Oval (aka Markus Popp): Recording Oh And O

Electronica Production

Published in SOS November 2010
Bookmark and Share

People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

One of electronica's most adventurous spirits, Markus Popp has returned with an album that sounds surprisingly... musical. But is everything as it seems?

Sam Inglis

Oval (aka Markus Popp): Recording Oh And OPhoto: Constantin Falk

Markus Popp, aka Oval, can be a frustrating interviewee, not least because he often responds to questions with more questions.

"Am I actually playing instruments on this new record?”

Well, are you?

"Yes and no.”


"Are these instruments virtual or real? Again, yes and no.”

Er, thanks.

The new record in question is the first Oval album for nine years, a double CD simply entitled O. Accompanied by a separate EP called Oh, it has been touted as an unexpected departure from the man who gave us 'glitch music' and spent years teaching computers new ways of generating sound. No‑one is going to mistake it for S Club 7, but it is undeniably more approachable than much of Popp's previous work. It even features something that sounds remarkably like a man sitting behind a drum kit and hitting it with sticks, while most of the pitched musical content is performed on something that might or might not be an electric guitar. (Imagine Derek Bailey playing through a broken sampler.) It is, all in all, unexpectedly warm and human. Popp himself describes it as "an Oval debut album all over again”, the result of a conscious effort to reinvent his music.

"The most important step towards this goal was 'radical departure' — to do everything as differently as possible compared to how I did stuff before, and do it on all levels: technically, musically, organisationally. I wanted to bring back the — in my opinion, often absent — 'music' part into 'electronic music'. I wanted to play stuff, I was impatient to take control — for instance, by establishing riffs as the new main building block, replacing the loop. This element alone added so much more immediacy and control, but also a lot of unprecedented decision‑making and new responsibilities. Being loop‑based, like in the early Oval days, had been, by definition, very static and inflexible.

"Effectively, hardly anything from my old tricks, tools and techniques translated over into the new setup. Plus, everything else around me having changed so dramatically over the years sure did help. It would have been a major exercise in reverse engineering to do another Systemisch, Ovalcommers or even So record with today's tools. But to start anew with an entirely new approach was easy — at least in theory. So much had changed around me during my hiatus, the list of tools to try in 2010 was practically writing itself. What to do with those new tools was, of course, the big challenge.

"First and foremost, I wanted a playful, inviting, 'just listen' type of music that effortlessly just 'is', and which convincingly renders obsolete distinctions like programmed versus played, or acoustic versus electronic. No hired musicians, no live band — just me, ready to start anew and go the extra mile.”

Is It Real Or Is It Oval?

The cover of the Oh EP shows Céleste Boursier‑Mougenot's appropriately playful installation at the Barbican, where a soundscape is created by flocks of zebra finches going about their business.The cover of the Oh EP shows Céleste Boursier‑Mougenot's appropriately playful installation at the Barbican, where a soundscape is created by flocks of zebra finches going about their business.

Having suggested that this "fresh start” reflects a radical change of method, Popp then immediately undermines this suggestion, pointing out that the way music comes across to the listener can be deceptive. "A rain shower, an explosion, a flock of birds in the distance, animals, even human actors: practically any asset as part of a movie scene today is perceived — provided the lighting, photography and animation are executed flawlessly — as simply 'being there', whether these assets were ever part of the original shot or simply added digitally in post. Who knows, to a certain degree, this new Oval sound might be nothing but a trompe l'oeil, an acoustic illusion — albeit a very convincing one — to a point, where you don't insist on the seemingly specific qualities of the 'original' aesthetic or playing style any longer. So why still give in to the old impulseof investigating the perpetual 'How did he do it?'”

There he goes with the questions again. Giving in to the old impulse does at least yield some further information about the genesis of O. Whereas previous Oval projects have involved stitching together thousands of tiny fragments of sound, or creating computer programs that would facilitate the generation of sound, this one does indeed rely on something more akin to conventional musicianship.

"While my tracks from the mid‑'90s were engaged with music on a pretty basic and unsophisticated (yet effective) level, these new releases can now confidently challenge music on its own turf — something I wanted to do for many years, but just did not quite feel ready for. Over the years, I increasingly felt I needed to be part of a conversation — ultimately, because music had always been a major part of my life and I wanted to finally come up with a better payback scheme than dissection or denial. But this does not mean that those 'critical' days are now behind me — my tracks are just as 'meta' as ever. Only this time, I made it a bit easier to get to the 'music' parts.

"Ultimately, I wanted to be part of a dialogue, which I can only make happen via musical means, by me establishing a communication with music through music. This is exactly why I developed a musical skill set: to speak the language. No Oval debate club membership card required: to 'just listen' is all I am asking this time.”

Back To Basics

Oval (aka Markus Popp): Recording Oh And O

Although Popp has been making records for 15 years or so, he's always done so from an 'outsider' perspective. The new album thus forced him to learn some of the conventional studio skills he'd never previously needed.

"Going the extra mile meant to go from 'music coordinator' to 'composer' and to recording my own improvisations. There's this vast history of music production, which I had barely been in touch with in the early days. It is not more than a few months ago that I had finally figured out what a compressor actually does. Once I had the technical aspects down, things went pretty quickly from there. The tracks are pretty much recorded live (of course in multitrack). Still, this says nothing about which exact musical direction to take from there — that part took even longer.

"In practice, the production of O was all very, very hands‑on, about ending up with the best possible take. You know, that one recording that is worth practising an entire day for, the one that can capture and convey sophistication beyond all the technology involved. This time, it was crucial to me to generate these phrases, make them happen exactly in this way with my own hands, make them seem magically effortless — whereas the disruption of music and music technology from a perpetual 'outsider's perspective', like in the Systemisch days [the 1994 Oval album that pioneered 'glitch music'], only gets you so far.

"By the way, having real‑time, manual access to the process does not mean that I was necessarily working any faster. All phrases and motifs have been triggered as you hear them, they are not montages. But still, there were so many options to attain that organic, playful atmosphere I was after. In the end, I decided to capture these riffs on the fly, like shooting Polaroids — at the expense of having to record everything all over again in case a take had failed or gone the wrong way.”

A Lean‑back Experience

The press release for O mentions that it was entirely recorded on a cheap PC, with no third‑party plug‑ins. On the one hand, this seems to be important to Popp: "I guess it remains important to my music to this day that I always remain capable to get creative with modest resources. Oval always was a low‑budget affair. If you would go ahead and try to date Oval tracks, telling from the hardware utilised in their making, you'd always have to add several years to the estimated creation date, because I never, even to this day, had or cared about the latest technology. For example, Systemisch ultimately ended up as this glorious mono recording, because I simply could not afford a fancy stereo sampler at the time.”

On the other hand, however, it often seems that Popp considers any discussion of his tools to be an unwanted distraction. "Mentioning it in the release bio was merely a placeholder to signify: 'This is only a black box. No secret‑weapon‑type technology was used in the making of this record.'”

Are we at least permitted to know more about the source of the guitar‑like tones that dominate the record? Grudgingly, a little: "If you absolutely insist on getting a mental image of someone involved in a certain activity while you are listening to these tracks, picture me in between lots of instruments, both virtual and real, plus many more real‑time controllers of all kinds, practising — and thinking pretty hard about how to turn Oval from a lean‑forward to a lean‑back experience without sacrificing any of my past achievements and without being plain bad at writing songs.”

Popp is much more forthcoming when asked about the drum tracks that feature on the album. "What you hear is me playing, programming and triggering 'real' drums, my own sampled 'real' drums, as well as real‑time (drum) controllers in conjunction with several customised kits from BFD II, Superior Drummer and Addictive Drums.

"For years, I absolutely wanted to add a rhythmical element in my tracks beyond the proverbial, and inevitable [given Popp's working methods], clicks and pops. However, I don't like the aesthetic of drum machines — synthetic drum sounds are all right, but ultimately limiting, plus I don't like patterns — nor did I want to rely on loops (too inflexible). Instead, I wanted more expressive drums that can 'lead' like an instrument, on a par with all the other elements of a track. I listened to a lot of music, learned how a real drum kit actually works and then decided what 'understanding how to play drums' could do for my own music. For Oh and O, I most of the time ended up with drums that evolve over the course of the track, almost flowing alongside the other instruments rather than dictating predefined beats or parts. My current drum setup will definitely keep me occupied for some time to come.”

Touching Every File Once

Although his new album represents a radical departure from previous methods, Popp has continued to work in parallel on his music‑creation software. The latest version is known as OvalDNA; this diagram explains the user interface. Although his new album represents a radical departure from previous methods, Popp has continued to work in parallel on his music‑creation software. The latest version is known as OvalDNA; this diagram explains the user interface.

In a warped kind of way, the making of the O album saw Markus Popp obeying one of the oldest rules of recording: get things right at source. "I strictly stuck to not employing any post‑processing of any kind. Here, the So project with songwriter Eriko Toyoda was very instructional, albeit quite possibly for all the wrong reasons. Because of the way I had worked with Eriko's guitar recordings at the time, I decided to do the exact opposite with the melodic parts for Oh and O. So was happening right at the pinnacle of my 'hi‑tech' phase, when it was all about leaving nothing unprocessed. I threw a fully loaded Kyma rig, SoundMaker with those terrific third‑party spectral plug‑in packs and TC Electronics' Spark XL at Eriko's delicate songs, each app running tons of custom modules and effect chains. Ultimately, I ended up spending an eternity processing every guitar part (and vocal part and bass part and FX part), creating endless iterations of an already defined, beautiful, original recording. And since I wasn't working on a sound grid for the Ovalprocess software [the innovative music creation program that forms the basis of Popp's art installations], but towards a regular CD release, only a few of those many variations of a sound file could actually make it into a song and onto the record.

"For O, I took the exact opposite route. There were two key differences: first, I am in control of all the melodic parts myself, and second, [there was] no further DSP post‑processing to make things overly complicated. Those parts you hear on O are literally the result of rehearsing those phrases until they were 'just right'. Once recorded, I was done with that clip for good. I kind of knew all along that this was the superior concept: the lifelong dream of 'touching every sound file just once'. It simply took time until I was ready to pull it off. Well, that and to be good enough at it to consider a release.”

And that's perhaps the most impressive thing about O and Oh: that Markus Popp turns out to be every bit as good a musician as he ever was a non‑musician. "Make no mistake,” he concludes, "these tracks are accessible, but they are very 2010, capable of surprising anyone on almost any level. Oh and O may not have 'watershed moment' written all over them — but this new material has the potential to lock you in a pretty intense staring contest for quite some time.”    .

Similar articles


Matt Robertson: Björk's Musical Director

Thumbnail for article: Biophilia!

Björk's stage show is bizarre and beautiful, and it takes a team of dedicated musicians, technicians, programmers and designers to make it happen.

An Orchestra of Pianos

Maxime Le Guil: Recording Vincent Delerm's Les Amants Parallèles

Thumbnail for article: An Orchestra of Pianos

Under the guidance of engineer and producer Maxime Le Guil, Vincent Delerm forsook grand orchestration for the humble piano — bowed, plucked and hammered...

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mike Crossey

Inside Track: The 1975 'Chocolate'

Thumbnail for article: Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mike Crossey

The 1975's chart-topping album is just one of a string of hit debuts engineered, mixed and produced by Mike Crossey.


Ron & Russell Mael: 45 Years In Showbiz

Thumbnail for article: Sparks

From elaborate band arrangements to their pioneering collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Sparks' music has always been innovative and instantly identifiable.


Will Gregory: Recording Tales Of Us

Thumbnail for article: Goldfrapp

Will Gregory took the unconventional decision to base Goldfrapp's latest album around a single instrument — which he couldn't play!

Kevin Lemoine: FOH Engineer

On Tour With Green Day

Thumbnail for article: Kevin Lemoine: FOH Engineer

Backstage at a major festival in France, we caught up with the man who has been mixing one of the biggest names in punk for the last 14 years.

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mikey Donaldson

Inside Track: Tamar Braxton Love And War

Thumbnail for article: Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mikey Donaldson

Love And War was not only a remarkable comeback for singer Tamar Braxton, but a breakthrough opportunity for engineer and mixer Mikey Donaldson.

Jonathan Wilson: Fanfare

Reviving The West Coast Sound

Thumbnail for article: Jonathan Wilson: Fanfare

For Jonathan Wilson, the quality of recorded music peaked in late-'70s LA. His own production career has been a quest to scale the same heights.

Tony Maserati

Inside Track: Secrets Of The Mix Engineers

Thumbnail for article: Tony Maserati

A simple song and an outrageous video turned Robin Thicke from a star to a superstar — with the aid of master mixer Tony Maserati.

Ólafur Arnalds

Composer & Producer

Thumbnail for article: Ólafur Arnalds

Many classically trained musicians have ended up playing rock. Ólafur Arnalds' career has gone in the opposite direction...

Pioneer Of Digital Synthesis

Erkki Kurenniemi

Thumbnail for article: Pioneer Of Digital Synthesis

Years before the Minimoog appeared, a Finnish visionary was already building digital polyphonic synthesizers — and they were controlled by light, skin conductivity and even brainwaves.

Inside Track: Jamie Cullum's Momentum album

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Duncan Mills

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Jamie Cullum's Momentum album

Jamie Cullum's sixth studio album, Momentum, sees the British pianist and singer further expanding his stylistic palette.

J. Cole & Juro 'Mez' Davis

Recording Born Sinner

Thumbnail for article: J. Cole & Juro 'Mez' Davis

Hey man, nobody ever asks me about this stuff. I love talking about it, so thank you,” exclaims J. Cole.

Caro Emerald

David Schreurs & Jan Van Wieringen:Recording The Shocking Miss Emerald

Thumbnail for article: Caro Emerald

Tired of trying to make money, Caro Emerald's production team chose to make music they loved. The result was a worldwide hit album...

Inside Track: Black Sabbath 13

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Andrew Scheps

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Black Sabbath 13

Under the guidance of Rick Rubin, Black Sabbath returned to their roots. Mixed by Andrew Scheps, the resulting album topped charts worldwide.

Daft Punk

Peter Franco & Mick Guzauski: Recording Random Access Memories

Thumbnail for article: Daft Punk

Daft Punk spent four years and over a million dollars on their quest to revisit the golden age of record production. Mick Guzauski and Peter Franco were with them all the way.

Inside Track: Paramore

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Ken Andrews

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Paramore

Ken Andrews won a blind shoot-out against some of the biggest names in the mixing world. His prize: the plum job of mixing Paramore’s acclaimed comeback album.

Nitin Sawhney: One Zero

Recording Live To Vinyl

Thumbnail for article: Nitin Sawhney: One Zero

Vinyl is still the listening format of choice for many consumers. Using it as a recording format is more of a challenge!

Inside Track: Recording Aerosmith

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Producer Jack Douglas

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Recording Aerosmith

Their latest album saw Aerosmith return to their roots, with Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair. But it wasn’t all retro...

Beyond The Grave

Janus: Gravedigger Then And Now

Thumbnail for article: Beyond The Grave

Signed to Harvest, Janus made one album — and hated the way it sounded. Four decades later, they finally got the chance to mix it properly...

Shahid ‘Naughty Boy’ Khan

Producing Emeli Sandé

Thumbnail for article: Shahid ‘Naughty Boy’ Khan

Shahid Khan has gone from pizza delivery man to in-demand producer — with a little help from Noel Edmonds.

Inside Track: Mixing the Led Zeppelin Reunion

Alan Moulder | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers

Thumbnail for article: Inside Track: Mixing the Led Zeppelin Reunion

The film of Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert was five years in the making — yet Alan Moulder had only three weeks to mix the entire soundtrack!

Peter Cobbin & Kirsty Whalley

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: 2012 London Olympics

Thumbnail for article: Peter Cobbin & Kirsty Whalley

Underpinning the biggest spectacle of 2012 London Olympic Games was probably the largest multitrack recording ever made. Just how do you mix a thousand-track project?

Mike Stevens

Musical Director For The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert

Thumbnail for article: Mike Stevens

Mike Stevens has worked with some of the world’s biggest pop acts at countless high-profile live events, including the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee concert.


Home | Search | News | Current Issue | Tablet Mag | Articles | Forum | Blog | Subscribe | Shop | Readers Ads

Advertise | Information | Privacy Policy | Support | Login Help


Email: Contact SOS

Telephone: +44 (0)1954 789888

Fax: +44 (0)1954 789895

Registered Office: Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB23 8SQ, United Kingdom.

Sound On Sound Ltd is registered in England and Wales.

Company number: 3015516 VAT number: GB 638 5307 26


We accept the following payment methods in our web Shop:

Pay by PayPal - fast and secure  VISA  MasterCard  Solo  Electron  Maestro (used to be Switch)  

All contents copyright © SOS Publications Group and/or its licensors, 1985-2015. All rights reserved.
The contents of this article are subject to worldwide copyright protection and reproduction in whole or part, whether mechanical or electronic, is expressly forbidden without the prior written consent of the Publishers. Great care has been taken to ensure accuracy in the preparation of this article but neither Sound On Sound Limited nor the publishers can be held responsible for its contents.
The views expressed are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the publishers.

Web site designed & maintained by PB Associates | SOS | Relative Media