This Grammy Award-winning French DJ, producer and performer has been busy blurring the lines between "dance" and "pop" for years, blending electronics with the talents of The Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna, Akon, and many others, producing driving, multi-media stage shows and releasing recordings other DJs have made integral parts of their own sets.
While his crossover success has been surprising-but welcome-to him, Guetta remains committed to the dance club culture, constantly creating new club beats and always working on new material, even in the middle of busy tours. As such, his basic toolkit has to be both compact and powerful, with the ability to create final masters as well as sketch out new tunes, tweak samples, and find or sculpt the tones that will be the key to the next hit. Like most producers, he has access to an incredible range of tools, but there are key elements he keeps coming back to: a simple rig that is the center of his creativity.
In one of four conversations we had with Guetta, spanning Australia, South America, and Hollywood, he described the evolution of his basic setup. "What happens is when you start out, you're used to working in the studio, and then you say, ‘OK, so when I'm on the road I'm going to 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, more than the time you spend in the studio; so it's making life way more complicated. That's why I don't change my setup, it's always the same: my MacBook Pro, my MIDI controller, and my UAD DSP Card."
For a touring creative producer and musician, that's a powerful combination. The UAD-2 Quad Satellite he uses enables massively complex sessions by being able to offload CPU-intensive processing of DSP functions from the computer to the external box. The extensive set of mastering tools for the UAD-2 also plays into the way he likes to work. "I have different kinds of reference records that I made that I think are very good in terms of sound. I believe that the master chain kind of works with the kits. So what I will do is have four different types of kits that I use and four different master chains. In each I'm working with a specific kit. So I will have a kind of template with this type of kit that works with this type of master chain and this type of bass. When I work on a project and I want to use this kind of kit, I start my project with my master chain already. So that means that when I finish I have something that is already ready to play. Of course I'm
going to adjust the mix, but it's already sounding pretty fierce."
With the huge selection of plug-ins available today, the ability to run so many of them is key to his production style, from software synths and virtual instruments to compressors, EQs, filters and other effects. When asked about plug-in usage, he had a long list of favorites. "There's one called Vinyl Distortion that's part of Live that I use a lot. And Sonnox-everything from Sonnox is crazy. I use the UAD-2 Tape Emulation plug-ins on groups. Of course, Native Instruments MASSIVE synth." He's also a fan of Live's Spectrum EQ plug-in. "I love the fact that on the spectrum it's showing the notes," he said, "This is really, for me, a great feature."
Another key creative tool for Guetta is Ableton Live, for its flexibility and a structure that's conducive to experimentation. "My heart goes to Live because I like it very much and it's always very exciting. It's very intuitive," he said. "When it comes to looking for some ideas and being creative I think Live is really amazing for people who want to base their ideas more on samples. In my opinion, working with samples in many DAWs is not really easy, whereas with Live if you come with a sample and you want to build around it, then it's really amazing. If I want to search for ideas, I don't know why, but Live is better."
Describing Live as "super creative, funny and, yes, so much fun to use," he went on to praise the programmers at Ableton. "They're so clever in the way they come with ideas. They're so creative. I love the way you can program drums and the way the loop works. It's just like super quick to edit. I love it."
To control this system, Guetta is never without his Akai LPK25 USB MIDI keyboard controller. Though he admitted to using larger controllers in the studio, the Akai is where most of his ideas are generated. "I have this in my bag. This is my best friend. Really. Like I sleep with it. That's what I use most of the time," he said.
Not everything gets done on the road. With a reputation for coaxing great performances from the vocalists he works with, Guetta will book time in a studio with great mics, preamps and a comfortable isolation booth to track vocals. But once he's got the tracks on his laptop, it's back to the road.
"I have to explain to you how I live," he said. "I don't do
anything else than touring or making music. A lot of people might think this is very pathetic," he laughs, "but it makes me very happy. I don't watch TV, I don't read books, What I would do is wake up in my hotel room, and start to produce, and then when it's the evening I take a plane, where I keep on producing, and then I arrive in a hotel; I have dinner, I go perform, then I come back. So sometimes I produce again, or sometimes my ears are tired because of the show and then I want to get my head somewhere else, so then I go to blogs and YouTube and websites for nerdy people and I try to find out about new technology and new plug-ins from brands that I love. There's always something new."
Of course, critical listening for mixing and mastering on the road can be a challenge, but Guetta relies on the Beats Mixr headphones he co-designed as a stable reference point while on the road, switching to ADAM monitors in his Ibiza studio.
Despite all the immersion in technology, though, as a producer Guetta believes strongly in the power of imperfection and surprise. "I'm trying to stay away from the generic formula," he said, reflecting on what makes a great recording. "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. I try to bring them into my world: where they don't feel so confident; where they have to get a little more experimental. This is usually where you catch something special from them."
To keep that edge, he's committed to keep pushing himself to new areas as well as staying in touch with his underground roots. "I wanted to make a label where I can release beats that are not radio-friendly, that are geared more towards DJs. 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," he said. "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."