‘I can always make music’: Talking Tech with Alberta Balsam

Rotterdam-based producer Alberta Balsam considers dance to be medicine; a means of sustaining connections with one another. It’s this idea that motivates her musical creations – she’s never been constrained to a specific style or sound, instead it’s the mood or emotion that guides her.

Whether its slick IDM, off-kilter acid or electro, the ability to create has always come naturally to her. In fact, even if it’s only 10 minutes, she finds time to make music every single day. On top of her recorded productions, which include singles and remixes for Carista’s United Identities and Tzusing, she’s become known for her live hardware sets which are constantly evolving and changing.

In November last year she shared her first full EP with the world. Higher Dreams, released on Dekmantel, sees Alberta explore her love of science and science fiction, telling the tale ‘of a quest for survival on a planet ravaged by ecological collapse’.

Off the back of the release she invites us into her shared studio space in the centre of the Dutch city, walking us through her stacked set up and her approach to production.

Higher Dreams is out now on Dekmantel.

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

When I was about 16 we had to make a song in high school, I used a video camera to record several takes of piano, my voice and a super cheap casio keyboard. I compiled it all in Windows Movie maker. So technically this was my first ‘producing setup’. 

My first ‘serious’ production setup was a digital piano, some KRK Rokit 5s and a Novation SL midi controller.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

A vintage Korg MS-10, the sound was killer, and I seriously regret selling it. But being laptop-based at that time I really needed something with MIDI capabilities. 

What’s your musical education?

I’ve played classical violin as a child and piano as an adolescent. I also have a bachelor degree in Music Production and Composition at the conservatory. 

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

My studio is based around my laptop and Ableton. I send out MIDI to a Kenton Pro MIDI splitter. The MIDI drives the vintage synths, those that do not have a USB connection. I own a Roland JX-3P with a KIWI mod, it’s a fairly recent purchase but I absolutely love the sound. Some of the other synths like the ESQ-1, the Micromoog and the Sixtrak are borrowed from a friend. One of my more recent purchases is a Pearl Syncussion clone that is absolutely fantastic. I sequence it using CV tools from Ableton or using triggers from the Analog Rytm.  

The Elektron gear I use is connected via USB, and I use Overbridge to get it into Ableton. I sequence synths with the Digitone sometimes, like my little 303 clone or the vermona and I get it into Ableton via Overbridge too. I really love the way it works now with the recent update of Overbridge. 

I have a Tascam MT120S and various BASF tapes from different time periods. I had the idea to use it as an analog tape overdrive. It was connected to the patchbay, but now I am lazy and short on inputs on my interface. Maybe I am going to use it later in the finishing process of new music. 

I also have a small modular rack, I used it with the Moog Grandmother that I’ve now borrowed to a friend. I want to use the modular rack not as a synth, but as a live vocal/instrument processor, but I am still in the process of improving the layout and getting most out of the components. It’s not there yet, let’s keep it at that. 

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

It is located in the middle of Rotterdam, next to the central station. I share it with Jeff Solo, and we split the rent. 

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?

I love working in a cosy, homey space and feel at home here, so I’ve made some effort into making it vibe, adding the plants etc. As I share the space with another musician, switching between both of our setups easily was paramount. I use a Mackie Big Knob so we can easily switch sources between mine and his. We can now also make use of both of our speaker sets, which is great for mixing. 

I’ve also invested in some studio furniture like the rack space on the desk and a patchbay. The patchbay actually isn’t connected because I recently was in quarantine and brought all my stuff home, then I realised the patchbay makes my head zing and I actually like it more without the fuss of  patchbay. 

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

My studio has been a gradual accumulation of gear. For me it is really important that I connect on a visceral level with gear. It should inspire and otherwise I would rather use Ableton than going through the hassle of connecting cables. I feel now again that I have too much of not so fantastic and that I should pair down and then buy something else again. 

I think once you start to get to know yourself and what you like you start to connect with certain pieces of kit. I like to not restrain myself to a certain time period or genre. I try to be more of a minimalist so as not too have to much overlap in what a certain synth can do. 

For the IDM based beats and the sampling and sequencing in different ways I own the Octa and the Rytm. The Syncussion is a very good addition to that because it has the synthesized drums and it works in such a different way than programming beats in Ableton or on the rytm. Besides that to me pads/synths are very important in my productions. That’s why I own the JX-3P.

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

GAS, I guess. For me it can be either a sound based decision, a lack of inspiration or something that is an addition to my liveset. 

If money were no object what would you add?

A Deckard’s Dream or a Moog Model 10.  

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

The Syncussion, it’s the one thing that to me is completely irreplaceable by a soft synth or VST. I would like to have the real original one though.

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets? 

It’s something that is continuously evolving and changing. Sometimes I feel like a mad man as I am changing my live setup again because something went wrong last time. I use a hybrid approach of completely sequenced music with the Elektron’s and then also getting some samples into the Octatrack and Rytm that are exported from my productions. Then I have some synths that I switch up and a reverb that processes synths etc.  

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

Nope, I can always make music. There is so much gear and there is so much music out there that inspires me. I also always make a little bit of music every day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes on my laptop or iPad. I think it keeps you going and makes sure that you stay in the right headspace. 

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?

I actually like to vary in terms of creative approach. I often give myself assignments. Like creating drums from scratch, programming my own synth sounds or starting out with a bassline or musical concept. Sometimes I start from a certain vibe or emotion I want to accomplish. 

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?

I think I am somewhere in the middle. I create my tracks in quite an instinctive rush, often in bursts of just a couple of weeks, and then start ironing out. I wish I was more of a perfectionist, that I would have the skill to have every crease gone. There’s nothing worse then listening to your tracks that are already sent out for release and cringe over the levels of your hi-hats or realizing your bass drums do not have the impact you want at all. 

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

I think there are so many approaches to starting a new track, I do not really ever have writer’s block. I think I struggle more with a finishing block. How can you get this to the quality you want and have everything work. 

What inspires you outside the world of music?

I love science and science fiction, I am very interested in new developments in science and I have loved space since I was very young. Cooking is also a major inspiration for me, it’s a creative act that also involves making people happy, and it’s also about finding a perfect balance, but also making things interesting. I love art and going to museums and I am inspired daily by my super-inspirational, talented friends. 

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

Well I think it’s actually Ableton, there is not a singular piece of kit that got used more. 

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

I am so looking forward to getting back to a week of music and sun in Croatia at Dekmantel Selectors this year.

Higher Dreams is out now on Dekmantel.

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