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CLASSIC TRACKS: Depeche Mode 'People Are People'
The production of Depeche Mode's 1984 single People Are People was detailed in the February 2007 Sound On Sound article CLASSIC TRACKS: Depeche Mode 'People Are People' by Richard Buskin.
Producers: Depeche Mode, Daniel Miller, Gareth Jones • Engineer: Gareth Jones
'People Are People' perfectly combined Depeche Mode's love of pop music and experimentalism, and gave them their first US hit single.
Having evolved from new romantic to electro-pop, and survived the departure of co-founder and chief composer Vince Clarke (the keyboardist/composer formed Yazoo with singer Alison Moyet shortly after the UK-top-ten success of the single 'Just Can't Get Enough'), Depeche Mode began to hit their stride on the all-synth outfit's third album, Construction Time Again. Released in 1983, this signalled a growing sophistication in terms of Martin Gore's introspective songwriting and the arrangements of fellow keyboard player Alan Wilder, alongside the contributions of keyboardist Andrew Fletcher and vocalist David Gahan.
Gareth Jones engineered this record, and the following year he fulfilled the same role on Some Great Reward whilst also co-producing it with the band and Mute Records A&R exec Daniel Miller. The Basildon quartet's industrial-fusion apotheosis, this featured the classic dance track 'Master and Servant', as well as 'People Are People' which scored big on both sides of the Atlantic following its recording and release as a stand-alone single in April 1984.
"That song was kind of a stepping stone between Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward," Jones explains. "It signalled the band's transition towards more industrial sounds."
Basing himself in London after having grown up in the small Midlands market town of Evesham, Worcestershire, Gareth Jones gained his formal training at BBC Radio during the late-'70s. In his spare time, he also worked at a small eight-track studio named Pathway, in Stoke Newington, North London, and it was after moving there on a full-time basis in 1979 that he engineered Metamatic, the minimalist synth-pop solo debut of singer/keyboardist and former Ultravox frontman John Foxx.
This album, as well as Foxx's 1981 follow-up, The Garden, subsequently brought Jones to the attention of Daniel Miller and Depeche Mode, and Construction Time Again was actually recorded at John Foxx's newly built London studio, also named The Garden and now part of the Miloco complex.
"We felt that a lot of what we were doing was defining new sonic territories," says Jones with regard to the Depeche Mode perspective when he began working with the band. "Even on Construction Time, one of the things I brought to the table was to put the synthesizers through guitar amps. That wasn't being done very much back then — as far as we were concerned, we were the first people to do it — and that was part of the gradual darkening of the Depeche Mode sound. The band members wanted to experiment and they wanted to grow, and they were fed up with their synth-pop image. They didn't feel it did justice to what they wanted to express. They clearly wanted to go a long way, and at that time they were starting out on the journey towards Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion."
Having mixed Construction Time Again at Hansa Tonstudios in Berlin due to the appeal of that city, the esteemed reputation of the then state-of-the-art facility and the favourable exchange rate between the pound and the Deutschmark, Depeche Mode and Daniel Miller also opted to use Hansa for the recording and mix of 'People Are People'. The studio was equipped with a custom 'Hansa Blue' 48-channel SSL 4000E Series console and 24-track Studer A800 tape machine. The band brought their own BBC Micro computer-based sequencer along, and Miller's own Synclavier was used to sample and edit audio while also serving as a great additive synth.
"That song was a lot about sampling and the room," says Gareth Jones. "The monophonic Synclavier was a big part of the sound — we didn't have the polyphonic sampler until the fifth album [1986's Black Celebration] — and we also had an Emulator II and my own AMS. These were used all the time, and since only the Synclavier stored samples, a lot of what we did was recorded onto tape; track by track.
"Martin made a demo for 'People Are People' — it was also the first time the band had done a pre-production session — and this had one ambient sound that he'd recorded with a Walkman on an airplane; a bit of laughter and noise. He looped this up on the demo, and we decided to somehow recreate that sound, but it was impossible to recreate because it was a 'found sound', full of texture and rhythm, so we ended up using what was on the demo. Nobody thinks anything of that now — found sounds are used all the time — but back then it was a bit of a breakthrough for us. The demos were all very lo-fi, recorded on four-track or whatever, yet somehow a tiny snippet of this sound still existed in the Emulator and it became a big part of the chorus. I remember that very clearly, because there was a moment's confusion when we thought, 'How are we going to recreate that?' and then suddenly we realised we didn't need to recreate it, we'd just use it.
"One of the big things we were using samplers for at that time was to sample the world and make our own melodies and rhythms out of it. In my work with Depeche and others, I've never been that interested in using samplers to recreate conventional instruments. Instead, when the sampler came out it was like opening a door of perception. We could sample almost sound and turn it into a rhythm or melody, or even use the intrinsic rhythm within a sound — during that period there were lots of sounds on Depeche Mode records (although not on 'People Are People') that consisted of spinning saucepan lids, things falling downstairs, ping-pong balls bouncing, and loads of things with inherent rhythm that we twisted and warped into Martin's songs. The fragment of sound from the aircraft cabin was part of that."
Of particular note in this regard was 'Pipeline', which appeared on the Construction Time Again album, featuring drumsticks and hammers beating steel plates, pipes and various other metal objects, as recorded at a disused train station in Shoreditch, East London, with a cassette machine and assorted mics. The story of such sounds being captured by Jones at a German junkyard is apocryphal, yet it does have some basis in reality, and some of the aformentioned Shoreditch tapes were also utilised for the jerky rhythm on 'People Are People'.
"I was working with Einsturzende Neubaten, who in the early days made a lot of art music that featured the sound of banging metal," he says, referring to the German band whose name means Collapsing New Buildings. "I didn't use their sounds on 'People Are People', but certainly I embraced their aesthetic. It was a very fertile time, because I was introducing Einsturzende Neubaten to sequencers and we were using sampled metal with Depeche Mode, and having had that one expedition into the industrial wilderness with hammers and sticks we were then taking sounds from anywhere. Of course, as reflected later in the 'People Are People' video that was shot on HMS Belfast, we felt that banging metal was a very brutal and intense noise, and so a lot of that was built into the song."
Mode-us Operandi: The Production Team
Having enjoyed a good working relationship with Depeche Mode during the Construction Time sessions, Jones plucked up the courage to ask if he could thereafter be on the production team. The response was positive.
"I felt I'd made a massive contribution to the sound of that album," he says. "With Depeche, the studio was very much an instrument, too, and since that's what I played I felt entitled to ask if I could produce as well. Luckily for me, they said yes. The guy who'd founded Mute Records, Daniel Miller, was also the de facto manager — the band didn't have management at that time — and so he was the boss. He was fascinated by synthesizers and electronic music, and much of what he did musically was based on synthesizer sounds. Once those sounds came out of the synths I'd take over and build acoustic spaces around them, and at the same time we'd all work on the arrangements. Still, looking back, I'd say I was a very junior co-producer.
"Daniel did a lot of hands-on crafting of those sounds, as did Martin Gore and Alan Wilder, who was also a major production figure within the band. Alan was extremely invoved in the crafting of the studio product; a full-on, very musical guy, very interested in beats programming, and very interested in every aspect of the studio, be it compression or equalisation or reverb or delays or anything. So, there was a trio of us all the time in the studio, with Alan representing the band, Daniel overseeing everything while crafting many of the sounds, and me taking care of the engineering side. I had no repsonsibility for schedule or budget, and I was only starting to really understand how pop songs worked. I was on a big learning curve. In fact, I think we were all on a learning curve — that's one of the things that was so exciting.
"Sonically, I was contributing to the record big-time, and that's why I asked to be on the production team. I was just a young engineer, also with a long way to go, who knew I could add greatly to the production side of things, too, and the band and the record label obviously felt the same way because they took me on board."
"Everything was layered one instrument at a time," explains Jones. "Because of our relatively limited resources and because we couldn't save any of the analogue synths, we didn't have the whole song playing at the same time. It was very different to how we work now. We had the demo, so we knew where the song was going, and then we'd record something — for instance, guide drums, followed by a guide bass from something like a Minimoog, then a rhythm sequence from a triggered ARP sequencer running an ARP 2600, and then maybe something else.
"Nowadays, with soft synths and big racks of hardware synths, everybody just builds up the whole song and has it running all the time, but it was almost impossible to work like that back then because sounds would get lost, the power would go off. So parts were created one layer at a time, with the demo and pre-production serving as a reference as to where the song was, and some of those layers could also be changed — if you got further down the road and thought the bass wasn't very good, you could always redo it."
Likening the whole process to building a house, Jones states that very little subtraction took place.
"If you did need to dig the basement out, that was a really big deal," he says. "At least, it seemed to be at the time. We were becoming masters of synchronizing stuff up, but it wasn't so easy back then, whereas now we think nothing of changing the drums on electronic music at any stage of the process. That would have seemed like more of a big deal then, because we'd get paranoid and nervous — 'Oh God, if we change the drums, everything's been built on those drums!' It was a bit like a live track, almost. So, there wasn't all that much subtraction going on; only occasionally, if we thought, 'Oh shit, we've erected that wall in the wrong place.'
"Don't forget, sync was still a bit flakey, and we spent a lot of time trying to get these machines to play in sync. You'd make half a track and then you'd find out that the latency of some of the gear was varying. It wasn't just like an offset — we had the technology to handle that. You know, you'd find out that the Synclavier appeared to have a variable latency, so then you'd spend half a day hooking up an oscilloscope and looking at the click — you had a track of timecode and a track of click which you'd believe was absolutely marking the bar where things should be, because you'd made it in a very primitive way and it was repeatable. But then you'd have this huge challenge to make all this other stuff fit in with it. I can tell you, this was not trivial at the time, especially for us.
"A lot of the sequenced music was very Kraftwerk-inspired, and it was supposed to be precise. Well, the longer you listened, the more the irritating discrepancies upset you. The varying latencies' jitter was all over the place, we found out, especially with some of the digital stuff, and that was very shocking to us because we'd come from an analogue world where jitter didn't really occur — there might be a latency, but it would be constant. So, that was an enormous challenge, although if we were all to go back now, even with the very same technology, it probably would be a lot easier because we'd know every pitfall and we'd know exactly what to do. Back then we felt like explorers."
A United Front
"Working with Martin over the years, I've seen him become much more interested in how the demo evolves into the final product. At that time, however, his attention span was a bit shorter. After he'd written a song, I think he considered it tedious to be endlessly playing around with synthesizers and making different versions. Maybe we were just too slow for him, but even if he was bored with the process we at least had his demo as the guiding light, and different people tried different things. Because it was all played with machines, it was open to experimentation.
"It didn't really matter who programmed what machine. Someone could create something on a machine and then someone else could alter it and everyone could listen to it. There was a sense in which performance ego was irrelevant, because the performance was in the vocal and the programming. Once the sequencers were programmed, that was it, and if need be they were infinitely tweakable. So, it was the song that was in charge, up on the altar, enthroned, with everybody paying serious attention to getting the best out of it. The harcore consisted of Daniel, Alan and myself, in studio all the time, focussing on driving things forward.
"We were all quite young and so it was very much a question of just working endless hours until we all felt we'd achieved something that felt right. We were really into it, and while Dave and Martin were very passionate about the songs as well, they'd be more likely to go off to a bar at 10 in the evening and leave us in the studio for another six hours to puzzle over some aspect of how we were going to create this effect or that effect or what else we were going to do. In fact, to me it just felt like a massive outpouring of effort and energy and commitment rather than some very clear and focussed game-plan. There was a fantastic synergy.
"All we knew was that we wanted to make a groundbreaking piece of work, we wanted to make something we'd never heard before, we wanted to make something with a catchy hook and we wanted to make something that sounded amazing on the radio. Obviously, we had a whole load of objectives, but I'm not sure how much objectivity we actually had. We were buried inside our own little world, and then when we finished it we'd come away and be wondering, 'Is that any good? Is it pop genius or is it crap?' Especially when you're younger, it's hard to have any kind of objectivity. I find it a lot easier now, but then I've got much more experience."
Vocal Recording, Processing & Compiling
While Dave Gahan performed the fairly vociferous lead vocal, Martin Gore sang the far more gentle bridge section, and both men teamed up on the chorus refrain.
"They were recorded separately," Jones remarks. "Later on, that's the kind of thing they might have tackled together, but at that time it was a case of first just focussing on getting Dave's vocals down to set the stage for Martin to then do his parts. In fact, we'd put a guide vocal down as soon as we could, very early in the process. So if, for instance, we had guide drums, bass and one rhythm sequencer down, we would then put a guide vocal on straight away. Sometimes, being the songwriter, Martin would sing the guide vocal — Dave seemed to have a tough attitude and a tough voice, whereas Martin had more of a soft and delicate voice, so Martin's voice would be recorded not so much for the vibe as for the melody and the lyric.
"I recorded the vocals with an AKG tube mic in the live room — it was only later that we started doing hand-held in the control room — and I was also using an ADR Compex Vocal Stressor at the time. Sadly, I sold that many years ago and I'd like to have it back now. At that stage, I was rather foolishly printing many effects to tape as well, and on 'People Are People' I think there was a bit of slap from the chorus echo. No plate reverb or anything — that would be added maybe later at the mix stage. As always, it was about making Dave comfortable, and we'd think nothing of saying, 'Okay, these effects sound great on Dave,' and because that's what went with the performance we'd put them on tape with the vocal. That's not something I would do now.
"Dave was very committed and hard-working and absolutely wanted to get it right. He was still very much developing as a vocalist. Nowadays, he's more experienced and really serious about it — he does a lot of warm-ups and training and vocal exercises, but at that time he wasn't doing that. It was more raw, from the gut, and he was very keen to get it right, which obviously meant being in tune as well as nailing down Martin's melody. In fact, although we all worked hard, looking back we probably could have spent proportionately a bit more time on the vocals and a little less on all the synthesizers.
"What I considered to be another of my talents at that time was the ability to give the vocalist a great sound in his headphones, make him feel comfortable by giving him all my attention, and do everything to help him deliver his very best. At the same time, Dave worked harder at his vocal than Martin worked at his vocal — Martin would just kind of go in and bash his vocals out, whereas sometimes it was more of a struggle for Dave. However, the vocals were always comp'd [compiled from multiple takes], and even though we were more limited then, comp'ing on analogue rather than in Pro Tools, we could still do quite a lot.
"Dave wouldn't take part in the vocal comp'ing, because like many singers he found it a bit soul destroying. For him, as for most vocalists, it was like ripping his performance apart, so we'd try to get a number of great takes, and then Alan and Martin would select the lines that they wanted from each take and I'd put it together on the multitrack. Not that Dave did all that many takes — we didn't have enough tracks for that. The lead vocal tended to happen as the song was built up, and we were still 24-track while mixing automated, so even though the bass drum, for example, went all the way through on its own track, some tracks might have six synthesizer parts on them.
"For that reason, it was hard for us to hear where we were going until we got to the mix room, where we could split all the outputs and automate them so that every instrument came back in rough balance. This was common for people working 24-track at that time and trying to do quite big productions. Especially with synth music — you'd say, 'Oh, wait a minute, there's space on the tom track on the middle eight. We'll use that to put a melody on.' The tape would just get packed, some of the tracks were like a jigsaw puzzle, and we'd usually get to the proper vocals when there were only five or six tracks left. That would at least give Dave the opportunity to lay down five or six really good ones... Using slave reels arrived with the Black Celebration album ."
Drums In Every Room
According to Gareth Jones, the chief aim when recording and layering all the parts for 'People Are People' was to maximise the excitement. And to that end, whereas drum machines such as the Emu Drumulator and Roland TR808 had loomed large during sessions for the Construction Time Again album, sampling took precedence when creating drum sounds for the stand-alone single.
Using Martin Gore's cassette demo as the template, Jones initially focussed on placing the sounds of samplers and synthesizers in real rooms, running through guitar amps and PA's.
"Hansa's Studio 2 was massive, like a huge ballroom with very high ceilings," he recalls, "and I rented a very large P.A. from the local hire company and put it in there because I basically wanted to use it as an echo chamber for some elements of the drums, while other elements went into different rooms. We rented the mix room, as well as Studio 2 downstairs, and as we were big clients by then, we got the maintenance guy to hook them up with tie-lines. Those didn't exist at that time, because no one had realised that the combination of the hi-tech mix room and old recording room would be great.
"A lot of the rooms and the gated rooms were all running live for a long time as we worked on the mix, with some of the fills on that song featuring every drum hit going into a different room. It was like we were throwing drum sounds around three floors of the studio.
"Alan was very much the chief rhythm programmer," says Jones, "and while he probably had a rhythm sketched out in his Drumulator, we'd then replace and enhance the sounds. Some of those sounds were sampled dry and others were sampled with natural acoustics — the context of the samples was very important to us, so quite a lot of the sampling that we did was done with two mics, one close and one distant, because we had two-track tape recorders. I actually used a couple of Neumann U87s with the Stellavox, but I had also invested in some Schoeps CMTS501s [stereo condenser mics], which I was attracted to partly because they had boundary-layer capsules that went with them. The Schoeps boundary-layers were higher quality than the Crown boundary-layer mics that I'd used, and they were particularly great at capturing ambiences, which I was certainly obsessed with at the time.
"Anyway, from a sketched Drumulator rhythm, the beats were going down essentially one drum at a time. We'd record a kick drum on tape and then we'd record a snare drum using our arsenal of high-quality samplers; most especially the Synclavier. There was not a lot of dynamic in those drums, and the same applied to the heads and toms. Again, the bass part was played on a Minimoog or ARP 2600, and overall at this stage it seemed to us like we had quite a lot of equipment. Of course, no one had anything like the amount of equipment that's around now, but still we had a control room packed with all of the available analogue sequencers."
Synths & Guitar Amps
In an ongoing effort to give 'People Are People' more grit and greater edge, the synths were recorded through a variety of guitar amps set at different levels of distortion within real acoustic spaces. What's more, the limited availability of tracks necessitated some serious sub-mixing.
"We'd all come from eight-track and 16-track environments, so we were very used to doing that," says Jones. "We would take the clean sound of the synth, the close mic on the guitar amp and the distant mic, mix them all together onto one track, and that would be the sound for that part."
The aforementioned massive PA that was hired for some of the drum sounds during the mix was miked with a combination of Neumanns; some U47s up close, a stereo SM69 about 10 feet away in the center of the huge live room and a couple of U87s in the corners, all on 40-foot-high stands.
"I was really getting into omni mics at that time," Jones recalls. "I was enjoying how omni mics and boundary-layer mics captured the rooms, and that was so much a part of moving on from the '80s gated snare to having ambiences layered onto all the synths. Omni mics seemed to be great for that, so I was using a lot of them and, in this case, sending them back to the SSL upstairs. There were also lots of gates, of course, because we were obsessed with getting rid of tape hiss, as well as closing down the rooms even if they weren't gated abruptly along the lines of that classic gated reverb sound. All of the ambiences were tailored, so when the instruments or vocals stopped, the ambience would have a controlled shut-down. There were triggered SSL gates everywhere, along with a few Drawmers, and it was a lot of fun; massive, tangled-up patchbays. It was ridiculously over-the-top, but then we were pushing the envelope all the time. And while it was complicated, it really wasn't difficult."
"Because it was automated, the mix wasn't my performance. Sometimes, if someone else had a fancy idea, I'd say, 'Well, since you have a special feeling for the part, you do it.' Obviously, it was my responsibility, as the engineer, to run the board, and because it was pretty complicated no one would rush up and grab a fader without liaising with me, but certainly the mix was very democratic and open in the same way that the recording was. After all, the sequencers played the recording and the mix computer played the mix, so it didn't really matter who did it as long as we got something that we all loved."
On The Seventh Day...
In all, the recording and mix of 'People Are People' took about seven days. Depeche Mode's breakthrough single in the States, and a big hit in Germany where it spent six weeks at number one, the track endowed industrial music with mass appeal.
Thanks to all of the MTV and US radio exposure, as well as its popularity on the American club scene, it also motivated Sire to rush release an eponymous album there that cobbled together various other singles and remixes, only for the hit song to then show up again a few months later when it was included on the subsequently recorded Some Great Reward LP.
"Radio play was really important to us, and we had a little box called an Ear Opener which was like a tiny domestic radio," remarks Jones. "It was bandwidth limited and attempted to emulate some of the [BBC] Radio One-type compression, and since the record company was so concerned about getting the song on the radio we spent a lot of time listening and mixing on a two- or three-inch speaker.
"However, listening to 'People Are People' now, I'd say we probably spent too much time doing this, because while it sounded absolutely amazing on a small system, on bigger systems I can hear all the faults. You know, 'Oh God, I could have got more bass on it,' or 'It would have been great if the high-end could have been a bit smoother.' Obvious things.
"If I'd been a more experienced engineer, I would have paid all the due attention to the little Ear Opener monitoring system and also paid a bit more attention to the big monitors, because the boundaries of the sound are, well, crude. Still, having said that, the track did of course have incredible energy and vibe coming out of a radio or little television set. It was like the radio was going to explode, and that's why it was a massive hit all over Europe, so overall I'm incredibly pleased and proud of that work."