Interview: Steve Hauschildt on the Importance of Leaving Your Synth Comfort Zone

Over the last decade or more, a new crop of modern ambient composers has come into the fold. One of those composers is Steve Hauschildt, previously of the epic and transformative outfit Emeralds. In the time since Emeralds disbanded, Hauschildt has released four full-length records on Kranky Records. His most recent effort, Strands, was released last year and has expanded his musical reach into Europe and Asia.

Steve Hauschildt - Strands

Unlike many of his peers who stick closer to a classic 4-4, Hauschildt uses complex arpeggiation to create dense rhythmic structures. Along with each move, he’s constantly thinking ahead and challenging himself with what’s available. Hauschildt is never afraid to look outward into the unknown synthesizer landscape, even if it requires relocating from his former home in Cleveland to Chicago.

We recently caught up with Hauschildt to discuss synths, using them live, and making complex timbres with nothing more than Ableton Live and a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet ’08.

For more information on Steve Hauschildt and his music and touring schedule, you can visit his website here.

Steve Hauschildt - "Time We Have" (Official Video)

I hear that you’re touring full-time now. What instruments do you take along with you?

Yes, my live setup has evolved a lot over the last four or five years and has gone through different configurations depending on where I have to travel. Sometimes, I don’t take out a full set.

My main instrument is the Prophet ‘08 synthesizer that I’ve used for maybe eight years or so. It’s on a lot of recordings, and it’s nice to have as a live instrument. But sometimes, it’s very logistically unfeasible to take on tour in Europe or Japan and other places. When I play those places, I don’t always take it with me because it’s a huge liability.

Absolutely, I heard you almost lost it at the airport today?

Yeah, I did. It was lost for a few hours, thanks to the TSA. But some of the smaller synths that I bring along with me… I’m really a fan of the Waldorf stuff a lot. I was jamming a Streichfett for awhile as a kind of ancillary synthesizer to have next to the Prophet. I also use the Waldorf Nave plugin to do some pads.

Now, instead of the Streichfett, I use the Waldorf Blofeld. It has a few sweet spots with some of the filters and stuff, but it’s a really versatile synth. The first few months that I had it, I didn’t really unlock a lot of the capability of it, and I’m still learning a lot of it. It’s definitely a huge part of my setup. That synth is almost 10 years old now, so it’s not like it’s a new synth, necessarily, although I’ve only had it for less than a year.

I’m always looking for compact things fit into a briefcase or some kind of travel bag. So for me, wavetable synthesis is ideal because of it’s versatility. When I play in Europe, I bring a Korg Volca FM. So, mainly, my setup is fairly simplistic.

A lot of people play modulars, and that’s awesome. I’m really into modular synthesizers. But my setup is kind of simplified. I just run a couple MIDI channels from Ableton Live, and then I trigger whatever synths I have with me, so in the event that I don’t have the Prophet, I can use other synthesizers at the same time.

You’re always prepared.

It’s cool that you can just integrate things as you need them when you use Ableton Live." - Steve Hauschildt

I continuously plan because you’ll never know what could happen. There was a time, recently, where I played an OB-6 in Los Angeles that just happened to be there. I was having some technical problems with the Prophet, so I left it at home while it was being repaired. It’s cool that you can just integrate things as you need them when you use Ableton Live.

What is the one thing that you currently couldn’t live without in your live setup?

Right now, I think it’s probably the Max for Live arpeggiators because those are huge part of what I do, at least compositionally. But I don’t just use one of them, I’ll use a few of them at the same time on one channel. I also use a plugin called Dexed, which is a free, FM synth plugin. I don’t use it too much — it’s more for recording — but it’s actually really nice to use live. I try and round out my sound with analog, digital, wavetable, and FM synths and try and find what those things excel at and have interwoven parts.

Steve Hauschildt performing live

Your music sounds very complex, yet so minimal. How do you find that balance?

There are some instruments that I can’t bring with me, so I do use some loops and stems live. In that way, it’s not a 100% live performance. I think people can tell that. But there’s a lot that I’m actually doing live as things are happening. The live sets are also set to a video, so they are synchronized to that.

I think the complexity comes from plugins. In the last three or four years, I’ve delved into third-party plugins more and have started using stuff that’s more out of the box in addition to some of the internal plugins in Ableton. It’s really important to round everything out and spend time with each thing. The complexity just comes from layering all that stuff. It’s not just the synth that I’m using necessarily, it’s more about the process that everything goes through.

What kind of synths do you have at home?

I’ve actually sold a lot of stuff. I used to have an eight-voice Oberheim OB-X in mint condition, and I sold it because it’s extremely valuable. But while I had it, it was nice. It just wasn’t that versatile in terms of synthesis or modulation. It was more of a museum piece. I value utility and practicality over nostalgia.

However, there are still certain synths I really like. I was just playing an Access Virus TI during a recording session and a Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver. I had never used either of those before, but I like to throw myself into a new world like that and spend time with something new.

Juxtaposing the Poly Evolver with the Prophet 08, they’re actually very different synths. They have very dissimilar routings and things. The output jack, for example, just doesn’t exist on the Prophet 08. There are certain things that are just very different. For me, the approach is to not be attached to one synth for too long, even though I have broken that rule with the Prophet 08.

I’m probably going to sell it and buy a Rev2 really soon. I was jamming on one with my friend Josh from Telefon Televiv, who had a prototype in his apartment a few months ago. That was kind of cool to mess around with it.

I think the appeal of it, for me, is that I don’t really care about the on-board effects so much, but I think it’s really appealing that you can dump your patches and the programs that you write into a new synth that are same as the Prophet 08.

Although there’s a lot of miles on my Prophet 08, it has been repaired four or five times. I had a lot of the potentiometers replaced. It has been through a lot. So it’s hard to let go of something like that, but I think it will happen soon.

Steve Hauschildt - "Anesthesia" (Official Video)

Speaking of new stuff, you’ve mentioned a couple times that modular is a route you eventually want to take. What’s the draw?

I think you build something from the ground up depending on what you want to accomplish, and then you set up your modular, whether it be Eurorack or 5U or whatever, to accommodate your needs.

I was at my friend’s store called CONTROL, which is a boutique synthesizer in New York. I’ve known Darren Ho for a while, and I was messing around with the Rossum Morpheus Z-Plane filter. It’s in the original Morpheus rack, but having just that filter as a standalone module is really important. So things like that — like Akemie’s Castle, like FM stuff — are very appealing to me. Of course, some things are cost-prohibitive, but that’s just part of the game.

Lastly, what makes your music special?

I have a specific taste in synthesizers, and I’ve spent the past decade or longer finding sounds in them that I like. Despite that, I’m constantly surprised by new things, and I think it’s important to forget or detach yourself from the things that you’re comfortable with in order to take your music further.

It’s very easy to get into a cyclical mindset, so it’s important to constantly renew things and surround yourself with new equipment, even if it’s just a free plugin or a $200 Volca. Those things have intrinsic value that is way beyond spending years on one synth, though that does have value, too. It’s really about finding your own balance.

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