Catching Up With Klaus Schulze

Going deep with a founding father of modern electronic music
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Among fans of electronic music, German synthesist Klaus Schulze has long been considered a pivotal figure. His early work as an original member of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel served as a launch pad for an almost 50-year career and counting.

Since he first entered a recording studio in 1969, he has recorded more than 150 solo albums, many of them multi-disc sets. He has headlined in concerts throughout Europe and Japan, as well as collaborated with film composer and former Dead Can Dance vocalist Lisa Gerrard, among others.

Schulze’s latest album, Silhouettes, carries on his tradition of extended synth improvisations featuring immense electronic chord swells and rhythmic, evolving sequencer patterns. It’s a fantastic introduction if you’re unfamiliar with his music: To the rest of us, it is like a wonderful letter from an old friend after a long dry spell.

Amazingly, it’s been more than 30 years since the last time Electronic Musician interviewed you. It appears you don’t do interviews very often. Why this one, and why now?

I guess in 2018, when you are still an actively creating electronic artist who started in the late ’60s and who has just celebrated his 70th birthday, and then puts out a new studio album that fans have been waiting for more than five years, that may be worth an interview! [Laughs.]

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It almost feels like sort of a comeback, even though that was not my idea or my feeling when I made the record. I just get that vibe from the journalists, now that we are talking about my new album Silhouettes. And to be honest, I was never too keen on doing all the press stuff. I always loved to have the music speak for itself.

Is it true that Silhouettes will be your final album and you’ll be retiring soon?

Who said that? I can’t imagine [I’ll ever] stop making music. Sure, there are breaks I need to take, and I certainly need to take care of myself as well, but I still live in the studio, which is my living room.

What I have stopped is touring; that stressful life on the road. That wasn’t an easy decision, and I do miss the live concerts with the fans; that is true. But I had to learn the hard way that health comes first. And I am back to kind of a normal mode now, which took awhile, but I am very happy about it. The trick is to have your studio record-ready at all times, so I can just hit that Rec button and play whenever I feel like it. It’s always been like that.

How did growing up in post-war Germany affect your career and your musical outlook?

I actually started my musical career in Berlin, which of course still had its famous wall at the time. So, when I began playing with bands like Psy Free, Ash Ra Tempel, and Tangerine Dream, there was a small scene forming at the time with us and a few other bands. And in contrast to other “creative” German cities like Munich or Düsseldorf, we had the wall all around Berlin, so there was a pretty “private” vibe at the time. From there our music spread out, but at the same time we were kind of isolated from the rest of the world.

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Later, when the wall fell, of course, that changed. I guess that certain isolation-vibe brought us together, on one hand, but gave us an equalized surrounding on the other. And it may have fueled the urge to experiment, break free, and explore new musical grounds.

Do you ever grow impatient with people asking you about music you recorded more than half your lifetime ago? Could you have ever dreamed when you recorded your first few albums that interviewers would still ask about them well into the 21st century?

[Laughs.] At the time, that was absolutely unthinkable. I was just pioneering my way towards electronic music back then, really without a concept, constantly discovering new sounds, instruments, and the technology behind it was just developing from day to day—a very fascinating time. And hard to imagine today, when everybody has everything available at minimal cost...in a cell phone. But I didn’t think, “Great, I am a pioneer” at the time. I was just playing my music, forever experimenting, following the inspirations and discoveries, and seeing where it took me on the journey.

You began your career as a drummer. What attracted you to electronic music?

Before I joined Psy Free and Ash Ra Tempel as a drummer, I played electric guitar. But even that I did in my very own way. I had the instrument lying on the floor and treated it with all kinds of bottleneck-type devices: metal tubes, copper plates, and whatnot. I did that because to me the sounds that were generated mattered more than the actual musical notes or chords. That was electronic music already, somehow.

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Drums I had always loved and had started playing every now and then. It felt natural to do the switch; it was fun to play. And it was another natural progression after the drum phase to pick up synthesizers when they became available, as they gave me even more musical—or should I say sonic—freedom to follow my vision. Sound-wise, anything I could dream of became possible over time, so of course, I then stuck with the synthesizer in all its various forms and variations.

Your recent photos show you playing a Moog modular, Voyager, and Memorymoog. Do you consider those your primary instruments?

Not necessarily. You know those older Moogs—the most beautiful and fat sound for sure, but every time they heat up or cool down, the tuning gets lost. [Laughs.] Great, if you can afford to spend the time in the studio to readjust them. In most cases, I have only one of the Moogs in the setup, just to keep the recording sessions in low-maintenance mode. My setup has to be simple and fast to access.

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I always have an abundance of Virus As and Cs around, three 19-inch [Studio Electronics] SE-1 Moogs, and some Quasimidi stuff…and, of course, my beloved Roland JD-800 and JD-990s, the Spectrasonics plug-ins, plus two Alesis [Andromeda] A6 analog babies, as well. I also consider my collection of samplers primary instruments to this day. On top of that, I always have a few standard-type keyboards ready on the side that may be swapped spontaneously, according to the mood I’m in.

Is that the same Moog modular system you’ve been using since 1976?

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Not exactly. What I had in the ’70s was, in fact, a 3P modular system, which I bought from my first record company royalty advance from Brain/Metronome. You can’t imagine how excited I was to take that money and drive straight to Florian Fricke (of Popol Vuh fame) to buy the 3P system off him. I loved (and sometimes hated) it for decades and sold it off again later. The photos you speak of show a 3C modular system from Heinz Funk that I was playing with when the pictures were taken.

Do you have any strong feelings about working “inside the box” as opposed to more traditional studio techniques?

With the complex and mixed studio gear setup I run, there is no real “inside the box.” Most of my sound sources are external keyboards, expanders, and other boxes connected via MIDI and analog outputs into the mixing desk.

My record producer and engineer Tom Dams has a stronger opinion on that. He does all the mixing in the traditional way, prefers analog boards, and we both agree it sounds great that way. My main mixing console is the Tascam DM-4800 plus submixer, and I also use it in analog mode here in the studio.

Which DAW do you use, and why do you prefer it?

[Emagic] Logic 7 is where it all happens until today. I started off with tape machines, of course, but I always pursued the next technological advancement, so I owned my first Atari [ST] as a very early adopter. Back then the choice was CLab Creator or Steinberg Twenty-Four, and I went with Creator. I got the first MIDI port hub, which became [C-Lab] Notator and could synchronize to SMPTE, and later the [Emagic] Unitor MIDI interfaces, which became the heart of my growing MIDI setup. So I naturally stayed with Logic later, bought my first Mac, geeked out, and got a NuBus-connected [Digidesign] Pro Tools AD/DA—wasn’t it called Sound Tools back then?—and continued that path. I am very used to Logic for years, and being such a MIDI-oriented musician, that helped a lot.

I had extremely complex studio and live setups over the years, with multiple cascaded MIDI interfaces and even MIDI mixers involved, I could never have done that with [Steinberg] Cubase or Pro Tools back then. Don’t forget there was no Ableton Live, no Cakewalk or Sonar, so I stayed with that DAW. When Apple bought Logic from Emagic and changed the design of the DAW in version 8, I didn’t like it and still don’t. And don’t get me started about Logic [Pro] X.

So you do use software instruments? What about sample libraries?

Yes, I use both. My live setup, which now lives forth in the studio, contains two full-blown E-mu E4K sampler keyboards stuffed to the brim with my favorite sample libraries. More e64s reside in the studio racks. They carry all the choirs and voices, of course, lots of symphonic stuff, all the [Spectrasonics] Distorted Realities and hallelujahs [from Vocal Planet], and quite a few custom sample banks I’ve created over the years. I have all of these on the studio computer, as well.

That is the place where my complete Spectrasonics collection resides. Man, everything those guys do sounds great. I really love these plug-ins and have them loaded in my default startup recording setup. I prefer Atmosphere over Omnisphere... loads faster and easier to use. Also, the guys from Arturia know very well what they’re doing. I developed some demo sounds for them when they came out with their Minimoog and Moog Modular plug-ins. I also still have a lot of older plug-ins that I love, that unfortunately have been discontinued. I still stick to this older recording setup even though that means there is a lot of the newer plug-in stuff I can’t run on it.

What format are samples in your computer? Do you use a computer-based sampler? If so, do you use it to create custom libraries?

Since the more professional sampling started to make sense for me in the days of the early Akai samplers, that’s when I began collecting libraries and also creating and saving my own sounds. I also worked with manufacturers of sample libraries, so there always was an abundance of new sounds that seemed to come out every day.

As the Akai format was the format of choice, I stuck to it for convenience reasons, even when E-mu introduced their own format. Importing and converting worked well except for a few glitches. When Emagic introduced their EXS sampler, it was also able to read Akai format, so there wasn’t really a reason to change anything. I still use the EXS inside my Logic DAW setup, even though in the last years I more often just dropped raw audio into an extra audio track and work it from there.

Which of your favorite plug-ins wouldn’t run if you had a newer computer?

Tom (my producer/engineer) would have an entire list. [Laughs.] From the top of my head, I know [Steinberg] Voice Machine and Plex weren’t supported in later Mac OS versions. The early versions of the great [Antares] Auto-Tune plug-in, of course, [were] much better than later versions. They were so grainy, harsh, producing weird glitches and stuff. I love that!

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Back in the day, new manufacturers appeared with a new plug-in or even a sound module plug-in every month or so, it seemed. It was pretty exciting in the beginning. All early versions of anything really don’t run on newer systems. In many cases I did not like what they changed to in later versions, or the fact that plug-ins started eating up so much RAM or computer speed. I got tired of having to update computers, OS’s, and software and external hardware every few months. That’s crazy.

What are some of the plug-ins you’d use if your older computer supported them?

Honestly, I do not spend as much time as I used to trying the latest and newest that someone has released, so I’m not sure. I know there has been a lot going on with all these new drum plug-ins, which do sound amazingly real. That would be nice if it’s an easy and most of all intuitive approach they offer. I do not read manuals!

Do you keep up with advances in music technology, or do you stick with tried-and-true studio tools?

There are cases for both scenarios. We just spoke about the issue of certain discontinued plug-ins that I love to have available. They are the reason I stick to my trusty PowerMac computer setup (running a pretty old OS). The same holds true for my bread-and-butter DAW Logic 7. While I may use L8 or L9 sometimes if a special setup requires it, I don’t like Logic [Pro] X or any of that fancy, colorful iPad stuff. Also, what’s the point in buying new AD/DA converters with new hardware interface every year? Oh, yes, you also have to get a new computer or update your digital mixing console every other year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

There were years when I tried every new plugin, every OS update, and every recording hardware and software and all the gimmicks, only that I didn’t really get to do a new record then. We were far busier getting the entire system to work than making new music—not good. I need a fast and easy, reliable system I can use blindfolded. So that’s the area where I’d rather go, tried-and-true. Expanders, new synths, step sequencers, sound libraries—that’s the area where I keep trying new things, and testing stuff I may like. Sometimes even getting an old box from the shed, dusting it off, and connecting it back into the system can be a whole new experience, because your perception has changed and it has been years that you last used it.

You’re famous for your step sequencing, and Silhouettes is steeped in sequences. What do you use for step sequencing?

I used a custom modified 19-inch Doepfer MAQ live, which didn’t really satisfy me studio-wise, but the Schrittmacher by Manikin is my favorite for all occasions since it came out—simple to use, not too crowded with features, and rock-solid. And it is great buddies with Logic. [Smiles.] When it was released, I got a prototype beforehand and never gave it back [Laughs.] It was just what I needed, so I integrated it into my live setup as the main sequencer.

What’s the source of the drums on the album?

I did not use a lot of drums on Silhouettes; it is a rather quiet album. Most of it is even pretty backgroundish, not as important as it is on albums like Moonlake or Eternal. I think it is one of those newer drum boxes I was trying, probably the Boss DR-880. What also was used is Spectrasonics Stylus RMX plug-in.

Do you still rely on hardware for effects processing, or do you prefer effects plug-ins? What are some of your favorites?

You sure got me there. [Smiles.] I still love my Roland SRV-2000 and 3030 and my TC Electronic M-One 19-inch reverbs, the Lexicon 480L with the LARC, and of course, most important, the Roland RSP-550s, of which I have a bunch. These are the main effects I use all the time for the more prominent instruments. They create the rooms and reverb positionings and, of course, the delay cascades for most of the sequencers. When Tom went to do the 5.1 surround mixes for all of my Rheingold, Big in Europe, and Big in Japan live DVDs in various studios around the world, he always had to bring these with him.

Effect plug-ins I use regularly are the UAD DreamVerb (for backgroundish vocals or softer solo instruments) and even Logic’s built-in Space Designer. In most cases, these are used on instruments considered as the background tracks in a mix. When it comes to my favorite special effects, yes, there it is: Voice Machine. Discontinued, but I like what it can add to the human voice, violins, flutes, and even drum loops or atmospheric pads.

Your albums with Lisa Gerrard and Günter Schickert were so well received, do you think it’s likely you’ll collaborate again with other composers?

Never say never. Collaborations are fun and a nice change in the way of musical work. I have musicians visit from time to time, and of course, we record together. Also, Tom is here a lot, and we always do things; the borders do blend there after a while. Solar Moon are also great improvisers, [and] so is Thomas Kagermann and Wolfgang Tiepold. Pete Namlook was fun to work, with as well.

Meeting Lisa was one heck of an extraordinary experience. She works like me… only that she is her own synthesizer [Laughs], if one can say that. Guess that’s why we toured together—it was such a great vibe with her all the time. And we really toss the inspiration to and fro with a live audience experiencing it at the same time—really amazing. It was the same in the studio. She just is such an outstanding talent.

When she visited me for the first time, which was our first encounter actually—we had just spoken on the phone, before, once—she was totally open. We talked for a little while, and then she was so ready for new music. She couldn’t wait to hit the studio. Tom was engineering at the time, and she laid down her tracks so fast, take after take, next song, next take. He couldn’t load up the next song fast enough for her.

Needless to say, it’s all completely improvisational with us. You may change little details when you do a later mix of a recorded track, but certainly no meticulously planned and penned out compositions. We never talk about music, or harmonies, or styles, for that matter. We both don’t know what we’re doing, but we love it. Most of the people I love working with are most interested in discovering/improvising new music.

Do you still perform? When was the last time you played for a live audience?

I had to realize it’s better for me not going out on the road anymore. My health needs constant supervision, as I have a renal disease, which fortunately is very treatable with dialysis. I do okay staying home, and going here and there is fine, but nothing as stressful as a tour or big live concerts far abroad that require a great deal of traveling. I figure that’s okay when you’ve celebrated your 70th birthday recovering from a longer hospital stay.

The Japan concerts I played in 2010 were the last official public concerts I did. Yet this new studio album Silhouettes was done in a concert-type live situation within the studio, most of it played through in one streak—not too bad an alternative after a long, silent break.

Writer, synthesist, and EM editor-at-large Geary Yelton lives in Asheville, North Carolina.