Rabid Elephant and the subtle art of improving musical workflow

The inception

In 2018, Rabid Elephant founder Philip Mease (Phil, from now on) left his engineering job with one idea in mind: creating electronic instruments. At the time, the brand already had a couple of projects to its name (notably Knobs), but production volume was low and not many musicians knew about its existence. Phil finally had more spare time, though, and the idea behind the now-famous eurorack module Natural Gate came about almost on its own. With the help of his close ones (especially his main colleague and good friend Yoni), he was able to produce enough units to get noticed. Suffice to say, Natural Gate (’NG’) hasn’t spent a lot of time on the shelves since its release. Over the course of a year, the company filled hundreds of orders of NG and used the success of this module to start other, more ambitious projects and grow the team. Through lots of time making music, creating prototypes and incorporating them in the process, the research and development became a daily process of thought and practice that lead to some interesting takes on how electronic music production could be improved.
 

Design philosophy

For those already acquainted with the brand’s instruments, it should be clear that they have a particular simplicity to their use while still retaining deep versatility. This is no accident. The main design tenet of RE is focused on disrupting a popular dichotomy in electronic music production, one that you may even have experienced yourself. For many artists, the process of creating music can be broken down in two broad phases: let’s call them the fun phase and the work phase. At first, an idea is sketched, sounds start taking shape, it’s very pleasurable to make an idea come alive without paying too much attention to the details: that’s the fun phase. But, soon enough, one has to get into the nitty-gritty details of a percussion sound sample, the shape of an envelope, the response of a reverb… This “work phase” is where the sketch is turned in to a proper track, and it requires precision and concentration. As many will attest, it’s sometimes easier to just move on to the next fresh idea and have fun again, leaving project after project, unfinished, unreleased…

The design of RE instruments focuses on blending these two phases together: making the fun phase precise and the work phase fun. The genesis of a new expression (the ‘eureka’ moment) is usually the peak of fun in a project. Something has to allow this newfound energy to carry the musician through the work phase afterwards. For Phil and Yoni, this is the crucial role of the instrument: to make it easier for the musician to carry through the more strenuous part of music-making.

When musical equipment is made with such considerations in mind, it frees up crucial energy that can be used for raw creativity. This state of mind also has a name in the world of Rabid Elephant: “liteness”, a state of unburdened honesty allowing free artistic expression. Because the core team of Rabid Elephant consists of an engineer and a musician in constant communication, the technical and intuitive aspects of instrument design are tightly wound together.

Current projects: Portal Drum and Life Voice

At the time of writing this article (end of 2021), Rabid Elephant are about to release their latest project: the Portal Drum. This analog drum sound generator is their most ambitious project yet, using elements of traditional percussion design coupled with entirely new ideas. It uses no less than 18 dials, 5 of them being dual-concentric (two independent dials in one place). While this would normally make for a complex instrument, all the care and thought we’ve talked about previously have been applied to make this module intuitive and fun. The point of Portal Drum is to get great drum sounds quickly — sounds that don’t require a ton of work to sit nicely in a mix.

portal drum up close

Portal Drum ready for the Superbooth Show

Another project that will soon see the light of day is the Life Voice, an oscillator with slight, purposeful ‘error sources’ built in. Most acoustic instruments have some level of imperfection as part of their sound, which is often what makes them sound “good” to our human ears. The oscillators found in synthesizers aim for regularity and perfection: constant pitch, waveshape and amplitude. The Life Voice incorporates ‘error signals’ that are sent all throughout the module’s circuitry to adjust jitter, tuning stability, waveshape, slew of the inputs, etc. These error signals are based on actual ‘life’; examples include the pitch overshoots of Miles Davis’ trumpet, or the fading precision of a human voice getting tired. These imperfections aren’t all synchronized with the musical time scale, which is why it makes sense to incorporate them in to the sound source itself.

Distant ideas: the Groovebox

The problem with modular synthesizers is that they can be expensive and complex and, while they do allow for a really broad range of sonic expression,  they keep many people out just because they’re hard to get into. The ultimate Rabid Elephant project may still be years away, but its core ideas are already in the mind of the inventors. All this talk about musical workflow can apply to independent eurorack modules, but, surely, it would be best exemplified in a complete package… that’s why, by bringing RE instruments in a single box and uniting them with a breakthrough sequencer concept, any musician could simply jump in and start jamming.  The Groovebox sequencer applies all this workflow philosophy of keeping the musician engaged in the high-energy, “genesis moment” of composition by combining sequence ideas intuitively. While it’s too early to tell its final form, we were shown some very early draft of what the interface might look like. We’ll let your imagination do the rest...

groovebox prototype

An early look at the Rabid Elephant Groovebox…