|Machine love: Roman Flügel
How the chameleon got his colours: RA's Ryan Keeling discovers the gear and the thinking behind the Frankfurt producer's multifarious sound.
In a scene fraught with conservatism, Roman Flügel is a rare non-conformist. Since beginning his recording career out of Frankfurt in the early '90s, Flügel hasn't so much cut a path through house music as zigzagged across it. Working under the assumption that each of his monikers brings something different to the table, Flügel has amassed seven solo and nine group aliases, exploring acid, jazz, electro, techno and downtempo (and the gaps between them). Those groups have more often than not included fellow Frankfurt native Jörn Elling Wuttke, the most famous of which, Alter Ego, has put out four albums and a world-wide club smash in "Rocker." Even when it comes to his own name Flügel's purview is startlingly broad: Try running a line through the bleep shower that was 2005's "Geht's Noch" and the doll's house delicacy of last year's "How To Spread Lies."
In terms of creation, Flügel has been fiddling with synthesizers since childhood, and as such has developed a firm affinity for the physical product. That's not to say we're dealing with a purist here, though—far from it. Flügel merely utilizes the gear with which he feels most comfortable and pushes its limits—whether that's loading up a primitive FM plug-in, running samples through his Ensoniq ASR-10 or feeling his way around a classic concert guitar.
Has your exploration of different sounds down the years been an approach that you've had to consider or a natural way of working?
It's totally naturally I would say. It's not like I started as a techno musician; I was playing in bands before and I was playing instruments since I was a child, so it's not like, "Yes, I want to make proper techno tracks for the rest of my life." So that maybe explains why it's so diverse sometimes.
Which instruments were you playing as a child?
I started to play the piano when I was six or seven years old and then I got a drum set as a present from my uncle when I was 12 because I was at his place all the time. He was a musician, not a professional musician, but he had a house with a lot of instruments and he was playing lots of them. His son was playing drums pretty well and every summer holiday I spent six weeks in the house playing all kinds of instruments and finally I ended up playing the drums mostly. He liked what he was hearing and he offered me a whole drum set when I was twelve and finally I could play at home in my parent's basement and they couldn't stop me.
Who or what introduced you to electronic music production?
It was because of a keyboard player... no, let's say it was my uncle again because even during the '70s when I was a kid, he had this incredible Roland synthesizer, which I didn't know at that time, but he had a System 100 or something and we as children could mess around with all the cables and the sounds in his music room. He had a big Hammond Organ and all kinds of weird effects and we were just messing around with all of that. He was away at work during the daytime, so we could do whatever we wanted to do and that was my first experience. In my first band, everyone was a little bit older than me and the keyboard player had his first Rhodes Piano, but later on he had his first Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and that was like, '83 or '84, and that was my first synthesizer experience because I could borrow this gear and take it to my room at home and just check it out all day.
Did you get to know the DX-7 well at that stage?
Yeah I mean with FM synthesis, it was not so easy, so at that time it was more like trial-and-error, but I really fell in love with the sound of the FM synthesis so that is something that I still used today.
What is it about FM that has excited you so much?
I would say it's very clean... It's more the weirdness you can get out of the FM—it's coming from somewhere far away, it's not the usual warm analog sound, it's much more a robotic thing, I think. It sounds futuristic to me.
Do you remember the first setup that you owned yourself?
Absolutely, I was just thinking about this. The first gear I ever bought was for my drum-set—a Simmons SDS 1 drum pad—that was my first electronic gear that I ever bought. Then I had a Roland TR-626 drum computer and a used Roland JX-3P along with a very weird drum machine—it was a Sakata DPM 48—made by Hammond at the time. That was my first set up with a four-track recorder, probably [around] '85 or something.
Which artists inspired you to move into electronic music?
At that time it was this Balearic, or you can say Electronic Body Music as people called it in Germany. It was two or three years before house music showed up and I really liked it as a 15 or 16 year-old kid. Then it was my brother who bought my first house music record for Christmas, I think. It was a collection of tracks around '85 or '86, one of the Street Sounds compilations. There were some really good tracks on there that sounded much more funky and much more dirty and without vocals—that was something I really enjoyed at that time.
Was there much of a learning curve for you with regards to production?
Absolutely, but I would say at that time when I started to buy my first sampler which was an [Ensonic] EPS 16+, probably 1990, that was the time when I started to work in front of this thing for 14 hours a day; I got totally into the possibilities of sampling. It had an eight-track sequencer and I didn't have a computer at that time, so I was working on that sequencer all the time and I did the first Acid Jesus album completely on this EPS 16+.
Finally it got transferred to a computer in Jörn [Elling Wuttke]'s studio who I started to know at that time. But the whole thing in the beginning was produced without a computer, only on this 8-track sequencer and that was the time when I started to go out a lot and I would spend my whole weekend in clubs in Frankfurt and I started to go 100 percent into house and techno.
Do you have a particular function or environment in mind when you're writing a record?
Sometimes I do. It's not that I'm the classic 'track' producer who knows how to produce the 'every-weekend-proper' techno track for example. I mean, I could try to but I wasn't interested in that. So it's like, I get stuck on a certain idea in the studio and I work on it until the end. Then I will see if something's going on or if people are interested or not, or if someone will release it. I don't want to be pushed too much by the idea of producing something that everyone will like, it's not like that.
Is there a way in which you regularly begin to write a record?
Yes, I have an environment on the computer [where] there's nothing. I mean, I have a certain amount of instruments and it's all set-up, but I usually start with a rhythm or with one tiny sound that creates a rhythm in a way and from that I build up the tracks. But it can be anything—I surround myself with a lot of percussion gear or cheap guitars or cheap effects or also old records and I start to work on something very tiny, like it could be half of a bar or something and then I start to build it up.
Does that rhythm usually survive until the end of the record or is it just a jumping-off point for you?
I would say the rhythm normally survives, yeah.
So once you've established this rhythm, where would you take things next in the process?
I would say the second thing should be a bassline, and I have started to use the FM synthesizer from Logic Pro 8 a lot for generating basslines recently. It fits very well to me and the next thing would be things like pads or chords or stuff like that.
Do you work in a loop-based flow, in which you build up a loop into a track?
Yes, definitely. Normally it's up to four-bar, but then from that loop you start to build up other things or other parts.
In terms of the arrangement, is this something you do in Logic primarily?
I have Ableton Live 8 on my computer running, but I do most of the things on Logic.
Is the arrangement something that comes quite easily to you? Has it got easier down the years?
Not really, I think it was a lot easier in the beginning because I was just taking, let's say, four bars and copying them thirty times and then you'd decide when is the breakdown, then you decide when you have to put out the bass drum or when you have to put back everything else. It just used to be very simple, but nowadays arrangements, as you can see with a lot of productions, are far more complicated because, if you work on Ableton for example, you have a different feeling compared to Logic because you don't have to move blocks all the time. Maybe you have more of the possibility of improvising with Ableton against Logic. I still use Logic because I'm more used to it.
Is there a typical time period that will take you to get from the initial creation of an idea to having something that resembles the finished arrangement?
Normally if it takes you more than a couple of days, you'd rather kick the idea—it doesn't make sense. It's something that should be there after at least 24 hours I would say.
How comfortable are you with the solitude that comes along with music production?
How To Spread Lies
When I started to work on the track I was thinking about creating something gentle but not depressing. I was already hoping to release something on Dial and that helped as well. The first thing that I played was that tiny four-note double bass figure at the beginning. It is actually not a double bass but a low pitched pizzicato sample from some Morton Feldman record. That figure was then doubled with a little variation on a Steinway Piano from the [Logic] ESX24 Sampler. Before the main melody comes in you can hear string/voice pad in the background surrounded by tiny samples that were made on a Yamaha DX-100 during the production of the second Alter Ego album, Decoding the Hacker Myth
, from back in 1994.
As the next step the main melody is introduced. The inspiration for that, believe it or not, comes from the strophe of "Can't Buy Me Love" by the Beatles. That main melody goes down and the answer is another one that goes up played from a monophonic synth that comes along with Logic. I wanted an old-fashioned sounding, warm and simple synth sound as a contrast to melodic one that has a more metallic or bell-like sound. I used different effects and their modulation options like a stereo delay, tape delay, bigger reverb or micro plate reverb (all from Logic) depending on the sound or instrument. A simple flanger was used for the string pad and then extensively modulated in the breakdown.
Oh yes, I love to dive into my little own world! I never had a problem with being alone. To work on my own stuff and to turn off the phone while doing so is a privilege I don't want to lose. In my opinion every kind of creativity has to do with solitude but in a positive way. Even when I started to create my first tracks in the basement of my parents' house there was nothing more important than that particular moment.
How much do you consider mixing while you're writing?
I try to have a sound that I'm quite happy with from the very beginning. So if you have a bass drum, a bassline and put them to a certain [EQ] level that makes you happy, I try to keep that until the end. If you don't manage to do this in the beginning, you have a problem.
So you wouldn't be adjusting things like the EQ while you are writing?
No, I am adjusting the EQ sometimes to create a certain sound and then normally, for example, if you take the hi-hats of the 909 and push the mids really heavy, you have to take care of the other sounds at the same time because the hi-hats will be very loud. So if I want to have a really distorted hi-hat from the beginning, you will end up having a different mix obviously by not doing this. So you decide to have a certain sound from the very beginning and then I start to work on that. It's not like I start with a clean production and I end up with a totally distorted production.
It's more like pushing the EQ, using it as an effect rather than mixing considerations.
Yes and I'm not the perfect sound engineer, I can't explain many things, it's just I'm doing them and then finally I give them to the mastering plant and I'm out of it.
You own a fairly substantial amount of hardware synths but which are you using most these days?
Still it's the Clavia Nord Rack 2 that is very important to me and the Yamaha-DX 200 is very nice also. But I must say, after all these years, still my Ensoniq ASR-10 is the center of everything because of its sound, because I just have thousands of sounds on .zip files on 100 MB disks and I just started to transfer them to my computer. There's software from Chicken Systems in America who were able to finally transfer my sounds from the ASR-10 to the computer, but it's still my center gear in the studio. I mean, I have many other synths in the Alter Ego studio which I don't have here in Frankfurt in my own studio, but it's basically the Yamaha and the Clavia that are very important in my music.
You used quite an overt Duran Duran sample on "Brian La Bon." I wondered what role sampling has played in your productions?
I would say from the very beginning, when I had my first sampler, I got totally into sampling and to be honest I had never thought about sampling rights or anything—I just did it because I heard other people's music who did the same; people who produced hip-hop never cared about anything and, for me, it was the same. So I still use a lot of samples, but nowadays I try to not make them sound as obvious as in the past—I've tried to hide them. With the Duran Duran sample it was very obvious, but that was something I've had in my mind for years so I finally had to do it.
Do you use the native effects in Logic, or do you tend to favor hardware units like the Roland Space Echo?
Yes, I do it, but to be honest I've just started to do it because in the beginning when I first heard this reverb from the computer I didn't like the sound at all. What I really like is if I use the old effects, they are not as stable, they sound a little dirtier and I like this. For example, the Ibanez Time Machine is a guitar delay and flanger from the late '70s and it's so important for some tracks I did. For example, the Ibanez DM 1000, which you can get on eBay or something, makes me more happy than some super complex delay from Logic.
Are there still areas of production that you're keen to explore and learn about?
Absolutely, I had my first experience recording in a different way in a project I had with Christopher Dell, who is a jazz musician, and I did a record with him on a Japanese label, Laboratory Instinct. He's playing the vibraphone and the Rhodes very well and he had me record everything in one room in the studio and I must say it was a totally different experience compared to just looking at the laptop or the computer and producing tracks. This is something I would really like to know more about and I would like to do this by myself, probably within the next twelve months: to record more in my studio, like real instruments, and combine them with the skills I've known from house and techno.
Is the house music form still exciting you after all of these years?
It is, but I'm more and more looking for the tracks that go beyond. I would say obviously there's nothing super-new coming out of house music at the moment. It's like you need at least three things to have a youth culture, which is a certain kind of fashion, a certain kind of music and a certain kind of drugs. I don't see that anymore, it's all quiet.
What advice would you offer to the next generation of house producers?
I still have a very romantic view since house music has always been a promise of freedom of expression to me. House music should have the ability to absorb any kind of creativity and let people of any colour, religion or social class have a good time together. I know that sounds pretty dull, but it keeps me going. So I'd give the advice to take house music as a chance to challenge your creativity and write the next chapter.
Published / Monday, 31 January 2011
Photo credits / Nadine Frackowski