Working with limited kit in shared or temporary spaces, he's only more recently come into the means—the gear, the space, the musical and technical knowhow, the time—to make the kind of records he's long been smitten with. In the last year or so, Geysens found a permanent home base for his synths, drum machines and hardware effects in Berlin, and the stability has had a knock-on effect for San Soda. He told us we can expect some long-awaited new material from him in the coming months, and that the results might surprise people who think they've got him pegged.
You recently made a big change in your studio, right?
The desk. I used to have three or four tables, but I was tired of running around and not having everything close to each other, so I bought this desk, which I'm really happy with. All my patch bays are right in front of me, all my stuff is within hand reach.
Is it custom?
No, I got it from a company in Luxembourg, and actually, when they delivered it, there were two pieces that had the holes on the wrong side. So I had all my studio gear in the other room ready to build the thing, and then the last two pieces didn't fit. So they said, "Yeah, we are going to send you new pieces in a couple of days," so I left everything [not set up]. Then two days, three days, four days, five days, a week—I was getting very frustrated. But now I am very happy that everything is how I want it. It's actually the first time I am completely comfortable in my studio since I've been in Berlin.
You can sit in that chair, and every knob is within reach—you barely have to stretch to do anything.
That was the thing I wanted to do. And a big difference is I've got everything in a patch bay now. I used to have everything on tables separately, and then I had to get things rewired when I wanted to use different machines and only have 16 inputs. So now I'm just more comfortable. I'm in the middle and can just touch everything, hook up everything I want.
If everything is disconnected, you have to create a new setup each time you want to make a track. But when you have a patch bay and everything is hardwired, does that change the way you work?
Yes and no. It doesn't necessarily make it easier, I think, because of the options. It's always about having too many options, selecting the stuff you really want to use and selecting the stuff you don't want to use on a certain track. So now everything is within reach—you have to do the exercise in your head rather than doing it physically. Now it's not hooking up four or five machines [but having to] determine for yourself, "For this part I'm just going to use this and this and achieve what I want to achieve with this and this machine."
So in a way it's easier because you can make different decisions more quickly. You can say more quickly, "I want to use this and this, this and that," and then five wire movements after everything is hooked up, rather than having to remove everything and replace everything on different tables. But on the other hand it's also sometimes hard to say to yourself, "OK, don't touch the wire," and just continue messing with the device to try to get what you want to get.
Thinking back over some of your track titles, they'll reference particular pieces of gear or production techniques: "Juno Love," "Something About Compression," "Bright Piano." It makes me curious about how you get started on a track. Do you choose one synth or one technique you want to use as the basis and go from there?
For the last couple of years, basically everything I bought I needed to get to know. I wasn't a very experienced producer, so usually it was like that: I bought a new thing, and I found out about a new feature or a certain technique and got to study it a little bit. And then I'd just go on and try to use it in a musical way in the track. Often it would start with discovering a new thing in Ableton or a new synth or something and go from there.
So you were bouncing around a lot in Berlin before you settled on this place. What were your studio setups like then? I'm sure you couldn't always have all of this stuff out then.
Usually the MPC was my main part of the studio. I used to do most things on the MPC. So one or two drum computers, one synth or two synths hooked up to the MPC, and I'd mess around as much as I could and record on Ableton, and if necessary then add some things. But my main procedure was doing everything on the MPC and then recording the tracks on Ableton and doing very few adjustments later on. I don't like working on a computer screen. I think that is my biggest flaw right now is that I don't like to look at my computer screen. I would like to do it more, but there is some discipline involved in the arrangement, and I think I should do that more. I used to just jam on the MPC and let the tracks play, and just hit on and off all the time and then tweak a little bit, then see how it sounds maybe one or two times, then take the best part of the two tracks and put it together.
But now I changed a bit, now I bought this amazing device that is able to sync whatever is happening in Ableton with whatever is happening with my MPC and my drum computers. I used to have the MPC, and whenever I wanted to sync it with Ableton Live, I always had issues. I had delays, and it was messy whenever you were using anything else in your computer like a plug-in, and the track delays change and then you have to change your settings for your sound to come in at the same tempo—pretty essential if you want to have a good groove.
What's the device?
This thing here: the SND ACME-4 Advanced Clock Management System. How I use it is, I have an audio signal coming from Ableton Live—just a click track—and [the ACME-4] sends basically four or five MIDI-out signals and DIN sync, and also an audio click track. And this is, like, super tight, it's incredible. A kick from the 909 is right on the kick of Ableton. There are three other features: it has a big time delay, so if for whatever reason a machine is not in sync you can manually adjust it in microseconds and then bigger.
Yeah, I was going to ask what all the knobs did.
[Points to some] This is a swing, which is amazing as well, because you have 16 different swing patterns that you can draw in a program and store in here. Then you can adjust everything, so [I can] basically draw my own swings for all my drum computers, which is really nice, too. I mean, the swing in these devices is great, too, but it's so classic, you know? Now you can just draw your own swings, or if you hear a nice swing in a certain track you can draw it in MIDI, and you can put 16 in here. And even then it can be artistic, not just functional—sometimes it's nice to just have a hi-hat with a bit of delay in it. You can even manipulate it real time when the drum computer is playing, and you can hear it shift in the track. It's really a dream if I compare it now to when I was messing about with the MPC, not even thinking about swing or getting it in the different time shift. This is a dream. It's a little expensive but it's totally worth it.
For a lot of people, a device that basically only handles timing or clocking in the studio might seem like a boring purchase. But I can see how that's not the case at all.
It has changed everything. When I used to make tracks with the MPC, it took me usually half an hour or an hour just working on setting the track delays, just to have it in the right timing. And now without having to do anything, I can even play with the timing. It opens up so much more, and it makes your life so much easier, so I'm happy with it. I want to get a second one already in case this one breaks.
The MPC was the center of your studio for a long time. Was that the main piece of gear you learned production on?
I started with Reason and Ableton—pretty basic. Then came my first two buys, the MPC and the Juno 106.
Yeah, I was super lucky. I was a big fan of Larry Heard and saw in an interview that he used a Juno 106 and immediately went online and got really lucky—I paid €250 for it. Every track I have ever done, I've used it. I can create anything I want right away.
Is this the original one, the first one that you bought?
Yeah. I love it. It becomes your language. Whenever you want to say or do something, you go back to it automatically.
What do you like most about it?
I never read anything or really studied anything about it. And without reading anything about it, this machine taught me—it made me able to use different [pieces of gear] as well, because it's so simple. It displays everything chronologically, left to right, so you know exactly what you are doing. And without knowing what all these things meant and without ever looking it up when I was working with another synth, I could just go from there. It's just so simple.
When you're programming other synths now, do you find yourself thinking about how this one works and translating that process into another?
Well by now I've actually read up about synthesis. But this is where I started from—his is like the first book I ever read, my introduction into how to make a sound.
Just having an MPC and a Juno 106—seems like a pretty friendly setup for cramped quarters in a Berlin shared apartment.
Most of my music I made in Belgium, and back then it was bedroom studios—kind of similar to this, actually, maybe a bit bigger, with no isolation whatsoever, IKEA tables, very amateuristic. When I moved from my student houses and stuff, I went to my partner from FCL, Bart [Van Neste, AKA Red D]'s house and built a little studio there. That was cool because we put a black curtain behind us and two or three tables on one side of the wall with all of the stuff in one line. You had the feel of playing a live set. I guess the last two or three years in Berlin I had similar studios, pretty uncomfortable ones, setting it up for six months and knowing you have to leave and not really putting the time and effort into setting it up the way you want to.
Then in the last year, two years, I've just been DJing a lot, so I haven't been in the studio as much. I've been trying to focus and decide for myself the perfect setup for me to work in. I think now I've found it. The last two months have been absolutely great. I've spent some time in the studio, feeling comfortable about everything. I'm pretty sure this will be my setup for a long time now. I hope.
Has your sound changed since you've gotten back in the swing of things?
Totally. I've changed so much. I don't know, I'm not the biggest fan of what I've done before—I rarely play my own stuff. A big thing for me when I make music is, I just give it to Bart, and it was more him that was saying, "Let's do this and that." If it was up to me, I would have only released four or five tracks. I'm not going to say I dislike it, but at the same time I was learning to produce music I was also very focused on the DJ part of things, and I've grown much faster in that than the producing part of things.
Musically, my world as a DJ changed a lot. Every six months passes, and I'm like, "Damn, where were you six months ago? I would never play that anymore." Moving to Berlin, too—your musical world opens up. If you travel a bit and live here, you see all these great DJs every week, and you grow much faster. So yeah, musically my world opened up, and this is definitely going to show in my production. I want to do techno, electro, African music, whatever—I've been exploring, so this is definitely going to come back in my music now, I'm sure.
What was it you thought was lacking in your productions before? Was it that variety of influences? Did you feel you weren't being as sophisticated with sound as you could have been?
Yes, those both. Technically, in the studio, I was never—I don't have patience or discipline. I like to mess around and play with things and I make 100 tracks a month, but I don't finish them, you know? It's that kind of thing. I never want to sit down and actually finish, but instead explore a new synth and try out new things. That was always my biggest flaw. So that was one part, and there is more the aspect of the skillset, the patience and the discipline in the studio. And yeah, the musical journey—you grow and you change. I think it's normal. Every producer has it, and I think it's very interesting. I recently bought two or three very old records of Levon Vincent, his really early stuff. I think there are stories on Discogs about him reusing the stock. I paid the money for them. I just wanted to hear where he came from, because it's so interesting to see what he did then and what he does now. It's the comparison between those two that's inspiring, and it teaches you a lot.
You've obviously got a lot more gear now than just the Juno 106 and the MPC. You said in an interview that when you buy records, you're not just looking for good records but timeless ones. Do you take a similar approach to buying gear for your studio? For example, you have a 909, and obviously that's a drum machine with sounds rooted in a particular time, place and style. But those styles haven't necessarily grown old, so maybe there is something timeless about those sounds.
That's true. But you still got to take those timeless elements and raw elements and put them in a context where it turns into something creative and new. And you can do that with other devices: you can manipulate the frequencies or whatever, or you can play with timing and velocity. Then you are producing, you know? I don't care too much about how many people have used the machine before or how a certain producer used it in a track. Of course you learn and you listen, and there is always a certain level of imitation. But then the final step is for you to make it your own, where you put it in a position and people will say, "OK, this is interesting."
How do you make a classic 909 drum hit into a San Soda drum hit?
Well one of my favorite things to do is this filter treatment. [Gestures to the Rodec / Sherman Restyler] You know the Sherman filter? It's like a 19-inch Belgian device, very famous for distorting everything, like a noisy sound. That came out a couple of years ago with this little device. It's actually on the market as a DJ tool, but I don't understand—I think it's a beast. You need to master it incredibly to be able to use it in a DJ context because it's so powerful.
So it's not so easy to use?
Yeah, you have to really know what you're doing because it can be so easy to blow up a soundsystem with it. The distortion is great, the resonance—it's an amazing filter. Your question was how do you make your sound your own… Say I put a hi-hat from the 909 in this. Just tweaking these knobs, you can make it into 100 different hi-hats. This was a revelation for me like two years ago when I got it. Since then, you can really give character; you can even use it for entire loops or whatever. I think it's an amazing device. So this is for me one of the ultimate tools to personalize your sound, and also to use it for multiple things on one track so it blends in.
There are other things. I mean, I have the Moog filter. Of course compression and reverb we can manipulate, too. But also your idea of music, the idea of timing or the velocity, the repetitiveness. I think Omar-S is a very good example, too. He uses the same machines for 200 tracks that he made before—the same 606, 808, 909—and I've never heard two tracks where he uses exactly the same kick drum or exactly the same clap. That shows that even tiny EQs or filtering or whatever can totally make it not generic.
You said this little Sherman device was a revelation. Is there anything else in here you'd describe that way?
The Space Echo. Definitely the Space Echo.
No studio is complete without one.
I had a lot of troubles with it. I've been back with it six or seven times already to get it fixed, which is very annoying. But it opened up my vision on the placement of drums and the placement of different sounds in the track. If I record everything on Ableton, it is coming with a return-send, so I can easily switch it off, and sometimes if it's not switched on and I hear the track completely dry, I think to myself, "This sounds like a track that I would have done four years ago," you know what I mean? When I switch it on, even just subtle hints of it opens the whole track and gives it a new dimension. So yeah it definitely changed my sound a lot.
You've got a pretty nice looking mic. Do you record vocals down here?
Yes, but that's mainly for the FCL project, but also some percussion, some congas and some shakers and some claps and snaps. I should use it more, actually, because it's always something you put on the side of your studio and forget about. Maybe I should leave it next to me and I'll use it more.
Do you know a lot about vocal recording techniques?
Very basic. What I did is I put my duvet in front of the mic, and I made [FCL vocalist Lady Linn] sing towards it. It actually sounded great—super dry. I make her sing two or three times in different settings and see what I prefer. But I'm definitely not the super anal master of the setting of mics and the scene, it's just very basic. But I think that's nice, in my style of music—the things I've done with FCL so far—it's totally not important. As long as it doesn't sound bad, it's OK. If it sounds bad and there is too much reflection, or it sounds weak, then it's not OK. But we've done funny stuff before, like hanging up a sleeping bag in the corner of the room and she had to hide in the sleeping bag. That was pretty funny. So just basic techniques. I mean, if you are going to professional studios that do pop music, I imagine every little detail is super important. But for club music, I don't think it matters that much.
You've got a Tascam cassette recorder on your desk here.
It's an eight-track, with a line-in and return-send as well. It's a cool thing.
What do you use it for?
I never used it for an entire track. I've tried it for some tracks now, and it sounded alright, maybe a bit too dirty. I'm still thinking of having them properly mastered after having them put on a cassette tape and seeing how it sounds.
So you're basically using it as an effect?
Yes, right: for some synths or to slow it down, or put a kick on it and then pitch it down and re-record it. I use it as a tool. I think I might use it for some entire tracks now, some electro stuff, to crank up the hiss a little bit. I bought an eight-track reel-to-reel—the heads are a bit dirty, but I'm going to get it restored now, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how that sounds and working that out.
That could potentially cut Ableton Live out of the process entirely.
I don't know, maybe one day. Now that I have the ACME-4, I am more happy again to focus on the computer, because I don't have to worry about wasting time worrying too much about the technical aspect. I am pretty happy to use both the analog and the digital.
Speaking of analog, you have a lot of records in here and more upstairs. Are you doing a lot of sampling these days?
The last two years I've been buying more synths and messing around with these more now. But then I got some really nice samplers again. I got the E-mu SP-1200 and the MPC3000, so yeah, now I'm sampling again.
What makes one old-school sampler better than another for a particular track?
Right now it's just a question of trying them out and seeing which one fits me the best. Also, different samplers give a different character to the sound. I think the SP-1200, I just bought because I was impressed with what people had made with it, and I wanted to try it out. But the MPC has always been my go-to. I'm so in love with these MPCs, but I just needed to get the 3000 to see how it sounded and try it out, so now it is fun sometimes, I can change it around and it adds new things to your tracks.
Can you give me a sense of the different character of the samplers? Like what sound would you reach for the SP-1200 for?
The SP-1200 is very grainy, gritty. The pitching of the samples is especially incredible. But it is also very limited—it only has 10 seconds of sample time on it. If you want to jam on this one device for a while, then you really need to make the right decisions. On the MPC, you have a gigabyte of room, and already it allows you to—if you aren't happy with your hi-hat, to look for another hi-hat. If you aren't happy with your hi-hat on the SP-1200, you better put five more records on and see if you find the hi-hat you are looking for. So this is what I like about the SP-1200: it limits you and is very basic, and it has a lot of character. The eight outputs have different sounds, and even if you sample the same kick drum a different day it will sound different. It gives it so much life and sounds like a personal touch, so I really like that. The swing is really good, too.
But then the MPC it is my favorite one—it's so fast, and as I told you, it was the first machine I bought. I was so fascinated by it. First track I sampled was "Summer Madness" by Kool And The Gang. I'll never forget that first moment, the first chord. Like the first time you head a Moodymann track or something, you just go, "Woah, it's so crazy that it sounds like this."
Do you tend to cycle in and out of gear? Like do you ever sell anything on?
I keep everything. I lend it out here and there, but I try not to buy gear that loses value—everything I've bought, I could sell it on for the same amount of money, so I don't really see it as losing money or money I should use for something else. I'm a bit of a hoarder, actually.
You're just learning to properly play piano now. Did you grow up playing any other instruments?
Not at all. I never did anything musical, nothing in my education or something like that. We sang in music class, but that's it.
Making music was an outgrowth of DJing, then?
Indirectly from DJing, but also from just listening to the tracks that I loved. I knew two or three chords, and all the music I made is just these chords. Now I've had four months of piano lessons, like one hour a week, and it has completely opened up my world. You know, next to the technical aspects of the machines, there is this whole other world of actually composing your music and melodies in the rhythm. That is a whole new path for me.
When your instrument is the studio, so to speak, like every time you sit down and play, you might come out of it with something tangible. With the piano, you kind of have to sit down and just practice, with no tangible outcome other than being able to play a little better. Does that make it any harder to stay motivated?
There is the same kind of work to do with these machines. I think of it the same way as mastering an instrument. But I do love focusing on just this one thing, and telling yourself you are going to learn this scale, and then after two hours you have got it.
Do you have a favorite chord?
I used to have one: D-minor. After maybe three or four months of piano lessons, I was like, "Oh, so that's why I've been using it."
So you didn't know the name of this sweet chord you'd been playing?
Exactly. And now I know exactly what I'm doing, which is kind of scary to know there is a system behind it. It's not based on luck—it's actually mathematics behind it. Other people say if they never had any music lessons, it benefits them in the studio. So I was kind of afraid to learn that, like if this is the way that people do it, I'm scared to stay in this little box, these will be the only progressions or the chords. So maybe I actually made music for five years without actually knowing anything just to prove to myself I don't need the notes to make something, to create something.