Icons: Inside Vince Clarke’s Synth Kingdom in Brooklyn

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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”.

Vince Clarke is inspired by his surroundings. (all photos: Janice Brown)

Vince Clarke is inspired by his surroundings. (all photos: Janice Brown)

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.

One of the long, creative walls in Clarke's studio.

One of the long walls of sound in Clarke’s studio.

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.

At the control center, Clarke uses Logic to work with any combination of synths in the studio.

At the control center, Clarke uses Logic to work with any combination of synths in the studio.

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.

A Roland System 100m is one of several ,classic modular systems onsite.

A Roland System 100m is one of several ,classic modular systems onsite.

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.

Creative corner.

Creative corner.

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.

Now you’ve got soft synths, stuff on the iPad and iPhone. Just because the sound is digital doesn’t mean you can’t be creative.

The Eurorack Modular setup.

The Eurorack Modular setup.

Previous studio designs that informed his latest facility (for an informative picture of his Maine studio, click here):

One thing I’ve learned is that unless you have room to put up your stuff and get it connected, then you won’t use it.

In my mind I think, ‘I’ll use the Mini Moogs from upstairs. I’ll bring it down and I’ll play it!’ But I don’t. So we tried to get everything live and ready to go.

Cables are at the ready to patch connections.

Cables are at the ready to patch connections.

On discovering new sounds with modular synths:

You can patch any module to any module all day until something interesting comes out. There are no rules.

Kenton Pro Solo Mk2 MIDI to CV converters are essential to triggering the older instruments.

Kenton Pro Solo Mk2 MIDI to CV converters are essential to triggering the older instruments.

On managing his synths’ outputs:

Most of the stuff I use mono outputs — I don’t use stereo. Most of the synths are mono anyway, but the minute you get into the synths like the Jupiter 8 and the Junos with their choruses, I figure you may as well take the mono out anyway, and use the chorus from Logic – it’s cleaner.

Another synth wall -- note the wall-mounted monitors every few feet.

Another synth wall — note the wall-mounted ADAM monitors every few feet.

How Mick and Vince designed speaker setup and synth programming workflow:

The speaker distribution was very important. Because everything is everywhere, I couldn’t rely on having just these two speakers (at the Logic station). We decided on these powered ADAM A3X’s and ADAM A5’s in the main mixing position.

Once I’ve worked out the notes I’m playing in MIDI, I’ll direct that information to the synth, turn the volume up on that particular monitor, then tweak the sound there – rather than running back to the main mix position. It’s pretty dead in here, which is important. The sound is pretty accurate throughout.

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  • Doug Diamond

    Awesome! Thanks for the article David. I always liked Vince…

  • The ‘Ssss’ album with Martin Gore is pure gold! This man is a genius!

  • Computer Weekend

    My musical hero. Unassuming guy, with infinitely more talent than he gives himself credit for. One of the biggest influences in my music over the last 30 years or so. I’m not a massive tech head but I drool looking at Vince’s studio setup.

    VCMG’s SSSS is fantastic, as are a lot of Vince’s B-sides with Erasure. A hidden gem is ‘Jacques Cousteau’ on the B-side of the acoustic version of ‘Boy’ from Union Street…

  • K5

    sorry Vince, but, what do you do with that microKorg ??? having fun farting in the microphone ???

  • sensible

  • P;[OK



  • Rodent Hour

    Who knew? Obviously someone did. Man we need to have him on as a guest on Pratt Radio. How the heck can we get in touch with him?

  • wow! He has an M-Audio venom in there!

  • C W

    Apparently he’s too busy making music to be heckled!

  • micky modelle

    man is a legend,completley dominated the 80s with his various bands,and still making great music today

  • Renee

    The micro korg is awesome. Besides, it’s not the equipment that matters, it’s the conductor… Vince. There’s no other like him. A living legend.

  • AneesB

    does anyone know what synths he used in don’t go???

  • lieinterceptor

    Sequential Circuits Pro-One