|Machine love: Ulrich Schnauss
We step into the German producer's studio to chat Voyetra 8s, Hartmann Neurons and other synth arcana.
Ulrich Schnauss makes "beautiful music." Tunes that reach right for your heartstrings and pull and pull and pull until it's ready to burst. At least we think he does. The German-born, London-based producer hasn't released a solo album since 2007, and as he reveals in this interview with Ben Oliver, his upcoming full-length will mark a distinct shift. ("My music taste changes every eight to ten years I think," he says.) It's anyone's guess as to what that might mean musically, but we thought it'd nonetheless be interesting to get in the studio with Schnauss recently to talk about his working process, an upcoming collaboration with ASC and his huge synth collection. - Todd L. Burns
Did you have any formal music training as you grew up?
Yeah, I did have piano lessons for eight years, but I was never a very disciplined student. So I probably learned a lot less than more disciplined people would have, but still it's obviously useful to a degree, if you want to write a lot of melodic stuff with chord movements in it.
Did that direct the way you compose music today?
I think my whole writing process would be very different, because I usually improvise on the piano for a while until I come across some chord changes that inspire me to have an idea for an arrangement. Obviously if I couldn't play the piano, then I would start somewhere completely different.
So that's how you normally start, you just sit on the keyboard and improvise?
Actually just piano. I can't really write on synths. I just sit down for half-hour or an hour and just improvise and—on a good day—sooner or later something will come up where I will think, "Oh this is a good chord change, I am going to quickly put that into a sequence." I've got a big library—if you want to say—of chord changes and melodic ideas.
Do you then put it into MIDI and into a DAW?
Yeah, but sometimes I record the actual piano track as well. But at some point I always delete that and then replace it with a synthesized sound.
"Pop music is full of the cheesy lead
sounds that I was happy to see disappear
from Europe around 15 years ago."
You often seem to use vocals in your tracks, but not necessarily in a lyrical way. I'm curious about how you go about implementing that into a track. Is it something you put in near the end?
Actually I have stopped doing that now. The new record that I just finished is purely instrumental. But with the previous three albums the idea was to try to come up with an electronic interpretation of the shoegaze guitar pop aesthetic from the early '90s. One of the striking elements of that music was to use vocals as an instrument, and to try to create certain textures using vocals. I wanted to create a bit of an air of mystery and something rather indirect.
You say that you have stopped doing that. Why is that?
My music taste changes every eight to ten years I think, and I was getting a bit bored with that as well. I think with that album Goodbye that came out in 2007, I'd taken that idea to a point where I personally didn't really know what to add to it. So I basically sat down and tried to start again from a bit of a different angle... Also, I was a bit upset as that's when a lot of things that claimed to be '80s inspired were coming out, and were in fact just a bit of a pisstake on '80s music. All of these cheap Juno synth sounds. I thought it would be nice to do a record that would expose a bit what a capable and competent musical instrument the synthesizer is.
I think in the '90s and probably until about ten years ago we were actually a lot further than that, but then there was a backlash through all this indie '80s stuff. Stuff where people just played some cheesy Juno synth sound on top of an already bad indie track. It was giving synthesizers a bit of a bad reputation. At the same time the Americans started to discover Euro disco and now all of the pop music is full of cheesy leads sounds that I was actually happy to see disappear when they disappeared in Europe around 15 years ago.
This is just my interpretation, I could be completely wrong, but maybe as a reaction to that in the last three or four years there is lots of really great stuff happening again in electronic underground music. There are a lot of people making really sophisticated electronic music again. I think there is a lot of great drum & bass again for instance.
What's interesting you in drum & bass at the moment?
I really like all the stuff that came out of the Autonomic and Instra:mental sound. I also really like ASC. We are just working on a collaborative EP right now that's coming out later this year. There are also so many great producers from Russia like Bop on the Hospital sub-label Med School.
Looking at your kit list that you sent to me, the first thing that jumped out at me is the number of Oberheim synths that you have. What is it about these that you find so appealing?
I think it's like with any instrument: If you're after a particular sound, you just develop your preferences after a while. I think there are probably two main sounds as far as a commercially successful polyphonic synthesizers go. There's the more Japanese sound that the Rolands have. And then there's the American sound with the Oberheims and Sequential Circuits synths. The Rolands probably aren't quite as suitable for my music because they're quite synthetic and artificial. The American instruments have a much more warmer organic sound. That's obviously primarily determined by the filter, but it just has this really creamy warm sound which is probably not great if you want to make super aggressive dance stuff. Obviously then the Roland is definitely preferable for that. But if you like warmth and these kind of shapes or colours, then I think the Oberheims are a very good choice.
You have an OB8 that is out on the stand. Is that just coincidence or is it the one that you have out here mainly?
I do use that a lot, because it was the first proper synth I ever bought. I think that was in 1998. Before that I bought some cheap stuff, whatever was available for 100 marks on the secondhand market. That was the first time I bought something fairly expensive and proper, and it's something I am very comfortable with today and that I really enjoy playing. I think it's also really inspiring as well. It has a nice rich sound. You don't have to tweak it much.
You say that you have had it for quite a while. Does it need a lot of maintenance?
Yeah, every now and then something happens. At one point it even collapsed completely because of a failure in the power supply. If you're doing this kind of stuff, though, after a while you have some pretty good connections for service people. It's weird. It always seems to be happening in waves. Like, at the moment everything is working perfectly. There isn't a single instrument here that is broken, but two years ago I think I had seven or eight instruments in repair.
I guess it's one of those things that is quite off-putting about classic synths that you are going to have to get it repaired…
Yeah it comes at a price, I mean I totally understand when people say they don't want to bother with that. It's nicer just to open a plug-in that's always available.
A synth that jumped out at me, just because it is a bit unusual, is the Hartmann Neuron. I've never seen one before actually.
Yeah, I think that's one of the sadder stories in recent synth history. There was a time when programming was considered to be part of playing synthesizer, and people were excited when new ideas of synthesis came up. Around the mid-'90s I think it switched to this trend where people just wanted to have these so called groove boxes where you can basically just bang out a quick dance track in an hour. I think that the Hartmann Neuron was one of the instruments that really suffered from that development.
When I started programming it, I thought this is probably a little bit how it must have felt when people used the DX7 the first time. It just sounded so different to anything else, because it is not a conventional subtractive or additive synth. It's a new form of synthesis they developed. It was obviously a complete commercial failure, because it's quite unpredictable. It takes a lot of time to get used to the idea of how it works. It's not just selecting a saw wave and going to the filter [makes filter sound NEEEAAAAWWWW]. It needs a bit more care.
Are there any other synths that are similar to that in your collection?
Yeah, I think I am generally a bit more interested in this kind of stuff rather than the super obvious stuff. My favourite synth of all time is probably a bit of an example of that. It's the Voyetra 8. Not so many people know about it, but I think that's an advantage in a way because then you end up using stuff that sounds a little bit different right from the start. What I like about this one is that as far as I know it's the only top-of-the-range synthesizer that uses SSM filters. Usually they use cheaper things like Polysix. It also has a lot of modulation capabilities, and quite a unique sound.
I notice you like wavetables. How do you use them?
I like the fact that you can easily create sounds that have a lot of movement, so pretty much almost on every sound I am using I'm routing an LFO and some other modulation element to the wave selection within the table so I constantly have some movement in the sound. You can achieve similar results if you use pulsewidth modulation on an analogue synth. But obviously with wavetable synthesis it's a lot more drastic and it creates really interesting colours especially if you modulate it quite drastically and it skips through different sounding waves.
Do you have many FM synths?
Two. The DX7 is outside and another one. There wasn't space for the DX7 in here anymore. I got a DX7 programmer and I'm really glad, because the DX7 is a nightmare to program.
I associate a lot of your music with FM sounds like bells and chimes. Do you usually use those synths for that?
Yes, there's definitely a whole number of sounds in the DX7 which people will probably strongly associate with my music. All those sort of things that sound like guitars for instance. That's all the DX7 as well.
Is replicating acoustic instruments in an electronic style? The beauty of the DX7 I think is that it feels so far from the mark when they were trying to replicate acoustic instruments.
I wouldn't say that I want to replicate acoustic instruments. What I am trying to do is program sounds that have a similar musical dynamic to acoustic sounds and then I'll play it in a similar way. I find it interesting because then you can play it in the way it's played on a guitar, but you're not really using a guitar and therefore you don't have all the associations [that come with it]. I think synth sounds can be a bit more neutral and therefore allow you to focus more on the actual composition rather than the associations. I think the worst example you have is a singer songwriter playing a wonderful song with some great inversions or whatever, and then you just have this idea of someone sitting at a fire grilling sausages. That's what's great about synthesizers: You can use fairly conventional harmonic movements but they aren't trapped by these associations.
"Performing was never the reason
I wanted to make music.
It's a bit of a necessary evil."
Do you think as time goes on that people will start associating synthesisers with things?
I think it's already happening, yeah. A lot of classic, more clichéd synthesizer sounds that sounded really futuristic in the '70s for instance sound almost charmingly retro and a bit cheesy. I often wonder what it must have felt like for people to listen to Tangerine Dream in the '70s because I think some of that stuff actually still sounds quite futuristic and relevant today. Back then it must have been absolutely mindblowing experience.
Are they a big influence on you?
Yeah, I think that's probably my biggest influence. I don't even think I'd necessarily be doing electronic music without that.
How do you go about doing your drum programming?
That's changed quite a bit as well. I started making music in the '90s doing drum & bass, so I was never much of a drum machine person. It was more about sampling. I used to have a huge library of various bass drums, snares or whatever weird bits that I have collected over the years. For the new record, though, I have changed that a bit by trying to avoid using conventional drum sounds. I have been using a lot of found sound on records where, for example, someone stumbles against a microphone and it pops. I'll take that bit and turn it into a bass drum.
In your older records there is a kind of a breaks-y feel to a lot of the drums. Do you put a lot of distortion on them?
Yeah. For those records, I used to make a basic rhythmic pattern with the EMU sampler then record that into the computer with loads of plug-ins and quite a bit of multiband distortion. It's kind of similar to what I am doing nowadays just with different sound.
Do you use many soft synths?
Not so many. Only for projects where I make music for an advert or it's something that needs to be turned over quickly. I might do it for that, but for the stuff that I am releasing under my name, it's probably 95% hardware.
What software stuff do you use?
I use Logic for sequencing, and Ableton Live when I am playing Live.
What does your live set-up consist of?
It's not that much stuff. It's basically as much as one person can travel with, so I have got a laptop, two controllers, a mixing desk, an effects unit and a keyboard. What I do is take apart a song after it's ready and I'll split every section of the song into 12 to 16 different little elements—a percussion loop here, a chord sequence there. So when I am playing, I try to do a live rearrangement of the existing music.
Do you enjoy playing live?
I enjoy it more now with this kind of set-up. I was just running backing tracks off the hard drive before this, and just playing a bit of the keyboard on top. That always felt a bit like cheating. With this set-up I think I can say with some justification that it's actually live, and it is worthwhile listening to. Generally, performing was never the reason I wanted to make music. It's a bit of a necessary evil. If I had the choice, I would probably not play live to be honest with you. But these days you have to.
Published / Wednesday, 29 August 2012
Photo credits / Paul Clement