Photo by Christa Fast
Kosmische producer toasted by those who knew him
by Michael Freerix
Conrad 'Conny' Plank (born 1940) was a soundman, who started out doing sound for live shows of Marlene Dietrich, at the beginning of the sixties. Then he worked at a TV station, but was fired because he had placed an empty can of fish on the soundboard. This led him to start his own recording studio at a farmer's house near Cologne, which he bought. The barn was turned into a studio. He had already set up good connections to the music world, because during his work at the television studio, he had used the studio recording rock groups during down time.
Klopfzeichen by Kluster is his first official album he recorded and produced, released in 1969. This very experimental record was released in an edition of only 300, but led to recording sessions with early Kraftwerk, Organisation, Neu!, Cluster, Harmonia, Night Sun, Holger Czukay, Brian Eno and Guru Guru. By the end of the seventies, he was in high demand as a producer/engineer, who worked with Eurythmics, Ultravox, Killing Joke, and Astor Piazzola, as well as German bands Scorpions, DAF, Liaisons Dangereuses, Phew, Einstürzende Neubauten, as well as French Les Rita Mitsouko. He passed away in 1986.
The book Future Sounds, from which this chapter was translated, was published in German in 2021, but will be published in English in 2022.
Winfried Trenker (WDR radio host): Back in those days there where only three sound engineers, with whom you could work on a regular level: Dieter Dierks, Thomas Kukuch and Conny Plank, of course.
Hans Lampe (percussionist, La Dusseldrof, Neu!): Conny was an electric engineer by trade. He had worked as a sound engineer with the Saarälndischer Rundfunk, but was soon dismissed. He was kind of proud about that, because the reason was, he had eaten some canned fish, and left the can on the soundboard. Back in those days, sound engineers walked around in white overalls in the studios of public radio. The he worked at Rhenus-Studio, making connections to the Cologne and Dusseldorf scenes, but then he moved to Hamburg. He stayed in touch with the cologne and Dusseldorfer scenes. That's why he produced the first Kraftwerk records and then the debut of NEU!
Michael Rother (Neu!, Harmonia, Kraftwerk): I know of no sound engineer in Germany who was similar musical or experimental as sound technician or producer than Conny. I had first met him being a member of Kraftwerk, in 1971. It was only natural for me to contact him when it came to record the debut of NEU! Conny was the man we needed. And he was open to support us, and was looking for partners on his way into creating a special vision for the creation of sound. Conny was into experimentation, searching for arbitrary ways and organize music in a new way. Naturally, he was very important for NEU! We were partners in crime.
Gabi Delgado-Lopez (DAF): Most of what I heard on the radio back in those days, I didn't like. AFN (radio) saved my soul. They played Funk and Soul music like Parliament or Funkadelic or similar stuff. This music build the bridge to Conny Plank, whom I told how much I liked this, and he liked tha, too. Our connection wasn't Kraftwerk, it was Parliament and Funkadelic.
Holger Czukay (Can): After he was thrown out of the Saarälndischer Rundfunk, Plank got a job at the Hamburger Windrose studios. That's where he met Bert Kaempfert and with him, he created the 'Kaempfert-sound.' Weird. The English or American tradition was to record each instrument singularly, and later, create the full sound on the mixing-board. But Conny said: "Let's see if we can find a spot in the studio where the band sounds perfect, and that's where we put the stereo mics." And that is what created the Kaempfert-sound. Especially for The Can, the sound of the studio was part of the band's sound. That was totally new. That's why even the old recordings of The Can sound pretty modern today. Later, Conny moved to the USA, working with Ray Conniff. Well, the Americans where crazy about that Kaempfert-sound, but he kept his secret.
Hans Lampe: Plank used to work at the Star-Studio. This was owned by Ralf Arnie, a writer and publisher, who had written Tulpen aus Amsterdam. He not only had money, but a soft spot for (the) long haired. During the daytime, he would record Schlager, but in the evenings and at night, it would be open for experimental stuff. He received the publishing rights for this music. That was a fair deal, for him and for us, because we could do whatever we wanted. Conny was an experimental guy, always looking for new sounds.
Frank Dostal (The Rattles, Wonderland, producer): Conny didn't care about what scene you were in. He never ever in his life would have read a pop magazine. He was only interested in music and people. If the people where assholes and made great music, he would concentrate fully on the music. Conny always was fixed on the controls. If you would not keep in touch with him, there was none.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius (Cluster, Harmonia): When Conny made the first album with Cluster, he still had his job as a sound engineer. I think he was quite happy about us, because working with us wasn't for money. He could do whatever he wanted. Conny was a creative genius. He was the third member of Cluster. Without his mixing console, our music would have sounded very different.
Gabi Delgado-Lopez: We met The Can through Conny Plank. We had known their records, of course. Holger Czukay used to be in the control booth when we recorded our DAF records. Sometimes, he would make comments, but kept to himself mostly. Conny was a very open minded and generous guy- everybody could drop into his studio at any time.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: Plank's personality was the input: his openness and generosity. He was important as sound technician, musician, supporter, interviewer and human being. He used to throw himself into his work, maybe that is the reason why he had to leave so early. When he got curious about something, it didn't matter if it was day or night- then he used to sit down and work on it. He used to be very close with Holger Czukay. They used to talk for hours.
Holger Czukay: Conny Plank was our soul brother.
Gabi Delgado-Lopez: Conny was a very generous guy who would teach me a lot about production techniques. All the others made a big secret about everything, but Conny would share everything he knew about sound, without showing off or vanity. But he used to say: "Nice you want to be an artist 100 percent but that ain't enough. You must be a business person 100 percent, you must know everything about contracts. That's the only way you stay in control of your art." Conny's generosity used to be exploited, of course, but he never changed. He never held no reservation.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: He always invented new things that became standards. For example, this phasing effect, when two reels with a little time difference are being played together. He was fooling around with the studio and the controls- that was his creative input, apart from what he did as a sound engineer. We even lived in his Hamburg apartment for a while, and he fed us. For whatever reason, he even got on the road with us.
Frank Dostal: He was working as an employee in Hamburg. One day he said, "now I've got the money!" to open up his own studio. He moved far away from Hamburg into the countryside. Leaving the city was really a trend back in those days.
Michael Rother: Without Conny, we would not have been able to realize Neu! That may sound weird because he wasn't a musician, he did not write the songs and he did not play an instrument. But if you move away from classic composition and look at sound design as creative force too, then he was our third member. Alone involved with his abilities, he was far ahead of us. Neither Klaus (Dinger) nor I had any experience with sound recording. I learned from seeing what Conny did. At the end of the seventies, I assembled my own sound studio and could relate to these experiences. Conny had a serious education as a sound engineer. Not only with Neu!, but with the second Harmonia record Deluxe, he was extremely important. And he was with me on my first three solo records. Breathtaking was his intuition and precision, working on the many tracks we had recorded, and mixing them into something special. Well, we had just jammed, for minutes, there was nothing interesting in our playing, but suddenly there was a moment, and Conny knew where. It was like he could simultaneously hear several tracks at the same time in his head. Conny used to feel where we would go, sometimes before we had known. And he helped to go that way. But always with respect and decency, just by encouraging us. "Hey kids, let's roll" was one of his usual catch phrases after we had just been fooling around for a while. It was amazing how he assembled all the great moments out of shear volumes of recordings. And with what little means he managed to assemble fantastic sound creations. There was hardly any tools to create sound mayhem.
Frank Dostal: Conny was radical. He would offer sounds that where so drastic, you were puzzled because that had nothing to do with what had been discussed before. He would just pull up the controls and what he presented was complete his own creation. That happened. In these situations, he'd fight for his ideas. We'd say: "Okay we accept your decision, but let's try out what we originally intended." And if our idea sounded better, he'd accept that. But we did too. Very playfully the best would come up.
Peter Bursch (guitarist, author, instructor): Plank was kind of a mate. (Engineer/producer) Dieter Dierks was a very serious guy- we did not get along with him that well. But he worked very well. Plank was very emotional and he really liked our guitar playing. He was our professional producer by influencing us while recording. Constantly he'd say: "More of this! Or that! It is going to be smash!" Plank was really involved in the music. Sometimes, he'd really freak out with enthusiasm. He'd jump around in the studio an yell: "This is so rad!" While we were playing, he'd encourage us, and he'd pressure us into playing longer. He was kind of a band member. We'd have our sleeping bags with us and slept in his studio, if the session would not last all night long. After we started playing, we forgot what time it was. It could last until six in the morning. That was normal. We were so into it and he was too.
Hans Lampe: Conny was good sound engineer with a gift of coaxing things out of us that nobody else would, not even us. He inspired and motivated, feeding us with inspiration: "Why don't you try this..." or "Just play like this..." He was unique in this.
Michael Rother: If I take a look at how he created "Hallogallo" (on Neu!'s self-titled debut): there was a tape recorder with 'Echo-Echo-Echo,' kind of a delay, then there was a reverb and some compressors, and that was it. The rest lay in the right organization of elements, the right EQ-ing and all that. I definitely wanted to do something different. But "Hallogallo" was really something special, I still don't know to this day how it became what it is. When the master tapes where finished, we knew that Conny had created somebody very special. I still remember coming home and playing the first copy of Neu! on my little tape-recorder, and everybody was enchanted: my mother, my brother, my girlfriend. There was some kind of magic made by pure chance. Klaus and I had discussed we wanted to something fast in E. Which is very fine for guitar. Klaus on the drums, me on the guitar. That's the outline, and let's see what happens. The rest happened in a spontaneous process of overdubs. How it would come out, we did not think about. While creating it was very necessary to just listen and being aware what was happening around us. For example, there is the backwards played guitar, I mean, a tape played backwards.
Frank Dostal: He was very open for musical designs that got beyond the usual song structure. And as a sound engineer, he had experience with such sounds. It was only natural to book him for A.R. & Machines, especially for 'Echo.' Sometime, he came to us, after he had worked on something like 10 hours, and continued another 12 hours, with only some naps in between. Sometimes, he would fall asleep behind the console, like 10 minutes, and - bang - he continued as before. He was a very driven and very special musician and human being. He was very sensible for music. He would hear things you'd hardly recognize were there. Before we had sketched out our road map, he knew where we were going to go. Conny was so much involved in our music that he sometimes hummed the melodies we were about to compose. On one of our records, you can hear him. He never wanted to become a singer, but he accepted the gag.
Asmus Tietchens (Hematic Sunsets, Club of Rome): Conny Plank was a guy, who had a creatory interest in experiments. There are a bunch of musicians with whom he always found time to work, even without pay. Cluster or Harmonia would never pay him- he worked with them out of sheer friendship. For money, he would work for very different 'acts.' I remember him as a very laid back figure. Well, I only worked with him for six days. Very cooperative, very reserved in his attitude towards his own and technical input. He never said: "Fellas, you must do it this way." Instead, he would make suggestions. And this only when he felt the atmosphere was right. He would say, very discreetly, "maybe a little bit more echo?"
Gabi Delgado-Lopez: Conny was the guy who invented the DAF sound. It was his idea to blast off the Korg and ARP with full steam. He never interfered with the compositions. He always said: "I am your sound coach." He used to get everything out of these small plastic machines. And he was a master in setting the microphones right. Like nobody else, he understood electronic music, even its faults. He could deal with these faults, like a magician, taking them to another level so that they weren't faults anymore, then they were better than 'good.' Back in those days, synthesizers were just with little power, and they mostly made 'beeps.' One of Conny's best production powers was to make them sound really powerful. When we came into his studio with our Korg's, he was laughing, because they sounded quite thin. He put them in the back and connected them to two really heavy Marshall stacks, and the sound was amazing. The sound source direct from the Korg was only 20% of what we recorded. Until this day, I meet discouraged people, who bought a Korg and wonder why it doesn't sound like on our records. Conny liked a dirty sound with power, and you can hear that in Kluster, early Kraftwerk, from NEU! to Devo and DAF. We liked that Holger Czukay was a DAF fan. We did some recordings in The Can's studio. Holger used to play us his new recordings, and these weird videos he was working on. In 1979, we did a session with Robert Gorl (DAF), Jaki Liebezeit (Can), Holger Czukay and myself, part of a recording session for DAF. It was just 40 minutes of jamming, with very heavy drumming by two drummers. I guess you would call that 'tribal' nowadays. Unfortunately this recording has been lost since Conny's death.
Michael Rother: We miss Conny since 1987.
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