Photos: Richard Ecclestone
New Order's 12-inch single 'Blue Monday' was one of those very rare tracks that broke new ground, thanks to its radical use of drum machines and electronic musical equipment, yet also enjoyed huge chart sales. Originally released in 1983, it has always been difficult for New Order to reproduce live, particularly as the song relies heavily on samples, vocoding effects and multi-layered keyboard parts. Technology has evolved enormously since then, but whatever gear New Order have used to perform 'Blue Monday' in the intervening years, some of their fans have remained unimpressed. Among them is producer and programmer Roger Lyons. "'Blue Monday' turned my world upside down when I first heard it," says Roger. "I was about 17 at the time and I thought it was the best thing I'd ever heard. But for me, it was always a disappointment live, although I think that was because of the deficiencies of the technology more than anything else."
Lucky for Roger, then, that he would eventually get the chance to rework the track himself, for New Order's recent Get Ready album promotion tour. New Order's long-term plan was to revitalise their ever-growing back catalogue of songs so that they could be played with the current live rig and personnel. The chosen tracks included an assortment of songs dating right back to the original Joy Division incarnation of the band, as well as some of the new Get Ready album material. Realising that it would take a lot of work to get all the material prepared, the band called upon Roger to sort things out.
Roger's association with the band began long before his involvement in the music industry. "I actually met [bassist] Peter Hook when I was 15 and working in a garage. I'd be about to lock up, and he'd stop by to get some petrol before his rehearsals. He's one of the most friendly people in the world, so he'd always have time to chat to me. The band were just on the cusp of changing their name from Joy Division to New Order at the time. We never exchanged numbers but I was always bumping into him and he always had time for me. I met [drummer] Stephen Morris around 1989 and we got on like a house on fire because of our mutual love of Apple Macs!
"I first got approached to work with New Order in 1998. At the time I was in Lionrock with Justin Robertson [see the SOS interview with Lionrock in June 1999, which can be read on-line at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun99/articles/lionrock.htm], and we were supporting New Order on a few live dates, so I was already friendly with their managers, Andy Robinson and Rebecca Boulton. They didn't ask me to do any recording work with them because their manager, Andy, has done a lot of programming on New Order's stuff in the past so it makes sense for them to use him, but I was the natural choice to sort out the live stuff because I had the equipment and I'm passionate about the band."
It was decided that the old songs to be played as part of the Get Ready tour were going to be created by using sampled parts taken and adapted from original multitracks, together with live playing and singing from the band (comprising Bernard Sumner on guitar and vocals, Stephen Morris playing drums and keyboards, Peter Hook on bass and Phil Cunningham playing additional keyboards and guitars). Roger was entrusted with the task of gathering material from the multitracks, and then preparing it so it would sympathetically fit together with the live performances. Roger explains how he approached the task. "As a fan, I wanted to get New Order songs to sound how they should sound, according to the original singles. Firstly I had to listen carefully to the relevant albums and get really familiar with them. Then I had to find out which of the various parts of each song they had saved out. At the same time I needed to know which parts they wanted to play live, and then find the middle ground.
"I knew that just getting started could be problematic because I'd done a similar thing for FC Kahuna, and they had very little of their stuff saved out, and in that case we had to contact all the different studios and programmers, who had a few audio tracks lying about, before it could be pieced together and edited. And I ended up replicating some of it in my studio."
Roger Lyons is pretty passionate about the equipment he uses, which is one of the reasons he gets asked to beta-test products for a number of companies. One of his latest enthusiasms is the Mackie Control fader surface. "These days I have a Mackie control surface rather than a desk. Whatever software you pull up on the computer, the control surface automatically knows what it is and says, 'Hello, welcome to Digital Performer,' or whatever is appropriate. I've used a few control surfaces over the years but that is definitely my favourite. It is the most tactile, and it has the best construction. Steinberg Houston is great, and it interacts better with Nuendo and Cubase than the Mackie because it has more dedicated controls, but it only works with Steinberg gear. The Mackie Control works with everything and it has better faders.
"I use the Focusrite Voicemaster boxes as a front end into my system, but if I need eight mic inputs I use a MOTU 896 which sounds really good. I've been using MOTU hardware and Digital Performer since they came out. MOTU have been very good to me over the years so I've stuck with them. In the unlikely event that one of my boxes goes down I can ring up either Musictrack in the UK or MOTU in the US and they can usually get me a replacement by the next day. I've got 24 ins and outs which all my outboard and synths are patched into all the time. I use a bit of MOTU software called Cuemix which gives zero-latency monitoring for the hardware side, so I can spontaneously patch anything into anything without any delays and without using a desk. I really like that way of working."
Decorating one wall of Roger's studio is a selection of analogue synths, which are, quite literally, screwed in place. "Apart from visual effect, the only reason they are up there is because it keeps them out of the way. The ARP Odyssey, Roland Juno, SH1 and OSCar are driven over MIDI so they can still be used up there. I tend to play my Korg MS20 live.
"I still keep my Roland Space Echo where I can get my hands on it because it's probably my favourite piece of gear. Nothing else sounds like it. In 1994 I was speaking to a guy who owns a music shop in Manchester, and he said he could make me a Space Echo because he had every spare part. I didn't believe him but, a couple of months later, he rang me to say he had my Space Echo ready. It had brand new heads in it, a new motor and components and it still looks brand new today. It's beautiful, and at the time, I was gobsmacked. I use it on whatever it takes my fancy. I've even used it with nothing going through it so it's feeding back on itself! I sometimes have it going through the CLM Expounder, which is a dynamic EQ with dynamic filters, and nothing else sounds like that either, so together with the feedback of the Space Echo I can get some fantastic effects.
"As far as the synths go, there is not much new stuff that comes out that I like, but the most recent thing that I've got is the Korg Microkorg. I used to use the Nord Modular for vocoding but the Microkorg is better because it's just 'plug and play'. The microphone you get with it is rubbish, but I plug a Shure SM58 or Electrovoice ND767 in the back of it, and get it as close to my mouth as possible. I've had a lot of drum machines over the years, but the Korg ER1 Electribe drum machine is probably my favourite. It sounds great and it's dead easy to use. It has less sounds and just a few knobs on it, but Korg have made each one count so you can get some radical stuff out of it. And its timing is absolutely perfect.
"In terms of effects, I am not really a reverb man — I like little short delays, filters, radical EQ, and distorted things that are quite gritty and angry-sounding. I love the UREI 565T Filter Set, which is a really surgical, accurate EQ. I could do the same thing with the Waves plug-ins, but I love the tactile, hands-on thing. I've sworn by Waves plug-ins for years and I absolutely love the sound of them. Others may disagree, but I think they have the most convincing EQs and compressors, so if I want a plug-in I go for Waves straight away. The delays are great and the flanger is phenomenal.
"The Akai 3200 was the sampler of choice for years, but I use the Halion software sampler now, although I believe that the Akai Z-series samplers are good. I'm about to get the MOTU Mach V sampler which I've read a lot about."
The first problem Roger encountered with 'Blue Monday' was finding the original recording. "For all the old New Order stuff I went back to the original multitracks, but for some reason, there was no multitrack for 'Blue Monday' in the vaults of London Records!" explains Roger. "After a bit of detective work, I found out that Quincy Jones still had a Sony 48-track digital reel of 'Blue Monday' from when he'd copied all the parts for a remix in '88. He'd just bounced the 24 analogue tracks onto his 48-tracker so that he could put his bits on the remaining 24 tracks, so I got a copy of that."
Obtaining the original 'Blue Monday' tracks was a big step, as it meant that Roger could potentially sample any single element of the track for live use. The band thus had a choice as to what parts they wished to play live. Nevertheless, much depended on whether the current live equipment was capable of reproducing the sounds of the original record. "I knew roughly what they had used on the original track from chatting to Bernard about gear and stuff," says Roger. "The bass line was a Moog Source sequenced with a Powertran home-made sequencer that Bernard had built himself. Obviously the sound had gone from his Moog Source's memory a long time ago when the battery ran out, so that part I took off the multitrack. These days, New Order use Akai DR16 hard disk recorders for all the accompanying bits, so it made sense to put the samples onto those.
"The vocal choir part on 'Blue Monday' was sampled, and it was probably one of the first instances of someone sampling something from someone else's record. New Order originally used an Emulator II to play their samples live, but a lot of the time the Emulators wouldn't load up so the roadie would have to hit one of the legs with a hammer to start it working again — it was that kind of technology! So Steve had that part loaded up into his Kurzweil K2500.
"There's a vocoder track of Bernard's vocal which appears in a few places on the original, and acts a bit like a double-track. We were trying to keep it as simple and close to the original as possible, so for that bit we also used the original parts instead of running a vocoder live. Bernard always sings his part in the right place, so it was easy enough to run the vocoder part as a sort of backing vocal for him to sing over."
Although Stephen Morris was able to play drums live for the shows, the memorable drum track on 'Blue Monday' had originally been programmed on an Oberheim DMX drum machine. Not only had the band long since ceased to use the DMX, but the multitrack also sported some important studio effects, so, once again, the drums were lifted from tape. "Steve, the drummer, has always played keyboards on 'Blue Monday', so I also ran the drums as audio tracks from the Akai DR16, and there were no live drum overdubs," adds Roger.
For other tracks in New Order's live shows, a click pulse from the DR16 was fed to Stephen's headphones so that he could play his Roland TD8 electronic drum kit in time to the assorted sampled material. "Steve worked really hard to get his drums to sound like they did on the original records, and by the time he'd finished they were spot on," says Roger. "Steve is a big fan of the TD8, but he uses a real bass drum with a trigger on it to get the feel and air on stage, and a real snare with a pad on it for a similar reason. I think the real drums were miked up, but that was probably just going to his stage monitors."
For the final 'Blue Monday' arrangement, kick, snare, drums left and drums right were placed on separate tracks of the DR16, together with the Moog Source bass, Bernard's vocoded backing, and other stereo keyboard parts. In addition to the DR16 parts, Hooky played live bass, Bernard sang, and Stephen and Phil both played keyboards. Stephen was responsible for playing the song's string patches, and he also triggered the vocal choir sample from his Kurzweil sampler. Phil played other string parts and the brassy synth riffs which generally appear between Bernard's vocals. After his vocal parts had been sung, Bernard also played some of Phil's keyboard string parts where they reoccur towards the end of the song. Two Roland XV5080s loaded with Vintage soundcards were hooked up to Phil's keyboard so that, according to Roger, he could play emulations of ARP Solinas and Logan String Machines. "The 5080s were great for that and I absolutely recommend them," insists Roger.
One of the biggest problems Roger faced was getting the right sound from the raw multitrack samples. Inevitably, the final mix, as heard on the single release, had effects, EQ, levelling, fades and mastering compression added, all of which meant that the raw audio needed work before it sounded the same as it had on record.
"To get the parts sounding as much like the original as I could, I had to edit them, clean them up, and then re-EQ them a little bit. I started working on a lot of the stuff in Cubase VST v5.1, because it gave me access to virtual instruments, which are useful for mocking up the various song parts. After that, I exported everything into MOTU Digital Performer, which is absolutely sample-accurate, stays perfectly in sync, and because of that it allows me to confidently transfer digital audio between my Mac and the DR16s. Cubase is not good for that sort of thing, but DP is fantastic and I prepare all my backing tracks like that.
"I tested everything I edited by flipping between a very accurate monitoring system and a 5kW PA, which gave me an idea of how it would sound live. You also have to remember that live stuff is going to be played on top, so it is no good if that backing track is too loud in places.
"I was also using quite precise EQ to make gaps for the live instruments, although 'Blue Monday' is not a very good example of one that needed much in the way of EQ because it's built around the vocal, and there is no live guitar. Overall I used two different sets of EQs but I seem to remember doing all of 'Blue Monday' within Digital Performer using the Waves Renaissance plug-in, which is a really surgical EQ. For some of the other tracks I used the EQ in a Yamaha 02R which allowed me to switch programs and change setups quite easily. It isn't a particularly musical EQ but it's good for cutting out certain frequencies and making sonic gaps. For example, I was quite aware of Bernard's guitar sound from being in rehearsals. I knew he used a Vox amp, I knew what parts he'd play, and I had the same understanding of how Hooky's bass would fit.
"I strengthened some aspects of 'Blue Monday' a little bit. The Oberheim DMX drum machine is 12-bit so the sounds weren't very chunky. Don't get me wrong, 'Blue Monday' has a powerful bass drum sound but it's centred around 100Hz. If you listen to any Kraftwerk album from the '70s, it's exactly the same — no bass. Trends change, so, to get a little more oomph right at the bottom end of the kick drum, I used Waves Max Bass. Most of the editing I did on 'Blue Monday' was adding more bass to the gated bass line and the kick drum."
The Lyons' Den
The new studio is also used extensively for Roger's mastering projects, computer consultancy, beta testing, and for his own personal recording work. "I've been here two years now," says Roger, "although I've been building it bit by bit during that time and now I'm really comfortable here. The era when bands hired a studio for six months to do an album is gone, although it works for certain big rock bands. I can't afford the 50 grand's worth of mics that a big studio has, and I can't afford 120 grand to get a room sounding perfect, but I can go into a commercial studio for a day and do some recording then bring it back to my computer, control surface and my favourite toys, and then I'm getting the best of both worlds."
Roger's studio wasn't much more than an empty shed before he started fitting it out. Now there is a large control room, a live room, which doubles as a storage area for mobile rigs, plus another large kitchen/storage area filled with miscellaneous boxes and wires. Roger explains how he kitted the place out. "Even though I'm not a carpenter by any stretch of the imagination, I built all the walls. I used the pre-existing joists to anchor the back wall of the control room so there was quite a lot of serendipity involved in the layout, but it's worked out really well.
"It's taken a lot of messing about in here to get the sound right for monitoring, which is why I have acoustic tiles up against the back wall, and why I've got a fibreglass-filled panel at the other end to stop the sound bouncing back. I took a course in acoustics at Salford Tech when I was 19, but a lot of it is common sense. I had a bit of a dodgy bass end, for example, but I worked out that there was a problem with the floor, so I put a new floor in. The original thing I'd put down was marine ply on top of bracing and with a thin carpet on top. So I put really dense MDF tongue-and-groove, on top of the carpet, and then another carpet on top of that. Now I've just got to recut the door to fit! I also did all the mains wiring. I've got two UPSs — one is for my computer gear and one for my studio gear — so I've got 20 minutes of backup if it all goes down."
Many of the older songs Roger was recreating for the tour required pitch and tempo changes to make them more playable. "We speeded some of the older tunes up and took some up a semitone, because then they sounded a little more upbeat and seemed to work better like that. There were also a couple of tunes that had been vari-speeded in the studio, and they needed to be adjusted to make the guitar easier to play. For example, anything in E flat needed to be changed to E. I did that in either Prosonic's stand-alone software program Time Factory, or Serato's Pitch 'n Time. For anything like that I would do a rough mix for the band, ask if they liked it and, if so, I'd then go away and process it overnight, and come back with the result the next day.
"Most people have got wise to these sort of problems now and they do mix stems straight out of Pro Tools or whatever sequencer they are using, and for the Get Ready album material I was working on the live stems as it was being mixed. Steve Osborne was finishing the mix in one room of Hook End Manor, and I was getting the stems ready on another system in another room. It was great because I could give them instant feedback, so for example, if I asked for a particular bit on its own without effects, they could provide that, no problem. And if I wanted to change something, I could do a minimal tweak and save it out again. After that was all stored and prepared we could just take out what was needed to play live."
With all the material, Roger set himself the challenge of getting all the various audio elements balanced so that New Order's live sound engineer, Dian Barton, would start off with a straight line of faders on her desk. "I know that Dian's got her hands full balancing all the actual live bits so I wanted my bit to be right," explains Roger. "In fact, everyone who was involved in the stage shows thought it was great because when I turned up with all these tracks they were expecting to have to do loads of things between songs, but there was virtually nothing for them to fix.
"I also wanted to get the live rig down to a minimum. New Order used to take out about five racks together with a patchbay system and a mass of leads which looked like spaghetti. We did a couple of gigs like that at the Fuji rock festival in Japan and it was a nightmare, in terms of the stress level. So I decided to slim it all down as soon as we got back. In the end I had it all running from two DR16s and one of those was just a backup with the same stuff on it. For sounds we had the two XV5080s with 128MB in each and a couple of XV soundcards. No sequencers were involved either.
"A lot of the old New Order stuff used gated keyboards. Back then, Gillian would be playing a patch and someone would be gating it, so I had to think about how best to do that. The solution was to have a set of pulses recorded on track 16 of a DR16 which was fed to the Key In on a Drawmer DS201 gate. On most songs, the Roland XV5080 patches were routed directly to a submixer via the XV's main outputs, but we made sure that any sounds that needed to be gated were fed to the XV's sub outputs instead. It was then just a matter of passing those outputs through the Drawmer gate before they reach the submixer. When the correct XV5080 patch was selected it automatically went through the gate, and whenever the Drawmer received a pulse from the DR16 it opened. So we found a solution to everything we thought would be a stumbling block.
"We could have got a load of old keyboards and spent ages reprogramming them, and there are some people who do that, but it is hard keeping a live show going with all those old keyboards going out of tune. A friend of mine is a backline tech for Sigur Ros, and he tells me that they use a CP80 piano, which has to be tuned before every gig, and I don't want to be doing that sort of thing!
"Ultimately it depends on what the band want to do. When I was helping put Ladytron's show together, they were pretty insistent on using lot of Korg MS20s, MS10s, Junos and other old keyboards. It was partly for visual impact, but it was also so they could tweak stuff on the fly, because that's what they're about. They had minimal backing tracks taken from the album, so it was a similar deal to the New Order setup in some ways.
"The feedback we got from fans was brilliant. New Order have a certain hardcore of fans called the Vikings, who follow them round the world. I don't know how they knew, but they'd made it their business to find out exactly what I was doing. They were asking for me after the shows and saying 'I can't believe what you have done, it sounds fantastic!' It's great that the fans appreciate the amount of effort that has gone into it to get it right."
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