You don’t have to listen to Joakim’s Samurai album on one of these new-fangled vinyl records to appreciate the purity of its sounds and the care with which it was recorded. You can play it on good old-fashioned MP3s and still plainly hear the difference between Samurai and the majority of computer-based electronic albums coming out now.
That’s no surprise either, because while Joakim may be best known as a DJ and remixer, the French producer has sunk his DJing fees for years into building a magnificent analog based studio complete with a Studer A80 RC tape machine, a custom Wunder Audio Wunderbar 24-channel analog console and an impressive collection of top-shelf, mostly-analog EQs, preamps, compressors, microphones, amps, effects, synthesizers and drum machines, as well as acoustic instruments. Joakim acquired most of his gear while living in Paris and brought it all with him overseas when he relocated to Brooklyn, New York about five years ago.
“That was a pretty crazy move when I look back,” he said, “but the reason why I initially started building such a studio was because I wanted to be totally autonomous to produce full bands as well as electronic music without having to go into some other studio.”
Producer for Hire
Joakim opened his Crowdspacer Studio in 2014 as a way for full bands or electronic artists to be able to focus on making music rather than futzing with configuring and setting up gear. They having the option of going fully analog with the mixing and recording to tape if they like. For the most part Joakim himself has acted as producer, engineer and mixer all in one, while working on his own music between jobs.
“So far it's been quite organic,” he said. “I didn't plan much. Last year I had quite a bit of production work, but usually the artists come in for like a week to track instruments. Then I work alone on editing and mixing. When I'm in that phase, I send edits or mixes to the artist and there's always time when I'm waiting for feedback. So I started to use that free time to record stuff for myself, and that turned into the new album.”
Of course, if you have the means, I highly recommend spinning Samurai in the highest-quality format available, on the best sound system or pair of headphones at your disposal. To me, it’s the most sonically rejuvenating of the six Joakim albums, in the sense that the rich harmonics of the music wash over you like a healing, vibrating sound bath.
In part because so much of the gear used was vintage, many of the tones you hear—the acoustic basses, drum machines, synths, etc.—sound classically familiar from the ’80s, right down to the tasteful smooth saxophone lines in tracks such as the lead single, “Samurai.” The compositions themselves don’t overtly suggest an ’80s music revival, but in certain tracks like “Mind Bent,” the juxtaposition of analog synth pads and deep basses with Asian-tinged early digital PCM synthesizers and delayed drums conjure up images of Blade Runner- or John Carpenter-style set pieces.
Samurai also has chronological flow to it, moving between evocative instrumentals to some of the most solid songs in Joakim’s catalog and back again in a way that lends itself to repeated listens. He credits some of the album’s completeness to the workflow he established between helping his studio clients.
“It was actually quite a nice process,” he said, “because I had to leave what I was doing to work on those production jobs and come back to it later, giving me more perspective on what I've done. Also, it made me start a lot of different sketches. I had more tracks than I needed, so I could chose the best ones and really make a selection that worked together as a whole, giving it that soundtracky vibe where every song blends into the next one.”
Aside from a couple of mellow breakbeat pieces, there isn’t much dancefloor material on Samurai, and nothing really up-tempo at all. For Joakim, that’s not a priority when working on his own music, unless as he says it happens accidentally.
“Making dancefloor music means you follow certain guidelines,” he said. “There's a manual, because it's music with a precise function and codes. When I work on a solo album under my own name, I can't limit myself, and I try to only focus on emotions, which results in less dance-friendly material.”
In fact, a few of the tracks, such as the beautiful album opener “In the Beginning” and “Jocho,” with their bells, gongs, drones and environmental sounds, could even work as meditation pieces. So I wondered if Joakim practiced meditation himself.
“No I don’t—I should though,” he said. “Maybe it would help my dysfunctional sleeping patterns. But I am very interested in the relationship between body and music. That's why I listen to a lot of ambient, drones, or sometimes noise music, which is ultimately the same thing: music that has a physical effect on you and alters your senses. I also believe the reason why a lot of people don't like those above mentioned genres, is because they think too much. They apply cultural references to how they listen to music, are too attached to what's familiar, or have preconceived ideas about what music is. If you forget everything you know, become a new-born baby again, you may like any type of (good) music, especially music that works on a more physical level (as opposed to pop or classical music, which work on a more intellectual level).”
Hardware vs Software
Most of Samurai also serves as a treat for synthesizer enthusiasts. Among his large collection, Joakim’s most-used favorites included the ARP 2600 semi-modular analog monophonic, the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 analog polyphonic and the Korg M1 digital sample synth (whose piano and other sounds practically defined early house music). He rarely uses software synths, except when he wants something that can’t be done with hardware, in which case he reaches for some type of Native Instruments Reaktor instrument.
“I’m very attached to the depth of sound,” Joakim said, “which comes from harmonics, and you don't have harmonic distortion in the computer world. That’s why I prefer hardware synths.”
He does, however, make use of processing plug-ins, where he uses many from Waves, Soundtoys, Sugar Bytes, and the others. For example, he achieved the droid-like vocals on the single “Numb” by layering multiple vocals with different plug-in effects on them.
It may not be a coincidence that Joakim has kind of a throwback, purist style of production and that most of his Crowdspacer clients have been full bands that use him as a producer. They tend to know that Joakim likes to mix and record in the analog realm and are down for the experience, whereas more and more studios are moving toward working entirely “in the box.”
“I sometimes have to explain how mixing fully analog means recalls are a pain in the ass,” Joakim said, “so once it's done, it's done. But I like that idea also, that you can't just get back to a mix infinitely, that creating something has an ending with all the flaws that you may later find in that creation. Most people are super happy to record masters to tape as well, I think because it's new to them. There's a bit of mystery in there, and you get your masters as an object, which is very satisfying, as opposed to files on a hard drive.”