Dunckel (left) and Godin
Photo: Pablo Arroyo
For years, the French duo AIR has navigated a demarcation zone between soft pop, experimental electronica, trendy lounge and brain-challenging prog rock. If you attended one of their late-'90s shows, you might have thought you'd stumbled into some Pink Floyd revivalist concert: Analog synths spewing mad layers of crunchy sound, a grandiose laser-light show, spastic drumming from premier sideman tub-thumper Joey Waronker, and the passively charming vocals of AIR principals Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin.
But if you listened to the band's recordings back then, such as the 1988 Moon Safari (Astralwerks) or the 1997 debut EP, Premiers Symptomes (Astralwerks), you'd never imagine these musicians — raised playing bass (Godin) and keyboards (Dunckel), and only later learning to work with samplers and computers — are the same ones from the live show. Oozing Godin's coiled, shimmering bass lines that recalled some '70s porn flick, and accompanied by Dunckel's ethereal vocals, synthesizers and then-in-vogue trip-hop beats, Premiers Symptomes remains the duo's basic sonic blueprint to which they have added layers of texture and influence over the course of six albums (collaborating with Beck, Francoise Hardy, Jean Jacques-Perrey and Phoenix's Thomas Mars along the way).
AIR's new CD, Love 2 (EMI, 2009), confirms Godin and Dunckel's mastery of their unique sonic world. The self-produced album, which combines the duo's trademark electronic sound with a spontaneous, live-performed vibe, was recorded in their newly constructed Atlas Studio — a large 40×70-foot room without separate vocal or drum booths. The gear they used included aan Apple Mac G5 running Digidesign Pro Tools; a bevy of period keyboards including an ARP Solina, Korg MS20, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Wurlitzer, Memorymoog, Moog Source and Minimoog; a classic Roland TR-808 drum machine; and some modern synths such as an Elektron Monomachine and a Manikin Memotron. They patched and mixed everything through a 24-channel Trident Series 65 console, and also employed a '70s-era Rogers drum set, various MoogerFooger processors and three Neumann U47 mics.
An ominous synth melody, distorted outerspace waves and vocoded vocals lift the opener, “Do the Joy,” to Tangerine Dream-meets-Karen Carpenter-worthy heights. The sublime, bass-driven beat-box fury of “Love” follows, and then the buzzing experimentalism of “Be a Bee” and “Tropical Diseases.” The latter brings to mind Pink Floyd collaborating with Keith Emerson, Ryuichi Sakamoto and some insane pan-flute player. “Sing Sang Sung” is Love 2's overt play for pop perfection, with Dunckel's stacked vocals sounding like a choir of absurd Japanese pop stars, while sweet synths and gently strummed acoustic guitars lull the senses.
Recording at their own studio, Dunckel and Godin now have plenty of time for experimentation, resulting in tracks that combine exotic rhythms and analog synths, possibly pointing to the group's future. “Eat My Beat,” “You Can Tell It to Everybody” and “African Violet” are largely instrumental tracks that blend lush keyboard sounds, jagged beats and Godin's melodic bass mastery into collage pieces as fascinating as Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds romanticism, yet as daring as any cutting-edge electronic beat fest.
I recently sat down with AIR at EMI headquarters in New York City and found the duo as in love with sound and style as they are with classic songwriting.
What did you achieve in your new studio that was unavailable to you in a commercial space?
Dunckel: Quality and texture of sound and the stereo image. This album is much more acoustic-sounding. It's a bit like the spirit of a jazz band that records together in a room and you have this incredible acoustic sound.
Godin: When we recorded at professional studios, we weren't thinking of the songs beforehand; the songs were born outside of the recording studio. It was always very slow. Now, for the first time, the songs were born inside the recording studio so they have more energy. We can create the songs with the drummer in the room. It's not like we have a demo, then we go into the studio. It's still that vibe, but we can create the recording in a very quiet, private place. And because it's our own studio, we don't have to worry about the clock. As a paradox, we worked super-fast. I was afraid if I had my own studio we would stay in there forever, and in fact it was the opposite. We just recorded so fast.
You didn't record multiple takes?
Godin: No, no. We did a small tour last fall, and the day before going on tour we recorded half of the tracks with Joey Waronker. When we returned, the next day we recorded the rest of the tracks. That's for 12 songs — the fastest album ever.
Is there is a discernable difference between the sound ofLove 2and your last album,Pocket Symphony(Astralwerks, 2007)?
Dunckel: Yes because we are using more acoustic instruments. Drums, guitars and the Fender Mustang bass through the Ampeg SVT. We played a lot with the position of the microphones.
Godin: Before, we had to have instruments delivered. Now everything is just there. If we have an idea, we can record it on the spot so there is much more creativeness. Pocket Symphony was very ice and very cold-sounding — very Zen. For this one, we wanted something more messy.
While recording Love 2, Godin and Dunckel used only real keyboards and modules, no software instrumnets.
Photo: Pablo Arroyo
How did you play with mic positioning?
Dunckel: We had two Neumann U47s for guitar — one on the amp and the other to talk back to the control room — but we ended up using both mics to record the amp. Because the one mic was very far from the amp, it created a small, but very deep stereo sound. We did that for “So Light Is Her Footfall.”
Godin: When we worked with producer Nigel Godrich [on their 2004 Astralwerks album, Talkie Walkie, and on Pocket Symphony], if he wanted to record guitar, he would put the mic in front of the amp and then record it, and if it didn't sound good, he would just put it in a different spot. That was a cool rule that we worked with. We moved the U47 around.
Now that you have six albums under your belt and your own studio, do you have a general recording philosophy?
Dunckel: Yes, the idea that the mix is really important but the concept of having no mix is cool, as well. If the song is good, when you bring up the tracks on the mix console, they should sound good.
Godin: When we push Play, the song has to sound good — even if on the board there is a previous setup from another recording session. A good song should sound good whatever the mix is. Even if the bass is low and the ride cymbal is not perfect, a song should sound good at all times. We set up the Pro Tools session [on an Apple Power Mac G5], we load it, we push Play and it has to sound good. Maybe on the next album we won't mix it all, and we'll send it to mastering right away. We want all the levels set long before we mix.
The bass is more prominent and melodic than even in the past onLove 2.
Godin: After all these years, I realized I am a bass player. We come from the home studio world and we recorded many different instruments. The bass is where I express myself the most personally.
How did you record the bass forLove 2?
Godin: I recorded direct, then reamped through an Ampeg SVT. The mic is again a Neumann U47. I use old basses, like the Fender Mustang, into a Neve 33135 mic pre and a UREI 1176 compressor. We're not a band so we don't need a lot of mics. We used one or two Neumann U47s for each instrument for the whole record. We did that on Moon Safari as well, using an AKG C 414. We also used the Neumann for vocals and drums with a Royer R122 for cymbals. The treble of the U47 would feed back too much but the Royer has a really nice high treble. We have three U47s, all vintage.
Dunckel: It's a question of managing the tracks. If you have too many things, it's impossible to keep it clear. The drums are recorded with two or three mics, that's all. Half of the tracks are just one kick and one snare. We have our own set of drums that we bought in L.A.: an old Rogers kit with a Premier snare.
What was the signal path for the synths?
Dunckel: They are all direct except one solo off the Korg MS20. It's going through a delay pedal into an amp. We have a direct box to the Trident console, and the console to the computer.
Godin: The analog keyboards are super-fat. The more you record them direct, the more you can feel the soul of the machine inside. The fatness of the keyboard. The direct box is just the classic green one that you see everywhere; it's generic and cheap. We mostly used the Korg MS20 and the Memotron. The string machine you hear is the Solina, which is the ARP String Ensemble in the U.S.
On many songs you literally stack the synths. Do you think of analog synths as different flavors or colors? How do you decide which to use in a given song?
Dunckel: We just try. It's a matter of randomness and chance. But we don't use soft synths. They're like data that you add on to your file. But when you really record the real thing, something magical happens; it's not the same. For the music that we do, plug-ins don't work very well.
Godin: Plug-ins should be used in an experimental or avant garde way. You should use a plug-in for something that you can't do with analog equipment. We experimented with Nigel Godrich with some crazy plug-ins that were very modern.
Dunckel: But we would rather put our money on something that lasts. A plug-in will disappear when you change your computer. It's virtual, where we like to touch and play with our hands.
How did you record your first EP,Premiers Symptomes?
Godin: That was all live, but live in the loops. We didn't have a recorder; we had only a sampler. We would sample parts and loop them, and do some mutes to create a song structure. Then we bought a digital 8-track and started to write songs with a verse, chorus and a breakdown.
Dunckel (left) and Godin at a recent live performance
So you use Pro Tools primarily as a recording platform?
Godin: Yes. The keyboards go from the direct box to the Trident console. The preamps are going into the console mix but the gains are at zero. So you're hearing the sound amplification of the preamps. It goes to the console mix, then we press the groups and they go to the computer. The internal impedance of the keyboards going to the console mix is almost 0 dB. But maybe you can hear all that. Because of the impedance mismatch, you hear a delay because the computer is recording and playing at the same time.
OnPocket Symphony,you assigned different vocal tones to a controller keyboard to create an artificial vocal chorus. Did you do anything similar this time?
Godin: This was more traditional, but we did use vocoders, which we haven't used for nine years. We used to use vocoders live all the time, but it's been a long time since we used them in the studio. It was hard for us because we pushed them on Moon Safari; that is how the world knows us. Now they're back. The computer voice on “Do the Joy” was meant to recreate the computer voice in Phantom of the Paradise. We used actual vocoders such as the DigiTech Talker.
What was the signal chain for recording vocals?
Dunckel: The Neumann U47 into the Neve 33135 preamp to the Trident console to the computer. Between the Neve and the console is a UREI 1176 compressor.
How did you record the vocals in “Love”? They sound doubled with different attack settings or perhaps koto, which you used onPocket Symphony.
Dunckel: The first part is a vocoder, stacked with four vocals doing the same loop. And on the second cycle there are six tracks of voices, with synths making a high note. I sang the part six times; we didn't cut and paste it in Pro Tools.
Even your vocals have an electronic sound. And Jean-Benoit's high-pitched voice adds to the effect.
Dunckel: We are robots! We were invented in a lab somewhere!
How were the forest-creature sounds in “Love” created?
Godin: Oh, we can't tell you that!
Do you favor a particular EQ setting on your vocals?
Dunckel: Our assistant adds some EQ from the Neve around 1 kHz. When I sing, I am on the edge. I sing between my natural voice and falsetto — that is very hard on the throat. The muscle is working a lot and it requires exercise. I feel I can really break my voice.
What was the most ambitious track on the album?
Dunckel: “Tropical Disease.” It is complicated, a well-arranged piece of art. There is an intro and many parts, and several sounds that play the same melody together. We had to get good track textures all together. It was hard to play and hard to record.
Do you record bass and drums at the same time?
Godin: That is what is good about recording studios: It is spontaneous and it's there forever. Modern music is not only a matter of composition; it's a matter of having the magic take. As human beings, we all have magic moments. If you date a girl and go to a restaurant, at some point in the conversation something magical will happen. In music you play and suddenly something happens. If you record that, when people get the record, they can feel a sensation, they feel good. It's very important to have a good song, then after that you need to wait for the magic take. That's the advantage we have on classical composers: They only have the power of paper and the score. But in the '50s and '60s, recording was a new element. When I buy music on iTunes now, I realize I need some life and personality. Most of the records don't have magic moments anymore. Even in electronic music — when all the sequencers are running together — at some point something is cooking, then you have to print.
Do you achieve that “magic” by stacking parts or do you and Joey record live together?
Godin: The drum and bass parts we recorded together; there were so many tempo changes it would have been impossible to replay after that. But it's more about suddenly recording something and it makes the magic happen. Jean and I don't need to be together. One is recording, one is operating the console. Even when you record in line with the synthesizer, at some point it's a time thing, at the tenth of a second you played the right note. It's f***ing good and magic. Like in “Be a Bee,” the synth flams with the drums; we did it live, and it was crazy.
How do you know when a song is finished?
Godin: You can feel it when you're happy. And you know it's finished if when you add something it's too much, and if you take something away there is a lack of it. So that is the right balance.
Dunckel and Godin's workspace at Atlas Studios
Photo: Pablo Arroyo
How do you work out the contrast between experimental songs like “Night Hunter” with simpler pop songs like “Sing Sang Sung”?
Godin: That's alchemy. I love as much Led Zeppelin as [I love] easy listening. I love The Carpenters. There is spot in The Pink Panther where Claudine Longet sings a song; we love that. But we also love Queens of the Stone Age. We like all these influences on our albums.
What advice can you give to musicians who seek to emulate your sound but who also want to find their own style?
Godin: It is impossible to imitate us because we work on the edge, on a thin line. If you don't work on that thin line, you can do something very horrible. If you go more left or more right — it's very edgy what we do. The same tools in the wrong hands could be a disaster!
Dunckel: We are only searching for emotion. It's not a combination of instruments and sounds together. Writing AIR music is really important. The songs, the writing, the words. Even if they sound simple and simplistic.
Godin: We suffer a lot when we buy new records because the songwriting is not very good. We are very happy with MGMT and these new bands in Brooklyn like Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors. For the first time in a long time, a band like MGMT is here, a new cool thing has hit the charts. They have good songwriting. So for a new band, I would say learn how to write a good song.
(For a video interview with Dunckel and Godin, and more information about the band's recording process, visit emusician.com/videos/interviews/talking_with_air/