A Visit to the Studio of Nils Frahm

In Berlin, the press calls him “Germany’s secret world star.” The Montreux Jazz Festival, the Barbican in London, concert halls from Tokyo to New York: sold out, often with several shows in a row. When Nils Frahm touches the keys, hammers with toilet brushes on piano strings, crinkles microphones, and brings together synthesizers as well as old organs and pianos — then a new space between classical music and electronics emerges.

Even in the rather conservative Vienna Concert House, he received standing ovations for this. His often intimate, sometimes harsh and always changeable sound was especially praised by critics of his latest album, All Melody. Frahm spent two years working on it, leaving behind his home studio and renovating a large studio to radio standards. And everything in it was then taken on a world tour, including a large organ. During this visit to his studio, Nils Frahm explains why his recordings often start with WD-40 and screwdrivers, how much humility is in the studio construction, and what gives him courage to continue.

We’re in a place that isn’t easy to describe. Outside the sun gleams, and in the studio it is rather dim, almost dark. Nils Frahm’s hands skillfully work the coffee machine. It’s a demanding, shiny, majestic apparatus. He creates two Café Cortados with routine aplomb. They taste different than anything that would be recommended at the train station or in the barista shop around the corner. Frahm smiles. “My favorite pastimes are things that are far from that which is homogenized. That’s even true of the milk I put in my coffee.” The way he says it, it sounds more like “being mindful of things” rather than “wanting the best.” Frahm: “I saw early on that running in the direction of where everyone is headed is not always worthwhile. I’ve done things in a similar way with many decisions in the studio. I don’t have a Minimoog here, no Fender XY; I don’t have any of those standards. Everyone has them. They all have a U 47. I don’t. For me it’s about telling a different story, unmasking an untruth: that you can only develop your power as an artist, only sound good, if you have this or that or work with this particular pre-amp. That’s nonsense. I don’t know what people are afraid of, especially when it comes to such banalities as vocal recordings. It’s all about one vocal take, and there are 1,000 great things you can do, not just the one. I’ve never set my studio up that way: waiting for this one thing. I prefer something that does not yet exist. Now I’m almost bored with the perfect studio. It’s of course a very characteristic radio studio, but also a step in the direction of homogenization and normalization.”

Nils Frahm gestures while the photographer looks for light. There isn’t much. Just small lamps, mostly indirectly and softly intercepted by wood paneling. Frahm nods and mentions Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s classic “Praise of the Shadow”; how light and shadow define the size and function of a room and create tension. He does not appreciate gratingly bright monotony: “Making music is better when it’s not so bright. You are more focused on your ears anyway. The chair in front, for example. It gets some detail from the light above and from the lamp at the table. If it was only lit by an overhead light, it would be completely unplastic. Boring.” How does someone who sees like this hear?

Nils Frahm himself renovated his Studio 3 in Block B from 2015 onwards, met with former employees, conducted research, planed boards, and cursed. “Of course it was also a place for propaganda. The values of the GDR were spread from here — and that had to sound as good as possible. The West should notice: ‘When we record Wagner, then it is according to the highest possible standards.’” We are standing in his recording room, richly paneled, lavishly insulated. Frahm says with a smirk: “And then they milled the royal French lily here as a distinctive element in the wood paneling. That’s not socialist. On the other hand, people created a western-thinking enclave in the East. A kind of Silicon Valley for acoustic brainstorming. This stock of knowledge and experience, this era, this aspiration from the 1950s and 1960s, that inspires me.” Acoustics was considered to be an engineer’s artform — with it today being more of an occupation requiring vocational training: “Then it quickly becomes a jack-of-alltrades career, always with a bit of gaffer tape in hand. You plug the cable in there and when it hums, you insert the ground lift on the DI box. But why? How are signal flow, impedance, vibrations, and subharmonic distortion related, and how does it go with the runtime calculation?”

How does he manage to get to making music when there are all these questions? “I know that I know nothing. At least never enough to understand everything. I don’t believe that you can manage to get to know the whole area of making audio and music in one human life. I even imagine that the great masters of music have always said: “I didn’t finish.” I understand a few cogs in the big machine. So I just do it. Even if I read a whole pile of books, it doesn’t help me to make good music. In this area of conflict, it remains exciting. I don’t take knowledge seriously, but experience is another story. There is more than one solution. Even when miking, there are so many right moments, not just one. That’s why I prefer to stay out of the strict standard school. It gives me no pleasure. I’d rather hear something, experience something, than do math. It bothers me when technology gets in the way. Here I’m creating the workshop in which I have fun. And there are other workshops in which others have fun.”

ANYTHING BUT NORMAL

Anyone visiting the Funkhaus premises, far outside the familiar Berlin, enters an intermediate world. It is a long way from the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate, and what Berlin is supposed to be. Here on Nalepastrasse, you can still sense something of the torn-up heart of a city that has long been both and never became one: East and West, socialism and capitalism, Russian and American, punk and politics. The Funkhaus is a gigantic building complex from this time of separation. The radio of East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), broadcast from here. Everywhere marble, mighty columns, the finest wood paneling.

Not only does the Funkhaus have a distinct look, it also smells different. It takes itself seriously in a strange manner and is quite unironic in its pride and pomp. The huge rooms leave space not only for excellent acoustics but also for humility. Nils Frahm nods in the coffee corner: “The builders of the Funkhaus are people who could have invented this humility, this respect for each other. The architect respects the acoustician, the acoustician the architect — this curiosity for the expertise of the other. How they struggled to develop a common value concept and discussed it in large committees. They philosophized about sound and their standards for it. Where do we want to go? What is good sound, how important is spatiality? There was even an institute for boundary phenomena of acoustics. That sounds like a mess, but in the end, much of what we call the broadcast standard today came into being. Before that, it was really only loud or quiet. It’s also how Hi-Fi was born. All these changes are still palpable: From wet to dry rooms, when the one-microphone technology was replaced by many microphones, multi-microphones, and close-miking. You hear these stories of how enthusiastically the people here were working in and on this change. If you didn’t have something, you just went to the workshop and developed it.” Frahm is silent, looking at a series of upright pianos and keyboards. “Without humility, I can’t develop these ideas of doing something so good that it’s better than I actually need it to be.“

To be continued...