About a year ago I watched ‘An Island’, a documentary film by Vincent Moon on the Danish band Efterklang. The whole soundtrack of the movie is extremely musical and is a great example of sound design and music creating a great blend. It was almost no surprise to see Nils Frahm credited for mixing and recording the soundtrack.
Frahm is not only an accomplished producer and mixer at his studio in Berlin, he also releases music (mostly piano based) under Erased Tapes Records that are usually a fine balance of beautifully crafted noise and music while also collaborating with artists like Ólafur Arnalds and Peter Broderick. His recent release, ‘Screws‘, is available for free to download and rework.
He was kind enough to make some time for a conversation over Skype just before his German tour. We just got started talking about his thoughts on sound when..
DS: Pro Tools seems to have stopped recording our conversation, we are now back on.
NF: Oh you need to look at this [shows a Nagra recorder], this is my best friend.
DS: Oh yes, I saw this in the video you posted.
NF: Yeah I’m definitely a tape enthusiast and I love the sound of tape. I’m more used to the sounds of Chet Baker and recordings from that time. Nonetheless I’m really into experimental sound design, musicians like Alva Noto, I’m interested in anything that sounds good. For me there is no divide between sound and music. What matters is what comes out of the speakers and because I’m a musician I want to see my music be recorded and reproduced in a way I feel is appropriate. It took me a long time to get there and understand the process. I have learnt that the only thing important is whether the sound that comes out of the speakers is good and tells you a story or has a certain tone, colour or atmosphere. Sound is music and music is sound and walking through a forest and listening to an environment can be as much of a musical experience as listening to a Mozart concert.
DS: Lets talk about ‘An Island’, how were you involved in it?
NF: It was a low budget project, we were trying to get together all the gear we had which was a few Sound Devices recorders, some Zoom recorders and I had my RME eight channel setup with me. We mostly recorded everything with two channels and sometimes (the scenes with the band indoors) we recorded with a maximum of eight channels. I mixed it all here in my studio together with Mads and tried to design the sound track with old tape machines and playing back the sounds through different gear – tubes, distortion and other effects to accommodate or change the atmosphere of the pictures in whatever way we felt like it would work. It was a very experimental and playful approach. We had no straight concept of doing things. We were just locked in for three days recording it and we mixed for a couple of days after and tried to get the best results out of those amateurish recordings we made. It was a fun. It wasn’t about getting things correct and clean but the opposite – exaggerating atmospheres.
DS: Which works with the film, because it does seem be about the space the band was in and the sort of space their music created around the audience. At many times the soundtrack was quite abstract with a lot of play between space and atmospheres.
NF: It was about having footage and making that footage work in a certain way. We saw the first edit and tried to work with the sound to support the edit and they heard what we did with the sound and made changes to the edit. We were working in different countries and constantly refining ideas and sending things back and forth. From the very beginning we knew that it would be about the sound, because its a documentary about musicians. For us it was important to exaggerate the sound side of the film so that people can understand that it was about making music and getting inspired by sounds and listening actively. To get the audience into such a mood we had to exaggerate a lot of things which I think was necessary and a lot of fun because it gave us a lot of freedom to work.
DS: What do you mean by exaggeration? Was it the way it was recorded or mixed or edited?
NF: It was about feeling our way through mixing things. Making loud things louder and quiet things quieter. Not trying to level things out or make sounds fall through the cracks but make things stand out. So, if you have a noisy signal and noise on the channel, exaggerate the noise. Don’t try to get rid of it. Show the audience that this is noise and the kind of atmosphere it can create to affect their reception. I’m very much a fan of an open, honest process. I don’t see the need to get rid of noise or low frequency rumble and all these amazing phenomena that sound recording gives us. When I read what engineers think about what needs to be done when recording in MS or AB or XY or the kind of microphone setups and the kind of microphones you can use and can’t use….all of that stuff is not crucial to me. I just decide what I want to do with it. This is also what I do with my records. I like recording artefacts. It makes it clear that it is a record. I don’t expect a picture of a situation to be reality, it is an abstraction and so are our sounds.
Maybe its a nostalgic or romantic approach because I find tape noise beautiful and it reminds me of my childhood or old movies and things from the past we don’t face anymore in our sterile, digital, crisp and clean world. But we can use artefacts and distortion in a more artistic way as something which is on the other side of the middle. We can now choose if we want to have a crystal clear super objective recording or if we want a more distorted subjective recording of things. Now that we can record sounds that are clean, perfect and absolutely in sync, we should think about imbibing the failures and imperfections in the same way people have rediscovered Polaroid or film.
DS: As we’ve seen with Instagram [laughs]
NF: This is something I see quite critically. When there’s an app for my iPhone which adds shellac crackle to my recordings I’m very frustrated. Walking around outside with a Nagra and working with these old machines, old microphones, old reverb plates and spring reverbs is such a wonderful hobby because you really need to get to know these tools. There’s a lot of attachment to the tools I use in my studio, and that for me is like an instrument that creates amazing sounds that turn into music. It is a very creative and inspiring process and goes far beyond what I would think as just dealing with technical details. Efterklang in that sense gave me the freedom to totally develop things in a very creative way. They certainly didn’t just want to have a technician, they wanted a musical approach and wanted to turn sound into music.
DS: Your piano compositions in ‘Felt’ and ‘Screws’ are beautifully noisy while your more electronic work like ‘7 Fingers’ with Anne Muller is more clean and has got completely different aesthetics. You seem to have found a balance between using technology, sound and music.
NF: There is something very beautiful about a mono recording of a piano. ‘Screws’ which I just recorded was with one microphone, an old condenser, fed through an EMT stereo reverb and that was it. That was the whole process. With Anne Muller I was programming, glitching and working with software a lot. For me its fun, there is no dogma about “digital sucks” or “analogue is great”. Its more about the courage of using each individual instrument or setup for what it is good for. A computer is good for certain sounds and certain things acoustic instruments can’t do but its not very good with emulating sounds. When I play a digital piano, I wonder why people even use it because its not a strength of a computer. I always try to use the computer in a way that it is interesting and unique – for all the glitchiness, beats and cuts. For piano recordings you don’t really need one. You need a piano, tape machine and microphone. I try to be very bold and brave about my recording process and what I love is that even if people aren’t used to discovering the details in sound, they feel the atmosphere. There’s an immediateness to it. That’s all I want. I try to make a statement. Just be brave, don’t work with twenty-four microphones on the drum kit, just use two or three and position them well.
If you look back at what people did fifty-sixty years ago, they recorded an orchestra with one microphone. When you really know how to, then you can do it. If you don’t really know how to then you can set up forty microphones and a sixty channel digital MADI setup and you leave your decisions for later. That is a very indecisive process. I like when things are efficient, really fast and simple and I try to decide before I record about how the sound should be and if I have the right weapon of choice or not. I feel that the digital way of working gives people too much freedom to decide things at the very end or maybe they might never decide because they don’t have to.
DS: And sometimes you just end up being more creative because you have fewer options to choose from.
NF: Absolutely. For me this Nagra machine is wonderful because I have only two channels. I could use four, six or eight microphones with it..but I have to do a premix and go with it. That makes me a lot more productive. ‘An Island’ as I said only had eight tracks, not twenty-four or thirty-two so we could finish the whole thing in a couple of days. For me that is more important. Any creative process or sound recording is closely connected to speed. We don’t need to work in real-time all the time because we have the possibility of editing reality afterwards and stretching the dimensions of time and space. The speed at which you work and finish things has a very big influence on the result. There’s a choreography in doing things. When you fiddle too long on an EQ, your ears get numb. You need to decide and get it done. Don’t think about it ever again, just do it. If you didn’t do it this time, you will do it better next time. You can’t do everything perfect on a project. You must accept that in that moment it was the best you could do. You gain experience. The next time you do something similar you will have the experience and do it better. The only suggestion I can give is to finish and not try to make everything perfect on one project. You need to get moving.
DS: Does that ever worry you creatively? A part of being creative is also sometimes not being sure of where you want to go with something.
NF: Yes but I think its about courage and believing that what you do has some sort of foundation.. that there is some truth in what your intuition tells you. If The Beatles for example could have gone back to ‘Revolver’ and made the guitars on ‘Taxman’ a little quieter, because they are quite ear piercing, then the song would never have been as great. What’s dangerous about our times and workflow is total recall. I can only recommend trying to work in a setup that locks your ideas in some ways so you can’t really go back. This is how you finish things. Its not how you getting things perfect, because there is no perfection. There’s nothing right or wrong about having the guitars too loud. Maybe twenty years later you will be happy that you couldn’t make the guitars quieter. Then you realise that that’s what made the song so strong. You maybe didn’t feel too comfortable or you weren’t sure, but looking back I’m sure everybody loves that the guitars in ‘Taxman’ are 6 dB too loud.
You do need to have a certain amount of experience of course and then when you commit to such a workflow you realise that everything is fine and you are much faster than before. If I don’t work at a certain speed, ideas fall through the cracks and the stream of magic that can happen in a creative process starts dropping out. To prevent these dropouts, you need to focus on a setup that fits your needs. You should have an idea of what you want to achieve with what you do and where you want to go with it and have the courage and the boldness to commit to it in a Jimi Hendrix way.
When I produce bands and people want me to take care of the sound side of things, I just want them to make them believe that I never ever have a single doubt about which microphone to use, the length of the cable, the length of the reverb tail..whatever. I don’t even ask such questions. I just tell people what is good for them and I make them feel that there actually is no choice. I’m not always sure myself, but I pretend that I am so that the people I am working with always feel that I am in total control and totally sure of what I am doing. What I gain is an atmosphere of trust and relaxation. People feel very taken care of and none of their magic can fall through the cracks, everything is captured. Therefore people focus more on their performance. I take care of the lighting and I think the coffee machine is much more important than the mixing desk! Its about being a human being and showing some character.
DS: Which does channel back into the work..
NF: It totally channel backs. You hear it in the take. The source of the sound is much more important than the microphone. Its much more important than the sample rate, the bit depth, the cable.. These things are important, but once you are in the magical moment of capturing sound you need to forget about all of that. When you think too much about what to use and what to do, then you are too distracted and you might miss the magic. The only thing you can do is commit to the thing you are doing right now. Finish it, listen to it, catch the flaws and tell yourself, “It’s okay, I’ll do it better next time”. What really hurts me is when I see that people can never commit to finishing something because they might think that maybe in two years they would know how to. Its a dilemma for a lot of people. There are tons of tracks sitting on hard drives on studio computers which are half finished.
DS: When you are recording something you are not just recording a sound, but also the environment and the space its in. Is there some sort of checklist you tick off? What do you look for in a sound?
NF: I think of all possibilities. I start from scratch in a way. The most important thing that I listen for are the background sounds that I don’t want recorded. Do I want to have a large stereo picture or a narrow one? A lot of it is mostly intuitive for me but I of course try and focus on the atmosphere of the whole situation. For me its more about the psychology than technical details. Most of the times I’m working with human beings and they need to perform something. First of all I focus on the well-being of the person. When you record in an icy cold Church and if your hands are freezing you might wonder if the wonderful reverb is worth a crappy performance which results from the cold. The checklist is endless. Maybe I don’t realise the checklist because with each recording I learn a bit more and all that knowledge turns into intuition. The most important thing about gaining experience is that you learn where the limits are. Its not possible to make a ‘Thriller’ like record out of a stereo mic setup. You have to know what the limits of your tools and choices are. I find peace in that thought and instead of wasting my efforts trying digital de-noisers I just live with it and know that it is part of the machine. Its very relaxing to discover the boundaries I can’t get past. Perfection is something very subjective.
DS: Do you keep the end product in mind as that usually gives what you are doing a frame of context?
NF: Yeah, I talk to the people I work with and try to feel what they want. But most of the time people approach me because they know my way of working and appreciate the minimalism around it. When I tell them we need only two microphones to record a string quartet then its okay, its totally fine. You can also set up twelve mics but save some time, drink a beer instead and find a good spot for those two microphones to really work. It can be much harder. There’s something beautiful about the less is more approach. Its complex because the less you use the more experience you need to have and for gaining experience you need to spend a lot of time. But the time curve goes down with experience, so when you get past the point where you have the experience, you save a lot of time because you stop setting up lots of microphones and possibilities. You know what you can expect from that situation and go with it.
The most important skill to have is empathy and feeling through a situation – being a sort of psychologist. Usually it has nothing to do with the difference between a Neumann or a Schoeps microphone, those things are far less important compared to your general attitude and approach to a situation.