This article/interview was created by Michel Scheijen in April 2020, and appeared on his website musicophilia. Please note that the (c) are with Michel Scheijen, the original article (in Dutch) can be found here.
From oran via synthesizer to sound design – Rob Papen’s route of success
Rob Papen is one of the most successful sound designers in the music industry. As a young keyboard player he achieved success in the synthesizer bands Peru and Nova. In the mid-1990s he put music making on the back burner and focused on music software development and writing the bible for everyone who works with synthesizer: ‘The 4 Element Synth’. In October 2019 he was back on stage as a musician for years during the E-Live Festival in Oirschot. Musicophilia visited the sympathetic Limburger in his hometown of Echt. A conversation about music, sound and of course synthesizers.
What were your first musical activities and how did you come into contact with synthesizers?
“In my youth, the organ was a popular instrument. My father worked in the organ trade so the step to learning to play the organ was only a small one. That went pretty well for me, only the organ sound was sometimes disappointing. Reading notes wasn’t my thing either. I found that boring. I preferred to improvise. My music teacher always said: “Rob, that was beautifully played. But what you played was not on the paper!”
Then, somewhere in my childhood, I heard and saw “Oxygene IV” by Jean-Michel Jarre. I thought that sound was crazy. I was immediately sold. I also wanted such a synthesizer. When I was 15 I bought my first synthesizer. That must have been sometime in 1978 or 1979.”
Look at that! How did you come up with an adequate budget at that age? Synthesizers weren’t cheap back then.
“By distributing lots and lots of newspapers. Ha! Ha! Mom and Dad also contributed a little. The first synthesizer I bought was the Korg MS20. That was one of the first affordable synthesizers from Japan. They were called ‘budget synthesizers’. I also had the Korg SQ10. You paid triple for a Moog or the ARP 2600. I could only dream of that.”
And then you got to work.
“Of course. I started improvising and then composing. In the meantime I had also discovered the music of Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze. I showed my first musical ‘art’ in 1980 at the Klaus Schulze fan club day in Eindhoven. I was ambitious, but what I played sounded… as far as I remember… nothing like it. Ha! Ha!
Peter Kommers and Ruud van Es were present that day. After the performance they asked if I wanted to come to their studio in Dordrecht to make music. And that’s how it actually started with Peru and later Nova.”
That went smoothly with that introduction. How did those sessions go?
“Oh, I can still see myself getting on the train to Dordrecht. In one cardboard box the Korg MS20 and in the other the SQ10. I was the nerd in the band. Peter and Ruud were more than ten years older, but the collaboration immediately went well. During those sessions, the first Peru album Macchu Picchu was created, which was self-released in 1981.
Radio legend Willem van Kooten heard that LP on the radio with Henk Mouwe’s LP Pop Special. He thought our music was special and gave us the idea to start another project next to Peru with radio-friendly synthesizer music. That is how Nova was born.
We edited the song ‘Sons Of Dawn from ‘Macchiu Picchu’ into a new, shortened version and became a big hit under the title ‘Aurora’. The famous Chris Pilgram produced the first Nova album Terra. The record company hooked us up with Chris to make sure Nova would appeal to a wider audience than Peru. I describe Nova’s music as ‘synthesizer music with an eel sound‘. Peru is more for the enthusiast, the connoisseur of electronic music.”
Were you able to live off those projects?
“We had our successes, but besides the bands we also had to work. In the early years of Peru I was even still in school. Ruud and Peter both had jobs. At that time, playing live was very difficult. Partly because of the instrumental limitations and partly because of the distance between our homes. Ruud and Peter were in Dordrecht and I was here in Echt. We didn’t have a real manager to take care of things. We missed some opportunities in that regard. but also beautiful things. In fact, we stood at the basis of Dutch synthesizer music. Besides us you had Johan Timman and Pythagoras who made synthesizer music.”
You also had Future World Orchestra. They scored hits with ‘Roulette’ and an adaptation of the ‘E.T.’ theme.
“Correct. But they also sang. That was not the case with us.”
Why did Peru stop in 1991 after the album ‘Moon’?
“There are a number of reasons for this. Each of us got different interests. Also in other music styles. In addition to the residential distance, the business aspects also played a role. In terms of management, we should have done things differently. Perhaps a different record company would have been better. Oh well, those things just happen. That’s just the way it is.”
After the end of Peru you started for yourself. Now you’re a big name in sound design. How has this developed?
“I worked in a music store for a while and then started to make my sounds, which were particularly good in the Peruvian era, commercially available. From there I started designing software instruments in a team. I have a passion for sound…sounds. Besides making music, that is my talent. An excellent combination. I made the switch just before the dance hype started. My software lends itself perfectly to that music.”
Sound design is a large market with a lot of competition. How do you distinguish yourself?
“When I started sound design in the 1990s, I didn’t have my own software products yet. I made sounds for manufacturers like EMU and VIRUS with my initials “R.P.” Indeed, I am not the only one who is successful in sound design. It is the timbre with which you attract musicians. My specialties are ‘inspiration sounds’ that inspire you to do something with it. I offer tools and that, I think, is the formula for success. Well-known producers, DJs and musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Jean-Michel Jarre use my products. That is nice to hear.”
What prompted you to write the bestseller “The 4 Elementh Synth”?
“In my early days, as far as I know, there was no music school where you learned to operate a synthesizer. You had to figure it all out through a manual. A complex process and you didn’t even learn how to get a fat sound. I taught myself all this and I wanted to pass that knowledge on to a new generation. Knowledge should be shared, is my adage. In the book I describe in an accessible way how a synthesizer works based on. the four ingredients…the elements. There are more books on synthesizers out there, but the approach I take to the subject matter is quite unique. For that reason it was a great success. The book offers a great basis for anyone who wants to work with synthesizers or soft synths [software].”
Will there be a sequel to the book?
“No, because the story is complete. The book is out of print, but a reissue will soon be published by an American company. That company also puts the enclosed DVDs in an I-Cloud, because many people no longer use a DVD player. Via a code that comes with the book, you can view the DVDs via the I-Cloud. It will take a while before that happens, because the conversion takes a lot of time.”
After the E-live performance in 2019, you also got a taste for making music again. What can we expect?
“At the moment I have a little more time for making music. You no longer sell albums in large quantities. From the last Peru album ‘The Return’ from 2018 we only sold a fraction of what we used to sell. The music industry has changed enormously and every musician suffers from it. Tangerine Dream also no longer sell the numbers they used to. Downloading also makes people listen to music differently. Making music is the piece of creative expression that is simply in me. The experience that you are able to please so many people with your music is encouraging. People from Russia and Norway had traveled for the performance on E-Live. Awesome! Then you know what you’re doing it for. I’m working on a new solo album right now. Perhaps Ruud and I will do something under Peru again, but that is still uncertain. Distances are really a problem. Ruud now lives in Groningen and I in Limburg. It is difficult to jam together for a while”
How do you see the future of electronic music? Is there life after dance?
“That is impossible to predict. The average age of the visitor on E-live is 40 plus! But a festival is an important factor in keeping that kind of music alive. Belgium has the B-Wave Festival and Germany the Electronic Circus. There are also people who are only now discovering traditional synthesizer music. Much depends on a new, young generation. Do they want to make such music? Maybe, maybe not. We will see.”