All of the synthesizers here are in incredible condition.
Yeah, I'm very, very protective and careful about that—like, I usually cover them when I'm not using them, and I clean them every once in a while, stuff like that.
How about the insides? Do you know much about doing internal maintenance on this stuff?
I did open them, a few of them—like this SH-101, for example, when I got it, which is the very first synth that I bought. And to wash the keys, for example, I took all the keys apart and just washed it. But other than that, I'm not very technical in that sense, like with circuitry and this kind of stuff, I would never put my hands on it. Most of them, in fact, went through X-Tended Music Berlin. They've fixed a lot of stuff here.
Well I'd imagine if you ran a synthesizer repair shop in Berlin you'd get a lot of business.
Yeah, oh my god, they have a lot of work. That's the deal you have—with old machines, you have to be aware that problems may occur from time to time, and I did have quite a few problems with these guys here. Especially this Juno 106, which is absolutely one of my favourite synths, but it gave me a lot of problems with the voices, the chorus and the battery. I actually spent much more money fixing this machine than I did buying it. Back then, when I started to collect and buy synths—it was 2006, when I decided I wanted to really focus on music. I actually came to Berlin because I wanted to keep on with my dance theater stuff. That's what I was doing at the very beginning, but then, you know, Berlin nightlife, clubbing and all of that. [Laughs]
You got sucked in.
Yeah. Exactly. And I had the chance to see the very first Panorama Bar, for example. That completely blew my mind and changed my life, I would say. And then I slowly started to get into this idea of DJing and music. I mean, I always loved music but never thought of DJing before, or producing. Production came much later.
This is something I was curious about, too. In addition to all the meticulous synths, you've got this massive wall of vinyl. Did hearing the old synths on these records make you want to get your hands on them? Or did the synths themselves get you into some of these old records?
It's both, in a way. I've always been listening to a lot of different types of music, but I only started to get into techno and house when I moved here to Berlin. Disco and Italo disco, synthesizers, '80s music—that was actually much later. I think it was my friend Daniel Wang who, in a way, introduced me to this kind of world—he's the one that also showed me, for the very first time, what a synthesizer is, and what you can do with that. And then all of a sudden it was like, "Oh my god, now I know what I was hearing in records." Sometimes I was like, "What's this sound?" and never thought, "This is a synthesizer or a drum machine." He showed me for the first time, for example, this guy here: the SH-101. I went to Danny's place when we met back in 2004 or 2005, and he just told me, "OK, this is a synthesizer, and you can do this and this." And I was like, "Wow, that sounds nice, and looks nice, too." [Laughs] And then one or two years later, when I said I wanted to really focus on music, I felt like it was more natural to me to go this way and get some machines, rather than going crazy with a computer and plug-ins and stuff like that.
In the mid-2000s, when this would have been, plug-ins and working "in the box" that was the big thing. Did it feel a little strange to go in this direction?
Yeah, exactly. But the SH-101, that thing, for me, was like, "Oh my god, this is amazing."
It's a brilliantly simple little synthesizer.
Exactly. I actually love the simplicity and the flexibility at the same time. It's so straightforward, but actually you can really do a lot with it. I mostly use it only for bass or leads and some sound effects.
Do you use the sequencer?
Hmm… hardly. Like a few times, but not most of the time. I like to play it, you know, live, or sometimes I can also MIDI-fy it with a Kenton [MIDI Thru 5] box. I'm not a real classically trained keyboard player—I did take [piano lessons] for two years, when I decided, "OK, now I want to make music," and that helped me a lot to understand the basics of harmony and stuff like this. It really opened my mind, because I've always been a bit… I don't know the word in English, like someone that really needs to know what he's doing, you know? So just randomly pressing keys on a synthesizer, for me it wasn't enough. I had to know that if I pressed this key, and this key, and this key, then OK, this is a C-minor, and this chord goes well with this other one, for example. And when I learned these things, I also started to understand the music I was listening to. Even some old Chicago house stuff where they have these basic variations on the fourth, the fifth—you know, things I'd never really thought of. But I was asking myself, "What is that sound? Why is this changing something within a song?" And it's just a basic key change. [Laughs] And that really helped me.
What was the next synth after the SH-101? Were you looking for something different?
Yes and no. I definitely was into the vintage kind of gear, and I wanted to get more of this. The second one was the Roland Juno 106. You know, I had my first monophonic, so I was looking for a polyphonic synth. Thank god we have the internet nowadays—that helped me a lot to research synthesizers, and watch tutorials on YouTube and all of that. And so I was just Googling around and searching and reading and watching things, and then slowly I made my way through all of this synth stuff. I did buy a lot of synthesizers on eBay, that I had but now you don't see anymore. I was buying them, trying them, and if I wasn't really so happy, I sold them back again and then bought new ones. So I really did try a few. This is my very final and best setup now, the ones that I always wanted to have. And obviously the SH-101 and the Juno 106 are really my classics, whereas something like the Roland JX-3P, for example—it's a really funny story because I bought it three times [laughs].
You bought it three times?
Yes. I bought it the first time, and I had it, and I used it a lot, actually. But then I was like, "OK, I don't really need it," so I sold it. Then I was missing it, and I bought it again—and then again the same story. Now this is the very final time, and I say, "No, you will never go away again." [Laughs] And lately I also just got this one. It just came in two days ago.
The Mode Machines DT200—what can you tell me about this?
It's the emulation of the original programmer, the PG200. It's more expensive than the synth itself. In the mid-'80s when those hybrid synths between digital and analog came out, Roland was the only one who made programmers for the synthesizers, so you could still have the possibility to tweak sounds on the go—whereas with Korg, for example, like this one, the Korg 8000, the rack version of the DW8000, you really have to press buttons, and the programming or editing of sounds is definitely not as fun.
There's something nice about having a pot that you can turn one way or the other and get results.
Exactly. Because I was used to this very basic synthesizer, I got so used to having things that I could turn and change on the go.
You said the SH-101 and the Juno 106 are your classics. What makes the Juno so essential for you?
Well, I'm a big, big pad lover. I think you can hear it in my music. I always have these really lush pads or string pads going on, and that is for me really the typical Roland sound—the strings on a Roland Juno, as well as a JX-3P as well, are for me just the best string sounds that you can have. And I don't know, the Juno 106 is really one of the most versatile synths that I have here. I can think of it for making a really nice punchy bassline, as well as amazing deep pads or crazy sound effects, nice melodies, chords—for everything. I often say that if one day I had to just run away, and I had to grab one synth, I would definitely grab my Juno 106 out of all of them.
Would it be possible to make an entire track just with the Juno 106?
Definitely, yeah. For sure. I'm not just saying this, but I actually do try to do that. I'm never able to do it, because then at some point I do get bored, and I'm like, "Oh no, I need to use another one." [Laughs]
So how do you usually get started on a track? Is there something you find yourself reaching for at the very beginning?
It's really quite different every time. Also it depends very much on my mood. Sometimes I start with some melodic content, turn on something, start to play some keys, see what comes out, you know. I also really like to first just play something, even just play scales or chords and just get into some kind of melodic feeling about something. Then maybe I find a sound which inspires me in that moment. Other times I feel more like I need to get the drums first, and I turn my drum machines on and work on that first. I like the fact that I can trigger things, and I try to do this quite often—try to hook things up as much as possible, and then play as many machines as possible at the same time, and then get into a sort of trance in a way, before I even think of, like, recording or getting to the computer, which is the very last step and of course the most boring step. [Laughs]
You said that you like to have as many things hooked up to each other as possible —to have one thing triggering another. With the way you have things set up, you have access to the back of all the machines. Are you working with a patch bay, or do you just get back there with cables and rig something up?
Well first of all, I have a few different mixers here, which I also use as some kind of patch bays. So for instance, all these polyphonic synths are going in [this mixer], and this one is going down here, and then most of my drum machines are connected to those two mixers here. And that mixer over there is actually just for my 808, so all the individual drum sounds of the 808 have their own outs in that mixer. I have these two patch bays as well, which things go through, but I also just simply continuously change cables. I like that kind of dynamic thing, you know, that things do not get stuck into something. I've got some new machines lately, and I always like to update and change the workflow. I think this gives me some kind of new [inspirations], and I always find it interesting to change some little things. I think it's a good way to keep learning as well, because it's a never-ending learning process obviously, making music. Everything that I know now, it's coming from doing things. I didn't go to music school, I didn't go to SAE or something—I just really learned by doing.
This mixer here, this Boss KM60, looks pretty cool and very vintage. Was it something you looked for specifically?
No, actually I stumbled upon this kind of accidentally. I was looking for a new mixer, a vintage mixer from the late 1970s, that I could use for my drum machines to give an extra texture to the sound, and then yeah, you know… eBay! [Laughs] I just typed in "vintage mixer" and stumbled upon this, and was like, "Oh wow, this looks kind of really cool." And then I searched for it and I was Googling, and I saw something on YouTube and got really interested, and just got it, and I was and am very very happy. I've got another one in fact, because you can stack them together and actually expand it up to 12 channels.
Does it have a characteristic sound that makes it especially good for your drum machines?
Yeah, definitely. You can achieve a kind of distortion with this, on the drums, that's actually really nice.
We've talked a lot about your synths. Could tell me about your drum machines?
Actually, the funny thing is that the very first drum machine I bought is a digital drum machine.
So this is a Boss DR550 MK2? It looks quite digital.
Yes. It's the smaller version of the 660, which, you know, is the more famous Dance Mania kind of drum machine. I bought it mostly because of its really nice and realistic sounding percussions sounds. And also it has these kinds of retro sound banks with, like, 808 sounds and stuff like this. It was just quite simple and basic, but with nice sounds that I use sometimes. And then I've got into the Korg Electribe. The first Electribe I had—not this one, this is a sampler actually—was the ER-1 mkII, but I've never really liked it for its internal sounds, so I only ever used it as a sequencer. I love the Electribes because, through them, I really got into making beats. Like the sequencer is really simple and really amazing for programming beats. In fact, this was the one I had before. The sequencer for this thing here, which is the Novation DrumStation, is the rack version of the 808 and 909, but together, basically. So this was my very first 808 and 909. Obviously it doesn't have a sequencer, but together with the Electribe was the perfect combination. So my very first records, like the one on Balihu or my first one on Live At Robert Johnson, "Toxic Love"—all the 808 and 909 sounds are coming from this thing, sequenced through the Electribe. And then yeah, slowly I got the 606, and the 707, and more and more. This is one of the latest.
The Oberheim DMX. This is a big-time classic.
Yeah, already MIDI-fied, so it's great, because now, with this great thing that Kenton made recently—
You mentioned the Kenton box a little earlier. Can you tell me what it does?
You can use it to basically MIDI-fy some [non-MIDI] synth stuff. But also it has this thing here, which is "through," "sync" or "aux"––so this thing here gets the MIDI clock from my computer, say Ableton Live, which is the only software I use as a sequencer, and goes into "sync," and I can send the sync signal to all of these machines. And this goes into this one, which splits the sync signal into five. I can use up to five machines, basically. So like the DMX, the 606 and the 303 are all connected to that.
If you like having as many machines rolling at the same time as possible, is drift ever an issue? Do you have a hard time keeping everything clocked?
Oh yes, with this one, for example, the Oberheim, it's like—as I said, I got it last week so I'm still learning it—even though it's quite simple to program, all the MIDI clock stuff isn't very tight. Like yesterday, I was jamming around here and really tried to run everything together, but at some point this thing here loses time and goes off. I don't really know why.
Your particular unit has been modified with MIDI.
Yeah, these kinds of things are always a bit tricky, but I always find—I mean, I like to do the retro thing, but with some new features as well. I don't MIDI-fy everything, but when you have too many things and you want to run them at the same time, then you have these big issues of clock and sync time and stuff like that. It's a big waste of time sometimes, when you run things and they don't run together. Like if you use a computer to record stuff, like I do, then it's a big thing to do.
When you get a new synth or drum machine, what's your process for learning that machine? Are you a big manual reader? I can see you've got a lot of manuals here.
I do study, and I really take the time to go through it. I think it's very important to get to know your new machine and see what you can do with it. I get new ideas and new inputs, new ways of looking at things, or—I don't know, I just find it very inspiring. So I definitely go through the manual. If I don't get the original one, I always print them out. I like physical things. I don't only like the machines, I like books and manuals, and I like to have them in my hands, to read them and really learn them, like I was doing when I was in school—and then just jam for a while, until I get some kind of workflow with that. But you know, those things really take time. Like it also happens that some machines here, like the 303, I easily forget how to program it. That's why I always have my manual there with some notes that I took down, for kind of refreshing all the time, because if you don't use it for some time, it's hard to go back. Whereas some others, the ones I use more often obviously, like the 808 or the 909, I just remember everything.
Was there ever a bit of equipment that you got that stumped you?
[Laughs] Yes, the Yamaha DX7. Which I don't have anymore, in fact.
That's the famous FM synth. I remember reading an article once that claimed, half-seriously, that anyone who says they know how to do FM synthesis is lying. It can be pretty esoteric.
Yeah, perhaps, I don't know. I definitely bought one and tried my best, and I also had the manual, which was really big. I tried to go through it, but––man, I could not deal with that. Like, because I come from subtractive synthesis, and I was used to this really simple, straightforward way of tweaking sounds, I found that FM thing really hard for me. And then I was like, "OK, I don't need it" and I sold it, and instead got this thing here, which is like a rack version, the Yamaha TX81Z. It's very similar to the DX7. But you know, I never tweak sounds there. I have a few favourite sounds––presets––that I use, like the very classic one called "Lately Bass" [Laughs], and maybe I do some EQs and stuff, but I never go deep into the machine to really change something. It's just something that I don't really get into.
Tell me about how you mix a track. When you have all these synths, you must have a strategy for how everything comes together in the mix.
It's a bit different every time. First of all, with my soundcard I can record out to four things at the same time, which I actually hardly ever do. Like let's say that I'm trying to hook up as many things as possible and let them run together, to get some kind of groove or feeling for some structure or composition or whatever. But then, I never usually record everything together into one [track]. Sometimes I think that this is more rough and old school, and I like that and I do it––so for instance, I would have the drums all together, because now with all of these different mixers, I can already do some pre-EQs and volumes and levels. So that when I record everything, it's already quite mixed and EQed. But then sometimes I did that and regretted it, because then I didn't have all the separate stuff, like the kick with the snare, stuff like this. It was a bit tricky afterwards to do some extra editing in the computer. So usually I just record everything [into its own track], then do the final mixing in Ableton.
Was that a real learning process, figuring out how to get a good mix?
Ah definitely yeah, I think this is one of the hardest things, in a way. Like jamming around and hooking up things, triggering things and playing here and playing there is the easiest.
That's the fun part.
That is the fun part. And then once everything is recorded––which is a really big process––it takes a long time to find the right levels for everything, to have the feeling that things are coming together. Everything has its own place and its right place, you know? So I think really it's just a matter of exercise, like doing and doing and doing tracks, and eventually one day you will get your mix down properly. It definitely takes some time.
On your second album, With One Another, almost every track features a collaborator. What's the story there?
Two years ago was some kind of personal and emotional, special time for me, and I was really—how can I say, looking a lot for my friends. And I realised how important it is, and I was thinking, like, OK, I've been here [in Berlin] now for so long, met so many great people in this city, and some of them are closer and some of them are just [less close]. And a lot of my friends in Berlin happen to be musicians as well––or like, artists. I mean, you know Berlin, there's plenty of DJs and musicians and artists in general. So I've always been fascinated by the idea of sharing things with your friends, and also doing kind of artistic collaborations with some of them. Obviously the ones I've invited are also people that I really respect a lot musically, and that I really admire as musicians and artists. So it was some kind of a mixture between having my friends with me and doing something together, something special, like music—having the chance to have an artist like, I don't know, Telephones or Lee Douglas, whose work I really admire, here with me in the studio and go through a recording process with each of them, and also learn something out of it.
Yeah, I can imagine you picked up a ton from working on that album. The collaborators must have learned a lot, too.
This is how I did learn a lot about music in general. I've been quite lucky, I'd say, in Berlin––I always met some people that showed me something, like Daniel Wang introduced me to synthesizers, for example. Or like my friend Jules Etienne, with whom I also did a lot of projects, he was showing me Ableton Live, because he was using this much earlier than I was. Or like, I don't know, my friend Snax gave me some keyboard lessons, for example. So you know, each of them always gave me a little something––so it was also me thinking like I want to give something back, and to try and do something together now. Plus, this idea of how important my friends are for me, and how important friendship is—I just got into this idea somehow, of doing an album which would also have some of my friends on board. And yeah, that's how the idea came, and then I started to think about some people [I could include]. I would have had more, but…
Then it would have been a double album.
Exactly. And everything is not possible, obviously. But it was definitely a really amazing experience. I did learn a lot from this, and I'm really thankful.
Was there anything else that changed between your first album and your second album, from a production standpoint?
It's still very machine-based. My first album came out in 2011, and this came out 2014, so there were three years in between. In these three years, my technical level, or, I don't know what you would call it—my experience with machines and stuff, became bigger in a way, so I had more of this kind of facility, perhaps, to work. And also more confidence, I'd say. Like I was saying before, it's a learning process, and I felt like in this three years' distance between my first and second album, I did learn a lot. But the approach was always the same. I also chose people that were quite hardware-friendly and have this kind of passion for machines. Whenever they came over here, the idea was always that they had to come over here and work in my studio with me. It was always just like, "OK, let's choose a machine and see where we can go from it."
Your stuff seems to be completely rooted in these machines. But do you ever use your computer to make sounds?
Just sound effects and processing original sounds. I do like some Ableton Live internal effects, like the default reverb and ping-pong delay. I really, really enjoy these in return tracks in Ableton, especially the ping-pong delay.
I see you have a Space Echo. Do you prefer the Live ping-pong delay over something like this?
No, I like both really. But sometimes I do record, obviously, hardware effects as well, like sounds that are already processed through effects [outside the box]. But there can still be room for extra effects, and this is something where Ableton Live comes into the game then. I can just tweak the delay more, or add some extra delay or some extra reverb. That's it, really.
Are you using this cassette deck as a processor as well?
Not yet. That's also something new. It's something that I'm going to try next. I want to try and record some things to tape and then back into the computer to give the sound some extra quality, to add some different texture. You can find tape decks on eBay quite cheap, this was only 50 bucks or something. I thought, "Why not?"
I can sense how curious you are about how production works, and how music—whether electronic or not—fits together. Is there something you'd still like to tackle, to know more about?
There's still a few things that I find difficult to understand with synthesizers. But let's say such things like compression, or—yeah, compression is something I still find mysterious in a way. I don't have any real physical compressor here, which I would still like to get. But even when I use Ableton Live's compressors and stuff, I always find it difficult to really know what I'm doing there. When it sounds fine, it sounds fine—and it's right, you know, that kind of approach. But yeah, I've been watching tutorials and studying it, but I always find something a bit tricky in a way, or that I don't feel as confident as with other things. There's some stuff in the recording process as well, or in post-production, that I think I could still get better at. So you know, I keep always looking around trying to inform myself or read and check out stuff. We are really lucky because we have the internet these days for this kind of research. I find it amazing still, that even on YouTube you can find these tutorials like "how to program a 303." Well done! [Laughs]. You know, these people who record themselves programming their machines or explaining something. Some of them are really, really great.
It's funny, isn't it. You have a studio where nearly all of the equipment is from pre-1990. But could you imagine having a studio like this before the internet?
That's funny, but yeah, I don't think so.
The irony of being a gearhead in 2015, right?