Vince Clarke reveals trade secrets.
Peter Schwartz ventures further into the Fairlight and Splendid Studios with Vince Clarke.
A few months ago we took a look at one of the most sophisticated electronic studios in the country — Vince Clarke's Splendid Studio, tucked away in the basement of a disused church in London's Southwark area. Splendid was established in the same building as the successful Blackwing Studio, where Depeche Mode's albums were recorded, and Blackwing's owner Eric Radcliffe continues to be a vital link in the new studio's machinery.
Since our last look at the place there have been a few changes and it also occurred to us that Vince Clarke's working methods could be ideally explained on tape. Nobody can put down in a few words the secret of catchy compositions or guaranteed chart success, but our tape examples show some of the ways in which Vince's experiments with the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument turn into a complete song.
One recent addition to the studio was a Yamaha DX1, which had just arrived as we turned up. Eric and Vince explained that it was important that every new instrument could be interfaced to the existing system, since almost all the music is pre-programmed rather than played by hand.
"The DX1 gives you instant access to all the parameters — algorithms, frequency ratios, envelope shapes — and you can see what you're doing on the display, whereas on the DX7 you have to find all the parameters and turn them on and off before you can do anything. It takes about half an hour to find where you want to be! On the DX1 you don't have to refer to a little diagram and get migraine all the time."
"Now we've got a new interface from Syco — the Sycologic AMI [Analog to MIDI Interface] which will let us play the DX1 either from the MC4 MicroComposer or from the Fairlight's Page A, which gives eight analogue outputs. That's useful, because none of us is really a keyboard player — the DX1 isn't here because it's got a nice wooden keyboard but because it can offer us all these displays and the possibility of stereo sounds. For us it's the accessibility and the possibility of making new sounds more quickly which are important."
"The Fairlight is linked up to the rest of the system using two interfaces — the Syco Conductor, which fits inside it and allows it to drive the LinnDrum or MC4, and the SRC Friend Chip, which is a SMPTE (simp-tee) Reading Clock which stands next to the Fairlight. SMPTE is used everywhere, particularly in video, because as well as syncing everything together it tells you where on a tape you are — it's a time code generator in effect, and it works with video standards like Q-lock, which we also have."
When questioned about the normal recording method, Eric explained that most recordings were locked together by a SMPTE code.
"First we play the SRC onto a blank tape, then afterwards we can feed the SMPTE code from the tape back to the SRC. You don't even have to wind back to the start of a tape to make an overdub — the machines always know where they are. The one tone is converted to all sorts of other standards on the SRC so it can trigger the start of any other device, be it a Fairlight, a TR808, an MC4, Linn Drum or whatever. In the real world you get hassles — some things don't sync up as well as they're meant to — so the SRC has a Jitter control, which can move the time code forward a little — in fact up to 24 hours! It's called Time Travel.
"We still use the Fairlight as a master clock because we write most of the songs on it, so we like to be able to use it without using SMPTE. That's where the conductor card comes in — because it can drive the MC4 we can link in our older analogue equipment such as the Prophet 5 [which has an analogue input for Voice 1] and the Roland 100M Modular System [of which there are ten modules]. We've also got an analogue interface adapted from the E-mu design to our own requirements which helps out here."
"At the moment we've got a Roland TR909 which has been left by Steve Luscombe of Blancmange, who's working on an EP with influences from Indian music. Whenever anything turns up here we take the opportunity to sample the sounds, and we've put everything into the Fairlight. Alternatively, we can run drum machines in sync using the Friend Chip."
Strong percussion is a vital feature of any pop dance music, and apart from the LinnDrum with a selection of alternative sound chips the Roland drum machines are in constant use.
"I think the TR808 and 909 are quite different beasts. The LinnDrum cymbals get a bit monotonous and I like the 808 as an alternative, but the 909 sounds fine to me although we've only had it here for a week. We also still use the Juno 60 a lot — it's a good songwriting tool, and we can control it off the MC4 via its DCB input if we want to [every key has been numbered with a sticky label to make it easier to use MC4 codes]. Also we have an RSF PolyKobol here — the more sound-producing boxes you have the better, because everything has a different distinctive sound.
"Recently we've bought a larger vocoder, the Sennheiser, but we're still experimenting with that because nobody's been able to give us a convincing demo of it yet. We used to play around with the Roland vocoder but this one ought to be more versatile."
"In the effects rack we've got a pair of de-glitched AMS digital delays. They're only fitted with the minimum delay length because we can get a lot of the long echo effects we need on the Fairlight — either by programming in a repeated note which slowly dies away, or by using the Time Travel on the Friend Chip.
"One of the biggest improvements recently was to add the 16kHz cards to the output of the Fairlight. They've made a lot of the previously unusable samples very sparkling and clear, but we're still looking forward to the updated Fairlight [due next year] which has 16 voices and a true 16-bit microcomputer instead of the present 8.
"Another new effect is the Aphex Compellor, which is supposed to be an unnoticeable compressor/expander. It works very well — we use it either on individual tracks such as vocals or on the whole mix, especially for TV and radio stuff because they tend to run into a bit of trouble with very variable dynamics."
Vince's music is popular because it's simple yet effective — composed in easy phrases but strung together to make something powerful and human. Was it ever difficult to mix a finished piece for this sort of effect?
"When we're mixing a piece we tend to need to do very little except adding effects and riding the level of vocals. We have three different types of reverb — AMS, Lexicon and Quantec — and sometimes the effect is an integral part of the sound so it has to be there from the start. Usually we can add effects at the mixing stage though.
"Because everything is pre-programmed there are no mistakes by the time we get onto tape. If there is anything we want to change it's much easier to go back and change the program than it is to try to fix it in the mix. As for vocalists, every voice is different and needs to be treated in a different way. We've had several vocalists down here while we've been recording The Assembly album, but their names are top secret until it's finished!
"Everything ends up on a Studer 24-track machine with Dolby A noise reduction, and we mix down onto a Studer 2-track at 30 inches per second without any noise reduction — you shouldn't really need any at that speed. Sometimes we do want to make a change to one or two tracks on a song, and you can get problems with overlapping effects or clashing notes from other parts of the tape. There are ways to solve this though; when we're doing echoes on the Fairlight we can re-program an echo to change in key in the middle as it goes over the end of the bar. On one piece we actually had a very long phrase echoing, and if you listened carefully you could hear that the echo is a completely different tune from the original!"
Despite the success of Splendid Studio, which is purely used for Vince's projects and those of his closer colleagues, there have been no releases recently. What happened to the album intended to follow the successful Assembly single Never Never?
"The reasons why nothing's been released in the last few months are pretty simple. We were working on The Assembly album and a few tracks had been finished but we felt that they were all too similar to each other and to what we'd done before. I'd done the Depeche Mode albums and two Yazoo albums and we needed to do something different. We discussed it round the local caff and we decided to call in Daniel Miller to help out.
"I'd worked with him before in Depeche Mode and at the time I couldn't understand how he could spend so long working on a single sound. He'd use a whole day to get a new bass drum noise, and nobody could understand why until you heard the finished tune and it all worked. The thing about Daniel is that there's something in his head at the start of a song but nobody else has a clue what it is!
"He's used the same sort of approach on Depeche Mode because something like 'Everything Counts' has a very original sound — very harsh and metallic. We didn't want to go for that sound though or for any particular new sound. All we wanted were some new ideas and new noises from him, but that's taken a long time. He's mixing a new Depeche Mode album in Germany now and he's generally very difficult to get hold of.
"Daniel's used all the computer instruments, including the Synclavier and the Fairlight, but it wasn't that we needed help to use the machine. All we needed was a new approach, which he's definitely given us. The only trouble is that we've ended up scrapping a lot of the half-finished songs as a result. The problem with some of them was in finding a vocalist who could sing them in the right way — we don't write with a particular person in mind, and sometimes we just can't get anybody who can sing the song as we'd like to hear it."
"A lot of the changes we've made involved taking lots of new sound samples and refusing to use any of the user presets or anything we'd used before. The studio upstairs, Blackwing, has lots of percussion instruments and things in on hire, and we take them downstairs when they're not being used and sample them. We've also had an Indian percussionist, Pandit Dinesh, in here with Steve Luscombe and he's loaned us all his drums — although we had to hit them with sticks since none of us has the right playing style to produce a powerful enough sound.
"We've been sampling guitar sounds in several ways — playing the same chord on an electric guitar in lots of different positions, or playing all the strings of an acoustic guitar individually. When you put each of these sounds onto a different channel on the Fairlight's Rhythm Page [Page R] you can string together some really lifelike patterns — funky backing chords or very realistic acoustic arpeggios. They sound very human, which is something we're always trying for.
"Because we use pre-programmed patterns the music is always very precise and rhythmic, but we do want it to sound human. That doesn't mean it should be full of mistakes — that doesn't attract us at all, because everything ought to be in time at least — but things like the guitar samples are changing the feel of what we're doing.
"We tend to set aside whole days for taking new samples, and apart from the Indian drums we've been experimenting with bits off records — even old Depeche Mode singles! Because you have access to the Fairlight library you tend to end up with some other people's sounds too — don't know what this one is though" [the start of a Tangerine Dream Live album!].
"Page R on the Fairlight lets us play individual notes with any one of eight sounds loaded up — it'll correct the notes to any degree [4, 8, 16 or 32 beats to a bar for example] and let you change the tempo, transposition and so on.
"Although most of the songs are written on Page R of the Fairlight they all start off at home played on a Casio with auto chords. I put it all onto cassette and groan the vocals along with it, then bring it down to the studio and play it, to everybody. Then we sit down and try to work out some of the sounds to go with it, write the basic backing tracks on Page R then overdub the vocals and other instruments."
It's difficult to imagine what Splendid could need in addition to its new DX1 and the versatile Fairlight, but plans are afoot both for new recording projects and for changes to the studio.
"In the immediate future we're concentrating on getting the Assembly album finished and we're also working on projects with Steve Luscombe and a few others. Apart from that we're looking forward to the updated Fairlight and getting the whole studio integrated with all the existing timing systems as well as MIDI and the older analog equipment.
"We like to keep a mix of digital and analog sounds for variation and on the next album there's going to be a lot of new sounds and new techniques. It's not going to be just one style or one direction — it's going to have lots of new directions."
Interview by Peter Schwartz