PRO/FILE: Sonic Sculpture

Since 1994, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma of Mouse on Mars have rocked dance floors while searching for uncharted sonic frontiers. We don't aim for a particular
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Mouse on Mars

Since 1994, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma of Mouse on Mars have rocked dance floors while searching for uncharted sonic frontiers. “We don't aim for a particular style,” says St. Werner. “For us, music is abstract. We shape it like sculpture and present different layers. Our tracks can juxtapose elements that don't work together. We have to construct all the sounds ourselves, because exploring a sound is what makes a track happen. If we used preset sounds, there would be nothing to explore.”

For their eighth release, Radical Connector (Thrill Jockey, 2004), the duo built intricate, sonically dense tracks by experimenting with individual samples. “Single sounds were often edited and mastered separately before they found their part in the finished song arrangement,” St. Werner says. “We edited lots of bits several times. Various edits and alterations of the same sounds gave the record a more coherent flow. The voice was the binding element, and we worked with lyrics more than ever before.”

St. Werner and Toma have recorded since 1997 in their well-appointed St. Martin recording studio in Düsseldorf, Germany. “It's a beautiful space in a former factory,” St. Werner says. “A friend took over the building, restored it, and made it into a special place with studios and artists' spaces. If we want a natural room sound, we use the loft space that surrounds the studio. We also have a little recording room, which is soundproofed. In there we record drums, bass, and guitar.”

St. Martin's control room has a Soundcraft DC2020 analog mixing console with fader automation; a bevy of outboard compressors, EQs, and effects processors; and hardware synths and samplers such as an Akai S1100, Clavia Nord Modular, E-mu E6400, and Roland JD-800. St. Werner and Toma recorded all tracks into a Mac G4 running Mac OS 9, Emagic Logic Audio version 4, Celemony Melodyne, Native Instruments Reaktor, Propellerhead Reason, STEIM Lisa X, VST instruments, plug-ins, and more. “We have a PC as an external sampling device,” St. Werner says. He and Toma also work individually on a laptop-based digital audio workstation.

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Mouse on Mars's songs usually begin with a guitar riff, a drum pattern, a vocal part, or any other original audio sample. From there, St. Werner and Toma break down, analyze, edit, and rebuild samples. “We go back and forth until we have lots of different versions cruising around,” St. Werner says of their creative process. The evolving results lead them in new directions and ultimately yield complete tracks. “We mix most tracks a dozen times,” St. Werner says. “Usually, we edit that one final track from different sessions.

“For ‘The End,’ I programmed a drum kit that I constructed in a strange way,” St. Werner says. “We recorded the drum set into the Mac, and then cut it into pieces. I also played guitar. Andi took over and made it into an orchestral piece. I reconstructed [the track] by processing the stuff he had played. ‘Send Me Shivers’ went through many stages. We constructed a lot from the basic tracks. Niobe [the vocalist] brought in the melodic line, and we shifted the pitch of her voice digitally. We then doubled it with synthetic sounds and processed that. Then we cut it into pieces and made melodic and percussive sounds.

“Don't try to copy something someone else has done,” St. Werner advises. “Everything has been done already. Everyone is using the same software. I always find it much more interesting if people produce their own sounds. Don't use the stuff that's already provided. As a musician, it would just stunt my imagination.”

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