Dig through Berlin artist Phillip Sollmann’s output as Efdemin—from his 2004 debut on Dial, Kleine Wirrniss, to Naïf, his latest outing on Curle Recordings—and you’ll find a minimalistic thread running throughout. Sollmann allows his tunes to unfold in a natural, flowing manner, never forcing or overcomplicating things. Due to this, each and every track—and every element within each track, for that matter—has a strong idea at its core. Take 2010’s “Secrets Of Shoeshine,” for example, which utilizes a wall-shaking bassline, relatively simple drum programming, and trippy, sampled chords to deliver a six-minute deep house club weapon; or 2014’s “Some Kind Of Up And Down Yes,” a deep techno track dripping with character that, as Sollmann states below, consists of a beat, a bassline, and a DX7 pad. This ability to inject personality into simple, familiar dancefloor tropes is a defining quality of Sollmann’s work—and he has stayed true to this ethos across three albums on Dial (Decay, Chicago, Efdemin) and close to 20 EPs on Curle Recordings, liebe*detail, Diamonds & Pearls, Dial, and his own Naïf.
Sollmann’s DJing, too, subscribes to this minimalistic format. Anyone that has caught him in action can attest to the way he lets tracks breath in a set while carefully sculpting key aspects to blend in the mix—which segues into his latest endeavor, Naïf, a 29-track offering that walks the line between the album format and a mix CD. Naïf is made up entirely of unreleased cuts from Sollmann and valued collaborators, all of which will end up as releases, with two landing on Curle and five on Naïf. The way the release has been painstakingly curated to unfold seamlessly like an artist album is itself a direct metaphor for Sollmann’s artistic career—one that favors subtlety and patience over obvious, in-your-face dancefloor cues. With this in mind, we enlisted Sollmann for our latest Artist Tips feature to provide insight into his studio processes.
I don’t think I'm the best person to give production tips on a technical level, but I can tell you a little bit about what I think is most important when it comes to composing music.
Every time I enter the studio it feels like it’s my first time. I have never had established formulas that I follow, and I think that is one reason why I still love doing it. Sometimes when I feel the need to get professional compression on a certain instrument or a better mixdown, I attend the YouTube academy and get it done with a little help from Pensado's Place or some other expert wasting their time making videos for guys like me. But most of the time, I try to ignore the rules and just follow the sound, as that’s what matters.
So that’s where I start.
Ignore the Rules
I am quite impressed by the level of perfection that many contemporary producers have reached. At the same time, I am extremely bored by the streamlined sound and textures that repeat certain formulas over and over again. What made techno so great in the first place was that there were no rules to follow because it was all new. I think this has been lost a little now. To really stand out, I think you must consciously ignore what everybody else is doing; instead, you should aim to discover your own sound and mode of expression.
It’s the same with DJing. It’s so easy to prepare a whole “perfect” set on a computer and present it later in the club; but then there will be no surprises for you and no surprises for the audience. It’s, of course, much more dangerous to play a set without knowing exactly what will happen and there’s a lot of fun to be had adjusting to the situation.
Applying this to the studio, you can easily get lost, but that’s where the great things happen—when you just let go and open your ears to what is actually possible rather than trying to sound like someone/everyone else. I think you have to pretend like it’s 1996. This, of course, can take years, but it’s worth trying.
I guess you have experienced it already: you keep working for hours on a track, or even a loop, trying to perfect it—sometimes even for the whole night—then you come to it the next morning and realize that it’s not even nearly half as good as you thought it was!
Taking a break saves a lot of energy and time and, most of the time, you get a new perspective with every break you take. Go outside for five minutes, have a drink, or just stop the music and come back to it after a while. In doing so, you will gain a lot of depth in your perception of what you are actually doing.
But remember that breaks are sometimes dangerous. You might run into a friend, have a drink, and lose track of time and space. Once you get back to work, your enthusiasm and direction are gone. I think you must be intelligent for when you take your breaks; this comes from experience.
I once shared a studio with a friend. One day I took a break for lunch, received a call from a friend and moved to the other side of town to help him. It took me half a day to get back to the studio and, on the way, I was already anticipating a continuation of the work I had started in the morning but when I opened the door I was shocked: my friend had no clue what I was doing and switched off the main fuse when he left. Everything was gone! I tried to restore it, but no chance. So you see: taking breaks is not without risk.
Listen to Your Environment
I know it’s very convenient to just use sounds from libraries that come with every DAW these days, but it’s so boring because so many other people are using the same sounds. I think this is where field recorders are so useful because they are cheap and they sound amazing. So why don't you go outside and bang on everything you can find (not people or pets, please) and see what sounds will come out? Many tracks of mine contain sounds from things like the iron fence in front of the studio, a bass drum made out of the wooden door in the toilet, the ambiance of the backyard at night, and so on.
Another great option to achieve a more unique and personal sound is sampling. I strongly believe in sampling sounds from the records you like. Each sample delivers a good portion of noise and character, and you won't get that from a plug-in!
Another amazing source of character, weirdness, and noise is a hardware sampler. I have three different ones and use all of them from time to time: Ensoniq ASR-10, Akai MPC 2000, and AKAI S 612. The last one has become a key instrument in my studio setup. It is unbelievably simple and limited but sounds fantastic and is so easy to use. The parameters include a filter, decay, LFO, and sample start and end. Using a mic I often find myself singing or talking into the machine. I have never been disappointed by it. Simply the best piece of gear. Check out this video and see if you can get one!
If you can’t find one, you might wanna look for some nice sounds in your environment. For example, there is a bridge close by my studio which has fences on both sides. Since I was a kid I would beat on everything to see how it would resonate and sound, and I haven't stopped doing it ever since. So, of course, I banged on the bridge's fences and got rewarded with a beautifully tuned sound close to a steel drum. I recorded it one night when there were no cars passing by and used the samples in "Wonderland (The Race For Space)" from my Chicago album (Dial, 2010). Then one day I talked to my friend John Gürter and told him about this beautiful bridge and he started laughing out loud and played me a track he made out of samples from the bridge himself!
To give you another example, on my debut album, Efdemin (Dial 2007), you can find the track “Knocking at the Grand.” The Balafon-like harmonic percussion sounds are samples from a recording in Vienna where I was banging on the outside walls of the Museum of Modern Art, Mumok.
Delete All Those Lame Tracks
I am absolutely convinced that one reason for the flood of boring productions is the possibility of having unlimited tracks in a DAW. When you’re working on more than eight tracks, I think you lose focus of what is really important in each track. So instead, why don’t you try limiting the number of tracks? I think four should be the maximum, but you should definitely have no more than eight!
If you are lost in a composition and can’t get the track done it might be time to delete all the unnecessary accessories and get back to the core of the track. On my last album, Decay (Dial 2014), you can find a bunch of tracks where I did exactly this. After I had recorded tons of tracks in my studio in Berlin over the timespan of one year, I started working on the recordings while in Japan for some months. It was a very interesting process. As the machines were far away and I had only recorded sound files to work with, I had to really identify the key aspects of the tracks. What I basically did was clean up everything and identify the core of each composition. I also deleted a bunch of tracks and this helped me to see the tracks clearly, reducing the music to what is really important.
My favorite track, “Some Kind of Up and Down Yes,” consists of only three things: a beat and a baseline made with a modular system run through a Moog lowpass filter and a DX7 pad on top. It is very simple and some might think it’s boring, but it’s a great example of deleting everything unnecessary for a huge amount of clarity.
10 years ago I also wrote the track "Acid Bells" with just an 808, some bass, and a simple line played by some physical modeling plug-in by AAS. It’s one of the few tracks that I still play in my DJ sets myself.
The same goes for my track "Move Your Head" from my recent mix CD Naïf (Curle Recordings). It simply features a Roland TR-808 run through an Eventide H3000, pads from the microtonal app Tuning Vine, and my voice. It is limited to the max.
Play Your Shit to Others
This is something that is sometimes shocking and sometimes makes me cry. Playing your music to others while you are trying to finish it might help you identify what’s wrong within seconds. It’s often the case that you’ve been working on stuff for hours—or days—and then your friend will tell you the problems, even after just one listen. You might even realize that you have been cheating on yourself with that cheap bassline or that stolen loop from the library. In short, the second pair of ears helps a lot to listen to what you are really doing.
Whenever I have something that needs to be finished, I play it to one of my neighbors in the building where my studio is located. Ed Davenport, who works next door, has been a great help throughout the years, as has John Gürtler, who I collaborate with sometimes as Sollmann & Gürtler. They’ll often find the obvious and redundant parts of my tracks within seconds.
Sometimes even just imagining a certain person sitting alongside me can work. After I had completed the score of “Monophonie” for Ensemble and was listening to a performance of it, I imagined I was my friend Lawrence (Dial Records head) who couldn't make it that night. I had to laugh many times while listening to my own music with the imagined ears of someone else: and I realized how typical the music was—"typically Sollmann."