually doing the same thing again so I build out the chords across the frequencies.

It’s a very simple exercise, but it always impresses me how nice it builds up a song. And even though it’s used on every song (but the first) I don’t find that this exercise makes it repetitive.

Yes indeed! So you had to coordinate the playback from the Raspberry Pi running miti and the looper recording the melodies, or how did you perform that?

It was very easy! A lot of the features I added into the oooooo script were made especially to facilitate this album. There is a feature to “record through loops” and “start on input” so that the oooooo looper started whenever the Monotron started. The Monotron started whenever the Raspberry Pi started, so everything was in sync.

Oh, I see!

Additionally, I had a PO-32 for drums. That was also synced by the Raspberry Pi through the audio out (miti generates a click track too). I also added some features into ooooo for destroying loops and ramping the volume down. This was specifically for creating endings in each of the tracks.

Coordination was a tricky thing overall, I think.

Every song was performed in one-shot. So I had to dial in all the Monotron filters/feedback in realtime, while controlling the PO-32, while mixing.

Zack’s setup for at the place, photo courtesy of the artist

You found some pretty creative solutions to work around the limitations of the instruments you were using! It’s amazing that your process and the “software” (in a wider sense) used is pretty well documented on your Github page. Your album is basically completely open source.

Haha, it is!

Yeah, because every song is a performance, I tried to compose in a way that would allow me to recreate the performance. At least for the things I could control – tempo, note pitches. Each performance varied in how I used the Monotron feedback/delay, how I mixed the drums, etc.

I figured I’d just put it on Github in case anyone was curious what the process looks like. Also, I just think the Monotron Delay is one of the coolest instruments ever and I want others to discover that!

I’m curious, did anybody do a version using the data/info on your page?

Yes! I’ve been pinged on Instagram by folks building their own hacked Monotron.

oh cool!

Actually, people have hacked Monotrons for a long time, but before you had to buy a 30-piece DIY kit and solder dozens of connections on a PCB board.

The Raspberry Pi is nice because you only need the DAC and no PCB and only two solder points.

Yes, I did add a MIDI board to mine years ago, but then got annoyed by having all the wires hanging out of it. Also, it was the first monotron. The delay is much cooler

I haven’t tried the others, but I’d love to!

The Delay is something else. In making the album I found some neat “accidental” features. For instance, if you add too much into aux it will duck out the Monotron signal, making it a bit like sidechain compression in a very lofi way.

What’s your musical background? I read that you are learning to play the marimba. How does that influence your music making?

That’s a great question!

I have a background in jazz piano. I tend to think about music in chords and finding voicings and hearing how sounds “fit” together. A lot of my music tends to be very focused around that idea – the exploration of chord progressions.

Marimba is something I started two years ago, mainly to get better at rhythm. It really influenced me in the EP, “Be EP”. There are a lot of polyrhythms and crossing in marimba music and it’s something that I would inadvertently add into songs and realize later.

I love to find new instruments to play. There is something about interacting with music in a new way that is really inspiring.

There definitely is!

oooooo’s UI

You call your musical style “soundtrack-styled experimental easy-listening”. Most people would probably say that experimental is usually the opposite of easy-listening. Is that what makes it interesting to you, combining two (apparent) opposites?

Experimental music is a huge genre, one that I’m very invested in now to understand. But I get that notion that it can be hard to listen to. I think my idea of experimental came from jazz with Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. Their stuff is absolutely amazing, but if I play it for somebody, they do not find it “easy-listening”.

For me, I think I’m experimental because I’m experimenting – I’m trying to explore inspiration and discover how sounds work together. At the same time, I want to make music that is easy for a listener to listen to. That is entirely my own subjective preference though, on what is “easy for a listener to listen to”.

Yes, I think there’s this weird notion that music that is hard to listen to is “experimental” even if it maybe is just hard to listen to. I do prefer your interpretation of music that has to do with experimentation.

It’s tricky because “experimental” also includes avant-garde music. Avant-garde music is actually pretty distinct, but it is essentially made to be hard to listen to. It’s supposed to “goad” the listener and push against music that is melodic and Richard Strauss-y.

Well, they did have a point there, back then!

Absolutely! I think it exists for a wonderful purpose and I’m glad it does. But for me, a musical success is music that I listen to on repeat for ten, twenty, thirty loops.

Talking of which, who are your musical heroes, or references?

I love so many different kinds of music, but there are a few that I always go back to again and again. The two I just mentioned are big influences – Sun Ra and Richard Strauss. Very different types of music but absolutely stunning works that I love diving into. I love Philip Glass and Alice Coltrane as well. I think all of them are examples of the pinnacle of the type of music they represent.

Quite a spectrum of different musical approaches. But I think one of the interesting things about making music, and which all great musicians have done, is to combine very different influences, genres, patterns and traditions and see what happens!

Are you also involved in the local music scene in Seattle?

In a way, yes! Now that COVID19 is here, a lot of the music scene is not available, though.

I used to go to the best open mic in the universe – at Stone Way Cafe in Fremont. They would have shows that included aliens playing tiny pianos, ASMR music, beatbox rapping, pirate rock-and-roll, gothic synthesizers, chiptune violinists, you name it.

Oh man, that sounds amazing! It’s really infuriating that now everything is on standby!

I also play in a marimba band and in a R&B-type band – but those are on hold until COVID is over.

I think I have one last big question: because as I mentioned earlier, I do find the idea of musicians creating their own tools very fascinating. Do you see your programming/hacking activities as part of the compositional process?

In a way, yes. I believe that tools are tools – they are only good insomuch as they can provide a capable extension between your musical thoughts and what you hear.

A lot of the things I create are basically ways to investigate whether or not I can lower the barrier between a certain musical thought and its manifestation.

I got the Monome norns only recently and it has been immensely useful for me creatively because I find that it has facilitated a lot of experiments in this. Basically all the scripts I’ve written – clcks, blndr, oooooo, barcode, pwip, glitchlets, etc. – were made because I had a musical thought and wanted to express it but didn’t have another tool or knowledge of the tool to express it.

One of Zack’s rejected comics for the New Yorker

The [Teenage Engineering] OP-1 also excels at this. It is so versatile that it can easily be manipulated to putting your thoughts into the world, with very little barriers.

I often ask myself what would be the perfect instrument? It would be one that perfectly maps your ideas into music.

Actually, the perfect instrument for me, would map ideas into music in realtime – so it can be used as a performance. However, humans are limited to 10 fingers and two feet so we essentially only have 12 parameters we can adjust at once (if our instrument has capacity). That’s actually were my musical moniker comes from – “infinite digits”.

It’s a play on the idea that if you had infinite digits you could play all the instruments you want. Like in Gattaca, the movie, there is a mutant who plays a variation on Schubert, but only because he has 12 fingers.

But piano is not a perfect instrument, because I know pianists with 9 fingers that play just as well as ones with 10

There are physical limitations with all physical instruments.

It’s a tricky thing – instrument design. I like what Monome and Teenage Engineering do, creating complexity out of simplicity and removing a lot of physical limitations.

That is definitely true! And one of the design principles I always try to follow.

So this is a very long answer to your question, but the answer is basically, yes! Composing to me also incorporates how you use your physicality with the instrument you choose If I’m able, sometimes, I try to contort my instruments to fit my composition instead of the other way around.

The procedurally-created cover image for the album trl

What’s coming up next for infinite digits?

I have a bunch of ideas of what to do next. I recently got the wonderful opportunity to chat with Rodrigo Constanzo and our discussion prompted many new ideas about how to incorporate tape/memory into playing in realtime.

I also recently found a corpus of symphonic music that has been tagged for pitch/rhythm and I’m interesting in teasing it apart with something like paulstretch to generate entirely new songs out of an existing symphonic piece.

Very interesting! I’m definitely looking forward to hearing what you will make with that!

I’d love to have more discussions and collaborations with anyone who is interested. I think a lot of wonderful ideas emerge from discussing strange/new ideas. That’s part of the reason I make things open-source – to see how others can change and adapt something for their own use.

I look forward to your creations too!

Oh thanks!

I think electronic music does sometimes make it too easy to do things alone. So it’s great to actively seek out collaboration! I guess that’s what drives many people to online forums like lines. It sure did that for me!

Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview! I really appreciate it.

Absolutely, thank you for making it possible!

Have a great evening Hannes!

Thank you too! Have a great day!!!


Zack’s website: schollz.com/blog/

and his comics: schollz.com/newyorker/

at the place on Github, the album is open source under a MIT license: github.com/schollz/album-at-the-place

infinite digits on Bandcamp: infinitedigits.bandcamp.com

infinite digits on Youtube: www.youtube.com/channel/UCrFmaEiL_OLGArkhHpuHKVA

All infinite digits norns scripts on llllllll.co

Hannes
Author

Graphic designer, illustrator and soundmangler. He makes music as kurodama and as part of the electronic music duo kvsu. Together with his wife Elizabeth he runs Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.

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