Martyn Ware

Martyn Ware Terry Tyldesley
Martyn Ware Terry Tyldesley

Martyn Ware is the synth guru who founded The Human League, B.E.F. and Heaven 17 and is still touring around the world. He’s inspired many of the bands we’ve interviewed, and is also a prolific producer - recordings he has made have totalled 50 million sales over his 35-year-career. He’s recently released new special edition albums, and a B.E.F. album called Dark is due out this year. Martyn set up the 3D soundscape company Illustrious with Vince Clarke of Erasure, is a Visiting Professor at Queen Mary, University of London, and has been awarded an honorary doctorate. He told us about the minimal kit he used on early track Being Boiled right through to the analog and digital mix he works with today, and about slowing Beyoncé down for crowd control! We’ve also made a film that goes behind the scenes of his “Tales From The Bridge” 3D soundscape on London’s Millennium Bridge, commissioned to celebrate the Olympics.

London / Sheffield

Boiled down kit

Martyn told us how The Human League started off with incredibly minimal kit to create early hits such as Being Boiled, which was released as a single and then featured on the Travelogue album.

He has found a whole new audience as well as keeping original fans for his music, and has been touring with his band Heaven 17. They had huge success in the 80s with tracks such as Temptation, Let Me Go and Come Live With Me, though their first single (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang was banned by BBC Radio 1 for having lyrics that were too political!

We’ve done an amazing number of performances last year, I think it was about 70 or 80 different festivals. We did a Penthouse and Pavement tour about 18 months ago where we reproduced, as far as possible, the sound of the original album but with live musicians. And this year we’re doing a Luxury Gap tour in the autumn, in October, November in the UK and Europe, and that’s going to be quite exciting I think. The band seems to be ever-expanding so we’re attempting to make it more and more real as it were, as opposed to stuff on backing tracks.

We enjoy all sorts of different types of audiences. Obviously we do some 80s-oriented ones but a lot of more contemporary stuff too because a lot of 80s clubs are populated by people in their 20s frankly. So there is a new audience for this kind of music I think. The respect for that period in music is increasing all the time. so I’m happy about that.

There has been plenty of new recording going on too with some well-known names and national treasures exploring their darker side. Previous B.E.F. productions have featured artists such as Tina Turner and Hank Marvin.

The new British Electric Foundation album, is called Dark. It’s the third in a series of Music of Quality and Distinction - Volume Three - and the first one was in 1981 actually. It features a lot of famous artists, it’s basically dark versions of happy pop songs, done electronically. And we’ve been working on it for quite a while actually and it’s going to be coming out on the Wall Of Sound label, which we’re very happy about.

It features people like Sandie Shaw who was on the original, believe it or not, of course Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17, Kate Jackson, ex Long Blondes from Sheffield, Andy Bell, Erasure, Boy George, Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, and many others.

Of course everything’s happening at the same time, there’s a 10-CD super-luxury box set of all the soundscapes which myself and Vince (Clarke) have created with Illustrious, that’s going to be coming out on Mute Records in the autumn as well. And a Luxury Gap remastered reissued box set with a lot of rarities, so you can see, we’re quite busy at the moment.

Martyn says he is still using analog synths for his compositions, including songs on the new B.E.F. album.

On a couple of tracks, we’ve used the Roland System-100, which was the first synth I ever had. Together with a friend of mine called Brian Duffy, who’s from the band called the Modified Toy Orchestra, he’s also got a System 100 and between us we’ve created a piece that Kim Wilde, which is a cover version of a song called Every Time I see You I Go Wild, an old Northern Soul tune, which is composed entirely monophonically. Using a Roland System-100, it’s like about 100 tracks of stuff, it’s quite difficult to do, as you can imagine.

So yes, very interested in that, still use the original Korg 700S, which was, actually I think I got that before the System-100. And I wish had not got rid of all my old analog stuff because back in the day, what used to happen was because of finances usually, and because we didn’t have the storage facilities, we generally… it’s like part-exchanging cars, you don’t keep every car you’ve ever driven. Although I don’t drive, but you generally trade up over the years. It would be quite interesting to do a list of the synthesizers that I have owned, there’s quite a lot of them. But I’m not an obsessive like Vince Clarke, for instance, who’s my partner in Illustrious.

Thinking about the kit that we started with in 1978, when we released Being Boiled on Fast Records I think we owned a System-100, a Korg 700S and a Revox tape recorder and that was it. We didn’t have a mixing desk, even. And a microphone, of course. Which I think was just an SM58 at the time.

We used to bounce from track to track in mono. Adding a different layer each time, and that’s how the original Being Boiled was made and actually a lot of the aficionados like the kind of atmosphere and the simplicity and the minimalism of that period, still refer to the original Being Boiled as an iconic track. And in fact I played it recently, at a DJ night in Birmingham called Only After Dark which is a kind of 80s-obsessive crowd and that got the biggest reaction of the night, and it cost about £2.50 to make, I think.

Of course as soon as we got a record contract with Virgin we started spending the money on proper mixing desks, and we used to have an Ampex 8 track one inch tape machine to record onto, of which only six of the tracks worked. So when we started moving onto recording stuff for Reproduction, for the demos anyway, and some of the stuff for the second album, with The Human League, it was still very analog, I mean everything that we recorded we composed it on the fly by assembling the compositions on tape. And I’ve really kept to that methodology through the years, even though it’s now obviously much easier to do with digital.

We bought more and more synthesizers as the years went by, and usually had to trade them in to get bigger and better ones. What we thought were bigger and better. Biggest mistake I ever made was selling a Jupiter-8 to get a DX7 Yamaha I think, or a D-50. I think that was kind of the beginning of the end of my love affair with new synthesizers, was when it moved into FM synthesis, which I never really got on with very well. I like a lot of the recreations of vintage synths digitally now, I use a lot of those in my compositions just because it’s easier. Though we still do go back occasionally and sample, not so much MIDI synths, but sample original sounds from original pieces of kit. The Korg 700S and the System-100 are my two favourites.

We know plenty of musicians who buy multiples of the same kit to keep spares - does he have a secret synth stash?

I don’t have time or space or money to keep spares of everything, I’m not that obsessive about kit, which is strange because I’m talking to you, but to me it’s whatever gets the job done. I’m very very fond of the sound of those original synths, but oftentimes, you know, we’re talking about a world where the budgets are low, generally, to create stuff and time is short, generally, because we’re doing a lot of other things, so it’s very important to keep that front-of-mind all the time and it means that back in the day when we could spend days and days creating sounds from scratch and building things up over a period of time and then going down the pub and discussing it, all that stuff is finished now. Kids, mortgages, that’s what determines how fast I have to do things.

We wanted to know more about Martyn’s current digital favourites and the answer was very revealing - there is one kind of synth that he prefers in the digital version.

I use a lot of the Arturia recreations, I’m very fond - this is really weird, actually. I never owned a Moog, a real Moog, in my life. I’ve always been a big fan of Wendy Carlos, Walter Carlos, and of course Kraftwerk, but Moog always symbolised something different to me. They were quite expensive and they were also quite musicianly, in a lot of way. Even though the actual filters and the oscillators were fantastic quality, I would have felt uncomfortable about entering into the world of Moog, it just reminded me of 70s prog rock, really. Which I quite like, myself.

But there was something about this, this slightly off-centre weirdness of Japanese synthesis that really appealed to me more. Roland, obviously, and Korg were the main two. And so I kind of feel very loyal to them I think there were shortcomings of the way they sounded across the years but actually they’ve always maintained a kind of level of strangeness which I quite liked.

However the Arturia version of the Moog Modular I use all the time. It’s really strange. I think it’s because it’s cheap. Or nearly free, actually, because if you think about it you can use as many instances as you want of this incredible machine. The functionality that you can get out of a Moog Modular plug in would have cost you literally tens of thousands of pounds in the past. Let alone the trouble of re-plugging everything. So for me, Moog has become a much more usable option now that it’s virtual.

Has he ever customised kit to get the perfect sound he wanted?

At one point I was interested in kind of retrofitting MIDI to my analogue pieces, so I had like a Roland Promars, I had a Roland Jupiter-4 which had no MIDI on it so I got that retrofitted with some Kenton MIDI kit and then I had an outboard Kenton kit for the System-100. I used it, not very much to be honest, I kind of like the kind of hands on messiness of the non-MIDI connection, so as soon as the sampling element of everything got a lot simpler I just sampled bits that I wanted.

He creates his music and soundscapes in Logic, though he has worked in Ableton too.

I’ve toyed with Ableton, I know a lot of people love it, I’m probably a bit old school. You know, the thing about Ableton, it’s very good as a creative tool for idea generation, particularly for dance music. My issue is, I’m not really short of ideas to be honest and also I don’t want everything to sound like dance music. It’s very good for loopy-type things, I’ve done a few things with Ableton which I’ve quite liked. But Logic is my workhorse. That’s basically it.

For live, Martyn is currently using a Roland V-Synth GT.

It’s a big mofo master synth, very musicianly, some fantastic sounds on it, it’s got like a proximity sensor type thing so you can use it to control filters. I really like it.

Martyn has moved into the field of 3D soundscaping and creates art pieces with his Illustrious Company founded with Vince Clarke in 2000. He was introduced to the technology in 1998 by his friend Richard Boote who runs Air and Strongroom Studios and arranged a demo by an engineer of surround-sound mixing.

He showed us some examples and the main examples he showed were like, isn’t this amazing? You can sound like you’re on stage with Bob Dylan. Or the Eagles, and I’m going yeah… this really isn’t what it should be about, right. I immediately saw, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone, the possibilities for kind of abstract soundscapes that immersed you in a sense of wonder. Be in the centre of an experience. So I got interested in it from that point.

Martyn Ware Terry Tyldesley

Martyn and Vince created a 15-minute 3D Soundscape for the National Centre for Popular Music to play in their 3D sound auditorium using special software.

We actually designed a piece of 3D software, which went on to become 3D Audioscape and it still exists now. Back in the day it ran on a beefed-up PC basically. Now it runs on quite a slim piece of software on a Mac. And this is essentially the same piece of software that we’d been using for the last 12 years to create soundscapes in three dimensions for all sorts of different reasons around the world.

They’ve had a piece in Leicester Square gardens with speakers in the trees, and the latest Illustrious work is a huge 3D soundscape in London - we’ve been filming behind the scenes.

Terry Tyldesley

We’ve been working for quite a few months now on creating the most amazing installation, which is going to be on the Millenium Bridge during the Olympics. It’s called Tales From The Bridge, which is a combination of kind of ambient sound and an electronic soundscape which we composed together with a fantastic poetic kind of magic realist overlay of spoken word in three dimensions, which is going to be drifting across the bridge, and you’ll be able to experience this just by walking across the bridge in 3D, it’ll be immersing you for the whole length of the bridge which is about 350 metres.

It’s going to feature a piece by Eric Whitacre, the Grammy winning choral composer from America, called Water Night, as well. We’re going to spread his three and a half thousand voices that he’s sampled online. Where he’s got the different choruses across the world from 90 different countries, to sing into their laptops while he conducts them and then he’s assembled this amazing piece called Water Night, which is currently number one I think in the classical charts in America, and we’re going to spread it across the bridge so it sounds like, if you were blind, it would sound like three thousand people were spread across the bridge, singing this amazing choral piece, as part of it.

Terry Tyldesley

For a full report and a film on the rock and roll rigging and creation of the soundscape look here. There’s a second new sound artwork that’s close to his heart, as he’s an avid football fan.

We’re also doing another soundscape, at Wembley Stadium, actually in the Stadium and part of the path up to the stadium, it’s all about snippets of commentary and little bits of music, associated with heroes from the British Olympic past, particularly the two previous London Olympics, which will be like a 10-minute soundscape, which will rotate all day, every day. Then after the Olympics that’s going to be a permanent installation, the content will change according to what’s going on in the stadium, which is really quite exciting.

Terry Tyldesley

Martyn has also been experimenting with sound to help keep the peace, and joined forces with the Noise Abatement Society.

They’re involved in various very high level groups that are advising the European Community, for instance, about soundscaping in urban environments and how to beautify the environment in sound. And I’ve become a kind of de facto advisor to them about how this could possibly be manifest. We did a piece with them in Brighton last year.

We looked at how troublesome the original environment was, with a load of drunk people in one place and we were asked to put a 3D sound system in, to see if we could change people’s behaviour. We did a six hour installation, playing back some of the original pieces that we had used in the past in urban environments and some special ones like slowing down Beyoncé’s Countdown by 50% but keeping it at the same pitch and taking a new version of Being Boiled, recording it and slowing it down, or slowing it down till it actually stopped and seeing what their reaction would be, the clubgoers.

There were no arrests, in fact there were so few problems that the police were deployed elsewhere that night, it was completely and utterly a success. I’m very interested in how we look at city environments in the future because they’re only going to get more noisy, more troublesome and I think we can actually use positive soundscaping to make that better.

Terry Tyldesley

So how does it feel to be regarded as a guru, especially by so many of the new synth and electro bands?

It’s very nice to be regarded as an inspiration, I’d like to think, for new artists and new bands. But you know, part of what’s always been key to my philosophy is to keep looking forward, and I’m still very interested in finding out what the possibilities are of public entertainment. I do a lot of lecturing about the possibilities for sound in the future.

To see our film about Martyn’s “Tales From The Bridge” soundscape and find out more about the piece, click here.