A friend and protege of Klaus Schulze, Robert Schroder builds his own equipment, and is much more than a Schulze clone.
This interview by Dennis Emsley with Robert Schroeder was published in (UK) Electronics and Music Maker magazine. The full text of the interview can be found below the magazine pages.
I arrived at Robert’s apartment in Aachen in the midst of a panic caused by the Schroder’s eight week old kitten’s abortive attempt at hari-kari, resulting in a suspected broken leg. So it was between hurried telephone calls to the vet that I was introduced to wife and family and Joe, a friend of Robert’s who was there to help with language difficulties as Robert tends to underestimate his abilities with English.
Panic over, we finally settled down and I began to find out more about the man who’s interest in electronics began at the age of six. Now, 20 years and three albums later, Robert finds that music is taking up more and more of his time and for that reason his technical interests have fallen by the wayside to some extent. He first showed an interest in music at the age of eleven and was given the opportunity to take guitar lessons which he kept up for only a few months. His musical interests did not wane, however, and at thirteen he was saving for his first guitar. At fourteen he had formed his first group, a short lived affair which was to set the pattern for the following twelve months or so. Altogether five groups were formed and split up in a matter of weeks, due mainly to financial reasons and too little enthusiasm on the part of the other members. In 1970, at the age of fifteen, Robert gave up the guitar to concentrate on school exams after which his interest in electronics once again took over; for four years he undertook no musical activities.
Robert’s technical training consisted of just one year in computer studies, which he found unsatisfying. Other than that he is completely self-taught from books and from his experience repairing hi-fi equipment whilst working as an assistant in an electronics shop. He then went on to open his own electronic components shop in Aachen which he kept for two-three years and it was during this time that his interest in music was re-awakened.
Klaus Schulze’s album “Black-dance” had some effect on Robert in making him aware ofthe possibilities of electronic music synthesis and he built some synthesiser modules, using these to make tapes of his own music purely for his own enjoyment and to prove his technical development. Contrary to the sleeve notes on his first album, Robert did not send a demo tape to Klaus Schulze, in fact they were already friends. Indeed Klaus is godfather to Robert’s son and it was during a visit that he first heard Robert’s music, which happened to be playing at the time, he expressed an interest and this started the musical career of Robert Schroder.
Recording and Writing
His first album “Harmonic Ascendant” was released in 1979 and took almost a year to produce. I asked Robert why it had taken so long; “It’s a long story!” he replied, “at first I had made a record, my first record, and the company says it’s not so good, you must make another. And then I have half a year later made ‘Harmonic Ascendant’,” I asked what happened to the first, unreleased album; “The company said it’s too electronic; for me it was a great record! At first it was an experience for me to actually make a record, but today I agree it was not so good for the market. But it was very good for the musicians side.” Did he want the original released at the time? “Yes, at this time it was for me a great record (laughs) but only for me! Klaus (Schulze) said it was not so good also.”
Part of the original was used on the title track of “Harmonic Ascendant”, which lasts the whole 22 minutes of the “A” side, but with a different mix and with the addition, on Schulze’s suggestion, of cellist Wolfgang Tiepold. The two tracks that make up the “B” side are dominated by Robert’s voice treated so as to make it almost unrecognisable. Actually he is telling a self-penned science fiction story in German, played backwards and heavily treated through a vocoder! He found this fulfilling in two ways; one, it was a new sound that could not be produced from his instruments alone and two, the science fiction aspect, he explained, “Science fiction with words from today is for me not science fiction — it must be all. I destroyed words but when you listen you hear sounds or endings that could be heard today in technical language, but the words don’t mean anything.” The synthesisers and sequencers used on “Harmonic Ascendant” were all designed and built by Robert. All the synthesisers were monophonic. I asked him if he had ever designed or built a polyphonic synthesiser or had any plans for doing so in the future; his answer was a very definite “No!”
“Harmonic Ascendant” was released on Klaus Schulze’s I.C. label which was at that time still under the control of WEA and, as I.C. had no studio of its own, was recorded on 16 track at Panne Paulsen studio. It achieved considerable success in Germany and appeared in the German critics “List of the Best”. The guitarist on the album is Robert’s friend Udo Mattusch.
After the release of his first album, Robert wrote a book entitled “Sequencer — Ein Musikcomputer(?)”. Available only in German, it gives full details on how to build a complete 30-note sequencer, including component lists, PCB patterns and circuit diagrams, all designed by the author himself. He claims it can be built for a tenth of the price of commercially available sequencers in Germany.
1980 saw the release of his second album, “Floating Music”, which was also the first record to be released on I.C. as an independent label and, in keeping with all later releases on that label, is meant to be played at 45 r.p.m. although, as suggested by the sleeve notes, you can play it at 33 r.p.m. for a completely different effect, it also lasts a lot longer than the 18 minutes per side imposed by cutting an album for 45! This 18 minute restriction also appears to be the root cause of the reservations Robert has about the album.
It is Klaus Schulze’s practice, when a new artist is introduced to I.C., to help and advise with the first album and then leave them to their own devices, and this was the case with Robert and “Floating Music”, Robert doing the final mix alone. However, Klaus then took the tape to his home studio and re mixed and shortened it to 18 minutes per side. It was this version that was released, much to Robert’s disappointment as he preferred his own original mix which he claims was more powerful. Also during this re-mixing, the track titles were transposed, the “A” side titles being shown as the “B” side and vice-versa, therefore the title track is on the beginning of the “B” side! Robert laughingly suggests that perhaps the album should have been called “Harmonic Accident”. In spite of this “Floating Music” is a fine album and totally different from “Harmonic Ascendant” in everything bar excellence. As if to prove his change of priorities from the technical to the musical, Robert uses commercial synthesisers on this album, and also for the first time a drummer, Fred Severloh from the I.C. band “Lorry”, although there is no mention of it in the sleeve notes.
Like his first album, “Floating Music” was received well in Europe, mainly in Germany, Austria and Holland, but not so much in France and Belgium, where perhaps, there is the biggest audience for electronic music. In these two countries they seem to prefer the heavier, more moody music of the pre-“Dig It” Schulze variety. Outside of Europe his albums sell well in Australia, Japan and, surprisingly, America, where he would very much like to tour.
Robert has been giving concerts for three years but has so far restricted these to his home territory. For his first concerts he used tapes for the basic tracks and sequences, and monophonic synthesisers for the melody, but over the past two years he has moved on to polyphonics and now has the computer-based “PPG Wave 2” machine (see detailed review in E&MM July 1981) which he uses for the sequences, thus freeing him from the restrictions imposed by the use of the same home-prepared tapes for each performance in a tour. With the PPG he can simply reprogram it for each individual concert. As for the music, Robert uses no score as such, when performing live or in the studio. All the information he requires is written in his own form of shorthand and reminds him of certain sequences and melodies he plans to use and the necessary synthesiser settings.
The PPG is also put to great use on his new album “Mosaique”, certainly his most commercial to date, the whole “A” side being very rock orientated. Once again Fred Severloh appears on drums, plus two other musicians; Charly Buchel on guitar and Rob Van Schaik on bass. A new departure for Robert is the use of a “Voice Box” on some tracks, where a tube is fed from a speaker monitoring the guitar, to his mouth, he then speaks or sings and his voice is modulated and takes on the sound of the guitar.
Moving into his tiny studio, it was difficult to understand how anyone could produce music in such confined conditions. Directly under the window, which looks out on to a very noisy main road, is Robert’s self-built and as yet unfinished 16-channel mixing desk. The PPG Wave 2 stands in the centre of the studio with the obligatory Moog above and behind it. Behind these and also on the left are the sequencers, the latter being the one described in his book. Other equipment includes a Dynachord PA, Otari MX 2D50 tape machine and various effects units, some self-built. No multi-track facilities exist, but the PPG with its abilities to play eight tracks helps enormously in any recording Robert wishes to make at home, although his albums are obviously recorded at I.C.
Our time in the studio was foreshortened by the fact that my photographer was unable to take any pictures of the equipment without including either Robert or myself, or indeed our interpreter Joe, who was completely engrossed in a Casio VL-Tone which Robert had produced from the top of the mixing desk. We therefore retreated to the lounge where I asked about the people who had influenced Robert’s music; “You can say a little bit Mike Oldfield,” he replied, “not the music he’s doing now, more ‘Tubular Bells’ and ‘Ommadawn’. You can hear it a little on the ‘A’ side of ‘Plarmonic Ascendant’.”
It seems to have become the rule over the years to accuse anyone who has touched a synthesiser of copying Klaus Schulze, in some cases rightly so. Robert is no exception to this rule and has been described as a Schulze clone, a reputation he is fighting against, although I strongly doubt if any of the people making this accusation have ever sat down and really listened to the music of either party. Robert explains it by saying that Schulze is the “father” of electronic music as we know it and therefore it is inevitable that anyone coming after will be compared to him. “Today this is my music,” he says vehemently, “no-one influences me.” All three albums so far released have been completely different from each other, showing no distinctive Robert Schroder sound. He says that he is still looking for the sound he wants and is still not 100 per cent satisfied, although the “A” side of “Harmonic Ascendant” comes very close to what he is seeking.
Robert has just signed a new two year contract with I.C. but he does have his own plans for a studio for electronic music production. He sees an interesting future in film music and is currently working on his first commission for this. A new album is planned for 1982, and, in addition, Robert would like to re-release “Harmonic Ascendant”, using the original tapes but with a different mix and the addition of some new pieces.
A 1982 concert tour is planned, but no dates or venues have yet been finalised.
ROBERT SCHRODER DISCOGRAPHY
- HARMONIC ASCENDANT, WEA IC 58 087 (1979)
- FLOATING MUSIC, I.C.KS 80 001 (1980)
- MOSAIQUE, I.C.KS 80 016 (1981)
Robert Schroeder Book
SEQUENCER – EIN MUSIKCOMPUTER (?)
Catalogue No.: RPB 150
Published by: FRAN US VERLAG MUNCHEN
(Only available in German language)