Interview: Martin Buttrich
Martin Buttrich has grown to become one of techno’s most respected DJ-producers, renowned for his technical prowess. Danny Turner discusses the esoteric production skills hidden behind his unique sound
Launching his career on the ’90s German club circuit, Martin Buttrich cut his teeth collaborating with former partner in crime, DJ-producer Timo Maas. With more than 100 co-productions under their belts, including remixes for Depeche Mode, Fatboy Slim and Green Velvet, the duo bagged a Grammy nomination in 2003 for their remix of Tori Amos’
Don’t Make Me Come To Vegas. This education helped Buttrich learn his trade and begin building his own discography.
Over the past 15 years, the German has become a highly influential producer in his own right, producing a formidable discography of dance music on numerous iconic labels including Desolat, the Düsseldorf imprint that Buttrich co-founded with Tunisian DJ-producer Loco Dice. With his uncanny ability to manipulate beats and passionate love of hardware, Buttrich’s gritty, era-defining sound is partly attributable to his state-of-the art studio and a 20-year sample collection.
Did you learn a lot about production from doing remixes?
“I was making music for three or four years before remixing came along; I was just a house/techno producer who had little idea of song structure or how to deal with vocals. So remixing a pop song, or something that has that structure, was definitely a fantastic way to learn. Analysing the stems taught me to raise my skills a little when it came to learning the basics about song arrangement, layering and how to record double vocals.”
Which remixes stand out for you, either because they came out well or those artists had once influenced you?
“The ones that turned out the best were the really painful ones [ laughs]. The remix of Depeche Mode’s
EnjoytheSilence took me about six weeks to finish because there’s always that pressure of ruining a famous or successful song. That one gave me a few stomach pains, but I think the Tori Amos remix of
Don’tMakeMeComeToVegas came out pretty good. There are remixes I’m really proud of, but trust me, there’s also a bunch I wish I hadn’t done.”
Like so many producers from your era, you started making music with an Atari ST computer and Cubase?
“Exactly – the Atari computer, an Akai MPC1000 sequencer and my friend had an old Yamaha SY85 that had multi-mode, so you could use eight or 16 different sounds together. The Atari came with Cubase 1.0, which if I’m not mistaken only had 16 MIDI channels to trigger external synthesisers, but there was no audio.”
With the Atari’s limitations, it’s hard to believe people made the music they did back then…
“Well after the Atari there was something called the Falcon Pro MIDI, which changed everything because for the first time I was able to import and record six mono or stereo tracks and move an entire vocal. That was quite revolutionary for me; without it we wouldn’t have been able to do the remixes because we were only using an E-mu e6400 sampler. Try to imagine doing a vocal remix when you only have a sampler. You need to cut the vocal section into little samples and put it all back together again using MIDI. At this time, the only proper DAW was Pro Tools, which was much too expensive.”
Would it be fair to say you couldn’t afford hardware either?
“In the beginning, hardware was beyond my reach, but I moved into a studio with Andy Bolleshon and he had a Roland TB-303, 909 and an SH-101. I used his stuff, which was another step towards making my productions better. He’d also bought a Juno-106 and a Jupiter – in the mid-’90s, people started throwing those synthesisers out on the street. You could buy a 303 for cheap, but by then you also had Logic, so it was a bit of a gear revolution.”
Did your music go up a level when you started integrating hardware into your process?
“By then I was a writer and producer and my colleagues were more into sound engineering so I could get my stuff premastered. That was a good combination because I learned a lot. We joined a studio collective where there were some different types of producers who were a little older and became my mentors. When it comes to equipment, there are so many different levels, but there’s a limit to what you can achieve when you don’t have the right resources or the quality.”
Does that still apply today when it comes to digital technology?
“It’s incredible what you can do in the digital age, but in 2000 digital wasn’t that great yet. RME was starting to make interfaces, but by then I was able to use a little Pro Tools system, which made a big difference when it came to sound quality. It took me up to eight years to figure out the perfect way to record a sound into my system, and also how to record a song. Back then, it was a big mystery trying to understand how I could get the sound coming from my speakers onto an audio file. Pro Tools gave me a big advantage – I was finally able to record live instruments like guitar, Rhodes or an analogue synth properly. Of course, digital has levelled the playing field, but mixing and mastering are further levels that will elevate the quality of your music.”
You seem to have gone from software to hardware and back in the box again?
“I personally believe it’s important to just develop; it doesn’t really matter whether everything is recorded in analogue or digital. If I’m using a plugin synthesiser, I’m usually sending it through a Manley EQ or something similar to give the sound more warmth, so it’s not too clean. For me, it’s more about trying to get the best of both worlds.”
“I don’t use drum machines much – I find them a little bit stressful”
You had a studio in Hannover, but you’re now living in Barcelona?
“I spent a year in New York, took some equipment with me and wrote quite a lot of music with Loco Dice. Then I returned to Hannover before deciding to move to Los Angeles. I left all my analogue equipment in Germany and only took the stuff that was a little more stable.”
Why Los Angeles?
“I spent five years in LA because I had a nice dream about diving into the world of soundtrack, advertisements and movies, but in the end I am a man of routine. I felt a bit isolated there and my routine was completely interrupted. Barcelona is an amazing city, I have lots of friends here and, because I DJ so much, it seemed a logical move. I was also lucky enough to find a studio that was big enough to ship everything that was left in Hannover.”
These days, you’re quite a big fan of using Native Instruments’ Maschine in your production process?
“Yes, I really do like using Maschine. Native Instruments has a lot of fantastic instruments that are nice to handle and I can fill them up with all my sounds. The problem is that I do many sessions with other people and still work a lot with the Logic EXS24 sampler connected to Pro Tools, but other musicians don’t always have that compatibility. A lot of them use Ableton, which I also use for a little bit of sound design, but having Maschine is an environment I know and it’s much easier to take to a session because Native is one of the few companies whose products work across all systems.”
Do you tend to use it just as a sample library or for programming?
“Mainly for making beats, but I also have a lot of little samples from the past that I collected over 20 years. So if I have snippets that I sampled from a hip-hop song, I can put them in the library and it’s super-easy to play around with. Unfortunately, Logic’s EXS sampler is pretty much outdated, but I’ve been using it for almost 20 years and it’s quite important for me to work with things I really know because I can do it much faster.”
So is Maschine the first tool you’ll go to when conceptualising a new track or project?
“I never make a track the same way, I just do what I feel, but Maschine obviously helps me to make music while I’m on the road, in planes or hotel rooms. I might start from there because it’s a nice tool, but everything always ends up in the box on my big computer. If we talk about drum sounds, for example, I don’t use drum machines much – I find them a little bit stressful. Over the years, I’ve sampled everything I need and I’ll live off those grooves. Maybe I’m a little bit old-school, or was never really into drum machines, but I’ll sample from vinyl then go through the sample libraries on the EXS sampler or Maschine and move them into the sequencer as an audio file.”
At what point do you commit to audio?
“Oh my god, this is like the worst question you could ask. Over the years I’ve learned that you’ll lose too many sounds and songs if you don’t convert to audio early. I try to make everything sound as good as I can – not too extreme – and then I’ll sample it as audio. Otherwise, I’ll record 500 versions and never decide which one I want to use or move something on a synthesiser and the whole sound is gone. This especially applies to drums or bass sounds, I’ll sample them once I’ve found the right quality or production chain and then just leave a little backdoor open.”
Does the rhythmic side take precedence over harmonic or melodic elements?
“In the main, I would say yes. I’ll start with a little groove then maybe add a bass or melody. I never know exactly how it will happen, because there are also moments where I have a nice pad sound or sample and I’ll build something around that, but usually there’s at least a groove or rhythm underneath it.”
Where do you derive bass sounds from?
“For me, bass sounds have a different dimension when they come from or go through analogue. My two favourite synths for bass sounds are the Roland
SH-1 and the Moog Voyager. I also have to admit to using the TAL-BassLine-101 quite a lot, which is a free plugin. I’ll typically send it through a GML EQ and a Manley compressor to give it a little more rawness before it goes through my analogue mixer.”
So all sounds go through an analogue chain before ending up on your Pro Tools rig?
“Yes, there is always this analogue chain that I’m adding to the bass sounds. If I use a plugin synth sound, I’ll go out of Pro Tools and into a Neve 1073 preamp. From there it will go into a compressor if needed, and maybe another analogue EQ to balance everything out. That goes directly into the mixer before I record it into a converter and back into Pro Tools. It’s quite a long chain, but I always like to use enough outboard to fill up the synth sounds with analogue frequencies.”
Why did you decide to settle on that particular outboard chain?
“Well the Neve 1073 is great if you can get it – I find it turns everything into magic. There’s nothing you can’t use of course, but I happen to like them because I once used an old AMS Neve 1073 mixer. They take out something from the lower mids and high bass frequencies that may be mumbling or sound disturbing, and what’s left seems to fit immediately into a mix. To be honest, I can’t always explain it – I’m really not someone who goes that deeply into what a machine does.”
Is having a deep knowledge of how outboard works a necessity, or is it sufficient to go just by what you hear?
“Of course I understand what a compressor does, but I probably don’t use some of my equipment in the right way. Some super pro engineer might sit next to me and try not to look when I adjust the compressor because I always go a little bit too extreme. I’m not really a technician. I know what’s good and I know how to use something going by my own definition, but if you ask me to speak in-depth about frequencies or dissonance, I have to admit that sometimes I have no idea.”
So you’re not one to pick apart sound frequencies, for example?
“Well it also depends on how good your acoustic treatment is. If you can trust your room, a spectral analyser is not even necessary. It’s never a bad thing to check that your frequency is sub-harmonic, but that takes a lot of energy and I’m not the sort of person who will look and say that a frequency ‘looks’ bad because something that ‘looks’ bad can actually sound fantastic.”
What was the thinking behind your choice of monitor speakers?
“I have a bunch of them. I started using a pair of old Genelec 1031s, which I still have, but I allowed myself the luxury to get really good amps. I haven’t found another reference monitor that gives you all the important stuff, especially when it comes to volume – they’re unbeatable, but I was looking for something other than my Genelecs because if you turn them up too much they start limiting and when you hear the master it’s not that thumping. So I went to EMES, a German company, and got the Blue HR and Amber HR subwoofers, turned them into a three-way system and put them in my wall. I have to say, the speakers are not quite big enough for my studio, but to fill out this whole room would blow my budget – I don’t have £50k right now.”
Are you using any synths or other hardware to generate sounds?
“I have a Korg MS-20, a Minimoog and I’ll sometimes use some percussion or foot pedals. Every now and then I’ll use the Rhodes or borrow some synthesisers from other people. These days, I’m working a lot with effects, so I’m using Eventide and Lexicon reverbs, which can turn a very simple sound into something that’s magic. So I’m sampling effects, turning them around and putting them through more effects again.”
You don’t seem to have joined the modular crew, yet?
“Don’t laugh, but I’m probably the only one who doesn’t have a small modular system in my studio, so my next goal is to get myself a very simple setup. I’ve seen a lot of people working on them and I’m quite impressed and curious about what can come out of some of the newer models right now.”
Is it a case of trying to find new sounds that have not already been created elsewhere?
“I remember when people would ask me where I was getting my sounds from and I would say, don’t tell anyone but I used a preset [ laughs]. It’s often a question of perspective, but it’s also a little weird if your song has the same sound as one you made from the year before. Now it’s a little different because there is such a big amount of sounds you can find and 95% of the time I’ll add reverb to them in my own way. I also have a good friend in Toronto who has a synthesiser museum with some unique stuff. If you use a PPG synth, for example, it sounds incredible and very unique, but they’re hard to get hold of. I like to get results and when something sounds good I’ll go with it rather than change everything for the sake of it. I’m slow with my own productions because I try to make things sound extra special, which is not always good. Sometimes I think I need to use a producer.”
You seem to enjoy collaborating quite a lot?
“I enjoy making music alone actually, but every now and then like to spend time in the studio with other people. Over the last few years it seems as though I didn’t do anything other than collaborate, even if that’s not how I usually prefer to do things, but I also like helping other people to elevate their productions. One of my favourite things to do is arranging; cutting parts out and adding parts to make things sounds a little more interesting sonically. I feel that so many songs could be better if the sounds were just positioned a little more gently or aggressively.”
Are you using much from the software domain?
“All the modern stuff that I have is on my laptop because my main computer still uses an old Pro Tools HD192 system and I’m still working on Pro Tools 7 and Logic 8. Someone told me, never change a winning team, so I’ve left my computer as it is for 10 years. I still use Trilogy and Omnisphere, because I love all the original synth emulations that are on those. I like to use Komplete FM8, Moog Modular G Force and TAL VST plugins, but I’m also working a lot with sample libraries like Hollywood Edge and old Giorgio Moroder libraries, because they sound a little more raw and have more weight. Sadly, I have a bunch of plugins that now don’t work anymore because I did an update or the companies went bankrupt; I should really start to update my studio a little bit.”
What do you do when the ideas aren’t coming?
“We all have days when it just doesn’t work at all. I’d say, don’t give up, although sometimes there are days where it seems absolutely pointless. When that happens, I find there’s always something else to do, like cleaning up your samples. I believe that if you’re creating something new then you need to be in the right mood, but if you’re finishing something up it really helps to just stick with it. But I’m an extremist – I love working out problems and trying to find different solutions, and I can spend hours and hours doing that.”
You have an EP coming out soon – what can you tell us about it?
“In the summer I finished a record with Enzo Siragusa on FUSE called the ThreeSquared EP. I also did a lot of remixes that are coming out soon. Now I’m working on a project with Matthias Tanzmann and Davide Squillace called BetterLost
ThanStupid, which we’ve spent quite some time on and will be released on Skint at the end of the year. Right now, I’m in the mixing and final production phase – which is three weeks late so everybody hates me right now!”
Do you need to give yourself a deadline or ask someone to tell you when to stop? Otherwise, how do you know that you haven’t gone too far on a mix?
“Well, you should always have a backup of an old version – even if it’s just an audio version. This can happen with electronic music, where you’re one or two decibels out on the bass or the compression is bad and everything goes wrong. I’ve worked on a few albums where we ended up going back to the demo and just overdubbed a few sounds. Sometimes you need to be honest enough to say to yourself, I’ve just wasted three hours – if something’s not working, kick it out.”
You once said that when you play music in front of somebody else, you can immediately hear what’s wrong with it. Is that to do with your own insecurities?
“100%. I’m not running around saying I have a certain set of skills and knowledge; every day is fresh and sometimes every song feels like my first day making music. When you play it to someone, I wouldn’t say it’s embarrassing, but you sometimes get the feeling that something is not coming. That’s why you should always play your music to someone you trust. Not just anyone, however, as that might confuse you even more.”
At what point will you decide to take it to somebody else, so that you can get an objective feel for what you’ve created?
“When I’m very desperate and don’t know what I’m hearing anymore. But if I’m not sure, I’ll just record it, leave it for four or five days and have another listen. That seems to give me a different perspective and suddenly I know what parts to cut out. It’s funny, because sometimes you feel like a track is a disaster, but when you come back in a few weeks it sounds amazing – and sometimes it’s completely the other way around.”
“Every day is fresh and sometimes every song feels like my first day making music”