In 1977, Gary Numan’s band The Tubeway Army was playing shows at the height of the punk era in London. However, he wasn’t a fan of the violent audiences in the venues at the time, and musically he felt he had arrived at the party a little too late.
When he was about to record what would become the debut Tubeway Army album in 1978, Numan discovered a Minimoog at the studio. At this moment he was inspired to recreate his punk rock material as electronic songs and a new sound was born.
Although the album didn’t have chart success, it convinced Beggars Banquet, the label at the time, to reinvest. Along with his futuristic image portrayal, Gary Numan began to explore Sci-Fi themes in his lyrics, inspired by writers like Philip K. Dick.
It was during this period that he inadvertently produced cult classics like Down In The Park and two number-one hit singles including Are “Friends” Electric? and Cars.
The Gary Numan Sound
Of course, there may have been other bands using synthesizers at the time, but it was the well-executed combination of aesthetics that would, in turn, inspire bands like The Human League to bring more electronically driven sounds to the mainstream.
Let’s take a look at some of the core instruments that created the initial Tubeway Army sound and would later immortalize Gary Numan’s songs in the decades that followed.
If you haven’t heard of the Polymoog, it’s probably because it was overshadowed by polysynths like the Yamaha CS-80 and the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 at the time. Its limited frequency divider architecture means that it doesn’t assign multiple oscillators to voices like other well-known analogue polyphonic synths.
However, the string synthesizer technology used by the Polymoog does allow 71-note polyphony. You can hear its warm expansive sound used extensively on Gary Numan’s Cars where it was used to create the atmospheric pads and anthemic string sounds that feature throughout the song.
You can create similar tones with most modern polysynths, and new instruments like the Arturia Minifreak have the capabilities to do so much more without paying vintage prices.
Minimoog Model D
The Minimoog Model D was first introduced in 1970 and is still revered today as one of the most impactful instruments in music history. Not only is it loved for the distinctive sound of its signature 24dB per octave low-pass filter, but the architecture and layout inspired a revolution in electronic musical instrument design.
Rather than the intimidating modular systems that were available, the Minimoog gave musicians and non-musicians access to advanced synthesis parameters in a very intuitive way. It was this very thinking that inspired Gary Numan’s love for synthesizers, and he used the Minimoog for the famous lead melody on Are “Friends” Electric?
Behringer Model D
ARP responded to the Minimoog with their own user-friendly compact synthesizer in the form of the Odyssey in 1972. Although very basic looking, it’s still very warm and pleasing to the ear and can still produce a wide range of sounds.
The early Odyssey models made use of a 2-pole VCF similar to those found on Oberheim synths. In addition, this two-oscillator synth has duophonic capability, which makes it slightly more versatile.
Another unique feature worth noting is the pitch-bend feature on these early Odysseys was controlled with a knob. You can hear this synth in action on Are “Friends” Electric? where it’s used to create the intermittent syren-like pitch gliding lead.
The Behringer version is capable of producing similar sounds while providing the same overall playing experience.
The dusty-sounding CR-78 was Gary Numan’s first drum machine. It’s an analogue drum machine, which means each of the sounds is created via analogue oscillators and offers limited programmability with its endearing preset rhythm patterns.
Although it’s not really known for thumping drum hits, it’s still been used on well-known tracks like In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins, Heart Of Glass by Blondie, OMD’s Enola Gay, and Soft Cell’s famous Tainted Love cover.
You can hear it distinctly on The Aircrash Bureau from Gary Numan’s second studio album Telekon (1980). Here, the electronic güiro pattern created by the CR-78 provides a steady pulse for the track.
If you’re still after this sound, the TT-78 Beat Bot has a similar tone and offers far more programmability.
Cyclone Analogic TT-78 Beat Bot
Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble
Despite Gary Numan’s affinity for all things electronic, he insisted on live drums, bass, and guitars as the initial foundation of the music. Not only did this give the music a unique feel, but it also made it translate well when performed live.
With the Gibson Les Paul and Fender P-Bass used on the early material, you can hear a phaser effect, as well as the distinctive-sounding Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble pedal which was used on the bass.
This was in fact the very first Boss pedal ever released back in 1976. It was a Bucket Brigade driven pedal with independent chorus and vibrato effects that provides a warm, analogue tone.
The CE-1 might be hard to find at a reasonable price, but the modern CE-5 can still produce great chorus sounds.
What are your favourite instruments and studio gear used by Gary Numan? Please let us know in the comments below!
More about Gary Numan:
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- Polymoog 203a: Vintage Synth Explorer
- Minimoog Model D (1974): Matrix Synth
- ARP Odyssey: Matrix Synth
- Roland CR-78: Wikipedia
- Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble: Amazona