Decamping from her native Holland to Berlin in 2007 proved the perfect accelerant for Steffi’s fledgling career. Signed up by legendary Berlin techno label Ostgut Ton, her star rose rapidly with a residency at the Panorama Bar (in Berlin’s equally legendary Berghain nightclub, which operates the Ostgut Ton imprint). Steffi’s debut album, Yours And Mine, showcased her burgeoning production skills and the single, Yours (feat Virginia), filled countless dancefloors with its hypnotic brand of techno. There followed a slew of collaborations and remixes, securing her a unique place within the global dance community, and 2012’s Schraper EP further attested to Steffi’s love of techno along with her ever-increasing production talents and ear for a killer bassline.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Steffi has travelled the world as an in-demand DJ (with various mix CDs for Panorama Bar, Fabric and others), as well as launching and managing four of her own labels: Klakson (with Dexter), Dolly, Dolly Deluxe and Dolly Dubs. Presumably, somewhere in amongst all this frenetic activity she even finds time to sleep occasionally!
World of the Waking State is Steffi’s third solo artist album, and her finest and most thoughtful offering to date. Revealing a more contemplative and experimental side to Steffi, tracks such as The Meaning Of Memory, Kokkie and the sublime closer, Cease To Exist, perfectly illustrate that you can deviate from 4/4 with an 808 and still make excellent dance music.
We caught up with the multi-talented Steffi at her incredible Berlin home studio, which houses her collection of some of the most desirable hardware synths you might ever want to make squelches and bleeps with.
World of the Waking State has a real sense of you growing as an artist. Is that fair to say?
“Absolutely. For me, it feels like the best stuff I’ve done so far, but I guess every time you deliver a new album, that feels like an achievement! I’m this far now in my career that I just wanted to really do something without having a concept in mind, and just go with the flow and explore the possibilities if I really don’t put any limitations on myself. That was quite a free fall into the deep for me, which is maybe why it feels like my biggest achievement so far. It came out so naturally and I was surprised by the outcome too.”
How do you manage to put limitations on yourself with such an incredible studio setup?
“I think if you’re coming up with a plan like, ‘I want to come up with something that fits my record bag as a DJ’, then that’s already a limitation, really. You’re just sketching within a concept… there are lines drawn, like, ‘Let’s do a 135bpm electro jam or 130bpm techno jam”. Those lines are set but it doesn’t mean that you’re restricted in what you want to use in the studio; but you already have an image of things you’re going to use. The bpm needs to be between this or that; is it gonna be straight beat or an electro beat, which requires a certain way of using the 808 and a way of programming that’s connected to that genre? With this album, I didn’t give a fuck if the bass kick sits on the 3 or the 8; I just wanted to explore more deeply what was possible with what I’ve got in the studio. I guess, because I didn’t really restrict tempos or make it a four-to-the-floor album, it does widen the horizons.”
What was your main machine for making beats on the new album?
“I actually went through the album the other day to prepare some stems for the live show and it reminded me that many of the kicks are just layered from two or three different instruments. For example, there might be something from a Yamaha DX200 - like a deep, bassy sound - and I’d use it as a kick layered with something from the Pearl Syncussion and maybe a couple of hits from a modulated 909 or something. It’s always a case of several instruments creating one kick drum. Most of it is accents, you know? Maybe a hit on the 1 and a hit on the 9, and everything else gets filled in with low-frequency synthesisers to create the same atmosphere as a kick drum. But coming from different sources, it makes it a little less predictable.”
With an array of classics in your setup, we can’t pin the sound of your beats down to any specific machine…
“I used mainly drum synthesisers and drum brains from the 70s and 80s, like the Syncussion and the Pearl Drum X. There’s the Ult Sound DS-4, which is an old Japanese drum synth, and PAiA DIY one. So, I use those to create the length, pitches, velocity and tone, which is what makes the drums so organic, I guess.”
Have all these wonderful pieces of rare gear come about from hitting the music shops when you go to a new town?
“I think it’s more just a general interest in hardware, and I should state that it really doesn’t matter to me whether it’s analogue or digital, because I’m as much a hardware freak for the digital stuff as I am for the analogue. It’s an interest that I’ve built up over the years. Listening to music, thinking where the sounds could have come from, or just enjoying the aesthetics of the sounds. [laughs] I just go infected with this gear-collecting virus!
“I started collecting in about 2000 and I’ve never really felt the urge to sell a lot, so I’ve kept most of it. It’s a good investment and it’s nice to make a record with it.”
Do you envisage yourself constantly evolving and adding to your hardware setup?
“I feel like there’s so much still to learn. With this album, I’m laying out a jam on the desk and hitting a point where it’s pretty solid and has all the elements that a song might need; then I’m multitracking, and what I do is I take a dry signal and take one or two effects signals and record that separately. That’s a thing I’m doing now, but god knows I might even go deeper into things next time and maybe program all the parts on the sequencer and jam it live… I don’t know. The further I get into music production; the newer stuff develops and the more diverse ways of working I learn. So, it really does feel, after three albums, that I’m only just starting!”
It’s apparent from your studio layout that the mixing desk still plays an important role in your workflow…
“Yeah, absolutely. I guess I just like to get everything laid out before I record, so I started with a small desk, but over the years I got more gear. When I stepped away from the computer and found my love of hardware sequencing, for me that was a way to connect all my instruments. Working with the Cirklon, I can have over 20 instruments running at the same time, which is really heavy; but, at the same time, it allows you to create a song that you can lay out, apart from the arrangement, in the way you think it should be. The desk has a very important role in that, because if I had to record each sound separately, you kind of lose the moment. It’s all about pushing the fader, seeing what it does, putting some effect on it, then moving on. I feel if you’re loading everything into a computer then, for me, it becomes static.”
Can you talk us around the main gear in your studio rig?
“Of course. The mixing desk, an APB DynaSonics 32-channel, is the base where everything gets plugged in. I work with five rows of patchbays, which are very important to me to be able to connect things together, run it through effects and get the unexpected. Everything is plugged into the Cirklon hardware step sequencer, and I have a CV/gate box that’s able to get all the instruments going without needing any conversion to MIDI. There’s a drum trigger box also attached to the Cirklon to trigger all the old drum brains, which makes them all accessible through the step sequencer, which is amazing! The Pearl Drum X, Pearl Syncussion and the Ult Sound are basically where all the drums on the new album are coming from. I’ve got the whole Roland line but it’s not so present on this album.”
So, once everything’s running through the desk, is it then going into a computer?
“As soon as it’s on the desk, I’ll run the mono drum sounds and the basslines through a UAD compressor/limiter/preamp, and I have a nice lunchbox channel-strip from an old ’60s desk, which I’ll use in parallel with a bit of LA-2A tube compression. There’s the Ensoniq DP/4 that’s used for reverbs and crazy effects. Everything then goes into Logic.”
You have so many different jumping-off points in your setup, how do you decide what to start using on a project?
“It can change on the fly. I might have an image of a bass sound in my head so I’ll try to create it but maybe not quite get it so I’ll switch to another synth. My main thing is deciding what the basic rhythm is going to be and getting the percussive elements right, and then I’ll come up with the melody. That can be making a string sound or bleeps and basslines. Of course, I have favourites… When I finally got my Memorymoog, that was the synth to go to, but I know with certain things I maybe need a more stable synth. So, if I need a square sound bassline I’ll go to the Waldorf Pulse, as I know I can get it quickly there. It kind of all depends on where I feel the track is going, if that makes sense.”
We assume you must have to carry out a serious amount of maintenance to keep the older hardware working at its best.
“I recently had a lot done. I didn’t used to be into taking good care of my synths in the beginning, so when I finally had the financial means to have everything cleaned and tuned, I found a guy at Xtended in Berlin. I started taking things in one by one and it made me realise that that is what you must do as part of owning a hardware studio. You should put a lot of maintenance into looking after everything.
“I finally decided to have an extra function put on my 808 so I can switch from the original 808 to a MIDI-fied 808 without losing proper swing. It makes it more convenient for me to program it on my Cirklon. As soon as you get serious about your studio, you realise that it’s important to make it happen in a way that works for you and not really give too much of a fuck about what other people say about certain bits of equipment.”
How do you take this album out live? Will much/any of the vintage hardware go out of the studio with you?
“I’ve only done one performance so far, for the release of the album, and I just took the basic stems and used a controller and lots of effects to jam it out a bit more. I’m not sure if I’m going to tour this album… I think I will, but it needs a good environment to communicate with the crowd, so I’ve kept it a bit low key until I decide just what I want to do.
“This type of music asks for a lot of improv, so I’m considering taking a hardware sequencer out on the road. I want it to be very hands-on with a few select machines, as I don’t want to take too many things out of the studio, as it would be a bit of a nightmare! I’ve gone on the road with hardware in the past and it does break down. These old machines are very sensitive, and people at airports don’t always appreciate what you’re carrying.
“This album is all about modulation; it constantly changes. Even the drums are constantly changing, and there aren’t any sounds that repeat themselves for seven minutes. So, to bring this album out to a live audience, I have to work out, ‘How do I communicate in the proper way?’ I’m going to dive into it in 2018.”
How do you manage to balance your various roles of label manager, DJ and artist?
“Because it’s all about music - it is one thing and it’s all connected. What I’ve learned over the last three years is that I’d rather separate DJing from making music, because when I’m in the studio and I know I’m going to have to go on the road a lot, I feel the pressure of having to leave the studio. If I did a full weekend of DJing, then I’d take the Monday off which would only leave me Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to produce… even though, by Thursday, I’ll already have someone breathing down my neck, saying I need to pack my records and get on the road Friday.
“What I’ve done the past couple of years, especially with this new album, is to take bigger periods of time off where I’m not touring and not leaving Berlin and I’m at home concentrating on making music. That really clears my mind and I’m able to devote myself to studio time. I guess it’s more like how a band would do it - to write an album in the studio, then tour it, and when the tour’s over, I’m going to go back in the studio. That works for me as I take DJing very seriously but I also take making music in the studio very seriously.”
And your various record labels?
“Yeah, you do need a day per week to get the labels running, and I do all that on my own. I haven’t got anybody who does that for me, but I run a non-promo policy so, basically, when the release comes out, I don’t send the files to anyone - it doesn’t go to the press. It’s just there for the lovers, really. They see the physical product in the record shops and they know that two weeks later the files are going to be there so it’s all pretty manageable. It would be nice to have someone helping [laughs], but I can’t lose control of cooking in my own kitchen!”
What’s the secret to knowing when something you’re working on is finished?
“When I was starting to make music, around 2000/2002, I could never finish anything. So, there was a long time of me throwing things straight into the bin. When I started to write my second album, I knew that there needed to be less pressure, so I started to do a ‘two jams a day’ principle. I’d go into the studio in the morning, do a jam and make a good foundation for a track, which I’d then multitrack into the computer and record everything- dry signal, effects tracks, seven minutes of tweaking how I thought it could be developed. It’s like you’re practising the track but you’re recording everything into the computer. Then I’d lock it away after a while, go for lunch, then do a second jam and not touch it. Then, the next day, do the same thing, until, after a week, you’re listening back to what you’ve done and because you haven’t really overheard it, you have a fresh take on what you’ve done. Working like this - taking a week or even two away from something new, then listening to it back - instantly lets me decide what sounds great and what doesn’t work at all. If something was good, I’d write down what it needed - maybe a bassline or a little bit of extra drumming. I’d then do another session with the track, again multitracking everything back into the computer, and then, when I felt like I’d got everything I need and I was starting to edit the arrangement of all the audio files, then it would begin to feel finished.”
That makes a lot of sense…
“At some point, you need to overcome your fear, and I had a massive fear of arranging a track… ‘I don’t know how to do this’, or, ‘It sounds like shit’. Until the ice breaks and the water pours out and you realise that this is how it works! For me, to create a certain distance and not go insane working on the same loop for days, I would record it, finish the session then go back to it. It’s such a good system.”
Did the wonderful Cease To Exist that closes the album come to fruition that way?
“[Laughs] Well, some tracks do take the piss, because they’re so difficult to mix. So, if I listen to it now, there are lots of little bits I wish I’d done differently on it. Out of ten tracks, there are usually about three tracks where you wish you’d done something differently but, I guess, that’s a normal critical state of mind.”
World Of The Waking State is out now on Ostgut Ton.