Mark Smith hears how a sharp focus on music's emotional core helps keep Dana Ruh's studio sessions productive and creative.
Even though Ruh is affiliated with juggernauts like Cocoon, runs a distribution and label management company and her own label, Brouqade, she maintains a decidedly down-to-earth approach. She releases a prodigious amount of music with a minimum of fuss, skirting between minimalist house and its warm, jacking American predecessor. 2014's Naturally LP on Jus-Ed's Underground Quality label epitomised this balance, while her latest work on her new Cave Recordings imprint takes the hybrid to new heights.
Ruh comes into her Berlin studio as often as time permits, using a strictly curated set of drum machines, samplers, synths and software to craft house bombs that stand out from the pack. Every instrument and sample is thoroughly vetted and kept only if it fits her personal signature. But she's quick to say that it's the attitude behind the gear that defines her approach, reflecting a drive to communicate the inexpressible though sound and movement.
How long have you been in this space for?
It's been five years. A friend of mine found it and we moved in here together. She was just looking for an office but she found this place, which happened to have a studio. I came in here and was super surprised because all the components of the studio were built and ready to go. Plus, there's a window along the back wall, which is nice for letting the light in occasionally.
That first friend eventually moved out, so now I rent the adjoining room to a mastering studio. Of course, a space like this isn't super cheap and it hasn't always been easy keeping it going. I've sold gear in the past to make ends meet—finding a studio like this in this part of Berlin is impossible nowadays. Especially for this price. So I'm very happy that it's worked out.
How often are you in here?
The studio is part of my routine, I come here every morning I can. I try to do it as much as possible because I need it. It's my obsession, my meditation. I'm not the best communicator, so coming in here to do music is an important part of expressing myself.
Do you force yourself to work even when you don't feel like it?
Creativity comes and goes depending on what's going on around you. Even if nothing of value is coming out during a studio session, it is important to be in this environment and surrounded by my colleagues. Often I come here with no plan. Sometimes amazing things can happen when you don't have preconceived ideas or self-imposed pressure. Then there can be weeks where nothing is working out and then boom, you make a load of tracks in a short period of time.
Did you install all this acoustic treatment?
No, that was the crazy thing about this space. It was all installed before I moved in. I'm pretty sure this used to be the room where vocals, instruments and drums were recorded. So on the one hand, it is nice having some sort of acoustic treatment, but, given that this was the recordings room, it is totally dry, acoustically speaking. I was making music in my bedroom before I got this space and it took me a very long time to understand the sound in here. But now I know exactly what is going on—if I stand in this spot I'll hear these elements come out of the track and over there I'll hear more of the mid-range, for instance. I'm using small Yamaha monitors and a subwoofer, nothing fancy, but I don't want to change anything because I'm confident in what I'm hearing in here.
So if you bounce out a new track to test in the club you're not getting any surprises.
Yeah, it has gotten to a point where I know it's going to sound the way I want. But it took me a while to get to this point. I was always bouncing things out, playing them in the club, being dissatisfied, comparing them to other tracks, taking it back to the studio and straining through it all to make it right. But now I'm super happy.
Are you doing your own rough mastering on your tracks before playing them out?
Lately I've been forcing myself to stop using limiters on the master channel. I want it to be good enough with the mix-down alone. I've been happy with the results, which is proof to me that I'm still learning and getting better, understanding more about sound, this room, my instruments. Because you can have a pretty shit track and stick a limiter on it and it will sound loud and big in the club.
Do you listen to your tracks anywhere else?
Well, next door my friend Gabri is doing mastering. So if I finish a track in this room, I bounce it out, walk next door and have it mastered if I want. I also reference my tracks on laptop speakers, my car stereo and different headphones. I really want my music to be listenable in different environments.
Has having close access to a mastering engineer and a studio taught you anything important about producing tracks for cutting on vinyl?
It's something that's said about production in general, but separating frequencies and making space is something Gabri emphasises. The bass frequency has to sit there, the mid-range here, and so on. But there's no formula to it, so it's an ongoing process of learning. Even though I'm quite satisfied, I always want to understand more, so it's nice having someone around who occasionally comes in and shows you a new tool or technique.
For instance, he recently showed me a Max For Live plug-in called Drumk. It's a sample-based processor that brings two sounds together and makes them interact in different ways. I might put a groove in one slot and something else in the other, then it'll make a completely different sound that I'll use to make something new. It's great for creating movement and a particular ambience in a track.
Was club music the first type of music you started making?
I was into different types of music at the same time. I was discovering club music around age 16, but I was in a hard rock band called Hidden Timbre, too. I was also working in a music shop, selling guitars and the like, when I was at school.
Did working in isolation making electronic music suit you better than collaborating with others in a band situation?
I was a background singer early on. Sometimes I handled it well, but the voice is hard to control, so I thought it was better to move forward with something else. I was looking for another way to express myself, whether it was on my own or with other people. But more and more parties started happening in my hometown and I became very attracted to the music I heard there. Then a friend of mine asked if I was a DJ, and I said no. He gave me records and encouraged me to start at around the same time as I was getting closer to electronic music, in around 2005 I think. I was very busy working full-time at a production company, and I'd work on music to relax after my shifts. I would always work at night, making tracks with Fruity Loops. Sometimes I was very naughty and worked on music in the office!
It sounds like you approached the two simultaneously, but do you think you can tell the difference between someone who gets into production through being a DJ versus the other way around?
Yeah, this is true. You can hear how it shapes their approach to a track. Someone who comes at it without knowing about DJing might have a freer, more open-minded approach. Whereas a DJ probably has more structured, specific ideas and wants to fit something in particular into their sets.
Are you making tracks that were written specifically for use in your sets?
Last year I started a little label called Cave. These are all jams made especially for my DJ sets. Then if I feel like they're good enough and maybe some friends have given me positive feedback I'll press them on Cave. Even though they're made from jams, they're directly connected to something I want in my sets—they are very percussion-heavy, very long and mixable. I like to ride mixes for a long time, and having these tracks on vinyl is perfect for this.
You said you first started making club tracks in 2005. But your first release came out in 2007, which is a pretty short learning period.
The funny thing is that this record wasn't supposed to come out. The mastering was flawed and we stopped production of the record. I submitted premasters, which sounded fine, then we got the masters back and they sounded shit for some reason and I didn't want to release it this way. But the distribution company was going bankrupt and they released it anyway. Then friends contacted me saying, "Hey, I saw your record in the store!" I didn't even know it was out. And it wasn't even manufactured with the correct artwork. This is how my first record came about!
It's strange to have such a bad mastering job, let alone having the distributor going behind your back.
Now it's just a funny story that I can look back on and smile about. Some people wrote me saying, "Amazing record!" and I was like, "Hmmm" [laughs].
In this learning period between starting producing and releasing music, was it a matter of learning how to come up with good ideas or rather how to make your good ideas sound good enough?
All I wanted in the beginning was to bring my ideas to the computer in the most accurate way possible. I wasn't what you'd call a professional DJ at that point, but I wanted to make tracks to play out at my bigger gigs. I did some pretty weird stuff early on, which I find interesting to hear now because it sounds very free. Some people simply said, "This isn't playable." But that wasn't the point for me. I was just happy to express myself, so I tried everything and made tracks without any logical order or thought process behind it.
So I guess that means I thought my ideas were good enough. That's why I was experimenting so much. It goes without saying that just because something is loud and effective in the club doesn't necessarily make it a good track. For me, there needs to be some element that catches the attention, something that makes a track interesting apart from how big it sounds. It's easy to forget that we're talking about music here at the end of the day. For me, a nice melody or an interesting arrangement is more important than compression settings.
Dance music producers love to get caught up in the micro perspective.
I understand it and it can be extremely interesting. You have all this attention on big studios and all these techniques and dials, but it's still music. Music is something that is very emotional, and when I'm in the studio this is what I'm considering. You can have all your fine-tuned sound processing but there are some chords that are hardwired to the heart. It's a guarantee that it hits you.
And a lot of producers I speak to say they made their biggest-sounding tracks before they'd acquired technical knowledge.
You have to be a bit immature. And limitation is big thing for me, too. I did my whole album with an Access Virus, my computer and a drum machine. I prefer to go really deep into a limited range of equipment because I simply want to make music, I want to get to the right sound as quickly as possible.
Is there anything you do processing-wise that contributes to you sounding like yourself?
I often use Native Instruments Guitar Rig for its filters and effects. Especially on drums. I'll use a combination of two filters and other effects to create movement. My desk doubles as a controller, which I use to record long takes of filter automation. I'm generally recording every element one at a time in order to give each channel as much character as possible, modulating multiple parameters over a long take and so on. The split between software and hardware is fairly even. Also, I really like the Jomox Xbase 999. The drums are analogue and the rest is sample-based but they all sound very raw and direct.
Jomox kick drums are huge but they can also sound quite quirky.
Yeah, they really boom. The Roland TR-8 is here for when I want to make something very quickly or establish a mood. Writing patterns on it is great but, for me, the sound leaves something to be desired. I never use these drums as is—they always end up filtered at the very least. I don't use the kick at all. It's like a ping-pong ball compared to the Jomox. But sometimes I use it to make basslines. You take off the attack and extend the decay for bouncing, subby sounds. I also use Sinus for longer, more extended basslines. It's super deep but isn't so good for more rhythmic bass, in which case I'd filter and tune a tom or kick drum.
Does everything end up in groups?
I don't use groups. I also try to limit how many channels I'm using in total. Most of the time it's a maximum of 16 in a track. Mixing down with 60 channels or something is too much for me.
It's funny because saturating and compressing everything in groups is one of those tactics that gets presented as an essential technique on the internet.
Of course I do compress some things together. Like a kick and a bassline or hats with snares. I also like to sidechain atmospheric elements to create some movement. But yeah, no groups. I want to keep it really, really simple.
A lot of your recent output has really great swing. Is this coming from Ableton, your drum machines or some other sequencer?
It's all drum machines. I tried working with swing from software but it never works out. That's why I have the Akai sampler. Its swing is very particular. A good friend recommend it to me saying, "For your music, this is the one."
So you can tell the difference between Ableton's MPC swing and the real deal?
I've never used Ableton's swing in a track because it didn't give me the result I needed. With the MPC and the drum machines, it's instant groove. It gives samples such a raw sound, too. They sound great with some software processing.
What's the appeal of the microKORG?
It's not expensive but what you get for the price is very useful. It's extremely simple but ends up being used a lot, whether it's for bass or chords in a house track, for example. I originally got it from a friend. Same with the Access Virus. You can do it all with that thing and it's especially good for making strange effects. I did the whole album on Underground Quality with this.
It's funny because a lot of people would describe that record as having an organic, analogue sound, which is the opposite of what the Virus is supposed to do.
These words like warm and organic—this comes from how you play things, not the sounds of the machines. The emotion of a sound can communicate warmth but the sound itself could be from a cold digital synth. I didn't have much analogue gear when I did the album anyway.
Maybe around four years ago I met Fred P. He was making all these amazing tracks purely on his laptop. I was like, "Are you serious?" I couldn't believe it. But it's another example of how the feeling you communicate makes more of an impact than the sound. It's the same with Jus-Ed. None of these guys had a really big studio.
You started your first label in the same year you released your first productions. Had you been sending tracks to other labels before doing it yourself?
I did but not so often. I wanted to send music to people but then I'd get into the studio, start work on something new and my head would move someplace else. In the end it's music, so it's natural that people feel differently about it. Maybe I'm too sensitive but I didn't like the thought of people judging it.
I ask because running a label assumes one has a pretty clear idea of what they're after musically, or at least clearer than the average producer learning their trade. So it's interesting to me that you did both from the start.
A friend actually encouraged me to do it myself. She knew I wasn't one to shop my music around, so she pushed me to make a platform where I could make my own decisions. Some of the decisions we made were better than others, but the point is we did what we felt was right.
Regarding that feeling of not wanting your tracks to be solely judged by one person—how do you feel about giving artists feedback and asking for changes to tracks? And do labels still do the same to you?
Suggestions are never a bad thing. Sometimes it can push the track into a better place. Maybe the label is experienced, has worked with good artists and can see a level of quality that the producer can't. Despite how I felt about sending out demos, I'm generally OK with making changes. I'm flexible and sometimes the feedback does lead to a better production. I understand when producers feel offended by requests for changes, but constructive criticisms should make you better.
Are you often surprised by which of your tracks get the biggest response from record buyers and crowds?
All the time! Sometimes you think something you've made is amazing but it doesn't do the job. Other times you think you've made something that's only so-so and it gets amazing reactions. Making music is like venturing down a private fox hole. You're very close to what you're doing and you can't always judge these things on your own. It's part of the game. You have to surprise yourself. Just release it if you want to and see what happens. You'll always make more tracks in the future.
How much of what you work on here ends up not being used?
A lot. Maybe 80%. I recently went through a period that wasn't so easy for me personally but I made a lot of music during this time. It was a personal release of creative expression. But you can hear that certain energy in the music, and so I'll probably never release it because these aren't the feelings I want to convey. I have hard drives full of tracks that will never see the light of day.
How often are you reusing elements of unreleased tracks while generating new ideas?
I used to do this a lot but more and more I want to start fresh. I have my own library of sounds that are divided by moods. I know that this kick works for that arrangement, this clap works well with those hats and so on. But I'm really trying to use this less or process them into very different sounds.
Some producers are adamant about never using a sound twice.
There's obviously nothing wrong with that but it's my own decision. Sometimes I want to use sounds again when they become something of a trademark. But I have other motivations for moving away from this and trying something else. I'm pretty comfortable with a certain sort of house, so sometimes I feel the need to create something more experimental. Because at some point, going off the beaten track gives you a freshness to reapproach what you're used to.
How did you go about building this folder of sounds?
I have a few pieces of gear here in the studio, but I'm lucky in that I often borrow hardware from friends. I work with the new equipment for a while and decide whether I want to buy it or not. Not every instrument fits my sound, so I really take a long time making these decisions. And while I'm doing this, I record it all and assign sounds to the folders that suit their mood. There are folders with my favourite chords for house, folders for atmospheric textures, another for abstract sounds. I have a folder of weird percussion I made with a Dave Smith Tempest. So it's good to have those sounds but I really don't need those machines.
In the past, did you ever use other people's tracks as references for fine-tuning your mixes?
I really try not to compare because it doesn't help my creative process. If I did I'd become depressed, because there are so many good tracks out there that have a better low-end or whatever. But I can't go there. If I start, I can't stop. And then what's coming out isn't totally myself. Maybe I could make the mid-range sound better or something but hey, that's me, it is what it is.
Maybe it's also a trap in that your perception is biased. It amplifies flaws in your own work without seeing the same in other's.
Everyone is always extremely paranoid about their own music. As I said, you're too close to it. It's not easy to present something that represents something inside of you, something vulnerable. This is one of the hardest things about making music.
Dana Ruh will play at Into The Valley 2017 in Estonia, which runs from June 29th to July 1st.