Rob Burger is a New York based composer and multi-instrumentalist. As a session player for many well-known artists, Rob regularly employs a variety of oddball instruments, including a Vako Orchestron. Recently, Rob has featured his Orchestron prominently on stage and in the studio with Laurie Anderson, and the Orchestron gets credited in the liner notes for several songs on Anderson’s latest album “Homeland.” We sent a few Orchestron-specific questions to Rob, who was gracious enough to indulge our geekery!
Can you tell us how you acquired your Orchestron? Did you seek one out specifically, or did it just sort of fall into your lap?
I have been collecting unique stringed and keyboard instruments for the past 15 years. I wasn’t actively searching, but I certainly knew what it was. A colleague of mine, while on tour, tipped me off to one that was in a music store in Nashville. I called them up and bought it over the phone sight unseen. It’s a model D.
Have you owned/used an Optigan?
I’ve owned 2 Optigans in my life. I love them. I loathe them.
How did you come to use the Orchestron with Laurie Anderson?
From the beginning, I felt the sound of the Orchestron (as well as Moog bass, among other oddities) would be a great additive to Laurie’s work. They have this otherworldly quality. A sound that’s creaky and old, yet futuristic and sci-fi (dare I say almost preferable to its older brother and sister Mellotron and Chamberlin – which I own two of). It seemed to be the perfect complement and textural juxtaposition to some of the modern sounds and grooves Laurie creates in the studio. At the time we both started coming up with templates for Homeland, I was listening to a lot of artists and composers such as Terry Riley, 70’s Eno, Krautrockers like Neu! and CAN, and was intrigued by the way in which they embed expressive synths and organs, alongside prepared pianos and other unique acoustic instrumentation. In listening these records, some sound like they were just released yesterday! When she asked me to come in to start laying tracks for her newest work, I really wanted to bring that timeless, yet unique quality to it.
Can you tell us something about your decision to tour with your Orchestron (ie as opposed to using samples)? Are there any particular qualities or effects you can get with a real Orchestron onstage that are not possible when using samples?
I’ve never been all that fond of modern sampling technology and digital keyboards. I like to have a physical relationship with the instruments I play onstage and in the studio. I have always been more drawn to acoustic instruments or electro-mechanical instruments that produce limitless variations of one sound. There is less of an obstacle between me and the music itself. As it is, the Orchestron is already imitating, and with modern samples, there is yet even more delegating to do within computer/MIDI rigs. Yes there is some sound degradation and inherent characteristics and graininess removed, but more importantly, there is an inspired reaction lost in the actual playing of the originals. I feel strongly that it’s the limitations of these rare and unique instruments that yield a creative, sometimes naive and unique approach to playing music. It’s a balance act in preservation… the more you use them, the more they need maintenance, and the less you use them, the more they need maintenance. These instruments need love and need to be played. However there are very few people out there that even know what they are, let alone work on them.
Is it important to Laurie that you use a real Orchestron onstage?
No. Laurie is not a purist in that sense. She is way more interested in interplay, support, and the creative musical gestures I come up with vs. the actual sounds themselves.
Do you have any horror stories about using the Orchestron live?
Other than undesirable amounts of dimmer hash and hum, I have yet to face a truly horrible encounter. I do have anxiety before most shows that the motor will go caput. I tend to leave it running after soundcheck and have had great luck so far.
Do you have any interesting stories about using the Orchestron in the studio?
We fought a lot with noise. My Orchestron generates quite a bit. Laurie’s records are very quiet and her stories and words are extremely delicate. I work on lots of records where noise is practically welcomed. On Homeland, we tried all sorts of ground lifts, and had to move the Orchestron in different parts of the room until we found the right spot. We recorded the instrument direct, however onstage I enjoy experimenting with various tube amps, tape delays and spring reverb. I also use an Ernie Ball volume pedal for expression.
Which discs do you use the most? Do you use any Optigan discs in your Orchestron?
I mostly use the Violin, Flute, and Choir. I love the Pipe Organ as well. I also own quite a few Optigan discs and, for effect, enjoy using them with the Orchestron. It’s one of its great perks. I occasionally will spin an Optigan accompaniment backwards and use it as a bed or loop for inspiration in a piece or film cue.
Laurie is well known for her heavily processed violin. Have you used the Orchestron Violin disc to augment or counterpoint her violin sound in any way?
Yes, I have experimented with this disc during Laurie’s solos, but have found there to be a tendency for the violin disc sound to clutter up that frequency range. In those instances, I sooner will gravitate to a sound or an instrument that offers more rhythm, such as an accordion or prepared piano, to counter that texture, responding more naturally to her improvising on an acoustic instrument. I often use the violin disc as a subtle orchestration device or tool. It can sound really lush and beautiful, almost underwater, during transitions in a piece.
Have you played any of our new Orchestron discs? Do you have any particular sound requests for our new line of Orchestron discs?
I bought the Saxophone and French Horn. They sound fantastic and practically indistinguishable to the originals. I also have the sample disc which I find very useful. It’s a great sounding alternative when convenience takes precedence.