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In case you haven't read the first part of this interview, please do so by clicking here.

Kraftwerk in 3-D (part 2)

By Cornel Hecht, April 25, 2018

Kraftwerk should be seen as a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, and it’s no secret that this is the reason why you play at art galleries like MoMA. But these kinds of venues aren’t always perfectly suited to music concerts. Does it require a lot of effort to build sound installations that give results that you’re satisfied with? I saw that you sometimes install acoustic elements at the venues before the concerts.

Well observed! Because we’re mostly playing eight concerts in a row at these venues, with each one focusing on one album, there’s even more incentive to invest some resources and work in the acoustics. If the on-site installed equipment is lacking in its capabilities, the decentralized Soundscape system will partially improve on that. It’s important that the L-R arrays commonly found in these venues don’t push too much energy from two directions into the space. Instead, the horizontal arrays are used to create a harmonious, smooth sound field.

The effort involved is, of course, a lot bigger. The distance between and angles of the individual systems have to be calculated precisely using a spatial simulation program.

As a multimedia band, Kraftwerk has always been linked to the latest technological developments. Technology is seen as a creative medium to cross musical boundaries. Doesn’t that make you dependent on the technology to a certain extent?

Every musician is dependent on their instrument. If you lose your Stradivarius it’s going to get quiet on stage, or if a singer’s vocal chords give out. In my view the new technologies open up new approaches. Music technology is dependent on the musicians that give it purpose.

How much effort do you put into searching for new technologies?

There’s so much that’s new in the world of music software and hardware that it’s more a case of selecting than searching. The task has more to do with limiting yourself to a set-up that’s suited to you personally, one you know well and can fully exploit in a way that avoids getting lost in the technology. Then there’s the question of what’s really so new that it has an audible influence on the music.

Given that you’re touring the world, be it in Germany, the USA or Russia, I get the impression that you have little or no time for a bit of breathing space. One concert follows on from another. What makes the concert in Moscow different to the one in Detroit? Are there tangible differences?

Superficially, yes. But when the music starts, then all that’s important is the sound and the vibes among the music fans. It makes more of a difference if the venue is an all-seater. As a musician on stage I enjoy it when the audience is moved or moving. But when I’m in the audience it’s pleasant to have a nice seat, good sound quality and a good view.

Each region, of course, has certain propensities, but I don’t perceive those to be as dominant as one might expect. Unexpectedly, the best readings on the applause-o-meter were in Santiago de Chile and in South Korea. There was also our first Roskilde concert, where we had to push our stage monitors to their limits to be able to hear ourselves well.

I remember that that was the reason that during our first concert in Chile in 2004 after the release of Tour de France, I could only hear our music over the PA because the monitor speakers that had been hired there suddenly had no membrane left and there were bits of black paper lying around on stage. So although the three places are far away from each other, they do have something in common.

Staying on the subject of touring, last year on July 1, 2017, Kraftwerk played an open-air concert in Düsseldorf at the opening of the Tour de France, the so-called “grand depart”. Anyone who’s at least a bit of a fan will know that cycling and particularly Tour de France have a major influence on Kraftwerk. Do you see the Tour de France as a source of inspiration and do things come full circle when you play at the opening of the Tour de France?

Of course, it’s a good feeling when you play a concert and you feel exactly that happening, feel things that belong together finally coming together. I began cycling in around 1990 (it took Ralf three years to persuade me) and I connect that with amazing experiences in the Dolomites and the French Alps, and there’s no question that that inspired the Tour de France Soundtracks album. There was a similar event in 2009 at the Manchester Velodrome. The British team had won gold in Peking in 2008, and came out onto the track and rode a few laps with Tour de France playing in the background while being frenetically cheered on by the crowd.

At Steinberg we focus on the latest developments and try to predict how technology might develop in the future. You began working with synthetic speech production and vocoders early on. Vocoders are popular now but when Kraftwerk started working with early forms of speech synthesis, they were virtually unknown. But technology has made big strides here, too. In Japan, for example, Yamaha’s Vocaloid technology is very popular, filling entire stadiums with virtual musicians. Those developments are a bit slower here in Europe. But we’re still witnessing the birth of virtual reality. What is the special attraction of these new technologies and do you also stay up to date on the technologies behind them?

Of course, speech synthesis and the developments in vocoder technology were Florian’s special area of expertise from the beginning. They have had an important influence on the Kraftwerk sound. On the other hand, these electronic voices became so strongly associated with Kraftwerk during the 1990s that other artists didn’t want to use these elements any more. Today, synthetic voices — however they’re produced — have become part of daily life through all the smart devices that produce speech like satnavs or the good, all-knowing spirits that can attend to a lot of tasks on behalf of their owners. That’s brought digital voices in their various facets back into the electro pop sound world.

Music is everywhere, and so are noises. Some electric cars that are almost silent are fitted with speakers to generate the typical noise of an engine. We hear electronic signals that notify us when we get a message. Studies have shown that teenagers find it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Media are becoming ever faster while texts become ever shorter. Many people are no longer prepared to listen to an entire album or read a whole book. People have stopped listening to each other and send one another short messages instead. There might be the most beautiful sunset outside, but no one is paying attention. Everyone’s busy staring at their phone, it’s becoming problematic.

Wouldn’t it be a positive thing if there was a power cut? Or do we have to learn how to use technology in a meaningful and more restrained way?

The effects of interruption to the power supply are known, for example through cases in the USA a few years ago, and the biggest impact they have is that the population grows. The “heads down” phenomenon you mentioned where people constantly have their head bowed looking at their smartphones really has reached an unpleasant level. Looking at it optimistically, we might soon see this development normalizing itself. But I also think that the young people often mentioned in this context are the victim of sweepingly negative generalizations. Older people often have no contact to the scene and can’t see what’s really going on. That’s the same in music. People who listen to German traditional folk music don’t hear any differences in electronic music, and vice versa. There’s no mutual understanding. But recently the older generation has also become addicted to group chats. For every generation and every social epoch, there are phenomena that are specific to it. Evolution has dealt with bigger problems than the smartphone.

I find it amusing to read analysis by amateur sociologists about people addicted to emails, like “no one goes to their mailbox several times a day to see if they’ve got a letter”. Following that logic, if you were sitting at an airport and got an email or text message telling you that something about your flight departure has changed you would write to complain the next day that you missed your flight because you only check your email once a day. But in this context, we should also give over to some iconoclasm. Sitting in a café reading a book has a much better image than sitting there looking at your smartphone, regardless of what the book is and what is being presented on the screen of the smartphone. People addicted to reading also withdraw into a parallel world and become isolated socially. It can be a fatal mistake to say, “Books are good, smartphones are evil.” Listening to an album is not automatically more meaningful than listening to a personal playlist. Of course, there were albums in the heyday of the LP in the 1970s that you can still still listen to all the way through, entranced for the entire 40 minutes. But back then people would also get annoyed about musical “fillers”. You would jump up and run to the record player to skip past a “no go” track. That didn’t improve when CDs came along, as the more chart-oriented artists would still have to fill an hour, otherwise their LP wasn’t taken seriously. That meant that the length of the work was determined more by the capacity of the medium than the creative gushings of the artist. It can be better to have an hour of music that’s been well selected from various artists. And to round it off, I sometimes prefer short texts to long-winded ramblings with a lot of redundant content, like I’m producing right now.

In the early days of electronic music, the music would be recorded to multiple tracks on tape. If you had the necessary experience, you could edit it later, as tape could be cut up and stuck back together. But one wrong step could ruin the entire recording. Computers made editing and recording music far easier, letting you undo changes. That created many possibilities, sometimes too many open-ended possibilities. Producing music also means standing behind your own decisions, finalizing something precisely because there are a million different options.

The term “digitalization” is doing the rounds in the media. But our world has been dominated by digital technologies for many years. Early on, Kraftwerk began translating the stream of analog data into digital formats. Although sampling was huge in the 1990s, it doesn’t play a significant role these days in creating and finding new sounds. Did sampling technology turn out to be less fertile than previously thought?

In the 1970s I was definitely a fan of heavy studio equipment and could tell five different brands of magnetic tape apart by their smell. At the beginning of my studies to become a sound engineer, I was at the Bavaria studios and the Union Studio in Munich, where many of the world’s biggest disco hits were being produced.

They used several 24-track machines linked together, and these were then hooked up to enormous mega-consoles. I was used to editing 1/4” tape but the idea of irreverently taking a razor blade and cutting through heavy 2” tape impressed me. There was, of course, only a very limited scope for “undo” steps.

The first Solid State Logic consoles with the legendary Total Recall technology gave you a first glimpse into the digital world. Remember that the phrase “Total Recall” might have sounded incredibly futuristic at the time. But it meant that the mixing engineer of the day who was versed in this state-of-the-art technology would have to spend half an hour comparing hundreds of faders with positions shown on a screen. But I found it very cool to work on the most modern mixing desk of the time. But the end of the “heavy” studio industry was already in sight.

The preliminary stage to sampling and the ability we have today in computer-based productions to copy material was to pre-mix individual sections, such as variations on the chorus, and to copy them to the master machine, or “fly them in”, as it was called at the time. Quite cumbersome, obviously, compared with how it’s done today. My history with Kraftwerk is closely connected with the term digitalization. I was hired as a Synclavier operator to digitize the entire sound archive and to help build the live set-up, which was becoming increasingly digital. Later I also worked in other areas.

The premium-quality New England Digital sampler had a very smooth sound compared to the cheaper devices that soon flooded the market. Many ideas for the album The Mix or even for Tour de France Soundtracks originated on the Synclavier. Many of those tracks started life being played by Ralf into the Synclavier sequencer and then transferred via MIDI into a Cubase arrangement. As computing power grew, digital sound processing became more powerful, of course, and sampling was folded into that. But it’s not fair to say that the aspects of sampling that made it important have disappeared from sound design.

The possibilities available have grown immensely. But you can still use software samplers to isolate interesting parts of tracks and combine them with other layers into a patch to create a completely new, playable instrument that exactly reflects the sonic world of the production you’re working on at the time. That makes is completely unique, like, for example, the lead sound on Tour de France 03.

Although you can’t impress those around you with a little computer in the same way that the guy sitting behind a five-meter Solid State Logic mixing desk could, I’m equally impressed with the laptop virtual studio, which now also offers total recall for a complete 3D mix.