Trentemøller talks latest album, plus compares studio and live setups

Denmark’s premier purveyor of brooding electronica hones his craft to perfection on new release, Fixion

(Image: © Future)

Some people never change whereas others have an inner drive to constantly change, reinvent and explore new avenues. Anders Trentemøller definitely falls into the latter category.

Having cut his musical teeth in the world of indie rock, Trentemøller had something of an electronic epiphany that resulted (thankfully) in his influential 2006 debut album, The Last Resort, which saw his star rise. His follow up albums, Into The Great Wide Yonder and 2013’s Lost, have since seen Anders cement his reputation for his distinctive production sound, inventive remixes, immersive live shows and, perhaps most importantly, as a damn fine songwriter.

Fixion, his fourth artist album, sees Trentemøller refine those songwriting skills yet further on songs such as the sublime River of Me, and the icy electronic pulse of Redefine showcases his continued growth and prowess in the studio. We hooked up with Anders Trentemøller at his recent London live date to find out more about the desirable collection of synths, software and outboard that he uses to such good effect on the beautiful, Fixion. In these times of limitless studio possibilities, it’s refreshing to meet a producer who knows that, often, less can still be more.

Would we be right in suggesting that the new album sees you go even further into the cinematic vibe of your recent outings?

"That wasn’t the point with this album actually. With this one, I wanted to focus more on the songwriting and not quite as much on the cinematic layers. Of course, that’s always part of my music too, maybe because half the songs are instrumentals, but my main focus this time was to make the songwriting even stronger. It’s still nice if you can hear that cinematic vibe to it too though.”

Fixion certainly has some beautifully written, subterranean songs on it. Have guitars usurped the synths in your songwriting process?

"Not really. On the last album, Lost, there was much more guitar so this one’s very much synth-based, though, of course, there are a few, quite simple guitars in there. It’s mainly the guitars playing one little melody rather than chords because I really like the sound of guitars and especially this five-string bass I’ve used on Fixion. It’s a mix of guitar and bass and I really love the tone and sound of it. Most of the songs, though, were written on my upright piano in the studio then later in the whole process I take things to the studio and develop them.”

We last spoke prior to the release of Into the Great Wide Yonder. Are you still in the same white studio you were for that album?

"Yeah [laughs], although it’s grown quite a lot since then as I’m really good at collecting old hardware and synths. Now, it looks a little like an over- crowded spaceship! I’m beginning to think about finding a new place but I do still love the fact that it’s so easy for me to get to everything in this place and everything is connected - all the synths are MIDI-connected so I don’t have to set up the synths every time I want to use them. The MIDI linking is probably the biggest difference from the last time we spoke as, back then, I didn’t have that direct access to whatever synth I wanted to use. It’s really nice that I don’t have to think too much about the technical side of things and I can just start playing.”

What’s the backbone of this studio set-up? Are you still using a lot of tape machines?

"Yeah I actually still use my tape machine quite a lot. I like using it on drums and the drum machines a lot but also the synths and guitars too. Nearly everything goes through it as it sometimes gives things that special glow. I do sometimes just work inside the computer too and just using a lot of plugins, so it really depends from track to track and what the purpose is of each sound.”

Most of the time when I use plugins I usually re-amp them through a guitar amp or put them down to tape as they tend to sound a little bit too polished... too perfect, so to speak.

We feel a tad music-nerdy to say it but the drums (and particularly the toms) sound brilliant on this album…

"That’s our drummer Henrik (Vibskov) who I share the studio with so it’s very easy to just knock on his door and ask him to play some drums on a track! This time, I really wanted the drums to not sound too hand-played so it’s mainly additional toms and percussion and the rest I programmed. The first single, River in Me, was totally programmed and the only thing that was played live was the hi-hat as I wanted it to have that living feeling of being a little too fast for the beat to help get the right energy and intense drama in the track. It’s really fun to try to merge the drum machines with the live drums.”

Having Henrik ‘en suite’ must be like having a MIDI drummer on tap?

"[Laughs] Yeah... also because you can very easily get used to quantising everything with machines and that’s a bit boring as it sounds too perfect. So it’s really nice, on top of those MIDI patterns, to have someone actually playing the toms, the rides, hi-hats or even sometimes the snare. Actually having a full, live drum kit only happens in one track as I wanted it to feel a little bit cold even though I do like the organic sound of live drums. I wanted this album to have something of a cold aesthetic to it so using so many drum machines made sense.”

What were your drum machines on Fixion?

"I used my old E-mu Drumulator quite a lot, actually. I also have a drum machine from Curtis, who made the chip for the Prophet-5, which I use a lot. I’ll also use plugins like the Arturia Spark machines. Most of the time when I use plugins I usually re-amp them through a guitar amp or put them down to tape as they tend to sound a little bit too polished... too perfect, so to speak.”

So, putting that little extra time and effort into processing plugin sounds can really pay dividends in the mix?

"Yes, absolutely. Also because you’re so used to hearing those drum machines or the plugin emulations of them, then it’s always good for me to try and disguise the sounds a little bit or even sometimes I’ll put two or three snare sounds together to create a new snare sound. Same with the bass drum... not just using an 808 kick on its own but rather try to come up with a mixture of kicks and even mix in our drummer’s own kick sound with something electronic. So, I actually have quite a big library of drum sounds that I’ve made up from various samples and mixed in with our own drum kit sounds.”

(Image: © Future)

Getting to know the contents of your sound library well is becoming an important part of the music making process nowadays isn’t it?

"Yeah... also, making the time to look into what’s actually important for a song. If I’m working on a song, I don’t really want to spend too much time initially finding the right sound as I’d rather use that time to capture that vibe that was there when I got the idea; to have that spontaneous energy is good and if I have to go through a lot of different synths and sounds then it kills it for me. So, that’s why I like to have my own sound library built up so I can choose stuff from there that fits best for each song.”

So, you’ve mastered the fine art of nailing down which sounds to use and sticking with them?

"I very often have a clear idea in my head about a track when I start working on it but then it can be quite hard to find exactly that sound or vibe that suits the initial idea. I’m getting quite good at knowing ‘this song should sound this way’; then I’ll either go to one of my sound banks or I’ll try to do something from scratch. So, it’s much more the songwriting itself that I end up spending a lot of the time on, especially the vocal songs as it’s really important for me that the melodies are strong enough to work with the sound in different ways. One thing is, if the song is strong enough, then you can do like five or six versions of it and it hopefully still sounds great. Then the challenge is to find the right version or rather, the right way to go with the song.”

We would assert that what sets your music apart sometimes is that strength of the songs and the songwriting... Do you think people sometimes use the technology but forget the song?

"Yeah... and you know it’s also very easy to overdo a production as you have so many possibilities that you can add thousands of layers of plugins or hardware. Especially with more electronic-based music, there are just so many possibilities that you can easily forget what the main idea of the song was - what was my mood when I actually wrote it? So, that’s basically why I really love to do most of the songwriting at the piano and not begin thinking about the sounds and how it should sound, rather what would actually work melodic-wise.”

Once you’ve done all that work on the actual songs, do you keep everything in the box for the mixing process?

"Kind of... it’s all mixed in the box but then it’s summed through my Chandler EMI Mini-rack summing mixer. I’ll send out stems - the bass drum on one channel, bass guitar on another then percussion etc on others. I’ll then bring it back into the computer so every track ends up having been out of the computer then back in again! Everything is still mixed in my Ableton Live.”

If I’m working on a song, I don’t really want to spend too much time initially finding the right sound as I’d rather use that time to capture that vibe that was there when I got the idea; to have that spontaneous energy is good and if I have to go through a lot of different synths and sounds then it kills it for me.

What is it about Ableton that’s kept you faithful to it?

"It’s maybe because I’ve been working with it for such a long time now that it’s very easy for me to do edits. It’s still a bit of a nightmare if you’re doing multiple channel recordings because it’s not really built for that so I do sometimes miss some of the features of, say, Pro Tools or Logic. Again, if you’re recording vocals and you want to do a second or third take on the same song then you have to set up a new track with all the plugins as it’s really not made for doing that either.

"It’s definitely not the best program for me when I’m recording but it’s excellent when I’m mixing or chopping and changing the audio stuff. Next time I’m actually thinking I might end up using Pro Tools; especially for the vocals and drums. Then I’ll take everything back into Live. That all takes time though so I’m a little reluctant at the same time.”

Do you use Live Racks much?

"Not that much really. It’s mostly third-party plugins that I use. I am using the basic reverb in Live and also the 8-band EQ is something that I really love because you can visually see which frequencies you’re working with and, of course, it’s always best to use your ears but sometimes it’s nice to see specific frequencies that you might want to pump up or maybe get rid of. It’s possible to do in other plugins but it’s something that works really well in Ableton’s native EQ.”

Seems like an appropriate, if somewhat obvious, time to ask you what other plugins and softsynths you used on Fixion?

"I’m a real fan of the UAD stuff; they’re really something special. I also use the G-Force M-Tron Pro quite a lot but through a lot of guitar pedals. I really love the wow and flutter of the Mellotron sounds - it really sounds authentic and old- fashioned but it’s also clearly a Mellotron when you use those sounds so that’s something I want to mess around with using effects and making them stereo if they’re just mono sounds... stuff like that.”

What about hardware synths? You have some desirable bits and pieces in your studio kit-list...

"On this album there were two string synths that I really used a lot. The Roland RS-202 from the late ’70s I think and I’m also using the Hohner/ Logan String Melody on a lot of tracks. Very often I’ll play the same parts on both of them and pan them left and right so they sound different but have that wonderful ’80s string-synth sound. Again, it’s possible to get good sounding string synths like those with plugins but I do think that the real thing sounds a bit truer and warmer in a good way. Being a huge fan of Joy Division and The Cure, that sound was a big part of the music I listened to as a teenager. I think the music you listen to at that point in your life always stays with you. They only have a couple of sounds, those old stringer synths, but with a little reverb and a bit of phase they still sound amazing!”

Are there any others from your hardware synth collection that you used a lot on the album?

"I used the Korg PolySix a fair bit and I’m really happy with the sound of it. I bought a Prophet V but I ended up using the PolySix more as it sounded slightly ‘colder’, which was what I was looking for some of the songs. I didn’t always want it to be that warm, analogue-sounding. It sounds weird but the PolySix, somehow, suited some of my songs better as it has a little bit of a plastic quality to some of the sounds which is quite nice.”

(Image: © Future)

We assume that you’re running Ableton Live for syncing everything up at the live shows?

"Yes. We used to have some problems in the past with it as it wasn’t all that stable, which wasn’t great if you’re playing with a band and suddenly it jumped or occasionally crashed completely! I switched to the 64-bit version and that just made everything so much more stable. I’m a lot more relaxed before going onstage now. That used to be the worst thing about playing live shows - not the thought of us playing wrong notes, as that can happen sometimes, but the fear of the technical side of things falling down on us.”

Do any of the rest of the band use any synths live?

"We recently got Marie (Fisker), who does the vocals live as well as some guitar and five-string bass, a Korg Minilogue, which I’m not totally convinced about the sound of but she runs it through some reverb and chorus pedal to make it sound better. It’s fine for live but it’s maybe not something that I’d use in the studio. That’s actually it as far as synths live - the rest is bass guitar and another guitar. It’s mostly me doing the synth and sequenced stuff.”

With everyone going modular crazy, is that something you’ve ever looked at incorporating into the studio or live set-ups?

"Not really because I’m kind of afraid of all the wires and knobs. I did check it out at one point but I’m scared it would lead me away from the melodic side of things which is the main focus for me. So, I don’t think it’s really something that speaks to me as I’m a little old-fashioned in that I like to have the keyboard in front of me and then all the filters and everything else is fine; I don’t really have the patience to get fully into the modular world. That might just be a poor excuse from me as I know a lot of people who are raving about the modular stuff but when I hear modular synths I don’t really think that the sounds people are coming up with are drastically different from what I feel I could come up with using an analogue synth.”

When you go out live do you take the PolySix and the old Loganstring synth out with you?

"No. I was actually thinking of taking the string synths at one point but they’re so heavy and not always so stable. I thought a lot about what I could use live that sounded like those and I found Waldorf’s Streichfett, which is their little MIDI module dedicated to those old string synths. It actually sounds pretty nice and captures that sound really well so it’s in the live rig on tour. I also recently bought the Mini Mellotron that’s actually the digital version of the old Mellotron so you can mix two sound banks together and it really sounds good.

"I trigger some soft synths from my laptop when we play live but the laptop isn’t onstage with me as laptops don’t look good on a stage. All the monosynth lines are done with a Moog Sub 37, which I’m really happy with as I used to have a Moog Voyager but it went out of key quite a lot and I even sent it to the Moog factory and they tried to fix it but it still didn’t work great. This new Sub 37 is brilliant though. It’s really easy to use and the sequencer and arpeggiator sound great and recording your own sequences is very simple. That’s sync’d to the MIDI backtrack; there isn’t very much on the backtrack, just a little percussion stuff and some effects but it’s nice to have the Moog sync’d to it so I have space to tweak things live.”

The vocals on Fixion are really nicely recorded. Is that a result of some expensive boutique mics and compressors?

"Actually we just used a Neumann U47 that I borrowed from my drummer for all of the vocals. I’m not really an expert in which mic is best for this or that. The Neumann just sounded great on both Marie and Jehnny [Jehnny Beth of Savages] so I didn’t really think of trying anything else out. I have a Retro Sta-Level compressor and some Tube-Tech preamps - everything goes into the Tube-Techs! The rest is really just plugins.”

That nice mix of the hardware/software worlds?

"Absolutely. I’m also using a lot of spring reverbs - the Vermona DSR3 Dual spring unit is really nice and I have three different old Roland Space echoes and Space chorus units, which I use a lot. There are various guitar effect pedals to get my sound; the SansAmp Classic really sounds great on the bass and guitars... even on drums. Actually, it sounds especially good on drums as it takes out the very high treble that sometimes makes drums sound too perfect. Also, when I’m recording shakers or tambourines it always goes through the SansAmp as it makes it sound a little more lo-fi and warm. Most of the bass on the album isn’t amped it’s just through the SansAmp then through a JHS Colour Box pedal, which really gives the bass that little extra bit of warmth, punch and a little bit of saturation.”

What I like most about playing live is that it’s the perfect contrast to me sitting alone for a year in the studio making an album, which can be quite a lonely process.

With all these lovely guitar pedals, we’re guessing you love to trawl the music shops?

"[Laughs] That’s usually the first thing myself and the guitar player do when we wake up in a new city. Go on Google and find the music shops. I’m also on eBay a lot! I actually just got a delivery today of a Yamaha FX500 unit, which is from the ’90s. I’m a huge fan of all the Slowdive albums and they used that effect on a lot of the guitars. I couldn’t find any plug-ins that could get that sound.”

What do you like most and least about being a producer or a musician?

"What I like most about playing live is that it’s the perfect contrast to me sitting alone for a year in the studio making an album, which can be quite a lonely process. So I love to finally get together with the band and play the music that I’ve been working on and to see the songs take on a new life as we’re playing the songs differently. One of the worst things, weirdly enough, is that thing of being alone in the studio and having to take all the decisions yourself. On the other hand, that’s also how I like it. I think the creative process can be fairly messy and I’m not good at sharing that time with anyone else so I really need that space and that quiet to get into the music.”

Fixion is available on In My Room. Visit the Trentemøller website for regular updates and tour dates.

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