Nils Frahm Live Rig Tour
WRITTEN BY: Tony Miln
UPLOADED: 12th Dec 2018
In which Tony meets Nils Frahm and his Junos and RE-501s, and Nils meets a Soundgas Binson, and The Magic Typewriter…
UPDATE: since this was published we also met Nils in Manchester. Scroll to the bottom for a couple of new videos from that trip. We then followed that up by taking him up on his invitation to visit him at Funkhaus in Berlin – read all bout our Berlin Trilogy now.
Barely a day goes by when I don’t consider how lucky we are to live and work in the hills of Derbyshire; beautiful countryside, peaceful villages, miles away from the noise and pollution of urban life. But being a hundred-plus miles from London does have its disadvantages: we miss most of the one-off gigs and special events that tend to only happen in the metropolis. Not so this month: a week ago last Friday I got to hang out with Mike D, Adrock and Mixmaster Mike at the brilliant and funny Beastie Boys Book event, courtesy of our good friend and customer, Phillipe Zdar of Cassius/La Funk Mob (who produced their album ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two’ and had just been recording Hot Chip at his Motorbass Studio in Paris). And last Wednesday we were back in London at the Eventim Apollo to meet Nils Frahm before his second London show. So much for the quiet life…
Having kids, spending less time in the city (and on the dancefloor) has led to a growing appreciation of less frenetic music than a decade or two ago, and a label we love here at Soundgas is Robert Raths’ Erased Tapes. We all love the label’s RE-501 and Juno 60-meister himself, Nils Frahm, and his music is on regular rotation on our office and home listening. So his purchase of a finely-restored Roland SH-5 from Soundgas was met with great excitement, even more so when he got in touch to say he wanted to talk Binsons and suggested we meet before his show at the Apollo last week ‘for a chat and personal gear tour.’
As Soundgas has grown from one-man-in-a-studio to a team of twelve across two buildings, I’ve ended up spending more time in the office at a computer, rather than getting out making personal deliveries and meeting our customers, so I jumped at the chance offered by Nils’ warm invitation. Jo and I duly set out with a boot full of gear early last Wednesday, bound for the Hammersmith Apollo (as it used to be known).
On arrival we were warmly welcomed by Nils and his team and soon found ourselves treading the hallowed stage for a close look at Nils’ incredible live set up. Nils bought his first Roland Juno 60 aged 14 (for 100DM – about £50) and they are much-loved for their distinctive arpeggiator and sound (though ‘not the Chorus II setting’!) and I knew there’d be one on the stage, but wasn’t prepared to see three – ‘the best-sounding out of the nine I’ve owned’. One of them has a distinctive custom finish in white; this courtesy of the Royal Albert Hall where a mishap resulted in one of his 60s requiring replacement with this one.
I was of course aware of Nils’ preference for the Roland RE-501, but was amazed to count no less than five of the venerable Chorus Echoes (he owns eleven!) carefully-positioned around the stage. He explained that he relies heavily on his tech, Sebastian, and on Shane Fritsch’s Echo Fix tapes and parts to ensure his 501s run smoothly.
The piano tuner, Carsten, was nearly done tuning the Yamaha grand piano (fitted with a Helpinstill piano pickup as well as being mic’d up) and Nils asked if we’d like a demo? I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. Within moments, I was being given a run-through of how everything links together and we were getting a personal performance. Definitely one of the best ‘I love my job’ moments I’ve had.
Below the white Juno 60 was a mystery keyboard that Nils explained was a midi controller used to trigger the samples of a wind organ that his team had built for live use but was unsuited to life on the road – ‘and the samples sound pretty much as good’. This has been carefully programmed with a recreation of his beloved Juno arpeggiator, and the Junos have also been modified so he can quickly switch between internal and external control of the arpeggiator to great effect. Below these is his ‘Mellowtron’ M400 which has various modifications to the motor, not only to improve tuning stability whatever the temperature, but also to select between one octave up or one/two down (which sounds stunning), as well as having an onboard LFO for modulation.
Nils’ live sound is, as with his recordings, all about attention to detail – I suggested ‘perfection’, but he answered ‘perfection from imperfect things?!’ I am so often sonically disappointed seeing live shows – so many artists go to great lengths to create stunning-sounding records, only to opt for the convenience of software or digital emulations rather than the real thing and the results are almost invariably a sonic ‘meh’. With Nils, every single detail is a joy to hear and the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts. I’d expected it to sound good, but was completely blown away by just how powerful the massed ranks of acoustic and analogue gear sounded in full and glorious flight. To witness, at close quarters, Nils dancing and diving about his equipment – clearly a master of his instruments – was mesmerising: his hands and fingers a blur of movement as he twisted and tweaked settings and played accompanying riffs on the Fender Rhodes.
I was struck by how superb the reverb sounded and asked what he was using; he pointed to a rack underneath the Rhodes – an EMT 245 with a Dynacord VRS-23 above it! No wonder it sounds so staggeringly good! In my position as champion for the Good Old Stuff, my bias is undeniable, but ears don’t lie and this was a reverb sound to die for. I understand more than most why many artists don’t risk using esoteric vintage equipment live, but when they do the results can be outstanding. We saw Arctic Monkeys recently – their set up was almost exclusively vintage gear that most would only countenance for studio use (including Alex’s trio of amps supplied by us, and three RE-201s that we ended up servicing before they headed out to the US). And they sounded great.
It soon became apparent that Nils and I we were kindred spirits with a shared love of and appreciation for the sounds and feel of real instruments and effects that predate the modern era of gear built to a price point by machines. The combined sound of a stage full of individual pieces with soul and personality is unforgettable, and all too rare today. I’d been curious as to the source of Nils’ drum sounds and spied the bank of twin Vermona DRM1s alongside his mixing desk. The warm 808-esque kick, triggered by foot switch, came from a diminutive (in stature rather than sound) MFB analogue drum machine. Next to the foot switch are his Moog Taurus pedals. Above this, and between the two Juno 60s, is a Roland SH-2 synced to the other synths, receiving plenty of tweaking attention to great effect.
All too soon, the whirlwind display was over, and we set to showing Nils a couple of Soundgas Binsons which he demoed using one of the onstage Juno 60s. Unfortunately, the only super-slow varispeed Echorec 2 that we had available hadn’t yet reached a satisfactory conclusion: it had undergone a good deal of work, but it transpired that nothing short of a total rebuild was going to yield the performance we expected. So Nils had another varispeed Echorec 2 to try out and immediately commented that it sounded way better than his own. A quick listen to our studio Super Slow Baby Binson was enough to demo the principle and we resolved to find the right Echorec 2 in future.
Then it was time for the ‘Magic Typewriter’, our Dynacord Echocord Studio, modified by Dr Huw with Super Slow Varispeed. I explained to Nils and Sebastian that we are still working on further mods, on a second machine, that incorporates being able to lift the erase and record heads from the disc, thereby allowing both Sound On Sound effects as well as looping. We also hope to be able to reverse the motor for backwards looping effects. This was something of a revelation – nobody had seen an Echocord Studio before and it’s fair to say that this machine was of great interest.
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All too soon it was time for the soundcheck and for us to leave the crew to continue preparations for the gig. That night we witnessed a staggering live performance, full of drama (thanks to the Vermonas which wiped their Midi CC memory and had to be restored in the middle of an impromptu piano piece), wit and energy, and we reconvened for a lively after show celebration until it was time for everyone to get back on the tour bus. An unforgettable night, with many new friends made and plans to meet again in February when the tour hits Manchester: perhaps with the SH-5 installed as part of the live show…
Our thanks to Nils, the crew and also to Robert Raths and all at Erased Tapes for their warmth and hospitality.
Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.
UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!
On the 17th of February this year we met up with Nils again, this time before the show at Manchester’s Albert Hall. We took more Binsons and other gear for him to try, he totally fell for our ’73 Minimoog, and we got some pretty special footage of part of the soundcheck. We’ll add some more photos and video when we do a part 2 to this blog, but that needs to wait until we’ve been and seen his studio in Funkhaus Berlin (soon…). For now here are a couple of the videos from the Manchester trip:
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Big piano. Tiny piano. Junos, 501s, a Mellotron & an EMT 244… Last one from Sunday’s Manchester mission. At some point we’ll do a blog about some of what we found as we got to poke around in this monster set up, as well as what we discussed with Nils and his engineer including his studio, Moog vs Roland, and modifying Roland Junos and tape echoes. Huge thanks go out to him and his tight-knit tour family for making us feel so welcome. . #nilsfrahm #vfgear #synthstagram #vintagesynth #juno60 #soundgas #supersonicgear
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