Sebastian Mullaert: Art Of The Moment

Sebastian Mullaert is a multi-talented performer with a frankly dizzying array of gear in his studio and live rig. We caught up with him to find out what makes him tick.

Boasting a diverse discography spanning from modal ambient to minimalistic analog techno excursions, Sebastian Mullaert clearly knows a thing or two about maintaining consistent output at a consistently high quality.

His captivating productions feature a subtle yet beguiling musicality infused with an unmistakably fluid feel that belies intimate knowledge of the instruments in his studio. It’s no wonder Korg named a synth after his last duo project: Minilogue.

Currently based in the dense forest of his native southern Sweden, we caught up with Sebastian at Handwerk Studios in Berlin to discuss his unique production process, the joys of collaborating, his current live rig, the importance of flow, and gear – lots of gear. 

 

AA: I noticed you used a violin in your recent Against The Clock video, and I understand it’s an instrument you played from a young age. So how did you begin as a young musician?

SM: My absolute first encounter with an instrument was with an electric organ. My father was very much into electronic music, and he had a great curiosity and ambition to try to make music himself. He really loved music. And I think he believed that he would have time to get into music, but he never really did. So you know, we had an 808, a Juno 60, a Minimoog, a Roland System 100 – quite a lot of nice gear, but he never really got enough time to use it, having a family, running a small farm in the woods and being a professor at a university. But they were always around.

You don’t always hear about people growing up with synthesizers like that. 

But the funny thing is, I wasn’t really playing with them so much. The electric organ I started to play quite early, and then I started to play violin and piano. And then from 8 until 18, that was my main focus.

What sort of records were you listening during those years?

In the beginning, my father’s collection was Tangerine Dream, Harmonia, Can, Pink Floyd – a lot of 70s psychedelia with electronic instruments. But then I started to listen more to classical actually. My entry into electronic music came in my later teens with bands like Future Sound of London, The Orb, and Orbital.

Growing up in a small town called Hässleholm - about an hour from Malmö - the scene was more connected to Copenhagen. I started going to concerts, like Roskilde festival, listening to this stuff more outside of a club or party environment, which made me more curious about the rave scene. When I was 18 or something I went to a few rave parties and I really got blessed by the dancing. I really loved that.

At the same time, I played violin in different bands and ensembles. My ambition was to attend the music conservatory. Then I started playing more electronic music. I was supposed to go to school for architecture, but I was doing so much music. I kind of needed to decide, so I told myself: give the music a couple of years, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll go back to university. But then I never did.

So it seems like you first gained notoriety with the Son Kite project, also with Marcus Henriksson, your partner from Minilogue. Son Kite was a more minimal psychedelic trance project, and you were quite active in that scene for a while – what was that experience like for you?

That was where it all really started and boomed. Before Son Kite, we had another project, Trimatic. Do you know Massimo Vivona, Ground Groove, Headzone? 

Can’t say I’m familiar – going to have to check them out.

It was really minimal, trancey techno, but very analog driven – lots 909 and synth, but very basic. Some of my absolute favorite music, really amazing. But so Trimatic and early Son Kite were really inspired by that. Then we got picked up by the trance scene, which I was not (very) connected to. I went to more techno parties.

Mullaert goes live for XLR8R

So even back then, your origins were more in the techno scene?

Yeah, and then we got picked up and suddenly we released an album on a trance label, and it was a fresh sound in that scene. So we started to tour all these parties, and began to get influenced and affected by that music. After that, we tended to get more trancey. So I think for us, Minilogue was a way to come back to our roots again.

Currently I prefer solo – as a center to work from. I really find that I have the freedom to do whatever I want.

And also, all scenes have this, you know, “Oh, this is trance. That is techno.” And Son Kite became “trance.” So doing a techno record with that project would be difficult because of the label people had already given it. People assume what things will sound like without even listening. It was easier to start something fresh and do it with a blank slate. So then we started Minilogue and had the two projects in parallel for some time. We continued to play a few Son Kite shows every year, all the way up until Marcus and I went separate ways. But obviously we focused more on Minilogue in recent years. I think it’s important to find what you feel passionate about and go with that decision a little bit. 

You collaborated with Marcus for many years, and you’ve also collaborated with Mathew Jonson, Eitan Reiter, and others too. Do you have a preference for collaboration or working solo these days? 

Currently I prefer solo – as a center to work from. I really find that I have the freedom to do whatever I want. If you are focused on a band or a group, you’re also really affected by everyone. So for example, if I want to cut the bass, it will change what the other person does, and vice versa. And what kind of direction you want to go in general. I’m enjoying making these decisions on my own – but I still really love to play with other people. So now I feel more like having my own music, my own name and project, and then jumping to different collaborations when I like. I have a new project coming up that is more of a curated night based on jams with different artists. 

Is this the Circle Of Live project I heard about recently? 

Yeah, exactly. It’s more, kind of taking a step away from timelines, and you know, this person play here, and there’s a headliner, you know. It’s more like: these four artists will perform tonight – come and see what happens. Maybe some nights everyone jams together, maybe another one everyone plays separately; maybe one night I play at the end, another night I’ll play at the beginning. We can be more flexible, like now I’m really into it, I can continue another hour. I could do a shorter set another time. But really just trying to inspire the artists to come there and be there together and listen to each other, you know?

More of a conversation. 

Right, and have it all connected together and synchronize-able, so we can jam if we want to that specific evening. Sometimes you’re not feeling it, but it’s nice to have the option. 

Kind of a jazz approach.

Yeah, that’s how I described it as well. 

You go to a jazz club and you know certain musicians will be there on a given night, but you don’t know who will play for how long, or when, or what numbers they’ll play, in what combination, who might solo and when – all that.

Sometimes there’s magic, sometimes not. But hopefully there’s some curiosity for how it will be delivered. Techno, I think sometimes, it needs to be this thing where everyone expects a certain type of delivery from certain artists. Instead of that expectation, I think this will be more of a mystery, like – let’s see what happens tonight. Where will it go? Even we don’t know. Maybe it’s ambient for an hour or two at the start. I think it can be a reminder of how beautiful that not knowing can be. Like “Ahh, I don’t need to know what’s happening tonight.”

Sebastian goes deep on stage

It’s an interesting counter-reaction as commercial “EDM” becomes more packaged and commodified into something predictable and repeatable. Instead, you’re saying, let’s be open to some mystery with it.

With more freedom there can be an easier approach. 

So let’s discuss your studio a bit. In the past, you’ve talked about your production process, where you build all your parts, then take a break, come back with a fresh approach to jam and let it flow a bit more. Are you still using a similar approach in your solo work?

Yes, and it’s kind of developed a bit more. Kind of finding myself in that. But it’s very much kind of making friends with the sounds and rhythms, both when I do remixes and my own songs. For example when I do a remix, there’s the process of shaping the parts, working with "clay", making it playable, getting in tune with all the sounds, until it feels like home. Like “Ahh, yes, here’s this pad.” Now I’m a friend with all the sounds. Then I leave it and take a break, sometimes even for a whole day. Maybe I’ll take a walk in the forest. When I come back to it, it’s with a bit more perspective. 

Because when you just worked with the sounds, you’re almost like, “Oh, I love you!” You’re almost too attached, and it makes you kind of stuck. But taking a break, you forget it all a bit, just enough, and then you come back and there’s room to breathe. So then I come back and record a few takes down to a stereo file.

Sebastian's kit list (click images to enlarge):

 
 
 

 
You record your jam directly to a stereo bounce? Your mixes sound great – but you 
must be pretty confident in the way you’ve got your mix configured before you hit record.

If you keep it open and you record on different tracks, you have an opportunity to change so much and it can be a trap – you can keep working for ever. Some people do. But usually I’ll do a stereo take, and then sometimes I’ll add some overdubs. I’ll listen to something and maybe add a solo, or some pads. A lot of times I’m just doing the stereo takes, but I’ll do ten of them, which gives a lot of freedom. 

I notice when I try and stick to just one composition or arrangement, it becomes so important that it’s “right.” I get so attached to a particular sound being so perfect, and that kind of detaches me from feeling free when I do it. So it can feel too careful or forced. But when I do many takes, I can explore different approaches to the material. I can try a softer take, or a more banging take, or explore a particular sound more – just try different angles. Sometimes when I listen back to the takes a few days later, when I have some distance, a clear winner emerges – but when the takes are more similar, it can be a bit more difficult to discern.

If you dance at the club for a long time, slowly you start to be one with the hi hats – and I think that’s the perfect example of being in your flow.

So you do some overdubs occasionally – do you do any edits of the stereo file? Do you splice different sections together or anything like that?

Sometimes I might shorten, or it can be like, “Wow, these eight bars at the end, just looping those could be beautiful.” Then I just loop them and do a super plain thing, and then jam again on top of that. It can be a process where actually, for example, a few tracks on my new Apollo EP start with a just a short loop from an old project that never became a finished track, and then I improvised something over the top. 

Sebastian goes deep at Boiler Room

Once you set the stage by creating your palette of sounds, your process seems to hinge on getting into these sort of flow states when jamming. Do you have any tips or techniques for getting into that sort of zone?

Yeah, I have quite a few. One is to really just jam with the sounds a lot to start. Get super familiar with them. Like, if you’re creating or recording a pad, just be with it for a long time. Really feel it. Take another synthesizer, and you don’t need to record – just play with it. And eventually you start to feel an attraction to it – you don’t want to stop. Then I think you become very present with it. For me, I become very present by doing that. 

It’s like playing with an instrument, if you play violin or guitar for a long time, you start to feel the tones, the frequencies, the vibrations. And then you are there. So, it’s like dancing. If you dance at the club for a long time, slowly you start to be one with the sounds and the rhythms – and I think that’s the perfect example of being in your flow. And you’re letting an experience take place. And whatever happens, comes naturally – whether hard, or soft, or dark. You’re letting something happen, and you’re feeling it.

What that is depends on all kinds of things – where you are, who’s around you, your emotional state, it can be so many things. But doing something that makes you come back here, to the moment – then once you’re here, you have what you have. Whether you have one synth or ten, playing alone or with others, in the end, if you’re present, you can express something there. 

So I notice you’re using Ableton’s Push 2 quite a bit.

I recently started using it a lot more. I had the first Push, but never really used it much. I had the Maschine in my live rig for a while, but I’ve since replaced it with the Push 2, and I’m quite pleased with it. I’ve got everything on there for the drum sequencer and playing notes. I used to trigger my 101 from the computer with a MIDI clip, or from the 808. But now I can trigger it from the Push. I can play the notes directly using trig and CV.

And use the scales to do it? 

Yeah, exactly. I tried it for the first time in my live set this weekend at the Freerotation Festival. It was so nice because sometimes you hear a sequence, but stepping it in can take a while to configure – but with Push I can punch it in without any delay. So I find Push great for external gear. As a hub – but also to loop things. Sometimes if, you know, I’m playing a sound from the computer, I get stuck playing because it becomes so foundational that I can’t stop, even if I need to build the drums up a bit. But now with Push I can just punch in and loop it right away and move onto another element. So I have the Push 2 as the sort of command center and computer looper, but I also have a Roland RC-505 looper for grabbing audio, both in the studio and while I’m touring.

Sebastian Mullaert live and direct. 

So how does the RC-505 factor in exactly?

It’s for looping external audio on the fly. When I play live, I send what I want to loop out from the cue on the Model 1 mixer. It’s synchronized to Live via MIDI. In the studio, I have it on a send. My music is very looped in a way. It’s also a big part of my improvisation. I can grab things organically; things can flower and have their little moment, emerging from the mix and then going back to being part of the foundation. So I can grab short loops, bring them up, tweak them, then turn them down again as something else starts to flower. It really helps me as a solo performer take different instruments to the foreground of a composition and back again. It’s very hands-on. 

So the drum sequencing is mostly from Push 2, or you have a drum machine as well?

I try to use different things. I have the Push, I have the Maschine, I have the TR-8. I use the 808 a lot – I still love it. I have a little MFB drum machine. I think I’m looking for one more drum machine at the moment.

You have some other controllers besides the Push – are there any you find particularly important in the studio or on stage?

In the studio, I mostly use hardware, and the mixing desk is my controller – I use it a lot, working with the faders to create rhythms and soundscapes. I do have the K2 controller from Allen & Heath, with four channel strips that can jump to control different sounds in my set by pushing one of the buttons. I don’t have access to my computer during my live set – it’s there in front of me but I don’t touch it. So if I want to play the Rhodes, I access that via the K2. It’s the same in the studio. When I want to do a take, I don’t have a fixed set up, so I use the K2 to access different channels, with different memories stored for each new jam.

It sounds like you’ve got a unique balance of analog and digital. Using a lot of analog in studio which maybe isn’t so practical on the road. But you’re using Ableton Live to trigger a lot of things.

When I create sounds for a jam I also record things and loop them in Live, then send them out again and process them more – I can do this for days until I have a palette of sounds. Then I assign them to different channels on the desk. Then I record the jam as an arrangement, and then, if necessary, add things on top. So it’s sort of a process of creating the parts, then configuring all the channel strips. I don’t have a lot of synths. My studio is more gear – less instruments. I have instruments, but sometimes I want something to sound a bit different so I might use a software instrument to add something else.

Sebastian does it for the love

Sebastian does it for the love

Are there any software instruments or effects that you find yourself using often?

I have the whole UAD package, so when I need a plug-in, I use those. The Lexicon reverb sometimes, but especially the Pultec EQ emulations – I love those. Pultec is actually producing new hardware units now in the US; they’re quite expensive but I think I want to get one. I get so creative when I sit with them – I can transform things. Something that has no bass, I can make it really subby! You can really crunch the sounds. 

But I use the UAD a bit like what I know from the real analog world. Using the Massive Passive and other things I’m familiar with makes it suitable for me, because I don’t spend much time with the plug-ins. When I see a new plug-in that’s probably super interesting and creative, I don’t know what it is! I would need to spend time with it to understand it, but normally when I open a plug-in, it’s when I don’t want to do that. I want to use it right away.

When it comes to virtual instruments, I just have the Native Instruments Komplete. When I need something my gear can’t give me, I open it up and go through the presets until I find something close, then play with it. As far as the computer goes, I’m not much of a sound designer – I prefer to physically work with the frequencies on my analog instruments.

So Live clearly plays a big role in your process, but I heard you used to use Logic. Are you still using it in some capacity? 

I stopped using Logic completely. Now I have Pro Tools and my intention is to use it for future work with musicians who might not be comfortable with Live. But I don’t find them very customer friendly, and I’ve encountered a lot of driver and hardware compatibility issues. Ableton is kind of the opposite – I’ve felt so much enthusiasm and passion from them, it really feels like the way to go. 

So what’s the most important element of your live performance? What sort of tools are you using, and how much is improvised?

The live set up is a continuous process, taking form for almost twenty years. It was a big change to start to play solo. When you have more people, you can play a more specific role. As a solo artist, I feel like I have two roles. On one end, I’m a musician who can sort of get lost with a sequence on a synth, or improvising freestyle, adding that special element that’s different from a record – it might be too loud or something, but it’s raw, it’s live. And to do that really well, I need to be able to stop thinking about what I need to play next, or the overall narrative. I can’t have that too much on my mind. The other aspect needs to be completely concerned with the story, and the narrative, the journey.  

Inside the Swedish countryside studio 

So you have to be the musician, but also the conductor.

Exactly. And they are two different things – it’s two different mindsets. So it’s very hard to occupy both roles at the same time. Every once in a while I have these moments, just a few seconds, where I feel I’m actually both – but they’re fleeting.  So I jump between the two roles, which isn’t so important when playing with someone else, where you can switch roles easily. It was something I had to get used to playing mostly solo. I really like it because I love to play with others, but playing on my own, I can make all the decisions, when to put the conductor on hold and be the musician as long as I want.   

I think it’s important to understand this duality and approach it in different ways. Some live sets can favor one: the storytelling or the improvisation. But how I play I’m trying to balance these, creating a live energy with a continuous journey. Normally I play two or three hours, and there is a story too it, going through different musical aspects. My set is full of sketches in Ableton that are recorded in the studio – just loops, no arrangement. Each loop consists of 12 separate sounds routed to separate outputs on my Model 1 mixers.

Coming out of Live’s Session view?

Yeah, exactly. And one Scene is one sketch, so I can scroll through loads of sketches, all named differently. I can choose from mellow, melodic, or harder stuff.

And you jump back and forth between different Scenes as you see fit, going by the vibe of the room?

Yes, sometimes I’ll plan like, maybe I’ll start with a cluster to get comfortable. Like, playing at Berghain, okay, I’ll start with these few sketches. It helps to have a starting point to settle into, and then I can go from there once I’m more relaxed and in the zone. I have twelve channels in Ableton, all of which go into one channel on another desk, where it gets combined with the analog gear. So on top of playing with the arrangement, I’m playing with all the analog gear as well. Then I program the melodies live and I try to do that super improvised and not planned at all. So the sketch has a certain vibe that’s recorded in the studio. I can change it all in the arrangement, different every time, but the analog stuff and the instruments add a really spontaneous element to it all.

Dreaming of the moment

So which analog pieces are you taking on the road?

I have three Play Differently mixers; two of them are connected to Ableton, two of them are mixed together. Then I have an Antelope audio interface sending out 32 channels. The mixers have D-Subs, so I have everything pre-connected in a case, and the sound card goes straight into them. Before I had MIDI controllers linked to all the channels in Ableton, controlling everything internally and sending a stereo mix out. But now I have a separate output for each sound, and when I tweak the filters, it’s analog filters on an analog desk, and all the summing happens in the analog domain. It makes an enormous difference. Suddenly the sounds aren’t shy anymore. The sounds become so much more proud and present.

Then I have the SH-101, and a Korg Volca slot that I can swap out between Keys or Bass depending on the show – right now I have the Volca Bass with me. Then I have stomp boxes with reverbs and delays, and the RC-505 of course. But I also have loads of extra outputs for triggering outboard gear and free inputs on the mixers, so in the future, there's room for the set to grow if I want.

Which delay pedal do you use the most these days?

I love the Eventides, but right now I’m using the TC Electronics which is very small and direct. Then they’re all routed through sends on the Model 1 units – with the three connected, it becomes like an 18-channel studio desk, but I only have two of them linked. Then I use the ACME-4 SND interface for all the MIDI and triggering from the Push to the synths. It lets me shuffle things like the 808 or the 101 – super handy, for live sets as well. 

Is there any gear you’re particularly excited about at the moment? And where do you see music technology headed from here? Is there anything you’d like to see that might not exist yet?

I love all the analog stuff coming out these days, but it’s nice that the digital realm keeps things accessible for people. I’m very excited about the new Zähl AM-1 pure analog studio mixer, hand-built in Germany. 

Yeah, those look incredible. Lastly, you recently launched a new solo project, Wa Wu We – can you explain the motivation behind it? 

It makes it easier to do certain things when it’s not under my own name. So Wa Wu We is where I can indulge the sounds I’ve played with a bit more, keep it easier, lighter, maybe a bit more fun. It relieves some pressure to not care whether a label will hate it or love it, whether the kick is too subby – it gives me freedom to do things a bit more odd, outside the normalizations of conventional techno. I can do something completely different from what I thought possible – not by trying too hard, but more just by taking a step away from the pressure and letting it happen.  

Sebastian’s Ode To Be is featured on the latest Cocoon compilation, and his All The Keys Are Here EP is available now on Apollo. His next releases will be the Samunnati EP on Default Position in early September, and the Broken Mirror EP, out in late October on Mule Musiq. For more information and upcoming live dates in Sweden, Portugal, Croatia, France, Switzerland, Holland, the UK, the US, and beyond, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/sebastianmullaert/
 
Synthesis 101
The Filter
by Bob Moog Foundation

"Noah Pred is a Canadian techno and house producer, DJ and Certified Ableton Trainer living in Berlin, Germany - where he runs his label, Thoughtless Music. His Juno-nominated full-length album Third Culture, is out now: http://www.thoughtlessmusic.com/releases/tlm086-noah-pred-third-culture/ - and you can check out his new project with..." Read More

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