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MIKE THORNE: The Stereo Society

Interview | Producer By Tom Flint
Published July 2000

Mike Thorne at the controls of his Serge Modular synth.Mike Thorne at the controls of his Serge Modular synth.

Best known as the producer of some of the most important punk albums of the '70s and biggest dance hits of the '80s, Mike Thorne now runs his own label, multimedia company and studio in New York. Tom Flint talked to Mike about technology, his studio and the future...

When Mike Thorne left Oxford in 1969 proudly clutching his physics degree certificate he might have suspected that he would spend the rest of his days working in a laboratory. But instead of investigating the science of physics, he found himself working on the science of music — and from every conceivable angle. Over the years he's been a DJ, an engineer, a magazine editor and review writer, A&R man, remixer, composer, record executive and producer. And through these various creative ventures he's been involved in some of the most important musical happenings of the past 30 years.

As an A&R man at EMI he oversaw the early career of Kate Bush and witnessed the birth of British punk in 1976, keeping a watchful eye over the likes of The Sex Pistols. As a producer he can claim to have been responsible for some of the most influential dance tracks of the '80s including Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' and the Communards' 'Don't Leave Me This Way' — both of which helped define the concept of the extended 12‑inch dance mix. His list of album production credits is also impressive reading and includes artists such as Marc Almond, Soft Cell, Bronski Beat, John Cale, Carmel, China Crisis, The Communards, Wire, Peter Murphy, Roger Daltrey, Shirts, Information Society, Nina Hagen, Hollywood Beyond, Soft Machine and Blur, as well as the seminal punk compilation Live At The Roxy WC2.

During the '90s Mike continued producing whilst also working with Warner Music on a project to investigate new‑media music opportunities. The results of his findings led him to set up The Stereo Society, a web‑based musical distribution and publishing company backed by Mike's private multimedia studio. The studio, now situated in New York, contains an impressive collection of gear, gathered over the past 20 years, and is set up to enable the recording of all The Stereo Society's projects. Part of The Stereo Society's mission is the promotion of niche artists. Artists currently featured on the web site include: Lene Lovich, BETTY, Kit Hain, Hilly Kristal, Sarah Jane Morris, The Reds, Johnny Reinhard, Allan Schwartzberg and The Uptown Horns.

Perhaps the one constant in Mike's career has been his profound interest in new ideas and technologies, and it could be said that his greatest asset has been his ability to change and move with the times. "I always want to fill the next 24 hours with interesting stuff." explains Mike. "There are all sorts of problems with getting older and one of them is just raising the bar. It's like a drug, you need more and more of the same substance to get the same high. That means I want to take the music further in the same period of time in order to experience the same novelty and keep the same level of invention. I would never just want to succeed in a particular style and milk that for the rest of my days. It's very glamorous and lucrative, this production lark, but it's a bit dull if you're going round the same block. You've only got 24 hours in a day. If you're earning lots of money, what are you going to do, enjoy it while you're not working? I've been lucky enough to combine doing what I like and geting paid for it. That's always been the thing that I've wanted."

Starting Out

MIKE THORNE: The Stereo SocietyThen and now... Mike produced the seminal punk compilation Live At The Roxy (above) and (below) one of the artists released through The Stereo Society today.Then and now... Mike produced the seminal punk compilation Live At The Roxy (above) and (below) one of the artists released through The Stereo Society today.

Mike's musical education began with formal classical piano lessons at the age of 10, eventually studying the likes of Schoenberg and Messiaen. But it wasn't until he started the aforementioned physics degree that Mike developed an appreciation for the pop and rock music of the day, becoming particularly interested in the harder beat and dance bands. With university behind him Mike pursued his new‑found interest further by building a mobile disco system: armed with his invention, he then relocated to London and began DJ'ing several nights a week. "I've loved dance music since I was a kid, it's natural. Whilst DJ'ing the staple would be the Stones and the Doors, and a lot of people went for it. That's really informed a lot of the music I've enjoyed making since, because I'd prefer to go with something which has a bit of an edge to it, where there's a bit of personal exploration to do."

In the meantime, Mike landed himself the job of tea boy and assistant engineer at De Lane Lea studios in London, where he worked on sessions for Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple. Shortly after that, he kicked off another career in journalism by joining Hi‑Fi News & Record Review, where his combined appreciation of both pop and classical music led him to review writing. He even found time to become editor of Studio Sound for two years. Enjoying the practical side of music as well as the analytical side, Mike managed to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Having inserted so many fingers into so many pies Mike finally got his big break in 1976 and was hired by EMI to work in A&R. As Mike explains, the job provided freedom to work with some of the most exciting and cutting‑edge acts of the day. "For me A&R is almost like executive production, you're not just finding an artist — you're guiding an artist creatively. I enjoy A&R in the old sense where you really get your hands dirty with the music, but unfortunately most A&R departments today, if they exist at all, don't know how to make records.

"EMI was a very old‑fashioned company in 1976 and the idea of a staff producer was only just beginning to go away. They had this very convenient in‑house studio called Abbey Road! I could talk to the studio and learn. I was very successful at A&R and soon people started to ask me about production but I said 'No, I can't do this, because it's so much responsibility — it's not like making cans of beans, these are peoples' lives and mentalities'. Eventually I realised I could do it at least as well as a lot of people passing through my office. Suddenly I was producing all over the place and had several hit records which made their mark in 1977. So I was then asked to become house producer. My brief was to go out, find acts and produce them. I loved that very much and one of the big results of that was Wire."

Art‑school punks Wire were one of Mike Thorne's first major production projects, and their collaboration yielded three hugely influential albums in the shape of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. "Those albums still stand, and I'm very proud of them," insists Mike. "In many ways I am intimidated by the producer I was then. I was making up the rules as I went along. It was marvellous."

Track Technique

Mike's consistent studio work during the '70s helped him establish his own approach to production.

"I didn't start producing until the 24‑track was fully fledged, but I've stayed 24‑track pretty much all the way through. I didn't like 48‑track, because it's very tedious waiting for all the rewind and the locking, so I did most of my stuff on 24‑track losing a track for SMPTE and one for click. It's very useful to have your thoughts focused by 22 tracks. You have to bounce down sets of backing vocals and that forces you into making a decision at an early stage.

"I always tried to edit the master tape so I could listen to the arrangement easily without having to continuously hit mute buttons and push faders. It means there's much less thinking to do at that stage, so you can devote whatever limited brain power's left to the music itself. You want as few obstacles as possible between you and the music. Being faced with 48 tracks to blend and mix is a huge undertaking and very difficult to do all at once, particularly if you're held back by the locking‑up procedure."

By the time punk appeared in 1976/77 Mike was part of the reviled Establishment insomuch as he was an in‑house producer for an international music publishing company, yet he was still able to embrace and relate to the punks' anti‑establishment attitude. Mike describes the situation. "In the mid‑'70s, there was a very condescending attitude in production and in studios, which was along the lines of 'Don't worry your pretty little head about it, we know how to make records.' Of course the process of making records is constantly being reinvented and that was the excitement of the punk and new wave era. I think the punk 'do‑it‑yourself' ethos was very important. To understand the process and not leave it to other people. That's not to say you don't trust other people with it, but you should know what is going on.

"There was also a revolution in studio technology with synthesizers, time‑based equipment, delay lines, processors and variations on them. All that, stirred in together, meant that records could sound different. It might be the same message, boy meets girl, girl ditches boy, but because it's in a new environment the story has to be adjusted to suit. Pop music can be reinvented by responding to new possibilities. Rock and roll came around because the electric guitar was invented, and I think that's happening now with the low‑price workstation. But the idea that drum machines could replace drummers was just daft in the same way that when synthesizers first came in, everybody was talking about how you can get a saxophone sound out of it so therefore the saxophone was over. But it did broaden the methods you could use to make a record."

The Day Of The Synclavier

MIKE THORNE: The Stereo Society

Keen to take advantage of the revolution in synth and recording equipment, Mike purchased his very own New England Digital Synclavier in 1979. The now fully expanded instrument, which still forms an integral part of The Stereo Society studio, helped Mike develop extended tracks like Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy' and the Communards' 'Don't Leave Me This Way', first because of its striking sounds and later because of its sampling abilities. Mike remembers his initiation. "It was really the first commercial digital synthesizer. I went over to Vermont to hear it. It cost pretty much the equivalent of my entire year's retainer at EMI! I put one finger down, heard the cathedral bells going 'boyyyyyoing' and a sound I'd never heard outside of an experimental electronics studio before and I said 'I'll have it!' I think that was Synclavier number six, and the first one in a commercial music environment. I first used it for the Urban Verves in 1979, then solidly on Colin Newmans's A‑Z album, and then I did an entire score for Memoirs Of A Survivor in '81."

By 1982, the Synclavier had the sampling option, allowing Mike to further develop his production methods particularly with Bronski Beat's 'Small Town Boy' and their 1984 album Age Of Consent. Mike explains. "I was flying in backing vocals by getting the sample under my fingers and triggering it live to tape. It sounded stupid if the breath was cut off, so the sample would have to start with the breath. That was very difficult but that was a skill that, fortunately, we all developed. A lot of those samples in mid‑'80s records were flown in by hand, breaths and all — sometimes whole choruses.

"It's also useful when you need a lot of repetition in vocal choruses at the end of a record. It used to be so tiring and wearing for people to go round and round a fade for several choruses. So all of a sudden you could record just one and knock yourself out on it and then sample it one line at a time and then lay it in all the way down to the end of the song. Alternatively you could let someone rip away and solo and in that section might be a very convenient eight bars which is the hook you want to start the piece with. I still do that, I'm still looking for that bit to pull somewhere else and this is where it becomes a very large composition exercise, because you move something here which has implications somewhere else."

Mike's appreciation of dance music was also informing his productions. During the '80s the concept of the extended dance mix became as important as the seven‑inch single. Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' was first recorded and arranged as an extended nine‑minute 12‑inch mix, with the single version being cut and edited together from sections of the larger mix. "I think that was the first time it was ever done," explains Mike. "We had the 'single' edit mapped out before we did it. Pretty much every single I did after that, I would lay out the 12‑inch and I would know exactly where the seven‑inch would be cut from.

"I'm still doing the same thing now; for my next album I decided to do extended club pieces. I want them to develop musically rather than just sitting on a groove. Sarah Jane Morris and I have co‑written one piece and covered another piece so there's 15 minutes of music between them, but we're approaching it in the same way. If we want a short version for a single, which these days is an MP3 giveaway, we can cut it out and we know it's going to work. Fortunately these days with digital editing you can preview it before you actually commit to the whole mix!"

The Stereo Society Studio

The Synclavier is still at the heart of Thorne's production methods.The Synclavier is still at the heart of Thorne's production methods.

Mike's much‑loved Synclavier now holds pride of place in his New York studio along with an equally impressive collection of old and new gear. Mike has spent time refining the setup to a point where the arrangement thoroughly suits his way of working. "The principle was that I would be able to press the start button on the Synclavier and hear a finished record, automation and all. Everything's synchronised and all the synthesizers are driven by MIDI. If you want to change the bass sound you don't reach for the EQ or the compression, you reach for the bass sound. That gives me the opportunity to really integrate arrangements, and it's flexible because the horizontal time‑line isn't fixed."

Also key to Mike's setup is a 24‑track Pro Tools system, although despite its processing and recording abilities it is still subservient to the Synclavier. "I treat Pro Tools as an overspill from the Synclavier. The 'clav' has a much better sound but it's only 16 tracks. I try to keep vocals in the Synclavier but often throw the horns over. There are some sounds which are perfectly happy there."

The Synclavier provides 16 sampling outputs, which are permanently patched into an Amek Einstein desk along with a further 16 direct‑to‑disk tracks and the 24 Pro Tools outputs. All synthesizers are normalled to a 40‑channel TAC Scorpion desk. "It's very convenient, you can just reach for a fader without having to patch anything. That removes a major barricade when deciding which sound to use, I just push up the fader and there it is."

Mike also uses the Synclavier for mastering. "The Synclavier is 50kHz, so I'll do all the editing at 50k, and of course you've got 16 parallel tracks in a project so you can have all sorts of versions, although, in practice, I know where I'm going without options, so I'll edit the master then stream it all as one composite file. If I'm outputting to CD I'll scrunch that down to 44.1. I have a total of 90 running minutes per track for each of the 16 and 96Mb of RAM. The Synclavier will accept eight MIDI inputs for the 16 channels. You can allocate any one of those 8x16 channels to a particular sound within the Synclavier, which can be the instrument's own synthesized sound, or it can be a very elaborate sample patch.

"The sequencing function has migrated away from the Synclavier because it's got a very unforgiving interface and requires thinking in numbers as compared with graphical shapes, which is the tendency for more recent sequencers. So I now use Emagic Logic Audio. When I lay down an electronic track I sketch in advance where I'd like it to speed up and slow down in Logic. I get the track to breathe the way a performer would.

"For me the joy of computers is that making music becomes very compositional. It means you don't have to create music in real time or think so fast, but what becomes very important is the structure, and particularly large‑scale structures like a fully‑blown club arrangement where you have to keep the musical interest going all the way through."

The Serge modular analogue synthesizer currently installed in the wall of the studio provides Mike with what he considers the best sounds in the room: "It takes an awful lot of patience patching together those oscillators and then modulating them with the original analogue oscillators, but it gives an extraordinary and very distinctive sound. Also with an analogue synthesizer you get back into the domain of random sounds, which passes by in digital. You head off with a certain sound in mind, but find something totally different, but it's always interesting. You can never revive those sounds, when you go back to your settings they always sound different even if you've carefully notated them, so I always record both the sounds and the related performance. I'm often twiddling knobs while the thing's going down."

Building The Society

Mike Thorne's pair of Delta Labs DL4 delay lines now allow him to generate the unique effect in stereo.Mike Thorne's pair of Delta Labs DL4 delay lines now allow him to generate the unique effect in stereo.

In '94 Mike made the decision to quit producing mainstream records and took a job with Warner Music to investigate new technologies, find out where they overlapped with music and where future commercial possibilities might lie. Mike explains the reason for his decision: "It was a quality‑of‑life decision. I was functioning on a high level, always delivering an international commercial record that had to sell. When I started out, in many ways pop music was about taking risks and doing something new. It was very exciting being told to go do a record and bring something interesting back. I found that it wasn't possible to do anything different any more, it was all to marketing specifications. For example, the latter‑day punks are almost imitating a style that went past, with no real musical revolution to enjoy. It is there, but the marketing has become so large‑scale it has turned around and limited the types of music you can make with a substantial production budget. I might compromise my fee and a royalty for a production project, but never the production budget or the facilities. I wanted to make it sound as good as possible and this became incompatible with the record companies.

"At the same time there was a rise of stylistic specialists who would be pulled in to do two or three tracks on a CD. I didn't want to do that. A CD is an integrated musical statement. If you're just working on two or three tracks it's not possible to dig so deeply and to develop the musical shorthand that you need to really go somewhere interesting.

"When I quit, there were all sorts of possibilities suggesting themselves, some of which were definitely premature. One idea was to do with niche music and new and developing music which could be new artists, or an artist who doesn't sell the adequate number of records to justify mass‑market release and all those huge expenses that go with it. In America that means anything under 200,000 CDs. I proposed that music in that category belonged on the Web because you didn't need so much stock. You could sell world‑wide and cut away all the conventional marketing expenses like TV. Of course you limit your market, but it seemed to me there was a possibility to support new niche artists.

"Making music is in our niche but marketing, distribution and promotion have to be very broad, and there are economies of scale which the large‑scale music business takes advantage of. We've got to find a way of connecting to that and that's why we're a little bit premature at this point because those links are only just starting to appear. When they arrive we'll be ready for them."

Part of The Stereo Society's marketing plan is the introduction of a sample resource comprising downloadable samples for DJs and other musicians. "We'd be delighted if people used them, and if they made a record out of them then so much the better. All we want is credit. It's a bit like putting out a single as a loss‑leader. The more people that come to our site (, the more people will buy our records, the more records we can make. We've got to get that commercial cycle going.

"Another aspect of exploration you can see in the Mixman section. This is a very novel way of providing DIY mixing. It's essentially 16 loops going round and round which you can switch in and out, but you can also record the switches so you can do a live performance and save it. The people who do this out on the West Coast actually work clubs with them. I was fairly sceptical when I first heard about it, but I was utterly convinced once I heard my version of Lene Lovich's 'Natural Beauty' reprocessed as 16 parallel loops. It's very interesting music. We're going to supply a large number of these and we're also going to create music specifically for the format because I think that will provoke a new type of dance or party music."

Curiously, Mike draws a parallel between what he sees as the future of music as made possible through new technologies and the Internet with the music of the early part of the 20th century! "Before the second World War, many a household had an upright piano and everybody would gather round and play 'Danny Boy', Beethoven's piano sonatas or whatever they felt like — but it was music that was already made, and in some cases specifically for the home market. The publishing market was very healthy, and I think there is something similar coming with electronics where people like me will create something for a medium like Mixman. The music's already there and is somebody else's, but you can enjoy colliding with it.

"I really think there's a new version of 'a piano in every household' coming. It's not to do with big music sequencers, because nobody's going to compete with what I've got in the studio — a single computer is not going to make all those sounds — but people can have a great time with a musical springboard provided by somebody who specialises in it. Very few people have the intellectual and mental makeup to be a pop star, so I think once all this 'I can be a pop star' nonsense has fallen out, people can start enjoying music in its own right, it will be marvellous and a very healthy change. Creative people are everywhere, but you've got to give them toys."

Genesis Of A Classic: Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love'

MIKE THORNE: The Stereo Society

I asked Mike to cast his mind back to 1981 and the recording of perhaps his most famous and influential production, Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love'. How did they get that metallic clashing sound which kicks off the song?

"The genesis of it was just a crash or noise burst off an electronic drum. I can't remember if it was from their Sine Air, or from my Electro‑Harmonix Crash Pad, but it was used in other places in the piece. Once we'd put the other one on we needed something different. The crash was still a bit ordinary‑sounding, so I had a go at editing it. I shoved it into the Delta Labs DL4 Delay Line, which was one of the very first delay lines ever built. The delay itself can be made very fast indeed, and this delay time defines the wavelength of a note. Critically the DL4 has a feedback limiter so you can turn the regeneration all the way up and it will still die out after a certain point. Using this limiter I got a 'boink' sound. That was all very well, but it was still just a note: however, the DL4 was one of the very first devices that would sweep the delay time as well. The sweep smears the spectrum out, so effectively instead of just a single frequency you get a Gaussian distribution around that particular frequency. By sweeping very quickly I got a metallic sound and that's exactly what it is. Anybody can get it if they have a machine that can limit the feedback and make it tail down to zero. I eventually bought another DL4 so I could do it in stereo!"

Separate Lives

The control room of The Stereo Society studio. From the left: the Amek Einstein Super E mixing console, the NED Synclavier, the wall‑mounted Serge Modular synthesizer system, and a comprehensive array of rack unitsThe control room of The Stereo Society studio. From the left: the Amek Einstein Super E mixing console, the NED Synclavier, the wall‑mounted Serge Modular synthesizer system, and a comprehensive array of rack units

One of the most important techniques Mike learned from his production work in the '70s can be summed up in the maxim, 'You can tell a good practitioner by the way they use bad separation.' Mike explains the concept and application of a technique he still uses today: "The mid‑'70s was the era when studios were designed to be very dry, so leakage between instruments didn't take place. You had control over the sound and you would add reverb at the end artificially. Because it was so difficult to hear each other in the studio, and to communicate with the control room a single talkback mic would be put up in the middle of the room. Pretty much every time the output of this mic would end up on tape, because it was a very convenient ambience and it generally sounded very nice mixed in. And this is the same thing that happens when you get less than 100 percent separation between the respective instruments. Often this bleed can sound very nice indeed. You just have to keep your wits about you and your ears open so that when it does happen you can use this extra ambience which wasn't calculated and certainly wasn't encouraged.

"We have a small recording room here [The Stereo Society Studio], and we've recorded up to seven people with no separation whatsoever. Various instrumental‑type arrangements, quite odd sections such as bassoon, gong and upright bass, so you can't put screens up, but with careful mic and personnel placement you optimise the bleed and the amount of it, so you get to the point where it sounds pretty realistic without using artificial reverb at all. That's how the classical people do it. There's a continuum between that '70s type of dry recording and the very open classical recording, and those two extremes aren't the only ways to do it."

Mike's deliberately relaxed attitude to separation had a profound effect on the production of Wire's Pink Flag, among other records: "I was working with a very good engineer called Paul Hardiman. The drums had been tucked away in the drum booth, the guitars were out in the studio and everybody was tucked away somewhere, but we found if we put the drums in the studio they sounded marvellous because you had all these ambient possibilities. So we put the drums and the group out in the studio and the only person who was still tucked away was the vocalist. All of a sudden people could talk to each other again, plus the drummer had a marvellous sound. Everybody could hear everybody else, music became a social experience once again.

Wire's first two studio albums, Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, were produced by Mike Thorne.Wire's first two studio albums, Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, were produced by Mike Thorne.