Head outside of Boston for about an hour and you’ll find yourself in Newport Rhode Island. Set on the edge of the water is a house that hides 'Puddle Wonderful' a secret creative hub occupied by Beth and Robin Burnett. Beth is the composer in the team, creating organic soundscapes for the immersive art they create. We sat down with Beth to talk about 80s bands, vintage synths and Ploams.
When you say you were in a band from 14 for 10 years to 24, what were you doing in that band?
In High School, I met some other kids who were really interested in music and we formed a band. I was in a band when I was 14, for 10 years. So I started out in that way. was on keyboards and bass keyboards.
Bass keyboard? Like a Moog Taurus? Talk to me about that.
I had an Arp Solus. It's a monophonic synth, so that was my bass keyboard. Then I had a Casio CZ101. So I was doing that and doing a little back-up singing.
So that was that necessity being the mother of invention? Were you actually being the bass player as well as being the keyboard player because you didn't have a bass player?
It was exactly that. We started out with just three of us. It was a guitar player, drummer and me and someone had to do it. So it ended up on me. In fact, when I first started out, I had only one instrument and that was a Hohner Pianet T.
Nice! Did you keep it?
I wish I had, but no. Every now and then I look on eBay.
What led you to keyboards rather than other instruments?
Right back to where it all started for Beth
Good question. I took piano lessons and it was very natural for me. Also, at the same time as I was in this band, I was going to High School, I was a day student at a boarding school and, like most teenagers, I was struggling to fit in and find myself--going through all the angsty stuff that teenagers do. There was a basement underneath the school-house building that had a couple of pianos. They were in soundproof rooms and so I would just go down there and just lay it all out--just pour out my soul on the piano and express myself that way. So that was another angle I guess. It was so different from the piano lessons. And then I had this band. I was always very much attracted to synth sounds. Wendy Carlos "Hooked on Bach" attracted me to that Moog sound and I just found myself listening to synth parts wherever I could hear them.
“I got to learn from a lot of very talented composers and sound designers just what an enormous (and often overlooked) role audio plays in film and video”
So tell us about Ploams.
When I was 24, after the band broke up, I moved across the country to California to pursue a career in film and video production. For ten years I worked as a producer on films and videos for zoos, aquariums, museums, broadcast TV, home video -- the whole gamut. Some of the budgets were pretty big (over a million dollars) and I got to learn from a lot of very talented composers and sound designers just what an enormous (and often overlooked) role audio plays in film and video. I also got to cut my teeth on Sound Designer II. Wow that makes me sound old!
When Robin and I got together he encouraged me to go from producer to creative and to start writing music again. The timing was fantastic, Sample Cell had just hit the market and I jumped with both feet into music production. I love the intersection of technology and art and feel it's a really exciting time for those of us in music production!
I think I've always gravitated towards music that is ethereal and atmospheric, I love creating that type of music. My husband Robin knew that and thought that he could illustrate it using video. He started doing some really cool things in his video work. He was using petri dishes and really close-up shots of corn starch and vodka as they interact and plume. So that inspired. I guess it was a symbiotic thing that we ping-ponged off of each other.
It is born out of the idea that there's something in our every day life that we're lacking. With media coming at us at an overwhelming rate, there is such a quantity of information and media coming at us. We wanted to invite people to relax and take a little break.
It sounds like an organic process? Do you feed off one another or does one of you present and the other one write off the back of that?
Yes, it's very rare that we actually talk about something before. The interaction is much more organic as we feed off one another's developing ideas. It's unlikely that I would say to Robin "I'd like you to shoot something like this or that" so usually it's more like an idea that's a little bit more vague, a lot of times I'll have Robin listen to a piece of music and he'll get all excited about it and say "Ah I know exactly what this is" and he'll head down the hall and start doing the magic that he does. We kind of go back and forth down the hall a number of times and that's how it works.
Do you block something out on a piano or start with a loop first or is it different each time you do it?
It is different each time. I try to keep what I call a music diary and every day, I just allow myself to do a little exploration. It can be something very simple like a piano if I'm feeling in that mood. Of course I do finger exercises to warm up my hands and some chord practice, and sometimes that evolves into something more. But a lot of times I'm just exploring synth possibilities and frankly learning new techniques. I might be watching tutorials, and I allow myself to explore a bit. If something emerges that I think is interesting then I'll start developing it. I kind of go on my mood I would say. A lot of times I'll just be messing around and I'll hear something, just sort of flipping through presets and it just kind of resonates and matches the way I'm feeling. Then I give myself a little time to explore it. Then I may park it and come back to it much, much later when I have more objectivity.
So you're kind of scrapbooking in audio?
Yes. That's a great way of explaining it.
Then I guess you go back through your material and think "Oh I'd forgotten about that" and then you start all over again?
Yes, because like many of us, I have a pretty loud inner critic and I find I resonate a lot more with my own scrapbooking if I have a little distance from it. It almost gives me the sense someone else wrote it.
It sounds like a cliché, but one can't help think that organic music is flooded with reverb and delays, I would imagine they're a really important part of your production process?
Yes, absolutely but I have to say that I had been kind of reaching the limits of my existing reverbs, I've been becoming a bit fatigued by using the ones that were my go-to ones before; Revibe and TL Space. Obviously convolution reverb is a completely different beast than the algorithmic, but I found it hard to get around in Revibe. It's always great to have a new effect to play with, there's a warmth and naturalness and a smoothness especially to the PhoenixVerb. I am in love with the natural sound and ease of use. There's a lot more potential for me to explore with the R2; I'm excited about the character that R2 can add.
“I’ve noticed that Exponential plug-ins are very efficient, very dependable and rock solid.”
Have you noticed the low CPU hit when you're using them?
Yes I have and more and more. CPU efficiency is going to be important to me for several reasons, I don't know if I'm going to be able to sustain my TDM lifestyle, I'm going to probably eventually use just strictly native plug-ins anyway. I've noticed that Exponential plug-ins are very efficient, very dependable and rock solid. Also, I've been using Live a lot to compose lately and it's great to be able to take advantage of having my favourites and the key words being so easy to scroll through in Pro Tools and Live, you get the same thing, the same functionality, it's handy.
Beth And Robin Burnett
You're a woman in what is perceived as a man's world. What would you say particularly to women who really want to get into this world?
Just go for it. I actually talked to Imogen Heap about this. We went and visited her because she used some of Robin's footage in her first video for her latest cd, a song called "Lifeline". Robin's abstract videos are projected on her face quite prominently. I hadn't quite found my own stability when we were over there, I hadn't quite found my sense of gravity. Despite the fact that she's probably 10 years younger than I am, she's just so solid and such a force and such a great role model for women. I said "Don't you think it's really hard being a woman in this industry? It's very intimidating". She looked at me like I had 10 heads. My sense was that it just didn't matter, she's just doing what she does and is fulfilling her life mission. She's just going for it. She's not giving it an undue amount of head-space.
It sounds like she's almost not allowing it to define her?
She doesn't allow others to define her. I learned a lot from that and that's definitely a mind-set that I seek to emulate. That's the advice I would give myself as a 16 year old. The very things that make you different are the things that make you unique. The things where you're not fitting in, where you feel like you don't belong, or feel like an outcast. That's your point of difference and that's what makes you shine.
It's easy to consider the things that make us different--be that gender or race--as deficits. One can start to think about trying to cover them up, but you have to turn it around and make it a strength.
Spending time with both Beth and Robin you see that philosophy playing out. Ploams are not more of the same creative stuff or an attempt at working with the current trend. Their immersive environments can help those experiencing them to draw back to a place of reinvigoration and inspiration - as creatives this can't be anything but a good thing.