Producer/DJ Gareth Emery’s
new album, Drive, shows
what 12 years of studying
crowd reaction can do
MAMMAS, DON'T let your babies go
down to Ibiza. At least, not if you want
them to continue their classical piano
lessons. If you fancy them becoming globetrotting,
superstar DJs, then that’s another
story. In particular, that’s the story of England’s
Gareth Emery, electronic dance music (aka,
EDM) producer/DJ extraordinaire.
After a teenage Emery hit the notorious
Spanish party island in 1998, he quickly
immersed himself in dance music culture.
With the BREAKout club hit “Mistral” in 2002,
Emery turned pro for good, embarking on a
near-constant touring schedule that has sent
him DJ’ing across five continents inside the
biggest clubs in the world.
In 2006, he became one of the first DJs to
launch a regular DJ mix podcast, which helped propel him into DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list,
where he’s remained ever since. Eight years
and thousands of gigs later, Emery has honed
his production style of airy vocal anthems
combined with floor-tested, synth arpeggios
and pounding beats to be the sharpest they’ve
On April 1 of this year, the label Emery
founded in 2009, Garuda, issued his second
studio album, Drive. The hour-long ride
sprung from his inspiring two-week road
trip from New York to L.A. Lead single
“U,” featuring vocals from The Voice UK
star Bo Bruce, punctuates the album with a
beautiful combination of haunting vocals and
atmospherics with high-energy buildups.
If you’re not careful, it may just put a lump
in your throat, and it shows that Emery’s
songwriting skills just get better and better.
Tell us about your musical
background, getting started
on classical piano by the age
My parents had a piano in the
house. Neither of them really
played; it just looked nice. I just
found myself listening to tracks
and then playing them back—obviously not professionally, but
I guess they thought, “Maybe
this kid has something with the
piano; let’s get it tuned and get
him some lessons.”
So I did my classical training
up to the age of 15 or 16 and
then went on a bit of a journey
playing in various bands. It
wasn’t until about 19 or 20 that I found my way
into the sort of music that became my career.
Once you got into electronic music in the
late ’90s, did you start DJ’ing right away, or
take up production first?
It was a bit of both. If I was into a sort of
music, I would try to make it. When I was
listening to rock music, I tried that. I taught
myself guitar. As soon as I got into electronic
music, I wanted to make it, but the barriers to
entry at that time were a lot higher than now.
You needed a serious budget to put together a
I got a couple of cheap keyboards in
the late ’90s, but they were limited. Then I
started DJ’ing pretty soon after. But really
the BREAKout time where software music
production accelerated quite dramatically was
after 2000. In ’97/’98 most people were pretty
much using hardware for all their sounds. Four
or five years later, it shifted to VSTs and soft
synths. That technological change allowed me
to do a hell of a lot more when I didn’t have
much money to spend.
When your first record came out in 2002,
what were you using to make music?
It was all completely in-the-box. I wasn’t using
any external synths. The first bit of software
I used was Acid. Most of my sounds came out
of Propellerhead ReBirth, an emulator of a
couple of 303s, 808, and 909. The sounds were
extremely basic, but the sound design was really
easy. I didn’t have any background in sound
design. Had I tried working with FM or even
subtractive synths I would have struggled.
Now, there’s so many tutorials on the Web.
That wasn’t the case back then, and the people
who did have trade secrets were not very keen
to share them.
Sometimes I’d find a note that I couldn’t get to
the length I wanted, so I’d just f*ck around with
the audio to fit it. Looking back at how I made
music, it was extremely limited, but sometimes
having limitations can focus your creativity. Now,
sometimes I’ll have too many options.
For Drive, you limited your focus to music
inspired by your New York to L.A. road trip.
Were you working on music during the trip?
Yeah, 100 percent. I’m always working on
music. The creative process doesn’t come at
a convenient time. When you’re in the studio
at 9 a.m. ready for a day of writing tunes with
your coffee, that generally is not when you
write something good. That usually happens when you’re going to sleep or
sitting on a plane—the most
inconvenient times. I’ve trained
myself to bottle that creative
spark. Even if it’s completely
the wrong moment, I grab my
laptop and jot down an idea in
five minutes, or sing into my
phone and go back to it later.
My music is all sequenced on
my Mac, although I occasionally
use some outboard gear and
record real instruments. I had
it with me throughout the
trip, and I would get down
the moments of inspiration
My wife and I had just got
married, and we hadn’t had a honeymoon. So
we thought this would be more fun. We’ve
always wanted to drive across the United
States. We stopped off at places like Graceland,
old Route 66, the Grand Canyon. Particularly
from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, the road
has so much amazing history, it’s like driving
in a living, breathing museum.
It was an amazing trip with no set schedule.
My life is so scheduled. I’m always on tour or
in the studio. So I just love that we didn’t even
book any hotels.
Did you know right away you wanted to
base an album on the trip?
I didn’t know straight away. I think it’s much
more interesting if you can make an album
an expression of not just where you’re at
musically, but where you’re at personally.
For my last album, Northern Lights ,
I’d just moved from the south of the UK
to Manchester, which is known as being a
gritty, rainy, tough city to be in. But for me
it was the most incredible career move. We
were throwing a lot of parties; I started my
new record label [Garuda]. It was a very
The artwork for that album tells the story
of me moving to this rough f*cking place
and having this insatiable hunger to succeed,
whereas Drive is about moving over here.
When I got back, I was like, “Sh*t, that’s been
the most inspirational period of my life. There
must be a bigger story to tell.”
What’s your collaborative process like with
the various guest vocalists on the album?
Every track has its own process, depending on
what comes naturally. Because my background
is music, I always want to be involved in every
part, whereas a lot of dance guys will just do a backing track, and then somebody else does
the vocal. They really have no involvement at
all in the vocal process. For me, it’s such an
integral part of the whole song.
Why do you seek out vocalists who haven’t
sung on dance tracks before?
Then you’re not comparing it to what they’ve
done previously. A lot of the dance music
vocalists are amazing, but it’s like an amazing
actor who’s typecast into playing the same role
for 10 years. Essentially, you’re watching Joey
from Friends, who’s always going to be Joey
For me, it’s more interesting to find new
people. Somebody told me as a joke that the
standard route is “dial a feature artist,” like
1-800-DANCE-MUSIC-VOCALIST. You have
this pool of people who all sing on everyone’s
tracks. What gets me excited are people who
will bring something new to my music.
Do you have any favorite vocal mics?
I’m not a big techy guy, but I’ve always gotten
on well with Neumann, especially renting old
vintage ones with the valve preamp that comes
in a suitcase along with the microphone.
Generally, we’ll find a great studio to
record vocals in. It always sounds better if the
recording is done by someone who only does
that. What I find frustrating is not so much the
recording, but the comping of the numerous
takes. It’s a good way to murder the song for
you; you have this song you’re totally excited
about, and then you have to pick through 50
different takes of a line sung 50 different ways.
People who do that day in and day out are
very practiced and good at it. I’d rather write
the song, send the vocalist in with someone
we trust, and then I’ll get it back and ask for
Do you have your own studio space too?
I’m literally building one right now. I’ve still
got a great studio in Manchester, but I’m not
there. We used a few studios in L.A. for the
album: Enterprise Studios in Burbank, which
is legendary. It’s actually now a music school,
but the guys who run it are friends, so they
let me use that. Then we went to Henson
Recording in Hollywood—the nicest studio
I’ve ever worked in. I took a room there where
Daft Punk recorded their last album. That was
f*cking awesome. But these studios are mega
expensive, so I’m converting my garage into
a studio. I had one of the top guys in acoustic
technology come out, measure my dimensions,
and tell me exactly how the room should
sound. We raised the ceiling 3.5 feet just to make sure the space is as acoustically as good
as it can be. I’m very excited about it.
What are the essential pieces to your studio
you need to have?
The nice thing about doing it yourself is
customizing exactly how I want it. I did not
want direct access to the house, even though
it’s part of the house. For me, it’s a good thing
to go outside to get to the studio, because it
makes it feel like a place of work. I don’t want
to be able to wander in there in my dressing
gown in the morning.
I’m not recording singers in there, so it’s
going to be an incredibly precise-sounding
mixing room based around the Focal SM9,
which is the main monitor I use, and a
I record a podcast every week, and a radio
show for Sirius XM, so I’ve got a little corner
dedicated to that—a super-tight recording
space where you can get that ultra-dry voice
you need for radio.
When I’ve done studios in the past, I’ve
built them myself—downloading formulas
from the Internet, putting up foam wedge
panels, and doing my best with limited
resources. For the first time in 12 years, I’ve
been able to hire superstars from the world of
Is it important to have a studio system that
sounds as close to a big club sound as possible?
That’s why I like the Focals; they are really
accurate, but also fun to listen to. I’ve
struggled with monitors that are too dry,
because you need to get into the zone when
you’re writing music, and you need a little
bit of punch and that live feel, otherwise it’s
difficult to get buzzed up. If you can turn the
sub on and feel like you are in a club, it helps
the creative process. I don’t need to have
exactly what I’d have in a club. If I were really
obsessive, I’d use an amazing L-Acoustics
monitor rack, which is so loud and sounds
incredible. But I do enough shows and
festivals that there’s never a long time before
I can try something in an actual club with a
crowd reacting to it. After that I can tweak it.
The SM9 is close enough for a studio.
You tested a lot of the album material in
clubs before finishing it, as well.
It’s so important to test stuff out. This is music
for the dance floor for the most part, and we
rely on other DJs to play our music. If another
DJ plays your record, and it doesn’t move the
floor, they won’t play it again.
You get these anomaly records you listen
to at home and think, “It’s all right,” but then
it’s a f*cking beast at a club or a festival. Other
records you love listening to at home, and for
whatever reason they don’t work on a dance
floor. So if you›re in a position to test stuff out,
it’s very fortunate. I only need stuff to be 75 to
80 percent done before I test it, and that extra
25 percent depends largely on crowd reaction.
What’s your favorite sound system you’ve
Beta in Denver is amazing, Marquee in Las
Vegas, Pacha in New York. I’ll usually test stuff
at Marquee, because I have a residency there.
I know the room and the crowd reactions
extremely well. It’s more difficult if you play a
club for the first time.
You advocate Westone in-ear monitors. Is
that what you use to DJ?
I don’t use them onstage; I just use regular
Westone earplugs onstage, which I’ll pull out
every now and again to hear the crowd. For me
the [in-ear monitors] are truly invaluable while
traveling. Bose noise-reduction headphones
are super-comfortable and light, but in terms
of noise reduction, the Westones’ noise
reduction is just unbelievable. Whether it’s
making music on planes or listening to demos,
whenever I’m in transit, those things are in my
How particular are you about the audio
resolution when you DJ? Do you need to
have lossless files?
If it’s 320kbps MP3, I’m generally all right
with that, as long as it’s not been done on
some shifty encoder. I’ve been there since the
beginning of MP3, and things generally are
encoded so much better now. If it’s my own
stuff, I play lossless files, but I feel that there’s
a lot of hot air when you hear people say, “I
never play anything other than lossless.” I’ve
challenged people to test lossless WAVs of
their tracks against 320k MP3—phase one into
the other like five times, and we’ll see if you
can tell. Nobody’s been up for that challenge.
Sometimes people say you wouldn’t tell the
difference at home, but at a club you would.
Well, no. In clubs the music goes through so
many chains of amplifiers and limiters; the
club is the last place you can tell the difference.
Obviously the difference between 320k and
128k is big, but 320k is pretty solid.
Do you record your podcast on the same
setup you use to DJ live?
No, the podcast is created with Ableton [Live], not mixed live. When I’m playing, for years
I used Pioneer CDJs. Now I use Traktor,
because it’s the best way of mixing live. I could
mix the podcast in Traktor, but I’ve always
done it in Ableton. You can lay it out nice and
neatly. It just makes life easy, especially when
you’re integrating voiceover.
With almost 300 podcasts in eight years,
do you have many problems with artists
or labels not wanting their music in your
Not recently. In the early days, definitely. The
first few years were a constant battle between
people who couldn’t get me to play their stuff
enough, and people who said, “You’re giving
our music away for free.” If someone didn’t
want their music on the show, I wouldn’t play
it. I don’t think that’s happened for the last five
years. The world has really changed. Now it’s a
lot more chilled out.
My podcast is only available in 128kbps
MP3, so it’s way lower than what you’d buy,
and we don’t play the full track. Unless it’s
one of mine or on my label, I generally play
about half of it. And we tag as many tracks
as possible, as well as include iTunes and
Beatport links within the track list. People have said, “I’ve spent so much money on
iTunes and Beatport because of your podcast
every week.” If there were a way to measure
the impact of my show as far as sales lost
or sales gained, I think we’d be on the sales
gained side; there’s just no way to prove that.
Your popular YouTube and SoundCloud
pages have a lot of your music up for
streaming. Do you look at that as a way to
drive download and ticket sales, or is it just
the reality of the business today?
I think it’s part of reality. It’s bad for selling
music. It’s just part of the world we live in now.
The money from selling music is not all that
much. A fan was joking with me that buying
music is doing charity work, because it’s so
easy to get the same content for free. He buys
it to support the artist. I think that’s the case
for a lot of people wanting to do the honorable
For me, I’m successful as a live artist, so it’s
not that I particularly need the money from
selling music. Yeah, it sucks in many ways,
but it has helped get our music into countries
where they probably couldn’t have afforded to
buy vinyl 10 years ago, and now guys there are
throwing massive raves. However, it’s really hit
the guys who don’t want to play live and tour.
Unless you’re making very commercial music,
if you don’t want to get on a stage and make
money from selling tickets, electronic music
is kind of a hobby; it’s very difficult to make
it a full-time job. That’s probably the biggest
negative to how the Internet has changed
music, and I don’t really have a solution.
Markkus Rovito is a frequent contributor
to DJTechTools.com, drummer, electronic
musician, and DJ.