AskAudio: How did you first get started in music? Was there a lightbulb moment when you knew music would be your path?
Stephan Hinz: Not really, it just happened somehow when I was a kid. First with mixtapes I recorded, then with my first computer the mixtapes became more sophisticated and already a little bit like a DJ set. We’re talking about me, being 12 years old in 1991. From then it was just natural that at a certain point I asked myself how music is created. At that time I was already playing the flute and the saxophone. Because I was fascinated by electronic music and because I wasn’t a good instrumentalist back then, I was so happy when I found out that you can record things with your computer and edit it afterwards. At the same time I started to play around with some sort of a sequencer where you were able to let samples happen on 4 tracks. I could pitch the samples, make them longer or shorter, reverse them and that was it. It was enough to come up with my first tracks, they weren’t officially released because I didn’t know how that would have worked back then, we shared them over mailboxes…some sort of interweb way before the internet was really a thing! I always loved making music and from this moment on I was addicted to it.
I’ve been in the scene for quite a while now, from the early beginnings, but first my path lead me to Germany’s biggest radio station. First as an audio engineer and then later I dived into one of my other hobbies back then which was coding software, and became a self-taught web coder. Back then you couldn’t study it at university because nobody knew what the internet would become and what you could do with it and what it could be. This was during the year 2000. It took me until 2013 when I decided to go all in and became a full time musician writing and playing electronic music and trying to get my foot into the movie scoring world. So to answer your question, I somehow knew very early that I loved electronic music and that I want to write it, but there was never really a big epiphany moment were I saw the path. Actually there was no path back then…electronic music was just starting.
Where does creativity strike you? In the studio or outside… if outside how do you approach transferring that to the studio?
Actually everywhere… it can be at a concert, at a gig in a club, at a festival, on the couch hanging around listening to music, reading… you name it. I’m listening to music all the time and when I’m not, then I’m thinking about music and creating it in my head. The big challenge is to bring this out somehow and make it audible for everybody. Most of the time the result isn’t even close to what I heard in my head before, but I’m getting closer! I think an important thing is when you work creatively is that you have an enviroment, a space that allows you to be creative. Meaning that it helps you set free this creative energy and gives you the freedom to dive into it and fiddle around for as long as it takes.
My studio actually looks a bit like my room when I was a kid. Some toys, a lot of books about art, architecture, music, harmony, music theory, orchestration, comics. It’s a big playground where I feel comfortable, where I close the door and leave the world outside. When I’m in the studio it’s easy, I start just writing the track, or play around with the piano, a drum machine or whatever and then go from there. When I’m somewhere else I’m humming it to my iPhone, into this little voice recorder and then I never come back to it. But the good ideas still stick. And then it’s basically orchestration; where you decide which instrument does what voice of the track you imagined in your head earlier. Very often I also just start with a groove, a melody line or whatever and then I hear all the other elements. I like it a lot when everything just happens and falls into place. Best case scenario.
Limitations can be your best friend. It’s not about the tools, it’s about what you can do with them.
Your new EP Juncture is out now. How has your production process evolved with this EP?
It’s constantly evolving, at least I hope so. I hate to repeat myself and I’m always curious about the next thing, that thing I heard there or that thing I had this idea about. I like to experiment and while there’s certainly a common theme in my music, I always try to approach it differently and challenge myself. In this case I wanted to grow up a little - it wasn’t the intention in the beginning but it was the result. I think this EP is way more grown up than the ones before. I don’t know if you understand what I mean, but I always have these phases where I just write music like it comes out and then I have those phases where I reflect a lot and think a lot about my music and how I wrote it in this given moment. Most of the times that leads me to the point where I re-think a lot of the elements again and try to define my sound more, become more clear with the elements and how I use them. In the case of Juncture the melody is super-easy, even maybe a bit cheesy but I guess I found a way to pull it without the cheese, not being too obvious and combined with not very easy elements.
Along with the hypnotic lead synths in Juncture you play a lot with “opposing themes”. Can you tell us about this and how it came about?
Contrasts are important elements of my music, actually of good music in general if you ask me. With contrast, beautiful things become even more beautiful. And that’s actually what I’m after. I love beautiful music, I also love dark and disturbing music a lot, but I like it a bit more if there are those moments of beauty in it, where everything in the world is alright for some seconds. And as with everything we don’t see the beauty any more if it’s there all the time… so sometimes we have to destroy the ground to let this one little flower shine even brighter.
Does your quest to express beauty and darkness lead you to design sounds for both using different synths and instruments respectively?
Yes, absolutely. And I also separate these two voices very clearly from one another most of the time. The darkness gets the groove, unforgivingly moving forward, relentless, mechanical…not caring if you can keep up with it or not. This gets also supported by the harmonic material and/or more sound design-ish material like textures. The beauty most of the times lays in the melodic material or at least finds its resolution there, both instrumentalising sounds, aesthetic and harmonic functionality like going back from a dominant chord (or substitute) to the tonic. It’s an interaction of all the elements. Think of it as an image. It can be this unforgiving pace of a city like Berlin, the city isn’t waiting for you, it doesn’t care if you’re still there tomorrow or not, it doesn’t care if you can keep up with all the change. There are many dark places, violence, excess, things you like are there one day and gone the next.
Although there can be this energy, this beauty of a blooming heart in the middle of a ruinous place, this moment when the city does care, that moment where it’s the best place on earth. It can be this or anything else, that's what I love so much about music, it can be literally everything and we all hear something different in it. Sometimes we hear the same, sometimes not.
I actually don’t care for this “analog is better" discussion
What software and hardware are you using these days to make music?
I produce in Cubase, and play my live act with Ableton Live. I’m a big fan of Reaktor, u-he Bazille, Repro, and the Arturia synths. I mostly use software but started to work more with hardware again. Not because of sound reasons… I actually don’t care for this “analog is better" discussion because I just use whatever it is as a tool and in the end it’s about what you can make with it and not what anybody else can do with it. We all have different approaches and different ways to motivate and get our creative juices flowing. I love software because it helped guys like me without a lot of money in the background to get started. I couldn’t have done it with hardware because I wasn’t able to afford it.
The plugins today are on a really high level, think of the UAD plugins for example, damn, they’re good. I didn’t want to believe it for a long time because at some point in my producer life I spent so much money on a Scope DSP system and it never did what it promised. Because of that I saw the UAD system just as a big and expensive dongle just made as a way for them to keep their customers in their world. There are amazing native plugins out there, but unfortunately not to my bank account. A lot of the new UAD plugins are amazingly good, but at the end of the day they’re all just tools, and none of the software or hardware pieces will write music for you.
Who are your biggest inspirations / influences currently? (Music and otherwise).
There are so many! It’s music, art, literature, movies, architecture. All the things I experience on the road, and in my everyday life. Music tells about life and it comes from life.
Your live sets are known for being more live production than DJing. How do you approach bringing studio production to the stage? What have you learned through this process?
Yes, it’s a real live act. Things are happening this very moment, that doesn’t mean it’s all improvised. And even though there are some improvised parts, it’s like a band that plays their tracks live on stage. The only thing it shares with a DJ set is that I don’t have a fixed running order of the tracks I play. I decide what track I play based on the room and the vibe of the people like a DJ would. My setup is based on Ableton Live with a Native Instruments Maschine for drums, a keyboard for playing the synths, some controllers for all the parameters of the different synths, effects etc and an Akai APC40mk2 to control the audio, MIDI clips, the levels and sends. I learned that little can go a long way in electronic music. I knew that before, but it gets even more obvious when you play live because you feel right away when a track has enough elements and when another element is just too much.
What production advice would you give to up and coming producers?
Limitations can be your best friend. It’s not about the tools, it’s about what you can do with them.
What do you have planned for 2018 you can share with us?
There’s so much new music coming! I think it will be one of the busiest years of all. I had my roots in the album writing process at the beginning of 2017. In the end I decided to not release it because it became very experimental and I didn’t find the right label for it. That set free so much creative energy, don’t ask me why because there are cooler things than to bury an album that you worked on for over 6 months, but it was the right decision and some of the music will be released this year alongside a lot of new material. As for the experimental music, it will find another way to your ears, but I don’t want to spoil how just yet.