OMD: The Rhythms, Textures, and Found Sounds of 'English Electric'

THE FUTURE is being silenced, but Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys

 OMD—Paul Humphreys (left) and Andy McCluskey.

THE FUTURE is being silenced, but Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys are not accepting it quietly.

As the core of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) since 1978, McCluskey and Humphreys have invested more than three decades analyzing and incorporating found sounds, repurposed circuitry, synthetic textures, and humanist anxieties into harmonic structures. Now, with OMD’s 12th album, the self-produced English Electric (100% Records/BMG), the duo—again joined by Martin Cooper (keyboards) and Malcolm Holmes (drums, programming), OMD contributors since 1980—has composed a thematically unified nod to the group’s sonic roots that also grapples with modern technology’s efficiencies.

Since debuting with the Factory Records single “Electricity,” OMD has occupied a post-Kraftwerk nexus built atop modernist tone poems contrasted with florid, pop-friendly melodies. Friends since their childhood on the Wirral peninsula (across the Mersey River from Liverpool), McCluskey and Humphreys have long exhibited a penchant for composing synth-pop gems imbued with social commentary and emotional resonance and driven by technology’s promise to reveal new avenues of sonic expression.

“I’ve always been a fan of stereo,” recalls Humphreys. “I fell in love with it very early on, and that’s kind of how Andy and I got on. Andy would buy a lot of German imports when we were kids, around 15, and because I was a geek I built myself a stereo. Andy only had a mono player, so he’d bring his records to my house to listen in stereo, and those listening sessions are how we both had a love and connection to the German electronic musicians of the time.”

For McCluskey and Humphreys, synthesizers represented the future—a future curtailed by the rise of Oasis and Britpop in the 1990s. Whereas synthesizers produced sounds that had never before been heard, and marked a revolution of linear enhancements, the guitar-pop resurgence looked backward to the ’60s and ’70s, stunting what OMD set out to channel.

“We didn’t hate guitars, we just f**king hated guitarists . . . the ones who played horrible, clichéd, stereotypical nonsense on their instruments,” reflects McCluskey, who reiterates that he still plays bass guitar and that OMD was never about eschewing the means, just the ends. However, the guitarists who coveted Beatlesesque melodies and other blatant pop music tropes regained the attention of the world, and OMD went on hiatus throughout much of the ’90s and 2000s.

By 2006, McCluskey and Humphreys found themselves being cited as influences to a new generation of electro/indie pop artists, and they relaunched OMD to perform pre-1983 material, putting out 2010’s History of Modern as a clearinghouse for various sessions recalling multiple eras. English Electric, meanwhile, was conceived as 12 allied tracks answering a compositional challenge to unlearn some musical craftsmanship in order to readdress OMD’s underlying mantra: What does the future sound like?

“We never learned how to cover another band’s songs,” says McClusky. “From the ages of 15 and 16 we set out to write our own music, and we didn’t know how, so we invented our own way of doing things. And I think we took it for granted, so working on this album we decided to go back to ways we initially worked. Those who know [1986 Pretty in Pink soundtrack hit] ‘If You Leave,’ which is very conventional, know us from our craftsmanship period, when we abandoned our own rules, one of which was the overriding parameter of not repeating what someone else has done, including ourselves. So, for this album we didn’t sit down at a piano or guitar, knock out some chords, and say, ‘it’s time to sing on that.’ We invariably started with some kind of textural soundscape or rhythm pattern or found sound we liked.

“When we started, I only had a left-handed bass guitar that I played upside down, because I’m right-handed, and I had that because it was the cheapest one in the shop,” continues McCluskey. “Paul had these noise machines he made, these circuit diagrams of drum machines he used to create pads we would ‘play’ with testing sticks, and we would try things like lobbing a microphone down a long tube and blowing a penny whistle down it, putting that through a fuzz box to see what we could get. If we needed a drone, I’d rub my plectrum on the bridge on my bass guitar with it cranked up to 300 on the desk.

“We were making up how to create sounds and write songs, having a conversation with ourselves, and for this album, we returned to making songs that weren’t defined by whether they went verse, chorus, verse. They have a beginning, something would happen, I might or might not sing, then some other things would happen until our intuition told us there was enough, and we’d adopt new instruments and technology where needed without resorting to presets or sounds we’d previously used. There are still conventional elements on this album, but it’s been fun to strip ourselves back down and to find ways to deal with the dilemma of finding musique concrète material in a world where system redesigns are eradicating noise.”

It’s apropos for OMD to name an album riddled with the conflicts and concerns of obsolescence English Electric, as the now-defunct English Electric company produced the DELTIC Diesel locomotive, which after only six years in service was retired and placed in the London Science Museum, where both McCluskey and Humphreys observed it as youths. “It’s a beautiful, powdery Nanking pale blue, with these fabulous creamy flying chevrons,” reminisces McCluskey. English Electric, which also made aircraft and computers, among other things, was producing the machines of the future, using science to redeem a post-WWII world and transport citizens to and from a utopia that never quite materialized. “We wanted to weld our love of throaty, distinctive engines into music,” says McCluskey.

On the one hand, English Electric is an album that openly acknowledges the dystopia and laments the way solid-state has impacted the audio byproducts that make for good sample fodder. Throughout the album, voices intone statements such as “The future you anticipated has been canceled” and “The future was not supposed to be like this,” underlining the bittersweet collages and pangs of lost innocence that mark many OMD classics. Simultaneously, the album is an unabashedly retro-futuristic, hook-enriched compilation of virtually constructed vignettes and McCluskey and Humphreys’ back muscles celebrate the compact nature of digital. Though proudly DIY, the two are by no means purists.

“To the displeasure and distaste and horror of the younger generation of Moog, Korg, Mellotron, Roland, Sequential Circuits, and E-mu aficionados, etc. . . . we carted these heavy beasts around for years and are perfectly happy to have the soft-synth versions in our Mac computers,” admits McCluskey. “And tuning them . . . they were a law unto themselves.”

“The whole of English Electric was done in soft synths, save for using an Oberheim Matrix 6R and a physical Moog, and we love the flexibility that gives you,” reinforces Humphreys, who even admits to incorporating the iPad version of Korg’s MS-20 to work done with laptops on train rides. “You can keep everything running live, but you can have five instances of a Prophet 5 and 10 instances of the Jupiter-8 and you don’t have to have them in the studio and on MIDI for it to be working together. I love the freedom that gives you, as opposed to committing to one thing that’s printed and you have to backtrack to change things.

“It also means, as Andy and I live 200 miles apart, I can commute from my studio [London-based Bleepworks] up to Liverpool [home to McCluskey’s Motor Museum studio] with all the songs on my laptop and transfer them to his duplicate Pro Tools system,” continues Humphreys. “That way, we can carry on without my having to drive up with a van filled with all my synths that I’ll then have to set up. It would once have been a logistical nightmare.”

Not only did soft synths and DAWs allow for easier collaborations between McCluskey and Humphreys, but also it allowed for more mobile, spontaneous recording. “Paul would come up and we wrote much of the album in the Motor Museum, but from the summer onwards it was finished elsewhere; for example, vocals for ‘Dresden,’ ‘Night Café,’ and several b-sides were recorded in my bedroom; it just didn’t look so good on the credits,” laughs McCluskey. “I just took my G5 out of my programming room, stuck it underneath a cheap office table in a corner of my bedroom overlooking the garden, took a Neumann [U87] from the studio, and stuck it through an Avalon [VT-737SP channel strip], then wondered why I had never done this before.”

Sequencing and recording platforms may have transitioned far from the days of the Fairlight CMI and 16-track 2-inch tape, but one thing that never wavered was McCluskey and Humphrey’s appreciation for Kraftwerk. Not only does English Electric include “Kissing the Machine,” a reworked song originally co-written by Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos and featuring Claudia Brücken as the machine voice, but Humphreys reveals he sporadically employed a soft synth, SYNTH-WERK by Best Service, that allowed him to warp a sonic palette of appropriately Teutonic, metronomic sounds (noticeably on “Metroland”).

“For the big keyboard melodies, I almost always use four different synths to make up the melody, and one was often SYNTH-WERK,” reveals Humphreys. “I’ll have one split into the octaves, one really thin, one with lots of modulation, one not . . . then you put it down with some interesting delay and reverb and it creates this huge melody set. We started doing this in the 1970s with the Korg M500 Micro-Preset we bought out of Andy’s mother’s catalog, multilayered with a harmonizer and the Roland SH-101 and effects to make it sound more glorious than it really was. We’d make song choruses out of keyboard medleys just because it felt right and we had nobody to tell us that wasn’t how you’re supposed to arrange.”

In the same way they would once “misuse” rototoms as bass drums while pounding on damping-free bass drums with mallets, McCluskey and Humphreys are just as prone now to sculpt a hard, angular tone in Native Instruments Massive (as well as to add a touch of wobble to “The Future Will Be Silent”) while stacking emulators to achieve a grandiose synth motif (such as in “Dresden”). The plan with English Electric was for caution to meet wind in order to retain a trademark melodic breadth and plaintive throb while allowing for a return to the shimmering, effected canvas primer of early texture-caked ambience tracks such as “Stanlow” and “Sealand.” The former is exemplified on new tracks such as “Night Café” and “Helen of Troy” (a collaboration with Greek electronic musicians/producers Fotonovela), while the latter is best showcased on “Decimal,” “Atomic Ranch,” and, especially, “Our System.” In addition, “Our System” embodies the OMD initiative to identify and incorporate newfound samples; in this case, it is NASA recordings of a transducer attached to the Voyager prove converted interstellar magnetic fields into audio.

In order to best utilize and creatively contrast all sound captures, plug-ins are an ongoing investment for both McCluskey and Humphreys. Outside of new synths, the two use modules such as the SoundToys Decapitator and the SansAmp PSA-1 to bring out harmonics from the synths. Antares vocal processing tools tweak double-tracked background vocals that are compressed to death with low end removed and spun out into wide stereo to create a noninvasive “impressionistic halo,” says McCluskey. Waves S1 Stereo Imager opens up instruments without impacting consistency, assuring bass and kicks go up the middle while the rest populates the entire stereo field. Also used regularly is the Universal Audio SPL Transient Designer emulator, to add punch to a drum kit without compressing it to death. “It’s almost like an ADSR for a drum sound,” says Humphreys.

When mixing, Humphreys combines IK Multimedia’s T-RackS with physical SSL channels and some Urei 1176 compression to get valve-like warmth (or a little positive “filth for color and feel” adds McCluskey). “First, I do like to ride things intricately, even down to the syllables, to get almost like a hand-drawn compression, then I’ll put something like an 1176 on it so that’s not moving so much as holding it right there,” says Humphreys. A Waves G-Channel on the mix bus complements the SSL hardware EQ, and the Waves Renaissance bundle adds parametric options for more forensic carving.

“I think I’ve actually learned a lot about mixing from working with Tom Lord-Alge, who mixed The Pacific Age and coproduced ‘If You Leave,’ explains Humphreys. “I used to watch everything he did, and I’d see an 1176 going into the red with the needle bending and I’d ask if that was all right and he’d always say, ‘Mix with your ears, not with your eyes.’ Another thing I learned from Tom was how he spent most of his time removing frequencies rather than adding them, so I pick the thing I want dominant then remove it from everything else interrupting it. I do an awful lot of shelving. When I mix I’ll solo something and instantly remove frequencies not required. If there’s no low end required but there are low-end artifacts in the sound, I’ll immediately shelf them out. I don’t often boost unless something needs to be brighter or there needs to be more low end; it’s mostly about removing frequencies.”

At the end of the day, however, McCluskey and Humphreys don’t allow the songs to be diluted by overly squashing dynamics or what McCluskey describes as “the tyranny of choice.” For English Electric, the duo did “a ruthless amount of self-editing to keep things relatively simple, down near 24 tracks per song rather than the 128 channels you can take to add three synths playing counter-basslines, if you can sift through the presets and find the tone you want. We did the opposite, keeping the process uncluttered and finding just the right amount of tension for each song.”

The world may be slowly leeched of its “naturally occurring” hum and crosstalk, but the albums of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark will sound off as a testament to what happens when musicians and producers get a buzz off the gloriously selfish quest to sketch the days of future past.

Tony Ware is a writer, editor, and unabashed fan of prom-scene themes, based out of Washington, D.C.