Synth-Aesthesia: Jean-Michel Jarre's Favorite Keys

Ahead of his Academy lecture at the Les Nuits Sonores festival May 16 in Lyon, the synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre recounts ten of his favourite pieces of gear.

While, of course, numerous parties are to be praised for introducing synthetic music to the masses, it can be argued that the French composer and musician Jean-Michel Jarre was the first to really foment the electronic music revolution. Though the early successful pioneers like Wendy Carlos, Mort Garson, and Hot Butter primed the public's ears, their output was mostly either novelty arrangements of pre-existing hits or just plain novelty. Jarre took a different tack and began composing original pop material to be played solely on synths. Selling over 80 million albums and singles thus far during his four decade career, he not only brought oscillators out of the realm of nerdery, his music also served as a late-night soundtrack of the future for music lovers the world over – and spawned a countless number of imitators as well (oftentimes poor). From his first collaborations with Patrick Juvet and Christophe to his epic synth solo albums like Oxygène and Equinoxe, Jarre's sounds now show up as ghosts in the works of contemporary electronic experimenters as varied as Sébastien Tellier, Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, and Daft Punk, to name a few.

Jarre will be sitting on the couch, giving an Academy lecture revolving around his musical experiences during the tenth edition of Lyon's Les Nuits Sonores festival later this month. In addition, French musicians Danger, Arandel and Acid Washed will offer up their personal interpretations of Oxygène during a nighttime performance. Below Jean-Michel Jarre speaks to French journalist Patrick Thévenin about ten of his favourite synthesizers.

 E.M.S VCS 3 (1969)

My first synth, Europe’s answer to the American Moog: a Mini versus a Cadillac. Post-war technology had led us to an European electronic sound which was very different to the American sound. The VCS3 was one of the first real synths to be developed from modular research, a technique with which I was already familiar, as it had resulted directly from the equipment that I was working with at the GRM (Le Groupe de Recherches Musicales or, in English, Musical Research Group) with Pierre Schaeffer. I’ve composed a lot of music with this synth, most notably on Oxygène and Equinoxe, although I’d already tried it out on Deserted Palace [one of Jarre’s first projects] and the music that I composed for the Parisian Opera. I still use it on stage now, more than 40 years later. It’s mad to think that this artisan technology is so refined now. When I started out, this synth was my primary tool along with a Farfisa organ and two Revox recorders. Pink Floyd began using this synth around the same time, when they started introducing electronic elements to their music, but they used it as a secondary element in a rock arrangement – whereas for me, it was the primary tool in my sonic palette.

 

ARP 2600 (1971)

This is an American synth which quickly became the best modular/semi-modular synth on the market – different to Moogs, which didn’t have pre-set sounds. When we switched the ARP 2600 on for the first time, we could instantly start to play and shift potentiometers. It cost much less than a Moog, but it was much bigger with an extremely rich sound. I used it a lot on Oxygène and Equinoxe as well as on the albums I made with Christophe such as Les Paradis Perdues (Lost Paradises) and Les Mots Bleus (Blue Words). ARPs are like the Stradivarius or the Steinways of electronic music. They were invented by craftsmen who, today, we’d place on the same level as the luthiers that built violins, clavichords, pianos – all of the acoustic instruments.

Interesting fact: all of the electronic instruments from this era more or less disappeared at the start of the 80s with the arrival of the DX7. Or in other words, at the time when the Japanese infiltrated the market of synthesizers with a much more commercial and aggressive vision than that which had dominated during the earlier days of electronic instruments. Today, same as a piano or a saxophone, an ARP remains a classic instrument, and one that we’ll still be using in two centuries time. The current trend for using old synths is like putting a Les Paul 58 or a Fender 52 into the hands of a guitarist who, up until that point, had only ever played an Ibanez or a poor Japanese replica model.

From the early 90s, the whole techno scene expanded with plug-ins and emulations of instrumental sounds which were fairly unconvincing digital replicas of analogue sounds. It’s not that I prefer analogue to digital, quite the opposite in fact. I think the two can co-exist perfectly well together and my music is proof of that. But there comes a time when we have to admit that it’s not the same thing. We can’t compare an ARP, which in its day cost 30,000 Francs [4500 euros] with a plug-in that costs 50 euros. It’s a question of sense! After having weighed up the advantages of the virtual, today we’re realising that we’re made of flesh and blood and we have an absolute need for an emotional and tactile relationship with our instruments.



ARP 2500 (1969)

This is the big brother of the ARP 2600, created to compete with the modular Moog. Pete Townshend of The Who was one of the first musicians to use it in Europe. The ARP 2500 is the huge machine that we can hear in “Baba O’Reilly” playing that well-known sequence which would become so essential to The Who’s sound. It’s an electronic sound, not the sound of a guitar! I try to approach people with a similar rapport with synthesizers to my own, such as Pete Townshend or Peter Gabriel, both of whom were amongst the first musicians to possess a Fairlight, along with myself.

 

FAIRLIGHT CMI (1979)

The Fairlight was the first instrument that I worked with which was directly linked to the training I’d received at GRM under Pierre Schaeffer, electroacoustic music, or what we’d later call ‘sampling’. With the Fairlight, we could record and sample any sound – a natural, urban or domestic noise – play it on a piano and create percussion, a choir, the sounds of chords, a constructive element of music, improbable sounds of which we didn’t know the origin. It’s an instrument with a very lo-fi sound and with a lot of charm and warmth, a graininess that makes us think of the compositions of Bernard Herrmann or of the aesthetic that we find in films from the 30s like Metropolis. It was significant in determining the sound of Peter Gabriel and the sound of the Real World label, as well as my own. It can be heard throughout my back catalogue, on Champs Magnetiques (Magnetic Fields) but especially on Zoolook, which was made entirely on the Fairlight. Oxygène and Zoolook are two very different albums on the sonic map, because as we know, it’s the tool that defines the style and not the other way around.

The Fairlight is an instrument which immediately struck me as extraordinary when it first appeared on the market, because it brought to mind the way that I approached electroacoustic music when I started out – that’s to say with two decks, some scissors and some cellotape. For Zoolook, I remember recording with Marcus Miller, one of the best – if not the best – bassists in the world. In fact, I sampled all of his parts with his help. Passed through a Fairlight, the sound was completely transformed; the machine twisted and modified everything. I also sampled the songs of Eskimo's and African tribes, chiefly considering their sonic qualities rather than ethnic because that wasn’t the point, and then integrated these sounds in Zoolook. Peter Gabriel was very focussed on discovering new kinds of music by chopping up parts and integrating them into tracks with more of a rock, pop or electro tonality. I think this approach throughout this period determined and generated the entire philosophy of sampling, which a few years later, would become DJ culture.
What makes me laugh today is that the Fairlight used to record onto these enormous tapes that were about the same size as a magazine, and on which you could hold about 20 sounds, each of a second in length. It’s archaic when you think of today’s technology (one standard USB stick is able to hold 10,000 Fairlight tapes worth of material), but the limits of this machine awarded it an extraordinary poetry. In five years time, I think we’ll be rediscovering this instrument.

 

Roland JD-800 (1991)

This was the next synth to follow the DX7 philosophy and the approach initiated by Japanese synths, which was going to financially sink all of the American makers. I included it in my list because it was one of the first polyphonic Japanese synths that managed to resemble an analogue synth, although what I hated about the DX7 was that it left you thinking that electronic music only aimed to imitate the sounds of acoustic instruments. With the JD-800, you could modify the sound, as you can on an ARP or a Moog, but with a Japanese sound quality, which in some respects, is more refined. I used this synth a lot on Chronology and Revolution. These are the albums which spoke to people the least, but which were important in my career as they marked a period of flux where I still had a foot in analogue and another in what would go on to become digital.

MEMORY MOOG (1982)

The first analogue polyphonic synth. Until then, modular synths such as the VCS3 and the ARP were monophonic. If you wanted a polyphonic effect, you had to play four different sounds at the same time. It’s a practice that’s lost today, which is a shame because it meant you had to compose in the same way that we’d write for a string quartet: violin, alto, cello, double bass. With the Memorymoog, and other synths that came out around the same time, in one fell swoop, we could make complete chords, and that changed everything. For better and for worse. As a result, we ceased to compose electronic music the classic way, as Wendy Carlos did. The Memorymoog was the 8 Moog in the same form but with a new and different attraction: we could store the sounds we created. Before, we had to get our pencil and paper out and write down all of the operations required to produce a sound, but it was never really possible to reproduce the original sound again from the notes we’d made. From this point onwards, you could re-find the sound in its original state, even a year after you’d made it.

 

RMI Keyboard Computer (1974)

This is an instrument that was created in the 70s and which was revolutionary as it was the first digital synth in a period where everything was analogue. In the electronic music world of the 70s, digital had no place at all. The RMI functioned according to the principle of additive synthesis, whereas the analogue synths were based on subtractive synthesis. To simplify, additive synthesis is like an organ, meaning that you can add frequencies to each other and add layers in the same way that on an organ, you can add 32 pedals, then 16, then 8, then 4, which are actually octaves, or thirds of octaves or quintets. It’s a technique that was used heavily on Deserted Palace and on the track “Oxygène 5”, where the entire sequence is made using the RMI. It created a very different sound to anything else that could be heard at the time, precisely because the digital edge added a certain coolness. This synth was to music what the film Tron was to cinema at the time.

 

EMINENT 310 (1970)

This synth defines my sound, from Les Mots Bleus by Christophe and the songs of Patrick Juvet, right up to Oxygène and Equinoxe, where I used it heavily. To this day, I still use it frequently. Along with the VCS3, this is one of the fundamental instruments of my music. It’s an organ developed by the Dutch who were the first to figure out how to create chords from electronic sounds. It was from this first string ensemble that the Solina emerged, which is nowadays better known than the Eminent, even if the Eminent is three Solinas together with a notably richer sound. The Eminent can be heard on Oxygène and Equinoxe, adding that gliding, phased feel. The background story to this sound is that it’s the VCS3 and the Eminent passed through a Smalltone, a phase pedal for guitars, which created this very opulent sound similar to that of chords, but of course much more electro.

 

Teenage Engineering OP-1 (2011)

A little new one that came out less than a year ago and was invented in Sweden [by Teenage Engineering, a company founded by 2003 Academy pariticpant David Eriksson]. It’s a synth which doesn’t even seem like a synth at all – it’s tiny and looks like a Casio toy, but hidden inside is a very sophisticated machine, created using military technology. It’s 100% digital, but defines something completely new in its size and transportability. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something as interesting, flexible and creative as this. And importantly, its inventors have reintroduced a notion which had been desperately lacking: humour. We have to remember that Moogs, ARPs and all of the first synths had been created by raging madmen, who created completely unreasonable and financially hazardous instruments. The inventors of this synth sold their OP-1 in drips and drabs on the internet, and the instructions are in Japanese to throw us off the scent. I met them after my tour in Sweden – the whole team came backstage and we jammed together. I chose this synth to show that any instrument, from no matter what time, can have a completely timeless value. I’m sure that musicians will still be using the OP-1 in 50 years.

 

MELLOTRON (1963)

This is another mythical instrument from the electroacoustic scene, since it was one of the first samplers well ahead of the Fairlight. What was interesting with the Mellotron was that it was conceived at a time (the 60s) when the philosophy of sampling wasn’t on the agenda at all. It was, once again, the idea of a luminary who asked himself how to play chords electronically. The principal is to record a choir in a studio onto tape and then to install all sorts of little tape recorders with tapes that last seven seconds to create the notes on a piano. The Mellotron is a kind of small piano which, when you press a key, places the stylus against the tape, releasing a tape which will be read by the head during the seven seconds. That allows you to have a whole range of sounds. When you play a Mellotron, you feel like you’re listening to soundtracks from silent films from the 30s, as there’s this whining contortion that would go on to define the sound of loads of Beatles, Moody Blues and Procol Harum tracks. In fact, pop and rock in the 60s would use this instrument to record choirs with a vintage, retro feel. It’s the sound of the 40s adapted for the music of the 60s.
 

Jean-Michel Jarre will be lecturing during an Academy session at this year's Les Nuits Sonores festival in Lyon. Places are extremely limited and can be reserved through the Red Bull France page.

Article translation by Francine Gorman. Title illustration by Caroline Andrieu.

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