The Gear of Classic Synth Pop: Gary Numan, Depeche Mode & More

Photos by Fin Costello/Redferns / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Punk paved the way for a lot of different kinds of music thanks to its infectious energy and DIY approach. Young people all over Britain suddenly saw that they didn't need to play major label record games to release music. Hell, they didn't even need to be able to play instruments. While many were inspired to pick up guitars, some saw what was happening, applied it to synthesizers and synth-pop was born.

While many of the groups featured here would go on to make truck loads of money and use that to expand their studios with the latest and greatest instruments, we're going to focus on synth-pop's leaner, classic years, their punk-inspired years, when they grabbed whatever synthesizers and drum machines they could afford and made exciting, genre-defining music with it.

Gary Numan

Gary Numan's 1979 single "Cars".

If 1977 was the year punk broke, then 1979 was the year that synth-pop bubbled up into the mainstream. A defining moment was Gary Numan appearing on British music TV show Top of the Pops playing "Are 'Friends' Electric?" Replacing punk anger with dystopian sci-fi detachment, it blew enough young minds to make it to number one. Numan followed this with a number of other chart-busting tracks like "Cars" and "We Are Glass," all featuring heavy and novel use of synthesizers.

It was a chance meeting with a Moog Minimoog Model D while recording his debut Tubeway Army album that changed everything. "I didn't know how to set the Minimoog up, so I just pressed a key for whatever it was set on, and it made that famous Moog sound, that famous low growl and the room vibrated," he told The Quietus.

Rather than do things the guitar way, Numan rearranged his tracks for synthesizer with the Minimoog front and center, explaining, "Before the band was even finished setting up the gear I was in there working on changing the songs we'd arrived with into pseudo-electronic songs." It added power, presence and low-end depth and helped popularize the synthesizer in pop.

Other synths that found their way into Numan tracks were the Moog Polymoog, as in "Are 'Friends' Electric?" and "Cars" and the ARP Odyssey, also in "Friends."

Gary Numan's music had an immediate effect on the music industry, with synth bands getting snapped up by labels all over the country. It also had long-reaching impact, with his Moog and ARP-fueled music continuing to inspire musicians for decades. Just check out Basement Jaxx's Numan-sampling "Where's Your Head At" for proof of that.

Modern alternatives to try: Novation Bass Station II, Moog Minitaur, Arturia MiniBrute 2, Moog Subsequent 25, Behringer Model D.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

OMD's single "Enola Gay" features the sound of the Roland CR-78.

Over in Liverpool, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys were making do with what they could afford. That meant a left-handed bass guitar played upside-down by McCluskey, a Vox Jaguar organ, an old Selmer Pianotron and a Korg M-500 Micro Preset synthesizer.

The M-500, bought out of a catalog and paid in weekly installments, was to become the signature sound of their early records like "Electricity," which was released on then-fledgling Manchester label Factory Records in 1979.

By the time of their self-titled debut album, released in 1980, OMD had fleshed out their sound, although not nearly as much as they would when stardom came knocking later on. The M-500 still featured prominently, as did the Vox Jaguar for chords, but it was now bolstered by a Korg MS-20.

However, rather than use it for bass or lead duties, OMD connected two drum pads to it and harnessed it as a percussion source. They also had two Pearl Syncussion percussion synths plus a Roland CR-78 to back up the occasional live drummer.

The early records and first album have a real scrappy feel to them, the sound of a young band pulling from their Kraftwerk and German electronic influences and crafting unique songs with a lilting, nostalgic air. Gary Numan was a fan, and took them out on tour with him in 1979. The rest of the world was soon to fall in love with them too, including one Vince Clarke, who we'll meet up with again later.

Modern alternatives to try: Korg MS-20 Mini Semi-Modular Analog Synthesizer, Roland TR-6S Rhythm Composer, Yamaha Reface YC Combo Organ Synthesizer, Arturia Drumbrute, Roland V-Combo Organ.
The Human League

The Human League's 1981 single "Don't You Want Me".

Formed in Sheffield in 1977, The Human League was originally comprised of Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and Philip Oakey. Armed with a Korg 700S and a Roland System-100, they made electronic music that straddled the line between pop and the avant-garde.

After two albums, 1979's Reproduction and 1980's Travelogue, Ware and Marsh left to form Heaven 17, leaving Oakey to restructure the band into what would become a streamlined, hit-making machine.

Dare, the first album from the new, five-member Human League, was a massive success, spawning worldwide hits like "Don't You Want Me" and "Love Action (I Believe In Love)." The album strikes a balance between unique synthesizer-based electronics and a strong pop sensibility, all to a dance-friendly beat.

To achieve this new sound, the band employed of a mix of high- and low-brow electronic instruments. On the high side (and there weren't many synthesizers at the time that were higher) was the Roland System-700, a massive modular system and the follow up to the System-100, which played such a big part in the sound of Human League Mk 1.

Another top-of-the-line instrument was another Roland, the Jupiter-4. This was joined on polyphonic duties by a Korg Delta string machine.

There were a few monosynths in the mix as well, including a Korg 770 and Yamaha CS-15. Curiously, the band used two consumer-grade Casios as well, a VL-1 and M-10, showing that they may have leveled up to bigger studios but the spirit of using what you could get your hands on remained.

Drums came courtesy of a Linn LM-1 and the whole thing was sequenced by producer Martin Rushent on a Roland MC-8.

Modern alternatives to try: Roland System-1M Plug-Out Synthesizer, Roland JP-08 Boutique Series Synthesizer Module, Casio SK-1.
Soft Cell

Soft Cell's 1981 version of "Tainted Love".

Thanks to the runaway success of The Human League's Dare, the stage was set for synth-pop to take off big time. One group that benefited from the zeitgeist was Soft Cell. Featuring of vocalist Mark Almond and synthesist David Bell, the pair set the stage for the still-popular duo format, with one artist holding the microphone and the other banging away on the keys.

The duo broke through in 1981, first with "Memorabilia" in the clubs and then, most famously, with "Tainted Love." An update on a Northern Soul number, it featured an unusual mix of junk store synths and cutting edge technology. Key to the Soft Cell sound was the Korg Synthe-Bass SB-100, a two-octave bass synth from 1975.

Although David Ball also owned a Korg Maxi-Korg 800DV and used it on "Memorabilia," it didn't make it onto "Tainted Love." Instead, the band made extensive use of producer Mike Thorne's New England Digital Synclavier. Brand new at the time and still outrageously expensive, it was a real coup to have access to.

Another unexpected sound source was a Serge modular. Part of Thorne's arsenal, it appears in the extended dance version of "Tainted Love."

While many of the other songs on their debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, feature of a Roland TR-808, the drums on "Tainted Love" were done on a CR-78 playing just the kick and snare. This was backed up by a Synare being run through a DeltaLab DL-4 digital delay.

Modern alternatives to try: Korg Volca Bass Analog Bass Synth, Korg Minilogue Analog Polyphonic Synthesizer, Korg Poly-800 Polyphonic Analog Synthesizer.
Depeche Mode

"Enjoy The Silence" by Depeche Mode.

While many of the earlier synth-pop bands were referencing Kraftwerk or cribbing notes from punk, by 1981 there was a new generation of musicians inspired directly by synth-pop itself.

Vince Clarke, chief song-writer for Depeche Mode, decided to play synthesizers after hearing OMD's "Electricity." And a good thing he did, as the music he would go on to make with not only DM but also Yazoo and Erasure would help expand the genre significantly.

When Mute record label head Daniel Miller first found Depeche Mode, they were four teenagers playing bubblegum pop live on monosynths. He took them under his wing, introduced them to sequencers (notably the ARP Sequencer), and set about helping them achieve the radio-ready sound they wanted for their debut album, Speak & Spell.

While there's some confusion about what instruments were used on the album, the general consensus points to Clarke using a Kawai 100F, Andrew Fletcher playing bass on a Moog Prodigy, and Martin Gore working with a Yamaha CS-5. Yes, all monosynths. This was (and still is) Clarke's preferred way to write songs, using interlocking melody lines to suggest musical harmony.

John Freyer, the engineer for the album, also remembers there being a Roland Jupiter-4 around (likely owned by Clarke), a Roland SH-1, and a miniKorg 700S, which might have been Miller's.

What is known, though, is the ARP 2600. Rather than rely on a Korg KR55 for drums, which provided beats for the version of "Photographic" recorded for the Some Bizarre Album compilation, Miller used his ARP 2600 (bought from Elton John, of all people) to synthesize all of the drum sounds. This sets the album apart from other releases of the time, giving it a punchy and timeless quality.

Depeche Mode would, of course, soon go on to become the biggest synth-pop band in the world but it all started with a handful of monosynths and Elton John's ARP 2600.

Modern alternatives to try: Moog Subsequent 25 Analog Synthesizer, Yamaha Reface CS Virtual Analog Synthesizer, Korg miniKorg 700FS, Korg KR-55 Pro Drum Machine, Korg Arp 2600 M Semi-Modular Synthesizer.
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