It’s been a consistently great year (or two) for German duo Max Graef and Glenn Astro. With the starting of Money $ex Records, they’ve been able to sew their MPC/jazz infused seeds about the place, really solidifying for themselves a sonic reputation in dance music. Their activity seems to have caught the attention of Ninja Tune as well, who signed them up for a debut EP this month. In line with this rather notable collaboration, we thought it time to get a proper insight into their creative world. We spoke to them both about their set-ups, music-making routines, and any advice they could give for the bedroom producer. They’ve also taken a few exclusive photos from inside their studio.
Firstly, I’d like to talk about your early days of producing. You’re both now well known for your distinctive production style; very MPC, very Dilla, very jazz-sample based. But has it always been this way? I know that Max, you started out using Magix Music Maker. What were your first forays into production, and what did your early set-ups look like?
Max Graef: I started with a friend on just a Tascam 8 channel tape recorder in the sixth grade, just recording guitars and sounds. A couple of years later I started with more beats oriented stuff with Luds when we were like 14 pretty much with just a laptop, the Crumar Performer and simple microphones or occasionally my old Ibanez guitar. The MPC and other instruments followed much later around the end of 2013.
Were there any major influences you had early on in terms of production? Or has your style simply come out of what was available to you at the time?
MG: I guess both! I wrote down my major influences so many times that I will highlight one record that influenced me that I haven’t mentioned before 🙂
John Frusciante – Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt
I couldn’t believe the raw energy of the record back then. Full of beautiful recording mistakes, hiss and psychadelic atmospheres – supercool record! Of course the limitation of gear shaped the sound too.
Thanks for taking some photos of your studio. Could you talk us through your studio set-up, both as a space and what’s inside?
Glenn Astro: Well at this moment most of the studio gear is set up in my living room at home as we’re currently looking for a space to rent out as a studio. It’s basically a MPC 2000xl, Roland SP404 Sampler, Korg MS2000B, 2 Crumar Performer, Clavia Nord Lead 1 (Rack Version with 12 Voice chip expansion), some cheap percussions, a cheap ZOOM fieldrecorder, TEAC tape machine, Vestax PDX 2000 & Vestax PMC 05 II Pro for sampling and scratching, Kawai 8 Channel Rack Mixer and a pitch effekt rack. Oh and a Macbook of course, running Ableton Live 8 or Logic pro, depending which one we’re using. Soundcard is an M-Audio Fast Track Pro paired with Yamaha HS-80 monitor speakers. Also there’s a Fender Rhodes 73 Mark 1 which we used extensively for the album. Max bought it last year, but at the moment it is in Max’s band practice room and is being used for their band stuff.
Do you share you studio with anyone else? If so, are you all involved in each other’s project, giving feedback and assistance?
MG: I have been sharing it with Glenn for the last couple of months – it was great! I admire the way he produces so I think I learned a lot from that. Feedback and criticism is great from someone you respect musically as much as I respect Glenni!
GA: Well, as I said we’re currently looking for a studio space to put all our stuff together to make it one big thing (including Alex Seidel, Ludwig Labuzinski, Kickflip Mike, IMYRMIND, Max and I). At the moment a lot of stuff gets finalised at my place, but everyone is of course free to do their own stuff, but we’re always up for collaborating or assistance.
You have to throw out every piece of tech you own apart from one – what do you keep?
MG: at the moment I would keep my Fender jazz bass. Definitely the instrument I think about the most right now haha.
GA: As we don’t have the most expensive gear it wouldn’t be a big problem to buy it again, but if I had to, I guess I’d keep the MPC.
Is there a part of your set-up that holds more sentimental value than practical use?
MG: haha almost everything haha! The Crumar is always detuned, my sound card has the worst quality, the MPC can’t read from the card and the new Crumar Roady I got for the band project just shuts down from time to time. I love this unprofessional uncertainty! I love when the harmonizer does what it wants! I couldnt work if everything was working perfectly haha.
GA: Not really, I tend to sell and rebuy stuff a lot, so except for the MPC my studio set up has changed a lot over the years. If I get bored from a synth or drum machine or whatever I rather sell it to get a different piece of gear. This always helps with the creativity process as well.
If you could add anything to your set-up, what would it be?
MG: hmm maybe a Polymoog.
GA: If I could have anything, no matter the current price, it would be a Jupiter 8 or a Moog Memorymoog, but this will never happen, at least not in the next few years.
Do you have any rituals you go through before you head into the studio?
MG: Not really. For the last month Glenn and I had a coffee, talked about ideas and then started pretty much straight away!
GA: For me it always depends. Sometimes I just start to fiddle around with a sample and build up a whole track from that, without knowing where it’s gonna go. But there’s also times when I know I want to make a certain kind of track or beat. When Max and I were working on our album together we had the tracklist and knew what each song should sound like before we even had the music. That was a quite radical and limiting way of working, but in a totally good way. It really forces you to focus.
Do you like to have a particular context or destination in mind before you make music?
MG: with the ninja project we had an idea in the head before making the first sound but usually I like to surprise myself just as much.
Are there any places you go to reset your mental hardware, in between studio time?
MG: My bed haha, my Mum’s place or the cinema with my girlfriend. Nothing crazy.
GA: I just recently picked up on my studies at university again. I think this is a great way to get new input and also to get away from this whole music thing as it sometimes tends to get a bit dull to only talk about music and DJing and all that.
Once you’re in the right headspace, do you follow a specific process you go through when building a track?
MG: Not at all. I guess there is not a perfect way to start and it also depends on whether you have a sample you want to build on or create something from scratch.
GA: Not really. I still don’t feel like a professional musician so it’s always kind of a trial and error process to be honest. Whatever works out best.
A lot of your records enjoy the play-off between sample and machine, do you enjoy using the same equipment each time you make a track or do you like to change it up as much as you can?
MG: There is only so much we have in the studio so we ended up using the MS20 and the Reel to Reel in almost every track. Usually I use the MPC for the drums, so that’s one I have used in almost every track in the past year. I think music can be made with whatever you have so I don’t have a favourite combination of gear or anything like that.
GA: I often really get into one piece of gear and use it intensely for a good period of time until I get really bored of it, or when I feel like I’ve pulled out everything I could from it. It happened like that with the Microkorg for example. I used it for almost everything on every track of mine for more than a year until I decided to sell it. Same with my Roland JX-8P or the SP 404.
How often do you record your own samples, if at all?
MG: Pretty often I guess. I often recorded Rhodes, bass and added some drums and then I would sample my own track. I also love to remix an old project and try something very different with the same certain parts.
GA: It’s both worlds really. We do a lot of percussion and drum recording using weird stuff like bottles filled with sand or rattling with keys or whatever, but also using standard drum kits a lot.
When it comes to mixing and post-production, are there any routines that you go through, software wise?
MG: For the Ninja stuff we did the mixing in Logic because it’s pretty good for final mixdown results. I usually try to leave some headroom for mastering but often I also just didn’t really care and the result was sometimes just as good. I think this perfectionism in audio engineering is rather unnecessary.
GA: Crank up the limiter as far as possible haha.
Speaking of Ninja Tune, how did your release with them come about? Big step up for you both!
MG: After the Scruff remix I was asked to do, we stayed in contact and at some point we just talked about releasing something with them.
GA: Well, they simply asked us, as simple as that haha. Max and I both had a Solid Steel mix before. Max had already done a remix for Mr Scruff and I was in contact with Alex Patchwork who at that time was also working for Brownswood and signed a track of mine for a Brownswood compilation. He then started working at Ninja Tunes (I hope I’m giving the right information here right now). So yeah, I guess the guys already had us in the loop.
For people with primitive bedroom set-ups (like me!), what piece of advice would you give for making the first step to more serious music production?
MG: just do what you want I guess. Learn for yourself what works best and don’t watch Youtube tutorials on production technics haha.
GA: Totally the wrong guys you’re asking here haha! We both still use very very primitive audio setups ourselves. I guess a major step for me was buying monitor speakers though. Other than that it’s trial and error most of the time 🙂
And finally, beyond your Ninja Tune release, what’s on the horizon? Anything coming up with solo/collaborative projects and Money $ex Records? Any plans to follow in Max’s footsteps and start a Glenn Astro live band?
MG: We got a lot lined up for Money $ex. Stuff my Dad did, with a little bit of bass and keys from myself. Heaps of EPs from the likes of Kickflip Mike, Christopher Rau, Twit One and Knowsum, a psychedelic project by Hubert Daviz. Kon and I have finished a whole album for ninja (not sure if we can announce that yet!?) and of course my band project:)
GA: Well, not really planning any live stuff at the moment, but we’ll see. Definitely looking forward continuing the M$ label, there’s a lot of exciting stuff coming after Max’s band album as well. I guess I’ll do some solo stuff again, but not sure when. Kinda slowing down on the remixes at the moment too. Maybe a good thing to give people time to digest all that stuff that’s already out and also still is to come out.
Photos shot by Chrissy Fahrenbruch.