This form of "organized chaos" may easily be considered the source of Friedrich's music, which covers a bit of everything from funky breaks to obscure vocals to the fuzzy electro beats he might be most well known for. For more than ten years, Friedrich has been cultivating his musical vision. After a short stint on Jazzanova's Sonar Kollektiv, he has primarily worked with Jan Driver's Grand Petrol recordings, until he became the first artist to release on Modeselektor's own Monkeytown imprint in 2009. Now, two years later, Friedrich is finally ready to release his first proper artist album, Mosaik. On the eve of its release, we caught up with the producer to talk about his working methods.
I started with an EMAX II—one of those old samplers from the late '80s. Besides that, I only had an Atari to use Cubase and control it as a sampler. Later on I bought an ESI 4000 digital sampler. All in all, I don't own that much equipment. There's this Rhodes piano, a loaned Wurlitzer, a Korg Trident I bought when I was around 16 and a new Mini Korg I rarely use. And this organ (points to the corner)...it is one of those old Heimorgel types, but one of the better ones.
Did you buy the Korg Trident for any particular reason back then?
When I started my apprenticeship, I used my first wages to buy myself a synthesizer in a secondhand shop. Honestly, I thought that the Trident was going to be more like a Hammond. I had no clue, because it looked fat and large just like a Hammond—like out of the Beat-Club show on German television. So I bought it and was actually disappointed, because it was just a synthesizer and in our band we tried to sound a little bit like the Doors. Today, it is one of my favorite pieces of hardware.
Some bands from the 1980s might say that that Korg Trident was among the best ever.
It is amazing; I can reach almost any sound that I want to with [the Trident]. Sure, if you look at other synthesizers, you just want to have them all. I also used to have a Moog once, but I had to sell it because I needed money. But the Trident will never leave me.
What's so special about it?
I think equipment that's powered through electricity, like the old synthesizers, sound simply warm, and full, and round. Of course, all sounds are interesting, but especially if you're looking for a warm sound then it's good to have the proper equipment for it.
Just like the Rhodes.
I use the Rhodes almost like a tuner, just to try things out. I don't really record with it because it has a really well-known and established sound while I prefer to include more interesting and uncommon sounds. But I'll use the Rhodes sometimes to underlay my tracks and make things sound a bit warmer.
How does the Wurlitzer compare with the Rhodes?
The Wurlitzer is much funkier. It's quite a dream for me to have it, but I just got it on loan, since they are really hard to find one in Germany and quite expensive. But I must admit, I haven't played it that much yet...
Do you change your studio setup often?
Rarely, because of two reasons: First, I have lots of problems trying to modernize all the time. As you can tell, my equipment isn't really all that new. It even took me forever to use my computer, until I dared myself to use it when friends showed me how to put 16 MIDI tracks in it. The second reason is that I don't have too much money for new hardware either. The last thing I bought is this Mini Korg, because it has a built-in vocoder. In the past, I've had to borrow vocoders, so now I just wanted to have one in case I wanted to do a vocal recording and the Mini Korg really is among the cheapest one on the market. I could also use the PC, but with the Mini Korg it's more spontaneous and fun.
Oh, I have one over here...it's a Sennheiser Studio Rundfunk MD 421. It's actually quite good.
It looks old school.
It is old school. I think it came out in the '60s, but you can still buy it today. I sort of record my music as if it was rock and that sometimes turns out really bad. But it's not all that important for me to have super clear recordings for my music—I think the appeal of my music is that it sounds a bit old. In studio environments, there used to be only a microphone and a floor microphone and only this equipment was used to record the drums. Then everything would simply be thrown together with a four-track recorder—I like that approach.
So you just arrive at the studio and see where it goes? Or do you have a standard workflow?
Not really, I come in with the resolution to be focused. But of course it usually ends with me getting entangled in the work up to the point that I'm not really paying attention to the sound. I've got a software compressor under it all, and I know that it's actually sounding like shit, but you want to have it sound initially loud, fat and nice. When I listen to track later, I realize that it's sometimes just noise. [laughs]
Your music is quite "powerful," so to speak. Is that because of the compression you are using?
I always have a bad feeling regarding this. I use—it's almost embarrassing to say—an L2 Ultramaximizer plugin and that's not even a compressor. It's a volume maximizer! I know that you shouldn't do that sort of thing, but I use it anyway because when I'm sitting here in my studio and I want to turn everything up. Only afterwards, during mastering, I go back to making it sound a bit more "airy." I build groups that sustain the appeal of the song, the hi-hats of one particular section for example. When you use compression intelligently, you can generate really wonderful grooves and sound "dense" at the same time. I appreciate if my tracks don't sound too clean, if there's some fuzziness to them.
I see you have some, let's say, interesting sound insulation in here.
You're talking about that sad stuff that's hanging there? That's insulation meant to keep things dry—from an old office building I think. It sounds horrible. Whenever I turn on my monitors I get some sort of "standing bass" in the room, if you know what I mean.
And yet you're still using the space…
Well, I think I just got used to it. When you come out of this studio, you can't hear things all that well, which is why I have to mix my tracks somewhere else. I'm lucky to have a friend who has a better studio. If it wasn't for him, I'd probably have to find a better room or somehow re-arrange this space. Still, with this couch and all of this other trash in here—I think I can hear some improvement. It's like the more shit that's in here, the better things sound. [laughs]
That is funny.
Well, that's art.
You are about to release your first proper album. How many tracks were thrown out during the process?
Some of the tracks are actually four, five years old. I can't throw anything away and that's why I have an endless amount of material. But it's all about figuring out how to make these tracks work and always making new beginnings with them. I write down the names of these tracks in order to keep hold of them, in order to remember them. From time to time I listen to these old tracks and think, "Oh, well I can do something with this [track]," or, "Doing nothing with this track would be a shame."
That sounds interesting. Do you write down the date or an imaginary filename of the track, or...
It's probably something arbitrary like "Test Fett 3.5.0." If I don't make music for a while then I just forget about it unless I write at least something down. I just use this scruffy notepad here to scribble down things, or whatever piece of paper is within reach at the moment...
...and you actually find those tracks afterwards?
I wish... [laughs] But to be honest, a lot of this stuff isn't all that great either.
How long, all in all, did it take you to produce this album?
I worked for a total of three months just being in the studio, something which I'm not used to. I'm self-employed and I have to divide my time between my work and my music. So for this album, I had to pull myself together, sit down and just get it done instead of making new beats over and over.
How do you share the amount of software and hardware in each track?
I would say it's mostly 50-50 because there's definitely the Trident in most tracks, but I have no drum machine unless I rent one. I sample quite a lot and cut the samples into the tracks. I also use a software sampler. But I don't think there are songs that are completely made digitally. I don't use VST synthesizers for instance.
What do you use for drums then?
Besides Cubase, I mostly use Battery from Native Instruments. Occasionally I use the Kontakt, which is a massive piece of equipment. It depends what I need to use it for. Often, I just take some original material and implement it directly.
Can you explain that a bit further?
Well, I just put the drums directly to the audio track and play around with that. Maybe it's just laziness, but it feels more intuitive. Or I'll just cut up Battery sets and put them into my tracks. I basically compiled beats with my EMAX and then looked which ones worked out and which didn't. Stefan from Jazzanova once taught me how to use the EMAX and I followed his approach: It is not about using loops, but rather building your own drums and basing them around each other. You take individual beats and then base your drum section around it, cutting those beats into even smaller pieces.
That's quite a lot of work, isn't it?
Maybe so, but there are so many ways to get yourself a groove...
I've seen software like Ableton Live a thousand times and I can imagine that it does amazing things. I've also tried Logic, but I found that much harder with cutting and editing my tracks. On the other hand I admit that it is much easier to use Logic for effects, but still someone told me that Cubase had a better audio engine than Logic. I never would have thought that, I was always thinking, "Oh shit, Cubase is worse than Logic," but apparently that's not the case. I can't judge whether Live is good or not, but I could imagine that with its loop-oriented format it keeps you too much to its own timing and you can't play around with as much as I would like.
What about plugins?
Well, I have some "secret" plugins, most of which are made by a friend of mine: Sugar-Bytes. We used to make music together, but now he just programs, which has its benefits: He'll ask me, "What do you wish for, what would be cool for you?" When I said to him that I wanted to make a "tit-tit-tit" sound, he tried to do it and he makes some wonderful things. That's my artillery.
Do you have a special setup for playing live?
Actually, I'm not doing any live shows. It's hard playing live. When my songs are finished, they're done. I've put so much heart and soul into making them that I simply can't bring back that process to play them again at whim off of a laptop. Apart from that, I also have quite a bad case of stage fright, so that makes things more complicated, too.
So you don't DJ either? That's quite an exception these days.
Not really, although I sometimes play with friends. Of course that's unfortunate, because I don't make that much money with music. But then again, I don't make music to be heard by DJs or producers. I'm happy to go to the little cave I call my studio. It is right around the corner from where I live, I've been here for five years now and it costs me about 169€ a month, which is totally super for Berlin. It's a luxury to have a studio at all. I mean, others make music just with a pair of headphones. I couldn't do that.
On average, how many hours do you spend in here?
It differs. Sometimes I work two or three days on a piece, just doing a little at a time and looking around at how things work. I rarely work through the night. I'm more the kind of guy who gets two cappuccinos in the morning and then goes to work in the studio—yeah, I enjoy doing that.