Depeche Mode, Daniel Miller
In contrast with the main feature we take a look at one of today’s modern commercial, electro-music bands.
Depeche Mode are part of the new breed of groups — the all electronic band. But where they differ from other synthesiser bands such as Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk is that they are producing electronic music which is acceptable to the record buying public (although Kraftwerk are enjoying chart success at present). Because of this commerciality, though, Depeche Mode have been frowned upon by some 'stuffed shirt' purists who believe that synthesiser music begins and ends at 8 note sequences, sustained string synths and rambling solos. Both styles of music are equally valid but bands such as Depeche Mode and the Human League who are producing high quality, purely electronic music may well stimulate interest in other forms of synthesiser music later.
Depeche Mode have released an album, 'Speak and Spell', and two singles, all of which have enjoyed considerable success and their latest single seems destined for the top end of the charts as well. Entitled 'See You', it was written by Martin Gore who has taken over the songwriting since the departure of Vince Clark. It features a great melodic sequencer bass line (using a Roland MC4 Microcomposer) and some truly wonderful vocal and bell sounds courtesy of the newly acquired PPG Wave 2 digital/analogue synth. The band were at the end of a British tour when I spoke to Daniel Miller, their producer, about the band.
How long have the band been playing synthesisers?
"About 18 months now. When they started they always used a drum machine and they were playing more conventional instruments. Andy (Fletcher) was playing bass guitar and Vince was playing electric guitar. Only Martin had a synth but when the others saw the possibilities it offered they both got one as well. Then they started to like bands like Human League and Kraftwerk so they gradually changed their instrumentation."
What equipment did they originally have?
"Martin had a Yamaha CS5, Vince had a Kawai 100F and Andy had a Moog Prodigy."
What are they using now?
"Live, Martin uses the PPG, Andy uses a Moog Source and Alan (Wilder, who has joined the band recently) uses a Roland Promars. In the studio we use the PPG a lot and also an RSF expander module."
The RSF is a 19" rack mounted unit from France in which every parameter is voltage controlled. Attack, decay, filter resonance, even the selection of waveforms are all voltage controllable so you could, for instance, sweep through the waveforms with, say, an LFO or you could apply the keyboard CV (via an inverter) to the release time so that low notes will have a long release whilst higher notes will have a shorter release time, thereby simulating acoustic instruments more closely. The VCOs and filter are really fruity and the envelope generators are the fastest I've ever heard.
"We're using a Roland TR808 rhythm unit now instead of the Korg KR55 because it is more compatible with the other stuff we have and it's more versatile. We're fairly happy with our set-up for the drum sounds; we still use the ARP 2600 for the bass drum and we use the TR808 for the snare sound.
You've just got a PPG Wave 2. What made you go for that instead of, say, a Prophet 5?
"It was Martin's decision. He tried one out and was really impressed with it, but one of the main reasons he bought it was that the sounds were so different and so clear, whereas the Prophet sounds like an analogue synth. Don't get me wrong, it's a really good sound but he thought it would be better to have something that provided unique sounds."
Do you use its sequencer at all?
"We haven't really used it that much yet. We're trying to get something designed to link it to the MC4."
Have you tried the interface made by PPG?
"No, we've not tried that. To be honest we've not had much time to experiment with it. We only got it just before we did the new single."
Are you using the MC4 much?
"Martin's using it a lot. We've done different things with it really. Again, we're only just getting into this. We've done one track where the MC4 controlled the three VCOs on the ARP 2600 for a chordal brass sound; that's worked really well. It interfaces with the ARP and the RSF module perfectly. The MC4 is a great compositional tool, though. There's a new song called 'The Meaning of Love' which, when Martin presented it, was very basic so we worked out a bass line on the MC4 but while they were playing along with it Martin did this little riff, so we just edited a space in the MC4's memory and inserted it. This means that you can work out the structure of a song and get it exactly right without having to put it down on to tape and then you don't have to mess around with tape editing at a later date."
I know you've had problems Interfacing sequencers with click tracks and drum machines. Can you explain how you've overcome these?
"When we were using the Korg drum machine with the ARP we had to invert the trigger pulse to make them compatible. The ARP 2600 has a lot of really useful voltage processors that help sort out problems like this. On the album we used the ARP sequencer to lay down the click on to tape and we spent sometime getting that right but the more we did it the more reliable it became. It's still difficult to interface the Moog with anything because of the S-trigger system they use."
What plans do you have for the future?
"Martin's exploring a lot of different ideas on the PPG and MC4. We've just moved into an office and we've got some space that we might try to use as a studio. I still like working at Blackwing, where we recorded the album, but I'd like to be able to work 'at home', so to speak, where you have complete freedom to experiment."
Have you any advice for any would-be synthesists?
"When you buy a synth, try to buy something you can build around... I think that's very important. You can get quite inexpensive synths now which you can expand with sequencers, etc. Musically speaking, though, it's very easy, especially with electronics, to copy other people's style. I think that is a great danger so it's important to develop a style of one's own. It's good to listen to other people's music and be influenced but, at the same time, it can be dangerous to listen to other people too much."
It was at this point that we had to finish our alcoholic refreshment and make our way to the coach and to the gig which was at Cardiff's Top Rank Suite. Although it is the capital city of Wales, Cardiff is despicably low on music venues so bands have only the Top Rank or Sophia Gardens Pavilion. The latter was recently wrecked by snow (its roof caved in) so now the choice is even more limited.
The Rank is not the best venue in the world but the band coped with it very well. The PA was by Showtec of Bristol and was superb — one of the best sounds I've heard for a longtime in fact. The pre-recorded rhythm track was very tight and punchy; the bass drum really 'kicked you in the stomach'. David Gahan's voice sounded better than ever and any reservations I might have had about his vocal capabilities were dispelled. The rest of the band provided backing vocals and were, for the most part, spot on and pretty accurate.
Most of the songs from the album were featured as well as some new ones (including the new single 'See You'). The band played for about 1¼ hours and they played very well. I'm sure they won't object when I say that their keyboard virtuosity is not as flash as, say, Wakeman's or Emerson's, but then Depeche Mode's range of style is not as wide as those artists. Their arrangements are economical and effective, and instead of cramming as many notes into a bar as possible they use melodic and rhythmic motifs, which bounce around with the rhythm and sequencer bass backing tape to provide very hypnotic and solid rhythmic patterns. I thought that Alan, the new addition to the band, played particularly well and Martin's use of the PPG was also very impressive.
There were slight technical problems which no-one seemed able to explain which resulted in the programs on the PPG and the Source switching back and forth but the band coped with the hitches very well.
The gig was packed with all sorts of people of all ages. It was not, thankfully, an exclusively futurist occasion and, judging from the reaction the band got, everyone seemed to enjoy the gig as much as I did. The album had impressed me very much and I was curious to see how they would fare live. The last time I heard them live was on Radio 1 on a Peter Powell show outside broadcast and they were a bit shaky then, to say the least. But that was a while ago before they had released their album and obviously they have improved a lot since those days.
Depeche Mode enjoy their music and believe in what it has to offer. They are an unpretentious and modest group of people who, instead of donning silver capes, space suits, eye-liner or any of the other 'men-like-gods' accoutrements that have now become synonymous with certain synth players, have concentrated on writing and performing good pop songs and using synths and electronics as intelligently as possible.
It seems to me that while we have the current rock and roll, heavy metal or Latin-American revivals (I always feel revivals come about because of a total lack of imagination), Depeche Mode are forging ahead and creating something original. As far as I'm concerned, they have breathed new life into a flagging pop music scene.
Interview by Steve Howell
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