Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" Is Retro-Disco Ear Candy

Escaping The Doors' "Light My Fire" was impossible throughout 1967's "Summer of Love". Likewise, unless you shuttered yourself indoors throughout this year's "Summer of Blah" you simply couldn't avoid Daft Punk's break out hit "Get Lucky" culled from the unlikely number eight spot in the album's thirteen song sequence.

What do I mean by "Summer of Blah"? Is this not the most, compliant, passive, drippy, "blah" generation to come down the pike in decades?

Who are they? What do they stand for? How much abuse will they stand for before they react to what's going on around them? No jobs? Okay, we'll live at home with mommy and daddy instead of holding politicians accountable. Spying on their emails and Internet chatter? No problem. Do they care that in state after state that they or their girlfriend's right to a safe, legal, constitutionally protected abortion is now extinct? Maybe they don't have girlfriends. Too much estrogen in the water. Only gay people seem energized and committed and they are (slowly but surely) getting what they want.

End of rant, okay? So here's this retro-disco album (a tribute album, not to an artist but to a musical time and place [disco, Los Angeles, late '70s, early '80's] ) and the hit single "Get Lucky" is dominating summer airplay. Maybe that's a good thing for a number of reasons. First of all, the recording is spectacular! Any dimwit happening upon this even in stunted MP3 form can't help but hear a recording that's also retro in the best sense of the word.

Other than the Vocoder-processed vocals, this album played mostly on real instruments (including a lavish string section, horns and woodwinds) has been produced to sound like the great records of another era by the body French musical duo as opposed to Air, which is the head French musical duo.

The two guys (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) reportedly spent upwards of a million dollars of their own money producing this record, which was recorded at Henson Recording Studios, Conway Recording Studios and Capitol Studios in California, Electric Lady Studios in New York City, and Gang Recording Studio in Paris, France (where most of the vocals were recorded). Everything was laid down to both analog tape and to digital, with the final choices made based upon which sounded better to all concerned, including mastering engineer Bob Ludwig.

There's not much here to engage the mind in the lyrics (other than on a few tracks like "Touch" and the finalé "Contact" which features a clip of astronaut Gene Cernan's spotting of what appeared to be a UFO) but in today's dead from the neck down world, though the body is in need of engagement and this record offers that plus a constant flow of "ear-delicious" sonics in the form of Liberace-lavish production and arrangements. And if you're old enough to remember this time period, you are guaranteed to have an endless flow of random access memories as well as of the sad fact that we now live in a basically joyless, on-the-cheap world.

The album opens with an anthem: "Give Life Back to Music", which is almost an instruction manual for a disengaged from music generation imploring them to "Let the music in tonight/Just turn on the music/Let the music of your life/Give life back to music"

Musically, it will have those who lived through the 1970's scratching their noses. So will most of the rest of this lavishly produced thought-inducing party album that proves if you want to give listeners a good time in the digital age, it is still possible. The record is part disco, part progressive rock, part space rock, part funk, part dinner-theater, and part psychedelic.

How much different is "Get Lucky" from Haddaway's early 1990 hit "What is Love?" used as the backdrop for a hilarious SNL sketch featuring Chris Kattan? Not very!

Here "Get Lucky" is followed up with "Beyond", which opens with a full orchestral swell performed by a real, live orchestra and you'd know it even if you didn't read the liner notes.

Daft Punk teams up with Nile Rodgers, The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, studio guitar wiz Greg Leisz, Giorgio Moroder (after which one tune is named in which he narrates how he invented the disco beat after laying down a guide click track), and the William's Pharrell and '70s veteran Paul, who gives Bowie-ish voice to "Touch" perhaps the album's most ambitious track.

The duo began conceptualizing the album while in Los Angeles working on the soundtrack to "Tron: Legacy." Perhaps they listened to Wendy Carlos's score for the original "Tron" that featured a symphony orchestra augmented with synthesizers (it was originally going to be produced in the opposite way, with mainly synths overdubbed with orchestral elements—I supervised the Academy Award nominated soundtrack as some of you know).

The more you listen to this record, the more it reveals the depth of its conceptual richness, even if it's expressed in disco beats. Even if you don't pay attention to that or to the lyrics (not that I would understand why you would do that), the rich quality of the cinematic production and recording will thrill the senses.

There's been some controversy about the album's mastering and a great deal of speculation so I asked the credited mastering engineer Bob Ludwig who generously gave me this statement for publication:

"With Daft Punk it is safe to say that I spent many separate attended sessions with them. During the first session we chose the best sounding source for EACH track. This is what I do for EVERY session. What was different this time was there were, I believe, 6 separate analog or digital sources from which to choose! I mastered the album going through many revisions, each with the most subtle changes each time. We changed the gaps between the songs, the fades etc. They wanted to make it perfect.

As we had finished my mastering a long time before the release date I gave my high resolution EQ files to Thomas to obsess over for the months it would be before released.

My understanding is in France they raised the level and re-eq'd the bass to compensate for the sound change the extra level would create. After buying the finished CD and comparing it with what I gave them to take, it seemed all the fades and gaps and my core EQ was all intact."

As for the double vinyl edition, cut by "Chab" at Translab, Paris, there is some dispute over whether or not it features somewhat wider dynamic range. I don't know. I don't have the CD. I can tell you this: the dynamics on the vinyl are wider than most contemporary productions, though of course there's still a good amount of compression, but this kind of music demands some to make it "pop" and this record pops in a good way. The sound is analog-rich, warm, almost fat, with bass that's deep, muscular and lavish. The stage is wide and deep. The midrange is lush and the top end never offends with grit or harshness, yet is open and airy with cleanly rendered transients. You can just keep cranking this up and it only gets better!

Yes, it is expensive (mine cost around $36) and lamely the digital download card gets you an MP3, not a high rez file, but the gatefold packaging is nicely done and the booklet is full-sized and in keeping with the rest of the production's high quality. I've been told that more than 30,000 double (well-pressed) 180 gram vinyl copies have been sold. I suspect just about 30,000 happy customers. Count me among them! Sorry it took so long to post this review.

COMMENTS
chris8519's picture

I love this site, and I love your generation's contribution to music, but reading the beginning of this review reminded me of all the problems I have with your generation.
As a prime Millennial (b. 1985), I have continually felt slighted and insulted by the Baby Boomers. No jobs? Yeah, because the boomers won't go quietly into the night and let a new generation move up. Social problems? We know it's all been bought-up and controlled by Baby Boomers. We will have to pry it out of their uncivil, emotional, reactionary hands.

I believe my generation is more CIVIL and LEVEL-HEADED than the one before it. I support women's rights, gay rights, green living, etc. -- but instead of marching around like a spoiled child, endlessly bitching, I VOTE AND REMAIN QUIETLY ENGAGED IN POLITICS. All while continuing to payoff my student loans. Does your generation know what those are?

A sea-change is coming. The Millennials are waiting for the Establishment to finally kick-off, and then make some real, responsible, considerate changes.

This album -- as much as I love it, and I agree wholeheartedly with your review of the sound -- unfortunately only hinders musical progress. It's practically a tribute to the Baby Boomers and all of their free-love glory.
... I still bought it... :) :)

Paul Boudreau's picture

"A sea-change is coming. The Millennials are waiting for the Establishment to finally kick-off, and then make some real, responsible, considerate changes."

My, that sounds familiar:  Once all the old fools kick, we kids will straighten everything out.

eastwes's picture

Thanks for the POV / review Michael.  RAM truly is an excellent effort...  Not sure if you viewed any of their PR videos.  This one featuring collaborator Georgio Moroder was really fun and interesting...

Cheers-

 

figaro's picture

perhaps you should take into account human nature, something that has not changed for...well... probably never.

All generations are subject to human nature. There is no escaping it, even if you have grand, bold or noble schemes. If you think the previous generation is corrupt wait until the generation after yours laments how bad your generation was.

Again human nature

Michael Fremer's picture

I didn't mean to either say or imply that! In fact I think the current young generation is in most ways far more highly evolved than mine! It's also clearly more passive but since they don't face the military draft perhaps that's understandable.

torturegarden's picture

Thanks for reviewing this wonderful album. I bought it the day it came out and was extremely impressed by the sound quality. It sounds much much better than any new (not reissue) popular music LP I've purchased in the last several years. I wish more care and attention was put into today's albums as they did here. 

The digital versions (CD, MP3, lossless downloads) do have less dynamics than the LPs. The LPs have a DR value of 13 and the digital have a value of 8. 

atblumenthal's picture

As a Gen Xer i think that both Millenials and Boomers are pretty entitled. Wait ten years till all the Boomers that spent their money on vacation homes and Harleys try to retire. And besides, if the Millenials weren't buying all this new vinyl we'd be running out of new audiophiles.  If you want to hate on Millenials, hate on their new love of cassettes--yuck! 

Also, I disagree with the idea that Air is the 'head French musical duo'--Daft Punk has sold a lot more albums and had a much larger impact.  They win by any measure.

Otherwise another great read by Mikey and great to see him reviewing new music and not just reissues. I think it's interesting you pointed out the cost of this album.  I remember another review talking about how expensive this record sounds.  I think Daft Punk looked at the genre of electonic dance music (EDM for the Oldsters reading this) they have helped create and decided to reinvent their sound. As we've seen with some of the best muscians of any genre, the ability to succesfully reinvent your sound is one of the hardest things to do in this industry. The ones that do it the best (Miles Davis, The Beatles, Bowie, U2) are often the ones at the top of the list.

Michael Fremer's picture

My inelegant choice of words for sure! I guess I should have used the word "cerebral".  

alacayo22's picture

as a 24 year old Law student, I feel insulted by this. I agree with Chris 100%.

about the album..this is one album that will never be in my collection.

Michael Fremer's picture

Why do you feel personally insulted? I was expressing an overall opinion about a generation's political engagement in the face of some serious problems affecting its future, not about its political opinions or beliefs.

Given the clearly serious economic and social issues pressing upon the current young generation do you think its level of political activity is appropriately commensurate with the issues it faces from reproductive rights to student loans to jobs etc? 

l5chambre's picture

As for the generation, this is the Ipod generation. Take away their freedoms just supply them with cell towers and 60+$ bills. Now they are enabled to text their friends for 3hrs on a family vacation. I have seen real lif stories of a girl snatched while texting on a 3 mile walk and video girls falling into fountains. Unplug your phone/ laptop and live; play some Lps. My generation was happy to get a local phone in our own rooms; cell phones spread to the poor a year after I graduated high school.

marmaduke's picture

Throw a little socio-political (SP) chum in the water and even the most die hard music lover may rise to the bait and forget that this is a music site not a CNN V.S FOX Cage Fight to the DEATH.

As soon as I see this SP  type of lead in or tangent in let's say Stereophile  this site; or  anywhere else where the focus is music, I  quickly fast forward to where we return to your regular programming currently in progress.

Once I am beyond the SP turbulance and back on musical message the fasten seatbelts sign goes off and it is smooth sailing once again.

Do I begrudge Mr. Fremer his SP opinions, not a bit.  I just do not care even if I agree.  Nor do I care for anyone in the entertainment field using their celebrity or access to the media to share their opinions on anything except their craft and fields of expertise.

I do believe it is ironic that sites and sources for SP commentary/news hardly ever start their material with tangents concerning dynamic range in recordings, azimuth, VTA, or the vagaries of digital versions of analog material on vinyl.

I would hope the equal time doctrine would apply.

Perhaps not. 

Then again Hannity, Morgan, or whichever pundant you prefer may already realize that people interested in music really do not care what they think on this topic and would be at best mildy amused by their bombast. 

Michael Fremer's picture

I believe mine was a sociological, not political statement. I didn't take sides. I simply noted a generation's apparent apathy.

Jody's picture

"I just do not care even if I agree."

Yet you took time out of your life to write a nice, long, eloquent response. Perhaps you do care. What's really interesting, is how people can be bothered enough by Mr. Fremer's opinion to actually offer a retort.

Thanks for the review, I've heard the record, just not my cup of tea.

Michael T's picture

Random Access Memories is easily the best sounding mainstream release I have bought in recent memory.

There is a very extensive interview in a recent issue of Mix magazine that I read at a musician friend's house.  The recording/mixing/mastering process is documented in significant detail.

According to the article, virtually everything was initially recorded on analog tape recorders.  Even samples that are used were recorded on analog with Daft Punk playing the instruments.  Tracks with orchestra were recorded live with a full symphony to analog tape. Because of the complex editing involved, everything recorded was dumped into Pro Tools.

What's most fascinating to me was the recording of the final mixes.  First off, no plug-ins were used.  All effects were added with hard-wired audio equipment. Talk about obsession for quality!  Every track was mixed down with THREE analog tape recorders running simultaneously, two at 30 ips (inches per second) and one at 15 ips.  This was done repeatedly with  the tracks recorded at different analog saturation levels.  All machines were running Dolby SR.

Ludwig is correct.  Daft Punk, according to the article, individually selected different reels at different speeds with different tape saturation levels for the final release, depending on which they though sounded best for each specific track.

I have not heard of any other artist in modern history spending this much time and money (well over a million dollars) to put out what in their mind was a sonically superior product.  

Hopefully this is the start of a trend of paying attention to recording/mixing/mastering in detail. 

I only with the LP was mastered at 45 rpm.  Since it is already spread out over two LP's, this could easily have been accomplished.

Along with some double 45rpm Analog Productions titles and the MoFi Dylan "Blood on the Tracks", this is in my top 5 LP releases for 2013.

Jay's picture

An aging and increasingly irrelevant hippy railing against the youth of today is a pathetic sight.

HalSF's picture

Love everything about this review and the comments — its belatedness, the egregious jeremiad that accompanies it, the hipness to this wonderful album's retro-future wittiness, the great inside dope on the mastering, and the back-and-forth debate in progress with readers and MF. Thanks once again for Analog Planet and its curve balls.

marmaduke's picture

.....when we start discussing music again.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

 

(this post makes no sense unless you read the rest of the comments especially the last 6 or so)

 

It may make no sense regardless, but maybe more sense than less, more or less.

Rayman's picture

for those of all ages. History provides an important sociological comparison of former times to current times.

The 60s and to a lesser degee the 70s were a time where large numbers took an activist approach. Especially among the young. To argue otherwise is pointless.

The reactionary response from some to Fremer's restating a well documented historical fact may be a sign of needless guilt. As Michael stated todays generation has it all. His is a call to action. Not an insult. 

Todays generation are smarter than those in the 60s who railed against everything.

 Smart enough to determine the correct historical time to be active toward an important issue.

Music and society do go together for " the times they are a-changin'"

Keep up the great tradition of music reviews Michael! 

Jay's picture

In the current context it's the comments of the 1960's generation who have spent so long fighting "The Man" that they don't even realise that they ARE "The Man" that are reactionary.

One of the great lesson of history is that each generation slaughters the sacred cows of the one that went before and that the older generation decry them for it.  Mikey's call was actually an aging man grumbling about young people's rejection of his values and viewpoint, in much the same way his parent's generation grumbled in the early 60's. 

Jim in Houston's picture

Just ordered this LP based on the review. As someone who grew up in the anti-disco era I'm intrigued by your review. While I listen to a lot old school funk, soul and R&B, disco or any house/techno is a hole in my collection.

PeterPani's picture

Sitting in Vienna in Europe I can tell you, we have the same discussion here all over the place, too. The babyboomers did nothing to give the burning torch to the next generation. Maybe because the fire of the torch is not burning any more after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is solidarity itself that vanished from the hearths of people. Substitute was given - money. In the center of capitalism this is the principle: every time somebody wants to change to the better for a community somebody hands over to him a filled envelope...  Maybe it's no accident that a record like Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" started the discussion. Great record by the way!!!!

Martin's picture

To which a lot of people don't like being told just how apathetic they are in comparison to a generation which did some real fighting and produced some amazing art, culture and social changes. Maybe I'm a bit influenced by being a citizen of a country which takes civil liberty and personal freedom and the principle that government serves the people not the other way around seriously. However. 

A few comments on America today.

- a system of surveillance far more invasive, wide reaching and powerful than anything before. Neither the Soviet KGB nor the east German Stasi had anything approaching the information gathering power of the NSA. The NSA is also not accountable to anyone either. No right of appeal, plus a very nasty vindicative witch hunt of anyone daring to protest or blow a whistle. 

- a system of taxation based on confusion, fear and intimidation. The IRS preferring shades of grey, arbitrariness to clarity. And levying large arbitrary penalties for nonsensical "offenses". It is very easy to get someone in jail for silly tax charges, just ask Lauren Hill or Wesley Snipes. Lauren Hill by the way is a mother of six children. The IRS wanted three years in the clink for her. 

- Genetically modified foods, (GMO's) well known to cause cancer, digestive problems, behavioural problems, growth abnormalities, enlarged organs, sterility, impotence, birth problems, premature death, disease, etc. in cows, pigs, sheep, rats, mice, etc. Ie., the food is toxic. It is very, very difficult indeed to avoid - high fructose corn syrup derived from GMO corn is in almost everything. Soy derivates from Gen. modified Soy likewise. The crap is so toxic that all european countries have levied a blanket ban on all of it. The FDA has approved it for human consumption - due to Monsanto and other companies lawyers, consultants and lobbyists at the FDA on the payroll. 

- The Patriot act and the subsequent interpretation and implementation of the act makes martial law very easy to implement. It is only a step or two away to do. 

- Erosion of civil liberties over the last 10 years

- A militarised police force. Check out the military gear issued to the police. It's eye-opening. 

- Non existent public health. The U.S. is the only OECD country without a national health system guaranteeing a certain minimum standard. How can this be?

- Non existent public transport in most cities forcing people to engage in one of the most dangerous activities of modern times - driving. Check the statistics, the average americans probability of being involved in a nasty road accident over a 20 year period. How many people do you know have been injured in a road accident over the last 10?

- Huge inequality between rich and poor. 

- A dysfunctional banking and finance system now engineered to benefit those in finance primarily. 

- A dysfunctional political system shutting down basic services periodically while the parties fight it out

- A military budget eating up a good third of public spending. Ie., wasting a third of tax revenues on weapons. Read Sun Tzu guys, "no country has ever benefited from a protracted war". Ever. The U.S government has started three in ten years. Destroying thousands of lives. Spending a good trillion dollars. For no benefit. 

- An education system set up to guarantee most graduates with ten to twenty years of paying off debt. 

Generation of Blah?  Yup. Apathy. Protests? Nope. Civil rights? Ummm..  Personal freedom?  Hmmm. 

Jay's picture

Thanks Martin, you've summed up the legacy of the babyboomers perfectly.

marmaduke's picture

Based upon some of the socio/political comments posted on this thread for an otherwise predominately music oriented forum the following offer may be of interest.

Reduced price for annual memberships to the Hemlock Society.

No obligation to renew.

Payment in cash only.

Do not delay.

Tomorrow is too late.

Please Note

This post is not  to trivialize those persons suffering terminal or life threatening illnesses who genuinely need our understanding and support.  It only refers to some of the more gloom and doom comments of this thread; not the commentors themselves.

Martin's picture

had a listen based on Michaels review - sounds very cool. 

cement_head's picture

Thanks Michael - I was astonished at the first weeks album sales at about 20,000 units.  (Aside: I wonder how many vinyl units Black Sabbath sold?).   Anyway, I was in a local record store in Cincinnati (ShakeIt Records) and I was talking to a French record store owner who was there on vacation.  We (of course) were in the Jazz section talking about the new Miles Davis' RSD 2013 re-issues.  His opinion was that they were, in fact, quite excellent and at a very good price (~ $20).  Anyway, I noticed that he was frantically loading up CRATES of albums to take back with him.  I asked him "how are vinyl sales in Europe/Paris".  He said exploding!  He only sells maybe 5 to 10 CDs a day, and after that it's several hundred vinyl records per day, both new and used.  He also said yound people (teenagers) are buying vinyl.  So, although anecdotal, there's another testament to the popularity of vinyl - no doubt driven by bands like Daft Punk.

DLKG's picture

I bought this Lp a few days after it came out and it is my favorite Lp so far this year.  It's part Disco, part Andrew Lloyd Weber, Part Alan Parson, Part Jean Michele Jarre (Just one little part) but all incredibly original.  You mentioned Air in your review too.  Air is my very favorite French band except for Le Voyage dans la lune which is a terrible soundtrack in my opinion.

I had an all French vinyl day after I bought the album.  Daft Punk: Homework and Random Access Memory-Stereo Lab: Dots and Loops- Claudine Longet-The look of Love and Serge Gainsbourg: Melody Nelson!  What a great day.

 

DLKG

Oystein's picture

Plus one to Michael once again. His judgement agrees with mine. This is a good-sounding and also musically interesting album, if somewhat "commercially modified". At its best, the message goes beyond connodification.

kurb1980's picture

The album is great and I have been told a hirez 88.2kHz/24bit was pressed to the vinyl.  I have ripped it and it sounds very nice and the dynamic range meter I believe when I check it was 12 or 13 can't remember.  It is to bad that most new releases don't have this caliber of sound quality.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Love the comments!

Raging about art is so much more fun than raging about gear!

Whether you love or hate this genre (and the generation that listened to it the first time around), you have to admit, the sheer craft involved in making this album is refreshing. Most music of every generation is dashed off crap intended to make lots of $ ASAP; heavily promoted and ultimately supported out of tribal and generational loyalty.  

Yeah, I doubted I'd like RAM, figuring it'd be a cheesy throwback, but then I grew to it despite itself.  Maybe it's becasue it's been a long time (like never) since I've heard simple pop music cast at such a high temperature in such a polished mold.

Michael Fremer's picture
There's more passion in comments for this review than in all of the comments posted in "digital" sites!
Danielgrant's picture

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tnargs's picture

It's not true that "Everything was laid down to both analog tape and to digital". Everything was recorded in digital, and only certain instruments were also recorded in analog (where a 'fatter' sound might work). Then the best sound was picked where the choice existed.

So, no all-analog version is possible.

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