The challenge: to remix 10 Depeche Mode albums in surround — while recreating the signature sounds created by the band and some of the world’s greatest producers. As Mute Records’ Head Engineer Kevin Paul explains, it was never going to be easy!
When I first heard that Mute Records were celebrating Depeche Mode’s 25th anniversary by reissuing their album back-catalogue in surround sound, I wasn’t expecting great things. Sure, the albums would be good — they already were — but other than a little noise reduction and remastering, what could really be improved? Having heard the new mixes, though, I was compelled to put my cynicism aside, as they strike exactly the right balance between the ‘authentic’ sound of the original records and modern production values. In fact, the surround mixes are wonderfully open–sounding, and rank amongst the best I’ve heard — reflecting the extraordinary lengths to which the team working on these records went to capture, in painstaking detail, the feel of the originals. The scale of the task was immense, and meant mix engineer Kevin Paul having to learn to mix in the style of some of the most respected producers around — and to make the mixes convincing to them!
The story begins with Mute’s Operations Manager, Dave Rowntree, known to the world as Noggin. Kevin Paul, Mute’s Head Engineer, had worked with Ben Hillier on surround mixes of Depeche’s Playing The Angel, plus Songs Of Faith And Devotion live and 101, the band’s live album from the Music For The Masses tour of the US in the ’80s. The material seemed to lend itself brilliantly to surround, so, Noggin reasoned, what better to offer the fans in recognition of their 25–year love affair with the band than surround mixes of the rest of the Depeche album back-catalogue? Not only would such a project provide one of the most complete retrospective overhauls of a band’s portfolio, but it would also afford a welcome opportunity to go through the Depeche archives and put everything in good order for the future. As they were later to find out, that really did need doing!
As the plan was scoped out, other opportunities were added to the wish list: SACD and DVD–A mixes, and a DVD video to accompany each album, featuring interviews with band members and — more intriguingly — the various producers and engineers who’ve worked with Depeche Mode over the years, as well as live footage to be accompanied by a surround mix. Mute founder and MD Daniel Miller explains that “It wasn’t really about an anniversary — there are too many of them coming up! You can’t do something for them all, and I wouldn’t really want to, I don’t really like looking back. This project was very much directed towards the fanbase. People are so used to hearing remixes, but we wanted to do something different. You have an idea when you agree to do these things of what it entails, but you don’t really think about how long it takes, or how much work will be involved. It grew into a massive project, but it was extremely worthwhile to do.”
Authenticity is an interesting concept in music, and the subject of many academic studies, but when Kevin Paul says that they aimed “to make the new mixes as authentic as possible”, his meaning is clear. To Depeche Mode’s fanatical fans, the records and CDs that have been released over the years have become the ‘authentic’ versions, despite the many alternative mixes available. This certainly placed a burden of expectation on the project team. Kevin Vanbergen of FX Copyroom, who worked closely with Kevin Paul, admitted that “From the outset it was like ‘This has to be 100 percent right — otherwise we’ll be strung up for it!’”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the most authentic surround mixes would be ‘faux surround’ up–mixes of the original stereo masters — after all, nothing can be more authentic than the original mix. However, the team were not convinced this would deliver what they wanted. “We wanted it to be a high–end product,” says Kevin Paul. “We didn’t want it to be just a reissue. The producers at the time would not have up–mixed — they would have mixed for surround and would have used the available space to full effect, rather than simply stripping ambience to the back.” Mastering engineer Simon Heyworth confirms the view: “The listening experience [of faux surround] is amazing, but it’s a psychoacoustic effect, and you really need to be in the middle to get the full benefit.”
Instead, Kevin chose to take a more ambitious approach, remixing all the albums from the multitracks. Using the original stereo masters as a reference, he would, in his words, “attempt to do the mix as if, for example, Flood, or Dave Bascombe were in the studio back then, but with the benefits of today’s technology”. The process was as difficult as it sounds.
The first step was to ensure that Kevin Paul actually had access to all the original recorded material. This pre–production process was largely shared between Kevin Vanbergen and Roger Johnson. Vanbergen had the responsibility of trawling through the archive material, baking tapes and transferring them into Pro Tools, while Johnson had the job of checking that all the parts were there for the mixes, identifying any effects that needed to be applied to the raw tracks, and painstakingly recreating the basic balances in Pro Tools, including any level changes that might have been applied on the original mixes. The idea was that Kevin Paul would be able to put his entire focus on the job of mixing, rather than be distracted by salvage and restoration work. There was a certain amount of overlap between the two as they worked to identify which tapes contained the final mixes, checking that the right samples and patches were available, and determining where effects had been applied during the original mix. All of this was rather more of a challenge than it might sound.
Depeche Mode’s albums have been released over what is, in technological terms, the most volatile and varied period in the recording industry. Their debut, Speak & Spell, was recorded in the first part of 1981 and released later that year, and there was a pretty steady output of albums throughout the ’80s, with a few more following in the ’90s and this decade. Although there were synths and sequencers involved, mixes for their early albums were done in the conventional way, using multitrack tape and analogue desks, so there were few archiving problems. Likewise, their two most recent albums, Ultra and Playing The Angel, were recorded and mixed in Pro Tools, which made for easy recall of Sessions.
For everything in between, though, there was no such luck: both the band and the various producers had wholeheartedly embraced the new technologies that became available to them over this time, and consequently the pre–production team was presented, by a wonderfully efficient archive staff, with mountains of material in innumerable formats. There were hundreds of floppy disks of synth patches and samples for use with obscure samplers, Atari sequencer sessions, hard disk recordings, multitrack and stereo tape masters... you get the picture.
Furthermore, many of the tracks had undergone several different mixes, all of which, in good faith, had been labelled ‘final mix’ at the time, not to mention remixes, which meant it was difficult just tracking down the right tapes to work with. Vanbergen remembers that “‘Personal Jesus’, on tape, was the song as we all know it, so we imported it into Pro Tools and listened, and then suddenly it goes off into this dance remix version, so I had to hunt through seven or eight different versions.
“The first album where we started to notice that things were not on the tapes was Music For The Masses, which was on very early Mitsubishi 32–track digital tape.” Things became more challenging on Violator: “I had about 20 or 30 different tapes for ‘World In My Eyes’ and I had to get them all to sync up and try to find the missing sounds. There is a snare–drum drop which is reversed — completely flipped. It wasn’t on any of the tapes and it turned out it was most likely to have been done on an Akai with an Atari, run wild, so that was something Roger [Johnson] had to do. He had to find the sample and flip it and get the sound back. Everything then was backed up on floppy disks which now no–one can ever work. It is nigh–on an impossibility to get them to work as they did back then.”
Even when it was clear which samples should be where, finding them involved plenty of sleuth work. “The better part of Songs Of Faith & Devotion,” Vanbergen recalls, “is that because we had recalls for that album, we had a definitive log of what was missing, and when I was doing the transfers I could hear them and say ‘This is missing, that is missing.’ We got an Atari with Cubase and an S1000, and it worked to a degree, as we could get the samples into Pro Tools and fly them in where needed, and convert the MIDI files too, if needed. But some of the samples were missing and we discovered that most of the floppy disks weren’t working, so I put a dossier together and gave it to [DM’s] Alan Wilder.”
Fortunately, Wilder had retained absolutely everything from over the years, backed up on to DAT, and kept it in great order (there’s a lesson for budding musicians and producers in there somewhere!): “As far as we were aware, these were the only existing backups of the material they used live. Alan came in and sat down with Roger and basically reprogrammed the parts for that album. A real jigsaw puzzle!”
The band’s live programmer from that period was also a great help in assembling missing material. “We had to get Kerry Hopwood to go to the live tapes to source the sounds that they used for those,” explains Mute Studio Manager MJ. “He was instrumental, as he had done some of the programming. He had backups of early versions of Logic and he converted all the files to audio starting at bar one, beat one, and wrote a fantastic little log of what happened where”.
Eventually, every single original sample that did not exist in the master recordings was tracked down, including further sounds found on remixed versions of the tracks. With patch and sample material collated, the team now had to hire the machines that could read and play them, including a wide range of synths, now–obsolete samplers and mix effects. Some of the latter, such as Eventide Harmonizers, had to be identified by ear, and suitable units either rented or tracked down and bought second–hand.
Following such immaculate preparation, it would be tempting to think that the mixing and mastering processes themselves would be relatively easy — but things are never that straightforward. First, there was the question of logistics. With release schedules and deadlines exerting increasing pressure, the sheer quantity of work meant that the mix workload needed to be split up. Kevin Paul did the mixing for most of the albums, with Roger Johnson preparing the sessions as described above, but Roger took the lead on mixing for Construction Time Again and much of A Broken Frame. The multitasking meant that MJ had to make available the facilities to keep the work flowing — which meant that as well as Mute’s Studio One and Two, they also had Pro Tools setups in the live room and in a private studio in Epsom, Surrey.
The mixing process was far from easy: it is difficult enough for a producer to develop their own mixing style, but Kevin Paul had to become a chameleon, to “learn to mix in the style of some of the great producers, such as Francois Kevorkian, Flood, Daniel Miller, Gareth Jones and Dave Bascombe”. It would have been difficult enough to do this well enough to convince the fans, but he had also to do well enough to make the mixes convincing to those same producers — talk about high standards!
The surround medium added to the steepness of the learning curve, because there is no universal agreement as to what constitutes a good surround mix for a studio album. “There are no benchmarks, really,” says Heyworth.
“There is no Sergeant Pepper of surround sound,” agrees Kevin Paul. “There’s no Dark Side Of The Moon — although the surround mix of that is very good!”
Before starting out, he and Heyworth listened to a range of other surround material, making a mental note of where something worked well on a particular track, and established ground rules for themselves. Backing vocals, for example, tended mainly to go in the rear speakers: “That was quite a deliberate thing, to give some continuity on the records,” Kevin recalls. His approach to surround mixing is described in more detail in the ‘Tips For Surround Mixing’ box.
As often as not, though, getting it right came down to what worked, and seeking plenty of third–party input. Kevin Paul was lucky enough to get some of the original producers to lend their time to the project, offering views on his mixes and helping him to nail the sound. “On a lot of records, there are, say, five elements that make up the sound,” says Kevin. “If you start dissecting those elements, you lose the sound. So, on the Depeche Mode stuff, where a lot of the sounds were layered, you had to ask yourself what you could pan out. Daniel Miller and the producers would say ‘Look, you’ve panned those three bass parts out, but it’s lost the sound of the bass. Let’s put them back at the front and find something else to move.’”
Individual albums within the catalogue threw up their own unique problems. “Black Celebration,” says Kevin, “was almost the last album we remixed, and it was quite difficult because it had such a specific sound. As you know, they recorded it in Hansa studios, and of course you couldn’t buy the room in a unit — you had literally to emulate a room in Germany with modern reverbs. We tried convolution — we tried loads of things — and I hope we got as close as we possibly could to it, but I don’t think we were ever going to get it exactly unless we went to Germany and actually did it there.
“Violator was an incredibly complex album from the mix point of view. Francois Kevorkian mixed it and he had so many things going on in the tracks that there were some songs which were very, very difficult. ‘Waiting For The Night’ was a particularly hard song — not hard to recreate but complicated. It has something like 15 different delays in it — there are loads of little spins on the end of lines of vocals and drums, and it is amazing. I had the recall notes from Violator, so I knew what they were using and what effects, and I had to try and piece together the recall notes with the music. Some of the effects I had to just try to do my best to recreate, by bouncing the delays and using distortion.
“It is actually one of the songs I enjoy the most in 5.1, but the process of recreating it was incredibly complex. I remember at times thinking ‘How would he do this? How could he possibly try to get that effect?’ and it was a combination of three or four effects, certainly. I’d get the [Eventide] H3000s out and patch them across and try to use the presets that were written on the recall to see if it was anywhere close — sometimes it wasn’t and sometimes it was. But even as you were finishing the mix you were thinking ‘Yeah, I’ve got everything, everything’s fine,’ and there’d be something else and you’d think ‘Aaargh, what’s he doing?’ and it would turn out to be another snare or kick drum reverb, or a delay on the bass line would suddenly shoot in.”
Another of the tracks mixed by Kevorkian caused just as many problems: “‘Sweetest Perfection’ was completely crazy. It has lots of tape loops, lots of phasing, all sorts of crazy sounds going on. That was really hard to emulate and I had to put my personal spin on it just to get it to work.” But it wasn’t just Violator that posed stiff challenges: “‘In Your Room’ from Songs Of Faith & Devotion was really tough, really hard to get right. ‘Black Celebration’ — the title track off the album — was really hard because the sounds were so unique. Gareth [Jones] and myself were scratching our heads and even Gareth was saying ‘I can’t remember!’”
Logistical concerns meant that, far from being a single, huge, sequential project, the remix project ended up being a large programme of smaller projects, with all the different phases happening in parallel for different albums. Nevertheless, to tackle the entire catalogue in little over a year was a remarkable achievement. “Mixing started in September 2005 and finished in October 2006,” Kevin Paul says. “That’s 13 months, and we did 10 albums. The pre–production was done a couple of weeks in advance, but we had a process where, while I was mixing one, the pre–prod was being done on another. We were sending it off to Simon while I was mixing and getting feedback.
“Now we’ve done it and the albums are coming out, there’s a bit of reflection on the project and it really was completely satisfying to have done it, and to get all the feedback. When someone like Simon Heyworth, who has done hundreds of surround albums, tells you he really enjoys the work, that’s an incredible accreditation.”
Promisingly for fans of other Mute artists, Daniel Miller believes it would be worth doing more surround work: “I think that if you’re into 5.1, any artist can be mixed sympathetically for surround. It isn’t just Depeche Mode — we’ve done surround mixes for other artists as well, such as Moby [whose Play album was also mixed for surround by Kevin Paul]. It could work as well for a band like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds as well as it does for Depeche — the important thing is to be sympathetic to the performance.”
Kevin Paul, too, is keen to do more work in surround. “I’d like to get a rock band into 5.1 and see what we can do with that. See how we can take drums, bass, guitar, and put that into a 5.1, because if we can, we could maybe persuade more bands to do 5.1. I’d love to tackle the Radiohead back catalogue in 5.1 — that would be amazing!”
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that he’s emerged from the project with his sanity intact. “We came out of it,” laughs Kevin Paul, “and I can still listen to Depeche Mode. Which is good!”
Surround sound has been with us for many years now, in one form or another, but while it has enjoyed success in the film world, it has remained something of a niche format for music. As Daniel Miller admits, “5.1 hasn’t taken off like people thought it would. It has for film, obviously, but not for music. But it is still worth doing; there are still people who enjoy it.”
However, both Kevin Paul and Simon Heyworth have a real and passionate belief in 5.1 surround, and think it is just a matter of time before it is more widely adopted. “When I was a bit younger, when they first had the idea of Dolby surround sound on VHS, nobody had it, but with the advent of DVD people wanted it,” Kevin Paul explains. “The people who grew up with technology when they were 19–25, they wanted it. As the next generation of consumers grow older, they’ll be used to surround sound from the movies, and they’ll want their music in surround sound. The idea behind the whole Depeche Mode project is to promote the 5.1 format as a musical format. When you hear the surround sound and you hear the stereo, it’s a no–brainer as to what sounds better. If enough people hear about it, people in their bedrooms making music will start to make music in surround sound, it is as simple as that.
“There are a couple of things we need to be confident about. People aren’t going to be able to buy a stereo system in the near future, you’ll buy a home entertainment system with five speakers. You can buy a cheap system in the supermarket now which gives you access to the medium, and you can get 5.1 in your car now — I’ve seen Volvo do this, for example. They’ve also made a surround sound version of the MP3. You’ll download it to the iPod, drop it into the surround dock, or pop on your surround headphones [Kevin was evaluating Beyerdynamic’s Headzone surround headphone system when we spoke], and you’ll be able to hear it in surround. I don’t believe for one second that they won’t do that. As the speed of the Internet goes up and storage gets bigger, you will be able to download higher–quality sounds.”
Heyworth explains more about the technical advances that mean surround sound has a future: “MPEG Surround was ratified by the AES last July, so it is now available to be licensed by developers of hardware and software. You need a surround interface, but it comes as a single file, so it is very convenient, and it sounds great. They’ve also been aiming it at digital radio, which you’ll get streamed to your computer in surround.”
In the meantime, Heyworth’s work as a mastering engineer involved creating separate masters for the surround and stereo SACD and DVD–Video formats.
Kevin Paul started in the music industry as a DJ in 1987, championing the fledgling hip–hop and rave scenes that were burgeoning at the time. After several years, he moved towards the studio environment, going first to Soho Studios and then to Konk Studios, six months later, where he worked with successful producers and engineers such as Bob Clearmountain, Adam Mosley, Pascal Gabriel and Gil Norton, not to mention artists such as the Kinks, Galliano, Terrorvision, UFO and Elastica. He worked on archiving the back catalogue of Depeche Mode and was offered an engineering role at Mute, where, in 1997, he became Head Engineer. Here, he worked with artists such as David Bowie, Goldfrapp and Nick Cave, to mention but a few. More recently, he has moved into the world of 5.1 surround mixing, where his work includes records with The Inspiral Carpets, Erasure, Moby, Goldfrapp — and, of course, Depeche Mode.
I asked Kevin Paul and Simon Heyworth to share their tips for people just starting out in surround mixing.
- The Centre Speaker
SH: “The big hot potato in the surround debate is what you do with the centre speaker in music: it is a four–speaker experience.”
KP: “I use [the 5.1 setup] as a quad system with an effects speaker. I use it as a way of focusing the listener’s attention at the front of the music field. It’s not like film, because you don’t have a screen to focus your attention. So you use the centre speaker.”
- Compression & EQ
KP: “Your balance can be quite different to stereo, but your EQ has to be more precise because you can hear everything. You can get away with two sounds not quite balanced properly, as you would need to do in stereo, but the EQ of those sounds has to be much more specific because you have more space for everything from each speaker. If you are trying to fit four guitars in one or two speakers, your balance has to be more precise, where in surround you can put one guitar in each speaker.”
KP: “When stereo first came out, people said ‘Two speakers? Why do we want two speakers?’ Panning was all over the place. The same has happened in surround.”
KP: “I don’t generally pan the reverb of individual tracks. Just by moving the source sound around, it creates depth anyway. If you add reverb just in the rear speakers you have the natural depth of the sound, just as you would in a huge arena or something. Primarily I use the Waves 360–degree reverb — it has depth built into the sound and it is very instinctive to create the space that you want. If I didn’t have that reverb, it would have been a lot harder to put the sound in 3D — in surround.”
- Getting Started
KP: “It’s fine to learn on your 5.1 home cinema system [if you can’t afford a high–spec surround setup]. I know a couple of surround mixers who mix on that, then take it into the studio for a couple of days to sort it out. Of course, you have to make sure your system’s set up right — obviously these guys have years of experience sorting out their surround systems at home. I think people just have to dive in and start using it. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. You have to make mistakes in order to learn what is good — though not too many of them, obviously...”