Home > Uncategorized > Plastikman – Richie Hawtin In the Studio

Plastikman – Richie Hawtin In the Studio

It’s been great to see Richie Hawtin resurrect his Plastikman alter ego – the name which catapulted him into global techno fame in the ‘90s and took the baton from Robert Hood’s minimal foundations to explore the realm of stripped-back electronic music further, elaborating on ‘80s electro and the essence of what techno was all about. Now with legions of millions of new fans since he and Minus became instrumental in forming the new, sexier side of grooving minimal techno, the time is right for him to educate some of these newer recruits in the ways of his highly influential history. 


With his ARKIVES box set coming early next year, documenting his body of work as Plastikman, we found ourselves with the opportunity to find out about how his studio set up and methods of producing have evolved over the years. His interviews are rarely anything less than inspiring and thought-provoking, and this rare opportunity to get inside his musical mind is no different. 



What did you first start making music on way back when? 

I remember Kenny Larkin and I doing some really early tests on an old Boss or Roland drum machine. It was like one piece and we were just playing around with it. I used to try to do drum patterns and try to match beats over the top to try to do something different. Then when we got going, one of the keyboards that I fell in love with and taught me a lot about music was the Chord Wave Station that was the first real keyboard I bought. Around that time everyone was also buying 101 and 303s. It was very basic in the very beginning; I think it was a Boss machine, but I can’t quite remember. 


When you started using the name Plastikman, did that coincide with you using new technology and equipment at the time?

Yes and no. Plastikman started in ’93 – it was maybe late ’92 when I started on the ideas of tracks. I spent two or three years becoming quite good with the 909 and the 303, I had quite a lot of tracks with few as Substance Abuse, Fuse, Overkill, Circuit Breaker…I was quite well known for that intense, acid sound. Plastikman was me going into the studio to try and get away from that sound to create something a little bit more subtle and sexy. At that moment I had just got a 606 drum machine and because the 606 and 303 had been made as companion pieces, I thought it would be a wonderful idea just to lock myself away with those two pieces and some others – perhaps a Juno 106, a 101 and probably some type of sequential circuit Pro-1 or 6-track. I would kinda lock myself away with just those things and record as much music possible over a couple of days with that limited instrumentation. 


What I remember about the early Plastikman sessions was really tweaking everything with small round knobs and a lot of the drums were coming from the 606 – and the 606 wasn’t modified at that point. It had one mono out and the hi-hats were different little pots, so you had to mix it that way. It was mixing really on the machines. 


It’s interesting you use the word ‘sexy’ there. Is that a word you use more with hindsight – you know, in the past decade people say techno’s become sexier and it’s found its groove again – or is this something you actually thought at the time?

I don’t think I would have used the word sexy back in 1993. I may have had a different word, but it was definitely that idea. At that moment, what I was doing and what Plus 8 was doing started to get misunderstood; techno got very hard, aggressive and abrasive and I thought the records coming out with the 303s were starting to bastardise the sound. I was into early Future Records and Chicago acid house. And they were hard and intense but they weren’t abrasive and so the idea of Plastikman was to get to that softer, more liquid sound. Later on Plastikman had some hard tracks like Crack Pot, but the idea was to create a full album as quickly as possible so it was cohesive and like this organic trip that took you from beginning to end effortlessly. 


Would you say it was more laborious to make music back then? Or is everything relative?

I think it’s what you allow the technology to offer you. I think music can be just as easy as it was then, but I feel as the computer came in, the possibility of it being more laborious has presented itself. The idea of being able to perfect and change everything draw in your WAV forms and modulation – this is all great, but sometimes you have so many possibilities that you spend so much time that I say you almost draw the life out of the track. So to sit back in those early days, once it was all running and plugged in, it was really easily to go from one track to another. Most of SheetOne was recorded in less than 48 hours. I changed a couple of patches and sounds, playing with different acid lines and trying to capture one song after another as they melted into another – as they were recorded after each other. It was sort of like one song being recorded in different versions over a number of days. I took the best pieces from that and made it into an album. 

Following on from that, do you miss that forced simplicity about the production process from your earlier years? A ‘simpler time’ if you might call it that? Do you miss anything about the way you used to make music back then?

Using simple electronic boxes plugged in with a couple of wires and MIDI cables, usually once everything was all plugged in you could leave that on for months and just press start whenever you wanted. There was no booting up, updates and computer crashes and all these other things that seem to get in the way of making modern day electronic music. I don’t know how many times I’ve had an update that’s crashed everything and strange latency issues that seem to pop up. It was just a matter of plugging things together and pressing start. 


Do you think there’s anything to be said for the fact that tech develops so rapidly these days that it doesn’t give a chance for things to get perfected before the next thing comes along?

I think there’s years for us to perfect things. Even back then I noticed as I started DJing, I started a making some money, then I would buy 3 or 4 synths and get this thing modded, and the more I did that, the slower my progress was. I didn’t have time to get myself into the boxes that I had. I think you have to force yourself to just lock yourself down; don’t get any updates or plug-ins and just spend some time really delving into them. Perhaps you’ll never perfect any of them but you need some time to spend with each piece of equipment. It’s why I think Sheet One and Musik as albums worked so well, because over that year I just tried to squeeze out the most of a couple of pieces of equipment. Also when I did the Concept 1 album in 1996, I had all this crazy shit in my studio but I just said to myself – OK, these are the 4 pieces or 5 pieces you can use, you can’t touch all that other stuff for a year. Through this process, I was able to develop a whole new sound and a year-long project quite easily then. But it does take some dedication and will power. 


How has your music making set-up evolved since then? Take us through the game changers if there were any?

I think after those albums, we go into the era of Concept 1 and then Consumed andArtifakts, and all those were done in a very similar way. One pass straight to DAT, no multi-tracking. What changed was I was able to afford some higher-end effects: some nice Roland reverbs and Eventides. I try to keep the foundation of Plastikman similar, album to album; there’s always some type of 303 instrumentation in nearly every track, and some Roland sounds, but I try to modify it with the outboard gear or the different patchways for each different album. 


The big change was probably in 1998 when I started working on the Dex, EFX & 909 album. I really got into Pro-Tools and became quite a bit of a freak for it and what it could offer you. That type of multi-tracking technology was first used on a whole album, theCloser album, which is very much a digital album. Sometimes that album is even a little bit too digital for me, but I could only grasp…to get to that place with Closer, I was only able to do it using multi-tracking, using voices and using much more subtler effects to give space and dimension. I really needed to have the ability to go back and forward and perfect things, as it was quite a complicated album to put together. Now I’m using a hybrid of Pro-Tools and Ableton Live, outboard and plug-ins and trying to find the right combinations of sound. Especially having worked on Plastikman live, I have really found a digital plug-in tool set that I’m happy with and mimics my studio set from ’93, and bringing that together with some outboard and finding a new digital-analogue hybrid that I hope can be used to further the Plastikman sound. 


I was going to ask what plug-ins are you particularly mad about, if you’d care the drop some names…

Well, we did a lot of back-and-forth testing of all the classic drum machine and bassline plug-ins. For us the D16 plug-ins for the 808 and 909 were the best ones out there. But for the 303 bass lines, I wasn’t actually a big fan of the D16s and for that I really liked the Audio Realism. What else? I’m a big fan of – still – the Native Instrument KONTAKT as a sampler – you can do some wonderful things with that, get inside some different samples. Right now I’m just testing a bunch of the Rob Papen plug-ins, and Sound Toys I’m a big fan of as I was using their Ultra Tools in Pro-Tools for a long time. If you’re using Pro-Tools and TDM you can have Eventide effects on every channel, which is incredible! 


How you are with making music on-the-go?

I’m terrible. I can’t make music on the go; I’ve been trying for years. I find it hard to focus if I’m in a hotel room or somewhere else. I need to be in a studio with real speakers, somewhere which is dark and isolated to focus my ideas. Saying that, I was on this island 12 months ago, for 2 weeks working on Plastikman live stuff – but that was kind of re-appropriating and working on ideas rather than trying to come up with something brand new. I still have trouble doing that on the laptop, sitting here with a mouse. Even if the view’s inspiring, it’s not very inspiring. I’ve got friends who are great at that – using Ableton on a plane. I don’t know if it’s part of my lifestyle but plane rides are either a place to sleep or catch up on emails; it’s not like I can’t do it, it’s just how I’ve allotted my time. 


How does the creative process start for you in the studio, do you usually have an idea in your head or is just a case of experimenting until something comes up?

It’s a bit of both. There are always a lot of ideas floating around, either rhythmical ideas or something I want to try with the effects; there’s a certain panning idea I have or a patch on the modular systems I want to try out. I just experiment as much as possible and leave things to freely go in another direction. There is times when you’re just testing and doodling and something wonderful comes up. The thing I do like to do is – if I go into the studio, I like to finish an idea. I record it and then it’s done, whether that’s one sound or a rhythm, a loop, or a whole track. I don’t like to come back the next day or two weeks later to finish or modify it. For me, recording is being there at the right moment to capture something and allowing it to come out as freely as possible, then do a little bit of editing after. If the bulk of the idea isn’t captured that first moment, I usually just put it away, record it as like a sort of reference point for later on, and if I haven’t got then I move onto the next idea. 


What do you think the most important element of a set-up would be?

I think direct access to as many parameters of your musical set-up as possible. What I mean by that is that, if you’re using a lot of outboard, you’ve got knobs and buttons and faders to twiddle; if you’re using a computer, having touch screens and knobs attached to as many parameters as possible. I don’t like to go through pages or have to assign something. I want to be being able to capture it as the inspiration as it comes. I didn’t like all these mid-‘90s work stations where you had to go through pages to get to somewhere. When I’m going into the studio, I try to create a studio set-up for a couple of weeks or months with some hard-coded, hard-connected physical controllers and work with that – that moment when what you’re doing is something interesting. 


So an intuitive set-up is important for you?

Yeah, any great track or DJ set or creative moment is when the technology between you and the output disappears and it just becomes about this idea; when the keyboard and the knobs disappear and you just start to feel the sound. The preparation is all about that – being able to capture that moment when it comes. 


Are you still learning as a producer and what are you learning exactly?

Yeah, I’m always learning, trying to find the time to teach myself about compression and compressors. I still don’t get my head around them. I’ve never really used any compression on any of my tracks in my life, and when I did I got some weird signal-crossed distortion, so I need to go back to that ‘cos I’m sure it could add new dimensions to what I’m doing. 


Who is the most inspiring producer you know in terms of doing something really different and pushing the whole music-making process forward?

I think Ricardo Villalobos has been inspiring for a lot of people; I like his attitude of going into the studio every day, recording and continuing to move forward. Having a good combination of digital and analog and not being afraid to doodle. 


I just wanted to talk about your work trying to push electronic music making tech available to a lot of people, like the thing with Burn Studio, for instance.  I wanted to know what your opinion on how the increased availability of technology has affected the quality of the “average” release? 

I think about it, but I’ve heard this argument for 20 years now. I heard it in ’93 and ’94 when tonnes and tonnes of records started to come out because everybody could buy a 303 cheap or something like that. You heard it later when the KORG Electribe series came out, we’re hearing it now again ‘cos you can get Burn Studio or you can download Reason.  So there’s always going to be a lot of people – or more and more people in the future trying their hand at the creative use of technology,  whether that’s good or bad Photoshop usage, or everybody using SLR cameras to make cool videos with different lenses. It’s a lot to sift through, but the gems always seem to rise to the surface. 


I suppose the difference is, that barrier to entry which was buying the equipment is disappearing. But I suppose it makes good websites and blogs even more important in being able to help find the good stuff…

It seems as though there’s less barriers, but as one comes down, another one comes up. Like you said, everybody can create music now, but how do they get it to the people? Not everybody can do digital distribution and get their music heard. You have to do other things – promote yourself, maybe learn Flash at the same time, or HTML5 and do a fucking cool website, or get an SLR camera and do a great video that goes and connects to the music you’ve just done. For the people that are creative, it is just allowing even newer forms of creativity, cross-platforms for ideas. I can’t be against people having access to technology that allows them to be creative. I wouldn’t be here without that cheap access of cheap equipment in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. When I was in high school watching my friends play in bands and picking up guitars, the last thing I thought I would be doing was music or DJing or any of this stuff – so I’m a product of that convergence and progression of technology. 



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