When Andy Bell gets fired up, it doesn''t take long for his energy to turn contagious. Just ask the thousands of fans who have followed his every move since 1985, starting with the finely cut synth-pop gem “Who Needs Love Like That,” which broke Erasure to London''s club crowd and sparked a creative partnership with bandmate Vince Clarke that''s still going strong, more than a dozen albums and 40-odd singles later. In the fickle world of dance music, longevity like that is hard to come by, and while a lot of it has to do with just cranking out good songs, it''s really Bell''s commitment to his audience and his craft, his heart-on-my-sleeve honesty, that seals the deal.
That''s not to say it''s always been easy. Bell found himself emotionally and physically drained after making Tomorrow''s World (Mute), Erasure''s long-awaited 14th studio album, but he''s quick to point out that he had fun nearly every step of the way, especially with up-and-coming producer Frankmusik (a.k.a. Vincent Frank) lending his distinctively musical touch to the sessions. Rife with the ecstatic strains of electro-pop, soul, and even dubstep, this might well be the toughest-sounding Erasure album yet.
“Definitely underneath, I think there''s a sense of anger,” Bell observes. “Always when we do an Erasure album, I want there to be this passionate pathos and yearning going on. But I was quite thrilled to be working with Frank because to me it was a grass-roots decision. It had come via the fans, and he had done a remix of our song ‘Phantom Bride,'' so to me it just felt instinctively right. His sense of melody quite blew me away, and I think it definitely gave us a fresh impetus as a band. When you''re a singer, you''re always in performance mode, so when you go in the studio, you rely on your own trills and your own melodic ideas. With Frank, I was totally handing over the reins, even with adlibs and stuff—he would ask me to try just about anything, and it would come out differently, but it was something that we really enjoyed. His musicality is just incredible.”
Vince Clarke concurs. As the other half of Erasure and an acclaimed producer, composer, and keyboardist in his own right (as well as a founding member of Depeche Mode and Yaz), Clarke knows his way around a mixing desk. He also knows when to cede control if it will lead to a fresh and compelling sound, as Erasure''s studio outings with Flood, Gareth Jones, Thomas Fehlmann, and more have demonstrated over the years. This time, Clarke and Bell were content to hand over a grip of largely acoustic demos, amassed since late 2009, and let Frankmusik work his magic. (See the “Mobile Musik” sidebar.)
“It wasn''t really until we started working with Frank that the album took on any particular direction,” Clarke says. “He has quite a different sound from ours. You could say that the Erasure sound from the past is fairly minimal, whereas what Frank brought into the mix was a very maximum sound—it''s almost like a wall of sound, I think. A lot of it is heavily compressed and effected, and sounds much bigger than the kind of stuff that we would normally be producing. So it was really Frank''s guiding influence that brought us the end result.”
Andy Bell (standing) and Vince Clarke at work in Clarke''s log cabin studio in Maine.
LINES OF COMMUNICATION
Work began in earnest at Clarke''s state-of-the-art log cabin studio in Maine. After a brief period of listening to demos and getting to know each other, Frankmusik was ready to dive in. “For me, I engage with the song first,” he says. “The production will always fall into place, but the song has to be structurally sound, and then we can put the production in bit-by-bit. I like to close my eyes and let the sound guide the production. I never go in with a fixed, this-is-how-it''s-gonna-be attitude. I think that''s very limiting.”
Tomorrow''s World ripples with a musicality that reflects this approach, starting with the album''s first single, “When I Start to Break It All Down,” a down-tempo torch song that relies on subtle dynamics, rather than key changes, to imply its movement. It''s an emotional journey that starts quietly and builds toward each chorus, with Bell gradually reaching for the top of his vocal range as a simple cut-time beat and dozens of atmospheric synths trail him into the stratosphere. Clarke''s dizzying arsenal—which includes Roland''s modular System 100M, a monophonic RSF Kobol, an Oberheim Xpander, and the workhorse Roland Juno-60, Jupiter-8, and Sequential Prophet 5—has always been the lynchpin to Erasure''s sound, but in this instance, and on the rest of the album, the track-building process was a little different.
“Frank works mostly out of the box,” Clarke explains, “so once he and I had worked together using soft synths at the studio in Maine, I would find analog replacements for those sounds. I try to build a mixture of lots of different synths in each track, with the idea being I can get a slightly different sound incorporated into the song. Then I''d send those tracks to Frank over the Internet. Once we''d gotten down the bulk of the work, all the starky bits were done that way. We''d just send files back and forth.”
Frank clarifies further. “I would flesh out all the production that I felt the song needed—a lot of light synths and really thin stuff, so Vince could bring in his huge, full-bandwidth analog synths. I''d send him consolidated WAVs from zero—all the separate files, just gigabytes of WAVs. Most of my sessions peak up to about 80 tracks at least, and that''s all production. I only ever use one to three vocals, so the vocal tracking is doing hardly any of the work. And then Vince would just replace my synth parts with whatever he liked in his studio, send everything back, I''d drop it into Logic and turn down all the original parts and start layering.”
There are other mixtures moving through Tomorrow''s World, specifically with Andy Bell''s vocals. Some of the original demo passes he recorded in Maine, using just a handheld Shure Beta 58, actually made the cut. (The best example: “Be With You,” a hi-energy opening track where Celemony''s Melodyne came in handy for shaping the drawn-out “eee” Bell is singing in the main verse.) These early vocal sessions had a pristine quality that often worked well for the song, but Frankmusik was intent on getting even more from Bell when the two got together at Frank''s studio in L.A.
“I found it quite difficult, to be honest,” Bell recalls. “I''d never done it in this way before. Frank has so much compression going in, and that''s what he''s used to doing, so it was quite hard for me to sing melodies because you''re really singing on the top of your voice. I was right on the edge of my throat, just to get through the system, you know?”
The resistance comes from Frankmusik''s signal chain. Starting with a Blue Baby Bottle microphone, the vocals pass through an Avalon VT-747 compressor before they get slammed by a Universal Audio 1176. “It makes you really have to sing, because you''re fighting that compressor at the very end,” Frank says. “I usually set the attack on the 1176 to about 11 o''clock, and the release and input to about 2 o''clock. Then I really push back the output, to about 10 o''clock, so you have to sing twice as hard just to hear yourself decently. I think Andy hated working with me because of that.”
Singing through all that compression might be a bitch, but the results, in Bell''s case, are stunning. On “I Lose Myself,” one of the few songs on the album that sounds like a throwback to Erasure''s heyday, Bell is singing an octave higher in the chorus than he did on the original demo, and the power that he unleashes really propels the song to another level. “I said to Andy, ‘You need to sing this an octave higher, and you need to give it everything you''ve got,''” Frank recalls. “The verse is so feisty that the chorus had to hammer that last bit—that''s the payoff.”
Frankmusik (a.k.a. Vincent Frank)
BOLD NEW STEPS
For musicality and radical production moves, Erasure''s latest is right on the edge, but what diehard fans will likely notice first is the group''s embrace of more down-tempo percussive styles that don''t fall neatly into the simple “dance music” category. The change stems in part from Bell''s desire to paint a deeper and more detailed emotional picture with his lyrics; isolation, frustration, loss, and redemption have always been key themes for him, but lately they seem to have taken on even more importance and urgency.
“You don''t realize the tremendous courage that it takes just to be out and open and honest, especially in the music business,” he says, his voice rising. “You get it all the time in the snide UK press—always these barbed homophobic comments that you hear within straight society. So I wanted to manage to say something in some way, on an instinctive, subconscious level really, and I think that comes through on this album. A lot of the music to me sounds like a maelstrom going on, which seems to be what''s going on around the world lately, but that''s exactly what we were after.”
For Frankmusik''s part, the music had to be reflective of that level of emotion. It''s a connection he explores the furthest in “What Will I Say When You''re Gone?”—a somber but hopeful tribute to a friend that''s arguably one of the album''s signature songs. “The one thing I''ll say about this track from the production side is that I come from the hometown of dubstep. I come from Croydon in South London, where it all started, and I''m not a big fan of dubstep, funny enough, but the tempo of the track is 145, which is pretty much the dubstep format. I wanted to do something at that tempo, with a similar percussive format, but make it utterly beautiful and exceptionally musical.”
As it turned out, matching the mood of the lyrics could only happen with the right drum treatment. “Initially the percussion in the verse was almost too heavy,” Frank explains, “and it was actually in the last week of mixing the album that we made them very small. I just laid together a few drum sounds from [Kontakt''s] OTTO and put them through the old telephone filter in Logic, and then I layered that with a FabFilter Volcano, just to really squeeze every bit of density out of it. When you know the back story to that song, it''s achingly beautiful, and I wanted that to be in the work.”
Since moving recently from his native London to Hollywood''s Sunset Strip, 25-year-old producer and recording artist Frankmusik has already made his mark as a talented mixologist who can pack a sonic wallop into a compact setup. Working in Logic on a Macbook Pro, not only does he record and mix entirely inside the box (with a small array of outboard gear for tracking vocals, described in the “Vox Verité” section), but at any given moment, he''s ready to pick up and hit the road with full studio capability and a minimal footprint.
“I''m not really the cheesy guy in the studio sitting at his SSL desk,” Frank quips. “I''m the guy with the backpack. That''s pretty much how I work. I do have a proper studio where I keep the outboard gear, and I work on Adam A7X monitors and a JBL sub—with a pair of Dynaudio BM15s in case some A&R people stop by and want to have a listen [laughs]—but really I work more off the vibe of the music, so I mix in my Sony V700 headphones for EQ. I have maybe five pairs and I''ve been using them since I was 17, so I know what they sound like.”
Naturally, for maximum portability, Frank is heavily reliant on plug-ins, sample libraries (such as Kontakt''s OTTO, a favorite source for drum sounds), and soft synths—in particular, reFX''s Nexus 2 virtual synth. “It''s just an easy way of nailing ideas quickly and simply,” he says. “I''m not a trance DJ or producer, and the Nexus seems to have this reputation of being a really trance-y, dance-y synth, but what all the kids seem to forget is, if you turn off the bloody reverb and delay, you have a really beautiful keyboard spread of some great, crafted samples. Someone spent hours trying to find the best sounds they could, on the original equipment.”
With plug-ins like Waves'' CLA Vocals (for fine EQ), SoundToys'' Crystallizer (for trippy after-effects), Smart Elektronix''s SupaTrigga (for re-ordering audio slices), MeldaProduction''s compressors (primarily for drums), and scads more, Frank is always looking to take full advantage of whatever random possibilities he can squeeze out of an algorithm. “I like to make things move through texture,” he says. “I''ll print a lot of plug-in effects over an initial waveform that''s unchangeable, and just let chance take over. Sometimes you can get very maffed out on specifics. When you''re given that much choice, you lose a lot of the fun, whereas if you print a random effect, put it on ‘full wet'' and just turn off the ‘dry,'' and cut that in and out of the original, that''s where you''re opening your mind to more creative options and letting the unknown become the known.”
Complete Interviews with Erasure''s Vince Clarke
Complete Interviews with Erasure''s Vince Clarke and Andy Bell VINCE CLARK
How did you and Andy begin work on this album?
Obviously we did the songwriting first, and that we did together. We did some writing in New York, and then we met together in Maine, and again together in London. Basically we were putting togther acoustic demos with guitar and piano, with the melody ideas and chord structures—that was the beginning. Then the actual making of the record on the production side happened once we hooked up with Frankmusik.
And where did your work with Frankmusik take place?
It was a mixture. Frank came to my studio in Maine for a bit, so we did some recording there, working out ideas and a bit of production. And then Andy did some singing in Frank''s studio in L.A., and then some more work in London. The mixing was done in London—in the UK.
Can you describe your studio space in Maine?
I started working on building the studio about two and a half years ago. We basically bought a log cabin off-the-shelf. It comes in pre-fabricated log bits, and they just kind of nail it all together. It took about six months to put the building up, and then I transferred my equipment, which was in my studio in the UK, to Maine, and myself and my brother set it all up.
The studio I had before in the UK was very fitted, so everything had its place. This time around, I wanted more of a workshop space, so that I could get access to the backs of all the synthesizers, change things around if I needed to, or if I needed to add synths, I''d have room to do that. So that''s the way the studio works. None of the synths are hard-wired either—they''re all patched in as I need them.
For synths, I could tell you I used a lot of the [Sequential Circuits] Pro One on this record, and a lot of the System 100M, which is a modular system from Roland. Then there''s a System 700 from Roland, a little monophonic synth called the Kobol made by RSF, an Oberheim Expander, a Juno 60, a Jupiter-8, a Prophet 5—they''re always there. What I try to do on every track, rather than use one synth many times, I try to incorporate lots of different synths in each track, with the idea being I would get a slightly different sound incorporated into the song.
What I really like about this is album is how it switches gears a lot stylistically and sonically, but it has a cohesive direction.
Well, when we wrote the songs originally, as I say they were very simple demos, and I don''t think we really had a plan for how the record would end up sounding. It wasn''t really until we heard and started working with Frank that the album took on any particular direction. And he has quite a different sound from ours. You could say that the Erasure sound from the past is fairly minimal, whereas what Frank brought into the mix was a very maximum sound—it''s almost like a wall of sound, I think. You know, a lot of the sounds are heavily compressed and effected, and it just sounds much bigger than the kind of stuff that we would normally be producing. So it was really Frank''s guiding influence that brought us the end result.
How did Frank first come to your attention?
Actually, we had started talking about who should produce the next record, and a few of my mates emailed me and mentioned him. So I looked him up at his website and started to listen to some of his music, and almost at the same time as I was doing that, the record company also started negotiating with his management team. And apparently he was a bit of a fan, so he was interested in working with us, and some of the Erasure fans online thought it was a good idea to work with him. We also know that Frank''s mum is our biggest fan [laughs], so she was up for it as well. So it just all came together at the end.
Can you tell me about the first single, “When I Start to Break It All Down”?
Well, the original demo was a lot simpler. That was a song where Frank really took the melody line and stretched it as far as he could—not only time-stretched it, but stretched it in range as much as he possibly could. And I don''t know, it just evolved from that, really. Frank did a rough sketch for most of the musical parts, and then I replaced those with analog sounds. Most of the drum and percussion sounds are samples—Frank has a vast collection of those.
For the synthesizers, like I said to you earlier, I try to use a mixture, but most of the bass on the album, that''s mostly Minimoog, although I did use the Kobol for a couple of tracks. There''s another interesting vibe with the Roland SH-1, which does some of the bass parts, but I can''t remember specific synths for specific tracks. I try to keep as much variety as I can in each song.
How about “I Lose Myself”? That very much reminded me of the vintage Erasure sound.
That was interesting because that was one of the few songs that really came from a synth backing track, rather than being worked out on the guitar. In fact, I think it was the only song. I took a couple of loops on my Mac, and mashed them together to make a groove, and then Andy came up with the melody idea. When Frank got hold of it, he turned it into a full-on, hard dance track.
There are some great atmospherics going on in the background.
That''s definitely Frank. What he does a lot of the time is he takes special effects from whatever source, and then mashes them up and puts them into some kind of reverb or echo or effect, and then he inserts those as little bits of atmosphere throughout the tracks, but especially at the beginning and the end of a song. He loves doing that shit [laughs].
“Then I Go Twisting” is another one—how did that come together?
I think that song was written in London. We had the use of Mute''s studio there for about two weeks. We weren''t really sure about that song when we first wrote it. It sounded like just a chorus in need of a verse, or a verse in need of a chorus. It was almost gonna be a b-side, but Frank saw a lot of potential in the track. He mashed up the melody lines and the arrangements, and made it into something cohesive—especially with the vocal melody line and the mad pitch-stretching.
Dialing back to working with Frank: were the acoustic demos all you had to start, or did you have some finished tracks with you?
Well, I would spend a little bit of time probing out some very basic tracks to add to the acoustic parts—really just kick and bass, and maybe a chord pad . So that''s what Frank got to hear in the very beginning, and then he was involved from that point onwards. He worked at my studio in Maine for a while, and we did some work at his studio in L.A., with the mixing and some of the vocals in London. It was a bit all over the shop, with some work in New York too.
It was quite basic, really. Frank works mostly out of the box, so once he and I had done some work together—and that was using soft synths—then I would convert those files into analog sounds, or find analog sound replacements for those sounds, and then that stuff would go to Frank over the internet. Once we''d gotten down the bulk of the work, all the starky bits were done via the internet. We''d send files back and forth and work that way.
What were you guys listening for in the final mix with Rob Orton?
Well, I think it''s like any album, really. When you''ve got that amount of stuff going on in a track, you need someone who''s apart from all of that, who''s not been involved in the actual track-making process, to take an outside view. Rob has a particularly good ear for that, I think. Bear in mind, some of the multi-tracks were huge, so we needed someone like Rob to pull it all together and make them cohesive. This was our first time working with Rob, and we''re really happy with what he did.
How about your live show?
I use Logic Pro, so what I do is I''ll take the multi-tracks and condense them down into something that''s practical for the sound guy out front. For some of the older material from previous albums, I''ve done some remix versions of those, and then with Andy we have two backup singers to perform on stage. I''m not into any live processing—it''s all about the mixing for me.
Complete Interviews with Erasure''s Andy Bell
ANDY BELL INTERVIEW
Can you talk a little bit about how guys bounce ideas around in the demo phase?
For this album, I think we were in New York first, and really we just get together and thrash out as many ideas as possible. In the end, we probably ended up with about 20 or more demo versions of songs, which came from all over the place—one session in New York, one session in London—and then we did some synth versions of the songs at Vince''s studio up in Maine, as demos, with very basic synths on them.
And what happened was in the end, we used quite a lot of the vocals that we made on that demo session in Maine, because for some reason they had this pristine quality to them. I basically did them with a handheld mic and a pair of headphones in Vince''s studio. The remainder of the vocals were done in Frank''s studio in L.A. He was still working on the tracks as I was there, so it was all quite live. I would go there at about one o''clock every day, and by four o''clock he was ready for me to start singing, so it was really interesting to see him work and put the tracks together.
How was it recording vocals with him?
I found it quite difficult, to be honest. I''ve never done it in this way before. He has so much compression going in—and that''s what he''s used to doing—so it was quite hard for me to sing melodies because you''re really singing on the top of your voice. I was right on the edge of my throat, just to get through the system, you know? So when it came down to the mixing, I found that some of the vocals we''d done were too harsh for what I liked, so I said to Frank, “Do you mind if we pull back and use some of the demo vocals? Because they sound nicer.” So that''s what happened.
We did the same thing in London as well. We were doing vocal overdubs at the Mute studio. But that always seems to happen—quite often you do get demo-itis, where you''re so close to the demos, you can''t escape from them, and you think they have some special quality to them. And that''s what the producer''s role is, to get you away from that. But in this instance, a couple of the lead verses did have something special, so we kept them.
What''s your take on working with Frankmusik in general?
Basically you have to leave him to his own devices [laughs]. For me, it''s just fascinating because it''s almost like being there with a remixer. I just find it really incredible—and it''s the same with Vince as well—how these guys go about creating sounds. Once they''ve done it, I can see how they''ve done it my mind, but you have no idea because they seem to approach it from such different perspectives. For instance, when he''s working on sound effects, they''ll get the reverb first and then insert the sound into it. Frank is really full-on, and really passionate about what he does. Sometimes we would spend the whole session just bitching about the music industry [laughs].
Frank seems to have a real composer''s approach to producing.
Yeah, he''s really musical. I was quite thrilled to be working with Frank because to me it was a grass roots decision. It had come via the fans, and he had done the remix of our song “Phantom Bride,” so to me it just felt instinctively right. Other names had been bandied around, but for me Frank was the one we were supposed to work with, and part of the reason for that was his sense of melody. It quite blew me away, and I think it definitely gave us a fresh impetus as a band. When you''re a singer, you''re always in performance mode, so when you go in the studio, you rely on your own trills and your own melodic ideas. With Frank, I was totally handing over the reins, even with ad libs and stuff—he would ask me to try just about anything, and it would come out differently, but it was something that we really enjoyed. His musicality is just incredible.
There are a lot of different sounds and styles on this album—it seems like a completely different move fo
Definitely underneath, I think there is a sense of it being quite angry, if you want to talk about the mood of it—especially a song like “What Will I Do When You''re Gone,” which is about something very personal that I''ve been going through. Always, when we do an Erasure album, I want there to be this passionate pathos and yearning going on. Someof the songs are so obscure that in the end, I want to manage to say something in some way, on an instinctive, subconscious level really, and I think that comes through on this album. A lot of the music to me sounds like a maelstrom going on, which seems to be what''s going on in the weather patterns around the world lately—but yeah, that''s what we were after.
“Then I Go Twisting” seems to brim with some of that anger, but it also sounds like a love letter to Erasure fans.
It could be, definitely, but there''s a story behind that song. I was going through a break-up and living in Hastings, which is a small seaside town in the UK, and it''s quite bleak in the winter. There''s nothing to do, so you have to make your own entertainment. I mean, the people are great down there. They''re really brilliant—a very hardcore fisherman crowd, so they love drinking and doing all the other things that go with it. I was doing a bit of DJing down there, and I just thought, “My God—what else is there to do?” And all you can do is make your own entertainment.
There are so many UK towns that are having such a hard time with this economic climate. They''re practically ghost towns. But the whole thing that pissed me off about it is there''s absolutely no creative outlet for young people. Every town is like an Identikit version of the next one, and all the stuff you hear on the radio is just all pseudo-electro , you know? And for me and Vince, we''ve been in there from the beginning—to me, these are my roots, and there''s nothing more powerful than an eighth-note bass line pumping through a bass cabinet. So really, when I''m singing about being sick of this techno and sick of this dull town, I''m talking about the monotony of life that seems to be taking hold all around the world, you know?
“I Lose Myself” has a very vintage Erasure sound, but it comes across as a “Don''t f*ck with me” kind of song.
Yeah, that''s it, really. I think I was a bit fed up. I''ve always been this very calm, soft boy, but you don''t realize the tremendous courage that it takes just to be out and open and honest, and to wear your heart on your sleeve in this modern environment, especially in the music business. I mean, it''s probably a lot easier for me than someone in the mining industry or something like that [laughs], but basically, that song is like what you said, “Don''t f*ck with me, fellahs,” because I''ve had enough of it, do you know what I mean? You get it all the time in the snide UK press—always these barbed homophobic comments, all the time, that you hear within straight society. I feel them all the time. And the same thing is going on again in Russia. The gay movement is in its naissance there, and I''m thinking, you''ve been fighting for your rights for 25 years—it''s like the civil rights movement here and in the US—and now the whole thing''s starting over again in eastern Europe. And you think, “For God''s sake, when are you gonna chill out?”
But I really love “I Lose Myself,” because it has a rootsy sound. It''s a little bit like New Order, you know?
I hear that too. What about a song like “Be With You”? Your vocals seem to breathe over that beat, and we''ve talked before about how you''ll layer vocals that are a little above pitch and below pitch. Did you do that here?
Not this time. If Frank wanted harmonies, he would just get me to sing the same thing again, so he could pull it into Melodyne and use it for harmonies. We''d sing some harmonies on some tracks. On “Be With You,” there was the counter-melody part at the end—also that was one of those songs where we replaced the vocal I did with Frank with the demo verses. Particular on the “e” sound—that''s one of the harshest-sounding phonetics when you''re singing, so I try to avoid pushing it when I can.
I like how you change things up on “Just When I Thought It Was Ending.” It''s funkier than your usual Erasure track.
The demo was basically a drum pattern and the chords going through—it was quite slow as well. We didn''t change an awful lot, but the percussion is quite hard on that one. It reminds me quite a lot of Depeche Mode, that song, and I just really like the sentiment of the verses—it''s quite bleak, but I think a lot of Frank''s percussion in there offsets that mood. It''s like a whip that doesn''t crack, or a rope hitting a concrete block.
It sounds like you had a lot of fun making this album, even with the hard emotions behind it.
I''m so glad that we managed to finish it. It was all very up to the final mark, and it was all a big rush in the end, after those two years of writing. Managing to tie Frank down was key for us, because he''s all over the place as well, doing remixes for himself and for other people. So he was under a lot of pressure, and I think he did a great job for us.
Complete Interview with Erasure Producer Frankmusik
Tell me about how you first hooked up with Erasure.
My manager knew Erasure''s tour manager, and they were apparently looking for someone to produce the new album, and my manager put my name forward. They came back with—they liked the first album, from what they''d heard—and I flew to London to meet the record label boss for Mute, and he just basically said, “When can you start?” Two weeks later I was at Vince Clarke''s studio in Maine. That was the beginning of it. Six months later, we had an album.
What were some of the first things you worked on together? Vince and Andy both mentioned that they had some demos worked out to start.
I''m not really about the music straightaway, necessarily. I like to work with people on a human level, and get to know the person behind the music. I think it''s very important for me that I know the person behind the ideas, because then you get a clearer picture of where those ideas come from. Then you can marry those ideas up really well with your own. It''s like any human interaction. You wouldn''t go into business with someone you don''t know, and it''s a similar thing for me.
Vince is very humble and very down-to-earth and a really top guy, so we just started with conversation, really. The music just came and went—it had to, because we were listening to demos—but I was very keen to strike while the iron was hot, so during the conversation, I pretty much started taking control of the creative side of things, and Vince was very hands off. He just said, “Well, I like what I''m hearing.” I''d always ask for approval, but not too often because I think I needed free rein, and then we could bring it back once there was a lot of material to work with, rather than asking for acceptance every step of the way and not making much progress.
So once you were on good footing with Vince, the idea was to jump right in and start building tracks?
For me, I engage with the song first. The production will always fall into place, but the song has to be structurally sound first. I like to make sure that we have everything that we need from the song, and then put the production in bit-by-bit. I close my eyes and let the sound guide the production. I never go in with a fixed, this-is-how-it''s-gonna-be attitude. I think that''s very limiting. I like all of my productions to sound different, so I don''t have a set way of doing anything.
Well, anyone who''s familiar with Erasure''s music will notice that there are a lot of different moves being made here, in terms of the style, the dynamics, the musicality of the production. Can you talk a little bit about that, and some of the arrangement ideas that you brought to the album?
I''m 25, so I grew up listening to Erasure''s earliest work. My mother was a big fan. So for me, it was very important to capture that. I didn''t listen to much of their recent material for a good reason, because I didn''t want to have to answer to any of that. It''s like when I do a remix—I never listen to the original song before I work with the a capella. I just don''t want to manipulate the end result by having that already in my head.
So when it came to arrangements, it was really about feeling. How can I explain this? Andy was going through a lot of stuff when he was writing this, and I wanted that to come across in the music. I''m a real heart-and-soul person. I make pop music, but I feel everything in that record, and in this case I relate to everything that Andy is singing about. There''s a real honesty to a lot of the lyrics, and sometimes he''s almost too concise. I think you have to be quite adult to grasp the lyrical content of some of these new songs. It''s a real step away from the happy clappy Erasure dancefest stuff that we''re accustomed to.
Me and Andy would sit down and we''d have really long conversations, and I''d just see it in his eyes. He felt a lot of these songs. They weren''t just made up from nothing, and the production had to answer that. So sometimes there were no choruses. I didn''t want to celebrate the hook, because I wanted what was already there in Andy''s moment to do the justice. A lot of the time, I wasn''t trying to out-do what was already present in the demos. Someof the songs I did want to make big choruses because I felt they deserved them, but more often than not, I related to everything that was already there, and I just wanted to complement it, rather than redigest it and bring it back up in a different way.
Complete Interview with Erasure Producer Frankmusik (Continued)
Can you give me an example of that?
“What Will I Say When You''re Gone?” is a good one. It was a real journey for me producing that song, because it literally has the most air miles. I produced that in London, Los Angeles, Maine and Spain. So I was in lots of different parts of the world, and experiencing lots of different things myself. The words just called out to me in different situations I was in. It''s poignant, and when you know the back story, it''s achingly beautiful, so I wanted that to just be in the work. I didn''t want to take away from it. He''s not talking in a breakup sense—this is a mortal sense, and that''s really big stuff right there.
The one thing I''ll say about this track from the production side is that I come from the hometown of dubstep. I come from Croydon in South London, where it all started, and I''m not a big fan of dubstep, funny enough, but the tempo of the track is 145, which is pretty much the dubstep format. I wanted to do something at that tempo, with a similar percussive format, but make it utterly beautiful and exceptionally musical. It was like, let''s focus on the song, rather than the bass line.
Initially the percussion in the verse was very heavy, almost too heavy, and it was actually in the last week of mixing the album that we made all the drums in the verses very small. We were all in agreement that the verse was so pretty that we didn''t want to take away from that [mood]. So I made some very small drums—there''s an industrial producer called Otto von Schirach who made a Kontakt keyboard sample bank called the OTTO—a series of completely bizarre drum sounds and patterns. I just laid a few of them together and put them through the old telephone filter [in Logic], and then layered that with a FabFilter Volcano, just to really squeeze every bit of density out of it.
Then there''s a pre-chorus of Trancegated [in Nexus 2] synths that just drop into a very simple, almost Captain Sensible “Glad It''s All Over” type of beat—just big stretched claps that come in far too early and far too late, and this very simple kick drum pattern. I use the same kick drum on everything, really slammed at zero, made by a guy called Jon Pegnato, an L.A. producer and an insanely good engineer. So it was very simple—and I wanted the synths to do a lot of the work around that very simple drum pattern. But in that simplicity, there are multiple kick drums and claps, and really weird high-end stuff that just took weeks and weeks to figure out. It''s a lot of trial-and-error for me, really.
What did you use for your beat programming?
I do a lot of that on the [reFX] Nexus 2. For me, it''s just an easy way of nailing ideas quickly and simply. A lot of people dislike it, from what I''ve heard, and maybe that''s why I like it [laughs]. Immediately I''m given the free rein to use something that most people would ignore. But I''m not a trance DJ or producer. The Nexus has this reputation of being a really trance-y, dance-y synth, but what all the kids seem to forget is turn off the bloody reverb and delay, and you have a really beautiful keyboard spread of some great, crafted samples. Someone spent hours trying to find the best sounds they could, on original equipment.
A lot of people these days focus very heavily on oscillator pattern-making, especially in dance music. They want to make all the bass lines move through their oscillators, and use frequency cut-offs and all that—I mean, [Native Instruments] Massive is very good as the modern day, tweaked-to-death nerd synth, but I like to make things move through texture. I like to print a lot of plug-in effects over an initial waveform that''s unchangeable, and let chance take over. Sometimes you can get very maffed out on specifics. When you''re given that much choice, you lose a lot of the fun, whereas if you print a random effect, put it on “full wet” and just turn off the “dry,” and cut that in and out of the original, that''s where you''re opening your mind to more creative options and letting the unknown become the known. I really hate that automated window routine. It just looks like something that belongs in a science lab.
Complete Interview with Erasure Producer Frankmusik (Continued)
I''m trying to get a sense of how you and Vince [Clarke] worked together when it came to laying down the synth parts. Can you elaborate on that?
It''s really very simple. I would score and flesh out all the production that I felt the song needed—a lot of light synths and really thin stuff, because then Vince could bring in his huge, full-bandwidth analog synths. So I''d send him consolidated WAVs from zero—all the separate files, gigabytes and gigabytes of WAVs because most of my sessions generally peak up to about 80 tracks at least, and that''s all production. I only ever use one to three vocals, so the vocal tracking is doing hardly any of the work. And then Vince would just replace my synth parts with whatever he liked in his studio, send everything back, I''d drop it in [to Logic] and turn down all the original parts and layer them.
I don''t think this album sounds like anything else, mainly because I''ve had the opportunity to work with someone who has all that equipment, and we''re collaborating in a process that most people wouldn''t go for. It''s a weird-sounding record that can''t be placed in any particular time, do you know what I mean? It''s not totally a super ''80s record, but it''s not a really cutting-edge now record either. It''s tough to pin down.
I wanted to ask you about “I Lose Myself” as well.
That track is crazy. I re-wrote a lot of that from the original. For me, this song was very much a fist-pumping Erasure track from their heyday. You can just imagine Andy on stage in his feather boa, dancing around like the true madam that he can be, and just really having it and everyone just freaking out. I would be doing the song a complete disservice if I took away from that—I could feel that straight off the bat from the demo.
So I wanted to celebrate that, and the chorus wasn''t strong enough initially. I re-wrote the melody and gave it a super-strong pre-chorus—I''m all about that. Vince had some really choice sounds for the verses, and I didn''t want to take away from that—I only added in this particular instance. But the original vocal was too low. I said to Andy, “You need to sing this an octave higher, and you need to give it everything you''ve got.” The verse is so feisty that the chorus had to hammer that last bit—that''s the payoff.
In the production, it goes from four to five tracks of synths, and it''s very simple drum programming, with that thumping kick and the snare drum. You''d laugh if you saw the Logic session, because I keep everything categorized according to drums, synths and vocals, and the SYN section goes from four tracks to 53 in the chorus, which is just a ridiculous mixing job for Rob Orton, but he nailed it.
I mean, you have all these pitch-bended bass lines that are going from the minor 7th to zero, and then all these tiny, gated synths that have got CamelSpace or just a general trigger-gated synth. I print a lot of synths with SupaTrigga. I''ll print them for about four minutes, and I''ll find the best stuff that [Smart Electronix] SupaTrigga randomly gives me, and I''ll turn that almost into its own arpeggiator, with all the vinyl stops and everything. And then I''ll layer that with the same thing, but through a different filter with more chorus [effect] and de-tuned a little bit, and then the same for the bass lines. There''s generally ten or 11 bass lines going on in that song, in the chorus. Basically I just went absolutely nuts. There''s also that ridiculous Asian koto solo that happens in the last chorus, and I have no idea why I put that in [laughs], but it''s mostly because it was such a feisty song to start with.
There''s also a vintage Hoover synth that comes in by itself for about four bars, before Andy''s second verse. It''s a classic sound.
Yeah, I think I used a good old Hoover from [reFX] Vanguard for that. I love those synths—in small, small doses. I think I layered it with a couple of the stand-up house Hoovers that are in Nexus 2, with a lot of reverb. I always put reverb on stuff, but I like to trick the computer by using the De-Verb that comes with SPL [Sound Perfomance Lab] plug-ins. I don''t know why I do it, but I know that no one else would do it, and it just sounds weird. So I''m very counter-intuitive like that.
Complete Interview with Erasure Producer Frankmusik (Continued)
I want to rewind a bit to Andy''s vocals in “I Lose Myself.” You mentioned that you asked him to sing it an octave higher. Can you describe the signal path you used to record him?
I think he hated working with me when it came to doing vocals [laughs]. I pushed him hard, but it wasn''t in the sense of, “Sing it better! Do it again!” He had the nightmare of my signal path. Now, my signal path is a bitch, and I don''t change it for anyone because it makes perfect sense for the way I produce. I''m not a big fan of Neumann microphones—I''m sure they''re great for more retro or classic productions, but I''ve used a Blue Baby Bottle microphone ever since I could afford to buy a decent microphone. I have an Avalon 747 EQ/compressor/mic pre, and just for good measure I stack a UA 1176 on top of that, just to really smash the vocals. It makes you really have to sing, because you''re fighting that compressor at the very end. It''s evil, but it makes you sing harder.
In that particular song, Andy was demanding that I turn off the compression, and I just wouldn''t do it. So he sung it twice as hard, just so he could hear himself decently. You lose all dynamic when you have an 1176 dialed back on the output like I do, but that''s the sound that I''m going for.
How hard exactly are you hitting him with the 1176?
I had the attack to about 11 o''clock and the release to 2 o''clock. My input would have been pushed straight up to about 2 o''clock, and the output would have been down to about 10 o''clock—really pushed back. So that 1176 was a real source of conflict between Andy and me, and sometimes I would lie to him like, “I turned it off—you must be going deaf dude!” Most producers or engineers would say they hate me for doing that, but at least I can automate or tone down afterwards. I hate getting weak signals the first time round, and I hate normalizing vocals digitally. I''d rather go in like it was an analog synth—with super-fat bandwidth, so you can take away afterwards if you need to. You''re deducting rather than compensating.
It seems bizarre, but I treat vocals like a synthesizer. If you can''t sing as well as a synth can sound through a keyboard, then you''re not trying hard enough. So we really pelted it. And when it comes to the tuning on his voice, I only ever use Melodyne. I never touch the filth that is Antares Auto-Tune. I''ve been using Melodyne since I could possibly afford to buy it. It''s an absolute joy to work with, and I should thank Celemony for making it a rather easy authorization process and a brilliant series of plug-ins.
Another plug-in that I love, and that Rob Orton hated mixing, is the CLA Vox plug-in by Waves. It''s just awesome to use that on everything. Even in its limitations, it gives you nothing but boundless opportunities for great EQ mixing for vocals. What''s genius is EQing the top end on that thing. You set the compressor for “Spank,” and then just crank a bit of the top end EQ and you hear everything. That''s why it''s so good to slam the vocal going in like I described, because there''s an immediacy to the sound.
I love to express EQ rather than make EQ because you can be very aggressive with it. I''ve already got the compression out of the way—and I don''t like the EQ to do that SSL thing, where your compressor is basically reacting to the EQ. I''d rather do it the other way round—the compression is done, and then the idea is to fluff around it. It massively limits you, but at the same time I just hate the whole method of deductive EQing, where if you have it too much, then everything sounds quieter. For me, I''d rather make it louder.
So in general then, once you had a vocal just the way you wanted it, how would you prepare it for mixing?
Well, I don''t do any bussing—I print effects and I work on a laptop, so once I''ve got a vocal take that I''m super happy with, I''ll literally just print the whole vocal in its wet signal, and then that will be side-chained to the kick drum in most instances. I also use a lot of Sound Toys after-effects like the Crystallizer, just to add real weird, sparkle-y, plus-24 or plus-12 octave stuff, and some big spatial reverbs, and then I side-chain all of that to the percussive elements in the song, and they''ll just be sitting back in the ether of the mix.
That sounds like a lot to wrangle.
That''s what I was saying to you earlier—can you imagine being Rob Orton on the end of all this? Actually though it was really lucky, because he had just finished mixing my album, so he understood how I organized and named everything. I was doing exactly the same studio exports with Erasure as I was doing with my stuff, so when he got the files, there were no surprises—DRM or SYN or VOX, he would know these are the drums, synths and vocals. He was so familiar with how I did things on my own record that when it came to doing Erasure, I think it was a little easier for him.
So there was no communication. There were a couple of reference mixes that had to be done, and we did a couple of call-backs, but Rob is just one of the best in the world, in my opinion. He''s just got the magic and the ears. I''m really genuinely privileged to get someone like that to mix my stuff.
We haven''t really talked about your basic setup yet.
Well, I''m one of these people who kind of ferociously likes to do things differently. I''m not really the cheesy guy in the studio sitting at his SSL desk; I''m the guy with the backpack. That''s pretty much how I work. I literally do work out of a bag, with Logic on a laptop, but I do have a proper studio in L.A. where I keep my outboard gear, which is the Avalon 747, two UA 1176s, and then an Apogee Duet and a MOTU Ultra-Lite Mark III because it''s got a lot of outputs and inputs.
Then I have a Dave Smith special edition Prophet 8, and then a synth not many people know about, which is the Korg DS-8. I use that for a lot of my labyrinth-sounding, cheese-monger FM stuff that most people hate. I love that because nobody does FM these days. It got too cool for itself when Sade started using it, and then the DX7 took over, but if you circuit-bend a DS-8, you can get some bizarre-o stuff kicking out of that. You won''t hear it on any records.
I use that on this huge weird ambient outro for one of the songs. It was supposed to be the last song on the album, but I''m not sure if you have it yet. It''s very epic and super-slow—about five-and-a-half minutes, with “Man” as the working title. I used the DS-8 on that, and I use it in a lot of background stuff because it''s so thin. It''s almost like a guitar.
But anyway, my working space in Los Angeles is at Sunset Boulevard and Gardner Street. I keep it so simple. It''s just a small room, really. I mean, if you can''t just create it all on a laptop, then you''re running out of ideas. I do all of my mixing in the box—and it would be lovely to own an SSL. I''m sure everyone would love an SSL, just like everyone would love a Bentley. But you wouldn''t want to own a Bentley when it breaks, because that''s when you have to really fork out the money just to keep it going. So everything in my room is set up on keyboard stands, including my desk, because then I can just pack everything down if I need to go somewhere really quickly.
I work on Adam A7Xs and I have Dynaudio BM15s—does that sound right? They have 10-inch drivers on the bass with no mids. I just use them when A&R people come in the room and want to have a listen [laughs]. And I have a JBL sub that''s patched through with the Adam speakers. I''m not the best mixer, but I work off vibe rather than the mix. I mix in my headphones for EQ, and I use Sony headphones to mix on—the V700s, I think. They''re the DJ headphones that they''ve had for ten years. They''re just super-loud and there''s no distortion at any volume, and I''ve been using them since I was 17, so I know what they sound like.
On that note, what format did you use to send your tracks to Rob [Orton]?
We were using 16-bit over 44.1 [kHz]. I didn''t do it in 24-bit, but he would always send them back at 24 for mastering. These were WAV files consolidated from zero. Most people would probably raise eyebrows because I''m not working in 24-bit, but whatever. I like things at lo-res anyway—it''s a definite part of my sound, and in the end, it''s all about the feeling it gives you. If there are any final words I have to give anyone, it''s just close your damn eyes and look for the black bits, if that makes any sense [laughs]. Look for space, and if you see space, try and fill it. I''m not one of those people who likes to keep the mix simple, but I always try to make tasteful choices, and make it musical.