I'd heard from other producers in Berlin that Jonson's studio was one of the most enviable in the city, so I was quick to accept the invitation to see where his inimitable sound comes together. After heeding his no-shoes policy and making my way to the center of the cozy space, I could see what his peers were talking about. Arranged in a V-shape extending out from a mixing desk, Jonson has just about every canonical synth and drum machine you could think of, from the Roland classics and Yamaha polys through to a varied modular system and some choice obscurities. Jonson was keen to discuss his gear and the stories behind some of these pieces, but he also stressed that creativity and musicianship are more important than owning rare hardware. Still, it's nice to have it if you can, and with one of the more grueling touring schedules in the business—see his excellent fabric 84 for evidence of why his live set is in high demand—Jonson has truly earned himself this ultimate synth cave.
Tell me about your musical background. How did you wind up producing electronic music?
I remember from a very young age being obsessed with breakdancing and stuff.
When would that have been?
Whenever Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" came out. I saw a breakdance competition on the television, and they were playing that song. I was already into breakdancing, but I heard that song and was like, "Oh wow, OK, what's this?" But I didn't know what it was, and then it went to commercial, so I just lost it. But I had it in my head for years.
My dad was really into studio equipment and stuff. He ran a theater as part of a recreation center in the city I grew up in. He would take me and sit me down in the control booth while there was a full theater production, plays, bands, anything. I would just sit and watch the engineers mix the whole concert. So I was always like super infatuated by studio equipment—I was four or five years old at that point. That was kind of the beginning.
Then I just started messing around with the synthesizers. And because of starting to take piano lessons—in 1986, when I was nine, my father and mother decided they wanted to put me in piano lessons—they got a really basic sequencer and a synthesizer. It just kind of started from there. And then I slowly got into computers and stuff as that happened in the early '90s, before computers could run audio. I was using Cakewalk—I think it's still around but nobody uses it. And then, I guess it would have been about 1995, there was a new Roland, the MC-303, that was supposed to emulate all of the analog equipment. A bunch of friends and I were pretty excited about this coming out and all got them, but they didn't really fill that need of what we were hearing and all the music that we were listening to. At that point I'd just started going to parties, so I was meeting DJs and people in the music scene. That was kind of the bridge into the hardware, analogue stuff.
So the MC-303 gave you your first real taste of the hardware behind dance music?
I mean, it doesn't really allow you to. It gives you a taste of sound, but not a good taste of it. So after getting the MC-303, my friends and I were just like, "OK, let's go for the real thing." So we started hunting down equipment. I had a bit of money because I was lifeguarding at the time and still living with my parents, and my parents were nice enough to also lend me some money. So I got an SH-101, an MC-202, a JX-3P. I made all my music with pretty much just the 909, 606, 101, JX-3P, those were like all the early Itiswhatitis records, and that was pretty much my rig for a long time. I didn't really have anything else.
Having heard the classic Roland sounds for ages without using the actual gear, do you remember what it was like to get your hands on the hardware? Did it feel like a completely different experience?
Yeah. It was really difficult to use the synthesizers. All of a sudden, having the 101, for instance, it took a while to understand the synthesis side of it. When you use computers and you're using digital sounds, usually you're starting from a preset. So starting with synthesizers that have no presets and are simply sliders and knobs and buttons… it definitely took a couple years before I felt like I actually knew how to make the sounds that I wanted to, that I was hearing in my head. And the 101 is a great one to learn with because it's really simple. It only has one envelope, one filter, one oscillator and one LFO. That was a perfect way of learning, actually. The JX-3P is a little bit more complicated. But between these two synths, you can have all your polyphonic sounds on the JX-3P—nice chords, ambience, these kind of sounds—and the 101 for basslines or lead tones or whatever.
You've said in interviews before that you're not a big tinkerer. You have a sound you're going for, and you know how to get it. It seems like this period of learning your way around synthesis would have been the beginning of this tendency.
Yeah, I mean, when it comes to modular equipment I'll definitely still experiment a lot. If you're getting into like FM synthesis especially, you don't really know what's going to happen a lot of the time. But with having a greater understanding of synthesis, you can certainly point yourself in the right direction. When I started I had no idea, so it was really experimentation. I had some classical piano training, so at least I knew I could kind of work my way around a keyboard. But as far as actually making the tones come, it was difficult. Now I can make the sound that I want, and then if I want to experiment something with it afterwards, sure, I can do that. To have the understanding of how all this equipment works just allows you to open so many new doors. Then what you end up experimenting with is actually more the musicality of things, melodies and harmonies.
When did you feel like you'd started to know your way around synthesis?
It's different with every single machine. There's a couple machines that I just recently got, and this PPG wave is one of them. It's super complicated to use. I only know the very basics of it. But it's really deep. It's a wavetable synthesizer, it's multi-timbral, it has a sequencer inside of it—it does a lot of things that I still haven't learned at all how to use. All I've been doing with it is actually just playing it by hand so far. I had it synced to MIDI once, and it was crashing and stuff. They're not the most stable machines but they sound incredible.
There's always a learning curve, and that's kind of why I enjoy buying synthesizers. The things I'm learning now aren't necessarily so much about the synthesis, it's more learning the actual, like, how does the gear work, what menus do you have to go through, what are you diving into with the machine? Most of the synthesis works pretty much exactly the same, just some synthesizers have more parameters than others, more ways of routing things than others. But in general, if you know synthesis, you can use pretty much any synthesizer.
Your collection started with Roland. When did you start to branch out?
I guess it was when I started making a bit more money with touring. I started getting into more expensive things just because I had the money, and it's always been a dream to have other things [beyond the Roland pieces]. Actually, the majority of the music I've made was with more affordable equipment. All the fancy pieces in my studio—most of them haven't even made it onto more than one or two records.
As your collection grew, how were you finding out about gear? Was the internet already a good source of information?
Sure, yeah. I mean, I've learned a lot through friends, through bands that I've listened to. For instance, the EMS VCS 3 here, this is like the classic Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon synth you hear all over that album.
These synths are legendary.
That was always an absolute dream for me. That was one thing that I was kind of like, "Wow, OK, that's something I really want and am probably never going to own." But I was lucky. It's not an original one, but a remake that they did in the '90s, from Cornwall. I'm a real bottom-feeder. Like I'm constantly on eBay, I'm constantly shopping, but I don't buy stuff for expensive prices. I wait until that one sale where there weren't any bidders that wanted it, and I get lucky.
The way you talk about collecting synths reminds me of the way diggers talk about buying rare records. Would you call yourself a synth digger?
Yeah, it's exactly the same. You can go into a record store in New York where they've got tons of stuff and spend thousands of dollars on rare disco records or something like that. But is that necessary? And is it worth that much? It's the same in the synthesizer world, like prices for analog equipment have skyrocketed. And the inflation on them is totally insane, and in my opinion most of the synthesizers are not worth paying the amount of money that you find them on German eBay for. Because we're in Germany and there are so many artists here, and a lot of them are professionals and making money, the prices are ridiculous.
I have the odd bad experience where I'll get my hopes up for something. I had a Yamaha CS-80 in here from France. It was sold to me that it was going to be in perfect condition, and it didn't work at all. The guy had to drive it back to Lyon.
This Yamaha CS-30, I got it also for a super good deal, like half price. I was like, "OK, it's kind of sketchy, this guy doesn't have a very good seller rating." But it was such a good deal, I thought, "You know what? I'm just gonna roll the dice." It showed up, and it had obviously been in a flood. I opened it up, and mud and sand came out of the whole synthesizer and the whole carrying case. So someone sold me something that had got waterlogged. But I cleaned it up and it works fine. I mean, for me it's fun. I like bidding on stuff. It's like a game, you know? And to do it on synthesizers, when that's what you love, it's fun.
You don't just have a synth, then, but a great story and a personal connection with the piece.
I really like the design of a lot of synthesizers, too. Having the interface, having the visual aspect of it—it's also important to me. I just love all of it. I love old analog equipment.
The sound is obviously one thing to love and be inspired by. But are there synths for you where the workflow and interface are also really inspiring?
Certainly. This one here, the Yamaha CS-60, is probably my favorite synthesizer in the studio—it's between that and the VCS-3. But the VSC-3 is not necessarily an intuitive way of working, it's more… it's kind of crazy. But this one's great. Because it's so big, everything's in hand's reach. If you want to touch something, it's got big knobs, there's lots of room in between them. I mean, nobody wants to carry them around, they're super heavy. But as a musician, you want to have something that's really an instrument, and comfortable. This is also more expressive than anything as well. It has aftertouch on all the keys, and it's also got pedals for both feet that are controlling things. You can assign the aftertouch to many different things: to the VCO, to the VCF, the filters, the level. And then on your feet you've got volume, control of the portamento. Then also you've got control of the filter with the keys, so you can be super, super expressive.
It's funny. As you're playing it now, I recognize the sound immediately from your records. This one definitely makes it onto a lot of your tracks.
It has recently for sure. And it's just because of the layout. Everything's within reach, and it just makes it really easy to play. You can play the keyboard and touch all of the parameters of the synthesizer with ease. And having those parameters assigned to the actual notes and the aftertouch and your feet, it's amazing. Other synths, like the SH-101, it's also super intuitive, everything's on sliders so it's easy to adjust things while you're making sounds. This is something I always bring for live sets, because it's just so intuitive and so basic. It's got an incredibly basic sequencer inside of it where you hit load, you play a sequence of notes—not necessarily in the rhythm you need to play them whatsoever—and you hit play, and then you send it a trigger from a drum machine which dictates the rhythm of the sequence. So if you play five notes into the sequencer and then have five triggers coming from the drum machine, then you have a proper loop. You can have ten notes, you could have 20 notes—any multiple of whatever amount of triggers you have coming in.
To have this on stage playing the Modern Deep Left Quartet or Cobblestone Jazz, I can go in the headphones and write new basslines or melody lines in a minute, and then that's the next part of our set for five minutes. A lot of this old stuff, I think they spent a lot of time on making it usable. That's one thing about a lot of the new equipment: it doesn't seem so comfortable to use.
Tell me about how you've laid out the studio. When you're at the board, you're flanked by synths.
Yeah. It's basically this whole left side of the studio is run by the Cirklon Sequentix sequencer—an amazing, amazing sequencer—or run off triggers from the drum machines. Then there's all the modular equipment, which works hand in hand with them in a lot of ways. If I'm sitting over here working, I've got control over the whole mixer, and it's organized so that if I'm doing a lot of mixing live, recording to a stereo track and doing everything on the fly, I can have all the elements of the studio within arm's reach. That's why I have the studio set up the way it is, because I can actually touch both sides of it.
And also, too, when I'm sitting here and mixing, I've got the things that I immediately change while I'm mixing right there. If I want to bring up the filter on the 101 or change the decay on the 909 or tweak the bassline on the Prophet-5, I can do that all and hit buttons on the mixer or dub out effects—you know, whatever. Because it's my studio, it just becomes like the back of my hand, and I can make music without really thinking about it. I've spent some time at Studio Stekker or doing things with music conferences and stuff like that, and I'm always excited to do these things. But at the same time I'm always kind of like, "I should have just taken a week or two in my studio alone or with some friends." Because to have all your gear set up in a similar way is really important. When I'm playing live, all the gear has to be placed in exactly the same place if I'm going to play a good show.
Your mixing board is the centerpiece of the setup. What have you got here?
It's an APB-DynaSonics ProDesk, 32 mono channels with eight stereo channels and ten buses. It's got quite an extensive matrix system on it as well, which I use for feedbacking effects and doing different things with the modular equipment. The nice thing about it is it has quite specific control on every channel and lots of auxiliary settings. It's got high-pass filters on every channel and a really nice EQ section, and it has nine auxiliary sends, so the first four auxiliary sends are sent to my rack effects units. I've got a Lexicon 300. A Yamaha D5000 delay, there's a TC Electronic M5000 TL electronic. It's all very organized, from top to bottom, the same as the top to bottom on my auxiliaries, and I've got them all returning at the end into the stereo channel, which allows you to reroute them rather than putting them into effects returns. The last five auxiliary sends go out to the modular equipment. I've got the outputs from the modulars on the board here ready and waiting. It makes it really easy to twist and turn frequencies and change everything.
I can also get groups on the desk, which makes it easy for doing progressions. So if I want to mute all the drums, I just touch one button. If I'm doing a mix and have a rough outline of some changes—if I want to do a breakdown or something like that—I can do that with mute groups. I can really be dubbing something out, maybe for half an hour, and then be like, "OK, I want a breakdown, but I don't have enough fingers in order to hit this part of the desk," so I can do that with just one button. The desk also has non-click mute buttons, so that there's no snapping or clicking or anything.
With the buses, I'm using them as a way of routing all my compression. And so because there are eight sub-groups on the desk, I've got a Neve compressor, a Manley, an API 2500, and then a Huge, which is kind of like a Urei 1178 clone. And it's really nice because I can have a bassline on the desk and assign it to any of those compressors just at the touch of a button—it's all pre-routed, which is great for parallel compression. It just makes the workflow really nice.
You just mentioned that you're working with a number of compressors. Your music has a distinct pressure to it, and your individual sounds can really pop. Do you think the way you use compression is a big part of that?
Funnily enough, I didn't have any compressors in my studio for many years. The dynamics were actually coming more from modulation of filters and modulation of the amplitudes of instruments. I think a lot of it just came down to the fact that the machines just kind of do that, you know? Like the 808 and the 909, they have a real feeling, and they have a real punch and snap to them. I was in the studio last night doing a remix with my brother [Hrdvsion] and we had some 808 samples on the computer, for instance, and we were kind of like, "We need to compress it. We need to do something to make it come out of the mix and be fat." And then he went to go get a snack, and I was showing my girlfriend how to use the 808—the real 808—and it sounded so huge with no effects. I'm not really sure why it's such a huge difference, but it just is, you know?
There's a reason why I use analog equipment and run it directly into the desk—it just has so much life to it. Later, I did get some basic compression and started using it very, very moderately, certainly not this super-extreme side-chaining that's kind of the fad. When I use the compression, it's more just a way of bringing out the sounds a little bit, bringing out some harmonics, using it on vocals.
What I find with compressors is that they add this kind of end silkiness or polish to the sounds that I just didn't have before. But to be honest, my ears weren't trained well enough to even hear that. It's funny, I'll listen to my old mixes, even "Typerope," that are still getting repressed every couple months and people play all the time. I listen to those mixes—the original mixes—and they're garbage. There's so much line noise, and the bass is way out of control and everything. But luckily the mastering engineer put noise reduction on it and then runs it through a Urei 1176 and saves my ass. But really, I didn't know how to mix back then. At all. And my ears were terrible, too, because I wasn't listening to what was actually coming out of the speakers.
As you get older—like, for sure I've got hearing loss. But I think having the experience of listening to music and the way that your brain interprets all of the frequencies of the sounds you're listening to, it takes years and years. I don't think most people are capable of hearing music on a higher level until they have spent a lot of time doing it. And that just means getting older.
As a veteran producer, what's the frontier for you these days? In what ways are you still developing?
I'm always playing with this balance: you want to have a higher level of production, but the other side is that when you're young, you have this intensity to your productions, you have this urgency. Maybe you're more excited about it, maybe you're just going through more crazy stuff in life or whatever. There's this balance that needs to be found between really producing things and also just letting your soul explode onto the speakers.
So now I'm trying to be super free in here. After I released the album on Crosstown Rebels a couple years ago, I said to myself I was going to really let myself experiment and see if I could accomplish some new sounds, new genres, new styles—just really let myself be free and not be hindered whatsoever by thinking, "Let's put out a dance record." I've been writing a lot of music on the piano, a little bit in the direction of Nils Frahm or something like that—but, you know, me. I've been collaborating with a lot of people in the last year. I'm having a lot more fun with it right now, really enjoying the studio and enjoying being in here. And if that means writing ballads for piano, or if that means writing strange ambient music, then that's what I do. That's kind of an enlightening feeling. I've been in the dance world for a long time, and I've had lots of success, and yeah—it's nice, as you get older, just to do new things.
I'd love to talk a little more about your synths. Why don't we start by talking more about your modular. Can you talk me through what's going on over here?
Happily. It's not the best setup right now, unfortunately, but… you can see the VSC-3 here in the middle.
You're using that as part of the modular system right now?
It's part of the modular, yeah. And the reason why it's part of the modular and not standalone is because of this box down here, which is made by Digitana. It's this amazing guy, I think he's a physicist in a university in the UK. But he's always had a love with anything from EMS. He's made these beautiful boxes that allow you to MIDI-fy and CV-control the VSC-3, which before was only possible with a DK1 keyboard.
I wouldn't have known this box wasn't also made by EMS. It looks like it's from the same era.
It matches exactly, doesn't it? It allows me to completely integrate this thing into the rest of the modular equipment. The VSC-3 is a really funny synthesizer actually. It doesn't have a lot of the traditional parameters that you want to make musical sounds. For instance, to have an envelope that you can only change the amplitude of the negative polarity is very strange, because you pluck a string on a guitar and the frequency jumps up as the string is plucked and then it gets softer. Whereas here you can't do that—here it gets softer when the envelope hits and then harder afterwards. It's quite strange, but it's beautiful-sounding, and you can make lots of sounds with it that are very precise, due to the way the oscillators are laid out. But to integrate that and use it with all the other stuff in the modular rig is amazing. I can run a clean signal from the EMS into an envelope over here and utilize all these things instead.
In the rack I've got lots of Cwejman stuff. I think my favourite module in this rack right now is probably the their FSH-1 frequency shifter. It's used in every single track that I make, sometimes just as a basic panner, sometimes as a ring modulator. I've got some really nice new stuff from Intellijel, like their Atlantis is a fantastic synth based on an SH-101, but every way possible you could expand it is pretty much done. So that's a really beautiful synthesizer. I'm super into the Cwejman stuff, though, like I've got the resonator and phaser, some nice transient generators and envelopes.
Their stuff is highly regarded across the board. Why do you think that is?
It's really scientific and precise and very, very clean sounding. People complain that it's too clean. It can actually be difficult to fit some of their synthesis stuff into a mix, because it's just so powerful and so clean and precise that you have to give it its own space.
This part here is part of the modular rig as well: a Roland System 100. This is the oldest module I have, and actually probably still like the nicest sounding bass in the studio. You can make acoustic guitars, you can make acoustic bass guitars or electric slap bass or whatever with these things, and it sounds authentic. It's just because of the math behind it, like the envelopes are timed a certain way, the filters—everything has its own parameters and own characteristics. And that's nice, because then you have all these different colors of sound that you can work with.
There's certain things that get a lot more use than others. I am completely obsessed with synthesizers. I probably spend half of the money that I make on the road in the studio.
That's a good point: the way that you're able to have all of this stuff is because you've had success as a live performer. What's the relationship between what you do in the studio and what you do on the road?
My live setup is actually very similar. And I think that's why, when I play live and then come in the studio, it's kind of the same thing. When I'm on the road, I have all my drum machines in write mode anyways, and I've got the 101 to make new basslines. I've got the computer on the road as well, which is playing all different parts from songs, but it's all sounds that are from this studio. I don't really use plug-ins or anything like that, so it feels the same. I set up my mixer when I'm playing live exactly as I set up my mixer in the studio. The size of the mixer is almost the same, the effects are very similar. It's kind of like taking the studio on the road, just in a much more compact form.
You just released a fabric "mix"—though "live album" is the more accurate descriptor, right?
It's actually just a recording of my live set from the 2014 birthday party. The only thing I had to do was cut out a couple songs so it would fit on the CD. Other than that I didn't touch it at all. It was really amazing to have that mix come out—it's something I always wanted to do but never thought I would be able to, because I wasn't a DJ. Judy [Griffith, Saturday programmer for fabric] and I were hanging out a party and talking about the mix, and she was saying that people in the office had been listening to the mp3 version that they had and how much they liked it. I was like, "I mean, if you guys like it so much, maybe we should do something with it." Her eyes kind of lit up, but then she was like, "You know, it's such a shame that it's only an mp3, because we can't do anything with an mp3." And I said to her, "Judy, I recorded that in 24-bit WAV—I've got a super-high-quality recording of it. And she was like "No!" And I was like, "Yeah!" [laughs] So it just worked out.
Actually, it was kind of like a fluke in a way, because the majority of recordings that I have from live shows don't sound good, because there are 24 channels being mixed in a big, echo-y club. You're not going get a studio mix out of it. But I think because I've played Room One so many times, and I know the room, it's always been the same monitors, it's always been the same soundsystem and a lot of the same sound guys setting everything up for me, I feel like I can trust what I'm hearing.
Did the recording also benefit from mastering and any post-production?
They didn't do much mastering to it, I don't think, just some blanket compression over the whole mix to make it a little warmer, and they probably would have adjusted some frequencies. I tend to thrash my high end a little bit too much at times, so some of that was probably toned down a bit. I actually wanted the mastering to be more specific, like track-based and really changing a lot of stuff. We talked about doing that, but then the mastering engineer didn't really like the idea so much. He thought it would change the mix so much that it wouldn't be in context. I think he was right. Actually, to be honest, the unmastered mix sounds great—the mastered version just sounds louder.
You've recently started working with Roland in Japan. Can you talk much about that?
Yeah, sure. It's kind of a dream to work with those guys, and I think they're happy to work with me, too. I think they saw my studio in a Japanese tech magazine, and I mean, the majority of the stuff in here is Roland. Basically they wanted just to kind of give me the AIRA series stuff and get my feedback on it, and then I went and met them in Tokyo and we got along quite well. We were talking a lot about the synthesizers and what could happen with some of them, just giving feedback. And so it just kind of worked out that my input was valuable to them—input from someone who's playing live and on the road a lot, and also using the equipment in the studio. A lot of what they're doing is geared toward exactly what I'm doing. They're making it so you can take it on the road, so it's accessible for lots of people.
They want it to be something where young people can have a lot of this equipment and start making music outside their computer. So many kids these days are intimidated by analog equipment and also intimated by the price. It's kind of depressing for a lot of young producers to see their favorite producers' studios. You have this feeling when you see stuff like this, like, "Oh, I need that in order to make good music." Which is totally bullshit. So it's really nice to see affordable equipment for people that sounds really good and that has that same feeling and that same intuitive outline.
We were talking about the MC-303 earlier, and it seems like this sort of low-entry-point gear has come a long way since then.
I'm not sure where the technology has come from. I don't know if it's just that they've spent a lot of time with their engineers, or if it's something that just wasn't possible before. A lot of the industry has been taking this turn, like Korg is also doing really amazing work, releasing synthesizers that are super cheap and sound great. It's really cool to see, because it's getting to the point now where you can still have lots of outboard equipment to make music with, and it's not going to cost you what this studio cost in order to do it, and you can still accomplish the same music.