In the 21st century, why make music that sounds like, well, music? With zillions of software options available, we can sample the Dalai Lama, for instance, sift his vocal through myriad filters and effects, then add some tape echo for old-school, analog appeal. Bass support can be created by sampling aquatic animals, their struggles detuned to recall a Roland TR-808 squiggle. Rhodes or Moog (software or hardware) patterns can be transmogrified into squirming rhythms via your Akai MPC—played live to give it that “human feel.”
Moderat’s III (Monkeytown Records/Mute) seemingly follows these 21st-century directives. It's an album of eerily serene vocals, wraithlike synth pads, tribal rhythms, and subsonic low-end thrusts. Moderat blends club sounds and pop melodies for stellar results, not heard this effectively since Everything But the Girl’s global smash, “Missing.” The gentle vocals of Sascha Ring (aka Apparat) are expressed, surprisingly, via the traditional verse/chorus format. Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary (aka Modeselektor) ply their trademark bass behemoth tones. As bittersweet melodies bend the ear, Ring, Bronsert, and Szary cleverly merge the hooligan racket of Underworld and Radiohead’s more fizzy electronic moments with a kind of 21st-century angst. Throughout the album can be heard the sound of disembodied voices scalloped and sliced to form spooky counter-melodies and counter-rhythms. This moody magnificence is also expressed in Ring’s elastic vocals, which appear totally at the mercy of the music’s clambering, nightmarish, but ultimately womb-like web.
“Szary is the quiet one who analyzes the music and gives his input,” explains engineer Felix Zoepf. “Sascha is the lead singer and creates a lot of the arrangements and produces many sounds. Gernot produces arrangements and beats and the sound of the beats. Gernot and Szary are more techno-oriented and beat-influenced while Sascha is more of the songwriter and producer for the band. Sascha took the lead role in the mixes; the album was mastered by Bo Kondren at Calyx. Moderat are unique in Berlin; they’re not part of a similar scene, but it all comes from raves and techno from the 1990s.”
Working in their Berlin studio complex, which also houses the trio’s Monkeytown Records label, booking agency, and store, Moderat split duties between the main recording/mixing room, Studio One, and the experimental Smoker Studio. In studio and out, Moderat’s members worked in Logic Pro/Macbook. A Universal Audio Apollo Quad Audio Interface/Universal Audio Apollo Thunderbolt 2 Card joined instruments to console.
“We call it Smoker Studio because that is where Szary smokes a lot of cigarettes,” Zoepf laughs. “It’s more of a session room which is also a proper mixing suite that has been acoustically treated.”
Smoker Studio’s lineup includes an older pair of Genelec 1038A and 8040A monitors, Berlin-based EVE Audio SC407 four-way monitors, and EVE Audio TS112 sub (the latter also in Studio One). “EVE Audio measured the room to get the best tone and best position for the speakers,” Zoepf says. A Vermona DRM-1, two Roland TR-808s (“one modded so Szary can tune the bass drum”), TR-909, TR-707, TR-303s, TR-606s, Roland Juno-60 and Roland Juno-106, and Korg MS-10 and Korg MS-20 were translated via a Midas Venice F32 or smaller Mackie mixer and older quad-core Mac.
“Studio One was the main recording and mixing room,” Felix explained. “Smoker was for experimenting and recording bits of modular stuff and hardware, and finding different starting points and/or different adding points for the songs. In Studio One, Sascha brought in an SSL X-Desk paired to a Universal Audio Apollo Quad Audio Interface. Everything was recorded though this setup with two EL Distressors and the Chandler TG1 Limiter inserted in the X-Desk.”
The trio did some work in the box, but “they used the SSL X-Desk to have good preamps in the system,” explained Zoepf. “They recorded vibraphones, shakers, and wood instruments through the SSL using AKG C414 mics.”
Moderat’s last album, II, was recorded in 2009. Surely technology has changed the band’s working methods in measureable ways? “Not so much,” says Zoepf. “The guys have more gear but they still work in Logic Pro and laptops, and a big iMac, so it hasn’t changed so much. They used to work with MaxMSP patches and trade files. Sascha modified a Max patch for Kid Clayton back in the day and called it Gihad. It manipulated audio quite drastically. They used that live until 2012. And they are still swapping files and sessions.”
Szary divulges his love of foot pedals, which played a large role on III. The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedal, Strymon blueSky Reverberator, and the Strymon Dig Dual Digital Delay hold special places of honor at Smoker Studio. “I love foot pedals,” he says. “I grew up with techno, Atari computers, and drum machines. They provided another way to compose. Making music can be simple, but at some point you come under complex structures and you need a little knowledge. I never learned to play guitar or piano, but I love the little guitar pedals which are good for other stuff. I am not addicted, but I really like to collect pedals. Strymon makes really good pedals. Their blueSky reverb pedal is insane; the longest decay for any pedal.”
Moderat’s software effects includes iZotope Iris, a sample-based plug-in; Native Instruments Reactor and Konkakt sampler; and for bass, copious dosing of NI’s Razor.
“It’s still the best soft synthesizer you can get,” Szary says. “There’s a lot of soft synthesizers in the world, but Razor has a crystal clear sound for some purposes. The Crumar Multiman-S has a great bass sound and string sound too.”
A Korg Arp Odyssey synth and SoundToys Decapitator effects processing were also employed. “Sometimes we will send a synth through an effects chain,” Szary says. “We may resample it which gives it another quality, or pitch it down 300 Hz and it will go all crispy. Sometimes we record the sound outside the studio with a microphone so the synth sounds like it is somewhere in the distance, or in another room. We also used a Roland RE-201 Space Echo a lot, to have that spring reverb sound.
“It’s very important when you play a synth line that you play it manually,” he adds, “then do a little detune of the synth. The Roland Juno-60 has a little screw on the back where you can tune the synth; it’s an old trick. But that makes the sound float.”
And what makes NI Razor tick? “Its oscillator is so clean,” Szary notes. “We use it for bass sounds. On the second album there’s a track, ‘Bad Kingdom’: The bass sound and behavior of the filter and the LFO made with Razor there is really hard to describe. It’s the behavior between the virtual circuits and its complement. The way it modulates the LFO and its bass behavior in the lower frequencies, that’s unique to Razor.”
The first single off III, “Reminder,” begins with the sound of tribal percussion. Bass blobs permeate the rhythmic clatter, followed by a massive synth pad and a low-end growl that sounds like a voice but may be something else. A screeching jolt consistently sounds out through the track, followed by guttural moans and drum and bass menace. A desolate breakdown section is swiftly swallowed up by alien shouts and Ring’s vocal cries, cut-up and repeated.
“The percussion in ‘Reminder’ was done in the first session as a sketch,” Szary explains. “We needed wood sounds. We looked in the Kontakt libraries under ‘African drums.’ But that’s bullshit, you have to search. We needed real wood. Then we found a wooden pallet stacked with records. We put the palett on top of a vibraphone and Sasha and Gernot played the pallet by hand, miked by two AKG C414s. That gave the track the specific sound we were looking for.”
The deep, wobbly bass sound heard in “Reminder” was created in NI Razor, followed by a siren synth also created in Razor. “Sometimes we have five instances of Razor in one track,” Szary explains. “We also used Massive. It’s good for some things.”
U-He’s Diva (Dinosaur Impersonating Virtual Analogue) plug-in created the track’s brief string synth pad, then, as the song grows more ominous, what sounds like Sascha’s vocal spoken through Darth Vader’s helmet surges through the mix.
“That’s a harmonizer,” Szary recalls. “We often use Antares, or Pitch Control in Logic Pro. We also sampled Sasha’s voice and used it in an MPC, putting the samples into a sequence sampler and then playing with different tunings to have that crispy sound. That’s the difference to prior albums. We used more stuff from Sascha’s voice for this album.”
The band’s defacto and primary songwriter, vocalist, mixer and producer, Sascha Ring finds that composing and vocal tracking go hand-in-hand.
“The music comes first,” Ring says. “Often on the road I am working on sound design in NI Reaktor. Later, I think about the words. I make sure I have the words when I have something musically that inspires me to sing. Gernot or Szary might give me a song idea that may inspire me and I’l improvise a vocal right away. I’ve realized that it’s really important to have the right lyrics. Very often the first take is the magic take and you can’t often get that back. That little bit of hesitation and self-doubt can make a take more personal and I always go for that.”
The bizarre use of vocal snippets as melodies, rhythms and pads is also Ring’s responsibility. Using a handful of small modular synthesizers, Ring warped his vocals 100 ways.
“When I’m using modular systems I’m looking for something different from the usual synth sounds,” Ring explains. “That’s what you hear in ‘Finder’ and ‘Reminder.’ The main voice sequence that starts ‘Reminder’ was made with a modular system and my voice as a choir triggered by some weird African rhythm module that gave it that strange rhythm structure.
Ring “borrowed” a small Make Noise modular system meant for making musique concréte or experimental drone music, which included the Soundhack Echophon (pitch-shifter). The QU-Bit Electronix [Nebulae] modular sampler and Mutable Instruments’ Clouds Texture Synthesizer (“for its granular effect”) were also enlisted.
“QU-Bit is a great American company that makes granular samplers,” Ring says. “I put my voice fragments into Nebulae, and sequenced it with the modular system from Make Noise using the Echophon. It twists things.”
Like a growing list of talented vocalists, Ring recorded vocals solo. His stripped-down, layered vocals were further treated with Soundtoys’ Decapitor plug-in, and “lots of pitched-down and multi-pitched vocals using a mixture of Auto-Tune and the Pitch Correction plug-in in Logic Pro, a little EQ and reverb.
“I’m using a Bock Audio 251 microphone through an API 512 preamp,” Ring adds. “I had an API Lunchbox loaded with two Shadow Hills Mono Gamma mic pre’s, the API pre and API EQ, straight into the Apollo. Most of the time I’m using the API ’cause I quite like it. I run it very hot as I sing rather quietly very often. I’m using an API EQ, and EQing the vocal as I’m recording it because I want that sound. I want that feeling of a final vocal sound while I am singing it because that is also part of the performance.”
Throughout III, Sascha Ring’s intimate vocals cling to the music’s haunting sonic palette like deep-space parasites riding a Mars orbiter. Like Moderat’s instrumental choices, Ring’s vocals are visceral and palpable, giving the music its personal appeal. It doesn’t take long to become one with Moderat’s churning beats and corporeal melodies.
“I absolutely go for first vocal takes,” Ring says. “But every so often there may be a mistake so you
The Roland Juno-60 has a little screw on the back where you can tune the synth; it's an old trick, but that makes the sound float.