After what Gary Numan himself calls his wilderness years, he has returned with something of a vengeance in recent years, scoring a hat-trick of top 3 albums – Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), Savage (Songs From A Broken World) and his most recent release, Intruder.
Indeed, Numan now commands the respect of a new generation of musicians and has sealed his status as one of the leading lights and pioneers of electronic music. If there’s one person – aside from Numan himself, of course – who can take some credit for this resurgence, it’s Numan’s right-hand man, Ade Fenton.
Fenton has been Numan’s producer on these recent albums and other releases, and has helped him redefine his previous synth sound to embrace a much rockier edge, albeit one as anthemic and often electronic as any track that Numan released in his 80s heyday. Fenton himself has enjoyed international success as both a solo artist and DJ, but has embraced this more recent production work as the second chapter in his own career. In fact, as Ade reveals, it’s almost destiny that the two started working together in the first place, as Numan influenced him so much in his youth.
“Going right back,” Ade recalls, “Gary Numan was the first music I heard which made me sit up and listen. That must have been when I was around 11 or 12 I think. I saw him on Top Of The Pops and the noises I was hearing were like nothing else. From that point on, all I was interested in was electronic music, even when it went through its rather twee stage in the mid to late 80s.”
The other side of synths
However, the ‘twee’ side of electronic music aside, it would be the second big chapter of electronic music that would really capture Fenton’s imagination.
“I’d heard Joey Beltram’s Mentasm somewhere,” he explains on his introduction to dance music. “I thought ‘what the fuck is this?!’. It was like synthesisers were being pushed to their limits and that feeling I’d had in 1979 when I first heard Are ‘Friends’ Electric? came back with a vengeance. So I started to get into the early rave scene heavily, seeking out techno clubs to go to, and it became an obsession, to be honest.
“Up until the late 90s I had a normal job, but quite by chance, an ex girlfriend of mine was interested in getting into DJing and I had a mess about on her turntables. I found mixing records easy, so it was a bit of a light-bulb moment, and from then on I decided to try to pursue a career as a DJ. A little later, a friend asked whether I’d like to try making some techno stuff together, and that became my first record which I released on my label, Advanced, in 1998.
“Luckily for me, it did really well and the phone started ringing with DJ bookings from all over the world and it became a career. After that had been established for a few years, I got to know Gary Numan well and we began working together, which kind of kicked off the second phase of my career.”
DJ to desktop
It was at around the same point that Fenton started DJing that he also discovered the route to desktop music production, although his particular path was not perhaps typical.
“It was my friend Tony Thomas who guided me through my first steps in making music with a computer,” he explains. “I started off using Cool Edit Pro, which later became Adobe Audition, but by then I’d decided to switch to Logic at around version 5, I think. As a Logic user now, some 15 or so years later, I obviously know it inside out and sequencing with a computer is all I’ve ever known. I’m now currently running Logic Pro 10.6.2 on an Apple Mac Pro, with a huge selection of plugins from the likes of Spectrasonics, Native Instruments, Waves, Arturia, FXPansion and Soundtoys.”
With Fenton’s introduction to music production being so computer-based, his studio is now understandably focused around this software setup, with various controllers for both beats and melody production, although there are several choice pieces of hardware – mostly of the synth variety – in there too.
“My MIDI controller is a NI Komplete Kontrol S61 and I also use a NI Maschine Mk3 for making beats,” he reveals. “My audio interface is currently a MOTU 828x, but that’s gonna need expanding soon as I’ve run out of inputs."
“On the MIDI side, my gear goes through a MOTU MIDI Express 128 and I use a PreSonus Faderpoint v2 and an iPad Pro for controlling Logic. Synth wise, I have an Arturia PolyBrute and a MiniBrute 2S (with a new MatrixBrute Noir on order once chips become available!); an Analogue Solutions Leipzig-S, Leipzig v3 and a Vostok Deluxe; an Access Virus Ti2, Waldorf Blofeld Black Keys and an Elektron Analog Keys. I also use an analogue step sequencer by MFB called Urzwerg Pro.
“Effects wise, I use an Eventide Eclipse, a H9 and a Sherman Filterbank 2 for distortion. I don’t use any hardware compressors these days as I give everything to Nathan Boddy, mix engineer extraordinaire, who makes everything sound better. Finally my speakers are PMC 228s, which I love very much, and these are controlled by the Drawmer CMC3 monitor controller.”
Understandably, with a variety of studio demands – from producing Numan, to his own work to composing for TV and film – does Fenton have a typical production ethos or does he simply have to adapt to each project?
“Yes, it really depends on whether I’m working on producing someone or composing for film or TV,” he replies. “If I’m producing someone, I usually start by editing the vocals. I find that once I’ve knocked those into shape, that’s my foundation for building the rest of the track. I’ll usually move on to the drums after that, coming up with beats that work, then go through the track methodically and scientifically, figuring out what kind of bass is needed, what synth sounds work well and so on.
“There’s a lot of experimentation,” he adds, “which usually involves spending a few hours noodling on various bits of kit, hitting record and seeing what happens. I will then try to weave the best stuff into a track and make it work. When I’m composing for film or TV, I generally start by sketching out a few ideas, usually spending a few days experimenting with different sound palettes to see what fits.
"I’ll then go back to the producer or director with some of those ideas and we take it from there. Whether I’m working as a producer or a composer though, it’s important to have a relationship with the person you’re working for, whereby it’s a collaborative process and the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas at an early stage should be encouraged. And overall my philosophy really is: don’t compromise and don’t try to be something you’re not.”
The plugin detail
When it comes to plugins Fenton’s philosophy is to really get in deep with them and sculpt the sound as much as possible, one of his favourites being Soundtoys’ Decapitator. “I find it to be my go-to plugin when I’m looking for some grit, especially on drums, guitars and bass.
"I’ll usually have a couple of kicks going to a bus, one subby and one snappy, sometimes several snares going to another bus, hi-hats and percussion etc going to another, then send those to a drum master bus.
"A lot will have Decapitator on to some degree, even the drum master. As a producer, I find I’m constantly learning new things through experimentation though, so that’s something I try to do a lot.”
Gary Numan has never hidden the fact that he’s a fan of Omnisphere. Is Fenton just as smitten with Spectrasonics’ finest?
“The quality of sounds is ridiculous and it’s a seemingly endless source of inspiration,” he nods. “I’ve been using it for years and I still feel as though I’m just scratching the surface.” Fenton also has one or two other surprises in his plugin arsenal: “Arturia’s Buchla Easel!” he reveals, and explains: “My affection for this synth probably stems from my days as a techno producer, and if I’m searching for something weird, this is a good place to start."
"I was also recommended u-He’s Zebra HZ by Matt Bowdler at The Unfinished, who also produces some inspiring soundsets for it. The GUI is really good and creative sound design is not laborious at all. NI take note!”
Which isn’t to say that the Berlin company don’t get a look in: “I’ve been using Native Instruments’ Reaktor in its various guises for many years. I find it to be my go-to plugin when I’m looking for something unusual. Currently, I’m enjoying the Blocks, FORM and TRK-01 instruments in Reaktor.”
Working with Numan
With Fenton now having produced Numan’s last three successful releases, it’s clear that the pair of them have a solid working relationship. And with Fenton based in the UK and Gary now living in LA, a reasonably streamlined production system with many shared components also helps smooth the process…
“Out of choice, Gary’s kept his setup pretty minimal,” says Ade, “whereas I’m a massive gear whore with a gazillion plugins! However, we both use Logic, and I do make sure that the tools Gary uses in the writing process are also installed on to my system, so any Kontakt libraries or Omnisphere patches for example, always load at my end.”
And what about the process in terms of sending files and flowing ideas?
“Gary sends me a demo and his Logic project containing vocal comps, his Omnisphere and Native Instruments patches, which are more often than not his writing tools, and corresponding MIDI files,” Ade reveals.
“Once I’ve checked everything is in good working order, we’ll have a chat about which direction it should take, but mostly, his demos are fully formed songs in terms of structure, so I already have a pretty good idea what he’s after. I generally start every track by editing the vocals and once I’m reasonably happy I’ve got a good vocal sound, I’ll start to build each layer around the vocal until I’ve got a first version ready.
“We’ve built up a high level of trust,” Fenton continues, “so he allows me the opportunity to experiment with different ideas if I think another approach might work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but he’s always open to me presenting a different idea.
"A good example on Intruder would be The End of Dragons. Gary’s demo was just piano, vocals and a couple of airy pads. It sounded great, but I asked whether we could do two versions, and we began working on something quite tribal, which he really liked, and that’s the version that ended up on the album. We still wanted the piano version to be heard though, so that’s how the ‘Alt’ version of The End Of Dragons ended up on the deluxe version of Intruder.
“In terms of to-ing and fro-ing, yes, there’s lots. If my first version has been approved by Gary as an initial idea, we’ll then go backwards and forwards improving on that version. That might be adding new vocals, guitar, bass, new melodies etc and we keep on going until we’re both happy.
"Sometimes it happens really quickly, like Now And Forever, which I think only took three versions, and sometimes it takes a while, like A Black Sun, where we were going back and forth a lot before finally settling on version nine. That pales into insignificance to Here In The Black from the Splinter album though. It took until v27 until we were happy!”
Finally, how does it feel after all of these years and after Numan’s TOTP performance for Ade to be a part of his comeback?
“That was a light-bulb moment for me in terms of sparking my interest in electronic music, albeit at a young age. I had posters of him on my walls, so to be working with him so closely now is beautiful. I’m so lucky to be in the position I’m in and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for putting his trust in me.”
Gary Numan’s album Intruder is out now. Ade is working on the soundtrack to The Company Of Kings which is out later this year.