The space isn't completely stuffed to the gills, but you'll find hardware (or the cardboard-box remnants of eBay and Thomann orders) just about everywhere: stuffed into bookshelves, leaning against wooden support beams, in addition to the arc by the windows where his "on-duty" machines are arranged. It's less studio than workshop, and it's easy to imagine Lauer's unfussy, sun-dappled house music being made in this place.
Pyramide Studio 2 is where Borndom, Lauer's just-released second album, came together. The album, arriving three years after his first album, Phillips, shows a marked progression in his craft—his easy melodies have never shone brighter, and the '80s pop and proto-house touches that have long characterized his sound feel less like reference points than fully absorbed parts of a distinct musical vocabulary. I'd come up to this attic with a raft of questions about the techniques and artistic shifts behind his maturing sound, but I discovered that Lauer, who played in punk bands in the '90s and was part of the acclaimed house act Arto Mwambe, isn't especially philosophical or romantic about his creative process. At any rate, the obvious answer to what happened is that an abundance of practice paid off—Tuff City Kids, his studio project with Gerd Janson, has racked up dozens of remixes over the last few years, for labels as diverse as Mojuba, Crème Organization, Innervisions and Bedrock Recordings.
Over the course of the afternoon, I found Lauer to be charmingly self-effacing, wryly funny and a real natural with his machines. While I peppered him with questions, he sat in a folding chair at the center of his gear and couldn't help but fiddle with the drum machines, synths, samplers and sound effects I was asking about. It never took long before these casual jams started to sound like the beginning of a new Lauer tune.
Let's start at the beginning. Which of these synths came first?
I think the oldest one here is probably this one, the Sirius by Quasimidi. If you want to use trance sounds, that's the one.
When did you get it, and why?
Probably about 2000 or 2001, because it had a microphone. It has a vocoder, which I never got to work. I thought it would make me able to sing, but it didn't.
It's an interesting first synth to end up with. When you started making music, your background had been in rock bands, mostly—playing drums, playing bass.
Yeah, not rock bands. Maybe you'd say punk or hardcore bands. A lot of people have this background, I would say: Legowelt, Orgue Electronique, Willie Burns. Ron Morelli, obviously. They all were hardcore people before. So I guess it's not crazy.
Do you think there's an element of that music in the stuff you make now?
Maybe just the approach—that I'm not totally obsessed with details. That's probably the only thing. And I'm a bit lo-fi. It's not on purpose, I guess.
What got you to make this transition from punk and hardcore to electronic music?
I liked the music, and I thought that I could be the boss—not having to tell others what to do and have them not listen. Something like that. I started buying TV-advertised magic music-maker software, and I found out that it sucked pretty quickly.
Did it make you think you should get into buying actual gear?
It made me go into getting correct, professional software. Then I was computer-only for one or two years before I got the first machines and stuff, the first proper soundcard.
What attracted you to machines over the software you were using?
Maybe the search for a better sound. I didn't like the sounds that came out of the computer—they all sounded like they came out of a computer. But it took quite a long time to get to the point where the machines actually sounded better than the computer. If you record something onto a crappy computer, it sounds worse.
Sounds like getting a good soundcard made a big difference. What are you using now?
Did you get it because it has a sound, or because it doesn't have a sound?
I knew it because I was doing this Arto Mwambe music with Chris [Beißwenger]. He always had an RME, and I knew they sounded—they don't have their own sound, they just sound accurate. Like nothing was going wrong.
You implied you had some soundcards through the years that weren't so accurate.
Yeah, I would say. But I didn't find out until after I got rid of them. I had some discontinued soundcard for a long time. And after I had my RME, I was like, jeez, what was I listening to all the time?
I hear a little of your previous musical life, if you'd call it that, in your drum sounds. They have this kind of live quality I can't quite put my finger on.
That's probably due to the drum machines I'm using. The [E-mu] Drumulator sounds like a real drum set. The LinnDrum, too, and the Simmons drums. I like to trigger everything with the 808.
Which one did you get first?
It was the 808, one I'd always wanted to have. I bought it before they got really expensive—I think I paid €800 for it. And it was in perfect condition.
Holger Wüst [the photographer]: It was in perfect condition.
I didn't know Holger was concerned about this dust! It's a new side of you.
Do you usually start out by programming the drums?
Probably, yeah. Definitely timing-wise. The cowbell from the 808 is the trigger-out.
Because the 808 doesn't have MIDI, right?
It has sync. You can MIDI-fy it, but it's not the same.
Might that simplify things for you?
I record one thing after another. At maximum, I have three MIDI tracks or machines running. [Fires up a couple of his machines as an example.] This is already a Lauer track, I would say. This could be a record already. Sounds like a normal record, no?
So you tend to work fast, not sweating the details?
I would say so, yeah, in a positive sense.
When do you know it's a Lauer record? Is it a particular sound? A particular feeling?
I don't think I'm able to do records other than Lauer records.
It sounds like you get ideas out very quickly, but is there a step in the process that you spend more time on than others?
Maybe picking the sounds. That might take four hours. I could spend a long time going through all the thousands of presets. But that's probably it. I like presets. If I see them for cheap, like sound machines with presets, I prefer them to some super model of synthesizer.
Do you feel like presets get a bad name?
Yeah, but it's always about what you make out of it. It doesn't matter what you're using, as long as it sounds cool. If it's cool, it doesn't matter if you use FruityLoops or whatever. This whole only-analog-blah-blah thing, I can't really relate to it.
We talked about drum sounds before, but your melodies have a particular flavor as well. Where are they coming from?
It's a sampler [the Ensoniq Mirage MDS-8]. I think it's 12 bits. I have the disks.
It's mostly preset sounds on those floppy disks? How did that work back in the day, when this was the height of technology?
I'm basically a preset man. Yeah, these disks were the original ones. There was probably a huge library where you could buy more stuff. I never did them on my own. All of them are bought from eBay. I think I bought some two times. I have some funny ones, like this—someone recorded ambulance and machine gun. I once made a record with the ambulance sound. What I use this for most is piano sounds and drums. They have some cool drum sets. Oh, this is another machine I'm using a lot.
The Kurzweil K2000. What is this—a sequencer, a sampler?
Everything. I just use the sounds because they're great. It's cheap, like €280—it used to be 5,000 Deutsche Marks [about €2,500] or something. I think the Prescription Records people made all their good records with this machine.
Why is it so cheap? Is it just not as trendy as, say, the 808 or some of these other Roland synths?
Well, it's usually something you'd have in a computer plug-in now. It's just sounds, basically. And it's really complicated to get into programming stuff. But there are great sounds in there. I always had the Kurzweil MicroPiano—it's one of my first machines, and it's just a sample player. So I already knew the quality of the sounds is really good.
How often are you getting new gear?
I'm not too crazy about getting more stuff. I don't look at eBay anymore, since two or three years. Mostly it's Gerd [Janson, his partner in Tuff City Kids], who's not yet recovered from the eBay cancer.
He's a bit newer to production than you are, right?
Yeah, but he's collecting machines, basically. Most of them, you buy them now, in five years they'll be twice as expensive. He's building a collection. He said he started to sell some stuff, but I don't believe him.
Tell me about how the two of you work together.
We were planning to have a form, like a worksheet, for sending around [to remix clients]. And people could write down the style they want, the BPM, and then we'd work on that [laughs].
Almost all the stuff you guys do is remixes.
Like 80 percent. And the original stuff comes out of remixes.
So all joking aside about the form, how do you two approach a remix?
Someone asks us, then sends over the parts, and then we get started. We say: "Let's do a techno remix. Let's do an electro remix. Let's do a house remix. Let's do a disco remix."
So you're not so tied to a particular style?
I mean, we've released on [Clarmont 56 sublabel] Leng and Ostgut Ton, so it's a big range I'd say.
So you're a full-time producer now.
Since about last September.
How's that been? Has it changed your production process or sound at all?
Not really. The job I quit, I was working less and less over the last year. It was like one and a half days a week, so it wasn't a big change.
When you were working more full-time, were you having to squeeze in production whenever you had a spare second?
That changed. I can do normal stuff at night, like sleep and read a book. And do the music stuff in the daytime.
Do you treat it more like a job now? Do you come up here every morning, work for most of the day and clock out around 5?
I don't work every day, let's put it like this. When I want to sleep, I sleep.
Did this period coincide with producing Borndom?
I put it together in two or three months late last year, or early this year. But I've been collecting stuff since the last album.
What do you mean by "put it together"?
I had 30 different ideas and sketches, and I saw which ones were OK and which ones sucked. The ones that sucked…
Is this how you tend to work—collect a lot of ideas and wrap them up later?
Usually no. Just for the albums I do this. I don't know why. Usually if something I make I don't like, I never look at it again. If I like something, I won't stop working on it before it's done. [Taps on his computer.] So there's a lot of dead bodies in this machine.
There are some vocals on Borndom. That's new for you, right?
Yeah, that's new. The one with the woman singer ["Alright feat. Ela"], I recorded here. The other one [ESC feat. Jasnau], the guy recorded at home. He records music for himself all the time, so I just sent him the track and he recorded the music.
Did you have much experience recording vocals before this record?
So what was your approach? Did you just try some things out and see what sounded good?
Yeah. The desk is not so bad, sound-wise.
What can you tell me about it? It looks really nice.
It's an AMEK. It's pretty high quality. It was a big step up from when I had this old Tascam thing, which is in the back still. This is something I could sell. Want to buy a Tascam desk [laughs]?
Is it your preferred way of working, to break everything out onto the board and put the tracks together with the faders?
I usually don't do it. I record track after track, then I have a stereo signal. Then I arrange everything. Sometimes when I mix stuff, I put everything there just for sound purposes, because the EQs are nice. I record one part at a time. It's not live-mixed or whatever, but I record everything through the board.
When you're doing a track with vocals, does your production process change at all? Are you thinking more about structure as you're writing?
I never think about things being structured. But maybe I stopped adding more layers of synthesizers when I knew that somebody had to sing. I think most of the time, the synthesizers replace the singers in some way. Like, with instrumental music, if you listen to instrumentals, there's something missing.
Did the singers write all the parts themselves? How much input did you have in what they recorded?
With Ela, we kind of worked out everything together: the text, the melody. The other guy, Jasnau, was pretty much doing this on his own. I sent him the track on his own. I sent him the track and some samples, YouTube links, what I thought it could sound like. He came back with it pretty quickly.
Do you feel like anything else change between your first album, Phillips, and the new one?
I moved to this studio. Got better gear. And you know, experience. Three more years, 50 remixes later…
You DJ often, but you're also playing live a fair amount. Take me through your set.
It's a live-mix kind of concept. I have a fully programmed [set], and I have a mixer, a dub siren and some little synths that run in a [Roland TR-] 505 with a drum roll on it.
Is the goal to faithfully recreate your records, or are you more interested in just jamming?
I'm trying to get away with it. I'm trying to get away with being drunk in a club and looking busy [laughs]. I've played with a lot of people, and with Arto Mwambe, we went through all kinds of different concepts, from live looping everything to more complex performances. For my Lauer set, I could do it drunk in a dark club, in front of an Orc army, and pack it in later and not lose anything or break anything. It's not expensive machines in there. But it's a lot of fun. Playing records is not really more complicated than that.