A Look Over the Master's Shoulder - A Visit at Klaus Schulze's Studio  

The Making of Electronic Music

by Mr. Modular (2002)
Auf Deutsch

A Look Over the Master's Shoulder - A Visit at Klaus Schulze's Studio

With the help of kdm, I could arrange an appointment with Klaus Schulze for the 2nd of February, 2002, and I am very grateful I had the opportunity to visit his studio. Klaus is very busy, so you can imagine that it is also an interruption of his work. Again, thank you Klaus Schulze and kdm for your support.

In the previous issues (only printed in The KS Circle, my explanations were focussed on analog systems and hardware technology. In this part I will try to explain how Klaus works today (that is: in the year 2002). In addition, there are some photos of Klaus' Studio.

A Look at Klaus' Studio

The Moldau Studio is situated in a house somewhere in the forest of the "Lüneburger Heide" (Lüneburg Heath, in Germany's Lower Saxony), a really remote place, probably impossible to find without a detailed map. Klaus lives there together with his wife, Elfi. I was welcomed very cordially, as Elfi and Klaus are very open-hearted people, nice to talk to. Anybody who had the occasion to talk with Klaus after one of his concerts surely will confirm that.

The studio itself is the size of a large living room but is smaller than expected [10x10 meter = 100 m2 -kdm]. If you read the instrumentation list in The Works (available through kdm) or in the Official KS website, you might expect that the studio is a big hall, filled up to the top with racks full of synthesizers. But Klaus reduced the number of instruments to the absolute essential for current productions. Some other instruments are in a friend's house, and some he sold because he did not use them anymore, for example the Big Moog.

The center of the studio is a console with a big 36 channel mixer (Soundcraft), the master keyboard (Quasimidi "Cyber 6"), a computer (Apple Power Mac G4) and additional equipment (see photo). To the left and right of the mixer there are flat screen computer monitors. Below the mixer the master keyboard is placed on a board which is assembled like a drawer so that Klaus can pull it out when he plays music, and push it back when he works mainly with the computer. The computer stands on the floor.

Behind the console there is a big rack with many digital synthesizers (6x Quasimidi "Rave-o-lution 309", 6x Quasimidi "Polymorph", 4x Access "Virus"), sequencer (Doepfer "MAQ 16/3"), mixer, and more (see photo). This huge rack (see photo) was on stage for the first time at the concert in the Duisburg steel works in 1997, and also in Osnabrück in 2001.

On the left and right sides as well as on the whole back of the console there are racks with a couple of synthesizers, samplers, effect processors, amplifiers and more (see photo).

When Klaus works with the computer, the big rack is covered by a screen like the ones for slides projection or films (see photo). The projector is on the opposite studio wall. The computer has three (!) graphic cards, one for the big screen, the other two for the flat screen monitors beside the mixer. In a standard PC, more than one graphic card will be useless or may cause trouble, because the standard PC cannot control three different screens. This is the great advantage of the Apple Powermac. Therefore, Klaus can control three different programs or views at one time. This allows greatest flexibility and comfort. On stage, Klaus uses a notebook (Apple Powerbook) instead of the Powermac.

Klaus still has several Minimoogs and the EMS Synthi A. Both are pure analog synthesizers and he likes to play them mainly on stage. All instruments, even the Minimoogs, are MIDI controlled, so that Klaus can play all instruments with his master keyboard. This means, they are more or less "remote controlled".
The digital instruments can be edited by the computer as well, that is, creating and selecting new sounds.

All cables are hidden in the back of the rack and under the floor, so Klaus can move without tripping over cables. This rack contains only digital instruments, therefore there are no cables on the front side (as with the analog modular Big Moog).

For singers and acoustic instruments, the room has a small cabin which is separated from the main studio room to allow undisturbed recording with a microphone.

And still there are many more instruments in the studio. They are invisible, or as they say today: they're virtual. They are on the Mac's harddisk! These software programs with virtual synthesizers are highly sophisticated, and they can be used alone or as plug-ins for the sequencer software. Today, those programs get more and more effective and powerful (in size and speed). Klaus is using them to a great extent in his current music

The Wizard of EM ­ How Klaus Works Today

How do you expect Klaus to create his music? Sitting in front of his Big Moog, turning knobs, pushing buttons, plugging cables in an out? The sequencer on top running with its flashing lights? Well, that was ages ago. As a contemporary musician, Klaus uses state-of-the-art (= the latest technical development) instruments, of course. The Big Moog has gone, Klaus sold it mainly because he did not use it anymore. Many believe that this is a real pity, because this instrument was so characteristic for his music and an eyecatcher on stage, but for Klaus it was just nothing but an instrument, a useful tool. It was used for the sequences which were typical for Klaus‘ music in the 1970s. Sometimes there were up to five or six sequences at the same time. The album Dig It (1980) was already created mainly with the GDS music computer, whereas the Big Moog was used to a minor extent only. A short time later the Fairlight sampler came out, and KS produced the album Audentity with it (1983). When in the beginning of the 1990s more powerful samplers such as the Fairlight appeared, Klaus used a lot of unusual sounds in his music (rattling doors and more). But even samplers are used today only for certain effects, for example special choir sounds.

Today, Klaus works mainly with virtual synthesizers and other special software on his Mac computer. He uses a software drum machine (Native Instruments "Battery"), software effect processors and other virtual devices. For example, Klaus asks some singers to produce song phrases for him. Then he changes their recorded voices to such an extent that even the singers cannot recognize their own voices.

The songs are not recorded on an analog tape recorder or DAT (= digital audio tape) anymore, but on the computer's harddisk. For this purpose a sequencer program (Emagic "Logic") is used, which replaces the analog tape recorder. It allows much more tracks than the tape recorder, which was ultimately limited by the size of the tape. A sequencer software is mainly limited by the computer's speed and memory.
At the end of the 1980s, such sequencer programs could record MIDI events only: which key is pressed for how long, the movements of the modulation wheel, or other. But for many years it has been possible to record audio signals directly onto the computer's harddisk.
Most instruments used for Klaus' current productions are virtual ­ they are just created by software. They get MIDI events directly from the master keyboard or get MIDI events that have been recorded before by the sequencer software. Then they are remote controlled by the sequencer. This is important to understand. Therefore I say it again: MIDI is a remote control for musical instruments.

Such virtual instruments are highly sophisticated mathematical simulations of an original instrument. Today, even very old synthesizers are available on CD-ROMs again, and these sounds are very close to the original. Former disadvantages - such as difficult tuning and maintenance - have disappeared. On the other hand, all changes have to be made by the computer's mouse, and not by plugging cables in and out. It is not possible, let's say to change the filter cutoff frequency and resonance at the same time and immediately listen to the result. But Klaus does not use virtual instruments in such a way. He creates his sounds in advance and records them on the harddisk. Later, he selects and plays them via the master keyboard. It is possible to change a sound gradually into another sound. If Klaus really wants to change parameters such as filter resonance or cutoff frequency while playing, he uses one of his Minimoogs.
Only the vocoder sounds are still from hardware vocoders, because Klaus says that they sound better. But it is probably just a question of time until virtual vocoders sound as good as hardware vocoders.

All instruments together represent an orchestra. The sequencer software is the conductor. Each instrument is connected to a certain track of the sequencer, which has the function of a notesheet. In the past, Klaus had to plug some cables in, today it's just a few mouseclicks.
Klaus still uses an analog mixer because he says that the bass sound is better than with a digital mixer. As Klaus does not change the mixer settings until the song is finished, he has no demand for the "total recall" function of digital mixers, where the positions of all virtual knobs and buttons can be saved for later re-mixes. The mixer has 36 channels only. Only?

Well, as explained before, Klaus does not use any more so many analog instruments with several single outputs each. As most instruments are on his computer's harddisk, he can mix them on the computer, therefore he does not need many external mixer channels.

But how do the instruments get their "notes"? As explained before, notes are MIDI events. Each time Klaus presses a key on the master keyboard, a certain MIDI event is sent out to the sequencer software. As Klaus selects a certain instrument (= a certain track), only the melody for this instrument is played and the corresponding MIDI events are recorded.
Klaus prefers to play a whole track completely, not to edit it note by note, which is possible. But playing a complete track (the complete melody for this instrument) makes the music more lively and less artificial. After the first track is finished, Klaus selects the next and so forth. Finally several parallel tracks are filled with MIDI events.

In some productions, Klaus uses vocals. As the vocals have been recorded earlier on the harddisk (and probably modified), they form a separate audio track. Today's sequencer software can record MIDI events and audio signals, therefore Klaus can mix both in the same program.
As Klaus can be very enthusiastic, he usually produces much more tracks than he finally needs (or wants). Therefore, on the next day he listens carefully to the recorded music and selects which tracks are useful, which can be improved, or which will be deleted.

Today one can buy floppy disks with pre-recorded MIDI events, they are called MIDI files. This can be an advantage if you want to reproduce complicated songs. Many party musicians use them. In general, such music sounds awful, cheap. There are also MIDI files with classical pieces. Klaus used such MIDI files as a basis for the Goes Classic album. Because these pieces sounded very "artificial", Klaus modified them to make them more lively. Goes Classic originally was just an experiment for Klaus' own studies. He played the music to the artists with whom he produced his opera Totentag, and asked for their opinion. These people, who are experienced classical musicians, encouraged Klaus to release Goes Classic.
MIDI files do not need much computer memory. It was already possible to produce this album with the Atari computer, which had of course not the capacity and speed of today's PCs or Macs.

There are several ways how a musician can compose a song. Some sit in front of the piano and, even if they play another (or no) instrument in the song, improvise until they have an idea. Others write their ideas on a notesheet and try it out on the piano (or other instrument). Klaus has no "universal" method. The drawing on the back of the "Timewind" cover, for instance, was made after the recording has been finished and the album was due for release.

Klaus' current production was initiated by the discovery of a new virtual instrument, which simulates the sound of a Fender Rhodes Piano. Klaus tried some presets, then he edited them into other sounds, and finally he started some improvisations. After playing for a while, he got the idea to add strings, percussion, a Moog solo or vocals.

In Concerts

Today [we are still in the year 2002 -kdm] Klaus uses the sequencer software on his Mac Powerbook to control several of the instruments used in a concert. The sequencer is sometimes replaced by a pre-recorded CD, because the CD is easier to handle and very reliable. In principle there is no difference if a sequencer is playing a pre-programmed rhythm or if this rhythm has been recorded before on a CD. Remember, in the 70s Klaus used a tape recorder on which he had recorded his drum playing.

The stereo signal of his Klaus' concerts is recorded on a DAT recorder. Therefore, the only thing he can change later on is the length of the pieces. He dislikes concert recordings being changed afterwards in the studio. The worst example was the Go Live from Paris album, which was altered in the studio several weeks after the concert, because every musician wanted to improve his part ­ except Klaus. He did not want this, because he was satisfied with his part and anyway he even could not change it, as he had used his analog modular system at that time, in 1976. None of the settings of the Big Moog, the ARP Odyssey and 2600, the EMS, etc. could be reproduced. This would be less a problem with today's equipment!

(The above was greatly observed and written during the time when KS was engaged with the recordings of the set Contemporary Works II. After this visit and report, some of Klaus' studio equipment was offered for sale, including the huge mixer, many keyboards, and effect devices. Meanwhile, in 2007, KS has rebuilt his studio again and the new mixer is now fully digital :-)

The full article The Making of Electronic Music was printed as serial work in six issues of the monthly newsletter The KS Circle (more info available from kdm). We have to thank Georg "Mr Modular" Abts for his fine work!)