Pioneering electro-pop duo Soft Cell are back with a new album, seeking to combine the best of old and new production techniques.
Pop music dates swiftly, and electronic music perhaps the most swiftly of all. What was once radical is now the stuff of themed compilations and School Disco parties, and the electro-pop of the early '80s is now hot again — this time as the subject of knowing, ironic revivals from the likes of Ladytron and Fischerspooner. In this climate of nostalgia, the news that Soft Cell have reformed might suggest that Marc Almond and Dave Ball were merely exploiting the moment. One listen to their new album Cruelty Without Beauty, however, will be enough to convince most that this is no cynical cash-in. The music was lovingly crafted over a period of four years by Ball and his long-term collaborator Ingo Vauk; and while it's instantly recognisable as a Soft Cell album, it looks forward as much as it looks back. "From the production point of view, it had to be a very fresh, modern-sounding record," insists Dave. "We didn't want to make a record that sounded like something from the '80s with a wall of reverb. So we spend a lot of time together designing the sound — every sound. It took us a long time, really. It had to sound like Soft Cell as was, but it had to sound like Soft Cell now. That's very important.
"A lot of the key to it was in the production. I had to listen to everything we'd ever done and reassess it, and think 'What are my clichés?' There was no plan at first that we would do a new Soft Cell album. Marc would come round to the studio, and we would do the odd song now and then, but there was no plan to do a record until we got offered a show at [London venue] Ocean, and suddenly that focused it. You can dabble around in the studio for ever, and it's very secure and safe — you think 'Oh, we've done this great track,' and you have your own little world, but until you put something out that's reviewed and you're playing live, it's all a bit safe and cosy. So that was the turning point."
"From my point of view it was very easy for it to sound like Soft Cell, because you just put those two people together and it is Soft Cell," adds Ingo. "I didn't have to try to force anything. It was a very organic process, and to me it sounded like Soft Cell instantaneously, because of the writing. The production needed to be different from the original production, because I think the first incarnation of Soft Cell was very current and very cutting-edge, and we didn't want it to be retro in that respect. It had to be at least as innovative, and that's hard, because a lot of what Soft Cell did the first time round is now part of the clichés everybody has at their disposal. You just open up a Proteus or something and you'll find quite a few samples that you wouldn't have found in a preset keyboard in those days."
Soft Cell's songwriting method has changed little over the years. The main difference this time around was that their live shows allowed them to fine-tune material before committing it to the album. "When we first performed again at Ocean, about a year and a half ago, we played quite a lot of the new tracks," explains Dave. "It was the first time for me, ever, to have that opportunity to test out the audience, way before we got a record deal, to play some new material before it's recorded. I've never had that experience before, so that was quite good to see how the audience reacted to stuff. Looking back on that, I think it's quite important to play the material to an audience before you record it, to see how the audience reacts to that arrangement or that sound.
"Other than that, the writing process hasn't really changed that much — it always starts with a very simplistic demo and then it evolves. I could still go home and play a tune and put it on a cassette, which is how we started off. Nowadays it's sequenced on a Mac and I burn Marc off a CD, but how the ideas come about is pretty much the same really."
"Any arrangement we chop and change as the vocal goes down, and as the vocal develops because Marc takes it home and changes something, we'd adjust the track accordingly," adds Ingo.
One decision that was taken fairly early on was to base the album's rhythms around programmed parts rather than sampled loops. "I wanted to make the drum beats more angular," explains Dave. "We've had years of people sampling 'Funky Drummer', but the whole beauty of really pure, early electronic pop music, like the Human League and stuff, is that it's very angular. I wanted to do something with that, rather than take old funk loops and process them. I'm sick of people pretending to be funky."
From the production perspective, the key to creating a modern-sounding album that was still identifiable as Soft Cell lay in using the best of both old and new approaches to sequencing and synthesis. "Because digital technology is so advanced, people are now starting to go 'What are the best things about analogue, and how do we import them into digital technology? What are the things that people miss?'," says Dave. "I'm a perfect example. I started off with a cheesy little Korg DV800, and now suddenly you've got these amazing things you can do — but what are the bits you miss about that? The software is getting there, there's some great things coming out now, but there's something about the physicality of it that's very important. I think people in electronic music are getting back into expression. It's to do with the playability. You can get the sound, which could be basically a bit of a sine wave or a square wave with resonance on the filter, but I find I can't be as expressive using the mouse as I can when I've got a keyboard in front of me.
"There was actually a ribbon controller for the Synclavier, which was what I used on 'Tainted Love'," he adds by way of an example. "That bit in the middle where it goes into 'Where did the love go?' — the descending sound was done on a ribbon controller with my thumb."
Even dedicated control surfaces don't always give the user the same freedom as a one-knob-per-function synth: "I've bought a couple of control surfaces. One was for the Oberheim Matrix, and one was for the Microwave, and I've never used them, because you can only do one operation at a time. A lot of the time I'll be hitting a note, and I'll be using two controllers at once.
"We could get rid of all the vintage stuff and have just two computers, but I'm very reluctant to do that really. There's certain classic synths where the real thing is still better than the virtual version of it. Something like the PPG Wave, I would chuck that in the skip — it was a pile of crap. Something like a Minimoog I think is absolutely vital. That and the System 100 are beautiful machines. I'm quite well known for using the Prophet 5, but I haven't used that live for a long time because it was so unreliable. It's a beautiful machine, fantastic sound, but when you're playing live, reliability is very important. But that's also the problem with computers. That's why I don't fly, because I don't trust technology. When it works like it's supposed to, it's fantastic. When it doesn't, it's disastrous. That's the one thing I've learned about synthesizers: don't ever trust them, because they always f**k up.
"There's a lot of things about computers that really annoy me, but one of the plus points is the arrangement factor. When I started off I didn't use sequencers, I used to play everything. Then I got into using a hardware sequencer, but using the Mac makes life a lot easier as a writer. The beauty of using something like Logic is that you can get more involved in arranging. I'm very much into the fusion thing of having the real synthesizer and the virtual synthesizer. I love the precision of digital, I love the fact that you can sit there and chop it up to the nth degree, and I also like the inaccuracy of analogue. That mixture of precision and inaccuracy is like yin and yang. What I like about when Ingo and I work together is that total fusion: Ingo's a much more computer, digital person than I am. I'm much more analogue. We've got a virtual modular system in Reaktor on the Mac, and we've got a System 100, and we're cross-patching them. That, to me, is perfect, because you're getting the best of both worlds."
"I think Reaktor's brilliant," agrees Ingo. "We use that quite a lot. I like the resynthesis part, where you can digitise an analogue sound and turn it into something completely different, give it that digital sheen that's sometimes quite hard to get. That is brilliant. A lot of the sounds on the album have been done analogue and digitally, and it's very hard to say if something is an 'analogue' or a 'digital' sound, because a lot of the time we'd sample an analogue keyboard and then process it digitally, or the opposite: take a sample and put it through a System 100. I like all the Logic synths as well, because they're all really functional. There's nothing really exciting in there apart from ES2 — the others are just really solid, functional, you know what you're getting from them."
The new album was programmed and recorded in Dave and Ingo's own West London studio before being mixed in neighbouring Eastcote Studios, and the approach of taking the best of both analogue and digital worlds extended to the entire process. With Dave's techno outfit The Grid, he and Ingo recorded everything to two-inch analogue tape, before mixing using the automation on an SSL analogue desk. Now, sequencing, recording and mixing are all the province of Mac-based DAWs, but there's still a role for analogue equipment. "We tried using tape," says Dave. "It was suggested by Philip Bagenal, who owns Eastcote Studios, because everything had been recorded on digital. A lot of people are putting stuff on tape just to get the sound on tape, and we did some tests, but it didn't really enhance the sound. It wasn't really worthwhile, although it was a nice idea."
"It was all done on Logic, and then in the mixing we used Eastcote's Pro Tools system," explains Ingo. "That came in really handy, but we also put it through an old MCI desk which really changed the sound quite a lot."
"We hardly used the desk for actual mixing," interjects Dave. "It was almost like the desk became an effect — the biggest rackmounted effect you've ever seen."
"We didn't use the VCA automation at all, because it's a quiet desk," continues Ingo. "Basically the way it was mixed was that we used 16 channels initially and had things subgrouped, but we had more D-As and more channels on the desk, so we'd rerecord stuff and then play it back. So it wasn't used in the classic sense of a mixing desk — it was used basically for the warmth of the EQ and for the headroom it gave you and the distortion it gave you if you wanted it, and so we could patch in outboard without any hassle and latency.
"Philip's got the new HD Pro Tools, and that made a real difference. I had a Swissonic DA24 which gave up on us halfway through the project, and the backup for it was crap as well, so all of a sudden we were eight channels short. However, just using the lightpipe into the HD made it sound completely different and much better, so in a way it was lucky that it went down on us. It gave us a really flexible way of working, because we had eight channels onto the Pro Tools that we could either run live or start recording things, so it became a really flexible system with two computers running in parallel. We didn't track-lay as such. The Pro Tools that we used doesn't hold the whole track as in 48 tracks of Pro Tools and that's your song — most of the stuff was still on Logic, and maybe 40 percent recorded onto Pro Tools. A lot of it was running live right to the end from the samplers and stuff, and was just going through the Pro Tools converters. I can put the whole of the album as a backup onto maybe three CDs, which if you think of a full multitracked album is not a lot. There's a lot of MIDI, and samples that are just repeated so that you don't need to lay them down, because the timing is accurate enough.
"We did things like take a vocal that was recorded dry and put it through valve compression, then re-record it onto Pro Tools. We used a lot of Logic plug-ins, but we'd use plate reverbs as well, and we used the [Eventide] H3000."
"It was using what was best for the job, really," adds Dave. "If you want something that's a bog-standard delay, then use a plug-in, whereas if you want something that sounds a bit different..."
"Or, for instance, spectral gating is something you just can't do with any other device, so we used the Logic plug-in," continues Ingo. "Filters we used in both domains really — we've got a lot of analogue filters. If you asked me about any one particular sound, I probably couldn't tell you, because it's probably been reprocessed so many times, it was a fluent process. If we used something analogue we rerecorded it and sometimes just sampled it again, and then it became part of the MIDI arrangement again, so it's been rerecorded twice and ended up as a sample. We changed arrangements right until the end. We hardly did any stereo editing on it, it was all done in Logic."
"Editing is part of the creative process now," agrees Dave. "That's one of the things I love about digital, that you can go 'Can we just move that middle eight, there?' and it's very easy, whereas if you're working with an old reel-to-reel, that's a nightmare to do."
"When we used to work with a reel-to-reel, there was a lot more striping things through and then arranging it using the cuts in the mix," says Ingo. "Everything that you hear on this album was actually placed in its particular location. All the automation's done in the sequencing side of things, and level automation is the only thing we did — we didn't have to do any cuts except on effects returns and things like that, whereas the Grid stuff was pretty much arranged on the mutes."
"Now we might do a rehearsed cut that way, and think 'That works really well', but then we'd actually program it into the computer," continues Dave. "We'll rehearse it as if we're playing a part, and then we'll sequence it in that way, rather than actually doing it physically when we mix the track."
"Marc Almond's very much a first take kind of person," says Dave Ball. "A lot of the vocals were done in our own studio."
"We used a Sennheiser condenser mic for the first half of the session," continues Ingo Vauk. "I've got an old Neumann valve mic, but it didn't sound as good. We mainly recorded flat and then processed it with analogue gear. There wasn't a lot of correction on it: it was basically doing takes and then compiling it. On the very early material it was only the second time I'd ever recorded Marc, but we'd live with slight imperfections on the technical side, because we thought 'That's the vocal take. Sorry, if anyone thinks that's a dodgy production, that's their problem!'
"Then we moved on to a U87 with a new capsule in it, which Marc felt more comfortable with, and recorded the rest of the album on that — I'd say about 70 percent — straight into Logic with a Digidesign 001 interface. On the return we used a Teletronix compressor on it, and a Manley valve EQ, and a plate reverb with pre-delay. The thing is that you can't polish Marc's vocal too much, because it sort of disembodies it, it's not him any more. He's got a way of doing blue notes that you want in there, otherwise it becomes bland. I think that works against the perfection of the digital, machine music behind it. There's no Auto-Tuning on it, unless we used it as an effect on some of the backing vocals."
Speaking of backing vocals, the album is notable for counterpointing Almond's plaintive lead lines with some highly processed, textural harmony parts. "That was a guy called Chris Braide, who's an amazing singer," explains Dave. "It's the first time we've ever used backing vocalists, and we very much used his voice as an effect, rather than as a conventional, obvious backing vocal sound. He's got a pitch-perfect voice, and we used it to enhance the background, so it's used much more like an effect for the harmonic richness it adds to what Marc's doing. Marc is very much the solo voice, and we just wanted another voice that would be sonically different to his, kind of transparent, in the background. He's like a human Harmonizer!"
"We used automated EQ to get sweeps on it," adds Ingo. "It is much more bright if you listen to the raw recording, it has been closed down on the mix to get that sort of 'effectiness'. We didn't want it to be 'Oh, there's another singer' — it's just another element to the vocal."
Many people find that when they're working with DAWs such as Pro Tools, traditional divisions between the stages of recording and album — tracking and sequencing, mixing and mastering — break down. "There was a period that we called 'mixing the album', but we were still recording during that," confirms Ingo; but this is nothing new to Dave. "That also goes back to early Soft Cell, or when you're doing any recording. You're mixing a track and you go 'It needs a bit of oomph here' — and it could just be putting a delay on the bass line. I think the mixing is as much part of the creative process as writing, particularly in electronic music."
What distinguished the mixing stage in this case was that it represented a conscious effort to unify a disparate collection of recordings, giving them a common sound palette and feel. "The mix was four years of dabbling around condensed into four weeks, really. Some of these tracks originated four years ago, and some of them I wrote in my bedroom last Christmas," explains Dave. "It was getting that uniformity — I didn't want it to sound kind of patchy. As long as the vocal sound is consistent and the drum sound is consistent, I think that's probably the key to it. Ingo spent a lot of time getting a collection of drum sounds and stuff. We made up our mind what sort of sound we wanted and it wasn't going to be 909s. There was bits of 808s, but it definitely wasn't going to be a 909 housey kind of sound. I think in a way it was more like an R&B collection of sounds, much harder sounds."
"The main differences in the mixing this time round were that the sound changed because of the desk, and that we replaced a lot of the sounds at the last minute," agrees Ingo. "Over the last two months we went over all the tracks again. There were a lot more tracks than ended up on the album, and once everyone had agreed what would be on the album we took them apart again and put them back together. The key to making it coherent was reducing the palette quite a lot. We went through all the tracks and replaced the sounds so that although it's not the same drum kit on every track, it's one drum kit for the whole album — there are a few bass drums and a few snare drums, and they'll be reused on different tracks to make it sound like an album. It was good for the project, because some of the tracks went through quite a few permutations before we arrived at something, and then other tracks were like 'first takes' if you like, still quite fresh, almost demos. To bring them all up to the same standard, they were all pulled apart and put back together within this very short period of time, like a day and a half per track."
The flip side of the freedom that digital audio provides, allowing you to rework material so radically late in the day, is that it can become hard to know when your recordings are finished. Dave Ball, however, retains a firm attitude. "Working with computers, there's a danger of doing things just because you can," says Ingo. "Dave's very much like 'No. We don't need it.'"
"The key thing is to finish before the deadline," insists Dave. "If you work to the deadline, it means you're trying to put everything in it until the last minute. You should actually walk away from it before the deadline, and go 'Yes, I know it's done,' when you've got two days spare or whatever. And that's a better feeling."
So did they come away from Cruelty Without Beauty with a good feeling? "We had about 30 minutes spare this time round," laughs Ingo. "We'd been working so long together, and to me it focuses what we've been doing for the last few years — this is the culmination of that process, and a point from where to move on now."
Soft Cell are touring for most of the rest of the year, giving Ingo a rare opportunity to venture into the world of live sound. So where will they move on from this point? "I don't see Soft Cell carrying on making records in 15 years," says Dave Ball. "We want to be more involved in production. It's one of those opportunities that happens, and we thought 'Let's just do it.' It had to involve Ingo, I wouldn't have gone 'Right, see you later mate, I'm going to go off and work with Mike Thorne or someone.' I hope that people don't just listen to the music on this album, I hope they listen to the production, because I'm really proud of the production."