How Night Drive Makes & Performs Its Retro-Modern Synth-Pop

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Unless perhaps you live in the state yourself, most people would not think of Texas as the place to birth 2017’s quintessential album for merging the post-punk synth pop of ‘80s bands like Depeche Mode and The Human League with the post-punk dance rock of 2000’s bands like The Faint and She Wants Revenge.
(Lead photo above by Brian Parker.)

However, the modern-day Texan urban centers are not ‘90s Waco, and Night Drive are not most people. They are Austin’s Rodney Connell and Houston’s Brandon Duhon, and they’ve been steadily crafting the songs and sounds of their debut full-length album Night Drive (out June 16 on Roll Call Records) ever since their 2013 Position I EP produced songs like the nu-wave should-be-classic “Drones.”
Since then, the selection of acts that Night Drive has opened for—from The Psychedelic Furs to Miami Horror—tells you of the decades-spanning appeal of the band’s floor-friendly songs. Night Drive’s music goes as well with high-top kicks and skinny jeans as it does with eyeliner and mousse.

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To go along with Connell’s sneakily catchy melodies and macabre affected vocals, Duhon’s rolling synth basslines, evocative pads, and arpeggios drift across a backbone of straight-ahead programmed beats and rhythmic guitar licks. The duo does most of their writing remotely, getting together over a multi-hour drive for recording sessions.

Night Drive’s lead single: “Rise and Fall”

Duhon usually builds the “skeleton” of the music with virtual instruments (see "The Soft Parade" below for specific examples) and then adds some essential analog warmth at the arrangement stage. His commons analog weapons include the Roland Juno-60 polyphonic analog synth and the Moog Sub Phatty ($839) monophonic synth most often for basses.

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“I like to have at least one analog sound in each of the songs,” Duhon told Electronic Musician. “It colors the whole thing. I guess the tendency nowadays for electronic music is to make it very cold and crisp, but booth Rodney and I really like a warmer sound. We do 100 percent of the mixing on our side, but when we send it off to our mastering guy, we always try and push him to keep it warmer.”

Utilizing his sizable collection of analog guitar pedals left over from his days in a shoegaze band, Duhon will also color some of his synths by running them through favorites like the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff distortion.

“We’ll play a pad sound through that, and it will give it a cool, weird sound,” Duhon said. “A lot of times I want it to not just be strictly a pad or stringy sound, but something that's a little bit more odd. We both like to try to capture an otherworldly-ish sound.”

After Duhon sends instrumental sketches to Connell, the singer will choose the tracks on which he feels a vocal vibe. “Once he throws in his vocals into the mix, that's like the second ingredient to the chemical,” Duhon said. “Then once we do the arrangement, we get into the studio together.”

They recorded the music in Houston and most of the vocals at Cacaphony Recorders in Austin, except for the time when some friends got them access to the inside of a water tower. “It had crazy acoustics inside,” Duhon said. “Reverb that just went on forever. We recorded some vocals there that we layered into ‘Arboria.’”

These two Night Drive photos by Andrea Dane.

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Duhon has mastered his own music and other bands’ music in the past, using iZotope Ozone software as his primary mastering tool, but Night Drive uses a regular mastering engineer in New York. “Since we do all the mixing on our own, we feel like there has to be some objective step in the process where an outside ear hears it,” Duhon said. “Before we send it out, we have our own mastered versions, and then we A/B the two mastered versions. It's a learning experience for me. We've been working with the same person all this time, and he's learned our aesthetic more and more. Hopefully there will be a point where we just send it in, and he knows exactly how we want it based on the song.”

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With nine up-tempo tracks of melodic synth energy in the middle, Night Drive has plenty of good options for club-ready singles, but the album is bookended at the front and back with a bit more brooding, mellow atmospheres that exemplify the band’s proclaimed love for sci-fi soundscapes. Even though they were advised to front-load the album for the singles-driven streaming market, Duhon said they preferred to treat the record like a cohesive work of art, with a steady palette of sounds and a deliberate tracklist.

“We thought that if we let a particular program, app, or this or that decide how we're going to make the album, and then five years from now that thing doesn't even exist anymore, that’s not a smart way to do it,” Duhon said. “We just decided we're going to make it an album. It's all for the sake of how we wanted it to sound as a whole and not take those other things into so much consideration. The album's hopefully going to be there for a while, and I still feel like people will appreciate that sort of thing.”

Those weren’t Night Drive’s only premeditated plans for this collection of songs. While the band does make electronic-based dance music, these are pop/rock-format songs, and they were always meant to be performed live as a band. Initially, the band performed as just a duo, with Duhon behind a command center of the Moog Sub Phatty, a Novation Ultranova, a guitar, and a Roland SPD-SX percussion pad for drum sounds and running backing tracks.

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He still uses the same setup, but they recently added Gibran Nassif on the drum kit for live shows. “He just sent us a YouTube video with him playing drums to all of our songs,” Duhon said. “He had already memorized all of them. And he's a drum teacher, so he's kind of a badass! He's been playing drums for us ever since.”

The SPD-SX still acts as the “brain” for running backing tracks and sending the beat to Nassif to play to. SPD-SX, which has become so, so useful to us. We initially bought it just as a drum pad, and we were using it just as a drum pad. And then I was looking for something that could play some backing tracks that I could trigger, with a foot pedal or something, that had some internal memory. Because “In my previous band I used a laptop to play stuff through Ableton Live, and it would crash maybe once every show,” Duhon said. “It was terrible. The SPD-SX has become so useful to us.”

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He chose the Novation UltraNova for it’s size, variety of sounds, arpeggiator, and vocoder. “I use that for a lot of the pad sounds,” Duhon said. “I wanted a synth that was powerful but also compact for touring. I was picking between that and the Roland Gaia SH-01. They're both about three octaves, but I went with the UltraNova because of the internal vocoder. I used to take my Juno-60 to shows with my old band, but that guy's just way too unwieldy. It’s twice as heavy, and the wood side paneling would always chip off when I hit a doorway.”

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Night Drive will be playing album release parties in its dual home cities this week, as well as in July, before heading off on a more extensive West Coast tour. The band accompanies its shows with visual effects by the director of its “Easy to Lie” video, Christian Haberkern. “He made some super cool visuals from the New York subway with these surreal, floating orbs and stuff like that,” Duhon said. “He's really, really good with [Adobe] After Effects.”

Check or their Facebook page for tour updates.

The Soft Parade
In addition to its analog gear, Night Drive relies on a lot of different plug-in synths, as well, as illustrated in these following examples from their debut album. But even though virtual instruments provide infinite options, the Night Drive album maintains a very consistent and cohesive sound, probably because Connell and Duhon share similar tastes and often agree on the best sounds to choose.

“I’ll come up with the initial instrumental,” Duhon said, “and one of the pluses to plug-ins is that we can go back and switch out a sound with another one if it's not quite nailing the vibe that we want.”

“Easy to Lie”
We like to layer several different VSTs along with analog sound from our Moog Sub Phatty for basses. Sometimes we'll even use Logic's built-in synth generator to create one of the layers; it has its own unique flavor. For bass we find it's often best to layer sounds from different sources, so they fill in the frequency "gaps" of the other ones. We almost always use multiple bass tracks, but one is usually the dominant sound. The others are pulled back, so they aren't specifically heard but rather add color to the dominant sound. As an example, when the drums kick in on “Easy to Lie” you can hear that a live bass guitar is the dominant sound, but there are also two other synth bass tracks underneath—one coming from the Moog Sub Phatty and one coming from a [freeware] synth we occasionally use called [Datsounds] OBXD. —Brandon Duhon

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“Sky Machine”
The pads in “Sky Machine” use the Korg MonoPoly plug-in [$49]. You can stack 4 waveforms, which is excellent for making thick sounds. —Brandon Duhon

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“Ghost Craft”
Applied Acoustic Systems have the Ultra Analog VA-2 [$199] that we use for a lot of textural and atmospheric sounds, like the opening sound in “Ghost Craft.” —Brandon Duhon

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