It is October 2003, and Robert Henke is in Manhattan on business. Henke is best known for the subtle, cinematic music he has recorded under the name Monolake, an extensive catalog of textural ambient techno and stark minimal house. October saw the release of a new Monolake album, Momentum, his first full-length in two years. However, Henke is not in town to promote Momentum, at least not directly. He has traveled to New York from his home in Berlin to attend the 115th conference of the Audio Engineering Society, where he is scheduled to promote a piece of software. On the phone from an East Side hotel, Henke refers to the simultaneous releases, in a characteristic understatement, as “kind of a good coincidence.”
The software program is called Ableton Live. It’s an audio production tool that has garnered not only praise but widespread use from musicians such as film composer Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Spy Game) and industrial pop producer Charlie Clouser (Nine Inch Nails, Rob Zombie). Live has become a standard tool in adventurous electronic circles. It is part of the studio and performance kits of musicians ranging from resolute techno artist Plastikman to microsonic experimenter Taylor Deupree. When the duo Scion produced an extended mix of the group Basic Channel’s early minimal house tracks, the widely praised album that resulted, Arrange and Process, on the Tresor label, was constructed in Live.
But for all of Live’s growing popularity, the Ableton software company’s foremost technological clotheshorse is one of its employees. That employee happens to be a world-renowned electronic musician, and his name is Robert Henke. Ableton was founded by Henke’s close friend Gerhard Behles, who was half of Monolake in its early years, and the two men have traveled to New York to promote Live 3.
During the pair’s presentation at the AES conference, Behles touts the new version’s “time-warping engine” and its “clip envelopes.” With Henke at his side, Behles explains, “We are using real-time quantization to make sure we avoid rhythmical error.” Henke wears the conference attendee’s requisite name-tag lanyard, and he demonstrates the tool’s various features. In order to show Live’s potential as a performance instrument, Henke at one point creates a spur-of-the-moment mash up by combining songs from Aaliyah, the r&b martyr, and Kraftwerk, godfathers of mechanized pop. (A recording of the 15-minute presentation was made available, after the close of the conference, as a video stream on the Audio Engineering Society’s webpage, aes.org.) At first, the scene feels a bit like overkill, as if information-design guru Edward Tufte were asked to operate a slide projector. But then you remember Henke isn’t just an overqualified spokesmodel, he’s one of the program’s developers. And anyway, it’s likely that the retailers and engineers in the audience have no idea who he is.
While in New York, Henke will perform as Monolake at a Live 3-sponsored party, but aside from a handful of interviews about the new album, this trip is an Ableton junket. A day’s work behind him, he settles into his hotel room, while Behles fetches them both lattes. Taking a break from business, Henke talks at length about Momentum, his first new full-length record since Cinemascope, which came out exactly two years ago, in October 2001, the same month that Live 1.0 made its debut.
If Cinemascope was a Michael Mann film for headphones, sleekly remote and stylishly dissolute, then Momentum is a David Fincher production, shot through with fissures of erratic energy, buoyed by unpredictable undercurrents. Henke attributes the more vibrant Momentum to his increased, if still ambivalent, affiliation with rhythm. “I have a really strange relationship to beats,” he says. “I have no problems working in sound. I studied sound engineering, and sound is my world. Later on I realized that there has to be some kind of structure, and I went more and more away from doing soundscape things into doing rhythmical stuff, but I never felt comfortable with the way my rhythmical work works.” From the album’s opening salvo, “Cern,” with its central ping-pong pattern, to the heavily lumbering opening of “Atomium,” to the rainforest trance of “Stratosphere,” Momentum earns its title one track at a time. Not until the record closes, after an extended pause, with the atmospheric “Credit” (as in the closing credits of a film, perhaps), does it cease moving. One wonders, if Henke manages to become as comfortable with beats as he is with pure sound, what will distinguish music recorded under the Monolake name from recordings, such as the Piercing Music and Floating Point albums, attributed to Robert Henke? “The distinctions get smaller and smaller,” he says.
There’s another aspect to Momentum, beyond Monolake’s newfound metronomic self-assurance, that distinguishes the album from most of its predecessors; its second track, “Linear,” features a vocal. “This is a very good example of how technology is influencing the music,” he says. “This sound is a recording of one of those Macintosh speaking voices, this whispering kind of thing. I discovered this sound by abusing the time-stretch function of Live, by just setting all the values which determine the actual processing of the sound to ridiculous high values. I realized when I did it that it sounded a little bit like singing, like a child’s choir.”
Apparently one man’s child’s choir is another’s admonition from beyond the grave. The voice on “Linear” is threatening, even if it’s undecipherable. What the voice was saying before Henke tweaked his knobs isn’t of consequence. He explains that the original words may well have been a sequence of numbers. What matters is how the shape of the human voice insinuates itself into Henke’s typically claustrophobic soundworld (he has made sparing use of voices in the past, notably on the Gravity album’s “Ice”). He reflects on the idea that his use of a voice came about largely by accident, the result of his fiddling with the tool in unintended ways. “This is the kind of interaction that makes it so fascinating to work with computers,” he says. “On one side you are pretty heavily in control of what you’re doing; I can cut things, sample-wise, and I can say that I want to have this 55.607 milliseconds later, and on the other side I’m confronted with completely unexpected results.”
Of course, Henke’s pushing of Live’s envelope has a broader impact than simply expanding the aesthetic palette of Monolake. Henke’s musicmaking is part of the Live software’s creative development. His work in his home studio is as much a matter of troubleshooting (or quality assurance) for Ableton as it is of composition for Monolake. “I’m always working with the latest version of the software,” he says. “In some in-between states, you have a situation where the software is not working, apart from a small portion of it, but I always try to have a version that works, even if some features are, maybe, disabled.”
Asked to define his role at the software company he says, “On my business card there’s this nice word, Conception. And what I’m actually doing is, together with Behles and occasionally with other people, is really thinking of the essential features of the software, how a feature should work. The other thing I am responsible for is all the internal effect devices, which perfectly fits my addiction to sound. I create my own sounds, I test them when I’m making music, and if I’m happy with them, I implement them in Live.” As an example, he points to Live 3’s “granular delay” filter, which he describes as “a perfect tool to destroy a steady flow into particles of sound that have no rhythmical relation to each other anymore.” That effect is heard on the Momentum track “Atomium.”
Henke has strong opinions about the difference between software made for artists and software made for office workers. Artists, he says, are more demanding: “When I am making music and the software crashes, it’s not the issue that this may cost me half an hour of work. It’s the issue of, eventually losing a great idea.” As Henke describes it, Ableton actively errs on the side of improving Live’s interface and usability rather than implementing new tools. The latter he refers to as “the thing which makes every software at some point really unfriendly and really unusable…the existence of millions of features which do not work together anymore,” noting, as an example, the cumbersome specter of Microsoft Word.
Born in 1969, Henke actually came to music by way of engineering, not the other way around. He is the latest in a long line of engineers. “My father and my grandfather and my grandfather’s grandfather,” he says. “All the male members of the family. No one was ever an artist or creative in any way, which made it difficult for me to make music. The reaction from my family was: no one has ever been a musician, so it’s very unlikely you are a musician. This was very discouraging.”
Henke studied audio engineering in school, but only after first enjoying the initial wave of personal computers, teaching himself the assembler language of the early Commodore (“a huge box with a green screen”). “The only thing which was really music-related was a small sampler,” he says of his early programming, “but I never finished it. It was running on a C64, and I spent more time in wiring the analog-digital converter card together than in writing the program. At some point, a friend of mine and I were able to record one second of sound and play it back, and this was the efforts of half a year. For us it was mind-blowing but completely useless because we didn’t have the knowledge to make something useful out of it.” Just recently he bought an heirloom piece of analog equipment he had coveted as a teenager, the PPG Wave 2.3 synthesizer.
Monolake’s earliest music was released on the Chain Reaction label, and those first singles bear all the hallmarks of minimal techno: the sullen ambience, the downtrodden rhythms, the neutral packaging. Henke soon formed his own record company, Imbalance Computer Music, for his releases. Today, Monolake is by and large a single person, who produces his music on software that he helps develop, and who releases that music on his own label. The scenario seems as insular as Monolake’s music often sounds — Henke jokes that the insularity may have more to do with his having been an only child. “I am just a completely self-focused, ego-ish, persona,” he says, and then laughs infectiously.
Of course, his life is anything but monastic; Ableton is a collaborative effort. “On Mondays there’s the developer meeting,” he says, “which I always attend, and I do most of my work at home, but then I am meeting Gerhard or I am meeting other people for discussing things, most of the time at the office,” which is less than ten minutes from his house. (“Seven point five minutes if I walk, two minutes with a bike.”) And Monolake’s releases often bear the imprint of a partner; Behles, though no longer an official member, was credited with additional production on Cinemascope, and Penko Stoitschev assisted on Momentum.
The creative process behind Momentum closely resembles the iterative development of a software project. Like many electronic musicians, Henke employs the “dubplate” technique of testing his work-in-progress with live audiences as he fine-tunes the studio versions. The audience’s response is a valuable editorial tool. “If a detail is wrong,” he says, “you can immediately feel it.” But experiments are for clubs and festivals, not for final releases. On this subject, he quotes Brian Eno: “There is research art, and there’s result art, and I prefer the latter one.”
Henke’s sequential approach to musicmaking begs an obvious question; what is he planning next, now that Momentum and Live 3 are in record shops and computer stores around the world? Well, with those two huge milestones behind him, he’s at work on a little “light” music, a commission from the MusÃ©e d’art Contemporain de MontrÃ©al that also includes sequences composed by Cristian Vogel and Thomas KÃ¶ner, all part of a scenario designed by MontrÃ©al’s Artificiel art collective. “It’s an installation for a total of something like 64 huge lightbulbs,” says Henke, “all controlled by a Max/MSP patch, and they invited people who are familiar with this software. You probably know this, but if you turn down the intensity of a big light you basically hear the hum from the power supply. And this is the sonic part of it — pretty strong lightbulbs, like one kilowatt per bulb.” Henke has also been invited to do a piece based on field recordings. There’s a massive public works project underway in Switzerland called the Gotthard Tunnel, designed to provide high-speed rail service through the Alps. The company overseeing the construction has given musicians, Henke among them, a set of sound recordings of pneumatic machines and incidental noise, and asked them to develop compositions based on the source material. “I recently got the CD of the sounds, and to be honest, I would just release the disc as is. It is so fantastic. All these drilling things.”
Meanwhile, he’s planning his next proper releases. There’s a 12″ single off Momentum, “Cern,” a slight edit of — or, perhaps, one further iteration beyond — the version of the song on the album. “The vinyl version is slightly modified,” Henke explained, in a note on his website, ironically adopting the tone of a sales pitch, “and is up to 30 percent more efficient on dancefloors than the original.”
He’s also contemplating two remix albums. The first is a career-spanning mix of various Monolake tracks, along the lines of Scion’s Arrange and Process: “As I said, I’m always struggling with beats, and I thought, well, let me try and really deal with it. I will not put a four-to-the-floor bass drum underneath everything just to make it work formally, but I would like to establish a constant rhythmical flow between all the tracks. Not using the tracks as tracks, but just cutting really short loops out of them, so you have an element you recognize from a pretty old Monolake record, plus additional elements from a new record, which finally merge into something even newer. This is pretty much the kind of live set I am now preparing.” The other remix album is still in an embryonic state, but he says that it involves a long-form mix of the ambient work of musicians whom he admires. “This is something I could imagine I would release as Henke.”
Two exhibits, two remix albums, a single. That’s certainly more than enough to fill a musician’s time, especially a musician with a day job. Henke, of course, will be back at Ableton’s Berlin office on Mondays. The company’s new edition of its flagship software product, Live 3, may now be available as a commercial release, but all that means is that work on Live 4 is already underway.
The above profile originally appeared, in lightly edited form, in the third issue of e|i magazine in 2004 (more information at ei-mag.com). What follows is an edited, though pretty lengthy, transcript of the interview from which the profile was derived. Since the e|i article was published in print, Monolake has released a new recording, Signal to Noise, and Ableton has released a new version of its software, Live 4.
The above profile originally appeared, in lightly edited form, in the third issue of e|i magazine in 2004 (more information at ei-mag.com). The subsequent Q&A is an edited, though pretty lengthy, transcript of the interview from which the profile was derived.Marc Weidenbaum: Thanks again for making the time for the interview.
Monolake (Robert Henke): Well, it’s no big deal. [laughs]
Weidenbaum: If you could say something, want to make sure that the tape works.
Monolake: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 11.
Weidenbaum: How long are you in the States for?
Monolake: Only for a couple of days. I will leave on, I guess, Sunday, yes.
Weidenbaum: Are you just here to do press?
Monolake: No, no. My second personality, apart from being Monolake, is writing software for Ableton. There’s a conference here, and I talked to business guys about software. So this is the main purpose of my stay here.
Weidenbaum: I read you have plans to do an installation in Montreal. When is that scheduled for?
Monolake: I think it’s in November, late November.
Weidenbaum: Could you describe a bit of what it’s going to involve?
Monolake: Yeah. It’s an installation for, I think, a total of something like 64 huge light bulbs, and it’s kind of a few musicians have been invited to write a piece for these lightbulbs. And it’s something like music for a light installation. So it’s not really music apart from the fact that these lightblubs will make some noise, if they’re turned on and off.
Weidenbaum: So you’re programming the sequence in which the bulbs —
Monolake: Exactly, that’s the idea.
Weidenbaum: Are they laid out in a grid?
Monolake: To be honest, I didn’t find the time yet to have a close look at the layout. The only thing I know is that it’s all controlled by a Max/MSP patch, and they invited people who are familiar with working with this software and I thought, wow, it could be interesting. Because I have seen something in a much smaller scale in Berlin, where someone had a few light bulbs and was controlling it with a computer. You probably know this, but if you turn down the intensity of a big light you basically hear the hum from the power supply. And this is the sonic part of it, I guess.
Weidenbaum: Will the sound be amplified at all?
Monolake: I guess not, as far as I know.
Weidenbaum: I suppose if you have a lot of light bulbs, the sound would add up.
Monolake: I think so. It’s a typical type of listening thing for a quiet audience, and I assume that this will be enough. It’s pretty strong light bulbs, like one kilowatt per bulb.
Weidenbaum: Is this the same installation that will be in Switzerland?
Monolake: No, this is different. The Switzerland thing is for kind of an image campaign for the company that is making the Gotthard Tunnel. They invited artists to work with sound they recorded in the tunnel. I recently got the CD of the sounds, and to be honest, I would just release the CD. It is so fantastic. All these drilling things, it’s basically recording of the work there.
Weidenbaum: Is the tunnel for cars or pedestrians?
Monolake: It’s a car tunnel, but it’s a really big one, like really really huge project. It’s the Gotthard Tunnel tunnel, I don’t know if you — it’s a really heavy project which has been going on for years now.
Weidenbaum: It’s interesting you’re doing music for a tunnel because one of the things I’ve been thinking about this record is that I feel bad for any of your fans who don’t drive —
Monolake: [Laughs] Well, a lot of people describe it as claustrophobic. I don’t know if this is the right mood for driving.
Weidenbaum: The title gives it away, but the new album has a sense of “momentum” to it. I don’t know if this album is any more or less claustrophobic, but in terms of momentum, it certainly has a forward drive. Some of the tracks are downright speedy. But first there are two tracks I wanted to ask you about from Cinemascope. One is “Alpenrausch” and the other is “Ionized.”
Monolake: Oh, yes. OK.
Weidenbaum: Those two are tracks I found myself listening to over and over. They both reminded me of other beats. Do you know the Bo Diddley beat?
Monolake: Not really.
Weidenbaum: In American r&b and pop, there’s a beat that’s one of the fundamental beats of the music [I sing it]. And I hear it on “Ionized.”
Monolake: Oh, this was not done intentionally. It’s a coincidence. Like all these coincidental things, it may be an influence, but nothing which I did on purpose.
Weidenbaum: The other I was wondering, “Alpenrausch,” more than anything else I have heard from you, sounds almost close to hip-hop.
Monolake: [Laughs] I know what you mean.
Weidenbaum: So you’re aware of that.
Monolake: Yeah, I am definitely aware of the hip-hop thing in “Alpenrausch,” which just happened. I have a really strange relationship to beats. I have no problems working in sound. I studied sound engineering, and sound is my world, and the thing which attracted me most when I started making electronic music was the fact that I could generate sound with electronic means. And later on I realized that there has to be some kind of structure, and I went more and more away from doing soundscape things into doing rhythmical stuff, but I never felt comfortable with the way my rhythmical work works. So, I still have my moments when I completely dislike all these rhythmical things. And the fact that Alpenrausch” behaves like it does is something which for me is just because of my bad rhythm. The way these rhythms appear is juts by typing in numbers in my weird self-written sequencer, and I don’t know how to put this in words, I don’t know …
Weidenbaum: So, you feel more distant from the rhythmic aspects of your music than from the atmospheric ones?
Monolake: At least I struggle more with them. They are much more the result of heavily trying something, where the soundscape aspect is something which doesn’t do — isn’t — does not involve any “work.” It’s not a duty. It’s something which just — I switch on my machines and I play with them and the sound is there. And then I spend lots of time trying to make something rhythmic out of it.
Weidenbaum: So the atmospheric just flows more naturally from you. But the beats, you might spend time on it, and it’s still may feel … unnatural?
Monolake: Yeah, exactly. But I slow but steadily think I have overcome this.
Weidenbaum: It’s interesting that on Momentum, the last track is so beat-less compared to the rest of the album.
Monolake: Yeah, I like this idea — the whole record is very much driven, very much like machinery, like the image on the cover. And I did like the idea of having something at the end that is somehow related by the same sonic aesthetic, but on the other side completely different by the lack of rhythm.
Weidenbaum: There seems to be an extended pause at the end of track eight, not so long that it’s going to a hidden track, but still extended. Is that on purpose?
Monolake: I spent lots of time in adjusting the pauses. So, yes, on purpose. I just thought there needs to be some space in between.
Weidenbaum: Could you talk about adjusting the pauses.
Monolake: I tried to. Some experience I have when listening to other records is that I have the impression that the pauses are just there for technical reasons. People made tracks, and they spent lots of time putting energy into making tracks, and no time on what comes between the tracks.
Weidenbaum: Amon Tobin’s last record, Out from Out Where, worked as single piece, because of how the tracks tied together. With your Momentum, it’s the opposite — there’s a kind of pacing between the tracks, a pause. Something ends, then there’s a period in which your mind adjusts, and then you go to the next track.
Monolake: This is exactly the idea, to open up a space where the track can reverb within your consciousness, and then you’re ready to experience the next thing.
Weidenbaum: And also, certain sounds appear on multiple tracks. Like the ping pong sound on the —
Monolake: Yeah, yeah. That’s has nothing to do with real ping pong, but I absolutely agree that it has this quality.
Weidenbaum: And it appears again at least once, on track six.
Weidenbaum: Was that a sound you were fiddling around with and then said, “Oh this sounds like ping pong,” or did you set off to make a ping poing sound?
Monolake: No, the sound just appeared by playing with some reverb. It’s a very short sample and lots of reverb, and the whole thing speeded up a lot. A lot of sounds that have a specific something are of really simple origin and are just adjusted some way. And I figured out I like this sound.
Weidenbaum: What makes it recognizable is that unlike how most beats work —
Weidenbaum: — most beats are points on a line, but there’s an arc to a ping pong sound that’s distinct.
Monolake: I agree. … Sometimes I think it’s a good idea to use a sound several times, to get, like, a signature in it, and sometimes I think each track has to be unique. But the more experience I get, the more I think it is even better to have something on lots of tracks to give it a common shape.
Weidenbaum: In a way, it helps, not only for the common shape, because the listener can get lost in the record.
Monolake: To lose orientation, you mean?
Weidenbaum: Yes, to lose orientation. Do you have a sense for the appropriate situation for listening to this record?
Monolake: I tend to say to people, whatever situation you think is appropriate is appropriate. The classic experience when listening to music is different aspects reveal under different conditions. So, something which is experienced as being boring in one situation, could be exciting in a different situation. I have this idea in mind that a good record should work under several conditions.
Weidenbaum: I guess I ask because, some records are just collections of track, but this sort of has a narrative to it, as the pauses and the final, epilogue-like track suggest.
Monolake: As a whole thing, this has a concept behind it, which is starting at the first track and ending with the last one — the last one is obvious, that you would not start with it. But on the other side, I tried to make pieces where each piece has its own quality, that you can listen to them without listening necessarily to the other ones, and still having a closed kind of artwork. I think most Monolake tracks are clearly distinguishable from other ones. There are some other artists I really like, who create lots of similar tracks, and you listen to them, and you can immediately say that is, say, Carsten Nicolai, but without really knowing his work, it’s impossible to say which track it is actually.
Weidenbaum: One of the things I love about your tracks is the first ten seconds. There’s something on almost every track of yours I have heard, where the first ten seconds kind of define it. There’s a rhythm that starts off, and it’s always distinct — it’s funny you say you have a discomfort with beats, because your are often intriguing. Anyhow, you hear a rhythmical structure you haven’t heard before. And then there’s a tonal element, too. There’s that pairing, and then the rest of the track almost seems to figure out how to work them together.
Monolake: This may be true.
Weidenbaum: You occasionally put MP3 files up on your website. There are five I’ve downloaded, and which I’d like to ask you about. First, “The Battle of Tetris.”
Monolake: “The Battle or Tetris” was a remix type of thing, and it finally made itself into the “Tetris” track on Momentum. I reworked it partially for the record. Is somehow did like, and I somehow didn’t feel comfortable with it, and the version the Momentum is closer to what I actually wanted to do.
Weidenbaum: How about “Binary”?
Monolake: It was an — what is the correct word for it — like an exercise. I just did it as some kind of — the thing behind it, the hi-hat rhythm is just derived from a stupid mathematical function, a mathematical joke, and this has to do with binary mathematics, which is where the title comes from, and it appears on a sampler with lots of other two-minute tracks, from an exhibition in Frankfurt, titled Frequencies, curated by Carsten Nicolai, which was about sonic art. There was a CD and lots of people are on there.
Weidenbaum: There were two “Vortac” remixes?
Monolake: The first remix is pretty similar, tempo-wise, to the original material, and at some point I thought, hmm, maybe I should make it much faster, and then I came up with this more drum’n’bass-like version, and I immediately recognized that I liked this more. So, the first version is an in-between state.
Weidenbaum: And the second is the final version?
Weidenbaum: Similarly, I really enjoyed “White I” on the website. And then there’s “White II” on the new album.
Monolake: Hold on, the MP3 version is different from the one on the album?
Weidenbaum: It seems a little longer.
Monolake: This may be true. The “White” thing, I made lots of versions, but couldn’t decide which I liked most, and at some point I really got confused by the several versions, so I’m not sure if the track which is finally labeled “White II” is actually the second version or another one. There’s a total amount of seven versions, which are all slightly different.
Weidenbaum: The version on the record is about 7 and a half minutes, and the version on my computer claims to be about 9.
Monolake: Well, then I guess the better one is the shorter one.
Weidenbaum: Is that a rule of thumb?
Monolake: Not always. But the classic radio length is about 4 minutes, and my tracks are always too long.
Weidenbaum: In an interview I read you mentioned a pair of mix records you’d like to do, one of which would involve your own work, along the lines of the Tresor Scion collection, which I loved, and the other, was you used this phrase “a spray of” —
Monolake: You’re really up to date, man.
Weidenbaum: I do my research.
Monolake: As I said, I’m always struggling with this kind of beats things, and I thought, well, if I’m struggling, let’s try and really deal with it, and this was the concept for this arrangement process, the Monolake tracks one, which I’m still into, and I think I will realize this. I’ll figure out what are the rhythmical elements which do work on the dance floor —
Weidenbaum: So it would be a dance-oriented record?
Monolake: Well, not in a normal club way. I will not put a four-to-the-floor bass drum underneath all the tracks just to make it work formally. But I would like to find a common rhythm, not even a common, but a constant rhythmical flow between all the tracks. Not using the tracks as tracks, but just cutting really short loops out of them, kind of taking the essence out of a collection of tracks, and re-arranging the essential parts, and merging them, so you have track that has an element you know from a pretty old Monolake record, plus additional elements from a new record, which finally merge into something which is even newer.
Weidenbaum: Is it something that might come to light in the next six months?
Monolake: Yeah, because this is pretty much the kind of live set I am now preparing.
Weidenbaum: There’s a new version of the Ableton Live software due out this month.
Weidenbaum: And that’s why the conference is taking place right now?
Monolake: Yeah, it’s the reason we’re in the States.
Weidenbaum: I was intrigued your new record and the software came out the same month.
Monolake: Kind of a good coincidence.
Weidenbaum: It’s pretty well known that you do much of your work in the software that you yourself help design. Was Momentum created on Live 2 or the new Live 3?
Monolake: Both. I’m always working with the latest version of the software, at least if it’s possible, because in some in-between states, you have a situation where the software is not working, apart from a small portion of it, but I always try to have a version that works, even if some features are, maybe, disabled, and then I work with the latest version.
Weidenbaum: Could you explain what area of Ableton’s development you are most involved in?
Monolake: On my business card there’s this nice word, Conception. And what I’m actually doing is, together with Gerhard Behles, the other former Monolake, and occasionally other people at Ableton, is really thinking of the essential features of the software, making a decision of how should a feature work, what should a feature do, do we implement something or do we leave it, the really basic decisions about what the software actually is. That’s the one thing. The other thing I am responsible for is all the internal effect devices, which is kind of nice, because it perfectly fits to my addiction to sound. I create my own sounds, I test them when I’m making music, and if I’m happy with them, I implement them in Live. For example, there’s a granular delay. What this does is, it’s a perfect tool to destroy a steady flow into particles of sound that have no rhythmical relation to each other anymore. Maybe I can show you an example. For example, on “Atomium,” the third track on Momentum, this really noisy beat [he makes a noise]. This was a really tonal thing, very normal-sounding, drum loop, not a noisy sound, with a clear structure, almost a normal recording of a bass player. And this granular delay made this noisy, foggy thing out of it.
Weidenbaum: So, it’s following some logic from a pre-existing sound, but what we’re hearing is the result of the sound effect.
Monolake: Exactly, the rhythmical structure, the beginning comes from the original loop, but the sound comes completely from the effect. That’s the typical way I’m working, by the way.
Weidenbaum: Given your involvement in the production of music-making software, have you experimented all all with generative music? Are you considering composing music that is an executable file.
Monolake: I had the idea to release music as a file which can be used within Live, where the structure and the sequence of the elements is determined by the user, so this is not really algorithmic, but it would be not one single song that just plays back — but infinite possibilities out of a limited number of possibilities. The other thing is, didn’t Autechre do this? Release a Max/MSP patch?
Weidenbaum: I know they did that Minidisc —
Monolake: Which I loved, with the 99 tracks —
Weidenbaum: Yeah, I lent it to a friend and never got it back. You release music both as Monolake and under your own name. I do not hear much of a distinction between the two.
Monolake: The distinctions get smaller and smaller. The reason for the name Monolake was it was at the beginning a different thing from the solo work.
Weidenbaum: Because it was you and Gerhard Behles, who left to found Ableton.
Monolake: Exactly, and who just entered the room, by the way. There was a need to have a project name, because we were two people, and since Gerhard has left the team for making software, there is not that much need any more for the name Monolake, except that it’s an established name.
Weidenbaum: So when you re-released Piercing Music, and retained your own name, that was really because that was how it was released originally. Instead of calling it a Monolake release, belatedly.
Monolake: It doesn’t make sense to name it Monolake. The only thing I did was for a little bit of marketing, I added a sticker “producer by Monolake.” Eventually I would continue to make this distinction, for releasing, say, an experimental ambient record, so this project I mentioned in the other interview — the spray of sound of all these old records — this is something I could image I would release as Henke.
Weidenbaum: You were talking about using pre-existing music, not your own.
Monolake: On the ambient one, I will definitely not use my stuff.
Weidenbaum: Would it include something like Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon? … You just made a sound, when I said Thursday Afternoon.
Monolake: Yeah, I love it.
Weidenbaum: Can you talk about what you like about it?
Monolake: What I actually like on most of the good Eno releases is this kind of atmosphere, which is like this true idea of ambient music. You start it and it immediately fills up the room with atmosphere, with a color, like this romantic idea of music as color.
Weidenbaum: Like perfume, a light scent.
Monolake: The perfume aspect of it, exactly.
Weidenbaum: As you know, there was a blackout recently in New York, where you are currently staying.
Monolake: Yeah, I saw a T-shirt that said New York City Blackout 2003.
Weidenbaum: What would someone, such as yourself, who has said repeatedly — I’m not going to ask you that question, because you’ve answered it many times — that you don’t consider yourself a “musician”, in that you don’t play an actual instrument, what would you do if there was no electricity?
Monolake: Mmm hmm.
Weidenbaum: How would you satisfy your desire to make sound?
Monolake: I am pretty sure — I come from an engineering family, so I assume I would find ways to create interesting sounds without electricity. There’s many things you could imagine. Let’s have bowls of water with drops of water dropping on metal plates. With enough careful adjustment, you could do something like a beat with it.
Weidenbaum: You come from a family of engineers? Is that several generations?
Monolake: My father and my grandfather and my grandfather’s grandfather. All the male members of the family — actually, all worked for Siemens, and for what Siemens was before. No one was ever an artist or creative in any way, which made it difficult for me to make music. I didn’t know I wanted to make music with electronic things because I was so fascinated by this idea of creating sound out of electronic devices, and the reaction from my family was: no one has ever been a musician, so it’s very unlikely you are a musician. This was very discouraging.
Weidenbaum: What did you father do as an engineer?
Monolake: To be honest, I don’t know. Later on he left Siemens and went to Lufthansa, where he did the stupid technician’s job, but even there I don’t know what he did.
Weidenbaum: Is he still alive?
Monolake: Yeah, but the relationship to him isn’t good. There’s no — there’s at least no influence from my parents toward my music apart from the fact that they made it difficult for me.
Weidenbaum: Who is Penko? The Momentum record says, “Contructed by Robert Henke” and “Compiled by Penko.”
Monolake: Penko is a really essential person, actually. He’s the one responsible for paying attention to the pauses between the tracks because he’s a really — how do you describe? He’s a friend of mine I have know for a long long time, and a friend of Gerhard, and he made music and he made installations, and especially at the beginning of the 1990s, when there was lots of empty spaces available in Berlin, he organized parties and occupied spaces for making music in a very sensitive way, like having a huge huge factory building and instead of making the typical crass techno party he installed 20 speakers and played, well, Brian Eno over 20 speakers at the factory, and he has a special — a good sense for what is necessary, so he’s a perfect adviser, and I have the impression that I should actually in the future do more with him, because all his comments are extremely valuable. You can play something to him and he says, “Everything’s perfect but I would leave this part out,” and it’s almost 100 percent sure that he’s right. He has almost a producer role nowadays.
Weidenbaum: He lives nearby you?
Monolake: Close enough to come over and to answer my questions when I’m stuck on something. It’s the one thing I hate about working alone, that if you are sitting for hours and hours and hours in front of your computer, you are losing control over what you’re doing, because it’s like, if you look too close to a structure, it disappears, and some other structure shows up, which has nothing to do with what anyone else would see if they took a step back.
Weidenbaum: So you have less isolation by involving him in the project?
Monolake: Exactly. The other contact with the outer world is, of course, playing live. This is something which helped me tremendously when it comes to judging what I want to do, what works, what not, since the audience in the club or the festival really shows you a pretty clear — even if a detail is wrong, you can immediately feel it. This helps a lot.
Weidenbaum: One of the classic examples of that is dubplates.
Monolake: Exactly. I think this is the main reason for doing this, because the experience is — as soon as you listen to your own stuff in a different environment with someone else actually playing it, it’s so obvious what is good on the piece and what is not. It’s much more obvious than if you just listen to it alone.
Weidenbaum: I suppose that’s especially the case with yours. There’s something conceptual about your work, and I could imagin that there’s the risk that your piece may satisfy and idea but doesn’t hold alone as music.
Monolake: You know this great sentence from Brian Eno about music? “There is research art, and there’s result art, and I prefer the latter one.”
Weidenbaum: He said something similar about how they call it experimental music, and sometimes experiments fail. So, your records are the result art?
Monolake: Not entirely
Weidenbaum: But you’re striving toward that?
Monolake: Yeah, why bother the audience with the experiment. [Laughs] Sometimes the experiment is interesting, or there are situations when it could be exciting to listen to experiments, but I think for instance it makes sense to experiment on stage, since this is something unique, something which happens once, but on a record I think everything should be in a way that you can listen to it again and again and again. And you would probably not like to listen to an experiment again and again and again.
Weidenbaum: Can you talk about one track and what we’re hearing the end result of, what has changed?
Monolake: I could have an example of what I would do differently now, actually, because I played it live a few times. That track called “Eccentric.” On one hand it has a pretty strong rhythmic energy; on the other side it has, as the title proposes — what I experienced when performing “Eccentric” live is that it’s too eccentric. So what I would do now is I would do the same thing, but straighten it out, to keep the eccentric element more concentrated on distinct spots. Now they have a little like an equal distribution over the whole track, but I think if I would do it now … “Eccentric” would be a perfect example if I would have had more time putting it out. This is like a projection of what would happen if “Eccentric” was a track that I would put out now.
Weidenbaum: “Eccentric II”?
Monolake: Actually, I thought of this. OK, but let’s see if I find an example — yes, this “Atomium” kind of thing. At the beginning it was this pretty not noisy, pretty straight kind of thing [hums a steady “bum bum” rhythm], which was the basic underlying beat, and I also had lots of normal rhythmical stuff in it, like a snare, and a hi hat, and the more I played with it, the more noisy it got. And pretty close to the release, I finally decided to even remove the snare and the hi hat, ’cause I had figured out the track is stronger if all these normal known rhythmic elements are gone.
Weidenbaum: So the original structure has been removed.
Monolake: Yeah, apart from this one essential rhythmical element. I have the impression that by making it more distant than it was, at the same time I make it more intensive.
Weidenbaum: There’s a sound on the record I need to ask you about, something on the second song that is pretty darn close to a vocal.
Monolake: Yeah, this is a very good example of how technology is influencing the music. This is a sound which is a recording of one of these Macintosh speaking voices, a voice which I use over and over, this whispering kind of thing. I discovered this sound by abusing the time-stretch function of Ableton Live, by just setting all the values which determine the actual processing of the sound to ridiculous high values. So, this is — I realized when I did it, Hey it sounds a little bit like singing, like a child’s choir. So, I was so fascinated by the fact that it resembles this choir thing, that I spent a few afternoon working this out, and the result is this thing.
Weidenbaum: What was the voice saying originally?
Monolake: I guess it was just talking numbers — like, 1, 25, something, and just cut up into slices.
Weidenbaum: And it’s just one of the preprogrammed voices in the Apple.
Monolake: Yeah, it’s just one of these preprogrammed voices, but I guess actually it’s not important what material you put in, it’s just the way the sound is processed, so you could probably even put white noise into it, and would sound similar. The essential thing, which makes it sound like singing, is the fact that the rhythmical structure of the original material has something to do with speaking.
Weidenbaum: So there’s a shape to it.
Monolake: Thank you. The shape is the thing which makes it sound like a vocal.
Weidenbaum: That’s amazing, you can stretch something that much, it can be saying nonsense, it’s not a voice that’s recognizable, and still it stands out. If every there was a great algorithm, it’s in our vocal chords.
Monolake: Absolutely. This is one of these things that’s extremely difficult to — excuse me for a moment. Ah, perfect, Gerhard brought me a latte. This is service. This is something that’s extremely easy to do on an experimental scale, because I can make things like this, but to control the pitch is extremely difficult, so if someone would ask me to do the same thing, but say to me, OK let’s sing this famous song from whosoever, I would probably take a few weeks in order to get the pitch adjusted. So I did what is a typical way of working with electronic things: I took what the machine did offer me, instead of trying to get a result.
Weidenbaum: We are servants to our machines in that way.
Monolake: Absolutely, but this is the kind of interaction that makes it so fascinating to work with computers: on one side you are pretty heavily in control of what you’re doing, like I can cut things, sample-wise, and I can say that I want to have this 55.607 milliseconds later, and on the other side you’re confronted with completely unexpected results.
Weidenbaum: That’s an interesting observation. What gives you a distinct vantage on that tension, that weird space in which the electronic musician operates, is placed between, is that you have a functional role on the side of the person who’s making the software in the first place.
Weidenbaum: So this is a means by which your software benefits innately by being produced by someone who’s continuously running up against things and asking why does it have to be this way.
Monolake: Extremely. This is something which is one hand really really good, because if I’m designing, for instance, an effect, I really take care of all the details, because I’m the one who is later going to use it. I assume if everyone who is making software would really use it to the extent I’m using it, the world would be a better place. But on the other hand, if there’s something which goes wrong, and a lot of things can go wrong if you have such a complex thing like a huge sequencer application, every little bug drives you crazy. So there are moments when I think, if I could work with something which has nothing to do with software, I would be a happier person. On the other side, it’s so fascinating to be part of this development, that I came to the conclusion that every problem is worth the final satisfaction to create something.
Weidenbaum: How do you keep the Ableton Live software from getting too big, how do you keep it manageable?
Monolake: This is a really really good question. How do we do this? See, a lot of people are demanding things. Like, hey, you should implement MIDI, and you should have this function and that function, but it’s so obvious that if you look at the other existing software solutions, the thing which makes every software at some point really unfriendly and really unusable is the existence of millions of features which do not work together anymore. Like, Microsoft Word is a perfect example. This software can probably do everything, but if you just want to change the font of a headline you may go crazy. Knowing all these things, we try to — um, if we have to make the decision between implementing a new feature or spending more time on thinking of another one, or working on an existing feature, we probably go for improving the existing feature.
Weidenbaum: I know several people who have worked at Microsoft. And I was sort of surprised to be told they all use Microsoft software at Microsoft, because there’s so many things, little and big, that Word and Excel lack in terms of usability. You’d think if they’re all using it, they’d know the sort of thing you point out.
Monolake: What was the answer?
Weidenbaum: It’s not at all that there’s, say, a culture there, I was told, where you can’t complain, but perhaps people get so good with the tools that they don’t recognize the complexity as an issue.
Monolake: Maybe it’s a different issue if you make software for people who are making music than you make software for people who ware working in an office. If you work in an office and something does not work exactly the way you want it, you probably work slower, which is a bad thing for the company, but it’s still manageable.
Weidenbaum: It’s different demand for an artist than for a worker.
Monolake: Exactly, I think that the artist is probably more demanding.
Weidenbaum: You’re saying that the way that an artist uses software requires more of a — I dunno, a “mind meld” ability, whereas a worker has a goal in mind and will struggle through to get it.
Monolake: This is exactly the point. When I am making music and the software crashes, it’s not the issue that this may cost me half an hour of work. It’s the issue of, eventually losing a great idea. And this is the thing which drives you crazy. It’s the same thing if you would imagine writing a text and you’re really into — you wrote a chapter, and it’s a flow of words, and Word crashes and it’s not possible to recover this work.
Weidenbaum: You’re giving me a nightmare.
Monolake: But you have to admit, Word does not crash normally.
Weidenbaum: No, it doesn’t, and I see the parallel. Is everyone at Ableton a musician?
Monolake: No, not really. But the team of developers is still so small that there’s a good chance to communicate and to get things under control. A lot of people at Ableton are musicians. Yeah, we know what we’re doing, most of the time.
Weidenbaum: There comes a point when I need to fill in some blanks, so this is probably about to become less of a conversation than it is a series of questions.
Monolake: Go right ahead.
Weidenbaum: How many people are employed by Ableton?
Monolake: It’s something around 28. I think maybe half of them are actually writing the software, and the other half is, well, marketing, graphic design, which is an essential role, if you look at the way software looks, technical support. It’s pretty important, people calling in because they don’t figure something out and you need to explain. Or they’re calling because something is really wrong.
Weidenbaum: How many copies have you sold to date?
Monolake: To be honest, I have no real idea about this number. …
Weidenbaum: It’s well know that Charlie Clouser and Han Zimmer have used the software and have spoken highly of it. Have you actively promoted the software with, say, a logo that would be on people’s records?
Monolake: There’s a few things like this. Like this Arrange and Process album, this was done in Live, and there was some kind of a small Ableton logo on the back side, and I assume — I don’t know what the deal was. The way it is currently is people are using Live for their remixing stuff. Like, there’s a Paul Van Dyk remix album, I think, coming out now and it has been realized in Live, now, afterward they ask if we are interested in having the logo on it and pay something for it. And we decided if this was interesting for us or not. I think we have some money for posters and things like this, so we’re present there. The usual promotion thing you do.
Weidenbaum: It’s interesting as musicians are becoming associated with the development of particular tools. There’s the Final Scratch …
Monolake: I’ve seen that, of course, I had a look at it, and I was surprised at how good it works, but I’ve not really used it. I’m not a DJ.
Weidenbaum: You don’t have any turntable facility.
Monolake: I have a turntable.
Weidenbaum: But you don’t fiddle with it in that way.
Monolake: No, I’m definitely not a DJ. I tried it a few times, and I failed perfectly and I realized this is not my job.
Weidenbaum: What year were you born?
Monolake: Sixty nine.
Weidenbaum: And what is your birthday
Monolake: February 10.
Weidenbaum: And how many siblings did you have?
Monolake: None. I am just a completely self-focused, ego-ish, persona. [Laughs]
Weidenbaum: That’s a more interesting explanation for your claustrophobic music than the fact that you program computers.
Monolake: [Laughs] That could be true. Every type of personality disorder has its roots.
Weidenbaum: I’ve read numerous interviews about your first piece of software, the Roland Juno —
Monolake: The Juno 6.
Weidenbaum: You still have it?
Monolake: Ah, I love him. Him? Yeah, I think it’s a he.
Weidenbaum: How old were you when you got that?
Monolake: Fourteen. It took me one year to actually afford it.
Weidenbaum: You had to work —
Monolake: I worked in a music store for a ridiculous amount of money just in order to get the money to buy this thing.
Weidenbaum: I have a friend, I remember, who saved up money to buy a synth, and then realized he needed a sequencer. He was young, didn’t understand. By the time you bought it, though, you knew how to use it.
Monolake: Yeah, I did know it.
Weidenbaum: With my first computer, I bought it when I was 13, but the year-plus leading up to that, I was hanging out in the computer store. By the time I got it I knew what to do with it.
Monolake: It’s like, going to a computer store in order to have access to a computer, this probably sounds really ridiculous to people born 10 years later.
Weidenbaum: I hadn’t thought of that. Yeah, I used to go to Radio Shack after school. Do you know what that is?
Monolake: Exactly, there was a similar chain in Germany, and I spent afternoons there having fun with a Commodore.
Weidenbaum: A 64?
Monolake: Not the C64, but before, a huge box with a green screen. For you, the TRS-80?
Weidenbaum: Yeah, that was it for me. It’s in my parents’ attic, with its tape drive. It is weird to think that people would go to stores, and spend that much time. I was there for hours.
Monolake: We went there right after school, me and a few other nerdy people.
Weidenbaum: We probably paid our rent by showing other customers how to work with the computers, unpaid. So you were programming in BASIC?
Weidenbaum: Is your programming for Ableton anything you’d imagined as a kid?
Monolake: No, not at all. I don’t know what I did imagine. I neither imagined making music on a more or less professional level, nor doing — actually, I don’t know what I did imagine. At least, it was more likely that I’m going to be an engineer than something else. I think I saw myself ending up as an engineer than something else, an engineer in TV production.
Weidenbaum: You studied sound engineering.
Monolake: I worked as a technician in a TV production and the chief sound engineer said that if I take it seriously and studied [he imitates the condescending voice] … well, so I did.
Weidenbaum: When you were doing the sound engineering, you had teacher and mentors. But I imagine at the music store and the computer store, you knew no less than anyone else.
Monolake: Right, what I did was what all the other guys also did, after learning BASIC, which is simple enough, I just bought one of these books, inside the 6502 processor, and learned 6502 assembler.
Weidenbaum: Machine code.
Monolake: Yeah. This was the first step into really doing something a little bit serious.
Weidenbaum: Do you remember what you wrote in machine code? What tools you devised?
Monolake: Well, the most exciting thing and the only thing which was really music-related was small sampler, but I never finished it.
Weidenbaum: You did it for the Commodore?
Monolake: Yeah, it was running on a C64, and I spent more time in wiring the analog-digital converter card together than in writing the program. At some point, a friend of mine and I were able to record one second of sound and play it back, and this was the effort of half a year.
Weidenbaum: This must have been mind-blowing at the time.
Monolake: Yes and no. For us it was mind-blowing, but it was completely useless, because we didn’t have the knowledge to make something useful out of it, like transposing it in a useful way, and then the AKAI sampler came out , and all these things.
Weidenbaum: So you bought your first piece of music equipment at 14. When did you purchase a computer?
Monolake: Much later because I had not that much money. The C64 was my friend’s. So the first computer I bought was the Atari, I guess, three years later.
Weidenbaum: I got mine in 1979 and had it through my first year of college, when I got the first Mac.
Monolake: The IIe?
Weidenbaum: No, what’s called Classic these days.
Monolake: The first one with the built-in screen?
Monolake: I’d played with the others in school, and I recall the first IBM, but the first Mac I bought was that one. A long time ago, the Piercing Music CD was also realized with this Mac, just as a controller for sending MIDI information to a sampler.
Weidenbaum: Is it interesting that software has become the technology? Music-making used to be so tied to physical tools. But now it’s software. Has that transition affected how people make music?
Monolake: Well, this is a huge topic, but one thing which is obvious is the fact that there’s no need for hardware makes it very inexpensive. Because, the price of software is something which is a very ficitonal numvber, ’cause you can say, if I sell one million copies, I could sell each copy for one dollar, or for ten cents. If I do hardware, I have to estimate the costs of the whole thing. What this leads to finally is the idea of something like music software could be a commonly available tool, getting pretty close to what a pen is, and this notion of music software as being a pen, which I assume we are all pretty familiar with — that really changes the way people perceive making music, the way they perceive the whole process. So, 10 years ago everyone was fascinated by having these huge machines, or this huge studio, I mean all these pictures of producers in front of their big consoles, like a status symbol. This turns out to be more and more ridiculous because everyone can do the same thing at home.
Weidenbaum: The guys in Autechre can write their music in a cafe.
Monolake: This is not true for me actually, because even if I could work with the laptop alone, I figured out that it’s difficult for me to get into the right mood to finish something, so it’s perfect to, say, stay here in the hotel room and look out of the window at New York City, which is for someone from Europe a very fascinating experience, but I could not imagine to really finish something here — maybe I could collect ideas, but then I need to go back to my home place and finish things there.
Weidenbaum: How much work do you do on altering your sounds before they enter your computer? For example, playing a guitar into an amplifier and then mic’ing that?
Monolake: It’s a pretty common process for me, because I still own a few old machines, like real hardware, and recently I bought another big piece of hardware which always wanted to have.
Weidenbaum: What is that?
Monolake: A PPG Wave 2.3, which is available as a plug in, and this plug in crached three times, when I did use it, and I was so annoyed at that, and I thought, “Hey, I’m a music producer, this is my work tool,” and I was pretty sure that I could find one used, and I phoned up a few people, and two days later I got this machine at home. Which is something like — I felt really funny about this, because it was something which when I was studying making music was completely out of reach, one of these machine you look at it and it’s completely out of reach, like wow, this is it, this is the holy grail of electronic music, and now I can just buy it. I still use these machines, just for the fact that I have to admit I’m still kind of — I have this fascination for hardware, this fascination for the manufacturing skills of the people who made it, and for the displays and the knobs and the LEDs, and it gives me a good mood if I can touch these things. So, what I’m doing is, I’m using these machines to create sounds, and I use other machines, like filters and things, to shape them, and then I record into Live.
Weidenbaum: So you would have it come out of a speaker?
Monolake: No, I’m using Live as my mixing desk, and I just have a bunch of inputs going straight into Live.
Weidenbaum: So eventually there’s an analog output from that equipment that goes into —
Monolake: Exactly, there’s an analog output of my old machines, which goes into a converter, and into Live.
Weidenbaum: Is there a guitar in your house, any sort of traditional instrument?
Monolake: No. [laughs] I have a pair of good microphones, and sometimes I’m recording noises or whatsoever. I record refrigerators, air conditioners, things like this.
Weidenbaum: Do you do field recordings outside of your house?
Monolake: I did when I had a portable DAT recorder, but this one got broken years ago, and it’s seems to be such an outdated technology so I never wanted to buy a new one. Minidisc is not enough sonic quality for me.
Weidenbaum: That’s what Autechre, among others, has said as well.
Monolake: So I never bought one, and so I’m still waiting for a new small solution for recording things in really high quality, and things like this are available, but priced completely out of reach for me.
Weidenbaum: What do you consider minimal quality of sound for you.
Monolake: In technical terms?
Monolake: Definitely uncompressed, 16-bit, 44.1, but I made a comparison and I was surprised if you make recording with a good microphone and a good preamp and a good converter, then it’s obvious that 96kHz and 24bits is way more than you need.
Weidenbaum: But you can’t carry all that around with you.
Monolake: Yeah, this is the point. This is why I’m still waiting for a new recording media. I really would like to have a small box, like a Walkman kind of thing, which offers me this kind of quality.
Weidenbaum: I attended a seminar by a post-production sound guy, and he showed us this tool that has the level of quality you describe, and it’s really expensive, and it’s not that portable, but what’s amazing is it’s always recording.
Monolake: I know what you mean, they call it a retro loop.
Weidenbaum: Yeah, so when you hear, say, an alarm you have it already on tape.
Monolake: That’s from this Polish guy. That’s a digital Nagra. This guy, do you know he did really revolutionized film sound, because he was the first to develop a really working portable solution for recording. His name is [Stefan] Kudelski, and he emigrated from I think Poland at some point, but funny enough he had a history in East Germany, and he at some point tried to have a patent for his machine, and no one wanted it, and two years ago he got the technical Oscar for his life achievement [at the 63rd Academy Awards].
Weidenbaum: The idea of it always recording is amazing to me.
Monolake: As you say, this is exactly the thing which makes it so cool. There was an event, and you just press record afterward and it’s still there. They are doing the same thing currently with the more expensive video cameras. For all these newsgathering people, this is perfect.
Weidenbaum: So, you live in Berlin?
Weidenbaum: How far from the Ableton office do you live?
Monolake: Seven point five minutes if I walk, two minutes with a bike .
Weidenbaum: Your reputation for an attention to detail has been affirmed. How often do you do to the office?
Monolake: On Mondays there’s the developer meeting, which I always attend, and I do most of my work at home, but then I am meeting Gerhard or I am meeting other people for discussing things, most of the time at the office.
Weidenbaum: And the 28 employees are all fulltime?
Monolake: I guess like 25 fulltime, maybe 20. The rest is students doing practical work.
Weidenbaum: Is it awkward that you’re this very — well, I hesitate to say “very,” since you’ll deny it — this accomplished musician, where you’re hiring kids in college who may like your music? Is there any such awkwardness.
Monolake: No no no, not at all. It’s probably more because I’m such an unfriendly person [laughs]. You’re losing these things pretty soon when you’re confronted with people, I guess. You say I’m accomplished or known, but I personally don’t see it this way. I’m always surprised someone else sees it like this. I see posters of Richie Hawtin all over the city, and I think, this guy is known. I don’t see myself in this position. I’m not Charlie Clouser, on the scale of known-ness.
Related links: Monolake's website, monolake.de. Ableton's website, ableton.com.