Alan Braxe [Artist]

Alan Braxe’s rise to fame came not only as a result of his work with Fred Falke on records like “Running (Intro)” and “Rubicon“, but also due to his membership in Stardust and his later solo material and remix work for the likes of Justice and Ellie Goulding. Even though he’s currently based in the south of France, we were able to meet up in Paris for a quick chat about his career in the French Touch movement of the late 90s, his current studio setup, and how “Music Sounds Better With You” was made.

You started making electronic music at the age of 26, which is quite late when compared to today’s bedroom producers that often start as teenagers. What  kind of a learning curve and challenges did you face as someone who started in their mid 20s?

I had been doing music since my childhood, having played cello and clarinet for ten years, so my classical training was there already. But I took electronic music as a personal challenge, and after buying my first pieces of equipment, I gave myself one year to put out a release. Had I failed, I would have stopped with music. In fact, the main reason I went into electronic music was because I had failed in my three-year History degree at university, after which I had to do my national service, which was obligatory in France at the time. After I returned home from that, I had no options for getting a job without a university degree, so music was my gamble to make a career out of something I enjoyed doing.

What were the first pieces of equipment that you bought?

It was a small 8-channel Mackie mixer, an Emu SP-1200 and the Alesis 3630 compressor

How much did the SP-1200 cost? And why did you pick that?

A lot. Around €3000 in today’s money. But I had talked about buying it with Thomas Bangalter, and I liked the fact that it was a simple machine that limited your options and had a specific sound.

If Thomas had recommended the MPC60 instead, would you have gone for that instead of the SP-1200?

Not necessarily. The MPC60 was more complex than the SP-1200, and I didn’t want that. The SP is perfect for beginners because it’s so basic to use.

You got into DJing late as well, around 2007. How did your career change once you became a DJ?

There are two aspects to DJing for me: it’s quick income on a regular basis. Secondly, it’s good for your mind because of how you meet people, are able to travel around the world, and it encourages you to get out of the studio. I can spend a whole week in my studio, playing my instruments and mixing, which can feel like overkill, but DJing allows me to escape that.

So when you started making tracks in the 90s, you made some tracks, played them for Thomas Bangalter and he liked “Vertigo”? 

Exactly, so he decided to release it on Roulé, his label. But before the release, we spent a few hours in his rehearsal studio, where he did a B-side remix of it, which was also released.

I noticed that on the “Vertigo” vinyl, it says. “Shouts to Michel Cerdan for his advices and support during the making of this record“. Who is he, and what did he do for the record?

He was someone who helped and advised me at that time, although not in a music sense. His help was more with networking; showing me who to talk to in Paris and things like that.

Vertigo” was the only solo release you had on Roulé. Why didn’t you do more releases with the label, or even with Crydamoure perhaps?

Well, “Music Sounds Better With You ” came out 6 months after “Vertigo”, and then I created my own label, Vulture Music soon after. So there was never any need to do more releases on other labels after that.

There were other French house artists like Alex Gopher, Demon and Cassius who were prominent in the 90s also. Was there a specific reason for the lack of Alan Braxe collaborations with people other than Fred Falke? 

No reason at all. At that time, I was already living in Toulouse, in the south of France, where Fred Falke lived. So we decided to team up together in 1999. I would occasionally do remixes on my own, but when it came time to make original music, I would collaborate with Fred. We didn’t feel the need to work with other people because we had everything we needed in our studio and my label.

Tell me about how “Music Sounds Better With You” came about. Who brought the sample to the session?

Benjamin Diamond brought the Chaka Khan record to the session. We were actually rehearsing for a live show I was about to do at Rex Club. I had invited Benjamin to sing and Thomas to play keyboards at the show, so our meet-up was never meant to be a production session for Stardust. But once the rehearsal was over, we thought it might be a good idea to make a new track for the show, and so we played the 12-inch that Benjamin had brought, and found the sample by chance.

And who’s decision was it to use that particular loop?

It was all of us; we were all looking for the same kind of vibe in a sample. I experience the same thing when working with my cousin, DJ Falcon. When we listen to records together, we end up reacting to the same section of the track. If you played each of us the record separately, we would both end up sampling the same parts, without knowing what other person had done. So Thomas, Benjamin and I all knew what we wanted because our ears were trained to select similar kinds of samples.

And Benjamin sang more vocals than what was used for the final record, correct?

Yes, that’s right. The songwriting took one week, and at one point we got stuck in that process. But then we decided to erase some vocals, and everything became easier after that. The Chaka Khan loop remained the same through-out, but we ended up cutting out 50% of the vocals.

I heard that after “Music Sounds Better With You” became a success, Virgin Records approached Thomas to do an album. They reportedly offered him a lot of money for it, and Stardust even had some demos done, but the album never came out. Why is that?

“Music Sounds Better With You” was released in the spring of 1998, and we spent the summer working on 4 or 5 demos for an album. But ultimately we decided to stop. The success of the first song was so big that we felt like doing an album wouldn’t be helpful. Besides, a lot of big releases from the 90s house music scene were just one-off singles and nothing else, and we felt like we could do the same thing with Stardust.

But if you listen back to the demos that Stardust made, were any of them better than “Music Sounds Better With You”? And if you had made something better, would you have put it out?

No, none of the later demos were better than our first release. Had we done something better, we may have put it out, but you have to remember that the formula for this kind of music was very basic and repetitive; a 4-bar loop and simple drum patterns, with a short vocal phrase. How many times can you release a record that does the same thing without it becoming boring? It would have been pointless.

Why did Virgin Records offer only Thomas a deal, rather than the whole group?

Because Thomas was the label owner and producer of the record, whilst Benjamin and I were songwriters and performers. All three of us made up Stardust, but we were signed to Thomas’ label, Roulé , which later got a licensing deal with Virgin. So it’s natural that Virgin approached the license holder with the deal, which was Thomas and his label.

Similar to what you did with Stardust, your other group, The Paradise, also only released one single, “In Love With You”. Why was that?

I did some other tracks with Romauld about 6 years ago, like “One More Chance” and “Time Machine“, but for whatever reason, we didn’t do any more material as The Paradise.

The business setup back in the 90s and early 2000s was just different from what it is today. We made tracks for the 12-inch singles market, not an album market. As soon as a track was finished, I would release it and move on to the next singles project, with no albums or marketing plans in mind. If people like it, they buy it. If not, they ignore it. “In Love With You” was done in one week with that kind of process in mind, which is why we never made anything else under that name.

“In Love With You” was released on your label, Vulture. Do you know how much it sold?

No, I don’t know the exact figure right now. But I remember that the record was a little strange, because it didn’t sell a lot, but it became a well-liked track for a lot of producers. I suspect the reason why it didn’t do well commercially is the kick-drum pattern; it’s not 4-on-the-floor, which makes it hard to incorporate into DJ sets. So people listen to it a lot at home, but they don’t play it out, and it was hard to sell 12-inches in those days unless DJs played your records.

A year after Stardust released their single, you created Vulture Music in 1999. Did the success of “Music Sounds Better With You” have anything do with you starting a label?

No, I always wanted to have my own label, even before Stardust, but the success of Stardust did provide me with the income to feel safe about things. When I started listening to electronic music, I was amazed by labels like Underground Resistance and various Detroit labels, so I wanted to be like them by being independent and doing my own thing.

In 2009, you were doing interviews and talking about making your own solo album, but we have yet to see anything other than “The Upper Cuts“, which is a compilation album. What happened to your solo album?

I’ve tried to complete a both solo album and a joint one with Fred Falke. Back in 2003, we pitched some of our tracks to labels, but they weren’t interested. I also tried to do a joint-album with DJ Falcon about four years ago. We have quite a lot of tracks, but they’re still in the demo stages. I think we’ll finish them eventually, but I don’t know when, because I’m focused on finishing my solo stuff now.

Are you worried that your solo album might not get finished and won’t come out?

I don’t care much about whether the music is released, but to be honest, I’m a little worried about not being able to find exciting ways to do music. I’m worried about losing the feeling I had when I made music in the 90s; even though I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, I didn’t care, and just made music anyway, and it worked. But now I feel like I care far too much, which I don’t like, and the music isn’t always coming out right.

That’s interesting. It’s a question I’ve always asked myself about older artists. If you’re a musician with an impressive resume that goes back decades, and you’ve released great music, why can’t you do the same thing twenty years later? You already did it once, right?

It’s hard to explain. If I tried to do what I did twenty years ago, honestly, I wouldn’t be able to. I made that music at a specific time, with certain equipment and knowledge. Even if I try to transpose that 90s context into the current time, I’m still going to deal with it using my current experience and knowledge. So the results would never be the same. It becomes anachronistic, because who you were in the past isn’t who you are now. So it’s like lying to yourself, or like being in a problematic relationship with someone; if things aren’t going as well as they were 20 years ago, but you suddenly decide to act like it was in the 1999 in hopes of regaining that feeling, it’s not going to work. The old situation doesn’t exist anymore. So the challenge for me now is to figure out how to move forward, musically. Also, a lot of things have already been done within disco, house and techno, in terms of drum patterns, synth sounds and samples. So what’s next? It’s hard to say. But I can say this: having success is a combination of luck and work. Some people need a lot of luck, and others have to work harder than others. You also have to be self-confident and not chase after trends if you want to do something groundbreaking. I think it’s important to not aim for making hits or radio play. When you’re in the studio, you should just make what you want to make, even if it’s not club music. So that’s what I’m trying to do right now.

I understand. But you’re also known to produce for other artists. By the way, have you produced any music for other artists recently?

Yes, I produced nine songs on the last Niki and the Dove album, “Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now“.

Can you describe the process of how you sampled audio into the SP-1200 to make your early records? 

 Sure. The main thing to keep in mind when using the SP-1200 is that the maximum sample length per pad is 2.5 seconds. So if you’re aiming for a 1-bar sample at 100 BPM, you won’t be able to fit it into the pad without shortening its play time. You can do this by increasing the record’s playback speed through the turntable’s pitch control. For “Intro”, we pitched the original record up by 8 semi-tones. If the record was originally spinning at 33 RPM, you could also increase it to 45 RPM, which would shorten the sample length additionally. Now that the sample has been sped up considerably, and has a shorter playing time, you can record it into the SP-1200 and load it onto a slot. Once in the slot, you can now take advantage of one of the key features of the SP-1200: its pitch control. Tuning the sound downwards is what gives a sample the crunchy sound you hear on a lot of electronic music and hip-hop records.

The Alesis 3630 has become known as one of the tools that shaped the sound of 90s French Touch music. Who was the first person to introduce that compressor to the scene?

Thomas Bangalter. He had it in the studio before any of us. It was a just cheap compressor that probably cost around €100, so it was nothing special at first, until he started using it on his stuff.

In your Future Music interview from 2009, I saw that the gain reduction on the Alesis 3630 was quite significant. It looked like at least 12 db when you used it on “Intro”.

Something like that, yeah. But that’s the attitude I was talking about earlier. When you start making music, you don’t really care about the technical process as much. You just do what feels good, and if it sounds good, you keep it. We were using insane values for the compressor settings back then. Any sound engineer who saw how dramatic the settings on the Alesis were would have asked us, “What are you doing? This isn’t how to use a compressor!“. But we liked it that way.

In a DAW, the process for getting a pumping effect on your dance track has become different than what you guys used 20 years ago. Today you would put a compressor plugin on a music track and select the kick as the sidechain input. That’s now how you used the Alesis 3630, correct?

Generally, no. I hardly ever used any sidechain input on the 3630. It was a bus compressor, so it was put on the master track. The only time we sent the kick drum to the sidechain input was on “Music Sounds Better With You”. The 3630 was used on Benjamin’s vocals, and sidechained to the kick to make it pump. But that was the only time we did that. I didn’t even know what parallel compression was at the time, so being creative with the compressor wasn’t common.

Have you ever come across a plugin compressor that produces a similar sound to the Alesis 3630?

The regular Ableton compressor behaves similar to the 3630, and I would say the sound is similar. But it’s the only one that comes close to the Alesis, in my opinion.

You said in the Future Music Studio tour that you bought the Roland SH-2 because you wanted an analog synth that could do what plugins couldn’t. It sounded like you had run into a limitation with plugins. So why would you use plugins at all, if you could use analog synths instead?

It’s a difficult question. Over the past 5 years, I worked mainly using my computer, so I bought a lot of plugins like Waves and Universal Audio, and some virtual instruments as well. I think some hardware emulations are amazing, but the marketing of these plugins can be a bit dangerous, I think. The manufacturers makes you feel like you’re not spending any money, because the prices are carefully chosen to be appealing. You’re offered a range of emulations that are priced below $80, and you might start to feel like you can afford them. But before you know it, you have ten different emulations of different units in your computer! Had they been hardware purchases, you would have had a whole studio. But none of it reflected any sense of reality, and it started to annoy me. If you’re making music at home, one hardware reverb and a compressor should be enough, I think. Maybe you can add in two EQs, but I’d be happy after that. And if you realize that one of those hardware units isn’t doing what you want, you can find a way to adjust in the real world. But in the computer, it’s a never-ending process of changing settings and plugins, which became unrealistic and inefficient to me.

I used to work a lot with Ableton Live, and Digital Performer sometimes as well, and I had a lot of plugins. But my computer crashed last summer, and I’ve decided to bury it and change my work process to only using hardware. So it’s back to my original setup, which is very limited, but I feel much more comfortable now.

But if you’re using your original setup, you’ll end up with a sound that’s similar to 20 years ago? Is that what you want?

No. The centerpiece of my studio is not an SP-1200 this time, but an MPC X. The sound isn’t amazing, but it’s very flexible and the machine can do a lot. I use it both as a recorder and drum sampler.

So you don’t use any converters in your studio then?

No, not really. I only need a converter when the track is finished and the master has to be turned into a digital file, for which I use the Universal Audio 2192. I used to have a Motu MKII and a RME Fireface interface, but they both sounded horrible compared to the 2192.

As far as samplers goes,  you’ve said in the past that the Roland S-760 is the best sounding one for you. So if you compare the S-760 to the SP-1200 and the ASR-10, how would you rank them?

The Roland S-760 is a pain to use. I’ve used it to sample kicks and snares, but it’s not user-friendly at all. You have to dig in a lot of sub-menus to get to what you want. The Ensoniq ASR-10 is very intuitive and easy to use, but once you’ve sampled something into it, the process of EQing and processing the sound can be clunky. The SP-1200 is easy to use, but the effect it has on the sound can be quite drastic sometimes. Out of all of them, I think the ASR-10 is the best option, because of its combination of user-friendliness and great sound

Tell me more about your current studio. Now that you’ve changed your setup, what gear do you use?

I’ve sold almost all of my old equipment. My only sound source at the moment is a Buchla modular synth. I hope to expand it with one or two modules, but that’s it.

For compression,  I have the A-DesignsThe Nail” compressor. The only EQ I have is a 2-band unit from from Electrodyne, and I also have Eurorack with a Magneto tape delay from Strymon.

For clocking, I use the Koma Elektroniks RH 301. For speakers, I still use my crappy TAPCO speakers, which I’ve had for 12 years. I also have the SSL X-desk as a mixer, and a Ensoniq DP4 multi-effect rack and the Lexicon PCM42, which is very important to me. I still run some of my sounds through Maxon guitar pedals, like a chorus, phaser and a few other ones.

My setup has scaled back a lot, but I’ve been trying to get the most of out it for the past 6 months. I’ve sold a lot of my old stuff, but I still have an MPC60, MPC3000, ASR-10 and SP-1200 on the shelf, even if I don’t use them much anymore.

How’s the process of using this scaled-back studio going for you?

It’s difficult, but I’ve challenged myself to stick with it. I’m done with DAWs and plugins, and just wanted to go back to using something simple. I did a 6-week session of sampling kicks, snares and hats from vinyl, which I’ve put into the MPC X, so I have some good sounds to use.

Why did you choose the MPC X as the centerpiece of your studio if you admitted earlier that it doesn’t have the best sound?

It sounds average, but there aren’t a lot of other options. I tried the same setup with the MPC3000, but it’s not flexible enough. Because I no longer have a computer in my studio, I needed a workstation that offers a flexibility similar to a computer, and the MPCX is the only one that does that. I can record sounds into it, trigger digital samples with it, etc. It was a hard choice, but it’s what I decided on in the end.

I get it. Let’s wrap up some talk about three of my favorite Alan Braxe-related tracks. I’ll mention some categories, and you can tell me what was used. Firstly, “Music Sounds Better With You”. 

Turntable: We used the Technics SL-1200 MKII

Sampler: The record was sampled into SP-1200. But after we added kicks, snares and hats, the whole instrumental was sampled into the ASR-10.

Phaser: Ensoniq DP/4. We only ran parts of the record through it.

Drums: I think the kick and hats came from the 909. Maybe the snare too, but I don’t remember.

Mic: I don’t remember the brand, but it was a long, thin one which Thomas had in his studio.

Compressor: Alesis 3630 on the master.

Mixing: It was mixed in Thomas’ studio on a small Mackie mixer.

Mastering: It was mastered at a studio in London called The Exchange by an engineer called Nilesh Patel. He did all the mastering for Daft Punk at the time.

The Paradise, “In Love With You”.

Intro Vocal Pad: Let me start by saying that it’s not a sample from 10cc’s, “I’m Not In Love“, haha. It came from an Emu sample library which was on a floppy disk. I played the chords off of that into the ASR-10, which has a function called “Synthesize Loop”. It kind of flattens the sound and blends its different elements together. I used that to process the vocal pad.

Piano: I played it myself on a Korg Triton, I think. There’s a sampler called the Roland VP-9000, which specialized in pitch-shifting and warping. It had a specific function where you could sample a chord, and then reduce the whole chord to one note. So the sampler removes most of the chord content, but leaves certain harmonics in the note that’s left, after which you can replay the note-chord, which sounds a lot fatter than the original. I did that with the piano.

Bass: I used the Roland MKS-50, which is a one-rack digital synth.

The track has nice, rich low-end to it. How was that achieved?: Once the whole thing was recorded to a two-track, I listened back to it, and felt like there wasn’t enough bass. I compared it to other tracks I liked, and wanted more low-end. So I ran the whole master through a Marantz amp that my wife owned. But it’s not pro audio gear; it’s a hifi unit for home listening. It had a “surround” button you could press, which expanded the frequencies of whatever was run through it, especially in the bass. So I ran the master of “In Love With You” through that amp to make it sound the way it does now.

Finally, tell me about “Voices”.

Main polysynth: I used the Omega 8 from Studio Electronics

Bass: It was one of the Native Instruments Scarbee ones.

White Noise Hits: I used U-he Diva for that.

What’s next for you then Alan? Will there by any upcoming releases on Vulture?  Since your most recent EP was released on another label, the last official Vulture release was in 2011.

I’m working on my solo material right now, and I have some tracks that I think are good album cuts, but I don’t have a single that I’m happy with just yet. So I’ll just keep working on it.

I’m not sure what will happen to Vulture right now. It’s on a hiatus until I’m done with my own material.

Yes, the “Moments in Time” EP was released in 2013 on Scion Audio/Visual, and isn’t available for sale anymore. It was just part of a six-month campaign, which ended a long time ago. You can hear the tracks on Youtube though.