The Synths and Studio Techniques of Devo


While Devo envisioned its name, music, and visual brand as expressing the concept of devolution, the band's audiovisual genius has always been one of evolution. From its earliest days at Kent State University amid the anti-Vietnam protests, to the band's 2010 album, Something for Everybody, Devo pushed itself to the extreme frontiers of pop music.

This experimental ethos could be heard in the idiosyncratic punk of their 1977 track "Gut Feeling" (as heard on Wes Anderson' The Life Aquatic), as well as in the goofy synth pop of "Whip It," with its lyrics inspired by the parody songs and poems in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. The band could always be found traveling just ahead of the cultural and musical curve.

In the studio, Devo used all sorts of instruments, especially of the electronic variety. Indeed, Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh was one of the early adopters of the Moog Minimoog Model D synthesizer. Like many bands of the 1980s, Devo later notably adopted the Fairlight CMI digital synthesizer and sampler for much of its mid-'80s output.

What follows is an exploration of the synths used by Devo, and the studio techniques they used from the late 1970s into the early 1990s.

Devo's Early Synths

Like any synth pop or new wave band of the 1980s, Devo's synthesizer arsenal is full of many and varied instruments. As hinted at above, Devo's entry into the world of electronic instruments came via the Moog Minimoog Model D.

You can hear our recreation of Devo's "Smart Patrol" Minimoog Arp at the 10:00 mark here.

Mothersbraugh acquired his first Model D in the mid-'70s and quickly took to incorporating it into Devo's early sonic oeuvre. Rather than exploring the ambient sounds of Brian Eno and Cluster, or synthesized bombast of prog rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Devo opted for sounds that called attention to themselves in rather abrasive ways.

"I was looking for sounds that I thought were relevant to our place in time—1971, 1972—and for me it was V-2 rockets and mortar blasts, stuff that reflected what I was watching on the evening news," Mark Mothersbaugh told Sound On Sound in a 2010 interview. "I also wanted to find the sounds that were in the most subversive music that was out at the time, which wasn't anything to do with pop music. It was totally opposite to that: It was TV commercials. Commercials were doing things that were much further out than pop music was. Pop music seemed tame by comparison."

In a 2016 interview with NPR, Mothersbaugh said that the Model D allowed bands to move out of the "lab coat" environment of modular synthesis and into the environment of nightclubs. Both in the studio and music venues, the band could use the synth to create "ugly" and "aggressive" tonalities.

"Because that's where I came from," Mothersbaugh told NPR. "I was at Kent State when the shootings happened. And what we were observing was not evolution but de-evolution... so those kinds of sounds were important to us."

Coolhunting's 2015 video interview with Mothersbaugh on his synth collection.

In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Devo's Gerald "Jerry" Casale recalled the band also used a "broken" ARP Odyssey, a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, and "possibly" an Electronic Dream Plant Wasp on its first two albums: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and Duty Now for the Future.

Both the Odyssey and Prophet-5 were popular synthesizers among new wave, post-punk, and electronic groups of the late '70s and early '80s, while the Wasp would be an ideal synth for Devo's aggressively idiosyncratic and "ugly" sounds.

In 1972 or '73, the band's first drummer, Jim Mothersbaugh, much like Kraftwerk, built his own electronic drum kit. In the 2010 SOS interview, Mothersbaugh described his brother's DIY electronic kit:

"He took acoustic drums and took guitar pickups, glued them on to the heads, and ran that through a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz pedal and an echo box, and put that into an amp on stage. So he'd sit there, and he'd have one foot on his kick, and the hi‑hat would be totally closed but it would be going into a wah pedal. He was using the filter on the mic going into the wah-wah pedal to make an open and closed hi-hat, and he could get all this articulation on it. It was really crude and it was really scary-sounding.

Outside of Devo devotees, it's a little-known fact that Jim Mothersbaugh went on to work for Roland throughout much of the 1980s, helping to develop MIDI devices. This connection also ensured the band had a nice supply of Roland gear (more on this below).

Jim's drums weren't the band's only experiments in DIY builds. Jim and Mark Mothersbaugh built modular synths from kits sold by PAiA Electronics].

"For 19 bucks you could buy an oscillator from this company in Oklahoma, and then you'd have to solder all the parts together," Mothersbaugh told SOS. "It was like a little electronic kit project. And then you'd get a VCF and then you'd get an envelope and you'd get another oscillator and a rudimentary patchbay. This stuff was all of the lowest calibre electronics and packaging, but it was so cool because you were custom-building your own synth. That seemed really space-age and very liberating, the idea that the pathway of the signal wasn't already predetermined by ARP or Moog or Roland."

Devo's ad for the Moog Liberation.

Notions of liberation from Moog signal paths aside, Devo also famously appeared in an ad for the Moog Liberation, an analogue polyphonic keytar-style synthesizer. The Liberation was on the song "Girl U Want," and appeared in most promo shots of the band in 1980.

By the mid-1980s, Devo began to move away from analogue synthesizers. Instead, Mark Mothersbaugh became one of the more famous users of the Fairlight CMI, the iconic sampler, digital synthesizer, and sequencer. The band used the Fairlight extensively on their 1984 album, Shout. Listen to "Growing Pains," a brilliant track on an otherwise middling album, and the Fairlight is all over it. It also featured heavily on Devo's 1988 album, Total Devo.

Devo - "Growing Pains"

"This was 8-bit, so it was pretty low quality to begin with, but they were samples of real instruments," said Mothersbaugh in a 2019 interview. "And so I really liked that. I liked the idea of having the ability to blend acoustic instruments in along with my synth tracks."

EML Poly-Box. Photo by Aussie Vintage Sales.

Although the Fairlight came to dominate Devo's sound, Mark Mothersbaugh told Sound On Sound in 2010 that every album features the Minimoog. Other synths used by Devo throughout the years include an Oberheim Two-Voice (for 2007's Something for Everybody), a Roland SVC-350 Vocoder, and a Linn LM-1.

In Devo's early years, they were also fond of synthesizers by Electronic Music Laboratories. Devo used the EML 500, a portable monophonic synth that was the company's answer to the Minimoog and Odyssey, as well as the EML Poly-Box. The Poly-Box is a truly strange piece of analogue gear—a keyboard controller that could essentially control another analogue synth, and make it polyphonic across an entire chromatic octave.

Mark Mothersbaugh also used a Memorymoog, given to him by Bob Moog, which featured circuitry and sounds not found in the synth's eventual production line. And according to fansite Devolution Accelerated, Devo made use of the Moog Source, a monophonic synth with membrane keypads, on their albums New Traditionalists and Oh No! It's Devo, and used it on tour for the former album.

Devo - "Time Out for Fun"

The band also used a Roland D-50, a digital synth similar to the Yamaha DX7, on its late 1980s albums, Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps (1990), as well as the accompanying tours. And in the music video for "Time Out for Fun," off of Devo's 1982 album, Oh, No! It's Devo, the band can be seen playing Roland SH-101 in keytar mode.

See more of Mark Mothersbaugh's current instrument collection in this 2017 EQD video.
The Studio Techniques of Devo

Devo's early recordings were made on a TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder. Using the 4-track, the band layered guitars, the Minimoog, Jim Mothersbaugh's DIY electronic drum kit, and bass guitar onto magnetic tape.

A TEAC A-3300SX 4-Track. Photo by Veld Dynamic Audio.

"When we only had a four‑track TEAC to record on, we were like 'Okay, the guitar player has to be able to do the solo and leave whatever he's doing and then come back to whatever he's doing to support the song,'" Mothersbaugh told Sound On Sound. "So everybody had to constantly be doing something important. That's the side of technology where you get lured into constantly piling stuff on."

In 2016, Mothersbaugh elaborated on Devo's early 4-track recordings in an interview with The Detroit Metro Times.

"It meant everyone pretty much had one track for their instrument," said Mothersbaugh. "You had to play something essential or not play at all. I think that made us think about the music in a really interesting way that involved reductive synthesis. What happened after that is, people got access to 24 tracks, and 48 tracks, and now [with] digital recordings they can have hundreds of tracks on a song. I think that was Devo's downfall, that technology. While some of it went in a really good way for us, some of it went wrong, and I think multi-tracking made us make musical tracks that were less interesting."

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

For their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Devo was supposed to have David Bowie, a big fan of the group, as the record's producer. But, because of movie commitments, Bowie couldn't take the gig, so Brian Eno stepped in. By 1977, Eno was transitioning from his post-Roxy Music experimental pop phase to ambient music, which included a collaboration with the iconic German electronic duo Cluster. With the band's herky-jerky rhythms and abrasive sounds, Eno obviously wasn't the greatest fit as a Devo producer.

Devo - "Space Junk"

In a Reddit AMA, Casale recalled the group not taking any amps to Krautrock producer Connie Plank's studio in Cologne, Germany, where they recorded the album with Eno. It was a fateful decision, as Devo were forced to use Plank's Vox amps, and neither Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh were thrilled with the sound.

Devo, inspired by the Midwest's industrial brutalism, wanted an "ugly" and "aggressive" sound to accompany their confrontational live performances, all of which didn't really jive with Eno's studio wizardry. Eno's desire to make the sound warm and atmospheric ran headlong into Devo's aesthetic, which was a silly and robotic brand of synth pop.

One can hear this friction on "Space Junk", a perfect a blend of Devo and Eno's aesthetics. In the 2006 book, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, author Simon Reynolds recalled that Devo later said of their experience with Eno: "We were overtly resistant to Eno's ideas. He made up synth parts and really cool sounds for almost every part of the album, but we used them on three or four songs."

Despite the studio distjunction, Are We Not Men? sounds fantastic, even over four decades later. Because of Eno and David Bowie's involvement (when on weekend breaks from filming), the album is utterly unique in the Devo canon, and still sounds fresh.

Devo - "Timing X"

Duty Now for the Future

The disappointment with studio production would continue on their next record, Duty Now for the Future (1979). As with their debut, this record also has a Bowie connection, as the band selected Ken Scott as the album's producer. Scott had worked on Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and the following record, Aladdin Sane. As Scott recalled in a 2010 interview with Mix magazine, the recording sessions typically began with bass and drum tracks.

"Everything else was overdubbed afterward," Scott recalled. "So if we had to manipulate things, we could."

On Duty Now, the guitars sound great, with a variety of tonalities. For the guitar solo on "Secret Agent Man", Scott recalled overloading mic amps and feeding the signal through headphones, which were taped to a mic. Devo and Scott did a lot of manipulating of guitars so that the sounds weren't like traditional electric guitar.

"A guitar can only do what a guitar does. It's like only one tiny piece of a synthesizer," Jerry Casale said in a 1979 interview with Bam magazine. "On this album, we did much more with the guitars, too. Sometimes you don't know that they're guitars."

Devo - "Blockhead"

Scott and Devo also experimented with different drum kits on Duty Now. As Scott noted on a Duty Now thread on Steve Hoffmanm Music Forums, they wanted to get different sounds for each of the record's tracks.

"Certainly most of the time it would have been my usual setup, U 67s or U 87s on toms, RE20 on bass drum, KM 54 or KM 56 on snare and the overheads I have no idea," said Scott. "They've changed consistently over the years. Oh yes there would also have been a couple of distant mics, probably C 12 As, though not 100% sure."

Since the record was made at Chateau Recorders studios, Scott could leave the studio doors open during recording. This allowed him to place one mic in the studio's foyer, which was made of Spanish tile, and one in the bathroom or the kitchen.

"I had to tell everyone who worked there, we're going to be recording, so please keep the noise down," said Scott. "All the phones had to be turned off whilst we were doing takes, but that gave an amazing distant mic'ing. The studio was dead, but you could always open up that door and put the mics out there."

In the Reddit AMA, Casale said that while he loves the songs, he thinks Scott's production took away some of Devo's edge. Perhaps there is something to this perception, as Duty Now has a very clean and precise production. Scott, of course, cut his engineering and producing teeth at Abbey Road studios, working on The Beatles' mid-to-late '60s albums. That said, perhaps more than on any other Devo record, Scott seems to have brought out the band's innate musicality, which could often get lost in the maelstrom of sound they loved to create.

Freedom of Choice

For Freedom of Choice, Devo enlisted Robert Margouleff, a record producer known chiefly for his work with Stevie Wonder. Margouleff's resume appealed to Devo because they wanted to make an R&B-style record. But perhaps another factor in Devo's decision to work with Margouleff is that he was a member of the experimental electronic duo Tonto's Expanding Head Band, which made some wonderfully trippy music in the early 1970s (see: Zero Time).

Devo - "Whip It"

"We were into Bootsy Collins and Prince," said Mark Mothersbaugh in an interview with Magnet magazine in 2016. "But we couldn't quite make out what our take on that soul sound would be. We grew up loving Motown. That's probably how we came to Margouleff, because Stevie Wonder was ubiquitous, and he was a giant of electronic music. The underground film world, too, when you consider he lived with and produced that Edie Sedgwick movie."

"We set out to make Freedom Of Choice with an R&B feel, and that's what we got," said Bob Mothersbaugh in the same interview. The album, which features "Whip It," is far from R&B, although it's funky and moves in a way that its two predecessors do not. It would be more accurate to say that with Margouleff at the mixing desk, Devo produced a catchy synth pop album that proved to be their mainstream breakthrough.

In a 2018 interview with Sound On Sound, Margouleff said that no two tracks were recorded alike. He added that the drums were generally recorded with an RE20 on the kick drum, a Shure SM57 on the top of the snare, an SM58 underneath, a Neumann KM 84 on the hi-hat, Neumann U 87s on the toms, and AKG 414s for overheads. They also used boom mics and an RE20 on some of the vocals, and the U 87 on others.

On Freedom of Choice, Devo recorded the synthesizers and bass via direct input (DI). For the guitars, they used a combination of amplifiers and DI. Margouleff recalled using three to four microphones per amplifier, but couldn't recall which mics they were. The producer also recalls many of the tracks were laid down in one pass as much as possible, although they did overdub when needed. Margouleff's mic'ing and DIs helped give Freedom of Choice a warm and clean sound, but still identifiably Devo—that is to say, discordant and asymmetrical, but also futuristic and playful.

Going DIY and More Electronic

After Freedom of Choice, Devo assumed engineering and production duties. It was as if the years working with Eno, Scott, and Margouleff were a series of apprenticeships. Now, Devo were the masters.

On the next album, The New Traditionalists (1981), Devo mostly eschewed the guitar-driven sound of records past, pushing the synthesizers to the forefront of the mix. They also used drum machines on many of the album's tracks.

Devo - "Going Under"

Interestingly, the rather muddy hue of The New Traditionalists came about by accident. At the time, 3M had just released a brand-new 2-inch magnetic tape. When Devo began laying down vocals, the tape's edges began to crumble. Warner Brothers, with whom the band had always had a rather troubled relationship, refused to fund a total re-recording. Devo responded by transferring the recording to digital reel-to-reel tape, and finishing it via digital recording methods at the Record Plant in Los Angeles.

But the sound quality isn't a major problem. The deterioration of the master magnetic tape gives The New Traditionalists a darker hue—one that matches the album's even more dystopian concept and songs.

Devo doubled down on their more electronic studio approach with the following year's record, Oh, No! It's Devo, which found producer Roy Thomas Baker—famous for his work with Queen on "Bohemian Rhapsody" as well as The Cars—manning the mixing board.

Devo - "Patterns"

Oh, No! It's Devo features even more drum machine and sequenced synthesizer tracks. By 1983, MIDI had been standardized, and it certainly sounds like Devo took advantage of this standardization in the studio, allowing them to program beats and synths (both analogue and digital) in a way they really hadn't on previous records. This, combined with the minimal use of guitars, gives the record a metronomic, roboticized feel.

This mechanical version of Devo isn't a bad thing. Listen to the track "Patterns" and it has some great guitar, sound effects, synth melodies, and singing from Mark Mothersbaugh. If someone said "Patterns" were released any time in the last 20 years, indie and electronic music fans wouldn't even bat an eye. And despite being heavily sequenced, "Speed Racer," a cartoonish and psychedelic track, has a looseness and asymmetrical vibe missing on other album tracks. It's like the offspring of Kraftwerk and Talking Heads, and hints at the collage-like sound that Art of Noise was exploring around the same time.

Devo - "Speed Racer"

"Plastic Acoustic Music" on the Fairlight CMI

On their 1984 album, Shout, Devo increasingly turned to the Fairlight CMI and LinnDrum LM2, an approach that would continue on 1988's Total Devo. For Shout, the band also incorporated the E-Mu Emulator and Synclavier II, both of which were, like the Fairlight CMI, digital synthesizers and sampler workstations.

As Mothersbaugh said in a 2019 interview on Medium, the Fairlight CMI changed the way he thought about music in many ways. In particular, it freed him from being in a band to being able to write "things for a film or a TV show just pretty much all by myself."

"I didn't really require other people to be with me for me to be able to put it all down, because you would play right into this computer," said Mothersbaugh. "And to me, that was so transparent and so powerful. It was like, because you played it in when you had the idea. So, it really became about conceptual art, writing music to me. It became this thing that I totally understood of being able to write a piece, and then it's permanent into this sequence."

Starting with Shout, and continuing with Total Devo, Mothersbaugh liked being able to use samples of real instruments to create sounds, even if the sample rate was 8-bit. He enjoyed being able to blend acoustic instruments from the Fairlight's sample library with Devo's synth tracks.

A Fairlight CMI Series IIx. Photo by Rob's Rare Synths.

"After working with it for a few months, I realized, 'Well, these are even better than acoustic instruments, because they sound like the wood-paneling version of real wood paneling,'" said Mothersbaugh in the Medium interview. "You know, it sounded like vinyl wood, or sounded like a plastic brick wall version of a brick wall. It didn't really sound like a brick wall, but it sounded like the plastic, fake version of it. And so I loved the idea that I could write acoustic ... plastic acoustic music."

The Devo fansite Devolution Accelerated speculates that the Fairlight used by Devo was the expanded Series IIx, which was MIDI-equipped. The site says that it was used to presequence most of the songs on the album.

Mothersbaugh's love of the Fairlight, however, drove longtime drummer Alan Myer—the band's "human metronome"—from Devo. The Fairlight's introduction also meant further de-emphasis on the guitar, as Devo guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh recalled in a later interview. Even Jerry Casale, who like Mothersbaugh welcomed more synthesis in Devo's sound, eventually regretted the Fairlight-driven sound of Shout.

"The Fairlight [synthesizer] just kind of took over everything on that record," said Casale in a 2007 interview with Billboard. "I mean, I loved the songwriting and the ideas, but the Fairlight kind of really determined the sound."

The band made two more albums—Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps—but would go on an extended hiatus in 1991.

While this might seem a fitting end—Mothersbaugh did say that advanced recording technology was "Devo's downfall"—but the band has reformed on numerous occasions since 1996 to great acclaim. And throughout the 2000s, the group has been honored by everyone from Moog to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for its numerous contributions to electronic and rock music.

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