words: Dan Cole
Berlin-based producer Emika is a talent whose work spreads over multiple-disciplines. Aside from her work as a producer and DJ, she’s also been a sound designer for Native Instruments, composed for orchestras, founded her own label and much more to boot.
More recently she released the LP Klavirni Temna, a return to the solo-piano format in which she combines neo-classic soundscapes with melancholic ambience. Having the capacity to adapt to different production and compositional arenas is all down to being prepared.
Nowadays that means much more than having the right setup. It’s also about having the right sounds and digital tools in place for you to use in a way that doesn’t impede your creativity. Catching up with Emika, we discuss the merits of refreshing your sound library on a regular basis, and how changing your approach to music can have long-lasting benefits to your work.
What’s your relationship with using online sound libraries as a source of inspiration?
There are certain points in my life where I’ve decided on a massive change. I’ve always gone to Loopmasters when I’ve done something like that to just see what’s current, what’s changed and what’s appealing with me. If I’m being really honest, there are often a lot of developments in scenes and genres where I think, “how do they make that sound?” It can really bug me not knowing how something is made, not necessarily because I want to do it myself, but I love it when you hear an advancement within a scene. With Loopmasters a lot of the sound designers are on the pulse with stuff like that, recreating it, and then offering it to creators to play around with. I use it as a place of inspiration when I’m in a new beginning with something.
When you start to overhaul your sound library, how do you go about making it your own?
Kind of with a very methodical cataloging and taste approach. Either I’m searching for something that I’m not finding in current music, or I feel that current music has gone too hard in one zone. For example, everything for me today is too hard and it just doesn't inspire me. So I’ve been searching for things that are more glitchy and broken. I’m inspired by things that are chaotic, or by patterns in nature. I just analyse my own taste and what it is I’m looking for.
Within your own sound library, has everything been created by you?
No! Definitely not. Over the last ten years I essentially made everything using a collage technique. I record a bit of piano, I cut in here, cut in there, resample it, add a bit of other stuff. I’ve just collected so many sounds and sound libraries and then hacked them apart, and that kind of started to bug me. There’s only so far you can take you can go with layering and adding stuff. It stops feeling creative, and starts to feel more like production. Yes, you’re technically making music but it's more a production… a production chain of bits. So I started to question what is the essence of my music. I’ve been working a lot with algorithms and self-generative synths, having the computer play on its own and using that as a starting place for ideas.
What self-generative synths are you using?
Max for Live. It’s got some weird stuff that you can program yourself. You can enter in the parameters, and have it be chaotic or not chaotic. I love working in the grid. I love little squares and things. It gets you out of this composing in a line, where you just keep building up and taking away.
Are you more creating sequences or sounds?
Kind of both, depending on how the sequence behaves. I’m just working with both in parallel and seeing what comes out.
Do these creations enable your composition, or do they go straight to the sound library?
Actually that’s where I’m at, trying to answer those questions. Is this good music? It’s so outside the realm of what a song is, I ask, “OK, do I now try and put this back in a song, and sing on top of it, or do I go hard in this new direction and see what comes out of it?” You know, try to define a new form of song.
That’s where having something like Loopmasters is great, where you can go and drag a sound and not have to spend hours making something. It allows you to keep that flow of creation. It’s like, “do you want to build your own camera before you take a picture?”
Do you think this was a stumbling block for you earlier on in your career, not having the right elements before producing a track?
Yeah, that was the process of me defining my sound. Me spending ten years trying to muster up some sound signature that felt like my soul, and borrowing things from other creators along the way. That’s the work that most artists have in the first part of their careers. It’s like, who am I in sound? The hard thing about this is that it keeps changing. Your tastes change, your personality changes, so you have to keep going back in and change that as you grow. That can be quite difficult especially if there are people who like that one specific sound you had at that time and you don’t feel that way anymore.
For me it’s also like I can’t remember how I used to make stuff. I listen to my old records, and I don’t know how I did them. But that’s also a sign for me that something is finished, when I listen to something and I feel completely removed from the whole thing. There’s a clear moment when I switch from being the artist to being the listener that makes it impossible for me to recreate what I’ve done. It kind of sucks in a way, because I’ve never been able to really repeat what I do. That also has a lot of nice elements to it though, when you have this liberating feeling of starting again, which I really like.
Is this also the same case with the effects you use?
Effects are a different world altogether, because effects are all about expression and dynamics. Once you’ve defined the colours that you want, it’s more about how you’re going to paint with them.
Over time, artists become known for a particular sound, would you say the same applies for effects?
With my music definitely, because I know that I’m doing it. I love effects so much. You can make so much otherworldly stuff happen. When I use effects it’s more because I want to try and explore other realities and dimensions. You can have this rigid thing you’ve programmed then make it inspiring by adding some reverb. Reverb is interesting because you’re essentially trying to model acoustic space that we all understand, and then take that concept of space and reproduce through two speakers and it becomes this crazy gateway to exploring space.
What about creating more organic sounds in your work?
Yes, this is really hard, like I try to recreate the sounds of wings, flying patterns. I’ve been trying to do that for seven years and I never really finished anything. There’s this song of mine called ‘Restless Wings’, which is kind of not really what I was trying to do, but it worked in one sense. I’m also really fascinated with trying to model rain and be able to switch from noise-based rain patterns to harmonic rain, and then to melodic rain, and then switch between them.
Why do you use digital tools to recreate these instead of working more with field recordings?
I guess the thing with field recordings is that you can never really escape the quality of the actual device. When you have a recorder, and you record something, it’s never really like how it is to your ears. It’s like you’re turning the natural world into an object where you just record one part of it. I’m more interested in the way things move, and the depth, the pattern and the behaviour, rather than the sound of just nature. There’s just so much other unwanted noise that gets in the way.
You’re always just going to take the hyperreal form of nature, which always feels messy to me. I’d rather start with this clean environment that you get with software; this limitless clean slate that you can basically work within. It’s just so perfect. You click and open an app and a perfect environment is ready for you to make whatever you want, and for me that just still blows my mind. I just love music software for that reason.
When you take sounds and use them, do you take them as they are, or do you manipulate them?
I take it and see what’s there and then I usually colour code things, or rename them. I have my own private spreadsheet where I can make notes. If I find something interesting and if it’s not what I’m looking for at that time then I just quickly make notes about it. I have a huge ten year list of things that I keep meaning to go back to - but it’s helpful to know that it’s there. Then I delete a load of stuff that I don’t want. I’m really fast at deleting stuff. I don’t want anything hanging around that doesn’t fit or is distracting. I get rid of anything that I don’t like. That’s the luxury of when you have this cloud approach to production. You know that it’s there when you want to change something or go back to get it. The fact you know that everything’s in the cloud means you can focus on what you want.
Do you ever have any regrets from refreshing your sound library?
I do sometimes. It’s always very hard when you keep having to start over and there’s a big learning curve. I purposefully put myself back into that position where I’m not going to sound very good for a really long time, and there's that struggle where you’re trying to make something that’s amazing. There are points in that journey where maybe I DJ or hear a mix I’ve done, or someone tags me in something I’ve made, and I recognise that’s such a beautiful thing I did, and it’s gone. That’s not really part of my journey, my journey is about searching and new beginnings.
It’s like being in this design world where you can work with new algorithms. It feels very progressive, and I like being able to transform and not be stuck with one particular set of gear and rules.
Some people might find sound library management tedious, but for you it seems like it’s all part of the same process?
Yeah, it's all a means to an end. I don’t particularly enjoy it. There are certain parts of cataloguing stuff where I really want to smash things and give up. I can have really terrible mood swings, but I know that if I’m diligent for a few weeks and put aside all of the things I want to play and record and do, I know that's going to be a great foundation for me to work creatively for like three years. If I play the long game, three weeks of boring listening, analysing, and cataloging, then I can just completely ignore all of that. I’m always aware of what is happening, of when companies release new stuff and I always have a list of what to come back to it when the time is right, but I’m really trying to define how I’m spending my time creatively, and not just being constantly distracted by the world of technology.
Emika’s new collaborative label project Improvisations x Inspirations is now available to check out here, with a new track available to download for free for those who sign up.