Vitalic is a man who knows what he wants. He doesn't always know how to get what he wants, but as far as he's concerned, in terms of his music that's no bad thing. He had his first release on DJ Hell's Gigolo Records, a debut album on PIAS and has remixed some of Electronic music's most respected artists, including Daft Punk, Björk and Jean Michel Jarre.
The Frenchman, real name Pascal Arbez, started his music-making career on an MS-20 and an Ensoniq Mirage sampler, spending countless hours cutting his teeth by learning to program his synths to mimic his hero Jarre's unique tones. His first single, La Rock 01, released in 2001, became a summer anthem and four years later his debut album, OK Cowboy, matched its acclaim. Two albums and a whole heap of remixes later and he's currently embarking on an epic tour, incorporating visuals and a live band. We visited Vitalic's studio in Dijon, France, to talk about his approach to music-making, his ever-morphing studio and putting together his live show.
Did you start out as a producer or a DJ?
"I started as a producer; I wasn't interested in DJing at all. When I was a kid I was really into Jean Michel Jarre so it was my dream to make that sort of music. I bought some cheap synthesizers - my first synth was a Roland Alpha Juno-1 - and I had an Ibanez mixer that was really crap. I had a Korg MS-20, too, which was super-expensive, so I had to work during the summer to pay for it. I bought a Novation Bass Station; I really love all the synths from Novation. I have two UltraNovas because I think they have their own character and you can do anything with them. I bought an Ensoniq Mirage sampler and a Novation Drum Station and triggered the whole lot from an Amiga."
Were you just experimenting with that equipment, or did you take a course in production?
"The MS-20 is a great way to learn about synthesis. I learned to make music this way; there were no presets on my synths and I think that helped me to develop my own sound. I had to learn by myself and it was just trial and error."
Were you trying to make music in the style of Jean Michel Jarre?
"No. I was trying to make Daft Punk-style music, like everyone else [laughs]. But I didn't have the right set-up for that. My main goal was to play live, actually. In Dijon, there was a club with great parties and the scene was really alive. I would play there maybe three times a month, with all of my synths - we had a lot of equipment to bring along. I'd play with other musicians and sometimes we didn't even know what we were about to play. It was a bit messy, but it was a lot of fun. I released a record and started to tour around France. Soon after that I released a record on Gigolo [Poney EP] and suddenly I was touring everywhere."
How did the Gigolo release come about?
"I really wanted to sign to Gigolo because it was a very different type of label. I was never that into pure Techno, but I didn't know exactly what I was looking for. Gigolo had some pure Techno, but it also had sexy Disco stuff like Ms Kittin and The Hacker, so I felt it was the right place for me. I worked on some tracks and gave my CD to DJ Hell, then he called me and wanted to sign it. I had the feeling it was the beginning of something; it was the place to be at the time and I was happy with my record. But as much as I liked Gigolo, I moved to PIAS because Gigolo was a bit messy - it just wasn't right for the album."
In what way was it messy?
"The great thing about Gigolo was that DJ Hell was the master - the god of the label, the new David Bowie. The downside of that was that it meant you didn't have your own space. We were the foot soldiers for DJ Hell and you reach a point where you want to be the warrior. Plus, they were signing too many musicians and it was slow and difficult to communicate. I wanted a company that was really going to get behind me and was focused on what I was doing."
So you had a clear vision for the record?
"My vision is usually: I don't know what I want, but I know what I don't want."
How did your studio grow between the EP and the album?
"My studio has always been a bit spread out. I have three different types of live show and I live between Paris and Dijon, so I have lots of different bits of equipment all over the place. But to be honest, I like to limit myself when I'm making an album. When I made the EP I only had an Elka Synthex, a Mirage sampler - even though I don't really consider that an instrument - and an RSF Kobol…"
Wow, they are quite rare…
"Yeah, and I sold it! I really regret that. I still look on eBay but haven't found one since [laughs]. I also had the Novation UltraNova and I made the whole EP with those four things. For the album, I had a DSI Mono Evolver, a Moog Voyager and an Alesis Andromeda. I think it's better to focus on a few machines rather than having a whole load of sounds and presets to choose from."
So you're not a big plug-in user?
"Now more than then, for sure, but I'm lazy and if I can't get the sound I need straightaway, I get frustrated. Having said that, I'm really crazy about the free TAL U-No-62 Juno plug-in. I use it just about everywhere."
What's your song-writing process?
"Most of the time it's a case of making loops, sketches and ideas. I keep it all on my computer and come back to it later. Other times, I just leave the computer and play everything live, which was the case on La Rock 01. It's not sequenced; I didn't have the MIDI converter for the Synthex so I just played it by hand. I also like playing around with the Korg Monotron - I just leave everything recording and play around."
What are your main sources for drums?
"Right now, I really like the Arturia Spark and MOTU BPM. Ableton's built-in samples are pretty good, too. I only use drum machines, I don't sample very much."
Do you record vocalists yourself?
"Most of the time they record themselves and then send me the files. Then I take what they've recorded and chop it up and play around with it."
I wanted to ask you about distortion because it's a big part of your sound. What are your go-to distortion units?
"I used to just distort with the mixing desk - with the Mackie it used to work nicely - but now I use an effect. Ableton's own Saturator plug-in or the one in the UltraNova are both really cool. I just tend to drive them pretty hard and try to get a good tone out of them."
What would you like to buy next for your studio?
"I went to Japan and I bought a MemoryMoog, but the machine is still getting repaired. It worked in theshop when I bought it, but when it arrived in France it stopped… I'd like to get the ARP 2600 - I love the sound of that. I'd love to get the Analogue Solutions Tereshkova, too. I think modular synths are the next step, but I'm not the kind of person who spends hours researching things online. I much prefer to go to a shop, try it and buy it right there. I'm too impatient to wait for things to be delivered!"
Is it the same when you're making music? Do you need things to happen fast?
"Not really. Sometimes I try and do things that I don't have the skills to do, so I have to walk away from the track for a while and come back to it. But once all the elements are made, it all comes together very quickly."
Your album, Rave Age, was mixed in Paris by Stéphane 'Alf' Briat. Why did you choose him?
"He's Electronic Pop sound is really good and I didn't want the record to have an overly compressed, Techno sound. There are some vocals on there, too, and he has a lot of experience of working with that. The vocals were real - they were made with vocoders or distorted. It's easy to make vocals fit when you distort them, but this time I wanted proper songs and I needed a guy who could do that."
How involved do you get in the mix?
"I'm not super-technical so I need someone at the end of the process. When I'm making music, I need there to be errors. I make music like it's live - like I'm playing the instruments - and I don't think too much about the mix; I'm just trying to get my ideas out. A lot of the sounds that trigger my ideas come from effects - how the reverb creates a new rhythm, the delays, the filtering - but it's mostly about the melodies, the sounds and the synth programming. That's what I know about and that's what I enjoy.
"When I look at magazines like Future Music and I see the Logic sessions with two million tracks, I'm speechless; I can't believe it. I have 12 tracks, maybe 16 if I'm adding vocals. You don't need all those tracks. If you listen to early Daft Punk or Caribou, you can hear they aren't using a lot of tracks, it's just an idea and it's done well with a few elements. I'm more into making every part count."
How much of the song is developed at the mixing stage?
"It can happen that you have a new idea during mixing. Often I'll change some things at the last minute because, even though they were right in my studio, when I take them to another, it doesn't sound as good. For the last album [Rave Age] I ended up changing quite a lot of bass drums and even the lead synth lines at the last minute. It's great that you can do that now, though, without too much hassle."
What's your approach when remixing?
"I try to put my own stamp on the track. I do tend to change a lot of things; I did a remix for Björk [Who Is It] and ended up changing the melody line of the vocals just because it wasn't fitting with the idea I'd come up with [laughs]! Luckily, she liked it. I did it in Ableton and it made her vibrato sound really weird, but I just thought of it as an effect in the end. If I try to sound like someone else, I can't do it. There are many people who sound exactly the same - it's crazy how many people sound like Skrillex. In the beginning, I was really trying to sound like other people - to figure out how they got their sound. I don't do it so much now, but I think it's a process every beginner producer goes through: trying to copy someone else.
"Plus, because I'm not as technical, I'd hear people say, 'Daft Punk use a lot of compression', and I'd have a compressor and I wouldn't know what to do with it! I just decided that I wasn't going to get into that kind of thing and instead wanted to focus on the synthesizer as an instrument. It took me a long time to realise that EQ, compression and mixing techniques are just as much a part of the composition process as the music itself. Plus, you've got to go your own way sometimes, too, and trust what you're doing. Your heroes might have a message that you like, but at some point you've got to find your own message."
Who was the last producer you listened to and thought, 'Wow, how did they do that?'
"I think it was Caribou. The production is so simple; everything has its place. It's a mixture of real instruments and electronics, which I like. The same goes for Four Tet. It's weird because I'm really crazy about stuff that's nothing like what I make. I rarely listen to Techno."
Why do you think that is?
"I don't think there are a lot of new things going on in Techno at the minute. There are a lot of kids discovering it now who don't know about its origins. When I hear a recent track, I can tell if it's a pure copy of something else because I was there at the start. Also, it's party music at the end of the day, so you don't need a lot of elements, just a strong kick and bass. Maybe that makes it harder to be innovative in Techno. It's not just a case of everyone having access to powerful music-making tools, it's also a case of everyone having access to music and production techniques. I remember when we were all trying to imitate Daft Punk; we had no idea what they were doing or what they were using. Despite the fact that we were trying to get their sound, along the way, we found our own sound. I'm not saying music was better when all this technical information wasn't available, or that music was more unique, but I think not having so much information led to you finding your own musical path."
What about electronic music in France then? For the past ten years Electro has dominated it.
"I don't go out too often in Paris because I'm always touring, but the Ed Banger sound got a lot ofattention and was really cool. But then it expanded outside of France and everyone got a bit stuck on it until recently. Now it's all about House music, which I hate [laughs]! I like Disco, but I don't understand the TR-909 kick and hat repetition. It feels like it's all the same. Disco seems colder, more synthesized; there are more arpeggiators and vocals. In House it's just one bit, sampled and repeated. I really love what Diplo does, I think he's one of the best producers in the world, but I couldn't make a party with four hours of that sound!"
Vitalic's most recent EP Fade Away is out now. Keep an eye on his website www.vitalic.org for the latest information and live dates.