By Tony Ware
The German techno innovator embraces imperfect sounds
In the past five years, Sascha Ring has been haunted by the dead and possessed by some impulsive spirits.
Ring, a Berlin-based producer and original member of the Shitkatapult label, spent much of the new millennium establishing himself as an arterial-meetsethereal sound designer recording under the name Apparat. His electrocoustic works, including collaborations with Ellen Allien and remixes of numerous peers, built on an adolescence steeped in post-Detroit techno arrhythmia and Warp Records harmonic diffusion. Tracks never lacked a sense of immediacy or animation, but they still held an equally hermetic quality. “I was some kind of musically autistic person ... sitting in the studio on my own for a long time,” he laughs, acknowledging an undeniable influence.
Saturating deliberately paced sessions with cycles of alternating microloops, granular reverbs, and other expressive bit-crushing, Ring was left with a hard drive of what he describes as songleiche, or audio corpses—remnants of compositions never completed for public consumption. In 2008 Ring took these cadavers and collaborated with production duo Modeselektor to vivify them on an album under the project/album name Moderat. And it is in the wake of that album’s 2009 release that Ring decamped from the familiar to conceive his fourth Apparat album and Mute Records debut, The Devil’s Walk.
“Moderat is the reason my album sounds quite organic and analog, because with Moderat everything was inside-the-box, all programmed in Logic because it was the easiest way to exchange ideas,” reflects Ring. “I’m happy to still consider Moderat as my second band, because it gives me the freedom to still do all the electronic stuff; it’s where I can put all the rave ideas. And it also lets me play around more with what Apparat is, how it can be more poppy. And being able to completely change how I work keeps me inspired.”
Ring did more than change up his drum sequencer, synths, or DAW to get out of his normal workflow. Accompanied by musicians Joshua Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv), Fredo Nogueira, and Jörg Waehner, Ring rented a house, “Casa Magia,” in Sayulita, Mexico, far away in body and spirit from the crisp gradients of Germany.
“I had built myself a nice studio for the Moderat album, but for this Apparat album I wanted to work with sounds that don’t sound perfect,” says Ring. “So we took a laptop, some preamps, and microphones, and went to record like a band, moving drums around this house … using nice gear but not caring about mic placement or if things sounded a little f**ked up. It was playing with Legos instead of doing a computer-aided drawing; it was very playful, direct, and intuitive, and I found it very inspiring.”
Armed with Soundelux U195, Sennheiser MD 421-II, and Neumann KMS151 microphones, a MacBook with an Apogee Ensemble, and an API Lunchbox, the participants experimented with the space, hanging mics from rafters and creating modular studios out of black fabrics draped in closets, hallways, and the palapa, a thatchedroof porch lined with open windows. Vocals, guitars, drums, keyboards, and other sound generators were tracked and then compiled into song arrangements. Returning to Berlin and surveying the sessions, however, Ring found himself battling old demons. “I realized it wasn’t the record I wanted to do and it was just completely my fault, because I overworked everything again,” admits Ring, who had traded the temptation to obsess over digital’s infinite options for an infatuation with overprocessing analog sources.
Ring then took a three-month break before connecting with Patrick “Nackt” Christensen, who co-produced the second sessions for The Devil’s Walk between his studio, Chez Cherie, and Ring’s own home base. Nackt provided an ear free of emotional attachment, pressing mute on many, many sounds that were declared superfluous, as well as adding string arrangements and providing additive instrumentation. The two kept the spirit of the first sessions, however, recording as much natural response as possible.
Sasha Ring in the studio.
“I have favorite instruments, like my Nord Wave, and I would rather spend time figuring it out to get the sound I want directly than later pile it with EQ and plug-ins,” says Ring. “I have things I do run, like Pluggo from Cycling ’74 and Native Instruments Guitar Rig, because I want to make certain sounds more interesting, more wide. I definitely treat most things in the computer, but I’m trying harder now to set things right while I record them. I want to avoid MIDI quantization as much as possible, and to bury in real sounds, little noises.”
This dogma to keep as much as possible within the physical realm extended in several directions. These included tweaking mistakeflecked guitar runs till they sounded like synths; replacing scratch tracks generated in Reaktor with percussive flourishes from pianos, pounding metal, and mallet instruments; plus creating single-minded processing modules out of old gear like a Korg MS-50 modular synthesizer. “But I just run audio through the output section, and maybe also the filter,” explains Ring. “Once you just turn the output completely up, it always generates this really, really cool hiss and a little crackle. You run a bass sound through and it distorts in a nice, thick, sparkly way.”
Additionally, Ring used an Altec 1612a preamp repeatedly to generate what he describes as a “mids-y, old, and sh*tty” sound to impart distressed character to certain elements, such as mandolins in the album’s lead single, “Ash/Black Veil.” “The Altec definitely makes some frequencies disappear, but it doesn’t sound annoying,” Ring says.
With its drum snippet palpitations, bow scrapes, and sighing decays, “Ash/Black Veil” stands as a template of the album’s initial blueprint—an elegant textural tension influenced by Roxy Music and the Cure and akin to the melancholic bliss of Doves or Radiohead or a remixed composition of a contemporary classical minimalist composer than some track by a tech-house/dubstepinfluenced DJ who plays Fabric and records mixes for DJ-Kicks. In contrast, “Song of Los” is the most sequenced, holographic, artificially augmented, and therefore furthest from the concept.
Having Nackt’s studio accessible also allowed Ring to revisit the vibe of the palapa. Whereas the Apparat studio has a single small room with a flat frequency response, Chez Cherie offered a large loft space with portable rigs/walls where more room could be recorded (though it was dialed down in the final, more intimate mix). Even at the Apparat studio, elements would be backed off the mic by meters to get as much roominess as possible.
To enrich the presence of his vocals, which anchor many tracks and act as another directly manipulable instrument, Ring switched to a Bock Audio 151 cardioid tube condenser mic with a Universal Audio 6176 pre/compressor, as he felt the tone was similar in thickness to a vintage Telefunken ELA-M 250. The one number Ring doesn’t sing is “Goodbye,” which features Anja Plaschg of Soap&Skin and holds the hushed, hazy lope of certain songs by mellifluous Swede duo jj.
In the end, Ring crafted an encompassing album intended to gradually unfurl during front-to-back listening in concentrated sittings. The Devil’s Walk is possessed by soft-focus dream-pop, dusky syncopation and affecting swells that Ring equates to Bon Iver records rather than electronic music’s culture of flurried singles. He hopes the album won’t lose context by having its songs plucked out and orphaned in playlists, as the sequence exerts a pulmonary rhythm throughout its 10 oxygenated, aspirating tracks. Systolic longing pulses beneath arpeggios and ruddy flushes of cloistered harmonies, offering a testament to a fleeting summer of rediscovery and the dynamics of a corporeal aesthetic.