Downstairs At Erics
Founder member of Depeche Mode and Yazoo, Vince Clarke is joined here by Eric Radcliffe, his partner in a new band, The Assembly, air their views on writing and recording in the 1980's.
In two tiny rooms in one corner of a disused church just off London's South Bank, Vince Clarke, founder-member of Depeche Mode and Yazoo, and Eric Radcliffe sound engineer and producer extraordinaire, have set up a recording studio devoted entirely to the arrangement and production of modern electronic music projects. At the present time, those projects consist of new albums by Robert Marlow, an old friend of Clarke's, and one by The Assembly, a band made up of Eric, Vince, and assorted guest vocalist. The tiny studio houses a treasure trove of high-technology musical and recording equipment, and Dan Goldstein was fortunate enough to visit it recently to discuss it with its creators.
For as long as I can remember, I've always had problems getting studio time. When we came to do the first Yazoo album, Blackwing Studio, which is just upstairs from here at Splendid, was fully booked-up. I think Depeche Mode were recording their new album there, and there were a couple of other bands in there as well. We had a choice of either recording at Blackwing at 4am every day or building a studio of our own, and in the end that's what we did. Having a place of my own where I can come in and work any time is really the only practical solution: Splendid really is completely different from Blackwing because it's not available for hire commercially. The only things that are recorded here are what Eric and I are working on.
How has your instrument line-up evolved over the years, and how did your current equipment list come about?
On the keyboard front, the first synth I ever had was a Kawai S110F monophonic. Before that though I'd always been primarily a guitarist, because originally I wanted to be a folk-singer. I used to play acoustic guitar in a gospel duet. Then I started writing songs with Andrew Fletcher (of Depeche Mode), and by that time I had an electric guitar and a very cheap PA, plus a dreadful Selmer Auto Rhythm Machine. I managed to persuade Fletcher to get an electric bass, and we used to play the odd gig - in each other's bedrooms!
The main problem was that I couldn't afford a decent guitar amp like a Marshall or something with a lot of fuzz on it. I could have used a fuzz pedal through the PA, but it wouldn't have sounded anything like a Marshall with a proper pre-amp built-in.
When Martin (Gore) joined the band, he was the first musician I'd met who had a synth, and it seemed obvious to me that he didn't need any special effects or amplification, because his instrument was really just like a big effects box with a keyboard on it; he didn't need anything else outside it. So Andrew and I decided to get a synth each. Martin had a Yamaha CS5, I got the Kawai, and Andrew borrowed a Korg 700, though just after that he bought a Moog Prodigy instead. And that was pretty much how Depeche Mode started.
We had a lot of cheap drum-machines. I remember an Electro-Harmonix machine that was really terrible, and quite honestly I don't know why we bought half our stuff. In the end though we bought a Dr Rhythm, which was the first programmable rhythm-machine we had, and it was after we bought that that we started playing some serious gigs.
When Depeche Mode signed to Mute Records, I was looking for a synth with memories, and at the time all I could find was the Roland Jupiter 4. In retrospect I think buying that was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, because the JP-4 is polyphonic and I only really wanted another mono one. Roland did eventually bring out the Promars, which was like a monophonic version of the Jupiter, but even that wasn't around when I was in the market for a synth.
When I was in Depeche Mode, we used to have this thing about playing chords. We used to think that chords were a bit of an easy way out, and in many ways I still think they are. Most people use them simply as a means of padding out a song. Obviously it's more difficult to write a series of different melodies than it is to just write backing chords, but they're much more interesting to listen to, as well as being more fun to play as well. As a band we never really felt the need to play chords as backing, because we had so many melodies layered on top of another, so when I bought the JP-4, I was still playing it monophonically - I didn't use it as a polysynth at all.
I suppose the fact that I'm not technically a very good keyboard-player also has something to do with it. After I got the Jupiter 4 I bought an MC4 Microcomposer, and I used it mainly to play parts that I wasn't capable of playing myself. It means that, if you compose a melody, you can store it in the machine's memory and more or less forget about it, which really enables you to concentrate on getting the sound right for that part. The situation's much the same when you're recording as well, because you don't have to worry about playing the part absolutely right: it's there in one take and it leaves you free to concentrate on the recording process itself.
The MC4 came in very useful when I left Depeche Mode and formed Yazoo, because I used it in place of other musicians. The only problem was that the Jupiter 4 hasn't got Gate or CV In, so I had to get a Pro One to work in conjunction with the MC4. That was more or less all I had when I came to do the first Yazoo album: the JP-4, the Pro One, the MC4, and a TR808 to provide any percussion sounds the Pro One couldn't generate!
So it's only recently that you've got involved with more expensive technology?
Yes. I bought the Fairlight CMI before I did the Yazoo tour, and the main reason for getting it was so that I could do the tour without using other musicians, in addition to which I also had this vague notion that it would be cheaper to do things that way. The first idea I had was to use two MC4s and eight RSF Kobol racks, but then I realised that would be a bit of a waste, because when you think about it, there's not a lot you can do with eight Kobols outside the tour. When you get in the studio it's useful to have one around, but there's absolutely nothing you can do with the other seven: they're just redundant. So I decided against that and bought a Fairlight instead, because at least that way I had something that could be useful to me in the studio as well.
What I did on the tour was to put one song on each disk, with eight sounds on each song, but one problem was that it took quite a long time to program all that information, so I ended up having to use two Fairlights. While one was playing, the other would be loading up for the next song. They were both very reliable: we only had one minor problem with one of them the whole time we were touring. We did however run into a few problems trying to sync our slide equipment, because that really is another world as far as sync tones are concerned. The computer runs off a continuous square-wave tone, whereas the slide equipment utilises a Q-lock SMPTE tone, so the two were incompatible. We ended up having to convert to click-tracks and it was those that became the problem live - the fact that the clicks weren't as reliable as a SMPTE code.
What role does the Fairlight play in the studio set-up now?
At the moment, Page R on the Fairlight clocks everything. It re-cues all the gear as well, so that when you stop the Fairlight, all the sequences in the other instruments automatically go back to the start as well, thanks to Fairlight's new Conductor board. With the old way of working, if you wanted to run, say, an MC4 and a Fairlight together, you'd have to stop all the other computers in the line and bring them back to the start of the program manually. Now, we're working from one position, and we don't have to keep dashing around the room adjusting everything.
The tone on the Fairlight clocks the MC4, and that in turn programs all the analogue synths. We've started using the MIDI interface on the Yamaha DX7, which is a fairly recent acquisition. It's linked to the Fairlight via an Emulator Analogue Voltage Interface which Syco Systems have re-programmed for me: basically it does the same job as a Roland OP-8.
When we were building Splendid Studios down here, we had the Fairlight upstairs at Blackwing, and while they were demolishing this area of the church to make way for the studio, they turned out all sorts of rubbish down here: bits of wood, china, glass, God knows what else. So I came down here with a hammer and just started smashing everything, sampling all those sounds onto disk. Since then we've sampled most things, from acoustic guitar to Roland TR808, and even a Casio VL-Tone...
One thing we have found is that because it's so easy to write things on Page R, it's often simpler to sample a sound from another keyboard and work with it on the Fairlight, rather than on the synth itself. When I first got the Fairlight, Page R hadn't been fully developed, so I was using Page C, which is an MCL sequencer. It's not as instant or as visual as Page R, because it's really just programming songs the same way you would program a computer, and it takes ages.
The other thing is that when you first get the Fairlight, it takes you a while to become really fluent at sampling sounds. I can remember it took me ages to do anything with it at first, but now it's no problem, and of course Page R is a great help for sequencing.
When we're recording, we take a tone from the Fairlight and put it on one track of the multitrack, and then play the tape back so that it starts the computer automatically. The Fairlight will then either play melodies or cue-in other computers and synthesisers - usually the LinnDrum or the MC4.
We sometimes double-up voices on the Fairlight; putting a pitch-shift between sounds in order to thicken the sounds that are already there. Since we got the Fairlight, we've had the bandwidth improved, which means we can now record its sounds directly onto tape, whereas before we had to do quite a bit of mucking about to brighten the voices up, because there's no doubt they were a little bit dull. Now they're fine though: I'd say the sounds are probably comparable in quality with the Synclavier. We did actually use Synclavier on 'Never, Never', the first Assembly single. It's a good instrument, but really once you've used Page R on the Fairlight, I think it's very difficult to accept anything that isn't as instant or visual.
How do you go about writing new material, and do you think your songwriting has changed much during your career?
Well, I began writing songs when I left my gospel duet and started playing in bands. I always wrote on guitar, and even now I still write most of my basic melodies that way. I think it's because I'm a better guitarist than I am a synth player, so I can't really say that any particular keyboard has influenced what I write or the way I work directly.
When I started Yazoo, I don't think anything musical had really changed, though I suppose my lyrics might have got a bit more serious. One of the things I regret is that I don't seem to be able to write as frivolously as I used to. Lyrics seem to be more important to me, even though I know they're not. I've never wanted to say anything of particularly earth-shattering importance in my lyrics. I've got my opinions, but I'm not so sure anybody would be very interested in them. The trouble is that I'm much more conscious of my lyrics now. I think about them too much and they inhibit me quite a bit these days.
There are times when I'm trying to work in here and I just dry up, and it's usually writing lyrics that's the cause of the trouble. If I ever get stuck musically, something normally comes up just through setting-up a rhythm and playing something along with that. Although I still do a lot of writing on guitar, the only time a guitar has actually appeared on record is on 'Never, Never'. That was just an experiment really, though it's possible we'll use the Fairlight to do a similar sort of thing on The Assembly's album. We've now worked out what we consider to be the best way of sampling a guitar, and I think we've now got an excellent guitar sample.
You've also sampled drums on the Fairlight...
Yes. When I got the LinnDrum, I forgot about my TR808 totally. But the other day we decided we'd like to sync it to the Fairlight, and we realised we'd have to do a lot of internal fiddling around to make it work properly, so in the end we just sampled each of the sounds, which was really quite interesting. I don't really like any of the sounds themselves; they're not much use unless you actually want to use sounds that are obviously electronically created. The difference between the 808 and the Linn is simply that one sounds like a drum-machine while the other sounds like a real drummer, or at least that's how I see it.
I've never really wanted to use real drummers or real percussion: I don't really see any point in it. Some musicians worry about things sounding automatic and pre-programmed, and use acoustic things to try and introduce feel into records, but when you think about it, the public themselves don't really care how the music is performed. When the man in the street hears a melody, I don't think he's all that interested in the way it's created.
I'm not really wary of other musicians, it's simply that I like working on my own. If I can re-create a brass part on the Fairlight instead of getting in a whole load of other people to do it, then that's what I'll do. It's simply more satisfying to work that way.
Is that one reason why you're not over-enthusiastic about the prospect of playing live?
In a way, yes. Playing live really is too much hassle, and to be honest I don't really see that much point in it. When you play a gig, you're not actually doing anything creative: you're not adding to what you've already done on record. What you've got to remember is that when the public go to see a band, they're expecting to hear pretty much what they've already got at home, so even if I had a whole load of musicians to play with me, I'd still get them to play what I'd played myself in the studio.
What are your most recent equipment purchases?
Well, I got the Yamaha DX7 not long ago. I think it's great, really excellent. When we recorded 'Never, Never', the Fairlight had a much narrower band-width than it has now, so we got the Synclavier in, and that was the first time I'd used a keyboard that worked on the principle of FM synthesis. Since then, we've got new voice-cards for the Fairlight, which have made the sound much cleaner, and I've also got the DX7: so in a way I now feel as if I've got almost everything available in terms of the creation of sound. I've got FM on the DX7, digital sampling on the Fairlight, and analogue on the Pro One and RSF Kobol.
The DX7 is very good at voices that sound acoustic, but I don't really go out of my way to imitate acoustic instruments. If something ends up sounding like a flute, it's not because I've said to myself, 'I'd like a flute sound here', it just happens more by accident than anything else.
I've also just recently bought a big Sennheiser Vocoder. I'd wanted one for some time - ever since I saw it listed in the credits on the back of Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album. I used a Roland Vocoder Plus for the Yazoo tour, but although the basic sounds on it aren't bad, it's not very easy to put external effects on it and it isn't really very versatile. The Sennheiser is linked up to the Fairlight, and it's also got banks of filters that let you change the sound on-board, without having to use any studio effects.
When I was about fifteen years old the group I was booked into a four-track studio to do some demos, and I first got a taste for recording then. I had an Akai reel-to-reel at home at that time and I built a studio in my front-room, with multicore cable running into my bedroom which acted as the control room. I started off recording my own band, then when word got around that I had a 'studio', other people started coming in to record as well, and really it just snowballed from there. I managed to get a second Akai machine and so spent a little while bouncing between the two, and then eventually I was able to afford a four-track Teac, which very soon became an eight-track one. It was with that machine that I came up to London and set-up the studio here at All Hallows' Church. It was really only then that the studio - which I called Blackwing - took off in earnest.
From eight-track I went on to a Soundcraft 16-track machine, and shortly after that I acquired a second Soundcraft and locked the two together to give 32 tracks. We did a lot of Yazoo and Depeche Mode recordings using that system, but I then decided to rationalise the set-up, so that now I've got two 24-tracks, one at Blackwing and the other here at Splendid.
I haven't only been involved with synths, though. I did a lot of demo work with guitar-based bands, particularly when I was starting off here as an eight-track. I've really recorded all sorts of people, from professional bands demo-ing albums to musicians just starting off who were really new to recording. That diversity is reflected in the fact that there are no keyboards at Blackwing Studio, at least not built-in, though we can get almost anything in at extra charge and it's instantly interfaceable.
What sort of things do you bear in mind when you're recording synths, when you're working on something specifically for a record, for example?
Well, generally speaking, cutting onto disc means a loss of information at both ends of the frequency spectrum. When we get a final mix set up, that's not the end of the story, because you've got to bear in mind that what sounds good on big studio monitors doesn't necessarily make the grade on domestic music centre speakers or transistor radios. So when we've done a mix that we're happy with on the evidence of what we can hear on the big speakers, we then listen to it on three other pairs of monitors of differing sizes, plus a tiny elliptical speaker that we have here for the transistor radio test, and then it's out into the cars just to make sure it sounds OK in that environment. It's only by doing that continuously with every mix you do that you begin to get to know which sounds will work and which won't. Eventually you pick up a bit of a feel for it, and you can select sounds that you know from your experience are suitable for cutting onto vinyl. It's possible to spend something like a day or more making fine adjustments to frequencies, just shifting pitches slightly so that the finished track will fit in with all the available formats. There are some other specialised considerations to take into account as well, because if, for instance, you're working on a potential single, you've got to make sure the mix will survive being put through Radio One's compressors.
Although synthesisers should in theory be easier to record than acoustic instruments, because for one thing you don't have to mike everything up individually, they do in fact present their own set of problems. One very important thing to bear in mind is that when you're recording synths you're dealing with discreet frequencies from electronic signal generators, as opposed to acoustic instruments where the frequencies are generated naturally over a much broader bandwidth. I think it's for that reason that you've really got to remember the characteristics of the various types of speaker systems the music is likely to be heard through.
What reverberation devices do you use?
We've got a Lexicon 224, a Lexicon 224X, a Quantec Room Simulator and an AMS system. So really that's four very good quality reverbs. We also use quite a bit of natural echo, because there's a long corridor that still has the original church stonework intact, and above Blackwing Studio there is a natural echo chamber which lies under the main roof of the church. When I originally designed Blackwing, I left the area under the roof as a natural echo room, really because it seemed too good to waste. I think nowadays the selection and application of reverb has become the most difficult - and at the same time, the most productive - area of the recording process, because that is where a lot of the new production work is going on, particularly with things like drum sounds. I spend a lot of time adding reverb to the LinnDrum and the Fairlight, because it is very difficult to get it absolutely right, though when you do of course, the results can be very impressive.
The dangers of applying too much reverb are that if everything is saturated in it, you tend to get a lack of contrast and dynamics in the music, because the reverb fills the spaces that the notes leave. The result is a chaotic, saturated sound. I think the technical term is 'entropy': an increase in chaos. I wouldn't say there's much we record that's absolutely dry, but what does tend to happen is that because we have such a large selection of available reverbs, we often leave that selection until the mixing stage, unless we come across a particularly striking effect during composition.
The Quantec doesn't quite have the bandwidth of some of the other reverbs we have, but the suppliers tell me that the top-end has been cut deliberately to make the effect more realistic. It's certainly the smoothest reverb we use, but on the other hand, there are lots of things that say, the Lexicons can do that the Quantec can't, and vice versa. There's no one universal reverb. Each of them has their good points, and the trick is to find them, which is really only something you learn from experience.
What we also do with the Quantec is freeze a sound and then gate that from the Fairlight or the MC4 into the track as a part of the music, so that in effect you're playing the reverb into the music.
We often combine more than one reverb device to create a sound. One particular example that sticks in the memory is the snare-drum sound on Yazoo's 'Don't Go', which we did by using the Lexicon 224 and 224X ganged together in tandem, as it were. We came across that sound entirely by accident, but then again, in the final analysis I think you discover almost everything by accident, just by fiddling around. Very little of what we do is preplanned. We haven't used that sound since then, and in general we try to avoid repeating the same techniques, basically because it's much more fun trying to work out new ones.
We have got a lot of expensive outboard equipment, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for some more down-to-earth gear. For instance we use a Roland Dimension D chorus unit, which can be quite useful in enhancing certain sounds. It spreads sounds across the stereo soundstage without clogging, I find.
What sort of things influenced your choice of studio equipment?
I chose Studer multitrack machines principally because their transport mechanism is very good - very safe; Urei monitors because they're what I'd call 'representative' studio monitors, in that they sound quite similar to most other commonly used speakers, so that a mix from another studio will still sound much the same through them. The only real problem is that if you record something here and then play it back somewhere else, you often find the other speakers don't have quite the same richness and colour of sound: the Ureis do have a tendency to make everything sound good.
We've got an English Amek desk, which has had to be modified quite substantially to enable it to be used with predominantly electronic instruments. Basically, the desk is built for microphone inputs or DIs, and if you're recording synthesisers at line-level, you don't necessarily need a DI; if anything it represents a loss in the system. So what we've done is built another set of amplifiers into the system, so that it doesn't need that facility, though everything's still switchable so that if we want the DI facility at any time, it's still available. We've also had a lot of additional patching fitted in order to give us extra insert points and so on.
Could you tell us more about the studio's modular design?
The great thing about this studio is that everything is modular, so that in effect the whole facility is infinitely expandable: we never run out of auxiliary sends, for instance. Everything here at Splendid Studios can be patched to Blackwing via tie-lines, and none of the effects are hard-wired - the entire outboard network is on GPO plugs so that any unit can be patched to any other at any time. It puts us in the enviable position of having almost everything on the mixing-desk controllable from any part of the room. That means we can send tones and so on to any piece of equipment we want to use. It's also very unlikely we'll be caught out by a new piece of equipment appearing in the marketplace. As soon as something comes out that we're interested in, we can patch it into the system and up-date the studio almost instantly. We just assign another couple of tie-lines and it's there.
I have thought about installing a digital mastering system here at Splendid, based on the Sony PCM-F1. I think the problem I might find with it is that it'll be difficult to edit it for the twelve-inch mixes, which we usually do by recording lots of bits and then editing them together on half-inch analogue tape at 30 ips. I'm used to that way of working and in order to edit the digital format, you've either got to use a lot of additional equipment or go outside and do it elsewhere. I don't really like the idea of that because when we do a twelve-inch mix, it's really a continual process which I'd be a bit loath to interrupt.
As for digital multitrack, I've heard of a few problems with it. I've heard of spurious clicks appearing on tape, which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that they're very, very difficult to remove. Once a click or a noise is on the tape, the only way of getting rid of it is to transfer it to another machine and edit it out. Unfortunately, for that you need two digital multitrack studios, which you've got to have available and be able to pay for. I've heard about this problem from a couple of different sources now, and I think I'm right in saying it can happen to Sony or 3M systems. At the moment of course it's only something I've heard and obviously I'd want to check the problem had been ironed out before I committed myself to digital.
The theory of digital is great, just so long as there aren't any bugs. The mastering system seems to be fine to me, and we may in fact be using it here in the not-too-distant future.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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