IN THE STUDIO:
Techno trailblazer Thomas Schumacher has become a pillar of the German electronic scene, pushing the envelope with endless curiosity. Danny Turner chats to the DJ-producer about his Natural Rhythm EP series
Thomas Schumacher The German DJ/producer gives us a glimpse at his studio and tells all about his Natural Rhythm EP series
Thomas Schumacher has long been known for his eclectic DJ sets and raw and intense techno releases stretching back almost 20 years. Adopting an individualistic approach, the ‘Schumacher style’ has become the driving heartbeat for not just his own releases but numerous high-profile remixes including Marc Almond, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode and Afrika Bambaataa.
In the studio, Schumacher stays true to the principle that techno demands reinvention. With its creator’s finger always on the pulse, last year’s
Natural Rhythm series of EPs took one step back to move two steps forward. Re-embracing sequenced 303 motifs, Schumacher dug deep into his emotional core to create a selection of mesmerising acid journeys, interlocked with his trademark signature breaks.
Take us back to your childhood. We understand Depeche Mode’s Construction Time Again was an influence on you?
“It was the first LP I ever bought. I was completely blown away by its sound, because I’d literally never heard anything like it. Later on, I became a huge fan of Depeche Mode because I really liked their industrial feeling and sequencing. I even purchased the Suzuki Melodion because Martin Gore used it on Construction Time Again and wanted to see what he did with it. It was interesting to discover how he made it sound so cool, because if you play the Melodion without any effects it sounds more like a toy than a proper instrument.”
You did a remix for them recently?
“I did a tribute remix of Everything Counts together with Victor Ruiz at the end of last year and was able to work with all of the original tracks, which was so interesting because I could see how they layered one melody over another. Just for fun I tried to recreate the final mix, but it wasn’t easy – they put so much work into it to make it sound perfect. It was the same as when I did a remix for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ s Welcome To The Pleasure dome. I got 50 or 60 stems from the original recording. On one side, you get a really good idea of the songwriting and what’s really happening, like the layering of harmonies and all the intricate little sounds, but you also realise why they had proper mixing engineers that did nothing but bring it all together.”
You released a trilogy of EPS in 2017 titled
Natural Rhythm. How did you want the tracks to come across to clubgoers?
“I didn’t start with a concept, it developed during the recording of the second EP when I got into a flow and I could see there was a connection between the four tracks I had recorded. Right now, rave is coming back into the techno scene. There are these original elements that a new generation of producers are discovering but using in a totally new way, like these old orchestral stab sounds. Because I DJ all the time, I hear these tracks and they inspire me to go back in time and use some of my oldest sample banks to create something that is relevant to 2018. I also get a big kick from playing these tracks in my DJ set after they’ve been released.”
That’s the benefit of being a DJ and producer…
“It’s the biggest benefit. Not only can you test the tracks but you get the reward of playing a track out and getting a reaction. That really inspires me and I always come back from a weekend of doing DJ sets into the studio full of ideas.”
The EPs are full of massive-sounding synth soundscapes. Is this your modern take on how techno can evolve past typical boundaries?
“Definitely. For the track Stella, which is the A-side of NaturalRhythmIII, there’s this massive lead sound coming in the main break that develops over 16 bars. I played around with the oscillators coming from the Moog Sub 37, which is my favourite synth for this kind of lead sound. You would not have heard that in ’90s techno, because it was all four bar loops with lots of filtering and effects, but these days so much more is possible.”
Do you build the track around melody or do you find it easier to get rhythms bedded in first?
“I always start with what I think will be the key element of the song and then I build the beats and the groove around that. I’m already working on the break for what will likely be the follow-up to Natural
RhythmIII, which is the main part of the track. The track will probably be around eight minutes long, but I’ll lock the break in at around 3:30 and then it just flows. I don’t like doing it the other way around because otherwise you’re running out of fuel.”
Do you find that sequential looping can get a bit stale and predictable?
“I do believe that loop-based arranging is not that helpful. Sometimes producers forget to think outside of the box, ‘play’ a little bit more or use MIDI. With loops there’s only that much you can actually do. For example, when I bought the Sub 37, I installed the software that came with it and started to do all the automation with soft synths and plugins but realised it’s not actually why I bought this machine. Now, whenever I use the Sub 37, I play it live, straight into Logic without any major editing. I find that really makes a difference, not just sound-wise but the feeling you can project. It’s not perfectly automated or edited, but oozes character – and that lights me up!”
Do you believe that some element of your sound needs to link to techno’s core. And for you, is that the sound of the 303?
“I know I have my own style – the Schumacher style. Having said that, I don’t like that to be a specific sound or instrument, it’s more of a feeling. I’ve never been a fan of classic loop-based techno with
minimal changes; I like my tracks to have boldness with lots of drama in the arrangement. I’ve really enjoyed using the 303 again – it’s on almost every track. I used to own an original, and throughout the ’90s it was the Holy Grail, but now I really enjoy using the soft synth.”
The music sounds very analogue-driven, not just from the sounds chosen, but its sense of depth and power. Is that the case?
“It’s interesting that you notice that because it’s not a conscious decision. But now I’m thinking about it… yes. The main soft synths that I use are emulations of the analogue ones. I still use the Arturia Mini V a lot, but I’m also a huge fan of u-he, which does fantastic soft synth emulations. In 2004, I did an A/B test with my eyes closed between an original Minimoog and the Arturia Mini V and couldn’t tell the difference. I realised from that moment that the lines are so blurred, which is liberating if you don’t have the budget or can’t find the original gear.”
But you still find digital sounds have something to offer?
“If you gave me one to play around with, I would probably love to have a Yamaha DX7, but my Roland Super JD-990 is a good example of a classic digital synthesiser that I still use every now and then, especially when I’m looking for digitally distorted bass sounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of drum & bass producers used it a lot, because the bottom end is still there and it’s still a really good synth.”
You have a fairly sparse studio with some well-chosen pieces of gear littered around…
“I still use the Clavia Nord Rack 2 a lot in my productions for a very specific reason; it does these amazing bell sounds that really make my tracks stand out. If you solo the sounds, they’re just okay, but within a mix they bring everything together beautifully. I love the feeling of the knobs, and that’s so important. It’s the same with the Sub 37 and the old Waldorf Pulse Plus, which is hard to programme but the bass sound is so unique. These machines help me feel very comfortable and get me in a super-creative zone where things can flow.”
The Waldorf Pulse Plus is one of the few pieces of outboard you rely on?
“It’s my secret weapon when it comes to the ultra-low end. It’s hard to describe, as any proper synth can do ultra-low frequencies well these days, but the Waldorf has a certain punch that I feel is different. It has so much to do with psychology and that goes for so many producers and instruments. I saw this piece on YouTube about Ólafur Arnalds who has so many synthesisers, but he often only uses one sound and never changes it because it’s so good he doesn’t want anything else. If he needs to change the EQ he’ll do it on the mixer. That’s how I like to use outboard too, although I do like to programme sounds on soft synths as well.”
What other key hardware are you using?
“One thing I use every now and then is the MicroKorg because it comes with this really cheap microphone that you can do vocoder effects on, whether for vocals or running drums through it. I also still like to work with the Korg MS-20 – the miniature version they released. The Korg MS-10 was the first synth I ever owned and, again, what is fun is that you have all the knobs and can do the patching yourself. I still find it quite tricky to use, but that’s when the magic happens.”
You’re not interested in extending your knowledge of modular beyond that relatively small device?
“I think a pro would say the MS-20 is basic, but it’s complex enough for me. Modular is a step too far. I’ll check out videos and I’ve tried them in shops, but they don’t excite me. I went to a studio the other day that had all these custom-made summing mixers from radio stations. They sound amazing because you can run them through lots of channels, do your summing and bring everything back into the DAW. At that precise moment I had to have it, but an hour later I decided, thanks but no thanks.”
You prefer software for effects processing?
“That’s right. Early on, I decided to use Waves plugins. They were the first plugins I felt comfortable with because the sound quality is great.
“I like my tracks to have boldness with lots of drama in the arrangement”
I’ve continued to work with Waves, but over the years I’ve added some more to my collection. I am actually considering buying a UAD card this year. For years, I’ve been working with an RME Fireface 400 soundcard, which sounds amazing, but technology has moved on. I’m working with the latest MacBook Pro but need three adapters to allow everything to talk to each other, which is not ideal. I‘ve seen the plugins that come with the UAD cards, which are, again, emulations of old gear, and they sound pretty good. So that’s on my shopping list.”
You prefer to use Logic’s DAW?
“Before Logic I used C-Lab Creator on my Atari computer. Later on, they started Logic and I’ve been using it ever since. When Ableton introduced these great ways of manipulating audio, I quickly got my head around it and started recording a couple of tracks. At that point, Logic had fallen behind for quite some time, but although the audio manipulation on Ableton was much more fun and intuitive, I really struggled when using it for arrangement and the automation was not up to par.”
So you switched back to Logic?
“I used Ableton in slave mode for a while, then Logic realised they had to do something and caught up. But I’m a curious person, so if someone tells me you can do something new on a DAW I will certainly check it out. It used to annoy me that when you loaded an audio track into Logic, it did not know the tempo, but that’s changed now with Logic version 10.4.”
I’ve heard you’ve recently ordered a SubPac?
“Yes, it’s something that you strap to your chair and you can feel the vibrations of the bass in the mix. It’s the idea of you standing in a club and literally feeling the bass in your bones. In the last couple of months I’ve talked to two fellow producers and both told me that it changed the way they do their mixes, and the bottom-end on their tracks sounds really good. As a DJ, you stand in the DJ booth and are so used to feeling the music, so it makes sense to be able to sit in the studio and get these vibrations. It either works for you or it doesn’t, but I’m curious.”
What tips would you give to get a powerful, loud bass without distortion or losing clarity?
“First, I try to remember not to crank up the volume too much during the recording process and work at a level that’s not too harsh. I’m a big fan of taking all the volume faders down during mixing then bringing them back up. Especially when it comes to hi-hats, because when you understand how your ears start to shut down when listening to high frequencies it’s so much easier to create a great mix. I don’t use many compressors during recording anyway and try to be careful with equalisation. Instead of pushing frequencies, try to find ones that you can reduce a little bit, because that almost always works. If you hear your mix and there is a sound that is a little bit underrepresented on a certain frequency spectrum, then just look for the other sounds that share the same frequency and reduce them a little bit. Otherwise, you quickly get into problems because you push and push and push and eventually it’s too much.”
Is there anything else you’ve learned that you wish you knew from day one?
“Knowing what I know now, with the money I saved to buy my first computer, synthesiser or effects rack, I would have actually invested in soundproofing my studio. It’s so important, especially with dance music and bass. Start with bass traps. Buy those guys, put them in the room and you’ll be so much better off, because if you can’t identify the ultra-low end or differentiate between when the kick starts and the bass comes in, it’s a real struggle.”
“If someone tells me you can do something new on a DAW I will certainly check it out”