Blurring the boundaries between classical music and ambient electronica, Max Richter is one of the most prominent composers of his generation. As of now, he’s also a studio owner...
“It’s almost like an instrument,” says Max Richter of the newly built studio he shares with visual artist Yulia Mahr. Once an enormous agricultural building, Studio Richter Mahr is now home to separate workspaces for the two artists, plus a large recording facility for hire, with an impressive live room. With a minimalist aesthetic, natural light everywhere and an on‑site café supplied by its own kitchen garden, it’s a far cry from your typical recording studio. And this is entirely deliberate.
“Yulia and I have been thinking about doing something like this for about 20 years, one way or another. We’d been looking for an opportunity to build something that could house our enthusiasms and our work, and also offer some dimension of that to other people. It took us a long time to figure out how that could work and what it should be. Then we accidentally came across this empty shed, which was perfect for what we wanted and which we’ve upcycled. We kept the concrete slab and the frame, renewed the fabric of the building, took out the tractors and put the studios in. It’s quite a multidimensional space.
“In terms of the recording space and the music bit of it, it’s very much the outcome of me having spent years and years in other studios and, over time, realising what I liked about them and what I really didn’t like about them. They often feel a bit hostile to the organic creatures that inhabit them. They’re built around the needs of the machines. And we wanted something which felt more humane and more like a collaborative laboratory, something more free‑form, less structured. Because I think a lot of the way studios are tends to normalise the work that comes out of them. The way the systems are set up and the way the architecture and the building is tends to push you in a certain direction. And we didn’t want that. We wanted something which felt more open and creative.”
“One of the paradoxes of our current technological situation is that, for all the evolvedness of our tools, it is still often easier to compromise musical choices in order to accommodate the limitations of the equipment, and that is obviously unacceptable. That would mean you are adapting your vision to the limitations of the tools, but we want an environment where choices can remain wide open.
“I think sequencers, the traditional DAWs, definitely have that effect. They’re getting better, but it’s just so difficult to do certain kinds of things that people end up not doing them — things which are off the grid, for example. Conversely, other things are easy, for example repetition. Repetition has been in music forever. It’s in medieval music, it’s in classical music, so it is part of our expressive lexicon, but using repetition should be a creative decision, not just copy‑paste because copy‑paste is easy and hey! suddenly you’ve got more material. Just because it’s an easy thing to do for a computer, that doesn’t make it always the right aesthetic choice for a human being.
“My work occupies several spaces, really. It is rooted in composition, but straddles electronic music production. It is a hybrid language, and so the way the studio space is laid out reflects that. So, for example, when we got to talking about this writing room, the design team were like, ‘Well, Max’s writing room has to be completely acoustically dead.’ And I was like, ‘Well, no! I really don’t want to spend all my time in an acoustically dead room.’ I wanted just a really comfortable, nice place to be. And I really don’t care what it sounds like, within reason. In a sense, that’s quite a counterintuitive position, given you’re working with sound, but it’s more important to me that I feel good in the space. After all, I have a perfect listening environment in the mix room next door if I need it. So we made a lot of decisions like that: balancing the needs of wanting a fantastic, critical listening environment, but trying at the same time to make a place where you’d like to be.”
The first work of Max Richter’s that garnered widespread attention was his 2002 solo debut Memoryhouse. Described as an album of “documentary music”, it presented a fresh and powerful blend of classical minimalism, ambient electronica and spoken‑word material. Two years later, the composer cemented his reputation with The Blue Notebooks, while more recent highlights have included the eight‑and‑a‑half‑hour Sleep. Richter has also developed several ballets and written a suite for ringtones, his music has been widely used in film and TV, and he has scored numerous movies including the 2019 Brad Pitt sci‑fi extravaganza Ad Astra. A classically trained pianist, he is equally at home composing with pen and paper or by manipulating samples and found sound. “I’m trying to always do things I haven’t done before,” he insists. “That’s one of the nice things about doing music at all.
“Part of making a piece is to find new and really specific ways to tell stories. Sometimes a score will be conceived solely for orchestra, and that’s the whole palette, and I will be looking for new colours and different ways to work with the orchestra. But often the orchestra is only part of the story — in fact that is pretty much always the case with a film project. The first task then is actually making colours which I haven’t made before, which will be specific to the world of that film. So we will be making sample libraries or new instruments, or whatever, which is a fun process. The seed for that process is not arbitrary, but is in the material of the film itself, like in the case of Ad Astra.
Maz Richter: The story of Ad Astra is this guy goes from Earth to Neptune. And when I started thinking about the score for that, it occurred to me that the Voyager probes have made that trip. And, better than that, they recorded data all the way along. So we got this magnetic plasma radiation measurement data, and we turned it into instruments.
“The story of Ad Astra is that of a journey from Earth to Neptune. And when I started thinking about that, it occurred to me that we’ve actually made that trip. The Voyager probes have made that trip. And, even better, they recorded data all the way along. And this data is in the University of Iowa. So we got this magnetic plasma radiation measurement data, and we turned it into instruments. So that meant that when Brad is travelling past Mars, the sound that the audience in the cinema is hearing could be made from the data gathered at the site. Which is cool.
“I’m working on a film score right now where I’ve been using the SOMA synthesizers, which are interesting in that they’re pretty much out of control a lot of the time. And there’s another thing, made by the same guy, called a Pipe, which is a synth controlled by your breath. It’s not like the Yamaha EV system — it’s much more out there. So I’ve been having fun with those. Every instrument has its own properties, and discovering those can give rise to unexpected creative opportunities.”
With a conventional classical piece scored on paper, the composition is at a remove from its performance by musicians and its eventual recording. However, that’s not the case with most of Max Richter’s works. Synthesized and sampled elements, ambient recordings and live electronic processing are often central features, and this means that he has rarely been able simply to hand over the reins to an engineer or producer once he gets to the studio.
“With some projects, the piece is 100 percent the notes on the page, and somebody else can theoretically record it and that’s fine. In the case of my concert music, the recording is an interpretation, just like for a piece of standard repertoire. But a lot of my work uses a hybrid orchestral/electronic language, especially the screen music. So in that case, it’s absolutely crucial that everything is done exactly how I want it.
“I used to do everything myself. I mean everything, from the notes on the page to the final mix. I completed several records and movies literally in my spare room. And then, over the years, I’ve built up relationships with people who I really trust, and and who I’ve worked with a lot, particularly on movies. We have the kind of relationship where, on the technical side, they just know what I would want, and that speeds things up enormously, though obviously I still write every note myself.”
The goal of being able to realise these hybrid works more easily was a major driver behind Studio Richter Mahr. Richter’s writing room is connected via a massively multichannel MADI system to the studio control room, allowing his Logic projects and hardware synths to be streamed live alongside recordings being made in the main live room. “Formerly, we’d be bouncing everything. We’d bounce hundreds of stems and then import them into the mix, but being able to reach into my writing room system from the mix room and to tweak an EQ or something live is amazing. It’s a game‑changer.
“The other wonderful thing about it, for all that I love being at AIR and Abbey Road, is that especially with cinema and screen projects, you’re very often under pressure in terms of time, especially when it comes to mixing, which for a perfectionist like me is super frustrating. What this studio gives me is not being on the clock.
“We did Invasion, a 10‑part show for Apple, over the Summer, and we were doing multi‑day orchestral sessions almost every week. It was between a 20‑ and 30‑piece orchestra, and that’s a heavy lift in terms of admin, booking, trying to get studio time and general logistics, especially when chasing the moving schedules of a TV show. Having our own place has made that whole problem go away. And now that we’ve got a room so we can mix here, it allows us to be just a bit more thoughtful and to be able to reflect on things more.”
The studio itself is also an interesting hybrid. Built by Studio Creations, with the help of engineers Tom Bailey and Rupert Coulson, who consulted on its design, it features a full Dolby Atmos mixing setup but also caters to the composer’s love of analogue, with a Rupert Neve Designs console and multitrack tape recorders restored by Mara Machines. “It just sounds better!” insists Richter. “The solo albums always have been recorded on tape, until Sleep, because that was too long. Sometimes I’ve recorded on tape and then dumped it to the computer for the mix, but I have also mixed off tape directly. It just depends on the circumstances. But tape is the sound I love, and that I first fell in love with as a kid.
“Having said that, movies and screen projects are very difficult to do on tape, because you are working to a more compressed schedule and just have to get it done. There isn’t time to change reels and things like that. The need to be locked to the picture, which with the tape machine nowadays is a big deal, and really prevents this being a viable option at the moment.”
Sound quality was also a key consideration behind the choice of the console. “It’s a Rupert Neve 5088. It obviously has great EQ and great preamps. There is also the opportunity to run the desk automation from Pro Tools. So we have analogue moving faders and a proper centre section. It’s a great‑sounding desk.”
It’s not a surround console, so any Atmos mixing has to be carried out mostly within Pro Tools. Nevertheless, Max Richter is a fan of the format. “It’s the medium I’ve been waiting for. I love that immersive potential of multichannel sound. It suits my way of intuitively thinking and experiencing music.
“So, creatively, it’s an inspiring medium. In terms of how it ends up in people’s ears out in the world, that’s obviously a much bigger question, and one which is beyond my control, and it’s true that, at the end of a mix we’ve sat in the control room and said, ‘Well, that sounds amazing. And no one is ever going to hear it as good as that again.’ Because you need a huge amount of hardware to be able to do justice to material in that format. And folding it down into a binaural headphone mix is a different thing. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that develops and how that lands with people longer term.”
Splitting The Load
For projects that need to be delivered both in Atmos and stereo, Max’s team have evolved a dual‑path approach. “We’ve actually been working in parallel, so that the CD version is going through the desk and then, in Pro Tools, we’ve got the full Atmos version. So all of that extra stuff is going into the Atmos one and then we’ve got the two‑track on the console. Then we can do the stereo summing through the desk, which is obviously better, because the summing on the RND is sublime.”
But does knowing that a project will end up being mixed in Atmos change Max Richter’s approach to composing? “No. Because fundamentally my work is still about the notes, and how they are organised. But what I have noticed is that in Atmos is, because you have so many more opportunities to localise things, you can load more information into it without it getting clogged up in a way you would encounter with just the two channels. There’s much more informational bandwidth, and It allows us to render things in the mix with more clarity.”
By the time he made his breakthrough as a composer, Max Richter had spent 10 years performing and recording with contemporary classical group Piano Circus. The design of the Studio Richter Mahr live room reflects his experiences of recording as a pianist. “We felt we wanted a room which is fun to play in, so it’s really quite a lively space. Obviously my work uses a lot of acoustic instruments, orchestral instruments and piano. So we wanted a place which made people feel like they wanted to play in it. And that’s so important, because when players come into a room which isn’t giving them anything acoustically, it doesn’t inspire them. There’s also a huge amount of daylight in the recording space, because that’s another thing I’m passionate about: in traditional studio environments everything is about acoustic control, but if you are smart you don’t have to make either/or choices, and I think daylight is really important.”
Studio Richter Mahr is also intended to have a low environmental impact, and to be as close to self‑sufficient as is possible. “The building process was very much based around the idea of keeping whatever we could keep. So we kept the concrete that the original barn was built on. We kept the steel frame that the original barn was built from, and we renewed the skin and built the new studio inside it. And we wanted to try and have a building which is as efficient as possible, so it’s very heavily insulated. It’s air tight and has a mechanical ventilation system in it, all of which is driven from the energy from solar panels on the roof. And it’s a very nice place to inhabit.
“The kitchen garden grows everything we use in the studio cafe. I mean, we just don’t go to the supermarket, really. It’s insanely productive, and we have an overflow system, which goes to a local food charity here.”
Having been at the top of his field for many years, Max Richter is also keen to ‘give back’ to a newer generation of artists. The studio will play a central role here, too. “It is really important for us that there’s a passing forward going on. So we are going to do a composers’ lab here for young and upcoming artists. We also are going to have a scheme where people can just come and record for free, basically. That’s all in the works, which is really exciting.
“It is a recording studio — but it’s more of a generalised or multidimensional art space. Yulia’s practice is in visual art. And we are very interested in all the meeting points between different artistic practices.”
Taking pride of place among several rare and desirable synthesizers in Max Richter’s studio is a brand‑new Colossus, the no‑expense‑spared mighty modular from Analogue Solutions.
“Tom Carpenter from Analogue Solutions is an enthusiast synth builder, and has been going for quite a while — I’ve actually got another of his synths back there, which is a Polymath. And I think he just went mad one day and decided to build this thing! The aesthetics, obviously, are a homage to the EMS synthesizers, but I don’t think it sounds like those, really. It’s fully analogue. Lots of oscillators. Lots of filters. And it uses this pin matrix system. There’s obviously loads of jack cables as well, but a lot of it is done through the pin matrix. So that’s another homage to the EMS. Filter‑wise, it sounds a bit more SEM Oberheim‑y, in a way, but it is his own design. And it also has an oscilloscope, which is fun. I feel like every instrument should have an oscilloscope.”
Further along the same wall is another self‑contained modular. “That’s a Moog 55, which is James Gray and Brad Pitt’s fault. When we did Ad Astra, the film has got a ’70s aesthetic. As a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, like everyone, and this synthesizer is right from the beginning of the ’70s, or it might even be ’69. So it’s kind of moon‑landing era. In my brain, it fused with the Saturn V rocket and all that, so I used that for making a lot of the drones and basic material in Ad Astra. It’s an extraordinary instrument. Absolutely amazing.”
The other instrument that Max Richter singles out for special attention is his Schmidt Eight Voice. “It’s a tribute to the big old‑school polysynths, I guess comparable to instruments like the golden age Yamaha CS‑series synths or the big Oberheims. It’s massive‑sounding, capable of huge, very intricate sounds. It also has all the controls right there in front of you, so you can edit sounds really easily and quickly, which is really important. it’s just way more fun than clicking a mouse.”
The Ultimate Studio Piano?
“This is something that Steinway have been working on for a long time,” says Max Richter of the grand piano in the Studio Richter Mahr live room. “It’s their digital recording and playback piano. So it’s a normal Steinway concert grand, and it has a sensor system installed into it, which uses lasers to measure key position and speed. There’s no physical connection between the playback sensor system and the real piano action. So it plays exactly like it should. And what’s fantastic about it is that it has a far higher resolution than MIDI‑based playback systems. I think it’s more than 10 times the resolution of MIDI. So you’ve got key velocity incredibly finely graduated, but also pedal positions. The pedal isn’t just on or off, there’s like 1500 pedal positions, which actually really makes a huge difference.
“So it’s an amazing way to record a piano performance. For example, if I’m recording some of my own music, I can record the piano part and then wander into the control room and listen to the piano playing back what I just did. It’s just brilliant.
“And the other thing is you can also network these over Ethernet. For example, say, if there’s a film director sitting in LA and they’ve got one of those pianos, then I can play live in LA for them.
“It has a bespoke front end that runs on the iPad, so you’ve got a piano‑roll editor that we know from the various DAWs. And the editing is relatively limited at this point, but they’re still working on it. And they’re adding features bit by bit. But it’s a wonderful tool.”