BROOKLYN: You know it as soon as you hear it: A Vince Clarke creation has a way of bouncing right through you. Even at his darkest, there are vibrant energetic impulses emanating from the “King of the Synth”.
These days, this music-making royalty resides in Brooklyn. In the sub-basement of a house on a quiet street, new ideas are steadily emerging from Clarke.
That’s good news for fans of the bands he’s co-founded – major musical forces that include Depeche Mode, Yazoo, The Assembly and Erasure. It’s an amazing resume that spans four decades with millions upon millions of record sales tied to a list of unforgettable hits that he’s written: “I Just Can’t Get Enough”, “Only You”, “Don’t Go”, “Chains of Love” and “A Little Respect” to name just a few of Clarke’s global smashes. He is responsible for 17 Top Ten-charting singles in the U.K. just with Erasure.
Situated as he is now, two floors below the earth and surrounded by one of the most mind-boggling collections of analog and digital synths anywhere, you’d think Clarke was safe in his comfort zone. Far from it, this music explorer remains immersed in new projects — remixes, songwriting, production collaborations, and performances – that challenge him.
“I’ve been trying to learn how to be a DJ, which is a scary process,” he laughs. “But I’m not playing live otherwise at the moment, and learning a new piece of technology has been exciting. I’ve figured out how to every song in time from one to the next.”
Actually, managing crossfades and transitions is something Clarke has always been a master of. As he’s grown group after hitmaking group, his rhythmically driven synth style is always evolving. If you haven’t had the chance yet, just check out his entrancing 2012 collaboration with fellow Depeche Mode colleague Martin Gore, VCMG’s entrancing Ssss – this is minimalist techno at its most deliciously enriching.
A Synth Setup Like No Other
Minimalism also abounds in Clarke’s Brooklyn synth environment – it’s just him and long walls of classic synths which span decades. From ARPs to Arturias, Moogs to massive Roland system constructions, or custom modular synths and newcomers like Analogue Solutions’ Leipzig S monosynth/step sequencer — he can hear them all, playing together or apart, at a moment’s command.
The center of the setup is a Logic rig, where the signal path from each synth has been led. Via a routing and patching system set up in collaboration with his brother, Mick, Clarke can select any of his dozens of analog or digital synths for control and/or recording, as easily as if he were choosing any one or more Logic soft synths. Six Roland MPU 101 MIDI-to-CV converters allow him to run the old-school synths from a central MIDI controller, if desired.
Clarke established this pulsating music lab in a 120-year old Brooklyn home, a big part of how he reestablished himself as an NYC resident following six years of self-imposed exile in Maine.
With his move back to metropolis, Clarke has also returned to the joy of creating with a fully hands-on approach. “For a while I was sucked into the soft synth world, which I still use and still find interesting,” he explains. “But now I love having this setup readily available, and being able to access everything really quickly.
“I’ve rediscovered modular synths and their unpredictability. Being able to use two hands instead of a mouse – the physicality of it – I like that. At the end of the day, having worked with soft synths and then going back to this stuff, the hardware really does sound better.”
Experience the rhythmic drama of “Spock” from VCMG’s Ssss:
Ready for a good look around? Let’s visit with Vince Clarke in his Waveform Wonderland.
On why synthesizers are the ideal tool to express himself:
I got very excited about the sound they made in the ‘80’s, when I started, hearing what bands like Human League and Orchestral Maneuvres in the Dark were doing. With the advent of synthesizers I was able to make music I couldn’t possibly play – and still can’t!
I love working with synthesizers. They’re very tactile. They’re very unpredictable. The oldest modules don’t have memory, so every time you’re starting a song, you’re starting from scratch.
What makes synthesis exciting to the human ear:
When all the electronic pop happened in the early ‘80’s, it was a sound that had never been heard before. People had been using synths for long conceptual albums, but not in a pop context. It wasn’t like that music was a revival of what had happened in the past – it was completely new.
I can only speak for myself, but when those instruments started being produced and made available, it was incredibly exciting. I was crap at guitar. With sequencers, I was able to orchestrate songs that I could never possibly play live.
On the ongoing evolution of synthesizer technology:
I like the fact that the technology is that much cheaper – I think it’s democracized music-making and songwriting. When we started it was 500 hundred pounds to buy just one synthesizer.
Previous studio designs that informed his latest facility (for an informative picture of his Maine studio, click here):