Two-plus decades of platinum synth hits

[by Greg Rule, Keyboard magazine, Nov. 2001 issue]

If you read our recent cover story on Depeche Mode (May ’01), you know that the making of their latest CD was a voyage into hi-tech hyperspace. Producer Mark Bell was instrumental in crafting the band’s cutting-edge sound on Exciter, but let’s not underplay the contribution of Gareth Jones. Gareth is a synth production mastermind, with a long, illustrious list of albums and awards. In addition to working on several groundbreaking releases with Depeche Mode, his production credits include Bomb The Bass, Bronski Beat, Can, Devo, Diamanda Galas, Einstürzende Neubauten, Erasure, Garbage, Harold Budd, John Foxx, Moby, Nitzer Ebb, On, Orbital, Pizzicato 5, and many others.

When the opportunity to talk shop with Gareth presented itself recently, we were happy to oblige. Here’s what we learned about his work on Exciter. . . .


How did you land the Exciter gig?

The gig was in two parts. Firstly, I worked on the pre-production with Martin Gore and Paul Freegard for eight months. I’ve known Martin and the band since the early ’80s, when I worked on Construction Time Again, and I had worked with Paul and Martin on a Garbage remix [“Queer”] and a remix for On [“Soluble Words”], so we knew each other’s talents in the studio. Paul noticed that Martin was somehow creatively isolated, which was negatively impacting his ability to produce anything he was happy to play for anyone else. So Paul originally offered to hang with Martin in the studio and help get things moving. I think Martin realized this could be fun, and they expanded the concept to include me. Secondly, I was asked to join the production “proper” when the band had chosen Mark Bell to produce. Dave [Gahan, singer] had already been over to the U.K. and sung some vocals, and Andy [Fletcher, keyboardist] had been in the studio too. Everyone felt the vibe was right, and they asked me to carry on. Mark had enjoyed hearing our pre-production work and we shared some similar ideas about working, so we got down to it very easily.

What was the blueprint or creative plan going in?

At the start, the simple aim was to help get Martin writing. This involved us working a few days a week in Martin’s home studio in the English countryside. We described this phase as a workshop; basically we were playing around with Martin’s compositions. Martin would always come with a set of chords, vocal melody, and most of the lyrics for a song, and we would take it from there — trying different tempi and different timbres and atmospheres. Later we changed the keys for Dave. The three of us would then “hang flesh on the skeleton” until we were comfortable with the result. Sometimes this would be a quick process — two or three days — sometimes slower — three weeks. Effectively this was the pre-production phase of the work, where I did a great deal of programming, and it lasted eight months top to bottom.

The second phase was described as the production, and Mark Bell and his many talents were enlisted. The core personnel for this phase were the band, Mark, and I. We needed some new places to work, and now it was a question of finding comfortable settings. Neither Mark nor I was particularly excited by the idea of working in a recording studio, but the band wanted to work in towns/cities, and a recording studio seemed an easy environment to work in.

Initially we worked in RAK studios in London. Mark and I formed a plan to set up in the live room of one of the studios. We had loads of space in there, and that left the control room free for Dave to record vocals. The aim was to create a very hands-on environment for Mark where he could easily work with the material generated in the pre-production phase, and to make a creative sanctuary for Dave to perform. Also we felt it important to create another small studio for Martin, for which we used the largest booth. We all felt very comfortable with this, and after a short spell at the Penthouse at Electric Lady we moved into the live room of Sound Design Santa Barbara, then Sony Studio2 NYC, and Sarm West Studio 1 London. My role at this stage was defined as engineer and additional production.

Was there a specific deadline or budget you had to work within?

We had a deadline to finish — which we reached [laughs]. Of course there was a budget but Baron Kessler, the band’s manager, took care of that side of things. Rarely did we feel any pressures of budget.

What gear did you use?

Emagic Logic Audio was the center of my work on the album. One of the reasons I was asked to join the pre-production team was my Logic skills. I was also using a [Novation] Supernova and a Nord Micro Modular as sound sources. When we left the pre-production phase, everything was either recorded in Logic Audio, or running off these synths and an Akai S3200. Martin has a bunch of synths in his studio, and we used a Nord Lead (Paul was the Nord programming guru), Roland JV-2080, JP-8000, and JD-800 (Martin was the JD-800 programming guru), Minimoog, ARP 2600, Wasp Stinger (featured on the chorus of “Shine”), EMS AKS synthi (featured on “The Dead of Night”), Jomox X-Base module, Quasimidi Rave-o-lution (on which we created the original mood for “When the Body Speaks”), Korg MS2000, and others I may have forgotten. Guitars were recorded through the Line 6 Pod, which I enjoyed using with Emagic SoundDiver software. SoundDiver also played an important role in keeping track of everything. Microphones were largely Shure SM57 and B&K 4006. We also ran my Laptop with Native Instruments Absynth and Reaktor, Hyperprism, Logic Audio with Cycling 74 Pluggo and other VST plug-ins, including Waves Renaissance, plus [Propellerhead] Recycle, [Bias] Peak, [Roxio] Toast, etc. My Doepfer MAQ 16/3 sequencer and Regelwerk were massively useful controllers.

I was using native audio on Macs with VX pocket cards on the laptops and initially an AW8 card on an old beige — then, later, a MOTU 2408 on a G4. I used my Focusrite ISA 115HD feeding my Apogee AD500e, sometimes through my Focusrite ISA 131 compressor. So basically I had one or two recording chains only, usually on flying leads so I could pick up any sound from either Martin’s AMEK desk or the Mackie 32-8s that we used in the live rooms of the studios we worked in later. This kept things simple, which I like. Mark Bell was also interested in, and comfortable with, this style of working, so in the production we set up a 56-channel Mackie with a G4 desktop running Logic, Mark’s laptop running [Steinberg] Cubase with virtual synths (including TC Works Mercury and Waldorf Wave), and my laptop running whatever. In the control room we ran [Digidesign] Pro Tools on an Apogee AD8000 where Dave was recording vocals. Everything was word-synced. The output of my AD500e fed the G4, Mark’s laptop, his E-mu IVX Turbo sampler, and my laptop. Also hooked up was Mark’s [Akai] MPC2000, my S3200, an MS2000, the Supernova, and Nord Modular. Work on the songs would vary from Mark working alone on the stereo output of his laptop to more conventional multi-channel setups depending on what we needed to be doing. We exchanged data between machines on Zip and CDs with sneakernet. Martin had a setup based around a laptop running Logic in the booth as well, so we had three work areas, reasonably isolated acoustically but with good visual contact. This enabled us to be fluid and try all kinds of things very easily; it was easy to offer and get perspective from different members of the production at any time.

Anything you’d do differently next time around?

Network all the computers!

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

Had a little break at the start of this year. I produced the Clinic Album, Internal Wrangler, which has just been released in the U.S. on Domino Records. I’ve just mixed a single for British Sea Power, a new English band. I’m working with Gus Gus on a new album, and hoping to record and mix an album for New York band Interpol, before the end of the year. I’m also working on a covers album with Vince Clarke and Andy Bell. My own project Ornithology is well worth checking out as well.


For a complete past/present/future rundown, visit Gareth’s site at