Pascal Garnon [Engineer/Mixer]

I came across Pascal Garnon’s name on Discogs and decided to reach out to him on social media after seeing his name on records by Air, Les Rita Mitsouko and Suprême NTM. It turns out he was an engineer and mixer who’d been active since the 80s and had worked on some notable albums. He was kind enough to invite me to his house for a chat and answered some questions about his career and home studio, which you can read below.

– Hi Pascal. Thanks for inviting me over. Can you tell me how you got started with audio?

I first saw a recording studio at age seven and decided that I wanted to work there because of how cool it looked. I later bought a TEAC tape machine when I was twelve, which I used to make music at school and record myself on drums at home. A few years later, I became an intern at a studio in Beaubourg that was owned by two engineers called Gerard Chiron and Jacques Guillot. They were ahead of their time in many ways – for example, in 1982 they bought one of the first SSL 4000s in the world, and I saw a lot of equipment for the first time in their studio, like the PPG Waveterm sampler and the Atari ST. They also had one of the first Pro Tools rigs in France, which I saw in 1994 when I went back to work there.

– What was it like interning at that studio? Did it have a name? 

No, they never named it, but working there was a great experience. I spent an afternoon with Gerard and Jacques a week prior to getting hired, and they saw that I really wanted the internship. So they pulled me aside on my first day and said, “We’re leaving for three weeks to mix a film score. Here are the keys to the studio, some tape recordings, and the instruction manuals for all the gear. Learn how all of it works and we’ll start working with you once we get back “. Needless to say, it was a very generous thing for them to do. I was able to learn everything I needed to within those weeks, and my first job once they came back was to record foley for a three-hour Indian film. I was originally meant to work with them for a month, but things went so well that they kept me around for six.

– In addition to being an intern, did you ever attend an audio school?

Yes, I went to Louis-Lumière. My family didn’t have much money, so they wanted me to pursue a more traditional degree that would get me a conventional job, but my father agreed to let me attend Louis-Lumiere because the program was free (laughs). We were 700 applicants who took the entrance exam for only 20 spots, so the competition was intense, but I was one of those who passed.

– Didn’t you also work at Radio France?

Yes. I worked for RFO, which was a station in Outremer that did foreign broadcasts. But I was only there for two months until I got fired (laughs).

– And how did you end up at Studio Davout as an intern?

I left my CV at all the studios I knew of in Paris and Davout were the ones who chose to hire me. There weren’t many people looking for internships back then, so it was easy to knock on a studio’s door and ask for the manager, which is how I got the position. This was in September of 1987, when Davout had gotten their first SSL 4000. But my internship only lasted two hours because of how well I knew the console – I’d already learnt how to use it whilst at Gerard’s and Jacques’ studio, and I could explain to Davout’s head engineer how it worked. As a result, he told the studio owner to make me an assistant engineer and I spent my first six months helping on recording sessions for an orchestral film score.

– Do you know what made Davout into one of the stand-out studios in Paris?

For me, the people who worked at Davout were on the same level as the staff at Studios Ferber, Plus XXX, and Studio De La Grande Armée, and part of the reason for that was their lack of ego. Despite all their experience in making successful albums, they put the recording process ahead of their comfort or reputations, and I think our clients appreciated that.

– This was a time when many studios were switching from analog to digital recorders. Was that happening at Davout too?

Yes it was. I used my first digital tape recorders there, which were the Sony 3324 and the 3348. It was more economical for studio owners in France to buy digital tape because you could record 48 tracks to an hour’s worth of reel. But the engineers never like it because the sound was terrible when compared to analog machines.

– One of the first well-known bands you worked with was Les Rita Mitsouko. Can you tell me how you met them and what albums you made together?

Sure. They booked time at Davout in 1988 with their producer, Tony Visconti. I always had an interesting relationship with him, and one of our first studio interactions occurred when he came to inspect the control room. He asked me why we had a Sony 3324 instead of an analog tape machine, and I told him that the tape machine was heavy and forbidden to move from upstairs. But Tony said, “ Look, I asked for an analog tape machine and that’s what I expect to have “. So I called my boss, got permission to bring it down, and I set it up with Visconti watching me the whole time to make sure I did it right. We then spent the next two months working on the “Marc & Robert” album.

Visconti attended the “Marc & Robert” sessions from Monday to Friday, but traveled to London for the weekend. So I worked alone during that time with the band members, Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin, which allowed me to get to know them better. When the album was done, they asked me to become an in-house engineer at the studio they were building, which would be finished in a few months; it was called Six Studio and was in their flat. I accepted their offer and spent the next four years working for them.

Other projects I did with Les Rita were a remix album called “Re, which had contributions by William Orbit and Fat Freddy, and their 1993 album, “Systeme D“. They had spent their previous holidays in Morocco and wanted to return there to record the album with myself and Visconti. So we mailed all their gear there and rented a big house as a studio. I ran cables into the different rooms, set up the equipment so we could record anywhere in the house, and we spent about five months making the album, after which we came back to France. Our collaboration then came to an end for different political reasons.

– What happened to you after that?

I didn’t have much work for the next year. But then I got booked to work at EMI Studios with Guesch Patti, where I met an engineer called Volodia Bourkortt. He was supposed to be my assistant during the week-long session, but I realized he was too skilled for the position, so I encouraged him to pursue a head engineer job instead. We stayed in touch, and a month later he told me that he had studio and could offer me work if I wanted. So I started working at his place in 1994, where I did tracking for groups like Suprême NTM and Raggasonic.

– You worked on a lot of urban music in the mid-90s. Was that a hard transition, coming from projects like Les Rita Mitsouko?

No, it wasn’t. When I worked with Les Rita, we did sessions with Dee Nasty, one of the first rap producers in France, so I’d already been exposed to the genre. Also, I’d been assigned to work with Catherine and Fred because no other assistant wanted the job, and it fell to me since I was the new guy. For whatever reason, Les Rita Mitsouko had a bad reputation among engineers, which I never understood. I got along fine with them, but I realized that a lot of rap artists were in the same situation: many engineers wouldn’t work with them because of their reputations, so those sessions fell to me. Also, after I tracked for NTM, their manager gave me a lot of work to do, so I was always busy working with hip-hop acts.

– At what point did you transition from tracking vocals for rappers to mixing their albums?

A guy from Virgin Records called me to mix a track on the “Hostile Hip Hop” compilation album. After the compilation, I continued mixing rap records as one of the few engineers who did that full-time.

– How did you end up working with Air?

That began in 1996 when they were doing music for a Peugot car commercial. The original engineer was supposed to be Stephane “Alf” Briat, but he called me to replace him because he was busy. We did those sessions at a place called Musica, which would later become Motorbass Studios once Philippe Zdar purchased it. Air wanted me to help them achieve the drum sound I’d recorded for an English band some months earlier, so I covered the drum kit with T-shirts and used four mics to get it done. The recording and mixing was finished in one day and they were happy with the result, so they called me again to record takes on “The Virgin Suicides” and “10 000 Hz Legend“.

– Can you tell me more about the drum recordings you did?

It was pretty simple stuff. For “The Virgin Suicides”, we had four external Neve pre-amps, a Yamaha 02R desk and a sixteen-track digital TASCAM. I ran four mics to the Neve pre-amps, with two of them being Sennheiser 421s as overheads. One was near the rack tom, facing the snare, and another was over the kick, also facing the snare, which you could describe as a Glyn Johnsmeets-Recorderman technique. The last two mics were for the kick and snare, and the drummer handled the rest.

– What work did you do on “10 000 Hz Legend”?

I only did the tracking on that, whilst Tony Hoffer mixed it. We worked at a place that no longer exists called Studio Apollo, which had a Harrison desk and a M79 tape machine from 3M. It was a nice studio, but I think Air choose the place mainly because it was a 100 meter-walk from their apartment (laughs).

– Did your career change for the better because of your work with Air?

Yes it did. I was called by several guys in the French Touch scene after that, like Next Evidence and DJ Gregory. I also recorded and mixed a few techno tracks for Claude Monnet, who’s a mentor of Martin Solveig. Bob Sinclair called me to work on The Mighty Bop and Tom & Joyce, and I did some stuff with Dimitri From Paris too. I also mixed a techno album for a band called Pills, made up of Antony Sandor and Ludovic Bordas.

– You mentioned The Mighty Bop. What work did you do on their debut album?

I mixed some tracks for that album at Davout. I remember Bob Sinclair told me, “Make it sound big “, so that’s what I did (laughs). I succeeded because of the SSL 4000; I used to hit the line inputs pretty hard back then, which created a unique sound. I remember working with Martin Solveig and running signal from the SSL to an Apogee PSX-100 converter that was set at -22 db, so you can imagine how loud the signal was coming out of the console. The SSL 4000 distorted the audio in a pleasant way, which was great, unlike the SSL 9000, which sounded terrible if you pushed the faders too high.

For outboard gear I used the 1176 on the kick and snare, which was EQ’d with a Neve 1073. I also gated and compressed the drums a lot with the desk, using a slow attack on percussion and keyboards. For effects, I used the PCM 70 and Lexicon 480 along with a H3000 harmonizer on background vocals, and I had the PCM 42 as a delay unit.

– Since you mentioned Martin Solveig, can you tell me more about your work with him?

Claude Monnet called me to say that he’d signed a new DJ to his company, and he wanted me to do some mixing for him. So we booked sessions with Martin at a studio in Montreuil. I remember having to work on a DAW that was a bit complicated at the time, but I liked his music. I was later called back to work on his “Hedonist” album, and we tracked drums, guitar, keys, bass and piano at Studios Ferber. He then took the stems home to produce around them and we later mixed the album at Capitol Studios in the north of Paris. I also did some work on his next album, “C’est La Vie“.

– Did you ever get a chance to work with Daft Punk?

No. I only saw them once at Source in the late 90s. I’d later sell them some Neve pre-amps, although we never met in person for that. I just left the pre-amps at a studio with a friend of theirs and they wired me the money (laughs).

– You also worked with Raggasonic. Can you talk to me about working on their first two albums?

Their producer was called Frenchie, and he generally went to Jamaica to record instrumentals with duos like Sly & Robbie, Steely & Clevie and Mafia & Fluxy. Then he’d bring the tapes back to France to record the vocals with me and the band. They’d listen and take notes whilst I mixed the beats, and I’d give them a cassette to take home so they could write their lyrics. We’d record vocals the next day and Frenchie would take the final tapes to London to do the mixes. That was the process for “Raggasonic” and “Raggasonic 2“.

The only track I mixed for them was “Aiguisé Comme Une Lame“, using the EQs and compressors on the SSL 4000, along with two delays and one reverb unit.

– I saw on your website that you have credits on some EMI Classics albums, like François-René Duchâble playing “Chopin“. 

Yeah, I worked on those in 1995. We recorded them at La Halle aux Grains in Toulouse with Daniel Michel as the head engineer, using a Mackie desk and an analog tape machine. I was the tape op responsible for the multitrack recording and the transfer to a two-track DAT.

– Did it never occur to you to set up your own studio in the 90s, given how much you were getting booked?

I was getting so many calls in those days that it was more comfortable to remain a freelancer. Once I started working with hip-hop in 1994, I never had to worry about work because there were only about five engineers in Paris who did rap and electronic music.

– Could you tell me some names of respected audio engineers in France? I only hear Philippe Zdar’s name thrown about, but there must be others.

That’s only because Zdar was the latest one to win a Grammy (laughs). But there are others like Stan Neff, Laurent Gueneau, Philippe Weiss and Jeff Delort. Some of them aren’t well known, but that’s more because of the French music business which doesn’t promote its engineers and mixers in the same way it does artists.

– Speaking of the French music business, could you tell me who the important business people were in the 90s?

For me, the A&Rs were always important, sometimes even more than the CEOs. High-level executives didn’t really know who the engineers were, whereas A&Rs interacted with everyone. I didn’t work much with major labels, but people like Raphael Garoute from Universal gave me a lot of gigs, which I appreciated. I also didn’t interact much with executives, although I did meet Emmanuel De Buretel from Virgin when I worked with Les Rita Mitsouko, and he was an interesting guy.

– When I spoke with Philippe Weiss, got into a conversation about mixers and engineers. He said that the work of mixers has more of an impact than the work of engineers on the final record. Do you agree with that?

Philippe did a lot more mixing than he did recording, so I can understand why he’d say that. I worked with him at Studio Davout, where he was my assistant for a few days on some sessions, but I can’t say I agree with him though. Recording an artist is a real job, and is frankly the most important part of the process; it’s what creates the soul of the track. Choosing the right mic and placing it properly isn’t easy, especially when you’re using vintage gear. Older gear tends to be more sensitive to changes in the signal chain than modern ones, and even a small adjustment will alter the color of your sound. That’s why we used to do things like send our mics through DI boxes to improve the sound of the recording, which might not be intuitive for people today.

– At some point you switched from being an audio engineer to primarily working as a mixer. Why was that?

It wasn’t something I consciously decided. It was due to the types of jobs I got called for, which started to change in the late 90s. I got booked more and more to work as mixer, which I did for most of the 2000s, and I prefer to stick with that now. Besides, working as a recording engineer isn’t as fun as it used to be; it gets boring to just hit “record” and “play” all the time. Also, the most important thing during a recording session isn’t the gear or the engineer – it’s that artist comes prepared to play, having written a good song and rehearsed it. I hate spending hours recording the same verse because an artist didn’t practice. The first few takes are usually the best anyway, so spending three days doing the same thing over and over doesn’t make any sense to me, and once I started getting stuck in situations like that, I decided to stick with mixing.

– So now you primarily mix from your home studio. Can you tell me about the gear you have here?

Sure. I have a Pro Tools HD rig with some outboard gear on the inserts, like a Neve 33609, The Phoenix and two Distressors. I also have the Peavy Kosmos, which I learned about from Michael Brauer, who uses it for guitars. It’s the best sub-frequency enhancer I know of, even more so than the Aphex Big Bottom, the dbx 120A, and the dbx 100 BoomBox. It’s also very cheap.

My Federal AM-864 is an old compressor made for the US Army in the 1950s, and I also have the Focusrite Blue 330 mastering compressor, the 315 Mastering EQ, two 1176s, a clone of the SSL G series compressor, and a Retro Instruments Sta-Level.

I use two Bricasti units as my reverbs, and for my 500-series I have two API 550As and two Standard Audio Level-ors.

– Why no analog console?

An analog console isn’t really usable for me given my setup at home, and they cost a lot of money in maintenance and electricity. It’s also hard to find good deals on desks in France, so I stick to plugins. Once I started hearing in-the-box mixes that sounded great, I had no problem making that switch.

– Tell me about your speakers. Is it true you had the first pair of Barefoots in France?

Well, not really. Philippe Weiss had the first protoype in 2005, so I got the chance to hear them from him. I really liked them, so I bought the second pair of MicroMain27s in France for €4000. I like them because they’re soft in the highs, which helps diminish ear fatigue, and they have the same response at low and high volumes. However, there’s a little dip around 300 Hz that you have to get used to, and their sound is very much dependent on your room. I initially set them up along the length of my studio, which created a big hole between 70 Hz and 150 Hz. It was very frustrating, and I couldn’t figure out what was causing the problem. But I went into other studios that had their Barefoots lined up along the width and noticed they sounded better than mine. So I re-positioned them, added some bass traps, and now they sound great.

– And what about your ProAc Studio 100s?

Those are thanks to Philippe Weiss too. We seem to be mentioning him a lot in this interview (laughs). When he worked as an engineer at Davout, he would leave his gear in the control room, so I mixed some records on his ProAcs once and decided to buy some for myself. I use them mainly to control the mid-range and high frequenices.

– Thanks for talking to me Pascal. It was fun to learn about your work. Last question: as someone who’s been around for 30+ years, how do you get work nowadays when the music industry is so different from before?

I rely on old friends who know what I can offer their projects, and I sometimes get calls from artists who listened to records I worked on in the past. To be honest, I’d like to be more involved in the music business, but I’ve become a bit too lazy and I don’t have the edge anymore. In order to get gigs in Paris, you have to involve yourself in the business by going out and meeting people. As an older guy with a family, I don’t do much of that anymore. Many people ask me why I don’t get a manager, but I haven’t gotten around to doing it. It’s not too late though; I know of many older engineers like Al Schmit and Andy Wallace who are doing well. But even so, I’m managing fine. Thomas Naim is a great jazz/blues guitarist, and I’m waiting to mix his next album, so I still have things like that to keep me busy.