Armed and animated, Timo Maas is flipping through his latest grab bag of CDs and vinyl, rattling off the new acquisitions with the informed nonchalance of a seasoned crate digger. “Let's see,” he prompts. “I've got Turin Breaks; I've got Brazil Electro, some old-school dub records, and here I have the new Jamiroquai and Audioslave and Röyksopp and Nightmares on Wax — a lot of stuff. I try to listen to a wide variety of music; it doesn't matter if it's rock, hip-hop, experimental, jazz or whatever. I just try to keep my musical understanding as open-minded as I can.” He pauses to consider the implications of that statement. “Except for Celine Dion,” he jokes. “Anything else but her!”
Diversity also reigns at Time Tools Studios in Hannover, Germany, where Maas and longtime collaborator Martin Buttrich have plied their craft since 1998. The building houses a sizable complex of rooms for some half-dozen producers who specialize in hip-hop, rock, pop and experimental dance music, and it is also home to a new mastering unit built by Andy Bolleshon, who until four years ago — in the wake of Maas' debut artist album, Loud (Kinetic, 2001) — was another key member of an incessantly creative and tireless production team.
Tireless indeed, considering it was not even 10 years ago that Maas and Buttrich, under the collective name Kinetic A.T.O.M., released the first of what would lead to literally hundreds of original singles and remixes to date. In 1996, “Borg Destroyer” set the tone for Maas' distinctive hard-techno sound, but it wasn't until the Ian Wilkie vs. Timo Maas single “Twin Town” and the überhip Maas remix of the Azzido da Bass track “Dooms Night,” both released in 1999, that the club cognoscenti began to stand up and take notice. When the “Dooms Night” remix was pegged to lead off Maas' first double-length compilation, Music for the Maases (Kinetic/Hope, 2000), the bandwagon officially kicked into high gear.
Since then, Maas has done studio treatments for the likes of BT, Muse, Madonna, Moby, Depeche Mode, Tori Amos, Garbage, Fatboy Slim, Placebo and Kelis (who sang the leadoff track “Help Me” from Loud and appears again on Maas' new joint). A few of these ended up on Music for the Maases 2 (Kinetic, 2003), a seamlessly orchestrated in-studio DJ set that raised the bar for DJs and producers worldwide. At this writing, Maas has another remix in the works for Jamiroquai's Dynamite (Epic, 2005), with more percolating for 2006.
Pictures (Ultra, 2005), Maas' second artist album, not only expands on the funky breakbeats that made Loud such a dancefloor scorcher but also brings with it a more intimate living-room feel. Making use of lushly recorded live bass, guitars, synths and a 10-piece string ensemble — and featuring Kelis, Neneh Cherry, Placebo's Brian Molko and up-and-comers Rodney P. and Jo Kate on vocals (among others) — Pictures comes closer to a truly cinematic concept project than anything Maas has done so far.
“This is why we called it Pictures,” Maas says, “because Martin and I always had visual ideas for the songs. ‘4 Ur Ears’ [featuring Kelis], for example, reminds me of The Streets of San Francisco — when I hear it, I'm seeing the detectives' cars flying down the hills of San Francisco. I love a lot of the main titles from the early-'80s productions; they still have the old '70s disco feeling in them, but they're really funky with great arrangements. That's a vibe we wanted to capture but with our own take on it.”
BRING IN THE MINIORCHESTRA
Whether they're in the production vein of Giorgio Moroder, vintage Salsoul label tracks or Lalo Schifrin — esque '70s film scores, strings have played a major role in the sound that Maas and Buttrich sought to emulate. The duo goes even a step further on Pictures, incorporating live strings (courtesy of a nearby professional studio with deep experience in miking classical chamber instruments) with cleanly chopped rhythms, wide-bottomed synth swells, driving bass lines and intricately layered glitch-scapes. The overall effect is one of a finely balanced tension between acoustics and electronics.
“With the string sounds, we were really going for a ‘goose bumps’ effect,” Maas explains. “And for that, you really need to have an ensemble play it live. So, based in Hamburg, there's a really famous string ensemble called G-Strings, and a friend of ours named Sven Kaiser, who works for the opera in Hannover, arranged and conducted the whole thing for us.”
“I had bought the Vienna Symphony library for this album,” Buttrich continues, “and I have to say that it doesn't matter how good your library is — it's always better live than it could ever be with samples. So I just played the string parts on my keyboard, and Sven helped me to write out the notes for all the sessions. We recorded the strings in a studio near Hamburg called Voxklang, with one of the biggest producers here in string recording. I think we had two violas, six violins, two cellos and one double bass. On some tracks, we doubled this three times, which makes it sound much bigger, of course.”
“Slip in Electro Kid” and “Haven't We Met Before” are the string-soaked bookends to the album, with each instrumental track conveying an ominous — at times poignant — classical theme to frame the songs in between. One of those songs, “Devil Feel,” pivots on the same chord progression that is reprised in “Haven't We Met Before” (hence the latter's title).
“The backing track for that goes back two years or so, before the film Daredevil came out,” Maas says. “We were getting requests from an agent to do a song, and we were working really long and hard on this — I think Martin spent two months or so in the studio, working like crazy on the whole thing, and then they refused it. Now, it sounds pretty clubby, but before that, it was sounding like a big monumental rock record. Apart from the drums and a couple of guitars and the bass, we took everything out.”
“Devil Feel” embodies one of the high points of Pictures: a seamless synthesis of funky bass lines, tempo-pushing beats, processed scratches and orchestral elements. And with stirring lead vocals by relative unknowns Marc James and Anthony Tombling Jr., the track becomes all the more memorable for its infectious hook — another Maasism that is rarely in short supply.
As they did with Loud, Maas and Buttrich lean liberally on guest vocalists to help propel the music on Pictures. This time around, though, the voice is subjected to some adventurous effects manipulation, teasing out the often-psychedelic overtones that make Pictures more of a listening experience than a straight-up dancing one. The most obvious instance comes up in Neneh Cherry's “High Drama” (whose title derives from the track's former life as a candidate for Diddy's hyped but ultimately aborted dance album). Over a swinging uptempo rhythm, a series of randomized synth and sample noises augment an in-your-face bass as Cherry's lead moves between extreme flanging chorus, left-right — panned delay and doubled-up vocals (with the help of Jo Kate) for a constantly mood-changing experience.
“[The sound bed] on that is a combination of everything,” Buttrich says. “We used a lot of that to color Neneh's voice, along with some of the Eventide effects. Some of the sounds come from sample libraries, some from sample CDs and some from my little synthesizers or plug-ins, but they all add to how your ears perceive the vocal. I think I got most of the stuff using [Spectrasonics] Distorted Reality and from some other libraries. But the main synth there is a Studio Electronics SE-1. That's my favorite synth here, definitely, because if there are tuning problems with the Minimoog, I can still get the sound I want.”
The Kelis track “4 Ur Ears,” which cruises along on the funky crime-drama imagery that Maas envisioned as he listened to early takes of the song, ebbs and flows much like “High Drama,” with the voice responding to swirling sonic treatments as the song changes gears. “It wasn't possible to get Kelis in the studio this time around,” Maas says, “because that was exactly when ‘Milkshake’ was Top 10 everywhere and her album was No. 2 in the States or something like that. So she recorded two sessions — one in New York and one in Atlanta — and, basically, we were in touch with her and sending tracks back and forth over the Internet while she was recording. Of course, she totally killed it. It's always been really special to work with her.”
“This is the most soulful track with Kelis, definitely,” Buttrich agrees. “In the beginning, it was really just a house track — it was always about the beat and the bass and the Rhodes, but then more and more things came together. For me, I thought it always sounded like a secret-agent soundtrack or something. It has a bit of an angle toward hip-hop, and it gets into rock, too, so we thought that the presence of Kelis in the mix should [emulate] those styles with those same kinds of effects. I think the main character of that [swirling] effect is coming out of the [Eventide] Eclipse.”
With a recently upgraded studio at their fingertips (see the sidebar, “Perfect Timing”), Maas and Buttrich have not only upped the ante considerably from the more angular and stripped-down mix environment of Loud but also positioned themselves to ride the crest of a freshly tooled groove-oriented production wave for the future.
“The main point for me and for Timo was to put the music a bit more in a real funk style,” Buttrich says. “On the last album, the tracks had pretty typical club arrangements, but on this album, even the instrumental tracks are much more like songs. We tried to do something with weird strings in the production and stuff like this, and we actually used a lot of things that we only just learned in the last year to get it to sound more professional. It took a lot of work — I mean, the first tracks on this album are definitely older than two-and-a-half years, and there were points when I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we're outdated, and we're not doing the stuff that people like to listen to!’ [Laughs.] But in the end, the timing was fine, and it worked.”
Maas concurs, citing the studio improvements, the duo's commitment to constant evolution and their interest in new partnerships as the keys to what has become a new direction for their future projects. “Basically, everything on Pictures just sounds clearer,” he says. “The console is a large part of that, and you can hear it — the sound difference is amazing, definitely. But you can hear it as well, for example, in other areas. We recorded the strings professionally, and we asked Adam Ayan [Bob Ludwig's protégé at Gateway Mastering] to do the mastering, so we really took care from the beginning to the end to make sure that everything was at as good a level as we were able to get it. It's like, even when you compare this album to Loud, it's a completely different story. I hope people can hear that.”
Asked to sum up the raw essence of the Time Tools production approach, Maas responds as always from the lighthearted and humorous side of the equation, concocting a typically vivid nutshell: “Basically, we're just nerds. [Laughs.] From the inside, it can be extremely boring or extremely exciting to experience. It really depends on the nerds, case by case.”
As the mastermind behind Time Tools Studios, Martin Buttrich recently took the extraordinary step of completely retrofitting his main mixing desk — a vintage Soundtracs Eric analog console. According to Roman Magis of Magis Audiobau in Hannover, Germany, who completed the retrofit, high-end parts and switches from aircraft, satellites and military equipment were among some of the new additions, providing better conductivity and a “more realistic and warmer” EQ section.
“I think the desk was actually a prototype that never really came out,” Buttrich reveals. “There may have been five desks like this that exist. To be honest, though, an old mixing desk is always a problem — you know, you repair something on one side, and then on the other side, it breaks down. On Pictures, we definitely wanted to take much more care with the sound than we did on Loud, so in the beginning, I was worried that upgrading the desk could change this. But everything came together perfectly, and we're very happy with it.”
And for Buttrich, the mixing phase of any project provides the opportunity to really stretch out. “I just use a single output for each channel from the computer to the desk,” he says. “I have to say that in this direction, I'm very old-school. I like to have something in my hands, and I have a better feeling when one sound is on one channel. I'm just faster than if I were to do all the stuff in Pro Tools. Only when I had too much — like with all the cellos and the violas — there was no chance to put those on separate channels, so I had to do a submix. But the rest is all by hand.”
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Logic Pro 7 software (for sequencing and editing only), Mac G5/dual 2.5GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD Accel system (56 outputs)
Digital Audio Denmark ADDA 2402 D/A converter (modified)
Soundtracs Eric mixing desk (modified)
Universal Audio 2192 audio interface
Eventide Anthology TDM plug-in bundle
Hartmann Neuron VS soft synth
Massenburg DesignWorks Hi-Res Parametric EQ plug-in
Sony Oxford plug-in bundle
SoundToys UltraFX, UltraTools plug-in bundles
Symbolic Sound Kyma X sound-design environment
Universal Audio UAD-1 Ultra Pak signal-processing plug-in bundle
Turntables, DJ mixers (live):
Allen & Heath Xone:V6 mixer
Pioneer CDJ-1000 DJ CD players (2)
Rane MP 2016a rotary mixer
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables (2)
Synths, modules, instruments:
Korg MS-20 synth
Moog Minimoog Voyager analog synth
Roland SH-101, XV-5080 synths
Studio Electronics SE-1, SE-1X synths
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Avalon 2044 stereo optical compressor, 2055 parametric EQ
Brauner Phantom, VM1 mics
CAD VX2 tube mic
Crane Song STC-8 compressor
Electro-Voice RE20 mic
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor compressors (2)
Eventide Eclipse, H3000-D/SE Ultra-Harmonizer, Orville effects units
GML 8200 stereo EQs (2)
Lexicon 224, 480L effects units
Manley Massive-Passive stereo tube EQs (2), Variable-Mu compressor-limiter
Millennia Media STT-1 Origin preamp
Neve 1073 preamps (10)
Roland RE-201 Space Echo effects unit
Shure SM57 mic
Smart Research C2 compressor
TC Electronic TC 1210 multi-effects unit
Universal Audio 1176LN (2), LA-2A compressors; 2108, M610 preamps
UREI 1178 compressors (2)
Yamaha NS10s (powered by custom Magis amplifier)