Alan Braxe interview and video studio tour
As part of Stardust, Alan Braxe created Music Sounds Better With You, crowning him part of French House monarchy. Back in 2009 FM swooped over to Paris for a rare insight into his home studio.
Sadly, it's not every day that we get the opportunity to visit a producer that took part in creating one of House music's all-time classic tracks. It's especially rare when the person is Alain Quême, aka Alan Braxe, a man who has successfully avoided interviews and photoshoots for the best part of 15 years.
"We did about five or six demos as Stardust after Music Sounds Better With You but we decided it would be much cooler to just keep it as a single record."
Working out of his home studio, Braxe is a shy individual, obsessed by classic equipment. Out of the same office, Braxe runs his own label, Vulture Music, home to big names such as Kris Menace, Fred Falke and Fenech Soler. Situated in a quiet area, a short journey outside of Paris, the classic French surroundings feel like an unlikely spot to create funky French House and Electro, but stepping into the sunken studio room, you're met with a tasty selection of studio outboard, synths and an overflowing ashtray. A number of framed vinyl are dotted idly around the room, proving sales figures ofover 100,000 for Stardust, while a Kylie Minogue remix picture-disc leans against the wall still looking for a home.
Braxe seems to take success in his stride and it's easy to forget the impact both Music Sounds Better With You and Intro/Running, his collaboration with Fred Falke, had on the Dance music scene on their release.
As the cousin of both DJ Falcon and Quartet and a long-time friend of Daft Punk, he remains grounded, growing alongside the scene and continuing to release some of the best produced and well-renowned remixes and originals on offer. We play it cool in the presence of French House royalty and sit down for an exclusive interview...
Have you always had a passion for Dance and Electronic music?
"When I was a kid I was living in the suburbs of Paris I played cello, bass guitar and clarinet. But it was when I moved to the South of France, Toulouse, when I really began to make Electronic music."
Do you still play the instruments when making Electronic music?
"Yes, although I am not that strong at playing keyboards because I'm very much used to the monophonic instruments and getting my left and right hands to do separate things can sometimes be a problem."
"Two or three years ago I tried to do everything using a computer but I really didn't like it."
Why did you make the move to Electronic music if you began with such classical instruments?
"At maybe 16 or 17 years old I discovered Techno and House music and I started buying 12-inches and going to clubs. The scene was so incredible to me, it felt like this music movement was so creative and fresh. I bought some equipment when I was about 25 years old and decided to try and make Electronic music also."
What did you buy?
"I bought a small 12-channel Mackie mixer, an Alesis 3630 compressor and a very old sampler from Casio, the FZ-1. This was what I learnt to sample on before I got the E-mu SP 1200 that you see in my studio now. By this point I was lucky enough to have met Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk and I played him my first demo, Vertigo, and he wanted to release it on his label, Roulé."
How did you meet Thomas Bangalter?
"Just from going to clubs. At that time the scene was really small so it was very easy to meet people."
And was Thomas important in the scene because of Roulé Records?
"Yeah I suppose, but we were already friends so it seemed really obvious to give him the demo."
How did that make you feel when it was released?
"It was great – when I bought the equipment this was my goal. I was in a bit of a difficult situation as I'd failed my degree from university and had just returned from my military service with nothing."
So it was really a make or break scenario when you bought the equipment?
"Yeah, I gave myself one year after buying the equipment before getting a 'real' job so after the single was released I was more than happy to be released on such a fantastic label."
Did you start DJing at this time also?
"No, I only started DJing around three years ago (2006). At the time I was only interested in being in the studio and learning the process of making music rather than going to clubs and playing records. The computer was not that important at the time so there were lots to learn in terms of MIDI, synchronisation and hardware."
What equipment has been the most important to your sound?
"I would have to say the SP 1200 and the MPC60, because I would never sell them. You can make an entire album with these machines, a mixer and a hardware compressor."
So you're not into plug-ins.
"No. Not at all."
"For the sound and because of the creative process. But, it's a bit of a global nightmare in reality because all the tracks are ending up as MP3 files now, so it seems crazy to spend a lot of money on expensive equipment. For me it's the personal pleasure of using this gear during the creative process and hearing how much better it sounds than the plug-ins is just one of the bonuses."
So have any of the plug-ins impressed you at all?
"No. But it's just my opinion because I enjoy working with old equipment. Two or three years ago I tried to do everything using a computer but I really didn't like it. I stopped using DAT though and started recording using Digital Performer."
Why Digital Performer?
"Well, I had a MOTU interface at the time and I just thought the same brand of software would work really well together, but I now use Ableton Live as my main software."
For DJing too?
"No I use CDs as I find it much more exciting because you can actually fuck the mix up. Ableton feels a bit too ridged for me when I am DJing."
So when you released Vertigo in 1997, what happened next?
"Well, about four months after that I made Music Sounds Better With You, with Thomas [Bangalter] and Benjamin [Diamond] and it was a big success. It was a bit too fast in fact and it changed everything."
Was that sharp rise to fame difficult?
"No I was protected by Thomas and Roulé Records so it was OK."
Why did Stardust not become a long-term project?
"We did about five or six demos as Stardust after Music Sounds Better With You but we decided it would be much cooler to just keep it as a single record. I think it gives the record a certain magic and mystery."
Do you think any of those Stardust demos will ever be released?
"No. It was a very interesting experience at that time, but I just wanted to go back to learning about music production and making my own records."
Financially, it must have been a relief though?
"Yes, it gave me time to focus on my own music and learn more."
Tell us about the making of Stardust Music Sounds Better With You.
"The track was built by sampling the 1981 Chaka Khan record Fate and was recorded in Thomas Bangalter's studio The E-mu SP 1200 was full withthe Chaka Khan sample, so the drums were from a Roland 909 drum machine and the bassline from a Korg Trident. There's also a Rhodes piano in there but you can barely hear it."
"Then we used the Ensoniq ASR-10 as a sort of computer and put the different sections of the track on different keys, triggering it to make the arrangement for the instrumental. Benjamin Diamond recorded the vocals which were compressed with an Alesis 3630, plus we used another 3630 compressor on the master buss of the entire track. And that was it."
Did you know it was special when you made it?
"There are a lot of magical moments when you are making music but they seem to be out of my control. I'm making music sometimes without anything going right and then suddenly, boom, you'll make a track in a day. I try to avoid using the same process over and over. I've been using the Alesis 3630 compressor for ages because everyone knows it's the typical French sound, but I'm sick of it and am going to stop using it. It rules how I mix a track and I'm fed up of it, because all my perception of the mix is led by the fact that it is going to be squashed hard in the Alesis.
"At the moment I'm a bit lost because all of the previous settings in my head mean nothing when using the other equipment, but it's sort of becoming creative and exciting again. Something I'm really interested in now is just stripping everything back and not using too many things in a track. I think that is the main problem when using a computer to make music. You have so many options that you end up throwing everything into a production. I'm trying to create really simple elements and let the beauty of the individual sounds really shine through – kick, snare, hat, bass, pad and you're done."
Do you think being able to make music this way is something that comes from experience? "Maybe, I think the fewer tracks there are the better it is. If I could use just six tracks and a tape recorder it would be amazing. When I started I was really happy with the E-mu SP 1200 sampler and the ten seconds of sampling it had. I learnt that you could make a whole track with this – three seconds for drums, then the rest for loops or vocals."
Bass is always a key element in your tracks, tell us about that...
"Well, most of the basslines are done by Fred Falke who I've been working with for a long time. For instance, the track Running, was created by a sample I found and played from the SP 1200. Then I took the track to Fred's place and recorded the bass line, it was all done in one day."
Any new equipment that you really like?
"Not much in terms of synthesizers. For example I bought a Prophet 8 and was very disappointed with how it sounded. Most of the time I'm disappointed with new equipment to be honest. But I did buy the Universal Audio converters which are incredible and the re-issue of the API EQs that I also love."
How do you make gear choices?
"Sometimes I know from using other people's gear, or I'm re-purchasing old synthesizers that I previously had sold. With the Oberheim I actually just read up on the internet and it seemed pretty good, but I actually didn't know how good it was going to be until it arrived. Now I'm really excited about getting to know it and being able to program any sound I want using it."