Studio Confessions: Benjamin Brunn

Gal Aner (aka Juju from Juju & Jordash) continues his series of introspective studio features by talking to German producer and Workshop artist, Benjamin Brunn about the technical intricacies that make his sound so unqiue.

Hamburg’s own Benjamin Brunn has been at it since 1999, releasing a wide variety of music through on labels like Workshop, Binemusic, Ware and Smallville – that label on which he re-released a live recording from legendary local club the Golden Pudel in 2012, earlier this year. Last month, Benjamin’s new studio album Drop was released on the Kimochi Sound label (run by label boss M50 aka. Area from Chicago). The album showcases the more experimental and ambient sides of Brunn’s music, and as ever reflects his skills as an imaginative and experienced producer and sculpturer of sounds. All this gave me a great excuse to have a little peep inside Benjamin’s studio where he kindly shed some light on his setup while sharing a glimpse of his music making methods.

Where is your studio located?
It is at home, so my room is the studio and the studio is my room, but I don't sleep in this room. Apart from equipment and records there is a sofa, some pieces of art, art books and other printed goods, and my bicycle. Sometimes I call this place Studio V95, to make it sound more like an address than just my room.

Did you ever have any ‘official’ music or engineering training?
I took private piano lessons between the age of seven and fourteen. Afterwards, when I switched to electronic music, it was learning by doing.

"During periods of music making, I try not to listen to other peoples music in order to avoid being influenced"

What was the first instrument you ever owned?
Korg X3 Workstation. I made tracks only with this one and recorded them onto cassette, because the computer I had at that time wasn't fit for music.

What is the most recently manufactured instrument in your setup, and the oldest?
The oldest is maybe the Roland JX-3P, with the PG-200 programmer. It came out in '83. I think the Roland drum machines I have came out one or two years later. The most recently manufactured instrument is the Bolsa Bass, as far as I know it came out in 2013. The Bolsa is the latest addition to the studio - I love the colour, the wooden buttons and bottom, the coloured LEDs and its step sequencer.

Have you ever sold a piece of gear and later had regrets or even re-bought it?
I have never sold any piece of equipment, but I have wanted to sell my Dave Smith Prophet '08 two times, each time when I received the first offer I immediately started to regret and deleted the ad. Now I finally decided to keep it.

What is the one synth you could never live without?
Nord Modular G1/G2. For Example, on the album you can hear the G1 doing the basslines on ‘On A Return’ and ‘Nobody Knows’ or the panned modulated chords on ‘Express Mode’. The arpeggio on ‘Lying Flat Looking Up’ is a G2 patch for instance.

What is your DAW of choice?
I use Ableton Live, version 7, with the Ableton drum machines and some built-in effects. I don't use other plug-ins. I have wired my synthesizers to my mixing console and from there I go into an RME Fireface. I might record the sum on reel-to-reel and bring it back through the console.

And what do you use for sequencing?
Because I work a lot with the Nord Modulars, I have to name them here, because the step sequencer modules are quite important for me. Another step sequencing tool I use is Doepfer's Dark Time. I also like the JX 3P built-in step sequencer a lot. And also the simple sequencer in the Bolsa Bass. And certainly I use Ableton as a sequencer.

Did you get into the modular/Eurorack craze?
No, although it is very tempting. But I feel spoiled with my virtual Modulars when it comes to polyphony and the possibility to save patches, I probably wouldn't be too happy with a real modular synth.

How do you normally approach programming drums?
I usually do step writing. To me, the buttons of the drum machines like Acidlab Miami are not so suitable for tap writing. I could do tap writing much better if it had MPC-like pads. That's why the Dave Smith Tempest is tempting for me. I started using an MPC 1000 in the beginning of this year. My first drum machine was a Roland TR-626, followed by a TR-707 and an Acidlab Miami. I have started becoming tired of the 707 sound now. I liked it for live sets putting its sound through my Modular G2 engine with a compressor and EQ module and drastically reduced mids. The claps also went separately thru it with an additional reverb module.

What is your monitoring setup?
I have been using the same monitors and amplifier since I started in 1996: Alesis Monitor One with a Denon Stereo Receiver DRA-585RD.

Are you mixing with loud volumes and do you listen to other reference music while working on a track?
I used to listen very loud when mixing and it took me ages and dozens of sessions before I was happy with a mix. Now I don't really pay attention to it anymore and I work at low volumes.

During periods of music making, I try not to listen to other peoples music in order to avoid being influenced. However, when it comes to mixing, I think I should use one or the other reference tracks. So that's a good point actually.

"I think it is good to give each instrument its own frequency range"

What is the first fader you bring up while mixing?
That's different depending on whether it is ambient or something meant for the dance floor. With the latter, one could start with something percussive.

Can you run me through your effect rack?
I am not good in effects, I wanna say I haven't paid attention to it really. In fact, in lack of an effects rack. I use the internal Ableton reverb effect that I think is sufficient for my purposes. For live situations I have used the effect modules of the Nord G2. I rarely use delays and if something sounds as if it came through a delay, it 90% isn't, instead it is repeatedly played notes using a step sequencer module followed by an envelope set to an appropriate decay value. At the moment I am actually looking for some nice little effects units, just to get a little bit of a different sound and vibe to my sound modules rather than buying another new synth. However, I like synthesizers more than effect units.

Your music is often clear and well balanced to my ear, any tips for a clear mix and controlled low end?
Thank you! It is hard to name it, I don't really pay attention to it, maybe it's just because I try not to overload with too many elements and layers. The clearness is maybe because I do not use effects so much. I think it is good to give each instrument its own frequency range. If a sound, which is not the bassline, has too much low end, EQing or filtering that sound is what one would do, so that this particular sound doesn't interfere with the bassline too much.

Whats your go-to analogue EQ?
I like using the EQs of my Toft ATB mixing console. For more radical purposes (e.g. cutting off low frequencies completely) I use Ableton's EQ Eight.

Do you use a lot of compression?
Hardly ever. I did for the drum sets of the TR-707 and TR-626. That's actually something I would like to buy maybe: A hardware compressor. I should be utilizing the functionality of my mixing console a bit more, a compressor would be a good add-on. So far (again) the compressor module of the G2 has done it for me. A long time ago I used to have a Behringer compressor, but I have given it to my brother.

Do you have a compressor or limiter on the stereo buss while mixing?
Except using tape compression, I try to avoid leading the sum through a compressor or limiter. Using it musically for a subgroup is a good way I think.

“Clarity and dynamics with the purpose to create emotional impact”

Do you use distortion often?
Not very often really. I used it at places in the Drop album and now I think I should do that more often. I love it when the sound of the Nord Modular gets just a bit of distortion when briefly touching the resonance point using the low pass filter, and this saturated with a long reverb. I sometimes make a bassline sound with Nord Modular's Percussion Module leading it through the Overdrive Module. An example for this can be seen here on my patch for ‘Nobody Knows’ :

The polyphonic sounds come from the top, the bass and the squelchy acidic lines comes from the bottom.

What are the most important things in a mix to you?
Clarity and dynamics with the purpose to create emotional impact.

How long did it take you to record and mix the album?
The album is a compilation of recordings from several years reaching back as far as eight years or so. Several tracks I had sent out as demos to various, actually very suitable addresses, and were never taken. I was very happy when Kimochi's Max made the decision to put them all on one album, because these recordings are very important to me, they represent my musical feeling better than any other music I have made.

Each of the tracks were recorded relatively quickly. In January 2012 I decided to only make ambient for an entire year and I started with one track a day. I didn't make it till December, however, a couple of tracks are from that period.

Did you have a specific sound in your mind prior to the recordings or did you sculpture that as you progressed?
I sculptured the Nord Modular patches until I thought, that's it, let me assign knobs to parameters, then I recorded while playing with the parameters by tweaking knobs.

What is your favourite album track sonically and musically?
That's really hard to say. It would be easier to tell what I don't like about it anymore, haha. Musically, I would say ‘On a Return’. Sonically, maybe: ‘Lying Flat Looking Up’.

What is in your opinion the most challenging aspect of the music-making process?
Arranging as part of the composition process.

Do a lot of the ideas come from jamming or is everything strictly composed?
Sometimes this, sometimes that, or a combination of both. These days it is more jamming layer by layer on top of each other until reaching a point where everything is just too much and then I start reducing, thinning out, keeping what sounds best, especially in combination. The Ableton session view is ideal for that and quick to use. With different loop lengths of the various layers, new combinations of layers occur and might also lead to unexpected happiness.

Who mastered the album?
It was mastered and cut by Dietrich Schoenemann at Complete, then pressed by Archer in Detroit.

If money wasn’t an issue - which one instrument would you add to your studio?
I am very happy with what I have and by experience I wouldn't make any better or more music if I had more equipment. Certainly, I have unfulfilled wishes, but they change monthly and weekly. I have wanted a Moog Sub37, but then also thought instead of getting more expensive synths why not getting some (cheap) effects. I am also finding it important that the new equipment I buy can work in my live gig set up, so something not so heavy, but with a good-working step sequencer maybe. As mentioned earlier, the Dave Smith Tempest seems interesting.