80s electro-pop pioneer Howard Jones is still obsessed with synths

Step inside the Bristol studio of Howard Jones and producer Robbie Bronnimann to find out how the pair channelled their synth obsession into Howard’s new album, Transform.

howard jones bt studio
Howard and BT worked closely on the material that makes up Transform

The legendary Howard Jones was one of the first wave of high-profile synth users. Throughout the 80s, he utilised the best in analogue technology to produce a string of hit singles and albums. He was a regular in the UK singles charts but, importantly, sold even more records Stateside, scoring Platinum sales with his second album Dream Into Action in both the US and Canada.

Since these heady times, he’s maintained a strong and healthy fanbase around the world. Howard’s new music is still hotly anticipated, selling tens of thousands of copies of his newer records and can even command the odd 35-date tour of the US, something that most current artists can only dream about.

For his new album Transform, Howard collaborated with US dance producer BT (who will be supporting him during the US dates), and he also teamed up with long-term collaborator Robbie Bronnimann, cementing an almost 20-year studio partnership.

We head down to Robbie’s incredible Bristol-based Recognizer Studios to talk synth technology with Howard and Robbie. From the joys of Omnisphere to the strains of modular, it’s certainly a great time to be making music with synths, we’re all agreed. The only problem being, as Howard laughs, you have to have access to more than one lifetime to enjoy it all.

Howard Jones and Robbie Bronnimann
Howard Jones and Robbie Bronnimann

Hi guys, so how did you two first meet?

Howard Jones: On the street, weirdly enough! Robbie had sent me some demos and I had written back to him saying I thought they were brilliant. In fact, he now has that letter framed in his studio – it seems a bit patronising now!

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So I hadn’t actually met him, but had heard his demos, thought they were great, and then by chance I had just come out of a dentist in Maidenhead and Robbie was walking by. It was years after the letters – around the early 2000s – and was literally a total coincidence. I said: ‘Oh, you must come down to the studio,’ and that was it, we’ve been working together ever since. It’s weird, isn’t it… weird but true!

How does the writing process work between the two of you?

H: With the new album Transform, it was a bit different as Robbie was also working on another album, so I just got on with the writing and the arrangements at my place and then presented it all to him, and then we got together to mix it. Then Robbie adds his brilliant magical stuff and his sound design to it. Sometimes, we also collaborate completely on the tracks like with [2005 album] Revolution Of The Heart, where we did that together.

Robbie Bronnimann: At that time, we had both identical setups, all the same software, so you could literally bring it over, load it in, take it back, load it in and it would work. As time has gone on, however, the amount of software that I have now is ridiculous…

H: …I couldn’t possibly keep up!

So tell us a little about each of your studios.

H: I’ll start with mine, because mine won’t take long – Robbie’s might take a day! For me, it’s all about the writing process, so my studio is really geared up to that. I want to work with great sounds, but most of the time, it’s about the chord shapes, the tune, the structure and doing the vocal, so I don’t want too many things as I get sidetracked – I just have my favourite gear and it works very well.

I have really great Dynaudio BM12 monitors that sound fantastic. I have my piano, which is a Steinway, and vintage synths – Roland Jupiter-8s, Juno-60 and a Moog Prodigy and a few new ones like the Prophets. Then I have a suite of software synths like the Arturia V Collection. I don’t have everything under the sun, and I know I’m going to be working with Robbie to make the sounds amazing. So my thing is arranging, writing and getting good things on the go, and of course I do the vocals here as well. I use the RØDE Classic microphone for those.

R: It’s the flagship valve mic that they do. We use it for literally everything. Ever since I’ve worked with Howard, we’ve found it is the microphone that works best for him. We both also use Logic and I have it based around the Apple Mac Pro trashcan with a big 43-inch screen. I’ve been using Dynaudio speakers for 20 years and have been using these Dynaudio AIRs for 15 – they are like my second ears.

Then I have a UAD system, so a couple of Apollos plus all the UA plug-ins – they are like a benchmark. In terms of things I can’t be without, I’ve always used the Waves Mercury, the Soundtoys plug-ins and some of the Sonnox stuff. I also love to support the smaller companies like Valhalla DSP and Audio Damage; they are doing great stuff and it’s not that ridiculously expensive, really nicely designed and simple. So really, the emphasis is on as much power as possible and to use interesting tools like Revoice Pro by Synchro Arts, all of the iZotope stuff and Melodyne, all those kinds of things to get surgical.

Recognizer studio bristol
Robbie’s Recognizer studio in Bristol was the venue of our interview, and another key location for the Transform sessions

What about hardware synths, Robbie?

R: I recently had a big move and that forced me to strip back on everything, so I just have a few things that I really love to work on as opposed to lots of things where I think, ‘Right, how do I do this on it again?’. So I stripped it all back to having no keyboards, and I have a desktop DSI/Prophet OB-6, the Teenage Engineering OP-1, which I use a lot, a desktop Behringer DeepMind 12, which I did a bit of sound design for, and then I have a Eurorack plus a Moog Voyager rackmount. They are all things that are very hands-on, but just don’t fill your studio with keyboard after keyboard. I’m also just waiting on getting a Waldorf Quantum.

So it sounds like your software collection is growing more than your hardware?

R: I need to learn bits of gear well so I can get things out of them quickly, so I don’t buy a lot of stuff now, just one thing every so often. So really it is all about maintaining software and trying to stay on the cutting edge of it. I really do love all the interesting stuff, just getting audio into the computer and manipulating it from there.

H: And he’s got the biggest collection of software to manipulate sound that I have ever seen, and every week I go there and there is something new…

R: For the soft synths, I use all the Arturia stuff and the Native Instruments plug-ins and I have a Komplete Kontrol S88 and a new 49. All that stuff is great. But it’s funny with software – you spend all that money and there’s nothing really in the studio to see for it all.

H: Except for great records!

Transformer

Talking of which, let’s talk about the new album. Tell us about some of the instruments used in its creation?

H: Every track has different synthesizers, sometimes hardware, that I just recorded in as audio, but I also found it very exciting to use software, especially Omnisphere 2. It enables you to connect your hardware synth and it can then emulate it in software. It’s the best of both worlds – you have loads of knobs to twiddle and have fun with, but also you can capture and remember everything in the software. I think that is a major leap forward.

What about outboard and effects?

H: I use the standard plug-ins in Logic and because I know I am going to be working with  Robbie, I’ll just stick an iZotope Ozone plug-in over the top to make it sound nice and beefy while I’m working on the track. I know it’s one level of the development and as soon as I go to Bristol to work with Robbie, I know we’re going to develop the sounds and we’re going to take it to another level.

So what happens when you get the tracks from Howard, Robbie?

R: I always go straight into the drums and the bass – it’s the backbone, really, and the science bit. Over the years, you learn different techniques and tricks to making things happen. I spend a lot of time finding the fundamentals in the bass notes or kick drums, and then trying to bring those out to the key of the song. That kind of stuff is a bit nerdy, but it makes a massive difference.

My approach to mixing is that I am brutal about going through every channel and removing all the things that are ugly with narrow Qs, all before I do any boosting. What I find amazing is that when you listen to records now compared to 30 years ago, because we have such surgical tools, it does afford us the ability to remove things but still make them sound big.

For this album it was like that, really about making every element shine. I do things like side-chaining to remove parts at certain points, and I always do a cut on the master to get rid of everything under 40Hz as there are usually things that are thumping down there that just take the energy away from your track. So I have a very set system the way I mix.

Keeping up with the Jones

What can we expect from the forthcoming tour?

H: Well, I want to play the whole of the new album, but the way we’re going to do it is with a heritage HoJo song and then a new track, so we’re going to interlace them. We’ve also gone back to the old songs and really made an effort to bring their sounds in line with those on the new album, so it shouldn’t feel like there’s this huge change between the old and new. People often say the songs sound so fresh, but that’s because we’ve been working on them to bring them into line with a more contemporary sound.

How are you going to deliver the tour on a more technical level?

H: Robbie and I are absolutely obsessed with this tour sounding amazing, as we have spent so much time with the record, making what is I think one of my best, so we really want it to sound absolutely incredible live.

We’ve already spent months working on the sounds and the system, and we’re getting the best PA, a special DiGiCo desk and we’re doing rehearsals with the PA just to make sure we have the bass drums and the bottom end functioning. There is no stone unturned – we’re just going for it and it has to be super hi-fi. That’s what you should achieve with electronic music. You should be able to do that so the only rogue thing is going to be my singing!

R: The thing about using technology live is that people don’t realise the amount of care and attention you should take on every single aspect, so we put a lot of effort into how it can be as simple as possible.

In the past, we’ve had a few hair-raising experiences. We did a tour once where I thought we’d try and mix everything through Ableton Live and everyone who was on stage came though my Ableton rig, including the vocal, and when it worked, it worked great but the computer power wasn’t up to it at the time. So you realise that you have to get the balance between cutting-edge technology and being crazy and taking risks, so now we keep it simple and build it around what we know.

Have you got much going on that is sequenced?

H: Ableton Live runs the drums and the bass and other elements that we can’t reproduce. There are three of us with keyboards, and we take care of all of those parts – and they’ve been meticulously sampled up, or it will be three or four software instruments running together to create a sound. I’ve got the main stage rig and we are adding Omnisphere 2. It will have hardware connections to it where you can work the hardware, which works the software emulations, and it’s absolutely brilliant. There is no latency and it’s a very exciting development that we haven’t been able to do before.

It is running live and we do take the risk so [if anything does go wrong] I’ll just play the piano until we fix it. We’ve always liked to have that edge where it could go wrong. We don’t want to be robots, you know, where every night it is always the same. We want it to be different so a gig’s a gig.

R: In Ableton, we break all the songs down into 10 or 12 stems, and then in some of the songs we break each of those down into intro, verse, bridge and chorus sections. So if Howard decides he wants to work with the audience and take something off for a bit, we’re not just stuck to a start and stop. We also have visuals on another laptop which is triggered by MIDI and all of the Ableton clips for the song have embedded MIDI clips for the visual – so the visuals follow when we change the arrangement.

bt studio howard jones
BT’s studio is an impressive sight to behold

The quantum realm

What’s on your studio-gear wishlist?

H: I definitely want the Moog One. I am absolutely having one of those. It’s hugely expensive but they are totally stacked up [in orders] and can’t make enough of them!

R: It has been the Quantum, really. I’m passionate about gear and technology, but the funny thing is that over time, the desire to amass it has lessened. I’d really just like a few really great things, as opposed to lots of fun things.

And what are your current favourites?

H: My first synths were Jupiter-8s, Juno-6s, Prodigys and Pro-Ones and 808 drum machines, so I love the Arturia emulations. I’ve started using the Roland Cloud versions, too – they are a bit chunkier and more aggressive and I still probably prefer the Arturia ones. I spent so many years studying them that I can get the sounds that I want from that software. And then Omnisphere would be my second software choice. With the new album, I had my Moog Sub Phatty connected up to it and generated a killer bass sound.

R: I love the more unusual granular synthesis stuff where you can extrapolate weird sounds from something that is very normal. It has come about because of my love of more leftfield electronic music like Amon Tobin, BT and Jon Hopkins and also doing film scoring, which I also do alongside production. So I have a fascination with sound design, hence the Waldorf Quantum being my purchase for this year as I really want tools around me to give me things that I’m not used to.

Both of you have a long history with synths, both soft and hard, so what do you think of the current fascination with all things modular?

H: It’s brilliant that people are prepared to put in the amount of time required, When I went to BT’s studio that’s the first thing we did. He has got a massive rack of Eurorack, tonnes of it, and we started plugging things in and coming up with ideas. That’s fine when you’re working with someone else, but on your own, it takes a huge amount of time to get something that you’re going to love.

Of course, it will be entirely original – and that is the great thing about it – but I don’t know if I have the patience. It’s great for people searching for something different, new and original. That has to be the aim of all of us synthesists – we must be trying to break the barriers every time we make a record – so whatever gear we are using it should sound beautifully original and different.

R: I got very excited about Eurorack and have a good-sized setup, but quickly realised that if you are into gear, then this is probably going to be the gateway drug to mainlining heroin! I also have an obsession with uniformity, so all my Eurorack has been refaced so it’s in a greyscale panel, so they are all the same. Then I realised my life was going to become just this!

The thing is there are lots of people going: ‘I like to sit here for two hours with this sequence running’ and making something that sounds like a refrigerator malfunctioning, but there are very few people – apart from BT and the film composers and the guys who did Stranger Things – who have actually worked out how to get these things into their workflows. If you haven’t got it plugged in and ready to go, then – as with any gear in the studio – it is hardly worth having it. By the time you’ve thought, ‘Right, I’ll plug it all in and route it through my computer and I’ll add MIDI to it,’ you’ve kind of lost the interest. It is a fun thing to do, but you have to have a point of what you want to do it for.

vintage synths howard jones
Vintage hardware, soft synths and modular all combine to create the sophisticated soundscape of Transform

What would you like to see developed in terms of studio technology?

R: I would like to see a streamlined way of moving projects between different DAWs – anything to actually make the music-making process more enjoyable would be good. It’s almost like you have to do music-making accountancy when you work with technology, like backing up stems, changing computers and all of that. And computer power is exponential, isn’t it? I have a Mac Pro, but even now with certain new plug-ins, they seem to be designed for another generation of power!

And where do you see music production and consumption going?

H: Everything is becoming niche and everyone has their taste and you can access it all through streaming. You can find artists who do any kind of music, whereas before, you just had to get used to what was happening and get onboard with it. Now I think artists should just be themselves and do what they do best – and be confident that there will be an audience out there for it.

With all your experience in the industry and in the studio, what words of wisdom can you pass on?

H: In terms of a career, I think you have to realise that you are the only person driving it and you have to take responsibility for every area, which includes finding amazing people to work with. It always boils down to how you interact with other people, who are essential to realise any ambitions you have – and to make sure that they enjoy the process as much as you. If you have good people around you, then it is always a pleasure.

R: In the studio, the way music production has gone, we all have access to such a vast wealth of technology, but you have to know when to stop. It can be a problem, particularly if you are the sort of person who leaves projects open and never wants to commit anything – that becomes a negative thing, because you can never make decisions. If you work on a project that hangs around for a long time, it just becomes divisive – you have to be confident in your decisions.

Howard’s Transform tour starts in May in the UK and will extend to 35 dates across the USA – see howardjones.com for more info.

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