Musicians, arrangers and producers Jean‑Phillipe Rykiel and François Breant are well known in their native France as pioneers of Western and African crossover music, and for their willingness to use technology to produce new and challenging forms of music. Paul Tingen paid them each a visit at their Parisian studios to discuss their working methods.
The world music movement which emerged during the mid‑'80s was the only new pop music of our times not to come out of either Britain or the United States. And although the first successful world music records contained African music, they did in fact come from Paris, which was, and still is, an exciting melting‑pot filled to the brim with an incredible diversity of non‑Western and Western musicians.
Three of these musicians stood at the cradle of what's still one of the most successful, innovative and influential African crossover records of all time. They were the Malian singer Salif Keita and French keyboard players, arrangers and producers Jean‑Philippe Rykiel and François Breant, and the record they produced was Keita's Soro, which was released in 1987. For the tenth anniversary of one of the legendary records of our time, I went to Paris to talk to the two Frenchmen who were responsible for its stunning hi‑tech arrangements and production.
My first face‑to‑face meeting with Jean‑Philippe Rykiel got off to a rather unusual start. Seconds after shaking my hand as I entered his basement apartment in central Paris, Rykiel escorted me to his studio and asked me to read out the information contained on a number of pages on the screen of an Akai MPC3000. Sometimes he pressed a few buttons, and asked what changes this made on the screen. Meanwhile all my comments were recorded with a dictaphone which Rykiel held in his other hand. The reason for this slightly bizarre introduction was very simple: Jean‑Philippe Rykiel is blind, and at times he needs help to find his way through the tangled, impenetrable web of today's page‑ and menu‑driven technology.
At a time when many sighted people are complaining about the complications of modern‑day interfaces, the difficulties that blind people face are almost unimaginable. Jean‑Philippe Rykiel nevertheless manages to operate his digital 16‑track home studio and his collection of keyboards mostly by himself — an indication of his genius. Another indication is that he has, during the last two decades, gained a reputation as one of the world's foremost keyboard players, and a man who also has impressive talents as a writer, arranger and producer.
Anybody who has more than a passing interest in world music will have come across Rykiel's name on several recordings, especially African ones: the many African artists Rykiel has worked with include the famous names Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita and Papa Wemba. Yet Rykiel's work covers a much broader spectrum than just African music: he has also worked with reputable artists such as Vangelis, Jon Hassell and Leonard Cohen, and ex‑Gong members Steve Hillage, Tim Blake and Didier Malherbe. On top of this, he has released two solo albums, Jean‑Philippe Rykiel (1981) and Nunc Musics (1991), and at the moment, the 1995 duo album that the 36‑year‑old Frenchman made with Tibetan monk and singer Lama Gyourmé, The Lama's Chant, is a slow‑burning new age and world music hit in several European countries.
A long time ago, Rykiel ran into trouble at the specialist boarding school for blind children he attended — he was punished for playing the blues. He renounced music lessons in response, and tasted sweet revenge when he made his recording debut at the age of 16, playing keyboards on a record by the well‑known French artists Brigitte Fontaine and Areski. Rykiel started to work with African musicians on a regular basis during the early '80s, playing with and producing, among others, the band Xalam. In 1987, he helped set a new standard for the fusion of African music and Western music technology with Salif Keita's international breakthrough album Soro.
Since then Rykiel has produced two and arranged three tracks on Keita's Folon (1995), played on Papa Wemba's Emotion (1995) and worked as a producer, arranger and writer on two Youssou N'Dour albums: Eyes Open (1992) and The Guide (1994) — although he wasn't involved in the making of the well‑known worldwide hit duet with Neneh Cherry from that album, '7 Seconds'. Rykiel's collaborator on Soro, François Breant, still remembers Rykiel's talents with awe a decade afterwards:
"He has really fantastic ears and an astonishing memory," Breant marvels. "He would say to the engineer: 'Hey, you put the compressor at plus 4dB with a ratio of 2:1, and I don't like that'. He got that information purely from listening. And I've seen him program a Yamaha DX7, without any visual feedback, of course, just using his ears — and that's amazing. He's a great artist."
Having recorded all the information he needs from me from the MPC3000's screen, Rykiel guides me to a comfortable sofa planted right next to his equipment. For a great artist, and one of the most admired and respected people in the French music scene, he is also, as it soon turns out, extremely modest. Asked how he sees himself, and what he considers his main strengths, he answers:
"I hope I'm a musician. Probably not the best musician in the world, but someone with a musical sensitivity that some people happen to like. I've never asked myself what my main strength is. Life is not a contest. Saying what you're good at is a bit artificial. Every musician is able to produce, arrange, and write music, and it depends on the circumstances what you end up doing."
Jean‑Philippe Rykiel: "Having all this equipment can be very confusing and an obstacle to creating, because you spend time asking yourself questions that are irrelevant to music, like: 'Which sampler shall I use for this sound?"
This is the main theme that emerges from most of Rykiel's words: he loves music, and has little time for all the paraphernalia that can come with being a successful musician, having no real interest in the trappings of success, or the big ego that can result. Nor is he interested in endless questions about his gear, protesting at one point: "I don't think you should focus too much on the equipment that I'm using, because it's not very important. I think that music is more important than equipment. I don't want to advertise equipment, and I don't want anybody to say 'This is good because Rykiel is using it'. That's pointless. If someone likes what I do, it's not because of the equipment I use, it's because of me. My relationship with equipment changes all the time anyway. There's always new stuff, and it's always imperfect."
The imperfect stuff that Rykiel has in his home studio consists of a Yamaha TX816 rack and a DX7II keyboard — he likes the sound of FM synthesis — a Minimoog, a Roland MC50 MkII sequencer, a Clavia Nord Lead rack, an Ensoniq TS10 synth and ASR10 sampler, a Kurzweil K1200 master keyboard, a rackmount Emu Emulator III sampler, and a Roland JD800 synth, plus a six‑foot Steinway piano. His FMR home studio (pronounced éphémère in French, meaning fleeting or short‑lived) also contains a Roland R8 drum machine, an Alesis D4 drum module and a Roland JV1080 sound module. For recording, Rykiel uses two Alesis ADAT XTs with BRC, a Mackie 32:8 desk ("excellent, easy to use and a great sound"), a Yamaha DMP7 digital mixer ("just for mixing the TX"), and an Akai DD1000 hard disk editor ("the only one I can use, because its interface isn't very visual"), alongside outboard gear including a Lexicon PCM80, Eventide H3000S, Alesis Quadraverbs, a Boss SE70, Behringer PEG parametric EQ, Behringer Intelligate XR2000 and Behringer Composer ("Behringer equipment is cheap and good"). Finally, there's a hi‑fi stereo system for monitoring.
"The Akai MPC3000 is my main sequencer," Rykiel comments, "but I occasionally use the Roland MC50 MkII, because it's much better at making tempo changes. I like my two ADAT XTs — I think they sound better than the original ADATs. They have a better dynamic range and less distortion at low levels. And I like the clarity of digital sound. I use hi‑fi equipment for monitoring because it sounds much better than so‑called studio equipment; I don't like studio monitors, like Genelecs or Yamaha NS10s. People listen to music on hi‑fi systems, so all you need is a good hi‑fi system and you can do everything you want. It's better and much cheaper.
"I have to say that it's a bit of a drag to have so many synthesizers: if I could only have one synthesizer, I would be the happiest man on the planet. But the problem is that there is always one thing that a certain machine can do, and others can't. Having all this equipment can be very confusing and an obstacle to creating, because you spend time asking yourself questions that are irrelevant to music, like: 'Which sampler shall I use for this sound?' And it would obviously be much easier for me to have to remember the interface of only one machine."
Elsewhere In Paris...
Another of France's other top producers, arrangers, keyboard players and writers has similar misgivings about modern music technology. His name is François Breant, and he's also well‑known for his involvement with African music, particularly Salif Keita's Soro. There are a remarkable number of similarities in the views of these two Frenchmen, even if they're diametrically opposed on a more physical level — Rykiel's studio is in his cramped basement flat right in the middle of Paris, while the sighted Breant's light‑filled home studio is situated in the spacious attic of his huge house in the suburbs. Like Rykiel, Breant likes modern and especially digital technology. His main workhorse is a huge Macintosh system, which would be impossible for Rykiel to use — but both men's criticisms of the dangers of technology were remarkably similar.
"It's getting harder and harder these days not to get lost in technology," says Breant. "Things are changing so fast that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that what really matters is the music you're trying to make. People appear to be in a race towards perfection, or towards computerisation, or to having as many sounds as possible. But it's a race to nowhere. What's the point of having thousands of samples from all over the world on your record? It's like giving a present but the wrapping being more important than the gift itself — the music isn't getting any better because of it. The only way to deal with this situation is to consciously impose limitations on yourself. When I start a new production I choose a particular palette of colours and try to get the best out of them, rather than try anything I can lay my hands on. If I don't do this I'll be overwhelmed by having too many choices, and I'll lose the point, and the identity of what I'm dealing with will vanish. I know, because I have gotten lost in the past and overdone things."
For from being a closet (or attic) Luddite, Breant speaks with the authority of a technology expert and successful musician. At 49 — though he'd pass for 39 — he's becoming an éminence grise of the French music industry. During his three decades as a professional musician he started out as a rock‑hating, extremely politicised jazz fan, who got interested in rock through the Beatles, and then became actively involved in progressive rock. Initially a pianist, he bought his first synth, an ARP Odyssey, in 1974.
"It was a revelation to me to be able to make up a sound myself, because as a piano player you can't really influence the sound your instrument makes, unlike other instrumentalists. It made me play differently, and because the synths didn't have any memory facilities in those days, every moment you played became unique."
Breant's Odyssey, and soon afterwards his Prophet 5, landed him many professional sessions — he was one of the first people in France to operate synths. During the late '70s and early '80s he was the keyboard player in the band of Bernard Lavilliers, one of France's leading radical musicians of the day, and eventually became the band's musical director, arranger and producer.
"I learnt to think vertically as well as horizontally," he explains. "As an instrumentalist you tend to only worry about your own part, but as an arranger and producer I had to think of music as being made up of layers. The arrival of sequencing during the '80s made me very happy, because it suddenly meant that you could work on your own and keep all your layers flexible; there was constant interaction between your parts. With multitracking, your options get narrower and narrower as you put each part down, but with sequencing, and now with direct‑to‑disk recording, you can keep different parts much more fluid and interactive. The only disadvantage of the arrival of MIDI was that playing synths in the studio became less exciting. In the past you knew that you could never quite reproduce the sound you had; you had to get it right, so you played as if your life depended on it. But since MIDI came along, you can keep on doing things until they are perfect, and studio work can become quite boring."
Old And New
After leaving Lavilliers' band in 1983, Breant went on to become a full‑time producer. In 1986 he was introduced to Salif Keita and African music.
"It was a shock to me," he remembers. "It was a real discovery, and it had a great effect on my life. Working in the French music industry in those days was sometimes very frustrating, because of the low quality of rock records that we put out. The reason for this was that we had some sort of complex — we rejected our own roots, and did only rather derivative English‑ or American‑influenced music: Johnny Hallyday and Telephone were examples of this. But the Africans I met had their own musical roots, and they were proud of them. At the same time, they had a sensitivity and openness to contemporary music — they were playing their own music on electric guitars and drums, and they even managed to be popular doing this. Their music was also very sophisticated. It was the same with Cuban and Brazilian music: I was jealous of these music cultures that were capable of being independent of the Anglo‑Saxon influence."
François Breant: "What matters is the music, not the tape recorder, or the desk. Digital and analogue may not sound the same, but who cares? John Coltrane didn't sound the same in different halls, did he?"
And so, together with Jean‑Philippe Rykiel and Salif Keita, Breant set to creating one of the most influential African records of all time, and an amazingly mature hybrid of African roots and Western influences: Salif Keita's Soro, released in 1987. Soro hit the international music market like a bombshell, and was a major factor in the creation of the music genre that's now called world music.
After this Breant worked for a long time with Keita on Soro's 1989 follow‑up, Ko‑Yan, an album that was clearly a labour of love on his part ("I put a lot of myself into that record, and spent more time and energy on it than any producer could afford"). It was therefore extremely frustrating for him to be confronted with the decision of Island Records to have the finished album remixed by Paul 'Groucho' Smykle. According to Breant, the sound of the album became more slick and commercial, and its subtleties were lost (an observation substantiated by the original mixes he played me). Ko‑Yan was nevertheless an excellent album, though not in the same league as Soro.
After Ko‑Yan, Breant was involved in a few other African albums, but he has spent most of the '90s producing French top acts such as Kent and Enzo Enzo, and writing and arranging film scores and music commercials. Most of his arranging and writing work takes place in his home studio, and the equipment here is a curious mix of the old and the new. Among the older pieces of gear are analogue keyboards and synths such as the Crumar Organiser B and T1 drawbar organs, ARP Odyssey and Oberheim Xpander synths, Revox B77 and TEAC DX8 tape recorders, an Atari 1040ST, and a Soundcraft Series 2000 desk. Newer equipment includes three Akai S1000 samplers, a Yamaha TX802, a Roland JV1080, JX10 and Korg 01/W synths, and an Apple Macintosh 7100 with two connected screens and Logic Audio software, plus Digidesign Audiomedia cards which give him four tracks of hard disk recording. His outboard gear includes a Yamaha REV 7 and SPX90, a Korg SDD3000 delay, an Alesis 3630 compressor and an old Mu‑tron stereo flanger.
Curiously, Breant uses ordinary hi‑fi equipment for amplification and monitoring in his studio, just as Rykiel does. But unlike Rykiel, he doesn't find hi‑fi equipment superior to studio monitoring equipment; his choice is a consequence of his pragmatic music‑first‑technology‑last attitude.
"It works for me to have hi‑fi equipment for monitoring. A studio amplifier would give me fewer facilities, and if I bought one I'd need to replace my desk. I intend to get the new digital Yamaha desk, or a Mackie, but this setup works fine, and maybe I'm too lazy to change things. It doesn't seem that important. Again, it's simply a matter of working with limitations. The same goes for this whole discussion of whether recording on analogue is better than on digital — I don't give a damn. If I work in a studio with digital equipment, I work on digital, and if there's analogue equipment, I use that. What matters is the music, not the tape recorder, or the desk. Digital and analogue may not sound exactly the same, but who cares? John Coltrane didn't sound the same in different halls, did he?"
What Breant does seem to care about, however, is the user‑friendliness and practicality of equipment. He's enthusiastic about the facility to run audio and MIDI data next to each other on his Mac, and intends to buy a Digidesign Pro Tools or Session 8 system, to have up to 16 tracks of hard disk recording. Since most of the work in his studio consists of arranging and demo‑ing, he's not too bothered about the quality of synth sounds or the truthfulness of instrumental samples, and prefers to do all his instrument 'simulations' on the Roland JV1080 — "It's really easy and fast".
It is surprising, therefore, to learn that Breant still scores his arrangements by hand, rather than using the computer to print them out. "The advantage of using the computer is, of course, that you can edit and print parts easily. But I don't think it's faster. When I print things with the computer I still have to make many changes by hand afterwards," he explains, showing me a piece of very elegant calligraphic scoring. "To get the score perfect, you have to quantise everything in the computer, and even then it will make awkward mistakes in rhythm notation. Finally, indications for expressions and dynamics are much easier written by hand. And I must say that I get pleasure out of doing calligraphy."
Breant confesses that he's losing interest in synths and samplers, because he feels that all that's being done at the moment is "regurgitating what has already been done". His renewed interest in live performance has led him to plan building glass doors halfway across his large attic room, so that he can record musicians in his studio. Reflecting his interest in live music and in going back to one's roots, and in part an echo of his work with Salif Keita, is the passionate interest he takes in the current emergence of an authentic French music style that's both contemporary and rooted in its past.
"The British had the intelligence not to reject their roots, and the French have only recently been discovering the wisdom of that. Our roots are in Gaelic, vaudeville and European music, and the chanson tradition of people like Edith Piaf. The only problem is that artists like Les Negresses Vertes, Kent and Enzo Enzo are not developing these roots. What I'd like to do is a similar project to Soro: create a blend of old and new, hi‑tech and low‑tech, and so on. I don't see why there can't be screaming electric guitars and heavy drums on an Edith Piaf‑influenced song."
Now, if it's going to be as good as Soro, that would be something to look forward to. Maybe Breant and Rykiel could patch up their personal differences (for their mutual professional admiration was evident), and surprise us all — then the next musical movement of the mid '90s could once again come out of Paris.
Leading Light — Rykiel On Modern Studio Technology
You might well wonder how on earth the visually‑impaired Jean‑Philippe Rykiel can possibly operate in his FMR studio. His remarks are fascinating, and reveal much about the problems facing blind musicians wishing to use today's technology. He explains that he has a number of physical aids to help him at FMR: simple braille signs that he sticks on his equipment; a very sensitive and directional light sensor which makes a noise when pointed at a light source, so he can establish whether he has activated a track, for example; and a special voice computer...
"It has voice synthesis, and I use it as a phone book, notebook, diary, calculator and word processor. I have people read me the most useful parts of equipment manuals, and the most relevant sections of the menus, then I load all that into memory. If, for example, I then want to know where I can find a certain function on the MPC3000, I call up a file called MPC3000, type in the relevant function, and it tells me that I can find it on the third line on the fifth column of page three, say. But I'm so familiar with most of my equipment that I don't have to refer to the computer."
As you'd expect, Rykiel's choice of gear is guided as much by its degree of user‑friendliness to a blind person as by its sonic qualities: "The Roland JD800 is part of my setup because it's so much easier to program for me with all the front‑panel buttons. But it's still not ideal, because I can't see whether the tone buttons on the front are lit or not, which is a bit of a drag."
Rykiel's main gripe is clearly with equipment that relies heavily on a visually‑oriented interface. Computers come top of the list: "I can't use any computers, because the interface is too visual. There's nothing a blind person can do with computers, except maybe accounts or word processing. I have complained a lot about computers, but I'm not the only one — Vangelis also complains about them.
"It has no effect, though, because professional musicians are not the most important clients of manufacturers; their biggest clients are people who simply want to have some fun, and who are very happy with equipment that looks like computers and get happier the larger the screen is. In adverts, huge screens are said to equal user‑friendliness, but that's ridiculous — not only for blind people but for all musicians, because screens make it more difficult to improvise with sounds: when you're on stage, for example. But now that more and more equipment is getting computerised, and the interfaces are getting more and more visual, with screens and pages and menus, it's going to be harder and harder for blind people to use modern equipment. This is extremely frustrating, because there have been many exciting developments. The Korg Wavestation, for example, can do wonderful things, but I can't use it: the editing is far too complex, it's full of menus and sub‑menus and menus inside of menus — there's no way I can keep track of where I am! And we're too small a market for manufacturers to bother with. It's a real shame, because I think that blind people bring a different sensitivity to music, and if we cannot use modern equipment any more, we will be forced to either stop making music, or only make music with older equipment."