Studios Ferber was a name that kept popping up as I did interviews around Paris, so I felt it would be worthwhile to check it out. Founded in the early 70s, it’s one of the few large-scale studios in the city that remain, amidst multiple close-downs. After emailing the studio manager, I was connected to Jean Lamoot, an engineer who works out of the Ferber complex in his own studio, and he invited me over for a chat about his career and work with French, British and African artists.
You’ve mentioned in a past interview how studios in the 80s would offer internships to teenagers even if they hadn’t been to audio school. That kind of thing doesn’t happen nowadays. Do you think that change has created any problems for aspiring engineers?
I think the main issue today is that if you can’t afford to go to audio school, then you’re left in a difficult situation. Back in the 80s, you could start off as a tea-boy and work your way up. You got exposed to different ways of working, whilst also learning the technical things that you would have learned at audio school anyway. In fact, you’d save time by being a tea boy at a studio rather than going to audio school, since you’d be exposed to real recording sessions, with professional engineers and paying clients. Even if your main job was to empty the ashtray, after some months you’d still have learned some important things about recording. But today it seems like you have to be functional as an engineer in order to even get an internship.
Many of the audio school graduates I meet seem to think they’re already professional engineers, which to an extent they are, but they don’t have much direct experience with pressure situations. If you haven’t worked under such circumstances, you won’t be confident when those moments actually arrive. For example, when I started engineering, we used analog tape and limited track-counts. If you wanted to record a guitar solo, but had run out of tracks, you had to search for a blank area on the tape of a used track and punch the solo in there. But if you made a mistake and didn’t punch out on time, then you might overwrite another recording. But you won’t learn how to handle situations like that in audio school.
Where did you do your first internship?
At Studio Marcadet. A guy called Bruno Ruban was renting “Studio C” long-term, and he let me intern there. But it ended up being too expensive for him, and he decided to leave after eight months. But during my time at Marcadet, I met an engineer who was about to start working at Artistic Palace Studios in Boulogne-Billancourt, and he offered me an assistant position. So I went to work there in 1989.
There were four studios at Artistic Palace, and by working with their clients in all kinds of different situations, I learned how to be a proper engineer. After two years of being an assistant at the studio, I was promoted to chief assistant.
Once my time at Artistic Palace was over, I decided to become a freelance engineer, and did a lot of work at Studio Miraval in the south of France with artists like Level 42 and Alain Bashung. I was very excited about that transition, and thought I would learn new engineering skills by working with older engineers on albums like Level 42’s “Staring At The Sun“. But actually, I found out that I already knew most of what I needed to know as an engineer. The older engineers didn’t have some advanced way of working, and it made me more confident as a professional to see that I had already learned the important aspects of my job by the time I got to Miraval. I was actually held in higher regard by the other engineers and labels after I had worked on “Staring At the Sun”. Level 42 were a famous British band at the time, and having assistant credits on their album made me look like a qualified professional, so my colleagues and clients had more confidence in me after that, and it gave me more liberty when working on future projects.
Having worked at Marcadet, Artistic Palace and Miraval, how would you rank your experiences there? Which one taught you the most?
I can’t really say that one was “better” than the other, but I can compare the experiences for what they taught me.
I knew almost nothing when I started at Marcadet, and had to learn things from scratch; I didn’t even know how to connect the cables to a patchbay or the API desk. Marcadet was where I learned how a recording studio operates. Because of my time there, I was able to be functional as an assistant once I moved on to Artistic Palace.
Artistic Palace had multiple studios and a lot of clients, so working there was a very instructive experience. It was also the first studio in France to have a 60-channel Neve V-series console, and I learned how to engineer using that. But learning on a Neve made things harder when I started to freelance at other studios like Miraval, who had an SSL. I had tons of headroom on the Neve channels, which meant I could control my saturation levels easily. But the headroom on the SSL was a lot less, so if I moved the fader even a little bit upwards, the saturation would kick in. It was a completely different way to work that I had adjust to.
If classic Neve consoles have a lot of headroom and don’t saturate easily, why do you think they became popular for recording drums?
Probably because of the components in the channels. Old-school Neve consoles don’t have channel compressors or VCA, which can suppress the dynamics of a sound, and drums need dynamics. The Neve pre-amp also had a unique sound to it. Other desks also have motorized faders, which affects the sound you get from them.
What was the first project you worked on where you felt accomplished as an engineer?
The first album I engineered on my own without having to imitate someone else’s style, using my own taste and judgement, was Le Valentins’ self-titled album.
Were you only involved in the recording of that album, or other things also?
I flew to LA to have it mastered with Bernie Grundman. He did a fantastic job, and my experience with him taught me the importance of working with a good mastering engineer. We started working at 10am and he listened to the whole album until the afternoon, taking notes and making comments on the mix. As he listened, he would make marks on the half-inch tape that indicated where he would make changes later. Then at 2pm he said, “Alright Jean, I’m going to start mastering now. Why don’t you go have some fun in LA, and I’ll see you tomorrow “. So I came by and picked up the masters from him the next day. I flew back to Paris and took the CD to one of my friends who had a nice hifi system. First I placed Tears For Fears as a reference, and then played Les Valentins, and it sounded great.
If a mix is 80 percent of what it has to be, for whatever reason, do you think the mastering engineer can compensate for the remaining 20 percent?
It depends on the mastering engineer. In 2005 I worked with Chris Athens, who’s a genius that made my mixes sound better than they were. I remember being dissatisfied with a few of my mixes that I’d already sent him and I would say, “Chris, let me work on the mixes some more and send you different versions “, and he’d say, “Don’t worry, let me see what I can do “. And his masters would sound amazing. So the missing 20 percent was compensated because of how skilled he was.
I’ve heard that you started using Pro Tools in 1994. How did you learn about it so early?
Early in my career, I saw the progress that digital technology was making because of the different studios I worked at, and I didn’t want to miss out on it. Two of the guys who handled broadcasting at Canal Plus contracted me to work with them on a project for the channel, and they had a four-track Pro Tools system installed there, which I got to work with. I also ended up becoming friends with one of them and we later formed a band together. He was using an early version of Logic and the first Pro Tools audio card, so we worked on that for two years and I learned a lot about digital production. I would later make a record with Brigitte Fontaine, which involved digital production as well. And then came my work with Alain Bashung on his album, “Fantaisie Militaire“. He wanted an engineer who knew how to record direct-to-disk, because he would record vocals, guitar and drums to tape, then transfer it into Pro Tools where he would delete the vocals and send the instrumentation to someone else to re-arrange. So the versions we got back were different than the original. Then Alain would say, “I want the verse of this arrangement and the chorus of that arrangement. Let’s combine them “. So Pro Tools was needed to make that album; it would have been impossible otherwise.
There were only sixteen tracks in Pro Tools at the time, but Alain and I wanted more than 30, so we had to sync two systems up, which was advanced at the time. I also believe “Fantaisie Militaire” was one of the first albums to be made completely with Pro Tools.
Was it mastered in Pro Tools as well?
Was there any compromise to using early versions of Pro Tools? Did it affect the sound of the final outcome?
Yes it did. We first recorded to two-inch tape and the original recordings had lots of sub-bass in them, but when I transferred them to Pro Tools, the sub-bass disappeared, which was annoying. But we just had to live with it. I was frustrated, but I preferred the flexibility offered by Pro Tools over things fixed on tape. We could rearrange the songs much easier, rather than having to splice and edit the tape. I think the loss of bass happened because the converters weren’t good at the time, but the current HDX system doesn’t have that problem anymore.
Have you found that digital workstations offer any other advantages, apart from the ease of editing?
I think digital technology is also useful from an economic perspective. It allows me to have my small studio without having to pay much for gear. I use Pro Tools with my TC Electronic Mastering 6000. I have four of those, and they all have stereo inputs. So eight tracks go out of Pro Tools and into each of them. I’m very happy with how it works. I also love the converters they have, so I use it to bounce my mixes to tape as well.
By using a DAW, I also have instant recall. I can pull up a mix from three years ago and still work on it, and because recording budgets have been slashed, I can accept mixing projects for three albums and cycle through them in the morning, afternoon and evening. I can’t do that with analog gear. To work solely with analog at a place like Studios Ferber , it’s going to cost you €1000 per day in “Studio A”, which means people won’t book it for long periods. But I would rather have a month’s worth of work from people who pay less, and digital technology makes that possible.
Does someone who learned how to engineer on tape and analog gear have any skills that an audio school graduate might not have? What can you do that they can’t?
Well, I can covert the workflow used for an analog environment to Pro Tools. But it’s not only a question of analog versus digital; it’s also a question of experience, as someone who’s worked for 30 years on over 140 records in all kinds of situations. Sometimes I work in commercial studios, but I’ve also rented regular rooms to record in. I might be working on a tight schedule in a place like Bamako, Mali where I only have sixteen channels and three good mics, but I still have to get the job done. So as an engineer, you need to be able to come up with solutions even in extreme situations. Being a good engineer means being able to get a good sound even with an average setup. When you go to audio school, you don’t really learn how to do that.
I’ve read that you grew up in different African countries like Mali, Rwanda and Burkina Faso. During that time, did you have any experiences that later helped you as an engineer and producer of African music?
That question reminds me of when Salif Keita once asked me, “Jean, you’re a Frenchman, so how do you know how to mix African music to sound good? “, and I said, “Probably because I lived in Africa from five to fifteen years old, and I learned first-hand how the production should sound like. It’s part of my culture too, and I just have to translate what I feel into a good mix”.
My parents worked as hotel directors in Mali in the 70s, and there used to be an in-house band that played Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights in the hotel club. On Sundays they’d play near the swimming pool instead, and Europeans, Lebanese and Africans from the town would come to hear them and dance. I was always fascinated by the music, and used to have a cassette player that I would record them on. I placed it near the band as they played and would listen to the tape afterwards. Sometimes I’d pick up too much of the guitar amp, and so I had to move the recorder to a better spot next time. This was my first experience with recording, although I didn’t know it at the time. But I think it informed my taste for how I would mix and engineer in the future.
Singer-songwriters are a common type of musician in the West – solo vocalists with a guitar or piano. In Africa, it seems to be less about solo acts and more about live bands with many instruments, as seen with Afrobeat music. What have you learned as an engineer by working with that kind of band setup?
The kind of groups you’re talking about like to rehearse a lot, and they really know what they’re playing when it comes time to record, so I have to listen during the rehearsal and start to plan how to capture their sound. Sometimes I realize that I won’t be able to record all the things I want because there aren’t always enough mics or inputs. In situations like that, you have to learn how to record a drum kit with just three microphones, because you might need the rest for other percussion.
And how do you manage your microphone placement in those situations?
It depends on the room. As an engineer, you know that the bass amp has to be isolated from the drum kit because of mic bleed, but if you place it too far away then it creates a delayed sound for the drummer to play along to during the recording. So you have to do what you think is best given the situation.
The mixing process actually begins when you start placing your microphones, so you have to work backwards in your mind towards the mix when you mic an instrument.
You mentioned having good mics versus bad mics. What do you do in situations where you only have a few good ones?
I’ll use the good one on the singer (laughs). If I have second good one, I’ll use it as a drum overhead. But I say “good” or “bad” mic in a loose sense. What’s a “bad mic”? An SM57? The SM57 is actually a great mic in my opinion. So “bad mic” to me really means a “damaged mic”.
I remember recording Kassé Mady Diabate, and there was no more space for the guitar player. But I had a little Marshall amp that cost €15 which I connected him to in the kitchen. I used some cheap mic to record it, but sound was perfect, and the guitarist thought it was better than the sound he normally got on his own amp.
How do you manage in terms of renting studios when you’re in Mali? Do they have any notable ones there?
I have two places in Mali where I can record: Salif’s studio, where he has Pro Tools, good mics and pre-amps. There’s also Studio Bogolan, which have a nice room. So I use those, and since studios in Mali don’t charge as much as European ones, it’s affordable.
Percussion sounds play a big part in a lot of African music. Do most of the bands you record use drum kits or indigenous percussion instruments?
They use both. But when it comes to drums, my biggest challenge is not the recording, but rather to find good drum kits, which can be hard. I generally have to rent them from people who don’t maintain them well. But even then, the final outcome depends on the drummer. If you can’t find a good drummer, then forget about recording drums altogether. I remember recording a bad-sounding drum set with a great drummer, and it sounded fantastic because of how we played it.
Let’s talk a bit about Studio Ferbers. What can you tell me about this place?
It’s been around since 1973. The creator, René Ameline, has passed away, but he worked on a lot of famous French disco recordings in the 70s. The live room here sounds fantastic. For all the studios I’ve been too, I haven’t seen another one like it in the world. It’s never moved from it’s original location, and is still made of the original wood it was built with, which is the basis of it’s sound.
Ferber is made up of “Studio A”, “Studio B” and ten smaller studios for people like myself who rent them monthly. My room is an exception though, because I own it.
And what are the rates at Studios Ferber?
“Studio A” costs €1000 per day, including an assistant, but without an engineer. I don’t know the price of “Studio B” because Renaud Letang pretty much uses it as his room now, and he works there full-time.
Tell me about your studio room. I see a lot of stone walls here. How does that affect your sound? And what setup do you use?
I can record drums, guitars, bass and vocals in here, and I get a really nice sound from the room. Even though the walls are made of stone, they don’t give off any unpleasant reflections. The drummers I work with normally brings their own kits, and even though I have a Vox AC10, guitarists usually brings their own amp too. If I’m going to record a pianist however, I have an old Klein that we can use if they want.
For pre-amps, I use the Focusrite Red 1 Quad, which I really like.
For a DAW controller, I use the TC Electronic Icon, which is connected to Pro Tools.
I don’t know see any analog compressors or EQs anywhere.
I don’t use analog gear for mixing anymore, since I have everything I need in-the-box. But if I work with a client who has the budget to rent Ferber or another studio, then I’m ready to work with those tools.
Let’s talk about engineering. Which one of the following would you say is more important for capturing a good recording: a microphone, a pre-amp or a converter?
If you’re only recording one sound, then I would say the pre-amp is the most important. I would prefer to record an SM57 on a good pre-amp than a U87 on a bad pre-amp. The converter matters as well, but you can still work with one bad converter if the rest of them are good quality. However, if you’re using a console that has bad converters on every channel, then you’re in trouble. But the difference between a good and bad pre-amp is day and night, so I would prioritize that.
What about the brand of a microphone versus the placement of the microphone? Which one is more important?
I think it’s the mic placement. If I have to choose between someone placing an expensive mic in a bad spot and myself placing a cheap mic in a good spot, I’ll take the latter. That said, I don’t mind lo-fi sounds that come from cheap mics. When I mix, I trash some of the sounds anyway, so I’m not precious about things like that. My way of distinguishing sounds from one another in the mix is to use extreme frequency boosts or cuts, so that things stand out.
What’s your approach for micing acoustic guitars?
I don’t mind using four or five mics for that. I like to have a mic in front of the guitar, like a U87, U47 or U67, with a dynamic mic on the side of the guitar, like an SM57 or an Electrovoice mic, and a room mic a few meters away. I’ll also mic an amp and send the guitar to that at low gain.
How far away is your room mic from the guitar?
It depends on the room and the sound I want. If I want more reverb and I have a nice-sounding room, I might place it five meters away.
Do you think it’s possible to get a better sound from an acoustic guitar DI than by micing it?
That depends on the part you’re recording, but I generally don’t like the sound I get from only using a DI recording. However, I remember a time when I worked with Salif, and a guitar player showed up to the session unexpectedly. I had no extra microphone for him, so we ran his guitar via DI into the console, and it sounded fantastic! The up-front sound of the DI contrasted so well with the microphone recordings of the other instruments, which had more ambience to them. Even if I normally would have used a mic for the guitar, the DI was the best choice in that situation.
Here is a recording scenario: Your client has a seven-channel mixer with three mic pre-amps and four line inputs. He also has three microphones which you can use for drums, acoustic guitar, bass and vocals. How will you make use of this setup?
I would probably put the bass and acoustic guitar on the line-inputs, use one of the pre-amps and mics for the vocal, and the other two pre-amps and mics for the drum overhead and kick.
You would mic the kick but not the snare?
Yes, because if you place the overhead mic properly, it picks up enough of the snare. You can EQ and compress the snare out in the overheard recording later.
Lastly, I want to talk about specific tracks you’ve worked on. Can you tell me about the following records:
Les Valentins – “Teddy Bear”
To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy working on their “Ego Ego” album, which this track was for. There was a lot of issues with the band members that complicated things, so I don’t remember much about the recording process, but for “Teddy Bear” I think we were in Strongroom Studios in London, where they had a Neve console.
Les Valentins – “Comme Sharon”
We recorded in Westside Studios, and Steven Irvine from Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was the drummer. The reason for the drum sound was because I used the audio from a heavily compressed camera recording. I used to take my 90s video camera with me on holidays, and I once filmed someone playing drums in Polynesia. I loved the sound of the compressed audio in the recording, so I started using the camera in my recording session. I’d film the drummer playing and send the audio to the console. But for “Comme Sharon”, I think we used layered samples too.
For the guitar sound, I think I used camera audio too.
Les Valentins – “Vicissitudes”
The acoustic guitars in the intro were overdubbed twice or thrice, and was recorded with at least three mics. The piano that comes in at 1:00 was probably recorded at Westside. I think I used camera audio on the drums.
I usually set up one or two mics solely for the purpose of trashing in the mix. I’ll split the signal during the recording process and overprocess one of the recordings later, which I can blend into the arrangement when I want. I also tend to amp different sounds with a dynamic mic, which I can add reverb to later and also blend into the mix.
Another technique I use for drums is to have two close room mics which I later process together through the Eventide H3000. I then pitch the recordings down one and two octaves respectively, which makes them sound more dirty, and then I blend them with the clean drums.
Brigitte Fontaine – “Belle abandonnée”
The piano was recorded at Studio Plus XXX, but I don’t remember much else unfortunately. If I had to guess, we used three or four mics. I typically had one stereo pair in the body of the piano and one in the back which gets compressed a lot, and another mic that gets sent to an amp with low gain. I might later send the amp recording to a reverb like the Lexicon 480L, and compress that a lot with the 1176.
Salif Keita Moffou – “Madan”
The string sound in the intro is a Kamele Ngoni, which is similar to a Kora, but with less strings. There was hole under it where I placed the microphone, with two more mics on the left and right of the instrument, and another mic at the top of the neck. I also had a mic that was sent to my small Marshall amp, which I’d blend in when I wanted.
For Salif’s vocals, I used either a U86 or U67, but I remember that I had to dial back the compression because he could hear it. At first I ran his voice through an 1176, and he was like, “Jean, there’s something strange on my voice. What’s that? “. So I had to pull back the settings until he felt comfortable again. Also, when you record a singer like Salif, you have to be careful with the mic gain, because he can sing quite loud; I think I only had the gain at 2 dB. He stood about 30cm from the mic, but since he’s a professional singer, he knows when to move closer or further based on the volume of his voice.
We had a different set of female background vocalists in the pre-production stage than for the studio recording. The first three women sang their parts very strongly and at a high pitch, whilst the five ladies we recorded in the studio sang softer. So I combined both the recordings, using the first three for their intensity and the other five for a softer sound. For the pre-production recording, each lady had one mic, and there was a room mic that went into an amp. For the studio recording, I used one mic for all five voices. So I panned the first three and kept the studio recordings in the middle.
The bass is a traditional Malian calabash instrument that I recorded with three mics: one underneath, one near the strings and one as a room mic.
Salif Keita Moffou – “Baba”
There were so many string sounds being played on this track that I had to edit the recordings by moving parts around so the notes didn’t clash. I’d just cut out conflicting parts manually. The strings are a mixture of five recordings of Ngoni and acoustic guitar, which were recorded separately.
Kassé Mady Diabate – “Sinanon Saran”
The instrumentation was recorded in Bamako, but we later replaced the vocals at my studio in Ferber because Kassé wanted to work with particular background vocalists here in Paris. I remember using a U67 for his vocals, although he sang the initial take on an SM57 in the control room in Mali.
Thanks a lot for chatting with me Jean. What projects do you have in the works currently?
I’m currently working with a band from Kinshasa, Congo called Staff Benda Bilili, as well as producing music for my own band. I’m also mixing for a singer called Batlik, and producing the new album of a Madagascan band called Kristel. I did their previous album, “Irony” as well. The lead singer is twenty-three and plays bass, whilst her husband plays drums, with her brother on guitar. I went to Madagascar to meet them, and then we recorded their first album at OneTwoPassit Studios in Bagnolet. They’re currently signed to Libertalia Records, and you can expect their album later this year.