Florian Meindl is a seriously busy man. As if running his own Flash Recordings imprint wasn’t enough, he also brings his technical prowess and sound design genius to sample packs, which he releases under his Riemann Kollektion brand, and keeps himself out of trouble during his downtime with the manufacturing of Eurorack gear with his Riemann Modular project.
It may come as a surprise, then, that Florian Meindl found the time to create his new album. Time Illusions is the first of his long players to get a vinyl release, and its sleek, minimalist mix of crunchy beats, bristling melodies and rumbling subs may well make it a contender for techno record of the year.
With a serious eye on the club dancefloor, standout tracks Colorful Cage, Isometric and the speaker-shaking Andromeda represent techno at its finest; and beyond the album itself, Meindl has assembled a live rig, enabling him to take his music to the next level at shows throughout 2017 and beyond.
With all this in mind, MusicRadar tracked him down at his Berlin studio to talk shop and gaze longingly at his rather desirable modular rig.
The vinyl version of the album sounds fantastic. Is the recent vinyl resurgence especially good news for the modular music crowd?
“Yeah - that was important to me as it’s actually my first album that’s had a vinyl release too. The other albums have been CD or USB stick. The vinyl market was really bad five years ago, but this time it really makes sense. I attended the cutting session and, you’re right, I feel that the more analogue tracks sound even better on vinyl. It gives it a little extra crunch, which is nice.”
Time Illusion really benefits from the warmth of your analogue gear and your modular rig, but that wasn’t always your choice of equipment. How did the transition to analogue happen for you?
“When I first started producing music around 14 years ago, I couldn’t afford any equipment. That was also the time when a really clean techno sound was about. It was very cool to have a clean, ‘computer’ sound, without noise or distortion. That was fascinating at the time as it wasn’t really possible to have that super-clear sound - hardware was warm and saturated, and tape was noisy. So, it was logical that I made computer music at that time.
“Slowly, I started getting bits of hardware here and there. It started with a 303 replica from Acidlab - they’re a big company now, but I bought one of the first 303 clones from them. I bought an SSL compressor clone, which I still have today. I was one of the first customers for them, too! I was still living in Austria at that time, and I had a connection to the guy in Germany who was building them.”
And you were bitten by the hardware bug?
“I didn’t really buy much hardware at all after those; I was working pretty much exclusively on the computer. Five or six years ago, I started buying more hardware, like analogue spring reverb, and I started to really appreciate the warmth and organic-ness of the analogue sound. That’s what I’d been trying to emulate with the computer, but then I realised that maybe I shouldn’t emulate it - rather, go analogue!
“I slowly found out that some things still can’t be done with software… yet, or maybe in general. That’s particularly true with a modular system, because there are so many unpredictable possibilities, especially when you go with a signal that’s a little bit too high into a filter or a spring reverb. Things happen then that are totally different to software, because all the saturations on the modules are different and unpredictable, which is a big part of the magic of those things.
“Also, there’s a little bleed between channels in a modular rig, which again adds a little something to the magic of it. Like when you have a control voltage and some of the modules bleed a tiny bit, and that interacts just enough to sound interesting.”
And how did you decide to go from there and take it further?
“About five years ago, I started thinking that going out live would be good to do, but the only possibility seemed to be Ableton Live, maybe with some controllers - but I couldn’t get the results I wanted. In the end, I’d just play Scenes and add a few effects here and there, and that’s not what I wanted.
“I saw Matthew Jonson playing live and it was just different. It looked different and sounded different with all the analogue effects and stuff he had. He said that he didn’t have a computer involved live at all, and so for the past couple of years it’s been my challenge to develop a way of doing my music live and to build an album around that. I’ve now reached that place with this album and this setup.”
It must require a serious amount of focus and energy to put together a live modular performance on your own.
“Yeah, it was hard to fill one and a half hours of a set without a computer, perform the album tracks and keep it interesting. It’s been a challenge and it took up a lot of energy, but fortunately I got there in the end.”
How do you prepare yourself for a show?
“I need to be very focused. Beforehand, I’m very… not nervous, but a mixture of scared and concentrated. That’s getting better the more I do the shows, as you feel more confident. My live sets are getting better each time. The first ever one
was OK, and do you know why? Because, if you have a kick drum in a club it’s always OK! [laughs] That’s a fact!
“I’ve improved on it setup-wise, skills-wise and content-wise as I go along. I started out with four rows of modular, and I could do half of what I can do now using three rows. So, you need to find a universal patch, which just works and is very efficient because, you know, every millimetre counts! It took me ages to find that out. You can try it online with Modular Grid, but if you miss a module then you have to wait a few days to get it, or sometimes it just doesn’t work how you want it to or how you thought it would.
“The initial setting up took me ages and, of course, the other gear you’re using needs to integrate and make sense, too.”
Sounds like there were a few initial headaches then. Is everything in its right place now?
“That was just the technical side of things, really. The first performance was three years ago in Berlin for a Flash Label night. In reality it was a test for my live setup. I had way too much equipment; I didn’t know how to transport it there as I had the big four-row modular rig. I wanted to play for one and a half hours, but I’d played everything I wanted to play within 40 minutes! I was so under pressure that I played everything too fast!
“When there was a cool loop running, I would constantly change it as I felt there had to be something going on all the time. Now, I do a little of that with LFOs and modulation, so there’s almost never a static loop going on - there’s always something randomly moving. I’ve reached a place where I could even play two hours and keep the content interesting - I just know how to perform live better… I can re-interpret the tracks better now.”
With your own music and your Riemann Modular venture, building rack modules, you seem fairly focused on dynamics. Is that an area that’s perhaps a little overlooked in the modular world?
“Yeah. For me it was really important to be able to get a good sound in the club and on the record. Some of the album tracks come from the same settings I used in the clubs. Maybe I took one more channel separately for the recording than I would in a club, but I built the rig, from the start, so that it sounds perfect in the club, on the record, everywhere.
“I don’t just take the master signal and put it through a processor, because I need to save space - it’s so limited when you fly with your gear… that’s a whole new challenge! So, I decided to make everything, so that I don’t need a sound processor… not even a compressor. My trick is to say to the venue, ‘Give me 3dB more so that I can clip into the sound system’s limiter a little bit’. That sounds even better, as the saturation is a bit more natural and I can get full volume and a lot of dynamics.”
So no compressor in the modular live rig at all then?
“You know how I kind of compress my single elements? I have three 12-bit samplers in the modular system so I don’t create all the tones from scratch - there are some samples involved. Those samples are sometimes pitch-modulated, and if you pitch things up or down on a 12-bit sampler, it gives you a sort of bitcrush effect, which makes it a bit crunchier and adds a little edge to it.
“The 12-bit samplers are like those old 80s samplers - a mixture of MPC and Ensoniq. Each sampler has its own signal chain. The sampler for the kick drums goes through a little mixer, which saturates it with a discrete circuit. Discrete saturation is very pleasant, as it adds a lot of overtones and doesn’t make it much louder, which is important for the kick drums. The hi-hats go through a low-pass filter, so I don’t need a volume knob. I use a filter with built-in saturation, then it goes through a digital modular reverb. The third sampler has tones and sounds, and they go through a low-pass filter, too, then an analogue echo. So, the sounds all get their treatment as they come out at source. That allows me to have an overall dynamic because if the sounds are fat and not so dynamic, then you don’t necessarily need a dynamic processor in the master chain.”
Did you get all the samplers all from the same company?
“Yes, they’re all Pico Drums made by Erica Synths.”
Is your sequencing handled by modules in the rig, too?
“I sequence with the Arturia BeatStep Pro, which has a lot of gate and CV outputs. For the live shows, I also use a Roland TR-8, although I use an 808 and a 909 in the studio. The TR-8 is great for live as it’s smaller, more versatile and easier to perform with. I take a Korg Minilogue out live, too, which again is a very versatile synthesiser, but small, too… [laughs]. It fits exactly in my hand-luggage bag!”
Do you run with any of the onboard sounds from the TR-8 and the Minilogue?
“I made my own presets. A few are taken from the original presets and changed a bit, and some were created from scratch. The synthesiser on Isometric is a custom-built sound I made on the Minilogue.”
What other studio kit did you use to fashion Time Illusion?
“One thing I use in the studio but don’t take out live is the Nord Lead. Again, it’s incredibly versatile; the melody on Loader’s Number is from the Nord. I played it in layers, starting with the violin-like sounds, and added chords and the intro and outro melodies. The drums on that track are all from the 909.
“A lot of different elements went through the Mackie 8 Bus mixer, too, which is my studio mixer. I have those eight busses, which are four stereo channels, and every stereo group channel has got a compressor or something on it. One has my SSL clone compressor plus another fast compressor. That’s the bus I prefer to use for drums. Another one has a Joe Meek compressor on it, which is really good – I use it mainly on basslines. Another buss has got an exciter, and I like to route rides and hi-hats through that as it adds a little magic - overtones and high frequencies - which is sometimes helpful.
“I’ve got send channels set up with a KNAS Ekdhal Moisturizer analogue spring reverb for a darker reverb that goes up to, maximum, 1000Hz. It’s very dull and dark but really warm too.”
Spring reverb and modular synths are pretty much made for each other, aren’t they?
“I think so, yeah. I just like that spring sound. I’ve actually got another spring reverb in my modular system too. I have three in total and they all sound different; longer, shorter, some have EQ or distortion built-in. On the mixer, I have another send channel with a brighter digital reverb from Boss, which I mainly use on hi-hats.”
What are your favourite modules to use in your current setup?
“For live, the Braids is very good as it’s so versatile, with a lot of waveforms. I also like my Doepfer (A-174) Joystick for live, too, because I’ve got a high-pass filter on it and the ‘acid’ filter frequency, so with one finger I can high-pass the kick drum and bassline and give the acid filter a higher frequency, which is very effective in a club.
“I also love the Synthrotek Echo, because it sounds very warm and it gets more and more saturated. It has a really nice, pleasant sound. It’s been a mix of having a pool of modules to begin with, then trial and error to see what works, then a little bit of planning.
“I do love my samplers for playing live - otherwise I’d have to use an Analog Rytm or something similar. They’re another heavy bit of gear for the setup, but the Rytms allow you to prepare a whole set in them, which would take me away a little from the live ‘performance’. I love the technical side of things, but I really love to perform this stuff, because it’s so alive.”
There’s a minimalism and conciseness to the tracks on Time Illusion that goes against the ‘20-minute modular jams’ vogue…
“Quite often, I do just jam around and record maybe 30-minute pieces, which then lie around on a hard drive for a year until I listen to them again. When I do, I maybe hear a melody I could add that would make it a track.
“The album is more like the result of experience, though, like the track Loader’s Number, which was just a nice drum stem that I played around with the Nord Lead on - it just fitted. Almost all the tracks have been shortened from what they were originally. That’s something I learned over time: to edit tracks or shorten them so that they work. For Time Illusion, I also tried to keep all the tracks short so that they sound good on vinyl; all sides of the vinyl are around 12 minutes, so they need to be cut a little bit lower in volume. I attended the cutting session and the engineer explained to me that when there’s no bass, the cutting machine automatically makes the distance between the grooves smaller. So, if you have tracks with long breaks or without kick-drums, you can cut more time.”
In the studio, what do you put all those initial jams down onto?
“I use Cubase and sometimes add a little bit of dynamic effects in there, then I master it myself. I do mastering for my label, Flash Recordings, so I have a bit of experience with that. I did everything except the cut! I would give my album to another person for mastering, but as long as I have the time, I kind of prefer to do it myself - I feel I can do it better that way.”
You’ve earned a reputation over the years for your Riemann Kollektion loop and sample libraries. How do you decide what’s destined for those and what will be a Florian Meindl sound or loop?
“Well, I do the sample collections only to earn money. A second income to buy more gear! It’s quite an efficient process as I take samples from my unreleased tracks that go into the sample packs and, when I’m making sounds specifically for the packs, I often discover new bits of gear or use the time to learn how to use new gear. If something really good comes up, I make a new project in Cubase, give it a working title, and that then becomes a track for myself. So, I increase the chance of getting something good by experimenting.
“For me, it would be really boring to make samples with sounds I’m not really into, so I make only techno. Riemann is half produced by myself and half by ghost producers.”
Time Illusion is out now on Flash Recordings. For regular updates and tour information, visit Florian’s website.