We are in 2012, which will likely see Daniele Antezza and Giovanni Conti's first album drop on Stroboscopic Artefacts at some point. Over the past few, they've amassed a catalogue of tracks that sounds like few others. They're creating dub techno, but it's something a bit different than that. "Shamanic" is the word that they hear most often. Outside of their own work, they've also become renowned for their mastering technique, giving a distinct sound to Stroboscopic's releases that many have picked up on. The mastering process is where we began this lengthy interview with them last month. We ended up at world politics, something that seems to inform their music as much as anything else.
Everyone talks about your mastering as though it's some sort of magical, wondrous process—that you're doing something special to tracks. Myself included sometimes. Does it feel like you're doing something different than other mastering houses? Do you know?
Daniele Antezza: Maybe one of the not different but important things with our approach is how we try to make an interpretation of the track that we get. I think it's related to the way we see the world. When you master something, you have to think about the complex technical themes, but sometimes you have to be able to recognise what the music is trying to communicate. This is truly important because otherwise you make only technical things and maybe the tracks can sound great, brilliant, but without soul.
Giovanni Conti: Today I read an interview with Monolake on RA. He talked about the approach at Dubplates & Mastering is to notch a lot, to cut a lot from the mix because some of the mixes they receive aren't very well-produced. To make them sound decent, they had to take out a lot of dirt and push up what was remaining. I really see a reflection in what we do, especially at the beginning with Artefacts Mastering. We were receiving tracks that had some special musical or some special aesthetic inside, but they were maybe produced in a bedroom with cheap speakers. If you put a track that is produced by a guy in his bedroom that knows little about sub bass or compression or equalisation, and then you play it next to a track by Chris Liebing or Speedy J who have expensive equipment and 20 years of experience, then the track of the guy in the bedroom will sound totally like shit.
Instead of cutting away we are trying to push up the elements that—for our perception—can make the track work, can give this special magic or personality to the track. Maybe we are less concerned about technical perfection and more concerned about making a track stand out for its emotional content. It seems that it's working. We started two years ago, and now we are getting tracks from people who were once using really big studios for mastering and were not satisfied. What they maybe got from the big studios was, "OK, my track sounds more clean, sounds more defined, but maybe by notching too much, they cut too much of the dirt." These big studios take away the rough edge that—in techno or experimental techno—is sometimes not really something that should be considered only as an error or as a mistake. Maybe it's right, letting the dirt give personality to the track.
Daniele Antezza: Sometimes it's the mistake, the error of the mix that's magic. The soul is not in the machine. That's the point.
How much do you talk to producers when they send stuff and they can't, for instance, come into the studio during the process?
Daniele Antezza: To be honest, a lot. We like to understand what's going on in the mind of the producer, it's important to us.
Giovanni Conti: It's important especially if people don't come here and they don't sit here while we are mastering. Then we are just guessing the intentions of the producer. The thing that I like most about mastering is that it forces you to recognize all the things that you take for granted on a perceptual level. When you receive a track, you might not know who did it, why he did it and what elements that he likes, so you have a total external view. In ten minutes you listen two times to the track and you have understand a lot of details.
If you start with too many preconceptions about how the track should sound then you lose the meaning, the centre point of the track. So to master something is really... It's Zen, basically. It's something that is really a reflection of your personality and your approach to reality. To master, you have to take yourself outside of the equation. You have to become totally objective and invisible...but it's impossible. It's impossible, so it's a challenge. I think also that's where mastering engineers can fail, because most of the people who master things have a lot of experience, so they think they know everything.
The more they think they're being objective, the less objective they become.
Daniele Antezza: It's like a layering between your perception and the artist's perception. In this layering, you should be able to conceive your mastering job.
Who did you learn from? Who taught you how to master?
Giovanni Conti: For me, it's mostly just the memory of all the music I've listened to in my life. I think since I was six years old I listened to music, 8, 10, 12, 18 hours a day. And then just building a reference—a mental reference in your mind of how a professionally produced track should sound. In the end, mastering is really a technical procedure because you are dealing with knobs, thresholds, levels... You are really an engineer—that's why the word is mastering engineer—because you are dealing on a total technical level with something that is totally emotional. And that's where maybe some mastering engineers fail, because they give too much importance to the technical side. They're not building a bridge, they're trying to make a piece of music sound better. Better for me means transmitting more emotion or suggesting some atmosphere.
You say it doesn't matter what tools you use, but what tools do you use?
Giovanni Conti: What I mean about tools is that it doesn't matter if you have the latest, most expensive equipment. You can have equipment from 30 years ago, and maybe it sounds even better than stuff that came out last month. The importance is that you know your equipment so well that you know if you use that compressor it will empower a certain character to the sound. Or if you're using this pre-amp then it's going to inflate the bass in a certain way that a plug-in can't. We come from a sort of punk ethic, so we try to make the most out of the cheap stuff. Well, this stuff is not cheap because we do have a 5,000 euro sound card. But we don't have 300,000 euros worth of equipment like big mastering guys. What we've got is a tube pre-amp, a Drawmer 1962.
What's good about this pre-amp? Why did you choose that one in particular?
Giovanni Conti: Because it has, let's say, three stages of tubes; one in the input, one that you can control with a knob and one on the output. When you transform the sound from digital information into an electrical signal and you pass it through the tubes or through analogue circuits, then the sound is not treated anymore like 0's and 1's. It's like going inside the body of the sound. Plug-ins can try to recreate that, but what they miss is the noise. It's a counterintuitive concept—introducing noise and harmonic distortion into the signal—because you think normally, "OK, for mastering I want the most clean-sounding equipment." What this equipment does is introduce a controlled amount of noise that is actually positive for the signal. Especially when you work with digitally created sounds, it really helps to give sound a physical presence. We have some pieces of equipment that add more colour like the other stereo compressor, the Overstayer...
Daniele Antezza: I love him, small and evil...
Small and evil?
Giovanni Conti: It's really nice, it's made by a guy in LA. He was the drummer in a group called God Lives Underwater I think. Jeff Turzo. Essentially, this compressor is not intended as a mastering compressor or as a mastering unit. It's a compressor that you use on drums when you record a rock drummer. It has this knob that introduces saturation, that really inflates the body and gives some upper frequency harmonics to the bass that makes the bass—on a perceptual level—more clean and more powerful. I say perceptual because what you are hearing is not the fundamental frequency of the bass, but the upper harmonics that are created by the separation. You tend to perceive higher frequencies as more defined. It's much easier to hear 200 Hz in respect to 20 Hz or 30 Hz, because 30 Hz is a frequency that you don't hear through your eardrums. It's just a movement of the air.
What was the piece of gear that you bought and, afterward, you thought, "Now this is the one thing we needed"?
Giovanni Conti: Maybe the API 2500. The API was not conceived as a mastering compressor, but over the years mastering engineers started using it because of the colour that it gives to a track. We don't use it as a compressor most of the time. We only compress maybe 1db, 2db. If there are elements in the mix that stick out too much and we need to tame the frequencies a bit or if the bass is too big and gets confused, then we can just limit a bit but we use it most of the time as just as a colour tool. I think it has been used so much that people are accustomed to recognise the sound of the API 2500.
To really understand what you're doing, though, you need a good sound card and a good room, because otherwise you don't even feel that there is any difference when you're switching. That's what is really important, and that's where we invested money as soon as we had money to invest. We didn't buy the most expensive loudspeakers. They are probably only 11,000 euros. If you go to a really huge mastering studio, they have 100,000 euros worth of speakers. But I also think that beyond a certain threshold, the difference in quality and cost is proportionally inverted. After you spend 10,000 euros on speakers if you spend 20,000, then maybe you only have 10% better.
What kind of speakers are they?
Giovanni Conti: ATC make them. From what I've read and when I went to listen, they are almost invisible, before we were using ADAM loudspeakers and they're really nice because they have this special tweeter that reproduces frequencies. It's just a metal membrane that resonates. The ATC's are totally the opposite because they have soft silk tweeters. With ADAM, it's like hearing high frequencies on steroids. You hear everything perfectly, and it's really defined, really bright and shiny, but it's too coloured and also it's quite fatiguing.
With these ATC speakers, you go home and you don't feel your ears are hurting or you have bees inside your head. Also, these speakers are really soft. Maybe for some people they can be too soft because the high frequencies are not as powerful as on lower quality speakers but I find with these, maybe we can push even a bit more than we could with the ADAM speakers.
Daniele Antezza: I think we spent at least a year to understand how to manage to use the ATC speakers, because when everything is so clean and so warm, sometimes you don't understand the limits so sometimes you have to do experiments; push on the low frequencies, the high frequencies and blah blah... I remember the first masterings were really closed, especially along the high frequencies because our perception was really open and bright, but when you played the same stuff on normal loudspeakers, it was quite closed.
What about your sound card? You said you also spent quite a bit of money on that.
Giovanni Conti: Mostly what you want from a sound card for mastering is one that keeps the frequency reproduction as linear as possible. Until you get up to a certain amount of money, the chips, integrated circuits or the components that are in the card will introduce distortions, phase errors, jitter errors and colouration to the sound. Big studios often have three or four different sound cards of a really high quality. We only have one, which is as neutral and transparent-sounding as we could afford. It's a Prism Sound Orpheus.
I think spending certain amounts of money on equipment makes sense only in certain contexts though. Let's say you have a classical orchestra recorded with 20 microphones and your target is to get the recording to sound as close to reality as possible. But for electronic music I think...
It's already "not real."
Giovanni Conti: You create the reality. It has no real reference.
Daniele Antezza: It's even a matter of standard. Sometimes the standard of quality is built by the same companies who sell the tool to shape that standard. I don't want to be polemical, because I'm not interested in that stuff. But when I think about this topic—about how the sound "should be"—is it true? I mean how can you decide a standard for pollution? Sometimes I think there are too many narratives about the tools instead of the quality. For example, it's nice when we see the surprise in people's face when they say, "You guys, you've used a true analogue style drum machine on that track!" And we haven't used it. Sometimes these kinds of things are related to perception.
The only analogue piece that you have in your studio recently broke, right?
Giovanni Conti: That tape recorder, yes.
What were you using it for?
Daniele Antezza: We bought it maybe two years ago to record some synth patterns for our live set because we were quite sad about the digital taste of our live set. So we recorded some patterns and the sound was really warm. When Luca asked us about doing something ambient for the upcoming Stellate series, we knew this would be perfect. So we tried to record our tracks, but smoke started to come out of it!
Giovanni Conti: The track is still there in the tape somewhere.
You said that you were worried about this digital sound of your live shows. What do you do live? What does your live show look like?
Daniele Antezza: The live show is not really complex, I manage the sequences and Giovanni works on the complex effects chains. I try to always build easy sequences, there are only a few, but well-designed, sounds.
You say it's not complex, but I've heard your tracks. I get lost in them. They certainly sound complex.
Daniele Antezza: It's like a game for us. If I show you a set you'll laugh, because they are really easy. But the perception that we want to achieve should be deep so sometimes we spend hours in understanding how the sound can create emotions and feeling instead working on the engine of parameters like decay or attack in our patches. Because sometimes if you follow these kind of details you lose the soul of your sounds... I mean, it's true that we have some technical skills but it's not our first aim.
But you do keep yourselves busy live. I've seen you a couple of times and it seems like you're both working while you're up there.
Giovanni Conti: The processing chain that I use live is the result of many years of trying to process a digital sound and create a space out of a single sound. When I was doing interactive audiovisual installations, and when I was working with Max/MSP, what I was doing was getting pre-composed music out of a DVD player, and then processing it in Max/MSP using sensor data as variables so I was building these automatic sound processing chains. I wasn't there, I used to leave the equipment for one month or more and the system was totally automatic. There were range sensors or video tracking devices, I extracted numeric values from these sensors and then used these numbers as variables for reverbs, delays, filters, to trigger some sound sequences and also control the video synthesis of 3D scenes.
You do realize how complex that sounds, right?
Giovanni Conti: I have a lot of Max/MSP patches, and so when we decided to have a live set, I thought if I'm not too stupid maybe I can use this on the techno dance floor. That's what I think is really working, because the starting sequences that we use are really not complex. Part of the complexity and the movements that you hear is coming out of many parallel channels that go and feedback into each other and that I control with a simple midi controller.
Daniele Antezza: A really expensive controller! [laughs]
Giovanni Conti: I've had it for 11 years, and I love it. I only have 16 knobs, but the parameters I control are maybe 60. For each parameter I choose a scaling of a minimum and maximum value that puts out the sound that I want. Obviously it takes time to build something that sounds nice or that can create a rich texture out of a single kick drum, but it's not so difficult after a while. What I like is that if I show you the effects that I use, they are almost all the default Ableton plugin effects. I don't use complex plug-ins, they are mostly delay, reverbs and filters. It's just a matter of putting them in the right sequence.
I really hate all this hype about plug-ins and new effects because I think it's really counterproductive for musicians and new generations. Sometimes I listen to tracks made by younger people, and I am really impressed at how professional they sound. But most of the time I say, "OK, you can make this track, it sounds really good. But why are you making the same track that a big name techno producer made last month?"
How long did it take you to get to a point where you feel like you were making tracks that sounded different?
Daniele Antezza: It's a lot of trial and error.
Giovanni Conti: It changes. For example one track on Way to Moshka was made in one hour, but the sound design for another one took hours and hours, days and days.
Daniele Antezza: After two years of working, we have lots of sounds. I don't know if you like reggae, but one of the techniques of those producers was using the same elements in different ways. The concept of The Upsetters, the band managed by Lee Perry, was just to upset the sound, upset the few elements that you have.
Giovanni Conti: For me, it's a matter of getting to a mental state where you don't think about what you're doing, so that what you do is just total instinct. It doesn't come out from any musical knowledge, it doesn't come from listening to other records, it's just a connection that goes on in a certain moment. I don't know, it's a mystical experience for me.
It must be hard, though, for guys to get into that mystical space. You're so technically-minded on the other side.
Giovanni Conti: The way my personality is built I consider the technical side only as a necessary evil that you have to go through to let your view, your idea, your emotions get into a shape that can be efficiently transmitted to other human beings. We are perfectionists, and can spend one night on a kick drum or equalizing a synthesiser, but then maybe at the same time I can arrange a track in two hours. Then we listen to it and say, "Fuck, it works! How did we do it?" And I don't know. I feel sometimes that I get this connection with I don't know what's up there, whether it's infinite and timeless...
You're working on an album for Stroboscopic Artefacts at the moment, right? Can you tell us something about it?
Giovanni Conti: The album is more intended for home listening. Probably it will contain some tracks that could work on the dance floor, but that is not our focus.
Daniele Antezza: I think the most inspiration for this album is thinking about what's happening in the world now. We think that music is a strong mirror of social structures and dynamics, so sometimes we have the perception that lots of underground music in general has the same structures of the things that the artists want to criticize...and it happens because of market rules and show biz. So we are trying to use structures and rules not normally used in techno and electronic music. To emphasise this with sounds, not polemics or being against something or somebody. Let's say that it's our way to imagine a different world.
For someone who doesn't want to be a polemic, you sure say a lot of things that could be regarded as polemical.
Daniele Antezza: I don't know, yeah, it's my nature. To be honest, I'm really upset by all the things that are happening. We spend lots of time reading papers and stuff about economics, society, politics or contemporary thought. So maybe it's normal that when we produce music we use this background as source of inspiration.
Giovanni Conti: For me one of the energies that I have and I use to reach that mental state I was talking about is the disappointment and rage about what I see is happening now in Greece, what's happening now in Europe, what happened in Argentina ten years ago. What disappoints me is that many young people, people who are intelligent and smart and people who can understand things do not care what is happening in their lives. Maybe they think that as long as they see it in the TV, as long as it's not happening 500 metres from them, it's not going to have any impact on their lives.
Do you think that electronic music can speak to that?
Giovanni Conti and Daniele Antezza: Yeah.
Giovanni Conti: I think that a DJ or a performer can build an exchange of energy with a big crowd of people when they play for hours. This possibility could be used to awaken people or to make them access some parts of reality when they go home. It can change the way they perceive the limits of reality. One thing that I really like when we play is lots of people come to us and say it was a sort of "shamanic experience." It happened in Russia, Berlin, Poland, the USA. Different people from different parts of the world using exactly the same words. It was amazing. And, for me, it was quite a shock. That's exactly what I want, that's why I'm there. I'm not there to make people have fun and only dance and forget about their shitty day job, I'm there because I want to bring people to another level of reality. To see that this is working is a big reward and I think it's much more worthwhile than getting 10,000 euros to play two hours and to play shitty commercial things. OK, in the end we need to earn money, we need to pay rent, we need to buy food, but using music as a tool to make money is the worst thing a musician can do. It is a betrayal of the real essence of music, which is immaterial communication.