An HP 8060A Word Generator (an obscure piece of telecommunications test equipment from the 1970s) was what initially brought Ah! Kosmos (Başak Günak) and Hainbach (Stefan Goetsch) together. After initially meeting up to nerd out over their shared love for this surprisingly musical piece of hardware, the duo’s subsequent jam sessions eventually led to their debut LP Blast Of Sirens.
When not on tour Stefan hunts down the rarest specimens of synthesizers for his extremely popular YouTube channel, while Başak is a film-composer and in-demand live performer who’s played at festivals such as Sónar and CTM and already has supported artists like James Holden and Julia Holter.
Their debut LP features cosmic, bubbling electro-acoustics, powerful synth work and cinematic clouds of ambience that float between darkness and light. Along the way, the duo took time to go on a field trip and get acquainted with a very rare ARP 2500 synthesizer – an instrument that lent its special flavor to the album’s tracks and samples of which they’ve included in a free download below. In this interview, the two artists explain the process of creating their debut album and provide an insight into their journey of sonic discoveries.
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Hi Başak, hi Stefan, can you tell us how your collaboration started?
Stefan: We like the same things and came across each other in an Instagram feed about the Hewlett Packard HP 8006A Word Generator. I have one of those and so does Başak, and we’re both into finding those non-musical instruments that are capable of making experimental music. After we realized that we live in the same neighborhood we met for coffee and went for a studio session. We said "Let's Play!” to each other and tried out all the equipment I have in my studio – this is one of the benefits of running a YouTube channel. We liked what we heard while trying things out and so we kept on meeting for sessions and that became the foundation of our album Blast Of Sirens.
Başak: While our "coffee session" was mostly talking and nerding out, it was all about sound in the studio. It was like "Oh what's this, it makes this kind of sound? Let's try it out and record it". Choosing sounds was very easy-going. We then took these parts and immediately started arranging them on the go, layering things on top. After several of these sessions we sat down with coffee and a distant view about the tracks and decided on how they would work together in the context of an album. Having a "pool" of tracks, this was a bigger process. We started to ask ourselves if a song was fine or if there was something about its arrangement that didn't work and we'd have to fix. In the end, we didn't change too much and just added some extra layers. Changing the location and the distance towards our songs helped us a lot.
Stefan: For the "bigger picture" we always went to Başak’s place. With my studio being more of a "creative playground" thinking about questions like "In which direction do we want to go with the album in terms of sound?" seemed to be easier there. Since our studios are not far from each other, a quick change of location was always possible. This way we also avoided mixing up the creative process of making music with thinking about how to proceed further with the recordings.
Your first recordings didn't even make it on to the album. Is this "warm-up-phase" necessary before it's possible to express a common "artistic voice"?
S: Definitely. That's why we divided our tracks from the jam sessions into three categories: Tracks we didn't like, tracks that were good but didn't fit the context of the LP and tracks that we liked and that fit the album context. It took us a while to figure out what that meant for us and I remember that "Brute Heart" was the first track that we felt belonged to the third category. There were two typical core elements to this track. First, the sounds from the Axel Line Simulator; a telecommunications tool that Başak played. She coaxed these little rhythms out of it, which she then edited like crazy. I somehow "heard" these piano chords in this rhythmic sound and then recorded them. Suddenly we said to each other "Oh, that's a track appearing!"
B: We had our first track full of impact. There were other tracks based on field-recordings that sounded more "Ambient" but didn't seem to have the same intention to contribute to the story we wanted to tell.
How did you preserve the cohesiveness of sound, given the fact that your recording sessions were spread out over the duration of one year?
B: Getting together to just make music and talking about the album later worked best. It kept us both in a "creative sandbox" instead of stressing out about how the fifth track on the LP should sound during our sessions. Writing and collecting first, deciding and conceptualizing later. This way we didn't feel any stress about whether what we were doing would fit in somewhere or not. We were simply in the mood of our music here and now. The cohesiveness developed over time, even though we were constantly producing new tracks. Some "late additions" can also be found on the album. Decision-making regarding track-selection and running order of the LP was actually the hardest part and took several months.
What is most important, when it comes to making these decisions?
B: You have to be honest with yourself and ask yourself if you really like a track and find it fulfilling. With my solo releases, I need to either have a storyline that is reflecting a situation or emotion that I went through or a sound that kind of hits me in one way or another. Working with somebody else makes decision-making easier since you give each other feedback about the tracks. Another important factor was not to be pushy if one of us wasn't convinced about a certain song the other one liked. Finding that common ground was the key for a good collaboration.
S: At a certain point you gain some sort of "feeling" which tracks will work together nicely. We could have gone in a completely different direction with the album. At a certain point we had the whole LP sounding like our track "Davolia", which has this 70s Italian horror soundtrack vibe. We then looked at each other and said: "It's cool, we like it, but it's not what we want to say!" It wasn't supposed to be a soundtrack for a movie that doesn't exist. We wanted something "standalone" instead, with pieces that can stand on their own feet, even if they would work in a scoring context individually.
You've said that the best moments of the album happened when you were both on the same instrument. Is that just because of the energy of two artists working in the same room or is it more due to a particularly engaging interface on a given instrument?
S: It depends. For instance, the Moog Sonic Six doesn't have MIDI, is not really serviced and only tracks reliably over 12 or 14 notes. So you have to be really precise and can only achieve modulations when one of us is turning knobs while the other plays the keyboard. Different people make different sounds...
B: If one of us played a sound that we both liked, the modulation was "passed on" to the other person - "What do you think of this sound?"
Which elements in your setup played the most important role for not losing the "flow"?
B: Software was crucial for me. I always interrupted Stefan and said: "OK, that sounds good, let's keep it and make something out of it through editing."
S: The way I usually use my studio is walking around, making sounds and recording a stereo file. There's nothing wrong with two-track recording, but through our collaboration I really became aware again of the possibilities of editing. That's why I started to split up things again by recording six tracks simultaneously into Live during our sessions. With so many sound sources around, it would have been dumb to record everything as a stereo file and not be able to edit a bass drum individually.
We're both comfortable with Live, so we could easily swap the sessions between our studios. Başak is faster than me when it comes to editing. For a long time I used Live more like a big tape machine, but now found again my love for its editing possibilities.
Başak, do you have any "do's and don'ts" when it comes to editing and automation in Live?
B: Separating the tracks is really important, especially when it comes to EQing and applying volume changes. I took enough time for decision-making and coffee breaks. In the meantime, it was important that the timeline remained in exactly the same position in order to not lose track and go crazy. As we didn't use a clock, editing was relatively difficult. Everything was in its own flow but off-beat.
S: The clock from the test equipment is super precise, but we didn't want to use an external clock. Instead we were using the "Tap Tempo" function in Live and asked ourselves "Does it match?". The flow sometimes switched really quick; a super loud, happy sound that we recorded to tape would kick in, then a dropout would appear and we'd ask ourselves "What is that? Sounds good so let's keep it." It was great to come across surprises like that because of my studio-workflow, but ultimately it was also about finding a balance between the differences in our individual ways of working.
Which elements of Live did you use and what other software played a role?
B: In Stefan's studio, we mainly relied on Live's internal compressors and saturation tools, while I used the INA-GRM Tools and Waves and Slate plugins for the mixing process.
S: We also used some of the plugins I developed with Audio Thing for recording, especially Noises and Wires, which I think everyone uses a little differently. While Başak likes to use Wires for small transition noises, I heard from Ólafur Arnalds that he uses it mainly to make individual snare drum hits sound slightly different. I use the plugin more like my 1970s hardware wire-recorder as an echo.
What did you have to keep an eye on during the recording process when it came to recording the tracks into the computer?
B: We didn't always stick to the audio engineering “rules”. If a signal was recorded too "hot", it was just fine. If we needed to be fast, we sometimes even recorded with the iPhone. It sometimes suited our tracks quite well with its built-in compression. We didn't want to limit ourselves to do things according to the book. If you're afraid of mistakes, unexpected things don't happen and sometimes something that's considered a "mistake" can be a really good sound.
S: Working with test equipment makes you want to look at the oscilloscope in order to see if there is any strange cross-modulation happening. Also, spontaneous "beeps" happen beyond 20 KHz that you don't hear but make your dog freak out. And there are sudden DC-offsets, that I have my vacuum tube high-pass filters for.
Let's talk about your "field trip" to Den Bosch in the Netherlands, where you got the chance to work with the now extremely rare ARP 2500, in the Willem Twee Studios. This synth was used by Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk and also in scores to some Steven Spielberg films.
S: This machine sounds wonderful, although it's not the most flexible synth. There are "only" 16 modulation routings that work via matrix switches. We used the 2500 on our LP track "Sirens Between" and recorded a lot of material with it that we haven't even been able to sift through yet. It's definitely a synthesizer that you can play with several people, even if you need a lot of space for it.
We recorded a total of four days at Willem Twee Studios, visiting and working in one of the other studios each day. I've never had the opportunity to record a Minimoog before, for example, and was also happy to lay hands on their two ARP 2600s, the EMS Synthi AKS and the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, which fit our music so well.
B: Just a few days ago I listened to one of our songs with the Prophet 5, it sounds so good! And I also loved working with the ARP 2500 since it's so hard to come across one these days.
Which vintage synth was particularly important for the production of "Blast Of Sirens"?
S: The Moog Sonic Six got used on a few songs, but a very special one was the Welson Syntex, an Italian monosynth. It's a pretty rare machine that we used for rhythms via its "Music Random"-function. You press a button and it starts modulating its filters and oscillators with Sample & Hold. The results are incredibly fascinating "liquid" grooves, which we used for the track "Flares Up". It's a very underrated device that almost nobody knows about. It looks like an organ and sounds amazingly wild and super raw.
B: I also learned to appreciate the Sonic Six and fell in love with the Synthi AKS.
What is the most fascinating thing about vintage synthesizers for both of you?
S: For me, it starts with the interface. I have this strange ambition to one day have played every electronic instrument that I find appealing in some way so that I can say, "OK, I know this instrument and I know what it feels like". Usually the combination of a great interface and sound make a machine enticing for me. From a perspective of working together with somebody else, it's definitely cool when both can play the instrument at the same time. I own the Synthi AKS and I think it's a very good example of an instrument that you can play together, which is a way more playful approach compared to skipping through presets. It gives you completely different ideas, which is very important.
We also didn't use MIDI at all on the album because I haven't MIDI-fied my studio yet. This gives a different touch to the sequenced elements. And an analog signal chain has these obvious points where distortion can come into play: Firstly, the instrument itself, but also the mixer, effects units or tubes and compressors on the master bus that refine the sound. And although this is also possible in the digital realm, it is less forgiving.
B: Of course, analog synths like a Minimoog or Prophet 5 have their limitations, which you just have to deal with. But even if they go out of tune for a few notes, this can give a track a certain "something". It's difficult to mimic that with automation.
A somewhat off-topic question at the end. What are three tools or instruments that you would take with you to a desert island to make music and produce?
B: For me it would be a laptop with Ableton Live, the Synthi AKS and a guitar.
S: Probably an iPad with Fluss, the app I developed together with Bram Bos. There also happens to be a video on my YouTube channel in which I produce music on an island with this setup and a Casio SK-1 sampler. If I would go for something more unusual, I would take a Yamaha VSS-30 instead of the Casio. The main thing would be some sort of lo-fi sampler plus the Synthi AKS. That would be a killer setup, I could sell the rest of my equipment and make whatever music I want with it (laughs).
Interview and text: Elmar von Cramon