Long-Distance Connection: Junior Boys on Modular Synths and Transatlantic Collaboration

It sounds like a cliché: Electronically inclined Canadian music composer gains success and moves to Berlin— the home of synth-tone purists. But that’s exactly what Matt Didemus— one half of poptronica duo Junior Boys—did in 2006, shortly after the release of the Boys’ sophomore release, So This Is Goodbye.

The album title was not some prophetic statement on the pair’s collaborative future, however. Didemus and his still North America–rooted production partner Jeremy Greenspan found ways to mitigate the impact distance could have on creativity. And the inspiration of ’70s yacht-rock session drummers and vintage avantgarde synth-pop resulted in acid house and MOR-toned oscillations. But don’t expect the kind that could be confused for the modernist repetitions of minimal, dub-flecked techhouse as associated with Berlin transplants in recent years. Splitting time and sound libraries between studios in Germany and Hamilton, Ontario, the Junior Boys forged analog sources and digital editing into Begone Dull Care [Domino]—an eighttrack album named in homage to mid- 20th Century animator/synthesis innovator Norman McLaren.

“Basically, we came to the conclusion that we like digital arrangement tools as opposed to stuff that generates sounds,” Greenspan says. “We rarely use software instruments, because I find they are just too precise. You can obviously generate the random in software, but I like hearing the weird glitches—and how you’re literally playing with wires—when you’re following an audio signal or control voltages that modulate it. I love hearing the tangibility.”

Gear polygamists, Didemus and Greenspan took Begone Dull Care as an opportunity to get modular. While Minimoog and Roland Juno-106 synths make regular appearances across the album, they were patched in alongside a Studio Electronics Omega 8, a Dave Smith Prophet ’08, and a Doepfer Analog Modular System A-100.

“Modulars are a great way to learn about sound,” Didemus says. “The logic flow can get a bit confusing, and, because they are open-ended, the sounds you create might not work in the song the way you want them to. But if you have a good setup, you can get sounds where you are saying to yourself, ‘Wow, that is amazing.’ You can feel really excited about what you have done, while feeling almost if it wasn’t you who did it.”

On “Bits & Pieces,” the guys layered the Omega and the Prophet on the chorus, with the Juno on the lead and a Rhodes piano for chords. They used very little processing other than extreme EQ on the Omega to make what Didemus calls a “guitar-like sound.

“Avoiding drenching sounds in effects, and focusing on arrangements with good source sounds is, in part, how our sound is achieved,” Didemus says.

Percussion on the pulsating, arpeggiated track “Parallel Lines” came partially from working with a modular synth to produce a smashing snare, and then using the brain from old Simmons drum pads as a series of CV triggers for sequencing.

Didemus leans toward his Berlin room for recording bass through its EMT console.

“The EMT seems to augment the low end and smooth out transients in the high end,” Didemus says. “But the Hamilton studio—which features a TL Audio VTC console—has more channels, more converters, and more outboard gear, so it’s easier to mix there.”

Through Ableton Live, Didemus would send out MIDI clock to a Kenton MIDI-to-CV/DIN converter, which would then send out DIN sync to a Roland MC-202 and clock to a Doepfer step sequencer, and, sometimes, Moogerfooger pedals. All of this was recorded back into Ableton, where the core groove was sliced into clips, which where then looped and manipulated.

Meanwhile, Greenspan works more with Apple Logic, which he prefers for its visual analysis tools, as well as its ring modulation, chorus, panning, and delay plug-ins.

When editing vocals, Greenspan resists the temptation to make things too clean by pitch correcting. Instead, he subscribes to the “Neil Young school of recording,” and any editing is done to create texture, rather than to fix imperfections.

“One day I might want to experiment with using the sheen of ultraclean pop music as a trippy effect, but, for this record, we wanted people to hear the thought process behind the songs as the sequences played out,” Greenspan says.

That slightly more human approach was applied to the synths in “Work.” The synth drone before the verses originated with a sawtooth waveform from the Mimimoog, and a very long envelope on the VCA fed through a complex reverb-like multitap delay followed by a Moog Phaser pedal. Subtle changes to the Moog filter’s cutoff—along with changes in the phaser’s rate/LFO—created a dense wash that varied slightly as the sequence progresses, achieving a more live feel to the pattern.

While suited to track synths and mix sessions, one thing neither of the Boys’ studios was meant to handle was recording vocals. So Didemus and Greenspan turned to Guy Sternberg’s LowSwing studio in Berlin, which featured Neumann U 47 and AKG C 12 microphones, a Requisite PAL Plus MKIII preamp/compressor, Cadac G-268f and Neve 33114 preamps, a Urei LA-4A compressor, and Mytek A/D converters.

On “Hazel,” the AKG was fed into the Requisite at a 3:1 ratio, with the gain make-up done using the “negative feedback” control in order to get more tube color, with a very soft knee. In some instances, Didemus used an EMT plate reverb. The result is a cradle of low end on the verses that swings with subtle, laid-back flair, and supports the track’s tranquil protodisco groove.

“Our album should be markedly quieter than a lot of new albums,” Greenspan reflects. “We wanted a lot of variation. A lot of the time with mastering, you just see these blocks— these giant square waves. We prefer the headroom of analog, pushing the sound to get it warm.”