Tyrell's history with electronic music dates back to the time when the sound he's known for was in its infancy. In the early '80s, his dad took him to buy his first synthesizer, and he's been obsessed with gear ever since. He doesn't sell any of his machines, so his home studio is as much the center of his creative life as a history of it. His approach to making music is constantly in flux, though. And unlike so many gear heads, he's not beholden to hardware—much of his tinkering happens inside the studio computer, especially where mastering is concerned. We got his take on that mysterious process, plus his approach to studio collaboration and the perils of YouTube sampling.
You've got a pretty packed studio. When did you start collecting gear?
Maybe that has something to do with age. I'm over 40 now, so I started when I was 14 or 15, so that's a long time ago. I never was a real big spender, but it was a lot of years, and I don't really sell stuff after I've bought it. I know guys who buy something, and then after a year they're bored and get rid of it, but I just keep everything in my studio. I still have the receipt of my first synth and that was 1984.
What was that first synth?
It was Korg Poly-61, and I still have it. It's not working anymore, but I remember going to buy it with my dad. My dad was a car salesman, and he said, "I'm coming with you because I can talk some money off it." And you're a little kid and like, "No, don't do that!" It didn't work out for him, but I bought it for, I don't remember, 200 euro or something.
What attracted you to it?
I still think about that moment every now and again, because I remember next to it was a Roland Juno-60. The prices of the Juno-60 are insane at the moment. But they both were about the same price [back then]. But yeah, I was 14 or 15, and I saw this digital display on the Korg. To me it looked more futuristic or interesting, so I chose the Korg synth and I never regretted it. But later I have many moments that I think, why didn't I get the Juno-60? I really want one, but they're just too expensive.
These are both poly synths. Did you grow up playing piano?
No. I've had many moments that I thought I should go to a course or have lessons or something, but I never went. I always tried myself, but you know how it goes. After two weeks you give up. Maybe it's not a bad thing at all, because interesting stuff can also happen when you're handicapped on the keyboard. Back maybe like ten years ago when I was doing a bit more disco-oriented stuff, I always wished I could play the piano better than I can now, because you want harmonics and chord changes and shit. Never worked.
Well, basically two or maybe three things. Of course there was music, but I remember the first music that caught my ears or interested me was just on the radio. It must have been Kraftwerk or Jean Michel Jarre-type stuff. I'd just heard synthetic sounds that were interesting. Then I remember when I was 12, in school we had a music course, and someone invited a synth guy as a workshop. What I saw just mesmerized me. I was like, "Fuck, so the music I hear on the radio is made with this kind of equipment," you know? Then around that same time a school friend of mine, when I went to his place, and he had—I thought it was, like, a huge DJ mixer or something, because we were already mixing records and shit, but it happened to be a keyboard part of a Roland System 100 synth. And yeah, that was the first time I started playing one, and I got hooked on that immediately. That's basically the three reasons that came together and made me buy my own synth.
You were around and buying gear when all the classic Roland boxes—the 808, the 909, that kind of thing—were contemporary gear. Did you get your hands on that stuff back when it was new?
No. Those two—the 808 and the 909—I bought secondhand, but I remember I had another drum machine, a little Korg, the [DDM-110] Super Drums. Like the crappiest drum machine ever. But I heard the 808 sounds on records or on the radio, and I was like, "How the fuck are they getting this sound?" I remember putting speakers in the bathroom and recording that to get this boomy, big sound, and it didn't work. And then I remember going to a hip-hop show somewhere, and I saw this DJ and he had this big black box with orange lights. He pressed play, and I was like, "Ah, that's the machine." I bought an 808 in '86, when I was absolutely into old hip-hop, Def Jam stuff, and it was already secondhand, because I remember—the guy that sold it to me in the store said, "Man, you're crazy. You should buy this digital 505. Don't buy this old crap." And I said, "No. Give me the big one please."
You said that you don't sell gear. I bet that gives you something like a library of machines. Do you ever put something aside and then come back to it down the line?
Yeah, there are two over here: the Minimoog and the MS-20. I haven't touched them for a year, maybe. At the moment I'm back into using samples as sounds and not so much into synthesis. So they're just under a cover in there waiting to get used someday.
Where do you get your samples from?
Anywhere. Sometimes I steal kicks from stuff I master. On my next upcoming release I sampled an organ from a YouTube video. Like super crap quality, but yeah, the internet is a good source for samples as well.
Even if it sounds crappy by conventional measures, it has its own character, right?
It does. But this was sort of a problem, I remember, because I couldn't get the mix right at all. But I know what you mean—you don't want that crispy clear sound.
Why are you doing so much sampling right now? What can you get out of sampling that you can't get from synthesis?
Well, first it is as you just said: the quality. There's lots of noise, or saturation, you know what I mean? It's sleazy or dirty.
Two of the samplers you're using, the Ensoniq EPS-16+ and the Akai S950, both have pretty low specs by today's measures of high fidelity.
I think [the Akai] is a 12-bit sampler, but there is some kind of weird thing going on in the conversion. Yes, they sound quite gritty, but the Ensoniq sampler's even more gritty. All this American stuff sounds super raw and nasty, and the Ensoniq is one of my favorites. Of course you have the [E-mu] SP-12 for drums, which is famous for sounding dirty, but the Ensoniq comes pretty close.
So when you're sampling, you can really add some grit to the sound that might not be there if you're just creating it from scratch?
Using synths? No not at all. Maybe it's not only the sound itself, it's also the way you play samples. For example, I sometimes also sample a bass from a synthesizer. I could of course play that bass over MIDI, but if I just sample one key and play it from a sampler it sounds a bit cheap or amateur. I don't know how to explain, but call it ghetto or cheap, you know? That's what I like about it. You hear the sounds getting weird, and maybe you'll even hear plops or clicks of the starting points. That's what I like about sampling the most. It's the sound and the way it comes out of the speakers when you use samples.
A lot of the music you make these days references music from the '80s and the early 90s. You make a lot of this music with hardware, but I'm aware you're not one of these guys who refuses to use software or newer technology.
No. I love that new stuff as well. I get the sound from the analogue equipment, and then I put it in the computer and go crazy there. So it's pretty much a digital thing as well.
The ability to go crazy, as you said—is that a major advantage of using a computer?
Yeah, it definitely is. There's many disadvantages. Like, a lot. But also advantages—for example, the recall of your project. You get bored of working on something, so you go to some other project, and two weeks later you get it back exactly the way you stopped. On a mix board you have to finish it now or it's gone.
Some of the plug-ins you're using do things that hardware could never hope to do.
For example, automation. You can make it exactly the way you want it, and when you're working alone or even when you're working with two guys, you just don't have enough hands to make it happen the way you want to hear it, you know. So automation is one of my favorite things. Plug-in wise, I use a lot for mastering, of course. For the music itself, I'm trying to use these things less and less.
One of the biggest disadvantages of a computer, for me, is that I get lost in the possibilities. It's just limitless, you know, and I really have to limit myself to not use, like, a million plug-ins on just a hi-hat or something.
I've heard a lot of producers express that it's actually a limitation to have things be so limitless.
Exactly. Yeah, it's getting more and more difficult to finish something, because you can go forever. Like I said, on a mix board back in the day you had a DAT machine and your hands on some nobs. You recorded it five times and then that was it, you know? Now you can go forever. Yeah, it must be the usual story.
You mentioned mastering and I know that's kind of another side of what you do. How did you get into it?
Sort of by accident. It probably was because I was friends with people who were all making music, and I think I was the first one with a big, heavy Macintosh computer with plug-ins. It started with, "Can you make it a little bit louder or level it," and then it was, "Can you make it bigger, or fatter, or more dull." I remember a lot of guys, for example I-f, who was super cynical about computers and music—when we were editing a mix CD for him, he was amazed by the possibilities.
Is most of the processing you do for mastering digital?
Most of it is digital, yeah.
What's the advantage of digital processing for mastering over hardware?
For me it's the same thing: the recall option. Sometimes I'm working on three tracks, and I can't get them right. I'm working on it for a day or maybe two, and I get sick of it and have to quit. I have to do something else. I get back to it next week or something, or the day after. Your ears get fatigued pretty soon when working with sound—you think you're onto something, and the next morning it's like, damn, this is crap. So it's the recall option, probably. And as well, you can be super precise, for example with EQing. I don't have the super detailed hardware EQs. As a matter of fact, the only hardware I'm using for mastering regularly is an old [SSL] bus compressor. I use it just a little bit, not too heavy because it's a pretty slamming machine, you know? You can go real far with it.
That's what it's famous for.
But I don't have these surgical EQs where you can filter one tiny band out of the spectrum or something. That's why I love the plug-ins.
For mastering, were you 100 percent self-taught? You just figured out what worked and what didn't?
Yeah. I'm still learning every day, I think. Well, that goes for everybody probably. When you hear the stuff you did ten years ago, you're like, "Oh my god, what a mess." So it's just learning every day and that's probably what keeps it interesting.
You're not doing the actual cutting, right?
I'm not cutting the lacquers, no. That's still a point of confusion, because yeah, what is mastering? Is it called pre-mastering, like maximizing the sound? I still don't know. Sometimes [clients] ask, "What's the price for making the lacquers?" and I have to tell them, "No, I don't do that, I just try to make it sound as good as possible and that's it, man."
Let's talk about your own music a bit more. What sort of setup are you working with in your studio right now?
I have a 909, and I'm just reconnecting the S950. I have the EPS, the 950, the 909 and the computer. That's it. So it's a couple of samplers and a drum machine. The Sherman Filterbank I use sometimes, and the Yamaha DX27. The Jupiters and other sequential stuff—I'm not really touching them at all at the moment.
Anything new you're hoping to throw into the mix?
Yeah, always. But there's so much stuff I'd like to have. I have been wanting the Empirical Labs Distressors for years. They're super cool drum compressors. But I never bought them. It must be some sort of disease or something. As I told you, I don't use synthesis that much at the moment, but when I see stuff on the internet for sale, it's like, "I want this, man!" I would love to have an ARP 2600 for example. I don't have any modular stuff. The MS-20 is semi-modular, so the ARP would be a cool semi-modular machine to have. It changes. I can't even remember what I was planning to buy last week. I was thinking I want to change my live setup, like go back to how I started with hardware.
Tell me about that original setup.
My first live sets were maybe from 1996. I was doing a project with a friend of mine called Elements Of Grief. It was a bit more abstract, sort of Autechre-ish type of music, and we didn't play that many times, lets say ten times, then we quit. But we brought loads of stuff—MPCs, synthesizers, mixing boards, effects. Then around the time I quit doing that project I hooked up with I-f for Viewlexx, and I released some stuff there and got involved in his Parallax Corporation project. That is '99 or 2000, 2001, I don't know. And with that project we played quite a lot on the same thing. After a while all this shit breaks down while travelling. 808's fucked up, broken keys, everything. I remember seeing the EPS fall off the—how do you call that thing where the luggage goes into the airplane? It wasn't mine, it was a friends', and bang! I saw it fall off.
That must have been a painful moment.
Yeah, well this is just one of those moments. I remember opening my flight case from my Nord Modular in Brazil and the whole middle octave of keys was standing straight upward, and it was in a flight case. Yeah, bit-by-bit that changed to a smaller setup. Back then we travelled with three guys. When you start playing gigs on your own, you have to carry stuff, you know—it got smaller and smaller. And of course Ableton changed a lot.
So you're using Ableton when you play live now?
Are you using it mostly to trigger clips and stuff that's pre-recorded?
How do you go about preparing for a setup like that? I'd imagine there are a lot of tough decisions made in the studio.
Well basically since Ableton, when you have your set running, it's just there. The only thing that changes is, for example, when I made a new track during the week and I want to play it, so I just add it and get rid of some other stuff, you know? So it's just a process of adding stuff over time, and for me I just split up all my tracks in three parts, like drums, mids and synths/subs/basses. The only thing I have to do when I've made a new track is render these three things apart and add it to my existing set. It's a bit different than with the hardware. That was really making decisions and saying, "OK, I don't have any more memory in my MPC, so just forget about the string part, or fuck the filtered bassline."
You're thinking of going back down that road, though.
Not that old setup, but there seems to be a trend amongst promoters that they want more gear on stage instead of a laptop and some other stuff. I can understand that to a certain degree. But I mean, I've had people asking me for gigs and asking me to give them a gear list that I was bringing. I just gave them my gear list, like a small modular, a laptop, a sound card and a controller, and they were like, "Yeah, that's not cool. You have to bring this or that." I'm like, "What the fuck? Just stick to your own game and let me decide what I'm gonna bring," you know? I can't bring my Jupiter on an airplane. Sometimes people expect that. The funny thing is, I'm actually doing way more than I used to do five years ago. I have this—well everybody has this thing, but I have this, what's the name? APC-40?
The Akai Ableton controller.
And I have all my clips in Ableton, so that I can go any way I want, you know? But yeah, they just see two or three machines on stage and they're like, "Yeah, we want to see more stuff."
Some promoters will arrange to get gear on loan for the gig. Is that ever an option in your experience?
Yeah. Speedy J used to do that. But that's not the thing. There are gigs where you're on a stage, people can see what you're doing, you have enough space. But there's also a lot of gigs and you enter the place, you come into the DJ booth and you see like 50 centimeters of space left for your live setup and you're like, "How the fuck am I supposed to set up my gear?" And then there is this, like, cover in front of you, so people can't see what you're doing anyway. And for the last ten years I've heard people coming to me after the gig and they're telling me, "Yeah, you played a good DJ set." So what's the point? I mean, people don't even know what you're doing. As long as they hear music and they like the music, then it's good. That's how I see it. Promoters want guys with lots of gear on stage, and I sort of understand, but I don't know.
Maybe it's a bit misplaced. It's supposed to be all about the music at the end of the day, right?
Yeah. That's the whole digital discussion again. I mean, the way I see it, my laptop is just the same as an MPC, only it has a bigger display. It's the same zeros and ones, the same chips in there. It's the same thing. But to finish this story, I think I'm going to try to buy some small sampler that I can put in my bag. Not one of these big-ass ones, because I can't bring it. I would love to bring my 909, but I only have one. If I had two I would bring one to check in.
It seems like there's actually kind of been a trend over the last couple of years toward smaller hardware.
Well there's this big fuss about the new Korgs. What's their name? Vol…
They're, like, super small. Maybe even two would fit my gear bag.
Something else I wanted to ask about is collaboration in the studio. You've done a lot of records with other people.
I had to.
I was super stuck with making music. I'm a difficult guy anyway concerning that. Maybe some four or five years ago I'd just had enough of the stuff I was doing back then. I don't want to be too black and white, but back then it was a bit more Italo disco, and I got bored of it. There were also other things going on at that time, like I got tinnitus, I got super depressed. I just needed a break from everything. I wanted to make a fresh start or something, so I decided to go more into a club or house/techno direction—a bit more the banging stuff and forget the melodic disco-y, over-hyped Italo blah.
I always loved house, but I never considered myself a house guy or something. I knew it, I loved it, but I never was like them. So OK, I start making slightly different music for my feeling, but I'm also super insecure about that, so I was still sort of stuck. I didn't like what I was doing, so working with other people sort of helps me to—when you're stuck, the other guy takes over, or he's like, "This sucks" or "This is good." You know the deal. That's collaboration.
Working with guys like Gerd or Serge from Clone, you probably pick up some tricks along the way. They probably pick things up from you.
Yeah, that goes both ways, and it's super cool. Especially Gerd, who of course is a veteran and a super talented guy. I really admire him for what he has done and what he's doing now. Also Serge. Serge is not so good on the technical part, but without him things would end up differently.
How do you decide where to base the project? Is it usually at your studio, at theirs or a little of both?
Yeah, exactly. We can do one track at my place, finish it at Gerd's place, or the other way around. Or we just finish it here. We did a remix, and I think Gerd wanted to do it in my place for some reason, but I said "No, let's go there." I just wanted to hear it loud, not even for the volume. It's fresh for me to work with other equipment, other sounds. So yeah, we just swapped places.
It must be great to be in a city like Rotterdam that has quite a number of likeminded producers, to be able to draw on a community.
Yeah, that's pretty cool. I used to have my studio next to Clone Distribution, but when my girl left this place I put all my equipment back here. Gerd is still there, and that's a five-minute walk, so I could even bring the Minimoog to his place or something.
Do you like having your studio in your home now?
I don't have a living room because what is living, you know? My living room is filled with synths.