British engineer Gareth Jones is no stranger to the world of pioneering synth pop, nor indeed Depeche Mode. JONATHAN MILLER gets the technical low-down on the world’s greatest synth band’s eagerly awaited new album, Exciter.

From Basildon boys to globetrotting stadium superstars, teenage bubblegum synth popsters to seriously popular late-thirty-something "serious" musicians, clean-cut to drug-fuelled, Depeche Mode have done it all, and survived – quite literally so in the case of vocalist Dave Gahan. Who'd have guessed that 20 years on from infectious ditties like "Just Can't Get Enough" - and a staggering 35 million album sales (and counting) down the line - they'd be releasing Exciter, their tenth studio album of dark, yet somehow uplifting songscapes that have become their latter-day trademark for Mute Records (Sire in the USA). It nearly wasn’t so, on more than one occasion.

For Depeche Mode are no strangers to pop's tumultuous ways, first written off as early as 1981 with the departure of then-principal songwriter Vince Clarke immediately following their lightweight long-playing debut, Speak & Spell. While Clarke found further synthesized fortune with Yazoo (and later Erasure), Gahan and keyboard players Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher refused to be beaten - Gore promptly taking over songwriting duties and classically trained keyboard virtuoso Alan Wilder filling Clarke's on-stage shoes (later proving indispensable in the studio). Confounding fans and critics alike, this fabulous foursome admirably reinvented themselves, finally attaining world domination status with the 101st and final concert of their Music For The Masses world tour when performing to a 70,000-strong audience at Pasedena's Rose Bowl in California on June 18, 1988, captured on film by none other than D.A. Pennebaker (of Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back 1965 British tour "rockumentary" fame). A rock 'n roll roller coaster ride had truly begun for Essex's finest, but what goes up usually comes down.



Following 1993’s ‘difficult’ Songs Of Faith And Devotion album, the subsequent 180-show trek to over two million fans took its toll in more ways than one – not least Wilder’s 1995 departure, citing “dissatisfaction with the internal relations and working practices of the group”. Doom merchants again predicted Depeche Mode’s disbanding. They were nearly right.

The partially rehabilitated Gahan, Gore and Fletcher only just managed to regroup as a trio under the watchful production gaze of Bomb The Bass man Tim Simenon and were rewarded with 1997’s UK chart-topping Ultra. Simenon’s baby shifted over four million copies worldwide, spawning the group’s highest UK hit single in several years (‘Barrel Of A Gun’). This would clearly be a tough act to follow, both sales-wise and in terms of production – especially as the group showed no sign of letting up, venturing out to tour in support of their The Singles: 1986-98 ‘Best Of’ album. But someone had to do it.

And that someone was Mark Bell, an individual who had already made his own mark on the charts as co-founder of Leeds-based LFO, a Warp Records signing dubbed by several American websites as one of the most influential techno acts of the early-’90s. Though a relatively recent ‘A-list’ inductee, Bell came with excellent credentials, fresh from working on Bjork’s latest long-playing masterpiece, Selmasongs (having previously produced Homogenic for the Icelandic songstress in 1997). Indeed, it was these recordings that swayed Depeche Mode in favour of Bell.

While Bell is clearly technically adept, safely sailing the good ship Exciter to its many recording ports of call, ultimately the smooth running of an undoubtedly complex production procedure fell on the experienced shoulders of veteran engineer Gareth Jones. Effectively Depeche Mode’s ‘Technical Director’, Jones’ recording credentials extend back, rather appropriately, to British synth pop pioneer (and former Ultravox frontman) John Foxx’s groundbreaking Metamatic album of 1980, with Foxx himself later opining, “Gareth was a hippy Freudian BBC drop-out, and these were his first real recording sessions. He soon became an innovator.”



Can you expand on your lengthy career’s formative years before encountering Depeche Mode?

Gareth Jones: “I very much enjoyed my time at the BBC where I was given a valuable basic training in studio recording gear, mics, mixers and tape machines. I was also introduced to digital sound technology – Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4 were distributed to the FM transmitters around the country on PCM leased lines, using custom BBC equipment. Getting things done quickly and on schedule was very important at the BBC, as was a real sense of excellence and innovation. Working with John Peel was also inspiring. But ultimately it was frustrating for me; I wanted to be recording music and bands. At that time you had to wait for many years before getting the opportunity to record music.

“I wrote to all the larger studios in London, twice, and got one call! It was from Mike Finesilver, co-owner of Pathway Studios, who was working in Berwick Street Studios. He needed a freelance engineer, saw my letter, and gave me a call. Soon I was pulling double shifts at the BBC and Pathway. From there, it was a relatively easy step to go freelance.

“Mike, and the chief engineer at Pathway, Wally Brill, introduced me to recording in the commercial world. From accountants to mic’ing up drum kits, studio attitude to the latest digital gear – the first Eventide Harmonizer – and stress management, they opened the door and showed me the way. I was thrown in at the deep end and somehow managed to survive drowning.”

You recorded and mixed Madness’ debut single ‘The Prince’ at Pathway in 1979 before moving on to Foxx’s inaugural longplayer. Presumably, the synthesized nature of Metamatic must have been quite an eye-opener at the time?

GJ: “I’d fallen in love with the synthesizer when I heard Walter Carlos’ realisations of Switched On Bach in 1969, so when John came in with this cool electronic gear – ARP Sequencer, ARP Odyssey, Roland CR-78, Elka strings and MXR flanger, I knew it was going to be fun. John had a clear artistic vision and a wealth of experience, having already recorded three LPs – most recently Systems Of Romance with German guru Conny Plank. These facts helped provide a supportive atmosphere for us to experiment and develop, as did the budget John had arranged! John wanted to make a minimal record, and he went for minimal resources to do it. This meant we were ‘pushing the envelope’ with all the equipment – that was a great thing creatively. And, of course, we were listening to Kraftwerk and Neu. My first contact with Mute Records was when John and I listened in awe to the fantastic sound of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’.”



Of course, The Normal was the one-off recording pseudonym of Mute Records’ founder and Depeche Mode mentor Daniel Miller. Ironically, in 1983 you inadvertently crossed paths with both through your then ongoing association with John Foxx when Depeche Mode came to record their third album, Construction Time Again, at Foxx’s London-based 24-track studio, The Garden, with yourself as engineer…

 GJ: “John encouraged me to meet Daniel and Depeche at a time when they were looking for something new. I was initially reluctant because of their ‘teenage bubblegum synth popsters’ reputation, to use your words. It turned out that we had compatible approaches in the studio.”

 Foxx is very flattering regarding your role on this groundbreaking album; Steve Malins’ Depeche Mode biography quotes him as saying, “I think Gareth was very important in helping Depeche Mode move effortlessly from analogue synthesizers to the world of sampling and digital technology.” How would you respond to that observation?

GJ: “That may well be, but I feel my major contribution was more to do with the acoustic space around the sounds, beats and riffs. Having moved out of the Pathway cupboard I was now in a reverberant basement with interesting different acoustic spaces – mainly bright with short reverb times. I had a bunch of different amps hooked up in different rooms with mics near and far, so we were able to experiment with distortions and acoustic spaces easily. We continued this practice when we sampled ambient sounds on my stereo Stellavox SP7 – one track for a close sound and one for distant perspective. This ‘sense of place’ was very important for helping to enhance and create moods and atmospheres. We were clearly making machine music, but on Construction Time Again we put the machines in an acoustic space.”

Daniel Miller had just bought New England Digital’s upmarket Synclavier, a kind of precursor to today’s sampling workstations. What are your memories of what was clearly a technologically exciting time?

GJ: “Mainly battling to keep things in sync as we made the transition to digital. But we are in very exciting times again for music and technology; Moore’s Law keeps delivering the goods and allows us a lot of virtual fun – and real fun, too!”



Which brings us neatly to the present day, and Exciter. I understand Martin Gore ostensibly resumed songwriting at his rural private studio in early 1999, with a view to recording a new Depeche Mode album, but progress was slow. Consequently, in October 1999 he enlisted the assistance of keyboard player/programmer Paul Freegard and yourself, a period you term as a ‘workshop’ on your website. What can you reveal about your role in this early stage in the proceedings?

GJ: “Paul and I were there essentially to support our artist, Martin, and, as every studio worker knows, that can cover a lot of ground. For whatever reason, Martin was creatively ‘blocked’ and we helped establish an environment and a routine where creativity could flow more easily. We experimented with the interpretations of songs in a very relaxed, healthy and positive environment – insofar as we could. We had a good time; we woke up feeling good; we went in the gym; we went in the sauna; we did group meditations, sometimes; we listened to music; we ate well; very occasionally we went to the pub.”

Presumably you brought some of your own equipment along to these sessions?

GJ: “My ‘equipment’ included aromatherapy oils and joss sticks, organic brown rice, sardines and rice crackers, as well as tension tamer teas! I bought along my Supernova and my Nord Micro Modular as well as Reaktor and AbSynth, Arboretum’s Hyper Engine, Logic Audio, Pluggo and Sound Diver. In addition, I brought the Doepfer MAQ16/3 sequencer and the Doepfer Regelwerk Fader Box; also my Genelec 1029As, to which we soon added the 1091 sub.

“From an early stage is was clear that we wanted to be able to move seamlessly into ‘production’ with this material. Although we were working on the humble AW8 card, I had my chain of Focusrite ISA 115HDs and ISA 131s – the Rupert Neve versions – into an Apogee AD500e feeding the digital input, so we were always making decent recordings. My Line6 POD was also very useful; I think all the guitars recorded in pre-production were used on the finished record. I also bought my trusty B&K 4006 mics along. All in all, it was home recording-style, a style we carried on with in bigger studios later.”



Electric Eel’s Kevin van Green – also responsible for creating customised recording spaces for ex-band members Alan Wilder and Vince Clarke, Mute boss Daniel Miller, and former Depeche producer Flood – has told me that Gore’s Hertfordshire-based private studio is sited in a double garage and featured a custom cabinet housing three vintage ARP 2600 analogue synthesizers at the time of its construction. What can you tell us about this studio now?

 GJ: “Martin has a nice collection of gear – Akai samplers; AKS Synthi, as featured on ‘Dead Of Night’; two rack Minimoogs; Roland JD-800, JP-8000 and JV-2080; Nord Lead, Wasp Stinger, featured on the chorus of ‘Shine’; Moog Series III; three ARP 2600s; JoMox drum module; lots of guitars; piano; a G3 running Logic Audio; Amek desk, with quite a few guitar effects and different bits and pieces that I’ve probably forgotten. It’s a pleasant, spacious room, with lots of daylight and a view of trees and countryside.”

 Come 2000, your website lists Paul Freegard and yourself as being involved in ‘ongoing pre-production’. At one point you posted news of these proceedings on your website, announcing, “Dave has been over from New York and done some excellent vocals on four tunes already.” Can you expand upon this stage in the album’s progress, and did the songs bare any relation to the finished product in any way or form?

 GJ: “Many of the finished songs have lots of sounds from the pre-production, of course – everyone works like that now, I think. There is no point in recreating great stuff again; indeed, very often it is simply impossible. So a great deal of our fantastic pre-production work came through to the finished record. Lots of the guitars and Martin’s lead vocals are from this session, and masses of synths and audio. Some of Dave’s vocal work made it through as well, I believe. Working in the virtual and tapeless world as we do, any audio is available throughout the whole production.”



Once LFO’s Mark Bell had signed on board as producer, I understand you all decamped to London’s RAK Studios on June 5, 2000. Bell has implied this was more of a bonding exercise than a true recording session…

GJ: “Valuable musical work and vocals were done at RAK, and we started to develop an effective and comfortable way to work. It was very important to all of us that we should enjoy making the record, and our working environment was very important to us. We wanted to be in a city; we decided to work in a studio for the soundproofing, maintenance and assistant engineer support. We were not in a studio because we wanted to be recording on a large console or because we wanted access to loads of studio effects. With these priorities we were able to reassess how we used the studio space.”

 So how did you use the studio space at RAK?

GJ: “I set up two linked Mackie consoles in the live room into which we plugged all the equipment we were using – essentially an E-mu E-IVX Turbo; Akai MPC2000 and S3200; Supernova; Nord Modular and Nord Lead; Korg MS2000; Roland JV-2080; Access Virus; two Apple G3 laptops, running Cubase and Logic with VX pockets; and a G4/MotU 2408 running Logic. The laptops were also running Reaktor, PPG Wave 2.V, VB1 and Absynth. I had the same recording chain as in Herfordshire, of course, and I was very easily able to record any Mackie output. Everything was wordclock sync’d. Sometimes I referenced Apogee clock, sometimes Digidesign USD. We extensively used the TC Fireworx and M2000/M3000 on the monitors, and I was able to play the pre-production in different levels of detail depending on what Mark needed – everything was available to him, from individual parts to stereo backing tracks.

“Dave was very keen to spend a lot of time with the tracks, so it was very clear that he needed a space to work where he could sing, listen to music and record vocals whenever he felt he had something worth recording. I set him up in the control room – working to analogue tape at RAK, but later, in Santa Barbara, he went to Pro Tools, which was obviously easier – so both rooms were able to work independently if they wanted. Obviously we were wired for sound, so we could all hear what we were doing if we wanted.

“Later we added a third room for editing, and writing – another G3 laptop running Logic – and were constantly exchanging data on CDs. Back-up was a priority; all the assistants and Retrospect were most helpful here.”



Following the three-week stint at RAK, where to next?

 GJ: “After RAK we went directly to NYC for a couple of weeks with the main intention of focusing on lead vocals. We set up more conventionally in the Penthouse at Electric Lady – vocal mics in the live room and synths in the control room. We also got a beautiful string arrangement by Knox Chandler for ‘When The Body Speaks’ recorded in the Neve room. Dave sang and Martin played guitar together for some of the takes of this song, too. So the Electric Lady session was very much about performance, as opposed to programming.”

I understand from speaking with producer Mark Bell that a decision was made to collectively relocate the production somewhere fresh. RAK and Electric Lady are internationally renowned studios, equipped to suit; why was Santa Barbara Sound Design specifically chosen as the next suitable recording venue?

GJ: “Martin had moved to Southern California, and the band decided to go and work on his patch for a couple of months. Sound Design has two live areas and a nice vibe, so we went for that. Santa Barbara was a beautiful place to work. We stayed in hotels overlooking the ocean. Mark and I hired bicycles and rode along the beach to the studio. Everyone had a good time and we were free from the distractions of big cities like LA, NYC and London as the town shuts down at 2am.”

 The fact that two one-month bookings were ultimately undertaken at Santa Barbara Sound Design is perhaps proof that studio and location was an unqualified success for all concerned, likewise implying that the bulk of the recording took place at this venue…

 GJ: “We did loads of great work in Santa Barbara, as we had done already in Herfordshire, RAK and Electric Lady! And we continued working in the live rooms of the mix studios – Sony Studio B in NYC and Sarm West Studio 1 in London – whilst Steve Fitzmaurice was mixing. It was an ongoing process.”



One of the most remarkable aspects of Exciter is Gahan’s intimate, upfront and personal vocal approach to tracks like ‘Dream On’ – the first single – and the dreamy ‘When The Body Speaks’. How did you approach this from a technical standpoint?

 GJ: “We basically set up a bunch of mics and Dave chose what he liked – same with the compressors. Dave had wanted to try an Avalon 737, so we used that in NYC. In Santa Barbara the house engineer, Nick Sevilla, was working closely with Dave, tweaking compressors and changing mics where necessary. My B&K 4006 was used a lot; it was the main vocal mic and went directly into a Neve 1067 preamp/EQ set flat, then out to the LA-2A limiter – limiting up to 7dB for the heavier stuff and about 0- to 3dB for the normal singing – and then into an Apogee AD8000. My technical approach was very much about capturing Dave’s performances as transparently to him as possible.”

Having achieved that, how did you then deal with Gahan’s performances?

GJ: “Dave did lots of the pre-editing himself – if he didn’t like it, we never heard it! Mostly, he presented us with three or four good takes, and it was a case of using one main take and fixing it here and there – if and when considered necessary. Sometimes Martin edited them with Nick or with me; sometimes Dave edited with Nick. Mark was always involved.”

 As was the case with Ultra, several guest musicians feature on Exciter. What was the approach, technical or otherwise, for dealing with the demands of acoustic performance?

 GJ: “Always to make everything as easy as possible – for the musicians and for Mark. Of course, all the musicians were very experienced and had great ideas, so really all I had to do was put mics in the right place and not fuck it up!”



Depeche Mode is still regarded from some quarters as a synth band, yet Exciter doesn’t immediately come across as a synth-dominated album per se. What’s more important to the Depeche Mode sound of today – synths or samplers?

GJ: “A real mixture of these two things – anything and everything available, really. Both are very important, in my opinion. Akai and E-mu samplers were used extensively, as were all kinds of VST plugs – Logic plug-ins, Pluggo, Hyperprism, and a wealth of TDM plug-ins. In addition to the synths we had in the studio we brought recordings of quite a few others from the Hertfordshire sessions – AKS Synthi, Minimoog, JP-8000, Stinger, ARP 2600, Rave-O-Lution, JoMox drum box and JD-800. Mark also came with a lot of recordings of his synths – in E-mu format – and we recorded his DX11 on ‘I Feel Loved’. VST instruments used included Reaktor, Mercury and PPG Wave 2.V.”

Following a month-long mixing process at Sony NYC, a Christmas break, then two weeks at Sarm West in London, the Exciter production officially wrapped on January 20, 2001. Now that you can presumably sit back and objectively view the album from a distance, were you able to achieve or even surpass your original objectives?

GJ: “We did reach my original objective – that everyone should enjoy working together to make great versions of Martin’s songs, and that pleased me.”

As Depeche Mode prepare to tour the world in support of Exciter, what are your long-term hopes for this album?

GJ: “I hope it will prove to be worthy of its place in the Depeche Mode catalogue.”


Jonathan Miller is a British freelance writer living in…  well, England. He specialises in the ‘ancient art’ of the hi-tech music interview, and can be reached at




Over the years I have tried loads of gear, obviously, and at present I am focusing on a reduced equipment set-up:



Logic Audio, ReCycle!, Metasynth, MESA, Peak, ReBirth, Pluggo, Hyperprism, SonicWorx – for their amazing Time Designer plug-in, SoundDiver, Reaktor, Mercury, PPG wave 2.V, Pro-52, B4, VB1, M-Tron and Waves Renaissance bundle. Netscape, Eudora, QuickKeys, Retrospect and Action Files are also in daily use, of course.



Akai S3200; Novation SuperNova, BassStation and DrumStation, Nord Micro Modular; Doepfer MAQ 16/3, Regelwerk, MS404 and Pocket Control; Apogee 500e A/D; Focusrite ISA115HD and ISA 131; TC Finalizer; B&K 4006 mics; Schoeps Collete series mics; Genelec 1029A monitors; Sherman Filterbank; Line6 POD; Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo; Waldorf 4-Pole filter; Apple G3 PowerBook; Digigram VX pocket; E-Magic Unitor II; and the wonderful MT4. My Soundcraft Spirit Folio Notepad is in daily use. Palm Pilot is also a major part of my life, and my Creative Nomad MP3 player and Sony CD Walkman are great tools.