Stephan Bodzin: How I Play Live
The classically educated German producer breaks down his tech setup and approach to performance
Techno maestro Stephan Bodzin has been tearing up festivals and clubs with his live show since 2005. His contagious energy paired with his custom setup means he’s developed a unique approach to live electronic music that sees him constantly tweaking both his tech and approach, 16 years after his first live shows. We caught up with him on the verge of his new album, ‘Boavista’, to find out how he re-developed his set during lockdown, why he’s not a DJ, and the importance of improvisation.
What made you want to develop a live show beyond just DJing?
“I was never a good DJ I guess, so right after getting into that touring business in 2005, I started developing something that fits more to my needs and qualities. A live show for me always had to be set up to let people participate in the process of creating music in real-time, which means it was always also about displaying everything I’m doing live in the best way. I wanted to make people feel and see that something's truly happening and how it is different to just spinning records. Trying to put ear and eye in sync has always been the main challenge when it came to creating a concept, new gear and visuals.”
What is your full setup now?
“The main gear is that custom MIDI controller most of you know by now. I developed it in 2015 with the album ‘Powers of Ten’ and improved it step-by-step to what it is now: it's probably the only MIDI controller that makes the laptop become a real and very intuitive instrument and [it] allows me to access more parameters than I ever used since back then. I'm still in love with it and can't imagine any better weapon on stage.
“Then I have the Moog Sub37 of course, which is the backbone of my music and my live set. I've had my hands on a Moog for more than 40 years now and still can't get enough of its raw power and unique and alive attitude. There is not any other instrument out there which I'd rather use to bring those instant feelings you get when playing live on tape, on stage.
“For the ‘Boavista’ tour, and from now on, I added two more buddies. Both of course with a custom Plexiglas case. I love the fact those LEDs are reactive to when I'm turning knobs and stuff. The crowd immediately gets how ‘live’ my live set is. You hear something by witnessing visually that I’m processing it at that moment.
“Since I worked a lot with it on the ‘Boavista’ album, I added a Modor DR-2 drum machine. It’s a digital-based drum computer with very intuitive parameter access and such a wide range of sounds. It'll help me top up those pre-produced beats coming from the laptop with some real dirty and loud, or very fragile and digital bits. I also have the Moog Matriarch semi-modular synthesizer. I love the complex possibilities of this synth. Its character is so different to the Sub37 and it also played an important role in producing the ‘Boavista’ album. For me what’s very important is that this synth doesn't save any presets. That means I have to create any sound from scratch and very much live. This will lead to random results, random errors and random highlights too, I assume.”
"Try to invent. Polarise. Irritate. Confuse. Don’t go for what you’ve seen already. Try being different"
Why did you feel you needed a custom mixer?
“I was never happy with standard gear, general setups or producing with factory presets. This naturally resulted in creating not only music but gear too. The workflow of this controller is so much above anything out there on the controller market — as far as I know — and makes me just do what I want at any time. It gives me the freedom to play exactly as ‘live’ as I want."
How do you trigger sounds and MIDI? What’s the signal path?
“I'm controlling most main synth and basslines as real-time VSTs via my controller. Drums come from Ableton, which is also triggering the Sub37 when it comes to Moog basslines. For half of the show, I don't have the Moog triggered by the laptop and play lead sounds on [manually]. Matriarch and Modor just get a sync signal to stay in time. It all goes through an RME Fireface, which has some slight equalising and compression on it — both Fabfilter [plugins]. The master is going straight to the mixer, mostly the [Playdifferently] Model1, which is adding some very fine saturation here and there.”
How much preparation goes into the live show and how much of it is improvised?
“A lot and a lot. Especially in times like these, with so much new content, it’s a challenge to prepare those new tracks and bring them in the right order. It’s improving and changing from show to show and there’s always something I'm not happy with. The improvisational part of the show is very important. It's the control of the drops first of all, when and how intense they go up and/or down, how much I support them with drumming or live playing on the outboard. In general, I prepare scenes on Ableton for each track, which lead me through the main parts of it and help me mix to any track I want to jump to. Within these scenes, I can go from ambient to full-on mode.”
What are the main challenges you face when touring/playing live?
“Always fighting with some tech issues of course. Smaller ones can be solved on stage, others have to be replaced on the next show by backup equipment. I own two-and-a-half full setups and up to three tour managers — OK, I don't really own them [laughs] — to keep up with the sometimes super-tight schedule. It’s around 100kg of gear including the superheavy cases that ensure nothing breaks at the airport after a nice three-metre drop from the belt. Big up to my main tour manager Christoph Gerstner here. He's the main man behind the scenes and taking care of everything around my tour. And he’s a foodie too. A perfect fit!”
Do you think about playing live when you’re making tracks in the studio?
“Sure I do here and there. And yeah, I guess I ended up having too many Moog bassline tunes in there [laughs]. But I love them all and couldn't manage to choose between them.”
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to take their studio on the road but didn’t know where to start?
“How can I say it? Just bring your studio on the road and start!
“Seriously, being unique, being authentic, being creative at any time will lead to interesting results. Dare to fail. Gear up [like] crazy. Try to invent. Polarise. Irritate. Confuse. Don’t go for what you’ve seen already. Try being different. Try being you as much as you can and clearly show that people are witnessing a live show, not any DJ playing records. [DJing] is a completely different job and art that I [have] always respected a lot, don't get me wrong, it's just not mine.”