Sold on the 3-Minute Song | Vince Clarke
Erasure's fifth album sees the duo of Vince Clarke and Andy Bell going from strength to strength, delivering electro-pop at its finest. But the doyens of synthesizer pop recorded Chorus with almost no MIDI instruments at all. Vince Clarke tells Paul Ireson how he made a hit album with 10-year old technology.
The 'back to analogue' trend has been strong over the last couple of years, as musicians and engineers have sought to augment, or even replace, state of the art digital keyboards with ageing analogue instruments whose status has been slowly edging from 'dinosaur' to 'classic'. Vince Clarke has always been one of the most notable fans of vintage knobs'n'sliders keyboards, but Erasure's new album has seen him adopt a more extreme retro stance than perhaps any of his contemporaries - Chorus could well be the first synth pop album for several years to have been recorded almost entirely without the benefits of MIDI.
Inspired by what he admits is a personal 'theory' about timing problems with MIDI, Vince chose to use Pre-MIDI CV and gate technology, and avoid digital drum machines and samplers. All the album's drum sounds, apart from crash cymbals, are generated by an impressive array of vintage analogue synths. Whether it's a result of the recording philosophy or not - I'm inclined to think that, at least indirectly, it is - Chorus is the best Erasure album for some time, a real return to form after the somewhat disappointing Wild!. More direct production and arrangements are evident, allowing the twin strengths of Vince Clarke's classically simple writing and Andy Bell's heartbreaking vocals to shine through on a collection of quintessential synth pop: unpretentious, unselfconscious, and with the timeless appeal and emotional charge that can only be generated by disposable music.
Sitting in a West London Hotel room, en route from his current home in Amsterdam, Vince explained the reasons for adopting such an unusual, even anachronistic, approach to recording a totally synthesized album.
"The plan from the outset was not to use any MIDI. It was just a theory really - obviously there are timing problems with MIDI, but what sparked it off was a good friend saying that from a certain point the sound of the albums I'd done in the past was different." On reflection Vince decided that the change in sound was due to his having changed from using a Roland MC4 Microcomposer (a 4-channel CV and gate sequencer) to using MIDI sequencers. So, for Chorus, the MC4s came out of storage. "If a snare drum is out of time, with a CV and gate system it's consistently out of time, and you can pull it back in line quite easily, whereas with MIDI it shifts in time, and everything does that all the time. It wasn't that I was actually worried about the timing aspect of it, but I was interested to see what difference it made."
It's a good question what difference it does make. MIDI is capable of transmitting about one event per millisecond. It is in the nature of a serial interface such as MIDI that if you try to transmit several events at once they will actually be sent successively; if you try to play 10 notes at once, they will be slightly 'smeared' in time, with a gap of around 10 milliseconds between the first and last notes. The human ear's sensitivity to shifts in timing is variable, but current research suggests that some people will notice a shift of as little as three milliseconds as a timing discrepancy. The situation is also complicated by the fact that different synths may have slightly different response times to note on messages, or the response time of a single instrument may not be entirely consistent.
So, if you are dealing with a heavy data stream, it is possible that notes will be shifted by enough to create minor timing problems. Ironically, quantising can in a sense make things worse, by shifting several notes that were grouped around a beat, where they would play as they were recorded, to right on the beat, where they fight for space.
These minor timing problems can, however, be quite simply avoided by using multiple MIDI ports, or in the studio by simply recording one instrument from one MIDI channel at a time, which is what most people would probably do anyway. Ditching MIDI in favour of CV and gates seems an odd solution, albeit one that also avoids MIDI to CV conversion problems with the analogue synths of which Vince is so enamoured.
"What we were doing was programming everything on the UMI sequencer [running on the BBC B microcomputer] to get all the arrangements and the sounds right - we could hear everything at once - and once it was right we'd go to the MC4. We'd sync the UMI with the MC4 and write each monophonic line into the MC4, line by line, by feeding the MIDI output from the UMI into a Roland MPU101 MIDI-CV interface and taking the CV and gate out on that into the CV and Gate in on the MC4. All the recording to tape was done from the MC4. The MC4 has four channels, each with CV, CV2, gate and MPX, which is kind of like an on/off output."
The vintage synths that contribute so much to the album's character were a combination of long-owned instruments and newly-acquired pieces. "I've got stuff from 10 years ago, when I first started, and we did buy some extra as well. There was a guy who followed us round America picking up stuff for us. But most of the stuff I had already. The Oberheim Xpander made the grade - it's got CV and gate. Other than that we were using the SCI Pro 1, Roland Juno 60, a Roland System 100M, an ARP2600, a Moog modular system I picked up in America, a MiniMoog, a Kobol, an ObieRack - actually the only MIDI we used was with the ObieRack, which I really like. We used a CV-MIDI convertor - a Roland, er, something. When the DX7 first came out there weren't any MIDI sequencers, so a couple of people made CV-MIDI convertors. So we can still run from the MC4, and running monophonically there's no timing discrepancy."
Vince agrees with my suggestion that Chorus recalls the classic feel of early Depeche Mode and Yazoo, though a notable difference in the style is, perhaps inevitably, that Chorus is more multi-layered; there are more synth lines interweaving, and of course production standards are higher. The use of many monophonic lines rather than fewer polyphonic parts, very obvious on tracks such as 'Waiting For The Day', is a result of a simple limitation of the MC4: the fact that it has only four monophonic tracks.
"Using the MC4, you can't really use chords, everything had to be monophonic lines. I think also I'm bit anti-pad. It's too easy really, if you use pad chords all the time. Also, with individual melody lines you can hear the different sounds in the lines properly. Another thing we tried to do was to use as many keyboards on each track as possible, so we weren't just using an Oberheim Xpander seven times. I think that's important because every synthesizer has its own character. We were mixing and matching as much as possible."
If the substitution of monophonic parts for polyphonic ones is one reason for the album's half-retro, half-refreshing style, then the use of synthesized alternatives to familiar drum machine sounds or S1000 drum samples — and indeed the avoidance of samples of any kind — is certainly another.
"The only samples we ended up using were (cymbal) crashes. They're essential to certain points of a song, and cymbal is a really complex sound to synthesize. It's not enough to just have white noise. But I'm sure I'll get it eventually. I also wanted to avoid drum machines, so I got 99% of the drum sounds from synthesizers; say with an ARP2600 I could get all the sounds I wanted, bass, snares etc. Pro 1 for bass drums and snares. I used the Kobol for one bass drum. I used a Roland SH09 for hi-hat." It's an experiment that Vince feels was a success: "I was a bit nervous about it, using synths instead of drum machines, but it worked - I was quite shocked. I'd like to carry on doing that - the beauty of it is that every bass drum's going to sound different."
Work on Chorus began in Amsterdam, following Erasure's usual pattern of low-tech songwriting prior to entering a studio to record for real. Most people probably imagine that a good deal of home studio pre-production goes into Erasure records, but that could hardly be further from the truth. "We wrote some of the album in Amsterdam - I was living there and Andy stayed for a while - and then we moved to Toulouse in France, and then we moved to Hamburg to finish recording and mixing. We just write on a Walkman, with a guitar. No pre-programming at all. Half of the writing's done in the studio too. We're pretty terrible in that respect." That does not, however, mean that Vince and Andy go into the studio with half-finished ideas, for the song is everything. "As far as we're concerned as long as the melody's strong enough, you're 99% of the way there. We end up using most of what we do in the studio; the only ideas we reject are when the song itself is naff, and usually they're the tracks that we spend the most time on.
"We were recording on 48-track, and the most we got up to was 46. It sounds a bit over the top, like Queen, but of course the tracks aren't all used at the same time. When you've got 48 tracks you don't bother to put two things on the same track. You just use all the tracks up."
Another respect in which Chorus turns back the clock is in the absence of guitar which, post-'Sometimes', had featured on a good many Erasure recordings. "Well, we used it now and then in the past, but I decided to make this album all synthetic, to make it as electronic as possible. I didn't want to use any digital keyboards at all, all analogue. Like I say, I wasn't really sure that it would work out, so it was really interesting to do. The producer, Martyn Philips, is really up on how to make things work - how a VCA effects an LFO when it's modulated by a VCF, or whatever. Which was handy. He wasn't so up on the idea of not using chords, or not using samples, but we talked him round to it.
This approach to recording is going to present problems for live work, isn't it? "That's the challenge. I want to do the tour with an MC4 as well." Just one?? "Well, although we were recording on 48-track, in a song generally there are never more than four lines going at once, and with an MC4 you can trigger four keyboards at once. The idea is to feed CV and gate from the MC4 to, say, two keyboards, and use the MPX output to switch between them - send the signal from one synth to the next, so the verse can use one synthesizer, and the chorus can use another. It's a bit of a headache but I'm determined to do it." Your roadies are going to love you for this. "No, I'm determined to do it. When we do stuff live we strip everything back anyway. You can't have 16 things going at once because it's impossible to mix." If nothing else, this is certainly a lesson for victims of technolust; just how many tracks do you really need, if Vince Clarke is planning to tour with a sequencer that can't handle more than four notes at once.
So will you be playing live, or tweaking knobs? "Well the other problem with using analogue synths live is that most of them don't have memories, so I'll be tweaking. I'd like to use the MiniMoog live, which has no memories at all, for bass. Also the Xpander, which is great. It does have memories, and MPX can switch those. It's all a bit up in the air at the moment, and we start programming in January for the tour. I've given myself loads and loads of time to get it right - it's just a challenge really."
Recreating the drum sounds as they were produced in the studio really would be impossible, so in preparation for the tour long-time keyboard technician Mike Hall is currently compiling S1000 drum samples from studio tapes, which may well be audio rather than MIDI-triggered. Another vital piece of preparation involves 'road hardening' the MC4 by removing its ICs from their sockets and soldering them direct to the circuit board.
Vince admits that his taste for older equipment means that he's not particularly in touch with the current generation of instruments. "What I'm really into now is patching, you know, with real patch cords. Because all the rack systems are integratable, I can patch up the ARP with the Kobol with the System 100 with the Moog modular. I had a bit of a contest with Martyn to see who could come up with the most difficult patch."
So what was the most complicated patch you set up? "Well it would involve all four modular systems, with as many patch cords going across as possible. And then it would be a hi-hat sound or something... we spent a lot of time on all the sounds."
The rather basic UMI sequencer that Vince still uses is an old favourite. "I'm old fashioned, I just can't change sequencers. I can't get into tape-recorder style sequencers. I just find them too confusing. I have to work with drum machine-style patterns, and just link them together. But it's a good sequencer because it's got lots of outputs besides MIDI: Sync 24, CV and gate, it's very user friendly, and I've been using it for seven years. I couldn't change now. But there are certain things I miss, like randomising and stuff like that."
Despite previous production work, principally on his own material, Vince prefers to bring a third party in to help out in the studio. "It's very difficult to be objective, so you need someone else. Having Martyn in the studio, it was a bit like a love-hate relationship - myself and Andy don't argue you see, so we feel someone else has to suffer for our art. There were conflicts in the studio, but it got good results; I think you need that.
"Martyn mixed a couple of tracks, and we weren't really happy with the way they turned out, so we decided to get someone else in to do the mixing. We got Dave Bascombe, which was good because he saw the album in a completely different way. He didn't actually change things, but he brought everything out as it should have been, and he's just really good at making things sound good. Analogue stuff tends to sound a bit dull, so you have to brighten things up a little bit."
So, Erasure's latest album sees the band moving ahead by, in a sense, going back. Whilst that might seem odd given Vince Clarke's role in pioneering synth pop, he is in many ways quite conservative, and though he clearly enjoys working with the synths that are the means to producing Erasure's consistent hits, his primary interest is the pop song itself, rather than its peripheral technology. But is there really no other area of music that Vince is interested in exploring? "I think it would be a nice thing to be asked to write songs for films. We'd be interested in doing the soundtrack to a film. But people don't come up and ask you, because there's too much at risk. It would be nice, but no-one's rung me up and asked. But other than that, I wouldn't like to do, you know, a concept contemporary jazz album. I'm sold on three-minute songs."
Interview by Paul Ireson
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!