Interview with Undulae

Last year, together with Splice & Mr. Bill, we held a joint Beat Battle on our Discord server. The winner who emerged was Brendan Rincon, better known as Undulae ( watch the full winner-selection video) .

As a rising talent, we wanted to know more about his career, current projects and principles, so we got together with him for an interview. We'd like to take this opportunity to introduce Brendan to you.

Read about how he deals with the abundance of technical possibilities, how he operates as an artist in a world dominated by digital, social media and now AI and how he takes care of his (mental) health to remain creative and successful in the long term.

Enjoy!

Brendan, it's a pleasure to have you with us. Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and your journey to becoming a musician?

Music has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. Before I could even talk, my mom would sit me on her lap and play songs on this crappy little consumer-grade keyboard — the kind you’d get at Wal-Mart in the 90s that came a bunch of pre-programmed MIDI songs on it. I played with that keyboard a lot as a kid. My parents put me in piano lessons when I was 5 years old, and I took lessons for about 9 or 10 years. I was in choir and marching band throughout middle school and high school, and I’ve played and sung in ensembles for fun on and off throughout my adult life. It’s always been my main interest, along with technology.

What first drew you to electronic music, and how has your style evolved?

I was always a computer kid. I never really enjoyed playing sports or many of the games that other kids would participate in. I liked playing the piano, and I liked computers. When I was about 6 years old, my grandma gave me a copy of Moby’s “Play” album. “He likes computers and music, he’ll probably like this” she said. I loved it! I listened to that album on repeat for years. Around that same time, I also had a bit of an obsession with Pac-Man games, and my dad who is pretty tech-savvy stumbled upon Aphex Twin’s “Power Pill EP” on Napster while looking for Pac-Man related music to burn to a CD for me. I became quite obsessed with that EP as well.

When I was about 10 years old my dad bought a copy of Cakewalk Music Creator 2 from Costco, which was basically just a MIDI sequencer. I think you had to buy VST support separately. You could edit notation on a musical staff or a piano roll, and use the basic General MIDI sounds that every computer came with. My dad also figured out how to hook it up to our electric keyboard with a MIDI to USB interface, so I could record myself playing the keyboard and play it back. I spent a couple years just messing around with this software, learning how to edit MIDI files, and writing crappy little songs.

When I was 12 years old, I discovered the Newgrounds Audio Portal, and realized that there were whole online communities of people making electronic music on their computers. A lot of these people were using FL Studio (it was version 7 at the time) so I installed the demo version on the family computer, and after messing around with it for a few weeks, I relentlessly begged my parents to buy me a copy for Christmas, and they did. I’ve been making electronic music ever since.

The thing that keeps me interested in electronic music is the fact it goes deeper than just learning music theory, or learning how to play an instrument. It’s an endless collaboration between the engineers and designers who make the tools, and the artists who use them. People are always discovering new and exciting ways to use and misuse the tools we have available to us. There’s no status quo, it’s always changing.

Looking back at your early musical influences, how do they resonate in your work today?

Around the time I got FL Studio, I was starting to listen to a lot of cheesy eurodance music — Cascada, Basshunter, stuff like that, so a lot of my early experiments in making electronic music were bad attempts at copying that style. I made that kind of music throughout middle school and early high school, and even released two albums through CDBaby. They were pretty silly. I won’t say what name they’re published under, but if you look hard enough, you can probably find them.

I went into high school listening to the same artists I mentioned previously, but I’d also gotten into Skrillex, Celldweller, some darker, heavier electronic stuff. I made some friends who were into more experimental/indie music, and I was introduced to artists like Autechre, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Venetian Snares, Boredoms, The Flashbulb, Sufjan Stevens, Flying Lotus, Radiohead, Boards of Canada, Dan Deacon, Animal Collective, The Books, Battles…I could go on and on. My previous taste quickly became eclipsed by the huge world of not-quite-mainstream music that I was now exploring, and I started favoring the more artsy, avant-garde stuff. The way I “processed” each artist I got into was by trying to emulate their style in my own music, so as my musical tastes broadened, so did my musical output. I was also pretty into making music with trackers around this time. I had a crappy little netbook with Milkytracker on it, and I would make chiptunes during my free time in class if my teachers would allow it.

In college, I studied audio production and electronic music, with teachers who supported my interest in weird music by introducing me to Max/MSP, modular synthesis, musique concrète, microtonal music, electroacoustic improvisation, that kind of stuff. I also took all the music theory classes the college had to offer. I was also in a band at this time, and we were trying to make really austere, atmospheric, minimal electronic music. We got really into trying lots of different gear and “tone chasing” as it’s called. I was soaking up as much information as I could around this time, and really pouring it into my creative output.

I made lots of moody, atmospheric, and “serious” electronic music for quite a long time, disregarding what was going on in mainstream EDM as “lowbrow” and staying pretty far out of that scene, but I was starting to get kind of burnt out on it. Then one day in late 2021, Mr. Bill’s Phantasmagoria popped up in my Spotify feed, and it’s like the floodgates were opened — I realized that the EDM world had been growing and changing and maturing, and I didn’t even realize it, and I had quite a bit to catch up on. It turns out the EDM people had been out-sound-designing the IDM people for years, and having SO much fun with it. Their music had a sense of humor, a flavor of cheekiness, melodrama, and bombastic fun that I had been missing for so long. I decided I needed to completely change direction.

The music I’ve been making lately pulls equally from my years of making experimental IDM, my mid-2000s eurodance influences, and the stuff that’s happening now in modern EDM.

You've emphasized the importance of mastering fundamentals. How has this philosophy shaped your teaching approach?

I was given the opportunity to teach some college classes and workshops on Ableton, modular synthesis, and sound design last year. These were beginner/intermediate classes, so I really had to slow way down and stick to the basics. This forced me to focus on learning how to explain the fundamental concepts to my students. And then some students would ask things that were a little bit above their own level, but I would try to explain anyway! Trying to explain the inner workings of EQs, filters, phasers, distortion, and things like that to near-beginners really forced me to deepen my own understanding.

Ever since then, it seems like my ability to produce clean mixes and interesting sounds has increased tenfold, but I use fewer and fewer tools. To understand the fundamentals of how your tools work is extremely empowering.

In a world with an overwhelming choice of plugins, how do you advise newcomers to focus on their existing tools?

Every DAW comes with stock plugins that cover most of the basics of the “DSP cookbook” and for things that they don’t cover, most DAWs come with a way to use those basic plugins as building blocks to make larger, more complex effects. Ableton has Racks, Bitwig has Containers, FL Studio has Patcher, and so on. I usually encourage people to try to learn to accomplish what they need with these, and then if a need can’t be met by those, that’s where plugins come in. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m anti-plugin, but I am anti-consumerism — I’ve been down the financially irresponsible rabbit hole of Eurorack more than once, and it’s amazing how GAS (gear acquisition syndrome, which applies to plugins too!) can both drain your wallet and your will to create all at once. There are some great plugins out there though. You guys make some good stuff. I use Slap on almost every project in some way or another.

Thanks a lot! And congratulations on your recent contest victories. Can you share more about these experiences and how/if they've impacted the Undulae project?

Thanks! It started last year when I was scrolling on Instagram and I saw a post by Mr. Bill about a beat battle he was hosting along with Yum Audio and Splice. I had just finished teaching my first semester of Ableton and modular synthesis classes and I was feeling pretty sharp, so I decided to give it a shot. I tried not to think too much about it, and just make the best one-minute track I could (that was the time limit). I ended up winning first place, and after being a little bit shocked at how easy it felt, I decided I should just enter some more. So far, my wins include contests hosted by Mr. Bill, Machinedrum, and Andrew Huang.

The contest wins have been great for exposure, and for self-confidence. Each time I win, I’m able to gain a little bit more momentum on social media, get some new followers, and a little bit more engagement. Recently I managed to go viral on Instagram after sharing some lesser-known features about Serum, and that was able to get my profile in front of some bigger names. After winning these contests and growing a little bit on social media, the impostor syndrome is starting to fade. It doesn’t feel like I’m faking it as much anymore.

With your growing success, what are the current goals and aspirations for your music and the Undulae project?

I really just want to spread joy by sharing my own music and spread knowledge by teaching people how to do it themselves. Everything I do comes back to the fact that I want to empower other creators. If I can support myself while doing it, that’s an even bigger win.

You've shared with us the impact of mental health on creativity. Can you share how you navigate these challenges in your process?

In the music world, we are constantly pitted against each other on social platforms where every aspect of our impact as creators can be measured. We’re given statistics on viewership, engagement, subscriber count, likes, comments…it’s inevitable that we will start to internalize these metrics and they’ll affect the way we feel about ourselves, our work, and our place in the industry. Unfortunately in today’s creative climate, you can’t ignore social media completely if you want to reach an audience, but the most important thing is to focus on the work more than how people react to it.

Do you have a specific routine or practices that help you stay creatively productive and mentally healthy?

Setting aside time explicitly for unstructured creative play is hugely important. Creative people need time to freely explore new ways to use their tools and overcome creative challenges. I also love setting interesting limitations for myself. I just started a series on my YouTube channel called “Extreme Sampling” where I only allow myself to use a single sound as the source material for an entire track — even the drums. Personal challenges like this force you to think outside the box, but not become overwhelmed by option paralysis. I also try to find and share some daily inspiration on social media, usually a new track that caught my ear with some fresh sound design or interesting songwriting.

With the unprecedented growth of AI, how do you integrate AI into your creative process?

I was messing around with Dance Diffusion a lot last year. You can train AI models on large datasets of audio, and then have it generate even more audio based on those datasets. I was downloading tons of samples off of Splice and training models on those — so I’d have a model for drum breaks, for growl basses, for glitchy IDM sounds, I had one that was trained on my discography, stuff like that. And then I would further sample and mangle the output. I’m not a fan of AI stuff that uses text prompts to generate audio. To me, that just takes all the fun out of it. It doesn’t feel creatively stimulating anymore. It doesn’t feel like I’m actually doing anything.

So what do you think will be the key skills for musicians to stay relevant and creative?

I think art as a finished product is becoming less and less commercially viable. With AI getting better and better and imitating artists and musicians, we have to think about things that AI can’t do and focus on those. Things like live performance, letting others into our creative process and showing how it’s done, sharing the tools and frameworks we use to create — I think human artists and musicians have a huge leg up on AI in these areas. I always stress to my students that art is a process, not a product, and I think everything happening with AI is making that more true by the day.

What changes have you observed in the music industry over the years, and how have they influenced your approach?

With the rise of smaller communities rallying around individual creators, I think we are seeing a shift where musicians are becoming a little more tight-knit with their fans. Celebrated musicians aren’t quite as untouchable and elevated as they used to be. Unless we’re talking about huge mainstream artists like Taylor Swift or Beyonce, there’s a pretty good chance one of your favorite musicians has a discord you can join where they actually hang out and respond to fans, or you can tag them on Twitter and there’s a decent chance they’ll see it and tag you back. I think that’s pretty cool.

What advice would you give to someone just starting in the music industry, especially regarding technology and creativity?

It took me way too long to figure this out, but: make friends with other musicians online. Like, REALLY make friends. Don’t just “network” and spam your stuff in self-promo threads. Join a few discords and see who you connect with. You never know who they’re going to know, or who they might show your music to or put you in touch with. It’s also so helpful to be able to share music with other like-minded musicians, show off your WIPs, and hype each other up on stuff you’re working on (shoutout to all my homies at Satellite Era).

As we wrap up, could you reflect on your journey so far and share your hopes for the future of your music?

I want to empower other creators to make cool and interesting stuff! The electronic music community grows bigger every day and I want to be a positive force in that growth.

If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this article, it’s that art is a process, not a product. The finished work is what we get as a byproduct of the process. That is all!

Thanks a lot for sitting down with us & sharing your thoughts. All the best for your future endeavours and hopefully talk soon again.

Check out more of Brendan on his website.

and have a listen to his latest Undulae project: