Daniel Miller, head of Mute records, has taken the label to a very successful conclusion with some massive UK hits. He tells of the joys and despair of the British record industry, and his work with electronic music.
Daniel Miller, British synth pioneer and the producer/head of Mute Records, is one of the people most responsible for the enormous popularity that electronic music enjoys today. The bands on his label look on him with a unique mixture of friendship and respect — David Gahan of Depeche Mode once said 'We explain to Danny what we'd like and he says, "Just a moment," and it's there. We could be playing around for five hours and still not get it.' E&MM managed to track this obviously very busy man down to the Mute HQ in Bayswater.
"I first got into electronic music as a fan really, not of totally electronic bands at first, but bands that used electronics like Neu, Amon Duul and Can, though of course I eventually discovered Kraftwerk and other completely electronic bands. I'd been interested in doing electronic music myself for a long time, but for quite a while it was just too expensive, the only things available at the time being things like MiniMoogs and ARPs for £800 or £1000. Eventually though, cheaper synths started appearing from Japan and around 1976/7 I just started saving and eventually bought a Korg 700S for £200.
It's brilliant, because it's two synthesisers in one, so you can have two different sounds set up and either switch from one to the other or mix the two together. That's something I've really missed on other synthesisers. It didn't have proper envelope generators though, just fixed envelopes for the filter and VCA. I made my first record (TVOD under the name, The Normal) using just that synth and an old Teac 4-track at home! Mute Records was formed initially just to release that single, in April 1978.
That pioneering record launched Daniel Miller into the middle of the emerging electronic movement. Having met Robert Rental (who'd worked previously with Thomas Leer) the two started playing live, using Daniel's newly-bought ARP2600, an instrument he still uses a lot today. However, the turning point came when Daniel decided to re-launch Mute, producing and releasing other peoples' records, and eventually hitting the jackpot with Basildon's finest, Depeche Mode.
"Sequencers have affected me totally. At first I used the 'repeat' function on the Korg 700S to get that sort of effect, but after a while I got an ARP sequencer, which is brilliant, a great tool.
You see I can't really play keyboards, so the sequencer was like a dream come true. There was very little information supplied with it though, and there was no magazine like Electronics & Music Maker around to tell you what to do! I just experimented, putting a click-track down on tape and then building up layers and layers of sequences. A good effect you can get with the ARP is to put a tune in it, say a brass riff of eight notes over sixteen steps, and just switch it into 'random'. You get an amazing free form solo, just using those notes! I've used that on quite a few records, to be honest.
The micro-composer is another big step on from that. I use it a lot in certain ways - I love working out random things on it, using it in that sort of way. I think they're more useful for people who are actually songwriters, like Martin Gore (of Depeche Mode) and Vince Clarke (originally in Depeche Mode, then in Yazoo, and now in The Assembly), they really use them a lot.
I feel most at home with modular mono synths like the ARP 2600, the RSF Kobol, and the Roland 100M system. I don't normally use a keyboard with any of those, as I tend to control them with the MC4 or the ARP sequencer. I do sometimes use the Roland polyphonic keyboard with the 100M system, setting up different sounds on each channel to get strange effects.
What I dislike about non-modular polysynths is that generally speaking they're programmable, which tends to stop you thinking for yourself. Instead you end up just going through the programs to see what sounds good. It's very difficult to start from nothing on something like a Jupiter 8.
At first I was really excited by the PPG Wave, because the sound and the way of manipulating it was so different from anything I'd used before. We used it a lot for bells and things, and the first thing we used it on was 'See You' which I think was pretty early for one of those. There were problems though: we could never get the sequencer to sync up properly, and it became unreliable on the road.
PPG were a bit naughty actually, because when we bought the Wave 2 they told us that it was fully expandable, and that when we wanted to upgrade it we'd be able to. What they actually did was to bring out the Wave 2.2 which superceded ours completely. That meant that the Waveterm, when it came out, wasn't compatible with our Wave at all. The PPG is basically just not working any more, but that isn't as bad as it sounds because it's been around the world about three times on tour with Depeche Mode, on and off planes.
We used the Emulator a lot on the last Depeche Mode album, Construction Time Again, not for strings or brass, because that seems really pointless to me, but for sampling metal sounds, music boxes, all sorts of things. Also we got a Synclavier about half-way through the recording. We used it a lot, but we had to learn as we went along.
It's a brilliant instrument once you get into it. We used that for sampling, and for digital synthesis. It's really easy to use: you switch it on and you've got the library of digital sounds which are great - some really good sounds. (Back to the preset trap again!) It's really good for percussion, synthesised sounds and sampled ones too, because of the amazing quality. I'm just at the moment getting into using the sequencer, organising the files on it and composing with it, mainly using the synthetic percussion sounds.
For percussion we used the Drumulator mostly, for bass and snare sounds, and also the ARP 2600 for tomtoms and loads of other percussive effects. I think it was good to use the Drumulator, because up till then we'd always used completely synthetic percussion set-ups, Simmons and things. We actually treated the Drumulator sounds quite heavily with ambience though, we didn't use them straight.
I prefer using live rooms for ambience now. Recently I've been working with an engineer called Gareth Jones who's very into recording that way. He helped set up John Foxx's studio - The Garden — which is where we recorded.
The main room there is quite small but incredibly live; we had two Tannoy Little Red monitors and a Peavey amp in there, constantly on sends. We had four stereo mics on those, placed at different distances, so we could tap in to various ambiences. We also had an H/H amp in a tunnel they have there which goes under the road. It's great working that way, you get really new, exciting sounds."
Feature by Matthew Vosburgh
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