“The modulator system - this is the goldmine of Bitwig Studio. It's incredibly strong.”
Martin Stimming's latest release is an ode to the great outdoors. Named for an 1800 metre-high Alpine mountainface, and produced in collaboration with Marcus Worgull in his Switzerland studio, the Eiger Nordwand EP has the moods to match the terrain. But by a twist of fate, it was released at a time when the pandemic had cut off many listeners from the outside world.
Stimming's musical style - an emotive take on house music which he has developed meticulously over the past decade - might be ideal for lockdown. Its introspective moods and engrossing textures suit solo listening; its expansive landscapes allow the mind to travel while the physical body is stuck in one place. His last album, 2016's shimmering Alpe Lusia, was even recorded during a month of "radical isolation" in the mountains.
But as the Hamburg-based producer explained on a call, the lockdown period hasn't been so creative for him. Having his two young children at home put a halt to production of his forthcoming fifth album, and with his live schedule similarly stalled, he had thoughts to share on the financial situation facing electronic producers.
Still, he found time to answer fans' production questions in a detailed video for Electronic Beats. This and his entertaining gear reviews show him to be a personable expert on the tools and techniques of electronic music-making.
How has your lockdown been?
I've got two little boys in Kindergarten age, so it was quite hectic. Right now I'm working on my fifth album, and for the first months of the year until the shutdown came I was able to work eight hours a day. I made like half of the album. But as soon as we needed to take care of the kids all the time, I simply wasn't able to work.
But it seems to be getting back to normal, slowly. let's hope that there's not a second wave coming in autumn. For the future of clubbing and concerts I'm a little bit worried. As long as there's no vaccine I'm not sure if things will be normal again.
How do you feel now about centering your own life around music?
It's so weird - I'm sure there's never been so much listening to music as in the last months. But the business model of listening to music is so bad, it's incredible. Spotify - the numbers and what I actually get from it, it's basically nothing. And then you still have to split it with the record company, like what!
Has it led you to think about other ways of doing things?
Yes, it's the first time in my life that I'm thinking about those new models. I'm thinking about releasing [the new album] myself on Bandcamp, so that at least all the revenue goes back to me. I'm really questioning the whole system. But somehow I'm not afraid - I trust in music quality, and I know that I'm working on something very stable in quality.
Of course, the scene is going to get smaller, especially the artist and DJ scene. I feel sorry for the small [artists], because most of the money which was generated went to a handful of superstar DJs. This is also something which I hope the scene is questioning more seriously than beforehand.
What's the new album going to sound like?
It's not going to be a dance album - it's an electronica album. I won't have any four-four bass drums in there. No classic dance music. It still has quite a high energy level, it's very groove-based. Originally I was a drummer so I have a hand for making grooves. There's bees in there too. I don't want to go too far, but maybe it's a development of the trip-hop idea - like next-level trip-hop somehow. But trip-hop always had that hip-hop energy - and I have Stimming beats with it. I don't know if you heard my second album, Liquorice - a very experimental album with not one straight beat on there. It was so experimental that I can't listen to it! This time I'm going to include melodies and harmonies so it's nicer to the ear.
How has lockdown affected your creativity? In a sense you had some practice with your last album, which you made in isolation in the mountains.
The core of the whole issue for us was the kids. I was so ripped out of my working routine. The thing I did in the Alps, one month of quite radical isolation up there - I can handle that, I like that, it's very nice for focussing. [During lockdown] the biggest invention for me was this [waves mobile phone in front of the screen]. This is a 15 euro telephone - not a smartphone. I don't have a smartphone in the studio. Because I would have a couple of hours a day, four hours here, three hours there, then I had to go pick up someone. And my brain didn't want to focus on what I was doing because there was this freaking smartphone with its touchscreen and the whole wide internet in all its glory. Since I have this phone, one and half weeks ago, I finished two tracks.
You seem to pay a lot of attention to the tools you use, and think about how those tools influence your creativity.
It's mostly because they're so new, and they're still so bad. Not the tool itself, but the interface. One of the biggest barriers in next-level computing is the interfaces between us and the machine. If you look at an interface from a guitar or a piano - it's so crystal clear, you see it and you know exactly what to do. A computer is so complicated, but the window to the computer is just a mouse - one little click! I'm so frustrated about the quality of the interfaces that I've reflected very much on where I can go a step further. That's why I'm using Bitwig with its touchscreen. It's still far from being perfect - a guitar is perfect.
Perhaps this would be an argument for using more hardware, too?
That's what I was thinking right now. Elektron: I think what separates them from other companies is they've thought about the interface right from the beginning, from the first Machinedrum. They always thought about how you can use this specialised computer as effectively as possible. But it's only a drum machine or only a synth - a DAW is where the music universe really happens. You have these possibilities which you don't have in a hardware machine.
Was it the touchscreen functionality that initially led you to try out Bitwig?
The reason why I used Bitwig in the first place was that I was looking for a DAW that could handle those low voltage CPUs: the mobile CPUs which are Intel x86 coded. They have a very wide range of speeds, and the speed shift which is implemented, any DAW apart from Bitwig wasn't able to handle this. I was using the computer for mastering on stage. My hardware-only setup was converted once into Bitwig, mastered, then sent out.
And the actual container system for the code is so modern. Cubase this happened a lot, that something crashed and couldn't be opened again. So the engine quality, in the first place that was the important bit.
Beforehand I was using Cubase with the pen from Wacom. To be honest, the pen with keyboard was the best kind of next-step input - a touchscreen isn't so reliable. What came on top was the modulation system in Bitwig. That Bitwig doesn't see any difference between its own and third-party plugins: I was like 'OK, I want to try that’.
The modulator system - this is the goldmine of Bitwig, in my opinion. It's incredibly strong. It's mixing automatically for me. I'm using the Tool effect with the audio sidechain as an automated mixing system. I'm ducking volumes all over the place, and it sounds really good. Also you can make a dynamic EQ, any type of dynamic EQ is three clicks away. You can do so many things that weren't possible beforehand because you had to do everything by hand.
I see the point coming where I'm doing a track which is basically an organism which reacts to its different parameters: if something happens here then this thing will react. But not in an analogue modular system way where it's like [makes discordant bleeping sounds] - but in a musical way. In a proper production way that is beautifully developed, full-frequency-spectrum music.
“I see the point coming where I'm doing a track which is basically an organism which reacts to its different parameters”
So analogue modular systems put you off because they lack sonic precision?
I had a modular system, a Doepfer A100, for seven years, and I used it three times. What I really learned from it was, it's far from making actual music - it's science. Every time I hear a modular system, it sounds like science - it's not music. But the idea itself - to not make a difference between an audio and a modulating signal - it's incredible.
With Bitwig, it sounds like you mostly use the modulation possibilities for quite functional tasks, rather than wilder sound design.
In the beginning I also thought about incredible sound sculpting tools, but that's too complicated. This is one of those things I've learnt over time: reducing the possibilities mostly helps with creativity. The most thinking I'm doing the studio is, how can I reduce it, make it more simple? Because it's complicated anyway. The small steps are the ones that actually work.