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Moderat: "After 20 years of electronic music, the clean synth sound isn’t the most euphoric or rewarding sound to us"

birgit
(Image credit: Birgit Kaulfuss)

It’s a busy press day in Modeselektor’s new studio in Berlin, which doubles as the nerve-centre and rehearsal space for Moderat, the hugely successful and equally influential band that exists when Modeselektor’s Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary join forces, musical ideas and hard-drives with Apparat aka Sascha Ring. 

MORE D4TA, is a tour de force of everything we’ve come to love from Moderat. Gritty synths, fractious beats and Ring’s haunting vocals bring the dancefloor into the song and the song out onto the dancefloor on what’s possibly their best musical offering to date. 

We caught up with Sascha in between rehearsals for the forthcoming Moderat tour to find out how sometimes, stripping back software and equipment can make a world of difference to the finished sound. As the adage goes, less is sometimes MORE D4TA. 

birgit

(Image credit: Birgit Kaulfuss)

Was the decision for the three of you to reconvene as Moderat an organic thing? 

“Yeah, it was obvious from the beginning that there would be another Moderat album… it was never a goodbye. We just didn’t know when it would be happening. Basically, because we have to plan our lives a bit in advance, we knew it would be happening and we’d started talking about making a new album in, maybe, 2018. It’s always like that, when we take a break, we barely see each other…[laughs] so we really take the term ‘break’ seriously. 

“Also, we were touring with our separate projects, both doing different festivals, so we didn’t really bump into each other backstage for a while. Then we slowly started talking again, met for a coffee here at Modeselektor’s studio just to listen to some music before deciding to start work on a new album in August 2019. Then the pandemic threw us all out of our routine and flow, but it did give us a lot of time to concentrate on what we were doing.” 

So, you were all individually making lots of musical ideas during the lockdowns?

“Luckily it was the early stages of the record anyway, so, whenever we start there’s always a lot of work going on in separate studios. Especially at my end as when I’m writing songs, I have to be alone. It’s like that part of making a record is nothing you can really share. In the past we had a studio with two rooms, so I’d just be in the other room and maybe occasionally show up with a song idea. So, we work like that anyway. 

“I was in my studio producing ideas, Gernot was out of town most of the time, so he was working in his little holiday home and Szary was here in Modeselektor’s studio. So, even though it sounds a bit cynical, the pandemic fitted our schedule very well! By the time the crazy lockdown was over and we were allowed to be in a room together again we all had a lot of song ideas on our hard drives and then the real production period started.” 

Were the lockdowns a somewhat mixed blessing for electronic musicians?

“Honestly, a lot of people in my ‘scene’ surprised me with how much they enjoyed the break… at least in the beginning. Because everyone had been in that hamster-wheel; being afraid of missing a show here or a release there or whatever. Always that fear of being forgotten by the people if you don’t play all the time. So, suddenly all that wasn’t important anymore. It’s a bit like, I love video games but I can’t really play them as I have a bad feeling about wasting time… except when I’m sick. 

“I guess the pandemic maybe gave people the idea that they could finally stay home without that bad feeling that they’re wasting their time. Obviously, that was just phase one of the pandemic because then, at some point, everyone thought ‘okay, I’ve been at home enough now!’. Our production period was over within a year but the pandemic wasn’t, so then you couldn’t really look forward as nobody knew when we’d get out to play live again.”

Has clubland returned to normal in Germany now? 

“It’s been a little back and forth. At the moment most things are open and back to pretty much normal…[laughs] though what do I know as I have a little kid now!” 

MORE D4TA feels like it has a slightly grittier edge than the previous album, would that be fair to say? 

“Maybe not so much with the first album as that was really just a case of searching for what Moderat could be but then we discovered that we did like resampling sounds to make them sound a little more used so MORE D4TA is probably the logical consequence of that path we started taking with the second record. We do it all the time. 

After 20 years of electronic music, the clean synth sound isn’t the most euphoric or rewarding sound to us

“Sometimes there would be a song idea that’s arranged and sounds quite good the way it is but then we’ll think that somehow it lacks feeling or grit, which is usually a moment where we’d give those files to Szary and he’ll disappear into another room or Marcel Dettman’s studio, which is in this building too. So, Szary will take them away and just fuck them up a bit and make them sound ‘older’ as, after 20 years of electronic music, the clean synth sound isn’t the most euphoric or rewarding sound to us.” 

What kind of hardware and software do you use for that part of the process?

“I have two of these T-Rex Replicator Modules (Tape Echo replicators). As a tape-delay I’m not quite sure if they’re super good as I’ve never been able to get them close to a clean sound. You don’t need to touch the tape or anything as they’re already super-wobbly and broken by nature.  

“Since I have two, as I want to use them for stereo signals, unfortunately or maybe fortunately, they all sound broken in a different way so there’s no way of getting a clean stereo signal… it’s always going to be crazy left/right but, I guess that’s what makes them interesting. Szary likes to use plugins for most of it but I still like to use the Replicators or maybe through external saturation stuff like the Elektron Analog Heat.” 

Do you each have a set role within Moderat or is it freer than that? 

“More and more we kind of find our roles. It’s still three people that can more or less do the same things but, of course, it doesn’t help if everybody wants to do the same thing in the studio. So, more and more we’ve found our niche in the production process. Right now, I do start a lot of songs but very quickly, even before they have a real ‘sound’ I give them to Gernot and he starts arranging them, which I would never do as I would always work with a loop till the loop sounds awesome. 

“So, Gernot is often the arranger and he’s always taking care of the drums, which means most of the time he’s the operator in the studio also because we’ve now switched to Ableton Live and I don’t really know how to use it that well. Szary tends to come into the game when we need some weird sounds and we don’t really bother syncing up the computers or anything, sometimes we just give him a stereo signal bounce and he just fucks with the whole master buss then we use pieces of it. Often the editing is very brutal and that’s usually what Szary does… he does a lot of sound-design and sound mangling.” 

Does your modular rig get a run-out on the new album?  

“Yeah, although it’s actually getting smaller and smaller. I had this rule where I only allowed myself three cases, which I then realized was still too much. You know, there’s this picture of Martin Gore’s Eurorack room, which is crazy! [laughs] I’d go into that room and be intimidated until the end of my life. I mean, how do you start making a sound in there? I only have one of the Make Noise cases now and I really like the CV Bus distribution system in them. It’s not so much sound generation with the modular now, although I do use a bit of the Mutable Instruments stuff for that. It’s more packed with effects and the Cwejman filters are just awesome! 

“I can’t live without the Cwejman MMF-6 because it has this strange Symmetry feature that I don’t fully know what it does other than mangles the sound and breaks it apart in strange ways. I really need a second one for doing stereo signals but they’re hard to get. Sometimes I’ll run arpeggios from the computer and tweak them in the modular or maybe send some MIDI, but I would never sequence in the modular setup as it’s a bit too complicated.”

You must be a rarity in the modular world that you’re actually paring down your rig?

“Yeah, but it’s the same with other gear too, really. I’ve had bigger studios in my life, but I always found that they didn’t make me more creative. They confused me a lot of the time as there were too many options. My current studio just now is just a workstation with some really good preamps because stuff needs to get in and out of the computer with good conversion. Then there’s a small table where I’ll put a synth or an effects unit that I’m planning to use. 

In lots of departments, I’m sticking to the old gear…[laughs] maybe I’m not so flexible now I’m 44!

“I make the decision before I start jamming… I have an Erica Synths Syntrx, which sometimes I’ll make a decision that it will be all I use for that day then I put it away and try something different the next day. Back in the day I used to have to buy a new bit of gear to get inspired – this is the cheaper version of that where I don’t have to buy it, I just have to find it in my studio and put it on the table. I get a little anxious when I have too much gear around me.”

Any nice new bits and pieces in Modeselektor’s studio that you had a chance to mess around with? 

“They have a lot of good gear around the place and it’s all connected and ready to use but by the time we were working here together everything was very digital because it needed to be easy to exchange files. I would be more likely to start the main computer, start Ableton and try to find my way through the software that I’m not so comfortable with.” 

The last time we spoke, you were all on Logic, when did the switch to Ableton take place? 

“You know what, when I first met Modeselektor, a long time ago, I was running Steinberg Nuendo! Then, when we made the first Moderat album, I switched to Logic to be compatible with them. [laughs] Now, can you believe it, they wanted me to switch a second time… but I refused. I’m stuck with Logic now although I do know how to handle Ableton now too. So, I was making my ideas in Logic and sometimes I’d just bounce it into Ableton. 

“When it’s audio it’s a little bit more destructive editing, which can be quite healthy because then you’re not so tied to the idea.  Back in the day I would make a much more ‘open’ version on Logic then everybody could open all the synths and plugins but they would maybe be a bit more reluctant to change anything on it as you could see the arrangement and maybe that some thought had been put into it, whereas if you just give somebody audio then you don’t see all that information and they can just go for it.” 

Does being in Berlin mean that the three of you are spoiled for choice for getting access to software and hardware companies? 

“Yeah, but honestly, I must admit that I’ve been using an old computer and this computer in the studio is still the one we bought for Moderat II. So, it’s a ten-year-old iMac with a lot of old software on it too and we didn’t feel the urge to use too many new things. Occasionally we tried new things that were supposed to be really good. These days there are so many specialised plugins doing a specific thing but, in the end, if you use an equaliser and a compressor you reach the same goal. Also, you maybe have more control, and you understand better what’s going on. 

“In lots of departments, I’m sticking to the old gear…[laughs] maybe I’m not so flexible now I’m 44! For effects it’s sometimes nice if there’s someone building multi-effects in a weird way.  Two newer things I do like are Output’s Portal and Thermal. They’ve got familiar delays and distortions but there are a lot of interesting combinations all with a user interface that’s really simple with the X/Y idea that invites you to move around and experiment. These days I think it’s getting harder to make things that sounds revolutionary, so I think it’s a better idea for software developers to look into new user-interface ideas that inspire you in new ways. 

I mean, you don’t need a Moog One to get a fat-sounding synth. Maybe if you like the feel of playing instruments but is it worth six or seven thousand Euros?

“Another plugin I like is Oeksound’s Soothe2, which is a sort of dynamic EQ that allows you to tighten resonances in voices, for example. It’s another bit of software that’s meant to make your life much easier although, if I’m honest, if you have a good sounding room, record something well and know how to handle an EQ then you can do the same thing, which will probably be better in the end because you’re not messing with the signal so much. If you’re working factory-style and you have to work quickly then these sorts of plugins are very handy but, if you have time on your hands and you have a good monitoring situation, I much prefer using hardware and spending some time doing it.” 

So, you don’t subscribe to the school of thought that newer gear leads to more ideas? 

“Maybe by saying that this record was made with nothing particularly new or special then the message might be that these days good software and good tools for making music are so widely available it should never keep someone away from making music because they think they don’t have the right tools. In German there’s a saying ‘Alle kochen mit dem gleichen Wasser’, which means ‘everybody cooks with the same water.‘ I mean, you don’t need a Moog One to get a fat-sounding synth. Maybe if you like the feel of playing instruments or you like the look and touch of it but is it worth six or seven thousand Euros?” 

FM often likes to guess what instruments or effects we’re hearing on tracks but Moderat songs are often too mangled to really guess their original source!

“Sometimes things have originated from a very simple synth but then there’s often a lot of layering, stretching and pitching within Ableton, which makes it sound gritty as well… and that’s all just from the DAW. Software nowadays offer so many opportunities that it can be a bit confusing if you expand your plugin pallette too much!” 

When FM visited the old studio in Berlin, all three of you were using your Teenage Engineering OP-1s, are they still in the Moderat armoury? 

“Funnily enough, I just got an ad from a music store and I was shocked that the OP-1 is 1200 Euros now… when I bought mine it was 700! Of course, they’re inspiring little machines. I haven’t used mine for a little while but it’s definitely something I’d put in my suitcase when I go on a long vacation again… just to play around with it and take the ideas back to the studio then. That’s been sitting in my ‘gear to be used’ cupboard for a while…[laughs] so there will be a day when I put it on the table again.” 

Are we all sound curators now as much as musicians? 

“Yeah but isn’t that the same for every producer? Maybe a little bit less so for a very traditional producer but it is so much about finding the right sound for the right spot. I try to divide these things into a writing process, which isn’t quite so important anymore. I try not to focus on the sound so much as it really slows me down but that’s difficult as it’s been such a crucial part of my songwriting process… the sound often is the song idea. 

I’m not such a fan of Ableton for workflow reasons, but live is where it definitely shines

“This time I tried to take that apart a bit and write with quite a neutral sound, concentrate a little more on the melody, the vocals on top and then the next stage is the sound design. It’s difficult to do and I’m not even sure if it gets me better results it’s just that I’ve been using the other way of doing it for so many years and I’m always wanting to challenge myself with a little bit different workflow. So, for now, the writing is quite traditional and then my role as, how you call it, a sound curator comes a little later when there’s not so much writing to do anymore.” 

Are the three of you all flexible when you have sounds chosen for a song idea and the other two maybe want to change it? 

“That’s really difficult sometimes and that’s why it doesn’t really work if you do it in a half-assed way! If you’ve spent a bit of time on a sound idea and maybe it‘s not the most original sound but it does become very hard to change it. Even if you find a more interesting sound it might not fit the song any more in your mind. That’s why it’s often better to use a very neutral sound that’s obviously a placeholder.  Sometimes I’ll deliver almost final sounding song ideas but then we try and force ourselves to throw it all away, keep the melody and use a different synth for it. It can be very refreshing but for the one who wrote the original idea it’s usually very painful.” 

Are you looking forward to taking MORE D4TA out on the road? 

[laughs] “As you can see there’s no space in the studio at the moment as the live workspaces are all setup. We’re rehearsing at the moment and stuff slowly comes together. The beginning of preparing for the live shows is usually a pain because we’re trying to find out ways to play each song. With a band, you know that the guitar is going to be played onstage by a guitar-player but in our case, every song is different so there’s this period of figuring out how to play each song. Once that’s done and dusted we have a plan and then usually the fun starts.” 

In the space of a tour tracks evolve and change? 

“Yes, that’s also happening now as we know what we’ll play and how we’ll play it so whenever we play a song as a band, we notice if it needs another part or if bits need to be longer or shorter so the songs are already changing. In the first month of a tour they’ll evolve more as we’re always making adjustments or if something needs to be more extreme. It’s not an arrangement we play live, everything is scene-based so sometimes we’ll look at each other and decide it’s time for the next part. That comes when you’re more comfortable with the material, first you need to figure out the best possible way of playing something… and then you can go on and stray from the path a bit. ”

Is Ableton underpinning the live show?

“Yeah. Gernot finally feels comfortable to play without a screen so he does play Ableton but he’s just using a Push and he’s mastered the colour-concept to do things without looking at a screen, which is a huge accomplishment because every screen onstage is a distraction. Szary has no computer at all, he gets signals fed to him from us, which he mangles. He gets the MIDI-clocks so he has a few synthesisers and drum-machines. I do have a computer but it’s not onstage with me. 

“I’m using Mainstage patches that effect everything I’m doing… sometimes it’s the synth I’m playing or the voice or the modular going through it. So, Ableton is the backbone but it really is just running in the background. We’re trying not to look at it and using a lot for things that are in sync with it to play our parts live on top of it. In the studio I’m not such a fan of Ableton because of workflow reasons but live is where it definitely shines.” 

MORE D4TA is out now on Monkeytown Records.

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