In December 2008 I (PC) had the opportunity to interview Robert Babicz for Inpress on the eve of his tour of Australia. Parts of this interview have also appeared separately over at RA for the feature on mastering I did, but here for the first time is a re-print of the interview in full. Babicz... he's really on his own trip, what can you say? Here's looking forward to the new ambient album....
Permit me, if you will, a Rob Acid flashback. It as ’98, and I was sitting in a friend’s skanky sharehouse living room, listening while a friend of a friend gave me a lesson in acid techno. First of all, he played me some tracks from the Shizuo vs. Shizor album on Digital Hardcore Records, which was variously acid, breakcore, jungle, and commonly as hard as fuck. I wasn’t bowled over. Then, he played me a Rob Acid record, and I felt a subtle but certain ‘click’ inside me. I didn’t know what a 303 was, I’d never heard of DJ Pierre, but what I was hearing knocked my block off. I would have screamed but (being headless) I couldn’t, so I gave chase, pursuing acid techno into the night, frantically dancing my way through anywhere I thought my lost noggin might be hiding. Hint: it’s not inside the bassbin.
Flash forward to 2005. I was previewing some tracks online, and, because Kompakt was still in my ‘listen on sight’ category, I was cuing up a track called ‘Mister Head’ by one Robert Babicz. It sounded vaguely familiar, so I did a quick check on discogs, and sure enough – Robert Babicz was Rob Acid, the dude who stole my head, doing funny things to it all over again with a track that, this time at least, clearly warned me what I was in for. But this was a far cry from the music that had filled my Rob Acid flashback loungeroom. ‘Mr Head’ was different, a definite new style. The kick drum (all the percussion, in fact) was really amazingly precisely tuned. Each sound had a presence that announced itself with undeniable immediacy and personal colour. Precise, rich, and also very emotive, it managed the emotional build of a trance record without recourse to the kind of rhythmic clichés, melodic sentimentality and vocal puke-worthiness that blight that genre’s stereotypes.
‘Mr Head’ was so good I ordered it and three other Babicz EPs on the spot, without even a second thought. When I received them a few days later, again, the thing I noticed straight away was that they all had this same ‘sound’: they managed to be entertaining and ‘upfront’, but listen to them intently on a pair of headphones and it was also clear that you were hearing the works of a person with highly developed and particular ideas about sound, creating an approach to production that was as personal as it was effective. It’s no accident, it turns out. “I have very strong and personal ideas about how gear should sound, how it should react,” Babicz explains. “I’ve been searching and doing research all through the history of recorded music, looking for techniques, processes and equipment. It’s reached the point where I don’t know if I’m more like a collector, a scientist, a producer or an artist.”
If you’ve got a connected device by you, stop reading now, google ‘Robert Babicz interview’, and click on the top link, which should take you to a video on Vimeo where Robert talks in detail about his studio, equipment and mastering work. This isn’t just one for the geeks: in order to understand Babicz’ music, you have to understand the extent to which the man is the studio and the studio is the instrument. This is not just some guy dropping loops and tweaking plugin presets on Ableton: Babicz carefully shepherds his signal through an intricate process that he’s been developing and refining since the early 90s. “It’s always developing. I never stop buying and searching out stuff.”
Almost nothing in Babicz’ studio is standard fare; almost every box has been opened up and tweaked, soldered and replugged to within an inch of its chip and transistor life. Clearly, the guy loves his gear, but it’s not as if Babicz is just another gear freak, because he doesn’t do it for the equipment – he does it for sounds themselves. “I really love sounds. And, more than anything, how sound conducts your emotions,” he emphasises. “I really like the details of sounds, how they live in the track… For me, every track is like a story, every sound is a character in it with their role. So every moment in the track for me is like a ‘scene’ with a particular kind of drama involving certain sound-characters, their life, decay, and dying away.”
In some sense, this is a passion that Babicz shares with a lot of studio heads (and indeed anyone who’s involved with caring for your signal), but nonetheless, he has his own way of creating his very own ‘secret life of sounds’, and a lot of it is through his totally unique approach compression. “Compression is a way of painting on the sound. You have the sound you choose when you’re composing, but compression lets you add and develop some really detailed colours.”
In 2008, compression is a political issue for people involved in any stage of the signal chain: just ask anyone who had to bin their new Metallica record, as Babicz did. “I threw the CD out after five minutes, it was just unlistenable.” Why did Metallica’s newie sound so unbearable? Because it was being strangled to death. If you want an appropriate image, imagine the classic scene from the early Simpsons seasons, where Homer growls ‘Why you little…’ and begins to wring Bart’s neck. Bart’s neck? That’s your Metallica record. Overcompression like this (called brickwalling) is so nasty it makes you want to say ‘no’ to all compression, but Babicz contends that an compressing in a way that’s intuitive and hands-on can really enhance a record. The key is to be firm, but gentle. Or, as my teenage friend once advised me (in a very different context): don’t choke it, stroke it. That’s just what Babicz does, using an array of compressors together, caressing each part of a composition element by element and tuning it by ear.
Babicz’s signature approach has become so successful that he’s now spending about a third of his time as a mastering engineer. One of the things he’s noticed about the recordings he gets sent is that, (similar to Metallica’s producers), people are really convinced that loud = good. “I get sent some really, really, really loud stuff on file, with the request: can you make it shiny and loud? They think that loud is good, and they often still think so, even after I’ve tried to convince them otherwise. I sometimes think it’s a confidence issue: maybe they’re a little unsure about their musical ideas, so they think that, if I make it loud, then the people will ‘hear me’ and like me.”
For those of you working on developing your own production skills, Babicz has this to offer by way of advice: “less is more. I think it took me ten or more years to really, really understand this. And this rule, it’s not something you can understand with your head, you know? You have to really feel it. But it’s true: if you do less, or your expression is more concentrated, you have more artwork.” As for listeners who suspect that something is wrong with what’s coming out of their earbuds, Babicz is adamant. “At the very least, get some better headphones for your iPod. And more than that, so much of the music being produced today, it has no dynamics. So seek out good music, music that has some nuance, music that isn’t just 0 and 100.”
Live, the impact of Babicz’ approach speaks itself (as anyone who witnessed his last Melbourne set will testify). Rob’s sets are always evolving, and contain new tracks, hits, as well as some untried experiments. “And in the last few months,” he adds, with some mischief, “I can feel acid creeping back in to my sets.” I sense Mr Head is in danger once again.
NB Robert has just informed me that he has a number of his works in progress available for listening online, here: