The monster producer-spinner dishes on his production/performance secrets and staying creative in the midst of a non-stop lifestyle.
By Mark Merlino and Chris McCrellis-Mitchell
Musician's Friend Staff Writers
Not long ago, if you were to ask what EDM (Electronic Dance Music) was, most people wouldn't have a clue, but there's one man who's been coaching the entire world on the breakout of a genre that's been flourishing in clubs for decades. For years he has been soaring over the lines once drawn between dance and other styles of music. French DJ, producer and two-time Grammy Award-winner David Guetta has successfully taken dance music out of the clubs and shaped it for acceptance on mainstream airwaves.
Knowing how to intelligently exploit the talents of colossal artists such as The Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna, Akon and others has propelled Guetta's career into overdrive turning this respected DJ into one of the most iconic figures in music today. We had a chance to sit with David at Hollywood's legendary Chateau Marmont to talk about working in today's performance and studio environments.
Musician's Friend: How much of your composition and production work is done in a studio, and how much is done on the go in hotel rooms and other locations?
David Guetta: First, I'm on the road pretty much all the time, so I have to be able to work a lot on the road, and what's interesting is that my setup...my regular setup, is not what I have on the road. I have my own studio in Ibiza where I spend the summer, one in London, and one in Paris...but they're only a room with good monitors and good acoustics, and what I do is I plug my laptop, my MIDI controller, and my UAD card into the studio when I'm there.
MF: So you take your mobile setup with you when you travel, and then integrate that when you're back at one of your studios?
DG: Yes, a lot of DJs and producers are doing the same thing now, because what happens is when you start out, you do a lot of work in the studio, and then you say ‘Okay, when I'm on the road I'm going have a smaller setup so I can do sketches and then finish them in the studio.’ But what happens is that you realize that you're spending more and more time on the road, and less time in the studio, so things become a lot more complicated. That's why I never change my setup from the road to the studio; it's always the same. Now with the amount of power available in portable computers, and if you use something like the UAD card, it's even more power, and this allows me to have really large sessions without the necessity of having a big tower.
David talks about bringing sketches created on the road into his home studios.
MF: You mentioned the UAD-2 Satellite, are there any plug-ins in there that are your favorite?
DG: There's tons of plug-ins in there! The mastering stuff is really good. I use some of the tape emulation plug-ins a lot. Actually, the way I work, I route my synths in one group, the bass in one group, the drums in one group, and the effects in one group, so I'll use the tape emulation on the synth group, because a lot of synths that I use are plug-ins, and it's nice to be able to give them a little bit of that analog feel. I also use the SSL compressor; it's very good for kicks, and I'll often use the compressor from Logic to sidechain. It works really well.
MF: What DAW are you mostly using now?
DG: I've used Ableton Live for years, but now I mostly use Logic. I think each of them has great features. Sometimes when I need to do some edits or anything that has to do with loops and audio, I prefer Ableton, so I will do some preparation work in Ableton and then move to Logic, but when it comes to the quality, my mixes sound much better with Logic. Just out of my own experience, I would say that life is easier with Ableton, but as for the final result, even if it's harder work, it sounds better with Logic.
MF: You are obviously working on new beats pretty much every moment you have...
DG: I'm actually bouncing some tracks right now in the hotel room. [laughs]
MF: [laughs] ...well then how does a typical production session usually begin for you?
DG: When I started, I was only DJ-oriented, so I would always start with the drums and the bassline, then I would add the melodies and harmonies at the end. The way I work now is different, because out of experience I feel that at the end of the day the emotion is what really makes the difference in the quality of a record, and the emotion comes from the music – the chord progression, so I focus more on the music itself now. I usually start with trying to find the musical theme and then I use it, almost like if I was working on a remix. Sometimes I would use it in different pieces and then create the drums and effects at the end.
The way I work is to make a template, and make five or six records out of that template, and then start again. You probably can hear it in my music. So sometimes, like this last summer, I spent three months just working on sounds and templates, I didn't even touch one note. I was only trying to find new synths, new ideas, new plug-ins and new treatments for synths and sounds.
MF: Do you usually master your tracks as you work, or do you leave the mastering to be done at the end of the project?
DG: The way I work is I have different kinds of reference records that I made, using various kits, which I think are very good in terms of sound. So what I will do is have four different types of kits that I use, and four different master chains that work with each kit.
When I work on a project and I want to use a certain kit, I'll start my project with the matching master chain. So that means when I finish, I have something that is ready to play. Of course I'm going to adjust the mix, but it's already sounding pretty fierce.
MF: How much time do you spend on learning new music technology, and are there any go-to sources you turn to?
DG: The thing is, I have to explain to you how I live. I don't do anything else other than touring or making music. A lot of people might think this is very pathetic...[laughs]...but it makes me very happy. I don't watch TV. I don't read books. What I do, is I wake up in my hotel room and I start to produce. Then in the evening I get on a plane and I keep on producing. And then I arrive at a hotel, I have dinner, and then I go perform. So sometimes when I get back from the show, I produce again or sometimes my ears are tired from the show and I want to get my head somewhere else, so then I go to blogs and YouTube and websites for nerdy people [laughs] and I try to find out new technology and new plug-ins from brands that I love. There's always something new.
MF: You have the ability to bring out amazing vocal performances when collaborating with artists. How important is it to have a good rapport with the talent and a good vibe in the studio when recording?
DG: Of course, the vibe is very important in the studio, because most of the people I work with, they already know what they're doing, but what will make the difference, what will maybe make our song better, is something that you can not define. It's just the vibe that was there at that moment in the studio. How positive it was, how good they were feeling, and also the excitement, because what I'm trying to stay away from...the generic formula.
I think the best way is to take people out of their comfort zone, and that's what I'm trying to do with artists, is to try to bring them into my world where they don't feel so confident, so they have to go a little more experimental and this is usually when you can capture something really special from them.
MF: Some critics will say that some electronic music is mechanical and has no feeling to it, but your music has a real sense of emotion. How important is it for you to have that emotional connection with listeners?
DG: Well, first I believe that people who think EDM is really simple, very often are people that don't really understand our music, and they are confusing minimal with simple. It's two different things, because if you're able to get to the point, and use a minimum amount of sounds and musical sentences to say what you really want to say, then it will make the song more powerful. Just because you use 15 stacks of synths, and lots of strings, doesn't mean that your music is more beautiful. It just might be busier.
There's this record on my album called "The Alphabeat." It's on the electronic part of the album. There is a classical music conductor that covered the song with an entire symphonic orchestra, and it's absolutely crazy! Now the same person that would say, ‘ahh this track is really repetitive, simple music,‘ might hear the exact same music with an orchestra, and say, ‘wow this is incredible classical music ‘ So it's all about perception.
But you know it's all the same...the people that were listening to jazz, when they heard rock ‘n’ roll for the first time probably said, ‘Aww this is noise.’ It's always the same; and those people when they heard disco might have said, ‘Aww, this kick with the four-on-the-floor beat, this is only noise. It's not music.’ And those same people that were making disco probably listen to us and feel the same way [laughs]. But when you don't know something, it may sound all the same, but it's not. I think my music is very melodic, it's not three notes, a bass line, and drums; I think it's a little more sophisticated than that [laughs].
MF: You're always on the cutting edge, finding new ways to break boundaries. Have you ever thought about working with some rock artists on a crossover record, and if so, who would inspire you to do it?
DG: Oh, yeah, I'd love to. I'd loved to do that. Actually I've been speaking with a very, very big artist, but I can't really speak about it yet.
MF: I know you've been primarily using Pioneer CDJs on stage, but with the technology that's improved over the years, have you thought about going to an all-digital setup?
DG: I don't really like to play out of a laptop, because I come from the old school. As a DJ, I used to play only vinyl, and so for me, if a computer is not going to help me do something that I can't do with the CDJ, then there's no point.
MF: Then is there any particular technology that you are working with?
DG: To be honest, I'm still studying and developing stuff with different brands. I've been speaking with people from Native Instruments, Serato, and Pioneer to see if they can achieve what I have in mind. And we're still working on it. If I manage to do what I want to do, then I may have to change the way I work, but it would be for a good cause. [laughs]
MF: For over a decade, the resort island of Ibiza off the coast of Spain has been a haven for electronic music. How important of a role has the summer seasons at Ibiza played in your career, and for house music in general?
DG: It's the Mecca of house music, really. It's a very special place for me because our music is now exploding everywhere in the world, but for so many years it wasn't like this. Ibiza was actually the only place where everybody could come together and live the life that we wanted to live, a life of being open-minded and free...I'm talking about a time when I couldn't listen to the radio because I really hated it. In Ibiza, underground was the mainstream culture, but that was only in Ibiza. Everybody from all over the world would go, DJs, promoters, music lovers, and for the time we were there, we would feel that our music was the most important music. It's kind of funny because now it's become like that everywhere on the planet, you know?
MF: Do you feel it's important to continue to play in nightclubs, in addition to large concerts and festivals?
DG: Yes, absolutely, because in Ibiza, when I'm at Pacha I usually play three - four-hour sets. While right now, because it's become such an industry, it's more about delivering an amazing show, and it is more of an artist statement than DJ statement. People go to see our shows in the way they would go to see a rock band. So we deliver a show that is well planned out with effects and visuals. It needs to be really perfect because you play for an hour or two hours, and it has to be a nonstop peak almost, whereas when you DJ for a four-hour set, it's more like taking people on a journey, and I love doing this. It also allows me to try out a lot of new sounds, which is very important for me in terms of inspiration, as a DJ and producer.
MF: it's definitely two different worlds, from what I know, so it's nice to hear you say that.
DG: Yes, absolutely. I love both. I love being in the club at Ibiza and on stage giving a concert. They're both great, but I'm a DJ first, and I don't want to go too much away from that. That's why often I still insist with the promoters that my shows are a little later than a regular concert, and a little longer too, because I want a balance. When it's a concert, it's more like a rock band or pop act, and people want to hear the music of that artist only. You can't compare this to a club where people really only come to hear new music. That's why it's so important for me to keep on playing in clubs because this is where I get my inspiration and this is where I can try out my new tracks. That's what I love so much about our culture...people that are going clubbing; they are not looking for what they hear on the radio. They want to hear the new stuff; they want to hear the new sounds. And that's what is really special for me.
MF: Having said that, when you're doing a live concert, as opposed to a club set, do you have to pre-program your sets to match the lights and effects?
DG: That is an excellent question. I don't prepare pre-recorded mixes or anything, but you know it's always going to be kind of the same structure. But according to the reaction of the people, I'm going to go a little more in this direction or a little more in that direction. Whereas when I play in the club, I have no idea what I'm going to play, at all, and it's a total freedom.
MF: So when you're doing a live concert, do you feel more limited because there are certain songs you have to play?
DG: No. It's just different. Because what I will do is always kind of remix myself...to create special versions of songs. I want every time people come to see me to be a unique experience. So I will never play a record that is the radio version. I want the version to be unique. I really love doing tricks, just making it unique so I don't feel limited. It's just a different type of show.
MF: So that must also keep it fresh for you as a DJ?
DG: Yeah, a lot of the new generation wouldn't even understand what I'm saying because they started off as producers. So for them, what they like is to only perform their own music. But because I come from a DJ background for so many years, for me, it's also about promoting a type of music and it's a way of life. But then again, I'm not saying this is the absolute truth, I'm just saying this is where I'm coming from. These are my roots.
MF: So would you say it's more beneficial for aspiring electronic music artists to work on DJing first and production second, or does it really matter?
DG: Well, I think you cannot go against the time we're living in. So of course now, because it's all about production to be successful, I wouldn't say people should start by DJing. Actually if I was going to teach my little brother or my son how to become a DJ, I would probably teach him first how to produce because that's the key to everything right now. But having the right DJ skills also makes a big, big difference, because sometimes you see someone that has a big record, and is learning how to DJ in front of a large crowd of people, and it's kind of strange. But I think what makes a good show is a balance between the artist and the experience as a DJ. Its almost two different things.
MF: Can you take us through your mindset before, during, and after a large tour date?
DG: First, I never really stop touring, so, for me, the concept of a large tour doesn't really mean anything [laughs] because I am always on tour. And to be honest, when I do take a break, like a two-week break, it really makes me not feel good. Because, first I miss it, and second, it sounds crazy, but when I go back on stage after two or three weeks, I am really nervous. I feel like I don't know how to do it anymore. I know it's crazy because I've done it for so many years, but it's something for me. It's amazing to practice it all the time. And let's say I play in a city where I have lots of friends, it makes me a little more nervous too. For me it's not about how many people are in the room. I've played to millions of people in Brazil, and I play very often to 30,000 or 40,000, my average being around 15 (thousand) people you know, which I do like 150 times a year. But, I am much more nervous playing smaller shows for only 3,000 people than for a bigger crowd. Also when I go to a city for the first time, I can become really nervous, or if it's Paris, where I'm from, or maybe New York or Miami when all my friends are there. But other than that, that's what I do. You see, for me I'm just going there to party with the people.
MF: Since you don't have much time to go to record shops like in earlier days, how do you stay fresh and on top of new sounds, and trends?
DG: I think Beatport is amazing. But to be honest, most of the music that I play I get from a small circle of producers and we all know each other. Sometimes I have records that aren't even finished by the artist. In fact, that's most of my music. And I also play a lot of beats that I make myself that I don't necessarily release because they're more like club records. This is why I started this label Jack Back Records so I can release all the purely electronic beats that I make.
MF: Tell us about your new label, Jack Back Records, and the reason why you wanted to get that project started – why it's important to you.
DG: A lot of people that are discovering EDM now, don't necessarily know where I'm coming from as a DJ because they're discovering our culture for the first time. And some of them only heard my records on the radio, which for me is totally crazy, but that's why I wanted to also make a label where I can release beats that I make that are not radio-friendly, that are geared more towards DJs. It has nothing commercial. It's just for the people that are into this more underground kind of music, and a chance to show a different part of me that maybe the younger generation doesn't necessarily know. And that's really important. Because, as happy I am that my music is crossing over, I also want to be able to please my original fans.
MF: It's important for you to stay rooted, isn't it?
DG: Absolutely, I think it's really important; you always need to stay rooted. It's the same reason why I really love to DJ at a club every week in Ibiza.
MF: So even though you're on top of the game at the moment, are there any artists out there that are inspiring you.
DG: Yeah of course, there's always someone. There's an artist called Nicki Romero, he's a DJ/producer who's really, really amazing, and in the same way a few years before when I discovered Afrojack, I was trying to help him...but at the same time he was inspiring me. That's what it is. I see music like a circle. There's always inspiration coming from someone and always someone who is inspired. It's great. And when I meet someone like Afrojack or Nicky Romero and we can inspire each other, then it's amazing.
MF: What's next on your horizon, then? Obviously you've broken tons of barriers already. Do you have anything coming up soon?
DG: I'm working on lots of club beats, more actually electronic, for Jack Back Records, and I'm going to work on the production of a very, very big artist coming up soon, but I'm sorry, I can't say who. [Laughs]
I'm starting to think about what's going to be my next challenge, because the challenge as a producer is not only to make hit records, it's also being creative and having the ability to reinvent myself, in terms of style and sound.
Aspire to the monster skills of a DJ like David Guetta? The Musician’s Friend DJ Store has the gear to help you get there.