Nick Rhodes Reboots His Retro Roots
by Jon Regen
“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.
- Official Video: "All You Need Is Now"
- Video: Nick Rhodes talks about his favorite synths.
- (Note: If you're asked for a password for the second video, it's KEYBOARD in all caps.)
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 element originate?
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, vintage sound.
“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 extremely robust.”
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!”