Alfred Hitchcock, one of those cinematography icons is believed to say, that a good story needs a begining with an earthquake, and then all thats’ left to do is constant increasing of tension.
I hope those ten letters work well enough for a teaser, and the following almost twelve question interview is going to be for You an experience similar to the suspence movie blockbusters.
Before we move on however, there’s a need for a brief description for those few, who not only feel like the name doesn’t ring a bell, but like there was no bell in the first place. So here it is:
Behind the brand of Paul Birken there is a history of two decades of american techno, and by this term I mean the music, and not some cheap berlin-style driping for metrosexual bachelors of the european studies.
What we’re now talking about is some serious stuff that merges chalk and cheese by shuting the brutality known from the washing-machine rock genres in the rhythmic cage of dance music. The end result is a lot like an operetta based on Poe’s Pit and Pendulum arranged for the drum machine, distortion and stroboscopic lamp.
If You find the descritpion too poetic, please consider the following explanation as an option:
Now that there’s no doubt on what’s the deal, let’s go back to the man, who’s owns this groove
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Let’s go then.
First – I’m not into hardware, but rather trying to understand what is all about (from technical pov) in theory, so I might ask a lame questions by intention sometimes.
1. Could You possibly briefly describe a default studio setup You usually start wokring on? Is there anything like this?
I do not have any sort of “default” that I currently start working with. Part of this has come about because I have a full time job and family and work on music in the middle of the night as a hobby. I do sound creation some nights, other nights chopping up all the raw streams the pour out of the machines and then other nights of banging out tracks with the pieces I’ve already sorted out that I like and want to use. There is a patchbay to make routing audio easy to different items.
Sound ideas get kicked off just by starting up a piece of equipment and working on it until something starts to grow and growl. It could be a drum machine or something on the modular synth, etc.
I try to keep myself open for anything. I don’t try to stick to a specific BPM while making sounds.
2. So there’s no planning what the next track would be. instead, there are constant experiments with sound – recorded. Selected recordings are then used in arrangements. Am I rite?
Correct. When I go back in and start cutting things up out of the large raw streams, I will save those chunks of wav files in folders related to what the bpm ended up being, or types of sounds or mood, etc. Then I can load these into the Octatrack or MPC1000, or Ableton Live, or the Qu-Bit Nebulae, etc when I want to jam out an actual track. I eliminate the whole process of looking for a certain sound I like to use and trying to program that before it is time to write a track.
3. Before we move on talking on the sample selection, cutting and other operations related to preparations for a production of an actual tracks, I’d like to focus on the experiments.
Could You say more on the machines of Your choice, the way You use them, and the idea behind it: do You happen to follow a plan of various tests covering a particular aspects of sound synthesis/modulation, or rather just go for the pure fun, and get completely mad no matter what the results would be?
Since I was about 5 years old, I have been a skateboarder. I think this has greatly influenced the way I approach making music and using machines. When I look around and see architecture I envision and think about ways it can be used and interacted with that usually is not in the intended purpose. Music equipment is very similar. I am used to repeatedly crashing over and over again and it never gets discouraging because the whole process is part of the fun. When you make a trick, or create a sound or pattern, or song that you like it is a great feeling.
I’ve told others before that I throw away about 90% of the audio and things I create because it doesn’t sound good to me and I am fine with that. Over the years I think you get faster at throwing things out that are not coming together properly
I don’t try to get bogged down in the science of how a particular sound should be shaped or sculpted and I just trust my ears to let me know when something is coming together in a way I like. Another thing that happens is you start to think about programming a beat or pattern in the way you can physically manipulate the machine along with programming certain parts. As a human performer, I am never going to move the faders or turn dials and knobs the same way over and over so you begin to get these cool variations.
Hearing is the ultimate tool – there’s a quite a number of people constantly repeating it – thing worth tattooing.
4. So the main goal of the work at this stage is to go beyond the patterns, experience the unpredictable, and simply have fun of it.
I guess You find out from time to time, that You’ve reached somehow a limit though, like the equipment doesn’t meet You needs anymore, or the current setup won’t handle more tweaking, and albeit the sound You get is near perfect, it’s still not enough. What’s then?
4. Then you do something to shake things up. You buy something even if you don’t know it will work well, just to make sounds and record with it and then resell it again. Or you trade a machine with a friend with a very specific and short time that you are allowed to keep it so you must record and try it out knowing you will not have it for long. I would recommend always deleting all the preset sounds and patterns a machine comes with to force you to make things with it. Don’t use those giant libraries of sound where you just click through presets for hours trying to find the correct sound someone else has made. Even if it is really good, you are doing the same thing by finger clicking over and over and you will get bored. Set some restrictions and boundaries and it will help force creation to come out.
Yup. Well said. I don’t like to say that, but most of people don’t get the point of it, that’s why I’m trying to show them that it’s not me being freak, but them being lazy asses.
5. You rather don’t focus on learning the theory, but still countless hours on pushing sound to the extreme must be a valuable in terms of gaining true experience. Don’t You miss sometimes that theoretical background?
I can read music and “play” instruments if needed, but I’m not concerned with that when making a ruckus. There are way too many people that can write “proper” music and do it much better than I ever will. I’ll listen to their recordings when I want to hear nice orchestrations of things. I would rather just pound one note into a sequencer over and over and then turn the tuning knob of the oscillator or filter that is feeding back as it self resonates and get the right groove instead of playing up and down on a standard keyboard or piano roll to find notes that are hitting the correct pitch.
Because so many sequencer and pattern recording programs and drum machines, etc can loop over and over and let you “lock” parameters on exact steps it really does away with having to know what keys you can play.
I would advocate learning how types of sounds form because those building blocks help you work faster in different machines from different manufactures. Same way you need to learn how to push and roll on a board and then ollie before you try to slide a handrail.
6. But still it is at least partially a matter of a choice You have, of making pop love songs, or keeping with a hard techno. Have You ever faced a dillema of serious lack in competence preventing from making a completely new kind of music to You, or trying a different point of view on the process?
Yes, that happens all the time, but I am not forced to release anything as a means to take care of my family or having to live off of it so I can just laugh and delete it. My own funny entertainment.
If You don’t mind, I’d like to focus on a particular points of the production process – this may help understand Your flexibility in approach.
7. Would You write something more on the part of Your setup that’s responsible for the recording itself?
Over the years I replaced recording directly to a DAT machine with recording to a hard drive in a PC. Currently I have a MOTU 828 Mk2 that has 8 inputs and outputs so I can run things all over the place as needed. If I am just jamming out on a single instrument I can feed that directly into the audio interface or I can have an external mixing board summing channels from many machines and feeding into record. I am pretty familiar with many of the software options available from just trying many of them year after year. I’ve settled on recording and editing in SoundForge for all the raw stuff I stream in since I am able to work really quickly in it and I like the region exports so I can pull out chunks and scrap the rest.
I’ve owned and used Ableton Live since version 1.5 was released, but have stopped upgrading as of version 8 now.
I am able to run things back out of Live and process them externally through the additional outputs on the MOTU and record them back in again. Many fun options.
8. It sounds like the DAW is for the arrangement construction purposes, as the SoundForge is quite a powerfull sound editor, hence giving the ability to work out certain pieces from a to z. You’ve mentioned MPC and Octactrack as the machines to be fed with samples/loops You’d make. Are they used on a daily basis , or saved for a special tasks?
The MPC1000 and Octatrack both handle sample playback and midi sequencing of other machines. They get used for live performances at gigs since I do not take any laptop out to play with, but they get used for whole tracks to be made on as well. As I think about it more by answering these questions, there are many ways that “finished” tracks get made in my studio. Soundforge is not only for finding usable “chunks” and small loops to use in other machines, or my DAW, but also just to slice up a long track the same way people have done over the years with a razor blade and tape. I may jam on the external machines with everything running through the mixing board for 10 minutes and then trim that recording down to 5 or 6 minutes of the best parts strung together just by cutting the stereo recording.
It looks like, You’re not devoted to one particular procedure. Having MPC, Octatrack and DAW as sequencers, and samplers, at the same time Sound Forge and DAW that may do the job in sample edition, and cutting. Also both – the DAW, and a mixing board, are suitable for mixing all the sound together… There’s no limit in the techniques and approaches to the production.
9. Is there any key You use in order to chose from all that variety, or it used to be spontaneous?
The whole setup is just to allow for ideas to come about from tinkering. The reference back to skateboarding is constant in that you get inspired by being able to ride many different types of terrain and take different “tricks” to area they normally wouldn’t go and that makes you think of something new to try. Most of the machines with their inputs and outputs and effects, etc are all running into a patchbay so I can route them wherever. I think it is important to learn pieces of equipment individually so you work completely in them. The same way you need to learn to push, ollie, and maneuver around on a skateboard before learning more difficult tricks. Read up on owners manuals to find all sorts of features that are not right on the front panel of a box. Nearly every machine made has a PDF online now of the owners manual with the midi routing options and CC# and things. It is great.
10. As You constantly get back to the skateboarding – a handy collation – I’ll follow You. Skateboeard isn’t just about riding, learning tricks, it’s also about tweaking the equipment. As far as I remember, You’re into the thing when it comes to a studio gear, am I right? Would You mind telling something more about this part of Your work?
I am always excited by finding new ways to make machines interact with each other. I do not have the technical skills required to open up the boxes and solder things, but I am fortunate to have many talented friends who are skilled in those areas. Logan (Low-Gain Audio) added tons of patch points to my MC-202 which allows for extra CV/Gate control of the VCF and VCA and also lets me run each individual oscillator out into the modular system as well as the LFO in it. He makes a lot of interface boxes for banana jacks and 1/8″ as well as his modular offerings which I use a lot. Bryan Benting makes a box called the “Bitchin’ Sync” which allows Din Sync signals to be extracted with a regular patch cable into your modular, or run it backward so you might have a fluctuating LFO become your tempo feeding the Din Sync cable back into a drum machine so it starts speeding up and slowing down. Wild stuff.
11. This becomes pure madness. I guess, the best way is to focus on one particular project of Yours. So we could somehow find a single trace helping us to clear thing out. What do You think of that?
Sure, we can do that. 🙂
I’m going to document how I just did a remix for Cannibal Cooking Club recently. This is one way I’ve done things, and then I will document another option I do.
- Receive samples to use in remix
- Load up sample stems and listen to each long part in Soundforge
- Chop each stem of an instrument into small pieces of just a single hit, or some small loops
- export all of those as wav files
- put wav files on usb stick and load into Qu-Bit Nebulae in modular rack
- patch up system and jam out triggering sample pieces into new grooves – this is getting recorded straight into soundforge
- Go into soundforge and begin reviewing 20-30 minute chunk of recorded stream. Mark sections where cool groove happened or was interesting.
- export all those pieces into a new folder. There were about 60 files now.
- Load them into the Elektron Octatrack and make some patterns triggering pieces.
- Sync up Elektron A4 and Roland TR8
- Record this stream into Soundforge. There were 3 different jams… each about 15 minutes.
- Go back and review those recordings and mark and extract chunks of audio again. Making notes. Intro, breakdown, full jam, etc
- Paste together those final chunks in Soundforge and save as a single, final track.
There is a danger in that if you mess up the levels badly, you can’t fix anything, but I don’t really care. I would just do the whole process over again. 🙂
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This is it for now – almost twelve questions to Mr Paul Birken.
To complete the picture We’ve got it would be nice to listen to the Paul’s remix for the Cannibal Cooking Club.
Time for a short explanation for those of You, who consider the interview introduction a bit inappropriate. Dont’ worry I’m not going to spoil the momment by explaining the punchline. I’d rather show what’s behind it and leave You with some ideas leading to Your own conclusions on the subject.
There are numerous methods and ways to break the fixed forms or established principles in arts. All of’em however use a mechanism of neglecting one or more elements of the canon to get beyond it searching for new sounds, new rules, new aesthetics.
In case of the music there’s rather not too much to break in general: the sound and rhythm, and between those melody and harmony.
Also no matter how far You’re gonna pull away from the existing dogma, the relationship structure of those four elements must stay somewhat clear, otherwise You’ll find Yourself on the other side of the mirror producing yet another kind of quasi-random noise.
Of course there’s quite a gap betweem the borderline and our subject – techno, as it is still a dance music genre.
With the rhythm part of the field fixed there’s not much You can do, or is it?