“FOR ME IT’S NOT ABOUT VINTAGE”

Frahm has been collecting audio technology since the age of 13. The self-built mixing console, old amplifiers, taping machines, early synthesizers, a cabinet full of venerable microphone classics. A yearning for the good old days? Frahm shakes his head: “For me it’s not about vintage. I don’t care about it at all. I just want it to be simple, for it to be transient, crisp, but also not sound lifeless. I think it’s nice when somewhere something behaves somewhat dynamically, when something does not scale in dB steps. We use the new and the old because it is an eclectic way to do things; some things work better and some worse. That’s subjective and not pretense.”

On the one hand, building and renovating a whole studio, on the other hand, working as a musician — do these worlds contradict each other?

Not at all. But it’s the best complement to things that keep repeating. I didn’t want to become a classical pianist back then, because I knew that every day I would have to play the piano for six to eight hours. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining? You don’t go to the lake. I don’t have this discipline and I’m much too curious. But without these border areas, without sometimes having to build a table for these instruments alongside building the instruments … without these ideas, there is no workflow. A workday begins with me assembling something for the day. I don’t know how that happens, but I can’t do music otherwise. You just start somewhere. Here, with the chair. Put it in the middle, set up an instrument, sit down, play something. Ah! I need a microphone. And then it starts. If something rattles here or something squeaks there, I simply have to apply some WD-40. Then something creaks and you hear that as very loud. Suddenly two hours have passed and your hands are smeared with oil. I don’t think anymore then. The creaking just has to go. I also don’t get into discussions then. It’s completely egotistical. Perhaps I’ll think the next squeak is nice. But the creaking here and now? It has to go. I just want it to sound like I imagine it — and at the same time don’t know what I’m imagining. It’s like an inner ping-pong match with Wagner. And then I’m gone, like some guy on a sailboat.

Is your studio perfect now?

The perfect sound? The best room? The most ingenious microphone? No. They don’t exist. There is only one special room or one special sound. I could think tomorrow that it isn’t my sound anymore. That’s exactly the expression of my philosophy that materializes in a studio. But I’m never satisfied with it. The more I fixate on the seemingly perfect, right way, the more I get out of balance. This other thing is possible too!

Very little in the big studio works digitally. You work in analog almost the entire time. Is that loathing for the digital?

If people find a good way with a computer, I’m happy for them. Perhaps they manage not to saddle themselves with the madness. I can’t do it. I saddle myself with the madness; I keep equipment in good repair and try to create a space to inhale these vapors when renovating and painting and doing. I ask friends, colleagues, acquaintances, experts. Discuss paints for the wall and their acoustic properties. A huge construction site, 1,000 details. But people have become used to sitting at a table with their laptop and doing everything from anywhere. That’s brilliant! And I ask myself, enviously: How is that fun for you?

It doesn’t sound like you’re a friend of technical innovations.

I wouldn’t say now, ‘You can still invent the piano, but then the development needs to stop.’ Everything is evolving; the piano became the synthesizer, and now it’s virtual. But I’m more interested in what comes out of the speaker in the end. I’m never in the mood for tricks, to strum away on any old thing and your buddy does some wicked mixing and we count the clicks. If something is successful 24 A Visit to the St udio of Nils Frahm and someone looks behind the scenes, then there should also be an interesting story, an inspiring process. If you just sample everything and run it through filters, that can trivialize music and compositions. Once you realize that and can hear it, the magic is lost. The more you look, the more you listen behind the scenes, the more you learn about production. In the end there is not much left that moves you. I want reduction. A small amount that blows me away — and there’s an infinite amount of that out there.

For your world tour for All Melody, you pretty much packed up the entire studio and took it with you. All instruments, desks, even the big, air-driven wooden organ. It was set up at each venue in a separate room, controlled via MIDI, recorded with microphones, and brought in live. Why the effort?

Because I don’t want to spoil my story. It’s not just about what others think or hear. It’s all about what you think about yourself. If you praise yourself and pretend to be something else, it’s not only exhausting and something that consumes your energy. You are also annoying to yourself. When I think from the bottom up, ‘The organ has to come along,’ then it needs to come along. If I just extend this madness to my whole environment, get everyone infected with the idea: Yeah, okay, that was crazy — but it was important. We all had an incredible amount of fun. No one complained about setting up and dismantling the organ. Everyone heard it, everyone felt it: That’s vibrant, that’s right.

For me, that’s the story we wrote. At some point, I’m lazing about somewhere and thinking about the attitude back then. How we pulled off all this nonsense full of joy and pride in our own madness. If someone can straighten themselves up based on it, someone who is afraid that ‘such a thing’ is not really possible — that would be the greatest joy for me. It’s about a basic attitude. How do you keep your garden, how do you do your dishes, how do you talk to your children? Are you doing this with love or are you not really into it? It doesn’t matter if I’m making music, renovating a studio, or playing a song: What I want to radiate is this attitude toward work and responsibilities that you choose yourself. To the commitment to your dreams. Yes, it sounds crazy. This idea that you also have a responsibility for your talents. It’s quite invigorating to sense that it’s worth behaving in this way.

Self-criticism?

The more you are a fan of your own idea, the more you lean into the madness and the dependency. You become unfree, your field of vision narrower, as with a machete in the jungle. The freedom to endure … that nothing is really fixed; that there is no fixed point in the universe, not even in your head: that’s hard to bear. But I want to generate enthusiasm. That’s not easy, but it’s liberating. What meaning do I give this note from Bach, this piece of land, this stardust? I don’t have to do it. I decide to do it, and that brings effortlessness back. We really live in a very abstract sphere — and I always want to punch holes in such strangely tight skin and say: Look, there are a thousand other ways to look at that. The whole everyday madness — frustration in the shopping mall, stress on the highway, the Internet suddenly stops working – all of that is pretty uninspiring. We just have to build a life that is inspiring. We can banish everything from our lives that doesn’t help us. I hate to hear that things are complicated. They aren’t. They’re just as complicated as you want them to be. You have your right to that. But you also have the right to simply resolve things and pull the plug. To dream something else. There is nothing and no one that has taken possession of you. And so you have no right to get on other people’s nerves with your bad mood, to let out your madness on others. You already know that.

This leads to a hardness that I create in myself in order to be able to endure the “not-being-able-to-get-tied-down-by-everything.” I’m here and breathe, I live, I’m going to die someday, and today I’m finishing part of my album.

How do you look at audio technology?

If we always have to change everything that’s good — where are we really going? And why did we head off in this direction at all? [laughs] I just always ask myself why we’ve decided that we always have to continue as an end in itself. Some things perhaps cannot be further improved. How did we get to the point that we are always afraid to do too little? That everything always has to be renewed? How can I build the best microphone if I’m a rational engineer? Is there a rational engineer? And already we are going around in circles. That means I don’t really take anyone seriously, and that I take everyone seriously. I know myself that I’m crazy, but also rational, a mix of everything. True and untrue also always has something to do with what we feel. We quite quickly get to our limits for understanding the truth. That’s why I’m interested in a technology pad. Because I ask myself, what do you rely on when building a microphone?

What truth, what benchmarks do you rely on in composition and production?

We of course also calibrate, but then I’m not making music. I just like to shut my eyes sometimes. When I’m mixing a song, I don’t want to make a sound and measure anymore. There’s always voodoo, there’s always knowledge, there’s always trade fairs, there’s always feeling. And that’s why I like doing this: because it’s not an easy area. Maybe that’s why we depend on it: because arranging music requires just as much spirituality as engineering and ingenuity, this MacGyverism. All of that is needed.

Any words in closing?

I want to set an example with my attitude. The fact that music is also created is also okay. That concerts are held — great! But in the end, it’s about showing another way. We have enough disorientation. My way is just as lost in the jungle as any other. But the attitude that I like taking this path — that’s what I want to share.

OF LARGE RESONANCE SURFACES

Wolfgang Fraissinet, Managing Director of Georg Neumann GmbH, later also joins the studio visit. He stoops over the hand-built analog mixing console in Studio 3, his eyes as big as saucers. It’s a custom piece, and he immediately discovers some of Neumann’s faders. “The whole matrix is tailor-made. We connected everything ourselves; they’re what you might call homemade SMD modules” explains Nils Frahm. Fraissinet nods with fascination. After all, his time at Neumann began in the early 1990s with sales and distribution of Neumann mixing consoles. Within seconds, the two are talking shop about channel strips, about their preference for 276 pre-amplifiers, and about the old Telefunken 713 triode limiter.

In the large recording room, they then encounter the world’s largest piano, Klavin’s M450, whose development Nils Frahm helped to initiate. It looms over the hall at a height of more than two stories. Frahm climbs a ladder and plays the lower strings: “We strung this in parallel with no cross strings. It has such a soft, fundamental-tone sound …” Wolfgang Fraissinet stands below, holding his hands in front of the soundboard in amazement. He studied classical piano at the Berlin Conservatory — and is enchanted: “This is crazy … This huge soundboard alone is a work of art in its own right.” The two talk shop about cross-gluing, calculations, scale formulas, stops, and hammer lines.

Fraissinet looks around: “In this hall, with the reverberation, with this instrument … you would have incredible possibilities with a diffuse-field equalized sphere. You would be able to represent the depth of the room well, along with the special features of this soundboard; the sound wouldn't be as directionally bound like a kidney.” Nils Frahm nods and the two disappear behind the mixing console.

They talk about pieces, recording techniques, miking. Some from the album Solo plays in the room. Nils Frahm explains: “In principle, I compose for one instrument. I listen to an instrument, mike it, and put on my headphones. Then I listen to what the setup wants … and I improvise.” Wolfgang Fraissinet shakes his head in disbelief: “That is improvised?” Nils nods. “You just sat down and played it?” Another nod: “I recorded three days without writing a piece. I edited the best out of these eight-hour jam sessions. You can improvise only for the moment, even with synthesizers: Sometimes you’ve got this patch, sometimes you’ve got that one — you can’t always want to play it again.” Wolfgang Fraissinet can now try out this sound at home, on the Bösendorfer student grand. As a parting gift, Nils Frahm hands him sheet music with all the notes of the pieces they discovered together that day.