Nick Rhodes Reboots His Retro Roots
“I realized many years ago that the longer an act is around, the rarer
it is that they make a seminal album late in their career,” says Duran
Duran’s keyboardist Nick Rhodes. “With All You Need Is Now, we were
determined to defy that. On every level.”
Nick Rhodes has stood at the forefront of modern electronic pop
music since ushering in the arpeggiator age with Duran Duran’s
breakout album Rio in 1982. Rhodes’ signature synth work helped
engineer the British band’s three-decade ride atop the pop charts,
selling over 100 million records. From early mega-hits like “Rio,”
“Hungry Like the Wolf,” and “Save a Prayer,” to later successes such
as “Notorious” and “Ordinary World,” Rhodes’ effect-soaked synth
strings and percolating arpeggios have been a common thread.
With the release of the band’s 13th studio album All You Need Is Now,
Rhodes and company return to the sound that started it all: a sinewy
stew of rock, funk, and electronica that can only be Duran Duran. Nick
took the time to tell Keyboard exactly how he marshaled the sorts of
synth sounds that made the band famous into a true musical revival.
So many bands seem to run from the sound that made them famous,
but you and the band seem to run towards it on AYNIN.
Well, on the last album [Red Carpet Massacre], we worked with some
pretty extraordinary producers like Timbaland, Justin Timberlake,
and Nate Hills, all of whom were making really successful, interesting,
modern dance music with computers. I think what we really set out
to do was to make a hybrid of the Timbaland beats with the Duran
Duran sound. But this involved a lot of time in the studio playing with
computers. They didn’t really use a lot of live instrumentation, which
we’ve always used, despite the fact that we use a lot of synthesizers and
computers. So, while we achieved what we set out to do with that record,
I don’t think it really translated to our audience, nor do I think it was a
particularly outstanding Duran Duran album, even though artistically
we managed to do something a little different.
So when we got to this album, we realized we had been down that
alleyway with computers and trying to make a modern dance record,
and that we were better at doing the things that people perhaps know
Duran Duran for, some of which were things that we hadn’t touched on
for a long time. Then, [producer] Mark Ronson came into the picture
and immediately said, “What you need to make is a classic Duran
Duran album.” He told us, “I know you don’t like looking backwards,
but I don’t think it is that at all. You’ve got to realize that a lot of the
contemporary artists out there right now have been borrowing and
nicking things from your sound compendium for years, and they’re
having huge success with it! You’re just avoiding looking at and using
the things that you know how to do better than anyone else out there!”
So it really came down to some fairly simple things—like using analog
synthesizers. There are barely any digital synths on the album, give or
take a few samples. So I got out all of the keyboards I’ve had for many
years, and even bought some new ones. That was at Mark’s insistence.
And with [lead singer] Simon [LeBon], we decided to layer his vocals
a lot more with his own harmonies, and stack them up, which is
something we did quite often on the first three or four albums. With
[bassist] John [Taylor] and [drummer] Roger [Taylor], we turned to
very solid dance grooves, but based more in disco and funk than in
electronica. For guitar and Dom [Brown], who has been with us for
several years, we wanted to keep it raw and edgy and rock-based. That
was really the manifesto for the album.
So, the return to the sound of an earlier Duran Duran era was aided
by a return to the gear of that era?
Well, I’ve always used analog synths on virtually every album we’ve
ever done, with the possible exception of Notorious, which has very
little analog on it. I had started to move into digital technology more at
that time, as I had a Fairlight and Nile Rodgers, who we were working
with at the time, had a Synclavier. We were all enthralled with digital
sampling and having massive sound libraries. So at that point I started
switching over more to digital, although I never completely let go of
analog. I always mixed in some of it because while I do quite like some
of these super-slick, digital, THX-sounding kinds of things, they don’t
evoke the same emotion as analog synths. There’s something about an
analog synth that’s more closely related to a guitar.
There’s beauty in the imperfection. . . .
Yes. Completely. And there’s something about the fact that they’re
wilder. You have to sort of get them under control, and fiddle with them
manually to make them do what you want them to. Whereas with a
digital sound, people just tend to keep clicking through them until they
find something that works. I much prefer to make my own sounds. Even
if you’re only changing something slightly, I firmly believe that those are
the things that make records special. What was so incredibly exciting
and inspirational in the early ’80s when I was making the first Duran
Duran records, was that the synthesizers coming out at that time by
Roland and Korg and Moog were completely unique. Each one had a
sound all its own, and that really enabled people to make extraordinary
records with synthesizers. The possibilities were endless.
Take us through some of the analog gear used on the album. For instance,
on “Leave a Light On” there’s an affecting lead sound in the intro.
[Laughs.] Funny enough, that’s one of the few digital sounds on the whole
album. It’s actually from the Roland V-Synth GT. I found that sound in
the beginning when we were writing the song, and fiddled with it a bit,
changing some delays around on it. I just liked the sound and came up
with the major theme in the song. Simon instantly fell in love with it and
started singing along with it, and we finished the song almost within a
day. My intention was to replace that sound with an analog synth, but
it just fit—it was the glue that pulled all the sonics of the song together.
So what I did was play the line in different parts of the song on different
sounds. I play it on the V-Synth GT, on an Elka Synthex, I think also on
a Jupiter-8, and on some string samples in the end section. But the main
sound that you hear in the beginning was from the V-Synth GT.
So you’re taking a theme and you’re changing the sounds and synths
on which you’re playing it during the song?
Yeah. That’s oft en what happens in classical music. I’ve long loved
listening to classical music, and I find myself listening to it more and
more when I’m on my own now because I just love the arrangements.
That’s one of those beautifully simple tricks that is often deployed in
classical arrangements—first a theme is played by the strings, then it’s
played by the French horns, and then by the celeste. And by doing that,
it almost feels like a new melody, yet you’re drumming the same thing
into people’s subconscious. You’re keeping the melodic structure of the
song, yet you’re making it feel different all the time.
On “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)” there are what seem to be
your signature, stringy, sustained pads. Is that the Roland Jupiter-8?
Yes. I really tried to use things I had used before. I even referenced the
same banks that I have always built pads from on the Jupiter-8.
Was that the original Jupiter-8 unit from Duran Duran’s heyday?
I actually have three Jupiter-8s. The reason I have so many is that we
used to take them on tour until about eight years ago when I had to
retire them. Every single day when I would arrive at the gig for sound
check, my technician would be doing open-heart surgery on one of the
Jupiters and plundering one of the other ones for a chip! They were
pretty roadworthy for the first ten years or so, but as they get older they
get fragile. But another thing I love about them is that each one sounds
slightly different. On some of the new album I actually use the Jupiter-8
I recorded “Rio” on, and on other tracks I use the one I didn’t use until
The Wedding Album.
On the song “Mediterranea,” there’s a sort of bubbling, arpeggiated
track in the background. What was that created with?
That is actually a pulse. I pulsed it from a cowbell, sort of old school
style, like I would have done on “Union of the Snake,” or “Is There
Something I Should Know,” and it’s actually the Elka Synthex. There are
a lot of layers of Synthex on that particular song—all the beautiful, soft
bell tones. It’s particularly good for those.
What other instruments did you dig out of storage for use on AYNIN?
One of the things I literally hadn’t used for years was the EDP Wasp
synthesizer, which was actually the first instrument I ever bought. Sadly,
my original Wasp got lost somewhere along the way. Probably about
ten years ago, I decided I was going to buy another one, and I bought a
customized hybrid—one that had the Spider sequencer in it.
I got the Wasp out because it doesn’t sound like anything else. It really
does have a unique character to it. You can hear it in the beginning of
“Being Followed.” It’s that strange, slightly buzzy sound. I also used it to
create some of the sequences on “Blame the Machines.” I also used the
Minimoog Voyager on a lot of the album. I never actually had an original
Minimoog. I used one on several records. But
when the Voyager came out I wanted one
immediately, because it’s a dream to have a
Minimoog with completely stable oscillators,
and to have the touchpad in the middle, and
have MIDI and all those options. So I use it
extensively, especially for bass, percussive, and
white noise sounds.
There’s also a return to that kind of funk
bass and drum groove that John and Roger
do so well. How did that funk-meets-disco
It was very much John and Roger. I wouldn’t
swap our rhythm section for anybody else’s in
the world. They’re an incredible unit. They’re
so tight—the way they play together live. You
just feel confident because they’re so locked.
They’re adventurous, too—they can come up
with ten funk/disco grooves per minute!
The new album really does sound like a
celebration of the classic Duran Duran
sound. That musical language that your
band codified really shines through.
Sometimes the simple, beautiful things are
the things that mean the most, but they’re
not always the easiest to create. They are
when you’re young and when that’s sort
of the only thing you can do, but then
you start to learn more and try out new
things, and loads of new gear arrives and
you start fiddling around with it. In my
case, some of the old synths ended up in
storage for years. . . . So you lose elements
of what makes that sound. Sometimes you
think that experimenting is the right thing
to do, or the braver thing to do. But with
this album we actually realized that we
had spent the last two decades or so trying
out different sounds on every record. And
somehow things have come around in a full
circle, and the thing that seemed most right
of all was to look back for the first time at
the early albums and see how we could
make that sound contemporary.
I have to say that once we started playing
together and writing the album, we found
our ‘Duran Duran-ness’ again. It all seemed
so obvious, and some people said, “If you
could still do this, why didn’t you do it years
ago?” The simple answer is, obviously we
couldn’t do it years ago. It might have been
staring us in the face, but we hadn’t noticed
it. I suppose I could cite Picasso, who said he
spent his entire life learning how to paint like
a child again. I really relate to that.
Long known for imposing stacks of synths
that included the Fairlight CMI and Roland
Jupiter-8 (see “Time Machine” for
a look back at those), Nick Rhodes now plays
a streamlined rig that still captures his vibrant,
“We used to take the Jupiter-8s and the
other vintage keyboards on tour with us,” Nick
says, “and that really was an ideal world, because
everything was right there at my fingertips,
and I could change things around on the spot.
That was the real deal. Now that it’s much
harder to tour with old, analog gear, we’ve
spent an extensive amount of time sampling
all of my original sounds at a very high rate—
some of them directly from the master tapes.
Other sounds, I had to re-create, but because
I still have those original instruments, or in
some cases I actually re-bought them, we’ve painstakingly gotten those sounds as close to the originals as possible.”
Rhodes’ rig for the All You Need Is Now tour is based around four keyboards that run in conjunction with numerous rack modules, effects,
and soft ware. Rhodes gave us an insider’s view of his setup, commenting on how each piece of gear helps craft his storied sound.
Roland V-Synth GT: “I use one of the two V-Synths for newer,
digital sounds. For instance, there’s a breakdown in ‘Girls On
Film,’ and I’ve found three or four digital sounds on the V-Synth
I really like for it, even though they’re not on the original record.
I use the other V-Synth mostly for samples, like the sound on
‘Save a Prayer,’ which is a sample of the original sound.”
Alesis Andromeda A6: “I use the Andromeda for things we
haven’t sampled—sounds that are fairly simple, like synth basses,
for example. It lets me get amazingly close to the original sounds
I used. Plus, it’s incredibly stable and roadworthy, and gives me
that fat analog sound I’m looking for. I use it a lot for strings.”
Kurzweil K2000: “It’s used for triggering samples, mostly
sound effects and sounds for songs like ‘Come Undone,’ the
flanged sound that starts ‘Planet Earth,’ and the camera sound
from ‘Girls On Film.’ I also trigger sequences from it as well.”
Akai S6000: “It’s purely used to generate the sampled sounds
for the V-Synth and the K2000. We’ve used it for several
years, and never bothered to update because it’s proved to be
Korg MicroKorg: “I use this for the Vocoder only. It’s actually
quite powerful. We plug it straight into my main microphone and
use it for songs like ‘Wild Boys’ and ‘The Reflex.’ I considered
that I should only ever talk to the audience through the Vocoder,
but haven’t got around to that yet!”
MOTU MIDI Timepiece: “We’re moving to [Apple] MainStage
from this, but it’s been incredibly reliable for patch changes,
and for live use, that’s top-of-the-list. Plus, it’s very simple to
use. A song like ‘Rio’ has four different sounds on one synth.
So instead of splitting them up between keyboards, I just
switch between them.”
Effects pedals: “I used Boss and MXR phasers early on. The
Boss phaser is particularly good, and it has sweeps that I can
control at the rate I personally like. For instance, the string
sound on ‘Girls On Film’ was originally played on a Crumar
Performer. Now I’m playing it on the Andromeda. On the last
verse it has a phaser on it, so I just click it in at that point. It’s
always nice to have a phaser and a flanger at your feet. You
never know when you’ll need it. If I’m in a radical mood, you
might get all kinds of things flanged all night! I also use the
[Danelectro DE-1] Dan Echo Delay for things like the rhythmic
verse part on ‘Rio,’ then the Boss flangers on the Andromeda
and the V-Synth I use for samples. I love the motion that flangers
put into certain sounds. You’ll hear them on older songs like
‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and the end of ‘Save a Prayer,’ as well
as a lot of the new songs like ‘Being Followed.’”
Apple MainStage: “When Apple gave me a demo of
MainStage a few years ago, I was pretty blown away. We’re
slowly moving everything over to it, programming all the sounds
for every single song into it. It’s an incredibly powerful system.
I’m obviously slightly apprehensive to change over, as I’m so
used to my system and everything usually works. Eventually,
I’m hoping to control MainStage from an iPad, and just click
through the pages for each song. We used to dread playing
certain songs live back in 1981, because I’d have up to 30
changes that all needed to be done manually. I’d literally be
turning the resonance down, and the filter cutoff up, and the
attack down. Things have come a long way!”