David Guetta is the global superstar who brought EDM out of the underground and into the mainstream.
With two dozen Top 10 hit singles and three number-one albums since his international breakthrough in 2009, and 40 million record sales, David Guetta has an incredible track record. He’s been called “the godfather of EDM” and he’s played a crucial part in the genre’s staggering rise from underground and rather uncool origins to its status as one of the music industry’s main money makers: in 2017, the entire EDM market was worth an amazing 7.4 billion US dollars.
One explanation for its huge success is that it has crossed over into other genres, a development in which Guetta played a central role. Billboard called him “the man who almost single-handedly resurrected dance music in America”, and his influence is all over the amalgamation of pop, hip-hop, R&B and EDM that occupies a large part of the charts today, with instrumental, EDM-style drops often replacing the chorus as the main hook. Guetta once aptly remarked in an interview: “Not only did I cross over, my entire scene did.”
A Late Starter
Unusually, major success came when Guetta was already 20 years into his career, and he ended up shaping youth culture worldwide when he was already in his 40s. Born in 1967, the Frenchman spent his early professional years DJ’ing in clubs in Paris, only briefly stepping outside DJ territory in the ’90s by releasing two singles, neither of which made much impact. The tide turned in 2001, when he had a hit in Francophone countries with the single ‘Just A Little More Love’ (featuring Chris Willis), and a year later with his album of the same name. Over the course of 15 singles and two albums Guetta’s reach gradually became more international, and the tide turned to a tsunami with his 2009 megahit ‘When Love Takes Over’ (featuring Kelly Rowland, and co-written with Fred Rister). Guetta was 42 at that point.
Since then Guetta has been at the top of the hit parades with staggering regularity, with 57(!) charting hit singles to date under his own name, 22 of which went Top 10, including blockbusters like ‘Sexy Bitch’ (featuring Akon), ‘Sweat’ (featuring Snoop Dogg), ‘Dangerous’ (featuring Sam Martin), ‘This One’s For You’ (featuring Zara Larsson), ‘2U’ (featuring Justin Bieber) and ‘Flames’ (with Sia). His last three albums, One Love (2009), Nothing But The Beat (2011) and Listen (2014), were all multi-million sellers, and there also were nine Fuck Me I’m Famous electronic dance music compilation albums, as well as countless guest appearances, production credits on other people’s tracks, and remixes. All this resulted in more awards and award nominations than one can shake a stick at, including Grammy, American Music, Billboard, DJ and MTV Europe Music awards.
Guetta spends the summer months on the island of Ibiza, and to promote his new album 7, his label hired the island’s main recording studio. Run by engineer, mixer and producer Henry Sarmiento, Sonic Vista is the go-to studio for quality recording on the island, with celebrities like Lady Gaga, Akon, 50 Cent, Taio Cruz and Guetta himself making use of the facility.
The new album has an unusual double-sided make-up, similar to that of Nothing But The Beat. Split into a ‘Pop Album’ and an ‘Electric Album’, its 27 tracks take the listener on a winding, genre-crossing journey, from EDM/pop songs, including previously released singles ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone’ (featuring Anne-Marie), ‘Flames’, ‘2U’ and ‘Like I Do’ (with Martin Garrix and Brooks), to more left-field vocal tracks, like ‘I’m That Bitch’ (featuring Saweetie) and ‘Motto’ (feat. Lil Uzi Vert, G-Easy and Mally Mall, and inspired by Atlanta trap). The electronic album mostly consists of unadulterated, instrumental house, released under the pseudonym Jack Back.
“The album is called 7 because it is my seventh album, and 7 is a cycle, which means I’ve come back to my original energy, and just want to have fun and experiment,” explains Guetta. “The thing is that there are different stages in life as an artist. Usually, the most exciting phase is the beginning, because your motivation comes from love and positive energy. You don’t expect anything, so you just try different things, and you are more experimental. After that you get into the second phase, when you are on top of your game, and then you become scared. Where your driving energy had been passion, it becomes fear, and that definitely is not good when it comes to creating. I feel like I am now in the third stage, which is, ‘I don’t give a fuck, I just want to have fun.’ That is why I am doing so many different things on this album. I love music in general, and I love doing different things. So I just did.
“I had a few years that were real magic, for me and for everyone in my scene, but after all these records that crossed over, like ‘Sexy Bitch’ and ‘I Gotta Feeling’ [the classic 2009 Black Eyed Peas track produced and co-written by Guetta and Fred Rister], there was a moment when you could play the same music at a festival, or in a pub or on the radio. I feel that this moment may be over, so instead of trying to do something that’s in the middle, I thought, ‘OK, if I’m going to go club and electronic, I’m going to go really underground, and if I am going to do pop, it’ll be real pop. I’m not going to do some kind of halfway house.’ That’s the idea of the album. I’m not trying to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. With each track I’m going 100 percent into what I’m doing.”
Meeting In The Middle
7’s opening track and most recent single ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone’ is a case in point, as it is the epitome of the current EDM/pop direction. Guetta co-wrote it with some of the arch-architects of the style, the Swedish couple Linus ‘Lotus IV’ Wiklund and Noonie Bao, and Australian songwriter Sarah Aarons — Wiklund and Aarons were also involved in the co-writing of Zedd’s EDM/pop monster hit ‘Stay’ as well as tracks for Avicii, Clean Bandit, Charli XCX, and so on. Guetta explains why the album opens with this track.
“I’m a DJ, so I like the storytelling of going from one song to another, and of course sequencing is important when you make an album. Nothing is by accident. I decided to start the album very pop, with feel-good, easy kind of music, and ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone’ is a cool, quality emotional record, which I also think is pretty unique. After that I go to different places. ‘Drive’ is a bit more of a timeless record. It’s interesting because I made it with Black Coffee [a leading a South African record producer and DJ], and his culture is deep house, and more underground than what I do. He always wanted to do less, whereas I always want to do more. I tend to make big choruses and then try to make them shine even more, and he always goes: ‘Make it less.’ We met in the middle of both our worlds. The song was sung by a brand new girl, Delilah Montague.
“‘I’m That Bitch’ has a fresh sound, which makes it exciting. It is really different from anything else. I think the secret of a very big hit is the combination of a fresh, exciting new sound, and a timeless melody. If you have one of these two elements it’s already amazing, but if you have both at the same time, you have a huge record. I wrote the song with Stargate, and they had an idea that was more like a hip-hop record, and I suggested we turn it into something else. Some guys from the label had dropped by in the studio, and brought a vocalist along, Saweetie, and she ended up on the track.”
The opening track ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone’, meanwhile, sounds like prototypical EDM/pop, but actually came into being in a way that’s rather old-fashioned, in that the songwriters were all in the same room. “We were at Linus and Noonie’s place, at their house, where they have a studio,” says Guetta. “Sarah [Aarons] was also there. We started from scratch. Linus played me four different chord progressions, and I picked one, and we went from there. In my experience it is easier to write a good record from chords, instead of from a finished instrumental. Of course this is very debatable, and I have written songs in many different ways, but in my opinion this is the best way. If you play a track with a four-to-the-floor kick and a 128bpm tempo, you won’t write the same song, because you’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is dance music for the club, let’s write about partying.’ As a producer you try to get the best out of people that you are working with, and the idea is not to force a songwriter into a corner. You want to give the songwriter the freedom to express to him or herself.
“So we started from the chords, and then we had that little arpeggio at the beginning, and they wrote the song to this. I programmed the drums, and after that I took that two-note cadence in the same style as ‘2U’, the song I did with Justin Bieber, and added that to the chorus, and that gives the song a certain energy and also influenced the songwriting. Finally, we got into the drop, and the idea was to combine all the different elements. I did not want to do a pure vocal chop, because that has been done so much, so we combined vocal chops with synth sounds, which I think came out pretty cool. It’s true, using drops has become part of pop music now. It’s the new standard, and because I come from dance music, I love doing this. In fact, it’s been done so much, a new approach now would be to have a song without a drop!”
Once a song has come into being, the next step is the production process, which, as everyone working in studios knows, can be lengthy and involved. Guetta: “The creation of the demo and producing are two different processes in music making. The creation of the demo usually is the most exciting. It’s just fun. Production takes way more patience, and also, it sometimes tells the truth about a record. If you feel you can’t finish a track, it often is not the production that’s the problem, but it’s because your original idea is not good enough. That happens a lot.”
For all stages of creation, Guetta works in Ableton Live, his DAW of choice, and illustrates the process once again with reference to ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone’. “The production was done afterwards, with Linus and I going back and forth between ourselves. I tend to overproduce, and when Linus and I went back into the studio, we stripped things down. We were like, ‘There are so many elements, what are the most essential ones? Less is more!’ Linus works in Pro Tools, so we had to exchange files. I have used Ableton since the beginning, in the early ’00s, I don’t remember exactly. I tried Logic too, when I was working with Fred a lot, and Giorgio also uses it, so I had to learn it. But I don’t like it as much as Ableton.
“I use Ableton every day, non-stop, both for production and live concerts. It’s great for writing, and to do edits, for which it is unbelievable. For DJ’ing there is absolutely, undeniably nothing better than Ableton. As a DJ I try to give people a unique experience for each concert, so every record I play is a unique edit. I don’t play the regular versions of my hits. Imagine if I would still play the original version of ‘I Gotta Feeling’ from 10 years ago! I would just kill myself! It is the same for the Rolling Stones. They have been playing ‘Satisfaction’ for decades. Of course, if you go to see the Rolling Stones and they don’t play it, you’re going to be mad at them. So I am playing my hits, and I always try to keep the essential sections, but also to come up with a new drop, for example. Ableton is so fast and so easy to use when you’re doing this, it is incredible.”
Although Guetta prefers to collaborate during the writing process, he spends a lot of time working on his own when shaping and mixing the songs he co-writes. As he’s travelling for most of his time, he does this simply on his laptop with Ableton, working entirely in the box. He nonetheless has a small in-the-box setup in his house in Ibiza, set up by neighbouring Sonic Vista owner Henry Sarmiento, who explains that Guetta has, “Genelec 1234 monitors with a sub, Barefoot Sound MicroMain27 Gen2 monitors, a Burl Audio B26 Orca as his monitor control for the speakers, a few MIDI keyboards, a mic stand and an AKG mic, and he plugs his laptop directly into the Burl Audio B26 Orca.”
Guetta elaborates: “I’m very happy with the huge Genelecs, and I absolutely love the Barefoots. They are almost unbelievable for their size! When I am at my house here I will sometimes invite people to come and write, and I’ll create a mini studio in each room, and put Barefoots in each of them. They always sound good, with really good bass, even if the rooms are not acoustically treated. I also bought a new soundcard from UAD, which is great, but I don’t really use it, because of the hassle of going into another place or studio, where you may not have the soundcard and then there are plug-ins missing. For me a good studio is just a good room with some good monitors, and a soundcard, and that’s it. But sometimes I don’t even use the soundcard, and just use my laptop. In the past I recorded vocals and instruments at my home, but now my experience is that it is better for me to go to a proper studio and use an engineer for those things.”
Software-wise, Guetta has furnished his Ableton DAW with quite a few soft synths and effects plug-ins. “The basic synths are Lennardigital’s Sylenth, and other stuff that’s very common, like reFX Nexus, for when you want to be fast and efficient. Then there’s Native Instruments’ Massive, but now I use reFX’s Serum a lot. I really love Serum. I feel like Serum is sonically equivalent to Massive, but it is way easier to use. And I am a lazy guy. I just want ease of use, and I don’t necessarily want to create sounds from the beginning. If I have a sound that’s amazing, and I add the right EQ, reverb, compression and so on, then it’s good.
“I had some discussions with producer Afrojack who said, ‘I don’t have Nexus. I want to create my own sounds!’ But five years later he also had it, and said, ‘OMG, David, you were so right! I can work so much faster now.’ It doesn’t mean that you don’t from time to time program your own sounds, but if you’re writing, there’s no reason to make your life complicated. In the same vein, I have a folder with risers. You create a riser once, but are you going to create a riser every time? Why would you? I’m a practical guy, and don’t have much time.
“Another synth I like is the Vengeance VPS Avenger, which is a little bit like Nexus, but it’s a real synthesizer. With Nexus you are limited in the way you can edit the sounds. The Avenger also has extremely well-produced sounds, so you don’t really have to do anything to them. You can modify them if you want, but they already sound crazy. I also use Arturia synths. I used them a lot on the electronic tracks on 7, and they are great for vintage, analogue sounds. Arturia’s stuff is amazing, though it does use a lot of CPU. Another synth I like is the u-he Diva. I never use the synths in Ableton, because they are not user-friendly. Someone showed me how to use them, so I started to work with them, but they don’t feel like home. That’s why Sylenth is so nice: it’s so easy to use, even if you start from scratch.”
Talk The Talkbox
With regards to samples, Guetta says he tends to simply place them in the timeline, with the exception of drum samples. “For those I use Ableton’s Simpler, but only loaded with my own sounds.” In terms of processing, he waxes lyrical about iZotope’s VocalSynth 2: “We used it a lot during the making of 7. That was really fun. I was blown away by that. It was the most exciting thing for me on this album, to be able to treat vocals and do the harmonising stuff. You can do that harmonising vocoder effect with the Antares Harmony Engine EVO, and that works really well, but then I discovered the VocalSynth, and that is really insane. The VocalSynth is really creative and it also is super easy to use, which matters a lot to me. It means that I can use it without bringing in someone else.
"For example, I love the talkbox, which was used by Roger Troutman, the leader of Zapp in the 1980s, and he also played it on Dr Dre’s and 2Pac’s ‘California Love’. On the new album we used it on ‘2U’, with Monsieur George and Giorgio, aka The Pianoman, playing the talkbox. We created a mix of talkbox samples, which were played by Giorgio, and then we also had Mr George playing a melody we gave him using a real talkbox. Not many people are good with the talkbox, it is very hard to play. Sometimes it is good to hire someone for something specific, like the talkbox, because I don’t have time to learn how to play it. If you go very hard with it, Antares Auto-Tune can sound a little bit like a talkbox, and you can also approach the sound with the VocalSynth, which is why I got so excited, because I could do it myself without bringing in somebody else.”
Throughout the gestation process of a song, and particularly during the production and mixing stages, Guetta is keen to play the song to others. “I am a little crazy; I am ready to do anything to make a record better! I have no ego. I just want to make the best record possible, so I am always playing my music to other people and listening to comments. Sometimes I take them into consideration, sometimes I don’t, but it is always interesting. Even if the record seems perfect and finished, I’ll play it to my friends, and if anyone has an idea to make it better, he or she is always welcome. I know many producers who don’t like to do that, but as a DJ I am all about sharing. That is what led me to do what I do. Ego is the worst enemy of a producer and of an artist. We all have it, because if you have some talent, you usually are aware of it, and it is very easy to think: ‘Oh, I am so good I don’t need anyone.’ But I think we always need someone else. I used to mix my own records, for example. But then I found some mixers who mix them better than me, so why not?”
In the case of 7, this means that several professional mixers were involved, including pop’s number-one mixer Serban Ghenea and his engineer John Hanes. Guetta always delivers his own rough mixes, created using a selection of favourite tools. “I use pretty basic stuff, like the OTT from Xfer, which is a huge compressor that makes everything sound super loud. It’s crazy. It also adds some texture. I love the FabFilter plug-ins, and I love iZotope. Their Transient Shaper is pretty exciting. It’s really cool on drums, even on a group. It’s really crazy. You can not only affect the transient, but you can also use it to make shorter sounds, so it feels more percussive, and when you take out some release, the sound becomes more pumping. For side-chain I use the Cableguys VolumeShaper, every day. HalfTime is made by the same company, and allows you to turn two bars of music into four bars or one bar, and by doing this you can manipulate audio in a very interesting and cool way. I also use all the SoundToys stuff a lot. Little AlterBoy in particular is a very cool plug-in. I put iZotope Ozone 8 on the master chain. Very simple really. As I said, I’m a lazy guy, I want ease of use!”
7 already contains two major hit singles in ‘2U’ and ‘Flames’, and is sure to spawn more. Whether the album as a whole will see Guetta expanding his reach even further remains to be seen, but with estimates of his income during 2017 alone northwards of 25 million dollars, Guetta’s exhortation that he doesn’t “give a fuck, I just want to have fun” is entirely understandable. The ‘godfather of EDM’ clearly continues to be on a roll.
I Don’t Believe In No Ghosts
When David Guetta started out, DJs were regarded as non-musicians who purely played records made by others. Releasing records under his own name, without singing or being credited with playing any instrument, has led to some controversy, with sceptics questioning what his actual musical input was. The music world has moved on from this point, but there nonetheless is some validity to the questioning, as was exemplified in the interview with EDM star KSHMR in last month’s SOS, in which he described how he used to do “ghost producing, which is working for DJs who don’t really know how to write and produce”.
Guetta has certainly relied on a few regular, behind-the-scenes collaborators, notably, in chronological order, Joachim Garraud, Fred Rister and Giorgio Tuinfort. Rister, however, stresses in this issue’s accompanying interview that he’s not a ghost producer at all, because Guetta has major hands-on input in song writing, programming, arranging, producing and mixing. This is also in evidence from the way Guetta himself describes his studio activities.
“The first thing is,” explains Guetta, “that I’m sitting in a studio with songwriters of my choosing. That is essential, and I think I am good at this. I often have an idea for a song, but also, if someone is better than me at a certain style, I don’t have a problem asking that person to work with me. You can hear when a producer is copying the sound of someone, and I prefer to go directly to that person and work with him. This is what being a producer is. You surround yourself with people who can do what you cannot do, but they are still executing your vision. What matters is that you have something to express, and it’s OK to have other people help you say it.
“In any case, I hate working by myself. It’s just nice to bounce off ideas. It gets you excited, and also, I feel that every time I do something on my own, I tend to become too emotionally attached to it. It’s good to have someone who can tell you, ‘This is amazing!’ or ‘This is just OK, forget about it.’ I often work with Giorgio [Tuinfort] who is a piano prodigy and completely next level. He’s a classically trained musician, and that’s something I don’t have. When I’m with him I don’t touch the keyboard, because it’s embarrassing! I’m too shy to play, so I tell him: ‘Can you change this chord?’, stuff like that, and I focus more on the drums and beats and sounds. But with the new album, sometimes Giorgio wasn’t there, so I had to get back to the keyboard. That actually was a very positive challenge. It was like I was with my back against the wall: I’m doing a session with songwriters, and someone needs to play this music! So I had to do it, and actually, some great things came out of it.
“Being in the studio is all about energy. Sometimes it’s hard to say why a particular record turned out good. While people were playing in the studio, somebody may have been talking, and maybe if that person talking hadn’t been there, the record would not be what it is. When you have good energy between people, you usually get great results. That definitely is part of working with Fred [Rister], who is a beautiful person, and we feel really comfortable together. We are very close friends, and we made some amazing records together.
“Fred also started out like a DJ, just like me, so we understand each other. We come from similar cultures. He plays in a very unique way, and from time to time comes up with chord progressions that are completely original. He’s not classically trained, so instead of having it in his head that he’s going to play I-VI-IV-V, the most popular chord progression in major, he just tries things out. He doesn’t even know all the formulas. He just puts his fingers in different places on the keyboard, and sometimes that results in magic. I love this. From the first moment we sat down and worked together it was magic. I still remember the moment when we worked on tracks like ‘I Gotta Feeling’. I remember every little detail. Fred is really amazing and we have been on an amazing journey together.”
Rister has been seriously ill, off and on, for many years, and his work with Guetta has become more sporadic as a result, although he did collaborate with Guetta on one of 7’s electronic tracks, ‘Think Think Think’, which is very much a house track.