Isolation by post-punk band Joy Division is a prototype goth-style song with music blatantly influenced by Kraftwerk. The intro is an electronic drumbeat followed by a driving bass riff leading into the main body off the music, which is provided by a synthesizer with the drums and the hard, melodic bass line providing the rock edge. The vocalist sings a plaintive, doom-laden song in a droning baritone with a mildly American affectation.
Martin Hannett only ever worked with one engineer, his long-standing partner Chris Nagle, because Hannett's instructions and methods were, by all accounts, often too eccentric for other engineers unfamiliar with Hannett's mode of production to make sense of. Hannett was mainly a hands-on producer who would sometimes come into the studio in the small hours of the morning to work alone on mixes without the input of the band. Nagle would either assist around the studio when Hannett was driving the desk, or work the desk himself while Hannett directed from a horizontal position under the mixing desk. Sometimes Hannett would appear to fall asleep beneath the mixing desk and Nagle, in the absence of anything useful to do, would sit in silence waiting for Hannett to start producing again. Bands who worked with Hannett regularly became accustomed to this.
Hannett was never shy about radically changing the sound of a band, and even changing the way the band performed their songs, particularly with regard to drumming. He works on 24-track tape to give him as much scope as possible to create aural environments for each instrument. The production on Isolation is therefore fairly typical.
The trebly, icy-sounding opening beat on the song, which is a simple boom tat boom tat has been sequenced. The drums sounds are a crude, late-70s electronic approximation of a simple bass/snare pattern. The song, when played live, starts with the bass and has no sequenced beats, although the band do seem to use at least one electronic drum pad a kind of rattling electronic cymbal sound.
The drums form a very important part of this production. Hannett lifts different frequencies from the different drum sounds and sections within the song and treats them in various ways to very specific effects. The sequenced beat was originally used as a metronome for the drummer to play to so that Hannett could utilise his favourite effect delay with mathematical precision. He may have started experimenting with this click track and as a result decided to leave the treated metronome playing through the whole track in the final mix.
During the first verse, the drummer (Steven Morris) plays the same simple bass/snare beat as the electronic click. Hannett lifts the mid frequencies of this beat and feeds it through a delay set up to double the rate of the beat, creating a rapid clipclopclipclop sort of sound, like coconut shells. He then puts the resulting sound through a pitch shifter, which is tweaked slowly up and down causing the harmonics of the percussive sound to wander up and down the scale. The result is recorded and dubbed repeatedly alongside the rest of the song, being brought in and out of the mix in swells with the synthesizer crescendos at certain points when the singer (Ian Curtis) is not performing the verses, and continuing long after the main drum track has got into full swing. In fact this new effect and the harsh rattling of the electronic cymbal that Morris is playing is allowed to dominate the drum mix at many points throughout the song. Hannett obviously takes a great deal of interest in Morris's electronic percussion using various hissing sounds and percussive noises throughout the mix.
(Hannett is not interested in recreating powerful rock tracks, but in providing individual atmospheres for each individual sound often at the detriment of rock guitars leaving final mixes sounding hollow and emasculated but much more atmospheric and spacious. This song normally has some powerful, jangling rhythm guitar when the song peaks during the last chorus, but this is left out in favour of icy synths, frantic drumming and harsh electronic percussion.)
The vocal treatment may have been inspired by the drum treatment. Hannett once again uses the pitch-shifter and the delay but to different effect. The delay is very short, and the pitch-shifter is set to raise the voice only fractionally, but the chain is then fed back into itself (at a lower level) causing a kind of electronic reverb, which drifts up in pitch before it disappears. The effect is not so strong as to muddy the sound, but has enough presence to add a very strange, alien reverberation.
The bass is very strong in the mix. Although it is not playing particularly high notes, there are no deep bass frequencies in the sound, and it is EQ'd in the same way that it is played, as a lead instrument.
The synthesizer in this track is a crude multitimbral string sound. When played low in the scale it provides an ominous, booming string section. When played higher in the scale it sounds cold and shrill. Hannett makes use of the two extremities bringing in the booming low strings to punctuate the repetition of the single-word chorus (Isolation!) and then using two layers of synth to flesh out the instrumental parts of the song like an electronic orchestra while treated drums and electronic percussion rattle and hiss around it. The song finally fades out using a diminishing delayed feedback on the last beat of the song and remains absolutely silent for a few seconds before the diminishing section is reversed getting louder and louder before stopping dead on the last beat. This would have been achieved by recording the last beat of the mix through the delay unit while it was feeding back into itself at a quieter level than the original signal. This recording would then have been played backwards and dubbed onto the end of the mix. Dramatic close to side 1.
This was the most intriguing of 12 album tracks recorded over a 12 day period, only 9 of which were mixed at the time due to limited studio budget so as amazing as the production is, it is unlikely that Hannett dwelt over the mix of this song at any great length. In an interview with the producer many years later he expresses regret that he did not have longer to polish the songs and experiment further with his new digital effects.