Front 242: Most-used Synths, Drum Machines and Sounds
EBM legends and their gear!
Front 242: a cult electronic band famous for pioneering the EBM Genre and their role in defining the sound of Industrial music. We take a look at their most-used synths, drum machines and sounds in each era.
Originally published on Gearnews.de by Moogulator.
Front 242: The Early Days
Let’s wind back to the beginning, to the days of “Principles”, one of the Brussels-based band’s first songs. Principles still showed heavy influences from Cabaret Voltaire and a sound that was dominated by analogue synthesizers. This analogue sound permeated onto Front 242’s debut album in 1982 “Geography”.
Legendary synths like Roland’s System 100 and 100m, Yamaha’s CS-40M and CS-15 were dominant on many of the tracks. Moog’s Source synthesiser makes an appearance with its preset sound “Operating Tracks”. This lesser-known synth is comparable to Moog Prodigy and was heavily used by Depeche Mode in its early days. As for drums, it was mainly the well-known sounds of a TR-808 that made early 242 so groovy.
The band opted for a considerably heavier sound on follow-up records “No Comment” and “Offical Version”. A more aggressive sound was the result of the band’s conscious choice to switch instruments. The analogue synths were out and in came sample-based instruments and dynamic FM-Sounds.
In this second and third phase, samplers became the main instruments of Front 242. The band not only triggered loops and one-shots of their synths with the samples, but also vocal snippets and glitch sounds. Everything was played on an Emulator II.
As for drum sounds, Front 242 opted for the bone-dry sounds of the E-Mu Drumulator. Many of the accompanying synth sounds came from the FM synths of the day like the DX7 and later the TG-77.
Live Performances: The man behind the scenes
Performances of Front 242 in the early days turned heads, as the band’s mastermind and its producer, Daniel Bressanutti, mainly performed behind the stage and on the side. The other members, vocalist Jean-Luc De Meyer, shouter and drummer Richard 23, and sample mangling maniac Patrick Codenys made up for Bressanuttis’s absence.
Behind the stage, Bressanutti operated a variety of machines, synths and samplers. There were multi-track recorders, a Mac, and a TG-77 among other synths. Later, he changed towards a more portable setup with machines like the MFB Synth II or the Korg R3.
The 90s and 00s
The advent of Techno and Detroit’s influence on electronic music subsequently influenced Front 242 as well. From the 90s and onwards The Emulator II disappeared. The likes of the Nord Lead, Korg M1 and Korg Z1 could all be seen live. Admittedly, it is not entirely clear if these synths were just used them as controllers to trigger sounds on a sampler backstage….
If you take a listen to the cryptically titled “06:21:03:11 UP EVIL” and “05:22:09:12 OFF” albums, then you’ll hear the key addition of the Korg Wavestation. On these later records, the band sampled not just synths but also guitar sounds. Front 242 still did it their way, which sounds dramatically different from contemporaries’ Ministry, Young Gods or bands in the Nu Metal genre.
On the “Technoiden Tour” that accompanied the “Live/Code” album, a human drummer with an actual drum set was added to the live iteration of Front 242 in 1994. This change was received well by some fans while others struggled with the second big sonic shift in the band’s career.
Front 242 Today
One of the prominent synths in today’s live setup of Front 242 is the Roland FA-06 Universal Rompler synth. In addition, a computer with a DAW and the lesser-known Roland Gaia is used by Daniel B. during performances. Many of the sounds and samples of the FA-06 are sufficient for the band’s songs. Other sounds are simply triggered on the computer through the 06. In addition, I have spotted Daniel still using a Korg R3 during live performances, which is the successor of the MS2000 and the Mikrokorg.
Today, only the Microkorg XL is available if you’re looking for an authentic replication of the sound engine. The Mircokorg XL is a versatile synth and the little brother of the Korg Radias. Judging from pictures of Daniel B’s solo project studio Nothingbutnoise, a couple of Virus synths are also in the arsenal of Front 242.
Front 242’s most-used machines
1. Emu Emulator II
The sampler has heavily influenced both EBM and Front242. Also, its workflow had a big impact on the way musicians created songs. From vocal snippets like “hey poor, you don’t have to be poor anymore” to noises and explosions, the sampler was a core element of Front 242’s sounds. The band often sampled from news clips or old historical footage to add another semantic layer to their chaotic sounds.
Sometimes they even replaced drum sounds on the Emulator II with all kinds of samples ranging from everyday noises to melodic instruments the like Cello sound in “Circling Overland”. And then they played a drum groove with these samples! Abrupt shouts from triggered samples like “Sweat” or “React” also put the Emulator II front and centre in Front 242’s music.
The Emulator II still exists as a software emulation as part of Arturia’s V-Collection.
2. Yamaha DX-7 / TG-77
Starting from “No comment” the dynamic FM sounds of the DX7 are all over the songs from Front 242 which was later joined by a TG-77; as a result, FM sounds have become synonymous with early EBM. Most of the sounds, melodies, and harmonies were played, not sequenced. Front 242, like many contemporaries, did not own a sequencer.
As the DX-7 is long gone, comparable synths both in sound and sonic possibilities are the Korg Opsix and Yamaha Montage.
3. Roland System 100 / 100m
Both modular synths, with the 100m being semi-modular, share a distinct sound. And both Roland System Synthesizers were heavily used by Front 242. Today, Roland’s System 100 Plugout, System 1, System 1m and System 8 each bring sound engines with them that make many early Front 242 sounds possible. In addition, the 100m can be found in the System 500 format as well.
4. E-Mu Drumulator
The distinct drum sound of the early times of “No Comment” comes from the legendary Emu Drumlator; you’ll hear this drum machine on just about every track on “No Comment”. The Drumulator’s sounds are one of the core feature sounds of EBM.
Additional Synths to achieve Front 242’s signature sound
Sounds from the Off / Up Evil phase:
Sounds from the “Geography” record:
More about Front 242:
- Front 242 official page
- More sound-alikes
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- Front 242's debut album included the breakthrough track "U-Men" and featured a predominantly analogue sound.: Alfa Matrix/Gearnews
- Bandcamp Live offers artists a streaming solution integrated into the platform.: Bandcamp
superb article. been researching this topic for a long time and so delighted to find a guide about it here.
just one gear that was not mentioned:
E-mu Procussion (Pro/Cussion) — a drum/percussion sound module.
for System100m sounds:
(a well reviewed Kontakt based VST instrument)
Julian Schmauch and Moogulator, nice gear history article. Thank you! While I’m still waiting for actual gear news, it’s looks like mostly sale news happens. Beside affiliate links, this resource contains a lot of inspirational information. Keep it going!
There would have been no front without a sequencer. The Roland MC4 in their early days, just look at their early video’s to see it. The EII sampler has a great sequencer. The EIII that was used since end of eighties improved on this. The Korg MS20 featured heavily on the Geography album. Not sure about the Yamaha’s.
Be sure they used Yamaha’s . Open the booklet on the Geography reissue cd and you see them blinking . I was at the gig they played with the Geography rerelease in Aarschot years ago and Patrick C had a Yamaha CS40M on stage . Dirk Bergen used a midi controller .
More posts like this. Front Line Assembly is another one.
Absolutely! And the Young Gods, Skinny Puppy too. FLA put out a really good album recently.
No mention of the super influential band Portion Control?
Good to see the old-school Industrial fans in the comments!
With any article, there’s only so much space available and in an article about Front 242, we obviously had to concentrate on 242.
However, it’s been great to see how many fans of Industrial/EBM there are out there. I’m sure we’ll have more article on the theme!
The 80s bands of this style had a point in most of the stuff they made. With 242, there was and still is a shadowy underground savvy about the band’s material that keeps it still interesting. You kind of knew what they were documenting but rarely was it specifically naming its subject matter. This leaves the tunes still interesting to listen to today. Front By Front, 33 years old, but there’s still nothing else that has the feel of that album. That’s why these early bands have a lot of interest still. Check out Rabies by Skinny Puppy, another classic album from the same year.
Yes they talk not very much about this British band .
I’m not saying Front 242 is British I was talking about the band Portion Control .
I just found this blog and have high hopes for it to continue. Keep up the great work, its hard to find good ones. I have added to my favorites.
My all time favourite electronic band. What a great article. An FA-06, as the band have always said, it’s what you do with it. Seen them live a few times and they’re great. Everybody who’s really into electronic music knows this band, but they rarely get a mention outside of that world. Thanks a lot for this article!
They used other synths also . I noticed years ago two Dave Smith Evolvers on the P.a. system Roland Juno D on stage U ventury lacense modular . PPG . E-MU Procussion and many more .
The first time I saw 242 in SF (1989) they used a Tascam 238 8-track cassette unit for all of the backing tracks(!!!) – but it sounded amazing
I love this freaking article!
Finding out about the gear a favorite band used is like a deep hunger satisfied.
I wrote a long detailed post a few minutes ago. then I switched to my YouTube page link to copy and ZANG! I closed this freaking page and lost it all.
The main points were that I was completely blown away to find out they went digital FM (by the way, the tiny Korg FM and the FM-2 are super cheap modules to get an instant Yamaha DX sounds.
And I guess the only other statement was that I have (and love) a Yamaha SY-77, the keyboard version of the TG. And FLA also use a TG-77.
Oh, and if you want nearly exact analogue modeled 808 sounds I have tht TR-8S (I had a real 808 in the 90’s so I do have a realistic knowledge of both.)
thanks for reading and Id love to hear other poster’s gear list.
[holy schneikies! somehow my original post was saved in my book mark. sorry to repeat. I hope the authors allow two. if not I think you should post this one. thanks in advance]
I always feel a deep gear spotting hunger’s sweet satisfaction when I get a definitive list of gear. the only things I was ever to pick out by ear was the 808 and the drumulator.
I had no idea they went digital! can’t bloody believe it. I was convinced they were mostly analog. apparently I was mistaken.
I have a Yamaha SY-77 which is the keyboard version of the TG-77 (Front Line Assembly also used the TG-77). I had a mint condition 808 in the mid to late 90’s. I went all digital for a short while, sold a ton of analog stuff including the 808 and my 606 (my first drum machine) for $800.00 at the time. now they go for obscene amounts of money (mine even had the two plastic layover sheets you could put on the face as a kickstart manual) oh how I kick myself for selling that. but I have a TR-8s now, which to me sounds indistinguishable.
Anyway, not trying to be narcissistic, just love talking about gear.
my disappointment concerning my ear was that I was almost convinced they used a 909 as well as the somewhat rare and mostly unknown Akai XR-10 drum machine. has that same dry punchy sound like “Gripped By Fear.” (own one of those as well as the XR-20 I never hear about. it actually has Glitch kits and patterns!)
anyone else please share your gear list and stories.
I just love this freaking article! Kudos!
I recently discovered this blog and am really optimistic about its future. It’s difficult to find nice ones, so keep up the good work. I’ve included it in my favorites.