Depeche Mode — Pioneers In Electronic Music
One of the most interesting bands is the UK synth-pop group Depeche Mode (DM). They are considered an “Eighties” Band, with their songs covered by bands like The Spazmatics during “80’s Nights”. Despite being a band from the eighties, their sound is timeless. If you listen to a Depeche Mode track today, it sounds like it was recorded just recently. Let’s dig in to the sound that defined a new wave of electronic music.
What Is Electronic Music?
To understand Depeche Mode, we have to look at electronic music. There are many theories as to who the grandfathers of this genre are, but I am going to give my take. It all really starts with the use of keyboard synthesizers (i.e. electronic equipment), so some would say it would have started in the 1960’s. Now there were bands that used the piano and some older version of the keyboard organ in music, but that would be analog for the most part. The genre became more popular as rock music emerged in the sixties.
If you listen to Kaskade, Dead Maus, Gorillaz, The Chemical Brothers, Calvin Harris, Steve Aoki, or David Guetta just to name a few … then you are listening to a form of electronic music. DJs are one of the best examples of artists who play electronic music. Depeche Mode did not invent this genre, since there were other musicians who were making similar music during that time. In the early eighties you also had New Order, OMD, The Eurythmics and Culture Club among the more popular bands. What they had in common was the style of music, which was also referred to as “New Wave”.
Even before those bands mentioned, we have to consider Pink Floyd. You would not think of them as an electronic band, but Pink Floyd has been one of the earliest examples of creating hi-hat beats using white noise generators, sound effects in production, VCS 3 synthesizers and mixed different genres together to produce some of the best music in history. They were using electronic equipment way before other bands.
What makes electronic music a genre is the technique used in production. Your typical pop or rock band consists of your strings (guitar), bass, percussion and vocals. That is a very basic cut, not requiring as much complexity in terms of production. It is analog music at its best. When you add another element like the synthesizer (e.g. Moog One), drum machine (e.g. Roland TR-808), turntables (e.g. Audio Technica) and keyboards (e.g. Yamaha PSS-A50) then it becomes electronic and in the modern context it can also be digital (i.e. computerized).
You can call the early Depeche Mode songs as one of the original forms of electronic music. What makes it different from the electronic music of today is the audio processing involved. Much of contemporary electronic music is digital, meaning audio processed by a computer. From creating beats in MIDI format to mixing the tracks, electronic music today relies on much more technology than it was like a few decades earlier.
The Depeche Mode Sound
The band’s trademark sound is their synthesizer driven pop melodies with infectious dance beats. The early Depeche Mode (Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher and Vince Clarke) were purely electronic. As the band progressed they added new dimensions to their sound, which has evolved from dance, sensual, dystopian to industrial. They also perform live with an actual drummer now, but still retain their synthesizers that defines their sound.
From their earliest album Speak And Spell (1981) you get the first generation sound of the New Wave genre of electronic music. Born out of the angst of punk rock and dance music, the result was an aggressive beat but with catchy tunes in a pop format. The most memorable track from that album (on side 2 of the album) was “Just Can’t Get Enough” (their first UK top 10 hit). That is perhaps the iconic track that most people know about Depeche Mode. It makes you want to dance, but also sing in your head. It is very synth-driven, giving the impression that anyone can start a band with just synthesizer keyboards and a vocalist.
The studio album Some Great Reward (1984) gave us the hit “People Are People”. This is where you hear the industrial and post-modern influence in the track. If you listen closely, you can hear sounds like that from a modern manufacturing or industrial plant. The lyrics have a dystopian feel, but it makes a point about how war is harming to society and how people should strive to be better. The use of the industrial sounds seems perfect for this theme, but you cannot quite stop moving to the danceable beats created electronically.
Another great track from that album is “Somebody”. Unlike the high energy dance tunes, this song was a ballad. Sang by Martin Gore, it is a romantic theme love song for the most part. This shows DM not only create good music, but they can also compose lyrics.
When Music For The Masses (1987) album was released, Depeche Mode was now in a more “naughty” phase as their popularity soared across the world. “Strangelove” was another iconic hit, that veered more toward a sensual groove. It was the kind of music for dancing in big city clubs. It had the anthem feel of what electronic dance music was all about, if you were to separate it from other electronic music at that time. It is a timeless dance hit that you could hear playing in clubs all around the world, and not just on “80’s Nights”.
Violator (1990) introduced a more mellow sound to their otherwise energetic beats. It is a bit less intense and more serene than previous albums, more on the side of listenable but still danceable vibe. One of my favorite tracks from this album is “Enjoy The Silence”. They now incorporate some guitar to add to the melodies, which was actually quite interesting. It helps to build up the beat, and far from being silent.
Later Depeche Mode albums may not have reached the same levels of popularity as before. Nonetheless, they still appealed to their audience and it continued to grow. The band has evolved to add more rock elements with a guitar twist. Unfortunately, longtime band member and founder Andy Fletcher has passed away in 2022.
When you watch Depeche Mode, you won’t see a guitar frontman or even a bass player. It is just Dave Gahan (vocals), with Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher on keyboard synthesizers (previously also included Vince Clark and Alan Wilder). It is actually like your typical modern electronic music band you would see in Coachella or other music festivals.
In Depeche Mode’s music production, synthesizers and sequencers were used and the albums were mixed in the conventional way. This made use of multitrack tape and analogue desks for archiving. The tapes can be remastered to produce a reengineered track, which was done when the updated (DVD) tracks were released.
The synthesizer is at the heart of Depeche Mode’s music. If you ever wonder why the band does not have a bassist or anyone playing a bass guitar during their live performances, it is because it can all be created using synthesizers. The band uses a MiniMoog Model D and ARP 2600 (in “Enjoy the Silence”)to play the bass sound in some of their tracks. Also used is the Roland Promars with a CV/gate with external sequencer. These are just some of the instruments used since the band has indicated different types in their catalogue.
Depeche Mode also use drum machines, prior to having an actual drummer in the band (Christian Eigner). A characteristic of that early sound was the crisp and clear beats. It sounds so artificial though, like a robot playing on repeat. Some sources indicate that the band uses an ARP 2600, Korg KR55 and the Roland TR808. The introduction of a drummer did change the drum beats. It brings a more organic audio fidelity to the listener, but that does not change the band’s overall sound. It is just as fun to watch Depeche Mode live or listening to their older tracks on CD.
While it seems that the studios or the band itself were handling the archiving of music tracks and material, they come in all sorts of formats. They used Atari sequencer sessions, hard disk recordings, multitrack and stereo tape masters. Just putting all that together to remaster a track can be daunting, but today it can be accomplished much easier through digital techniques with the help of software like Protools.
How To Best Listen To DM
This is for the audiophiles who want to find the best EQ settings for listening to DM music. Here are some suggestions.
- 100–250Hz for the kick drums. This rounds the range between the bottom low and more hiss at the high (> 300Hz).
- 6–8kHz for snare drums to give it a presence in your ear, so it doesn’t sound too weak.
- 1–8kHz for cymbals and hi-hats. Higher frequencies (< 8kHz) brings clarity to the sound.
- 1–6KHz for bass if you are not too attuned to low frequencies.
- 100–250Hz for bass if you are more on the low end beats.
While electronic music seems artificial and easy to create, that is a big misconception. Depeche Mode are actual musicians, who know how to play a multitude of musical instruments. In order to understand how to synthesize bass lines, guitar riffs and drum beats requires knowledge of playing those instruments. While today a musician can just play tracks of an instrument without knowing how to play that instrument, there is a difference when it comes to composition.
Depeche Mode has inspired electronic musicians with their unique sound, that has been identified with the eighties though it is still relevant to this day. Bands from across music genres have also been influenced by Depeche Mode. Linkin Park, The Killers, Muse and Gwen Stefani have cited the band as an influence. The band introduced how electronic music can be in their many forms as they evolved through the years, and for that we get sounds that stand the test of time.