Show Off Your Studio: Versalife’s hybrid synth hideout
Dutch producer Versalife AKA Conforce talks to us about his favourite gear and how he makes the most out of a cosy studio space.
Studio owner Boris Bunnik aka Conforce/Versalife
How do you use your studio?
My studio is firstly a fun place and a creative space. I see it as a semi-modular environment that I can change according to my creative interests and obsession for music and sound design. I use it mainly for my own work but also for commercial work – mostly sound design in the widest sense of the word. The space is very tiny; collaborations inside my studio are impossible unless I get rid of my chair.
Here, I record my albums, EPs and remixes, as well as programming most of my sound libraries.
Tell us more about the studio!
I’m Rotterdam-based and live next to the Meuse river looking over the most modern and old parts of the city. It’s a very beautiful part of the harbour city. I have a view on the classic bridges and modern bridges – all bridges represent a different era, it’s quite interesting. We’re surrounded by water here. Ever since moving together with my partner, I had to rebuild my studio in a space that was a third the size of my original studio space. It feels like now I’m trapped in a tiny mainframe computer space! I have used this space now for almost 2 years.
Which DAW do you use?
Ableton Live has become my main DAW for live jams and for more flexible MIDI and audio processing. I just can’t live without the Max For Live functionalities anymore. Live is a very fast program and works best when recording clips and re-taking your elements in a live approach. When it comes down to arrangements I’m switching back to Logic Pro. I know this program inside out and the basic plug-ins just sound very good.
I also have a demo of Bitwig ready to be used but I’m yet to make time for it. It looks like an interesting DAW.
I think I look for a certain flexibility and stability in a DAW, it took me a long time to get into Live as I kept being stuck in loops all the time. I think the last update was the best, tweaking the arranger into a more sophisticated editor.
How much time do you spend in your studio per week?
This comes and goes with my motivation and goals in sound. Sometimes I have really solid projects that I’m working on, like albums, EPs or sound libraries. Lately, sound design really added some discipline to my working times and methods. There are hyper-focused periods where I feel incredibly energetic and inspired about gear or even a specific type of timbre.
The last few months were intense, I think I spent almost eight hours a day in the studio, apart from some weekends. I’m lucky to have more hobbies and work also on an online wine magazine with my partner called Winemugs. When not feeling musically inspired I simply write articles and produce videos for our platform that focuses on wine consumers and educational aspects of it. The video editing for our platform is also done in my studio, so it’s a multi-production studio.
What atmosphere do you try and create in the studio?
I need some plants around me and some colour, that’s still work in progress.
It should feel like a studio but also like a leisure space at the same time.
What is your favourite piece of gear?
I think for now it’s the Elektron Digitone, I loved the Yamaha DX200 but this thing is like a DX200 on speed! I love the future proof sound of FM synthesis and the snappy character.
The Digitone looks like a toy but can be used as a serious music production tool.
I actually made a special video dedicated to this synth.
What do you find most attractive about older gear compared to new?
I simply like the hybrid combination of the analogue and digital world. A hardware synth is a performance instrument that has physical elements and an immediate response. There is almost no latency with voltage controlled stuff. I love analogue filters, they sound more natural and they add flavour. It also kills the ugly harsh digitalness that so many algorithmic filters have. Also when it comes to bass and low-end, the analogue realm is still a total winner for me.
I think the fact that there is no preset memory and a limited amount of controls on a Mono/Poly, for example, forces you to approach things differently, you also learn a lot by programming and closely listening to the changes.
When it comes to modern gear, Elektron has been nailing it for some years now. You can use its gear in so many ways or methods in your workflow, it’s not one dimensional and it just sounds incredibly contemporary. This is also what I like to achieve with vintage gear, putting it in a new modern context and giving it a nice contemporary edge again with new plug-ins etc. I think that is the definition of techno. Using old technology in the present and mixing it up with contemporary tools.
With such an avid approach to sound design, do you have plans to step into the world of modular synthesis?
I’m struggling with this all the time, but I like to keep my relationship healthy and already have too many hobbies. My intention is always to finish productions and I’m very result-focused. I also think modular is very expensive and time-consuming.
I think I have a modular mindset – and with software becoming more and more modular, it shows how much is possible. For example Max For Live plug-ins or VCV rack; I love the fact that you can save your instances. I’m a sucker for self-made presets.
Modular is great but not a necessity to make organic, well produced emotional vivid music. Also, complexity in sound design is not something solely related to modular. Maybe one day I will make a small setup but as I said, it’s expensive to get a decent setup. I have an idea what I like and will consider it maybe for electronic percussion and drone textures. It’s a different realm of sound design and not a necessity for what I make.
What new techniques and workflow improvements did you learn from making your new album Manifold?
Actually it was kind of an out of the box album production process again. Mostly using the TR-808, Elektron Rytm, Digitone and Korg Mono/Poly. I just got the Korg and it’s one of the few synths I have without preset memory. So it forced me to really dive into it and learn how to balance three or four VCO’s into a patch. I made a lot of arps, bleeps, chords and bass sounds with it.
How do you usually approach a live set?
Additional drum machines, external effects, analogue mixer, midi controller and a lot of stems, tools and tracks. It’s always a hybrid approach. There is no point in messing up your own carefully produced productions in a club. I want my stuff to sound rock solid and punchy in a club so I make a balance between mastered and unmastered material. It’s about the impact and the sound. I don’t care about modular rigs on a stage, to me, it makes no sense at all. These systems are built to be set up in a studio. I don’t like to travel with stuff, I keep it to a minimum. Always, everything in hand luggage so nobody can damage it apart from myself.
How did you go about getting the acoustics right in the studio?
The longer you produce, the more you are aware of frequencies and the response of frequencies in a physical space. I changed studios often and every time I have to get used to the acoustics for perhaps a year or so. Bass is the biggest challenge. Last week I put two big packs of Rockwool in the corners to adapt some bass peaks. 50hz is a big issue in squared spaces. I’m still taming it. Normal foam bass traps didn’t do the trick, they don’t go low enough. Reflection panels help to get the highs and mids under control. They were bouncing back and forward. My records are in the back in a closet functioning as a diffuser.
What is next on your shopping list studio-wise?
Maybe an ASM Hydrasynth, I’m more than happy to make a soundbank for it, I hope those guys are listening and send me one soon(!).
I love wavetable synthesizers, there’s something organic and vivid about their sound.
Do you have any frustrations with your current set-up?
Always, I wake up with that every day! Then I just change or get rid of something.
What is your dream piece of gear?
Waldorf Quantum, I always loved Waldorf synths. They just sound different and try to go into contemporary directions. Then again, maybe I’d prefer the Waldorf Wave…
What is your top piece of production advice?
Don’t get sucked into the realm of technical production and acoustic hyperfocus.
Keep the naivety flowing in your creative music production process, that is when the best results come out. Learn from other records, build a reference in your head about quality, dynamics, punch, groove, soul etc and simply use gear because you like it. Not because some snobbish guy is telling you that it doesn’t sound analogue enough.
What is the one piece of advice you would give someone starting out building a studio?
Build your studio underneath a loft bed, the mattress makes for an excellent absorber. You have a bedroom and studio in one. I still miss my old studio acoustics.
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