Dream Theater's Keyboardist on His 'Next-Generation Musical Instrument'

'Basically I make these toys for myself, and then if anybody else wants to share in the fun, they can'

Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater
Christie Goodwin/Redferns
Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater
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As the keyboardist for the prog-rockers Dream Theater, Jordan Rudess is best known for his head-spinning, ultra-technical solos and intricate musical backgrounds. To create these, he uses a wide variety of instruments, the most recent of which has been an iPad. As an early adopter of using tablets as instruments, he has employed apps like Looptastic and ThumbJam in his own studio. He has also been devoting some of his spare time to developing his own apps like MorphWiz and SampleWiz with programmer Kevin Chartier, under the company name Wizdom Music, some of which he's even used on Dream Theater songs.

"The last time we were in the studio, I ended up using MorphWiz on 'On the Backs of Angels,'" he tells Rolling Stone, referring to a track off last year's A Dramatic Turn of Events. "That's the song that was nominated for a Grammy."

His latest iOS creation is called Tachyon, which he describes as a "next-generation musical instrument," and it's the first music-creation app he's designed with both professional and amateur musicians in mind. "I think this is the most intuitive, straight-ahead app that I've come up with," Rudess says. "We wanted to use some of the concepts we had developed over the last couple of years, but keep it really simple."

In some ways, Tachyon behaves similarly to a keyboard, with certain positions acting like keys to trigger certain notes. There are two parts to the screen, each of which can create sounds from a different instrument. What sets it apart from other apps, though, is that if you were to slide your finger (or fingers on multiple notes) from one instrument to another, you could seamlessly switch to the other, or even play in some murky Twilight Zone between the two sounds. If you've ever wondered what a cross between a violin and a piano would sound like, Rudess has the answer.

To make the sounds meet his standards, the keyboardist has painstakingly combed through his personal collection of samples to find the 10 that blend the smoothest. One, he says, is his signature "JR Lead," which Dream Theater fans will recognize, but he has included traditional instruments like electric guitars and pianos alongside industrial ones like drill sounds and a metal wrench. There is one he's particularly proud of.

"I did a solo album called The Road Home years ago, where I paid tribute to some of the old progressive-rock masters," Rudess says. "One of the songs was 'Sound Chaser' by Yes. To do it, I needed to get a really, really cool lap-steel guitar sound. I got really into finding the right one because I'm a big fan of [Yes guitarist] Steve Howe, and I wanted to make sure it was great. So that's my lap steel."

Rudess and Chartier brought it all together by developing some intriguing visuals, using dots on the screen that join together to create images of the instruments, and by giving it "pitch intelligence" – the kind Simon Cowell wishes singers had. "When your finger lands anywhere, it's going to be perfectly in tune," Rudess says. "When you slide your finger, it's sliding like a fretless instrument, but when you stop your finger, it's rounding to the nearest note. It makes for a really nice musical, magical experience."

Overall, it makes for an app anyone could use to make music. More specifically, though, it's an app that Rudess can use – and he plans to do just that. "Basically I make these toys for myself, and then if anybody else wants to share in the fun, they can," he says with a laugh. "I've got to make sure they're fun and inspired. The next time we're in the studio, I'll definitely have this out."

Until then, Rudess is excited another Wizdom Music app he helped create: Dubbed SpaceWiz, a program with graphics that depict a solar system and in which you can fire particles at planets to create sounds. You can also randomize the particles and let them make their own music. "I sent it to my buddy Steven Wilson from [prog rockers] Porcupine Tree to play around with," he says. "He wrote me back, 'I just keep hitting the randomize button and it's awesome.'"

The keyboardist expects SpaceWiz to be available in the iTunes store within a week or two. By then, though, he'll already be back on the road with Dream Theater, touring South America. When it comes to making apps, he's not quitting his day job – he's just working around it. "Between Tachyon and SpaceWiz," Rudess says, "the little two-week break that I thought I was going to have from Dream Theater was fairly busy."