Q+A  :  GENERAL MUSIC  :  WORKING METHODS - inspiration / techniques / devices / studio life


How do you manage to make your songs so dark and lonely? Are you affected by your surroundings?

It seems to come naturally to me. It's difficult to explain but I do draw on bad situations - I haven't had a troubled life myself but I've seen others dealing with their own.

Can you explain your working methods?

My starting point is often a combination of tried and tested guide sounds that evoke a particular feeling or mood in order to get the ball rolling. Then, by trial and error, I keep throwing ideas at the track until a theme or concept emerges which I like to keep in mind to focus the direction. From that point I usually park the idea and move on to another track until I have built up more of an overall picture. I then bring the music to a point where it accurately demonstrates the atmospheres I want to create and is acceptable to play to vocalists. I will explain that I am liable to change the structures once the vocals have been recorded and always make sure that my collaborators trust me to manipulate what they've done afterwards. I rarely, however, change their words.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

No one place in particular. I take influences from all the good music I come across, as well as film, TV, newspapers - in fact, life in general.

What is your favourite key signature for writing songs?

I don't have one.

On the subject of inspiration, I was stuck in front of the computer the other night wanting to write something but totally stuck. I let my daughter (6 months old) bang away on the keyboard for a bit on a drum patch - after quantisation I found she had written quite a groovy little percussion riff. Ever tried anything along these lines?

Have you heard 'Speak and Spell'?

When you play around with the initial chords from a track you are working on, does you're mood at the time reflect what you play on the keyboard?

Of course. That's the beauty of music. It comes from your subconscious.

Do you feel it's important for you to create or manipulate you're own sounds rather than using factory presets?

I do use factory presets sometimes but they are usually not very good. I like to make original sounds if possible (and I include samples in that category because I try to manipulate them into, essentially, new sounds).

Martin has said in recent interviews in connection with 'Ultra', that now that he has hit middle age, it's getting difficult for him to write more up-tempo songs. He claims it sounds fake to him if they get over the dizzy heights of 100 b.p.m. Do you feel the same way?

Not particularly. I don't consciously say "Now I'll write a slow number" or "It's about time I did a fast track" - the mood of the music usually dictates the tempo.

Did you always have the patience to be able to sit in the studio for long periods of time? When you become stumped, what are some things you do to get your creative juices flowing?

As I've said before, I'm a perfectionist and if something's worth doing, it's worth doing to your best ability. For that reason, I have no choice but to sit in a studio for as long as it takes - I won't put my name to mediocrity. If I get stumped, I call in the missus...

Is there anything you do to try to create inspiration to write your music?

If only there was a magic trick. You just have to keep working until something clicks. I do often find I have my best ideas when I'm pissed off.

As a composer, your songs sometimes stick to the verse/chorus format and other times they're more freeform. Do you make a conscious effort to pick a form for your songs? How do you keep your ideas "fresh" and avoid being cliched or too repetitive?

I don't have any hard and fast rules, whatever seems to suit the song at the time is ok by me.

How do you decide who will remix your work?

No particular method, I just try to think of someone interesting. Sometimes people like Dan Miller make suggestions.

I had read that you like the "dirty, gritty sound" in some hip-hop or rap music loops or samples. Is this true, and if so, why is your sound so clean in comparison?

Can't you hear the scratches all over 'Red River Cargo'?

Do you generally prefer the sound of male or female vocalists?

I don't really have a preference although it seems to be easier to think of female singers that I like, as opposed to male.

When quantizing a sequence, do you find you lose the 'funkiness' of bass parts or do you never quantize?

I do quantize sequences but I try to get the 'feel' from filter and velocity variations rather than the timing. I've recently discovered the joys of Logic's 'swing' quantization which does exactly that. (For those that don't know, 'quantizing' is the computer's process of putting musical parts dead in time).

When you're done with a song, do you enjoy listening to it afterwards, or do you usually lose interest in it?

It's natural to be bored with something after you've listened to it so intently but in the case of 'Unsound Methods', I still really enjoy it.

Where do you get those kickin' drum sounds? Do you sample them? What do you recommend for good drum sounds?

My drum sounds are derived from many different sources, ranging from my own drumkit, other people's loops, drum machines and electronic sounds. What you end up hearing is a selection of samples combined to form one rhythm part.

Do you write all your songs with the piano? Do you play regularly and if so, do you ever catch yourself playing DM tunes?

My music comes together in the studio. I don't play the piano as much as I should - it's mainly nursery rhymes, Chaz 'n' Dave, and cartoon theme tunes.

Are lyrics important to you, even though you don't write them yourself?

Not as important as the music and melodies but they have a part to play.

Is it easier to work alone and make all the decisions by yourself, than to have people around you to talk with and share different opinions?

Generally I like to work alone but sometimes I need feedback from other people. Go to Media - features and read my interviews in 'Sound On Sound', 'Future Music' and 'Release' magazines for more information.

Do you need a song-structure and special subjects/concepts in order to give your work a meaning that seems more important than "knocked out" instrumentals?

Not necessarily a song structure but certainly a theme or direction helps me focus what I'm doing.

What's your BIGGEST pet-peeve when you're so busy toiling in the studio?

One of the most annoying things is best described by way of an example. If I'm working on a complicated sample which I want to cut up into many pieces and re-configure into something new, the process is inevitably complex and until the procedure is complete, things will usually sound chaotic and meaningless to anyone listening in. If someone who doesn't fully understand this procedure comes in at an unfinished stage and makes negative judgements like 'Oh, that doesn't sound very good", it really pisses me off. Another studio pet-hate is:

Beep...beep beep......beep beeep beeeeep.. "I'm up to level 4!" ...beep ...beep beep...

I have frequently come upon the phrase 'drum loop'. Could you please explain what is meant by a 'loop' in this context (to a non-expert)?

Drum loop or any sampled 'loop' is pretty much what it sounds like - a segment of rhythm or music which is continually repeated in a cycle.

In the studio with DM or Recoil, did you or do you actually perform certain parts of a song "live" on the keyboard or is it all just programming ?

With DM, if they were playable, quite a lot of the parts were performed rather than programmed. Same thing applies to Recoil.

In a rockumentary shown on German TV, you said that your goal is 'to make the perfect record" What would you consider as a perfect record (it's subjective, isn't it ?) and how far do you think you have got in reaching this goal?

Obviously, I can never reach that goal. There is no perfect record, but the idea that you can strive for one drives you on to better what you have done before.

What are the differences in your approach to producing a track for live performance, as opposed to an album version?

There are many subtle differences one would apply depending on the nature of the track, what you're trying to achieve with it, and where it comes in the set etc. Generally, live versions can take more dynamic contrast, longer dance sections and a big ending!

Was it hard for you to settle down in the studio by yourself after working in a team or as a band?

No, it was a relief.

Do you have any tips for adding 'life' to some of todays 'sterile' synths. Even the virtual analogue ones sound too 'nice' to me?

Stick 'em through a guitar amp.

When working on your own material, do you usually just work on one song at a time or do you work on several?

I usually have two or three things going at any one time. Eventually I end up with all the tracks in varying stages of progress, which I gradually refine until I feel they're complete.

Do you find it hard to listen to music by other artists without analysing it and mentally taking it apart?

On the contrary, I allow music to wash over me emotionally first and it's only when something really grabs my attention (either good or bad) that I start to look deeper into its construction.

I've recently been experimenting with some musical equipment and have found that some of the best pieces arise out of mistakes I've made, such as pasting to a wrong track or setting a 'wrong' synth patch. Does the same thing ever happen to you and if so, are there any examples you can point to... or is all the genius planned? ;-)

It happens all the time but as you'd expect I can't think of any specific example. The unintended often turns out to be the most inspiring.

Obviously, you are a perfectionist. How hard is it to know when a track is 100% finished? Do you, like me, find it hard to stop tweaking the knobs?

Usually a deadline is the best thing to let you know when you've finished. Without a schedule it's possible to take things too far.

Are you very creative at this time or are there moments when you don't have any ideas? I mean, do you sit in front of your keyboards and computer with the thought of having to make a new album or do you just realise some ideas that are in your mind?

I am definitely concentrating on making a whole album which is a bit daunting when you have absolutely nothing. I have now made a start and I have a few ideas going already.

How do you feel when you sit in front of your gear and nothing happens?

Frustrated, of course, but it always happens. You just have to force yourself to keep trying until something comes.

Do you prefer weighted or unweighted keys on your keyboard?


Have you ever sampled a guitar and made it sound like strings?

Well I've certainly sampled strings and made them sound like guitars.

Do you ever name your hard drives and if so, what do you call them? 

'What's wrong with it this time',
'Fucking work will you',
'You're history sunshine'
'Oh no, it's crashed again"

How important is it that the mood of the songs 'match' to give the album a sort "unity"? Have you ever dropped a possible good song because it didn't have the right mood or feeling?

Luckily all my songs seem to have a similar mood so this is rarely a problem. However, we did record one song for 'Unsound Methods' that was pretty good in it's own right but just didn't feel like Recoil - so it didn't make it.

I have been studying Digital Editing and Sound Mixing for a few years now. Can you give me any tips?

I doubt it - you probably know more than I do. To me, editing is a very musical thing - you either have a feel for it or you don't. If you have a musical ear, then I'm sure you can do it quite easily.

How long does it take to complete a song from the idea to end result?

There's no fixed time. A track takes as long as it takes.

When did you stop actually programming pattern-by-pattern drum machines?

The last time I did that to any great extent was during the making of 'Violator' even though there are 'live' drum loops on that album as well. Since then, the majority of drums have come in the form of loops although I still might programme certain percussion parts, hi-hats and cymbals.

I'm a big fan of Nitzer Ebb and my favourite songs you've produced for them are 'Come Alive' and 'I Give To You'. I love the strings on both and was wondering if those on 'I Give To You' were recorded by live musicians or just sequenced sampled strings and if so, how the hell did you make them sound like that?

The strings, brass and marimbas were all recorded live - arranged and conducted by Andrew Poppy. Some of the performances (mainly the brass) were so sloppy that we had to put them into samplers afterwards in order to re-tune them and put them in time. You may be surprised to hear that this is not uncommon when hiring classical musicians.

To aid anyone who works in a studio environment, do you go through any rituals or 'mood' generating actions before your recording or sampling processes? I work with an engineer and we do a huge amount of sampling and sound design but lose focus somewhat when it comes to the 'gel' of a song. I wondered if you did any mediation or 'focused dreaming' to get the mood in your head for a piece.

Most writers/musicians complain of exactly the things you mention. For me, there are no clever tricks to force the ideas out. I find the best way to get ideas is to work on a regular basis and just accept that some days are not going to be as fruitful as others. However, on average, more good ideas come if you keep trying than if you don't bother going to work because there's nothing in your head.

Currently working on a new album of instrumental tracks and want that classic Kraftwerk religion! What would you recommend?

Asking Kraftwerk.

There are several tracks on your albums, particularly the instrumentals that clock in @ 6 minutes or longer. Instead of breaking everything up into individual songs, what about only one very extended piece of music. Maybe too epic, though!

What, like a musical journey?

What restores the positivity in your art when you have a shite day / week / month / career?

Exactly that. I often do my best work when I'm pissed off.

Does the electro-progress reach a point where you think " Ok, I've taken this form of writing as far as I can with my resources as a musician/composer - time to de-construct" then go Eno-ish or John Cage-like? Or do the heaps of happy cash help squash any philosophical sparring ?

Some people would say I'm already up my arse - you want me to go further?

What's your favourite aspect of the music making process - forming the germinal idea, putting the flesh on the bones, or the tweaking and EQ-ing at the end of it all?

The 'raking in the cash' bit.....

I could never seem to figure out how to have all my samples (from 3 E-mu samplers and a few other modules) at the same consistent volume level in order to have enough headroom for mixing within Cubase (I have a modest studio of my own running Cubase VST on a powermac 8500/150). I understand that before you started using your Pro Tools set-up, you were using Cubase. Could you please describe how you would go about mixing a sample dominant track? Did you ever use the midi mixer within Cubase?

I would always sample each sound at optimum level and then record my musical part into Cubase after which I would adjust the part level (leaving maybe 30-40% headroom). My working balance would come together as each part built up. If I ran out of headroom I would reduce the level of all the other sounds either in Cubase or in the sampler (there are various ways to internally balance your sounds in the samplers depending on which machines you use). Up to this point, I would just be using the stereo outputs of the sampler(s). Only when it came to the final mix would I then assign each sound to its own output for ultimate control (effects and so on). I never bothered with the midi mixer within Cubase.

I'm wondering if you have a particular mixing or EQ-ing technique for getting drum sounds to sound good. I know it depends on the sound you are trying to achieve but are there any hard and fast rules you usually follow?

No special tricks or even handy tips. I go through phases with drum sounds. Personally, I like to hear the ring of the snare and I like to feel the bass drum rather than hear a lot of attack to the sound but everybody has their own idea of a good drum sound. For me it's important to find the right source sound rather than having to rely on radical eq or effects.

Do you usually do your own engineering or do you find it a daunting task and have someone else better qualified to take care of it?

With DM, we always used an engineer. With Recoil, I use an engineer just for mixing because I'm not a skilled knob twiddler. I have a certain amount of knowledge about technical aspects but I need to be able to concentrate on the music without worrying about syncing up this and setting up that.

Personally I find that I am more creative in the winter months than in any other. I think this if due to seasonal depression. Are there any periods of the year that you find you're more creative than others?\

Probably the winter as well.

I would like to know what are the actual tasks of a producer and of a sound engineer. In particular, what is the difference between the two and could a band like DM possibly do without them? In the case of Recoil, you seem to be all of these people.

A music producer is roughly the equivalent of the film director: someone who retains the overall vision of a record, who attempts to draw the very best from the raw material given to him by the artist and someone who usually has final say about how the finished product sounds. They come in different shapes and sizes: those that are very hands on (even playing some instruments) through to those who are completely unmusical but nonetheless have a great perspective .

The role of the engineer is to realise the producer's / artists ideas from a technical point of view.

Producer: "I want the Peruvian nose flute sound to disappear off into the distance and then explode.

Engineer: "I know, I'll try sending it through delay unit 163457B and then gate it to the bass drum distorted through a leslie cabinet using 3 D72 mics at varying distances."

Producer: "Don't get clever with me, sonny - if it sounds shit, I'll dump it."

Engineer: "Whatever you say, sir"

Producer: "That's right"................ "BOY! Make me a cup of tea and go out and buy me a can of tartan paint...... hoover the ceiling, while you're at it...."


To further the engineer / production questions, is a large amount of individual track equalisation usually necessary? Is massive compression employed post-production?

There are no rules - it all depends on what's required for each individual sound or song. Some overall compression and eq. is nearly always added at the mastering stage but this is usually of the minor tweakage variety.

Do you use the factory presets on your synths or do you muck about with envelopes and LFO's and such to create your own sounds? Do they ever get lost (as my knob of a guitarist recently 'erased' mine)?

I just twiddle with my knobs until I get excited.

You've said elsewhere in q + a that you don't really care who listens to your music (which is fair enough) but not being musical myself I find that hard to understand. I mean, would it not somehow be tainted if you knew a murderer or rapist was a big fan?

Not really. If you think like that, you wouldn't be able to do anything. Whatever you do or say, there's always someone who's going to either be offended or disturbed by it etc...

Do you make music for yourself or for others? Is something like Recoil more prone to this 'because' of it's darker side?

As above, too much self censorship makes for boring output. It could well be that Recoil does disturb some people but if you don't like it, don't listen and if it makes you do weird things, that's your problem, not mine.

I would like to know if the DM albums 'Violator', 'SOFAD' and all Recoil albums were digitally recorded and mixed.

The DM albums you mention were recorded using analogue 2" tape with Dolby SR noise reduction. The very first Recoil release ('1+2') was recorded on a 4-track cassette machine! 'Hydrology' was recorded on 16-track half inch tape with Dolby C, 'Bloodline' was recorded digitally using my Akai DR1200 machines with some sounds run live into the mix, and 'Unsound Methods' was mostly run live except for one or two sounds which were recorded digitally. With all these later albums, the final stereo mixes were recorded to half inch tape using Dolby SR.............. you trainspotter, you.

I was wondering how proficient you are these days at sight reading. Do you ever just get the urge to sit down at the Steinway and play some good ole fashioned acoustic piano? And if so, what do you play? Do you always make sure to sit at middle C?

I'm very bad at sight reading - always was. I usually prefer to improvise when I play the piano or just work out songs/chords by ear. Hep and I do play fairly regularly. There's a big book of classics on the piano in our room which we tackle (badly) every now and then. She did try and get me to play some duets with her in the early days but we spent the entire time moaning about the other one's lack of dexterity - then we gave up.

I'm a big fan of both DM and Recoil and was just wondering how you made the very resonant loops that are used at the end of 'Higher Love' and 'People Are People'. I've sat down with my sampler and tried all sorts of things but nothing really sounds right.

Can't really remember. The kind of thing you are talking about was probably created by sending the sounds through an external delay unit and allowing them to feedback on themselves. The old Roland Chorus echo machines are great for that sort of thing. In fact, I must get myself a second hand machine.

I'm wondering if you prefer to attract an audience which is composed of thoughtful, at least somewhat intelligent individuals who are moved or inspired by your music rather than girls who don't really pay that much attention but just thought you were the cutest one in Depeche Mode?

I don't mind who listens to the music or on what level they enjoy it. Expect a few hate mails coming your way soon.


Q+A  :  GENERAL MUSIC  :  WORKING METHODS - inspiration / techniques / devices / studio life