Handwerk Audio is a Berlin studio that gives customers access to legendary synthesizers. Peter Van Hoesen, one of its founders, gives Mark Smith a tour.
Behind all the hype and speculation are a group of obsessives who see the interactivity of hardware as vital to building a physical relationship with sound. Peter Van Hoesen is one such machine freak, and together with Marco Freivogel and Ricardo De Azcuenaga he's built Handwerk Audio, a studio tucked in a courtyard by Berlin's bustling Hermannplatz that aims to make that physical relationship accessible to more producers. For a fee, clients can visit the studio with just a laptop and a half-finished track and begin working with a staggering collection of rare and quirky machines that most people will never have the opportunity to use, let alone purchase.
Van Hoesen's passion for electronic instruments was palpable as he gave me a tour of Handwerk's impressive array of synths and drum machines, which includes holy-grail pieces like the Roland Jupiter 8 and Minimoog Model D, along with oddities like the Elka Synthex and Alesis Andromeda. Over the last decade Van Hoesen has earned a reputation as one of the best sound designers in modern techno, thanks in part to the strength of both his analogue and digital processing. His experimental work with Yves De Mey as Sendai makes the most of both approaches, so despite running a largely analogue studio, Van Hoesen is hardly someone who uses vintage equipment for the sake of it. He's also seen a lot of changes in music technology and the synthesiser market over the years, so I was curious to hear how he's turned an obsession into a business.
Where did the idea for Handwerk Audio come from?
Handwerk is a studio built from three people's collections—myself, Marco Freivogel and Ricardo De Azcuenaga. Marco and I were sharing a studio, and we had fused our setups together. Then we had this weird situation two years ago where we were stuck in an elevator here for two hours. As the time passed we were talking about our studio when the idea of turning it into a commercial operation came up. And that idea has become Handwerk Audio. So the basis of the current collection was drawn from our personal setups, but now we have many new additions.
It took a long time to figure out exactly what we wanted to do and what the city was lacking. Obviously Berlin is a city with a lot of musicians coming in and out, especially electronic music producers, and there's quite a buzz here. So we thought that we don't need a studio with machines that most producers can buy themselves with some time and investment. New synths are easy to get, so it made sense to focus on pieces that are difficult to come by, be it because they're rare, expensive or both. I think I can speak for the others when I say that we've had a passion for synthesisers since we were children. In some ways, Handwerk Audio is like a boy's dream come true.
Having been into synthesisers for so long, you must have seen first-hand the transition from analogue to digital. Do you remember the time before everyone became enamoured with analogue all over again?
Yeah, I do. It's a simplification, but these things come in waves. In the '70s and '80s people were in a completely analogue world, and then slowly digital technology arrived, the Yamaha DX7 appeared, and suddenly everyone's completely out of love with anything analogue. Those were the days when you could do the deals of your life. You could probably buy a Jupiter 8 for €500. Now you're looking at a price over €6,000. We were into digital and software in a big way for a long time, and there was a lot of promise because there was so much that was possible outside the hardware domain. Then slowly the wave changed and people started to realise that it's quite important to play an instrument rather than scroll with a mouse.
There's a new wave happening right now where everyone wants to return to the fundamental form of synthesis—the modular domain. Eurorack and other modular systems have picked up on technology that hasn't been in vogue since the '70s. Then the '80s happened and the big polyphonic synths arrived that weren't patchable. They were contained instruments with a very specific identity and everyone forgot about the modular thing. It always changes, and that's the nice thing about electronic music. You don't see much happening in guitars or violins for instance, but electronic instruments have a tendency to evolve and become something new.
Do you think house and techno producers are drawn to these original analogue instruments in a way that's different to, say, a drum & bass producer?
I'd say no. Actually, we had a drum & bass producer in here the other day, so I don't think it's linked to any one genre. Obviously there are a lot of people in house and techno that are very concerned about analogue gear and the original sounds, which is something you need to watch out for. You only need to be concerned with finding the right tool for the job. For me personally, using vintage analogue gear purely for the sake of it doesn't seem like the right thing to do. You could say that this studio is somewhat traditional because most of the synths are analogue, although we have digital options, too. But the reason they're here is so people can have access to them. The analogue focus isn't the most important aspect of the studio. A hip-hop producer could get as much out of it as a techno producer.
It's easy to forget that a lot of classic techno was made with DX100s and dodgy Romplers.
That's exactly what I mean. I respect that everybody has their own methods, but I think you need to find an instrument that corresponds to your way of working and thinking. I have different relationships with every machine here, and getting to know them is important because they all have distinct qualities and excel at certain tasks. Our customers can hire us out to help them in their session, and if they're after a certain type of sound, the first question has to be, 'Which machine is best suited to the sound they want?' They might be interested in using the Jupiter 8 but it could be the case that they're better off with the Andromeda or the Moog. We can help with that. People tend to gravitate to certain holy-grail machines, like the Elka Synthex for instance, but sometimes a relatively cheap piece like the SH-101 will actually do a better job.
How confident were you guys of the demand for this type of service?
Owning most of the machines beforehand meant that if things didn't work out it wouldn't be a huge disaster, and we were quite lucky with the studio's overhead costs. An advantage of a studio like this is that these machines are good investments. These pieces haven't been in production for years, and there are a few dying around the world every year. So they're becoming more and more of a collector's item that can never be replaced. Luckily things have been working out, so we don't need to think about it in these terms. We didn't do much research but we bounced ideas off other producers when we were on the road and everyone seemed to think it was a pretty good idea. As it turns out, this is the case in reality. People are responding to it well and we're getting repeat customers, which is nice. That to me is proof that people are getting what we want to offer.
Is the clientele mainly established producers or are you getting up-and-comers, too?
All types. I don't want to do too much namedropping, but we've had people like Paula Temple, Fred P, Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum, but there are also customers who are just starting out their careers. Last summer we had two producers come out from France who were quite young, super enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about synthesisers. They booked the studio for four days during the heatwave and just jammed. So we've had quite a range. In any case, I wouldn't want to work exclusively with established producers. It's nice guiding people who are relatively new to it, or who haven't had the chance to work with hardware.
Have you come across a studio like this that's open to the public before?
Not in Berlin but there is something similar in Hamburg and there's one in the Netherlands called Sonar Traffic. Most studios are focused on mixing capabilities. They have large desks and a lot of outboard whereas here we're entirely focused on recording synthesisers. We tried to invest a lot of money into making sure that the quality of recording is of the highest possible. Everything is synced up, CV and MIDI—all the pieces can talk to each other and the signals run through the Audient pre-amp and the Lynx Aurora AD-DA convertor. You can turn up with a DAW ready to send out MIDI to any of the machines, and they'll respond and clock together.
Are most clients turning up with a complete composition made from soft synths who are looking to translate the exact same ideas into the analogue domain?
There's no way to generalise because everyone has their own situation, but sometimes you'll have someone arrive with a laptop and a project that's 50% finished. They might want to translate software parts into analogue or they could introduce completely new elements into the track and we'll try find something that fits into their specific scenario. If someone has been here before, or if they've booked it for a few days, they might come in with no plan whatsoever and just jam. One of the nicest jams I've witnessed here was when Fred P came in. It was a pleasure to hear him just layering parts on top of each other. Others don't even need us to be present, or simply require a quick rundown to get started, then we come back eight hours later and they're pretty happy.
Let's take a look at the Elka Synthex. Wasn't this the synth Jean Michel Jarre used for the infamous laser harp?
Yeah, that's the one. This machine is fantastic, it has its own personality and it's a bit quirky. Totally Italian! It's definitely one of the more popular machines in the studio and it's quite versatile too, but not like a Jupiter 8, which is more of a workhorse. The Synthex always works for dramatic, emotive parts. If you want vibrant strings or minor-key melodies with a vague Boards Of Canada vibe then the Synthex is your machine. It has a built-in sequencer and amazing rhythmic- and cross-modulation capabilities. So you can make these really tender string sounds but you can also get strange atonal bell-tones and weird clanky noises thanks to the modulation. And when you work the envelopes you can make rhythmic parts that sit on the borderline between melody and percussion.
As far as I know, the Synthex was one of the last analogue synths ever built in Italy. I think Elka started out making organs and when the synthesiser became a mass-commodity in the '80s, they realised they had to diversify. Recently a company tried to use crowdfunding to raise money to build a new version of the Synthex but it failed. Sourcing the original components is extremely difficult and you'd never be able to rebuild the real thing, although they claimed they could.
Then you've got the Roland System 100.
It's semi-modular. You've got the keyboard part, which is called the Synthesiser 101, and then the Expander 102, which is basically another synth voice that sits behind the 101. And on the side you have the Sequencer 104. The Mixer 103 is the fourth piece in the set but we've been unable to acquire it. It has exactly the same dimensions as the sequencer, and it should sit on the other side of the keyboard. It's got a reverb in it, and a sound of its own. I saw it last week for some ridiculous price somewhere in Japan. I was tempted but there's a certain price threshold where you just have to say no. The eBay seller who listed it is a regular. I spend half of my life on eBay so I know these sellers, I know who sells what, and he's got a good reputation. Plus, he's Japanese, and if you buy something in Japan it'll be good. But it was just too expensive.
Was a lot of this gear acquired in Japan?
None of it, but every time I go to Japan I visit the same two or three shops. 5G is an obvious one, and then you've got Echigoya in Shibuya, not far from Tower Records. Those are the two main ones, and they usually have something of interest. The thing with Japan is that people take such good care of their possessions, be it synthesisers or vinyl. You buy secondhand vinyl and it's brand new, still in the plastic. It's a much better market to buy secondhand than anywhere else, I think.
But the problem is, if you buy a machine like the System 100 you need to ship it to Europe. About two years ago, I wanted to buy a Jupiter 6 from Japan. It was listed for a really good price, the machine was in pristine condition, but it's pretty big. So I had to make complicated shipping arrangements, and the shop didn't want to help me out. It wasn't out of laziness or anything but rather because they thought shipping was too risky, and being Japanese, they didn't want to get me in trouble, so they'd rather just not do it.
Let's move on to the PPG Wave 2.3. This must be one of the few digital pieces in the studio.
Yeah, it's digital at heart, which sets it apart from the other machines. We wanted one for so long and it's been on my radar forever. This particular unit took a long time to get repaired but it's fully functional now. It's a very strange machine because it uses wavetables, and you can use an LFO to scroll through them. It's got this old-school keypad interface that's pretty difficult to program but it makes sounds that nothing else in here can replicate.
Again, it's a synth with a lot of personality. You notice we don't have things in here like a Juno 106 or 60, and I'm not dissing those machines, but our goal was to focus on pieces that aren't so popular and offer something unique. The PPG is the best example of that. People walk in here and say, "What is that?!" Then they hear it and can't get away from it for the next couple hours.
Did Waldorf carry on the wavetable torch after PPG disappeared?
A guy named Wolfgang Palm invented wavetable synthesis and founded PPG. Then he went on to design the digital chips that went into many of Waldorf's synthesisers, like their Wave, which is probably the ultimate hardware wavetable synthesiser. I would love to have one because it's much more user-friendly than the PPG, but they're very difficult to find. There are other spin-offs like the Microwave and the Microwave XT, but the Wave is the granddaddy. Now Palm is making apps for iOS. It's awesome that he's kept it going all these years through so many changes.
There are a few synthesis pioneers who've managed to remain relevant for decades.
That's one of the nice things about the industry. The people who built these things are very passionate. It's their life and it always has been. Tom Oberheim has never been away; Dave Smith has been at the forefront of the industry for a long time. I feel like I can empathise with these guys. When I was a kid watching TV and seeing synthesisers for the first time, it immediately turned into an obsession that hasn't changed.
Next up we've got the ARP Quadra. Is this one divided into separate voice sections?
There's a bass section occupying one part of the keyboard, then a poly part, a string part and they kind of overlap. The Quadra was another piece I wanted for a very long time and I purchased it before we opened Handwerk. I found it from a Polish dealer who completely refurbished it. It's a pre-MIDI machine from the late '70s, and Tony Banks, the keyboard player from Genesis, used it, if I'm not mistaken. You only have voltage control over the bass and lead sections so you have to hand-play most of it—I'm partial to that because I like playing the keys. It has this amazing phase shifter that sounds like nothing I've heard before. Again, it's a quirky machine, and like most ARP stuff it's not well built.
Our synth repair guy hates when we bring in American-built machines and is always saying, "I told you so!" when they need repairs. Whereas when we have a problem with a Japanese machine he simply smiles and says he can fix it easily. These ARP machines were maybe built too fast and the components aren't the best. It's a little flimsy.
ARP went out of business pretty quickly after the Quadra came out.
I don't know the details but they weren't so successful at managing the company, but they made unique machines. The Quadra is known for lush strings but even the bass section kills it, and I've used it on Sendai tracks so it's fully capable of experimental sounds, too.
Would you group something like the Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 and the Roland JX8P over there into a dark-horse category of synthesiser? They're not the most sought-after models but they're cheaper and tend to surprise those who buy them.
The JX8P especially. I've had that for something like 15 years. I brought it with me from Belgium to Berlin all those years ago along with an Alpha Juno. But I agree, the 600 and JX8P are very much underrated. I'm happy with what Dave Smith is doing with his new machines, but we don't need them thanks to the 600.
The Alesis Andromeda is another lesser-known piece.
The Andromeda is one of the latest additions to the family. It stands out in a way because most of the other synths in here are vintage, whereas this is pretty new. It was one of the last big polys of its era before people totally gave up on analogue hardware. Actually, you'd probably say they released it too late because no one seemed interested at the time and it was a total commercial failure. It's not very easy to program.
The modulation matrix requires some getting used to.
I dedicated a few days to it just to figure things out. Now that I've realised how it works, it's pretty clear that it's not the most intuitive machine. But once you get into the modulation it's capable of truly wild and wacky things. It has two filters too, so you can play with the relationship between them, have one in low-pass, another in band-pass and so on. I think it's one of the only machines in here with two filters.
It has loopable envelopes, too.
There's the arpeggiator and a built-in sequencer that I haven't even got to yet. I've only used it as a sound source but it's just a ridiculously powerful machine. Three envelopes, two LFOs.
It's certainly among the most high-definition or digital-sounding analogue synths.
Definitely. It's so glossy. I think it was quite popular with trance producers because it's fully analogue but extremely polished—it has a really clean, efficient sound, which is perfect for trance. They need those big, powerful unison sounds with loads of voices stacked up. The Andromeda does that.
The failure of the Andromeda marked the beginning of the big lull in analogue synth production, and now that it's come back we generally see them in relatively affordable, miniaturised form. Do you think the days of the €5,000-plus analogue poly synth are done?
Have you heard of the British company Modal? They're doing exactly that. Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim's new poly isn't that big or expensive, but layout-wise it's not that far removed from the old beasts. I don't think the market for these machines will ever be as big as it was in the '80s or early '90s, but it'll never disappear. Did the Andromeda come out in the mid-'90s?
I think it was more like 2001.
Why would you ever produce a machine like that in 2001 [laughs]?
Alesis went bankrupt in the same year.
It's funny that this seems to happen a lot with American synth manufacturers. They make great instruments but they'd be marketed strangely or the timing of the release would be completely wrong, and in hindsight it looks like commercial suicide. Even the bigger American brands like Moog and Sequential Circuits had their issues at one time or another, and a lot of them didn't make it at all. Then you look at the Japanese and the same companies who were manufacturing synths in the '80s are still around and doing very well.
Do you think that's because companies like Yamaha and Roland didn't have all their eggs in the high-end synthesiser basket?
Of course, and these are also very large corporations with considerable research budgets that you're talking about. If a Yamaha product fails, it's not going to bankrupt the company because they're making motorbikes and whatnot. Whereas with a company like ARP, Alan Pearlman founded the company with a sole focus on doing one specific thing. Your new product requires a lot of research and development and if it doesn't work out it's a major problem. The Synthex was the same. You could only imagine the amount of R&D that went into it. Elka wasn't a tiny company by any means but they'd pale in comparison to something like Yamaha, who have a far larger safety net.
This disparity in scale is more evident than ever now in the modular market. You've literally got huge corporations like Roland in direct competition with a guy in a shed.
I think it's a huge tip of the hat from Roland to all those manufacturers who were working from the ground up and introducing some amazing ideas with their modules. They couldn't have a better compliment than Roland getting into Eurorack.
Handwerk Audio seems like a studio that's antithetical to modular synthesis, given that it's about getting things done.
That's obviously the idea because we want people to leave with a satisfied feeling, but if you want to noodle for hours you can do that, too. I do it regularly! You can spend a lot of time floating around in synthesiser land. I literally have hours of recordings I've made in here that I haven't even started listening to. I press record and four hours later hit stop. The machines are connected in such a way that they're easy to deal with and the workflow is oriented around achieving good results quickly. With the modular you never know where you're going to end up.
What's next on the wish list?
Definitely a Matrix 12. I actually had an opportunity to buy one last year and I foolishly didn't take it because I thought it was too expensive, but it was a stupid mistake. A Prophet 5 is on the list, too.
Dave Smith has put out plenty of synths bearing the Prophet title in recent years. Why do you want an original?
We want a specific version of the Prophet 5 that's proving hard to find. Obviously this stuff is generally expensive, but I don't want to be paying through the nose for it. It needs to be somewhat reasonable. Of course, if I told you what I paid for some of these machines you'd probably say that none of them are reasonable, but I do have an upper limit. I'm willing to spend some money because these instruments are special, and apart from being a studio owner I'm a collector.
I'd very much love to have an ARP 2600 in here but then we're talking about €10,000 for a fully serviced model with the keyboard. I'm not sure if people would get a lot out of it here because programming it is pretty specific. As I mentioned, we want people to start working immediately. That's why there's no DX7 in here. It's a lovely machine but it's too difficult to program for most clients. People can argue with me about menu-diving and the advantages of software and all their arguments are true. But having your hands on a machine—that's the experience of playing an instrument. People do amazing things with software, but for me personally it's important to have a physical relationship to the sound.
I was wondering if there are any devices in here for creating the stuttering clocks and shifting swing values you hear in Sendai tracks. Is that achievable through hardware or is it a product of laboriously pushing blocks of MIDI around?
You can do that with this Flame Clockwork clock divider. I only installed it here recently. It was in my studio downstairs before. It runs three rhythm tracks and you can alter the timing of each individually, which is something I've done on a couple of Sendai tracks. On the other hand, a lot of it comes from slaving away behind the computer and moving things around note by note. We're talking thousands of notes but at least you get it exactly the way you want it.
We should talk about the convertors here considering you're tracking all this analogue gear back into a computer. Convertor technology has improved a lot in recent years.
Totally. We ended up going with the Lynx Aurora, which is what I've got downstairs, but we did a lot of research. This was around the time when Universal Audio launched the Apollo, which is a bit cheaper than the Lynx and comes with DSP plug-in support so we were seriously considering it. Then we went by Tobias Freund's studio and he demo'd the Aurora for us. He recorded an 808 kick drum through the convertor and then left the original 808 signal coming through a channel. Then he was switching between them to give us a blind test, and after a few switches I couldn't tell the recording from the original.
I first heard an 808 when I was 17. I know that sound. Back in the day with the older soundcards you could always tell the converted signal from the original. So I bought the Lynx for myself and I felt my mixes getting better and everything seemed somehow easier. So when the time came to build this studio we had to make a choice. There are more expensive models but there's a certain threshold where you're paying considerably more for an intangible improvement in sound quality.
Handwerk Audio isn't a studio for mixing down tracks, which is something clients will need to do after the fact. Is there anything people should be aware of when mixing analogue stems if they're coming from the digital domain?
We make sure that people realise that the studio is about recording and that they shouldn't worry too much about how something will work in the mix while they're tracking. The most important thing is to take as many sounds as possible that you can work with afterwards. Obviously, working with analogue gear isn't the be-all and end-all—you can still make it sound crap if you don't mix it properly.
You have to do less with analogue. In my experience, analogue sounds take up more space in your mix so it's a question of not including too many elements, but on the whole I'd say it's easier. With digital sources you generally need to add processing but with analogue you're usually taking things out. I'd rather remove frequencies than add them because adding things means it's done in the digital realm where you're always sacrificing something, but it depends on the music.
Some Sendai tracks wouldn't have been possible without digital tools. That being said, there are certain elements where the difference is quite apparent. If you're playing high notes on a string patch with a digital machine or a virtual analogue plug-in you can hear these strange sounds like anti-aliasing artefacts that shouldn't be there. It's the same with adding resonance to the filter—it always adds something that makes me think this isn't the real thing. On an analogue machine, the high frequencies in those chords are like silk.
A lot of people get around their inability to access this gear by ripping HD synth demos off YouTube and putting them in Ableton samplers. You lose control over parameters but you get "authentic" sounds free of charge.
It's basically the opposite idea of Handwerk.
I'm baffled. I don't know why anybody would do that. Why is electronic music so much fun? It's because you can create your sounds from scratch. Of course this is a personal opinion, but being able to sit down and sculpt your sound is fundamental to the whole thing.
Some artists make some pretty interesting stuff with only an internet connection and a cracked DAW. The idea is that what you do to a sound and how you contextualise it is more important than the sound itself.
I totally agree with the fact that you can do a lot purely with sample manipulation or using recordings as a wavetable and such. But the better your original sound is, the richer your options will be. I'm quite surprised because even free digital plug-ins can sound pretty good, so why would you rip things off the internet? I don't think they're ripping because it sounds good, I think they're ripping it because they're lazy.
Maybe it's indicative of a type of producer who is more concerned with results and ease of access than the specifics of how they get from A to B.
That's fair enough, and if it works for you then please continue, but the issue of labour in production is a whole other aspect of electronic music that requires another discussion.
It's easy to be sceptical about how much value people place in analogue machines, but at the core it seems to be about a passion that transcends arguments about authenticity.
I think the main point is that we're obviously synth enthusiasts and this is a commercial endeavour, but it's very much a labour of love. It's the core aspect of what we do. We're machine freaks but we're trying to do it as professionally as possible.
There's no denying that this studio is the product of a strong belief and idea of music. Making music is a lot of fun if you do it with an instrument. You can do amazing things with coding, and I really respect it, but it's not me. I still need an instrument that I can develop a relationship with. I started studying music and learning an instrument when I was 11, and I'm still playing an instrument now. And you can feel the personality of the people behind the machines. The pieces in here really give you a sense of the mind and mentality behind it. There's always something personal in there even if it's a mass-marketed product. Creating something wild and wonderful that has no relationship to an existing sound—that's where the fun is.