Walking down a typical city street in Paris, passing cafés and shops, one wouldn't guess that on the same block, down around a back street and through a small courtyard, is a private recording studio where one of the most popular French music exports these days is being created. Air is a curious duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît "JB" Dunckel, whose interesting early singles quickly led up to the fantastic debut album, Moon Safari, much of which was tracked at Nicolas' apartment ("Around the Golf" studio). Since then the two have been in a number of studios, eventually building their own cozy place to work. A continuing theme of Air's studio work is a desire to change their sound, find new sounds and confound listeners' expectations. If you haven't heard Air's music you should check it out — rarely does something sound futuristic and familiar at the same time.
So the old studio was at Nicolas' apartment, where you did Moon Safari and the singles — what were you recording on there?
A sampler. An Akai S1000 and then after three songs we moved the first tracks to a Fostex D80 digital 8 track.
Then with mixing and strings...
We went to a real studio for mixing [Plus XXX, Paris], so it's on an SSL, but now we prefer the Neves.
Stéphane [Briat] mixed those?
"Alf", yeah. We call him "Alf".
And you worked with him for quite a bit. Is that because he worked at the studio or was he someone you knew before?
We met him one day at our record company and he was the first one to mix "Casanova 70". We have tried with a mixer before and we were not satisfied, but when Alf did it it was sounding very well. He had this ability to do a cream of sound. He was able to mix all the instruments together.
He understood your music more?
You did strings on that. Did you transfer the Fostex to another unit to add more tracks?
We had the digital tracks, so we went to Abbey Road and transferred them to tape.
Was that fun going to Abbey Road?
Yeah. Nothing has changed. The same paint on the walls.
When people are mixing your stuff, Stephane and Nigel [Godrich], are you always there?
Yeah. Always in the back.
How much guidance do you give? Do you try to let them come up with something new or...
It depends. On some songs we know exactly what we want. On some songs we have no idea.
Are there times where songs are rearranged during mixing?
We try, for the mix, to have everything done. In the mix we get rid of some thoughts more than we invent something. We make it more clear.
Do you find that a good mixer helps you decide where to open it up?
Yes. That's why we have to trust the mixer a lot, because if we don't we can't make a choice. Because sometimes, you know, the artist is not the best to make good decisions at a certain point. It's like if an actor would direct his own movie. It's really hard to see what could be good.
Better to have someone look from the outside and push you...
Yes. Because sometimes you say, "I want to keep this guitar, because I love the guitar, the C note after this chord." But the C note is not what's important. What's important is if the whole part is good, and you forget that, you know.
You guys obviously like working with Nigel.
We trust him. Other guys, too, like Tony Hoffer [on 10,000 HZ Legend]. His mixes were incredible.
You've done string sessions now at different places, with different arrangers. How have you guys felt about the evolution of your string session overdubs?
At the beginning we were not controlling them. Now we know what we want there. We found someone in L.A. named Roger Neil, and he can do anything. When you have no ideas, he has good ideas. When you have your own ideas, he's managed to make them real. If you want a pad, there's a pad, but if you want something more harmonic or melodic, he can do it. He knows all the instruments, the flutes, the strings, the harp. It was amazing. We couldn't believe what was on there when we didn't ask. But we kept it all.
Do you have an engineer that works with you here, Yann Arnaud?
Ah, yes. Sometimes. When there's a deadline we can work together, but when he's not here we can hire someone else if we have to finish. So it's more for that.
That's good. Do you track drums in here?
No. 'Cause we don't have any drums on this new album! [laughter]
Will there be on tour?
What did you use instead of drums?
Drum machines. Linn 9000, [Korg] Electribe, Roland. Sometimes we do beats with people on other instruments and loop them.
When did you get the Pro Tools HD system running?
About nine months ago. Before,...