|Machine Love: Mouse on Mars
The veteran German duo open the doors to their studio.
I should have known better than to expect a straightforward explanation. Late last fall, I finally caught Mouse on Mars' Andi Toma at the computer that these days forms the hub of their studio, deep in Berlin's Funkhaus Nalepastrasse complex. It was my first good chance to have him take me inside a Logic session for one of his and partner Jan St. Werner's most recent tracks. Though Mouse on Mars formed a decade before the rise of the in-the-box bedroom producer, the duo (and occasional trio, with drummer Dodo Nkishi) had reportedly retreated into their Macs for their most recent Monkeytown-released albums, Parastrophics and WOW. One of my main orders of business for the visit was to see how they approached working in the digital domain. I stood behind Toma as the tangle of plug-ins, sends and loops loaded onto the screen. He pressed the space bar, and the familiar thrum of sweetly mangled beats filled up the studio's ample control room.
At first, I pressed Toma to tell me where in the session some of these wild sounds originated, and how he and St. Werner were wrangling them. Though he tried to oblige, we basically got nowhere: he'd point at an effect, run his finger down the screen to some MIDI programming and loop back to some samples, but we both kept getting lost. At some point, I stopped pushing. Toma loaded up a sequence of tracks and got out of his chair, doing little dances in front of the mixing board as each tune hit its groove. How he moved was far more instructive than any block diagram of the signal flow could hope to be.
Over the course of about a dozen albums, Mouse on Mars have mashed techno, electroacoustic music and vintage melodies into a throbbing pulp you can't turn away from. But what makes this mess so enthralling, I learned, isn't really a matter of the circuits or lines of code that produce the sound. Rather, it's the zany, and not entirely explainable, creative process that gets their kit huffing and puffing like no one else can. We spent an afternoon discussing their unique and wonderfully pragmatic obsession with sound—and the sweet glitches that are forever keeping them on their toes.
This place is a recording studio in the traditional sense, but you're doing a lot of work "in the box" these days. What can you still do with your mixing board and outboard gear that you can't do on your computer?
Andi Toma: We've always liked variety in sound and variety in strategies, procedures, techniques. And I think the computer has been an amazing expansion of variety.
Jan St. Werner: There was a time when we only used software for sequencing, and then at some point used it for sample editing and processing, [but] we would still translate everything back into hardware gear, do everything analog. At some point after the Von Südenfed album [Tromatic Reflexxions], in 2007 or around that time, we felt like we could do everything on the computer. Suddenly it was an immense challenge. We felt much more clumsy and much more limited than how we felt with outboard equipment. We didn't want to step back and say, "No, we want to stay in the analog world." We thought we needed to hack this, to get in there and find our own approach.
Do most of your sounds originate on your computer these days?
Jan St. Werner: Maybe, it depends on the day. If you have a basic rhythm idea, then you just take some analog stuff, like a drum machine or your sequencer or synthesizer, and you record it and then treat it with some other software. So it's a kind of back and forth. What we do pretty often is put the tracks on several different channels and then do sessions on the desk, like dub sessions. You change levels, change frequencies or put things on solo. It's much more alive than if you do everything on the computer.
Andi Toma: We have [multiple] workspaces. If something is recorded here in the studio, I drop it to Jan's studio and then he processes it and works a little bit on the arrangement.
Jan St. Werner: Andi might be doing dubs on the desk, and I do stuff within the computer—dubs, effects, stuff you do in there. Or we both use a tool and turn all the knobs you can turn. What we basically want to do is keep this whole thing in movement so that [sounds] start to fly around, like stirring up dirty water or something. That's what we do—take snapshots of scenes and then reassemble those snapshots. It has always been like this, but the computer allows you to zoom into songs so precisely, so anally. We were always waiting for something like this to happen, even with the first samplers and time-stretching. It has always been how close can we get to sound. Whatever tool brings us closer, we use it.
Something that stands out about this studio is your microphone collection. Electronic producers might have big synths and mixing desks, but it's rare to see Neumann and Schoeps mics on their gear lists.
Jan St. Werner: We both like the sound of microphones. Sometimes we do sessions [where] we play something through a speaker and then record it again, just to [see] how a sound responds to a real room and how it's different in different parts of a room. It changes so much about the sound. It's something you hardly ever hear on a record: we basically stuff our records too much to still have that. But it's something that we're really fascinated by. I love to get really close to things. The microphone is an amazing extension of your sense.
So microphones let you hear in a way you wouldn't be able to otherwise?
Jan St. Werner: Yeah, totally. I'm very obsessed with headphones, too. Even in an airplane I sometimes work on sounds and come up with something that sounds great later in the studio. I think microphones and speakers and headphones and all that are really essential tools when you work with sound. I'm a really big fan of the acousmonium, where electroacoustic music is played through an array of speakers and each speaker has different characteristics. I think that is a big part of music to me.
We had this amazing experience when we went to Peru, playing in Lima. There was a big parade, all kind of groups and marching bands. It was an endless chain of musicians. We walked through them with a microphone, really going close, picking up a trombone or a tuba and then moving it to the drums and just listening to the music they were playing by kind of fading through the different instruments. And then the next band comes in, and the last instrument of the first band slowly fades into the next one. This recording, we listen to it sometimes just like it was a piece of music.
Andi Toma: That would be nice, to make a composition for a whole parade. It doesn't exist.
What were some of your first bits of gear?
Jan St. Werner: Both of us, even before we knew [each other], were always recording stuff. Mine was a four-track recorder—a Tascam tape recorder.
Andi Toma: I started like this, [with a] Tascam. Record four tracks, mix it down on two tracks, have another two tracks, mix it down on two tracks, have another two tracks, and then 16 tracks suddenly merge into each other.
Seems like your interest has always been more in recording and processing than synthesis. I see a few synthesizers in this studio, but most of your kit is for processing.
Andi Toma: With processing you can get so many different sounds out of one synthesizer. [Synths] all basically work the same way.
Jan St. Werner: I think we never had a clear plan, and we never really learned much about different synthesis techniques. We had a Yamaha DX7 at some point, and we had a Roland synth. Each synth, depending on when you bought it or which period it was from, had a different synthesis [engine]. But we treated them [as tools for] trying to get into the structure of the sound and also finding the glitches where the things became unstable and more interesting—where rhythm and sound, or rhythm and harmony, are not clearly divided.
"I realized producing is not about using the right tool... It's more about choosing the right sounds."
That word "glitch"—it's typically a negative quality of gear. Is it actually a positive for you guys?
Jan St. Werner: It's funny. I never liked the term because it was a music-journalist term to sum up a certain development in music and make it into a genre. Of course we rejected that. But I had this funny moment where we were in Chicago, and I bought this jail-broken iPhone. The guy who sold it to me said, "It works the way it is now, but don't update it. Sometimes it might lose network, so restart it three times. It's a glitch." And the way he used "glitch"—I had never ever heard this word being used that way before. I realized a glitch is just a normal term for a random and difficult-to-understand mistake that an electronic device does. And I suddenly was totally at ease with that term. It's a tool—an effect or special moment, and you really look for those moments in music.
Are there any wonderful glitches in this studio?
Jan St. Werner: Oh man, a lot of things in here. Like the Vox Orchestra down there—it's a rhythm box with accompanying chords that you can play along with certain beats. That broke down at some point and just sounds amazing.
You ended up liking it more?
Jan St. Werner: Yeah, yeah, we used it quite a bit. The Lexicon [reverb unit] also has an amazing glitch when you change the reverb feedback or the lengths of the decay time. It starts to click, and it's actually a very beautiful sound. Interesting things also come when you make patches of old gear. When we connected guitar pedals with synthesizers, it was like chains of effects. Sometimes certain distortions and overtones created interesting sounds, which we would sample again. Melodyne does interesting glitches as well.
We're talking about a software glitch now, yes?
Jan St. Werner: Yeah, if you use DNA and kind of analyze a piece of music—whatever, a session or just a synth sound—and then you shift around certain parts of the analyzed sound and start creating weird things. We really love that. We do that quite a lot and then pick out the bits which are really interesting. We've created basslines with that.
Unpredictability is a big part of WretchUp, the crowdsourced iPhone app you've been developing. How did you guys get started with it?
Jan St. Werner: The beginning of it was when we were working on Paeanumnion, and we thought about some tools we would like to use to filter and process the orchestra. We had one idea that a friend of ours coded in Pd. We didn't want to have an audio interface and a microphone, so we thought maybe we could use the iPhone: it has a microphone, it has an audio input, it's able to process sound. And we found out that we could easily transfer that Pd patch onto the RjDj platform. So we made a simpler version and put it on the iPhone.
It's great because it's a little thing, it doesn't take much space. We had two different effects or instruments on that phone—a kind of vocoder, which if you changed the steps, the keys or pitch, then it would do a little click when you would have the next pitch. And that was great, especially also for this orchestra thing. We tuned it to the piece we were using. The other thing was a dub delay, distortion-type device. People saw us using it and of course wondered what that app was. We had to say it's a thing we have on our iPhones, but it is actually quite complicated to get onto your iPhone. Now RjDj isn't supported anymore. We though, OK, we have to find a way to get it on iOS.
How are you guys using it in the studio now? My understanding is it's all over WOW.
Jan St. Werner: We used it on Parastrophics as well. We use it just like an outboard effect.
Andi Toma: We used the other one also, the vocoder.
Are you using any other apps in the studio?
Jan St. Werner: There's an app called TweakyBeat that we like quite a bit. It's a very simple monophonic synthesizer that's used in a step-sequencer-like way. Each time a next step is triggered, the waveform stops and the next sound starts. We had a friend clone that in Max/MSP, so we have a standalone version. I think the Moog filters are quite cool, but you have to change between pages. If you use it live, at least for me, it's not useful. If I play live, I can't really look so closely at my iPhone and do the right move. I have to be able to be more rough.
You produce other bands sometimes, Andi. How is that process different from working with Jan?
Andi Toma: I record them, I sample them, I pull them apart into little bits and then something totally different comes out. And then after, the band argues, and then they split up. No band I recorded exists anymore. [Laughs] I did record Stereolab a long time ago. I did the Fall two, three, four years ago. That's why I have all these compressors and outboards. It doesn't make sense anymore because bands usually don't have the money, and our studio was frequented too much [by] our own work. I had a 24-channel Studer mk3 that was really nice. I listened to recordings I did with this machine and was quite happy.
Do you wish you still had it?
Andi Toma: I was quite happy I got rid of it, because it's so heavy, like 350 kilos. And you have to adjust it all the time. Tape is so expensive. You can buy two hard drives for one tape.
So the sonic advantages of tape don't outweigh its disadvantages as a medium?
Andi Toma: Not really. I don't believe so much anymore in this kind of stuff. Every technique you use has its own aesthetics.
Do you have any formal training in audio engineering?
Andi Toma: No. I had the chance to watch over the shoulder of certain producers and engineers. And the funny thing is, the most respected of my engineers were totally pragmatic. They said, "No, no. Listen to the room, take the mic which is available, put it on the spots and record it." And I realized producing is not about doing everything right in terms of using the right tool—the tool which is created for a certain thing. It's more about choosing the right sounds. The relation between the sounds you choose is more important than the way you record the sounds.
It sounds like it's a mixing thing more than a recording thing.
Andi Toma: Yeah, the mix decides in a way. This makes the sound more than recording every detail properly.
You mentioned that orchestral piece you did a few years back. I remember reading that you guys liked getting away from your sound signature and working instead with one that exists outside of your own music. It struck me that your more recent output does a similar thing, but the constraint this time is the sound palate of contemporary dance music.
Jan St. Werner: I feel like we are closer to what is going on around us musically than ever before in our history. We don't feel so alien anymore. Sometimes I hear a track from some young producer and I think this kind of could be from us. You can feel instability in the arrangement and a certain harmonic preference, and then how a beat can become a melody.
These hierarchies between musical elements seem to have broken up, and that's what we always liked and always kind of stood for. In a certain way we have arrived in our time. But there is also a little thing where I still feel we are not completely compatible with what is around us, because we still feel our music is a language or a metaphor for a way of thinking. We use certain contemporary club-oriented ideas, maybe, but the way we think about it is much more sculptural. It's much more about the material of sound.
You've said that you guys chose to make music because it seemed like the best vehicle for the ideas you were trying to get across—that in the studio you can explore some really wild ideas, but ultimately no one gets hurt.
Jan St. Werner: We did this one performance where the idea was to mute a speaker's feedback from a certain distance [by] shooting at a speaker with a little gun, and the gun shot was amplified through that very speaker. There was feedback being created, and the feedback would only mute once the speaker was totally destroyed. It was a completely destructive performance. People saw me shooting at that speaker and didn't like this image at all. That's not what they think Mouse on Mars stands for or what we are capable of.
So the thing is, if we would do all of these things that we do musically in the real world, it wouldn't have that lightness, it wouldn't have that ease. And it would sometimes be incredibly clumsy. Music can be so absurdly complex and complicated, and people still find a way to enjoy it and read our intentions through that.
Published / Friday, 15 February 2013
Photo credits / Christian Olofsson