Danish multi-artist and music producer Anders Trentemøller discusses some of his trademark sound design techniques—Combining retro tech with modern mixing approaches and why he chose the road not taken for his fifth studio album "Obverse".
By David Ampong
Danish artist and producer Anders Trentemøller has been a pioneer of sound for nearly 20 years, with a sound continuing to resonate around the world and influence countless electronic producers and musicians to this day. His fifth studio album, Obverse, deals quite literally with the opposite of what he normally does in the studio; create music for the live performance. This time around, Trentemøller takes an unorthodox approach to the production process by creating an album with no consideration for the live show! We got the chance to sit with Trentemøller to discuss how his approach has made all the difference.
Your tracks have always had such an amazing minimalist approach, with a wide and powerful stereo sound. What path did you take sonically during the creation of the new album?
Artistic freedom has always been extremely important to me. I never think about what people expect when I’m in the creative process of making an album. As long as I get those magical goosebumps now and then, hopefully, some people listening to my music will get them too. It’s not about trying to force anything. Rather, it’s about making the exact music I want.
During the production of this album, I tracked a lot of the synths through my old Tascam tape deck, which is a bit broken, just to get an even more warbly sound. On nearly all my mono synths for this album, I used the Reel ADT to get that wide stereo sound. I love automating it to get a random kind of wow/flutter. I also put more life into synths with the Scheps 73 and the J37 Tape plugin for additional wow/flutter.
This time around, I also used a Hughes AK100 [Spatial Enhancer], which is an old device that was made to create a ‘fake’ surround sound. I stole the idea of using it from my idol Tchad Blake, who uses it to create this extra stereo dimension on reverbs. Using this trick along with the Abbey Road Chambers plugin created an extra sense of space that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
Another crucial part of the sound on this album was the use of effect pedals on elements like drums, guitars, synths and even the whole stereo mix bus. I like my synths to sound quite lo-fi and tape saturated with tons of weird modulations and reverb pedals, combined with plugins to help me get that sonic treatment.
Why did you decide to call the album Obverse? What is it the opposite of, or counterpart to?
I’ve always worked with contrasts in my music and in my sound. It’s in all these subtle clashes of feelings and tonal contradictions that I often find pure inspiration. I experimented by taking chord progressions and melodic lines and twisting them around a hundred times, trying to hear things from different angels tonally and sonically.
Whether it’s in a chord progression that somehow surprises you, or the direct confrontations between digital and analog, organic and sterile, darkness versus light—it’s in those musical minefields that things really start to get interesting for me. The word ‘Obverse’ contains all that: the contrasts, the way of seeing two sides of the same thing and trying to find the direct counterpart in what I’m working on.
You’ve been known to rarely work directly with a vocalist/singer during song production. How did the vocals of the debut single “In the Garden” make their way into the final recording?
I like to have a mostly finished instrumental track-ready, but with the vocalist's voice in my mind during the process. Most of the time my albums have 60% instrumentals and 40% vocal tracks, so I like both worlds. Other times, it’s a matter of working together.
The song “In the Garden” was originally intended as an instrumental but ended up featuring Lina Tullgren; who I actually met through Instagram; I really dug her debut album Won. When I started working on my album, I sent her the song as an instrumental and basically just added her recorded vocals on top of it.
For her vocals, I started off with the Greg Wells VoiceCentric plugin, using quite a bit of the ‘Doubler’ control. I’m not so technical, so I like that it’s such an easy plugin to use; I just turn the knobs until I hear something I like. I also used the Scheps Omni Channel. The ‘Vocal 1’ preset gave me a great starting point and I love the saturation and coloration this plugin adds. The fact that it has so many useful presets is super helpful to start sculpting your own sound.
You’ve always had a truly unique sound as far as blending real and electronic drums. How do you do this in the mix? How do you achieve that retro, yet current feeling?
I share a studio with my drummer Jakob Hoyer, who’s also a very cool producer. He is so good at getting the best possible sound out of a drum kit. The fact that he doesn’t hit his drums too hard when he records them is super important, as it opens them up for more nuances. Many times, I’ll mix the snare from his kit with a snare from one of my old drum machines on top of it.
For Obverse, I used the Torque plugin on some electronic drums. In particular, I used it on the snare from my old AceTone Rhythmbox that I had fitted with MIDI output, so I can actually trigger each separate drum sound from the machine itself! Since it’s not possible to tune the sounds on this drum machine, I used Torque to tune the snare down in pitch, and it sounds quite natural as long as you don’t over-do it. It’s also a fantastic plugin for live drums—which I used on my upcoming album too. I tuned all the toms in the drum kit down a little so they fit better pitch-wise with the rest of the song.
I also often use the C1 Compressor with the gate/expander feature—which is great on kick drums. It just sounds so ‘analogue’ and warm in a way, sometimes a bit like tape too. Also, the Scheps 73 and some compression on the overheads mixed in to get a bit of the room too, and then a lot of EQing. Again, I just try to tweak until there is something I like. I drew a lot of inspiration, as you can hear quite clearly, from the sound of The Cure’s Disintegration album—with the big drums sound, string synths and chorus bass, etc. I love that epic sound!
Obverse is self-described as the result of your expanding skills in the studio—with no consideration for the live performance. Why did you decide to work this way?
I recently became a dad and I couldn’t see myself touring the world right after my child was born. So, I decided not to tour this album at all. It was a huge decision, as I really love touring and playing my music live with the band. But it just felt right because of this lovely situation.
It’s the first time that I haven’t toured with an album. It’s kind of opened up some new opportunities for me, not thinking at all about how I should transform the music for a live situation. I decided to really go crazy with all my synths, guitars and studio effects, and especially for the instrumental tracks on the album, not thinking in more traditional songwriting terms with verses, chorus and bridge, but instead having a much more open song structure. Often a song would start at one place and slowly throughout 8 or 9 minutes morph into something quite different in the end. A journey in and of itself.
Many producers/mixers out there will spend months on their tracks. What advice would you give as far as having moments of doubt during the process? How do you know when a track is finished?
I often do the same! But then again, I’ve also worked on tracks that I’m very happy with after just one night. It really depends on the nature of the song itself. I rarely produce for other artists. I like to just work on my own music and therefore I’m always very focused on not over-doing the mix. You can easily take out the energy, spontaneity and spirit of a song if you produce it too much.
I just have a gut feeling telling me when I think it’s done. I like small ‘happy accidents’ in music and even in the mix. Sometimes I like certain things to stand out. If everything is perfectly balanced, it often gets a bit boring to listen to.
Looking to add more weight to your music? Check out these 6 tips from Amsterdam-based electronic duo Weval.
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