Anyone in any doubt as to the popularity of Depeche Mode should see this man's studio. Alan Wilder, formerly the programming powerhouse of the group, and now striking out on his own, has poured the profits of his years with the Mode into this astonishing home setup. Here he talks to BILL BRUCE about the studio, his new album, and his days with Depeche.
For many of us a home studio is a loft or bedroom crammed -- if we're lucky -- with a sampler, synth, computer, some effects and a DAT player. Alan Wilder, late of Depeche Mode and currently working on a studio-based recording project entitled Recoil, may have a home studio somewhat grander than most, but he maintains that his setup is surprisingly simple. The main work area was actually planned by a interior design company, and consequently exhibits the same exquisite, minimalist, open-plan design as his family home (as you can see from the pictures accompanying this article). The studio is not divided into a control room and live room; in fact the main studio floor has no dividers or acoustic booths of any kind. This was a conscious decision on Alan's part intended to meet his own methodology:
"It's important for me to have space. Both at home and in the studio. This place was never designed to have a controlled sound or environment like a traditional studio, but rather to have the feel of a workshop, with plenty of light and space."
POP WILL EAT ITSELF
As though some perverse inverse square law is at work, the amount of light and space in this amazing home studio appears in total contrast to the sound of the new Recoil album Unsound Methods, which is a densely-plotted, dark and atmospheric work. It's all quite some way from Wilder's work with Depeche Mode, with whom he shot to fame in the '80s. Answering an anonymous group's Melody Maker Wanted ad for a keyboard player in 1981, Alan was fairly surprised to find himself in Depeche Mode, replacing Vince Clarke (until this point the chief songwriter in the band), who had just left the group. Songwriting duties in Depeche were subsequently taken over by Martin Gore, and Wilder became responsible for programming, sound design and production in the group as time went on, leaving no outlet for his own musical compositions; a handful were released on Depeche Mode B-sides or as the very occasional low-key album track, but that was all. It is now tempting to view Wilder's solo project Recoil, which he launched in 1986, as his way of musically letting off steam from Depeche Mode, but as he explains, the idea of the frustrated composer desperately struggling to find an outlet for his darker musical outpourings while operating day-to-day in a
Wilder: "1+2 was really just me mucking around at home. It was a cassette demo on a 4-track Fostex or Tascam, and only ended up being released after I played it to Daniel [Miller, Managing Director of Mute Records, Depeche Mode's independent record label]. He said, 'could you re-do this?' I didn't really have time to do it properly, so we just decided to release it inconspicuously, as it was, and not pay too much attention to it."
The modest success of 1+2 led Wilder to release a more ambitious follow-up three years later. 1989's Hydrology was still a far cry from the commercial pop sound of Wilder's day job, however. It remained entirely instrumental, and was still recorded on a fairly modest setup. "Hydrology was a step up from 1+2. It was done on a half-inch 16-track Fostex machine. So there were limitations, but it was much more versatile than the first thing I had done. Recoil was still very much an aside to Depeche Mode, with no pressure or expectations placed upon it. In other words, it wasn't my main concern, and was always going to be an "It's obvious I'm not trying to make a commercial, radio-friendly, record, but of course it can be frustrating when you're trying to get the music across to people and the reaction you get is, 'oh, it's difficult music for weird people,
Alan Wilder may not be making pop records these days, yet you might get the impression his albums consist of nothing but white noise and electronic feedback. However, tracks like 'Luscious Apparatus' or 'Missing Piece' from Unsound Methods almost qualify as pop songs, albeit with twisting hooks and a spiky delivery. They might not give Oasis any sleepless nights, but Wilder seems sanguine about the possibilities for the project:
to me, it's not that weird, but I suppose it does require the listener's full attention -- if you just want one-dimensional pub rock then it probably won't be for you, but if you like music that's going to throw up something new every time you listen to it, you should at least have the opportunity to check it out for yourself. It would be naive to expect Unsound Methods to have mass appeal, but I do think there is a way to challenge people to investigate something a bit different." He sinks back into his chair and shakes his head. "It annoys me that the BBC are going on just now about the wonderful cross-section of music they promote with their 'Perfect Day' record, when all you really get is half-an-hour of dross on Top Of The Pops, and a rock programme which goes out at 2 o'clock in the morning. There are so many different kinds of music that don't get any coverage."
"It's obvious I'm not trying to make a commercial, radio-friendly, record, but of course it can be frustrating when you're trying to get the music across to people and the reaction you get is, 'oh, it's difficult music for weird people,
However, it could be argued that Bloodline, released in 1991, was a much more commercial effort. With vocals from Douglas McCarthy of Nitzer Ebb, Toni Halliday of Curve, and Moby, it came closer to having actual songs, albeit songs which split and divided with alarming regularity. For Wilder, though, there was no conscious attempt to change: "I certainly didn't feel a pressure to make it more conventional, but I did feel that I couldn't just keep producing experimental instrumental music all the time.
"I'd quite often get to a stage where I thought the music lacked something, and reasoned that if I was to progress with it in any way, I would have to bring something else in -- be it vocals or whatever -- to enhance what were basically backing tracks. Bloodline was a halfway-house between the early stuff and what I'm doing now. I brought the vocals in, but I didn't really see it through in the way I should have done; I think I lacked the energy. I had Depeche Mode commitments, and I was really fitting Bloodline into the first real break the band had taken in 10 years.
"By the end of that year -- while also producing a Nitzer Ebb album -- I'd just run out of energy. I think the album suffers a little bit because of it, especially the vocals. They're there as almost last-minute atmospherics rather than to make real songs."
UNSOUND ON SOUND
And so to this year's Unsound Methods, which continues the collaborative style of Bloodline. Douglas McCarthy returns on the Apocalypse Now-inspired track 'Incubus', as well as the sinister 'Stalker', and Alan has also roped in his partner, Hepzibah Sessa, formerly of Miranda Sex Garden, on backing vocals. In addition to Hepzibah, other vocals are supplied by Hildia Cambell, a session singer, whom Wilder previously worked with on his final Depeche Mode album, Songs Of Faith & Devotion. Two complete newcomers are New York artist and poet Maggie Estep, who brings her own unique slant to the spoken-word narratives of 'Luscious Apparatus' and 'Control Freak', and a young singer named Siobhan Lynch, whose demo was passed on to Wilder, and who guests on two tracks 'Drifting' and 'Missing Piece'. However, Wilder explains that many of these collaborations are borne of necessity rather than through any great desire to have anyone else involved.
"It sounds arrogant, but if I could do everything myself I would. It's just that sometimes the music requires aspects that don't come naturally to me. Lyrics and vocals are obvious examples. When it comes to engineering, I would prefer to do it all myself, although by the time I get to the final mix stage it can become a lot more complicated for me to deal with everything objectively. [In fact, long-time Depeche Mode collaborator Steve Lyon assisted with the engineering and mixing on Unsound Methods.] I suppose what I'm really saying is I like to work alone -- though this doesn't mean that I don't ever want other people's input. I enjoy "At that point Daniel [Miller, Mute Records boss] was influential in terms of what equipment we were using. He would bring in his ARP2600 and the sequencer which accompanied it. For the first Depeche Mode albums, a Roland MC4 was used to trigger the synths. In fact, as a sync'ing system, voltage control still works better with analogue gear than MIDI. By 1983, and Construction Time Again, we were using a BBC Micro computer to sequence everything, and eventually we did move on to software sequencers like Cubase." People might have had the impression from the sample-ridden Construction Time Again album that Depeche Mode were ditching synths in favour of exclusively sample-based backing, but, as Alan explains, this was not the case: "We used a PPG Wave, which was our first digital synth, although we also had the Synclavier and the Emu Emulator I by this point. What people forget about the Synclavier is that it's also a very powerful synthesizer. A lot of the synth sounds on Construction Time Again, Some Great Reward and Black Celebration were actually generated from the Synclavier. Once the samplers appeared, though, our setup didn't change very much. Actually, a lot of the changes to the band's gear happened so that we could take songs out on the road. For example, the Emu Emax was a very rugged, user-friendly keyboard which would hold a lot of our sounds and was ideal for live work."
Looking around Alan's studio, it's clear that, despite his continued usage of older gear, things have come on a great deal technologically since he started with Depeche Mode in 1981. I asked him for a personal account of how the technology he used had changed over the years. "Pre-Depeche Mode, my ideal setup would have been a Hammond C3 (with Leslie cabinet), a Minimoog and a full-size Fender Rhodes piano; the full Rick Wakeman setup. When I joined Depeche Mode it was quite a shock, because at the time they were using three of the smallest synths you could find. At my audition, Martin had a little Yamaha CS5 -- which was only about a foot wide -- Fletch [Andrew Fletcher] was on a Moog Source, and I was given a Moog Prodigy. We all played one-note riffs," Alan laughs, "and I have to admit I felt a little bit naked without more keyboards around me.
"At that point Daniel [Miller, Mute Records boss] was influential in terms of what equipment we were using. He would bring in his ARP2600 and the sequencer which accompanied it. For the first Depeche Mode albums, a Roland MC4 was used to trigger the synths. In fact, as a sync'ing system, voltage control still works better with analogue gear than MIDI. By 1983, and Construction Time Again, we were using a BBC Micro computer to sequence everything, and eventually we did move on to software sequencers like Cubase."
People might have had the impression from the sample-ridden Construction Time Again album that Depeche Mode were ditching synths in favour of exclusively sample-based backing, but, as Alan explains, this was not the case:
"We used a PPG Wave, which was our first digital synth, although we also had the Synclavier and the Emu Emulator I by this point. What people forget about the Synclavier is that it's also a very powerful synthesizer. A lot of the synth sounds on Construction Time Again, Some Great Reward and Black Celebration were actually generated from the Synclavier. Once the samplers appeared, though, our setup didn't change very much. Actually, a lot of the changes to the band's gear happened so that we could take songs out on the road. For example, the Emu Emax was a very rugged, user-friendly keyboard which would hold a lot of our sounds and was ideal for live work."
Another potential drawback when bringing in people new to the music business, like Siobhan Lynch, can be a feeling of intimidation on the part of the newcomer, as they start work with someone who already has a successful career in the business. Wilder agrees that it can be difficult to get over this, but in this case, he minimised problems by entering into a musical collaboration with Lynch before the two of them actually met, by demo'ing songs on DAT and sending them back and forth, each musical partner expanding on what was on the tape with each pass. Wilder: "It seemed quite a modern way of working. I didn't want to get too embroiled with someone and find out we were completely incompatible. This way you can avoid a head-on collision."
Perhaps because of such precautions, Alan feels he rarely clashes with people when recording: "I think I'm quite diplomatic in the studio. I'm able to put people at ease, and encourage them to bring the best out of themselves. I know that's why Douglas [McCarthy] likes working with me; I've always been able to get the best out of him. Not that he lacks confidence, but a lot of singers do need some guidance, and to work with someone who is going to push them. Dave [Gahan, singer with Depeche Mode] loved being driven hard, even to the point where he would become frustrated; but then the next day he would say, 'I'm so glad you did that, because I'm really pleased with how my vocal sounds'.
It would seem that once in the studio, Siobhan Lynch also responded well to Wilder's diplomatic approach to recording. "Siobhan had a maturity in her voice that to me was way beyond her years; it was full of intensity and emotion, and in the studio, that intensity poured out of her.
"All the collaborations worked in slightly different ways. With Hildia, I wanted her to act like a session singer, and really just recreate an idea I already had. With Maggie, I hadn't heard anything she had in mind for the music until she arrived, and that was the most exciting but also the most tense collaboration, because I didn't really know what to expect. She came with a whole set of lyrics and recited her words pretty much from start to finish. Then I pieced it together with a hard disk editor.
"As I've said, on Bloodline, I almost purposely held the vocals back; at the time I wasn't so interested in the words, only the textures. This time around, the words were really the top line. I'm very careful about the placement of everything, that's the part of the process I enjoy. For me, this process is crucial to provide an overall continuity, so that I can use four completely different vocalists without the record sounding chaotic and unfocused."
SOUNDS OF FAITH & DEVOTION
For years, Alan was happy to take similar care over the production on Depeche Mode's albums, but when he split from the band in the mid-'90s, the press release he issued to explain his reasons for leaving stated that he felt his work was being taken for granted. Though reluctant to discuss this subject in too much detail, he is, at least, keen to stress that it wasn't the amount of work that made him leave: "I wouldn't say the workload soured me in any way. I enjoyed being involved in production and programming; it was something I was good at, so I had no resentment about that. I just felt that it was taken for granted. It's not something I want to dwell on, I just wanted to put a lid on it all.
"I feel I'd gone as far as I could within the group. Now, I think I'm in the ultimate position to work with different people at different times. I've gained the experience and the rewards of being in a successful group, which has enabled me to do exactly what I want now. I've done very well out of the music business, and I don't mean that in boastful sense, but rather that I value it and the advantages it can offer."
At no time does Alan snipe at or carp about his former bandmates. Aspects of the split make him uncomfortable, yet he will quite cheerily reminisce about a particular tour, party or recording session: "I don't mind talking about the Depeche Mode connection at all, because it's obviously relevant to where I am now. However, in two or three years, when I make another Recoil album, it's going to become more tedious to me. I would hope by then that most people will leave it alone."
When he is asked how it felt to listen to Ultra, Depeche's most recent album and their first without him, he admits it was a weird experience: "I can't hear it in the same way as any record I was involved with, but I certainly don't feel a yearning to be involved again, and I've no regrets about leaving at all. The album is difficult for me to comment on, though I do have something of a stock answer, which is: you can probably work out what I think about it by listening to Unsound Methods and then Ultra, because the two records tell you everything you need to know about what the musical relationship was between myself and Martin [Gore]. It's almost as if we've gone to the two extremes of what we were when we were together. What the band had before was a combination of those extremes. It had run its course for me -- and that isn't me saying the group itself has run its course. What I mean is that I didn't have anything else to contribute within the band."
Alan Wilder's time in Depeche Mode saw the band's sound mature into an organic, atmospheric blend of electronics with elements of pop, rock, blues and experimental music. This obviously still appeals to him: "I love that hybrid mixing of styles where you blend electronics with gospel, for example. One reviewer compared Unsound Methods to Paul Hardcastle, saying it was electro-nonsense or something. This album is so un-electro, that's the thing. There is much more of an organic slant on this than on anything I've done before. To dismiss it as electro-Paul Hardcastle is disappointing, lazy journalism. I think, in fact, it has more in common with Songs Of Faith And Devotion than it does with Bloodline. I always felt that using electronics had some great advantages, but usually at the expense of a certain groove. So I don't want to get sucked into that again. I want to keep the electronics at the appropriate level, making sure they have something to contribute, but also making sure the sound and atmosphere has a feel and a roundness."
By the time Wilder left Depeche Mode, after the Songs Of Faith & Devotion album, the group had moved firmly away from what had been described as 'plink-plonk' synth pop. Strangely, this led to the band receiving flak at the other extreme, from synth purists. Alan nods, "There was a criticism levelled at Songs Of Faith & Devotion, that it was somehow a rock album. Yet if you listen to it, it's so far from a rock album, it's untrue. Okay, so there's some live drums and guitars on it -- so that somehow makes it a rock album? In the early days, we had silly rules about not using guitars, and then we realised it was ridiculous to have any rules about instrumentation. You could use any instrument if it works. I mean, there are guitars on [1983's] Construction Time Again. With Songs Of Faith & Devotion, the songs seemed to lend themselves to a more aggressive, looser feel. Violator  had been a more precise record, although there were a lot of guitars on there as well. Yet somehow it was still very programmed and rigid. Songs Of Faith & Devotion was much less inhibited and dynamic, but far from being a rock album."
This process of disinhibition has continued in Wilder's work with Recoil, and is clearly something he welcomes. Alan is the first to admit that in the synth- and sampler-dominated early and mid-'80s, Depeche Mode sometimes went way overboard to get a sound: "By the time we came to record [1984's] Some Great Reward we not only had the Emulator, but Daniel Miller had invested £60,000 in a Synclavier which rarely worked -- although when it did it sounded great. I think there was a time when Daniel got too involved in the technology: I can remember one particular sound we created for 'Shake The Disease'. The part itself was virtually moronic. It was so simple it was unbelievable; a two-note riff. And we ended up using 24 sounds layered on top of each other, every sound in the orchestra! These, of course, all then cancelled each other out, and the end result sounded like a sine wave! That epitomised how far up your arse you could go.
"These days I can still use 40 or 50 sounds per song, but somehow there's still space in the music. To me, the details are very important, and I'm not content with guitar, bass and drums as my only instrumentation. If you've got the possibility to refine your music by bringing in a variety of atmospheres and textures, then why not do it? You can draw people into the music even though all the little details don't really make themselves apparent right away.
"Depeche Mode spent a lot of time farting around, possibly with too much equipment. We also tried too many ways of doing something that was really very simple. I think one of the benefits of working on my own is I don't have to go through everybody's ideas. I don't have to answer to anyone."
WELL, PERHAPS A BIT...
It's easy to assume from looking at Alan's amazing studio that he's a technology addict, especially when he presses a button and part of the studio floor slides away, James Bond-style, to reveal a basement 'store room', housing a host of older samplers, amongst them an Emu Emulator II, and an original Emax. But, in fact, Alan has a cautious outlook when it comes to purchasing gear, and though Unsound Methods is a dense, dark album sonically, it belies the actual amount of equipment used to create it.
"I've never really had a particularly complicated equipment setup," he explains, "Obviously, I do embrace technology, but I never spend a lot of time researching all the latest equipment. I'm like most people, really... I get something that works and I stick with it. Occasionally, I update when it becomes obvious I need to, but basically I like to get a setup that works for me, then I don't think about it too much. I can't stand equipment manuals, so I never even read them. I just find it boring. If you really get too involved in technology you go crazy, because there's too much choice. I try to use tools to their optimum, but if I really took time to fully explore the technology, I would never get any work done!"
A staple of Recoil's output is the re-use of familiar sounds from Depeche Mode or previous Recoil albums. For this reason, a lot of Recoil's equipment has been around since Alan first started with Depeche Mode.
"My studio now is made up of bits and pieces I've acquired over the years. I always had things like my Minimoog anyway, and then I'd bring keyboards like the Emulators home. In fact, I was working with the
EDP Wasp (with Spider sequencer)
Korg 01/W ProX Workstation
Moog MIDImoog (rackmount)
Akai ADAM DR1200 12-track digital
AR100 nearfield monitors
Bruel & Kjaer 4006 mic
Bruel & Kjaer 4011 mic
Drawmer gates & compressors (various)
Dynaudio main monitors
(powered by Manley valve amplifiers)
Lexicon PCM70 reverb
Roland R880 reverb/delay
Sony DAT machine
Soundtracs 3632 in-line console
Yamaha SPX90 MkII effects (x3)
Zoom guitar processor
Apple Power Mac 7600 (with 17-inch
Monitor, Digidesign Audiomedia III
PCI I/O card & 2Gb hard disk)
Steinberg Cubase XT v3.0 sequencer
Steinberg Recycle sample editor
Akai S1100 (16Mb of RAM)
Akai S3000XL (32Mb of RAM)
Emu Emulator II
Emu Emulator III
Bösendorfer 6ft grand piano
Iomega 1Gb Jaz sample storage drive
Knight guitar (Gretsch copy)
Mark Of The Unicorn MTP AV
8-in,8-out MIDI interface/SMPTE
Steinway 6ft grand piano
Syquest 230Mb EZFlyer
Yamaha drumkit (with Nobel &
Couley snares & Zildjian cymbals)
"The Minimoog is a machine I return to now because there are sounds in there I particularly like for a certain job. I use it for sequencer-type basslines or for a mid-range parts -- sort of bubbly synth sounds with a wide dynamic range, using velocity sensitivity. That doesn't mean it's not capable of doing other things, of course.
"Most of what I'm doing at the moment is very sample-based, with an original source sample providing the sound. I then use the samplers as a tool to manipulate that source sound, and in that respect I always look for an instrument which has really good filtering, time-stretching and lots of possibilities for stacking sounds on top of each other. Those kind of facilities are what interest me. Consequently, I end up using Akais. I prefer them to my Emulator III, mainly because of the Akai's better output assignment facilities, and also the fact that you can stack more sounds on top of each other. The EIII actually sounds very good, but is a bit limited in that department.
"I also got fed up with Emulators because I would purchase one for a lot of money, and then six months later they'd bring out an incompatible new model that rendered mine redundant. I got very angry about that, which is another reason why I ended up with these Akais. They seem to do what I want, so I stuck with them."
Alan also finds it important to have easy access to the equipment in his setup. To this end, a Mark Of The Unicorn MIDI Time Piece AV is invaluable. "I use a Korg 01/W ProX as my master keyboard. All the other keyboards and modules run through the MTP AV. Then I can assign parts to any machine. I've just got one patch on the MTP which allows me at least 64 MIDI channels. I can have 8x16 MIDI possibilities via the MTP, which is easily enough."
The heart of the Recoil setup is Alan's Power Mac running Cubase XT v3.0. His ultimate aim is to run all the tracks, his effects and acoustic parts from the computer, without laying anything to tape at any stage: "I've always dreamed of being able to have everything immediately accessible and totally flexible. In the past, there has always been some limitation or other. I've had to commit my work to a format which allows no room for change later, like tape. Now everything is flexible -- including the vocals. I'm able to restructure what someone has given me, such as a lead vocal, and pick pieces up and move them around. If you want to go to the chorus it's simple, there's no spooling of tape or sync'ing things up. It's just there. That's why I really love Cubase's Cycle Mode. If I want to work on a two-bar sequence in the middle of a chorus, I can go into Cycle and repeat it over and over, making adjustments as it goes. You just couldn't do that in the '70s!"
Despite the freedom technology offers the modern musician, it also brings its own unique problems, as the average SOS reader will be aware, and, like everyone else, Alan suffers the occasional technological irritation. "I do find there are drawbacks with Cubase sometimes, in terms of sync'ing over MIDI. Sometimes my drum loops aren't tight enough, but at the end of the day, if it feels good, things like that don't bother me, although by the same token, slight timing discrepancies can be crucial to the 'feel' in a track, and in that respect I often want to put them right. If that makes me seem like a trainspotter then I would argue against that; I'm very conscious of the feel and the groove of music, to the point where I am almost obsessed by it. Not because I want everything regimented, but because I want to optimise that aspect."
Although the developments in direct-to-disk recording are the best thing to happen to the recording studio since the invention of the tape-based multitrack, Alan is aware he still hasn't put together his ideal setup: "There is so much technology out there which is better than what I'm using at present. This is probably because I haven't got the patience to explore it all. My ideal setup would be if I could do everything with just the computer -- as long as it could still give me the sound of all that brilliant outboard gear, the valve compression, amplification, and EQ... but in software, in a computer-based format.
"I'm not that far off having that capability, but I do need to refine my setup a little bit, so that with the next album I won't have to pick up my studio and transport it to a 'not-very-good' commercial studio with an automated desk and a more controlled sound, spending lots of money in the process, which was what I had to do on this particular album."
THE ART OF DARKNESS
Later in the evening, as Alan Wilder stretches out on his living room floor, relaxing with his family, I begin to wonder if this is the same man responsible for an album full of darkness and barely concealed violence. But he shrugs this off: "Martin always thought there was a lot of humour in Depeche Mode's music. I didn't think so particularly, although the people themselves were funny and humorous. I don't understand why it is you have to be like your music, or why making music which reflects your own personality is important. The darker sides of people's characters are much more interesting than the side they let you see. I heard a member of a particularly well-known band ask recently why it is that people always assume that just because you're in a band with two or three other people, you must all be great buddies?
"It doesn't necessarily follow that you have to be great friends to have a good working relationship. And you don't have to be a certain kind of person to make a certain kind of music. What's wrong with being observational? A filmmaker can tell a story, he doesn't have to live the life. Mike Leigh observes the entire class system; he doesn't have to put himself on the screen. I was in a band that wrote melodic pop songs -- if I don't do that, is everything I do now a failure?"
The darkness at the heart of Unsound Methods is almost relentless, which seems to be exactly what was intended. Alan agrees with this heartily: "In the end, it's a solid body of work that has a continuity and seems to subconsciously deal with the same thing over and over again; this idea of obsession, no matter how that manifests itself. I'm not an obsessive character, so it's intriguing that I should have an interest in subjects which revolve about that." He mulls this over for a second and adds, "It's obviously something I need to get out somehow, bearing in mind I don't write the words to these songs. Nevertheless, the atmosphere and subject matter still comes from me. It's just a side of life that interests me more than writing about having babies."
Audio files to accompany the article.
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