John Howes on the Nord Modular G2: "I spent months learning it, and I still only know 10% of what this machine is capable of - it's insane"

(Image credit: Press/John Howes)

Electronic musician, label head and developer John Howes’ music lives on the boundary between chaos and control. 

On the one hand, his work is largely produced using systems and tools of his own design: rhythms and notes are generated using Strokes, a sequencing environment he’s developed, synth patches are meticulously constructed on his Nord Modular G2 and Elektron Machinedrum, while parameters are modulated using another self-built software tool, the global modulation matrix Dispatch. If he discovers a plugin or an instrument that sounds intriguing, unlike many of us, his inclination isn’t to buy it - it’s to build his own version, often creating something new and unexpected in the process.

Though he’s rigorous in his command of the creative process, Howes tells us, it’s when he begins to let go that the magic happens. Captivated by the limitless potential of generative music-making, he carefully integrates elements of chance and indeterminacy into these highly structured systems, exploring the musical possibilities presented by implanting ghosts in his machines - cybernetic, semi-autonomous agents that possess what he’s called “lo-fi AI”. 

His latest release, a self-titled project under a new alias, derives its name from Paperclip Maximiser, a thought experiment that envisions how an AI tasked solely with manufacturing paperclips could run out of control and inadvertently kill us all in the process, were it not instilled with some form of self-correcting, machine-based ethics. 

Thankfully, the AI-powered tools used to produce Howes’ latest release, Paperclip Minimiser, haven’t yet threatened us with extinction: instead, they’ve helped him record some of the best experimental music we’ve heard this year. Across eight untitled tracks, the project explores the outer reaches and inner depths of electronic esoterica, venturing through dubwise techno abstraction, Hassell-esque fourth-world sonics and corrosive machine jams of the highest order. 

We caught up with John Howes to hear more about the ideas behind his new record, the music software he’s developed as Cong Burn, and his fascination with the Nord Modular. 

How did you get into music-making initially?

“I started making tunes on PlayStation 1 and cracked software, FL Studio on PC. When I moved to Manchester when I was 18 I got into a bit more and started buying equipment - drum machines and effects and modular stuff, and now I'm kind of in between all of it. I’m still using all these things - not so much cracked software, though [laughs]. But still torn between the world of drum machines, synths, hardware, and software.”

When did you set up Cong Burn and what were you setting out to do with the label?

“Basically, all of my friends make tunes but none of them were putting any of it out. I’d had a couple records out, and I knew the good and bad sides, and the things that my friends would and wouldn't want to do in the music industry. So as a safe way of getting their music out, I started releasing their stuff. Originally it was meant to be a radio show, where we used to rent the studio and we’d get together and record stuff. It was supposed to be a monthly radio show, but we did it once and it took three months. [laughs] So we ended up doing tapes, then started doing 12”s and parties and stuff. It all grew out of like three or four friends from the Northeast, where I'm from, then it just grew and grew, and people have come and gone along the way.”

When did you start getting into development?

“When I was at uni I made a bunch of Max for Live devices. I had one of those Eurorack converter things where you can send CV out. I didn’t have a lot of money, as a student, so I was making LFOs and sequencers in Max that would output CV into my modular, basically as a way of saving money. And then I didn't touch it for five or six years.

Pretty much all the music that I’ve made in the past three or four years has started with Strokes in some capacity

“I worked in the music industry for five years, and I got to the stage where I was like, the next job that I get in this industry is going to be working on stuff that I don't give a shit about. Mainstream, money-making, business techno or pop music type of thing. So it was like, I guess I'm at the end of my road here. I just left the music industry completely, didn't put out a record or do any work on music for about a year, and studied coding. Then, the first job that I got in coding was for Behringer. So I kind of went straight back in.”

Where did the idea come from for Strokes, the new plugin you’ve developed?

“I was reading a book about Jaki Liebezeit, the drummer from Can. He’s an absolutely sick drummer, and he's got this really repetitive style, with really complex rhythms. I wanted to make music that sounded like that, but I didn't want to program it in MIDI clips in Live, it’d take fucking ages. So I started looking at these ways of devising rhythms, and came across Euclidean rhythms. 

“When you look at the stuff Jaki was doing, he never says the word Euclidean, but it’s all there - all of it is about mathematical relationships, and the diagrams he’s drawn are Euclidean rhythms, he just didn’t call them that. So I started working on it mainly as a way of generating interesting drum patterns that constantly evolve. 

“Before I started working on it, I used to be into Eurorack stuff, I had this big Eurorack system made of all Doepfer stuff. I used to build mini versions of Strokes on that. I made a hardware version, years and years ago, and had this whole system patched for a year, and was constantly generating stuff with it. Then I turned it into a Max thing, later on, and it’s been in development for nearly four years now. It started as a small thing to generate rhythms, and it’s grown into a full-on sequencing environment. Pretty much all the music that I’ve made in the past three or four years has started with it in some capacity.”

Tell us about the other plugin you’ve worked on, Dispatch.

Ableton doesn’t have a proper patch bay, but Bitwig has a global modulation system. You can stack modulators on top of each other, so you can have an LFO and a sequencer both on the same dial. Ableton doesn’t let you do that stuff, so Dispatch basically started out as a matrix mixer, where you can hook up four live LFOs into a matrix mixer, and then mix those LFOs into four different destinations. 

“That was version one, and I used that for ages. I sent it to a couple of people who were like, this is cool, but I don’t want to make four LFOs every time I use it. So I started to think then about how I would design my own LFOs, and what would I want those LFOs to look like? Serge stuff was a big influence on the modulators. The Dual Universal Slope Generator is like the rise and fall generator, basically. You can do exponential versus linear curves and stuff like that, and that’s all taken from Serge modular stuff. 

“It started out as a mixer, and then I ended up adding modulators to it. From there it grew to having MIDI input and output, audio input and output, and became like a MIDI-to-CV converter. I kind of use it on everything, but only a little bit. It’s a useful tool to have. If you’re modulating a filter in Live, and you want to modulate a hardware filter, you can hook it up to Dispatch and get the exact same CV signal sent out, and patch it in. It just seemed like a big gap in Ableton that they didn’t have this thing figured out yet.”

Is Bitwig your DAW of choice, then?

“No, I’m still using Ableton actually. I use it in quite a limited capacity. I don’t use any of the built-in synths, but I use a lot of the built-in effects. The more I learn about old bits of hardware and stuff - I've been researching old Prophet samplers, like the 2002, which I’m pretty sure Monolake had back in the day. Then when you learn about that, and then you look at Live’s Sampler, it’s like, oh man, these are exactly the same! 

“The Live Sampler has all the features of this Prophet 2002 which Robert Henke had back in the day. Things like zero-crossing the sample points and loops, things like that. Ableton’s cool because it’s kind of like having Robert Henke’s old studio in software. [laughs] So I mostly use Ableton as a recorder, and a modulation matrix type of thing. I generate most of my sounds using hardware.”

Tell us about the new record. What’s behind the decision to release under a new alias?

“It's quite different to a lot of the previous things that I've done, in terms of process. The reason that I put it under this new name is that, at the core of all the tracks on this new record, I'm into the idea of trying to put semi-artificial intelligence into the generative system. 

I was trying to give each voice or each section of a track its own space, almost like it's an actor in a play. Almost like Curb Your Enthusiasm ambient music

“Most of the music that I make comes from complex generative systems made using Strokes, Dispatch and other bits of equipment. But in the techniques that I use on this record, the focus was on trying to give each voice or each section of a track its own space, almost like it's an actor in a play, or something like that. Almost like Curb Your Enthusiasm ambient music, where everything knows where it's going, but as soon as someone actually hits play, you don't know exactly what the results are gonna be. 

“The idea is that all the instruments, all the voices and all the parts all listen to each other and respond to what each other are doing. But also they have to have their own intelligence in a way, they make their own decisions. That's where the name comes from. It's called Paperclip Minimizer. Paperclip Maximizer is this thought experiment about an AI that is given the job of making paperclips and destroys the universe. So this is a self-deprecating name, where it’s struggling to make ambient music. [laughs]”

“The core of it is, I try to build these systems where each voice or each actor has its own decision-making abilities. You can see this in Strokes. The Shares module in Strokes has this stuff built into it, but it’s a simple lofi version of an AI Markov chain, where the input is constantly feeding into the next step. It counts the note triggers on every single channel, then you can set a designation of how much you want on each channel, and over time, that designation will change. So if you set all the faders to 50% and hit play, that's when you get this feeling like there’s a ghost in the machine. You'll have loads of snares for a second, and then that will trigger the snares to stop and the hi-hats to start… once the system's moving, that's when I find the most interesting results.”

What is it about using generative methods you find so stimulating?

“One of the things that I find really special about it is that I don't know the outcomes before they occur. So when I'm listening to things, and I'm recording these jams, I'm experiencing them for the first time. In my older work, I would just record these flashes of like: this is starting to sound good, so I’ll hit record. Then the album would be like a collection of these six-minute long recordings of longer jams where everything seemed to land right. 

“But it’s kind of moved on from there now, where the reason that I'm using generative systems now is that I'm a control freak and I want to know everything that's going on. I'm not a very good collaborator, so I've kind of built these systems where I have five collaborators in a track for different instruments, or different voices that are all connected, and I can kind of jam with the machines instead of having to jam with people. [laughs]”

As if the machines are improvising with you?

“Exactly. Give them a little bit of room where they can do their own thing, but it's all part of a really structured system. I used to have a modular system that I performed live with for two or three years. It had three different voices going into it, was 84 HP, it was dead small. But I knew the synth so well that I could hear the sound in my head just by looking at it. It’s kind of similar with Strokes and the systems I have going on now. I can tell you 90% how it’ll sound without hitting play, but it’s that final 10%...”

You’ve described the set-up you used for this release as an ‘authentic 2006 studio.’ Were you intentionally trying to place yourself in a different era?

“Not consciously, but it is true that a lot of the music that I was listening to during that period was from the early 2000s. Süd Electronic, Mille Plateaux, Raster-Norton and Source Records, these sorts of labels. It’s more of a funny coincidence than it is anything deliberate. I use all sorts of different equipment, although the core of the record was made on a Nord Modular, Machinedrum and Monomachine, I do have some other bits around that sometimes filter into it. And still use the occasional plugin, very occasionally. So yeah - it's not by design, not intentional, but it’s there.”

You’ve mentioned that you mostly used the Nord Modular G2, what is it about this synth that you found inspiring?

“Oh, man. The Nord lets you design your own drum machines, synthesizers, effects and sequencers. It’s almost like VCV Rack, but the modules haven’t been updated for 15 years. With the Nord, I get the sense that they threw everything they had into it. All the best engineers were working on it, and they basically went bust trying to make it. The amount of engineering expertise that went into this machine made it one of the best machines out there. All of the oscillators, all the tools, everything sounds great. 

A new synth will come out, but rather than having to spend any money and buy it, I can try to build a close approximation on the Nord

“There's just enough in there that you could spend your entire life digging into these things. Now that I've got it, I kind of don't want to buy any more equipment ever again - every synth that I want, I can just try and make it on the Nord. So I've got a Lyra-8 that I made in there, and I'm gonna make a Bastl softPop tomorrow. A lot of the time a new synth’ll come out, but rather than having to spend any money and buy it, I can try to build a close approximation on the Nord and usually end up somewhere else that I didn't expect.

“It’s not an easy machine to use. It’s hard to describe, but it feels like you go to work every time you use it. When I bought it, I knew this machine was gonna take over, so I basically booked like two months off, and Monday to Friday, nine to five, I was working on the Nord. The reason that I got it in the first place is that all the patches are shared online, so I was going to dig through some online stuff and use it as a prototyping machine. Dig through the history of the Nord and all the things people built with it and see if there’s any stuff in there that I can take inspiration from for the next Strokes, or the next Dispatch. 

“So I bought it as a prototyping environment, and that's the reason why I spent two months learning it. And I still know 10% of what that machine is capable of. It’s insane. I wouldn't recommend that everybody pick one up because they're really expensive and really temperamental, but yeah - holy shit, man, this machine. It's the end game at the minute.”


(Image credit: Press/John Howes)

You also mentioned both the Machinedrum and Monomachine. Are you a big Elektron fan?

“The Monomachine and the Machinedrum, I didn’t use a ton. I didn't use any of the internal sequencers on either of them. A lot of what I was doing was building sequences on the Nord and sending that out to the Machinedrum and Monomachine. The Machinedrum, I’ve had a couple of them over the years, and they’re amazing. 

“It’s one of those things where I get one and I’ll use it for a year, get sick of the sound of it, and sell it or put it on the shelf. I’m not as interested in the new stuff, but the Monomachine, and the Machinedrum especially - it’s basically a modular synth, you can do a ton of internal routing stuff. Tracks that control other tracks, tracks that are follower tracks to other tracks that’ll take trigger information. 

“There’s infinite things you can do. It’s similar to the Nord in that it’s an open box and you can do what you want with it. Simple tools that you can patch together in really crazy ways. I’m not as deep into the Monomachine, I’m not as keen on the synth engines. I don’t use either that much anymore, to be honest, since I’ve got the Nord. I’ve got close approximations of all the Machinedrum and Monomachine voices that I’ve built myself inside the Nord. Other things are slowly getting pushed out. Maybe in ten years, it’ll just be 10 Nord Modulars. [laughs]”

We’ve covered hardware, but which software tools do you find the most inspiring?

“I generally keep things really simple. I don't get too lost in the world of plugins. I have a couple of presets for a couple of effects that I've used. On this new record there’s an Eventide plugin that I used that I had one preset for, and it's on half the tracks on here. But yeah, largely, I don't use other people's stuff. I try to use my own things, or I try to use Ableton stock stuff. If there's a thing out there that I want, a Max thing that I think is cool, I’ll just build it myself, and make my own version of it. 

“I don't generally look for new equipment anymore. If something new and interesting comes along, I'll just try and do it myself. With the plugin stuff, I'm kind of fairly comfortable with building other people's stuff, whatever it is. DSP is something I've not got massively into yet, but that's probably going to be the next thing.”

Which other artists would you say have been the most influential on your work?

“When I'm actually working on music, I generally don't listen to anything else. One of the differences on this new record is that I basically shut myself off from all music culture - no Boomkat, no Discogs, no social media - I was trying to stay disconnected as much as possible. So when it actually comes to working on music, I'll shut everything out. 

When it actually comes to working on music, I'll shut everything out

“I don't mean for a couple of hours, I mean for two weeks I'll listen to no music other than my own, and sit and work on my own stuff, and then reinstall Instagram after that's done and get back to normal life, or whatever. But I'm trying to cut off any kind of external influence that might occur. I still listen to music during those periods, but it's wildly different music. I’ll listen to All Trades on NTS or something that's totally unrelated - just so that nothing can filter in.

“In terms of musical artists that have had an influence on me, it's difficult to say. There's been so many over the years, like O Yuki Conjugate, and the club night meandyou., which is run by Lyster, Herron and Juniper. I'd say right now, my Cong Burn mates and the extended universe of people that send us music is pretty much all I'm really interested in musically.

“About two years ago, we subconsciously started only playing new music on the Cong Burn show, or like 90% new music. And that kind of led to people sending us more music, and one thing led to another, and now we’re getting sent loads of really, really sick music every month, from people like Rastegah and oh!t. It's like nothing else that's out there at the minute, and that's super inspiring. But likewise, I don't try to make music for that radio show, or anything like that. I'm trying to put off influence as much as I am taking it in.”

Paperclip Minimiser is out now on Peak Oil. 

Strokes and Dispatch are available to purchase from Cong Burn’s website. 

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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