French pop music was once as uncool as you could get, but over the last 15 years, AIR's distinctive, retro‑tinged electronica has conquered the world.
At its outset, AIR — an acronym for "Amour, Imagination, Rêve” (love, imagination, dream) — was a one‑person project. Nicolas Godin, then an architecture student and amateur musician, was asked by a childhood friend to write a song for a compilation to be released by Source, a small French independent label. 'Modulor Mix', a tribute to Le Corbusier, was recorded on Godin's Portastudio, and appeared on the Source Lab album in 1995. With several remixes, it was re‑released on British label Mo'Wax in 1996.
Following this small success, Godin asked his friend Jean‑Benoît Dunckel, a classically trained pianist and then a maths student, to join him in AIR. Together, they produced further 'maxi‑singles' for Source, with titles like 'J'ai Dormi Sous L'eau', 'Les Professionnels', 'Casanova 70' and 'Le Soleil Est Près De Moi'. Mainly instrumental, downtempo and nostalgic, all of these were still recorded at home, with vintage instruments: Rhodes electric piano, Solina String Ensemble, Moog and Korg MS20 synths, vocoder and organ. Dunckel, Godin and their friends added drums, percussions, guitars, bass, tuba…
"We had no money at this time, so we bought the most affordable instruments available: analogue synths from the '70s. We completely missed the '80s/'90s 'digital synth' period, in fact. So it's true we had a very personal sound, but it was by default,” says Nicolas Godin. All of these memorable songs, reminiscent of artists like François de Roubaix, Jean‑Jacques Perrey and Ennio Morricone, were originally released on maxi‑singles or on compilations, but have since been reissued on the Premiers Symptômes compilation CD. Godin and Dunckel also worked on remixes for artists such as Neneh Cherry and Depeche Mode.
Finally, in 1997, Source asked AIR to record a whole album. The duo spent several months in a recording studio near Paris called Studio de Saint‑Nom, and asked a friend — freelance engineer and former Plus XXX assistant Stéphane 'Alf' Briat — to work as a sound engineer on that project.
Dunckel and Godin wrote their songs and recorded their basic tracks on a Fostex D80 in Saint‑Nom, then added some elements in Gang Studios in Paris. They then went to London to record strings in Abbey Road, arranged by English veteran and living legend David Whitaker — a dream come true for them. Released at the beginning of 1998, Moon Safari delved deeper into the '70s mood, with picked electric Fender bass, Rhodes piano, handclaps, analogue synth effects, electric organ, drum machine, Mellotron, and songs like 'Sexy Boy' and 'Kelly Watch The Stars' — a reference to the TV series Charlie's Angels — were heard on every French radio station. An instant classic, Moon Safari has sold more than three million copies worldwide.
AIR's success spread to England and the US, where their first tour was documented in a film by Mike Mills, appropriately named Eating, Sleeping, Waiting & Playing, and Sofia Coppola asked them to write the music for her breakthrough movie, Virgin Suicides. Even though the album was still recorded at Saint‑Nom — on an Akai DR16 this time — and mixed by Alf, it sounded different. Brian Reitzell's drums were more upfront, tempos were faster, the sound cleaner and less ambient. The album was nevertheless another success, and by the beginning of the Noughties, AIR had become a truly international act, often labelled 'French Touch' along with compatriots like Laurent Garnier, Daft Punk, Alex Gopher, Dimitri From Paris, Motorbass and Mellow, though AIR's music had nothing to do with house or techno. For their third album, 10,000Hz Legend (2001), they went more experimental, and began a collaboration with Beck. They wrote music for several performances and happenings with Italian writer Alessandro Baricco, released on the City Reading album, mixed by Nigel Godrich, and collaborated with choregrapher Angelin Preljocaj for his Near Life Experience ballet.
At that time, AIR had already begun to work on their new album Talkie Walkie. Godrich listened to the project, loved it, contributed some ideas, and took the album to Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood to complete it. Released in 2004, it was richer and more ambitious than its predecessors. Analogue synth sounds were less prominent, as was the vocoder, while acoustic piano was to the fore. This time, strings were arranged by Michel Colombier, another legend and idol of the band's.
In 2006, once again with the help of Nigel Godrich, AIR wrote an album for Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55, in a project studio put together in an apartment near Bastille. Nigel's input as a producer was more decisive on this album. "We learnt a lot about recording and production with Nigel, but he mainly did additional production. On our AIR albums, he arrived at the end, added some things, and mixed,” says Dunckel. ”It was different on Charlotte Gainsbourg's record: we wrote the songs and played our instruments, he produced it completely. But we couldn't work with a producer behind us during the whole making of an album! We're producers ourselves, from our beginnings.” The same year, Dunckel released an underrated solo album called Darkel.
A year later, the band worked with Godrich again on Pocket Symphony, which showed a strong Japanese influence (Godin plays koto and shamisen, for example) and sounds more polished and somewhat colder than previous AIR albums. To support Pocket Symphony and commemorate Moon Safari's 10th birthday, AIR set off on another world tour, after which Dunckel and Godin apparently disappeared. Taking some well‑deserved holidays? Not at all! They were busy finishing, installing, then working in their personal studio for a new album.
When they had to leave their Bastille studio‑in‑a‑flat, AIR decided to build a professional‑level studio for themselves. They had been looking for suitable premises since 2004, and it took them a long time to find the right place: a former warehouse area in a building in Paris' 20th arrondissement. AIR didn't want to build a commercial studio like Peter Gabriel's Real World complex, but nor did they want a glorified home studio. They were used to spending hundreds of hours in front of their instruments or at the console, and wanted somewhere they would be happy living and working day after day. They called Christian Malcurt, a well‑known French acoustician, who built Plus XXX and Zorrino studios in Paris and several concert halls in France.
Malcurt's mission was to create a place like home, with all the space needed to host AIR's impressive collection of electronic instruments. An isolated recording room with dry acoustics was also needed so that they could record drums, guitar amps and concert piano without disturbing their neighbours. "From the first day, this place was designed according to our needs and wishes,” says Dunckel. "We wanted a large control room, to host most of our keyboard instruments, but not too large either. We could choose from around 20 keyboards, always ready to use, connected to a 16-input Speck X-Sum, used as a line mixer, and place them as we wanted. There's an analogue console in the middle, a 28-channel Trident T24, and Acoustic Energy AE1, K+H O300 and Auratone speakers. No large speakers, we don't need them. Huge windows at the rear give us natural light, there's wood everywhere, and the acoustic is dry.”
There is also 'modern' audio gear in the racks: two Avalon VT737 input channels, two Chandler Germanium compressors, a Demeter Stereo Tube Direct and two Urei 1176 compressors, along with some vintage Ibanez (AD230), Ensoniq (DP4), Korg (SDD2000) and Roland (SBF325) effects — an essential ingredient of the AIR sound from the beginning. In the studio itself, there's a Yamaha grand piano, a drum kit, a vibraphone, some kalimbas, a Neumann U47 microphone and Godin's collection of guitar and bass amps.
Named Atlas, AIR's studio was finished late in 2007. "This was our Christmas gift!” recalls Dunckel. "We had just finished touring. We unpacked our instruments, put them in place in the control room, connected everything, played something… and that was, instantly, the beginning of the Love 2 album!”
"'So Light Is Her Footfall' is the first track we recorded here,” remembers Godin. "As such, it has the specific colour of an album's first track, like 'Venus' on Talkie Walkie or 'Electronic Performer' on 10,000Hz Legend. Each time we settle in a new place, the first track we create there is something special, extraordinary. You discover some energy you don't know yet, the feeling is new. It's the first time you hear how your guitar sounds in this new place, and it definitely has an impact on the way you play. So we began to play everything here: on 'So Light', you can hear all kinds of instruments, synths, piano, drums, percussions, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, voice. We wanted to include everything. I love that track!”
"On this record, we play every instrument we ever used in our career, and new ones too,” adds Dunckel. "Vibraphone, for example, or Mellotron, heavily filtered most of the time. We had bought some new instruments that we had never used in our records until then: a Moog Source, a PPG Wave 2.2, a Prophet 5, a Vermona DRM1, an Elektron Monomachine SFX60. We even bought a Vox guitar amplifier, for its warm sound and its tremolo, and a vintage Neumann microphone too, to record our voices. And we used some childish instruments, like the kalimba, or the recorder. On 'Tropical Disease', we paid homage to French composer François de Roubaix, who wrote many movie soundtracks using the recorder. This track evokes childhood, then it evolves into a more sensual mood, Isaac Hayes‑oriented.”
To help them in their studio, AIR hired Louis Arlette, a young Paris SAE Institute graduate. "I discovered AIR's studio once it was finished. I had to modify small details, add a patch or something, but everything was already in place and well done. Nicolas and Jean‑Benoît work very freely. They know how to use the studio, but they prefer not having to deal with technical things when they create. So I cared for all their recording duties during 2008.”
Compared to other AIR records, Love 2 showed some major differences. There was no string orchestra involved, for example, and no guests except for drummer Joey Waronker. "The bpms are higher than usual,” adds Nicolas. "I think we freed ourselves from something, I don't know what, but it's definitely an 'uptempo' record for us. It has a more 'rock' sound, more energetic. Being in a real recording studio allowed us to play loud, to push the guitars louder than ever before. We couldn't do that before in our Bastille flat‑studio or at home.”
"Both of us were often working together, at the same time, helped by Louis,” adds Jean‑Benoît. "Within a few weeks, we had almost finished around 10 songs, and three or four more were less advanced. You can find all these tracks on the album. But we spent more than a year on the album. In fact, we had to work on other projects at the same time: music for Quartier Lointain, a film by Sam Gabarski [inspired by Jiro Taniguchi's manga movies], the soundtrack for a documentary film, music for a film by a Chinese contemporary artist… We do hope these will be released some day.”
For Love 2, AIR also welcomed back their first sound engineer: Stéphane 'Alf' Briat, who had mixed Dunckel's 2006 solo album but none of the band's material since 2001. "To mix this album, we felt like working with Alf again,” says Godin. "We were very happy to have him back. We wanted somebody who was technically OK, but the human side of things was very important too. We felt it would work, and it did!”
"With Alf, we were looking for a warm sound”, adds Jean‑Benoît. "That's why we wanted to mix here, on our Trident console. We trust Alf. He makes superb balances, his stereo is large, he sometimes pans sounds in very extreme ways nobody dares to use these days.”
Like many freelance sound engineers and producers these days, Briat owns his own project studio, Bleeps, but he mixed the whole album in Atlas Studio. "The deal was to mix here, so I could integrate AIR's universe and ambience. Thanks to Louis, everything was well prepared. J-B and Nico had worked in Pro Tools, at 96kHz. Some temp mixes had already been done, and I was quickly back in AIR's musical world, at ease with all the elements of their sonic universe. Arrangements were great, sounds well chosen. There were no plug‑ins in their computer, so I installed several that I needed to work. I also made them buy some outboard [two Chandler Germanium compressors and an Alan Smart C2] and a PreSonus FaderPort, to work easier.”
"Depending on the song, I had to deal with 20 to 30 recorded tracks. I pushed the rough mixes further, working on the dynamics, giving the right colours, adding some small treatments here and there. Jean‑Benoît and Nicolas record their delays and their reverbs, it's an important part of their sound. The main reverb on this album is an AKG BX20 they own — they have a BX5 too. It's mono, and it's on every track. Whenever we needed stereo reverb, Jean‑Benoît added his Lexicon 200, always using the same preset. No reverb plug‑in was ever used!
"I had to fine-tune the levels precisely, but there were very few edits or mutes to do. All choices had already been made. Jean‑Benoît and Nicolas knew what they wanted to hear… or not! I had brought my own speakers: I love to work on KRK E7s. They are not available any more, but I praise them. Every night, back home, I listened to what I had done at my studio. So did Jean‑Benoît and Nicolas. We never had bad surprises.
"AIR's music is fragile: if you go too far, if you try to overwork, to polish it too much, you kill it. Dynamics disappear, excessive EQ betrays the delicate colours of the vintage instruments, it becomes ugly, sounds don't blend any more. We kept this minimalist approach in mastering, which took place at Translab [in Paris]. Less is definitely more! Most of the times, Schab, the mastering engineer, used a Studer D19, with or without the valve stage, added a very light EQ sometimes, de‑essed in the digital domain with a Weiss processor, but that was it.”
In the end, Love 2 sounds very different from Pocket Symphony, which the band are fine about. "Each of our records has its own personality,” says Nicolas. "We know some of our fans love this album, but hate this other one; some find Moon Safari cheesy and prefer 10,000Hz, others love exclusively Virgin Suicides, some find our best is Talkie Walkie — but nobody told me yet Pocket Symphony was his favourite! Anyway, we didn't want a sanitised record. We favoured spontaneity.”
"I wouldn't use a keyboard plug‑in, for example,” adds Jean‑Benoît. "If you listen carefully, you can hear some hiss or some hum in some of our songs. We don't care, we like it like that! I find recent productions are too clean anyway, it seems no‑one dares to leave some mistakes these days. We left them all! [laughs]”
For a long time after Love 2 was released, it seemed that AIR would never return to the studio they put so much effort into creating. Accompanied by English drummer Alex Thomas, they toured throughout 2010, travelling Europe and the United States, then the rest of the world and appearing at numerous festivals. The Quartier Iointain movie was finally released in France in December, too, and AIR's music adds to its very personal ambience. Since January, however, AIR have been working on new songs, and Nicolas has discovered NI's Reaktor. As Jean‑Benoît Dunckel says, "If we build a new studio per album, our records had better sell!"
Thanks to Sara-Jane Richardson and Louis Arlette.
Audio files to accompany the article.
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