Famed for his stunning live concerts and the multi-million selling album Oxygene of 1976, French composer and electronic pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre is still going strong. Having studied under visionary musicologist Pierre Schaeffer in the ’50s, Jarre has a unique and fascinating insight into the unfolding history of electronic music, and has continued that legacy of experimentation throughout a career spanning five decades. This year, Jarre reveals Electronica, a huge project that sees him join forces with an army of collaborators whose own forays into electronic music have played an inspiring role. The first album, Electronica 1: The Time Machine, is released this autumn, with a second volume to follow in April 2016. Meanwhile, Jarre has plans to take it to the road for another live spectacular.
When digital technology came along, did you embrace it as eagerly as you had analogue?
“In terms of instruments, I think that electronic music went through some difficult times. It’s linked with the CD actually— the phenomenon of leaving vinyl and thinking that CD was the Holy Grail of technology, yet we know today that it was worse than vinyl, and MP3 is worse than CD, which was the 78 of the digital era It’s the same with the Japanese digital instruments. When the Yamaha DX7 was out, everybody thought that this was the future and analogue instruments were behind us. Everybody said it’s great, because you have presets, you can do whatever you want, but you were not as free to create the sounds you wanted in an intuitive way. Digital spent 15 to 20 years trying to compete with the warmth and sound of analogue, but only in the last five years with plug-ins like Diva, Dune, Monard, Omnisphere and the Native Instruments ones, is there a real new way of competing with the analogue Moog, Memorymoog or ARP 2600.”
In what way are plug-ins competing with analogue, other than merely replicating them?
“I think that the human brain is a fantastic chemical product, but you can cheat it. Like with cinema you see an image moving at 24 or 25 frames per second, but it’s actually a series of stills going so fast, you feel it’s a movement but ifs not. It’s exactly the same with digital; we now have so many ones and zeros that the human brain can hardly tell the difference. I always thought exactly what you thought, that because electricity is going through things you can’t replace it It is true and will always be true, but why do you necessarily want to do the same? It’s funny how, for marketing and nostalgia, all the interfaces of plug-ins are trying to imitate vintage instruments, but now I think it’s time to have something else.
In terms of digital software, you’ve been quoted as saying, “the lack of limitations is very dangerous”. Can you expand on that?
“Absolutely. I feel that any art form is made of limits. In the ’50s the speed of the 78 meant you could only get three-minute Elvis Presley songs, so the single format was created When LPs came along, people like Pink Floyd or myself were able to do a piece of music 20 minutes long. Now, because of Native Instruments’ Massive plug-in, Skrillex and Dubstep exists. So technology is dictating the style, not the reverse. My advice to a beginner would be to choose a plug-in you like and, as an exercise, stick with it for six months. Don’t explore anything else, but explore it to the maximum and you will see how you can express yourself in such an efficient way.”
With the mixing process, was there a crossover in technologies or did you finish it all yourself?
“I inked a lot of it in LA at Paramount Studios and also in Paris. Inns quite concerned as, at the end of the day, it’s a Jean-Michel Jarre album, so how could I create a unity between the work of Massive Attack, Pet Townsend, little Boots, Fuck Buttons or Air? All these collaborators have an instantly recognizable sound You listen to 30 seconds of Moby and you know it’s Moby. I was in the studio with him and he was playing a simple E minor — three notes like everybody can do — and it was Moby; and he told we it’s the same when I was playing some chords. I started with Pro Tools, but sometimes had 90 or 100 tracks, and that created some difficulties. So I had to try and get less because, as we know, less is more.”
Was this the reason that you switched to using Ableton to complete the project?
“‘Yes, because I think these days it is the best for what I want to achieve. I’ve been really fed up with Pan Tools; lots of studios are complaining that the maintenance costs more than the maintenance of the rest of your studio, and the fact that it’s heavy. What I liked so much about Ableton Live 8 is that it’s really for DJs, but in terms of audio quality, Ableton 9 is one of the best-sounding DAWs ever heard. When you do a bounce on Pro Tools you are losing something, but absolutely nothing on Ableton Live if you know one or two tricks. And also for flexibility; when I was traveling I did everything on a MacBook with a 1 a terabyte drive and two 1 terabyte SSD external hard drives and it was perfect.”
Do you use Ableton purely as a sequencer or do you use the software plug-ins and VSTs?
“I’m a big fan of the VSTs from Live. rm also using a lot of other audio units and VSTs apart from Ableton Live — and you can say the look of Ableton is not the sexiest in the world, but they work very well. Even compared to plug-ins from other companies, the Glue compressor is great and the reverb and EQ is great, and not too greedy in wrms of CPU. I used them a lot in the mixing, processing and even production.”
Do you mix on an SSL desk, not in the box?
“It’s a very interesting question because I started using the SSL a lot, but along the way I started to use it less and less. Even ten years ago I would not consider using the mouse to do the job, but on this album I used the SSL for recording and some premixing at the beginning, but all of the final stages I did in the box.”
When you start on a project, what is your go-to gear? You have so much…
“What you see here is not necessarily the gear I’m using all the time. I like to change a range of gear depending on the project and depending on the track. So you could come back in a month and the instruments mound me will be fairly different When I look back at this project — which has been massive in terms of production, the biggest those been involved with in my life — I used external analogue synths and plug-ins in equal part.”
Which are your favourite analogue synths?
“My favorites are the ARP 2600, the Memorymoog, the Eminent Solina, the Synthi AKS and VCS3, and also the Swarmatron, which is more recent but something I really like. I like synths like the Korg Micro-Preset — the old one, nothing to do with the MicroKorg — and lots of drum machines. In the big studio, I have an ARP 2500 and I also used the Fairlight CMI for the project with Air.”
Why did you return to the Fairlight?
“When we talked I said, okay, why don’t we do something that is more than a tradc by Air and JMJ? One track visiting all the generations of instruments, starting from the first way of doing sounds back in the ’50s, even tape loops. In those days, we had no sequencers, so to make a loop we used sellotape. If you have 120bpm for two bars, you could calculate the length of tape of an eighth or fourth note, add your bass drum or snare recording and by cutting the physical length of tape make a physical loop, put a mic stand in front of you and press record. That would play the loop infinitely and was how the first loop was ever made. So we started the track like this and then moved to the first Modular Moog, the first analogue monophonic, the analogue polyphonic Elka Synthex and Memorymoog, the Fairlight CMI and the E-mu Emulator II. Then we used the Roland D-50, Korg M 1, some plug-ins, and the last sound of the track is done with the iPad. We didn’t do everything in that order, but in the track we have all of these instruments, and the challenge we had was that everything should sound coherent.”
Is it possible to play this album live?
“Yes, I’m thinking seriously about starting touring next year. We have a lot of instrumental tracks, which are not a problem. Tangerine Dream is special because Edgar Froese passed away a few weeks after this track, so this is the last track from Tangerine Dream. A track like this or Fuck Buttons, and other tracks from the second album, are not a problem. Lots of these artists are also using their vocals as an instrument but not purely as a singing performance, so it’s not that difficult to do it, and some of the collaborators will join me on stage when they can.”