Keyboard Master Howard Jones Engages in Hi-Res Audio Practices

To borrow a song title, things can only get better for Howard Jones. Known for such indelible synth-driven ’80s hits like “What Is Love?,” “No One Is to Blame,” “New Song,” and “Everlasting Love,” Jones has focused his efforts in recent years on his inherent talents as a songwriter and arranger, not to mention his knack for creating multimedia-driven live experiences. All of his musical gifts are on fine display with Engage (dtox music and arts), a two-disc CD/DVD set that features a vibrant 5.1 mix on DVD by Robbie Bronnimann, Jones’ longtime sound designer. Bronnimann utilizes the full power of the surround field with the way-low-down sub-channel attack that drives “The Walk,” the all-encompassing effect of having five hands work the ivories on “5 Pianos,” and the channel-changing mesh of pulsing bass and sizzling keyboards that invigorates “The Human Touch.” Explains Jones about the quite engaging 38-minute set, “‘5 Pianos’ is instrumental, and very much influenced by Steve Reich. It’s five pianos with repeated patterns that evolve and combine in different ways. That’s where we have the big piano on the front-projection screen, where people can play the keyboard with their fluorescent gloves. There’s a ballet piece, which is quite classically influenced, and the end piece is more contemporary dance. It’s a real mix, but it all takes you on a journey.”

Jones, 60, and I connected across the Pond to discuss the Engage project, the possibility of future high-resolution remixes of his storied catalog, and his thoughts on vintage analog gear. Jones is one man who knows how to put his dream into action.

Mike Mettler: I’m very intrigued by Engage. The DVD was filmed at your 2014 performance in Somerset, England, and you recently debuted the show in the States on the other coast in Los Angeles [on February 27 at Saban Theater]. Tell me your thought process behind putting it all together.

Howard Jones: I was thinking to myself, “What is that people really, really enjoy these days in terms of music?” It’s the live shows that people really remember and get excited about. So I wanted to start thinking about music from the point of view of a live show, using great visuals with very dramatic music, and include all of the things that have been important to me — classical music, pop music, cinema, contemporary dance, and ballet — all underpinned by philosophy, which is what I’ve always been passionate about. I wanted to combine all of these things and build in the idea that the audience would have a part to play.

Mettler: From what I’ve seen on the DVD, it’s a very audience-interactive show.

Jones: That’s right. I was thinking, “How can we do that in a contemporary way?” We’ve developed an app for smartphones that people can have open during the show, and we actually broadcast it from the stage to reflect what you’re seeing on the screens. You can have your own personal taste of it. You can hold your phone up and look at it and actually have a connection with what’s going on onstage. There are also makeup artists in the foyer who can put the fluorescent makeup on people and customize their clothing, and you can put on fluorescent gloves for the gigantic keyboard that we show [during “5 Pianos”]. The app can also control the flashlight on your phone, so it can pulse in time with the music. It’s taking the visual element out into the audience. And then when you take it home, you’ll have clips of a song that’s included in the show.

It’s early days of what we can do, in my opinion. We’re testing the water. I see this developing into a much bigger thing as we learn what people in the audience really want to do with it. Will they watch their phones, or hold them up? It’s going to be really fascinating to see what happens. It’s fun to have that interactive element and do something different.

Mettler: With a project like this, do you have to rethink how well your sound comes across to the audience?

Jones: Yeah. It’s a huge priority to me, having good sound live. We spend a lot of time working on the sound design. For instance, you really want to feel the sub-bass in the Engage show. And other things need to be exaggerated, the sort of thing you can’t do on your earphones at home. Most of the effort goes into the quality of the sound you can achieve, especially with electronic instruments.

Mettler: How does the sub-bass affect the audience?

Jones: At the start of the Engage show, there’s a fragmented sound that draws them into the arena, and then we really grab people’s attention. We use a lot of sub-bass there to really shake the room, something you just couldn’t achieve listening to a CD. (chuckles heartily) Live, we can pump more energy into the subs.

Mettler: How low do you go — under 10 Hz?

Jones: I don’t think we’re going anywhere that’s dangerous to human health. (both laugh)

Mettler: Have you thought about setting up Engage as a live surround experience, with speakers throughout the venue?

Jones: I’d like to do that, but we decided to stick with stereo. It depends on where you sit or stand for you to really appreciate it. I went to see The Beatles’ LOVE thing in Las Vegas where you’ve got speakers in the seats, and it’s fabulous. Absolutely amazing. But you can’t really achieve that in a normal rock & roll venue, so I still feel the best sound is stereo, unless you build the venue specifically for surround. You go with what you’ve got.

Mettler: So you’re definitely a fan of surround sound, then.

Jones: Yes. We’ve mixed Engage in 5.1, and we’ve really taken advantage of it. It’s not like recreating the live ambience of it. We actually mixed it in 5.1, with it circling and coming at you at different angles. It’s surprising to me how few people actually have a good 5.1 system at home — or even one that’s set up properly — but we still think it’s worth the effort putting the time in to create those kind of mixes.

Mettler: Do you have other surround mixes you’ve heard that you think are pretty interesting?

Jones: I like what BT has done with surround [on This Binary Universe, 2006]. I’ve worked with my friend Robbie [Bronnimann], who does all my mixes, for about 20 years, and he’s got the most amazing studio with a 5.1 setup. It’s the best quality you can get. When you hear mixes in that environment and then you go back to stereo, it just seems too flat.

Mettler: I know exactly what you mean. I’ve heard some fantastic 5.1 mixes of ’80s material from some of your contemporaries — Tears for Fears [1985’s Songs From the Big Chair] and Simple Minds [1984’s Sparkle in the Rain]. Maybe you should do [1984’s] Human’s Lib in surround.

Jones: It’s something I am very interested in doing. One of the things we did with the Engage project is we had some studio days where we told people how the whole project was put together. We sat people in the middle, in the sweet spot of the 5.1, and played them the whole album like that. It was amazing to see how captivated they were by it. It’s a different experience.

Mettler: You’re engaging people in a lot of different ways so that you have their full attention both visually and aurally, just like the LOVE show does.

Jones: Yes, that’s right. The audience is invited to be really involved in it, and you feel much more like a part of the whole thing. To present 38 minutes of new music to people without it being released [in 2014] was a risk. But people said they enjoyed that part of the show as much as they did the familiar stuff at the end. The show starts with Engage, then there’s a break, then there’s a retrospective from all parts of my output [the latter of which doesn’t appear on the Engage CD/DVD].

Mettler: Is releasing your material in high-resolution, 96/24 files or above something that’s important to you?

Jones: It is important. Certainly with any kind of acoustic work, you really notice it. We recorded the whole of the last album, [2009’s] Ordinary Heroes, in 96/24, but we’ve never been able to release it in that form. That album is the one I’d like people to hear at that resolution. People need to hear the original sound quality, which is really something.

When you’re making music in the studio, you’re so used to hearing it at high quality, the way you’re supposed to hear it. And then when it’s on CD or MP3, it’s a shock. I just recorded a young artist’s vocal and guitar, and when you hear it on MP3, the difference is just shocking. We need to try and reverse that, and show people that things can sound amazing.

I bought a Pono player as soon as I knew about it, with the idea of promoting the idea of high resolution. Actually, Robbie’s got that at the moment. He uses it for checking all of his mixes in the car, and things like that. Apparently, there’s not a huge amount of 96/24 stuff available, but I’m into it.

Mettler: That’s great to hear you have a Pono player. I have a Tom Petty signature model myself. The Pono store is finally starting to add more hi-res files, but you can also get a lot of them from the likes of HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds’ Super HiRez sites. And I’m really glad you feel hi-res is something we should aspire to as listeners.

Jones: Absolutely, yes. We have to really try and hear music in as good a quality as possible.

Mettler: You have two solo piano records that would be perfect for hi-res, considering how the character of your playing, the overall resonance, and the way notes hang in the air sometimes would be better realized.

Jones: Yes, yes. Hmm, well, you’ve definitely encouraged me to keep thinking that way.

Mettler: That’s what I’m here for. (both laugh) And if we stretch back into your catalog, the way you were pioneering with the Roland Juno-60 and the bass and flute sounds on the Yamaha DX7 digital synth on your ’80s recordings — those would all be interesting to hear in hi-res.

Jones: Ah, thanks. We did remaster them [in 2010]. But when they was mastered for vinyl, you had to make compensations. The remastering we did came out well. Now that we’re talking about it, when we had the analog masters transferred to digital, we didn’t do it at 192, but we did it at 96. I’ll check that with Robbie, but there were huge hard drives of stuff. (chuckles)

Mettler: To shift gears to the electronic side of things, what do you think of the state of EDM these days? You’re a big influence in that world.

Jones: Everything’s so fragmented, so it’s very hard to have an overview, isn’t it? So many things going on in different areas. But I do think it’s interesting that Moog are remaking their great big synths. People are just desperate to buy them. And then there’s the modular synth movement, where you plug in all these elements together. People are really into that analog world.

Mettler: Well, to wrap up with Engage — I know you’ve talked about bringing it to New York, but perhaps you could also do some kind of Las Vegas residency. Maybe LOVE can go dark a couple nights a week, and you could slide right in there.

Jones: (laughs heartily) That would be great. I’ve thought Engage would be perfect for that sort of thing. And I could evolve the show if there was more of a budget to extend it. I’ll leave room for that.

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site,