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 ever been.
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 of four.
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 decent studio.
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 whenever possible.
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 inspirational time.
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 from Friends.
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 alternatives.
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 subwoofer.
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 studio design.
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 played on?
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 ears.
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 podcast?
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 thing.
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.