“It’s true I found myself having to pull back and come up with a different sound on this record,” says singer and Erasure frontman Andy Bell, explaining how Mute label founder Daniel Miller urged him to switch gears from the soaring vocal lines and giddy synth melodies that have defined Erasure throughout the dance-pop duo’s 25-year history. “If I was going to take the time off from Erasure, I was determined to try something else altogether. So the vague idea was inspired a little by Daft Punk and Miss Kittin, crossed with a bit of Ladytron and M’s ‘Pop Muzik.’ It was quite strange to go into making an album that doesn’t sound like me, but it was big fun in the studio.”
Starting about two years ago, Bell began fleshing out demos with Stephen Hague and then Jon Collyer, both of whom had worked with Erasure in the past. The sessions were fruitful, but it wasn’t until Bell re-connected with Belgium-born (and London-based) producer Pascal Gabriel—known for his groundbreaking acid/breakbeat collaborations with S’Express and Tim Simenon’s Bomb the Bass, as well as more recent projects with Kylie Minogue, Bebel Gilberto, Miss Kittin, and Ladyhawke—that the ball really got rolling.
“I did a remix for Erasure back in the late ’80s,” Gabriel notes, “but we hadn’t got together since then, so I knew this would be a great opportunity. Andy wanted to make a real hard dance record, very contemporary and very modern. Everything you hear now on the radio, from Lady Gaga to whatever, it’s really crunched and cranked up—I mean, you look at the waveform and you can’t see anything. So we deliberately went for that, with a variety of crunchy distortions in our sound palette, because I think Andy was very conscious of not being polite with this album.”
Indeed, Non-Stop is anything but cordial. The album’s first single “Call on Me” opens with a simple three-chord ditty played on a cheap Yamaha PC-100 Portasound, then crashes into a double-helixed Korg 700/Moog Voyager bass line and a bit-crushed midtempo club beat (programmed with Sonic Charge’s µTonic software, which Gabriel used to build at least six different “kits” for the album). Bell himself sings in more of a throaty midrange, with his layered vocals in the song’s chorus immersed in psychedelic stereo flanges and a lo-fi shimmer of distortion. At times the vocals sound as though they were tracked hot, as close to a 0dB ceiling as possible with requisite clipping and compression, but Gabriel makes it clear he has subtler methods at his disposal.
“I always record vocals as clean as possible to keep all options open,” he says. “I compressed just enough to give Andy’s voice some presence, without peaking too high—nothing fancy really.” Bell’s mics of choice were either a vintage Neumann Gefell UM 57 (through a Neve 33115 mic pre and EAR 660 compressor to an Apogee Ensemble interface, and from there into Logic Pro) or a Sennheiser Blackfire 541 (through a Universal Audio LA-610).
After committing a few clean passes to Logic, the effects processing would begin. “We used a variation of things on the album,” Gabriel says. “Mainly, it was Logic’s Guitar Amp and Pedalboard plug-ins, but I also used a modified megaphone [see Melophobia.com/studio] that has a 1/4-inch input so I can send whatever I want to it and then mic it up. I also have a range of small amplifiers that I send stuff to—just so the track can get out of the box and take some air, and then I blend it in with the clean source.”
For the liquid flanging and phasing that cycles through “Call on Me” and, most notably, the darksounding “Running Out” and the brilliantly catchy “Say What You Want,” the vocals were blended in a similar fashion. “In the verse on ‘Say What You Want,’ Andy sang an octave below the main vocal, and then we put that through [Celemony] Melodyne and squarified it to make it sound more robotic. There’s a Korg 700 line following him very quietly as well—it ends up sounding almost like a Peter Frampton-style talkbox. I remember spending hours just moving things about until each syllable would match up with the synth.”
Gabriel would also turn to Logic’s Sample Delay plug-in, as well as Universal Audio’s emulation of the Roland Dimension D (usually at the highest of four possible “mode” settings), for more effects options throughout Non-Stop. “I usually have three tracks for the lead vocal,” he says. “I’ll mix the clean one in the middle, with the effected tracks in stereo so you get this kind of otherworldly left-and-right swimming thing going on in your head.”
Bell himself took immediately to Gabriel’s experimental touch. “One thing I quite like is de-tuning the vocals a bit,” he explains, “so you have a sharp one just above you and a flat one underneath, and then mixing those together. Pascal would show me amazing things like that, and more often than not I’d go with his first idea because it would work so well with the track.”
Logic’s Pitch Correction function, softened with low-level doses of the Chorus and Ensemble plugins, does the trick, as heard in the Bowie-esque “Subject/Object” (replete with the cascading sounds of a vintage Roland G-707 guitar synth). Then there’s the epic electro-punk chorus of “Touch,” which opens with an arpeggio mined from Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and also benefits from a sampled-and-reversed scream courtesy of the classic horror comedy Carry on Screaming.
Mixed largely as it was recorded, and mastered for added low-end depth by German producer Pole (né Stefan Betke), Non-Stop marks a resurgent moment for Bell. Whatever happens, he’s sanguine about the future, which includes an upcoming new album from Erasure and some guest DJ appearances in the U.S. “I’m always blown away by the finished sound of anything I work on,” he says, “and with this record I feel like we did something amazing. It’s difficult to break out, especially now, because music is treated so much like fast food, but I’m thankful that Erasure came through in an era when that meant something, you know?”