In the Studio: Gardens Of God

The Lithuanian DJ-producer weighs in on equipment, inspiration and more at his homelike studio.
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It’s been a good few years for Mindaugas Lapinskis. The producer, who nowadays operates under his Gardens of God moniker, has been making music for television and radio for over 12 years—but it wasn’t until early 2014 that he completed his first EP, a techno-heavy release laced with his trademark sinister synth line that subsequently caught the attention of Maceo Plex’s Ellum Audio imprint. Following this success, Gardens of God has since gone on to release four more acclaimed EPs, the latest of which, Montana, landed just last month on Ellum. To find out more about his production processes and inspirations, XLR8R visited Lapinskis in his Lithuanian studio.

How long have you been in this studio?
About six years. Before that, I was in another studio a few blocks away, which was much smaller, and there were neighbors upstairs—which is always going to be a problem, of course!

This studio seems very warm and homey. Is there a certain thing that you look for?
Well, I spend a lot of time here, so it needs to be cozy. It’s like home! When I’m super tired, I take a nap for 15 or 20 minutes. In my old studio we had really bright white lights, but that made it feel very cold. It felt like it was something from a magazine.

Do you manage to switch off from producing when you leave the studio?
No, I can’t switch off. Now when I’m traveling a lot, I try to create melodies in my head, and then I write it in my computer—just so that I don’t forget. It’s always repeating in my head. If I had my studio at home, I wouldn’t be able to just sit down and cook. I’d have to be in the studio if I had ideas, and I don’t think that my family would be happy!

Do you treat your studio work like a nine-to-five job, or is it just when the urge hits you?
I start about nine in the morning because I have kids, so I take them to kindergarten, and I head to the studio after. When I’m working hard, I might finish very late, but I try to get back for about seven.

It must be frustrating when an idea comes into your head when you aren’t in the studio.
Yeah, but I have my laptop. So I will repeat those melodies, and start to record them when I am out of the studio. But I cannot produce on a laptop. It wouldn’t be possible. I cannot hear that well because it’s not very clean. I might use it to make some sketches, but that's all.

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In terms of making the music, how much of what you do is analog as compared to digital?

It depends. Sometimes it can be absolutely inside the box, and others I want to experiment and do crazy thing, like recording a synth and running it through compressors and EQs. Other times, I might take a sample and record it through a microphone preamp. I’m always searching for crazy, interesting sounds. If it’s digital, I love to run it through an analog compressor.

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But the source of the sound changes?
Yes. I couldn’t say that I only use this or that synth. I use a lot of different things. I love this FXpansion synth, and I use it quite a lot. I’m trying to do stuff with Korgs too. It’s not only one thing or the other.

Why do you use Logic over Ableton?
I started doing everything with Logic 13 years ago. I started with it just because Cubase was a bit more complicated, and I liked to work with MIDI—to play my own melodies and everything. Logic was very good for that…it had very good MIDI. I don’t really know. There’s not much point in moving between platforms, because Logic, Cubase and Ableton all sound good. Some years ago, some were not as good. Now they are all professional.

You’ve obviously got quite a lot of analog gear now. What was the last piece of equipment that you acquired for the studio?
Thermionic Culture—the Fat Bustard II. I’m actually not using it so much yet, because it needs to be wired. I have inputs and outputs, but when I want to use certain things with the EQ, I need to reconnect everything—it’s a lot of effort. That’s why I bought this patchbay, to reconnect it here.

Is there any piece of equipment that you would like to acquire, or are you happy with your current setup?
I would really like to buy some reel-to-reels. I just took my upright piano from the parent’s house, from my childhood. Now I’m trying to record with it. It’s without keys at the moment, preparing to get refurbished. So, in the meantime, I’m trying to touch some strings and record that. I would need some good microphones for that. That’s the next step. I also want better monitors.

What are you using now?
I’ve got Questeds, and they’re lovely. They are almost flat, but I want bigger and flatter ones. I want to make custom ones. I need these. I need many things—I want a good mixing desk, nothing too big, maybe an SSL Matrix. One day! I’d like to connect all the compressors, EQs and that stuff into one thing, which means that I wouldn’t have to reconnect all the time.

Producers are like kids: They love their toys.

Were your initial productions all digital?
Yeah, the beginning was only computer, without any gear. Then I started to know some DSP Engines, like Scope and a few others, TC Electronic. I bought my first TC Electronic Finalizer, which was for mastering. Maybe now, looking back, the sound quality hasn’t changed that much. You can do pretty much the same with plug-ins, but you actually touch that, and feel it. I love that! I became obsessed with analog gear, and I was buying and selling all the time to find the right stuff.

Do you feel you’re slowly shifting back to digital production processes now?
Yeah. You can do almost everything with plug-ins. You can do analog for color. Sometimes people ask what I used for certain tracks, what equipment I used—and I have to say, “None! It’s purely digital!” I know some tricks that can make it sound more analog. You can add that color, sure. I love to run digital synths through analog compressors, or EQs. When I use digital synths, I mostly run it through the Chandler compressor, or the Avalon, to make it sound warmer. Maybe a kid could play with some paper stuff, but loves cars or dolls. Producers are like kids: They love their toys.

You mention adding warmth and color. Is this something you’re very conscious of?
Yeah, synths can maybe too clean and bright otherwise. When you run it through the Avalon, it gets a bit noisier, and crunchier. If you run it through Chandler, it isn’t as colorful, but it does become analog sounding. Even if you aren’t compressing, there’s a THD function that you can run through, and it sounds different.

There’s a sinister synth line that goes through the majority of your work. Is that the PolySix or a plug-in?
No. I think most of what you can hear in my tracks, is Logic’s Retro Synth. I love it, maybe because I know it well. I know every knob perfectly. It’s very flexible, and you can do different things with it!

"I think that the biggest problem with a lot of gear for young producers, is that they might use too much— that’s not a good thing."

We spoke to a producer last week who said that he consciously limits himself to one piece of equipment, and that when his gear breaks, it actually inspires creativity. Can you relate?
Yes. With the new EP, I limited myself to the Korg PolySix synth. When you don’t have too much equipment, sometimes that’s better. It’s limitation, and you find new ways to do something, just with the gear that you have. It means that you do something different, but with the same things. That’s why I would like to sell stuff that I don’t use so much, in order to do something new. I think that the biggest problem with a lot of gear for young producers, is that they might use too much— that’s not a good thing. You should start with something simple, and do everything with that. You can buy other stuff later. I know that Retro Synth from Logic very well. It’s very simple, but you can do very interesting stuff with it.

"My sound has got harder and darker, so I need things to make the sound warmer. It's about balance."

So does the contents of your studio evolves regularly?
Yes, that’s important to keep my ideas fresh. For an artist, every new thing is good. Not because it changes the sound, but because it can inspire. In the past two or three years, I’ve changed quite a lot. Only the Avalon and Chandler have really stuck around. I like buying and using equipment that makes things warmer and softer. My sound has got harder and darker, so I need things to make the sound warmer. It’s about balance—I like to mix those things. But I don’t think that the equipment is what changes the sound—it’s what is in your head.

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When you come in here, do you find most tracks are conceptualized in your head already? Or is it mostly jamming?
Mostly jamming, yeah. Nowadays I am starting to think about melodies more. I repeat it in my head, and then try to construct some songs in my head. Then I get back into the studio, and try to make it. Sometimes it might not be similar to my original thought, but sometimes it works.

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“Are We?” was the first techno track you made. You haven’t used vocals since— is that a conscious decision?
When I’m playing as a DJ, I see that techno works better in a club, and people are dancing. For listening, vocal tracks are easier to keep in your mind, and connect too. Actually, now, I’m working on vocal tracks. “Are We?” wasn’t really a vocal track—it was an instrumental, with vocals, but right now I am doing proper vocal tracks.

Do you feel you are able to do what you want to do in the studio, or do you get frustrated?
I’m not happy with all the music I’ve done, but I’m trying to do better. I can hear what it should sound like, but I cannot quite get it yet.

Do you look back at your first EP and spot mistakes?
Yes. I don’t think I would do the same thing again, but it was still very good. A few days ago, I listened to the EP, because I’m not playing it so much anymore. It sounds good—it’s produced well. It could be better. It’s like when you’re a little child—you make small mistakes, but it is beautiful on the other hand.

Is creativity something that has come and gone over your career, or have you always just felt like you could go into the studio and work?
Well, I used to work in TV, and with pop music and all that. I had to do some work during the days, and there was no time for finding inspiration. You just had to do it, that was it. It taught me to sit in a studio, and work no matter what.

Even now, when you don’t have these deadlines, do you still find that you sit in the studio and fight through periods of production block?
Yeah. I’m doing it all the time. I’m making quite a lot of tracks too—not all of them are completed and released. The releases are only about 20 or 30 percent of what I actually make.

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When you are making these tracks, do you have lots that you are chipping away at, or do you just work on one at a time?

I’m always working on a number of tracks. Some I take to the end and some I stop. Basically I start new things when I see that a track isn’t working.

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At what point is that cut-off? Do you have a time frame in your mind?
No, there is no time frame. I started making “Montana” in February, and I finished it in June. I was just sitting there and trying to do stuff, because I had an idea. In the meantime, I was going touring and stuff. I believed in that track though, because it was sounding good, and I liked the idea.

That is quite a long time. Do they always take a while to mature in your head?
I’m trying to make tracks as fast as possible, basically, because if you are working on them too long, it gets boring. You become less excited, and stop liking parts of it. If you do it in a few days, it’s fresh, and the ideas are more interesting. You just have to leave it for mixing then.

Before you decide to release a track, do you try them on the dancefloor?
Yeah. Even for the sound—sometimes it might sound good in the studio, but need changing for clubs—because it is club music after all.

What are your thoughts on sampling?
Yeah, I use it in the background quite a lot, because it gives color, and sets a special mood. I’m not a big sampler of main parts, or stuff that would be the basis of the music.

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You've said that your first EP was inspired by a "village blown by the sea"—is there a similar inspiration behind all the tracks?

Maybe. Everything inspires us. It shouldn’t be like, “This inspired me to write that.” Sometimes it’s just a sequence of news and then you express yourself because of that. It’s not just one and only thing that inspires you.

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Well, for “Montana,” and the other more recent tracks, can you look back and think of a feeling that inspired you? 
With “Montana” I was touring in South America, and I started it on my laptop. It was the first time that I decided to do something with my laptop. Here was winter, and it was summer there—I was laying on the beach, drinking juice, and thinking about everything here. You can hear it here in the track. It’s pretty dark and cold, but still has something cozy and warm.

How long do EPs take to come together? Did you produce the tracks pretty closely together?
Yeah, “Montana” came first, and then I made the others in a pretty short time. It was straight after “Montana,” but I played them for a few months too, trying them out in clubs. They both changed quite a bit from the first idea, to the final versions. I tried “Montana” first at Off Sonar, in Barcelona. Maceo came to me to ask what it was, and a few days later he was playing in Poble Espanyol, and he asked me to come give him my USB. He wanted that track, and I gave him that.

How do you know when a track is finished?
You just know! When you feel that it sounds good, and you are comfortable with it. When you show someone, and you feel proud of it, rather than worrying about it—then it’s done.

Have you thought about an album?
Yeah, I think that I could probably make an album next year, but I don’t want to rush anything. Now is a good time to make it. I’ve been free from gigs for a few weeks, and been sitting in the studio making tracks. There’s quite a lot of tracks and ideas that are ready. I want to make it one thing, with one mood.

Like a conceptual album? Yeah, that’s hard.
I want to do that to show my flexibility. I’d like to do some tracks with a piano, some ballads, some dance tracks, but to keep them in one mood—a Gardens Of God sound.

All photos: Visvaldas Morkevicius