Daft Punk spent four years and over a million dollars on their quest to revisit the golden age of record production. Mick Guzauski and Peter Franco were with them all the way.
Following one of the most ingenious, expensive and lengthy album marketing campaigns in living memory, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories looks set to become the best-selling album of the year. Indeed, its impact is so strong that there's already talk of it becoming one of the best-selling albums of the decade. What's more, Random Access Memories sees Daft Punk throwing down the gauntlet at the entire music industry, challenging almost all current preconceptions about the way in which music is made and how to present and sell it. The marketing campaign was one case in point, and it has also been noted that the album is an "all-out war on the current single-song consumption model”, with iTunes streaming the entire album as one body of work before its release, and Daft Punk refusing to tour the album, preferring to allow their studio handiwork to speak for itself.
Seven figures is, by any standard, a staggering amount of money to spend on the creation of an album, and directly challenges the music industry's current cheese-paring business model. The album was more than two years in the making, spread out over five years, and the result of this gargantuan investment of money, time and effort is that Random Access Memories is, even when heard in lo-res digital formats, arguably the best-sounding album of the 21st Century so far. The vast majority of reviews have been ecstatic, and if the album's sales also continue to go through the roof, it will be hard for a music industry to ignore the idea that spending serious time and money on making an album sound fantastic and marketing it properly might actually, after all, be a profitable proposition.
If Random Access Memories turns out to have such an effect, it will be exactly what Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had in mind. RAM is the manifestation of a mind-bogglingly ambitious master plan, which they unveiled in bits and pieces in interviews during the pre-release promotional campaign. Since their classic first two albums, Homework (1997) and Discovery (2001), Daft Punk have been regarded as leading lights of electronic dance music, yet they have waxed lyrical about the music of the '70s and early '80s, which they claim represents "the zenith of a certain craftsmanship in sound recording” and criticised music made with laptops, which "aren't really music instruments”. For Random Access Memories they had, they announced, gone back to the recording methods of the '70s and '80s, which involved not only a huge recording budget, but also the employment of great musicians from the era, and the use of high-end recording studios full of analogue equipment, all in order "to make music that others might one day sample”.
Their project could easily have been dismissed as the folly of two French musicians about to reach middle age, wanting to relive some of the excitement of their teenage years. However, the album's first single, 'Get Lucky', featuring disco legend Nile Rogers on guitar and Neptunes singer Pharrell Williams, instantly became the largest global hit of the year so far. Suddenly, Daft Punk's ideas didn't appear so outlandish any more. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo continued to make grand proclamations, openly criticising today's electronic music scene and what they see as its "glorification of technology”, and stating that their reference points for RAM were all-time legendary albums like the Eagles' Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. The black background on the cover of RAM, with handwriting in the top-left corner, is a clear reference to Michael Jackson's Thriller, while opening track 'Give Life Back To Music' is a summary of the album's mission.
With nearly everyone in the music-making world confidently declaring that digital technology has finally come of age, it surely would have been possible to realise the musical ideas on Random Access Memories for a fraction of the price, even with a three-year gestation period. Yet according to Daft Punk left-hand man Peter Franco, who was one of the album's engineers, the only way to capture the sound and the feeling the band had in mind was to return to analogue gear and the working methods used to make those classic '70s and early '80s albums.
Franco first worked with the French duo during their epoch-making 2006-7 live tour, and received a Best Electronic Album Grammy Award for his engineering work on the resulting live album, Alive 2007. He remarks: "There is something about analogue that is so much more lively and so much more appealing. Even when you don't hear the difference it seems that people feel it, and this is crucial, because music is all about feeling and how it changes your mood. Thomas and Guy-Man have always been aware of the pros and cons of digital. Even during the 2006 tour, we tried hard to stay out of the digital domain because of the conversions. We knew that a lot of the processes for live sound would have multiple conversion stages, with gear going from digital to analogue and back to digital and back to analogue again. There could be three or four conversions before you get to the speaker, and that always degraded the sound. So for this album they went on a journey to understand what analogue does.”
When work on Random Access Memories began in 2008, there had already been some indications that Daft Punk were looking to spread out from the approach of their first two albums. Their pointedly titled third album, Human After All (2005), took just six weeks to make, and their epoch-making 2006-7 concert tour has been credited with turning an entire generation of American musicians on to electronic dance music. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo clearly had a completely different direction in mind for their fourth album, which led them to hire Henson Studio B in Los Angeles, formerly known as the legendary A&M studios, and ask Franco to help them conduct some unusual experiments.
"We were doing lots of tests with analogue tape,” recalls Franco. "We did things like record into Pro Tools and then transfer the material to tape, at various different levels, and then bring it back into Pro Tools. We then compared this with recording the same material directly to tape and transferring that to Pro Tools. We wanted to see what the different combinations did what and how tape could get us certain sounds. One of our conclusions was that we liked the sound we got when we went straight to tape and then to Pro Tools. We liked how tape changed the shape of a sound. It's a cool journey to understand what analogue does. It wasn't just a matter of trying to find the sounds of the past, but also of trying to achieve the best sound possible today. We decided from the get-go that we wanted analogue to be a big part of this project, and during the first recordings with live musicians, Thomas and Guy-Man also decided to stay away from using plug-ins. I totally agreed with this and supported this idea, because plug-ins try to mimic what analogue outboard does, and yet they're not on the same level yet. Digital compression in particular is not appealing to us, and also, everyone is using the same plug-ins today. We wanted to step out of that and use the stuff plug-ins are actually modelled after.
"After we did these tests, we recorded a number of song ideas. Because of what we found during these tests, we recorded them both to analogue and directly to Pro Tools, and later loaded the tape material in the same Pro Tools sessions, so we could choose what we liked the best. Making the choice to go to analogue as well as digital was the beginning of what we felt would be something special. It's rare for an artist today to do that. We wanted to make a record that would be a joy to listen to and that would feel special and alive. Thomas and Guy-Man had a bunch of keyboards during these early sessions, like the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 5, [Roland] Jupiter 6, Juno 106, Yamaha CS80. The synth arpeggio in the Giorgio Moroder track was one of the ideas we recorded during these first sessions, with layers of that arpeggio played via MIDI through different synths to create that great sound. Guy-Man and Thomas are masters at manipulating gear and getting great vibes from it. These were great, fun and very loose writing sessions, and to my surprise quite a bit of the themes and even some of the parts ended up on the final mixes.”
After these initial try-out and demoing sessions, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo spent two years on another project: writing and recording the soundtrack for the Disney movie Tron: Legacy. They worked both with synths and a full-size orchestra, an experience which is likely to have alerted them to the benefits of working with live musicians. The resulting soundtrack album was released late 2010, reached number four in the US album charts, and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack Album For Visual Media. Around the time of the soundtrack's release, the French duo returned to working on what was to become Random Access Memories. During their time working on Tron: Legacy, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo's vision for the new album had become clearer, and it was during this period that they had taken the decision to work with the top musicians who had played on the classic '70s and early '80s albums that were their reference points. Bangalter explained that live musicians offer "an infinity of nuance, in the shuffles and the grooves. These things are impossible to create with machines.”
"Guy-Man and Thomas wanted to inspire the kids to pick up real instruments again, rather than just press buttons!” comments Franco. "They had developed a sharper vision of what they wanted during these two years, reworked some of the ideas we had recorded in 2008, and had also written new material. We began with listening to and editing their demos, with help from [Pro Tools engineer] Dan Lerner, to get them ready for overdubbing. We also wanted to mentally prepare ourselves for this huge undertaking of tracking master session musicians at Conway with a master engineer like Mick Guzauski. Guy-Man and Thomas also brought their modular synth over from Paris. They built it out of various bits of custom pieces that were made for them to their specifications by various different modular synth engineers, including Modcan. Most of the modular stuff was recorded in Paris, but a small percentage of it was recorded in LA. Some of the synth parts were recorded via DI, at other times they went via guitar amplifiers. The modular synth is a large part of the sound of the album, almost all of the synth sounds that you hear are made by it, and also many of the drum sounds. The synth and drum sounds on 'Doing' It Right', for example, were created using the modular synth, which also has the capability to store patterns. To mainly use this piece of gear was another very deliberate decision that they made. It's almost a lost art form to create sounds on an analogue synthesizer using LFOs and envelope filters and analogue delays and so on. I would look at their signal paths and be totally amazed at the sounds they managed to create. For them, the synths they had used for making the demos in 2008 were really simple and easy.”
The next stage took place at Conway Studio C in Los Angeles, to which the team invited crack session musicians including bassists Nathan East and James Genus, drummers Omar Hakim and John Robertson and keyboardist Chris Caswell, who also responsible for many of the album's orchestrations and arrangements. In addition, Mick Guzauski came over from New York to track all the live musicians recorded in Los Angeles, and he later mixed the entire album. Guzauski has worked on some of the albums that were reference points for Daft Punk, by artists such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, as well as with the likes of Eric Clapton, Burt Bacharach, BB King, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton and the Corrs. The New York engineer and mixer has close to 30 number one hit singles to his name, and his ability to combine the silken touch of disco, soul and easy listening with the punch of funk and rock & roll was very attractive for the company.
"Thomas and Guy-Man were very specific about the kind of sound they wanted,” recalls Guzauski. "They told me that they wanted a vintage feel, very analogue, very smooth, but with a modern sound. They also did not want me to use any plug-ins, and they wanted me to record to both analogue and digital. They came in with their song demos as Pro Tools sessions, and some songs were more completely conceived and had programmed drums, bass and keyboards, and in other cases it were more rough ideas with a click. They also brought their own synths into the studio, with a modular synth and things like an Oberheim OB8 and a Juno 106 and quite a few old polyphonic analogue synths. At this stage, it was more a matter of having the musicians play to different ideas and grooves, which Thomas and Guy-Man then later edited and created songs structures from. They had very specific ideas about what the musicians should play, so they would get the parts that they wanted, but at the same time they allowed the musicians the freedom to improvise. We recorded a lot of stuff, and they then took the best bits and created their masterpiece from that!”
"The initial demos often were sparse,” added Franco, "and could be just stereo or multitrack. They were a matter of 'we have this vibe and chord progression here,' and then Guy-Man and Thomas would explain what they wanted to hear. The musicians would have a listen and went in and did their thing. Guy-Man and Thomas really wanted to capture great live performances, so we strove to let the guys play the stuff the way they felt it, and we'd often just let the tape roll, really allowing the musicians to run free and put their hearts and soul into these ideas. It was an incredible experience to hear these musicians, who have played on many of the albums that we love, do their thing. We'd then load the material that was recorded on analogue tape into Pro Tools, which was running at 96k, where it sat side-by-side with the same digitally recorded material, and then later on we spent a lot of time listening to everything and picking the best bits and editing them and fitting them in. This happened every time after things were added, whether the rhythm section, the orchestra, or the vocals. The ability to edit is the great thing about Pro Tools, and this is where Dan Lerner and later David Channing really came into their own. David is a wizard when it comes to editing large amounts of tracks and making them groove together.”
Conway Studio C sports a Neve 88R desk, which is Mad Labs modified and has 24 remote Neve mic pres, consisting of 12 1081s and 12 Air customs. Vibe and groove were a large part of the focus during the tracking sessions, but as ever with RAM, an extraordinarily amount of time and attention went into making sure that things sounded the way Bangalter and de Homem-Christo envisioned. "We listened very critically during tracking at how things went down,” says Franco. "For example, we really took the time to make the drum kit sound the way we wanted, and the snare sound was very, very important, because the snare on many of these late-'70s disco albums was soft, yet present, and we wanted to get that right from the beginning.”
"Yeah, we tried to get the sounds we wanted from the start,” seconded Guzauski, "mostly by choosing the right microphones and mic positioning and mic pres. I used very little EQ while tracking, and also during mixing. We did not want the album to sound EQ'ed. We wanted it to sound as natural as possible. It's the old way of doing it, using EQ just to touch things up, and not doing anything drastic. Our choices made subtle differences, with API mic pres sounding nice and punchy and being great for the kick and snare, while Neve mic pres are a little bit more airy and worked well for the overheads and drums. The other thing was that they in most cases wanted to suppress the room sound. They wanted that '70s drum sound, recorded in studios which were wall-to-wall carpeted and which were therefore very dead at the top end. Today's studios aren't like that at all. We still got a little bit of room sound in, and this actually added a nice sparkle to the sound and modernised it a little bit.
"For the drums, on the kick drum I had an AKG D112, a Sony C500, a Neumann U47 FET, and a sub speaker — this wasn't really to get a massive sound, but for control. Rather than drastically EQ'ing the kick drum in the mix, I wanted to have different perspectives on it. The D112 has a nice, solid, low bottom and a punchy mid-range. The C500 has a very defined top and a fairly tight low end, and picks up more of the beater. The 47 has more low end and less attack, and I used the sub for when I wanted some really low bottom end. So if I wanted more attack on the kick, I'd add more of the C500, rather than use EQ. The kick drum was the only drum on which I used so many mics. The snare had a Shure SM57 at the top and an [AKC] C451 underneath it, the toms were Sennheiser 421s and the overheads Schoeps CM5Us. As I mentioned, the room mics didn't really play a part, but I did have Neumann U67s set up, just in case. I used the Neve 88R remote mic pres on the toms and overheads. I recorded the bass guitar DI, via a Neve 1081 and a [Teletronix] LA2A. Chris's keyboards were also DI'ed, though the Fender Rhodes was miked with Neumann U87s, and for the piano I placed DPA mics over the hammers, and a U67 back where the strings cross. During the mix, the U67 was in the centre and the DPAs were panned left and right.
"The recording signals were split and then sent to both tape and Pro Tools. The analogue side of the recording was a Studer A827 running 24-track ATR tape at 15ips, with +3 alignment and Dolby SR, because we didn't want to have hiss. SR came in during the late '80s, and it suppresses the really high transients a little bit, but it also fattens the bottom end, which were the characteristics that we wanted. The digital went via Lynx Aurora A-D converters, which Guy-Man and Thomas liked, and I was fine with that because they sound great. We also used an Antelope digital clock. The analogue tape was striped with SMPTE, so it could run in sync with Pro Tools, and after the recordings we'd transferred the tape material back into the same session in Pro Tools, so we ended up with two identical versions of the same material in each session. The first 23 tracks would have been directly recorded into Pro Tools, and right underneath that were the exact same 23 tracks, but originating from the analogue tape. We could not keep the analogue material in analogue, because Thomas and Guy-Man needed to be able to extensively edit everything.”
During the next one and a half years, work on Random Access Memories progressed according to the same pattern, with Guzauski recording live musicians in studios in Los Angeles, while a few other sessions with live musicians, including Nile Rodgers, took place in Electric Lady Studios in New York. The rest of the recordings were done at Gang Recording studios in Paris, and engineered by Florian Lagatta. The vocalists — septuagenarian crooner Paul Williams, Pharrell Williams, Todd Edwards, the Strokes' Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear and Giorgio Moroder (who talked rather than sang) — were also recorded in these locations, although Daft Punk recorded most of their own vocodered robot vocals in their own studio in Paris. Following every session with live musicians and/or singers, the core team of Bangalter, de Homem-Christo, Franco, Lerner and Channing would spend time sifting through what they had recorded, and the Daft Punk duo would then build and alter and edit their tracks using these live recordings, in similar ways to how they'd used samples for their earlier albums.
"The Daft Punks guys spent a lot of time with these live tracks, creating what they wanted from them and meticulously designing their songs,” explained Guzauski. "That's why so much time passed between tracking and overdubbing and why the whole process took so long. After the Conway sessions, we went over to Capitol Studios to record the orchestra, and a few months later I went out to Los Angeles again, and recorded Paul Jackson's guitars and Greg Leisz's steel guitar, and Chris did more keyboard overdubs, all at Henson. We later tracked more bass and drums at Conway. I also recorded a percussionist called Quinn, who was incredible. He filled out most of Conway Studio C, which is a fairly large room, probably between 25 and 30 feet wide and at least 40 feet long, and with two really good-sized iso booths. He had home-made drum kits with a unique sound, all sorts of stuff that was made by him and made incredible sounds.
"We used both Studios A and B at Capitol to record the orchestra. There's a moveable wall, and we had a 25-piece orchestra in Studio A, which I recorded with a Decca Tree with three [Neumann] M50 mics, and spot mics on the instruments, and I also had percussion and timpani in the same room. In Studio B, we had the brass section and the woodwind section. We'd record the strings at the same time as either the brass or the woodwinds in the other studio, and then the percussion in Studio A with whatever we hadn't recorded of the woodwinds and brass in Studio B, so I had isolation between these four orchestral sections. I had three different mics on the guitar cab, the SM57, Royer 121 and U87. We would listen to them and then decide which ones we liked best. For guitar room microphones, we had Neumann 67s. The mic pres I used on the guitars were the [Neve] 1073 and in some cases we took a DI. It depended on the song. The acoustic guitar was recorded using a Schoeps CM5U going through a 1073, and the steel guitar using a Neumann U87 going through a 1073 and a [Universal Audio] 1176. Of the vocalists, I was only involved in recording Todd Edwards, for which we used a Neumann U47, and Paul Williams, with a U67. Both mics went through a Neve 1073 and an LA2A.”
The dual analogue and digital signal paths meant that all the live tracks, which included orchestra, were doubled in the Pro Tools sessions. When stacks of synth parts from Daft Punk themselves were added, many of the sessions ballooned to a huge size. The epic eight-minute track 'Touch', featuring Paul Williams, apparently consisted of 250 different parts; these had to be edited and submixed in Pro Tools because the team were still using an HD3 rig, which only allowed 96 tracks in 96kHz. As the songs neared completion, many choices were made about what remained in the sessions and what didn't, and once choices had been made as to whether to use the digital or analogue versions of certain parts, the doubled parts would be removed from the session. "The analogue and digital versions were very similar but subtly different,” explained Guzauski. "The digital was slightly crisper and the transients were better, but in some cases we needed the more laid-back sound of the analogue. The important thing was they had that choice for the entire project.”
Says Franco, "I would have to go back to my notes to work out how much of the analogue and how much of the digital we used, because we did quite a bit of blind comparing between analogue and digital, and so there are many instances where analogue was used without it being marked in the final session. I know we picked the tape quite a bit, because it sounded so much sweeter. At other times we wanted the punch of digital. The other thing that you have to realise is that we used the UA 2192 [converters] when we did the tests in 2008. They are great, but they're super-colourful, and don't have the same pristine presence as the Lynx Aurora 16s, which we didn't start using until late 2010 — they didn't exist yet in 2008. When we listened to the Auroras in 2010, we realised that they sounded better than anything we'd heard until then. Plus, by the time of the final mix we were using Pro Tools HDX. So when using digital, one is dealing with a technology that's still evolving, and very quickly.”
Finally, in the summer of 2012, Guzauski received a phone call saying that Bangalter and de Homem-Christo considered the recordings finished and were ready for him to mix the album. Mixdown took place over a period of two months at Conway Studio C, the same place where Guzauski had recorded much of the live-musician material. Guzauski recounts: "They came in with the edited and finished Pro Tools sessions, which were very well organised and cleaned up. Normally I begin a mix by doing some prep work, but in this case there was hardly anything for me to do, as Dan [Lerner] and Peter [Franco] had taken care of that side of things. I was pretty much just the mixer!
"The process was for me to lay things out over the Neve 88R board, which has 72 inputs, so in some cases this involved some submixing in the box to bring it down to 72 Pro Tools outputs or less. I had an eight-channel Euphonix Artist controller for this, so I could use faders. I'd then listen to the whole thing quickly, and then I'd listen to each track, not the whole way through, just to get an idea of what was going on. This was quite straightforward because I'd engineered a lot of what was there. Then I'd get a basic balance and build the mix from the bass, drums, and keyboards, or bass, drums and guitars, whatever the main part of a song was, though I don't normally spend a lot of time working on individual tracks. Mixing was nothing really fancy, just balancing things with some nice ambience. Processing was purely used to make all the overdubbed parts work together, not to make it brighter or louder. Thomas and Guy-Man would regularly come in and comment, and I'd work on the mix some more. They had a Pro Tools system set up in the other room, and they'd sometimes go in there to edit things and make more changes.
"The mixing process took a while, because it was very detailed. It also was a leisurely process of me setting things up, them listening to it, me tweaking the mix, them maybe doing edits and making other changes in the adjacent room, and me again tweaking things. We had the whole summer to do it! Also, while the Neve 88R has automation, I was only using analogue outboard, and mix recalls would have been complicated. So we continued mixing each track until they were happy, and then we moved on the next track. The only plug-ins that I used were the UA de-esser, because you can be really precise with them, and gates, because nothing beats gates that can look ahead! Other than that, it was all desk EQ and compression and outboard. The monitors I used when mixing were the Guzauski-Swist 3as, which I developed with Larry Swist. We had also used them for tracking and Daft Punk liked them so much that they bought a pair. It's a three-way system with tweeters and mid-range speakers that are mounted isolated from the woofers, so you can really crank them up without transferring any of the low-frequency vibrations to the other drivers, and this cuts distortion.”
"They are a big part of the technical aspect of the album,” adds Franco. "It is an amazing design, and they sound amazing. It made listening to the musicians that much better because these monitors really represent what they are doing.”
"I had parallel compression on the kick and snare,” Guzauski continues, "from either an LA2A or an 1176, but didn't use much of it, and parallel compression on the drums as a whole using an API 2500 and sometimes the Chandler EMI Zener. I seem to recall that I used the Zener in the big section on the song 'Touch'. Other than that, I used some desk EQ and compression, and some reverb, mostly from an EMT 140 plate, and occasionally the EMT 250, which was about as modern as we got. I didn't use anything on the bass during the mix, other than add some desk EQ in the mid-range to make it cut through. Very occasionally we'd need a little bit more compression, from another LA2A or 1176 or the desk. I used the latter mostly for dynamic control, whereas outboard compressors were more used as an effect. Yeah, it's a big bass record! It's the way I heard it. They didn't ask for that, but they didn't say anything against it, either!
"The guitars were, again, very simple. I didn't do much to them. With Nile, we just put him up, and to make him fit better in the mix I'd add some 5k on the desk, and that was it. I don't think we used any outboard on him. He simply had his sound and it was great the way it was. On 'Get Lucky', his part was actually made up of two parts. I didn't do any big treatments on Paul Jackson's guitar either. Because I'd recorded him with different mics, I could simply use another mic if I wanted a different perspective. It was similar with the keyboards and synthesizers: most of these were treated with EQ and compression on the console, just to make it fit in the mix. I used the EMT 140 on the orchestra, but I'd also recorded it with the live chamber at Capitol for natural ambience. In some cases I brought the orchestra out on a stereo bus and compressed it slightly to make sure it kept its place in the track, without me having to mix it too loud. But in the places where the orchestra can be heard by itself, there was very little processing.
"The processing on the guest vocalists, again, was very minimal. I always pay a lot of attention to the vocals, and try to make sure that they sound natural and have really good diction, so I usually add some top end to make sure they cut through. But I tend to cut around 3-4kHz, very narrowly and depending on the vocals, and use the Dbx 902 de-esser so I can make the vocal brighter without it being sibilant. As I mentioned, I also used the UAD de-esser. I also usually had an LA2A on the vocals, and some EMT 140 reverb, with a Lexicon PCM42 or Eventide H3000 delay. Regarding Daft Punk's vocoder parts, what they called the robot vocals, they wanted them to sound as human and soulful as possible. This required quite a bit of compression and desk EQ to keep the diction and make them understandable, and once we had done that, we had to do some narrow-band cuts because some frequencies really stuck out. So there were quite a few bands of parametric EQ in action on the GML EQ! The compressor I used on them was the 1176.
"Once again, the whole thing about the processing was making sure all the parts had the correct dynamic relationships between them. I think this is one of the things that makes this record sound so good. Sometimes we ran things through a piece of gear without it actually doing anything, just to get the sound of the transformers and amplifier. We spent some time auditioning compressors, like several 1176s, LA2As and Neve 33609s, and used what individual piece of gear sounded best to us. Daft Punk actually bought a vintage reconditioned 33609 and it didn't quite sound the same, so they traded the one that they had spent a ton of money on for the 33609 that they had at Conway, because everybody loved that one! This is one of the fun things about analogue gear, every individual piece sounds a little different.”
Although relatively little processing was employed, the actual mixdown process for each song was astonishingly elaborate. "We mixed back into the Pro Tools session,” explained Guzauski, "but we also mixed to three half-inch analogue machines, with one running at 15ips and the other two at 30ips. They were all Ampex 102 recorders, with the machine running at 15ips having custom Aria electronics. For some songs we liked the 15ips master better, because it had more saturation and the transients were more rounded off. But most of the album came from one of the 30ips masters, which both had stock Ampex electronics, but one had the Flux head and the other had the regular head.
"The sounds of these three machines were very close, but Thomas is a real audiophile, and he can hear the differences. He and Guy-Man were also very meticulous about the alignment of these machines: a tech at Conway checked the playback every day and aligned the recording for every reel of tape, just to make sure there were no differences in the tape stock. The techs used the Audio Precision analyser to optimise bias and check the distortion, and so on. The tape we used was again ATR, running at +3, and we ran several passes of most mixes at different levels to get more or less saturation of the tape. All four mixdown formats were also recorded on an eight-track Sonoma DSD recorder for listening and archival, because we were a little bit concerned about the tape falling apart if we played it back too often. I love the sound of DSD. If you listen to it critically, it sounds a little better than Pro Tools. It's not perfectly transparent, but I love what it does, which is to give more definition in a very nice way, not harsh at all.”
Throughout the entire mixing process, and also during mastering, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo emphasised that they were not interested in loudness for its own sake, as Guzauski confirms: "If it started to sound too loud, they wanted me to pull things back again. They wanted a very specific sound, and in some cases I might have gone for a snare drum that was a little bit too processed or punchy, and they would rein me in again. They had an unfaltering vision of how they wanted this record to sound, and we experimented a lot to achieve that. There was a lot of experimentation during the mixing. I really got into that, because it was fun to mix and it is an incredibly pleasurable album to listen to. We had a couple of older solid-state EQs on the stereo bus during mixdown, just because it sounded good, and it also went through an Avalon EQ, which is very clean, and then a bus compressor, which in most cases was the Neve 33609. We just used different pieces of gear to complement each song.”
Mastering was done from the analogue tapes by Bob Ludwig in Portland, Maine, while some additional mastering work was also done in Paris by Antoine Chabert at Translab. After all this time and effort, not to mention a bank balance drained of a million dollars, the Daft Punk team were understandably precious about their final master tapes, so Peter Franco, with the help of Daft Punk crew member Sam Cooper, offered to drive them from Los Angeles to the East Coast, in a move worthy of a Hollywood road movie. "It was the only way to make sure that nobody else would touch these masters,” explains Franco, "and that they wouldn't go through radar or metal detectors and so on. We had put so much energy into this project that we didn't want to hand it over to a courier company. It would have been like handing over your own child. We were just really happy to have come this far, through a process that had been great fun. There was no point at which we felt lost or scared. Everything we were doing felt really right, and everybody was on the same page. We were all the time in the studio with great people and great musicians, and it always felt like a family setting, like going to a summer camp with a lot of really fun and interesting people. It was a magical experience, and I think this filtered through in the end product.”
The commitment of Daft Punk's team, the band's "singular vision” and a gargantuan investment of time and money were all contributing factors in the creation of an extraordinary and hugely successful album. It's especially impressive that it sounds so human after all that.
Todd Edwards, also known as The Messenger, Todd Imperatrice and Todd the God, is a Los Angeles-based house and garage producer. He worked with Daft Punk on the track 'Fragments Of Time' and describes the process thus: "All the music, including the live musicians, had already been recorded for the track. They also had a song layout, with drums, bass line, organ and so on. Thomas and I spent five hours writing lyrics and coming up with melody lines and riffs and whatnot. Fortunately, Peter [Franco] recorded everything, so we have this long writing session recorded for eternity! They had asked me to sing on the album, but what was really cool was that when I arrived they also asked me to have production input. The song is the most contemporary on the album and it is the least touched by electronic instruments, and so Thomas asked me to have a go at cutting up the music. I am known for having a specific style of using samples, which is to take micro-samples of other people's work and build musical collages from that — Daft Punk are known for doing the same thing. But in this case, instead of using samples from others, we sampled the music they had recorded. I created an eight-bar piece of music that became the chorus. I was very impressed by what they had done with the album in general. I'm a decent producer, but it was kind of humbling to learn about how they had recorded everything, and it really made me realise how much I still have to learn!”
Mick Guzauski lives 40 miles north of New York City, where he works in a private studio called Barking Doctor Recording, featuring two control rooms, one with a Sony Oxford console ("currently covered in blankets and a bunch of Euphonix controllers”), and the other with a Yamaha DM2000 desk. He has a Pro Tools HDX system and although he has some quality outboard by the likes of Eventide, GML, AMS and EMT, the vast majority of his work is done 'in the box'. Will his experiences of the Random Access Memories project prompt him to return to a more analogue way of working?
"I can't really go that route, because my consoles are digital. Stuff in the box is sounding so good now, but most of all it's about the workflow. Budgets are quite small and everybody wants changes all the time. I may be working on three or four different songs on the same day, so instant recall is essential. Also, now that Pro Tools is 32-bit floating-point, and some plug-ins also are 32-floating point, there no longer is that headroom bottleneck as the tracks get fuller and louder. Pro Tools is starting to sound really good now, as do the UAD plug-ins. But I still use outboard reverb, because I still haven't found a good substitute for the Eventide 2016 or the AMS RMX16. And of course, I prefer to do sessions in the way we did them with Daft Punk, if the budgets allow it.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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