Though famous for his remixes of artists like Kesha, Nero and Robyn, French producer and musician Fred Falke gained fame for his presence in the French Touch scene of the early 2000s, thanks to his releases alongside Alan Braxe. Though he’s relocated from France to the US, I was able to get on Skype and chat with him about his history, his thoughts on analog gear and how he made his past records.
In past interviews, you’ve talked about how you started off gigging as a bass guitarist, sometimes for free. At what point did you feel like you’d made a progression from a casual player to professional musician?
I never really had that turning point. Even when I was a bass player who played wedding gigs, I only made enough money to afford my rent and my equipment. But I was actually happy with that because I was doing what I liked. So I never got to a point where I felt like I had “made it”. Even now, my family still asks me if everything is going well in the music world for me. France is a country where your family get worried if you decide to pursue a music career, rather than something more conventional, so it took a while for me to feel like things had changed.
What kind of opportunities did the French music scene create for you when you started? Was there anything unique about France that you wouldn’t have found elsewhere?
The good thing about making music in France was the timing. Once I graduated from music school, I wanted to start gigging right away, but it was hard to find work. I soon realized how big the gap was between reality and my fantasy of becoming a session player. However, I moved to Hong Kong around 1995, where I was able to find a ton of work. But in 1997, Hong Kong was given back to China by the British government. For whatever reason, my work as a musician wasn’t considered very important by the Chinese government, and I lost my visa. So I returned to France at the exact time that French Touch started blowing up, though I didn’t know what the genre was yet. I found out about it by hanging out with DJs who were sampling disco records. Sometimes they would run into problems when sampling a record, like not being able to sample a whole bass-line because a vocal was in the way. So they would ask me to play my bass under the vocal sample. Eventually they realized that I had a Fender Rhodes and a Micromoog, and I could help out with replacing chords and leads in the samples. That was how I became familiar with the French Touch scene, and I later bought a four-track Tascam tape machine to do my own demos.
Who were the DJs you played bass parts for?
Did you get paid for it?
Of course not (laughs). It started off as a casual thing. They would call me up to come over and be like, “Bring your bass, man “. I was happy to do it for free because I already had a job that paid my bills.
Another difference between the French music scene and that of other countries is how people think of the relationship between art and money. If you’re an artist In France, making a big deal about money is a taboo. People frown on it , like, “C’mon man, we’re making art. Why are you talking about money? “. But in other places, like the US, people are more open about how money affects the artistic process; when you collaborate, the money issues get put on the table from the start, which clears the air. I tell young musicians a lot, “Address the money thing as soon as possible. Otherwise, it can become an issue later. You don’t want to work for free on something that later makes money, and never get paid for it “.
How did being a bass-player help you when you decided to start making electronic music?
Well, as a bass player I always had my own taste for what a bass should sound like, which was informed by the records I listened to. But I had to discover that some genres of music have a very different culture of recording and sound from what I liked. I remember doing bass-playing sessions for jazz bands that were recording their demos. I thought their drums sounded horrible…They were hollow-sounding and had no punch at all, which I didn’t like. As a bass player, I favored a lot of low-end and liked heavy sounds. So when I started making electronic music, that was an important thing to include in my records.
How did you end up working with Alan Braxe?
We met in the army, during our military service. Alan wasn’t producing music at the time, though I think he played cello. But I left the army six months before him, and we lost contact because I moved to Hong Kong. After I returned in 1997, and was back in my hometown, I went to a second-hand music store to check out the gear they had. When I walked in, I bumped into Alan! It had been about four years since we last saw each other. I don’t know if Stardust had released their single yet, but we were hanging out with Daft Punk by that time, and invited me over to his place. He had a computer and samplers, which were like space machines to me back then. He handled all the technical aspects of the production, whilst I played my instruments, and we would jam together and define our sound. We eventually released “Running (Intro)“, but up until that point, I was still playing gigs on the side. It wasn’t until “Intro” blew up that I stopped with the gigs and became a full-time producer.
Once “Intro” blew up, how did the change in your career unfold? Did you notice that change right away?
To be honest, I noticed the change when I heard my track on the radio. I was coming out of a restaurant when a friend called me and said, “Hey, your new track is on the radio! “. So I tuned into the station and heard it myself! And then I started hearing it at nightclubs, even in my hometown in the south of France. That’s when I realized how much impact this genre of music was having.
How did “Intro”get on the radio? Did Alan take it to the station and ask them to play it?
No, he didn’t; we hardly did any promo for it. The only thing we did was attend that year’s Winter Music Conference in Miami. We took white label promos with us to give to the DJs there, but we had no management or agents. Alan even had to set up his own label, Vulture Music, to put our music out. A few weeks after we came back from Miami, our distributor called us and said they wanted to buy around 500 copies of “Intro”, and we were super excited; we felt like we’d made it! 500 copies of vinyl was a lot in those days. But then the distributor called again some weeks later and wanted around 1500, which was unbelievable! And it kept growing from that, to the point where Alan’s label couldn’t afford to pay for the vinyl pressing anymore. So we had to find a major label to help cover the costs through a licensing deal. But it all went very fast. We went from pressing 500 units to talking with labels like XL Recordings about a deal.
During that time, was Alan paying for all the vinyl pressing himself, since it was his label?
Yeah, he paid for all the manufacturing costs and shipped the records to the distribution company. They would then sell the records and mail us back a cheque.
Did you go with him to negotiate the deals once major labels became interested in the two of you?
Initially, the two of us did take meetings with the major labels, but I didn’t attend the later ones. I didn’t have to, because back in those days most majors wanted to sign the next French Touch breakout act, so Alan was able to meet with them quite easily. Thomas Bangalter has always been very helpful to us, and he already had a lot of experience with the business side of things. So he would always given us the best advice on what to do. We ended up doing a licensing deal for “Intro”, which is what Alan had already done with Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You“.
Can you tell me about your first record deal? Was that for your solo album?
Yes, I released my debut album “Part IV” on a German indie label called Work It Baby. But the label deal wasn’t a good one; it was shady, with bad conditions for the artist. But I signed it because I was happy to have someone who would press my records and send them to distributors. But I later realized it wasn’t worth it.
As a musician who’s familiar with the business side of things, what can you say about the job of labels today?
Well, labels don’t act as filters for quality music anymore, so we’re now getting tons of releases that sound to me like unfinished demos. They aren’t well-mixed or even well-produced, like a prematurely baked cake. Both the advance of technology and the current pace of the world has led people to release their stuff too quickly. Alan and I took our time to finish just a two-track EP, and it took months to craft and release “Intro”. But now I see people moving at a pace that doesn’t allow them to finish anything properly.
When I was coming up, I was listening to acts like Cassius, Daft Punk and Air. These were artists who would craft their records carefully, and that served as a reference for me, in terms of what a well-mixed track should sound like. So I was forced to strive for the best if I wanted to be as good as those guys. But what I see among up-and-coming artists today is quite different. They seem happy to just mash up some Splice loops and do little else with the track. Even if a Splice loop has a good musical idea in it, it’s not produced or mixed well enough to be the final track. So when musicians today have no references other than questionable sample-pack material, then it makes sense that the quality of music suffers. Ironically, we’ve never had more access to information, tutorials and music history than now, but it hasn’t give us the results we might have expected.
Part of the reason for that might be because of faulty information that’s spread through places like Youtube. Would you agree?
I agree. There’s a lot of bad tutorials and interviews out there. I think Speakhertz does a good job, but I read a lot of stuff online which is plainly false, to the point of deception. Back in the day, we only had a few magazines that were genuinely interested in presenting accurate information, which is what made them relevant, but now when we have thousands of outlets, the accuracy seems unimportant.
If I already know how a certain record was made, because I’ve talked to the people who worked on it, it amazes me when I read false stuff online about the same record. Here’s an example of what I mean: One of my friends said to me, “Have you heard about the Studio Technologies Mic-PreEminence pre–amp? You need to check it out! I just read about it on Gearslutz, and they said it was used to record the vocals on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album “. I was like, “Whoa, really? “, because “Thriller” is a very important album to me. It played a big part in how I learned to analyze audio, since it was the first album my parents bought me in 1982 on cassette. So when my friend mentioned that, I made it a point to look into it. Sure enough, I saw people saying the same thing in online audio forums. But once I came to LA, I got the chance to meet different people that worked on “Thriller”. For example, I became friends with a guy who used to work with Bruce Swedien, on projects other than “Thriller”. I asked him about the Studio Technologies pre-amp, and he said, “Hmm, I don’t think they used that one “. That made me scratch my head, but I filed it away for later. Then one day when I was working at Capital Studios, I ran into Bruce Swedien’s assistant on “Thriller”, Ed Cherney. We bumped into each other at the cafeteria, and I asked him about the pre-amp. He said, “No way man, we never used that. There was no such thing as outboard rack pre-amps in those days. Bruce had his own Neve 1084 pre-amp in a small box, but you normally had to use a console if you wanted access to a certain pre-amp “. So all these online myths about a rack pre-amp being used before they even existed is just nonsense! I even remember seeing an online ad by someone in Japan who was selling the same pre-amp. I couldn’t read the Japanese text, but the brand names were in English, so I could make out “Studio Technologies“, “pre-amp” and “Thriller” in the ad. There was the hoax again….Even if the guy who posted the ad didn’t know that it was a lie, he’s spreading it anyway. So if you’re a buyer, and you read multiple online sources that say the same thing, you’ll be tempted to buy the item. So people easily get drawn into erroneous notions because they don’t know the history of things, and some of them won’t even research it.
I understand what you mean. But it’s not just the producers and engineers who are to blame, right? On the label side, you have executives and A&Rs who don’t care about the quality of music they release either.
Yes, that’s true. But y’know, records labels have been around for several decades, and things weren’t always as they are now. I’ve talked to people here in LA who worked in the music business in the 70s and 80s, and they told me that a lot of A&Rs and label heads in those days actually started off as producers. This is what people today don’t realize; the label heads 30 years ago already understood how good records were made before they became CEOs. They knew how much money needed to be spent on a good string recording, and why it was important. They knew who the good recording engineers and mixers were, and why it was worth paying them their rates. But today it’s the opposite: A&Rs who have never worked in a studio suddenly want to be producers because they got a job at a label. But all they have is a Bachelor’s degree in Music Business, and no studio experience. So a guy who used to work at Amazon suddenly becomes an A&R at a major label, and now wants to decide what the label should sign and release, and he starts telling the artist what a good production should sound like. But chances are he won’t be as interested in the tradition of record-making as he is in having hits.
I remember when Alan and I were looking for a label to sign “Intro”, and we ended up taking a meeting with an A&R at one of the majors. It was the summer of 2000, and the record was getting a lot of play by DJs at the time. So we were sitting in this guy’s office, and he’s like, “I think it’s a cool song, but it’s never going to go anywhere because there’s no vocal on it “. We were like, “What do you mean? It’s a sample-driven track “, and he said, “No, no. We need a song, otherwise it won’t get on the radio, and without radio play by the summer, the track will be dead “. So here is a highly respected A&R who’s telling us something we weren’t expecting, and because we had no experience, we started doubting ourselves. At the same time, it had become popular for other labels to release mediocre-sounding dance music with cheesy soul vocals. So basically, we were being told to do the same. But I talked about it with fellow producers, and they all said, “Don’t do that. The track is fine as it is “. That boosted my confidence, and we decided to keep it as it was. In hindsight, we did the right thing. The track never needed a vocal, because it was built around the sample. But here’s the kicker: as we continued to discuss things with the label, the A&R guy went behind our back and had a girl cut her own vocals to the track, which he later sent to us. It sounded horrible! Like one of those cheesy house tracks I mentioned. And this was the guy in charge of the A&R department! He had all the power to sign who he wanted, but had no idea how to judge our record. So we walked away from that deal. The point is this: having the right vision is key. You have to know what you want to do, which is what makes you a good producer in the first place.
I understand what you mean. People who were in the music industry in former decades did things differently. But what about the older artists who have been content to watch the industry change into what we see today, without intervening? Shouldn’t the respected artists from 20 years ago, like Prodigy or Daft Punk, be able to put out equally powerful music today? For example, “Random Access Memories” didn’t have the kind of effect people initially said it would. The EDM wave continued as if nothing happened.
I think it’s a case by case situation, unless you really know what’s going on with those artists, it’s hard to know why their music has changed over time. As for Daft Punk, they’ve moved on. People might not know that because their music is still popular and relevant, but it’s like running into an actor from the 90’s that you love. Maybe he’s a painter now and doesn’t want to talk about his old movies. I’ve met people like that in LA.
Imagine an artist’s career to be like a sine wave that has peaks and valleys. Sometimes what an artist is doing is in sync with global music culture, which is a peak in the waveform. That’s what happened when “Homework” and “Discovery” came out. Then as the artist continues along his career-path, the waveform becomes a valley and goes out of sync, which I think is what happened with the later Daft Punk albums. It’s the same with me. I’ve done a ton of remixes, but when I run into my fans, they always say that they love the same handful. Whether its Australia, France or the US, it’s always the same ten or so remixes they talk about. But I put as much energy into the other ones, so I don’t completely understand why those ten resonate more.
A large part of your brand within the industry has been shaped by your remix work. How did you become such an in-demand remixer?
The first successful remix I did was The Whitest Boy Alive’s “Golden Cage”. That was the first remix where the A&R guy called me to request I do it, and didn’t dictate the sound he wanted. He let me do whatever I wanted, and so when the remix did well, I kept getting more requests.
My process tends to be the same for each remix. I keep the acapella, get rid of all the stems and start from scratch. I have a similar workflow for my own material: I create a backing track, have a vocalist sing on it, and then I scrap the original instrumental and do a new one under the vocal. So remixing inadvertently affected how I made my own solo material.
Do you get paid a flat fee for your remixes, or do you have to negotiate your price with each artist/label?
It depends. There’s always a flat fee, but depending on the artist or label, you might negotiate other things. Sometimes I do remixes for smaller, unsigned artists who can’t pay me a lot, in which case I lower the fee, or I might take some points, depending on what we agree on.
Your music from the late 90s and early 2000s has a very different sound from what you release today. What kind of studio setup were you using in 2000, and what changes did you make as the music scene evolved?
It was a basic setup. I had a small Mackie desk, and samplers from Emu and Roland. I never liked the Akai sound, even though their machines were popular at the time. You had to choose between the punchiness of Akai samplers and the warmth of Emu stuff, and I’m more for the warm sound. Having said that, the MPC60 was my first sequencer, though I later switched. In terms of the DAW we used, Alan had Cubase on a Macintosh SE, and I bought one of those for myself later.
Alan and I would sample into the SP-1200 or the ASR-10, sequence the audio using MIDI, send the signal to the Mackie desk, and finally print the master to DAT, crossing our fingers that there was no error on the DAT when we printed to it.
There’s been a lot of talk about how vintage gear played a role in making the records of the 80s and 90s. How much emphasis did you guys place on the gear back then?
It’s always been interesting to see how people relate the use of analog gear to an artist’s success, or to a specific era of music, like 90’s French Touch. Analog purists like to revere the gear we used 20 years ago, but to be honest, we were only using it because most of it was cheap and affordable. Perhaps some then newly-released units like the MPC3000 were an exception, but the Mackie and Alesis 3630 were just cheap tools to us, because we couldn’t afford anything else. With an exception of the SP-1200, all of my gear back then was bought in second-hand music stores.
I think it’s a mistake to equate one piece of gear with the success of an artist. Of course the equipment they used defined their sound, but it’s not what defined their success. It goes back to what I was saying about gear hoaxes: websites like eBay and Reverb.com create a lot of unnecessary hype around gear, which leads people to think they can get the sound of an album like “Thriller” by buying a new compressor or EQ. But this actually reveals that what people want is not really the sound of “Thriller” – it’s the success of “Thriller”. The successful artists in the French Touch scene didn’t do that. Yes, we bought new gear like the MPC2000, but “new” doesn’t mean “vintage”. It’s fine to buy a new piece of gear because it suits the music you’re making, but what people are doing today is chasing after old, vintage gear because they think it “sounds” great, whereas we only used vintage gear because it was cheap, not for its sound. For example, I had a Micromoog because it cost me very little, and I settled for it because I couldn’t find a Minimoog at the time. So when I look at prices of vintage gear today, it makes no sense. Getting an SP-1200 for $3000 won’t make you sound like Daft Punk, just like using the same ingredients as a five-star chef won’t guarantee that you make the same quality of food as him. It took me a while to understand that you can easily get lured into buying gear to fulfill your production fantasies, when you’re actually chasing ghosts. You can’t buy someone’s sound because you buy a piece of gear they once had.
So how did you readjust your approach to using gear once you moved from France to LA? Did you bring your studio with you to the US?
No. When I moved to LA, I didn’t bring my studio gear with me. I only had my laptop and a Prism interface. When I was given a remix to do, I would get worried because I didn’t have any of the pre-amps or compressors from my old studio. So I decided to rent some gear; similar gear to what I had in France. It’s really hard to rent gear in the South of France, which is why I had to keep buying stuff instead. But in LA, I rented a couple of units and monitoring and the remix turned out great! That’s when I realized that my sound wasn’t as connected to my gear as I had thought. Once I lived in LA, I was able to return to the mindset I had when I started making records: I used whatever gear was available and just made it work. The whole thing made me realize I was wrong about gear. I used to think that being able to use all those rack pieces put me in charge of the process and made me a “professional”. But even looking back at some of my favorite mixers and producers from back in the days, I realized that their setup was pretty simple; their studios weren’t full of exotic stuff. They just knew how to make the best of what was there.
I get what you mean. But on the flip side, if you ask your favorite producers how they made their records, they’re still going to mention the equipment they used. One of the reasons you can’t replicate the sound of “Thriller” in your bedroom is because the album was made on a big console at Westlake Studios in LA, right?
But not just with the console – by a certain guy too: Bruce Swedien. The Harrison 32-Series Console was great for the sound of “Thriller”, but listen to the stuff that Bruce did with an SSL J-series. Everyone says it’s the worst-sounding SSL desk, but he used it to great effect. People forget that the only reason Bruce used the Harrison console was because Dave Harrison brought it to them. They would have just used a different console otherwise! So it was the guy behind the desk that mattered most, not the desk itself. Keep in mind as well that the Harrison 32 console used for “Thriller” was heavily modded by Dave himself! It wasn’t something you could just buy on the market.
Also, in terms of gear, it wasn’t just the Harrison desk that gave “Thriller” its sound. I once met Ndugu Chancler, who did the drumming on “Billie Jean“, and he told me some things about the signal path for the drum recording: first Bruce recorded the rhythm section into a small George Massenburg console. So think about this: we have two transformers in the desk, one on the input and output. Then the signal went to a tape machine; that’s another transformer on the input. Then, during the mix-down it went from the tape machine into the Harrison desk; two more transformers. Plus whatever outboard gear was used. Finally, the completed mix goes from the Harrison 32-series into another machine to become a two-track master. So why do people say it’s only the Harrison desk that’s responsible for the sound of “Thriller”? You can’t just buy the UA Harrison channel strip plugin and think you’ll be able to get Bruce’s sound.
I understand what you’re saying. For sure, Bruce Swedien mattered more to the sound of “Thriller” than the Harrison desk. But isn’t there a blurry line sometimes between a creator and his tools? Because if you gave Bruce Swedien some Vengeance EDM samples and Splice loops to produce a track, he’s not going to be able to make anything close to “Thriller”, is he?
I do understand the value of using the right tools, and personally I don’t use things like Splice loops, but I would still say that the engineer or producer is more important than the gear. People ask me all the time how I get my bass sound, but I have more than ten different basses, and I use them all differently. So how can it about be the gear? The sound is in my fingers; it’s the way I play it. If I gave my basses to someone else to play, they would generate a different tone without me even touching the pre-amp or EQ! I think it’s the same with compressors or consoles. I’ve heard people say a lot of bad things about the SSL J-series, and even though you can’t push the “J” to the same extent you can with an “E”, a lot of great albums were mixed on a “J” console.
Back when the technical side of music-making was considered important by the industry, they used to include engineering and production information in the Billboard charts for the top songs; where they were mixed, by whom, on what board, and even the tape machine the song was printed to! That’s how I came to learn that some of the albums I loved were mixed on a so-called “crappy” J-series desk, even though the music had so much low-end! Some of my favorite albums, which I thought must have been recorded to tape, were actually cut to digital machines. I had my own idea of what tape probably “sounds” like, but I would read the production credits and realize I was wrong. So the “tape sound” thing can be a big hoax too. A lot of people who talk about the “magic” of tape don’t know what they’re talking about, and neither did I until I worked on it myself. A lot of records from the 90s were cut to tape and sound like crap; there’s no low-end on them at all.
One of my favorite records of all time is Dave Grusin’s “Friends and Strangers”. That record was recorded on one of the early digital systems by a company called Soundstream. Even a record as classic as “Give Me The Night” was mastered on a Soundstream digital tape recorder, despite having the kind of 70s sound that people want to associate with analog tape.
I’ve learned from the people I talk to in LA that the most important thing is to use your gear as a tool to do what you want to do. That’s what we did with the Alesis 3630. It’s a crappy compressor if you use it for anything else, but for French Touch music it was perfect.
Neve is another famous brand that gets thrown about a lot when people talk about vintage gear. What are your thoughts on the Neve stories out there?
Man, the Neve stories…There’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet about Neve. Nothing sounds like a vintage Neve Electronics module, and even two vintage modules won’t sound similar. The sound of a module in the rack doesn’t even sound the same as in a console. The original transformers used in the famous 10XX series were made by a company called Marinair. But Neve later switched to St Ives transformers, which they used until the late 70s. I once spoke to Geoff Tanner about this, who designs the gear at Aurora Audio. He worked at Neve in the 60s and 70s and explained it to me. So again, it’s all about who you get your intel from. You can’t rely on the Internet for this kind of thing.
Again, I think the most important thing is to trust your own ears and not be enslaved by what’s fashionable. Aurora Audio sounds great, although different from vintage Neve. It’s the same with the Chandler LTD-1 or the BAE 1073; they all have their own flavor, but it’s not because you use one or the other that your track will turn out good.
You mentioned earlier that you now prefer to rent gear for your studio, instead of buying it. How much of your studio has scaled down since the Future Music interview?
It’s scaled down a lot since then (laughs). I used to have a lot of synths, but not anymore. I remember going over to my friends’ studios, and they’d have walls lined with cool-looking synths that they never used. I would point to one of them and ask, “When was the last time you used this? “, and they’d say “Hmm, it’s been a while “. I didn’t want to end up in a similar situation, so I sold all the stuff I didn’t use.
It’s a bad idea to romanticize how things were made decades ago: you’ll most likely end up misinterpreting it. Here’s an example: I was always a fan of Vangelis‘ music and his Blade Runner soundtrack. It was the first film my parents bought for me on VHS, and I later asked them to buy me the soundtrack on vinyl, which they did. So I grew up thinking Vangelis and his music was amazing because of that LP. But I later learned that the first vinyl release of the soundtrack wasn’t made by Vangelis at all. The label thought the soundtrack would be a commercial flop, so one of the producers released it in 1982 as a collaboration with the New American Orchestra, who replayed and reinterpreted everything. But if you look at pictures of Vangelis’ studio and his 80s synths, you might be led to think he used all those instruments on the soundtrack album. So it would be easy to misrepresent the sound of Vangelis by getting excited about his synths, when in fact none of them were even on the original soundtrack. In reality, Vangelis’ original score wasn’t released until 1994.
(Above: Some of Fred’s gear at home)
You said once in a past interview, “When I started out, I didn’t know what a good converter was until someone showed me the difference “. Talk to me about converters and how important they are to the sound of a track. Also, which ones do you use?
Conversion is essential. When I first started, I had no idea what it was about. My first converter was a crappy Emu sound-card. I only bought it because of the brand name, completely forgetting that Emu of the 2000s wasn’t the same as the classic Emu from the 80s. The guy at the audio store told me not to buy it, and to go with the Apogee stuff instead, but I didn’t listen because I was so enamored by everything labelled “Emu” (laughs). I ended up going back a few days later and saying, “You were right, I’ll take the Apogee instead…” But we became friends after that, so it was ultimately a good experience.
Every year, companies are releasing new gear which they claim is “perfect”….until next year when they have the new “perfect” product. So in that sense, converters are marketed like toothpaste. What was wrong with the toothpaste from 30 years ago? Nothing, but they keep releasing new brands no-one is asking for. So it’s more important that you decide which brand you want, whether it’s Burl, UA, Prism, Antelope, Apogee or Lavry. What I did was to try different ones by A-Bing them in my studio, and ultimately picked the one I liked the most.
Would you place the same kind of importance on clocking? How does clocking affect the sound you get in a studio?
Clocking is also important. I never took it seriously in the beginning because I ran into a guy who misled me into thinking that clocking is only about syncing two pieces of gear together so that they run with each other, which is not the whole truth. The type of clock you have, paired together with your converter, makes a big difference to the kind of sound you get. There’s a great interview done by Alan Meyerson where he talks about how important clocking is, which I recommend people watch. He mixes film scores by Hans Zimmer, like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Dark Knight Rises.
Personally, I use a clock by Black Lion Audio, and sometimes I clock from an old Apogee unit, depending on the sound I want.
Speaking of plugins, what are your thoughts on how to use them? On one hand, you came from an analog background, but you’ve transitioned to working in-the-box. Is there a way you get the most out of your plugins?
I can give a piece of advice for that: don’t get comfortable using presets on plugins. They’re always named after a famous engineer: “Grammy winner’s bla bla kick preset“. But when that Grammy winning producer mixes a kick drum with that plugin, it’s not going to be the same kick that you’re mixing in your bedroom. So how could you just use his preset without tweaking anything?
It’s important to know your limits when using plugins. I don’t see any reason to use ten plugins on one channel. When I open projects by other artists that I’m mixing or producing, I sometimes see vocal tracks with a compressor, EQ, limiter, multiband compressor, another EQ to fix what the multi-band was doing, and whole thing is bussed to an aux with yet another EQ and compressor. After I remove all that stuff, the vocal suddenly comes to life. Wow, what a surprise…not. A real-world studio would never let you work like that. Commercial studios don’t have ten compressors on the wall for you to use, and even if they did, it’s impossible to use all of them on one channel. Old-school engineers knew how to achieve great dynamics using very little processing. But because of the options in a DAW, people have become lazy and want presets to do the work for them. But what they forget is that each plugin is consuming a portion of their CPU’s processing power. When you mix in-the-box, it’s the CPU that determines whether the final bottleneck is small or large, so overloading the CPU is going to negatively affect your sound. A computer is ultimately just a huge calculator. It’s like playing video games: if you select the maximum frame rate and graphics, the CPU won’t be able to deliver unless it’s fast enough, and then the whole game will slow down noticeably. It’s the same with a DAW; the headroom on your mix-bus is obviously linked to the CPU usage. That’s why when you look at mix sessions by the top engineers, you don’t see ten plugins on one track. They’re very selective about the plugins they use in order to not overload their computer. You might see a large number of audio tracks, but that’s not demanding much CPU usage. I’ve never seen a professional mix session that overuses plugins; that would be the sign of an amateur. But to be honest, I used to be like that in my early mixing days. Initially, I only had the Waves SSL 4000 pack, which meant I couldn’t overload on different plugins. But then I got the Diamond bundle, and my overload problems started. I would open up my old sessions that only had a few SSL plugins on them, and that version sounded better than the new one with tons of plugins on it.
Also, when you don’t have any knowledge of engineering, it becomes a bad idea to mix-and-match multiple plugins, especially EQs, because they all have different frequency curves that can create phasing issues. It’s not like an analog console, where the whole unit works together and you have a summing section at the end.
Speaking of engineering, can I ask what your bass guitar chain is?
My bass is recorded using the DI, going straight into the Prism interface, which I love because the pre-amps are clean and have lots of headroom. If I need dirt in my sounds, I just crank my mixer to make it crunch. My mixer is an old TAPCO, designed by Greg Mackie. It was cheap, but is well-made and has low maintenance costs.
Alright, let’s wrap up by taking a look at some of your tracks that I’ve grown to like. Are the 808 drums from “808s on the Beach” from a real machine or from sample packs?
It’s a real Roland TR-808. I didn’t have one myself, but I borrowed it from one of my friends so I could sample the drums.
How did you get the pitched-down tape stop effects at the start of “Last Wave”?
At the time I did that track, a friend of mine was on the couch in my apartment playing video games. I had just started using Ableton, and my friend knew more about it than I did, so he would show me some things, and then go back to playing his games. The pitched-down effect came during those practice sessions. The sound was first chopped up in Ableton, and then I applied a plugin called SupaTrigga, made by Smart Electronix. I would put it on a track, record the plugin effects to audio, and then select the bits I wanted to keep afterwards.
All of the “Part IV” album was done with Ableton, Apogee converters and a Mackie desk, although I may have used the Alesis 3630 on the master buss at times as well.
What’s the distorted bass synth at the start of “Bare Knuckle”?
It came from the Studio Electronics Omega 8 synth. I didn’t play that bass part live though. It’s been re-sampled, which is something I do pretty often. I just open a synth and jam around with it, whilst recording the audio. Then I would come back to it later and chop out a small segment to make a track.
And the auto-pan swirl at 1:25?
It’s a re-sampled bit from the same Omega 8 synth. The panning effect was created by the synth itself, where you press a button and the different voices pan themselves. So it’s an effect that was recorded to audio when I was jamming.
What’s the phasey synth on “Wait for Love” at 00:08?
That track was done on an MPC60 and SP-1200. The phasey synth was my Yamaha CS-60. It was sampled into the SP-1200, which made it sound crunchy. I think the phaser was from an old Roland effects pedal. The bass was played into the MPC60.
There’s a storm sound in the beginning of “Memories”. Was that done using a synth? What about the piano and the saw-tooth synth?
No, it’s a storm audio sample that I had. I don’t remember where it came from. The piano was an old Bechstein from the 19th century. The saw synth came from the Omega 8. It’s one of the few synths I’ve had since near the start of my career. I bought it as soon as I started making enough money to buy gear.
In 2010, you and BURNS released “Y.S.L.M”. How did that track come about?
We started that track from scratch using a vinyl rip that we imported into Ableton. I haven’t used analog samplers for a long time. They don’t have that much magic to them, in my opinion. But I will say this: their interfaces lead you to work a certain way, which can determine your outcome. A lot of people think I still use the SP-1200, when in fact I have a chain in Ableton that gives me the exact same sound. It’s not worth paying $3000 for an SP-1200, but people seem to believe you need one to make “authentic” music like Pete Rock or Daft Punk.
I’m really curious about this subject now. Can you please show me the guy who’s making music comparable to 90s Daft Punk or Pete Rock in Ableton? Where are these people?
Wait a minute though. It’s like I said before: it’s not just about the gear. Take the SP-1200 as an example. It was a big part of Daft Punk’s early sound, and I know the machine very well. But I sold mine years ago because I wasn’t using it. The Daft Punk sound isn’t just a sample in an SP-1200, running into an Alesis 3630. It’s also about how the sample was pitched, chopped, sequenced, and the source of their drums. When people want to emulate Daft Punk, they think it’s enough to just pick a four-bar disco sample and play a kick on it; that’s not what Daft Punk did. Their process wasn’t self-evident. Sure, they used an SP-1200, but you also have to figure out the rest of the process on your own, and not be lazy about it. And also, figure out that process before you buy an expensive synth or sampler. I have yet to meet anyone in person who bought a $3000 SP-1200, and made good music with it.
Alright, you win, haha. Let’s look at one of your recent tracks. What are the swirl synths on the “Crepuscule” intro?
That intro sound is actually a combination of samples from my old SP-1200 and some other sound sources.
Oh, really? A real SP-1200? Not plugins, haha?
Hold on, it’s not just the SP1200! That one came from a file on the SP’s floppy disk that I had backed up to my computer before I sold the sampler. But there were other samples layered alongside it, and I was able to recreate a similar SP sound for them using Ableton plugins like Redux. And by the way, the plugin chain actually sounds better than the SP-1200!
That’s a big statement you’re making there…
No, I’m serious. People who haven’t worked with the SP-1200 have a fantasy that everything you throw at it will sound great. But sometimes when you detune the sample, the end result sounds horrible. But there’s no other way to create that classic, crunchy sound without using the SP’s detune function. So now you’re stuck with a bad-sounding sample that can’t be fixed if all you have is the SP-1200. At least with a plugin chain, you can achieve something very similar and avoid tuning problems.
Like I said before, hardware samplers and synths are great for their workflow and interface, more so than their sound. It’s great to work with knobs and buttons, as opposed to a mouse. But as for the sound, you can get that in-the-box if you know how.
Alright Fred, this was a long interview, but I enjoyed it. Thanks for all the valuable info you shared! What’s next for you in 2019?