Until now Vince Clarke's Amsterdam studio and prize collection of analogue synths was a closely guarded secret. Exclusively for Music Technology, Erasure's king of the patchbay opens the gate. And the CV, and the filter, and the VCO...
The taxi driver is confident. "Vince Clarke? Sure I know Vince Clarke. Eraser, yes?" Well, close enough. Speeding through Amsterdam, Music Technology is on the trail of Vince Clarke once again. Ten months ago, one Phil Ward interrogated Vince in order to discover his innermost thoughts on Erasure's Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour, an interview in which Vince idly - perhaps mistakenly - mentioned his secret Amsterdam studio, a hidden technoparadise in which no journalist had ever set foot.
And by the miracle of investigative journalism, here we are, at the vehicular mercy of 'Eraser's' biggest fan, en route to exclusive pictures of one of the finest private collections of analogue synthesisers anywhere in the world. Outside a tall town house on one of Amsterdam's canals - the sort of place which Judith Chalmers would describe as 'typically Dutch' - the appearance of Vince Clarke confirms that we have, indeed, arrived. "The building itself doesn't make any difference to me, really," he says, throwing open the studio door to reveal a stylish control room. "What is important is having the gear all set up in one place. It's the first time I've been able to do that; usually it's been stuck in various studios throughout London."
'All set up in one place' literally means the four walls that surround us, crammed with analogue synths. On the left, two stacks of keyboard-based synths, from a Jupiter 8 and a pair of Minimoogs to an RSF Kobol and Pro One. On the right, the modular giants that marked the headiest days of pioneering synthesis: the Modular Moog, Roland System 100 and 700, ARP 2600 and 2500, the Polyfusion... all stacked to the ceiling in towering glory.
"You see," Vince continues, lighting a Marlboro, "everything is now patchable. Having a good patch system is everything in a studio. Not just patching audio to the mixing desk, but patching with CV and Gate. Because we're not using single cables, like MIDI cables, to go to the back of keyboards, things can get messy. You have to use three or four cables, like CV, Gate, Filter and Amplitude or whatever, so you need a really unique patch system to be able to do that across all these synths. Of course, the nice thing about all this modular stuff is that you can cross-patch everything... a noise source from one synth to a modulation source on another. Just being able to do that in the studio without having to run massive cords everywhere is great."
A closer look at the walls of the studio reveals a set of carefully located jackbays, each containing 48 jack sockets linked to the central mixing desk patchbay. In any other control room, bays like these would be used solely for audio signals. Here, they are more likely to be used for the transmission of CV and Gate signals.
"All those jack outputs come out here at the side of the DDA mixing desk," Vince explains, gesturing at a nest of bantam patch cables. "So instead of just plugging audio outputs into the desk, I'm using that patchbay to direct CV and Gate all over the studio, simply by hooking up the synths here. Pretty simple and obvious really, but it works.
"In a way, that desk is far too complicated for what f need. Apparently the EQ on it is excellent, but I prefer to spend time messing about on the synths, getting the frequencies right there, rather than doing it at the mixing stage. It's the same with effects: we use hardly any effects when we're programming up. I prefer to get the sounds right from the start - the synths are capable of it. If it doesn't sound good without using loads of effects, then there's nothing there."
Not only did Vince employ exclusively monophonic analogue synth lines in the creation of Erasure's last album Chorus, as well as the No. 1 Abba-esque EP, he also transferred this method to the stage for the whole of last year's world tour. Pursuing this muse, Vince has become a collector of fervour and dedication, one of the leading lights of the analogue renaissance.
"I went off digital synths because it was getting more and more ridiculous getting through all that programming stuff. I couldn't stand it any more, the whole process. It's so far divorced from the actual sound. You actually get to build a sound with analogue synths; I love the satisfaction in making something from scratch. You don't get that opportunity with recent synths.
"And of course, the problem with the new synths is that everyone has them, so they end up doing exactly the same thing. I'm lucky, though, in that I can afford this gear. Some of it isn't that expensive - but some of it is rare and hard to get hold of. At the same time, I'm not condemning people for using digital, that would be ridiculous. It's just that I'm not personally into it. It's like sampling; I've never really understood how samplers worked!"
The success of Chorus and Abba-esque has encouraged Vince to continue flying the flag for analogue. Work has already begun on the next album, which has a similar flavour: simple, melodic, infectious pop songs bubbling out from the synths that time tried to forget.
"We've written six songs for the new album so far. We locked ourselves away in a Spanish hotel for a week, and wrote them with me on guitar and Andy trying various vocal melodies. That's the best working method for us. Ironically, I find it very hard to relate songwriting to synthesisers! The new stuff will be totally analogue though - except this time I'm threatening to use a few chords...
"Chorus was really getting back to basics, like we used to do in Depeche Mode and Yazoo, because then we never had polyphonic keyboards. It was all in the process of building up a track sound by sound. I think independent music was much more experimental then. Indie bands don't seem to sound as interesting as the old Futurist stuff." The Basildon maestro leans forward, a glint in his eye and a wicked grin on his lips. "That's how Futurism was in the good old days..."
If you'd like to get your hands on Vince's classic analogue sounds, or if you simply want to expand your collection of bleeps, blips, bangs and booms, the answer is Lucky Bastard, the new sampling CD that Vince has produced with AMG. In fact, Music Technology, having been instrumental in the conception of the CD, witnessed its recording while we chatted to Vince. It features an entirely new collection of synth sounds, loops, rhythms and effects, all programmed on the fly by Vince over two days in his Amsterdam studio. As well as tracks of completely original material, AMG also persuaded Vince to part with the myriad sounds and effects used on the Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour. You might say it's the first 100% analogue CD in captivity...
The recording was undertaken by Matthew Wilkinson and Lee Groves of AMG, and on the way to Vince's studio Lee explained just what goes into the making of a CD with over 1000 individual sounds and loops. "The process itself is ridiculously simple: we just plug a DAT machine into the outputs of Vince's mixing console, and set it recording as he programs on the fly. Anything interesting he stumbles across will be preserved as part of one continuous recording. We don't EQ or add any effects; the only time the whole thing stops is when we change DATs!
"After the session is over, I then take the DAT back to my studio and load all the sounds into DigiDesign's Sound Tools, running on my Apple Mac. I chop them up, edit them, time them, give them names and assemble them in a large Playlist. That's what takes the time: if you had to think up individual names for 1000 samples, you'd understand why! From there, the samples are recorded digitally back onto DAT, transferred to a U-Matic master, and sent off to PDO to be pressed into a CD."
"Well, it's an analogue synth! This one I usually use for bass sounds and percussion things - hi-hats, snares and so on. It's a nicely designed synth, lovely bit of tropical rain forest wood panelling..."
2 Oberheim Xpander
"I love this because you can patch everything internally... it's almost - almost - like a modular system. Everything is crosspatchable; nearly everything can be modulated by everything else. And one of the nicest things about it is that it has MIDI and
CV/Gate - it was part of that inbetween period. We used this extensively on the last tour: I used it as two sources, left and right, to get independent sounds."
3 Roland SH09
"I also have the SH1 over there, just as a general analogue keyboard. I don't use this for bass, because it's not quite heavy enough. It has a nice, tight envelope though, unlike the Minimoog, which is a bit too loose for my taste."
4 Roland Jupiter 8
"This is very new to me, actually. I have a Juno-60, and I've had a JP-4, but the Jupiter 8 I've never really understood. But we used it on the tour because it's one of the few analogue keyboards that you can program - which is obviously important on tour. The Minimoog was used for basses on the tour, but because you can't program it, I was manually changing the sounds all the time - which is why the basses sounded so appalling! I don't use the Jupiter 8 a lot, but it does have some nice clean sounds."
5 Oberheim ObieRack
"This I really like. I'd love one of the original Obie 4-voice ones, which I'd buy if I had the chance, but this is my compromise in the meantime. I'm having it converted back to CV and Gate, because it's been MIDI'd, unfortunately!"
6 Roland Super Jupiter MKS-80
"We bought these for touring again, because you can program them and memorise the sounds. I'm not that keen on it. It's supposed to be a rack version of the Jupiter 8 - which is probably why I don't like it much."
7 RSF Kobol
"I've had this for about ten or eleven years. It came out about the same time as the Sequential Circuits Pro One, and it was unique - it had a memory again. I started using this to program up for the tour, and I was getting on really well with it, memorising all the programs up, until I realised that it only had 16 programs and we had 30 songs to do - so I had to start again on something else! There's a really weird sequencer on it as well; it doesn't sequence notes, it sequences between sounds. Strange...
8 PPG Waveterm 2.2
"This is a complete mystery to me. I've never heard one in its full glory, and I'd like to get the original sounds to load into it. Ten years ago it apparently sounded great, so it might just be the sounds in this one that discourage me."
9 Roland Juno-60
"Oh, I love this. I don't know why; it's just the sound of it. The chorus, the ultra-noisy chorus on it, is really special. It has a wonderfully sharp envelope on it as well. All these Roland synths, incidentally, have to be connected to CV and Gate via OB-8 interfaces."
10 Sequential Circuits Pro One
"I've had this for 12 years. I love my Pro Ones. It's one of the keenest synths going, much better than the Pro Five. The envelope - yet again - is sharp. This gets used for a lot of the drum sounds, particularly bass drums. It also has an interesting modulation effect."
11 Moog Source
"This is one I've never used. I'm still trying to get it to work over CV and Gate..."
12 E-mu Modular
"Not such nice woodwork on this one! Really, really keen sound though. I like the keyboard as well. The sequencer is interesting: it's digital, worked via a little numeric keypad. This one came from the USA. Feel the pots on that - they're lovely. Look at the quality. They don't make 'em like that any more, guv..."
13 Modular Moog
"...Or rather, bits of a Modular Moog. It's from the States again. I'm not as enamoured with it as you might think. I know the traditional image of analogue synthesis means that people think you have to have one of these, it's a sort of legend; but it's really not that incredible in terms of filtering and things. It's nothing like the other Moogs - you can't compare it to a Minimoog or Polymoog, it has a completely different sound. Lovely spring reverb module as well - I like spring reverbs in synths. But it's nice because it's cross-patchable. That's an end in itself for me."
14 ARP 2500
"Wonderful early synth, this. As you can see, rather than using cords to cross-patch everything, it has a network of sliders. Say you want an oscillator on this section; you just turn that slider up to four, and then turn the slider of the oscillator up to four as well. It simply routes them together. Nice little system, that. You can even colour-code your patches by taking the tops off the sliders and arranging them according to your patch. It also has one of those useful 10-step sequencers - as they all did in the early days - for a Tangerine Dream-type effect. That allows you to set up little loops that don't appear to have a first beat. I use it a fair bit. The filter is really weird and harsh, which is strange. It's beautifully built compared to some of the other synths, which are often put together in someone's back yard. You can spend a fortune putting things right on these beauties, but this one's immaculate."
15 Roland System 100
"I've always had bits of System 100s, always. I've just extended it really, adding more modules, although I'm not really collecting them any more. There are little submixers and things which I could get, but they're not that useful to me. It's a great sounding synth; really rich. Plenty of bollocks. I use it a great deal."
16 ARP 2600
"When I first met Daniel Miller at Sarm Studios with Depeche, this was his first synth. We all loved it, even though we couldn't work out how the hell it worked. We'd be on it for hours. There are some really interesting things on it, like the Keyboard CV Output, which is actually an input! This really is a fantastic synth: brilliant sounding, heavy-duty, really sharp envelope. There are actually two kinds of envelope on it - ADSR [Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release] and AR [Attack & Release]. Nice spring reverb, two speakers - who could ask for more?"
17 Polyfusion Modular
"What can I say about this? It's really heavy-duty sounding. Don't you just love the different noise filters and mod sources - white noise, pink noise and infra-red! I'd like to get more modules for this; it's really clean-sounding. But they're quite hard to get hold of. This isn't the original rack, actually."
18 Roland System 700
"Same as the 100, but bigger! They just got better at it as they went along, I suppose. This has all the multi-mode filters, delays and analogue switching. The sequencer is another oddball; it has 12 notes, so if you're into waltzes, I suppose this is the one to get..."
"You know, the guy who made this is still making these synths. I've forgotten his name... Sid Serge, I suppose. Something like that. Anyway, it's modular: you can buy these modules to build up as big or small a synth as you like. Nice touch sensitive sequencer keyboard here, great for jazzy stuff. The filters are wonderfully drastic as well."
20 Synthi VCS3
"I've finally got to grips with this. I had this for two years and couldn't work out for the life of me how to get decent sounds out of it. The manual had all those crappy factory patches, like 'Thunder' and 'Waves'. It's also a classic example of the manufacturer making up any old names to suit the knobs, because this belongs to the days when they had no standard jargon at all. But the books for this are excellent, because these were sold to colleges to teach people how to use synths. This one came from a college, I think..."
21 Roland SH1
"Early version of the SH09. Next!"
"This is an interesting sounding synth. It has a touch-sensitive whammy bar as a mod source! That's quite a good effect, actually. And look at that colour - electric blue. You just can't beat it."
23 Korg MS20
"What can you say?"
24 ARP Sequencer
"You have to mention this. This is invaluable. It's like my jazz sequencer; you can't do the sort of things you can do on this on any MIDI sequencer that I know of. You can't beat being able to mess about with the faders and get an interesting effect, switching on rhythms and things. This is the way all sequencers should be built. I'm getting a 6-voice version of this built at the moment - someone's copying the design for me. But it's just fantastic - so instant and fast. And it has that Random function, for when you want to do a jazzy middle-eight. Love it!"