In Clarke's Shoes
Unbitten by the digital bug, Vince Clarke only drives analogue.
From Depeche Mode to Erasure by way of Yazoo and The Assembly - the bands may have changed, but apparently not the equipment. Vince Clarke speaks from the tank...
'Outing' is a controversial subject. Let's face it, having someone come up to you in the street, point, and say, "He likes Abba - he thought 'SOS' sounded pretty good in 1975" must be a pretty challenging experience. But there's nothing particularly new about such revelations. In 1982, on Radio 1's My Top Twelve, a certain Philip Oakey was the first to break the silence by declaring that, yes, Abba had been very important for The Human League, and did Andy Peebles want to make something of it? A couple of years later, a cover version of 'The Day Before You Came' hit the charts and it was official: Blancmange liked Abba, too.
And so, of course, did Vince Clarke. Of that same generation of English synth-pop pioneers who have often quoted Sweden's Eurovision darlings as a seminal influence, he has finally paid the tribute of tributes: four Abba covers on an EP that has sat defiantly at the top of the charts for several weeks - a perfect union of pop roots, video wit and revivalist camp. But that same generation soaked up other, less frothy, influences too. And, sure enough, when I encounter Vince backstage at the Hammersmith Odeon, in the middle of a solid three-weeks of Erasure's 'Phantasmagorical Entertainments', he's watching a video of Kraftwerk...
"It's a pirate from a secret gig in Leicester a few weeks ago," he explains, in response to my surprise at the poor quality. Kraftwerk in Leicester? A few weeks ago? That's what I call a secret gig. However, Vince is happy to deny any general identification with Continental electronic music, despite having relocated across the Channel, and gives the impression instead that what interests him these days is how Kraftwerk, for example, might tackle the age-old problem of performing synthesizer music live on stage. His own solution, on this tour, is certainly unique.
In the makeshift living room somewhere round the back of the Odeon, Vince has a few home comforts. TV, video, fridge full of cold drinks, and something which says more about his musical standpoint than anything else I can think of. Whereas a guitarist might have a trusty old acoustic propped up against the sofa, Vince has got a small workstation consisting of Mini-Moog, Akai Linn MPC-60 and Roland MC-4 sequencer, handy for those moments of inspiration and last-minute adjustments to the live set. He points enthusiastically to the Akai Linn.
"This is really good. We use this for all the drum sounds live. All the drum sounds on the last album were generated from synths, so I had to regenerate them for the tour. Obviously I couldn't take an ARP 2600 on the road and start messing about with bass drum sounds for every song, and there's lots and lots of percussion sounds, so they were regenerated and sampled into that thing. I must admit it was a real life-saver, it's so simple. You just hit Record, press the pad and it's down. Only 16-bit recording inside, but the resolution's quite high. Eight outs, 32 drum sounds. So it's in my tank!"
Ah, yes, the famous tank which trundles around the stage throughout the show, complete with Vince and synths. Basically a bigger, vehicular version of what's backstage, it looks a bit like those things that help the stricken aeroplane land in the first episode of Thunderbirds. Hydraulically manoeuvred on caterpillar tracks, it contains everything that creates the Erasure live sound apart from the vocals. And Vince is only too happy to show it off - as he would a new car.
"This is the main sequencer" he explains, clambering aboard (it's another MC-4). "...and this is the spare. Channel 1 is going to the Moog, which creates the bass, so for every song I'm adjusting the sounds - that's my job." He seems very pleased with this minimal, utilitarian role. "Channel 2 is going to the Juno 60," (it's above our heads, seatbelted to the roof of the tank) "...channel 3 goes to this box here, which we had built. It's a splitter box, and the signal either goes to the Prophet 5" (also above our heads) "...or to the Jupiter 8" (over my left shoulder). "That's determined by the MC-4 program.
"Basically, you've got CV1, which is your pitch; CV2, which can be filter or amplitude depending on the synth; Gate/Trigger; and MPX which is the switcher, set to 1 or 0, which tells the box to direct the signal to either the Pro 5 or the JP8. Channel 4 is the same thing again, but using the Oberheim Expander" (rear-view mirror) "...as two keyboards, directing the signal to either the left- or right-hand side. So effectively we've got two synths there. We can only have four synths playing at once, but we've got six sound sources. And sync'd to the MC-4 is the MPC-60, creating all the drum sounds."
Make no mistake, it's a ceiling of classic analogue synths. With obvious relish, he further outlines the archaism of the system. "Now, there's no disc or anything for this, it's all tape recorders." He produces a Maxell cassette.
It's the specialized variety marketed by Roland 12 years ago as a data storage medium. "We get a quarter of the set on each side. So I have to go into Tape mode on the MC-4, load - normally the information is cued up - then I have to quickly load the MPC-60 sounds from the DAC hard disk system over here..." The combination of the MPC-60 and the DAC is the one concession to recent technological advance. Of course, there are no MIDI patch changes involved, so Vince has to reach up and physically press the buttons on each synth between numbers. Naturally, this adds to the general 'flying by the seat of his pants' effect that you suspect he enjoys. "My Mum was wondering what all this reaching up was for. I told her it was my new dance routine."
There is also an ashtray, and a Roland SH-1... "That's a spare. We haven't had to use it yet, but I thought if one of the keyboards goes down I can just plug the CV and Gate in there and adjust the sounds as we're going along."
All the synths are used monophonically, constituting six monophonic sound sources. "You can form chords of a sort," explains Vince, "and on the Oberheim you can get 5ths, but it's nicely limited. So that's it, really. We've got spares of everything, but we've been very lucky so far. We've got DAT backup, as well, but I've never had to use it - ever, not on any tour." This last remark is made with some pride. "The system last year was all MIDI'd, with a master keyboard and everything, and we haven't had a 100th of the problems we had then. The only thing that goes down is this thing..." he taps the DAC. "All the analogue side is fine, even though the MC-4s used to be really unreliable when they first came out. We have eight of them, anyway, as backups! But we haven't needed them."
Now bear in mind this guy could, if he wanted, use any system you can dream of. The fact that he should choose to place these restrictions on himself at all is a testimony to the principles he brings to bear on his music.
"On the last tour I was playing stuff on the master keyboard. But it just didn't ring true, really. It's not what I normally do; I'd never dream of playing keyboards in the studio, I'll always program. So we're just doing what we do in the studio. But all the versions are different; the arrangements have changed, and I had to find new drum sounds for all the old stuff, again from analogue synth sources. The older material had all these chords and pads which I can't do on this system, either. And although it's simpler, I think it sounds really full. It's just like the difference between having a jazz big-band and a quartet. In a way, the quartet can sound tighter, sharper and harder. Any lack of musical padding is made up for by the variety of drum sounds, and one-off effects that we sampled as well.
"All the original programs were on a MIDI sequencer. What you have to do is send that information to an MPU-101, or similar MIDI to CV convertor, and load that into the MC-4 in real-time. But if it's a chord, all you get is the top note, you know, the one that changes a bit! But I don't think you really notice that; in fact I think it really helps, in a live situation."
The point is that Vince Clarke regards ageing analogue technology in the same way as a guitarist might cherish, say, a 1952 Les Paul. He has become, in his own fashion, an antiques collector.
"The main difference between the studio I had in London and the new one is that, basically, I'm getting rid of all the digital stuff. It's 90% analogue now. For the last album, Chorus, we decided to give ourselves some definite ground rules to make it sound different to the previous albums. So we used only analogue synthesizers, no drum machines, and no MIDI, as far as we could. We used MC-4s instead, and ARP sequencers - analogue sequencing. It's very difficult, really, when you're trying to keep up with all the new gear, not to just get into the habit of using preset sounds. It's not that it's too difficult to program the new synths, it's just that the programming on them is so good already. You change the sound and maybe individualize it, but in the end you're making it worse than it was. At least with analogue synthesizers you don't have that problem, because you're starting from scratch."
"Getting rid of", it emerges, is metaphorical, and to do with working methods rather than recycling. "Oh yeah, I keep everything," he admits, "I never throw anything away. I just collect analogue synths now. I'm really into collecting, as well. I've got a couple of contacts in America, and they've been getting me some really interesting gear. Things like the ARP 2600; a Serge modular system; you know, the rarer the better, the bigger the better. It's mostly that they're interesting to use - the technique. Also on the last album we were working with Martin Phillips, who's my technical assistant on this tour, and he's really up on analogue synthesizers, he knows how they work. My work with them up until then had always been guess work, really, but now I finally know how to patch..."
You almost miss the irony of this last remark, such is the deadpan delivery. But it corresponds to the self-effacement that's been consistently in evidence since the first moment that Basildon realized it had something more to shout about than notepaper. "There are no musicians on stage" is, for example, how he describes the live show. But traditional songwriting values are still in evidence.
"Andy and I write with just a piano. Piano and vocal, working on a traditional song structure. We usually work out the melodies and stuff, and we have a rough idea of lyrics, then I'll go in the studio and find the lines. Bass lines, putting the rhythms together. On the album Martin helped a lot with the drum programming. It was much more interesting to do, though, because as I said we didn't use any drum machines; we tried to generate all the percussion sounds from synths. We got about 99% of them. The only sound we couldn't get was a crash. We couldn't synthesize a crash. So that was the one sample we used."
"It's not that it's too difficult to program the new synths, it's just that the programming on them is so good already. You change the sound and maybe individualize it, but in the end you're making it worse than it was"
A measure of Vince's scale of values - as far as sampling is concerned - may be gleaned from his response to the suggestion that some aspects of new technology may, on occasion, sidetrack songwriters from the business of songwriting... "I think any gadget or gimmick does. Not that the Akai Linn is a gimmick, but, it's like when the fuzz pedal appeared, everybody used a fuzz pedal. I'm just not really interested in sampling. Again, if you had the ability, and even the interest, to start changing a sample, you could make it worse. I've got Akai samplers and so on, but you haven't really got that facility to change the sounds much. It's not as creative, for me. Actually generating sounds is more interesting to do - more satisfying.
"Martyn was really into looping, but we didn't do it. A couple of times we copied loops, using synthesizers, which was quite funny. We'd find out what the elements of the loop were, the timings, and we'd re-create it. Not copying the sounds; we'd create our own sounds, but creating those rhythms from the loop. We also decided we wouldn't have any chords on the album, either - nothing like that! This.." he points to the Mini-Moog... "plays monophonically, so it was a matter of using monophonic lines to create chords, using different sounds for every note, if we wanted a chord. But we didn't even want the sound of a chord. It was just melodies; you build things up, starting from the bass, and work up the scale.
"It was recorded on Sony digital 48-track, but that was a bit of a compromise, really. Because we were using analogue equipment, we felt that we'd start losing some frequencies if we were to play stuff over and over again onto analogue tape. It seemed like a good mix, the analogue synths and the digital tape recorder: perfect reproduction. We didn't record anything with any effects; we tried to set the songs up with rhythmic things first, all the lines, the whole caboodle playing the sounds. Obviously, you can't save the sounds, so we'd get all the arrangements right and then convert the information to CV Gate, and then record."
Only Vince Clarke could describe 48 tracks as a compromise, but there was one other underlying motivation for this remarkable use of a digital multitrack as a kind of read-only storage medium for analogue sequences... "The reason I wanted to do this was actually the timing discrepancies you get with MIDI, which are really bad. I came to the conclusion that there hasn't been an album recorded in five years that's been in time. Although you can get it quite close with MIDI, as you build up tracks everything becomes a tiny bit out, and you get a mush. We even started using an oscilloscope to compare timings, and with the MC-4 the timimg was so close that, with the bass drum on one track, and a snare on the same beat, the snare would disappear behind it; it would not be visible on the 'scope."
Of course, the sequencing procedures all had to be recreated when the time came to hit the road. "I've never got into the habit of using the same sequences over and over again. Like with this tour, I always like to use different sounds, different methods. It took me a long time to program for the tour, longer than I've ever spent; in fact it took longer to do than the album! I do enjoy working up sounds, though; more when we're recording than for tours, because for tours you've done the work already.
"But in the studio, me and Martyn will have competitions to see who can do the most complicated patch. What I've found, using this limited amount of gear, is that it's amazing how much you can do with the stuff; the effects that you can get, without necessarily having... well, put it this way, I've only got six synthesizers to play it with, so you have to get the most out of them. For instance, you can do real good tricks with the Oberheim Expander; you can make one sound become like four sounds really easily. And you can modulate anything, so I can start one line with a hard attack, and it's a bass sound, and then it goes into a shrill sound with a slow attack for the next section. All sorts of tricks. And using velocity really helps as well... helps the groove of the music we're doing.
"You get to know each synth really well, and discover not its limitations but its lack of limitations. Two years ago I read your magazine and bought everything that was new, but I just don't buy new stuff now. I'm really getting into this old stuff. It's real antiques for me, now."
This is not, necessarily, a sign of any waning of the influence of the hi-tec powers that be, as Vince readily admits. "The hi-tech bubble will never burst, not unless Roland or someone decides they want to make less money, and they're not going to do that, are they? Take these special tapes, right?" He picks up one of the cassettes on which the night's sequences are stored. "These are about twelve years old - not very hi-tech, with this groove carved into them which tells if you're on the A-side or the B-side - so we call up Roland and say we need 60 of these tapes. Now, they haven't sold any for 12 years which meant they had to dig around the warehouse, and then they said 'we can't supply these, they're twelve years old'. So we said 'look, twelve years ago we bought an MC-4 in good faith; where's the after-sales-service?!' So they had to find some in the warehouse, and they did!"
Which just goes to show, even if you adopt a low-tech stance you're still at the mercy of hi-tech manufacturers. But the laws of supply and demand seemed to work in Erasure's favour later that evening, as Vince, his tank, Andy Bell, two backing singers and a troupe of dancers supplied the kind of Carry-On Pop entertainment that a packed Hammersmith Odeon clearly demands of a Friday night. The last thing Vince says as I leave, in fact, is a simple "enjoy the show." And I did. Especially the Abba bits.
Interview by Phil Ward
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