IAN JORGENSEN PERFORMING WITH THE DELUGE AT CARLUCCILAND — PHOTO SUPPLIED BY 121 (EDITED BY FLYING NUN)
Ten years ago in a Newtown flat bedroom, an obsession began for drummer and guitarist Rohan Hill. It started as an attempt to create a guitar pedal for a specific performance purpose he couldn’t find anywhere, but quickly turned into the invention of a revolutionary all-in-one piece of hardware: The Deluge. A drum machine, synthesizer, even a song arranger and so, so much more, the story of Synthstrom Audible’s Deluge is a first for music hardware in many ways.
It has been used by seemingly every type of musician imaginable, from underground drone artists to pop musicians such as Keith Urban, and crosses genres like no other music hardware has.
In 2014, Synthstrom Audible founder Rohan Hill teamed up with A Low Hum’s Ian Jorgensen to take his invention worldwide, and I sat down with them both in Rohan’s home to ask them everything I’ve been itching to know since I bought my own Deluge in 2019.
THE DELUGE IS MANY THINGS, INCLUDING A SEQUENCER, SYNTHESISER, DRUM MACHINE, SONG ARRANGER AND MORE - PHOTO BY SYNTHSTROM AUDIBLE
Let’s go right to the beginning. Why did it all begin?
Rohan: I wanted a way to loop the guitar and add a beat overtop in a live setting so I could have a looping guitar turn into a whole electronic performance and be able to change things on the fly. I couldn’t find a way to do this on my computer, so I thought I could actually just build a little box. Then I thought if it’s going to have one row of pads, why not have several rows? Then I thought well why not be able to scroll down and zoom in and out?
I loved seeing electronic acts play but had no idea how their devices worked, so I just designed one how I thought it should work. I was really confused as to why no other devices did really simple things that music software usually does, like having a piano roll or zooming and scrolling. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong or that it was a bad idea. Within a few months, I had built a prototype, started working on the code and have never looked back. My background is in computer science and prior to the Deluge I had made a few midi controllers, but it was definitely the most complex thing I’d built.
I needed more time to work on this obsession of mine, so I quit my job a couple of months later, even though at the time there was no chance it would make any money. It was still a year before I started working with Ian and thought it could actually turn into something bigger.
2015 SKETCHES OF THE DELUGE PROTOTYPE BY ROHAN HILL
Ian, how did you get involved?
Ian: I’d always wanted to try and make electronic music. Artists like the KCB kids really inspired me, but I just couldn’t figure out how to use other hardware. I would see a row of 16 buttons and couldn’t understand how to create a song from them, so I pretty much gave up. Rohan posted some photos on Facebook and it seemed like it made sense. I asked him if I could borrow it, then wrote like 10 songs that same night. I thought, I can’t be the only person in the world that struggles with this.
It really is such a fun, intuitive instrument. Did you ever think the Deluge would get this big?
I: Not really. When we first got together we thought it would be great to sell a few. Then on our first sales run we sold a couple of hundred and thought wow, this could really be successful, what do we do now?
R: Well, when I started in my bedroom I thought it would be cool if I even gave five to my friends for free. I remember seeing some of my favourite electronic acts in Wellington and imagining them using the Deluge and how crazy that would be.
IAN JORGENSEN & ROHAN HILL — PHOTO BY EMMA BERNARD
When I first heard about the Deluge around 2019, someone told me how at the time it was huge in Europe but not in New Zealand, which blew my mind. How is that even possible?
I: I just went out and did things all around the world. I threw house parties and gave Deluge demos at cafes. I’d see who was interested on various forums then go around to their houses and show them one-on-one the working prototype we had at the time. This meant when we did finally launch, there were already many people on key forums and Facebook groups who had used it and knew it existed.
IAN SHOWCASING THE DELUGE IN THE NETHERLANDS IN 2018 - PHOTO SUPPLIED BY IAN JORGENSEN
In June, you announced the Deluge was going open source and it made electronic communities around the world go bananas. What does it mean?
I: It basically means anyone can now download the Deluge’s code and make their own refinements to the software. Ideally there will be our official, stable version that we release and support, and then there will be another community version, which anyone will be able to download, and will have features built by the community. Maybe they’ll change the Sustain times or a Saturation setting. It could be anything. We really don’t know what is going to happen so it’s really exciting.
To make the changes you have to be a very savvy coder, but to be the end user you just need to follow the instructions. As far as I’m aware, no other companies in the world have done this during the prime run of a popular hardware product. It’s usually an ideological choice right at the beginning or as an end-of-life thing when manufacturing has finished. It can be a real issue when a company doesn’t release the code when they stop supporting a product that has code flaws, because it means no one can fix the flaws.
So why now then?
I: It feels like the right time. Rohan has been working on the Deluge code for ten years, and now we can focus on getting the Deluge to more people around the world.
R: There are always so many feature requests that people have, and it was never possible for me to do all of them. So it’s nice to give people the opportunity where they can have any features they want if they want to write them themselves.
You must get some pretty outrageous requests.
R: All the time.
I: I think there are like 300 or more requests on the forums for things people want. Even things as out there as people wanting to play games on the Deluge.
R: Which wouldn’t actually be that hard compared to some things.
And you are so responsive as a company. Whenever I hassle you about anything, most of which are probably Googlable or found deep in YouTube, you always respond really quickly and are so helpful.
I: That’s key to who we are as a company. I check my email last thing at night and first thing in the morning, and I’ll always get back to someone straight away, even if it’s just to say “Hey sorry, let me get back to you in the morning. It’s 2 am in New Zealand right now and I’m about to go to bed”.
We don’t spend money on advertising or do any crazy product sponsorship, but we do look after everyone. Rohan makes sure the code is stable, fixes bugs and adds so many requested features. Then I look after people in the way that, say, someone messages saying oh my god my Deluge isn’t working and I have a show tomorrow, I’ll help them with that right away. No repair tickets or waiting weeks for a response.
With most companies, you’re not going to get that. You can’t just email Roland and ask why something on your machine isn’t working. I think that’s a value a lot of people see.
THE POSTER FOR A DELUGE WORLD TOUR FEATURING HUNDREDS OF ARTISTS. THE TOUR WAS CANCELLED AFTER THE NZ SHOWS DUE TO COVID 19 - PHOTO BY ANTHONY SCADDEN
I even saw it being called a cult synth. What do you make of that?
R: Sounds cool to me.
I: It’s funny, Camp A Low Hum was always called a cult. I think people are just not used to seeing that level of community, so they think it’s a cult. But my entire life has been about building community.
R: You mean building cults.
This is the first story in Emma Bernard's new series here on Flying Nun, Sine Journal, where she will be diving into Aotearoa's vast electronic music landscape.