How Hainbach tackled 'the Dark Souls of synthesis'

Terrence O'Brien
·Managing Editor
·20 min read

Musician and composer Hainbach originally took to YouTube to work on his improvisation skills. Over the years, though, his channel has morphed into an essential resource for musicians with a taste for the experimental. His videos exploring techniques for using tape loops, as well as esoteric instruments like the Ciat LonbardeCocoquantus have wracked up hundreds of thousands of views. But he’s perhaps best known for repurposing old lab equipment as musical instruments.

Hainbach can often be seen coaxing surprisingly musical drones and rhythms out of ancient looking pieces of gear with decidedly unmusical names like function generator, frequency analyzer and lock-in amplifier. There’s even a video dedicated to building a thudding electronic track using test equipment from a nuclear lab.

In November of 2019 he took some of the more obsolete and, let’s say, unruly, pieces in his collection and turned them into a playable sculpture called Landfill Totems. Those stacks of half broken and forgotten gear eventually became the basis for his new album and a virtual instrument built in collaboration with Spitfire Audio, which share the Landfill Totems name. Hainbach sat down (figuratively at least — he actually stood through most of the interview) to talk about the origins of the album, his recent run of VST collaborations, and how learning to make music on obsolete scientific instruments has changed his creative process.

Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment
Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment

Terrence O'Brien:

Tell me a bit about the album, walk me through the origin story of the Landfill Totems as a piece and how it became this.

Hainbach:

The whole thing started out when I got into test equipment use for music. I saw that this friend, Dennis Verschoor in Rotterdam [a musician who also works with test equipment]... and the first thing I thought was, “This is madness. I'm not going to ever do that because it just always means a huge amount of heavy stuff that can do surprisingly little.” And it seemed to me such a waste. But I've always been fascinated by the topic because I studied music history and people like Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they used to work with these test equipment instruments and were in parts adamant about them being more interesting than synthesizers in the case of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

So I just went around and started looking for anything that I could lay my hands on that could potentially make a sound. And I bought stuff cheaply, and I bought a lot of stuff, and the stuff was huge and heavy. And there's a video where I say, "Oh yeah, just get a bit, I'm not going to put more than this because I need this space." And it quickly got into a full wall of that stuff.

It was a bit shaky and unsafe, which added to the whole charm.

So I kept buying more and more stuff… and I quickly ran into space problems. And then a gallery asked me, PNDT art gallery in Berlin, if I want to do a three months residency. I said, "Oh cool. Now I get a storage space." And I could justify keeping buying stuff and trying it out and then putting aside when it didn't work. Because I know, well, there's this space where I can put all that stuff.

My original idea of just making like a playable wall where people could interact with everything and would be something interactive, I had to discard that and I thought about other things. So I started stacking them up in different shapes and the obvious shape at first is a tower. And I did that. And suddenly after half an hour, I realized this had become something humanoid. It reminded me of Johnny 5, that robot from that old film. Then it reminded me of totems because there appeared all these faces all over, because test equipment is all these round dials and they have some sort of design that is always humanoid.

I think within like two hours, I had the statues up. And then it was just a case of putting them to music because I'm a musician, I'm not a sculptural artist. Though, in this case, I was that also. So I patched them all together and they were all stacked rather haphazardly. So it was a bit shaky and unsafe, which added to the whole charm of them because they looked wonky and dangerous. They looked like something that is thrown away or like a marker from a civilization from the past that I could see as some sort of Mad Max kind of wild sci-fi thing.

But the main process for me was actually turning them into a musical composition. And that was a fun struggle because those were like not the super musical things from my collection. The super musical things of course stayed in my studio where I needed them to work all the time. These were more wild and it's hard to tickle some sounds out of them. So that provided me with a unique challenge in then making them into a 35-minute live performance. I was really happy that worked out, and the performance went really well.

So when Spitfire Audio approached me to, if I want to do one of their library slash album releases, I thought, “I want to hear them sing again — I want to hear Landfill Totems sing again.” So I put them up in a venue that a friend of mine has. It's not a venue, it's a synthesizer shop basically, Patch Point in Berlin. And there I could set them up because the shop was closed to the public, mostly due to Corona. And then I could work on music for an album and also work on making new versions. Because every time I had to change something these things kept dying on me sometimes right after I recorded.

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But also “Funktionsverlust”, the first track of the album, is actually the sound of a dying function generator. And that only sounded so good because it was dying, because one thing that these things do is usually go [imitates a sine tone] a flat line straight note is what they like to do. But when this thing went, [hums a complex rhythmic pattern] I thought, “Wow, that's an interesting Latin pattern.” But that was its swan song.

I started to record the album, and because the whole atmosphere of everything in the lockdown was much darker and heavier than usual and I had just exhausted my capacity to hope with the previous album, which was called Assertion. I thought, now, let's go dark. And I went really dark with that album and they went to hopeless and stark places. Yeah. And that is reflected in the German song titles, which tell a little story of the times on their own.

Terrence:

The stark contrast between Assertion and this album is really kind of stunning. Was that something that was a conscious choice to go in a much darker place? Or was that just where you felt yourself being naturally pulled by the sound of these instruments?

Hainbach:

Yeah. I mean, usually things don't come from one center, but yeah. These things, they demand something, because they are higher than me. They're like two meters, but they have a certain sense of — they want to be respected in a way, and that's something that's in them. And it is easier for them to drone and to transmit stuff like code, which already sounds strange and alien. So it's in their nature to sound that way. But I mean, the things that I have here also, in regards to test equipment, I can more easily tune them to have little sunrise in here, but there in that form, I couldn't. And then of course, I didn't feel motivated to do so because yeah. I'd just done something very bright in a very short time and a one or two go, No, no, let's go dark.

Terrence:

How much similarity is there between the original performances and what kind of ended up on the album?

Hainbach:

I think the thing that is similar to the original live performance is that that was also pretty heavy and pretty dark, but a bit more humorous. Like in the performance, I had a few humorous moments. At least I found them funny, and I think the audience found them funny. There was one unit that I couldn't connect, audio-wise, but had its own little speaker. So when I finished everything in a big blast of noise. And then I went to that unit and just went beep boop. There was that contrast, like everybody, after having to listen to like heavy bass and drones. And, ah, this was a moment of relief.

So that comedic aspect is not so much in the Landfill Totems album. But also one thing, because these are really tracks and I had more time to work on them and work each of them as a single piece, they're a bit richer because in a live performance, I couldn't like... It's physically hard to re-patch these things. It's BNC connectors, they're wobbling, and it's a dangerous thing to re-patch. So that first performance was basically a composite. One track with different movements over the whole statues, while this is like pictures at an exhibition. There's a common theme, but each of them uses the full color palette that is possible.

Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment
Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment

Terrence:

Since you mentioned it, just like the sort of danger of doing it. You said the original idea was that they were supposed to be interactive and people were supposed to be able to come and play the pieces. Was there any concern about safety? Because, as you've established, these are high voltage, potentially dangerous pieces of equipment, right?

Hainbach:

There was, definitely. So I was not that mad when, at the gallery, people felt like respectful and didn't touch them. But for Patch Point, we conformed to Corona rules at the time. So it was a no-touch performance. So we used the Ciat LonbardeDeerhorn Organ, which is like a Theremin mixer. So you can put in the sound of each of the statues and then play them with gestures. And that was something that people did for some time. So that was fine, but it was like the totems were on a stage. The audience was down away from them and could just play them with gestures. That worked.

Terrence:

So totems became an album, which also became a virtual instrument you made in partnership with Spitfire Audio. And it basically lets you recreate the sound of vintage test equipment with your computer. But, this is not your first time working with a company to do a plugin. What led you to that world in the first place?

Hainbach:

I was asked.

It was a Sinan Bokesoy of Sonic Lab. And he asked me if I want to work on an oscillator, because he had just worked on a filter and an amplifier. And he was looking at an oscillator. I was like, "An oscillator, huh? Yeah. Sounds interesting." And I showed him one of the first things that I ever bought, a vacuum tube Rohde & Schwartz sine generator. And he was, "Oh, that sounds very interesting. I can do something." And then I was like, "Yeah, but it should not just be an oscillator it should be like an instrument." And then I showed him what I had in mind, which are these multi-sine banks that you find in electronic music studios of the past, and also the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and stuff like that.

And then I thought, this should be a playable instrument and something that would also work with modern technology, like MPE, midi polyphonic expression. And so this would take something that used to be very difficult to sequence and to work with — and I had just experienced that at Willem Twee studios in the Netherlands where they have such a bank — but using modern methods to enhance the playability. Because it wouldn't make sense to just copy something. It had to be something more.

Then Sinan worked on how to model the sound. I recorded a lot. And he worked on the interface and we got Sensel involved to help us out with how to integrate it with their Buchla Thunder controller. And then Sinan, because he comes from this stochastic music background, he added all these crazy modulations. For me, just that lower section of that plug-in is like experiencing hardcore math in sound. So Bernoulli feels good, but I don't know what the function looks like. So that was the start [Fundamental].

I think the next thing was AudioThing that was Wires, the Russian Soviet wire recorder that we modeled. And that was like, I think he wrote me, "Hey, nice video." And I said, "Yeah, cool plug-ins. Let's do something." And so we modeled this and then it just went on. Bram Bos approached me also. He wanted a fun summer project and in the end it became the looper plug-in that we did for, for iOS [Gauss]. And it was also very successful. And the last thing I did was, again, with AudioThing [Things Motor]. That was from an idea that I just read about that I'd never seen personally, but it was the crystal palace device used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And I wanted to see if something like this would be fun in the digital audio workstation. And so we built that in like three months.

Terrence:

That's a pretty fast turnaround. Wow.

Hainbach:

It's five plugins in 10 months.

Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment
Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment

Terrence:

So the Spitfire one, were there any particular challenges to that? Because it sounds like the other ones, the oscillator, the AudioThings, even when you're not basing it on a physical thing or something to record, they're all singular instruments. Whereas the totem you're trying to capture this complex beast with however many different parts. Were there particular challenges in that that you found?

Hainbach:

It started in June, I think almost at the same time Fundamental had come out, or was just about to come out. At that point I didn't even know a lot about development. So, basically, for me, the thing was to work on a track, record that track, and then I would start recording all the parts of that track. And then I would record a single [sound] and I would go as far as I can with each. Six days of recordings. I don't know how many gigabytes, there was a lot, a lot of recordings.

And then I just said, "Okay, you guys know what you're doing. I'm going to trust you. You just take that." And they were so happy, I think, to have this much sound to work with and to have this wealth of different textures and tones. And also because it's recorded at 96 kilohertz, there's stuff that I didn't hear while recording, but they could pitch down and then find all these things that these machines spit out. Because they're telecommunications devices that are meant to work at different frequencies than just the audible.

That lower section of [Fundamental] is like experiencing hardcore math in sound.

And then they just kept refining, refining, refining. And I was very, hands-off in the whole like, this sound or this sound, because I could hear the fun that they had had. And that's the thing that's so interesting that... Because what they did is create a journey in each of these 50 sounds. So you use the modulation wheel and then you step through — or the dynamics fader, I think it's also called — and just with one note, you go through different worlds and there's different steps. Each of their patches is a journey and that's something I really love. And that’s what makes it so different from working with the actual instruments, because these are very... They're very much in a place. They are, "I'm here right now. And this is what I do." It's hard to get them to go anywhere else.

So this act of transformation is beautiful to me because this is basically what these would do or what these machines would dream they could do. It's not what they can do, but it's their dreams. Like if these things had a soul that would be it, to travel and go to places.

Terrence:

So now you're getting to this place where you're bringing all these sounds, the test equipment, to people who are primarily in the box. And you recently posted a video about how you're starting to blend your synth set up with your test equipment set up. What have you learned through that process and does that feel like the end goal for you — marrying these two worlds that you've largely kept separate at this point?

Hainbach:

That's maybe not the end goal, but it's one goal. There were two reasons for not wanting to put these things together. First are the voltages because the voltages are extreme in some cases. I just saw the device, I was like, "Oh, I want this." And then I saw, yeah, there's one switch that goes from the regular 10 volts, it turns your pulses into 60 volt pulses. It's just one tiny switch. And when you would flick that it would destroy all the audio gear behind it. And if you had a banana cable in your hand and you had 60 volts to you, you would get a nice little shock. So there's definite danger involved to the equipment and sometimes even to your own health. And so I said, "No, let's keep them separate."

And then also just to learn. I spent two years learning how to play with test equipment and making it music in a way that is fun and translates to others. Because it's always easy to just put in a chord and I've got Juno 60 here and when I just put that in, it would just be, "Okay, nice, very fine. Track is done." But when you work with sparse methods, I feel like it gives me more for the brain to work with, to work harder. It's hard-mode synthesis. This is like Dark Souls of synthesis. I really liked that challenge. But now that I know more, combining them is amazing, I have to say. I've got this hybrid setup right now to my right and left where everything flows into each other.

It's hard-mode synthesis. This is like Dark Souls of synthesis.

And the sounds that I'm able to get from the combination, this is a new, rich world. And I'm only looking to combine these things even more. For example, there's one thing that I'm still really missing from this side of the studio and that's integrating tape loops better and working more with tape. But that has its own challenges, one of them being size. Because you need a lot of space to work with tape loops, or else it gets very fiddly. So I need to think of something like that.

I like to see the point now where everything becomes one, all these different elements and I'm just able to give a touch there and give a touch of there. And I realized with every track that I'm right now doing, how good it is to be able to just do that coming from a world of restraint.

Terrence:

Is that sort of the big carryover you have from working with the test equipment? Even if you're not working with the test equipment, does your experience with that impact your creative process when you're using other instruments too?

Hainbach:

Definitely. I make music that is, I hope, at the same time less and more. So, minimal, but with more to it. So there's more meat on the bones. There's no superfluous sounds. And that's completely different to how I started out making music. Because I used to record in a digital audio workstation and have 30, 40, 60 tracks. And then I would go through a process of elimination and taking away, taking away, and never, never, ever taking enough away. So now, to start from a point where I don't have much, or I don't have many moving parts and that I've learned to internalize that, I tend to do what I did with like eight different things now with two. So that's a goal that I'm really chasing forever. And that is to do much with very, very little, just a few strokes. And that's the picture.

Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment
Musician Hainbach playing his test equipment

Terrence:

Do you ever think about the ecological impact at all of making music with test equipment? That this is stuff that would otherwise probably end up in a landfill somewhere, poisoning someone's groundwater or something like that?

Hainbach:

I think that's kind of in the title of the Landfill Totems. It's something that I've definitely thought about and it is so lovely. I have a reverence for this technology of the past, because this is stuff that was built with the highest standards. There's stuff that I have that says a company name is Electronic Missiles and Communications and is a big US military thing. And that's like, whoa, this was built for, I don't know, maybe rockets or stuff like that. And then there's stuff that's used in particle accelerators to look at electrons firing. And this equipment was never meant for anyone but scientists and research and engineers. And that's why it was built with little concern to budgets because this was all, Cold War, we need to really do this the right way.

Everything is high-end, there's no compromise in everything. So it feels like these things were the best of a time. And to see them useless in a... Or with dead spiders inside — a lot of them have dead spiders inside — being thrown away, dusty, all the knobs stuck. And it just makes me sad to see something that was the pinnacle of engineering just go away. And once you realize, and once you just turn one of these, it feels a bit like traveling through history. Especially with something like the wire recorder, there's this whole ontological aspect to it because this is a surveillance instrument or instrument for military recording. And now it's something that just makes beautiful dub echoes on my mixer. So that repurposing is super interesting.

And yeah, the ecological impact of reusing stuff, I think it's... It's, anyway, that's a good thing. What's probably not a good thing is shipping all that stuff to me. Because that is its own little hell hole of thinking about that.

Editor’s Note: 12.5-percent of sales from his Landfill Totems instrument with Spitfire goes to Wasteaid.org to help waste management and recycling programs in the world‘s poorest places.