|Machine love: Barker & Baumecker
RA's Jordan Rothlein visits the Berlin-based duo, whose open-minded approach in the studio has resulted in one of the best albums of 2012.
If you'd only heard Barker & Baumecker's Transsektoral, would you know it was produced by a couple of hardware obsessives? With knotted-up arrangements of razor-sharp sounds, the Ostgut Ton duo's sound doesn't immediately bear much resemblance to the legions of 808 or DX7 partisans we're used to hearing from. Anyone who saw them at work on Boiler Room last year, though, can attest to the unfathomable jumble of machines that goes into their sound. They're just not using the kit you're used to hearing producers go on about.
Both Sam Barker and Andreas Baumecker are ardent gearheads, the former catching the bug from a music tech course in secondary school and the latter regrouping after selling much of his gear to Rajko "Isolee" Muller some years back. Now the nexus of their obsession is a joint studio on a side street in the east of Berlin. Though their computer seems purposely pushed off to the side, their shared surface resembles a particularly plugin-stuffed Logic session, with an assortment of small- and medium-sized boxes jockeying for space on the desktop. (With a number of live dates looming, some of their larger machines sat in stacks along the studio's perimeter.) The "constellation," as they'd occasionally refer to it, seemed to exert a hold over the two: as I'd talk to one, the other would invariably gaze into the tangle, compulsively tweaking, re-plugging or rearranging. By the end of the afternoon, its allure had begun to sink in.
I read that you only recently switched the studio computer on, that you guys were just recording to DAT from hardware. What role does the computer even play in here?
Sam Barker: Putting things on SoundCloud? [laughs]
Andreas Baumecker: I think it plays a huge role in the final arrangement. The sound is made in the computer later on, so we really need the computer. I think we couldn't even live without a computer. I can't imagine!
Sam Barker: I mean, you can, definitely. It's just, what do you do once you've got a bunch of DAT tapes of jams? There's also the problem of having something as a stereo recording. I would like to have an 8 track A-DAT or some kind of reel-to-reel I could record things to. I guess the only difference is the immediacy: we might be messing around, haven't switched the computer on. We've got some real nice loop going or whatever and then go, "Right, OK, where's my computer?" It's over there, because I've been at work during the day or whatever. Plug it in, start it up, start up Logic… you know, ten minutes down the line, where was that amazing track that we had like ten minutes ago? It's sort of floated off. You need to get it recorded at the moment you're excited about it. That's the main thing I've learned about doing stuff in a spontaneous way: recording needs to be spontaneous too.
But with just a stereo output to DAT, you're a little stuck. Spontaneous is good, but you want to be able to clean everything up afterward.
Sam Barker: "Crows," "No Body" and "Tranq," these were all just like stereo tracks that we had. We did put a few layers on afterwards, but mainly just to kind of cover up things that we couldn't change about the original, or to fill in a hole in the frequencies.
Let's talk about Jomox. The drum machine of theirs you've got here, the XBase 999... it seems like one of the central components of your sound.
Andreas Baumecker: Yeah, it's the main drum machine we use on Transsektoral. That's it. We used the Dave Smith Tempest, but we got it very late [in the recording process], so we didn't really use it that much. On two tracks it's pretty obvious, maybe on "Schlang Bang" and "Trafo"—
Sam Barker: And "Silo." The good thing about the Jomox stuff is the attention that's put into the sound quality. It just doesn't seem to have any compromise in that area. There's some digital sounds in this, but the way they've decided to do the digital is kind of copying the 909's way of doing it, which is having 8-bit samples on the same sort of chips that they use, which kind of degrades the sound but gives it this real crunchy full sound, and then each of those has its own VCA. There's way easier ways of doing that, but he's decided to do it in this really old way that does a lot to the sound, gives it its own character. Rather than just clean 24-bit samples coming out, you've got these really gritty things.
Is there a sound you are attracted to? Is there something in particular you've been listening for as you've built your collection?
Andreas Baumecker: I don't know. I might be obsessed a little bit with the Moogerfoogers. They don't have a digital, clean sound; they are completely analog. They have this dirty, old school-sounding thing to them. It's really special.
Sam Barker: Yeah, I don't know, I guess I'm probably not so into really clean-cut and digital-sounding things.
Andreas Baumecker: Of course we like the digital side of things as well. I think you should not lock yourself from digital.
Sam Barker: Yeah, I'm really into the sort of hi-fi sound, but digital doesn't have to mean hi-fi and analog doesn't have to mean lo-fi. I don't know. I guess it's just how the record sounds.
You can hear that on Transsektoral: it really messes with how we normally conceptualize the analog/digital divide. The record sounds rough around the edges, but often when people describe dance music like that, it translates to "old school." And what comes out of this studio doesn't really sound old school.
Andreas Baumecker: Yeah, that's good. Even though the sounds might be sounding like old, the overall feeling is not.
Sam Barker: I think no matter what, sounds have to sit in a space together. So when I say this sounded too clean and digital, it's only because everything else in the track doesn't sound digital, so it has to find its way to sit in that family of sounds. I guess that's kind of an important thing for us and why we use different types of reverb, and we're always doing a lot of EQing stuff at the desk. It's to aim for that good relationship between all of the sounds and putting it in an acoustic space. You could imagine hearing it in a certain room or a certain atmosphere.
Is that placement a part of tracks from the beginning, like when things are starting to take shape in a jam?
Andreas Baumecker: I think it starts when we're doing it.
Sam Barker: I think just naturally, like—we'll be playing with the desk the whole time and just pushing things forward and back and EQing frequencies in and out. It sort of feels like you're making a diorama. I don't know if you ever did this in school, but you get a shoebox and you cut out pictures from magazines, stick them on card, and put these different layers back, so when you look in, you have mountains and you have this 2D/ 3D thing. [Mixing is] a bit like that, where you have elements, and you want to push this sound right towards the back, and this over here at the front left and another sound over here to balance that out.
What's a technique you use for making a sound fit that might not otherwise?
Sam Barker: The Yamaha S30 through the [Roland RE201] Space Echo—it can be quite clean and digital, but if you push a digital string sound through a spring reverb, it brings it back to life. It can take a stale, digital sound, and make you imagine it was an orchestra playing in some cathedral recorded on some old 78 or something. It gives it a totally different character. Stuff like that disguises the fact it's a modern digital sound.
What are some of the other key effects you're using in here?
Sam Barker: The [Eventide] Space and the [Boss RX-100] spring reverb are really essential tools.
Let's talk about the Space. For something so small, it seems like it's been a very powerful tool for you guys.
Sam Barker: This is really tweakable.
Andreas Baumecker: It's almost like an instrument. You can use it for so many different things.
Sam Barker: It's pretty much like synthesizing a reverb. You can make all kinds of acoustic spaces.
I think the Space speaks to a larger point. You sent over a gear list before the interview, and I noticed that quite a lot of the stuff you guys use is portable—stomp boxes, guitar pedals, stuff you wouldn't normally think of as studio gear.
Andreas Baumecker: These [Moogerfoogers] are basically all guitar pedals.
Sam Barker: Yeah, but what's inside is like pulled out of a high-end studio rack. The only thing is it's small and transportable. We've been thinking more and more that we want to get the process the same between writing the live set and writing music [in the studio], not two separate processes. At the moment the live set is two flight cases of 23 kilos, so we're at the absolute maximum capacity of stuff we can take without bringing someone else to carry cases as well. So I don't know. I think stomp boxes for me are kind of a size compromise. Their size is important, because then you can have that sound when you play live as well.
I'm guessing you're not finished putting this modular synthesizer together, either.
Andreas Baumecker: This is, like—this is his thing. Sam's addiction, totally.
Does he ever let you touch it?
Andreas Baumecker: Well I look at some of the things, but for me I think it's more important to learn the equipment that I have. The modular is a step further, and I'm not there yet.
Sam Barker: We've been sending things—like, the Moogs [on Baumecker's side of the desk] have inputs for control voltages so we've been trying to do a few things where we're sharing control voltages.
Andreas Baumecker: I also bought the Moogerfooger CP-251 to understand the whole process of control voltage. I have the Slim Phatty at home, so I can just like totally rewire [all the Moog pedals]. I think that's kind of what he does with the modular but that's—like I said, that's further, so I have to start with the basics.
This was something you'd been looking to get into for a long time, Sam?
Andreas Baumecker: [whispers] Yes.
Sam Barker: Yeah…
Andreas Baumecker: He's been getting on my nerves. [laughs] Joke! Joke!
Sam Barker: I've been sort of interested in having a modular for a while. The [Korg] MS-20, that's pretty much as modular as I've got before, but I had a lot of fun plugging things in and out of that and other synths like the Pro One's filter input. But yeah, I sort of had in my head that this was the next stage. I wasn't going to buy any more vintage synths. I've got a few other friends that started around the same time, so it was a shared obsession for a few of us.
It looks like it's a pretty custom setup, like it's not necessarily all one make.
Sam Barker: No, that's the nice thing about it. There are more manufacturers now. There's a unifying format for the size and for the ins and outputs and stuff. Everything can communicate with everything else. There's this kind of infinite nature to it, because the chances of someone having exactly the same constellation of modules is pretty slim. Everyone's got their own way of using it as well.
How have you been using it?
Sam Barker: The last half of the album was [heavy on it], I think the latter tracks like "Trans_it" and "Databass133 1/3" had a lot of it.
Andreas Baumecker: It's really interesting. You can do so many unusual things, things that don't sound totally normal—like, "What? What's it doing now?" I really like that level to it.
Sam Barker: But I might not really know what it's doing either. [laughs]
Are most of your sounds synthesized? Do you ever work with samples?
Sam Barker: I think the only thing we've sampled is, like, voices sometimes.
Andreas Baumecker: Yeah, for the live set we have a bass sound that we use, or noises from the original tracks that we can't reproduce live. But it's really rare actually that we use samples. With the [Elektron] Octotrack track, I have to say, I think we should really try and sample more, because it does really interesting things—like totally fucked-up things.
With the Octotrack specifically? What can you do with samples on it?
Sam Barker: The way it handles samples is really elastic. You can pull it in any direction, make it play from this or that end, set loop points and time-stretch. It's got really good algorithms.
You told me it's the central hub of your live setup, and it looks like the studio is really geared toward building music for those shows right now. How improvisational can you get with this setup?
Andreas Baumecker: I think we did it already in the first show we did at Berghain, plus we extended like 25 minutes or something. The last 20 minutes were really like a jam session, but of course we can't do it everywhere like that.
Sam Barker: We have the basic sequence of the track, and then from there we can decide kind of how authentic to the [studio version of the] track we'll play it. We can't really just create a new track, like jam out a totally new track. There will always be some parts that were sequenced before. But with the modular and a couple of drum loops—
Andreas Baumecker: And if the Octotrack works fine then we can use that—just program on the fly.
Sam Barker: So at the moment it feels like we've built this kind of instrument in the sense that this constellation of boxes is its own thing that needs learning, and I guess at the moment we're maybe a little bit above amateurs with this particular instrument as a whole.
That's really interesting. It's sort of backwards: you created something, and then you figure out what it does.
Sam Barker: We're good with individual boxes but looking at it as a whole, it's unique: it's a unique instrument to us. You're not really judged on the same kind of professional level [of musicianship] because it's doing something already a little bit unusual. I don't know if that makes total sense…
Would you ever want to get to the point where you knew everything that's going on with this constellation?
Sam Barker: That's the thing. I don't know if we ever would.
Andreas Baumecker: But I think it would be also good to know at least 95% of what we're doing.
Sam Barker: [If] we know the set and the setup a bit more, we're going to feel more confident in taking it off in different directions.
"I think it would be good
to know at least 95% of what
we're doing." - Andreas Baumecker
I get the sense that while you guys have your areas of expertise in the studio, there's a real collaboration going on here. Is there ever a compromise process that happens in here?
Sam Barker: I don't know. Maybe at some point we'll be jamming, and Andy will have an idea for how all of these parts can reveal themselves over the course of time. We might be like, "OK, we should use this as an intro," we might roughly plan out a jam verbally, then I'll bring some of the high percussion in and then we'll leave it as long as we can before we feel like it's the right time to put the main beat in or whatever. We do reach over to each other's stuff sometimes and, like, turn the cut-off down a little bit.
Andreas Baumecker: When the modular takes over too much...
Sam Barker: Yeah, if one or the other is getting too sucked into our own thing, then we pull each other out. But we've never had any, like, studio falling-outs where we're like "Hi-hat's too sharp, for fuck's sake!" "The hi-hat's not too sharp!" It's usually more like, "The hi-hat's a bit sharp." "Oh yeah, you're right." Because I think what we both think is good is fairly similar, apart from a lot of Andy's—
Andreas Baumecker: —the '80s—
Sam Barker: —questionable—
Andreas Baumecker: —questionable pop songs. I'm totally hooked!
And then is it like, "Well, we'll bring in this 80's pop thing, if I can have the modular doing this…"
Sam Barker: If I can put a gabber kick under there. [laughs]
What do you think you guys have learned from each other about making music?
Andreas Baumecker: Well I'm definitely learning from Sam how to use a synthesiser. Before I was just playing along and seeing what happens, not really knowing what everything means. He can explain it in a really good way. I watch him [work on sounds], so I'm understanding what I have to do to get the sound really interesting. I know a lot of tricks that are also very good, because Logic is difficult if you don't have the time really to get into it if you're working during the day and play on the weekends then you don't have much time.
Sam Barker: I guess [from Baumecker I've learned] the structure, dynamics and tension of dance music, the restraint. Just learning a different way of composing.
How does communication work here in the studio? Do you just meld minds, or is it more verbal?
Sam Barker: We don't talk much, really.
Andreas Baumecker: I think if you listen to music, or make music, you shouldn't talk so much. You listen. You don't need to speak.
Sam Barker: Sometimes we might be like, "Oh, this is good, we should press record."
What spurs on that feeling that it's time to press record?
Andreas Baumecker: That's when it's already too late.
Sam Barker: You should have pressed record—
Andreas Baumecker: 20 minutes ago.
Published / Monday, 12 November 2012
Photo credits / Anna Massignan