‘Flexibility is an important trait’: Talking Tech with Legowelt

When you think of artists who can really “talk tech”, we’d guarantee Danny Wolfers’ name would be up there. As Legowelt, he’s widely reputed for his extensive mastery of all things hardware; he’s definitely no stranger to a synthesizer.

Those countless days spent with his machines have led to a musical output which is nigh on infinite, flitting between everything from electro to techno, ambient and house. Over the years plenty of labels have come knocking at his door, the likes of Clone, Bunker, L.I.E.S. to name a few, while his own Nightwind Records has also provided a place for his musings, both as Legowelt and under his given name.

Though he’s graced many imprints over the years, there’s one label that Danny’s work sadly never made it to: legendary Utrecht-based U-TRAX. The label played a pivotal role during Danny’s formative years, and led to him sending his early demos to label boss White Delight. But, in a cruel twist of fate, the tape ended up in someone else’s mailbox and U-TRAX never heard the music before taking a 21-year long label hiatus.

But now, all these years later, it’s come full circle after Danny and White Delight had a chance meeting back in 2018. Finally the pair have teamed up for a compilation, which sees Danny pick some of his favourite classics from the back catalogue, along with some of the upcoming releases penned on the label. Following the release he gives us a guided tour of his enviable studio set-up and talks us through the different hardware iterations he’s had over the years.

Legowelt’s compilation ‘U R Here 20/21 Vision Vol. 2‘ is available now on U-TRAX.

What’s your musical education?

None or well, when I was really young my parents tried to put me on piano and violin lessons but I hated that, I hate any type of school or lessons, I have no attention span for that. I just want to explore things myself, just go in there and do it, a lot of time without really knowing what I am doing not thinking too much about it. If you keep doing it, keep trying a lot of times and having fun with it, sooner or later you do something right I guess.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music? 

A Commodore Amiga computer with Protracker and Octamed tracker in the early 1990s. This Octamed sequencer came on a floppy with an Amiga computer magazine. I am convinced that floppy started hundreds of music careers.

Equipment like samplers were very expensive back then, when you are a kid you don’t have any money for stuff like a second hand 1000$ sampler. Thats what I really wanted back then, a sampler, but they were an unreachable dream, even something like an AKAI S900. So I had to do it with the Commodore Amiga computer, truly the funnest and most creative computer ever made. It could sample in acceptable quality, 8 bit samples like the Ensoniq Mirage. The Amiga with Octamed was like the Fruityloops/Reaper of today, you didn’t need anything else to make music and you could really make songs on it that could be released, sort of.

Here is a ‘funny’ story about my first hardware sampler: Analog synths were super cheap in the 1990s, I got a Korg Mono/Poly for 250 guilders or something, thats probably like 125 euro. I really wanted a sampler so after a few months I traded that Mono/Poly with a Roland MKS100 sampler. That was my first ‘pro’ sampler and I used it for years, I still have it. But it can sample a maximum of 4 samples with a total sampling time of 8 seconds in total, so 2 seconds per sample. Nowadays the MKS100 is worth like the scrap price of old metal or something…

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

A Yamaha DX21 FM synthesizer. I had no idea what FM synthesis was, I thought I could make like 303 acid with it, or do like crazy filter sweeps. When I came home with it I was of course a little bit disappointed. There are just these cold sterile sounds in it and I had absolutely no clue on how to program it, no knobs to turn, just little green buttons to press and a small LCD screen and endless mathematical drab and schematics printed on the synth. Like owyeah Algorhythm 8 has a carrier and operator connection at 2 and 3 ha cool. It didn’t make any sense to me.

But I started to learn to program it slowly just by trying buttons and could make some interesting sounds after a few months. I learned that you don’t have to understand what FM synthesis actually is – you just gotta know what the buttons do, understand the ‘controlling’ system and what it does to the sound. I did recognise a lot of DX sounds from records I loved, like when I played the solid bass preset I thought “hey that’s like Orlando Voorn’s Solid Session”, or I would have something similar to those typical FM sounds in U-ziq’s Tango & Vectif album. That really helped against the disappointment the DX21 couldn’t make any 303 acid sounds, I was like if these people could deal with it and make awesome music with it I can at least try.

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components? 

The studio is always changing I don’t really have a concrete set up, a lot of synths and gear are in closets, lent out and in other rooms, this is sort of the room that is dedicated to be a studio. I just moved in here so its all a bit fresh but it might look completely different next month.

Yamaha PSS480 this is a synth in the consumer keyboard synth line of the PSS series, this one in particular uses 2 operator FM synthesis that’s even more simpler then a DX100. That uses 4 operator or 7 operator like a DX7. But it sounds incredible, really characteristic dusty tones in which you can hear all the artefacts of the circuitboard, really dusty and noisy but in a good way. It’s the same kind of chip used in old PC sound cards, it has this 1990s RPG fantasy vibe like intensely.

Old samplers, I use these sort of like looper pedals. I just play some sounds by hand or sequence and record them as a sample in these machine. Change some parameters and put them back in Ableton or whatever I am using as DAW. Its amazing how these samplers can affect the sound, all that talk about DA converters and the warmth of old samplers thats not just mumbo jumbo gear dork talk. It’s all true for sure.

The prophet 2000 makes everything sound more iron concrete, gives it a heavy iron like bottom, quicksilver like… hmmm it’s difficult to explain but people that know the Sequential sampler sound will understand what I mean. The AKAI S900 is just instant fuzziness, not so tight but nice especially if you set it on the lowest resolution .TheX7000 and S612 transpose everything in a shadow of our reality

The MKS100 is just like a blanket. These old Roland samplers are not so famous or cult as the AKAI’s or EMU’s or whatever but they have an unique fuzzy warm sound… woolly definitely.

This thing with digital lower bit resolutions also exists in effects processors, these old 12 bit reverbs and delays make everything nice. I am not too much in the new reverb processors which sound super perfect, its  just a bit creepy. Its like this uncanny valley of sound its too perfect but somewhere off. I guess all this stuff why it sounds nicer if its in a lower resolution is that the brain likes to connect the missing dots, there is information missing in the sound, its not too detailed and then the brain can grasp it more easier or something but also fill in the missing stuff… hmmm I don’t really know what I am talking about one day in the future I will try to explain it a bit better.

Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

I just moved the studio from the seaside, I was literary 100 meters from the sea before, now its in a more forested area beyond the dunes. Still close to the sea but a little bit more inland.

I share my equipment with other people like lending it out and stuff but the studio itself not really.

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

When I moved in here there was already this cool desk with the plants in it and I always need a window. I need some kind of view. I have a view of a forest now,  they say its part of the last surviving ancient forest in holland that once ran across the whole coast line, but I think they cut everything down in the second world war in this part, for firewood and they launched the V2 rockets from there too. Anyways they replanted a lot of stuff after World War 2 so its definitely not an ancient forest, but they are getting close to eighty years all those trees.

I don’t really like to go in that forest, there is this sinister atmosphere like the forest knows humans are its enemy or something. You don’t feel very welcome. Especially at night there is this dark, sinister force oozing out of it, especially now when its really silent with the curfews and lockdown. You get these chills in your spine if you look into the tree line for too long, but I love it, it’s like living on a border between two worlds, it’s very inspirational.

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change? 

Yeah I always have to change, you always discover new ways to make music, you get better at stuff, you keep learning and with that some technological aspects change too.

But you have to change also to keep the inspiration, make it exciting and fun… if working in the studio becomes a mundane boring task it’s all over.

I used to have everything ‘set’ in a place, I had this huge mixer a Tascam M3700 but for me it was very uninspirational,  I need to move things around all the time, all the equipment has to be super flexible, I got a lot of things on wheels like a little mixer rack, 2 19”s racks etc. I am also not really fixed to my ‘official’ studio space, I can set up some synths in the living room or wherever I want if I feel like it. A lot of times I mix down entire albums on the living room couch. I got all the parts in my computer and set up like 3 different sets of speakers. Then I mix it down switching between the different speaker sets, I use a Presonus Monitor Station for that, just to make sure it sounds good on every possible speaker.

Changes are also warranted by certain jobs that need to be done in the studio. if I do a soundtrack its important to have a screen in the ‘centre of attention’ everything is kind of focused on that then, I just shove some synths around it,  like a bunch of spectators, and figure out a way to work that is the most efficient. But changes are also warranted by more ‘hobby fun’ stuff, I have these waves were I get fascinated by certain types of instruments.

Like a few years ago I was really into digital rompler synths, you could buy like 5 of them for 100 euros. Some of these frustrated gear forum types go they are not real synths, but I never understood that why these people say they not real synths. The waves, oscillators are made out of samples but you can mangle and filter them like crazy, especially in stuff like a JV2080 or EMU vintage pro/Proteus 2000 etc.

If money were no object what would you add?

Ha probably a Bosendorfer 290 Imperial grand, or a small church organ. A powerful desktop computer with 2 big screens.

A nice carpet, a studio with a a majestic view. A rack with those boring super expensive compressors and EQ’s where you can’t hear the difference but it looks all professional — like a Fairchild compressor and put a Casio SK100 through it. 

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

Its more the other way around when I get out of the studio (that’s basically my house), I need to prepare to get into a normal headspace so I can cope with the outside world.

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

That depends on what needs to be done in the studio. The funnest thing is to go into the studio and just let it flow out of the mind in a haze of hyper focus, that is how albums like Unfolding the Future with Amateur Space Jazz, Eden in a Sea of Misery, A Vampire goes West etc. are done. Like when you are done recording you have no idea how you did it, it’s a strange thing like you got hypnotised and it just flows out of you. Sometimes I find these tracks on my computer and I don’t know if I made them, I suspect I did but I am not sure. Remember a few years ago Jeff Mills accidentally released a track he got as a demo from someone else as his own, all these twitter losers were like ‘what an outrage’ or whatever, but I was like that’s something that I could totally see happen here, and especially when everyone is making carbon copies of your sound.

But its not all hazy and mystical like that, like when I got to do a soundtrack, let’s say I got to do music for a certain moment in a video game and it’s very clear what needs to be done then one knows sort of what synths and sound to use, how to approach it etc.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

Both and everything in between. Like I said before it really depends on what I am working on… flexibility is an important trait to have in this field. Normally it goes something like this: a raw very instinctive approach in the beginning and then its fine-tuned in detail sort of (if needed) not saying the creases are ironed out, only if they don’t fit. I might put some extra creases in somewhere else. But this process can also be the other way around.

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writers block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

If something is not working I just change the approach or stop doing it. Many times I am working on something for a long time and then just before it’s finished I change the whole thing completely because I find a, for me, better or more perfect approach. Like working on an album, I will make a whole bunch of tracks and in that process the more you work on different tracks the clearer the picture becomes and what the album is going to be in the end. So I start making new tracks that push earlier ideas in different directions.

Then the tracks I made in the beginning for a certain album won’t end up on the album, like with the last ‘Pancakes with Mist’ album there are a lot of tracks I made that didn’t end up on that album, I probably can make another album with those or they just end up somewhere else. You know the ‘Tips for Life’ album I did last year was a bit of a collection of tracks that didn’t make it on other albums. Just to clarify I don’t claim they are imperfect left overs because I think they work quite good together on that album, it has this ‘a bit of everything feeling’, lot’s of different colours going on.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

My unbounded loathing for mankind yet also having an unfounded faith in it at the same time. Books, things I see and experience.

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your latest album, and why?

EMU EMAX II because its on the cover of the album and the instrument looks supercool with those pink letters. It was already listed somewhere in a worst album covers ever list. so not anyone agrees I think ha. I had this idea for the cover a long time already, I just had to wait for the right weather and atmosphere. There was this corner in my old garden that just looks like a magical fantasy land, with the ferns, rocks, trees and path leading uphill. One day I felt this is it, the moment — the light is right there is a little bit of dawn mist etc. It was in April or May 2020 really early in the morning, we set up everything up really fast. My wife cooked the pancakes and made the photograph. It was done in 20 minutes.

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

I am working with a Polish synth company on something super cool that will come out later this year, I am super excited about this but it’s all I can say for now.

Also I have been working on a feature animation called Ambient Trip Commander the past few months. It’s a bit like Ari Karusmaki’s Match Factory girl meets PI but then in a bit more experimental animation form. For the freaks my hero in animation is Al Jarnow he used to make a lot of Sesame Street animations in the 70s and 80s. One of his most profound animations is called Cosmic Clock which influenced me a lot. When I saw that as a kid it changed my perspective on time and space, it introduced me to the concept of ‘deep time’.

Anyways AMBIENT TRIP COMMANDER tells the story about Samantha Tapferstern who works a mundane job at a synth store. She spends her lonely evenings playing RPG’s and doing some amateur hacking. One day she get’s a mysterious invitation to visit a castle deep in the European Alps and travels to there. The plan is to score the animation live on synths at theatres and clubs but yeah we have to see when that will happen, I really hope to do this soon.

Legowelt has just released his compilation ‘U R Here 20/21 Vision Vol. 2‘ on U-TRAX.

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