monolake interview – producing an electronic music album with no compression

by admin on February 17, 2010 · 11 comments

Having absorbed and enjoyed the new album ‘Silence’ from Robert Henke as Monolake, he was obliging enough to satiate my curiousity about his commitment to produce this album employing absolutely no compression.

Now, it seems compression is considered by some, perhaps many, audio engineers as a vital recording audio sculpting tool alongside EQ and reverb as the most used (and perhaps misused) processor especially in our prevalent in your face pop/electronic music production styles.

Hence, I was eager to enquire the story behind making an album without using compression and what Herr Henke’s intentions were. I found this album an elegant production with certainly a softer feel than most electronic music productions though still with enough presence to enchant the listener.

I hope you find it tasty food for thought and do feel free to further explore the discussion with your own feelings/thoughts upon the matter…

monolake silence cover

* Q1. You may be most described/known as a (minimal) techno producer but I feel there is much more going on. How would u define yourself? What are your musical/artistic aims?

Robert: I am somehow in the middle between being an engineer and an artist. I like the art of engineering, and the art of making art. My aims? I guess, achieving something that is touching in some way.

* Q2. Were you engineer, musician or artist first? And now, would you say you are an engineer, musician or artist first?

Robert: I come from an engineering background, family-wise. But I knew from a very early stage onwards, that I wanted to do something that is connected to art / music.

* Q3. On first impressions I found “Silence” lighter & brighter in the higher frequencies, there is plenty of clarity, space & transparency and the bass is warm, yet full and rounded – the kick drums still have punch. Overall a gentle warm & pretty sound that seems happily co-agulated without the usual tool of compression. To what extent would you say this could be due to the ‘no compression policy’?

Robert: I guess a lot. But my initial approach came from another perspective: When recording physical instruments, compression seems to make sense to me; one can achieve a certain level of intimacy by making the quiet parts louder, enhance those interesting details in the background etc… However, in my compositional process I do this already when creating the sounds itself. I build my own backgrounds, and therefore I can simply decide how prominent they are by mixing and editing. This to me eliminates the need for compression on this part.

The other classical use of compression is working with its dynamic effects. I know people who make great use of that, but when ever I tried it so far, at the end I preferred to leave it out. In most cases I simply don’t like it if I hear a compressor ‘working’. And if it is very subtle I can get the same effects by other means.

There’s of course a third interesting part of the story and this is how to use compression in a mix. I realize that my non compression approach has its disadvantages; playing this CD on a cheap stereo is not rewarding. The same goes for most headphones. In this regard, my decision was quite elitist. I wanted it to sound good on a good stereo.

Back to mixing: without compression, the art of mixing becomes much more important. Since every sound has space, there is much more room for placement, but also much more chances to do it wrong. I feel that in most cases I achieved a quite satisfying balance here, and that in those cases the individual sounds really do have an aura around them, and this is what i wanted to achieve.

monolake CD art

* Q4. Upon headphone listening I noticed the bold panning/stereo fx decisions. Is this normal stereo field behaviour for you? Almost reminded me of some Beatles productions..

Robert: Ha, funny comparison. I have actually never listened to it with headphones. I know that I should, just to make sure it works with all those millions of mp3 players out there, but I simply didn’t. I don’t even know why I never took care of it. I guess I just trusted my speaker setup in the studio. Apart from that, I really enjoy wide stereo effects. I will have to listen to the album again with headphones now :-)

* Q5. Was this album produced using Ableton?

Robert: Yes. It’s simply my host of choice. And also, I am always annoyed by those folks telling you that Ableton Live does not sound as good as (insert Logic/Protools etc.. here ). Now I can say, well, I personally believe I managed to produce a decent album entirely within this software.

* Q6. As a mastering engineer yourself, how closely did you work with Rashad Becker on the mastering of this album?

Robert: I am always present at his studio when he is doing it. Sometimes I even tap on his shoulder saying: Uhm, I think without that EQ here it sounded more how I would like it. And then we discuss and come to an agreement.

Another great advantage of the production entirely in Live: in one case during the mastering we both found that a specific element was way to prominent in the mix. Something I would in retrospect call a typical mixing mistake. Someone else should do my mixing in the future. However, we decided that it is better to change it in the mix instead of ‘master around it’. We opened the session in Live, lowered one part by -3dB and transfered that better version over to his workstation. All this within ten minutes.

Once Rashad is done, there is a very last step: I grab all the files after the mastering and do the final timing adjustment, the silence/overlaps between the pieces and sometimes even little level corrections (piece 3 a bit less loud…) a few days later at home. This is something which needs time and Rashad’s time is too expensive to use it for this. I also want to do it with some distance from the main mastering process.

In our relationship he is the spectral genius, I am the manufacturing and quality assurance department :-)

*Q7. Will you be continuing a gar kein compression approach or was this a one-off experiment/statement? i know I’m using less already..

Robert: As a general strategy, for sure. As a dogma: no.

For Monolake album info and site apply finger compression here and for full transcript of his interview in the Wire Jan 2010 press here

monolake silence plane

{ 6 trackbacks }

Robert Henke (Monolake) On Compression And When Not To Use It » Synthtopia
February 19, 2010 at 12:19 am
the music of sound » Detritus 28
February 21, 2010 at 8:56 am
Create Digital Music » A Conversation with Robert Henke: Silence, Technology, and Process
February 26, 2010 at 3:26 am
Compression or no compression, that’s the question « fiffig
February 27, 2010 at 10:22 am
Monolake Intervews « Haunted House Records Blog
March 2, 2010 at 9:36 am
Sense Of Sensible » Winter Round Up
April 5, 2010 at 9:16 pm

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

RK August 24, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Yeah, there’s a lot of scope for subtle delay and existing room reverb (which is often plentiful) I think…

Personally I’m a bit of a reverb fascist and have been perturbed by excessive washes of fakeverb in electronic music. Although I believe it can be done tastefully, I would still like to live in an anechoic chamber, and think that reverb should be seen and not really heard (much) :)

admin February 13, 2011 at 7:09 pm

yes interesting one – using delays and just nice room recordings instead of reverb? imogen heap was talking about that in an interview..

RK February 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Very interesting. In a mildly similar vein I think there’s a lot of creative scope for engineering electronic music without the use of any reverb whatsoever.

Andreas March 10, 2010 at 6:05 am

Thanks! Mr Henke makes some good points.

Trivia: I’ve only listened to the album over my (mono) PAL-stereo so far (and it sounded great!). Guess I’ll have to give it a listen in the studio speakers tonight to see what all the stereo-fuss is about…

Geoff March 3, 2010 at 12:22 am

Nice interview, thanks! It’s good to see more people avoiding the over-compression which is now almost commonplace in digital music. If it’s not loud enough, use that big knob marked ‘volume’!

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