In May 2013 I met up with one of my favourite producers, Shawn Rudiman, in Detroit. We met at the venue where he was setting up for the Sub/Division afterparty during the Movement festival.

A native of Pittsburgh and a self proclaimed synth nerd, Shawn is known for his deep, soulful style of techno, and for his live improvised sets which he constructs on the fly using a horde of vintage machines.

In 2013 he released Monolithic Soul, a collection of songs in four time-limited installments through the Detroit Techno Militia label. He also runs the Technoir Audio label with Adam Ratana and Jwan Allen.

Here’s some of our conversation …

You have an obvious love for machines – do you think now that so many people use computers for producing and performing music that something is lost?

I have to say that there’s actually a backlash, a lot of people are realizing that it’s pretty boring to use a computer. I think the audience has finally realized too that it is boring, because even though I build a wall of gear, it’s not the same as the physical barrier of the glowing apple. Why would I want to watch you check your email?

It’s certainly true that you can’t see what’s happening with the laptop…

When there’s a band on stage there’s five people playing instruments but what you hear is more than the sum of the parts. Its sort of the same thing, you see a bunch of boxes with wires going everywhere, and it sounds like more than the sum of the parts. That’s hopefully what’s happening. There does seem to be a backlash right now about seeing laptops, and also more people who have hybrid setups of laptops and gear. There are some guys who are as crazy as me – Juju and Jordash for example, they just show up and make up everything live.

So your live set is completely done on the spot?

The honest percentage of stuff that is done beforehand is about 10%. And it’s only because I don’t have a technical way to play chords and do that much in-depth synthesis at once, along with doing all the drums, the basslines, and everything else. And the mixing and the structure.  I just can’t do it as one person. The biggest thing that repeats is a 4 bar measure, and that’s it. And the rest are 1 or 2 bars and if I don’t change it, it just keeps going. So it’s kind of precarious.

The mixes are always precarious as well because you’re EQ-ing everything for the sound system so it sounds good live, but when you hear a the recording it might seem really skewed depending how much bass is in the sound system, or high end. So you’re winning in the live arena but you’re losing if people listen back and say your set sounded like shit, if they hear a recording of it on the internet.

What is the relationship then between when you produce music in the studio and when you perform?

Zero. There are only 3 songs that I ever wrote that I actually have a sequence for and it’s just a chord. Most people think they have to play their hits, or the things that made them famous, but that to me is irrelevant. Every time should be fun and fresh!

When I first started playing live in 1998 I was using my MPC 60 to do whole set layouts of about an hour and a half, start to finish, with little cues, and really the best thing that happened to me was that it malfunctioned one night at 4am at a warehouse rave with a thousand people. The MPC just shut off.  I had been maybe 15 minutes into what I was doing. It was a make or break moment. So it was just 909, 606, 303, programmed live, just banging it out. And people went berserk.

So I thought maybe I should do this more often. So then it just kept getting less and less refined. Until the point where I kind of had this weird system where I’d work on chord patterns and anything else that I can’t do by any means live, and I’ll get them as perfect as I can with a sound to match them, but other than that it’s just live.

The sequencer I use is extremely basic, so I don’t really have any options other than turning them on and off at the right time, and making sure that the sound that should be with the sequence is the right one. But sometimes I’ll just purposely have the wrong sound with the wrong sequence just to see, to roll the dice.

You must do some practice runs before a show?

The practice is getting used to the flow things and a lot of actual physical things, for example whenever I reach here I know I’m going to hit this keyboard, and I’ll be completely physically fluent with this whole setup as an instrument. It takes a while to get in that mindset where I can be in one place doing what I need to do, and also think ahead, and look at the crowd, and gauge it, and be able to decide to transition it element by element based on that.

So when you do things more on the fly you have to be in the moment but also be a step or two ahead. You don’t need to see the whole path, just the next 3 or 4 feet. It’s a really weird way to play live and a lot of people would faint at the thought of it because its so unpredictable. But thinking back to when I would play a more laid out set, I realized it got kind of boring.

Have you considered paring down more for travel, or even using a computer?

I don’t use a computer at all. I’ll record to a computer in the studio. Very rarely do I multi-track, I usually just do a two track off the desk, do mutes and un-mutes and stuff like that. I’ve never used a computer live.

Can you walk me through what you’re setting up?

The core of my setup is kind of classic, it’s the Roland TR-909, it pretty much defines techno, as much as the 808 defines house. I’ve had one since 1993.

Shawn Rudiman

This is the Access Virus A, it came out around 1997. I had one of the first 12 in the US because I had a feeling it was going to be good. And to preface that, I’m a total synth nerd. Not a modular guy but a synth nerd. Access Virus A does chords, some basslines, but mostly just polyphonic stuff, anything that I can’t do or can’t play or can’t sequence live.

I use an old Alesis MMT-8 from 1987 to sequence it. This has a very limited memory, it wasn’t meant to do near the amount of shit that I made it do. These are my cheat sheets.
I write them big and in black and white so even when you’re drinking you can still see it. It has to be drunk proof, since I don’t like inhibitions when playing. You can’t second guess yourself at all.

And you need light!

I practice in the dark! I learned that early on. If you practice in the light, sitting down, in a clean studio, you’re going to fail! You’ve gamed the system against yourself. So I always set up on a table haphazardly, and practice in the dark with the same light I bring with me.

Obviously I’ve sort of learned how to pack things, its worth it if you’re going to travel with any old equipment. I’ve learned how to fix almost all of my equipment, because it just reaches an age where everything breaks.

I want to ask you about your release Monolithic Soul, which you’ve been releasing in time-limited instalments? Why did you decide to release it that way?

It’s the one thing the internet isn’t, compared to real records. Everyone just assumes that it’ll be there and they can download it later, it’s not important. You wouldn’t do that with a record.

With digital music, you kind of have to create value for it somehow…

You have to create value for it because people intrinsically devalue digital music, or even music in general now because of digital music. I never knew anyone who slept on records; if you wanted them you were at the store as soon as they came in.

There’s a certain value in finding something when you’re not expecting it. Everybody expects that the digital is always there. So I thought what if it isn’t? What if it is really limited? Sure, everyone will copy the files and share them with their friends, but you win because people don’t sleep, and you also win because I have no problem with people sharing stuff, just when people say hey get this for free.

I have a day job. If this was my real life I would be so angry that people are so cheap. You can’t pay $7 for 10 quality tracks? It’s probably the same people who buy $18 beers.

What’s happening these days with the Technoir Audio label?

We’ve been dormant for so long for a thousand different reasons. But some developments have happened recently that have made Technoir a viable option again.

What are your thoughts about techno in 2013?

House, techno and electro – they are just things that don’t go away, ever. They are the genesis of a thousand other genres. Even as much as I hate to say it, trance was just the product of a lot of drugs in England and techno.

Techno in 2013 is doing good. It’s alive, it’s still valid, there’s still people doing good things, and it’s sort of a timeless genre. Unless you’re doing something so huge and so big that you’re cashing in on a crowd, that’s when you date yourself. If you’re not doing that then it will be valid in another 10-20 years. The more of the moment you are the more you date yourself. You have to think bigger than current trends.

How is the music scene in Pittsburgh right now?

It has come around from absolutely nothing again. There were four-five years of zero. So I was just working on building my studio and making songs. Now I play maybe once or twice a year there. Pittsburgh right now is the best it’s ever been.