Being a digital musician requires a new set of skills, a precise tack between the forces of engineering and creativity. Robert Henke aka Monolake is always someone I find thought-provoking, not only because he’s so open and articulate, but because he seems uniquely focused on balancing those two sides of his personality. As a media artist and producer, his work relies heavily on his own technological invention, but he is also able to keep true to his own aesthetic compass.

For acoustic evidence of where Robert’s mind is exploring, his full-length album Silence, released last month on his own Imbalance label, reverberates with clarity. To my own ears, its crystalline rhythms and finely-honed, always-foreground timbres and textures recall all the best of Monolake through the years, back to the early, pre-Ableton collaboration between Robert and (now Ableton CEO) Gerhard Behles. (For an eloquent review, see Fact Magazine’s take.)

As far as engineering in the sense of recording and production, Robert did a terrific interview with engineer/musician Caro Snatch for her blog; she gets some fascinating answers out of him and they even talk about his technique of avoiding compression on electronic sources. But I was interested in how engineering can work in the compositional sense: with open-ended tools like Ableton Live and Max/MSP, how do you create compositional systems? How do you wrestle with the potential of Max inside Live? Where do you draw limits?

As always, Robert has some sharp ideas – whether fodder for inspiration or disagreement, I think you’ll find things worth talking about. And indeed, while technology figures prominently, I think you’ll find some ideas that are really fundamentally about music, about compositional intent, thinking about sound, and thinking about rhythm.

Robert Henke performs at nextech 08. Photo (CC) Giulio Callegaro.

PK: It seems that you’ve always had a really particular approach to timbre, and that it’s especially focused and evolved on this record. There’s a certain purity of tone to which you tend to gravitate, as I hear it. Can you talk a bit about how you approach timbral color?

RH: I can only nail it down to personal taste. I enjoy timbres with inharmonic content, and I like the contrast between very sharp transients and very lush, airy sounds.

I know that Silence, as with your other work, combines synthesized and found sounds. There is a sense that you get to an almost atomic level with each, however, that the synthesized are becoming organic and the recorded sounds are deconstructed to the point that become almost primitive and synthesized. Is there a different approach to each of these, or is that something that happens naturally?

The ambiguity of sonic events always fascinates me. That border between ‘real’ and ‘synthetic’ is a quite interesting one, not only in sound design, but also in visual arts. Working with synthetic sound generation sharpens my senses for the real sounds around me, and often I am surprised by how much they can blend. We are not talking any more of sound generation with a single square wave oscillator and a lowpass filter, but methods that are capable of creating highly complex and rich timbres. Those methods’ sonic definition matches the complexity of real sounds and this is where the fun starts. I like to place a recording of a metal thing next to a physical model of a metal thing next to a processed sample next to an FM timbre and see how they become a nice ensemble of similar sounds.

What’s your workflow like now in Ableton Live? On some level, it’s a tool that does things that you have conceived or asked for, or that reworks things you’ve created. On another, of course, it’s also this commercial tool that has been adapted to a generalized audience. Are there areas of it that you tend to work in most? Are there areas or features you tend to ignore or even avoid?

I try to avoid ‘content’. I am not interested in ‘throwing beat loops together’. I do not use presets from other people when it comes to synthesis, this all is just not my way of thinking. Why should I leave that great part of composition which is coming up with interesting timbres, to someone else? I am also not using time stretching / warping as a tool to match beats. I don’t like time stretch artefacts, unless I drive it in the very extreme as a special effect. I don’t need factory groove templates, in fact I never you groove at all, if i want to achieve it, I move notes by hand.

Apart from that, I’d say I use everything Live has to offer. There is not typical workflow, it highly depends on what I want to do. The most significant difference to the old pre-Live times is to me that I can make lots of sketches without any special idea in mind, just let go, and save the result once I am bored with it. And much later I can open all those sketches, and see if anything in there is of interest. Then I grab that element and continue working on the basis of this. I have a lot of complex tree structures of fragments on my hard-disk, and this a great source of material and inspiration.

The PX-18 sequencer, the handmade Max patching creation central to the Monolake sound, reborn as a freely-available Max for Live patch.

Recently, you shared some of your early, personal Max patches as Max for Live creations. Were any of these patches used on Silence?

I don’t mean to focus exclusively on the technology, but it seems that these Max patches – even more than any element of Live – really embody some of your aesthetic and taste, yes? They’re a bit like experiencing a Monolake album interactively. Do you conceive them in that way, as a sort of compositional thought formed into a tool?

The tools have a strong influence on the result. Take the Monolake PX-18 sequencer. Its way of expanding a one bar loop into something that repeats in longer cycles is based on such a rigid concept, that it enforces a quite specific rhythmical approach. Some patterns are simply not possible, some are very easy to achieve. This is exciting and this is very musical; a piano is an instrument which makes it very easy to treat all twelve notes of a well tempered scale the same. And it is an instrument which makes it impossible to play with any notes that do not fit in such a scale. This is exactly the same interesting tension between enabling and inhibiting expression as with the rhythmical limitation of the PX-18.

There is an interesting interaction going on between developing tools and achieving musical results. The whole process is far from being linear and entirely result orientated. The idea at the beginning is shaped by first results and experiences gained from playing with a simple prototype of a part of the functionality, this drives the further development of the tool, but also influences the musical idea. If I try to build a granular time freezer, and after initial tests I figure out that I need a lot of overlapping grains to get the sound I want, I can also start thinking in swarms of particles, and this might lead to musical ideas that shape how I try to improve the grain thing. Working this way often provides far more interesting results than sticking to an initial plan. As an interesting side note, this way of thinking also finds its way more and more into general software/hardware development and interface/functionality design. The tools of the future need to _feel_ right. One cannot design a multi touch screen application on a piece of paper, implement it and think it will work. It would, technically, but it might not be inspiring to use and therefor most likely not a success in a competitive market.

Inside Robert’s step modulator, also available as a free Max for Live patch.

A few years ago, when you were in New York, you made a couple of comments that stuck with me. One was that you thought that the tech press sometimes wasn’t critical enough of technology, that, for instance, they weren’t saying critical things about Ableton Live. Another was that you felt like there was less need for Max/MSP partly because of what Live itself does. I’m curious if you have any new thoughts on either of those?

I find myself doing a lot of things in Max these days, since the integration in Live made it so easy and rewarding. When I made that Max statement in NYC, I felt that coding is a trap when it comes to actually creating music. One simply does spend to much time with non-musical problems.In many ways, Max 5 and Max for Live reduced the time needed to get results. And this makes the whole package very attractive again.

I started teaching sound design at the Berlin University of Arts a year ago. I can show my students how to create a simple two-operator FM synthesizer with an interesting random modulation within fifteen minutes and the result is a Live set including the Max for Live part, which I can save and send to the students as an email so they can open it again an continue working on it. If stuff can be done that fast, it leaves enough headroom to actually use it in a musical context. In retrospective a lot of 90s IDM music was way to much driven by exploring technology. At some point one has to step back and say: okay, now lets actually have a look at the composition and not only at the technical complexity of the algorithm.

So, what’s the role of the press in this? One experience I gain from reading the Ableton user forum and from talking with students is that there is a great amount of insecurity about which technology to use. It’s the abundance paradox. Which software sounds best? Which compressor do i need to use? Which plugins do I need for mastering housy dub music with a hint of pop and some acoustic guitar? Having the choice between 5000 compressor plugins whilst not understanding what makes a compressor really sound the way it does it pretty much my idea of hell. So often I have that impulse telling the world: hey, you can use the sidechain input of the compressor you already have in Live, and you can feed that sidechain with a slightly delayed version of the original signal. You could also apply saturation, filtering, or even reverb or again an instance of the compressor in that side chain signal to shape its timing and response to its input. This will have a result of the compression curve, and this means you can build anything from a very normal compressor up to the most exotic effect you can imagine. And you can store those structures for later re-use. You can automate every single aspect of it. You can use ten or twenty instances of it in a song. Are you guys aware that you have more power right in front of you than the best music producers and hardware designers just ten years ago would have dreamed off?

I simply do not want to read any more articles about new compressor, be it hardware or software, unless it provides insight into the amazing possibilities we already have. I don’t want to read anymore sound quality discussions that deal with the last bit of a 24-bit file in a world where people listen to mp3 over mobile phones and enjoy those artefacts.

The most exciting new music comes from young kids guys running some audio software in a bedroom, listening to the result over a shitty hi-fi and use Melodyne all the way wrong. Those folks do not read gear magazines, they could not care less about yet another mastering EQ, but create the most stunning beauty. If people talk too much about gear I usually do not expect too much good music. I am often trapped in this twilight zone between engineer and composer too, so I know what I am talking about here…

As far as your own music, do you find you need some critical distance from a tool as an artist? Or does that fall away once you’re in the process of actually making the record? (It seems, after all, we’re all a bit spoiled by the various excellent tools we have at our disposal.)

Deadlines help. If I know that a project needs to be finished, I simply stop investing time in technology at some point, and instead use what’s there. Its a question of discipline and experience too. I try to teach my students that if they are working on a technically challenging project they need to define a deadline for the technical side. If not, they might work till the very last moment on technical stuff and loose focus on the artistic part. At the end, the result counts, not the beautiful MAX patch, which could possible create a nice result.

Monolake live with the Monodeck (custom-built controller hardware). Photo (CC) DIS-PATCH Festival.

And have you ever considered trying to return to just building something simple in, say, Max, and limiting yourself to that? Or are you able to find necessary formal limitations in the tools you have?

I am constantly limiting myself. I set up a multi-dimensional network of constraints and bounce off its walls. Exhausting but it helps getting stuff done. A typical constraint: No more patching in Max till that project is finished, or try to get all Melodyne processing done in one afternoon and use those results.

I’m particularly interested in how you conceive rhythm. It seems like some of the ideas about sequencing rhythm in ATOM are also present here. Some of these rhythms are relatively symmetrical, pulse-like. Then you have these stuttering rhythms, as though a vibration has been set in motion and is naturally playing itself out in space. How do you work rhythmically?

I contrast totally straight 16th grooves with material that itself constitutes a rhythmical quality off that grid. In ‘Silence’ obviously I often used gravity driven processes with their inherent accelerations. Or I played notes with an arpeggiator that is not synced to song time but where I control its rate with a slider. Something Gerhard already did on the very first Monolake track ‘Cyan’ in 1995. Silence offers quite a few hidden connections to Monolake history. My general approach to groove is simple: I change things in time till it feels right.

What was your compositional process like, generally, for these works? Did they start with some of those sounds? With a rhythmic motive?

There is no general rule. I often just open Live to explore an idea, and end up doing something else because I found an interesting detail along the way. Or I have to work on a highly specific project, and have to discard a lot of the results because they do not work in a given context. Instead of throwing them away, I keep them and this might form the basis for another composition.

Robert’s travels have inspired sounds in the past; here, images from the album liner for Silence.

The title, “Silence,” certainly recalls John Cage. Was that intentional? Were there other meanings here? In an album that’s not silent, what is the role of silence?

Silence is such a great concept. There is no silence, unless in a vacuum, its that great mystic world which cannot exist in our world. Also, in music the time between the musical events is as important as the events itself. But I really leave it up to the associations of the listener to make sense of the title. And of the liner notes and the photographs and the music. I think there is a lot of room for all sorts of connections and connotations.

When we talked at the end of last year, we got to reflect a bit about winter. I’m editing this as I watch a snowstorm here in Manhattan, having come from snowstorms in Stockolm. It seems that winter is again a thread on this record. How did winter play into the album?

I grew up in the Bavarian countryside. Winter there equals silence, introversion, deep thinking, and general inwards focus. I like this.

http://monolake.de/
Free Max for Live patch downloads: http://monolake.de/technology/m4l.html
Silence: http://monolake.de/releases/ml-025.html

  • http://intrepidtravellermusic.com intrepid traveller

    thanks so much for this!

  • aidan

    great.

  • bd

    thanks for the article. only the first line rubbed me the wrong way.

    hasnt the precise tack between engineering (technical ability / chops) and creativity always been there? (not just in the digital age?).

  • http://www.twitter.com/Birds_Use_Stars Birds Use Stars

    If there is one thing that I absolutely support here it's the idea of focusing on the tool you have and not bothering with the latest plugins. Take the time to explore Ableton more deeply and you may find that you have all you need right there…

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @bd: Oh, absolutely. I don't know that the person actually constructing the instrument and learning how to play it has been the same person, however, not in modern civilization, or not as the norm. (I suspect that in ancient civilizations, it probably was the same person.) Sure, you didn't build your computer, but you may well have written the software that runs on it, and that software might embody both your ideas about composition and your ideas about sound. That's an interesting permutation, if not an entirely "new thing." But yes, I'll be the first to argue this has a history, as well.

  • http://kongbalong.com craig

    great article. totally inspiring

  • cebec

    Agreed. Much of what he says bears repeating and he distills it rather well.

  • http://cooptrol.com cooptrol

    He is one of my top 5 favorites, and I must add he is a very kind and easy person to talk with (which is not usually the case). I know and praise Monolake since the first release, and I can say Silence fulfills and surpasses all my expectations. Thanks for posting this article!

  • xenigma

    the time stretching artifacts in Live 8.1.1 are negligible provided you choose the appropriate mode (i.e. the default Beats produces the most artefacts, tones the least) for the content you are stretching

  • http://clemenswenger.wordpress.com clemens wenger

    thanks, great interview!I like that you talked about composing and musical taste!

  • DumaisAudio

    Great interview! I've been trying to read all I can on Monolake/Henke after discovering Silence in January, and it was nice to see it featured here.

  • http://www.floorvahn.com FloorVahn

    Fantastic interview. Thanks for sharing. There's a ton to take away from this, especially if you're someone who works with music AND technology. I think many of us are guilty of noodling around for too long, trying to solve a technical problem, keeping up with the latest gear…having a deadline for solving these things is a brilliant idea. Sometimes you just "need to get on with it."

    This is a post to bookmark. There's so much great advice in here.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    We are all happy! thanks!

  • Adam

    I agree with these sentiments a great deal…

    "The most exciting new music comes from young kids guys running some audio software in a bedroom, listening to the result over a shitty hi-fi and use Melodyne all the way wrong. Those folks do not read gear magazines, they could not care less about yet another mastering EQ, but create the most stunning beauty. If people talk too much about gear I usually do not expect too much good music. I am often trapped in this twilight zone between engineer and composer too, so I know what I am talking about here…"

  • http://www.portugaltoday.info/ martinelli

    Excellent article

  • Eno

    STOP! the music and the melody first! we have many many software stop! no MAX MSP….only taste and heart! is very boring this :(

  • Adam Smith

    Great interview Peter, thanks!

    As a totally new and novice (at best) creator of digital music I found that Robert clearly articulates some of the conflicts I am beginning to find myself experiencing. Primarily, investing time in realizing songs or experimenting with the endless technology and tools available to us. Both are important, and I suppose it is a matter of balance. It also helps to ask yourself "What am I trying to achieve?"

    What I have discovered is that I really don't need much more than I have in front of me already (Ableton, a few midi controllers, and a handful of plugins out there for extra fun) to create music. That's it. And time. And the desire to do it. And focus.

    I am also finding that, as he explains, constraints and deadlines are very helpful for achieving musical results.

    For instance, this year instead of noodling endlessly looking for that perfect bassline or whatever, and abandoning song sketches after tweaking them for countless hours and then growing bored, or scouring the internet for reviews on cool midi keyboards that are better than I have, I've decided to complete a song a month…just to go through the entire process and to have something to show for it. These songs will not be masterpieces, but will provide insight and help me improve next time around, learn what I am good at and what I need to improve upon.

    I finished a song in January, but I am a little behind for my February song because I started fooling with monomulator and the molar vst late Thursday night…LOL!

  • http://seanny.net renzu

    Monolake says a lot of interesting things. I particularly agree with his comments on having "5000 compressor plugins" to choose from when one can just whack together Ableton effects to achieve practically the same stuff. I'm generally disenchanted with the notion of having "special" versions of simple, practical tools like compressors and EQs unless they do something wildly unconventional. In the end, it's how _you_ use those tools that matter.

    From the article:

    "I try to avoid ‘content’. I am not interested in ‘throwing beat loops together’. I do not use presets [...] I am also not using time stretching / warping as a tool to match beats. [...] I never [use groove templates] at all, if i want to achieve it, I move notes by hand."

    For a a short time in the past, I adopted a similar attitude and made an (obligatory) all-Reason EP full of meticulous synth-programming and sampling. While I got some interesting results out of that, I also felt at times that I was just re-inventing the wheel. Granted I was not building my own Max/MSP machines co-designing my own DAW, but there was the creeping feeling that everything that can be done with (say) analog synthesis generally has been largely explored in the preset banks of analog synths. What's the virtue of constructing your "own" (say) noise-shaped snares and hihats, blips and blops and so on when they're ultimately kind of arbitrary and definitely not covering unexplored ground?

    I'm not saying that Monolake is wrong, since he found a process that works for his sensibilities and the kind of music he makes (Silence is a nice album, I appreciate its elegant minimalism), but I am criticizing the fanboyish notion of placing everything he said about his own music process up on a pedestal to be applied to everyone.

    Nowadays I collect as much stuff as I can, freeware and paid-for VSTs, free and paid-for samples, my own field recordings and those made by others at the Freesound Project, my own recorded or resampled drum kits, and hell, even drum loops and ready-made drum kits… why not? I find it very inspiring to be surrounded by an abundance of sounds. If I have a simple midi melody, I can pile on loads of midi processing, sounds and effects right away and find my track going in a very unexpected direction.

    I can take a cabasa or a tambourine and record it with a mic… I mean those are as much "presets" or "plugins" as anything else. I didn't invent those instruments. I didn't carve the tambourine's wood or forge its tiny cymbals in a workshop.

    Loops and presets are boring by themselves, and can enable intellectually lazy music, but they can facilitate interesting results as well. Like I said before, it all comes back to what _you_ are doing with your tools. Good music is necessarily the result of good tools and an inspired mind driving them.

    I see every now and then in the CDM comments a strange backlash against the wild abundance of plugins, effects, sounds, tools and highly versatile non-specific DAWs that comprise today's production landscape. I'm not pointing at any particular comment… it feels like this comes up every week or two. I'm just saying restricting yourself only works for some people and not everyone. No one should feel bad about going gear-crazy or using ready-made sounds if that's what drives an inspired musical process.

  • http://www.floorvahn.com FloorVahn

    @renzu

    Very good point. But I think what he is referring to is that it really is about the music in the end. It's easy to get lost in the myriad of gear, plugins, etc. that are available. I see this happening over and over with a LOT of different musicians.

    I think it's less about a "backlash" than it is about just reminding ourselves to actually put down the gear mags, not take too much head of the latest "thing" that's being marketed, and to sit down and actually write some music.

    Good tools do not necessarily make better musicians…

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @renzu: I agree — I guess it is a matter not of feeling guilty about using tools, but using the tools that make you feel good. I know sometimes it's been refreshing to turn off all that extra gear and enjoy what you've got. So in a way, coming at it from different angles, you're making the same argument.

    And, uh, side note: I hope it's okay if people at least read music tech websites. ;)

    Seriously, though, I think people reading gear magazines just to lust over gear was never really what it was about; that wears off quickly. I know it was exciting to me to read these magazines when I got started – partly because I found out about sound processes that way. I remember first learning about granular synthesis through EM. I love that in the heydey of Keyboard, for instance, there were regular columns by Bob Moog and Wendy Carlos. So now we have Robert Henke. Whether it's printed by hand on a press as an indie zine or on a website or wherever, I'd want to read that, personally.

  • zeekay

    Fascinating guy, thanks for the great interview! I never realized that the guy behind monolake was co-founder of Ableton, and of his incredible influence on electronic music. I've read several other interviews, and some of the material on his site, and I really relate to everything he talks about. In particular I find that I can very easily neglect making music at all and spend all of my time exploring new gear and toys and such, and spend none making music. Even worse I'm afflicted with the programming bug… I want to develop a great number of tools and specialized little applications, but greatly fear the length of time I'd need to invest! I waste huge amounts of time with both pursuits already. One thing I have done a lot, which has always helped, is force myself to compete in little one-hour competitions (or two…sometimes even a few days in length), sometimes with friends (battleofthebits.org, other communities), but most recently just to push myself, really limit myself time-wise and just focus on composition. You can accomplish a great deal in an hour if you push yourself with singular focus. It also has the wonderful side effect of forcing you to improve your workflow, to become more efficient :D

  • zeekay

    I should clarify, the goal is to make a complete song (or as complete as possible) within 1-2 hours. Other advantage is you can always go back through your little ohc/2hc's and harvest material for new songs later, or finish up the really promising ones! LIMITATIONS ARE GREAT.

  • J. Phoenix

    Good article. Very encouraging to read something where the interviewer was familiar with both the artist's material and some of the technology/techniques behind the material. Also that Henke is so self-aware of process, tools, & technique and able to relate that to others.

    So frequently I have found myself reading interviews and realizing the person asking the questions doesn't know how the music was made, so they ask for a list of inspirations, aspirations, and equipment. The connections between them are often not elaborated on.

    But I always laugh when I see that several of the pieces mentioned by the artist somehow seem to be advertised just a page or two away. Refreshing not to see that.

  • http://www.myspace.com/casimirsblake Casimir's Blake

    It's just a shame that the new album sounds little more than an exercise in production. After all, that's what Robert Henke is all about. Big minimalistic drums, dub wooshes, glitch tricks and filter tweaks. Its cold sterility pales in comparison to the cuddly warmth of Hong Kong, or the atmospheric – yet melodic – strains of tunes like Television Tower or Polaroid.

    Fascinating guy, boring "music".

  • Thomas

    Casimir, a single note on a piano is music. Everything else is just taste.

    I think it is a very interesting interview, and also it is an insight into *one* artist's process.

    If anything that should be taken away by someone starting out, it's that you need to find your own process.

    DJ Shadow likes loops, the original house music producers used presets and I'm sure the dancers in chicago warehouses didn't mind, Ricardo Villalobos doesn't like

    Live, Richie Hawtin does, Moritz Von Oswald spends two weeks listening to a single loop tweaking it with

    analog out board, while at this moment there are probably some guys in a basement making crazy new music using a cracked copy

    of fruity loops.

    The main point is the end result, the piece of music. How you get to it, there is no right way or wrong way.

  • Zoopy

    Love reading things like this , more!!!!!!

  • http://www.myspace.com/keatshandwriting Keats' Handwrit

    Fascinating article and comments (on both sides) as well. It seems that Mr. Henke really struck a chord with CDM readers when he discussed option-itus. I feel that, unless I have a deadline, I too, just dawdle around, exploring sounds. (Which is fun, but doesn't produce complete songs.) Like others, I've seen statements about the 'too many options' problems pop up in lots of interviews and comments.

    Peter, perhaps a post could be entirely devoted to the ways that we can force deadlines and limit ourselves. I would find that immensely interesting.

  • whack cracker

    give me a 4track and i will write some music. Otherwise im stuck playing with plug ins.

  • http://www.myspace.com/casimirsblake Casimir's Blake

    If, Thomas, you don't believe that I believe "a single note on a piano" is music, then you're more ignorant than I am.

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  • http://www.keatshandwriting.com Keats' Handwrit

    Easy Casimir- no one called you ignorant. I dont think Thomas was being offensive. It's a great quote that *we all* need to remember sometimes. Taste in music may differ depending on perspective. In fact I've been pondering that quote for the past few days in trying to be nonjudgmental about others' choice in music…

    Also, before you get upset, take note that you did call into doubt whether the work of Robert Henke, a very well-respected musician and co-creator of Ableton Live, should even be called music by placing quotes around it.

    You wrote: ' Fascinating guy, boring “music”. '

    Can't we all just get along?! :)

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  • Jimi

    Having the choice between 5000 compressor plugins whilst not understanding what makes a compressor really sound the way it does it pretty much my idea of hell.

    Amen!

  • http://www.hanoisoundstuff.com Tri Minh

    Robert henke will be playing in hanoi sound stuff festival 2010/green space on 27/3/2010

    we are very happy to receive any friends and colleges to come and enjoy our 3 days festival.

    http://hanoisoundstuff.com/index.php?option=com_c

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  • http://www.julienbayle.net/diy/protodeck/ julien

    nice interview!