By day, Brunn keeps busy as a structural engineer, currently working on designs for India's future Antarctic research base. Most nights, though, he's in his home studio with his Nord Modular, engineering the luminescent tones and animated atmospheres that have placed him at the forefront of Germany's left-field house community. His ongoing relationship with the distinguished BineMusic label has yielded a sterling run of EPs, as well as 2004's Koenig und Drache album, a wonder of enveloping texture and subtle melody. Brunn's also recorded for Ware, Mule Electronic and Workshop, but it's a record for Smallville that's received the most recognition. Songs from the Beehive, an album-length collaboration with Move D, arrived as an instant classic in 2008, its "solid beats and liquid atmospheres" heralded by RA's Peter Chambers as "soothing, yielding, and almost therapeutically easy to listen to." We coaxed the Hamburg producer away from his keyboard for an evening to chat about how he—and, of course, his machine—have shaped his signature sound.
When did you first get interested in electronic dance music?
I started late. I was already 19. That was when I had just finished school and did my year of civil service. There was an open-air concert in my hometown—Chemnitz, which is near Dresden—with a DJ team as an opener. They played house music with live drums and bongos and... I was just caught by that sound. People talk of their "magical moment"—how they got involved in this music—and I could call this my magical moment maybe. Then I figured out that there's a club called Voxxx close to where I lived, and that I could hear that sound again. I went every Saturday and danced the whole night. I didn't bother about the DJ or the guys who actually made the tracks. I just enjoyed the music.
When did you start thinking about making tracks yourself?
That sort of coincided with that experience. When I started my civil service, I found the work pretty tough. So I said to myself, "I have to have something else to focus on." I don't know why exactly, but I decided to buy myself a keyboard. Maybe I remembered that I took piano lessons, I don't know.
That was the Korg X3 Workstation. I had a computer, but it was already old and not good for making music. So I relied only on the Korg Workstation, because it's got an internal sequencer. It was my only instrument for two years.
I also used to read the music gear magazine, Keys, and there was an interview with the Raster-Noton guys. They're also from my hometown and I was like, "Wow, there's someone else here making this sort of music!" I contacted them, and visited Olaf Bender, and he said, "Ah, you must go to the studio and meet Frank Bretschneider."
So I went with my first recordings on a cassette tape. I was very shy. I didn't say much, but he was very nice and showed me around and explained things. That was a one-time visit, because I said to myself, "I have to go home, sit, and concentrate on my music before I can ever go back and play my recordings."
But you played your tape for him on that visit?
I played it for him. He said, "Yeah, it's quite nice. You must continue." And that's what I did. Two years later, I already had my Nord Modular. I saw him play a live set in that same club using only the Nord Modular. I think this also inspired me, sticking to one machine only. We went sort of the same way, independently.
Well, I used my X3 for two years, and then I wanted something with more flexibility. I wanted to do filter sweeps and things like that, and the X3 is pretty static. I searched the market very carefully, and decided to buy the Nord Modular. To go back to the day I visited Frank Bretschneider, he had the latest edition of that music gear magazine, with an introduction of the Nord Modular. He was the professional, I was the absolute beginner, but we were both like, "Wow, this looks cool. This is interesting to us." Then, independently, he had bought it later and I decided on it. It was a lot of money for me at that time, but I wanted to have something... I was brought up like this. I save my money, and then I buy myself good things that I can keep for a long time.
I understand the Nord has a high learning curve. Did it take a while to get comfortable with it?
I bought it in 1999, and in 2000 I had my first record out. Eighty to ninety percent was made with the X3, but these tracks had bits of the Nord Modular already. At that time I wasn't really comfortably using it. In 2002 I played my first live set, and I think at that time I got into it to an extent where I can say I comfortably used it. So maybe three years, but of course that goes on and on.
Does it have any particular advantages to you over other analog modelling synthesizers?
As far as I know, the Nord Modular follows a unique concept, so I don't know of any other synthesizer you can compare it to. There is software that is virtual modular, but it's just software, not a machine you can take away. The Modular is just very flexible, very versatile, because I can use the computer and editor software to build patches.
It's an integral process. Building a patch involves drums, the bassline and keys. And they interact with each other. You can use one oscillator, or two or three. You can link them, by using virtual cables, with filters... Then, once you finish the patch, you can save it into the synthesizer, unplug it from the computer, and play with just the synthesizer. It has 18 knobs that you can assign to any of the parameters. And I like the two-octave keyboard—I can play with my fingers, and it is still very small.
I ran into some promotional material that said that you worked with a single patch for a lot of your music. Is that true?
That's not really true, no. When I make a track, it is based on one patch; another track is based on another patch. I might develop a patch further—maybe taking some modules away and replacing them, or changing the connections and parameters—but actually then it's another patch.
With one and the same patch, you can get totally different sounds. You just play with the parameters and it can go from one sound to a completely other color of sound. That's why it's so good for jamming. A friend of mine had a sticker on his synthesizer saying "Get the maximum out of it." I've always remembered that. I think I've also lived according to that.
Do you have that sticker on your synthesizer now?
I don't have a real sticker. I have tape where I make notes for when I play with the [Roland TR-] 707 and the [Roland TR-] 626, on what drum machine program belongs to which Nord Modular patch.
of a mixing console.
That's the next thing."
Is that your typical setup these days? A 707, a 626 and the Nord?
Yes, that's when I play live. I changed last year. I've always had the Nord Modular with me. I used to use my laptop, but decided to get rid of it. That's why I bought the Roland drum machines. I just didn't like staring at the laptop anymore when playing live. Also, I don't enjoy it when seeing others' live sets, especially if they don't have any real gear next to the laptop. I thought it's better, and it sounds better.
Why the 707 and 626 specifically?
I just wanted to check out how they sound and how they work. Sometimes I dream of an 808 or a 909, but I think that would be pure luxury. I started with the 626, which was very cheap, and then bought the 707. I like the sounds. I'm into Chicago house, and the 707 is typically Chicago house. With the Nord Modular I was able to create very clean sounds, and I missed a little bit of dirt. So the Roland drum machines add a little dirt, and real drum sounds. I wanted to have claps and rides and, you know, the real drum sounds, from samples.
How do you share duties between the two. Do you use them differently?
They sound different. The 626 has bongos and congas, and the rides sound different from the ones of the 707. The 707 is more convenient to use because of the chain lights, and you have faders to adjust the volume levels of the different instruments. But the 626 is more flexible when it comes to programming, and has more accent levels. If I took only the 707, let's say, to a live gig, I think the sound would be too boring, hearing the same drum machine the whole time. So I use both, and blend them, and use them to make transitions from one track to another.
The 707 also has separate outputs for each drum sound. Do you use that at all?
No, I don't. When I play live, I have a very small mixer by Rolls, a four-channel unpowered mixer as big as my fist. I don't want to carry too many things, so using the individual outputs would just be too much. And here in the studio, I still haven't got... at the moment, I'm dreaming of a mixing console. I think that's the next thing.
Have you worked much with analog synthesizers?
I have a Prophet 08 here, which is an eight-voice real analog keyboard by Dave Smith. I wanted to have a real analog one, because there has been much discussion on analog and digital. And of course the Nord Modular is digital—virtually analog—but a digital machine.
Have you taken the Prophet out for live performances?
No, no, no. I didn't dare take it into the club.
It sounds warmer a bit. I think the Nord Modular still sounds great for a digital machine. They sound a little bit different, but I use them for different purposes. I couldn't replace one with the other. Working with patches is something completely different.
So when you're making a new track, what's your routine normally?
There are two ways. One is using my live set-up with the Nord Modular and drum machines. I play with them with a patch, and record everything—the whole sound—in a one-off recording. You can capture magical moments that you could never bring back. I think the small mistakes you make when doing that are very important for a vivid and lively and organic recording. And if bigger mistakes happen, you can just cut them out afterwards.
Then the other way is working with Ableton and recording element-by-element. But even when recording single elements, like the bassline for example, I try to stick to the one-off recording—playing with fingers, not using the quantization—because this will also make the recording much more lively. I don't have a fixed routine where I start with, say, the drums and then the bass. I might start with the bass and then add the drums and the keys, but then I get rid of the first step I did, so it's a bit like... I think of it as doing research.
I look for the optimum. I must be able to listen to a track one hundred times and still feel that it is good and that I don't need to change anything. Sometimes that happens very quickly, but most of the time it takes days, weeks and sometimes months of research. When I am not happy with the track, I start to take things off, delete elements and I rebuild them.
Do they change quite a bit?
Not much. I mean, it doesn't go from an ambient track to house or techno. It stays within a certain color, but still, it changes a lot. When it comes to the question of routine, or what is important when I'm writing tracks, I think simplicity is very important to me.
That's interesting, because your tracks have quite a busy, humid feel.
When they are dense, it's because of the Nord Modular. As I said, the bassline, the drums, the keys—they interact with each other. LFOs might manipulate both the keys and the bassline, or the bass sound manipulates the kick drum or the hi-hats. Still, it's only a few elements really. It just interacts. I like the liquid sound of it, and I can do that well with the Nord Modular, reducing to a few elements and playing with them rather than, over time within a track, coming up with new elements and dropping them. To me, it's just important to tell myself, "Keep it simple. Reduce it, and play with the few parts you have."