This Virginia native takes experimental instruments to a new level and spotlights their unique sonic possibilities in the music he creates under the name of The Sound of Machines.
I stumbled upon Rich Bernett while searching for Mellotron videos on YouTube. He was demonstrating an instrument he designed called the Cassettone, which uses a modified cassette tape player to playback a loop tape at specific pitches. I was intrigued and did a little more digging. My research led me to Rich's Instagram page where he has posted many videos of his creations, and finally to his Bandcamp page, where I discovered Rich's amazing music. Rich was gracious enough to sit down for an interview and talk about his passion for DIY instruments, original recording techniques, and his love for creating music that breaks all boundaries. "I started off playing cello and saxophone in junior high", he explains. "I took a few years of guitar lessons as a teenager, but I didn't take them seriously. Otherwise, I am self-taught". Rich was in his early 20s when he discovered the exciting world of circuit bending. "This was before Facebook and YouTube, so mainly I had to find these maniacs who had their own pages full of diagrams and oddities", he remembers. Discovering circuit bending set him on a path of exploration. Before long, Rich was attending festivals and performances from artists who made the weirdest-sounding instruments from modified toys or from scratch. "From there it was a natural progression to motors, solenoids, piezo mics, and self-made housings", he says.
Rich began recording his own music in the same way many of us did, with the 4-track cassette recorder. "I started in the '90s on a TASCAM 4-track", he says. "I soon upgraded to a Fostex digital 8-track which recorded on those big Syquest disks". Rich later migrated to a computer DAW, using ProTools for a while. "It was the only option at the time, but I never felt 'at home' with that software", he explains. "Around 2009, I switched to Logic and recorded my first album, Creature in the Whiskey. I liked Logic well enough, but the interface always bothered me". For his next album, Meanwhile, Rich switched to Ableton. "Once I got over the steep learning curve, I knew there was no going back", he says. Rich has recorded three more albums on Ableton since then, including The Narrow Passage, Under the Weight of Water, and Follow the Worm.
Although Rich uses a fairly standard DAW setup to record his music, he is rather unorthodox in his recording techniques. Besides his use of homemade instruments, he is constantly experimenting with interesting ways of creating unique sounds. From vintage record players, laboratory test equipment, and shortwave radios, Rich finds sounds that have never been heard before. For his album, Creature in the Whiskey, Rich recorded the majority of the tracks in a dilapidated horse barn on the property of a 1920's home. "I had all kinds of DIY recording gadgets setup in the space", he remembers. "I had twine strung from the rafters to the floor that I played like a cello, stereo mics placed inside a stone chimney, and contact mics under the creaky floorboards. I tried to capture the feeling of that space on the record". In the same manner, in the recording of The Narrow Passage, Rich limited himself to using only a handful of instruments, including samples of noisy wideband radio signals, a Korg MS20, an old out-of-tune piano, and a modified cassette player. When asked why he finds "found sounds" so appealing, Rich said, "I get as much satisfaction in sound design as I do tracking and mixing. That 'Aha' moment when you capture a new sound you've never heard before is a moment I love stumbling into".
It is his pursuit to create music in new and creative ways that led Rich to invent all of his homemade instruments. Although Rich has built many gadgets that make sounds, he is always looking forward to the next spark of inspiration. "I enjoy the first moment when I'm building something new and I realize that it is going to work the way I had intended", he says. "I typically record the 'discovery phase' of the instrument, when I see what kind of sounds I can get out of it. There's a mad scientist kind of vibe to it that I particularly enjoy".
Rich interests lie in music that defies the norms and his DIY approach goes hand-in-hand with that. "I am inspired by music that challenges my notions of what constitutes rhythm, structure, and melody", he says. Even when he uses standard instruments, like the clarinet, guitar, pedal steel, or synth he finds new uses for them or new ways of applying effects to them. This is all evident when you hear Rich's albums. The song structures and instrumentation defy the standards and are full of rich textures and undefinable sounds. Above all, the recording quality and level of production are stunning, indicative of a seasoned professional. "My latest EP, Follow the Worm is a bit of a departure for me in that it's more beat-driven and bass-heavy than my previous albums. It's a new direction that I'll be chasing in the next album as well", he says. "I want to try releasing music that isn’t as introspective and moody as my previous work. We all need an escape from those feelings these days".
Besides creating instruments and recording albums, Rich maintains a thriving YouTube channel and Instagram page where he has over 3000 subscribers and posts videos about his DIY projects and recording projects. There he features an excellent tutorial on how to build his favorite DIY instrument, the Cassettone. "My champion DIY instrument is a cassette-player-based 'synth' that I named the Cassettone. It has a five-note keyboard that changes the speed of the cassette player, depending on the key you press. This lets you play a cassette tape with a steady tone on it and change the note", he explains. Rich was nice enough to make a complete video on how to build one yourself if you are interested. We have included the Cassettone in our magazine's DIY column.
While Rich may not be a "mobile musician" in the sense that he uses portable devices or mobile music apps to make music, any of his interesting DIY instruments would be right at home in a portable rig. And while I want to encourage anyone interested in making music to give it a try using whatever tool they have at their disposal; I find Rich's passion for experimentation and breaking boundaries so inspiring. Not content to simply buy the latest synth or software and start making music that conforms to the established genres, Rich chooses to create something unique to him, in a way that allows him to explore his creative urges. I admire his spirit and I hope that his story will inspire you to listen to your creative urges and act upon them. History is full of amazing artists who followed their hearts and created something that changed the course of music. Perhaps Rich is on that path, only time will tell.
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