Emika: The MusicTech Interview

To realise her dream of recording and producing a full symphony, electronic artist Ema Jolly turned to Kickstarter and succeeded in raising €25,000. MusicTech visited Emika at her home studio in Berlin to find out more… Seeking ownership of her career, Emika has made light of the many hurdles producers face going it alone in […]

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To realise her dream of recording and producing a full symphony, electronic artist Ema Jolly turned to Kickstarter and succeeded in raising €25,000. MusicTech visited Emika at her home studio in Berlin to find out more…

Seeking ownership of her career, Emika has made light of the many hurdles producers face going it alone in the industry. Having signed to Ninja Tune for her first two albums, Emika (2011) and Dva (2013), the Anglo-Czech DJ/producer confronted the pros and cons of being independent head on, resulting in her starting her own label and accepting a job offer working as a sound designer for Native Instruments.

Two albums surfaced on Emika Records in 2015 – the electronic pop beast Drei and Emika’s classical piano opus, Klavírní, which inspired the artist to seek funding for a new Kickstarter project – How To Make A Symphony. Her fans happily filled the pot and Emika set to work recording with the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. With the album currently at the mixing stage, Emika also found time to release a four-track EP, Flashbacks, earlier this year, with soprano vocalist Michaela Šrumová.

MusicTech: The Flashbacks video was filmed entirely on an iPhone. Is that one of the drawbacks of working on a tight budget?

Emika: Well, it was a little bit of a business-savvy decision, because I’ve worked with quite a lot different film companies and independent people. If I ask anyone for a video, they’re going to start with a budget of €5,000, so I decided that I would spend €2,000 and go to Iceland on an adventure with my friends.

A lot of people told me about Iceland over the years, saying it’s weird, and I’m weird, so I’d have a nice time there. They also told me Iceland looks and feels like being on the moon or another planet, so I thought that would fit the feeling of the track. I’d already shot the video to My Heart Beats Melody on an iPhone in Madeira, so I had a little bit of experience, but it did need loads of post production to make it look cool.

MT: On the track Total, you tried some new techniques, passing voltage and feedback through analogue rhythm processors?

EM: I got a bunch of synths from SchneidersBuero in Berlin, which is a really wicked analogue-synth shop, and I’ve just got a load of gear from Metasonix, which distorts electricity through its valves, so you can just ramp everything up.

I’ve worked with digital pitch and cutting and scratching CDs to get all these weird digital sounds, and doing that was really interesting for about five years. Then I started using analogue gear, which is just another level. You have all these massive hot signals going in to create this complete sausage of recordings, and cutting that up is wicked – you hardly need any mastering at the end, because it has this really raw sound. The main pad is actually from the Access Virus that I used to have; I had the level on the synth way too high, so it was distorting.

MT: You see these synths with built-in valves, but you do wonder if they do anything sometimes…

EM: I think it’s just for appearance, to be honest. There’s one of those valves built into the Korg Electribe and the levels do get louder, but not in the same way as you’d get from a 100-per-cent analogue synth. I spent ages trying to work out if they do anything or whether they just look cool.

MT: You enlisted soprano Michaela Šrumová for vocals on the EP. How did that come about?

EM: Before I recorded with a symphony last year, I went to Prague to meet Michaela, show her some music and check out the studio I’d be working in. I was going there a lot and just trying to get into that world. Michaela has the keys to the city there; she performs three times a day in massive theatres and she was rehearsing in this amazing venue called Smetana Hall. So we drove from Berlin with a nice preamp and a mic and set up in her dressing room, which is more like a huge apartment with a grand piano in it.

We wrote a few lines of music and asked her to sing it, then I sampled it for this EP because I thought it would be a nice way to introduce her voice to everyone before I started working on my new symphony. I also think it’s really bombastic to put a soprano in the middle of a song.

MT: You’ve been recording a 70-piece orchestral symphony in Prague for an album funded by Kickstarter. What was your motivation for that?

EM: First, I have to mention I’m still in shock from the whole thing. I got €25,000, so the whole campaign was €5,000 overfunded, which meant I could hire a bigger film crew and also had enough money to do proper contracts for the sound engineer, the conductor and the photographers.

Now I’ve got Emika Records contracts, which I didn’t have before, so the whole Kickstarter project has completely set me up. I’ve got this massive piece of music and I’m supposed to be mixing it right now, but it’s so hard to mix because the orchestra is already so beautifully crafted that it doesn’t need a lot of mixing. I’m trying to work out how to post-produce it so it sounds more like me and less like a straight-up orchestra.

MT: I presume mixing an orchestra is a new experience for you, what are you learning from it?

EM: That I’m going to leave a lot of it in its raw state. Because the hall was massive, it doesn’t need much reverb. Thanks to my fans, I was able to hire this mega-massive studio with this huge hall and a great sound. It’s really weird for me because I’m used to having no money and working in my bedroom, borrowing synths from people and banging my head against the wall… so everything is usually super-low-budget and very creative. This project is the other way around, everything is perfect – the music, the notes and the players were just perfection and the studio engineers were all pro. There were no managers or any of that stuff going on, everyone just got to work.

After two albums with Ninja Tune, Emika is kick-starting her career with a full orchestra. Photo credit: Karen Vandenberghe

MT: Did you expect to be able to fund the project so successfully?

EM: I do think it’s unbelievable that my fans are willing to pay for the music before they know how it sounds or even if they will like it or not. Everyone was just like, yeah, have some money! I did approach some bigger labels about the project.

They were really interested but had no money to hire an orchestra, so I just took the idea to the people. It shouldn’t work that way, but it has. I just feel really humbled and amazed that all these people are up for sharing that risk.

There’s a guy from Los Angeles who paid €2,500 to come to the recording, and talking to him and the fans has been the complete opposite of what I’m used to. There’s this constant boring conversation about how the music industry is not about music anymore and how nobody’s buying music, which is so crippling for music itself; then you’ve got Kickstarter, which is absolutely booming. There’s load of artists on there and people starting restaurants or making comic books and films. It’s so positive and empowering.

MT: In terms of composition, did you approach the orchestra with some ideas about how you wanted the music to be mapped out?

EM: When I was younger, I really wanted to be like Beethoven. I wanted to be a composer, but didn’t have those skills. I struggled to read music and couldn’t write my ideas down on paper, because they were so abstract they wouldn’t work as a score.

That’s why I got into recording and sampling and using Logic, because I could record my compositions with synths and sidestep needing scores and musicians. But there was always this thing inside of me that I wanted to do a symphony one day and be good at writing scores, so I got back in touch with my music teacher from school and asked if he would transcribe the music. I used the East West symphony library and wrote everything in MIDI, which one day I’ll release because I’d love to show everyone this crappy MIDI symphony that I have.


MT: What did you do once it was scored?

EM: It was really embarrassing, because the musicians and the soprano wanted to hear how it was going to sound and I sent this horrible MIDI composition. My music teacher conducted the piece and my engineer from Berlin came with me along with the studio engineer, and I used another conductor from Prague who is really famous – she’s what the Czechs call a ‘music director’.

MT: What role did she play?

EM: She sat next to me in the control room with a copy of the score and was reading it as the orchestra was playing. So between me, her and the engineer, if we heard a mistake or the orchestra hadn’t quite made a big enough crescendo, we’d discuss it in the control room, stop the recording and talk down into the hall.

It was a little bit heartbreaking for me, because I didn’t want to use a click track, I just wanted to have the orchestra do a performance and record it. But the music was too complicated and we didn’t have enough time, because the orchestra was so big they couldn’t see the conductor.

MT: Could you do anything to counter that?

EM: I changed the seating plan, because I wanted the bass in the middle of the hall, like you would have on a bass record. You don’t mix the bass on the right side, but in a classical orchestra, the bass players all sit on the right and the violins sit on the left. So I had this massive row of bass players sat in front of the flutes. After about five minutes of being in a studio that was costing a shit ton of money, I realised we had to whack about 70 pairs of headphones and cables on everybody so they could watch the conductor, but also have a click track in their headphones. We literally hammered through it; so now I’ve got a lot of editing and takes to put back together.

MT: Is the fun part now moving that into the box and creating a sound environment around it?

EM: Well, my sound engineer’s role is to bring up the bass, find the right balance between the close mics and the stereo ambient mics and follow my concept. It’s really mixing and balancing, nothing super creative – so he’s taking care of that in Pro Tools. It’s funny, because I couldn’t sleep last night and was talking to him on iMessage. He was saying how I should move over to Pro Tools, but I’ve been working in Logic 8, which I always go back to because I love it. It just feels like the pen and paper that I need.

Acoustic treatment surrounds the computer – cool screen too!

MT: But you’re becoming a Pro Tools convert?

EM: I’m slowly starting to come out of my Logic 8 world and realising that Pro Tools has developed loads over the past few years. I’ve got a subscription now to Pro Tools on my laptop. For years, I’ve cut and re-sampled loads of things in Logic, but I can do all that in Pro Tools if I work out all the shortcuts.

I’m really impressed, because [Avid and] Pro Tools was one of those companies that were so rigid – it was industry standard, super-expensive and non-accessible for years. That’s why I stopped using it when I left university, because I didn’t want to spend thousands of pounds on a Pro Tools desk. But I like the way they’ve developed, it just makes you work in a very technical way.

With Logic, you don’t have to really think about how you’re setting up your routing – you can work in a very fluid, mad and artistic way – but with Pro Tools, you have to stop with every process, label everything, set up channels and take care with what you’re doing.

For that reason, it’s good when you get to the mixing stage to stop and think about what you want to achieve or why you want an effect. I feel like everything gets quite mixed up in Logic sometimes. You lose control of your mix and end up with this Logic ‘sound’. So I’m between these two worlds now.

MT: So how is the process of mixing the orchestra progressing and evolving?

EM: So, in parallel with my engineer cleaning it all up, I’m also working with a lot of effects and re-sampling the whole thing. With the Prelude, I took the woodwinds, cut them up and swapped the outro with the intro and created more dissonance.

There’s this Waves plugin called H-Delay, which is quite noisy and unreliable: it’s like a digital tape echo, and that sounds amazing on Michaele’s voice. So I’ve taken out a lot of her direct mic, so she sounds much further back in the middle of the orchestra now, and we put loads of echo on her in certain places.

I also saved a copy of her voice and reversed it, cut it up and moved it around, so you have these kinds of echoes of her voice, but you’re not really sure if it is her voice because the woodwinds sound very lyrical as well, so there’s this spooky, trippy element to it now. So yeah, just trying to trip everything out and make it sound less like 70 people sat in a room… and just abstract everything and make it much deeper.

MT: Will it sound more like an electronic record than a fluid orchestral piece?

EM: A lot of the concepts for the composition itself come from my electronic world, like putting the bass in the middle of the hall and hiring double the amount of bass you’d normally have. I also had a tuba and a contra bassoon, and they just play really deep, resonant tones.

That in itself already transforms what we know as an orchestra, so it already sounds synthetic in a way. Obviously, we’ve turned all of those notes up as well and compressed them, which makes you ask the question, is that a synth? Those sounds really vibrate in a room, even though they’re all natural sounds and instruments.

Pets should always be allowed in the studio

MT: So it still sounds like ‘Emika’?

EM: With my post-production techniques, and the fact that when I write stuff I use a lot of sub and the main melodies often come from the sub or basslines, it does sound very much like my work performed or played with different sounds.

For example, the kinds of melodies the flutes were playing are a little bit like how I would work with the oscillators on a synth – they were playing very close notes, a few semi-tones apart, so it feels a little bit like a synth oscillating. I sort of treated the players as if I was programming them, so it sounds simplistic, but still orchestral.

You have a lot of people these days getting orchestras to play or reinterpret dance tracks, or you have postmodern music that is rebelling against harmony and getting the players to bang on their stringed instruments instead of bowing them, using contemporary techniques that sound really atonal and weird. But I don’t know of anyone whose written a symphony in the traditional sense, then taken the whole concept from dubstep or pop records and tried to mix it in this way. So yeah, I’m really excited to reinvent what a symphony means to me.

MT: I suppose there is a danger of over-editing and losing the essence of those initial recordings?

EM: We recorded the orchestra first and then the singer in the hall without the orchestra, so I need a bit of reverb when putting those two things back together, but not so you can hear it as an effect. I’ve been working with Melodyne a little bit, because there were a couple of notes in the symphonic recording of the soprano that I wanted to change slightly, and Melodyne is really good for that.

I’m still finding it hard to find a reverb that I’m really comfortable with; one that sounds like space rather than an effect. It’s very hard in post production to put reverb onto an orchestra that’s recorded in a big hall. For me, that stuff is starting to sound much better dry, and it’s made me realise that if you want a really great reverb, you need to record in a really great space.

MT: Does that show some of the limitations of using digital plug-ins?

EM: I feel like all the reverb plug-ins are quite extreme. Even if you change the pre-delay slightly, it has a massive effect on the whole colour of the sound. I know that Logic’s Space Designer allows you to use natural impulse responses, but it still changes a lot once you start using that within a plug-in. You know what it’s like working with delays, you noodle around for ages and think it’s amazing, then you listen to it the next day and think, why did I do that last night, it sounds ridiculous? So it’s a case of destroying everything and pulling it back in – just experimenting, really.


MT: With Kickstarter, do you have to stick to your release date, or is there flexibility?

EM: It means I have to have a release date and stick to it. The last few weeks, I was being a little bit of a baby and thinking everyone will have to wait until January, but I can’t do that. That’s why it’s called Kickstarter, because it really keeps the pressure on and keeps you focused.

It’s kind of nice that I’ve got this deadline. At the end of September, I want to put out the Prelude as a single – then the whole piece will come a week or two after that. We also filmed everything and I’m going to put all of that on my YouTube channel, so you can watch the whole process being recorded.

There will be a 50-minute documentary piece, which has interviews from everyone in it and the entire project journey, and the whole piece itself will be split into movements.

MT: With this experience behind you, can you envisage doing another Kickstarter campaign – or is it the sort of thing you can only do once?

EM: I think my ego feels like I couldn’t ever do it again, because I’d be really afraid that it wouldn’t happen the second time around. I wonder if it only worked as good as it did because it’s new and exciting, and you always have this beginner’s luck when you launch something new. It’s really hard to do second albums with the same idea again and I’d love to be in a position where I could just save up for a while and do it secretly on my own, but life never really works that way. I suppose if it’s a massive hit and everyone loves it, then it could work again.

MT: What goodies did you offer to contributors?

EM: I’ve offered loads of different stuff. There was a limited amount of remixes, where I would remix your track or record a vocal for your track. There were Skype tutorials, and the highest bidder got a ticket to come to the session in Prague.

I tried to be really creative with the project; not just ‘€10 gets a CD’ or ‘€20 gets vinyl’. I also came up with the idea to have an Emika Surprise Gift Box, but I wasn’t really sure at the time what I was going to put in it for €150. But when my music teacher from school retired, he started to make batons for really famous conductors. So he’s hand-made 32 batons for every person who has ordered the gift box.

Emika Studio

Emika has her studio set up with two workstation areas, each with separate monitoring

MT: Have you reshaped your studio, or bought any new gear recently?

EM: Yeah, I’ve completely recreated my whole live DJ show, because I got really bored with that towards the end of last year. So I’m using the new Ableton Push controller and this Looper plug-in within Ableton, which I control with my iPad for live vocal looping.

I’ve got two Korg Kaoss pads, which are amazing, and I’m using these weird Korg delays – like the [monotron? – Ed] delay, those really tiny €50 ones. I’ve got a Pioneer DJM-850, which I love because of the routing and the setup. It’s really simple to use and I like the resistance on the faders. The EQ is also very 90s EQ-style, and it’s got a mic channel switch. It just feels like a classic piece of gear that everyone should have.

emika studio monitor

Workstation 2 running Logic

MT: We hear you’re a big fan of the ROLI products?

EM: I’m working with ROLI and their new keyboard called Rise. I had the big Seaboard, but I’ve got the Seaboard Rise now, which has got this vertical/horizontal X, Y and Z control, so you can play the keys vertically and program the filter cutoff by just moving your hands up the keys.

You can basically touch the keys up and down as well as left and right, and it’s pressure-sensitive too, so when you push it the sound changes. Their products are the most visionary, futuristic stuff right now.

Emika Outboard

A rack of Emika’s outboard

MT: What does the Rise enable you to do in practical terms?

EM: It just means that everything is way more open to improvisation. From Ableton, I separated all the parts of my songs, so I’ve got beats, basslines, synths and piano going through my soundcard into the DJ mixer split across three channels.

When I want to do vocal looping, I’ve got that going into the fourth channel and my main vocals going to my sound engineer, who’s got some Eventide delays and vocal preamps – then I can play on the keyboard or the Rise or transform the sound with the Electribe and store samples in there as well.

With that setup, I can spontaneously reinvent the tracks on the fly, sing completely different vocals to the record and record bits of vocals on the fly, have that as a loop, EQ it and put effects on it. It means I have the same possibilities now on stage as I do when I’m producing. It’s so much more fun, and feels way more live. People get their money’s worth now when they come to my show… it’s not just a case of ‘here’s the album, I’m gonna sing on top of it!’

MT: What other gear are you into at the moment?

EM: I’ve got a Korg monotron Duo, which is amazing, and a Korg monotron Delay; they’ve got speakers on them and take batteries. They’re tiny – the size of an iPhone and they just sound wild. They’re only €40 each and the sound they make is mega cool.

And I’ve got a cassette deck. I’m also working on another album, so I’m having a go at recording stuff onto cassette and playing it back at different speeds, just like when I was a kid.

Emika Workstation

Workstation 1 plus Ableton Push

MT: What are the benefits of going back to the tape deck?

EM: Well, I have a really nice Studiologic preamp and quite an expensive and sensitive Neumann vocal mic. Because I do a lot of close mic’ing techniques when I sing, and sing quite softly, I usually have four layers of the same vocal.

You can get a lot of unwanted doubling of frequencies, especially on the ‘esses’ and general mouth sounds, so a nice way of dealing with that is to record onto tape. You can take a lot of those sounds out with EQ or by automating the volume, but to give it a slightly different character, it can be much nicer to record onto cassette than trying to use plug-ins or something on the computer.

I’ve tried it with my mastering engineer because he’s got loads of different tape decks. I was sending him vocal acapellas and different sounds and he was recording them onto cassette and sending them back to me to re-sample myself. It’s really cool when you work with your engineer in that way, but it makes more sense to have one in the studio, because it’s something I want to experiment with a lot.

MT: Is it easy to find cassette-based gear and tapes these days?

EM: Pretty much… you can get cassettes on eBay. Until you start to look for them, you don’t realise they’re all over the place. There’s quite a lot of clubs in Germany that sell cassettes at the bar, too.

I don’t know if they will come back into fashion, because it sucks when the tape becomes chewed, but you work in this one direction where you want to clean everything up and make it sound perfect for people who want to listen on a phone or YouTube, but those are some of the worst-quality tech in terms of listening to music ever. I’m thinking about the next music I’m working on, recording everything at the mastering level onto a dub plate or cassette and putting them out as digital copies, so what you’ll really get is a recording from a tape.

Emika Work

Emika’s Genelec and Adam monitors are used in both setups

MT: We noticed you have a hardware synth with Russian writing on it?

EM: That’s a Russian rip-off of a Juno, it’s called the Elektronika. It doesn’t work all the time; you have to punch it or smack it around a bit. I got that from a guy in London for about €30. It has a five-pin plug as its sound output, so it’s really weird and old.

MT: Are you more into software than hardware these days?

EM: Well, I sold the Access Virus TI Polar. I used that a lot on the last album, and when I use something really intensely for 12 or 18 months I have to get rid of it. But now, every time I’m working I keep thinking, shit, I really want the Virus again – I feel like there’s a gap in my studio.

I want to make a new record but everything I was doing sounded like the old record, especially the pads and basslines. I think the Virus mainly uses additive synthesis, but it has a very specific sound.

MT: What software are you into right now?

EM: I’m using FabFilter delays; there’s one called Time Factor that lets you switch from left and right into mid-side, so you can really have these spatial delays. It’s awesome the way you can set up different filters to be parallel, serial or parent channel.

You can automate the filtering on the delay on the mid-channel and then have a different automation for the side channel. So that’s just wild, it gives you endless possibilities of echo and different colours and I’ve been using that when recording string pizzicato and the glockenspiel. But you do have to be a little bit careful, because the mix gets quite full very fast.

MT: And you’ve changed your speakers recently, too, we understand?

EM: I’ve got some big Genelec 8050s. They’re awesome and I think I’m going to have these forever, now. I spotted them when I was 20 in this studio where I was mixing my first record and totally fell in love with them. I just feel like they’re really trustworthy.

They’re really flat and cold, so if you make something pop out of these or make a sound go far back into the mix, then you know that you’ve really done a good mix. Whatever I mix on the Genelecs works everywhere else – on a car, an iPhone, anywhere. If there’s a problem with a part of the sound, it’s really identifiable; whereas with a lot of other speakers I’ve used, you can have an area in the low mids that sound kind of cool, but when you listen to the mix somewhere else, you realise it only sounds cool on that set of speakers.

MT: How much of a difference does having the right speakers make to your working process?

EM: I mean, the difference is that these speakers are massive, which has made such an impact when I’m working with bass and sub, low mids and mids, I can really identify these different areas in the sound now: whereas with a smaller set of speakers, you just don’t have that frequency range.

It’s a bit strange to have massive speakers working at quite a low volume, but it’s really important for me because I have loads of bass, but also loads of vocals and high-frequency sounds as well. Having said that, to completely contradict myself, I did just get a new pair of Adams. They’re tiny, but Adam’s new range has blown my mind, so now I hear all kinds of frequencies in the mids I don’t hear on the Genelecs.

MT: The complexities of trialling and using different speakers must drive producers crazy…

EM: I always have the feeling like I never really know sound, because there’s always something new to discover or hear. It’s a little bit disorienting, because you feel like you know your music and then you change speakers and realise you’re totally dependent on what you had.

You need to take a lot of time to get to know a pair of speakers and give them a chance. I think that microphones, headphones and pre-amps really need a lot of time; you can’t just turn them on, listen to a few tracks and decide you don’t like them.

With a synthesiser or a plug-in, they’re supposed to show you something that’s immediately identifiable. But with speakers, you need to listen to loads of different music on them, and it’s the same with mics, you have to trial them out with loads of different preamps and work out how hard you can push preamps, or how hot you can make something.

MT: What advice do you have in terms of acoustics?

EM: I don’t believe there is this perfect sweet spot… there are much bigger things that you need to consider, regarding how you feel and how the room feels. I pretty much never sit in a sweet spot when I’m working, anyway, because I’m always moving around the room.

Emika Street

Another shot taken by Karen Vandenberghe

MT: You did a great cover of a David Bowie track, Let’s Dance. Was that your own tribute to him?

EM: That was from the time when I worked with Hank Shocklee, who produced Public Enemy. He said to me, “do a cover, do a cover!”, so I did Let’s Dance. I sent it over to him to ask what he thought, and he pitched the whole thing down and sent it back saying, “it’s done now, what do you think?”

I just thought it was really weird the way he took the track and pitched it down, but really cool.He’s a smart guy. I’d just made this really polite cover, with nice synth pads and a nice beat and vocals… It was kind of boring, so he really destroyed it.

MT: What effect did Bowie’s passing have on you?

EM: To be honest, I kind of blanked out the whole thing. It was too much for me to handle. I have the same birthday as him, the new album was out… and then he died.

Everyone around me was really sad, even my lawyers – who I’d never had a personal conversation with before. I felt like business just stopped. Any time I saw something on Instagram or posters for the album in Berlin, I’d just walk past them.

I tried to watch a bit of his video for Lazarus, but when I saw the image of him in the bed I had to turn it off. I wanted to listen to the record, but I can’t. It’s stopped being a fantasy now, but art made from death – I’m not ready for that yet. David Bowie, he’s always been there – there’s nobody else in the world in that league.

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