The Story Behind the Moderat 'II' Studio Sessions

On II, the sophomore album from Moderat,

ON II, the sophomore album from Moderat, a collaboration between Berlin-based producers Sebastian Szary, Gernot Bronsert, and Sascha Ring, there’s plenty of synth tinkering, studio improvising, and software processing across its 12 tracks, but no footsteps. Spiritually and emotionally, however, the footprints of six months of recording resound loudly for the trio of old friends, who bring together simultaneously diametric and symbiotic aesthetics.

“Sascha isn’t a sneakers guy; he has very classic-type shoes, and you can hear the sound of his heels as he comes down the hall,” says Szary by phone from the studio in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. “So we’d know when he was approaching with a [flash drive] of recordings, maybe 20 or 30 vocals tracks and melody ideas, and he’d ask us to choose the best ones while he’d go get some food. On the first album, we started making tracks by restoring lost pieces found on hard drives, but for this one we developed song-oriented ideas together, even if we would start them working in different rooms.”

“It’s important to have other people you trust when you are an electronic musician, people who can help you make your ideas clear and to the point,” agrees Ring, conferenced in from Geneva. “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not, but we help bring each other’s recordings forward. Our first album was more a compilation of parts we liked, while for this one we distilled a basic sound we all share.”

Operating as Modeselektor, a name adapted from a knob on the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, Szary and Bronsert have established a party- and sneakers-friendly reputation for saturating audiences with walloping subbass pressure and champagne (explored in a recent documentary, We Are Modeselektor). They have even established their own label/ booking agency, Monkeytown Records, to promote likeminded machine-enhanced sonic architects and absurdists. Ring, meanwhile, primarily records bit-crushed acoustics and astral sound design under the name Apparat, associating with futurist outlets including Bpitch Control and Mute Records.

Immersed in production and the Berlin scene since the ’90s, having developed an interest in electronic composition and moving from the East German countryside as dusty basement techno parties and flat shares spread across a reunified nation, the three share a common backdrop of strobes and haze, Detroit-style Roland TB-303/TR-808, and Aphex Twin and Hard Wax Records.

Moderat’s self-titled full-length debut was released in 2009, and since then, both Modeselektor and Apparat have rearranged their workflow: Modeselektor, with the help of an acoustician, optimized a former film sync studio and then had “Christmas in April,” unpacking years of accumulated gear and patching it together alongside a Mac Pro running Logic Pro, a Midas Venice F32 desk, RME Fireface 800 interface, API Lunchbox preamps, a dbx 119 compressor/expander (among other compressors and channel strips), and both Genelec 1038A and 8040A monitors.

Apparat, meanwhile, sold his formal studio (where Moderat was compiled) and now sketches in Logic Pro on a MacBook Pro with an Apogee Ensemble, an API Lunchbox (housing an API 512C mic pre, Shadow Hills Mono Gama mic pre, two Inward Connections VC500 Kompressors, and two API EQs), fed by a Bock Audio 151 cardioid tube condenser mic, as well as such instruments as the Eowave Persephone MKII analog ribbon synthesizer and a Fender Mustang guitar. He then takes tracks to various studios for refinement; in the case of II, most of the work prior to mixing and mastering was completed in Modeselektor’s facility during the “typically depressing Berlin winter,” says Ring.

Logic played a central role for everyone involved, hosting such tools as iZotope’s Iris sample-based synthesizer and many instances of SoundToys Decapitator analog saturation modeler. “We made the choice to make a non-perfect record that sounds dirty in parts, resampling stuff and playing it to get less of a preset feel,” says Ring. “The meter wasn’t just blinking sometimes; it was just red!”

Feeding this desire to stray from the grid, II made use of a variety of sample and filter sources to achieve a sound that’s “sh*tty in a good way,” according to Ring. The eclectic list includes Roland Space Echo, Korg Stage Echo, Roland MC-202 MicroComposer, TR-77, and TR-808, Vermona DRM-1, Yamaha PSS-570 and VSS-30, CasioTone MT-70, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedal, various Boss pitch-shift pedals, Electro- Harmonix Memoryman, Simmons SDS 8 drum synthesizer, Sakae snare drum, Korg Monotribe, Roland Juno-60, Crumar Multiman-S, Waldorf Rocket, Korg MS-10 and Korg MS-50. Older gear, with no MIDI and no recall, was tracked intentionally out of the grid then edited down.

Only two rules were imposed when initializing work on II: no smoking in the studio and no use of Native Instruments Massive. “Massive was our favorite for the last record, but we noticed we were using all the same sounds, so it was banned this time so we wouldn’t end up with the similar stuff,” says Ring. “We still have many Native Instruments toys in our toolbox,” adds Szary. “Much of our bass was built in [NI’s additive synthesizer] Razor, and we did a little in the new Monark [a monophonic analog modeling synth based on the Minimoog].”

Whenever creativity would hit a speed bump, the trio turned to the Teenage Engineering OP-1 portable synthesizer/workstation/controller. “It is limited, but in a good way; it is not so complex that you spend more time programming than starting ideas,” says Szary. “It helped us build many ideas from scratch, and for this album, we wanted to remove the things that keep us from recording ideas right away.”

“On Apparat albums, I would use more instruments; I would experiment using an old speaker for a kick-drum microphone, but making a record [as Moderat] we end up doing mostly a digital thing inside Logic, because we need everything to have total recall and to be able to be shared,” says Ring, who still uses Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5 to split channels and emulate different spatial/miking/ reamping effects in tandem.

“I have to say I love to drive [sessions], but I am not the fastest one, so often Gernot or Sascha would sit in front of the desk at the monitor, with the one not in the pilot’s seat working behind on a couch, and I would be at a station on the side of the desk working parallel,” explains Szary. “I would make loops and Reaktor patches, Sascha would often be in the vocal booth working, and then we meet up with ideas and new energy and Gernot would glue them together.”

“It was important to have freedom and space from time to time, because if you have too many discussions about hi-hats for half an hour, you want to kill each other,” laughs Ring. “So I would be making beats or singing melodies or writing ideas on a guitar, because I’m not a trained musician who plays instruments with black-and-white keys, and I would bring them in and the themes would end up being building blocks used by Gernot or Szary in a soft synth or to start a drum machine jam tied directly to the desk.”

Sidestepping the more contentious drum tuning conversations, the Moderat collective instead had to settle debates on where to draw the line between tracks and songs. While one of the first impulses for the new album had been to compose a series of instrumentals, so many ideas came out of vocal improvisation that structure became the main sticking point. On the one hand was Bronsert, promoting a more DJ-oriented stretched out flow, and then on the other hand were Ring and Szary, who wanted to take a more verse-chorusverse- bridge approach. In the end, the balance proved a cohesive one. Unlike on Moderat’s debut, where say a dancehall-infused track would pop up before dubstep before an almost Sigur Rós-like wash of dream-popcum- acid-house, the concepts on II evolved concurrently, so the arrangements support each other and inhabit common ground.

This more band-like result didn’t mean that mix engineer Francesco Donadello at Berlin’s Vox-Ton recording/mixing studio and Calyx Mastering didn’t have his work cut out for him, however. For instance, on the epic, moody house track “Milk,” the guys achieved what Szary describes as “the moment when we put the chairs away,” meaning a song that makes everyone just want to dance around with a beer. However, when the track in question made it to Donadello, he found the track—full of tuned-down samples, dirty shakers, dense granular synths, and a spectrum-swallowing bassline) to be unfathomably muddy, listening through his 1972 Cadac console on ProAc and Westlake speakers. Luckily, Moderat had already instituted a policy of sending over tracks for premixing as they neared completion, so Donadello could pull them up in Logic with the same plug-ins (including native Logic and Waves EQs that dialed in Moderat’s rough mix), and he could rebuild the mix in a hybrid manner using both digital automation and outboard gear (bypassing plug-ins when possible with a vintage Universal Audio 175b compressor, API bus compressor, Urei 1176, Ampex 351 tube tape machine, Klein and Hummel UE 1000 EQ, and an EMT140 tube plate reverb).

However, after listening to the frequency range of the “Milk” kick and its relation to the bassline, and recognizing the already-heavy sidechain compression, everyone determined that it would take more than editing the attack and release parameters to in rein the bass. Recognizing the physical boundaries that were being pushed, they built another bass tone, which let Donadello concentrate more on boosting mids for presence rather than making drastic carves to seat the bass.

“Having Francesco involved so early made us keep in mind that we had to make the music mixable, and having him allowed us to spend more time on writing parts that sound powerful without [the listener] having to turn everything up,” says Ring. “On Moderat we mixed the song ‘Rusty Nails’ 38 times, and I don’t miss that.”

It may not sound like it, but Moderat’s II is a simplified experience in comparison to the group’s debut, which is a fact even evidenced by the album covers. Whereas Moderat’s cover was an illustration of a woman punching herself in the face (a representation of frustration echoing that album’s one year of audio scrap resuscitation), the cover of II is of a man removing a mask, a sentiment more of relief and revelation.

“With our first album, we were working more with each other’s production, and I feel with this album we discovered the way we produce best together,” reflects Ring. “This is the sound of us, at least for the moment,” agrees Szary. Moderat approaches its evolution one step at a time.

Tony Ware, a writer and editor based near Washington, D.C., understands how right it feels to do things “wrong.” In addition to writing interviews for Electronic Musician, he enjoys writing about mobile production tools for sister publication Pro Audio Review, among other noisy hobbies.