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What does an ex-television-casting-show candidate have in common with the power metal band VICTORIUS? At first glance, everyone would be inclined to say „Nothing at all!“. In reality however, they have one of the most important things in common: Their sound is recorded and produced in the EMPERIAL SOUND STUDIOS not far from the cities of Hanover, Berlin and Leipzig.
Reason enough to look behind the scenes and into the the realm of songwriter and producer LARS RETTKOWITZ. Over 50 released albums and more than 190 composed songs originated in his studio right in the heart of Germany.
You can read below what we talked about. The photos are, as always, provided by the amazingly talented www.lightinmirror.de.
Shieldmaiden’s Voice: Describe your way to work in three words only.
Lars Rettkowitz: That’s gonna be fun! Three words… Wait! Red, yellow and green!
SV: How did you get started in music production?
LR: I was always keen on it anyways. When I was a child, I had a double cassette tape recorder and with that you could play a playback and record something over it with a microphone. I recorded a lot of tracks and the quality was getting worse and worse and in the end I had something like a song.
I didn’t have any equipment back then, no drums, microphones or anything like that, but rather a turned over pillow and beat it with a stick which creates something like a beat or a base drum. Then a guitar, I could always play around with it a bit, and I sang over the tracks, even though I couldn’t sing back then. But I did compose and record and that is the thing: I always wanted to do it. It started at age 11, I think…
SV: How did your studio become what it is today?
LR: Oh… mhm… well, just buy more and more stuff…. Really! No shit! It’s a bottomless pit, a development, you collect experiences with bands and then you need or you realize through other productions that you need certain equipment to achieve the goal and you go buy it and over time it just becomes more and more and it gets bigger and bigger, so you just roll with it.
It really is a bottomless pit, so you can invest all your money and it’s still not nearly enough. That’s a fact! And it is also an ongoing learning curve, there is no end to it. Absolutely not. Buying stuff, increasing the range and more learning.
SV: Why is a producer needed?
LR: I don’t know. Do you really need them? I don’t know. Well…um… sure, to produce music. Does that answer the question?
SV: What does the producer do though that the bands can’t do themselves?
LR: Well, a musician or a band should in general focus on playing the instruments as best as possible und it is a big technical aspect that you have to do to record and produce well. That shouldn’t take a toll on the musicians, they have to concentrate on playing and I am focussing on pushing buttons.
SV: What makes a good producer?
LR: The one who pushes buttons the best is the best producer. No, I don’t really know. If you are a musician yourself, then it is awesome, because you understand what a band wants when they enter the studio. To understand and to realize their vision is what makes a good producer.
SV: What are, in you opinion, the do’s and dont’s of music production?
LR: There aren’t any, really. You can do anything and everything, but also not do anything and everything. Really! It doesn’t matter. There are the craziest sound experiments out there, where they hit an iron sheet with a stick and that becomes a hit.
SV: How do you get the assignment to do a production job? How do bands find you?
LR: Website, reputation, I don’t know…They just find me. Obviously, the things you produced before are the reference and the bands find that, hear that, like it and want to have that sound as well.
SV: What inspires you during a production or are there sources on inspiration that influence your work in the studio?
LR: Well.. Every band has a certain expectation of the sound and how they want to come across. This is defined by the stylistic direction, meaning that if I do a pop production I can’t just mix them metal drums or something like that. That would sound weird. That is like I said before, I could do the do’s and dont’s and a new style would be created, but all that is developed in the process and everyone brings in their set of expectations. It is like a big bouquet of flowers.
SV: What are the biggest challenges for you?
LR: It’s a challenge when musicians or young bands come to the studio with the expectation to do something extraordinary, but can’t really realize that due to their not yet developed skills and possibilities, meaning that they simply can’t do it. That means that it is quite hard to meet their expectations in the studio in relation to what they want to hear at the end of the day. Which in turn means that I have to edit a lot, but in the end we always manage it.
Being in the studio becomes more of a learning curve for them, because… well, ho do you say it?…That is what I said in the beginning: that Red-Yellow-Green-Thing. When they come in, everything is cool, then there is the yellow phase in which everything is played through, it starts, attention and red is the finish.
SV: Did you ever experience an „Oh no“-moment where something went completely wrong?
LR: Not really, no…
SV: What a shame! [laughs]. I think that when you are working on a project and are very sunken into it, it is easy to press a wrong button erasing everything.
LR: That does happen, but luckily never to me. There can be an electrical surge and all your backups are damaged. You save the projects, or at least you should do that, after every session on external hard drives or something like that and it’s important because otherwise you’ll have a problem eventually.
It did happen to me with my personal recordings that I wrote a song or something similar and the computer crashed and everything was gone. But that happened to me personally, but not in the production in general because I have to be extra careful there.
SV: Which one of the projects you did so far was the hardest for you and why?
LR: I don’t really know, because every project and every band has its own challenges and brings something with it, so not everything is super easy, but you’ll always have a point in which you ask yourself how you’re supposed to do certain things. There is no „the hardest“ or „not doable“, it’s distinctive for every project.
SV: In which project do you take special pride?
LR: In all of them!
LR: As a producer you always leave a trace of yourself. There is always a sound, an idea or something and it is expected from a producer to be actively involved, that you are keen on the project and the band, who are maybe not as used to recording in the studio or don’t know about the possibilities. To show them the way and to lead them to where they actually want to go or to convey the technical know-how that you have and being able to show the bands a different picture, to give them a style or a sound, that is the awesome part about it.
SV: Which project so far was the most exciting for you so far and why?
LR: The most exciting, I think, was my first proper production with VICTORIUS. The band, me as well, really wanted to be successful with that album, to produce something awesome. There was a record deal and everything was set to build up the band, to do it properly, make the band big and it was one of my first productions that I saw all the way through back then.
I did have others before that, but with this I really had the feeling that we had to get this done properly and that it has to come out amazing and thus it was really intense and in the end, all of us were really happy and proud.
SV: Are there projects which you wouldn’t do?
LR: Yes, I think so… There are things I can’t do. This, again, relates to the question of musical style. i mean, I could always push it in a certain direction, but you do have a mindset of trying to achieve 100%. You become a bit fussy and quite focussed and if a dark Jazz musician comes around the corner or a Hip-Hop-artist or other extreme musical style, that I don’t do every day, I would probably decline.
Or, what also isn’t possible for me to do is, when there are musicians can’t realize their concept meaning that they can’t sing or play properly in the studio, then I reach my technical limits quite quickly and it becomes impossible to do.
SV: Is there a project you would love to do some time?
LR: I’m actually quite content with the things that come in and go out of my studio and I Don’t really want to limit myself to a certain artist, band or style because, as I said, everyone brings something distinctive to the table. You get something out of each collaboration: a new experience, a friendship or something similarly amazing. I am not able to say „I want to have this person. I could do it cooler or better and they would would be happy and so would I be.“
It could always end in a catastrophe and the work in the studio is based on trust, humanity and things like that. It is possible to not get along with someone and that would end in a horrid collaboration and I want to avoid that. It is extremely important which is why I cannot name someone explicitly who I might want to work with because it’s a relative thing. The process itself is what makes it amazing.
SV: Which one of your projects did not get the attention it deserved?
LR: All of them! Every single one of the projects. As I said, there is always part of me in these things and the more successful a band is, the prouder you are as a producer. When a placement in the charts is achieved, when there is lot of investment into advertisement and you do see what bands end up doing in terms of video shoots, etc.
You serve the record and suddenly it’s not current or some other unfortunate coincidence happens and the thing doesn’t go off because the time frame to release didn’t work out or a band with a similar style released something or the label is not really keen on doing anything, there are a million things. That really is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a musician when the success isn’t big enough.
SV: Which projects are you currently working on?
LR: Three days ago [Interview done on May 20th] I handed in a song I wrote for VISIONS OF ATLANTIS, which should be in production right now. Then there is KALIDIA, the Italian band, which I am working on right now and we are doing a new album. I’m doing a new album for AMEN GRAVES, DYING EMPIRE and I will be doing an acoustic EP. VICTORIUS announced themselves for September. There is something going in and out of the studio permanently and songwriting is always going on. I am currently writing something for ISABELL KRÄMER [German pop singer], I also write something for a Japanese artist from Tokyo and there is a new record coming and we’ll see what else will happen.
SV: In which way is your line of work influenced by the on-going COVID-19 pandemic?
LR: In the moment, it doesn’t have any influence on my work whatsoever. As a songwriter and producer, I am able to be creative even if there is a tornado coming through, that is absolutely possible. What I think, and what I said before, is, that the late-term consequences will hit pretty hard because we are essentially skipping a whole year, a whole season. Records are not being released because the bands cannot go on tour, cannot promote their product, meaning that they don’t have any income and a studio production is intense and expensive and because we are skipping a year there will be a lot of production that simply won’t happen because there are records being held back and not being released. They just lie around for the season and we’ll see what happens in September when everyone can go outside again.
But this phase itself, this COVID-19 crisis was barely noticeable for me. If someone hadn’t told me that we have that crisis, I would still be sitting here writing songs or mixing something. It is quite odd, this job seems to be very panic-proof.
SV: What advice would you give people who are interested in music production and who want to try it for themselves?
LR: Just do it. If you really want to do it and have a bit of passion for creating music and might want to look into the technical aspect a bit and you have the opportunity to get to know the processes and what you can actually create, then I can only recommend it. Just have look how it’s done. There a lot of videos on Youtube showing how other people do it, just copy a bit, listen a bit and just educate yourself and see what you can create afterwards.
SV: On a closing note: What is the best way to contact you?
LR: There are various ways: Talk to me at a concert or via the website or through the different social media platforms. If you google in your regions, since the locations are connected to the searches, you can find me as well or you send me an e-mail or call me or just come talk to me. That would be a good way.
Excerpt from past productions Lars was involved in:
ANNEMARIE EILFELD – Barfuss Durch Berlin (Sony Music)
FREEDOM CALL – M.E.T.A.L (SPV/Steamhammer)
VICTORIUS – Space Ninjas From Hell (Napalm Records)
KALIDIA – The Frozen Throne (Inner Wound Records/Ulterium Records)
ISABELL KRÄMER – Hier ist der Sommer (Fiesta Records)
MARKUS – Tanz mit mir
DYING EMPIRE – Samsara (Bleeding Nose Records)
You can find more here.