The great thing about electronic dance music is that just about anybody can make it. All you really need is a computer and a bunch of reasonably priced music-production software programs. However, you can't put a price on sheer talent and inspiration — and the use of analog gear. Although the majority of the past decade's dance-music talent came mostly from the UK and the United States, it seems like things have been expanding on a global scale. Relatively young dance scenes in places such as Argentina, Australia and Norway are injecting the industry with much-needed excitement and inspiration. In particular, Norway has been a place of great excitement during the past few years. This land once known for its black-metal bands is now home to acclaimed electronic acts such as Jaga Jazzist (aka Jaga), Frost, Kings of Convenience (whose Erlend Øye has also achieved solo success) and Ralph Myerz and the Jack Herren Band. However, no other Norwegian act has made as much of an impact on the global dance scene than the mighty Röyksopp.
Escaping from the friendly confines of Tromsø, Norway — far north in the land of the midnight sun — Röyksopp has become what many could consider dance music's most promising crossover act. The duo's debut release, Melody A.M. (Wall of Sound, 2001), was a commercial and critical success, selling more than 1 million copies worldwide while picking up stellar marks in top-notch publications around the world. Some even listed the album among the year's finest releases. It also didn't hurt that the twosome toured the world with Moby and Basement Jaxx. Like dance music's best-known acts (such as the Chemical Brothers and Underworld), it is hard to confine Röyksopp to any one specific sound. With Melody A.M., Röyksopp presented a warm and fuzzy album that challenged listeners with a blend of electronic beats, house rhythms, smooth vocals, folktronica and frosty Norwegian pop. This was the definitive sound of “cool,” yet there was a certain isolated feel about the record that could only come from a place like Norway.
Finding success this quickly can be both a good and bad thing. On the upside, Röyksopp not only sold records like hotcakes but also became a household name and gained tons of respect. On the bad side, early success brings enormous expectations — often unreasonable. Still, even though the pressure might be overwhelming for some acts, Röyksopp played it cooler than cool when it came time to record its follow-up LP, The Understanding (Astralwerks, 2005).
On a spring day at New York City's swank Soho Grand Hotel, Röyksopp's Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge could pass for Calvin Klein models or members of the latest NYC retro band. Getting beyond the pretty faces, it becomes apparent that Brundtland and Berge are, in fact, the real deal. Not only is their knowledge of production nearly encyclopedic, but their studio is also packed with some of the most outrageous toys you'll be able to find anywhere in the world. These two collect keyboards like boys collect baseball cards. But much like a master chef, Röyksopp has a strict policy against revealing its studio setup. Brundtland and Berge prefer to keep their secret ingredients internal. However, they are willing to offer a look into some of the key elements that went into creating their stellar sophomore album, The Understanding.
Most of today's respected producers and engineers rely heavily on software synthesizers such as Propellerhead Reason and Native Instruments Reaktor. However, Röyksopp's use of computer programs is merely a supplement to its vast array of analog equipment. This is also a reason that Röyksopp often creates music with such a warm and vintage sound — it is a style that simply cannot be attained solely by the use of the computer. “We use a multitude of sources, and we do not have a formula of how to approach it,” Brundtland says. Röyksopp runs much of its media off of a DOS-based sequencer from Voyetra called Sequencer Plus. This software dinosaur was born in 1984, and the last update was in 1991. Although the guys still work with the program, they admit that supplementing the MIDI sequencer with hard disk recording software — they've used Steinberg Cubase — gives them more creative options. “[Sequencer Plus] is semiaccurate but very easy,” Berge says. “We like semiaccurate, though it's a bit of a nightmare with this sequencer because you can never replicate the original piece again. It will never be the same. That's why we use a bit of audio editing.”
Brundtland and Berge have also learned that vintage pieces such as analog synths have minds of their own and can't always be counted on. So when sequencing a part with an old MIDI-capable synth, it's rarely going to play back the same way twice. “When you do something in audio, you know that your recording will be there,” Brundtland says. “We have these synthesizers that have these ‘charming diseases.’ [Laughs.] That would be a nightmare if you are working on something, and then you come back the next day and it's a different symptom. If you combine this with digital recording, you'll have a winner.”
As for the synthesizers with “charming diseases,” Röyksopp did provide a peek into its racks. Chief among all synthesizers in attaining The Understanding's sound are the Korg MS-20 and MS-10 and the Roland Juno-106 (this versatile machine has been used in every Röyksopp production in some way) and VP-330; also figuring in are several Roland RE-201 Space Echos and the Korg Synthe-Bass SB-100. “It looks like a little suitcase,” Brundtland says of the Synthe-Bass. “It is a suitcase with the smallest keyboard in the world. It only has one sound — the most powerful bass sound you can imagine.” Also used prominently on the recording are the Yamaha CS-80 and SY-1 (considered Yamaha's first synthesizer); the Korg PS-3000; and basically the entire Akai sampler series, including the S600 and S950.
With software production, Röyksopp used to run Cubase from an old Atari because of the “funky tightness” that the duo says it gave its beats. However, although Brundtland and Berge do use some audio-editing programs, they offer a word of caution against relying too much on software. “We find it a bit dangerous to use things like Propellerhead Reason, because they are designed to send you off in some [particular] direction,” Brundtland says. “Some people find it strange the way we work, like, real eccentric. We just feel that, first and foremost, it is a process where you are not sent in any directions. You have to have your own core ideas in order to move anywhere. Secondly, if you are using unorthodox production methods like us, there is identity added into the music. This is something that's not so commonplace today.”
SONGS UNDER THE INFLUENCE
For a record as complex as The Understanding, there are many different drawing points for inspiration. The first track on the album, “Triumphant,” is a direct tribute to a lot of the progressive rock Brundtland and Berge were listening to at the time. “We just wanted to make a progressive track that could open the album and, at the same point, continue where Melody A.M. left off,” Brundtland says. “We wanted to make something that had a build to it — a crescendo — in a raw and direct kind of way.”
“Triumphant” was in part the product of both an ego and an accident. “It was made on the piano in a drunken haze,” Brundtland says. “We were at a party, and there was a group of girls who didn't believe that we made our own music. Sometimes, people just don't believe that you do everything. They think that you are the spokesman and have other people do everything. And we were sort of forced to compose something on the fly to prove it to them. So right there at the party, we came up with these piano chords that floated downwards and upwards again. It ended up being the beginning of ‘Triumphant.’”
Next, Röyksopp ran into a bit of a problem when it came to drum programming. The partners tried using a standard kit on the track, but it just didn't sound right on playback. A little searching led to the discovery of a very small and cheap traveler's drum kit. Initially unhappy with the sound of the kit, Brundtland and Berge eventually found the right microphone to make it sound good. They hit the drums as hard as they could to achieve the right sound, sampled them and programmed them. They used the kit only on “Triumphant,” selling it soon afterward.
If there was any doubt that Brundtland and Berge have it together with their production skills, then check out their newest technique: waveform manipulation. They open up an audio-editing program and then use the pencil tool to smooth out a waveform by drawing on it. Drawing over a flat waveform — silence — Röyksopp actually creates the amplitude and frequencies to craft a new sound. The technique was used most on “Beautiful Day Without You,” which has a sound reminiscent of a muted guitar. In actuality, the noise came from the inside of a piano. Brundtland and Berge plucked the strings inside the piano and then changed the sound using the pencil tool.
One thing that immediately jumps out from The Understanding is the unique use of vocals, which play two very different roles for Röyksopp. More often than not, vocals are treated like an instrument with an equal part in the final mix; the track “Dead to the World” is a good example of this. However, when working with outstanding vocalists, the duo goes for a more traditional mix to let the vocals stand out. Mics range from a classic Neumann from the '60s to a few less-than-spectacular $100 mics — “49 Percent” is done entirely on a beat-up old Shure. “It looks very '70s Las Vegas — casino style, but it has a different sound,” Berge says. “It's not as in-your-face as the Neumann mics.”
A majority of the vocals are performed by Brundtland and Berge, but a few interesting guests are also onboard. For “Only This Moment,” Norwegian singer Kate Havnevik makes the track truly come to life. Inspired by R&B, the song was originally conceived on an old, out-of-tune Russian piano in Tromsø, but Röyksopp eventually programmed an instrumental piece and began writing repetitive lyrics. The guys knew that the track was going to be a duet, so they began searching for a female vocalist. After hearing her music backstage at the New York Irving Plaza stop of the Melody A.M. tour, Brundtland and Berge immediately asked Havnevik to join them in their Bergen, Norway, studio for the recording.
They inserted their own vocals as a placeholder for the female voice, but before recording with Havnevik, they wanted to make sure that the part they wrote for her was going to work. Because their voices were recorded at about two octaves below Havnevik's singing voice, they used a Steinberg VST plug-in called UltraVoice to pitch-shift their own. “It takes the note and changes the texture,” Berge says. “It's the same tone, but the formants are different.”
“We sang the song and then pitched it up two octaves,” Brundtland adds. “It sounded like something out of a cartoon, so we drew down the formants respective to two octaves so it sounded like a girl singing it. We actually tested if this melody and words were going to work.”
On the finished “Only This Moment,” Röyksopp insist that Havnevik's true voice is represented on the record. “She has this almost divine quality to her voice that is almost ancient singing,” Brundtland says. “Everyone asks us what kind of plug-in we used to get her voice that clear — her voice is just like that. It has that quality. When you hit a note without any vibrato, you can get that programmed vibe without actually using it. She's probably one of the two singers we've worked with who sings the most in-tune.”
Yet another bright vocalist the duo brought in for The Understanding is Karin Dreijer, who sings the quirky yet mesmerizing, Björk-reminiscent “What Else Is There.” Dreijer is the vocalist for Stockholm, Sweden-based brother-sister act The Knife, a charismatic electro-pop act best known for appearing in public sporting SARS masks (aesthetically, think Altern 8). “[The Knife] is from a different background, and we liked that,” Brundtland says. “Some people don't want to be virtuosos; they just want to express. The track itself is quite subtle and hidden in some ways, but her voice is quite the opposite. It's a very open and direct expression. Without the vocals, it would be a very down and chilled-out effect.”
The progressive-rock influence on The Understanding comes full circle with the masterpiece “Alpha Male,” a fierce monster of a rock breaks track sandwiched between bookends of dreamy, tripped-out psych-rock. Productionwise, the song also stands as the album's most complex. A lot of analog-digital and acoustic-electric juxtaposed properties are layered into one mix, but no single element stands out among the rest. The meaty and over-the-top sound was achieved by not equalizing the mix. “We find that sometimes it has a lot more energy if you sort of mix it bad,” Berge says. “You go into the opposite direction of the norm by making one piece, making it all sound like one.”
Röyksopp has mastered the ability to add emotion and warmth to electronic music, and this is by no means an accident. Brundtland and Berge prefer to go for the inherent emotion and expression that comes from a spontaneous voice or an instrument rather than the technical perfection that comes with repeated takes. The recordings sound like near perfection even though they might have been technically flawed at one point. “It is about something x, which is undefined,” Brundtland says. “Even if your vocal recording doesn't live up to the standards of a proper vocal recording but the expression in the recording is something that you want, always use that recording. Never do a retake for the sake of having it more correct technically. Filters are so strong these days that if there is something wrong with the recording, there are so many ways around it. You can filter it, and if there are pops on the recording, you can restore the waveforms. There is no reason why you cannot even use the crappiest recording.”