|Machine love: Studio Barnhus
Inside the Stockholm studio of Axel Boman, Kornél Kovács and Petter.
Studio Barnhus is Axel Boman, Kornél Kovács and Petter. It's a record label as well as the umbrella name for what happens when they DJ together, but it started out as (and continues to be) their studio home in Stockholm. Over the past year, the label has begun to make a name for itself due to the protagonist's sideways take on house music. The music Studio Barnhus puts out is sometimes laugh out loud funny. But, as RA's Todd L. Burns found out late last month, they take the process of producing it very seriously.
It doesn't seem like you guys are totally serious about gear. That you have to have a certain machine. Or, maybe it's just that I think you don't take anything seriously at all.
Axel Boman: I think we're all really interested in machines but from my point of view—when I started living in Gothenburg—I learned to be super compact with everything. I was really familiar with a laptop and nothing else, but as I learned more about music I realized a good soundcard can make things sound better. I think at art school I had formulated an idea in my head that I shouldn't have anything all. Ableton was kind of new to me, and everybody was like, "Fuck yeah! You shouldn't have gear!" But then I realized it was fun, and gear makes [certain things] sound better.
Were you the same way with gear, Petter?
Petter: Not really. I started making music on my computer when I was super young and didn't have the money to buy synths or whatever, but that was during the time when everyone stopped using gear and started using VSTs and whatnot. Then—a couple of years ago—everyone wanted to use outboard gear again. It's fun to fiddle with machines and stuff, but I spend my money on other types of fun. I rarely buy gear; I only have a couple of synths.
Kornél Kovács: You're the one that has the most stuff out of all of us I'd say.
Petter: Yeah, but it's not a lot of stuff.
What do you have in the studio, all together? Are you like, "This is my synth"?
Kornél Kovács: No, we share everything pretty much, we have our own laptop computers and soundcards and other stuff you need to use all the time…We usually sit in a row, which is quite weird, just up against this one wall with a long table. We used to have one pair of speakers, and we were all connected to it by a mixer. If you wanted to listen to something you would have to go into the middle. And, for a long time, we only had one speaker, so it was mono. Basically that was the first one-and-a-half years, it wasn't very good, very punky. Now we have one wall each so we are free to each have monitors. The one thing we got together—that everyone has been using—is the Juno 106.
Why did you guys decide to buy that?
Petter: It's a good first synth I think.
Kornél Kovács: I learned it when I was at the Red Bull Music Academy in Barcelona, played with it for a few days and it was so easy.
Axel Boman: The first piece of gear I ever had was a Yamaha RMX1, the groove box. Last time I saw Legowelt he was still using it, I was like, "Yeah this is a fucking cool piece of gear." I also had a Yamaha A2000 sampler… I remember saving samples on floppy disks.
What were you sampling?
Axel Boman: I took my brother's and my father's record collection and I just scooped through old soul and rock stuff, trying to find breaks. Some of my friends were big hip-hop DJs, so I was following what they were doing.
Kornél Kovács: We have a lot of toy stuff we picked up, I have this Casio children's keyboard that I got as a child from my dad. It's really close to dying now, it's in bad shape. I sampled all the sounds from it a year ago. I just had a day where I went through everything. I've had it in almost everything I've released, either just a one shot or some loop, mainly for sentimental reasons.
Axel Boman: One of the more important pieces of the studio is the old cassette Fostex Portastudio, which we run stuff through. It comes out the other end sounding warm and nice. Sometimes we'll send the whole track, sometimes I record only the drums then run it through there and back into the machine then add something on top of it so it becomes kind of a live thing that you can't predict.
How did you find the place?
Kornél Kovács: I was looking for a place, because I had a studio but it was in an office environment where I was really the only one making music. So it was kind of tough because I could never play anything loud and it's also nice to have people around you that do the same thing as you, if you need to borrow a cable off someone or whatever.
One night I invited some people over for an after party at my apartment, and one of the guys was an old friend of mine that ran a t-shirt company. He told me that he had—in a warehouse—a storage room for t-shirts that they were in like once a week to pick orders up. So he told me I could move into it if I wanted to. We're still not sure how we ended up together, we all knew each other before and everyone was looking for a studio at the time and it kind of just naturally happened. It's not like we planned on starting a label or DJing together or anything like that. There is the small matter of really powerful explosions happening right underneath us all the time though...
Axel Boman: They're building a new tunnel under the city and its right underneath the studio. It's really horrible.
Kornél Kovács: It's a big problem, they're going to be doing this until 2016 or something. Maybe they'll move on from right underneath us before that...hopefully. Other than that, it's like the place was built to be a music studio, it's perfect. You're not disturbing or bothering anyone. It's a nice basement, it's very central.
"I never use a clean preset because
you want to find your own way,
make it personal." -- Axel Boman
What do you guys use to put down ideas for tracks?
Kornél Kovács: We all pretty much use Ableton.
Petter: I'm also trying this new program called Studio One by PreSonous. It's like a mixture between Cubase and Ableton. It has a lot of the simple stuff that makes Ableton so great, but also has some of the more complex stuff of Cubase.
How long have you been using it?
Petter: For maybe a year. I don't use it all the time, just sometimes. I've never finished a track or anything in it. I used to use Cubase then I switched to Ableton Live.
Why did you make the switch?
Petter: I don't know. I was doing a live set in Ableton Live and I saw some of these things that were much easier, much quicker to do in Live than Cubase and then I gradually just moved over to it. You say my tracks in Ableton sound different to the ones I make in Cubase.
Kornél Kovács: Absolutely.
Petter: Sometimes I go back, but it's super buggy, it crashes, I don't have the patience.
Kornél Kovács: I've only ever used Ableton apart from toy things as a kid, Energy Dance Maker. I have Ableton at home on my laptop too, but it's really frustrating because I can't save on it because it's just a demo version.
It's almost like working with hardware, where you can't go back.
Kornél Kovács: Yeah. It's kind of sad when you make something really good. I always leave my computer on for weeks, "Yeah, I'm going to get a licence for this and fix it."
I read in an interview that you guys are undertaking a small protest against typical arrangements and mixing. Tell me about that.
Kornél Kovács: It's nice to make something you can listen to from beginning to end. A good DJ will always be able to do whatever he or she wants with it—edit it, use the loop function. If you make something that is completely made for DJs with a super long intro and outro, it's not that good for a listener. I love to listen to dance music—even a lot of hard dance music—just for listening pleasure. I'm not the kind of guy that only listens to spaced out, mellow stuff at home. It's music. Sometimes it's grating to listen to two minutes of drums before the sound kicks in.
Axel Boman: I think one remix we did for Hivern Discs was like that. We did this kind of backward arrangement almost, where you have this suspense and you think something is going to come and it never does.
Petter: I never think of clubs when I make music.
Axel Boman: I always loved back in the day when you bought vinyl, the three-and-a-half minute bomb that was tricky to mix in because the arrangement wasn't easy.
Do you work fast, Petter? I remember reading in that same interview that you came up with the bassline to "Some Polphony" in like two minutes.
Petter: It depends. That bassline, though, is not a very complex one. It was the Oddity synth by GMedia Music, an amazing mono-synth based on the Arp Odyssey. It's the best sounding VST synth I've ever used, I still use it. I think I just started with a bassline and a kick drum and then I did a little arrangement and I did the melodic stuff, then it sat unfinished for like six months and I played it to James [Holden] and he said I should finish it. Maybe a year or year-and-a-half later it was done.
Do you feel like your sound has changed completely since then?
Petter: I never had that sound; it was just one track I guess. I haven't made another track that sounds like it since.
Axel Boman: You can hear him making dancehall beats one day and then the next... You get a bit curious about the guy because when he sits and makes music he makes sounds, "Ahh. Ahh." And you think to yourself, "What the fuck is he making?"
He makes noises?
Axel Boman: Yeah, then it's like, "Play us something." And he does and it's really weird, nice music. It's beautiful.
Kornél Kovács: The small details give away a Petter track immediately, even if it's like some dancehall thing from Jamaica. Maybe it's just hearing so much of what you work on, but probably every producer has that, the small details. The small details and small edits you do often. I think you have a sound for sure.
Axel Boman: Yeah, you have a sound, you never, ever hear him making house beats. It just wouldn't happen. Maybe every once in a while, but not like what I'm sitting and normally doing. It sounds like a house beat a lot of the time, but it's not. He's making world music actually; he's the world music ambassador in Sweden.
Petter: I'm not very good at making house music, I think.
Is there a particular piece of gear that you guys feel like you're using quite a bit when you go into the studio nowadays?
Kornél Kovács: Probably the Juno is what we all use, but it's not in constant use.
Axel Boman: For me, the biggest thing in my world was a good soundcard and a big mixer that I can bus-out stuff from the computer. That makes it super easy to add stuff or take stuff out. It became, all of a sudden, hands-on. In the long run I can see it helping me create a live environment, play live, record live.
Do you record live quite a bit?
Axel Boman: Yeah. All of the tracks I do now have a certain element that is recorded live. Even "Purple Drank" has those drums in the background. I started out with the drum fills, something I did on the fly. I realised for me it's key to doing any track to have one part recorded then to build around it, to have that one live element.
Petter: I'm super bad at that. I love to have the freedom to be able to go back and change whatever. I tried, I can do little bits, tweaking a synth there, chopping it up and arranging it. But never a full live take. I'm not very good at that.
Kornél Kovács: There are other ways of getting the concept of chance and randomness in your music other than jamming out. I like to just work with the mouse and keyboard and move things around, change the MIDI notes, put this MIDI clip into that track without listening and just sort of fucking it up. For me, luck is the most important element of making good music.
On "Baby Step," I wanted to sample this old speed garage record that I really loved and, by pure luck, I found a breakbeat sample that really fit the other sample. So I had a nice beat, and I opened up a Defected a cappella folder that I had downloaded a few days before. The first one I dragged into Ableton Live worked perfectly with the beat.
Do you sample a lot? What genres do you sample the most?
Kornél Kovács: Yeah. I think I sample genres that were important to me when I was a kid, I think that's very common, it's always been like that; early hip-hop producers probably sampled what they were listening to and dancing to as kids. For me it's not soul and funk as much maybe '90s dance music. I often find myself sampling stuff that is already sampled.
Do you worry about it being recognized at all?
Kornél Kovács: No, not at all. I'm not going out there, I respect people that can create something of course, but I've never claimed to be a super producer who can create amazing music from scratch.
Petter: I didn't used to sample a lot, but when I started using Ableton Live I found that it's so easy to…
Kornél Kovács: Yeah, Ableton encourages sampling.
Petter: The last year-and-a-half I've been trying to get my head around sampling. You can just drag a sample in, but it can be so much more complex.
Axel Boman: I see sampling a bit like presets. I never use a clean preset because you want to find your own way, make it personal. Sampling to me is like a preset. I don't want to just use them, I need to transform it a bit. I do have a problem with stuff being too obvious. I'm a sampling snob. I want people to be guessing, "Where did you find this, where does it come from?" I get super annoyed when I did the "Holy Love" track, there was this guy posting on my Facebook wall, he posted the two samples I'd used, the original songs and he was like, "Yeah!" and I was like, "What the fuck man? Don't ruin the magic."