Tensnake: The 'Glow' Studio Sessions

Classic Synths Meet VST Plug-Ins
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MARCO NIEMERSKI, better known in clubs and record stores as Tensnake, established himself in 2006 as a producer/DJ who was unafraid to buck the trend toward minimal dance music in his native Germany. Operating from Hamburg, Niemerski pulled from a more glamorous, hedonistic tradition of U.S. and U.K. deep house, mixing melodic chords, rolling organs, piano stabs, boogie bass lines, and wistful vocal samples. Initially armed with synthesizers such as the Yamaha SY85 and the Roland Juno-10, Niemerski persistently expanded his studio with a balance of venerable gear and the latest VSTs, continually working toward a middle ground between catchy and crunchy.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Niemerski’s debut artist album, Glow, walks a line between cutting edge and vintage, featuring contributions from Nile Rodgers (Chic, Daft Punk), Jamie Lidell, MNEK and Stuart Price (Jacques Lu Cont, Madonna), Fiora and more.

When we spoke with Niemerski, he was in Los Angeles exploring some collaborative projects before beginning a summer of Pacha gigs on Ibiza and then a North American tour. He took some time to reveal how he translates classic gear signatures and modern techniques into emotionally and physically moving sounds.

What do your sessions look like, and are you better set up to bring people or parts in?

My session setups really depend on the song. It was mainly the case that I wrote the instrumental in my studio in Hamburg using Ableton Live on a PC. I have a collection of synths and external gear, but the writing process often starts with plug-ins. I always start from scratch. I don’t have a template. Very often I try not to worry on the sounds in the early phase of writing.

For example, one of the first songs finished was “Feel of Love” with Jamie Lidell and Stuart Price. I had the track almost finished in Germany, but then I had the idea to take it to a different level and that Stuart Price, who is also rooted in the ’80s like me, could help take it there. So I took the MIDI files to Los Angeles to his studio and we started from scratch. Mainly all the synths you hear, including the bass line, are an ARP2600 synth he has there. Then we felt we needed a singer. We had used a lot of LinnDrum samples [sourced from vintage EPROMs and sequenced in Native Instruments Kontakt], which made us think of Prince, and that made us think of Jamie Lidell, who has a voice in that ballpark. So we sent him an instrumental and he sent us back a vocal he recorded.

While at Price’s studio did you sample any of his gear for future projects?

No, I don’t necessarily like sampling synths. Maybe it’s stupid to think, but the magic can’t be captured in samples. It’s not as vivid and alive as the real deal. The ARP was so big and somewhat complicated, and sounded so fantastic, but I’m glad it’s Stuart’s and not my synth. I’m very impatient sometimes and need to get quickly to results, so I’m a happy user of presets I tweak to use. I never build patches from scratch.

When you’re trying to get the ideas out quickly, what are some of your go-to tools?

Very often I start with a drum loop. For example, I have this library of loops partly coming from sample CDs and partly created myself. So, if I have an idea to do a track that is ’80s- or ’90s-related, it’s very important what drum sounds you start with. If you want ’90s house, the 909 sample is needed. And for ’80s you can do LinnDrum, Oberheim, or Boss drum samples.

Then it could be a software synth. Probably at the moment for everything I am using the [u-ha] DIVA if I want a polysynth, and for mono I am a massive fan of Monark by Native Instruments. Sometimes I prefer it to the DIVA for that bit of oomph. A lot of digital emulations and plug-ins you have to send them through a preamp and do tricks to make them sound alive and 3-D in the mix, but with the Monark it’s easier to handle.

Sometimes I use my Oberheim Matrix 1000, which is one of my favorite synths for pad sounds. I have quite a collection of synths, though they are not all hooked up all the time. I have two of the Matrix, because obviously they are mono so I can pan them as stereo. I got a [Roland] Jupiter-4, a Juno-106 but also the 60, and a JX-3P. I got a Moog Voyager, a Yamaha DX7 … quite a collection.

Do you track yourself playing those live or do you draw in MIDI notes for them when supported?

I try to play them myself, but I record the MIDI not the audio material whenever possible. I’m kind of scared of rendering audio too early, because I can’t go back, so I try to keep everything MIDI as long as possible. This also, of course, keeps me from coming to a result quickly because with all those possibilities you might have too many choices.

How do you tweak a preset? Do you sculpt bass reinforcement more at the source or in the chain?

Over the years, you have your collection of favorite sounds to get to a result, so I tweak in terms of envelope, release, attack, filter. Very often I don’t do much outboard besides EQ’ing and delay on bass lines. It has to sit nicely in the mix, and that’s way more important than getting the most unique-sounding bass line.

When I start working I have an idea of the drums I want to use, then with the bass I’m the same: I know what I’m looking for, whether it’s a warm, rubbery Moog sound or a cold FM sound. You just need to know your sound, your libraries, your presets and then you can adapt by putting different filters or moving oscillators a little bit. It’s not rocket science; just know your stuff, whether it’s analog or digital.

Are there ways you intentionally misuse or abuse a module or process to make a desired effect?

Every producer knows you sometimes make a mistake: accidentally move bricks in your sequencer and something totally amazing pops up that sounds better than what you tried to achieve in your arrangement before, so it’s very important to stay open-minded. I don’t break stuff, though I’ll experiment with, like, tearing paper and recording it for a hi-hat, etc. It depends on the production and what you want to hear in there. You need some elements that define your soundscape and make you sound different than anybody else.

I’m a VST junkie. While I don’t need any new plug-ins, I’ll try new stuff. I want to try the new modular system from Native [Instruments], Molekular; when it comes to laptop production I don’t know what is out there but I’m open.

What are your favorite ways to liven up or tailor the dynamics?

That changes all the time. If I don’t need super colored compression I just use the internal plug-ins of Live. With the latest version 9, I really like the Glue Compressor simulating the SSL. Sometimes I’m using the [Universal Audio] UAD [powered plug-ins] compressors; the Fairchild [tube limiter] I’m using quite often, as well as the SSL [bus compressor and E Series channel strip] simulations.

Another thing I love is the Harrison [32C/32C SE Channel EQ] plug-in. If you put the Harrison UAD plug-in on a piano and EQ it a little, it sounds so different, giving this shiny professional touch. I like it for every signal that needs a certain vibe in the higher frequencies.

Also, Native just released Supercharger [one-knob tube compressor], and it’s very simple but very good on all kinds of signals. On the album I used a lot of 1176 emulations and the Live internal plug-ins for the most subtle compression.

For simple delays, if I don’t need a lot of color I use the delay from Ableton. You can pan it left and right and get very quickly to your results. You can filter the delayed signal, which makes it very easy to place bass lines in the mix. Very often instead of reverb I use delays with very short delay times.

I did Glow with a mix engineer [Ash Workman], so I can’t really say how to do all the mix tricks because it’s not all me. When I produced the songs I used very different setups, sounds, and plug-ins. But what definitely helped make it all sound like it went together as an album was that we mixed the whole thing in the Premises studio in Hackney [London] on a Trident console, which is weird because it’s more famous for its rough, rock sound. But I used a lot of plug-ins and I don’t even have a summing mixer at home, so everything sounded cold and digital, and this made it important to me to bring it out of the box into a board. And we have real tape saturation there, too; printing it to tape before importing it back into the box helped bring some warmth.

This is your first release with so many singers. How did you approach the album’s vocal processing?

I mainly worked in the box during the mixdown of the album. I used a lot of Waves plug-ins for EQ’ing and compression. I’m not a pro when it comes to vocal processing, as I just started working with them. At home I have the Manley VOXBOX, which I like a lot, as well as API preamps, but when it comes to vocal recording I’m not super picky or professional so whenever possible I prefer others do it.

All the songs with Fiora I recorded. For “58 BPM” we have the Manley working and a little bit of pre-EQ’ing, then we recorded straight into my RME Fireface, because that entire track was created in the box besides the vocals. We had both a [Microtech] Gefell [GmbH] and a [Neumann] U87 microphone in the house.

Also we recorded in the small project studio room—no vocal booth or whatever. It was straight into my machine and I just used whatever comes in handy, like plug-ins with the UAD cards.

Fiora is on seven of 16 album tracks and seems to be somewhat of a muse; tell me about the songwriting process for those tracks.

I think I met her when I was in the middle of the album and I was looking for a female voice. We have a mutual friend in Berlin that introduced us, so I sent her the instrumental to “See Right Through.” It’s mainly three chords playing all the same stuff over and over and a pretty simple, deep house drum loop. She sent me back vocals one day later, and I was super surprised what she did with the track. Often with house or electronic music the lyrics aren’t deep and meaningful, but she really cared about lyrics. I was surprised how good and fast she was, so we met in Hamburg at my studio. The chemistry was so good, we ended up working on all the songs, starting almost from scratch, and all the lyrics and hook lines she wrote herself.

Does using Ableton Live help you make the transition from the studio to live performance?

Yes; at the moment I am playing out in clubs using Ableton Live and the Akai MPC40. When I started I played live sets of only my own songs, so I know this program and gear inside and out. This year I’ll stick to DJ’ing while I work on a live concept involving Fiora and guest session musicians. A live drummer is very important to me, while also working in LinnDrum samples, etc. I want to play some synths, but it’s all in the works still because it’s very important to me to find magic that you can really feel when it all comes together onstage. But for now I’m using a Max4Live patch—a version of Isotonik by Darren Cowley he customized for my needs—though one day I might be switching to CDJs because I like the idea of traveling with two USB sticks only.

Are there special ways you prepare edits and clips when you take material from studio to stage?

The main problem with the album is, it’s not really club music because it’s too slow or too pop, so I will probably create my own edits and remixes to play in my sets. The disadvantage of using Ableton for DJ’ing is you have to warp them all through, which takes a lot of time, unless you have only tech-house tracks where recognition works well upfront. I don’t try to prepare myself too much. I have my favorite tunes of the moment and I know what works better at a festival vs. a small club.

Are there ways your time in the studio influenced what you’re playing now, and ways what you’re playing now might influence future productions?

What happened after I worked on the album is I realized I want to look more into producing, sitting in the studio with others instead of being onstage. As much as I love deep house and U.K. garage, suddenly everything sounded the same for a while and I got excited for pop music and creating my own version of pop music. But everything goes up and down and once in the studio for a while I can look forward to DJ sets again. It’s about keeping the balance of both worlds.

Tony Ware is a writer and editor based outside Washington, D.C.

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