Man vs. Machine: Conny Plank

German producer/engineer Conny Plank helped forge the sounds of Kraftwerk and other electronic bands.
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[This article originally appeared in the February 1987 issue of Electronic Musician magazine.] 

Artists from Kraftwerk to the Eurythmics to KillingJoke have come to Conny Plank to produce and engineer their records. If you think it's because he's a production wizard whose ability to make electronic sounds come to life on vinyl has made Conny a legend in German electronic music circles and a savant to a younger generation of Anglo-rock musicians, you might be right.

But it could be his burly, Papa Bear cuddliness. Standing at a lumbering 6'4", looking like a center for the New York Giants, Conny rules over his studio with Buddha-like serenity, his enthusiasm and joy contained behind a bemused grin.

In Conny's Cologne studio, German new-wave composer Arno Steffens is bounding off the walls, extolling the technological tricks of a new angst-ridden track we're hearing on playback. "You hear that bass drum?" he exudes. "That's the hood of a Cadillac being slammed," he gesticulates wildly. "Only old American cars have that power." Conny meanwhile, sits quietly, an ever-present cigarette sandwiched in his stubby fingers, a twinkle glimmering behind his sleepy, pale blue eyes as he casually explains how none of the music on Arno's record, Schlage, comes from real instruments, but instead are natural sounds sampled into his Emulator II. The track is massive. Huge percussive chunks roar out of the giant JBL monitors in a battering ram of rhythm.

You probably haven't heard Arno Steffens, whose records aren't released in the U.S., but no doubt you've been floored by some of Plank's other work with Ultravox, Kraftwerk, KillingJoke, the Eurythmics, Deutsche Americanisher Freundschaft (DAF), Holger Czukay, and Cluster. Whether using synthesizers and computers or recording German folk groups, Conny has a unique understanding of how to create that elusive "theatre of the mind."

Like most of the electronic German generation, Conny was born of '60s psychedelic, given vent in the electronic music studios of West German Radio in Cologne. As an engineer, he worked with icons of 20th century music like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel. In the late, after-sessions hours, Conny experimented with classical musicians. Sitting at the mixing console, he generated free-form compositions, sending out echoes and filtering changes in real time. The results can be heard on a Deutsche Grammophon boxed set called Free Improvisation, with a group aptly called Wired. "It was like dub-mixing,' explains Conny, "but live dub-mixing so it was an improvisation together."

A rudimentary musician himself, Conny's creativity comes at the mixing console. Whether listed as producer, engineer or musician, his impact is crucial. He shaped the sounds of the first four Kraftwerk albums, including the international hit, Autobahn.

Nearly anyone touching a synthesizer in the Cologne-Düsseldorf region came to Conny. His relationship with the Cluster-Harmonia-Neu axis even led to him recording as an artist with Dieter Moebius from Cluster (Rastakraut Pasta, Material, and Zero Set, all on Sky).

His work with these seminal electronic ensembles was heard by the post-new wave generation of British musicians who'd opted out of the rudiments of punk and exhausted the limits of Euro-disco. Ultravox recorded their brilliant swan song with John Foxx, Systems of Romance (Antilles), and returned to Conny's Studio for their comeback, Vienna (Chrysalis). The success of Vienna and its successor, Rage In Eden (Chrysalis), were due in no small part to the edgy, nearly psychedelic environment that Conny generated in the studio.

After two recordings, Quartet (Chrysalis) and Lament (Chrysalis) produced by George Martin and themselves respectively, Ultravox has returned to Conny's Studio for their forthcoming album.

In September and October Conny made his first live performance on a Goethe Institute tour of South America. He played a DX7, a trumpet, the mixing desk, and an 8track tape of prerecorded backings; Dieter Moebius played an Arp Odyssey and an Oberheim synthesizer; Arno Steffens sang and played the Emulator II. "It was rhythmic and psychedelic electronic music" exuded Conny over the phone recently. "It was partly freeform, partly composed. I had an 8-track with me, mixed with sequences and sounds as a background and I used it in a dub-mix way so I had the possibility to change it in reaction to the other musicians." Fortunately, six weeks worth of concerts were recorded for a future album.

Conny lives in the outskirts of Cologne where he owns a beautifully remodeled farmhouse. In the adjacent barn resides his studio, its cozy control room over-powered by Monster JBLs, two 24-track Otari's, and two MCI computer-controlled mixing consoles. Since I was last there, however, Conny has replaced the MCIs with an automated custom console designed by Michael Tahl and Peter Lang. "I didn't want to buy an SSL (Solid State Logic), he says. "I wanted a toy that was faster than these other desks. When I work on SSL desks I feel like an accountant."

Spontaneity and interaction are the elements Conny seeks, even with computers. "I just got a new program to work with the Emulator II on my Macintosh, by Digidesign called Sound Designer to edit sounds, loops. I use the Linn sequencer same as in the 9000 but a separate unit which is nice because I can use it in flying mode. I don't like to think too much when I design a sequence. I can kick in or punch out notes like a dialogue with a machine."

A recent pilgrimage to Conny's Studio was made by the Eurythmics for whom Conny will be producing a live recording in Japan. Conny produced the very first Eurythmics record, In The Garden (RCA import only), before their electro-pop smash, Sweet Dreams (RCA). On their latest record, Revenge, Conny contributed some drum sounds. "It wasn't a session," demurs Conny. 'We were sitting around, exchanging ideas and being crazy."

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For Conny, being crazy is what it's all about. "Craziness is holy," exclaims Conny, in the mysterious, dramatic voice he uses when he wants to be emphatic. "When I talk about this hip-hop music and what they do in New York, it's not crazy enough. It's attractive and they have sensations, but it's not crazy. When I listen to Charlie Parker it was crazy. When I listen to Charlie Mingus it was crazy, but this is not crazy. Craziness is something holy."

What was it like in the early days with Cluster, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, the Sky label?
At that time we all were influenced by English and American music. We also listened to Koenig, Stockhausen, Varese. I used to work with these people in '67, '68, and '69. Mauricio Kagel gave me a lot of ideas about sounds. In those recordings I worked with very academic musicians being very precise doing these sounds, and to me it seemed lifeless, and dry. I then tried to find people that looked in a different way to these materials, that tried to improvise with these dirty sounds, these electronic sounds -- to have a feeling like a jazz musician has to his instrument.

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We often worked with cheap toys and used them in a strange way. We distorted a lot of things and filtered sounds very radically but we didn't call ourselves electronic musicians. We used any scratch on guitars, or noises on an instrument... we used pianos and scratched the strings and put echoes on them, and tried to find drastic or attractive elements that turned us on.

The first set-up of Cluster was interesting. We had five oscillators, a few tube distortion units where we sent the sound through the tube and could adjust the amount of distortion. We had echoes where you could change the speed of the echo in real time. We used normal organs and Hawaiian guitar; when you treat a Hawaiian guitar really heavy it sounds like electronic music. We used tape-loops. We had a quite complex setup of all these things that were mixed. Sometimes we worked with a drummer, sometimes with cheap Italian machines.

Ultravox told me that when they heard Neu and Harmonia records they got inspired by this because of the different point of view. I think Lou Reed and John Cale and the Velvet Underground were in a similar situation. They were very naive, exploring new things, using the old rock and roll but with different ears and different experience of heavy city life. You do something and you don't realize how good it is. When you talk to Lou Reed today he says he never realized how good this was. They just did it unconsciously, by accident, and later on found out how important it was to pop music.

We were also influenced by the Velvet Underground. When I got this "banana" record produced by Warhol, we were immediately influenced by that. We said this is a fresh approach. They didn't care about the beauty of sound, they just went for a basic feeling of a true situation.

In the last few years there's been a growth in producer/artists like Trevor Horn, Martin Rushent, Arthur Baker, who are virtually creating the music of the people they produce. You produce music yourself but under your own name.
I admire some of these producers because they handle sounds very well. What I don't like is that most of their work sounds constructed. They go for an immediate sensation. Is it attractive? Is it acceptable? Does it sound impressive?

To me music isn't just interesting sounds. There must be content, an articulation, a state of mind, that I feel from the music because music to me is like a person. To me it presents an interesting state of mind. I think this has gone out of some music so that becomes more mechanical. Fantastic designs — it's mannerism. I don't say that about all of what they put out. Some of it is beautiful, but that's very rare and some of them are not very conscious about the content of music.

I just worked with a famous disco producer in New York, Francois Kervorkian (who produced Kraftwerk's newest album, Electric Cafe, on Warner Bros.) and he was a very good engineer and very good mixer, but I noticed that he just was looking for impressive sounds. He wanted to be sure nothing was ever boring so that everything was up, up, up. After a while I said to him, "You're always going up, up, up and you don't have any dynamic anymore. You also have to come down to build it up again. How can you live under this pressure to be up all the time? It's crazy." It's like putting music through a limiter to keep every note on the same level. So nothing was quiet, everything was extremely loud.

That's been the direction of popular music, however. To he constantly driving, with static, insistent beats. Especially with drum machines, where people go for the steady, hard driving sound. And you were doing that in the beginning, as well.
Yeah, that's true. But I found something that was very interesting in making music with mechanics and programs. If you understand it right, you can make it come to life when you create a tension between the machine and you. As long a you can manage this, it will be interesting. But most of the music I hear today, you don't hear that. After a few listens it starts to sound boring because it has no secret anymore, because the sound that is programmed always sounds the same. Nobody works on the dynamics of the sound so it becomes monotonous.

It's easier to program than to get a musician in to play it right, so you produce more. So instead of producing less and having good musicians, they produce more and more, like a factory. It's like a music industrial revolution, like they produce cars. They produce music in the same way. When you look at old cars, they were handmade and it was something really interesting as a piece of art. When you take a car today, you don't have these feelings about it. It's just a throw-away product.

You've been working with the Fairlight and Emulator since around 1982. In listening to this Arno Steffens record, was it almost all Emulator?
Basically it was played. We got a drummer in, a good friend of ours, and the basic track we always played so there is no mechanical feeling in the structure of the music. Then we looked for sounds that could replace the normal snare, tom-tom, cymbal sounds. We started to experiment with car crashes, with explosions ... everything that a rock drummer dreams about, because they want to sound like a monster war movie. So we took the real thing and made a super heavy drum track out of it.

Then we found out that if you used a natural sound like a falling piece of iron, it has its own rhythm. It falls and goes dang-a-lang, dang-a-lang-a-lang or something. You listen to this noise and you find that you get an inspiration for a rhythm. It's like a Polaroid and you use that to make a rhythm out of it. Then I find it very interesting to use samples from an Emulator or Fairlight because you can make them come alive.

(Edgar) Varese was one of the first composers who used normal noises not made by instruments. He used metal material, wood blocks, all kinds of material like tin buckets and he called it musique concrete. We go on developing these ideas, using just normal everyday sounds, in the streets, the workshop, and we make music out of it.

It's interesting that you mention Varese, because he and Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, and Stockhausen were the first samplers.
Sampling has been a technique for a long time. I always used bits of tapes to sample and now I use digital systems that are more convenient and practical because it's quicker and more precise to use. But it's no different from what I did before. It's only more clever.

How much are you processing the sounds after you sample them?
I use treatments, filters, echoes, reverbs and I have to adjust the elements to the ideas that I'm working on. It's like a carpenter with a piece of wood and to fit it into his construction he has to work on it. It's the same way with sounds. I have to adjust them to the picture that I'm working on.

I worked with a German group, the Humpe sisters (Humpe-Humpe, Warner Bros.). That was interesting because the girls sounded very sweet so I could make the music dirtier underneath. So there was a nice contrast between the heavenly voices and backing track.

What about pure electronic sounds? You were one of the pioneers of that on records.
I like synthesizers when they sound like synthesizers, not when they sound like natural instruments. I like them to have their own colors. The strange areas of colors that you can do with synthesizers is what's interesting for me, not just copying an acoustic instrument.

A lot of the records that you're involved with don't seem like they can be performed live. Your recording experience seems completely divorced from the live performance experience. I'm thinking of the Cluster records, Dieter Moebius, Arno Steffens.
We're in the same position as the old composers who needed musicians to play, but we prepare a program to play. We can put the programs, the music, the elements together in the studio and use this material and perform. This is the same process as when I mix something on the desk and I have all the elements there, the actual mixing is a sort of performance. It's playing, expressing something. This mixing can also happen in front of an audience because it needs inspiration, it needs attention and what the audience can give you. I think there's a possibility to do this on stage like what Lee Perry did with his dub-mixing. It was an incredible performance of a reggae song.

You don't seem to have a Conny Plank sound, yet it seems like you're very involved in the creative process of the records you produce and engineer.
I think it's a level in the spirit of the people that come together. The way I find people has to do with the state of mind of these people and how we communicate. That's what influences the product. I can be influenced by the musician so that the record comes out completely different from the last product I was involved with.

I also try not to have a "Conny Plank" sound. I want to be different and colorful, like a painter who uses acrylics, oils, and crayola, so I try to make the work I do sound different.

In the last four years I've moved away from programming and tried to work with musicians again in real time. I developed a system where I can use samples and programs with live music. That means you don't lock musicians into a program but you make a program that follows the musicians. That can be done.

Have you done that?

Part of Arno Steffens material and with a band called Kowalski. When we used the sequences, I bound the sequence steps to the bass drum or a pattern of the drum kit so the whole program follows the drummer.

Is this what we were talking about in the studio, where the drum will trigger a sequencer pattern?
Yes, but it's live action. Before, when I worked with Ultravox, you had a sequence and the drummer had to follow the sequence. DAF was also an interesting example of minimal pop music. We had one sequence, one drummer, and one voice. The drummer was able to create a tension between the sequence and him. Then it was interesting when you moved the filter of the sequence reacting to the drummer and then the drummer reacts again. That's a good way of making a mechanical thing work with live music.

Repeated rhythms have always been a hallmark of electronic music. First with tape loops, then synthesizers used as drums and finally the whole evolution of drum machines. You've been involved with every step of that development.
First there were these cheap Italian drum machines that just did this pop-pop-chink-chink sound. I was interested because there was a cold atmosphere around these little machines. They were incredible, stupid and locked, and this was an interesting element that you could relate to. I treated those machines, distorted them, and changed their quality; it was meant to be a crazy mechanical element in the music. So the music you put on top of a thing like this is influenced by his silly little drum machine.

After a while the Japanese companies became more clever in the artificial drum sounds and then there was the step to the digital drum sounds. That's when the trouble started, because it sounded the same as drummers, more or less, arid many drummers lost jobs.

But soon I got tired of those sounds because you get a picture of a real drum sound. When you use an electronic drum machine where the sound is electronic it's okay because the situation is clear. But with this, it's a bastard situation because it's the machine pretending to be a drummer. After a while, to me, it sounds more dead than an electronic drum machine. When a drummer hits his kit, every beat sounds a bit different. That you can't do on a drum machine. When the drummer hits the center of the snare its a bit different than when he's off-center. He emphasizes certain beats, and the range of expression available on a drum kit is much bigger than a real sounding drum machine. Machines that sound close to a real drummer are as stupid as synthesizers that try to sound like a real instrument.

I thought it was interesting that you produced the first Eurythmics' LP with an actual band, yet when they went off and produced the next one on their own, they went almost completely electronic.
They had no other choice because it's cheaper to work that way. Their first successful record that they did on their own, they did on an 8-track machine and they spent the time to program very carefully. It's much more expensive to hire musicians to work in the studio. So they had the time and their own place and they had an interesting development based on what we did before. Dave Stewart is a man with very good ideas so he went to a good producer, himself.

One of your techniques is to record a sound and then release it into an acoustic space and rerecord it.
The most important thing is the right ambiance, how all the elements are together in one ambient situation. I discovered that when I record something that doesn't fit into the picture, I try to get all the elements I recorded together into one room through the speaker system and pick it up again, including the ambiance, with microphones. They seem to work better and have a more transparent relationship to each other. It creates more space in the sound picture. It has to do with the time that the sound travels to the wall and comes back. The ear is more accustomed to this situation than close-up sounds. You never listen to an instrument, holding your ear close to the instrument.

I also noticed that when musicians play with headphones they never play with the same dynamics as when they listen to their own music without headphones in a natural way. Without headphones, they are much more sensitive to dynamics. They react to each other much better.

What about using digital reverb and devices like the Lexicon that create the rooms for you?
Most of these units have nice reverb programs for the ear. But it's very rare that you get a unit programmed that way where you can feel the room. I just bought a unit by a German engineer called a Quantec, and his intention was to get a real room quality out of this init. When you listen to it you immediately have a room feeling. You can change the parameters of the room. This seems to me now the most true sounding unit.

A room situation is an objective situation. It gives you something you'd find naturally so it's less disturbing. It's also an experience with the ear. A good example is the echoes that Elvis Presley used on his first recordings. They were perfect, because they matched the idea of the music so much. It also created a sound, this typical rock and roll sound that lasted for a long time. I think it comes from those moments of singing in a bathroom. It's a feedback process. Each echo is a feedback and the excitement process of music in the brain is also a feedback process. It's attractive as a listening phenomenon.

All these echoes, reverbs, and delays are involved in this feedback idea. A guitar feeding back with an amplifier is also really powerful. It's like the experiments with biofeedback in the late-'60s. They invented little machines where you had a headphone and a detector on your brain and the alpha waves come out of the brain and you get a tone. It assures the brain that it's there and it creates a weird feedback process from inside the brain to outside the brain.

The records that you produce are adventurous variations on rock themes, especially those in the last five years or so. Your own music tends to be more abstract. Are you getting out a lot of things that you can't do in your other productions?
It's like a playground where I can be free. To be honest, more than half of what I do in this free time is crap and I have to throw it away. But sometimes a beauty comes out of this and it's a free situation where you take an element and get inspired by it. It's a meditation process. I don't want to write a piece of music that's like a song. It may turn out that way, but it starts as a free expression and I bring it into order.

I'm more in the function of a medium and not as a creator who has a character and impresses this character on every note. I'm not a musician. I'm a medium between musicians, sounds, and tape. I'm like a conductor or traffic policeman.