K's kept a resolutely low profile over the years, quietly releasing white labels through Hard Wax. I arrived at his home studio in Friedrichshain in the middle of a jam session between him and his old friend DB1 (who stuck around and offered the occasional thought). As we talked, his responses to my questions were measured and almost painfully aware of the subjective nature of talking about music. But K is no stone-faced techno type—he's positively energised by the prospect of making unclassifiable music on his fleet of Elektron, Moog and Vermona machines.
This energy is palpable in K's productions and the music he releases on his label, Hidden Hawaii, which touches the pleasure centres that fans of techno, drum & bass and ambient share in common. This shapeshifting quality is reflected in complex technicalities—his records often work equally well at 33 and 45 RPM on the turntable, and he's used arcane algorithms for creating rhythms based on Euclidean geometry—but this isn't music that challenges convention for the sake of it. K's fluid approach is the result of years spent exploring the grey areas between the categories from which most producers never break free.
Would you generally agree that drum & bass production operates at a higher technical level—in terms of the complexity of the programming and the impact of the mixdown—than slower genres?
Drum & bass producers always seem to have louder mixdowns with a fuller frequency range, so you have waveforms that look like bricks. Perhaps they put much more effort into their mixdowns, but this isn't necessarily always a good thing. I don't want to say that techno or house producers have inferior mixes—they're different approaches and maybe there's more headroom in their productions. Having said that, it's definitely harder to make drum & bass as a producer because you have much more information in a track. The tempo is higher and there are more elements. For instance, you'll use layers and layers of samples rather than just one drum machine. Some jungle and drum & bass productions from the past have so many ideas and nuances that every corner is overflowing with details.
I'm wary of generalising because where there's a rule, there's an exception. There are house producers with mixdowns that are really loud and perfectly executed in a technical sense. On the other hand, I'm not sure if this loudness is good for the music, no matter the genre. There are great drum & bass productions with plenty of headroom and you don't have the feeling that somebody is screaming at you all the time.
Could you hazard a guess as to why drum & bass production became so finely tuned? Why didn't the same happen with house for instance?
I can only guess. Genres like techno, house and reggae had a historical lineage that provided a setting for their sound, whereas drum & bass's roots were relatively younger. The sound of early hardcore and jungle was in flux—it hadn't yet settled into a tradition. Drum & bass producers tended to use samplers more intensively than, say, a house artist who could find all the sounds they need in the classic machines from the '80s. I also think drum & bass production was much more competitive because of its connection to soundsystem culture, and this helped fuel the push to increase the range of sounds.
So drum & bass producers used their equipment differently, but later on it seemed that things became much more set to a certain template and the development stopped. At the moment, it seems like the techno world is where things are developing.
Perhaps there's a connection between the stagnation of drum & bass and the higher levels of technical expertise. Maybe those production skills can be something of a double-edged sword.
Drum & bass has always been more hardcore. It's not really open music and it doesn't seek to include everyone. It's a specialty that caters to the insiders and there are a lot of dogmas you have to follow. If you do something a little bit different, you're out. Artists like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher certainly had something to do with drum & bass, but they were beyond the dogmas and broke the tradition. Back in the day, I never heard drum & bass DJs play Aphex Twin in a club. I did it once but the club was completely empty so nobody noticed.
So the goal in drum & bass is to have the best mixdown whereas in techno and house the goal seems to lie in an idea of authenticity: you need to have the real 909, 303 and so on, whereas a drum & bass producer doesn't think they need a certain machine or sound from a specific era to make their music. In techno, there's this urge to have sounds that go back to the roots.
What was your first setup like?
I think I got my first computer in 1995. It had a soundcard with an onboard chip that you could use for sampling. Then I had Cubase and a tracker program, nothing more. My music didn't sound good at the beginning, but I was just curious to learn how everything works. All the music I made was with samples. I had no synthesisers.
When I was really young I was having fun making pretty horrible neue Deutsche welle-style music with my friends. My neighbours hated me and my friends because we were shouting and singing in my old bedroom. I also tried to make music that sounded like what I listened to at the time, like Autechre, or some drum & bass stuff that I heard on the radio.
Making that detailed music back in the '90s must've been extremely labour intensive.
Felix K: Sometimes it took you half a day to get a sample running. Then it's one in the morning and you have to go to school the next day. So you'd press a button, sit back and wait ages for it to load.
DB1: Even getting a breakbeat going was a chore on the early hardware samplers. You'd chop up the sample, map the sounds to the keyboard, sync it to MIDI, get the MIDI playing it back, and then half an hour has passed before you even had a sound coming out. Whereas with modern computers, it's just drag it in, warp it and it's done.
Were you working primarily in higher tempos in these early stages, or were you always drawn to variety of styles?
I think at the beginning I was mixing many styles. I had no idea what tempo drum & bass even was. I had no number in my mind. To get the tempo of a record, I would sit there playing a jungle track with a calculator in my hand, and I'd push one and then + on every beat for a minute, and then end up with a number around 163 BPM. But there was a time when I was very focused on drum & bass and that higher tempo. I was caught in the genre for something like six or seven years. Afterwards, I think it was in 2006, I opened up again and then everything was possible.
Is it only somewhat recently that you've started working in more techno-oriented contexts?
Nobody knows the stuff I produced when I was really into pure drum & bass because nothing came out—and I think I lost the hard drive with all those old tracks—but in those days some friends would say to me, "Yes, this is 170 BPM but it sounds like techno." When I bought drum & bass records I'd gravitate to the more techno-inflected releases rather than those big rave monsters with the Hoover basses.
At the moment it feels like there's more diversity in techno, and you can end up playing strange stuff that doesn't have a straight kick drum in the middle of the night. If it works, if the flow's right, everybody's like, "That's cool." Maybe it's experimental, but nobody's leaving the dance floor to demonstrate to you that you messed up. Although I'm sure there are many techno nights happening where you wouldn't risk it.
A lot of people out there have the opposite impression of techno. Do you find it easy to bridge generic gaps in the mix?
The range between 130 and 160 BPM can be quite fluid. There's some tracks on Grey Area that can be mixed in at around 128, but there are cross rhythms which make it possible to mix out with a drum & bass tempo. And if the drum & bass track you're bringing in has a techno aesthetic, I've found that sometimes the audience doesn't even realise you've made the transition from one to other. I'm really happy when this works because there's always a sense of risk.
When I DJ I have a USB stick which ranges from 90 to 170 BPM, so I can start slow and get faster and faster over the set. Or you can always use a beatless transition track to jump between tempos. I think this is the most exciting thing you can do as a DJ at the moment.
Did your experience in drum & bass give you a set of skills that allowed you to approach techno in a different way?
I wouldn't call them skills but perhaps a wider sense of freedom. Honestly, I have no idea how to make straight techno tracks. I tried it once with these machines—I set up a straight kick drum, straight hi-hats and tried to make a banger for fun. Then after some time I couldn't resist changing things, and it wasn't straight-up techno anymore. I didn't bring conformity, but I don't know, to be honest. Maybe you have an idea . . .
It's hard to define, but I think you get the sense that your tracks weren't made by someone who's only made techno. Techno tends to be structured as a single sound mass, whereas higher tempo genres revolve around opposing elements.
Of course with some techno sets you get the feeling that it's the same track for the whole time, but I guess that's the point. Drum & bass records tend to leave gaps of near silence before a drop, not in the EDM sense, but a point of impact where the rhythms change, and that's something I like to have in my tracks that perhaps speaks to my past.
On the other hand, a lot of your music doesn't have beats at all. What sort of sound sources are you using for your ambient pieces?
Yeah, good question. I think the Flowers Of Destruction album was sample-based and there were field recordings in it. But it was all made in the computer. I made a sample library in the '90s that I still use after 15, 20 years. I have no idea where I got them from, but at the moment I don't use them so often because I'm using these machines. But I still have the folder, and from time to time I go back to it.
That's pretty good longevity for a sample pack.
Yes, but I think they're not even that good. There are a lot of crappy samples that I never used, but they're still in this folder. I worship this folder! I put them in the Octatrack in case I need it.
When you're tracking stuff now, there's no computer?
At the moment, the signal path is completely analogue until it gets to an AD convertor before it hits the recorder. But I have an option to use the computer as an insert point, so I can use it as a sound source too, though I'm not using it much these days.
So you're essentially performing a track and the structure stays how you played it?
At the moment, I jam a little bit, then I record a take while tweaking some parameters, and that's the track. On the computer you can make much more complex arrangements but right now I'm interested in recording quick sketches, getting it out and not keeping it too long. Then after I've made a lot of loops I can look back and choose what I want to develop into something bigger. I'm trying to focus on this more intuitive way of working because a lot of my work in the past was very deliberate. I want there to be more room for chance and make things happen that are beyond my control. Sometimes you connect your machines in a certain way and something comes out that you couldn't have guessed beforehand, or that you couldn't have made happen if you tried.
I got too used to the computer and it felt like I came to a dead end. There are still millions of opportunities to explore on the computer, but music is for the ears and not the eyes, and I was watching a screen for too long. I often had points where I thought I would stop making music because the fun was gone, but I realised it's too important and that I needed to make a change. Getting these machines has allowed me to go on.
Are you trying to cultivate situations where you sacrifice your agency as a producer in pursuit of sounds you couldn't have made through your own ideas?
We know of a tradition in art music where chance factors are given the freedom to heavily shape a piece of music, but in the dance music world, most producers just do predictable stuff. I have no academic background in music but I still like experiments. I'm always more happy with a track that doesn't fit in, if it has its own character. There's a strong force that keeps me away from crossing ground that's already been covered. Still, there are so many people making music that you inadvertently find yourself moving in the same direction as others. For example, the Samurai crew changed from a strict drum & bass label to something very open-minded and interesting, and when I see one of those guys I know we have common ground. It's a good feeling to see that you're not alone.
Even though you're performing tracks on these machines, the final product doesn't seem to sacrifice the nuances present in your earlier music. Is it the Elektron sequencers that allow you to maintain this detail in the hardware domain?
At the moment all the sounds and sequences come from the Elektron devices. I realised that if I wanted to maintain the control I had with the computer, I'd have to buy an Octatrack. I ended up with the Analog Four and Analog Rytm as well, and the three devices work very well together because you can set song markers in the Octotrack that the other two follow. They're pretty hard to learn but at least they're built with the same logic. I'm still looking at the manual a lot, but it's getting better.
Are you working the raw sounds from the Elektron gear pretty hard? There's a lot of outboard here.
Felix K: The Elektron devices have filters and effects themselves already. The drums are going through the patch bay without any processing. The current setup is oriented to maybe doing a live show in the future. A Moog Sub 37 goes through the Vermona spring reverb and into a Meeblip Anode for pad sounds. The Minitaur is filtered through a Vermona Filter Lancet, and I can sculpt the bass in ways I couldn't achieve with the computer. The racks on the right are inspired by Pultec EQs and there's a Drawmer compressor over there, too. Everything ends up in a Neve summing mixer. When you put drums and samples through these, you don't need anything else.
It almost sounds so good that you don't have to write music anymore. Of course, it's not that easy, but the valves and transistors in these units really take things up a notch. They're far too expensive, but you can't get much better unless you're willing to sell your house for it. I still question these purchases on principal, but when I switch them on, I'm content.
DB1: When you're mixing stuff down you're often looking for that magic device you can switch on to elevate impact and presence; those EQs, the compressor and also the summing mixer give you an instant sparkle that'd take you hours to eke out on a computer. I remember when I found out how much those pieces are, and I was like, "Wow, can that really be worth it?" And then when I heard them, I changed my tune.
A lot of capable producers get to the pre-master stage and convince themselves their track needs more oomph, and when they don't know how to add it though technique alone, they might look to these expensive racks.
That's true but it shouldn't concern you too much. If you make interesting tracks with a different structure and sound design, they're going to sound different anyway. If you want to sound like all the others, you have to make tracks like all the others. Some of my stuff isn't very high volume, but if you look at the frequency spectrum there are certain bands that are disproportionately louder than others. To your ear it maybe sounds like the track isn't loud enough or the presence isn't like what you hear on other peoples' records. But some aspects are very loud, just not everything all the time.
So impact and volume is always relative?
Yeah. Processing plays a big part but at the end of the day, if you have a good sounding sub-bass and you want people to hear it, you have to turn everything else down. If someone wants to hear your track at a certain volume they can just turn it up on a mixer. The mastered tracks you play as a DJ are so loud that the gain settings only need to be in the middle, so you have a lot of headroom to bring your quieter track up to the same level. If your mixdown is balanced, you're fine. You can process it all you want but then it sounds like all the rest.
A lot of Hidden Hawaii tracks work well at both 45 and 33 RPM. Is this something you can plan as you're making a track? Or do you get the test pressing back and realise after the fact that it works both ways?
It doesn't work all the time. For example, the Emile record  doesn't work at 45, but all the other records we've released so far work on both speeds. The record I did with Wan.2 works at 33—not as a club banger, but it'll work in more relaxed contexts. This is something we specifically want to do with this series of records. I think the next three will work on both speeds. If we make a track that's a little slower, we'll press it at 33 but then you can play it at 45. The faster tracks are pressed at 45 but then slow down nicely at 33. So yes, we do it on purpose but it's hard to perfect. For instance, the impact of a kick drum is difficult to maintain because the snap and frequency response are drastically different at each tempo, but we're not too focused on big kick drums anyway. The idea is to have a record with four tracks, but with eight ways to play them. I think there's room for this pliable approach to tempo.
Is there a way to check this during the production process? Do you bounce out demos, slow them down, and lower the pitch?
You can press a dubplate to double check, but most of the time we just wait and see.
You get a lot of your records cut by LXC in Leipzig, who's a drum & bass veteran in his own right. Is his understanding of the genre important for getting the type of cut you want?
We know each other and have a relaxed relationship. Nothing happens too fast. We're not submitting tracks saying, "We have to release this next month." Sometimes you have to wait a while, considering how busy R.A.N.D. is, but it's not a business relationship. It's more like, if I'm in Leipzig or he's in Berlin, we meet to sit in a cafe and chat. He has a good feel for our sound and he's known my productions for a long time, and they really sound much better after he's had his time with them. It's important that we like each other and have mutual respect—there are dozens of good mastering engineers out there, but with LXC it's more than just business.
Some of your recent work has rhythmic cycles that make the position of the downbeat ambiguous, almost as if you're letting the listener decide where the pulse lies. It also means you can mix it in many different ways.
Felix K: Both of us have done a lot of experiments with polyrhythms and DB1 has brought some Euclidean rhythms into the game. There's no beginning or end point to each loop so you could be anywhere in the cycle. With the Elektron gear you can change the step length for each instrument, so it's easy to overlap odd patterns of 14 or 13 steps for instance. I like the idea that listeners can decide on their own starting point.
Algorithms can allow sounds to explore their own path. If you subdivide rhythms in certain ways, you can set different patterns in motion that create the sensation of two simultaneous tempos. A kick drum can be implying 130 BPM but other patterns cross over in ways that allow you to follow other speeds. I think there are many people trying to do this at the moment. I read about it in every second interview.
DB1: I think the hardware jamming thing helps as well, because when you make a track in Logic or Ableton, you've got the grid in front of you as a perpetual reminder of 4/4 and structures organised by bars of 16 and 32. But on these machines, especially when you're just trying to figure out how to use them, you can get off the grid really quick.
Euclidean rhythms were only "discovered" in 2006—they're a pretty trendy way to sequence in the modular world.
The algorithm accounts for many traditional patterns. I find them much more danceable, like you have to respond to them. At the moment they feel different but maybe it'll get boring when everyone's doing Euclidean rhythms. One day it could be like, "Yeah, I'm going to the Euclidean party tonight."
I find it interesting because Euclidean geometry shows that natural structures and patterns don't occur in series that are divided by two, like the patterns found in most music. A wave has two points, which we can explain with binary code as a 1, 0, 1, 0 pattern, and though it's constantly moving in one direction, it's not evolving. Euclid's way or describing nature is better. Evolution and development isn't so easily subdivided. It's an interesting concept to apply to music.