Name: Stefan Betke / pole
Occupation: Producer, Mastering Engineer
Current Release: pole's classic 1 2 3 trilogy has been re-released on CD and vinyl by Mute.
If you enjoyed this interview with pole, visit his website, bandcamp page or facebook account for more music and updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? When did mastering enter the picture?
The very first time I began writing music was in school. I guess I was 14 or 15 years old and I was playing keyboard in a band. I was interested in bands like Violent Femmes, John Zorn, The Wire, some punk but a lot of avantgarde. I got into the field of mastering when I moved to Berlin, mid 1990s.
Around the time you started working at D&M, Berlin was going through what seems like a particularly interesting time: Techno, House, artists like Jason Kahn and Column One. What were memorable moments from this time for you?
The 1990s until 2005 / 2007 were very interesting in Berlin. A lot of musical diversity and a lot to discover. The whole city seemed to be in a searching mode. How far can we go? Where can we do the next party/show. Small venues were just opened for a weekend others for longer and some still exist today. New music was made and the international influence was big.
It was a city that had to rebuild and find itself. Every moment was memorable. You just had to keep your eyes and ears open.
How did you get to work at Dubplates and Mastering and what was it like?
I got introduced to Moritz through Thomas Fehlmann. That was the point when I began working there. I learned a lot about music and people.
Before pole, you had only done a few production jobs, including PvDS. In terms of your own material, what kind of music were you working on before discovering the beauty of that broken filter?
I played keyboards in bands for a couple of years and I was composing/ producing music since the mid 80s. Mostly experimental and jazz influenced projects. But I never released anything.
PVDS (“Perlen Vor Die Säue”), which was founded beginning of 90s, was my first hip hop influenced band. During the following years PVDS turned more and more into an electronic driven concept and turned into pole in 1998.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio in Düsseldorf comprised of a Tascam 16 channel mixer, a few microphones and, in the beginning, a 4 track and later an 8 track cassette recorder.
I had a Fender Rhodes, a Space Echo and a few band members, which I recorded into my cassette recorder. Later I added some more pieces of gear: a Roland TR 808, Mini Moog, Waldorf Micro Wave. The list has become quite long since then. But I still love the first instruments that I got, the TR 808, Micro Wave, Space Echo, Moog. These are still my main instruments.
I add gear sometimes but I am always trying to stay focused on a few pieces. Just to avoid too many options while I make music.
You fairly recently opened up a new studio. What is the space like? Has the move changed anything about your approach, would you say?
We moved into a bigger space for the mastering studio. This actually changed everything. The studio sounds perfect now and it has a super nice view out of the window and sunlight all day long. More space to sit in for attended sessions and it is fully sound proofed. It helped me to get a much more relaxed workflow and increased the quality of sound.
The production studio is on the same floor, but smaller. It has a similar view and sunshine as the mastering room. What I figured is that working in the new space gives me more headspace and more freedom in the way I work on music.
To have a view is definitely better than to sit in a room with no view.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
In the beginning I mostly use either the Moog first or the 808 first. Both instruments are super easy to set up and always very inspiring in terms of the results they provide. This is often followed by a sequence of modular sounds, or synth lines. At this point I sometimes delete the first two elements again (808 and Moog) and just continue with the synth line adding new parts. This depends on how good they all correspond.
I would not call it co-authorship, but the random element, using a synth in a wrong way, is an important part to guide me to unheard moments.
Later in April, you will release a remastered version of the pole 1 2 3 trilogy. Can you describe a bit what kind of changes you made and how the remastering took place – did you get everything done on a single day or spend a lot of time thinking about the remaster and finetuning it?
I would prefer to call the re-release a re-work of the original master. I really wanted to stay as close as possible to the original sound and vibe. But as the original masters had some little “issues” in terms of some slightly distorted sounds and a lack of air in some parts my intention was to fix these little problems. To master this number of tracks and cut them to Masterdisc always takes a few days.
There were a few bonus tracks on the previous edition of the trilogy box set, but nothing this time. Does this mean there is absolutely no unreleased music from that period?
There is no unreleased music existing from that time which would be worth releasing.
The wonderful “R” will also be included in the vinyl package of the re-release. I always kind of considered this release as part of the trilogy somehow. What's the story behind these pieces and how do they fit into what you were working on back then?
Both Tracks “Raum 1” and “Raum 2” were recorded during the same time period as pole 1 2 3. They were a part of the same production. The Berlin based label DIN was interested in releasing a 12” of my music. We decided to publish these 2 tracks as a preview for the trilogy.
At the time, the conceptual idea for Pole was extremely inspiring. Some musicians would have gladly built their entire career on it. Why didn't you?
I like to have a concept in my work, but I do not like to expand it into an endless repetition of itself. That is boring. I prefer to develop my ideas and create new sounds and concepts. But I always keep certain elements, what I then call my musical language. You always find typical pole sounds in all my productions. Would you eat pasta every day if you can try other dishes instead?
Only if this isn't too long ago: Could you describe your creative process on the basis of “Fahren”, please? It's always been a favourite of mine and I find it exciting how you take the intimate pole concept to these more epic lengths. Were these originally two tracks merged into one?
I can not really describe the process of just one track. All tracks of the trilogy had to follow a conceptual idea based on architecture, space and sound. The length of a piece was defined by the idea how long that piece could play until it gets boring. Most of my recordings were rather longer than shorter.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? And: How many cigars do you typically enjoy on a successful day?
After having a coffee in the morning I usually check my emails for about an hour. After this I go into the mastering suite and work till later afternoon. I like to have a break around 4pm reading a newspaper or I go for a walk to get new energy. Around 5 pm I try to continue working in my production studio, which sometimes doesn´t really work out. But this depends on how busy the day in the mastering was. If that happens there is time for a cigar. But just one.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
In my workflow, sound and composition are very strongly connected. Sound is influencing my decisions on the composition and vice versa. Every idea I have needs a sound design to explain the function the idea has in the composition. If a composer would like to cover the idea of a small little bird flying around, the composer would use a piccolo flute rather than an upright bass.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
The physical element when we not only hear the bass, but can feel it with our full body is an important part of what I hope to find in music. In general music should be able to take over all our senses. Then it is good music. Ideally we can taste the music, we can feel it and we can dive into it with full emotion. Extreme sounds can create extreme physical reactions.