In an exclusive interview, Benge talks to Metamatic about his career to date, the building of Play Studios and his album Twenty Systems.

Also discussed is the forthcoming album
Interplay which sees him teaming up with John Foxx...


Metamatic : What inspired you to start assembling Play Studios?

Benge : I've been fascinated with old equipment since I was about twenty. I realised there was always stuff people chucked out because it was so called 'obsolete technology'. After I left art school I abandoned painting because I got hooked on making electronic music. Prior to that I had been a drummer as well, playing in loads of local-type bands, and had done a few recording sessions in studios around London. I really enjoyed being in the studio and I realised that is where the creative stuff happens. So I decided to set up a bedroom studio and make my own music and I started buying old analog synths and effects units. This was around 1990 which was the best time to be buying analog equipment because the digital age had taken hold and nobody wanted the pre-digital stuff. Now it is very different, because people have realised that the old stuff actually sounded better and is more fun to use, and in fact we have gone into another level where everything is done on a computer and people have started to miss physically interacting with their equipment as opposed to making records using a mouse. I have always thought that it was such a waste to throw away all this beautiful old equipment, but I guess I was lucky because some of the stuff I picked up very cheaply, or in some cases actually rescued from the skip is now quite desirable again.

Metamatic : From an 'outsiders' point of view, the concept of you album
Twenty Systems (to record twenty tracks on twenty different synthesisers which themselves span twenty years) appears to have been a very brave project. Did you feel that was the case at the time?

Benge : The idea for Twenty Systems happened a little bit by accident, because I had started making tracks on one synth at the time in an effort to deliberately limit my musical approach. The album I made prior to that [I am 9] had been pretty much "Let's put in as many synths and sounds on each track as possible!". I was really enjoying the challenge of this new limited approach when I looked round the studio and realised I had just about one synth for every year covering the period from when synthesisers were introduced in the late 60's to the point that they started to become redundant with the introduction of computers and workstations in the late 80's. Then it became a bit of a mission to work out the chronology and try and organise the booklet and pictures of them all.

Metamatic : Is this sort of approach (deliberately limiting your musical palate) something you would consider doing again in the future?

Benge : I am planning a kind of sequel to Twenty Systems, but I have changed the concept slightly. You will have to wait a bit for that to take shape.

Metamatic : How did you meet up with John Foxx?

Benge : I met John Foxx through Twenty Systems actually. There was a feature in Future Music magazine about my studio and the record which was due to be released a few months later. John saw that and got in touch. The weird thing was that my album came out the same day as his 'Best Of' Glimmer album, so we were actually getting reviewed and even compared [due to the use of electronics] in the same magazines at the same time, even though we had never met.


Metamatic : How did the idea of collaborating with John come about?

Benge : We didn't really know what to expect from this collaboration at the beginning, we just sort of let ourselves loose on the synths and waited to hear the results. In the end it came out sounding quite structured and 'poppy', which took us both by surprise in a way, as we both have quite an experimental approach usually. It could just of easily been an album of minimal bleeps and drones! John would sometimes bring some vocal ideas along with him and we would use that as a starting point, on other occasions I would bring in a song but without words and he would write on top of that.

Metamatic : How did you arrive at the name
The Maths (as in John Foxx and The Maths)?

Benge : I liked the idea of having a name for this project as opposed to just being called 'John Foxx and Benge's new album'. I felt The Maths was quite suitable because it sounds academic and minimal but at the same time a bit irreverent, as in "You do the maths". I also like the fact that it is distinctly English, as opposed to the American way of saying "math". There is also a passing reference to the name Metamatic.

Metamatic : What can you tell us about the Interplay album?

Benge : The artwork for Interplay, which has been designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, ties in with our overall concept of using vintage sounds and imagery but in a modern way. There are ten new songs on the album, including a new version of Destination. One track Watching a Building on Fire, is a collaboration with Mira Aroya from Ladytron. Apart from that it's all me and John and a room full of synths, drum machines and effects units. We had a rule of not using 'plugins' on the record, which means that there was a lot of hands on experimentation and us allowing the machines to be part of the band, so to speak. We are both really excited about how it has turned out sounding.


Metamatic : What synths do you enjoy using the most, and why?

Benge : My favorite synth has to be the Modular Moog system [3C] that I got about fifteen years ago. It was made in 1967 and to me still sounds bigger and better than anything that has been made since. It is a good example of someone getting the technology right at the beginning, as it was from the first ever generation of commercially available synthesizers [along with the Buchla systems, also made in America in the late 1960's]. It seems to me that almost every synth since has been a compromise of that original idea, although there have been some other instruments that have introduced some new facilities that the big modulars could not do. For example, the Yamaha CS80 is a massive polyphonic synth from 1976 that implemented playing more than one note on the keyboard in a really good way. Then in the 1980's some of the digital computer-based systems were pretty amazing, such as the Fairlight and Synclavier. They are all on my Twenty Systems album, and most are on Interplay.

There were a few other synths we kept going back to on the album as well, in particular the
Arp Odyssey, because John loves that one and knows it so well. The one that really surprised me was the Crumar Multiman, which is a cheap Italian string and piano synth from the mid 1970's, but we kept going back to it because it just seemed to fit in and cut through on the tracks. It's all over the album, nearly as much as the Moog Modular. And there are two drum machines that we used a lot on this record, the Linn LM1, from 1980 and the Roland CR78, which was the machine John used a lot on the Metamatic album.

Metamatic : Didn't you end up playing drums on Destination?

Benge : There were two tracks on the album where I played some live drums [Drums was the first instrument I learned to play]. But we kind of used the drum sounds to create our own loops on those songs [Destination, and a new one called Catwalk] as opposed to me playing along to the whole song. Apart from a tiny bit of live bass on one other track, there are no other samples or 'real' instruments, unless you include Johns voice!


Metamatic : What artists / records inspire you?

Benge : At the moment I am enjoying going on the various music blogs and discovering old 70's and 80's music that I have never heard of or at least have no deep knowledge of. Most of it is electronic and instrumental, but some is vocal and has other instruments on. What I really like is hearing the recording process in the music, especially when it puts a particular date stamp on it. For example I love it when early 80's producers used to put flangers and phasers on everything, from the bass guitar to the snare drum to the vocals. It gave everything a very artificial feel even if the instruments were quite conventional. So I have been checking out anything produced by people like Martin Hannett [Joy Division, etc] and Mike Hedges [especially the early Cure albums].

A lot of what I have been getting into is old Library music from that era, and also film soundtracks by people like
Gil Melle [Andromeda Strain] and Harold Faltermeyer [Fletch] or anything by Moroder. There is tons of stuff out there, for example the entire KPM music archive [around 150 albums of original music from the 60's to the 80's] is available to listen to on their website. A lot of it is horrible, but there are some amazing things in there if you look, and that's part of the fun [start with the 70's recordings by Alan Hawkshaw or Brian Bennett].

Metamatic : Your label
Expanding Records has been described (by Boomkat) as a "Pandora's box of loveliness"...

Benge : I started my own label back in 1995 as an outlet for my own Benge albums originally, but I have picked up some friends along the way and we are still releasing instrumental electronic music, with about twenty-five artist albums and ten solo Benge albums so far. I run the label now with Paul Merritt and we are very proud to still be able to release the music we love.

Metamatic : What other projects have you been involved in?

Benge : I have done a lot of album collaborations over the years, such as Tennis, Volume, Stendec, Oblong and I am currently working on albums with Phil Winter as Wrangler, and another project with my friend Jean Gabriel Becker called Great Guns. Jeanga also played with us on stage as The Maths when we played at The Roundhouse in June [2010]. Also on stage with us was Serafina Steer, and I co-produced her last album Change is Good here at the studio.

Metamatic : What was the rehearsal process like for the shows at The Roundhouse and The Troxy?

Benge : The live shows at the Roundhouse and the upcoming one at the Troxy have been great fun to be involved in. It started off by John giving me access to the original eight-track masters of the Metamatic album, which had recently been digitized. From there we worked out all the parts that we could physically play on stage with real synths etc and then had the remaining stuff coming from tape on the stage which we played along to.

 Benge and John Foxx

What was so great was learning those songs and getting under their skin. They are really great pieces of music and the arrangements are so clever, it gave me huge respect for what John had achieved with that record back in 1979 / 80, on just an eight-track tape machine.

I chose to work with
Jeanga and Sefa because they were able to help work out the parts and actually play them on stage. I am not really a keyboardist even though I am obsessed with collecting keyboards. I never really could be bothered with learning my scales - and it's far too late for that now! The others do know that stuff, and besides they are big Foxxy fans, and jumped on the chance to get involved.

We had ten days of rehearsals before the
Roundhouse show, and that included doing the Ultravox! songs with Robin [Simon] on guitar and Liam [Hutton] on drums. The hard thing about that was synchronising the live instruments with the sequenced parts, and Steve d'Agostino was a great help with that side of things. All that remained were the Maths songs, but because they were fresh in our minds they were quite easy. I think the Troxy show will be a slimmed down version of that set.

Metamatic : Are the any plans for you and John to work together in the future beyond the show at The Troxy?

We are in discussions with various people about doing more live shows but there is nothing confirmed yet, but there are some very interesting and exciting propositions. Also we are working on a top secret cover version of quite a well known band which should be coming out soon...

Metamatic : What projects are you working on now that Interplay has been finished?

Benge : I've been refurbishing the studio over the past few months which has meant having builders in and covering all my equipment up with dust sheets. I have spread out a bit into another room because a colleague moved out freeing up some more space, so I am making a proper live room and synth room. So while the studio is down I decided to take a few choice modular synths (an EMS VCS3 from 1969, a 1973 Serge, and a 1974 Paia system along with a Roland Space Echo) and set them up at home.

 Early Modulars White

I have just finished a new album based around the idea of composing tracks by combining these very early systems. It is a bit like the Twenty Systems idea where I have restricted my approach. I have made the tracks without using any computer sequencing, everything was recorded free to tape and not locked to a click or sequencer grid. It gives a very different feel to the music and is a very liberating way of working, especially after the intensity of doing an album like Interplay, which was fairly complex and structured.

Metamatic : On a slightly different note, you recently performed at the Yota AV Festival in St Petersberg - how did that come about?

Benge : I got involved because I was asked by the organizer of the academic side of the festival to do a presentation of my Twenty Systems album to a room full of Russian students, and talk about the history of synthesisers. What was a bit daunting for me was the fact that Russia has its own history of technology that is quite distinct from ours in Europe, the US and Japan which is what I know about. Luckily there was a translator, and also the Russian people seem pretty advanced when it comes to technology, and have a much more practical outlook. As one person I spoke to put it, during the space race America spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, whereas the soviet cosmonauts just took a pencil!

There were also some very interesting exhibits in the building [which was a converted 1980s shopping mall], especially some of the new film work by one-dot-zero artists. I had also never seen
Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings which was interesting.

I really enjoyed presenting and talking at the festival and it made a change from playing a live electronic music set, which is what I have done a lot of before. Although this was my first time, I would love to do this kind of thing again - I mean I could talk about synths all day long, and if I get to travel to an amazing city like St Petersberg then that's even better.

Metamatic : How can people keep up with all of the other projects which you're currently involved in?

Benge : I run a blog where you can read more about my studio, and what I get up to there, and I also post about anything else musical that catches my eye/ear, which usually involves synths and geeky stuff, and the occasional John Foxx picture!

Play Studios

Metamatic : Can you please run through the equipment that was used on Interplay, expanding on what each item is and does - and why it was chosen?

Benge : All of this stuff is in the studio and is connected up to a big patch bay, the idea being that you can then use short patch cords to make connections between things, and you can combine them together in interesting ways. For example, if you want to play a Minimoog synth through an MXR flanger and then put that sound through a tape delay and then send the result to a compressor and distortion box, then you don't need to scrabble about round the back of the equipment and change all the leads around, they are all ready connected to the patch bay, so you can just use four short cables and you have a brand new set of sounds. Everything is labelled up on the patch bay using a number code and then there is a sheet with all the relevant instruments and effects units.

Firstly I will tell you about the synths we used and go into a bit of detail about some of them:

Arp Odyssey
Arp Sequencer

Odyssey is one of John's favourite synths and he really knows it inside out. I love them too, but he was getting sounds out of it I had never heard before. He likes to torture it! We used it for a lot of the electronic sound effect type things on tracks, like wooshes and squeals. Also for quite a few lead lines and bass lines, using it's matching sequencer. It sounds great through a phaser and distortion pedal. It's all over the Metamatic album too.

Arp Omni
Crumar Bit 01
Crumar Multiman

Multiman is a seriously underrated synth. Actually its a 'multi-instrument preset synth' and not a proper synthesiser because you don't have control over every parameter of the sound. But it still sounds amazing, it really fits in to a mix, and we kept on coming back to it on loads of tracks. I paid £60 for it a few years ago, and you can still find them cheaply out there.

Crumar Roadrunner
Yamaha CS30
Yamaha CS80

Yamaha CS80 is one of my favourite synths of all time, it's just totally mad. Inside it is all discrete point to point wiring of all the thousands of connections. It is the synth that Vangelis made famous who reputedly had sixteen of them, and bearing in mind they cost about £8000 each in 1976 gives you some idea of how much he liked them. Listen to Blade Runner to hear it in all its glory.

Fairlight CMI

We used the
Fairlight for some of the drum sounds on the record, but unfortunately it broke down half way through recording the album and I'm waiting to get it fixed.

Hohner Pianet T

Pianet was used on the backing track for Interplay which I recorded at my house where I also have a piano. While recording there was a massive thunderstorm and we decided to leave it on the song along with the instruments.

Korg Monopoly
Korg PS3100
Korg MS20

used the MS20 for the main synth line in Watching a Building on Fire.

Moog Minimoog
Moog Polymoog

When Gary Numan came to the studio to shoot the interview for his his last DVD I got to meet him and show him round the synths. Sadly he sold off all his years ago. He told me that he used to have nine Minimoog's because when they played live he liked to have the sound set up on the synth and not have to change the settings after each song, because the Minimoog has no memories. He also played the main synth line from Cars on my Polymoog, and he forgot how the top two notes went. So we were like "I think it was these two..." "No, maybe it's these..." "Wait a minute, it was these two..." etc.

Sequential T8
Sequential VS
Oberheim Xpander
Roland RS202
Roland SH101
Roland VP330

We used the
VP330 on the album a few times. It is a vocoder, which is a synth you can sing into and it turns you into a robot-voice. It's pretty cheesy but good fun, and actually is brilliant if you put other sounds in instead of a voice, for example a drum loop which we did a bit on the record as well. It was used by Laurie Anderson on O Superman and also by Kraftwerk quite a bit.

Formant Modular
Serge Modular
Roland 100M
Moog Modular

Of all my synths I think the
Moog Modular is my favourite. Somehow it just sounds bigger and better than anything else, and considering this was pretty much the first synth ever made [in the mid - late 60's] that's not bad going. I've added some racks of modules from some newer companies [Moog stopped making them in the 80's] and this is now a really powerful system. It's on most of the tracks as the central bass line or melodic sequence.

Play Studios

Below are the drum machines we used on the album:

Roland CR78

CR78 was one of the first programmable drum machines, meaning that you weren't just stuck with what some geeky Japanese technician thought was a groovy drum beat - you could actually make up your own ones. The thing is it still has those geeky preset patterns and we kind of preferred them! So there they are on the record, just like they were on tons of other John Foxx tracks, because this is his favourite drum machine. I should point out that Phil Collins also used it on In the Air Tonight and I'm not sure if that is very cool, or not very cool.

Roland TR808

's classic electro drum machine used brilliantly on Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye and countless techno records.

Simmons SDS5
Linn LM1

Linn is my favourite drum machine. It used samples of real drum hits and was the very first of its kind. It was really expensive when it came out, and everyone said that it was going to replace the need for real drummers, which luckily didn't happen, except for in my studio! But it was used by some really great people over the years and is the main drum sound on most of the classic Prince records and Human League's Dare album.

Play Studios

Below are the recording and effect units we used on the album. As me and John are quite proud of saying, we didn't use a single 'plugin' [modern computer effect] on this record!

Studer 900 series 20 channel console
MCI 416b 24 channel console

During the writing and recording process we used an early 80's
Studer analog console which is connected up to the rest of the equipment in the studio via the patchbays. When it came to the final mixing stage we mixed the tracks together on a vintage MCI console from the early 70's which has a really nice big warm sound, and it's great having all the tracks there in front of you having worked on them for all those months, and you can suddenly hear them in a finished state and add the finishing touches into the mix.

Paia Phlanger
MXR flanger/doubler

While we were working together over the last year or so
John kept going on about the MXR and how it was the best sounding unit out there. I am a big vintage phaser and flanger fan and have at least ten I go to regularly. Then just before we started mixing I managed to buy an MXR F/D quite cheaply and yes - John was right! It has a really edgy and unique sound and I instantly recognised it from John's Metamatic album, amongst others.

Lexicon 224
Roland space echo 201
DBX 119 compressor
Ibanez AD80

This is a fantastic little delay pedal and a bit of a secret weapon! It's a pure analog delay and makes a sound unlike anything else.

Ursa Major delay
Yamaha Rev1

This was
Yamaha's flagship effects unit in the 80's, and we used it for adding stereo delays to the vocals.

EMT plate 140

The EMT unit is proper old school reverb ­ it's an eight-foot sheet of steel suspended on springs with beautiful valve amplifiers in it, so it's not an artificial sound. We used it as the main reverb on the mixes.

For more information on Benge - check out his blog...

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