Saul Jurgelevicius with his self-made looper instrument: The Rythm Catcher.
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August 31, 2021

Sound design and microcontrollers: trusting the process of failure in order to grow

Saulius – or Saul – Jurgelevicius is a sound designer and composer, graduating from The Sound of Innovation Master's programme at ArtEZ. His final project is a self-made looper instrument: The Rythm Catcher. With Lithuanian singing style -sutartines and generative music as a sourse of insiration, he focuses on films and games. And he aims to teach sound design about microcontrollers in his home country, Lithuania.

The Rythm Catcherlearning about microcontrollers 

Only recently did Saul rediscover a passion in himself for unique sound design. That made him think of creating an instrument. “When I just started the Master's, we had to choose a project. So I started thinking: what do I want to do? And how do I want to do it? In the first year, instead of expressing your own individuality, you experience what it is like to work in a group – to share a goal. Which is difficult, but honestly very necessary at the same time, I think. We tried doing an instrument, but all the team members had their own unique niches and expertise, so I droped my idea. In the second year, everything opened up again: we no longer wanted to continue working on the same project, and decided to all go our seperate ways. That made me realise I could now try to make my own instrument. That is how it started – and here it is!”

Sauls shows his instrument, The Rythm Catcher: a panel with several coloured buttons and lights. The instrument itself is not exactly innovative or cutting edge, he tells, and it’s not meant to be. It’s supposed to be simple, and help him generate ‘weird patterns’ to both inspire him and provide material that he can use in his musical workflow. How did he get the idea? “You really don't know exactly what is going to push you to towards doing anything. I always wanted to be an engineer, someone that builds stuff. But the thing is: I am very bad at maths – so that honestly just went out of the window. Then I realised that I could do music: first production and technique – all more physics oriented. Through one of my friends I disovered miro-controllers: little computers that can do anything you want. You can make them sensory, or controllers, or sound generators – that sort of thing. That fascinated me – but I did not know what to do with it yet, because I was completely new to all this.”

Saul used the opportunity ArtEZ provided to start his journey in creating instruments and sound design tools. His graduation project was about learning about microcontrollers – and then putting them into practice. “The main goal was to create a physical instrument; to fulfill my creative needs and express myself as a creator, through a physical medium. But at the same time I wanted to learn as much as I could, opening gates to be able to continue creating. With this instrument, I can create different sorts of sound and music.”

Sauls zelfgemaakte loop-instrument, The Rythem Catcher.
Saul's self-made looper instrument: The Rythm Catcher.


Individually structured programme

How did he wind up here, at The Sound of Innovation Master's programme? “When I finished my Bachelor's – music production in Lithuania – I went in search for a Master's programme. I tried a few places, but as I am very practice oriented, I did not find the match right away. I had been to the Netherlands for a couple of weeks doing a masterclass at HKU, but I was mostly in London, learning music production there. Then I contacted a teacher I knew, who recommended a few places. ArtEZ was one of them.”

ArtEZ said: we don't know what you want – you have to tell us what to teach you. That was an interesting experience.
Saulius Jurgelevicius, master student

“The first year was difficult, until I got used to the logistics and environment. In the second year, it was just the projects that made it tough. The course I did in London was completely structured: I knew exactly what I was going to learn each day. Lithuania was just like that; if you explain your ideas, you are allowed to do things your own way – but prevalent is a traditional way of doing things. And then I went to the Netherlands and it was like: you can do whatever you want, as long as you do it by our standards. ArtEZ said: we don't know what you want – you have to tell us what to teach you. That was an interesting experience. For the first two months, that was a complete chaos. I actually almost quit during new years: I wanted more structure. But when I got used to everything, I found that the individual structuring of the programme is a very good way to make people choose what they want. You structure your study plan around your project, which is the driving force, the roots of your education. Everything starts there, and supports it.”

negative answer is an answer too

The next challenge was to find a tutor who would understand exactly what he was looking for. Sound design covers a vast scope of knowledge: from dance music to film, from sound effects to creating from scratch – and you only get to know a teachers expertise once you are in contact and start talking on a deeper level.  “The coaches of the programme are incredibly amazing. They all have their own niche: research, projectmanagement, technical advise. Everyone is caring and supportive, even if your idea may be not so great – that is my experience. They are carefull about offering their opinion, not wanting to change your idea, just slightly steering you. It is a delicate balance. In other places, the teacher often knows better and advises you what to do. At ArtEZ this is not the case. Sometimes I even felt like they were not helping at all – but that is the thing: you are the master student, you have to work it out yourself. You can ask for feedback and they will give it to you, but they won't tell you what to do. I appreciated that challenge.”

Saul laughs. “There was this one moment... My project was quite technical and I remember talking to one of the tutors about the microcontroller I was going to use – and he just kept nodding. Then two months later, the controller failed: it was too weak, not up to the task. And my tutor was like: “Yeah... I knew that was going to happen. But you needed to experience that: either you were going to find a way to make it work, or you are going to have to find an alternative.” He told me he needed to give me the chance to fail on my own, because maybe I might have found a way to make it work. At that point, I was like: I know what you want to do – and I know you are right. But I wasted two months of research on this! But I did appreciate the experience of failure. Which is something ArtEZ teaches us, in a very safe environment. A negative answer is an answer too, and you can fail as much as you want, because all those things eventually put you in the right path. I think, at ArtEZ, one could fail most of the time and still be able to graduate. It is much more about development, valuing a mindset of exploration: dead ends and changing direction, and then exploring again. The Sound of Innovation at ArtEZ really does have that approach. In the process, anything can happen. The programme supervises and provides things to try: places you can go to, experienced people that you can meet who can help you achieve your goal. But ultimately, you gonna have to figure it out on your own.”

Model of Saul's self-made looper instrument: The Rythm Catcher.


Teaching sound design in Lithuania

The prototype is working. Not exactly as was intended – it is still glitchy – but the core mechanics as they have to: it is an idea generator. “Once I turn a knob, the voltage and the control change – and the other variables start changing without my input. I have to convince the device that it must work a certain way, but at the same time it is suggesting other possibilities. So it is a kind of a child-like aproach: is an individual and you have to accept that is like this. I honestly love that about it. This kind of approach, that technology can work not as intended, but still be perfect – still be good, usable and interesting. Even though it is not working as is should be. That is something I learned at ArtEZ – and I want to teach this. A self-built device does not have to be innovative, is can be simple: as long as you build it yourself, gave it a personal twist. That makes is worthwhile.

Sauls future plans are to go to his home country of Lithuania and become a sound designer and composer for games and films, and to be a sound design teacher. Also to continue his steps in creating tools and instruments for sound design and composition purposes. “Once I get more experienced at it, I can teach about microcontrollers and give students, specifically Lithuanian art students, the ability to do stuff with them. In Lithuania, microcontrollers are almost exclusively accessible for informatics or computer science students, those at engineering, maths, or physics universities. The topic it not instroduced to art students. Here in Europe, microcontrollers are more widely used to express creative ideas – so I thought I would bring this to Lithuania. I want to introduce that – even if it is just one step at a time. This is something that I really want to do.”

I am not a lead character, I am a supportive character. I want my sound to uplift or increase the value of someone else's project.
Saulius Jurgelevicius, master student

Saul sees himself as a split between an artist and a producer – or rather a professional. “I need to create music, but it must not stand alone. I need to have a reference frame, a picture or a film given to me. For my music to be fulfilling for me, it has to have an added value, be useful to somebody else. I am not a lead character, I am a supportive character. I want my sound to uplift or increase the value of someone else's project – that is one. But at the same time, I am a sound designer. And my sound design is wacky – I make weird sounds that do not fit anything, or maybe some sort of dystopian future film... It is an experimentation. When I present a new sound to my friends, some will find it interesting, while others say: this is like two cats suffering... And I look at it, and see what they mean – and agree. But to me, that process is beautifull: I can see all the technical stuff that is going on in there, and the screeching is the outcome: the tapestry of everything that is happening. And that is what sound design is: the process in itself, that is the point. Expressing yourself in a technological way, is an artistic expression. It might not even work, or be an annoying sound, but I created it myself, in my own way – and that is a huge thing. It is fullfilment of another sort – a completely new way of expressing. Not like ‘I created a song’, but like: I created a device that created a song. There is an extra layer.”

Saul Jurgelevicius with his self-made looper instrument: The Rythm Catcher.


Experience that stays with you 

Not all parts of the study programme were equally attractive. “In Connecting the Dots, we made music with and for children and people who are suffering, but cannot express themselves – for example in countries of war. Music is a very good way to express anger, or pain. But I did not like it: I discovered I am not so much intereseted in ‘the greater good’ – it may sound a bit selfish, but I really am a niche person, an individual producer. I don't hide that. But I experienced it – and although this is not something for me at the moment, I am aware of its existence now. And who knows, maybe once I will get bored and get back to it. ArtEZ gives you a lot of you a lot of that sort of opportunities: you might like it, you might not, but you gain the experience – and the experience stays with you.”

The Sound of Innovtion also teaches its participants a lot about communication. “ArtEZ allowed me to experience what it is like to work in a company – in a safe environment", Saul explains. “Because there are people I have to report to, I have people that report to me – there is chaos, sometimes miscommunication. But in the end we are all trying to make a bigger, better thing together. That is also something I take into the future: I learned to be commited for two years in a bigger environment, and succeeded. I finished, did not back out – even if I wanted to. These sort of things give me confidence. After the Bachelor's I felt more like: am I good enough? Now I gained experience. I still need more, but I know that I can achieve it. All due to the fact that my mindset changed, during these two years. I learned a lot, and grew as a person. I didn't really know that I needed to – only thought I wanted to – and just realised that afterwards. That is how life goes – and ArtEZ was just a part of my life.”

The Sound of Innovation: for those who are not afraid of freedom

The Sound of Innovation Master's programme at ArtEZ is for those who want to change and evolve, says Saul. “It is a challenging environment, but one in which you can change. The programme is for people looking at themselves and thinking: I want to be different, I want to be more. You might think that you know exactly what you want, but in the Master's you encounter a whole new world of things you did not even know you wanted. ArtEZ is giving you an environment to change, instead of teching you exact things. It is experimental, a lot of free thinking. You get specific forms, but if the form does not fit you – fit the form! You do not have to change yourself completely. That is a scary thing: humans prefer structure and control, everything being stable. ArtEZ provides that, but in a very editable way. If you are not afraid of freedom, ArtEZ is the place to be.”

Want to discover more about Saul and his work? Follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn.