Swiss Jazz Drummer and Electronic Producer Samuel Rohrer Creates Cybernetic Musical Systems

From jazzhead to electronic co-conspirator to solo performer, Samuel Rohrer reflects on his musical journey and embrace of technology.

In the last few years, Samuel Rohrer revolutionized the craft he spent decades honing. He studied jazz drumming in Switzerland and the US and spent years playing in groups with other musicians. When introduced to synthesis by a friend and collaborator, Rohrer began to incorporate modular synths into his solo work. He soon developed an intricate musical process that combines acoustic percussion and drumming with a network of virtual-analog drum synths, delay pedals, synthesizers and Eurorack modules.

Rohrer is the nerve center of this cybernetic musical system, manually inputting patterns and then modulating the parameters of his synthesizers and delay chains to create what he calls a “musical world.” This metaphor represents both his style as a musician and the mood he’s trying to create with his “personal language”: contemplative, sultry, full of merino-wool textures and alive rhythms. 

While this increasingly complex process allowed Rohrer the satisfaction of expressing himself as his own band, it was pretty hard to manage — especially live. In this interview, he explains how Bitwig Studio simplified his stage setup and workflow so that he can focus on his primary craft: playing the drums.

We caught up with the Arjunamusic label boss in his studio at the Funkhaus to hear about how he incorporated the software into his electro-acoustic setup and his musical world. 


What kind of music do you listen to? How has your taste developed over time?

Lately I've been listening to traditional Indian music, West African Music, improvised music, electronic music, modern classical music… A couple of years ago I started listening to all kinds of vocal music and singer-songwriters. I grew up listening to jazz or jazz-related music, and naturally the projects I was involved in were mostly in this field. About nine years ago I started to listen to more electronic music and to go in that direction with my own music as well. I started to collaborate more often with people who were involved in electronic music. 

I never made a conscious decision to listen to a certain kind of music; I did it more because I was excited by the feeling of experiencing something new. I felt very inspired when I discovered jazz music as a teenager. Later, when I was studying music, everything felt new — suddenly that happened again when I got closer to electronic music. It was that feeling of something opening up in front of you, and you suddenly realize, "Wow, there's so much to learn, understand and figure out." 

Maybe it also happened because I wanted to define my own music and "find my path” more, and to do that, I had to break out of what I was comfortable with — to force myself to look further and deeper. I want to constantly develop new ideas and collaborations that make me grow into new territories, learn new skills and languages. And I need to constantly challenge myself to find new inspiration. 


You've done a lot of collaborations, often with musicians who work in pretty different fields to yourself. Have those collaborations exposed you to new music?

Of course. With every new collaboration you meet many interesting musicians who all bring a very personal background into a project. It's extremely rewarding to have the chance to collaborate with so many different artists who widen your personal musical horizons each time.

Max Loderbauer, for example, was teaching me a lot about modular synths, since during our work with the band Ambiq I triggered his Buchla synth. From there I understood I could do this myself and create my own musical world while using a triggering system. It was a very slow process in the beginning, since I had never worked with synths before, so I had to learn everything from scratch. In the beginning Max taught me a lot about how things work and what possibilities I would have.

Did Max also expose you to making or listening to electronic music, or were you already interested in it?

I was already interested, but he introduced me to many interesting producers who helped me find my way in a very short period of time. It's much easier to navigate through the huge amount of music that exists out there through meeting musicians in-person and collaborating with them. This way I was able to find the stuff I wanted to hear and would be interested in more quickly.

Through Max I met Ricardo [Villalobos], Burnt Friedman, Tobias Freund, Margaret Dygas or Vladislav Delay. People who were really skilled and came  — well, some of them at least — more from a band background, really playing with other musicians or producing bands. Max for example, he's a trained piano player, so he comes from playing an instrument in an old-fashioned way. I always was looking for people who...I don't know...have this kind of musical knowledge, or this kind of "wider" understanding about creating music that isn't contained to a genre or situation or function. I cannot just listen to music and say, "Okay, this is music 'for a club.'" I'm interested in club music if it serves more than a specific need. 

For me, I think it always has this kind of either acoustic-electronic element, where you hear there's an acoustic element in the electronic music, or the music is generated in a way where you have this "human" feel to electronic music. Too often, electronic music doesn't sound that way to me — it sounds too synthetic. I love this "human" feel to it, even if it's generated from only machines. It's the unpredictable that keeps my ear interested — I want to keep listening because there's always something new happening — not just short, repeating loops.

“I love this human feel to it, even if it's generated from only machines. It's the unpredictable that keeps my ear interested”

Before you got into working with these electronic musicians, your studio must have looked very different.

There was no studio — there was just a drum set and a piano. I composed music mostly on the piano. I wrote the notes down on paper and composed like that. Then I realized I feel more comfortable with the capability to transform my ideas immediately into sound and compose in a new way for me. Before, when I had an idea, I needed to sit down and write it down for someone else to play it — another musician. Now, it feels extremely satisfying and liberating to be able to create it all by myself. I don't need another skilled musician — of course, it's still amazing to perform in a band context and work on ideas together, but it's extremely satisfying to be able to create it all myself.


Why is physically playing an instrument so important for you and your work? 

Until a few years ago, I spent the majority of my time mastering the drums, developing the ability to play everything that I hear immediately — to get rid of the mind in the moment, and just transport what intuitively comes to me. Ideally there's no gap between hearing an idea in my mind and the action itself. This is the moment when you become one with the instrument and the music. So physicality is extremely important to me and the way I hear and play music. It makes the music human. Even when you play very little or on a low volume, the physicality on the instrument can make the music powerful. It's the force behind the actual sound that I think can make a performance really strong.

Over the last 20 years I developed a personal way of drumming that I would call a "personal language" on an instrument. Lately I've defined my instrumental language even more, since I've worked more on my solo project and got deeper into my studio work. This setup of triggering synths with my playing allows me to widen this language and go a step further. Besides having a personal language, I have many more possibilities to create a sound world of my own. It's almost limitless, and it also forces me to redefine and change my playing with every new sound I create and that is added to my playing. What I mean is that I can create an environment by myself, where the drums are only a part of something bigger — a world in which I can explore and define my own musical language more.

“I can create an environment by myself, where the drums are only a part of something bigger — a world in which I can explore and define my own musical language more.”

Can you give me a breakdown of what you use in the studio and what you use in live performance?

I work with a hybrid setup, with a few analog synths in a small Eurorack that I control with Bitwig, as well as creating synths in The Grid. There’s percussion, cymbals, a Moog, different delays and keyboards. When I perform live, it's basically the same setup. The only change is that recently, I switched from using analog modular synths on stage to mainly using Bitwig instead. I still use the modular to produce a lot of sounds in the studio. Besides a full drum kit and a Nord Drum, to blend acoustic drums with electronic percussive sounds, I use a clip microphone on the snare that goes through the delays to amplify small sounds and to manually modulate the chain of delays live. This way, the acoustic elements blend easier with the synths. 


What kind of delays do you have?

Particle by Red Panda and another Red Panda called Raster. Flashback by TC Electronic — it has a long delay time, so you can play something and after 10 seconds it comes back somehow, which creates a surprising element. There’s an Eventide Time Factor. This one I use more for the modular to double a trigger signal. I use a Delay Llama, which is built by a friend of mine from Athens. I especially like it because of its random mode, so I can create really unpredictable delays that slightly change all the time. I like surprising elements that surprise me when I play and somehow step into a dialogue with the machines. Knowing exactly what will happen next wouldn't be inspiring enough for me.


You said that you recently changed an aspect of your live setup by replacing one of your modular synth racks with Bitwig. Can you tell me more about that?

First I was working with this modular rack that I'd have next to me, and I'd work on the synth and drum at the same time. It worked in the studio — I recorded some really nice stuff this way, since you can take the time to prepare the textures and sounds you're looking for. But I did two or three live shows that way — playing drums and at the same time trying to change the parameters, sounds and delays.  It kind of worked, but it took a lot of preparation, and in the end I didn’t feel free enough. The first time I did it I prepared for about six weeks, just for one performance. After that show, which was here at Funkhaus, a friend of mine came up to me and said, "You should maybe work with Bitwig. It would make things easier for you."


He saw the way you worked and said, "It would make sense, specifically for you, to dive into this"?

Yes. This was about two years ago, but it took me a long time to start working with it. I had just learned how to work with modular synths, so at first I was like, "I cannot immediately learn another new thing." 

What about Bitwig did you have to learn from scratch?

The Grid. It's similar to modular synths, but it's still very different on how the patching works and how you create them. You have to learn about each element, what they're called, what they can do. It's a new language again, with more letters and words. Originally I'm really an analog person. I come from acoustic music, so for me, everything that has to do with software and electronic instruments is new in a way. Only since working with modular synths did I start to understand synthesis and how synthesizers are built. 

My friend who introduced me to Bitwig put me in touch with Dave [Linnenbank], who told me "If you work with Bitwig, you can create the same thing as with the modular, but you can save presets and work more easily alone doing what you do.” Which was exciting to hear. What I was trying to do is actually not possible. It's kind of crazy. To only play drums, you need your full capacity. To work with the synthesizer on top you need both your hands again. In a way, I managed — a few times! But I never felt like, "Now I want to tour this," because each time it was so stressful to perform and such a big thing to set up. If I play live today, I'd bring the drums, the analog machines, some keys and then use Bitwig to replace most of my modular setup. It's still a lot of material to carry around, but it's doable. Using Bitwig makes life much easier and I am still amazed by its sounds and possibilities every day. 

So the idea with Bitwig was to create your own modular patches but to save them as presets so you don't have to re-plug them in every time? 

Exactly. I use The Grid in Bitwig to replace most parts of the modular rack, but I also use it to trigger long loops, like two- or three-minute loops, that create a certain atmosphere and which I still can manipulate through my drumming. The great thing is to be able to control analog and digital instruments with this software. 



Are you using the modules to change sounds you input, or do you also have oscillators to generate new sounds? 

Lately I use two analog oscillators besides the digital ones. Through triggering those with the drums I can really play melodic soundscapes while I’m playing drums.The sounds that I trigger first go through this module called Peak & Hold, which is made by a guy in Berlin especially for using drums to create CV signals. You can put a sensor on a drum, and the module creates nine different CV outs that you can map to anything — oscillators, filters or whatever you want. 

“With Bitwig I have so many more possibilities and options to create much more defined and complex sounds, which I can finally store and immediately recreate.”

Had you worked with DAWs before Bitwig? 

I've worked with Logic since I started to record my own music. I did everything there: recording, producing and composing music. Even when the music was finally played live with acoustic instruments, I sometimes used Logic to try out ideas or to record some stuff on the piano. But it was always a studio tool. Bitwig is the first software I've used on stage.

With Bitwig I have so many more possibilities and options to create much more defined and complex sounds, which I can finally store and immediately recreate. That's extremely helpful for the studio, but especially for live performances in my case. Especially when synths are not your main instrument. I still need to have my focus on drumming and the groove, while the synths are here to widen the musical world. But during a performance they should not take away my focus from my actual instrument.

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