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Breakbot & Irfane: “You'd expect hardware synths to fill in the blank better, but sometimes they simply don't”

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(Image credit: Press/Breakbot)

It’s been over a decade since Breakbot and Irfane caught the attention of groove purveyors across the globe with their irresistibly smooth breakout single “Baby I’m Yours”, but the French disco-funk duo haven’t come close to losing their preternatural ability to conjure feel-good vibes and pop panache from an admirable collection of synths, drum machines and vintage gear.

In that time, Breakbot’s refined his euphoric sound across two studio albums and a handful of EPs, remixed everyone from Lizzo and Charlotte Gainsbourg to MGMT and Purple Disco Machine, and finished constructing a brand new studio, which he shares with Irfane. “Like many of you, we were forced to watch the world from our homes for months on end”, he says of his experience of the pandemic. “On the upside, this allowed us to finish the construction of our studio and start working on new material.”

His latest project, the Remedy EP, sees the pair reunite for a four-track dose of pharmaceutical-grade funk, replete with liquid basslines, soaring synths and a much-needed message of hope and optimism. “This is the first track we fully recorded and mixed in our new laboratory, which brings us much pride and joy,” Breakbot says of the new record. “It embodies our quest for the ‘Remedy’ to this pandemic.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

Tell us about the new EP. What was the inspiration behind the concept?

Irfane: “It's kind of a wink at the current situation. So it was a source of inspiration that we didn't really know how to put into words at first, so rather than approach it directly, we tried to work around images around the pandemic. It's our version of something that's affecting everybody. 

“I think the whole point of our music has always been to make something personal as universal as possible, so it's just the same kind of exercise of taking what we're feeling and trying to make it echo in everybody's feelings.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

Could you pick out one or two bits of equipment - instruments, effects, plugins - that were fundamental to the making of the new record?

I: “There are two things that we used quite a bit. One of the backbones of The Light - and of Disease, but we ended up taking it out - was a Roland CR-78. That and a Prophet-5 would be the two main things in terms of gear.

“In terms of effects, one thing that we tend to use a lot on vocals is as an Ursa Major Space Station STT-282. I used it not so much as a crazy delay that’s overly audible, but just to give it a little something. It's got an amazing way of giving a lead a lot of stereo image, thanks to the delays. And when it's subtly tuned, I think it sounds great.”

Breakbot: “I tend to use a lot of plugins, and I’m a big fan of the Arturia collection. They did a fabulous job recreating our favourite keyboard sounds and it’s very fun to play with. Many of the sounds we used come from their libraries, even if we sometimes dub them with real Moog or Juno recordings.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

You mention the Prophet-5 - do you guys tend to lean more towards hardware synths, as opposed to software?

It’s one of those plugins, you almost don’t want to use it, because once it’s on it’s so hard to go back

I: “It’s a bit of both, you know. Thibaut works a lot inside the box and with a lot of plugins, and it's kind of trial and error. So when there are sounds that we think could be better, we try to replace them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. And we do end up with quite a collage of different things. You'd expect the hardware synths to fill in the blank better, but they simply don't sometimes. So it's often a case of, let's listen, and let's try to see if it sounds better. 

“Another key piece of equipment was a Fender Rhodes that we've been using through a Fender Twin amp with an SM-57. We tried to record it direct, but it's almost too bright and clean. Whereas when we tried recording it with a mic, it gives it a little more. It's a little less wide, and it just fits in the mix great. We almost don't touch anything.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

Are there a couple plugins you could pick out as your go-to?

I: “This is maybe no secret, but a plugin that has yet to be equalled in terms of chorus is the TAL-Chorus, which we tend to use quite a bit. You can hear it on the bass in Remedy. It’s just one of those plugins, you almost don’t want to use it, because once it’s on, it’s so hard to go back to not having it. I think it sounds great.”

You’ve developed a pretty recognisable sound over the years. With this new EP, do you feel like you’re refining your signature Breakbot sound, or perhaps doing something different?

I: “Speaking for Thibaut [Breakbot], I’m first of all just a huge fan of his sound and what he’s developed, I’m happy to have been able to tag along. But the DNA is all there. If you listen to his productions from way back, he’s really thinking about leaving space between bass, drums and guitars. It’s a very mechanical, intertwining pattern. 

“He’s great at doing that, and we’ve just upgraded the formula - not so much in terms of how it works, but in terms of how it sounds. Instead of going and doing everything in the box, we’ve been moving towards trying to record stuff, more and more.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

What other music were you listening to when you wrote these tracks - who inspired you?

I: “In terms of current stuff that we've been listening to, I think the output of Deewee has had a lot of influence, just because it sounds so good to our ears. There are a couple of bands that we really like, and that we keep mentioning, but that are just fantastic in their way that they render older sounds. Young Gun Silver Fox is one of those. Not to mention all the older stuff that we keep listening to, from Prince to lesser-known funk outfits.”

You guys have been working together as a duo for a while now. Could you walk us through your collaborative process?

B: “We like to think that there are no other rules than having fun and trying to surprise each other with new experiments. In terms of musical production, we are both deeply involved in the process. For the vocal parts, I let Irfane write the lyrics and melodies, something he is particularly good at.”

I: “The cool thing about working together for so long, is that right now, there's no real rules. It can stem from anything, but a typical process would be to start with a couple Ableton loops in edit mode that Thibaut has, that we can jam on and try to find a top line to, and then see what's missing. We kind of build as we go along.

We’ve upgraded the formula. Instead of doing everything in the box, we’ve been moving more towards trying to record stuff

“I rarely have a full set of lyrics ready to record, I think we've always been more inclined to work the melodies first. And from the melodies try to fill in the words. So it's kind of technical. And I realised that it's almost harder to do it that way. Because you're always kind of stuck with your original melodic pattern and you're trying to stick words to it, which isn't always an easy thing. But that's the usual way of doing it. 

“It’s little bits of instrumental, then vocals. What does it need? Work on a B part. Is the core strong enough? Can we reharmonise that? Thibaut is amazing at harmonies. So usually, we'll have one version, and the first version will never be the same harmonically as how it ends up. It’ll always be a little more subtle.

“Thibaut is a much better keyboard player than I am, he’s classically trained. So when we’re recording, most of the time, I’m engineering the session, trying to tweak the sounds a bit, or messing around with the drum machines, and he’s playing.” 

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

What do you like about Ableton as opposed to other DAWs

B: “I’m not really familiar with Logic and Cubase. I started a long time ago with FL Studio, then moved to Reason and finally installed my first copy of Ableton around 12 years ago. 

“What I love about it is that there are so many different ways to get to the same result. It’s extremely user-friendly and the constant updates never cease to improve an already solid software. Simply one of the best toys ever!”

Talk to us about the new studio. 

I: “It’s a basement studio. We basically dug a metre, the floor used to be up here, and we got rid of over a metre of clay soil. One of the solutions would have been to build a box in a box, but we would have lost so much space. And I’m my own neighbour, so I’m not troubled by the noise.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

Could you tell us about some of the equipment you’re working with in there?

I: “One of the main things are the monitors. They’re more or less custom-built by a French brand called Amey. They’ve completely changed the way that we work in terms of us being able to mix, finally. We used to try to finish as much as possible before going to another studio to finalise. Thanks to these, we’ve been able to mix everything here.

“The whole way that the studio was built, or that we tried to conceive it, is that everything is plug-and-play. Everything is patched directly. And you can turn it on, and the aim is that within 30 seconds, you can just play with whatever you’re using, and record it. Everything is patched in, and our desk is just for monitoring. There’s no hardware desk for mixing. Once it’s in the box, it usually doesn’t go back out.

It might sound heretic, but I tend to prefer the Korg Stage Echo to the Roland Space Echo

“A key piece of gear, and the microphone that we used for all the vocals on the new EP, is the AKG C12B. I was lucky to find it in France. It’s basically the large diaphragm capsule from a C12, in an older incarnation of the C414. It’s an absolutely stunning-sounding mic that you can use on everything.

“I don’t think we recorded any drums here, but we have a drum kit, which sounds great - that was one of the big tests. We use the Lexicon Super Prime Time quite a bit too. It’s from the 80s, and it’s absolutely ruthless. It’s pretty wild. Also, this is an absolute killer unit - the AMS DM2-20. It’s a phaser, but it can also be used as a delay.”

Is a lot of your gear fairly vintage? 

I: “Yeah, pretty much everything. We’ve got these two Space Echos. It might sound heretic, but I tend to prefer the Korg Stage Echo to the Roland. It’s cleaner to my ears, and it’s easier to use. I love the feedback control, it’s absolutely great. They’re similar in a way, but we use the Stage Echo more.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

How does this compare to the set-up you were working with on older tracks like Baby I’m Yours?

I: “There wasn’t any of this at all. Just for my vocals, the one thing that I did have for those tracks was the Chandler Germanium preamp, and a 1176 compressor. But I didn’t have the same microphone.”

So you built this studio over lockdown?

I: “Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s been an ongoing process for the past three, four years. But tour life and construction don't really go well together. It was just the question of trying to find the time and commitment. You know, I have a kid now. So weeks can go by, and it just seems like time is running out constantly. The fact that the world stopped for a little bit was what enabled us to finish everything here.”

irfane

(Image credit: Irfane)

Did you find yourself more or less creative over the lockdown?

I: “It was a bit of both. To be honest, I think we were just watching our world for a little bit. And I think we all needed a break too. So it came as a surprise at first - an unhappy one - but soon turned into something quite enjoyable. So yeah, we did get creative after a month or two. And that's when we finished this up, pretty much.”

You’ve remixed a huge array of artists over the years. How do you typically approach remixing someone else’s work? 

B: “My favourite thing about remixing is building a brand new song around the acapella. I love to find new chord progressions and arrangements that I think would fit the vocals.”

Is there an artist out there you’ve dreamed of remixing that you haven’t had the chance to?

B: “There are a lot! I would love to remix Tyler, the Creator, Silk Sonic, Tame Impala and many more!”

What else do you have planned for 2022?

I: “We’re going on tour, we’re touring the states in March. We have quite a few gigs in Europe, and a few festivals over the summer. We’re doing quite a few shows with Defected, who’ve been a great support and are such a lovely team. They’ve asked us to remix Groovejet by Spiller, so we have our version coming out in March. That’s another song we completely recorded here. That features the Rhodes, the Prophet-5, Juno-106, some Moog. So we have a couple remixes that we’re currently working on, and we’re hoping to finish an album here, too.”

Breakbot & Irfane’s Remedy EP is out now on Ed Banger Records.

Their new studio was designed by Red House Studio & Acoustics.

I'm the Tech Features Editor for MusicRadar, working on everything from artist interviews to tech tutorials. I've been writing about (and making) electronic music for over a decade, and when I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, or a synthesizer. 

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