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Robert Henke, the Ableton Live Pioneer in London



The co-creator of Ableton Live is also an electronic music innovator

It’s often said of an expert in any field that they “wrote the book on it.” In the field of electronic music, Robert Henke “wrote the software” – and as co-creator of Ableton Live, has enabled thousands of other composers around the world as well.

Henke’s own output encompasses a range of styles, from abstract techno as Monolake to more thoughtful experimental pieces better suited to the classical concert hall or to art installations. I met him in a relatively new London venue called King’s Place, a modern underground complex of meeting and performance spaces fast becoming the place to be for forward-looking music.

Henke was performing “Dust,” a piece he has been developing for over ten years.

“It’s mainly based on field recordings, so I can add new ones and mix them in different ways for each performance. I use a multi-speaker system so sounds can come from any speaker and move to any other. You program the system telling it where each speaker is, after that you don’t have to worry exactly where the speakers are. You just choose where you want sounds to come from, and the system does the rest”. 

d&B audiotechnik developed the system and there are details at

Henke, who describes himself as a “digital artist,” was born in Munich and now lives in Berlin, has an electronic engineering background and has travelled very widely collecting his source material. His recordings include some from a busy traffic intersection in Hanoi. “Dust,” however, opens with choir-like sounds.

But as Robert confirms: “There are no human voices. I just use filtering and attempt to come up with a choir-like sound. It depends on the acoustics of the room. Sometimes I can get just the texture I want and sometimes I can’t, so then I move on…”

Other sounds within “Dust” are more readily identifiable as they move around the room – rainfall, thunder, and at the most dramatic point of the 90-minute performance, strong rolls of timpani.

“I have hundreds of sound clips so each performance can be different, but I always use the timpani. Then sometimes I use a sound I haven’t used for a long time, and surprise myself with what comes out. ”

The movement of sounds within the performance is very important, but as Robert points out, “I try to avoid the obvious cliché of sounds moving in a circle. I pick any two speakers and sounds move from one to the other – so it’s not important where they are moving, but that they are moving somewhere, even if that happens very slowly.”

Robert performed with Ableton Live on a Mac laptop, a MIDI controller “…and an additional panning control. I don’t have any monitors as such. When we set up, I run to the middle of the room, and I’ve been doing this for so long I know when the sound is good. And two of the speakers in the system actually are behind me, so most sounds will appear there at one point or another.”

Laser Quest. Robert’s other concert performances have heavily incorporated visual elements. There’s one that includes a lot of techno-style beats in which the music controls a white laser (titled “Lumiere”), and another for multiple channels of colored lasers.

Several shows use old Commodore desktop computers (the most complex titled “CBM 3082 AV”). These computers are so limited that Robert had to write new software for them and build a new microcomputer to control them, some creating a musical output and others making graphical displays in the familiar old “green monitor” style.

Robert has also performed in many unusual settings including abandoned buildings, and for galleries and art installations around the world.

Does that leave him enough time to work on developing Abeleton Live? “Well, I left the company at one point, but I found myself so involved in using Live from day to day that I continued to develop new sections of the software, and now I’m doing more for them than ever before.” 

And has the development of Live – which might be seen as progressing from a loop-based system to something more linear like Pro Tools, Logic or Cubase – consciously aimed to overcome its early limitations?

“Every instrument has its limitations, that’s what helps define the type of music it creates. But the development of “Live” was heavily driven by the users. They’d send a request for this, or to add that, and that’s the way it has progressed.”

Live Action. Certainly, Ableton Live is extremely flexible today. There are many possible approaches to using the package, and much more than the basic filtering and effects available. New sections from Robert and others offer for example granular synthesis (he developed “Granulator” for the Max software suite). He has also developed a software version of the early Publison digital effects unit, which creates a huge range of pitch-shifting options. 

Robert’s not restricted to using software instruments and has many hardware favorites too. A recent addition is the Nonlinear Labs C15, “a very expressive and rich synthesizer made by the original founder of Native Instruments, Stephan Schmidt. I’m very much in love with this one right now.” 

Other favorites include the Sequential Prophet VS, a pioneer of dynamic vector synthesis, in which a mixture of sounds is varied by envelopes during the course of a note. 

It’s all a bit Karlheinz Stockhausen – if you refer to the German innovator of electronic sound sources and recording tape, who thought we should be able to hear patterns of recurring sounds as well as individual notes.

“I’m sitting here surrounded by hardware, I like lasers and I like oscilloscopes, I have an oscilloscope clock in front of me and two CD players. What I don’t have is a multi speaker system of the sort used for “Dust” – that would have to be measured up very carefully and would mean turning my sitting room into a studio.”

In fact Robert’s so busy that he needs assistants at his Berlin studio, with major tasks including keeping the battery of old Commodore computers running. It’s all a fascinating merger of classic and up-to-the minute electronic music technology.

Robert Henke performs as Monolake in the UK and Germany this Summer, and gives “CBM 8032 AV” in Hungary in September. Many recordings are available through Field Records on Bandcamp.

Click here for Robert Henke’s site

And here’s his music on Bandcamp

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