The BIG Interview: Robert Henke, Co-Founder of Ableton & Monolake
Robert Henke is one of the brains behind Ableton Live and also Monolake as well as an all-round tech visionary. Noah Pred caught up with him in Berlin to get his thoughts on music and much more.
Producer, performer, programmer, technologist, engineer, innovator, artist: at first glance it certainly seems a bit much to call anyone the da Vinci of electronic music – but if you were looking to fill those shoes, it would be difficult to find someone more qualified than Munich-born Berliner Robert Henke. At the very least, he is a renaissance man for the digital age.
He’s toured the world many times over with his Monolake project – under which he’s released a number of classic minimal techno and experimental ambient records – performing live at MUTEK, Sonár, Decibel, Unsound, and numerous other acclaimed festivals. He’s lectured and taught at Berlin University of the Arts, Stanford, IRCAM, CalArts, the Goethe Institute, and the Studio National des Arts Contemporains, and worked as a mastering engineer at the legendary Dubplates & Mastering facility.
His installations, performances, and concerts have been presented at the Tate Modern and Barbican in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris, PS-1 in New York, MAK in Vienna, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia, and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, claiming a pair of ILDA awards in the process. Robert also happens to be one of the creators and founders of the revolutionary Ableton Live software platform, where he’s recently signed back on in an official role following a brief hiatus from the company.
Wherever he finds himself, Henke does it all with infectious charm and contagious exuberance. Catching up with him for an extended chat in his lush Kreuzberg apartment, pervasive plant life threatening to swallow up his equally abundant collection of technology both old and new, we explored the philosophy behind his art, music, teaching, programming, and yes, even high-powered frickin’ laser beams – the visual medium of his latest works.
AskAudio: Let’s start with your current projects. I really enjoyed your recent Lumière III laser concert at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, as well as your Distorted Observation Field at KW/FEED, which we’ll hopefully get to later. It seems nobody is working with lasers the way you are right now. Why and how did you begin working with them?
Henke: This story has two beginnings. In 1990, I found a really small cheap gas laser and I tried to build a club laser show, which of course didn’t really work out. Then I gave up on it. The second part is six or seven years ago, I thought technology really moved on a lot and I wanted to do something visual. There’s already a lot of excellence out there as far as video production and usage is concerned, but I didn’t see the point in becoming a mediocre video artist.
And then I decided that I’m gonna use a medium which is not used that often, where I didn’t really find convincing examples yet – mainly also because I’m naïve of course, but naïveté is a good starting point when you’re trying to do something new – so I just decided, I’ll work with lasers.
After a few detours, I managed to get in touch with a company here in Berlin which is actually a very old and established manufacturer of laser systems for light shows. And I just got along really well with the CEO of the company, who was really interested in my ideas, and that’s how I got access to really, really nice machines. And that helped me to develop something from the very start that had a certain level.
AskAudio: How exactly did you come into contact with him?
Henke: I just Googled, and I noticed there’s this company in Berlin. I sent them an email and got a nice reply that said, “Hey, we see you’re in Berlin too, why don’t you come by for coffee sometime and we can discuss your ideas?” Sometimes you meet someone, and you immediately know you’re on an equal wavelength – and with the CEO of this company, it just felt like that. So he was very supportive, and he also gave me the confidence that my ideas were not crap. The rest was a lot of programming, and a lot of trial and error.
Henke’s Lumière II
AskAudio: These laser performances, particularly Lumière, have a strikingly seamless synaesthetic quality. Obviously as a musician working with a visual format, it makes sense that you would want some connection there between the sound and light. In this project, is it starting with a musical concept and developing a visual from that, or vice versa, a bit of both – or maybe another approach entirely?
Henke: It’s a bit of both. Practically, for the third iteration of Lumière I was working a lot on the visual side, creating visual patterns and then later assigning sounds to them. But it’s very important from a technical perspective that I find a system that allows me to bind a specific sound to a specific shape, and then have some kind of macro control parameters that affect the sound and the shape at the same time. A simple example would be that I have a circle and I match a sine wave with this circle; then I assign an LFO to the circle so it changes the diameter and assign the same LFO to the sound which changes, say, the amplitude.
Now I have a global control for the speed of the LFO which changes the speed of the laser circle diameter and the sine wave amplitude at the same time, without the need to program it – which means I can articulate this in a live performance and it stays totally in sync. That was quite some programming effort, but it leads to this nice situation where I can really perform these things, and the sound and vision behave completely in unison. That was one of the core principles for this whole project, that this was the case. So I could actually even play notes and have shapes and sounds both emerging simultaneously and have controls to articulate that.
AskAudio: What kind of control do the lasers receive?
Henke: Analog control. Each laser is just a single beam of light with two mirrors, one for horizontal and for vertical, and since I use three colors, there’s three control signals for the colors, and that’s it. And technically, all this is done in Gen, in Max, and basically, at the end of the day, it’s audio data.
AskAudio: So basically, you’ve built your own custom Max environment, and that’s the totality of what you use for this audio/visual performance?
Henke: Yes, it’s one environment, but split between several computers for CPU reasons. So the sound generation is Max for Live, a Live set, and the laser control is two Max patches running on two computers, with all three talking to each other via OSC. As usual with such projects, there’s a lot of details to solve, but the overall structure is quite straightforward. It took me quite a long time to find that structure, so there were quite a few interim versions which were much more complicated than this version.
AskAudio: I’m curious about your process. How much was trial and error? Or do you sort of sit down with paper and pencil and sketch it out, then build it, and test to see if it’s what you intended?
Henke: The process has many stages. For instance, a habit I developed for sound design is, I first create sounds, without thinking about a structure. So I sat down and said, “Okay, I want to have sounds for Lumière III.” Then I just go in the studio and make sounds without arranging them, without any sense of composition. “Okay, let’s just have a nice, deep bass sound,” I think – then I create this, and record it as a sound file. So I create material without context.
I want to have some poetic quality, because that’s what I feel such a work should convey. There should be a sense of a different layer beyond the technology, beyond the raw experience.
And the reason I do this is because in the second step, I basically assign sound files to synthesis parameters – so my synthesizer is a sample-based synthesizer which takes a sample as a source, then applies modulation, filtration, and whatnot. So the second step is that I create a visual shape, and I also create those shapes as a process that has nothing to do with the composition yet, just, “Okay, let’s see how many shapes I can do involving circles, how many shapes I can do involving squares – stuff like that.” I really just create material.
Then the next step is to arrange this material in some rough composition. Then the next bigger step is to think in a larger form, say, what piece comes first, what piece goes next. And from there it goes in iterations. Like, what I’m going to change for the next Lumière performance is I want to swap the order of the third and fourth piece, because I came to the conclusion that this is better. And what I also did was noticing breaks are unnecessary, parts are too short or too long, or noticing larger overall structural things, which you tend to lose the overview of if you work for too long too closely. If you work for hours, days, weeks, on the same material, there’s a lack of distance. When I perform things, this helps me to reconsider my own work from the eyes of the audience, and then I make the changes.
AskAudio: So then, in the performance, how much is improvised? Or what elements are improvised?
Henke: In the current version, it basically runs on a timeline, but the things I can change are a lot of the articulation of the timbres, so there’s lots of parameters which I can change basically from very passive filtering to effects, to volumes of course, but also to placement of sounds in space, bringing focus to the center or all around – and the spatial component is important, because I can do the same thing with the laser image. I can make it very small, I can make it very large. This depends very much on the room of course. So if I do this visually, I also want to be able to do it sonically.
So in a way I created it as a conductor role, where there’s a score – but within the score I have lots of ways to play it: in a very calm way, in a very aggressive way, or anywhere in between. What I’d like to do in the next iteration is change structural things in a very simple way, so that I run into a loop at certain points, during which I plan to assign more parameters to create even more radical changes. For instance, I want to have even more LFOs which modulate things, so that I can basically have this machine in front of the audience, and I can change how this machine oscillates as long as I keep modulating the LFOs. I can do this as long as it feels nice, and then I can just continue, and eventually I run into the next loop segment. That’s what I plan for the next revision.
AskAudio: Sounds like fun. But beyond the purely aesthetic, which is perfectly compelling unto itself, is there any kind of statement behind Lumière? Or is it more just an exploration of the technology and its potential?
Henke: I mean, one desire is that I like to figure out how far I personally can push it. This includes technological questions. How complex laser drawings can I do? How much can I tailor the software to do the things which I have in my mind? But this alone would of course be a kind of shallow perspective. And the other perspective is I really try and find ways to express something within this medium that is new and interesting.
There’s two components for me within Lumière which I found important. One is the really clear phenomenological one. What happens if your brain is exposed to these square shapes, smaller and smaller and smaller, and the sensation that you’re sort of in the middle of this Tron movie – this audio-visual stimulation? And I have a feeling that this is a part I’d like to push far more to the extreme, sonically and visually, and I get braver the more often I play it. It will get louder, it will get more demanding at times, so it reaches a point where it becomes overwhelming – so you get to a point where you think “I hope this ends soon!” – and then I push it a little bit further, with the idea in mind that afterward comes this beautiful, quiet and slow and calm part, which is kind of uplifting because of the fact that there was such intensity beforehand.
AskAudio: So really, a study in contrasts – both the bright laser on the dark backdrop, and the intensity and calm of the structure – while also pushing the boundaries of not just your ability to work with this technology, but also the boundaries of people’s audio-visual experience. I mean, a lot of people have not experienced the brightness of those laser visuals, along with the fully synchronized, high-definition, high-volume sound.
Henke: I think there is definitely room for pushing this much further, and I have a tendency to be too cautious, too careful at many points, and I should be a little more punk – that’s on my to-do list, to push this further. The other thing is, I don’t want to make a performance that only relies on that dynamic, because there are a lot of A/V performance pieces out there that do this very well, but don’t go beyond that. So this hint of narration, this overall shape, I feel it’s important to have. I want to have some poetic quality too, because that’s just what I feel such a work should convey. There should be a sense of a different layer beyond the technology, beyond the raw experience.
Destructive Observation Field
AskAudio: I definitely found some lyricism not just in the shapes but also in how they transformed over time, and the sort of abstract narrative contained within it – so I think you’re succeeding on that front. I also found the Lumière experience, well, psychedelic, for lack of a better word – I don’t know how much of that is intentional or just inevitable given the medium. And yet, while your Destructive Observation Field project shares many of the same syneasthesic qualities with Lumière, it also couldn’t be more different in terms of process. Destructive Observation Field uses the randomization of this very physical process of the decay of a black plexiglas surface under a high-powered green laser beam to create these incredibly mesmerizing ripples of multi-colored refraction. I’m very curious – how did you come up with this process?
Henke: It was a classic happy accident. I just had a piece of black plexiglas lying around, and I needed to protect myself from the laser beam somehow, and then I put the plexiglas on a mic stand, and thought, “Hmmm, high-powered laser, black plastic – maybe this is not such a good idea. Maybe I should test and make sure it’s safe.”
I was kind of anticipating that the laser beam with the black plexiglas might engage in some dialog. So I tried it, and I noticed that it’s very easy to drill a hole in the plexiglas with a laser – but before that, I saw the reflection on the wall, and I thought, “Wow, this is quite cool.” It was one of those moments where you see something and say, “Hey, I need to do something with that.”
From there it was just a matter of determining how much energy and movement from the laser beam is necessary to create those types of shapes. This came completely by accident. I would love to stage it again sometime soon. It also went through many iterations, with different laser sizes, and I determined I can only do it with the larger laser beams because there’s a certain type of deformation that I can only get when there’s really a lot of energy. What I like on this piece is that it’s so unpredictable, and combining this high-precision, high-powered medium with something that is very iconic, and creating destruction with that. For me, this radiates on many levels. It has a quality which is inherent to the process which would be extremely hard to emulate with a simulation, and I just get it for free.
AskAudio: How did you generate the sound for Destructive Observation Field, and how was that connected to the laser’s motion?
Henke: This also went through many iterations. The reason why there was sound in the first place is that when I showed it the first time, the room was too quiet, and the problem was the fans of the laser were too loud; you enter a room and see something very spectacular in front of you, but the sounds of the laser’s fans draw your attention away, up to this black box, and I decided I needed to do something to counter that. So I just created a drone-y soundscape in order to basically cover the sound of the laser itself.
Then I tried to do something a bit more informed by the visual element, including some Jitter (Max/MSP) real-time camera analysis of the image which is created, but none of that was convincing – it was a lot of technical effort for a somewhat unconvincing output, so I gave up on it.
For the latest version, I used granular synthesis, filtering, and reverbs, with the position of the grain being informed by the position of the laser on the screen, so faster movement in the visual creates faster movement in the sound – a very loose coupling, mainly with the idea to feature surprise gestures.
AskAudio: Do you have any advice for musicians looking to get started with audio-visual performance work?
Henke: Lasers are expensive, and if they’re supposed to be precise, they’re insanely expensive – so that rules out a lot of things. What I see these days, which is very cheap, is people doing interesting vector graphics with old oscilloscopes, which are quite cheap – and go together very nicely with modular synthesis, with Arduino and Raspberry Pi type things. So there are a lot of people at the moment who are exploring these graphics which generate very different results than pixel-based shader manipulations. To modulate a single electron beam of an old television monitor, you can get these nice Lissajous figures. If I didn’t have access to the lasers, that’s what I would do. With the high-quality cameras these days, people can then project the results. Oscilloscopes that used to be ten grand, you can now get on eBay for €300 – and then you can have a high-resolution screen to make these vectors.
I like the idea of being in control, so that’s a cool aspect of working alone, but it’s also very important to be open to outside influences.
AskAudio: In contrast to all that, your surround Monolake VLSI project has no visuals. First, what does that acronym stand for?
Henke: Very Large Scale Integration. The brief version is that in the late ‘70s, Caltech University and a few other places developed a new approach to cram more pods onto an integrated circuit, which was called a Very Large Scale Integration. There are a few important parts to this strategy.
The first is that it got so complex that you needed computers to do it. So this is a historical step where computers were needed to make new computers, and that’s kind of an interesting edge: humans can’t do this any more! Humans need machines to create new machines. That’s interesting if you project it to what happens with AI at some point – systems getting so complex that you need AI to produce other AI. I found this very interesting.
The other thing is this was the first time where some internet-like structure was necessary to connect the different schools and manufacturers and what not. So long story short, this is a very important revolution in the computer industry, and the one part where I feel very connected to it is the VLSI revolution basically made all the cool instruments of the ‘80s possible. Without it, there would be no DX7, no MIDI, no TR-808, no Linn Drum, no Fairlight, no nothing.
AskAudio: So it’s an homage to this crucial stage in technological development.
Henke: Pretty much – and it was influenced by the fact that I spent half a year in Silicon Valley. For me, this was a very game-changing or mind-changing experience, because for everyone outside Silicon Valley, it’s sort of a synonym for, you know, “the future”. And I found it interesting from a cultural perspective. Because if you go out to a bar here in Berlin, chances are 90% that a random person next to you talks to you about music – as a producer, a DJ, a label owner, an instrument designer. The topic is music, and if it’s not music, it’s art or art-related. So that’s the culture here.
And the big difference in Silicon Valley is, if you go out to bar in Palo Alto, there’s a 90% chance that the person next to you is talking about venture capital, apps, or code. This is their culture. And that’s what makes it so successful. It’s not that people go to work and become creative. They breathe it. It turns them on – and that’s why they’re so unbeatable with their results. Because they are totally into it every day. I found this fascinating to observe.
AskAudio: But so back to your VLSI, there’s no visual component with this project. Was that a conscious decision to do something purely sonic, just as an alternate outlet, sort of getting back to basics?
Henke: I wanted it to be a club surround-sound experience, and as soon as there’s a visual component on a screen, you define a clear direction where everyone is looking. And in that way, I want to go back to an experience I enjoyed very much back in the early days of techno, when the DJ was not a star, but someone providing the amazing sound, and everyone was dancing with each other, and not everyone was focused in the direction of the DJ. In Tresor, the DJ was just hidden behind some metal bars, on the same level as the dancing people in a very narrow, long space. So the culture was that you go there, you experience the music, and you experience the people you’re interacting with. As soon as you have a visual component, at least if it’s a directional component like a video on a screen or a DJ on a stage, everyone is staring at it – and I didn’t want that. I wanted to go back to this experience of the music.
AskAudio: It’s kind of this duality between the spectacle, which you’re very successfully and intentionally creating with something like Lumière, and the more participatory experience of these venues like Tresor in the old days like you describe. It seems like, to stay balanced perhaps – consciously or not – because you’re working so hard on these spectacle formats, you then go to the other end of the spectrum to do something more participatory to balance it out. Maybe I’m projecting here.
Henke: I like this projection. That’s clear. And I like the democratic idea of techno culture, that it’s something that doesn’t rely on this idea of a big star on stage. But of course history proved that people want the big star – it didn’t take long to create those big stars, those big stages. And today of course, there’s a big overlap in terms of rock, pop, and techno culture in terms of how it’s presented. If I go to a festival like Coachella or whatever, it doesn’t matter if it’s indie rock or a drum computer. But I personally like this idea of having the music speak for itself.
More courses released every few days.
AskAudio: I think it’s important. Now with Monolake, it’s currently solo, but you’ve collaborated as well, with Gerhard Behles (Ableton co-founder), and also Torsten Pröfrock. Do you have any preference working alone, or with others?
Henke: I work far too little with other people. As everything in life, there are always historical reasons why you do certain things. It came to pass that Gerhard had no time for Monolake anymore when Ableton was founded in 1999, and suddenly I was thrown in a position where I had to prove, also for myself, that I could do it alone.
That led to a certain mindset where I felt I had to work solo, just to prove to myself that I could. Nowadays, I think collaboration is extremely essential and valuable, simply because you come to certain ideas, you work faster, and it’s more fun to collaborate. I like the idea of being in control, so that’s a cool aspect of working alone, but it’s also very important to be open to outside influences. This could be people you play your tracks to before they’re released who give valuable feedback which you take seriously, or it could be people actively contributing.
The last experience in this regard was that I mixed an album with Mark Ernestus. I was very surprised when he agreed to it, because it’s very different from his own aesthetics. But I know what part of his aesthetics I really like: his way of dealing with space, and sound, and also time I found always inspiring. And so I had this feeling it could be really beneficial to do it with Mark, also because he comes from such a different aesthetic background. His idea of flow is very different from my idea of creating, for instance. So as a matter of fact, working with him was an incredibly beautiful experience of exchange, because we had this perfect balance of things we could agree on and things we had different opinions of as well.
Within this week that we mixed at his studio, I learned so much about his philosophy of mixing – and afterward, he said he learned a lot from my approach. What better can happen, you know? At the end I was so glad that we had this experience. I think I don’t want to mix alone anymore, because having a second pair of ears and someone that really knows their stuff is just fantastic.
It’s the same reason why I don’t master my own material. It’s not about the technical skills – it’s about judgment. I want a person who I can trust, and isn’t biased by listening to the same stuff over and over for half a year, who can just come in fresh and say, “This snare is too loud.” In some cases, maybe I made a track where I was really angry, so I made the snare loud on purpose and I would say it has to be that loud, to reflect the initial emotion, such as with a track on my Ghosts album that was exactly like this. But in another case, I might say, “Really, the snare’s too loud? Let’s fix it then.” The benefit is that, in every case, this discussion leads to a deliberate decision.
AskAudio: Helping you stay out of your own way.
Henke: I mean it’s such a classic that you work on something, and there’s one detail that you’re quite fond of, and you spend three or four days fine-tuning this detail. Then one of your really good friends come by, and you allow her to listen to your half-finished piece, but then she says, “This one part on track five, can you just mute it?”
“Uhh, sorry, what??”
“Yeah, mute it.”
“But, but… hey – the track is finished. I don’t need track five!”
This is the type of feedback you need sometimes.
AskAudio: Ha, yeah – it’s so crucial to get trusted ears on your work sometimes. It helps so much to hear things in a new way and accelerate the decision-making process.
Henke: Absolutely. The difficult thing is finding who is a good collaborator.
I believe the integration of Max/MSP with Ableton Live was an essential step. It allowed us to extend “mainstream” software into something very nerdy.
AskAudio: Indeed. But so from an outside perspective it seems like you maintain a rather hectic creative pace, constantly creating new projects, challenging yourself and pushing boundaries. How do you stay inspired, and what pushes you forward with all the projects you have going?
Henke: Deadlines. (Laughter) I don’t think I have a shortage of ideas. I have my little notebooks where I write everything down which comes to my mind when I’m on the subway or waiting for my soundcheck or whatever. That helps. Unfortunately, a lot of things I do require a huge workload, which I can’t really dedicate, and that alone keeps me busy.
For instance, the technical programming for Lumière was an insane project, and it’s probably not finished – it’s finished when I decide I can’t perform it any more, because there’s always something I can improve. So it takes a lot of discipline to decide which of the ideas I have are really the ones that need to survive, that I need to put my focus on. I try to find a good balance between doing things in enough detail to be satisfying for me, and doing things quickly enough to have an output. So for instance these days when I’m working on music, I need to convince myself not to spend weeks on a single track. I notice that it’s actually not even beneficial – it’s much better to be decisive and do something in a relatively quick amount of time. If something is not great after one week, it probably won’t be great in four weeks – and if something is great in one week, it’s probably done.
When I’m working on music, I need to convince myself not to spend weeks on a single track. It’s actually not even beneficial.
AskAudio: You run the risk of ruining it.
Henke: Exactly. It happens so often, if you listen to first drafts of something you worked on for several weeks, and after the track is released, you listen back, and the first draft was actually far more convincing that what was finally delivered – because I removed all the edges, all the difficult parts, and it lost the magic of that first sketch. So a huge part of this discipline is really learning to define where to stop.
AskAudio: That certainly rings true for me. More on discipline in a moment – but first, back to finding inspiration. You mentioned having ideas on the train, but are there other forms of art, cinema, literature, nature, that you find yourself consistently going back to for inspiration?
Henke: There’s not a single answer to this. To a certain degree of course, what other artists I admire are doing is inspirational. I mean, that’s how art develops in general. You experience something and you think, “Wow, this is interesting – I wonder if I could do something similar?” Then you end up doing something maybe less similar, but you get this input.
Of course there’s input from other media which is inspiring. I’m never going to direct a big movie, but certain elements of visual presence, of narrative or story, or of dealing with light and shadow, is of course inspiring, as much as a certain aspect of the sound design is inspiring. I don’t want to make the soundtrack for a Hollywood movie, but some of the things these 200 or 300 person sound departments come up with is amazing.
It’s an interesting question actually: you’re sitting in front of your laptop or whatever you use, and you’re one single person, and you create music; then there’s a Hollywood production, with these massive departments, working for six months on ninety minutes. And then I think, does it actually make sense if I keep doing this as a one-man show? The level of detail such a soundtrack can have is completely impossible to achieve if you’re alone. And of course the answer is that it still makes sense, because at the end of the day, it’s the idea that counts, not the millions of people executing it.
I found these days it’s very interesting to consider those different realities of artistic creation. On one night you have to do a one-man show, and on the other side you have these gigantic endeavors. But what can you take from that, and funnel down into some detail quality that you find intriguing? As a source of inspiration, it can work quite well.
AskAudio: So then, with regards to the discipline, I’m just curious if you have any physical or non-musical practice that helps keep you balanced. I know a lot of people these days do yoga, or meditate, or run – I’m not sure if you have any practice like that, but I’m just curious if you have a secret to keeping up with yourself and all your projects.
Henke: The answer is, unfortunately, no. The only thing I do is get up early, and I enjoy this a lot. It’s not a lifestyle that’s very compatible with going out to clubs or performing at 6 AM, but if I’m not performing, then I really enjoy getting up at 7 or 8 AM at the latest, and having a very clear routine: getting up, making coffee, quickly reading the newspaper, dealing with paperwork, then going out and dealing with what needs to be done. As a practice to keep me in a sane mental state, this regularity is helpful. Especially if I’m in a situation where I’m traveling a lot and time in my apartment is extra-valuable. The other part is that I ride my bicycle, and I believe it’s very important that I ride my bicycle.
AskAudio: You ride your bike to work (at Ableton) in Mitte?
AskAudio: So just as a mode of transportation then, or also recreationally?
Henke: Sometimes even just to get my head free. I think actually some sort of physical exercise is obviously very helpful if you do a lot of mentally demanding work, or if you have to deal with mentally difficult situations, and I believe this is a part that is underestimated when you think about life as an artist.
I mean, everyone is always talking about the success, but we all know there are moments where there is no success, or unfulfilled expectations, or projects are not working out, et cetera. I think it takes quite a lot to continue despite those moments. You invest a lot in a project and you think it’s going to be great and then it turns out no one gives a fuck. I believe what distinguishes an artist from a non-artist is that the artist doesn’t give up after that. If there’s not a strong force within you that wants to continue, then you give up on it. And only if you have that strong urge to do what you do, then you don’t let such experiences ruin your stamina with art.
AskAudio: I think that’s a fair observation. Can you talk about where that strong urge you mentioned comes from for you?
Henke: I don’t really know where it comes from. I just know that there are these magical moments when things do work out, and suddenly something emerges that has enormous power. Those moments are what make me do it again. Wanting to experience that magic when something emerges.
That could be in the studio where I suddenly discover a new chord progression, or a new sound, or moving one element from A to B completely changes the whole meaning of the piece and suddenly everything is open and sounds great and suddenly I think, “Wow, this is fantastic.”
Or this moment during a performance where you notice that what you’re doing in this very moment, everyone likes it, and you like it too, and you change things, and they still like it, and you have this connection. I think those are the moments which justify all the other moments. This amazing resonance that can happen sometimes.
AskAudio: I think that’s very well put. Let’s shift our discussion to Ableton. You played a big role developing the original software and founding the company. Can you describe your role with Ableton Live in the beginning?
Henke: Well, there’s a pre-Ableton story, which is that Gerhard is my oldest friend in the city, and I knew him already from Munich. We made music together, and we both shared this idea of the studio as the instrument, and we both shared this idea that everything has to happen in real-time, it has to be played. And we were very much embracing this idea of the computer being a tool for performing, in one way or another, and we developed certain strategies for that.
Some of those strategies allowed us to perform our music in a way which was impossible at this time with commercial, studio-oriented products, which were simply not suitable for this type of performance. When Ableton was founded, it became obvious very soon that the type of software we wanted to develop must be focused around those experiences.
First of all, because we knew what we would need, it came out of personal desire and experience, which is always a good thing if you want to start something, because you know exactly what you don’t want to do, and why. And the other thing is it was so obvious that a lot of people could use something like this, and it didn’t exist. That already put us in a position where some of the initial goals of Live were very well defined, even before we had an idea how this software would really look in detail.
My role within the company was very mixed. At the beginning I was mainly responsible for all the audio effects, and I was massively involved in this whole Session view – which was basically our thing. Gerhard was taking care of all the time-stretching, Warp modes, and audio clips. Over the years, my role shifted to bridging the internal Ableton world with the outside world of user experience.
As a performer, I would always meet other performers, and see how they use the software, and they would tell me what they’d like to see. So I became this link between the outside world and the company. Then when we implemented MIDI, I had this nice role of developing a synthesizer, which was really only intended as a showcase, so that we could do something with that MIDI, but it turned out to be a very successful, cool thing: Operator, which I still use very often, and has had a few nice updates since.
Some of the initial goals of Ableton Live were very well defined, even before we had an idea how this software would really look in detail.
My role eventually became this person with a great overview of the product, and of what people do with it, helping ensure the internal decisions match what the outside world could use. Nowadays things are very different because there’s tons of user research and all kinds of things in place, so it’s not necessary for me to fulfill that role anymore because there’s a much more formalized and very broad range of input to the company so that it doesn’t just make sense for a narrow group of techno producers, but actually for people from all sorts of different musical backgrounds.
AskAudio: Back then, when it launched, did you or Gerhard ever imagine Ableton Live could become as ubiquitous as it is today? It’s a huge force driving many genres of music, making things possible that never were before.
Henke: I mean, no, of course not. We estimated that enough people in the electronic music community would be interested in it to make founding a company sustainable. We were fairly sure about that. But we had no idea how influential or big it could get, because at the time, this type of relatively underground electronic music was a niche market. Looking back to 15 years ago, electronic music was not as prominent in the mainstream market as it is today. I mean, it’s ridiculous, so many TV commercials have a house track – unthinkable 15 years ago! We also underestimated how many people from different genres would be interested.
One of the key experiences from the beginning that gave us a bit of a hint that we were potentially sitting on something larger was when we showed the first version of Live at NAMM, I think in 2001, one of the first people to show genuine interest in what we were doing was Hans Zimmer. He was a very early adopter. I remember, he came by the booth and I gave him a demo. He was just sold by the fact that he could put in a drum loop and change the tempo from 20 to 999 BPM, and slave this to ProTools, and do it by just drawing a curve. It was like he saw a new world of possibilities with this software, and it was the first point I thought, “Maybe we’re underestimating the potential scope of who could use this.” Because we didn’t really think much about the film industry, theatre people, all kinds of people using it for all kinds of reasons these days.
With Live 2 and 3, it became obvious that we were doing something people found interesting, but it was still a relatively small piece of software developed by a very small group of people. So any of the big companies – Apple, Steinberg, eMagic, whoever, any of them – could have said, “Let’s throw 30 people on this project and create something similar.” With all the marketing power of the big companies, we would have been out of the market within a year. But, to our great surprise, they didn’t.
It took more than 10 years for this concept to be at least partially incorporated into competing products. We didn’t expect that. And of course this worked to our great advantage, allowing us to build such a nice community and ecosystem. Nowadays, even if someone else offers something similar, there are so many people so used to this program, and we have so many unique features still in there, that we’re in a good position.
I believe the integration of Max/MSP with Live was an essential step. It allowed us to extend “mainstream” software into something very nerdy, if you want. I believe this is a very unique part of what makes Live attractive now. I mean, I couldn’t do the laser stuff now without Max for Live, for example. Max allows me to have a very easy way to create sound and synchronize it with my lasers. I have no idea how I would do this without Max for Live.
AskAudio: So, what advice would you give someone who wants to get started with programming or coding for music?
Henke: I guess the best advice is to collaborate. Find like minded people. Before the internet, this was advice that would be meaningless, say if you lived in small remote community. But these days, everyone can be part of a community online. You can avoid a lot of trouble and find success more easily if you figure out who else is invested in what you want to do, and learn from those people.
AskAudio: Outside of Max, are there any programming languages that you think are essential?
Henke: These days it’s hard to tell. There’s such a large crossover between audio and visual, that you could argue learning Processing might be interesting. If you have an audio system and you understand Processing, or if you understand V4, or if you understand how game agents work, or if you learn Python or whatever, there are so many possible things you could actually learn, and apply what you learn to music.
It’s a bit hard to give global advice on this. Max has very strong selling points, but as a language that’s been developed over a very long time, it has many idiosyncrasies that must be navigated – a lot of facepalm moments. But on the other hand it’s very well-documented with a huge user community.
Then, as I said, there are people doing amazing stuff with Arduino and Raspberry Pi. There’s so many possibilities. Do what your friends do – that’s the smartest thing. Do what allows you to communicate with like minded people. Because at the end of the day, if you know how to use one of these things, switching platforms is not so hard any more.
AskAudio: I was just looking at the Monodeck II sitting behind you and wondering what involvement you’ve had with Push and other hardware development at Ableton. I remember you used the Monodeck on tour before any of these dedicated Live controllers hit the market, and my friends and I were very curious about it back then. Was the Monodeck a direct precursor to the APC40?
Henke: In a way, yes. I mean, obviously, it had the Session view clip triggering, and the LEDs, and the knobs. But it was way too heavy. I wanted to make something sturdy, but it turned out to be too heavy to tour easily. I mean, I had some input in those hardware products, but eventually this became a project that ran on its own. But as a matter of fact, the person who’s now one of the driving forces of the Push project is the co-developer of the Monodeck, so there is a common development history there.
AskAudio: Aside from Live and Max, is there any piece of your studio – hardware or software – that you really rely on, which is essential to your work?
Henke: That’s an interesting question, which I can never answer completely, because there’s a bunch of machines which I really like, for various reasons. I mean, I don’t have much stuff in my studio, but almost everything that’s in there has a personal history which is important to me.
AskAudio: And the point of having different instruments is to make use of their distinct characteristics.
Henke: They all invite you to do different things with them. I mean, there’s always an interaction between you and your instrument. A certain resonance. And each of these instruments have their own personality, and I have a different way of interacting with them, and it puts me in a different mental place when I use them. Or I use them with different expectations of their capabilities, and I try to push them to their limits in a certain way – but they’re kind of old friends. I know what to expect from the communication.
I go to the DX7 if I’m looking for these sort of old school, FM, belly, Rhodes-ish type sounds. Or I go to the Prophet VS if I’m looking for a certain type of strings, or brassy sounds. So I know what those instruments are capable of, and if I’m looking for a certain sonic character, my starting point is going to one of those instruments that I believe can deliver what I’m looking for.
Henke’s FM collection
AskAudio: So what’s the audio interface you’re tracking your hardware in through?
Henke: A Metric Halo which sounds amazing, but has a super unstable driver. But back to the previous question, I recently started to enjoy the growing variety of little modules for my Eurorack. And part of what I enjoy is the fact that what this means is, if you have 50 modules, you have the inspiration of at least 50 nerdy people who developed something mainly because they wanted to develop it. So a modular system is a mix of great personalities coming together.
A lot of artistic input goes into a modular system, just in the modules. So there’s already a lot of personality right there. It’s not one company deciding how everything has to be – it’s individuals. You collect a bunch of individuals. You know, there’s Peter Doepfer, there’s the guy running Intellijel – there’s all these people in there. And I’m 100% certain this reflects back on the sounds you can get from them. On top of that, there’s my personality, which decides how to combine and use all these things together. So it’s very easy to achieve a personal relationship with it.
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Henke jamming on his modular Eurorack rig
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And this is of course true for software too. I’m very peculiar about what kind of reverb I like. I love reverb, and I have lots of hardware reverbs. If I listen to a certain software reverb plug-in, there’s a certain philosophy behind that – why the reverb sounds how it sounds. And again, it’s a personality. You’re confronted with the personal taste of someone who built something, and you put your own work in relation to that taste. So in a way, it’s almost tragic that there’s so much unknown genius going into a record, which is the genius of the people that built all these plug-ins and hardware that people are using, the people that made the presets.
So I don’t have a clear favorite in my studio. I love all the instruments that are there, and it depends. With some instruments I have a certain nostalgic relationship. Their significance for me is more connected to the fact that they are from a certain area, or that they were used by artists who were important to me, or were instruments I always wanted to have when I was a teenager, but were out of reach and now I can have them – all of which, of course, only on a secondary level has to do with how they sound objectively nowadays. I’m happy that I reached a state that I can have these pieces.
A year ago, I bought this Lexicon 480 reverb, which was the studio reverb of the ‘80s. It sounds good, of course – there’s a reason why it was the studio standard back then, it does every kind of reverb you were listening to in the ‘80s. But to be honest, there are a lot of plug-ins out there that are capable of doing things far beyond that! Without the historical context, it wouldn’t make any sense to have this box. So if a young person asked me what to save up for, the last thing I would tell them is they need that Lexicon 480 reverb. In the 1980s, I might tell them to get this box, because it had that sound, but nowadays it’s not necessary anymore. Nothing I get from my hardware can’t be replaced by software. It’s just that for me personally, it’s nice to be able to use these machines.
AskAudio: Yes, the tactile element goes a long way, as does the nostalgic element – not to mention the strong personalities you mentioned. With the current profusion of modular synthesizers and analog hardware, software, plug-ins, mobile, and web-apps, even virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning – where do you see the future of electronic music heading? I mean, in so much as anyone can – this is a chance to have some fun speculating.
Henke: I have no idea.
AskAudio: What about machine learning?
Henke: I can only think about very boring stuff like, “Find similar sounds to the sounds I have now,” you know, or, “Create a variation of that groove,” or, “Here is my piece, I feel the structure is not quite right – compare it to other successful pieces and tell me the differences.”
AskAudio: Sort of analytical assistant algorithms.
Henke: I think all the machine learning and big data stuff is very good, obviously, for pattern recognition. And structure is a big topic, especially for someone who’s so anal about detail. So if I can have some intelligence to help me overcome some struggles in terms of structure, I could see that as helpful.
You know, at the moment we’re always looking at microstructures: sound design, LFOs, perhaps stochastic rhythm generators. But there’s nothing that looks at the large scale things, saying, “Okay, here’s your five minutes, when do you put in the break? What kind of break? What’s the large scale structure?” Is there something meaningful a software agent can do to help me create a large scale structure?
Like, here’s my little cell of an idea: unfold please. Unfold this into a meaningful track based on the nature of my little creative cell. If it’s a breakbeat, it doesn’t make sense to just unfold linearly – but if my cell is a straight four on the floor minimal techno piece, it demands a different type of unfolding.
Who knows how much machine learning or artificial intelligence can help there. And you could say, “I never wanna give this up, it’s an important aesthetic decision.” But then again, if there’s something that can make a suggestion as a good starting point, and all you need to do is afterwards say, okay, this part here is bad decision, let me fix this or tweak that, then I can’t see how this is wrong from a philosophical perspective.
AskAudio: My concern there would be leading to a uniformity of musical structures that could become overly predictable or tiresome – not that we don’t already suffer of that.
Henke: At the end of the day, you get out what you put in. What I mean by that is, I always believe that creating something that is good takes effort. The question is only: what do you spend that effort on?
If you don’t have to rewrite a tape to make edits, you can make more edits – but making more edits doesn’t necessarily lead to better pieces because it also leads to, say, micro-editing in completely pointless cases. The fact that you can endlessly jump back and forth in the arrangement of your DAW and you can listen to your piece five million times is not necessarily a good thing. You’re getting bored of your own material, and losing the bigger picture. But of course you can do things faster.
I think it’s the same with these emerging new technologies: you can do things faster, which frees your brain to do other things. And of course I feel this is the logical development. Naturally you can use that logical development to create something very stupid. And I guess the latest frustration is if people just use the new technology to repeat the same old things, but faster.
Then again, this happens in every art form. At the beginning of photography, making a photo was an effort. There were no snapshots. Nowadays of course everyone can take a photo, regardless of quality – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people taking amazing photos with the new digital camera technology.
AskAudio: So how do you reconcile the reality of all this technology rapidly becoming increasingly available at our collective disposal, and the simultaneous need to set limitations to channel or focus your creativity somehow?
Henke: I think this is a question that goes way beyond electronic music. It’s a question about how much does technology have an impact on our society and the world in general?
To draw a really broad stroke, starting from the potential we have now to destroy our planet – environmentally, with weapons, whatever. We have islands that are completely swamped by plastic washed up on shore from our civilization. The Antarctic is melting, and so on – all of this is the result of our technology. All the result of the capability of changing this planet so rapidly in a negative way. So, given that, the development of electronic music is very insignificant.
What is the role of big companies like Google, Apple, whoever, in a political process? What is the role of Cambridge Analytica and all those friendly folks being more powerful than actual members of the elected government? We are living in times where technology is turning everything upside down, and it is impossible to follow the pace. I have no idea how we deal with that.
AskAudio: It calls to mind that Einstein quote, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” You mentioned you spent six months in Silicon Valley – was that when you were teaching at Stanford University?
AskAudio: So how has the experience of teaching influenced your creative work?
Henke: I was teaching at the Berlin University of Art before, and I took this offer to teach at Stanford as a kind of nice end point to my teaching career, because I decided I didn’t have time for it any more. I would say in general that teaching helps me verbally express my ideas. And that’s a good thing. If you can verbalize something, you can explain, also to yourself, why you do certain things. So instead of saying, “Well, I felt like it,” you can say, “Well, I believe that if I put this element here, it would be a nice counterpoint to that element there.” In a way, I believe it’s obvious that talking and thinking are related, and if you’re able to describe what you’re doing in terms that can be understood by others, there’s a greater chance that there’s a reasoning behind it, which also translates to the quality of what you’re doing.
AskAudio: That makes good sense. But just going back to the previous question quickly, you mentioned these negative consequences of technology, and some of the political realities we’re facing globally now, in these increasingly seemingly perilous times. How do you understand your creative work in that global context?
Henke: I think the easy answer is that I don’t have an answer to that. I do it because I like to do it, and that’s my main motivation, and I think if I do something that has a positive impact on people, making them happy, or curious, or inspired – it’s a nicer thing than, let’s say, developing better short range missiles.
AskAudio: Absolutely – not that those are the only two options, thankfully. So outside of specific projects, what are your main goals you’re working towards at the moment?
Henke: One goal is that I want to spend more time with creativity and less time with administration. This implies that I need to be more picky with which projects I take on and really ask myself if I’m doing the right things at the moment. And this is of course one of those things where as you get older, suddenly time becomes an issue. I’m nearly 50, and my mother is 70, and she’s not very healthy at the moment, and I think, “Okay, twenty years.” And time flies, so what do I want to reach in my life? What is really important?
Is it really important that I go to this underpaid nightclub gig in this boring hipster place? Or should I make music? Or spend time with people I love? What are the important things in life? These are questions which become increasingly important, and of course have an impact on what I do artistically, because I need to make decisions – what are the broad strokes of where I want to go? What is important for me? Is fame important? That I’m recognized by certain people? Or is it important that my friends are happy with what I’m doing? Or that I’m happy? Very archaic questions in a way. Why are you doing what you do and what do you want to achieve? And how much pressure from the outside world are you willing to accept? Those kind of questions.
Practically, this leads to really trying to make, hopefully, smart decisions about what to do over the next few years. What are the things I’d really like to focus on, and which are the things I have to let go? And this is true on a very small scale. Do I do this gig? Do I do this remix? And there is never a simple answer to that.
It’s always frustrating to do a gig which is badly paid, with a shitty sound system, and an uninspired audience.
Just as an example, it’s always frustrating to do a gig which is badly paid, with a shitty sound system, and an uninspired audience. The problem is that it’s difficult to predict which gigs will be like that. Sometimes you can have gigs which are well paid and you have a shitty audience nevertheless, and go home and feel that, well, at least you earned some money. Or, you can go somewhere where the payment is really not okay, but man, those people there, it was such a nice energy, and this is so uplifting that I have power to do things for the next two weeks because it was such a great experience. So I’m really grateful that I took on this gig even if it was below my standard fee. Being open to that, I think, is an important quality.
AskAudio: I can see how a growing sense of impermanence definitely brings life into more urgent focus, yet at the same time, your story about the difficulty in predicting the outcome of these gigs reminds me that while the ultimate value in dominant Western culture is connected to money, there are other systems of value in play – especially as you grow older. So maybe you have a comfortable amount of money, at which point the better crowd, or sharing an experience with people that haven’t had a chance to access it yet, begin to increase in value, while the strictly financial aspect – remaining necessary of course – diminishes in value somewhat.
Henke: I think it’s important to strive for a balance there, and to really carefully listen to yourself. What are the things that make you happy at the end of the day? In my case it’s very obvious that, in my own system of values, earning money is not so important. Which of course, to be totally fair, has to do with the fact that I always managed to turn the things I loved into enough of a commercial success to be sustainable. That’s of course an incredible luxury and I’m totally aware of that.
From this situation, I always need to be careful with advice; from a certain perspective everything becomes very easy. So the world is full of different realities out there, but I’m in this position that I can make these decisions. And it’s important for me that I have the personal and mental freedom to not look first at the fee – so my initial impulse doesn’t have to be, “Does it pay off?”
This brings me to a perspective where I can live according to the philosophy that it will even out in the long-term. This is essentially how I approach my projects these days. Especially my laser installation pieces – they don’t all break even. But the question is, if I earn enough with selling music, and my work for Ableton, does every single installation need to pay off? No, it doesn’t. Who says so?
When we talked about electronic music in the ‘90s, nobody gave a fuck if it paid off because it was obvious that it didn’t. We just started making electronic music. When a friend asked, “Hey, do you want to play tonight at my club?” the first question was not, “How much?” – the first question was, “Do you have a table?”
I believe some of that energy has to come back in our society.
AskAudio: I certainly hope so – even as things seem to be skewing heavily towards the materialistic. Are there any last projects you want to let people know about?
Henke: I have one thing which is a bit of an almost masochistic project. The very first computer I ever worked with was a pre-Commodore 64 office machine with a green screen and a very slow CPU, and I want to use a bunch, maybe four or five of those really old computers to create a contemporary audio-visual concert piece, using these 40 year-old computers. This is of course a technical and aesthetic challenge on many levels. It’s a project that I’m slowly approaching, that I’m hoping to be able to present in 2019. On one side it’s very nerdy, so it resonates very strongly with this part of my personality – but on the other side there’s a poetic element to it, transforming the past into something highly futuristic, with all the connotations of green characters on a black screen, and a slow interface. It’s very much the opposite of 8K cinema with 400 frames per second in 3D.
Henke will perform Lumière III this summer at the SOU, Nextones, Dekmantel, and MUTEK festivals. For more information, visit: http://roberthenke.com