Reset For Success
Clarke, Radcliffe & Marlow
Mark Jenkins pins down the masterminds behind the electro-pop hits of 1984...
Shooting to success with Depeche Mode, Yazoo and The Assembly, Basildon's electro-pop master Vince Clarke now has a new card up his sleeve — his own Reset Records and its first artist, Robert Marlowe. Also involved in Reset is a name long associated with all the best electronic pop, Blackwing Studios maestro Eric (E.C.) Radcliffe, whose imaginative touch on the faders has helped in no small measure to define the sound: the sound of the British electro-pop crowd.
Although Eric played a major part in giving these artists professional success, their interest in electronic music goes back much further, to early friendships in Basildon, Essex. In 1977 Robert played guitar in The Vandals, a 'Neanderthal female punk band' featuring Alison (Alf) Moyet (later of Yazoo) on vocals, and in 1978 he played synthesizer for The Plan — while Vince Clarke played guitar! Confused? You would be if the complete history of Basildon electro-pop were spelled out, but suffice it to say that in March 1982, after a year away from music studying drama at Southend Technical College, Robert went whole-heartedly into solo work with a set of four-track backing tapes produced by Vince.
Robert comments "I'd like to think that the drama course contributed something to my music — I hope to include some more dramatic aspects in the music in the future because the emotive elements of music appeal to me. After that course I played with Film Noir, but when that split up the backing tracks became a matter of necessity. At that stage we were using Vince's MC4 MicroComposer and a TR808, a Prophet and Pro-One, with a bit of JP-4. All the music was on the backing tape; I just did the vocal, and some guitar on a version of 'White Light, White Heat'. We had trouble getting it all on 4-track though."
Vince explains, "we had to do some bouncing and once you've put the MC4's sync track on tape you haven't got a lot of tracks to play with. It was all very basic but the results were quite good, despite problems recording an adjacent track." Support slots for Huang Chung and Blancmange followed.
At the end of 1982 Robert recorded a single, 'The Face Of Dorian Gray', at Eric Radcliffe's Blackwing studio. This led to a deal with RCA to set up Reset Records with Vince as producer, his Mute contract barring him from actually performing. However, the nature of modern electronic music tends to blur the distinction, and this became even more the case when the Fairlight was added to the already impressive battery of synths and sequencers. Surprisingly this didn't make the MC4 obsolete though, as Vince went on to emphasise; "the MC4 is very fundamental. Until recently the sound quality on the Fairlight hasn't been that good, but even now that it's been improved with new cards we still like the sound of analogue balanced against the digital, so we use the MC4 all the time. Robert can play piano but I can't, and putting synth lines down one at a time controlled by the MC4 is much easier than having to play chords."
Robert himself is typically modest on the question; "I kid myself that I can play, but when you're using things as accurate as the MC4 and the Fairlight, trying to play in time over the top of it is murder; it just wastes time in the end, unless you play small parts like string arrangements on the Fairlight. I had five years of piano lessons but only because of my mum!"
"I find it's a good arrangement - playing in a band as a corporate thing is naff really!"
'Dorian Gray' suffered from lack of airplay during a temporary recess in the popularity of electronic singles which was brought to an end by the phenomenal success of Yazoo.
By this time several other acts — such as Blancmange — had become popular using a similar style, but neither Robert nor Vince saw much connection in the music. "They're using the same high technology but they've got different ideas about the style of production and so on. We like their stuff but they operate in a different way — more with a band mentality and with more real instruments."
Robert's second single, 'I Just Want To Dance', was again produced in collaboration with Vince but remained a solo effort. "I'd like to learn more about the Fairlight and inevitably I am, but we're happy working the way we are at the moment. I find it's a good arrangement — playing in a band as a corporate thing is naff really! I'll come up with a bass line and Vince will programme it in — we'll decide whether it's any good between us of course." Vince adds, "I write songs in my own style and I didn't understand the view that Robert's first single was a kind of sub-standard Yazoo. People seem to have something against synth music, but I'm sure they can't tell the difference. If we'd credited a bass player and guitarist on the singles nobody would have noticed! People like Buck's Fizz and Dollar who use synths profusely but aren't particularly associated with them don't get criticisms about having no expression."
Most of the parts for both Vince and Robert's work are programmed in advance, and most of the sounds are chosen before going into the studio. The exceptions are the Fairlight parts, of which there are a few on 'Dorian Gray' and a good selection on 'I Just Want To Dance'; usually there's no attempt to imitate an existing sound such as brass on the analogue synths, although they "wouldn't avoid using a sound because it's something like brass, for instance." Many of the sampled sounds for the Fairlight are taken in Vince's studio, Splendid, which occupies part of the same church building which has housed Blackwing for many years. Drums, violins and voices are examples, and many of the user presets are employed, but much more so after the addition of the new output cards which increase the machine's top end response.
"People seem to have something against synth music, but I'm sure they can't tell the difference. If we'd credited a bass player and guitarist on the singles nobody would have noticed!"
Eric Radcliffe at this point commented that "The Fairlight has its own problems in sampling real sounds. To my ears there are interference effects between the sampling rate and some sounds such as piano; in general, the purer the sound, the harder it is to sample." Vince adds, "previously we had two boxes of discs that we knew we could use, but with the new cards we're discovering a lot more because the high frequencies are back. It's a million times better and we're getting a lot more use from it now. Because we can't interface the Yamaha DX7 with anything else yet we tend to sample sounds off that and play them on the Fairlight, and now we find that we can sample pianos and acoustic guitars accurately. You still have to be very careful in choosing the best sampling rate though — on a piano you have to sample about six octaves to get a decent sound as well. On 'I Just Want To Dance' we were using the duff old sounds and Eq'ing them up to the hilt."
The construction of that single was based on a percussion pattern played on the LinnDrum, which has been fitted with zero insertion force sockets to enable the chips to be changed in seconds to give a wide selection of new or alternative percussion sounds. The Linn sound would typically be split with a track for every sound, but even so they didn't use every track of Splendid's Studer 24-track machine; the Linn is Eq'd in more or less the same way each time, but the reverb in the mixing stage is changed to give variation.
Eric points out that "in mixing something you can have anything up to 20 different effects, and I think it's the blend of those that tends to create the character, so we can stick with the same basic sounds — although we have been using the Simmons kit a bit more recently, particularly for toms. We play the modules directly off the Fairlight by using the light pen to draw a click, which is only a short pulse of sound which the Fairlight can easily create, and using that click to trigger the modules. At the same time it clocks the Linn because it's always used as the master clock."
"I hope to include some more dramatic aspects in the music in the future because the emotive elements of music appeal to me."
The system of using the Fairlight as a master clock for the Linn and MC4 tends to define the way in which tunes are laid down. Once a sequence has been started it's much easier to leave it running for a whole track than to start and stop it, so the composition is partly done at the mixing stage by leaving out certain sequences. Vince explains that "you select where you do want a line to appear and fade it out everywhere else. You always start off with too many, with the whole 24 tracks filled, and the three of us finally sit here with our hands on the faders and wait until something happens that sounds allright — when we nod our heads in the same direction we're in agreement!"
"If you plan carefully there's normally only four or five tracks that need to be turned up and down, and one person can manage it all without automation" — but, as Vince adds, "you need another one to listen to the mix because it's very difficult to do that at the same time," with Robert expressing the opinion that you also need a third man to make the coffee. Usually a mix like this would be done purely by ear — although the studio has various counters and time code devices they're generally not used, with faith being placed in learning the song and making changes on the right beat.
Robert believes that the speed of this sort of composition and recording is no more consistent than that in working with a band. "Sometimes it's fast, sometimes it's slow, but it's always the ideas that take the time, and sometimes finding new sounds. " Listening to a backing track from Robert's album gave a good idea of how the individual sounds are chosen and added to the mix, starting with a Linn pattern and progressing to a bass sequence, resonant DX7 chords, Juno harmonies and hook lines and finally the vocals, which were all due to be added on one session. Some songs were virtually identical to demos made two years before, "with a few embellishments and perhaps a change in the middle eight or something."
Robert's views on his style of music are quite clear. "I wouldn't call myself a singer, more a recording artist and a songwriter. I'd love to improve my vocals and say I had a really good voice, but there's a certain inherent quality to your voice just as there is in a synth which you can't change. You can't make yourself into a different person. Up to now I haven't added a lot of backing or harmony vocals but we have used a Roland Vocoder Plus and Eric's hoping to get a Sennheiser." On the subject of vocoders Eric adds, "I've had some great successes with Fad Gadget using the EMS vocoder on 'Incontinent', producing talking hi-hats and things" (makes incomprehensible swooshing noise!). As previously mentioned, the vocals for Robert's albums were all to be done after the music was recorded, and in the meantime he was planning some live work. Splendid would be devoted to working on that album except during periods when Robert wasn't available, when it would be possible for Vince and Eric to continue with their other plans including The Assembly. "We're not committed to doing a certain number of things," Eric pointed out, "which is good because it lets us work on whatever we want to at the time." After the huge success of the first Assembly single 'Never Never' with Undertone Feargal Sharkey as guest vocalist, the planned follow-up was to feature Neil Arthur from Blancmange, and there have been suggestions that Alison Moyet may also put in an appearance. Songs were being compiled towards an Assembly album, with Vince remaining tight-lipped as to the singers' exact identities — "ten tracks, ten people", he quipped.
Both Vince and Eric would like to think about more live work (with somewhat more enthusiasm from Mr Radcliffe's side) but experiences on the Yazoo tour indicated careful thought was necessary here. The first show was done using two Fairlights at the risk of £40,000 worth of musical hardware, and on second thoughts Vince preferred to use an eight-track tape instead; "It didn't make any difference to the sound and the audience still enjoyed themselves". In the future Eric would like to give perhaps a single show, "but it would have to be something really special and would take a lot of preparation to get all the people together in the same place. I'd probably be doing things like shifting drum patterns — we're not all that rigid in what we do, everybody does everything at some time!"
Robert's live work would use some tapes and some live players, but the exact presentation would depend on several factors — "including finance!" If the album is a success it would ensure the position of Reset Records in the electro-pop Hall of Fame — perhaps even allow a few more artists on the label, although nobody was giving a commitment to that at the time!
Interview by Mark Jenkins