The larger space next door belongs to Tobias Freund, who showed me around for a Machine Love feature in 2013. But Loderbauer's workspace feels fuller and more lived-in than it did last time I was here—his machines have multiplied. His Eurorack system covers much of one wall, as modular synths are wont to do, with patch cables netting the face and hanging off the sides of the casing. Effects boxes crowd around the Buchla, leaving barely enough space for Loderbauer's tobacco pouch. On a stand by the Eurorack is something called a Haken Audio Continuum Fingerboard, a long box with a bright red face that Loderbauer calls "the most expressive electronic instrument I know." In the back-right corner, I'm sitting in front of the studio's most striking addition: a harpsichord. "That's only for if I work here on this stuff," he says, motioning toward all the electronics, "and then if I have a break, I do some Bach."
Loderbauer's expertise with this gear has made him a key collaborator for some of electronic music's most highly regarded producers. His first big group was Sun Electric, the pioneering IDM act he formed with the recording engineer Tom Thiel in the early '90s. Since the mid-2000s, he's recorded dance floor-leaning, often conceptual EPs and full-lengths with Freund as NSI, or Non Standard Institute. With Paula Schopf, he formed the experimental pop group Chica And The Folder. Loderbauer was a founding member of the Moritz Von Oswald Trio and, aside from its namesake, its longest-serving member. Vladislav Delay records with him as Heisenberg, resulting so far in a pair of recent EPs on Ripatti.
But it's with Ricardo Villalobos that Loderbauer has been especially prolific—they've reworked material from the fabled jazz label ECM Records and for Honest Jon's Shangaan Electro series, and even released a kind of hip-house 12-inch on Perlon in 2013. (Loderbauer tells me that he and Villalobos record music nearly every time they meet.) Across all of these collaborations, Loderbauer has relished the role of the "ambient guy," leaving rhythm, particularly the four-to-the-floor flavor, to the folks he's working with; he takes care of atmosphere through synthesis. Sharing the spotlight—if not ceding it entirely—has allowed him to burrow into what fascinates him about sound while still having a successful career on the outskirts of the club world.
That's beginning to change. In 2013, Loderbauer released an album called Transparenz, which was, improbably for such a veteran, his first proper solo release. Its striking mix of icy ambience and freeform, Subotnick-style composition showed exactly what he'd been bringing to his collaborations for all these years. Then, in 2014, he released an album with a pair of Swiss jazz musicians, the clarinetist Claudio Puntin and drummer Samuel Rohrer, as ambiq. Though on the surface it's another in a long line of collaborations, this time it was his name that lent star power to the project, at least in electronic music circles. It's poised for wider release this March, along with an EP of club-minded remixes from Freund and Villalobos. It seems unlikely that Loderbauer will ever be a star on the level of those two, but it's clear he's beginning to stand apart from his more famous peers.
Loderbauer is excited to tell me about what he has on the way: new music from ambiq, a new record with von Oswald, more material from his ongoing collaboration with Villalobos, an ever-growing collection of solo material. But otherwise he's as low-key as you'd imagine—short on self-aggrandizement and not prone to inflating his considerable musical achievements. I ask him about his father, whom I'd read was a composer. "It's not really true. He was studying composition and music, and also conducting. Then, after he finished—that was after the war, and then the kids and stuff—he needed a proper job, so he studied something else and went in a completely different direction. He was always a very good hobby musician, and he also wrote some good Bavarian folk music."
Needless to say, Loderbauer grew up in a musical household, in Munich. His mother was an opera singer, and some of his grandfather's orchestral pieces were recorded for radio broadcast. For his part, Loderbauer studied piano from when he was five until he was 25, and as a young man he entered a sound engineering program in Düsseldorf that combined a conservatory-style music education with technical courses at the University Of Applied Sciences. But he ended up dropping out. "I could never finish my math and physics tests—it was just too hard. Then I was back in Munich on holiday, and a friend of mine, he looked for a keyboard player because he had some free time in a very, very advanced electronic music studio." The Düsseldorf program didn't have much more than a Yamaha DX-7, but surrounded by tape machines, synthesizers and early samplers at the Elmulab, Loderbauer felt inspired. "Everything was there. It was perfect."
Loderbauer eventually found work as a technician for Fairlight, who from the late '70s through the late '80s produced one of the first samplers. He'd travel to studios throughout German-speaking Europe to service the machines and teach engineers how to use them. At a studio with a Fairlight near Nuremberg, Hartmann Digital, Loderbauer befriended Thiel and Stefan Fischer. The three formed Fischerman's Friend, and Thomas Fehlmann, who was acting as a sort of manager and go-between with their record label, got them to join him in Berlin. Fischerman's Friend didn't pan out, but the new city—and the musical partnership with Thiel—did. "Sometimes when we did remixes, we did an alternative ambient remix, and that was called the Sun Electric remix. It was kind of more like an expression for the ambient side of us. After we split up we just kept Sun Electric as our project.
"Tom was more the rhythmical side, and I was more the harmonies, the harmonic sequencer," Loderbauer says, describing an early example of the classic Loderbauer arrangement. Sun Electric kept the pair busy throughout the '90s. They recorded four studio albums and one live record for R&S, and they became one of the key groups on Apollo, the label's ambient offshoot. Sun Electric tours took Loderbauer as far afield as Chile, where, in 1997, he stayed in a house for a couple of weeks with a crew of artists who would help define club music in the following decade: Luciano, Dandy Jack and Villalobos.
I ask Loderbauer if that was the beginning of what would become a fruitful collaboration. "We didn't have too much contact in the next years," he explains. When Villalobos first came to Berlin he moved into a small studio space in the Moabit neighborhood that Loderbauer was just moving out of. It was only after Villalobos moved his studio again and became interested in Loderbauer's specialty—modular synthesizers—that the two really forged a bond. "First he just asked me if I could help him, because he had no idea of the modular stuff," Loderbauer says. "So it started more, in the very beginning, like a little bit of teaching." Loderbauer chuckles at the idea. "But then he took off anyway." The two now meet as musical equals. "When we record stuff our timing is absolutely identical. We don't need to look at each other—we just feel the same.
"It was not really that I was looking for somebody," Loderbauer says, when I ask about the glut of collaborations that came after Sun Electric wrapped up in 2000. "It always happened kind of naturally, by coincidence, just… it happened."
Transparenz wasn't any more deliberate. In late 2011, Loderbauer moved into the Tempelhof studio and bought a Buchla 200e. It was a perfect storm: the studio, his first permanent space for solo music-making, gave him time to record his own music, and mastering the synth provided him with ample inspiration. "All the modules—they do more than they seem to do on first look," he says. His solo compositions would often begin as attempts at solving technical issues he'd never have time to tackle in a collaborative session. (When I ask for an example, he stares at the synth then shakes his head. "No, the thing I thought now was probably too complicated. Nobody would understand it. Probably I wouldn't be able to explain it.") He'd record the explorations, and when they started to pile up on his hard drive, he passed the folder to Freund, who put together an album from his selections. I hear Freund's influence in Transparenz's crisp tone and unfussy sequencing, but the album's wonderfully strange melodies and textural depth are indelibly Loderbauer's—the secret sauce in so many collaborations distilled out for the first time.
It's not easy to unhear, particularly on ambiq. The record is easily the jazziest Loderbauer has had a hand in, well beyond even Re:ECM, with Puntin and Rohrer's considerable chops placed front and center. (The project actually originated in a session with Puntin at Villalobos's studio, the results of which are still unreleased.) But with seemingly no sound untouched by Loderbauer's machines, I imagine I'm listening to an Ornette Coleman record through his ears. Loderbauer explains that's not an unreasonable way of hearing it. "The thing with ambiq is that I don't use sequencers. I have these triggers here—those things attach to the drums, and he plays the Buchla. So he gives the timing to the Buchla. For example, if he plays a bass drum there, it's a note here. Or else you can put a delay in—he play one bass drum, and this thing goes…" As he approximates a series of syncopated synth bleeps, it strikes me that he's still letting his collaborators take the lead on rhythm, even as his synthesizers suffuse their movements.
Loderbauer promises a second ambiq record. "It's a little bit darker—even darker—and more liquid in a way, even more free, a bit more… soundscape. Claudio doesn't play that much clarinet. He still plays clarinet, but not as recognizably as on the first record." He describes a new tool Puntin is using, a big wooden box laden with buttons, valves and a compressor whose sound I can't quite imagine, and he emphasizes that Puntin and Rohrer won't be as recognizable on the instruments they're known for. What about Loderbauer? "No," he says. "I just play synthesizer."
I don't imagine anything else would quite scratch the itch for him. "These are things that I enjoy sitting here and just doing—being very precise, in a way. Then, in the end, if I record something, I still do it very freely. I'm not into going too much into detail. For me, the overall expression is more important than little details."