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While hipsters relive the sound he pioneered, Gary Numan keeps forging forward

Audiophile: Gary Numan
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“I’ve always been obsessed about what I’m going to do next,” says electronic music pioneer Gary Numan. “I don’t really think about yesterday, in life or in music. When I walk into a studio and sit down to work, I expect to come out at the end of the day with noises and sounds that I’ve never heard before. I always strive for doing something new.”

In other words, Numan has no interest in looking in the rearview mirror and resting on the laurels established by his most indelible song, the forever catchy 1979 anthem depicting late-20th-Century paranoia, Cars. Instead, Numan continues to push the electronic envelope with albums like 2013’s Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) and the new instrumental soundtrack he’s done for From Inside: Gary Numan Special Edition, out now from Lakeshore. Numan and his musical partner Ade Fenton created a chilling aural soundscape for From Inside, a bleak animated film about Cee, a pregnant woman on an ominous train that’s hurtling through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Numan and Fenton expertly capture the film’s mood shifts with tracks like the rhythmically driven The Train, the dynamically expansive The Refinery, and the scratchy minimalism of The Empty House. Numan, 56, got on the phone with Digital Trends from his home studio in England to discuss sound quality, the art of making loops back in the day, and his take on the modern electronic scene. It’ll keep you stable for days.

Digital Trends: What’s your view of 96/24 high-resolution audio and recording at the best quality you can?

“You adapt your process to whatever the equipment is you have at the time.”

Gary Numan: The highest I’ve gone to is 48k. Personally, I think once you put music on a CD or MP3 and play it on some arguably fantastic system in your house or some shitty system in your car, it almost doesn’t matter. You can spend a huge amount of money and time worrying that your record is at the highest possible level it can be, and then somebody will be listening to it on some shit headphones and an iPad.

48k is a very high standard. If I sing something in the studio and then I play it back that way, it sounds exactly the same. The thing that’s most important to me is the sounds of the songs and the songs themselves. If you’ve got a great song, whether it’s in 48 or 96 or higher, it’s still a great song. People will listen to that more than they will the clinical side of it. When we moved to CDs, I thought that was a lovely step forward. And then when we moved onto digital music after that, I thought it was fantastic.

In terms of hi-res listening, all of the layered songs you’ve created for the From Inside soundtrack, especially ones like The Refinery, Almost Inhuman, and My Part in This Is Over — the better I can hear them, the more I can get out of them. That’s how I look at it.

That is very true. I think the difference in quality in dropping from one rate to another is that it will only be very noticeable if you’re listening to it on the very best systems.

Audiophile: Gary Numan
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The main differences you’ll hear are when things shift between 16-bit and 24-bit.

I think that’s the biggest jump, yes. Speaking of quality — the funny thing is, yesterday, my children were rummaging around in a box, and they found a cassette, a music cassette. They’d never seen one before, and they came up to me: “What is it?” “This is how we used to listen to music.” They couldn’t believe it! (laughs) I was trying to explain to them how dreadful the sound was, compared to what they’re used to now. They were just absolutely fascinated how this piece of material going around and around could make sound. It was interesting to me to see them try and figure it out. It was brilliant.

I remember the quality of some cassettes being so bad that when you got closer to the end of a side, you’d be able to hear the song from the other side bleeding through.

That’s right! It was so shit, wasn’t it? (cackles) The thing that was so frustrating in those days — back then, you would take your demo to a record company on a cassette, and you’d put it on in the system in the exec’s office, and it was just dreadful! You’d try to explain, “In the studio, it sounds much better than this.” You don’t have that now. With 16, 24, 48, or 96, it sounds pretty true. We’ve definitely come a long, long way from cassettes.

“When it worked, it was like this moment of magic, and everyone would just be shouting in the studio.”

We sure have. And we’ve also come a long way from the late ’70s, when you first got your hands on that Minimoog in the studio to start making your own music. Stepping back from that to what kind of gear and software you’re using now must be mind-blowing. You had such a limited palette to start with.

It was pretty basic, yeah. (laughs) There was no MIDI, and no synchronization. You just sat there, found the bit, turned the dial to get the noise that you liked, and you played it. With the Minimoog, you only had one note. Pretty basic stuff.

But the cool thing about that is, because that’s all you had, it still felt quite advanced. You still felt you were on the cutting edge of what was possible. By today’s standards it was quite basic, but the very limitations that sort of equipment had made you work differently. You adapt your process to whatever the equipment is you have at the time, and you try to be as creative as possible with whatever you have around you.

I remember long before sampling and samplers were invented, we were doing very similar things. I would go outside the studio and walk up and down the street with a recorder, recording all kinds of noises — dragging bits of concrete across the ground and tapping metal drain covers or fire escapes; whatever I’d run a stick across that would make a cool noise. You’d record that, take that back to the studio, put that tape onto a quarter-inch, and work out the tempo of the song based on how many inches of tape you needed to make a loop. On that loop were these weird clanking noises you would just spin around the machine, and that would give you your groove. You would then link that into the music you were making, and it would match the beats per minute of the song you were working on. It was all very basic and crude stuff, but we were doing things like that back in the ’80s. Pretty cool, innit?

Audiophile: Gary Numan
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Very cool, yeah. What’s the best example of something you literally pulled off the street and turned into a loop?

There was an album called Telekon (1980) that had several songs with those clanking loops on them. But we really started to use the loops heavily a few years later on Berserker (1984) — that’s absolutely loaded with them. Some of it was almost laughable. Some of these loops were actually several feet long. To get them to run through the machine, you had “weighters” — empty spools hanging off at times to create different weight and tensions on the tapes for them to run cleanly through the machine. It looked almost comical in how lashed together it was, but it really did work.

The difficult thing was getting it in sync. That was just trial and error, hitting the button at the right moment while the main song was playing. If it worked, great; if it didn’t, it might take you 20 or 30 attempts, but eventually you’d get it all synched together. Now machines have come along to do all that at just the click of a button.

It almost seems too easy now.

“The important thing is to come up with sounds that are great, not the way you do it.”

(laughs) If anything, it was probably more exciting back then than it is now, because it was a difficult thing to do to get right, and you had to just keep working at it. When it worked, it was like this moment of magic, and everyone would just be shouting in the studio. It was really good fun. Now, of course, you’re on your own with your computer. You press a button, and it all happens pretty easily.

The point is: You still have to have the ideas. It just comes back to being creative all the time, and using the technology that you’ve got to make the most interesting sounds you can. The important thing is to come up with sounds that are great, not the way you do it. Modern technology is very capable in helping you come up with amazing sounds.

I definitely see a lineage between the style of Splinter and what you’ve done on From Inside. For Splinter, you had the melodies and the bed tracks together before you even began working on any lyrics. In a way, that set you up for scoring a film, since you came up with sonic themes first.

That’s true; you’re right. I hadn’t even thought about it like that, in terms of setting up the atmosphere first. That’s a very good point, actually. If I had realized that about a year ago, I suppose I wouldn’t have been as nervous about writing this score. (both laugh)

Audiophile: Gary NumanI’ve managed to work that way on all of my albums, almost from the very beginning. I’d do the music first and try to set the vibe, the feel, and the atmosphere of the music, and that would guide me to how the lyrics would actually be. For the From Inside film score, I didn’t think I’d have any problem converting from writing regular songs into music that was more about atmosphere and pace. I wasn’t locked into that beats-per-minute, verse, chorus, verse thing as I thought I might have been.

Is that a live piano I’m hearing on Moments of Reflection and Falling, or is it sampled?

It’s one of those technological sidesteps. It’s not an actual piano I’m playing; it’s samples being triggered by a different keyboard. I do have a piano here in the house, actually. It’s an old upright that my children mess about with. There’s just something about playing a real piano. I think you play a real piano slightly different than when you’re just jiggering samples.

There’s an emotional connection you have when you play an instrument like that, so whenever you can bring that feeling across with samples, you’ve really nailed something special.

Most of the software packages out there for samples are generally quite phenomenal. The amount of variation you can do is just incredible. Even so, there is that feel element that comes into it from playing the piano that you don’t quite get otherwise.

“I’m alive and still making my own music, but I’m clearly not a part of that group.”

What’s your best composing tool?

For me, it’s the keyboard. I start pretty much everything that way, whether it’s with the real piano in the house or the sample keyboard in the studio. Everything starts there. And then you build up your melodies and your structure, and you start to write your layers after that. That’s very much top of the list of what I turn to when I’m writing any kind of music — songs, film scores, or whatever. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a guitar when something comes to mind, and it can be great. It’s an emphatic instrument. But the piano always comes first.

What software are you using now?

Pretty much the same I used for Splinter. Spectrasonics, packaged with Omnisphere. Native Instruments from Germany. Another company from Germany called Best Direct — which is the most terrible name for a company; it sounds like they should be making shelves or something. (DT laughs) But they do some incredible Middle Eastern-leaning software. There’s another package called Ethno [from MOTU], which has a kind of Arabian feel to it. I know that equipment very, very well and how to get around it, and I knew it had the thing I was looking for in it. Nonetheless, the sounds on From Inside sound completely different than what’s on Splinter. This software is so capable. There are literally hundreds of thousands of sounds in it, so you could make 50 albums and never use the same sound twice. They’re amazing tools.

Do you feel like you’re a pioneer of the electronic scene? What’s your place in the movement going on right now?

Audiophile: Gary Numan
Image used with permission by copyright holder

I don’t honestly feel a part of it. I feel like I’m going alongside of it. I don’t mean that in any detrimental way whatsoever. It’s a new generation of people putting this music out there. I’m alive and still making my own music, but I’m clearly not a part of that group.

I guess that the “pioneer” label is a good one for my place in it. I was doing it a long time ago. The electronic scene was always about what new sounds you could do and where you were going to take it next: “What can we do that we haven’t done before?” I haven’t always been successful at that, but that’s always been my ambition, to do something I’ve not done before. The idea of looking backwards to your influences is a strange one to me, and yet that seems to be what’s going on with a lot of the new electronic things. They’re looking back to the late ’70s and early ’80s, and they’re getting influences from the sort of music we were making back then. That’s fair enough, and that’s cool. For someone new, that era has a romance and a charm to it. They weren’t around when it was really happening, so to them it’s kind of a cool thing to recreate and experiment and do their version of it. But I was there, and I don’t want to recreate it or do it again because I’ve already done it once.

“For me, new electronic music sounds as though it was based on something people from my generation have done before.”

For me, new electronic music sounds as though it was based on something people from my generation have done before. It doesn’t seem that exciting to me as perhaps it does to some other people. A lot of people coming into it now do seem to be referencing backwards. And that’s not a criticism at all; it’s just from me watching what’s going on.

I see you being on a parallel path with the scene. You’re in your own lane creating new things, and others might look into your lane to get inspiration to try something new on their own.

I really hope so. Part of the reason of coming to Los Angeles in the first place was to see if there were opportunities for me to work in film. The album-tour cycle I’ve been a part of for a very long time I love very much, and am in no hurry to see it finish. But I have to be realistic — at some point, I’ll have to be doing something else, and I have to find out what I enjoy; the things I am good at. Before that day arrives, I want to know what I’ll be doing next. For me, film-score writing has always been a massive interest, and it’s not something I’ve pushed myself to do or look for opportunities before. I think now is the time to see if I can do it, and if people are interested in having me do it for them. The desire to do it is one thing, but you need to have people willing to take a chance on you and give you the work in the first place.

I think film-score work is so perfectly suited for me. It’s not just the melodies, it’s sound design and coming up with sounds that work within a piece of music. That is what I love to do more than anything. I’m really strong on melody and putting tunes and sounds together, and I think those two things are prime requirements for working in film. I’m not going in there to try and create something I’ve done before or trying to refine something else. I’m trying for something new every time. If I don’t do that, then I’m pretty grumpy the rest of the evening, because I feel I’ve wasted the day, and wasted the opportunity.

Mike Mettler
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mike Mettler is the music editor of Sound & Vision, where he also served as editor-in-chief for 7 years. His writing has…
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