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Ask The Experts

Ask the Experts: DeWalta

David Koch answers your questions on modular synthesis, production techniques and forming connections in the scene.

Earlier this year, we were delighted to be able to relaunch our Ask the Experts series—a column in which we hand over the reigns to some of our favorite musicians who have agreed to take the time to respond to any and all your questions. It’s back in full flow now, with one instalment already overseen by Gerd Janson, followed by a session with Mathew Jonson; now, it is the turn of Berlin-based minimalist DeWalta to sit in our expert’s seat.

For fans of subtle, emotive house, David Koch (a.k.a. DeWalta) should be an obvious choice. As a child, the young Koch devoted himself to the practice of jazz, teaching himself for a number of years before winding up at Berlin’s Hans Eissler Music College. All those hours of training would prove priceless in later life, though not necessarily in their intended form; improvisation, a skill so fundamental to jazz, gently guided him in another direction, finding his feet as an electronic musician via years of experimenting.

His style today is unmistakable: check in on any of his numerous releases with Hello? Repeat, Vakant, Indigo Raw, or his own Meander, and you’ll get a sense of the creative skills Koch has at his disposal. There aren’t many out there who can bring together real, expressive instrumentalism with detailed machine music in the same way he can (a talent that is also in part attributable to a deep understanding the ins and outs of his modular studio setup).

So well-rounded are his skills and knowledge of all things musical, that it seemed a natural decision to invite him to become our resident expert. It’s over to DeWalta to respond to his personal favorites from the questions he received from you, our readers.

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I would like to know what kind of gear you usually use. Why do you choose it for the creative process and how do you structure the workflow to produce a track?

I use a wide variety of different instruments in my productions. The Eurorack modular synth probably plays the main role most of the time because it is so versatile. I also have several drum machines from the likes of Roland, Jomox, MFB or Elektron. There are also a few keyboards. The Oberheim OB-6 is the flagship and the Roland Jupiter or SH-101 serve up the old-school classic flavors.

I have owned and sold several synths, like late Moogs, Rolands—or even an Access Virus, which was one of my first synths (it was also the first to leave!). But because I have learned and gained a much deeper knowledge about synthesis and what is going on under the hood of a syntheziser, I have sold many things over the years and invested mostly into the modular synth and drum machines. It is a constant coming and going over here in my studio. I have loved music instruments of all sorts from an early age so it was always clear that I was going to collect them. There are trumpets, three saxophones, a french horn, a piano, two electric pianos, and more. I love being surrounded by musical instruments. It makes me feel comfortable.

About the setup: my workflow and setup has changed a few times over the past 10 years, but nowadays I feel like I have come much closer to an environment that best suits me and my creative processes. All instruments are patched into a 32-channel mixer via a patchbay. 16 channels of the mixer are reserved for mixing and the other 16 channels are for tracking (recording) via nice converters to the computer. I still like multi-tracking and having separate tracks for each instrument in order to change things in the arrangement after I have recorded it.

So, jamming! For me it is jamming first. Ideas come through jamming, trying things out and playing around. Ideas are like fish, so jamming is like fishing for ideas. Since I have the possibility to monitor and sync many instruments simultaneously and record up to 16 mono or eight stereo instruments at the same time, I get the instruments running in sync with Ableton LIVE, the software I use mostly for pre-production of my techno tracks. Once they are all running nicely and something sounds good, I start recording (multi-tracking) those 8 stereo/16 mono tracks into the computer. Of course, I also use over-dubbing later, but the real magic happens when you twist the knobs live.

Later on I edit the recorded parts down to what I like and I put together an arrangement (at reasonable length). I often get carried away jamming so I often have very long recordings that need to be cut down a lot for them to be able to be cut on vinyl.

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If you had to start a modular with a budget below €1500, what modules / case / power supply would you choose and why?

The first that comes to mind would be the Make Noise 0-Coast. It’s an interesting design because it combines the West Coast and East Coast synthesis approaches, meaning Don Buchla from the West Coast with his unique approach to modular synthesis—using lowpass gates (instead of VCAs) and complex dual oscillators—and, on the other hand, East Coast designs famous from Bob Moog. This particular small synth is a full synthesiser in itself so you won't need any cases or power supplies. It goes for around $600 and is fully modular, so in the case you want to extend, you can do so easily. An alternative is the Intellijel Atlantis, which is roughly the same price. And there is also one from Cwejman, called the VM-1. In regards to cases and power supplies, I would advise to always keep in mind the desire to expand once you have started.

I was wondering if you could describe and explain your modular Eurorack live setup. Which are your favorite modules? Which sequencers do you use for that? And are you fully improvising or you have patches and patterns pre-arranged?

I have two different modular setups. One is my studio rig and the other one my live rig. My studio modular setup is quite extensive by now, and it includes the live setup which is 13 rows of 104 HP (1352 HP), pretty much completely filled up. This contains all the modules that I currently own. I designed the tabletop modular cases together with my brother, who is an architect and a building wizard. We built them ourselves in my Dad’s workshop. It was super fun putting thought and craft into something I love: music instruments. Being on tour playing all the time is nice, but I really enjoyed building these boxes in my “private time.”

It is hard to point out “favorite“ modules, but if I had to I would name the Buchla-sytle complex oscillator from Verbos Electronics and a few essentials like the Make Noise Maths or René. Also, I must definitely mention the Cwejman Resonators/Filters like the RES-4 or QMMF-4 because they simply sound insanely amazing! But many designers do great work. Intellijel builds great essential designs like the Atlantis (SH-101ish) or the Metropolis. Somehow my favorites would be essential modules like lowpass gates, the Optomix or LXD. I like things that you use in every patch. But then also something like the Mutable Instruments Elements blew my mind. It offers such a wide palette of textures.

Regarding sequencers: in the studio I use five or six different sequencers which often sequence each other. I like sequences that are “humanized” or changing, evolving, so I use several sequencers to modify each other. There are so many different and interesting approaches to sequencing and I have a bit of a thing for sequencers. I love so many different ones so they found their place in my rack.

For our DeWalta & Shannon LIVE I have recently changed my sequencer on stage from the Audio Damage SEQ1 to the Arturia Beatstep-Pro, which is less organic, less featured, but great for jamming (as opposed to programming) and it handles the road much better. It’s a real workhorse that can handle a few beers as well!

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Hi DeWalta, I love the way you use your modular synths, it sounds amazing. I believe I speak for many of us by saying that I would love to build a modular synth but I'm still afraid of starting. Maybe it's because I have this belief that with the same money I could buy something more studio/live efficient available in today's market. Could you give us your opinion about the subject and any advice to those who want to start building one?

This is a good question and I will try to answer it the best I can: I believe that making music has something to do with our human soul, our emotions, our feelings, and expressions. But for me it also always had something to do with openness and learning something new. Since I like to know what I am doing in the studio instead of just tapping around in the dark, I like learning, just like travelling. And we mostly learn when we confront the unknown. Learning about synthesis changed my whole perspective about sound—how we hear and how we perceive sound.

Investing into modular synthesis will definitely teach you things about synthesizers, synthesis, electricity, maths and even physics in a bigger sense, if not much more about the world and the universe. It is confronting you with what you potentially don’t know yet. And you can always learn something new, even though it might not give you a fast, instant result or even the result you were hoping for. It’s like reading a book, like researching something new, like going to school: you have to be up for it!

So, if you are looking for quick answers and a simple solution then modular synth is not the right thing for you. But if you are willing to learn, study a bit and deepen your insight into “how things work” then a modular will definitely teach you a few things.

The modular scene is vibrant right now. And the beauty of it is that many small designers come up with smart ideas and share them within a market that uses the Eurorack standard. This way creativity in technological designs can have a direct impact on how we musicians make music. Everyone talks to each other and bounces ideas off of one another. I like being involved and I try to talk to designers about their new ideas and what I wish for in the future—it’s like an open market of ideas instead of buying a finished product that was designed to be only that. In this case you don’t really know what’s under the hood of that particular machine. You press a button and the synth does the rest without you actually understanding what happens inside its confined and limited world. In contrast, the modular world is open and continuously expanding and developing.

That said – there are amazing instruments and fantastic synthesizers that are not modular.

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What different modules do you use for pad-type sounds, bass, and higher synths? Do you have one main favorite that can do all of this, or do you use a selection for each different type of sound?

Since I have a few options at hand in my modular rig, I usually use different modules for different purposes. For pad-type sounds, I would choose something like the Intellijel Shapeshifter and its chord function. For bass lines, I would grab the big boys like Macbeth or AJH Moog-style oscillators. When it comes to clean sound sculpting, I would probably use Cwejman oscillators and filters, for example. In general, the whole signal chain, including filters, VCAs or lowpass gates, will give the character of the particular voice. "Filters make the sound of a synth,” they say. They may play the main role, but the whole signal chain obviously matters.

"That is what I like about machines and instruments: just like humans, they carry their own character, qualities and weaknesses."

In regards to drums, do you use specific drum machines or do you have drum modules that you use?

As mentioned above, I have several drum machines. I use them all, but which one depends on which flavour I think best suits the session. They all have different characters. That is what I like about machines and instruments: just like humans, they carry their own character, qualities, and weaknesses. Roland delivers the classic 808 and 909 drums; Jomox is bold, punchy and sometimes brute; the Tanzbär is more classy and elegant; while Elektron somehow combines all of these traits with some special unique flavour in the Analog Rytm. I love the way the Elektron guys combined the full analog sound source with the ability to run samples through the analog filter and amp and distortion section. The Elektron Analog Rytm is crazy versatile but takes some practice to learn. Generally, manuals of new machines are often my bedtime reading.

Do you have any tips for using the René to create sequences? I want to add variation to the pattern without making it sound too random.

Since the René is a cartesian sequencer it requires two clock inputs—one for the X and one for the Y axis. For it to create a 32-step sequence, you would need one clock playing 16th and the other one 1/2th. The X and Y mod inputs allow you to create variation within that step 32-step sequence. Use an attenuator for the incoming signal to the X or Y mod to decide how strong that variation should be. There are also other sequencers that better suit this purpose. The Metropolis as well as the SEQ1 both have CV inputs which can be assigned to many parameters (like pitch, gate length etc.) within the sequencer.

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During your live sets do you change the patches on the modular for each song or just use the same patch throughout? Do you use a sequencer or is it coming from clips from live?

As mentioned above, I use a sequencer to sequence my modular live rig. I have two voices patched up and ready to go. In some cases I do a bit of patching but mostly I just use those two voices for synth lines. In addition to that, there are two separate drum voices from the modular, making it four voices altogether.

Do you follow a formula for DB levels when mixing e.g what db level should each drum or instrument should be mixed to, such as the kick drum at -8db, or the hats at -12 db, or do you completely just mix with your ears to what sounds right.

Mixing down has become one of my main priorities in the last two years. I have been asked many times to "lend my ears," "listen to this and feedback" or "listen to that and comment." I’ve also been asked to mix down a few records for friends and artists I like and I have always really enjoyed the work while taking the required deep listening work very seriously. In the conservatory of music I was interested and quite good at aural/ear-training, so I like to listen deeply. So I decided to invest in a nice clean sounding mixing board and an array of coloring and clean preamps and compressors.

Of course, there are rules like cutting low frequencies in hi-hats for example—but ultimately it is all about a well-balanced hearing impression. Different kick drums, for example, carry different energy levels, so applying a general dB rule would not work every time. The mix has to sound balanced. Knowing your room, treating your room, knowing your speakers: all of these factors play a major role in mixing down a record.

Do you layer your hi-hats and which effects do you put on them? Can you explain to us a little bit more about cutting and boosting frequencies?

I do layer hi-hats, and depending on the track or situation I apply effects such as choruses or phasers to some degree. When it comes to working with an equaliser, I follow the old school rule to rather cut than boost frequencies. For the general frequency response, it often works better to cut the undesired frequency rather than to boost the desired frequency. Cleaning things up will eventually give you more room in the mix. Every EQ or filter has different curves and frequency responses. Just like instruments, EQs have different qualities so you would choose each EQ based on what you want to achieve. Some give character (like Pultec EQs) and others are clean precision tools (Elysia).

How do you approach the creation of a live performance, or how do you manage to re-organize your tracks for a live act?

In our live performances we have realised that the more we improvise the better the show gets. We try to get away from playing “tracks”: the more freely that we play the more fun we have, and the better the show actually is. Computers often prevent you from improvising, which is why we try to implement more and more hardware to substitute the computer.

You obviously work well collaboratively, with Mike Shannon and Cristi Cons, for example. How do you approach the collaborative process? Do you each take charge of one part of a track, or is it just a freeform jam?

True, I do love collaborating. Making music is sharing, and sharing the creative process can expand your own approach to creativity in music. When I collaborate with artists we always start with jamming, just as mentioned above, and any collaborator can change anything within that process—so there is no particular part that is assigned to each artist. However, if you know the person that you’re working with then you get the know their qualities and it always makes sense to listen to each other and take these qualities into consideration. For example, Mike Shannon: Mike is really good at arranging a track so I would often leave that part to him. I would be more of the instrumentalist or the hands-on on the synth guy. The recent collaboration with Cristi Cons was particularly wonderful because we got to know each other on a human level as well. Cristi has an extremely refined ear due to his classic training as a cellist. His ability to sculpt sounds and listen to details was eye-opening to me.

Being a label owner yourself, what advice would you give to someone wanting to start a label in regards to finding/sourcing distribution, pressing plants, and any other behind-the-scenes issues?

Running a label for me nowadays means standing out! Everybody seems to have their own label today, so doing something different and unique is the only way to stand out. In our case, with Meander, we just started pressing records and self-distributed them for the first year until we were actually approached for commercial distribution. The demand for distribution and pressing far exceeds the supply of it; it is a very saturated market. This means that you should not start a label unless you feel that you have something to say that is not yet being said by others in the market. In addition to this, you should not be afraid to sign your music to one of the labels that you like.

"Getting involved with music labels and the scene has to be on a personal level: taking the time to get to know people personally, and talking to them as human beings rather than as "artists" or "label owners" is essential."

I've read in an interview of yours that courage is necessary to be a music producer. Apart from the technical side of making music, how do you think a producer should approach music labels— and how can he/she build connections with people from the industry by starting from scratch? Was it tough for you? How was your experience?

Building a career in music is not easy. I have definitely seen some tough times—but the most important aspect for me, personally, has been patience. It takes time to get recognition for what you are doing, even if you are good at doing it. Getting involved with music labels and the scene has to be on a personal level: taking the time to get to know people personally, and talking to them as human beings rather than as “artists” or “label owners” is essential. This scene lives off of humans and personalities—artists are not just faceless numbers. If you build personal relationships with label owners, club owners and bookers then this will help you build your career. Don’t be afraid to share personal challenges.

In my case, my first record came out on my own label in 2007—without distribution. I walked into the club with a bunch of records under my arm and gave one copy to Margaret Dygas, one copy to Ricardo and one to Zip because I liked their music. Margaret that night played the record. This is a great example of contacting people within the scene on a personal level. Still, however, it took me three years after that to get booked internationally—so patience is important. I believe in gradually building careers rather than rocketing like a one-hit wonder.

Do you think there was a track or moment that gave you a big break? Or is there something that sticks out in igniting your career?

In my case, not particularly. I have been working hard in the studio over the past 10 years and I receive different feedback for different tracks. However, if I had to name one it would probably be People Get Ready on All In Limited. It was actually as an Unknown Artist with a small hint towards to my artist name.

Do you master your own unreleased tracks to test in clubs, or do you outsource that? What are your thoughts on LANDR for doing just that?

Yes, for test driving I usually do a quick master myself. I don’t outsource that because I have also invested in a nice dynamic chain behind my mixing board. I personally would not use a service like LANDR because I do it myself for playing and you can always learn something if you do it yourself. I am comfortable to quickly master for a fast test drive in the club. Often this way you realize what you may want to change in the final song. However, when it comes to actual mastering I completely rely on excellent engineers like Mike Grinser from ManMade Mastering, for example. Working with amazing people in the music, sound, and audio world has made it possible for me to learn. And I am very grateful for that.

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Studio photos: Annemarie Koerten

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