As a longtime resident of lauded club Berghain, a former employee of both the Dubplates & Mastering pressing studio and Hard Wax record store, and head of the dub-infused soudsystem party Wax Treatment, Fiedel is a genuine cornerstone of Berlin’s world famous techno scene.
As an artist, he’s continuously impressed over several decades with his deep and eclectic DJ sets, and numerous excellent releases, both solo and as one half of MMM alongside Errorsmith.
This year, Fiedel launched Super Sound Tool, his latest label project, releasing all-vinyl DJ tools that are carefully crafted to make sure the physical releases are peak quality. SST releases are cut in a way to increase quality and volume and “improve the signal-to-noise ratio while practically eliminating background noise”.
We caught up with Fiedel to talk about the importance of quality control and the challenges of playing vinyl in 2020.
Why do think vinyl is still so important to dance music?
“For me, I started playing music with cassettes in the former East Germany. I always dreamt of owning some turntables in order to play music on vinyl. I wanted to do all the tricks that DJs could do. In the former East you couldn’t just buy turntables or records, so that’s why I started with tapes. I guess that’s maybe given me a slightly different approach to vinyl.
“Over the course of 30 years of DJing, I’ve always found vinyl a lot of fun. You can physically engage with it. You have to develop a certain craft; knowing how to touch the record and the turntables in a certain way. It’s almost like playing an instrument. Like on a guitar, how you pick the strings in a certain way; it’s a connection you need to develop. I feel more engaged during my sets, my body is more connected to it.
“For instance, for longer sets at Berghain, I’ll always play lots of vinyl. For closing sets, I’ll be playing records at least half of the time, if not more. If I’m playing for 10 hours, at least five of those will be me playing vinyl.”
Tell us about your DJ setup. Do you combine turntables and CDJs?
“Yeah. I decided a couple of years ago to divide it into regular DJ sets, using CDJs, and special vinyl DJ sets - but the conditions have to be right for those. Nobody knows how to set up a real vinyl DJ setup these days. You end up with a lot of feedback and the levels aren’t watched by a technician. You see these issues a lot on the road, and that’s why I decided it didn’t make sense to always play vinyl anymore. Now I only play records in certain places where I know I can.”
Was that a common problem then, badly set up turntables?
“Oh yeah, you’d turn up at the venue to takeover from another DJ without a sound check, you play the first record and then see ‘oh the second turntable isn’t working, the tonearm is broken!’. That happened to me; fortunately I could just mix in digital. I ended up playing Move Your Body by Marshall Jefferson as the final record, but that was the only other thing on the turntable all night - two records all evening! You end up carrying your records all around the globe but you can’t ever play them!”
Tell about Super Sound Tool - why start the label, and why all-vinyl?
“I really like to play it and the sound component is a big part of that. All the digital stuff is so heavily compressed and too dense sometimes. I like that vinyl can have more dynamics because of the way you push it to the limits of what you can do with the material itself.
It has to be a bit more airy to do that, though. In DJ sets I like to play with those densities - if you’re playing a prime time set of three hours and you only play heavily compressed digital stuff, then it can be like a brick wall of sound the whole time. If every DJ plays like that then it’s like pressure, pressure, pressure… all the time. That’s why I really like vinyl.
“I really wanted to have some nice DJ tools on vinyl that I knew sound good. The whole cutting process is responsible for having that good sound.
"As someone who buys a lot of music on vinyl, it seems to me like a lot of the craft of how to properly cut a vinyl record has been forgotten. I guess one of the points is that a lot of labels or artists who release by themselves want to do it quite cheaply.
"Now there are services available on the internet, like e-mastering and stuff like that, where you can upload your music and get a master, which I guess might be OK for standard techno stuff or whatever, but nobody has had a real listen to your music. You might end up with something that doesn’t really suit the music the way it should. When you’re pressing that it can lead to cuts that are really thin and not loud enough. Then you get feedback more quickly than you would with a properly cut record.
“As a DJ I like to play these records in the club, which is hard enough anyway, but if you’re trying to do it with badly cut records it’s just won’t work. That happens too often - the tracks are nice but the vinyl isn’t really playable. That’s why I wanted to release some heavy-sounding tracks to use in the club.
“The DJ tool approach for me is a little different, too. It’s not just about creating techno to mix with, it’s something that works if you’re lost on your journey. You can grab a Super Sound Tool to change the mood, or to get a new idea of where to take your set. You can have that one record to help give you more time to rethink what you’re doing - that’s my approach to DJ tools. It’s not necessarily about big hits or looping tracks, it’s a tool to help in your set.”
Talk us through the process behind creating the SST records. How did you go about making sure the records themselves were high quality?
“My function at the moment is just as a curator, I haven’t released on this label myself just yet - although I might have an idea for that in the future! When I find a track that sounds like a good tool for the project, I’ll work together with the artists – who are often younger or less experienced – to work on the sound. I prepare all the tracks for the mastering sessions, so we don’t use up unnecessary time. I’ll do things like add a little pre-roll, check that the first bass drum isn’t cut, and check that all of the levels are matching.
“For many years I’ve used [Berlin’s] Dubplates & Mastering for cutting the vinyl. We started back in 1995 with our first MMM record, and I worked there myself doing the bookings for the engineers and machines, but that’s 20 years ago now.
"I always make sure I’m present when the tracks are mastered and cut. That way I can decide how I want it to sound. We can cut it with a higher level, too. When you turn the levels up, the sound starts distorting, so sometimes we’ll do a series of test levels and I’ll decide which one has the proper balance of volume and quality.
“I’m privileged to be able to do things that way, though; as I’ve said I worked there, and it costs money to be able to attend sessions. The sessions are longer because we do test cuts, so it all costs money, but I think it’s worth it. It means I can oversee every step of the production - I choose the tracks, I pre-master them and then I’m there for the mastering and the cutting, so I can intervene at any stage if something sounds wrong.
"I get the test pressings to the artists, too, and we decide together whether we like the cut or not. It’s not happened so far that I’ve had to re-cut anything because it’s sounded bad, because I’ve taken all these steps before hand to make sure it’s done right.”
If you could give one bit of advice to somebody starting up a vinyl label...?
“Check everything. That would be my advice; check the masters, check the test pressings, check every stage. It’s a complicated process to make a record, and at every step something can happen. If the pressing plant fucks up the metal plating then you can see with the test pressings, if the cut was bad then you can see that too. At that stage it’s not over, you can still intervene. Once it’s in the final manufacturing process, then it’s really hard to get a new pressing if you’re not happy. So take control of every step as much as you can.”
From a mixing and mastering point of view, what are the main differences with preparing a track for vinyl compared with a digital release?
“It has to be less dense, because that makes it sound weird and squashed once you carve it into the lacquer. In terms of levels, perhaps you’re aiming for between -12db and -6db, which would probably be a nice airy level to cut a record. If you want to have a loud record then you make the cut louder but not the music. If you have really dense music you might end up with a cut that is really low in volume, but with music that isn’t mastered so loud or so dense, you can make the cut louder and it ultimately has a higher peak. The result can fight against the digital releases.
“That’s my approach, not too dense and not too bassy. Regarding the highs, those are always a problem when you’re cutting vinyl, because they can cause it to distort, but with the right amount of high frequencies it can do so in a very nice way. That’s one thing I like about vinyl; it’s not so harsh and spiky in the top end. If the highs distort a little on a vinyl release it sounds nice and warm.
“At the other end, if you have too much bass it can make the track lose energy and also take up too much space for the groove itself. The best thing to do is either produce it to be a little more lightweight or remove some of the bass in the mastering process.
"In my experience as a DJ, many records have way too much bass, and if it’s amplified in the club - and systems have a lot more bass power now than, say, 20 years ago - then you catch a lot of feedback quickly and you have to turn down the bass. In the end it’s better to have a record where you can turn the bass up if you need to. It’s more about having nicely balanced music that has lots of dynamics. That’s the sort of material that I’m looking for.”
Tell us little about your own production setup right now?
“To disappoint you, I have no magic in my studio setup! I use Live and sample folders, that’s it [laughs]. You don’t have to have a bunch of analogue synths set up to make music, it’s just about imagination and understanding what you want to make.
"I also have no set production setup. Sometimes I hear artists and all their music sounds very much the same, which is OK, but long term it can get boring. That’s why I don’t start with a certain setup, I’ll start with an idea. Sometimes I’ll sing into my phone with just a sketch of a beat or noise or a melody, then I work out how to create that and then build everything else around it. It’s not a fixed process though.”
Find the latest from Fiedel and Super Sound Tool on SoundCloud.