The electronic pioneer was at NAMM to receive an award from synth-maker Roland, ahead of his second mentions at the Grammys. Steve Harvey explores production and process with the 68-year-old
Over his 45-year career, French electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre has racked up some impressive feats: an estimated 80 million albums sold; a Guinness World Record for the largest concert attendance (3.5 million in Moscow, 1997); and becoming the first Western musician to play post-Mao China. This year, he added another – his first Grammy nomination in the category that he pioneered.
Jarre was also a pioneer of the personal studio in France. “When I started in electronic music, I probably had the first home studio in my country. In those days, the professional studios had the glass and the sound engineer being God on the other side of the window. But for electronic music, you need to be your own sound engineer.”
This is not Jarre’s first Grammy nomination. That was for Rendez-Vous in 1987, in the Best New Age category; the Best Dance/Electronica category was not introduced until 2005. (Update: on the night, the gong went to Flume for Skin.)
Jarre’s third album, Oxygène, propelled him onto the world stage in 1976, charting in the top 10 worldwide, and putting him at the forefront of the Seventies’ synthesizer revolution. The album reportedly went on to sell over 15 million copies, and Jarre was soon playing ever more spectacular outdoor shows, celebrating Bastille Day in France, the seventh millennium in Egypt and Moscow’s 850th birthday.
“From those days, my home studio became bigger and bigger, just because I had more and more instruments,” says Jarre, at the Roland booth during the 2017 NAMM Show, where the manufacturer presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. “Now I have a fairly big facility outside Paris, where I have production rooms and a mixing room with lots of keyboards and synthesisers.”
Jarre employs the best of the analogue and digital worlds. “I have analogue gear, from the Studer 24-track to a Studer 2-track and a Sony digital,” he says. “I have an SSL AWS 48-input console. It’s a very flexible desk for recording, with very good sound.”
But while he has also made the transition into the DAW paradigm, for last year’s releases – the Grammy-nominated Electronica 1: The Time Machine, Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise and Oxygène 3, timed for the 40th anniversary of the first volume—he switched platforms. “I used to be a Pro Tools guy for a long time, but…I really fell in love with Ableton Live,” he reports. “It became my main DAW. I did some tests, bouncing down the Pro Tools stems and Live 9. The bounce on Ableton 9 was, for me, better and more transparent. The quality is fantastic and it’s so flexible.”
Electronica is Jarre’s look back at the history of electronic music and features collaborations with artists that have inspired him – and no doubt also serves to introduce him to the new generation of EDM fans. Collaborators range from Vince Clarke, John Carpenter and Gary Numan to M83, Gesaffelstein and Little Boots. The first album includes a collaboration with the late Edge Froese of Tangerine Dream: Zero Gravity became the last track the fellow synth-legend was to record, and Jarre dedicated the Electronica 1 album to his memory.
For the project, Jarre followed two principles. “I really wanted to share the creative process face-to-face. These days, so many projects are based on the idea of sending files to people that you never talk to or meet. The second principal was to conceive a piece of music in function of the idea that I had with the artist. When we met, I had a kind of demo, obviously leaving enough space for them to express themselves.”
He notes, “With Hans Zimmer, we ended up with over 100 tracks. I could never have done that with Pro Tools unless I was stuck in my studio with the rack and everything.”
The projects were recorded at 48kHz/24 bits. “What is important is going from 16 to 24 bits; that’s the big difference, rather than the difference between 48k and 96k. Just take great care with how you record and mix and your levels.”
The mastering process took six weeks, he continues. “I did the mastering in my studio from the session, not from the bounce.” By mastering to stereo back into the machine from the Live session, he adds, “I saved one generation.”
The experience was a game-changer: “I won’t go back to mastering a stereo mix. If you have too much low, for instance, when you master the final mix, you are affecting the low frequencies of the whole mix, where most of the time, your problem is coming from one track. Also, I could never think about sending my mix to a mastering engineer who is mastering on his own. My mastering engineer is part of my team.”
The process was long and deliberative because, he says, “You can change so many things through mastering. I was going into the machine and saying, wow, the mix is different. So I finalised my mixes through the mastering process to be sure that what I was going to get was exactly what I wanted to hear. The mastering is part of the mixing process.”
This year marks another first for Jarre: his first ever North American tour, in May. “It’s a fairly ambitious project, with three of us onstage and 50, nearly 60 instruments. We have 256 outputs. It’s quite challenging for the front-of-house engineer. Visually, I’ve devised a stage design based on 3D, but without glasses. We’ve already done 50 arena gigs in Europe and it has been fantastically well-received.”
Pictures: Top: Jarre with Moog 55 modular synth. Photo credit: Tom Sheehan. Last picture: Photo credit: M Kuenster