|Machine Love: tobias.
A master of sound shows us how he tinkers.
How many producers these days really know how to engineer? Tobias Freund spent years learning the art of the latter before really digging into the former, and it shows: under aliases like Metazone, Pink Elln and tobias., he's made techno rife with marvelous and deeply considered sounds. But despite knowing his way around a fully equipped recording studio better than most guys in techno, he's one of the least flashy producers in the game. His 2011 debut solo album, Leaning Over Backwards, was the apotheosis of his aesthetic, featuring some of the deadliest and most stripped-down tracks his home label, Ostgut Ton, had ever released.
His career, however, isn't nearly as minimalistic. In addition to producing his own tracks and playing live sets the world over, Freund is a major cog in the techno production community. He is, not surprisingly, in demand for his mixdown skills, having most recently helped Function achieve the sound of his debut LP, Incubation. He's also a prolific collaborator, working on music with fellow travelers like Uwe Schmidt, Martin Schopf and his studio partner Max Loderbauer. True to his history, though, he seems most at home in his studio in the Tempelhof Airport complex in Berlin. The place functions both as the hub of his creative endeavors and as a living history of them: some of his first gear acquisitions are still toiling away in there, rubbing shoulders with newer bells and whistles. That's where we found Freund for a conversation about experimentation, collaboration and why your decommissioned desktop computer might still come in handy one day.
Do you have any desert island gear? If you could only have one piece of gear from this studio, which would it be?
Oh, come on. Give me at least three.
Alright, three. What are the essentials?
My 808, my MS-20. I would say the board, but as a special unit maybe the AMS delay harmonizer, which is a treasure—a very nice instrument.
The MS-20 was the one that started it all, right?
Yes. I wanted to do music, but I bought a guitar and it was so complicated. I could not play keyboard or piano, so what fascinated me most about the MS-20 was the hold function. You just press a key and put it on hold, and then you can just tweak the nobs. You do not have to actually play something. You just trigger. This was what I really liked.
It's funny that you say a guitar felt so complicated. The MS-20 has all of these wires coming out of it, all of these different knobs. For a lot of people, this synth would be infinitely more overwhelming and unapproachable than a guitar.
Yeah, it is complicated, but it's also like a toy. You cannot do anything wrong.
So you learned by just twisting knobs and moving patch cables around and seeing what happened?
Yeah, exactly. There's the basic stuff, like you have two oscillators, a high-pass filter and a low-pass filter. But all these insert points, the modular side, this is something you have to experiment with. [Gestures to Max Loderbauer, with whom he shares a studio, in the next room.] He is like maniac with this, with the Buchla. This is too much for me, this goes too far from making a song.
Have you ever worked with a fully modular setup?
[Points to small row of modules on his rack.] Well, this is my attempt.
What do you use these for?
All the modular stuff I have is made more for creating drum sounds or beats with the sequencer, for making drum experiments. I am more of a drummer. I've had the 808 since 1983.
So this is your original MS-20. Is this your original 808?
Was that the machine that came next?
Yes, the 808. I have a signal-in processor here in the MS-20. That means I can just plug everything from here and do something with it.
So you had two machines for making sounds, and one of them could process sounds, too.
We had two tape recorders and made this multi-track recording—you know, recording on one tape, tape in the other and recording together with the other tape again. So we layered things and found out about new synthesizers. Of course, then I bought a sequencer—a little MFB sequencer and some effect units. We had a little mixer. I also bought this Echoplex, a tape delay.
This must have been when you were starting to work as a sound engineer in Frankfurt. When did that begin?
1983. I started working as an apprentice first. I was there one and a half years. In 1985, I went to the studio where I was for the rest of my [engineering] life.
Training as a sound engineer must give you a perspective that lots of techno producers don't have these days. How do you think it rubbed off on your own productions?
Well, the thing is that I was there from the beginning. We made music without computers. There were no cell phones, there was nothing. There was not even MIDI. The 808, for example, works with sync. Lots of things did not have MIDI, and I was starting with this. But the studio experience led me into making sound, learning about sound—the sensation of sound. Feeling sound and making a picture, this is what I learned—to love to work with these elements.
It sounds like you learned how to listen there.
Yeah, for sure.
I'd imagine that plays into mixing, which is a big part of what you do now. How is that process different from producing?
Well, there's already an arrangement, the sounds are chosen. Mostly I mix stuff for friends. It's not only a job: I like the music, I have a connection with it. It is much better doing that than working for anybody and hating the music, feeling like, "Ugh, I have to mix this."
How do you make music you're not hugely into sound good?
You have to switch. You just have to make it sound good. Your name is on the record, so you need to get the best out of it.
What's the most common thing a mix needs when it comes to your studio?
It is hard to say. It is always different. It's not always the same thing missing. But if there is one thing, it is the dimensions in the song. Mostly guys send me two tracks out of Ableton just bounced, and it is just not open enough. I just put the separate tracks on the mix without doing anything and the spectrum is much more open, really wide and deep. Then, if you tweak something and play around with the things, it is a huge difference.
What are you working on in the studio at the moment?
I'm doing a mix for a Chilean friend of mine, Jorge González. I am doing an album mix for him. It is more like a guitar music thing, not too electronic. He brings me all the files, and I mix them. Sometimes it is quite complex, but this is easy. Actually it is one of my favorite jobs doing this—to surprise your friend. He makes the song at home and he gives me the files with trust. I just enhance them somehow and give them back to him, and he is like, "Oh, it sounds so good!" It gives me so much pleasure to give something back.
Also, the process with Dave [Sumner, AKA Function] was similar. I met him at Labyrinth, that's when we became friends. He gives me his tracks, and I'm always like, "this track should have been mine," "this is a cool beat," but we are on the same level. He is just a lovely guy and wanted to make the best out of his stuff. He appreciated very much all the old gear. It suits very well with his music.
I got the sense that your work mixing his album, Incubation, was quite a collaboration. Did he spend much time here at your studio?
Yes, he was coming pretty often. But usually I like to work by myself. First, I do an overview of the song one day, take it back home, listen to it. And the next day I do little corrections.
Does the mix for a track typically take two days?
One and a half, I would say.
Never just a single day, though, if you can avoid it?
I would rather sleep over it, always. I would rather do something and go back to the song with fresh ears.
What sort of liberties can you take with a mix? How much will you transform something from its original form?
That's a matter how good friend I am with the guys. With Function, I tried things, but he knows his songs so well. He heard everything. "Oh, you did something there!" But with Jorge González, for example, he asked me to do something with it, put some love in it. It's big fun, and I have complete freedom. Of course, sometimes he likes the harmonies a little louder or details—but well, this is why I do it for him.
Let's talk about the music you're making yourself. You did an interview a while back where you were asked about the concepts behind your tracks, and you said there is never a concept. Rather, you're always executing an experiment. I was curious about that. What's the difference?
The only concept is that I want to make a club track, that I want to make a techno track. This is the only concept. But other than that I just play with the machines, get another machine out. Maybe I can combine this machine with that one, run it through that, and then you get to your song. I just go with the flow. Sometimes it doesn't go anywhere. The whole day you do something and in the end of the night you just shut it down.
You're sometimes very specific in your liner notes about what gear you use on your records. I'm thinking specifically about Sync, the album you and Max did a few years ago, where each track was named in a code that corresponded to a synth or drum machine. Are these combinations the experiment?
It actually started because I bought a Korg Mini Pops, and Max had this ElectroComp synth and sequencer at home. I went with my machine to his house with a bottle of wine. We connected these machines, because they are from the same era in the '70s. We found out that we can sync them, so he just hooked up the computer and we had an effect unit and used these two machines to make almost the whole record. So this was kind of a concept, but it was just like—it is the moment that counts. It was such a nice experience, a creative moment.
It kind of sounds like starting a band.
It is an interface to build a band, yeah. It is the way we express. When Max and I play live shows, we never talk. It is just listening to each other.
You've collaborated with quite a few people. Is it like that with everyone you make music with?
I work with Uwe Schmidt, you know? It is similar with him. He lives in Santiago, Chile, and I meet him maybe three times a year. We just meet, we bring the machines and we start playing. There are no questions. This is very unique to have. Also through the years when we meet, you see a development from both of us. You see what influences he took and what new stuff I have brought. It is so nice to see. We played at the Labyrinth festival this September. It was the best experience I had two years ago when I played there. The soundsystem there is amazing—the Funktion One system is made for this place, I think. Also on stage when you play, you have the Funktion One monitors. It's like being in a studio, but with power.
So much of the experience of playing in a festival or in a club is the atmosphere, which is very different from a place like this studio. Is it hard to take what you are doing in the studio and bring it into an environment like that?
It is completely different. What I do live, I would never do at the studio. It just belongs to the live set. I play with the 808 and then I bring the Roland MC-202. After the last gig, Uwe said, "I don’t like the sequencer that much," so I just unplugged the sequencer and played it live, but the machine is always the same, so I am very familiar with the interface and I just can create really unique things for two hours. This is the thing we bring in when we play live. In the studio, things can be made with external gear, which is super cool, but I don't want to do the same things I do in the studio when I play live. I would rather have some limited options for live.
You're working within a sort of constraint whenever you're using hardware, I guess. Have you ever made music just with your computer?
Well, not really. I use the computer more like a recording tool, like a multi-track recorder. Of course, I'll do automation, and I have plug-ins, which is very helpful. But to make everything in the computer—no. Also, when I use the drum machine, I always record the whole track through, not just eight bars and then edit together. It is the whole thing that gives the song a structure.
So you're always doing live takes, programming on the fly.
Yeah, exactly. Also playing with the effects while I'm recording—that's kind of having a band. You record the clave through an effect unit and you tweak it but through the whole song. Then, you do the next instrument. They're your band members doing something during the whole song.
Logic is something that often ends up on gear lists in your liner notes. Is there something in particular that you like about Logic?
Well, I started with Cubase. My first sequencer program was Cubase but on a Mac. Then, through the studio work, I came to Notator on the Atari. Notator is the program that came before Logic. I started to like Logic better than Cubase, which also didn't work with Apple anymore, so that was the only option with Logic. I knew it from the beginning, and I know all the developments they made.
Actually, I just built up my old computer because I was missing some plug-ins in the new system for a while. I've have this new computer for four years with OSX, but this one is the old one. I wanted to sell it, actually. A guy was here, and I showed it to him, just hooked it up and made it work. I was like, "Oh shit, this is actually nice." He wanted to give me 250 euro, and I thought, "I have to keep it. It's not worth it." I have so many nice synths and plug-ins in there, so I just use it as an effect unit.
That’s interesting. Plug-ins aren't like hardware, where no matter how old a piece of gear is, you can just plug it in. Software effects can actually be rendered obsolete if you don't have an old machine like this one. What are some of the gems that only work on this machine?
This Native Instruments FM7. The new FM8 came out, and it looks completely different. I like the old version so much, and I am so used to it, and I have presets in there. I would rather hook [the old desktop] up. I have the GRM tools there that I actually really bought for this computer. It is like an effect unit from France—they are also available for OSX system, but are very expensive. I could not update it to the new system.
I think that's cool—bringing back this old computer like it's old gear. This might be the first time I've come across it.
The fan is so loud.
Published / Friday, 03 May 2013
Photo credits / Christian Olofsson