Pro Audio

Engineering The Sound: M83’s ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’

“I’m a very nostalgic person, but not in a sad way – it’s a happy nostalgia.”

With the 2011 release of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, French dream pop project M83 took a deep dive into nostalgia, and came out the other side with one of the year’s most acclaimed albums. A self-described “very, very, very epic” double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was a global success.M83

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83 matched an expansive scope with a sweeping and eclectic soundtrack to a love of nostalgia.

Widening Horizons, Timeless Sounds

M83 had always tended towards maximalism, with huge saturated synth waves washing over explosive percussion. “The definition is layers of sounds,” said Anthony Gonzalez, the mastermind behind the M83. “I like this feeling of being overwhelmed by music and surrounded by sounds.” With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 expanded their sounds beyond the limit.

Lead single Midnight City opens with an iconic, stadium-ready riff and closes with a sax solo that would sound at home on any hit record of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the fifth single from the album, Wait, is built around a gentle acoustic guitar.

One of the secrets to the success of this eclectic mix was the album’s other producer, Justin Meldal-Johnsen. Meldal-Johnsen, famous for his bass playing with Beck and Nine Inch Nails, approached Gonzalez with an eye to collaborating on something bigger. “I…somewhat brazenly felt that I could add a new dimension of evolution to their recorded output,” said Meldal-Johnsen. “I always respected the extent of Anthony’s work, but knew that he had something even more grand, an even bigger statement to make.”

Meldal-Johnsen was still focused primarily on his work as a session musician, but he had always felt he had the necessary skill set and experience to be a successful producer. The massive success of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming proved this was the case, and Meldal-Johnsen has since pivoted into a more full time producing career.

Meldal-Johnsen’s touch can be felt across the whole album, both deep in the production and with immediate effect, as he also contributed as a musician to the album. Claudia Lewis showcases Meldal-Johnsen’s slap bass, alongside an original Simmons SDS-V, the iconic drum machine that was the first of its kind. The SDS-V was used on records by Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Jean-Michel Jarre, one of Gonzalez’s key inspirations.

Claudia Lewis was a track heavily inspired by the 1980s while still retaining a sense of what Gonzalez wanted all along – timelessness. “The main idea of this album wasn’t to make something modern; I don’t really care about doing something modern, I just wanted to make something timeless.”

According to Meldal-Johnsen, other electronic drums were sequenced in a variety of ways, including Ableton Live and Battery, alongside analog pieces such as the Sequential Tempest and the Elektron Rytm.

Interestingly, a relatively unknown piece of software made it onto the record. According to Meldal-Johnsen, DrumCore – a drum kit loops and samples library was used for early demos of tracks, but elements of the software still made it to the final cut:

“We used it to demo all kinds of things. It provided the main groove template for several songs, including “Reunion”. Some aspects of it still remain on the record…there were certain percussion things that we attempted to re-play with live percussion, but I think we ended up preferring the DrumCore stuff.”

Vocal Magic

A notable development across the album is the burgeoning vocal work from Gonzalez. Inspired by Klaus Kinski’s on-screen performance in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Gonzalez began to experiment with expanding his vocal chops:

“I was working on the song and watching Aguirre, with Klaus Kinski, and I was looking at Kinski screaming on the screen. There was a lot of anger in his look. His face was just incredible. I said, “God, I should sing.” That’s how it started.” Gonzalez would pay homage to Kinski with the track Klaus I Love You.

Experimenting with a different vocal sound, Gonzalez began to record demos showcasing a different vocal style from his previous albums, departing from his typical whisper-soft delivery. Motivated by vocalist and keyboardist Morgan Kibby, at the time a member of M83, Gonzalez embraced a newfound loudness.

Gonzalez’s experimentation with his voice would eventually lead him to the creation of what would become one of the most iconic riffs of the year in Midnight City – a sweeping, circular tone unlike anything else heard before.

As it turns out, the sound was created by heavily distorting his own vocals. “There’s a lot of bits on the album where I experiment with my vocals and almost produce a synth sound. For Midnight City it was right at the top of my voice.” The experiment turned out to be a success.

Vintage Revival

The vintage sound of the album comes from a simple source – vintage gear. Citing Vangelis as an unashamed inspiration of his, Gonzalez pairs his love of nostalgia with a predilection for classic gear. Known for using iconic drum machines such as the Oberheim DMX and the Roland TR-808, arpeggiators found on the ARP 2600, and famously fat synth Jupiter 8, Gonzalez drew on a wide range of gear to create his trademark sound.

M83’s past albums such as 2008’s Saturdays=Youth had gone down the rabbit hole of 1970s and 80s gear, relying heavily on authentic KORG synths, such as the MS-20. For Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez expanded his scope to include classic synths such as the Yamaha CS-80 and Roland JX-3P. During the supporting tour, Gonzalez also relied heavily on his synthesizers.com Portable-22 system.

Meldal-Johnsen also names the Lexicon PCM70, Yamaha Rev 7, Eventide H3000, Demeter RealVerb, and Alsa Modular Synth (AMS) as essential contributors to the lush waves of sound, with layers of reverb and harmonisation building a wall of sound.

The nostalgic maximalism of Gonzalez and the diverse and flexible touch of Meldal-Johnsen combined to create one of the most ambitious and expansive albums of 2011. As a statement of intent and philosophy, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming stands up as M83’s peak. With an ear tuned to vintage sounds and an eye on the future, M83 accomplished something rare – a nostalgic album that still felt timeless.