Kraftwerk synths Autobahn

Deep Cuts: How Kraftwerk Made Autobahn

Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album changed the course of musical history;  from Bowie to dance music, everyone took leads from the recording, and its influence can be felt large over the last five decades of popular music. We trace the Kraftwerk synth history and detail the studios and gear behind the legendary LP.

Kraftwerk synths Autobahn

Autobahn was the first breakthrough electronic recording. Its synth-bass lines proceeded Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s ‘s I Feel Love – many a 70s disco dancer’s first taste of a new electronic approximation of traditional instruments – by some three years and an edit of its lead track became a top 30 hit on both sides of the Atlantic… in 1974!

Its tones were heard, absorbed and represented by the influencers of the day. It sent Bowie to Berlin and Eno, Bambaarta, The ‘League, Numan and so many more to their local synth stores and Maplin catalogues. Kraftwerk’s synth baton got passed down through the generations: the ravers, Daft Punk and the rest. The legend grew and, if you are to believe the hype, Kraftwerk, with a big dollop of help from this breakthrough album, are now responsible for (deep breath) the drum machine, live electronic performances, synth pop, hip hop, techno, trance, breakbeat, EDM and, well, dance music itself.


Yet the band behind Autobahn, its recording, and the studios in which it was recorded, have remained so shrouded in mystery over what will soon be 50 years – largely because Kraftwerk talk so little about their history, that the band’s reach and influence has, become even bigger, and almost cult like.

But, as with so many legends, the story behind Autobahn is a little more down to earth. One studio in which is was partly conceived and recorded, Kling Klang, for example, was really just an old industrial unit in a backstreet in Germany at the time. The synth sound on Autobahn could have been seen to have arrived fortuitously. But as ever, a great recording is so often the sum of its lucky breaks, and the band had certainly done the groundwork to deserve them.


Kraftwerk's synth odyssey
                   Kraftwerk envisioned an electronic future for music-making


It’s easy to overlook that Autobahn was actually Kraftwerk’s fourth album. The band’s first three LPs, Kraftwerk (1970), Kraftwerk 2 (1972) and Ralf und Florian (1973), were later dismissed by the band as ‘archeology’, largely you assume because they didn’t feature (with the exception of the third album) much in the way of Kraftwerk’s later signature electronic sound. A lot of this, of course, was down to the equipment available in Kling Klang Studios, the band’s main HQ for their early recordings. And back in 1970 when the studio opened, synths were not to be seen or heard.

A new Kraftwerk Kling Klang studios is now located at Meerbusch-Osterath in Düsseldorf, and has been there since 2009, but the legendary one was, according to Kraftwerk lore, a place cut off from civilisation, rarely accessible and probably with the kind of security straight out of a bond villain’s lair, and its location, of course, a closely guarded secret.

Now you’ve only got to thank an increasing number of Kraftwerk followers with cameras to find out where Kling Klang was located: 10km away from the new Kling Klang at Mintropstrasse 16, Düsseldorf. Google map it now and you can see an arch. Walk through that arch, follow the ‘Elektro Müller’ name, turn right and that’s where Autobahn and at least five more era-defining Kraftwerk albums were conceived.

The ‘studio’ is now occupied by film makers, web designers and sound designers – the kind of companies you might expect in any back street industrial unit to be occupied by in 2021. You get occasional Kraftwerk fans writing graffiti, apparently. It’s frowned upon and quickly removed. Abbey Road this isn’t. But from 1970 onwards it might well have been just as influential…


Kling Klang started as a sound-proofed 60 square metre room with rooms leading off this main room for storage and other purposes. “When we first moved in, we started recording with stereo tape machines in preparation for our first record,” Ralf Hütter told Electronics & Music Maker back in 1981, in pretty much the only interview where he has ever discussed the inner workings of Kling Klang. He revealed how they self produced at least the first three albums and used cheap drum machines – one of which was likely to be an Echolette/Elka Drummer One – and echo units for most of the rhythmic effects across the recordings.

Kraftwerk Elka Drummer 1
                                                           Elka Drummer One

Keyboard-wise, the band started with an old Hammond Organ, with Kraftwerk synths – initially a Minimoog and EMS Synthi AKS – not arriving until ’73, the year when the actual ‘Kling Klang’ name was born. “Commercial synths came fairly late into Germany and it wasn’t until the third album that we started using them”, Ralf said in 81. “By then Wolfgang Flür had joined to play a custom built drum system: he was our first percussion player to accept electronically produced drums.”

“When I joined the group there was nothing especially electronic,” Wolfgang confirmed to Computer Music. “Ralf played a Farfisa and Hammond organ and Florian played a flute. He had an echo tape machine and amplification for effects but that was all. They had a broken drum set for me and I said: ‘I’m not playing that! We need a new kit.’ But they didn’t want to get one.”


Flür claims to have married the drum pads to the electronic beats, as do Schneider and Hütter, but either way Kraftwerk, were at the cutting edge of electronic beats and ready to rock them into their fourth long player, along with those evolving Kraftwerk synth sounds. And the idea for those came, at least according to Flur, from recording sessions away from Kling Klang (very probably in 1973 for the Ralf und Florian album), at legendary producer Conny Plank‘s studio in Wolperath, the studio, eventually used for much of the rest of the recording and mixing of Autobahn.

“Florian was very nervous and very excited because they [Conny’s studio] had a little machine that looked like a home organ made from wood,” says Flür. “I said, ‘what’s so special about it?’ and he said, ‘look at the knobs, the filters and all of that – it is a ‘synth-e-siser’!’. I hadn’t even heard the name but he connected it and it was the first time I’d hear that fat analogue sound. That was the Minimoog and we thought: ‘this is the next step’. First the drum machine, Ralf then had the Minimoog and Florian then bought an ARP synthesiser.”


So we have the legendary Kraftwerk synths in play and, with a self-made system of six electronic drum trigger, the beats. But another slight massaging of the legend is that Autobahn was the first purely electronic Kraftwerk album. In fact it’s more of a close-to-complete journey from the band’s more psychedelic, experimental and instrumental rock roots to their vocoded and synthetic destiny. It actually still features flutes and a lot of acoustic finery, still found in Kling Klang at the time and recorded between that studio and Plank’s.

Kraftwerk Synths ARP Odyssey
                                           Kraftwerk Synths – ARP Odyssey

Indeed some reports suggest that the recording of Autobahn was split so much between Plank’s studio and Kling Klang that Plank would drive a truck containing recording gear to Düsseldorf, just to patch into Kling Klang for key elements. 

But it would be the electronic side of the recording from those synths at Conny’s studio – and very probably the many journeys along the A555 autobahn between Kling Klang in Düsseldorf and Plank’s studio’s – that would become the backbone to the album and propel it into the history books.

The title track and concept is more to do with the trance-like status we all get into when driving, everything being subconscious and automatic, and the music was a perfect backdrop for this concept. It was realised by a combination of Kraftwerk’s synth arsenal – the ARP Odyssey, Moog and EMS – with the Moog taking bass duties via Hütter and the ARP the lead lines played by Schneider (roles both synths would become synonymous with over the following decades). On top of Flür’s electronic beats there were other future Kraftwerk classic: vocoded and real, yet naive-sounding vocals. “We travel, travel, travel down the motorway,” is a lyric (written by the band’s extra member Emil Schult who also created the album artwork) that only Kraftwerk could get away with.


                                                       Kraftwerk Synths – Minimoog

And it could only be Kraftwerk who could bring flute, guitar, and real and synthesised car noises (door slams, engine noises and synthesised wooshes) to the
Autobahn party. But when the party is just under 23 minutes in length, why not? There was even time for a menacing bass and vocoder section half way through that just might be solely responsible for launching minimal techno. Indeed there’s a lot more in this title track than either you will remember or give it credit for. With the huge benefit of hindsight, listen to this opus again in 2021 and you easily can pick out so many other parts of electronic music’s history – ambient, musical drops, techno bleeps, EDM arpeggiations – over its duration. It’s a massive track and it is the album.


That’s not to say other tracks on the LP don’t play their part, but whenever you mention Autobahn in hallowed and hushed tones, it’s not the track Komentenmelodie 1 you’re talking about. That said here’s a track that – and we’re pretty sure we can still pick out opposing ARPs and Moogs – could have inspired some of the lower parts of Bowie’s Low and it does serve as a melodic introduction into Autobahn‘s ‘other’ great moment, Komentenmelodie 2.

If Autobahn the track laid the template for so many dance music genres then Komentenmelodie 2 was the precursor to synth pop, a jaunty ride off the motorway along a B-road to the beach. It’s a glorious, ever building cycle of synths and organs, underpinned by the Moogs and lead by the Odyssey and EMS. If anyone tells you that Autobahn the album is a one-trick pony, play them this – a track that launched a thousand OMDs.

Of the remaining two tracks Mitternacht is a standout, opening like a come-down track at Cafe Del Mar before hiding itself behind the sofa as Kraftwerk’s synths start yelling like hyenas. Ambient, dark electronica, whatever, it served as a counter to the lighter pop sensibilities of Komentenmelodie 2 before the synth birdsong and stochastic random notes of Morgenspaziergang close the album in as ambient a way as possible. Bidding a lovely flutey, ‘natural’ goodbye, this signified not only the end to the album but any acoustic sensibilities the band would have from that moment on. From here on in it was ‘Goodbye real, Hello synthetic’ and in that sense it is the perfect closing track.

And that is Autobahn, recorded and conceived in Kling Klang and Conny’s studios and the album that bridged the gap between Kraftwerk’s past and all of our futures.



While the ARP Odyssey, EMS-Synthi and Moog Minimoog were Kraftwerk’s synth stars of the show, flutes, atmospheric guitars, effects a plenty (including echo units and phasers like a Schulte Compact Phasing A and Mutron Biphase), and other acoustic instruments all came in to play during the Autobahn recording sessions. Beats were played electronically or by way of rhythm units like a Farfisa Rhythm Unit 10.

Autobahn was also one of the first albums to feature instruments especially created in Kling Klang and Conny’s studio, built by Klaus Röder (who played guitar and violin for some of the Autobahn sessions) and Schneider himself. Some of these might well have been simple customisations like an adapted Vox Percussion King, but others, including the so-called Robovox, a speech synth used on some of the snarling vocoder vocals on the lead track, were built specifically.

Kling Klang especially would become home to many of these DIY creations (called things like the Synthanorma Sequenzer’) – many real, many more ‘legendary’ – helping to give the facility its hallowed status. It’s one thing using an old industrial unit to record in. It’s another filling it with gear that no one else had.


Much of Conny Plank’s gear was sold off in 2007 and, of course, other items were custom built or modified by himself or engineers Peter Lang and Michael Zahl. One piece of gear that does live on though, is Plank’s 56 Channel Handmade Mixing Desk, and was used to mix Autobahn and many more classic albums from Ultravox!,

Conny Plank's Desk

Eno and a string of other legends that came through Conny’s doors over the following couple of decades. Back in March 2018,
we spoke to Conny’s son Stephan Plank and producer David M. Allen to discuss the console, which is now in London’s Studio 7. The interview reveals how the console was indeed used not only at Conny’s studio but, as we suggest above, in a mobile way to record parts of Autobahn at Kling Klang.

“One section of the desk was designed to split away from the main desk and be installed into his [Conny’s] customised recording van so he could drive it out and record on location. He did a lot of remote recording like this – it was instrumental to records like Autobahn by Kraftwerk.”