Hermelijn's home studio in the centre of Amsterdam is remarkably immaculate. He moved in a couple of months ago and has completely transformed his set-up. All the analogue drum machines and synthesizers used for his last album, 2009's Heritage, are now neatly stored in drawers and behind doors. The only evidence that music is being made, in fact, is a PowerMac desktop, four speakers and a couple of MIDI-controllers. Fed up with wiring and other unwieldy traits of old school gear, Hermelijn has completely unplugged his hardware, and has plugged into the digital era.
You've been producing for over 20 years. Can you still remember your first piece of gear?
[fumbles around in a bottom drawer, emerges with a dilapidated device] The first piece of gear I used was this Roland TB-303. As you can see, the knobs are completely worn out from all the twitching. I borrowed it from some kid at school. As soon as I got home and went to work with it, I was amazed at all the sounds it produced. They were the exact sounds I knew from Chicago producers like Roy Davis Jr. and Tyree Cooper. For my first track in 1989 I hooked up with DJ Dano, who owned a TR-606 drum computer. We got a live gig at the infamous Planet E parties of Fierce Ruling Diva. They dug what we were doing and offered us a day in a professional studio where we could jam for an hour-and-a-half. The recording wasn't mixed or mastered, but sent straight to the pressing plant. That was all it took for our first record: a 303 and a 606.
How did you work from there? Did you have a basic set-up?
After our first release, Dano and me had all eyes on us in Amsterdam. We were able to borrow money from people who supported us, and I bought my first W30 work station. It had everything you needed to make a track: a keyboard, a sampler. I made tons of tracks on that thing, like the ones with Sandy Hüner under our Babies of Gong moniker. But we really had to be creative. At the highest quality (30K) you could only sample 7.2 seconds. Imagine! And the thing was expensive, too. A work station already cost 5000 guilders at the time [the '90s equivalent of 5000 euro]. Then I bought a TR-909 and an SH-101, building up my studio piece by piece.
How important is technical innovation to you?
Extremely important. It's significant for the sound. I just renewed my entire studio. Every so often a big upgrade like this is inevitable. I used to work partly with analogue gear in my old studio. But in my new place, I'm completely computerized. With the rapid developments of software these days, innovation is speeding up. New techniques always change the sound. I try to keep up with what's going on, for sure; stay in tune with what the market has to offer.
Do you search the web for new plug-ins?
Not like I used to. Nowadays, I generally stick with favorite manufacturers, like Native Instruments, Waves, UAD. I try to stay updated with their newest products through newsletters and online forums like Audionews.ru. And sometimes I get tipped by friends or colleagues. I work mostly with power plug-ins, using the special hardware provided by the manufacturers to run their software. I'm particularly happy with my UAD soundcard. They have worked together with companies like Neve to develop software versions of classic consoles. And of course the Roland Space Echo, the legendary machine used for all the dub tracks and the Basic Channel stuff.
I also bought the entire Waves bundle. Even though it's native, it really adds to the sound. Buying all this is quite an investment, since it's the high end shit of today. But you need to stay inspired. And with a bundle like this, there's a whole world of possibilities ready to be explored. UAD is quite traditional, mostly focused on what was there before. With Waves you can really go over the top. My favorite feature is the doubler, which makes everything sound wider and fatter. I really dig Rob Papen's stuff too. Another favorite is Native Instruments' Reaktor, enabling you to build your own synths.
At the moment, you have Ableton Live running. Is this your standard sequencer?
I mostly use Live, sometimes Logic. But Live just works fast for me. The sound quality used to be quite bad, but it's pretty good in Live 8. OK, so the audio converter and engine of Logic is still a bit better. But when you work with power plug-ins like I do, you can make your sounds fat no matter which sequencer you use. I just run the plug-ins off the manufacturer's sound card, so it never overloads my CPU in Ableton.
As someone who has worked in both the analogue and the digital era, do you still notice the difference?
Not really. If you compare digital to analogue, it will take less to make analogue sound fat. But comparing two tracks of mine, I won't be able to tell you by the sound quality which one was made with analogue sounds and which was made digitally. The digital synthesizers are sounding really good these last couple of years. There was a difference before that, but now I don't really notice it anymore. Of course the power plug-ins help to make the sound warmer, but even in Ableton you can make things sound amazing.
Has your knowledge of old school gear been useful in the computer era?
Hard to say. Couldn't really tell the difference, could I? I do have an advantage with my experience, I guess. But take a young guy like Tom Ruijg, an Amsterdam producer releasing on one of our labels. Some of his stuff sounds like it was made with the old school gear of the '90s, when actually he's never consciously experienced the sounds of that era. So he has a keen ear for sounds and knows how to imitate them on a computer. He didn't need classical schooling for that.
Then is it still about imitating the analogue sounds digitally?
I guess that depends on the style, really. You always make a combination of old and new sounds. With me it comes naturally to make sounds like I heard in the '90s, since that's what I was brought up with. But even then, I was looking forward to this [points at his computer]. I was always waiting for the time when everything would be brought down to one system instead of all those cables. It drove me nuts. To me, it was just extra stress, all the wiring and other bullshit, instead of just getting straight down to business.
these days, I kind of wonder
what the use of mastering is."
How do you go about making a track?
I usually just make a set-up, create some grooves, experiment, then save. The good thing these days is, you can save a loop, then open it later and still have it sound exactly the same. Whenever I do a track of my own or a remix, I usually start with the basics: kick, drums, etc. In my head I imagine the kind of atmosphere I'm looking for, so I set the effects and the sound banks for that particular mood. Right now I'm working on a remix for Defected. I have to see what kind of track I'm going to make of it: housey, tech housey, more of a techno vibe. Then I go about making the loops.
Do you create the right conditions before you start working?
No, I don't actually work with a template, if that's what you mean. I probably should, though. But it's just not the way I'm used to working. I have the guidelines in my head, then I check the plug-ins to see how I'm going to get the right sounds. With this particular MK remix I have to think: is it an old school vibe with a new school mix I'm looking for? Or do I want to make it a big room track? For both options I already have a rough idea of which plug-ins to use. I never really set them up beforehand, I just have a rough idea of which ones will work best. The only thing I do set up is the percussion banks in my Battery drum computer: a techno bank, a house bank, a deep house bank.
Which percentage of your loops actually make it to tracks?
Hmmm, good question… Maybe 25 percent? I sometimes check old folders for sketches that never made it to tracks. Sometimes I find something interesting. Just recently, I found some tracks with elements I could use. I also found some old drum & bass tracks which still sounded really cool. And some hard techno I made for Djax-Up-Beats not too long ago. Things like that can be really inspiring sometimes.
How do you proceed from there?
Well, then comes the arranging part. I use my sketches to make a loop of a couple of minutes, and I make a six minute track out of it. Very straightforward, very DJ friendly. Especially with the stuff I make these days.
point of performing live."
Some people have dubbed your style Dutch tool house. What do you think of the term?
Well, the arrangement is important to me, but I think it's usually made according to a certain formula: an intro for the DJ to mix in, a short break, the start of the theme, a part where you work towards a big break, a big break, a climax and a build down. As for the term "tool" house: This whole music is a tool to me. But the type of house that we've become famous for, I've kind of had it with that now. Everyone is making that type of tech house now.
Not that it's bad or anything, but it all sounds the same [puts on a couple of tech house demos]. Don't get me wrong, I still like the tracks, but the problem is everyone is doing them now. Sure, that's the way it goes. But when I heard Adam Beyer playing Ibiza last summer, his style was so much more interesting to me, because it didn't have the usual patterns.
Check out this demo I got from Christian Smith [plays a heavier techno track with a melodious hook]. This stuff is more techno based. Maybe I find it more interesting, because you can sense the old Detroit influences in it. But sure enough, when that comes into fashion, everybody else will be making that stuff too. And when everyone starts making the same shit, that's usually the end of it. You'll see with this tech house sound: some will not evolve, others will. The sound inevitably changes, like it did with loop techno and with minimal.
Where do you see the sound in your scene heading?
Tech house has become quite commercial. It will probably continue for a while. In some countries, like Italy and Spain, the craze has only just begun. For myself, I'd like to see more techy, heavy and Detroit influences: more sci-fi, less happy sounds. A bit like "Rise from Your Grave," housey but with a more techno feel to it. Carl Craig is good at these type of tracks, too. I'm missing melody lines, they tend to make things more interesting. I'd like to see it head this way, but I don't think it will happen on a larger scale as of yet.
I can't find the time anymore to master tracks for others. But I used to, yeah. I think mastering is becoming somewhat of a controversial term. Traditionally you produce a track like this: you set up the song; then someone else makes an edit from that; once it's edited, you mix it in Pro Tools. So four different people are involved in the process.
Things obviously aren't done this way, but the process is reflected in a program like Ableton Live: you make a sketch in the session view; then you make the arrangement in the arrangement view; then you start placing all the separate tracks in the audio spectrum. The bass drum works in a certain range, the percussion goes into the low mid range, you place the hook in it. Once it's all mixed, you render everything to one stereo track, or if you want to keep it old school onto two separate left right tracks. That's when you start the mastering process. But the way everybody is producing these days, I kind of wonder what the use of mastering is.
Lots of people put a massive compression over the master track, making all the dynamics disappear. When you look at the waveform all you see is one big block, with no breathing space whatsoever. I've done mastering for people who called me once they received the master version: "The track is mastered, but it still doesn't sound loud enough." But isn't that what the gain on your mixer is for? So the whole mastering thing is highly overrated, especially in dance music. Ask any professional audio engineer working in rock music and with real instruments about mastering electronic music, and he'll just laugh in your face. The technique is dead simple: you boost some frequencies with an EQ, you put a hint of multi-band compression on the track, you check out the dithering if you're going to use vinyl. Or you can just boost the hell out of everything by using any brick compression plug-in at hand. I know that's the way it's done a lot these days, but personally I don't prefer this method.
Tell us about your studio space.
Well my studio is totally empty, since I just moved in here. I should still get in some bass traps and other things to absorb the sound. But then again, I remember a story Adam Beyer told me. Apparently, Swedish House Mafia's Eric Prydz has a fear of flying, so he travels hours and hours by train. Most of his studio work is done traveling, using only his laptop and a pair of headphones. And if you listen to the sound of these tracks, they're extremely well-produced. So you can put lots of time and effort into optimizing your set-up, but in the end it's all about having the right reference point; getting to know the space you're in and getting to know your speakers. And now that I'm not yet accustomed to this studio, I just A-B a track I know well with my own tracks. That can also help in the matter.
You have Dynaudios and Genelecs in your studio. Why these?
I've been working with Genelec for a while. Right now I have the Genelec 1030's. Genelec makes everything sound prettier. My Dynaudio MKII's have a fairer rendition. For the lows, I usually check the Genelecs. This is the best reference for the sound in a club. But if you want your stuff to sound good on a normal system as well, the Dynaudio's are better to check. The best situation is if your track sounds good on both systems.
What does your live set look like?
I don't do live sets anymore. I just don't see the point of performing live. Sure, you can make a whole show around your music, but in the end electronic music to me is studio music. I could try and bring in a singer or someone playing keys, but to me that doesn't befit my music. Sure, there are acts for which this works, but not for me. And then there's the question what "live" really is. Take an act like Speedy J and Chris Liebing's Collabs Sessions. You can't really call what they do on stage live or DJing anymore, it's a hybrid form. Because they use loops from other people, Collabs Sessions is not allowed to be called "live." So that means live is when you only play loops made by yourself? That's just too restricted for me. When I DJ, that's live enough for me right there.
My favourite gear and plug-ins
This synthesizer by Dave Smith is part analogue, part digital. It produces some amazing sounds you won't get out of any other synthesizers. Some unpredictable modulation effects make it a unique device. My favorite feature is the delay, which can go on and on without becoming annoying. Feedback will go over the top, but this can continue endlessly on without overdriving.
I still have my TR-808 and my TR-909 in the drawer. But I've found the Drumazon (909 emulation) and the Nepheton (808 emulation) to be a perfect software equivalent. I use them for almost every track, since the 909 and the 808 are the basis for any techno or house track.
Whenever I am dj-ing, I run effects on my Lemur V2 MIDI controller. It's a great touch screen device. You can make your own templates with different effects, working with tabs in stead of a pulldown menu. This is a very pleasant way of working when you are on stage.
Yeah, I think so. Say I make an album with singers and drummers and other instruments, that's a different story. But to move your studio to the stage? It may look cute, but I don't see the extra value to be honest with you. I don't see the point of bringing Ableton and playing it from my computer on a stage. Of course there's people who'll say: "Yeah, but it's different if you use hardware." So you haul all your gear on to a stage, you have everything running MIDI and then what? Isn't that exactly the same? Unless you really play some chords live. But most of the time, I just think it's just pretentiousness.
What do you do when you can't find inspiration or get stuck?
If I can't find inspiration, I don't waste my time trying to make music. I do something else in the studio: make folders, drum kits, or sample banks. If I get stuck, I usually just leave it. You always have to ask yourself the question: Why am I stuck? Is it because it's not good enough for me? Or is something wrong that can be fixed? Finishing a track is a matter of applying a formula. There's basically a list of rules to check. If you're still unsatisfied after working them all out, you might as well go on to the next project. Apparently this one is just not strong enough.
Isn't it tricky to always work according to a certain formula?
Why? In the end, the music is all the same. It's all variations on the same theme. Inventing the wheel doesn't exist anymore. Maybe a personal wheel, because you didn't know the wheel existed. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's really new.
You're saying there's no true innovation anymore?
I don't think so, not in dance music. Styles may return in an updated version. Take techno: first you had Detroit techno, then Jeff Mills contributed to the popularity of loop techno, then came minimal, then it stopped, and now influences of it are coming back. Or house: first there was the abstract house from Detroit, then the New York song-structured house, then the Subliminal-style house, and now that has also returned with minimal influnces. Now tech house is returning. And so on and so forth.
So what do you think of a guy like Flying Lotus; not an innovater?
Isn't he basically doing what Squarepusher was already doing in the '90s? Sure, it's newer, and inspired by what he did. But is it truly innovative? I mean, even house was an electronic update of disco. But OK, to me that was different, because house had a much bigger impact than disco ever had.
What's true innovation? Last week I was reading an interview with will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. When asked who his favorite producers were, he replied: "Afrojack number 1, because he's such an innovator." OK. What Afrojack is doing may be new to will.i.am, but Afrojack is just copying what people like Roman Flügel and many others were already doing long before him. Still Chuckie and him will be heading a new musical movement in the States, because what they're doing is new to the crowds over there.
What would you like to say to aspiring producers?
Just do what you like best. Enjoy what you're doing, it's not a must. That's what I hear a lot around me: I have to work on my production skills; I have to release something. But you don't have to do it. It's not like when you have to pay taxes. I think for many artists, producing is just done to generate more DJ bookings. But I don't think your productions will be any good, if you don't really enjoy making them.