Although I’d heard of Berlin-based musician Nils Frahm, I actually first heard his music on his beautiful and recently released LP, All Melody, which I reviewed online for Tape Op #123. Nils was recently in San Francisco, on tour for this album, so engineer Jeremy Black (from Coyote Hearing Studio) and I caught up with him after the show to find out more about his creative process and recording methods.
On All Melody, I feel like I can really hear your studio space. I love how you walk into the room to open the record.
It sets the space. Usually we just do this [clap] or walk in already. The wooden floor there, as well as the early reflections, gives me the feeling of, "All right; this is happening." It’s always a room which impresses me, because it’s patiently and kindly waiting for awesomeness to happen. Nothing is in the way to be brilliant. It’s just up to you. When I am not, it’s okay. But the room always is; it’s never something I’m struggling with. It’s always so welcoming, just waiting patiently.
There are many musicians working in the genre that you’re working in – instrumental music that combines electronics and acoustic instruments – and they are using a laptop and sample libraries. You’ve gone in a completely opposite direction, and taken over a historic studio.
For two big reasons. No one wants the technology and the knowledge of historic studios to disappear, so I try to finance a web of engineers and technicians, who are dependent on my advertisement fees and concert fees, which I spend on the art of recording audio. I am very proud about that, to be honest, because I’m preserving knowledge. I think it’s useful knowledge. We’ve already lost a shitload of knowledge about analog audio, which is a shame. I’m trying to support younger people – around my age – to go deep down into building cutting machines, tape machines, and mixing desks. I could buy an SSL or a Neve [console], but I want people around me to learn how a Neumann works, and how a master bus works, with the zero ohm Neumann summing cards, and so on. That topology is really important. The studio is basically an excuse to do that. When everybody goes in a certain direction, I usually go in the opposite just to spread out. It just makes no sense that everybody behaves like sheep. We need to have space around us with our ideas. We shouldn’t sit on the same rock as everybody. I think everything sounds the same since Ableton [Live] came out. I can hear the reverb. I can hear that preset. It’s just philosophically unsatisfying to deal with somebody else’s shit. Art is not there to just copy each other; it is there to express something that is impossible to express in any other way. I feel like everybody now gets inspired by a preset or a sample library that comes with a program; and you can just go with that, if you feel like making it easy. But the person who thought life should be easier, I want to meet that person and punish him. It makes life horrible, and not worth living. We are experiencing a depression in our society right now, which I think is due to people feeling like they are not challenged. They also don’t have tools at hand that give them the experience of doing something grown-up. Babies, grown-ups, and grandparents are all on their tablets or whatever. They all have the same tactile experience. They all use an Apple product, but nobody feels like they built something with their own hands and uses it. Nobody gets the joy of doing that. If everybody would build even just a little piece of furniture for their equipment; you make it and then you’re so happy. Even a little shelf; it’s like building a little universe. After ten or twelve ideas you’ve had with your studio, you already sound like nobody else. That’s great. Each [vintage reggae] dub studio – 4-track, 8-track, or whatever – sounds completely unique. Maybe the impedance was all weird; that makes it sound punchy and fun, and certain bands love it. Then maybe with that failure of signal flow, a whole genre develops. Who knows? I think it’s very important that all studios have their own sound. They become a little bit like a resonant, interconnected beast, which, if you just hit it here, it starts shaking on the other side. That whole thing becomes a complex system, which you also need to try to understand and control. You’ll have moments where you have a good day, and then a bad day where nothing works. You feel like everything sounds bad. You leave the mix how it was, and you come back the next day and it sounds different, even though everything’s the same. You’re like, "What the fuck?" You have to wonder, "Is it me? Is it my perception? Is it the piece of equipment that needs to warm up? Is anything today not like yesterday? Maybe something is half-broken?" All that is so fun. At a certain point, I’m going down to my instincts, not thinking anymore, and just doing things. I’ve never had that moment with a computer. I hate how they feel and what they try to be. They try to be an emulation of anything and everything, but the most important things they cannot do. I use the iPhone all the time in my studio to document patches. There are certain things where I really love how I can combine digital technology and mechanical sounds with the computer. I’m using the computer, but only to control the synthesizers making sounds. They can modulate. I feel like everybody is pretty careless about the computer, out of a misunderstanding of the debate about the sound of PCM digital. It sounds a little different if you play back all your tracks live from the computer, and you have to control MIDI synthesizers playing the actual parts. It sounds better when you put it on a mixer and mix it together. It’s just a different thing. People think I’m using [Boss] Loop Stations, but they sound terrible. I’ve recorded so many Loop Stations in my life, and I always wish I didn’t. They’ll never really repeat a loop. It has so many different modulations; and then, with the tape delays, it’s never really smooth. It’ll wobble.
So all your delays are tape delays?
Exactly. I’m a collector of these. I brought five on this tour. There are a couple of spares, and so on, because they work so great with the synthesizer parts. When I use it with something on repeat, it makes it feel like it’s a plate. It’s very different. Even an analog delay wouldn’t do that. It’s too steady and, at a point, it would feel too static. With a tape delay, I always feel like on the next loop it’s catching energy again.
I saw you had one of those early EMT digital reverbs in your rack too.
I have all the EMT equipment. I’m a big fan. I have the EMT 140, 240, 244, 245, 520, and 252. Whenever I get the chance, I buy some of my dream equipment. In the end, my studio will always be a curated piece of recording history. I’m pretty stubborn about its purpose. I want people to realize, and to feel, how much they’re missing when they try to do something all at home. There are certain things you can do at home, but other things don’t make much sense. Before I got the studio, my albums were very low-key enterprises. I recorded quiet piano takes, and I never recorded a drum set or a string quartet in my bathroom. But a lot of people do that because they think it’s possible. You can do anything now with a computer, but it doesn’t make sense. When you make bedroom music, it needs to fit the bedroom repertoire. You cannot really do a brass ensemble, or whatever. But people sometimes have this specific idea where they want a brass ensemble but are doing a laptop production, and they go through the sample library looking for some brass. That is something I always felt I wouldn’t do. The studio now is a heaven and hell. Heavenly sounds, and the hell that everything is possible.
In the liner notes on the new record you mention how building a studio was an excuse for you to bring in people and collaborate more.
Before I could not invite so many musicians over, and now I can. I also wanted to sit in the control room and hear the room recorded. I wanted to check out everything and see the studio from all perspectives. I was curious, so I invited a lot of friends to do sessions. A lot of that we didn’t use, and some of that we used. It was all basically fine-tuning certain things and making tests.
Did you enjoy that collaboration then?
Yeah. It’s fun, especially when you have so much space. When there are all these people in your bedroom, it just feels claustrophobic. In a studio a couple of people make it comfortable; it’s not too crowded or anything. It’s much more fun than being alone all the time. On the other hand, I had a great setup. I could mirror the computer from the control room in the recording room, so I had everything there as well. At night I was alone in the recording room and could use the room there instead of having to run back and forth. So I took care that I could run the whole thing alone. But, on the other hand, the main layout of these rooms was a four-person enterprise. There were usually three to four engineers on a normal shift, so I had to come up with a system of how I could do it alone in the main room where I was not supposed to.
You built your own mixing console?
Yeah, that was crazy. I spent too much money on it. We had to drive throughout all of Germany for weeks to get the parts first. My friend Matthias Hahn built it; he’s the Beethoven of vintage modding and design. He’s absolutely crazy, unfortunately; but he’s the guy behind the mixing desk, and the treasure hunter behind all my studio gear. I’ve worked with him since 2010, and he finds me equipment which nobody would find – he has mafia-like trade things going on, which are super awkward but effective. We have M/S [Mid-Side] matrices made out of four vintage transformers; it’s the best sounding M/S matrix you’ve ever heard. I use it behind reverbs and then on the master bus. I usually insert gates and compressors on the mid, and nothing on the sides. I like the idea that there’s no op-amp in my mixdown, because the whole console is transformer-based. It is not only transformer-based on each module, but it is also completely balanced. That means I can take any step. I can take the panorama out of the chain if I don’t need the panorama.
So it’s like multiple taps of a transformer?
Yeah. Everything is input-output transformer-based so I can get everything to the patchbay. That’s the main point. It makes mastering great. I did a lot of mastering, so I wanted a mixing desk that’s great at multichannel work and mastering at the same time. That’s why we decided on the Neumann concept. You can only activate certain channels on the bus, and not all the channels are looking into the bus.
So the console is based on the old Neumann consoles?
Yes, we had to re-cap all the modules and then we built a digital solo/mute matrix, which was the most work, obviously. Originally the Neumann desks had these early switching units. They alone were like 1,000 pounds. They were usually out of the control room, and it was making the signal path much longer. We got all the technology switched, so it’s entirely in the console. When you switch a board on there, it’s a millisecond or something.
Are you still tracking to tape for the record?
No, I used my BURL setup, which sounds fantastic. We didn’t drive the BURLs hard, ever. I always drive them below the distortion level. The whole record is pretty undistorted. The only thing that is distorted are the tape delays. That gives it some crunch.
What DAW are you using?
Are you mixing to tape at all?
I tried. I think I have a good tape recorder. I have a Telefunken M15, which is modified to 1/2-inch. It sounds fantastic. I use it basically on every mixdown. But after I got the board and had my mix on there, I didn’t need it anymore. It was ridiculous. It sounded so good on the master bus that I didn’t want any tape or anything on there. I didn’t even use my Gates [Sta-Level] compressor; I didn’t compress anything. I was just so excited about all the transients, which are regretted in the mastering session and the vinyl cut session. We were so excited about the transients and all that, but we didn’t consider how much vinyl would hate that.
The vinyl pressing sounds great.
The dynamics are great. It took us eight test pressings.
Wow. Who did it?
>In the end it was Barry Grint in London [at Alchemy Mastering]. He does Radiohead, and he’s really good. I also used to work with Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin. In the end it was a long journey with the test pressing, and everybody just wants to fuck with you. You have to really, really make sure that they use enough time to press the records they release. Because they’re always under time pressure, everyone wants to use half the time necessary. It needs to cool down, and then it releases. That time in the ‘70s was a lot longer than it is today. Now they have different chemicals to cool things down faster, and so on. That is my least favorite topic, ever. I’m so frustrated with the whole pressing that I’m like, "Okay, guys; if we don’t get it right the next time, I’ll write a big Facebook thing and just say vinyl is dead for me. There is no good-sounding vinyl out there anymore. Fuck you." Then we got that pressing done, and I’m still unhappy with it. They really did something amazing there, but it frustrates me still. If you make folk music with vocals and crunchy, distorted bass, you can put it on vinyl and be happy. But to really put this type of music, with electronic music and all this crazy, wide stereo sounds, vinyl can’t really do that.
I thought it was great that on the download option you have the 24-bit wave file also.
I always talk to people and say the 24-bit is great sounding. Vinyl depends on your setup, and so on. It’s hard.
If you meet a total stranger on an airplane and they ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I just say, "I’m a musician." Very harmless. People don’t really know if they should feel sorry for you, or if they should feel happy for you. Because people are polite, they usually seem to be happy.
If they probe a little bit more, do you say, "I play piano," or, "I’m a producer," or, "I’m a composer"?
They’ll ask what type of music. I say, "I do concerts and recording. I don’t sing. I just play keyboard instruments and piano." Usually that’s enough for them.
I guess I’m curious if you identify yourself as more a composer or...
Photos this section and next of Nils’ studio by Lia Darjes www.liadarjes.com Captions by Nils from the All Melody liner notes
I’m honestly just a musician. I could say I’m an artist, because there’s also probably something true to that; but more precise would be just a musician.
You go much deeper than a lot of musicians into the sonics.
Well, yeah. Beethoven couldn’t hear anything when he was writing his ninth symphony ["Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125"]. I wonder how nice it must have been to not really take care of the sonics in that way, since not really many people take care of the sonics these days. There are always some people who will sweat for it. I started by helping my band and my friends, or helping in the youth club because people couldn’t really figure it out. There was a graphic EQ and I was like, "No guys, look!" Then, all of a sudden, I was the guy who was always there. I was unfortunately getting really good at that, and then I could not get out of it. At some point everybody just comes to you. They make their music, and you fix it.
Jeremy: How much are you writing through improvisation? Are you jamming and then going through your material to write tunes, or are you writing more from ideas and then composing?
I think it comes more from playing. I’m not so theoretical about it. I always admired composers who didn’t even have to sit at their instrument. They could just dream it. There are maybe more rules there, certain harmonic ideas and whatnot, but for me it is very much a combination of the notes that I want to play, as well as the sounds they produce. I feel like that’s the magic that’s so important. Not the series of notes and the pauses in between, but also the timbre of the notes and the envelope of each note and so on. For me, that inspires the idea of the melody.
Jeremy: What do you find is a key element to feeling like you’re finished with something?
When I have the feeling that I experienced something which I shouldn’t doubt. There’s also a perfect element when "lieber Gott böse" – when it’s too perfect and the gods are angry at you. You shouldn’t strive for perfection. Say I have a mic’ing technique. I’m trying one thing and listening to it, then trying another thing, and at one point I just feel it. I feel like, "This sounds cool." Then I hear it and, when I have no issues with what I’m hearing, I say it’s finished. Then I just record. I could obviously try to save that as maybe position A, go further, and try if there’s something better; but I think this is the point where you lose time. I’m always trying to just get things to a certain quality, of course. It’s not worth then going further before you’re done, because then everything you do afterwards is just built on sand. But you have to also know "this is good enough" so everything goes in a flow. I try to have that humility throughout the whole process until the mastering. Even in the mastering studio, I have to remember that there won’t be that perfection.
Are you making decisions and then moving on, not keeping 50 playlists?
No, I’m moving on. I’m also going back sometimes and erasing. I’d rather delete the whole song, call it a day, and take some song that I feel happy about. We can all focus on the songs we feel like are actually better than we hoped they would be. As musicians, I think we always go to that point where we make something greater than we could have hoped it to be. I think, as musicians, we all get to that point where we’ve made something that is just unbelievably incredible, because we have no idea how we made it. It’s done. Then there are so many tracks which are the opposite. They’re hard to finish, and they really give us all these doubts. Then maybe it’s just time to start with a new track. Some tracks are never finished. When they don’t ask to be finished, I won’t try to wrestle them. They will always win anyways.