Through his work with David Guetta, Rihanna and now Katy Perry, Sandy Vee has taken the French house sound to the top of the US charts. He tells us how it's done.
Was the president of a major American record company who recently told Sandy Vee that the Frenchman had changed American music exaggerating? Vee is certainly the new kid on the block. Having risen to international prominence through his work on David Guetta's smash hit singles 'Sexy-Bitch' and 'Gettin' Over You', he has since been involved in the writing, playing, recording, mixing and production of five more major hits: Taio Cruz's 'Higher', Pitbull's 'Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor)', Rihanna's 'S&M' and 'Only Girl (In The World)' and Katy Perry's 'Fireworks'. The last of these earned Vee his first Grammy nomination, and 'Only Girl' his first actual Grammy Award.
The above-mentioned songs are characterised by an uptempo, four‑to‑the‑floor aesthetic that is strongly influenced by house music, and indeed, the US and UK charts of today do appear to be a bit more dance-orientated than those of a few years ago. Is this partly because of the influence of these Vee-(co-)produced tracks, or is he simply riding a wave? Discuss…
The 35-year old has lived in New York since last August, but developed his career in his native France. "I come from Toulouse in the south of France,” Vee replied, "where I studied double bass and classical music and harmony at the Conservatoire, and also played lots of different kinds of music in many bands, from rock to funk to jazz.
"At some stage I bought a computer and a synth, and started doing production and club tunes. I enjoyed the fact that I could do everything myself, that was really cool. I also realised that if I wanted to do production by myself, I would need to understand sound and engineering, so I spent a lot of time learning about compression and limiters and EQ and so on. Within a year of getting into production, I had a number one hit in France called 'King Of House', which was a club cover of Michael Jackson's 'Billy Jean' — when I listen to it now I think: 'Oh, that was bad!' After this, I built my own studio, with a couple of Yamaha 02R desks, a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 5, a [Roland] Juno 106 and a Korg Polysix.”
Vee's real surname is Wilhelm. To try to advance his career, he worked under a lot of different pseudonyms, and moved to Paris in 2005. During a visit to Sweden, when he worked with Swedish House Mafia, some found his name so hard to pronounce that they called him 'Sandy W'. The letters 'W' and 'V' sound alike in Swedish, the nickname stuck, and Sandy Wilhelm became Sandy Vee. In 2008, Vee scored a club hit with a track called 'Bleep', which featured a sample of Robert Plant's wail at the beginning of Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song'. It was 'Bleep' and DJ'ing that led to Vee meeting David Guetta on Ibiza, where Guetta asked if they could work together.
Vee: "I didn't take that very seriously — people say so many things during parties. After half a year of DJ'ing, I had started to realise that it wasn't really what I wanted to do. I said to myself: 'Sandy, your place is in the studio.' You can make a lot of money from DJ'ing, but that has never been my motivation. I love making music, and I want to be excited about what I do every day and have fun. So I went back to my studio in Paris, and David did call me and came to the studio with sketches for some songs. I ended up being involved in [co-writing and co-producing] eight songs on his One Love album. It was very natural for us to collaborate, and one thing that helped is that I work extremely fast in the studio, as does David. I'll put a song together in an hour.”
With 'Sexy-Bitch' ('Sexy-Chick' in a censored version) and 'Gettin' Over You' having spent quite a lot of time near the top of the US charts, Vee signed a deal a year ago with a manager in New York, who introduced him to many of the important players in the US music industry: A&R managers, record company presidents, artists, producers, and so on. One meeting proved as significant as running into Guetta, when his manager introduced him to the prolific and successful Norwegian production duo Stargate (who were interviewed in SOS May 2010: /sos/may10/articles/stargate.htm).
When Vee met Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen in their studio at Jay-Z's Roc‑The-Mic studios in New York, the three Europeans immediately sensed an affinity. The complementary nature of their skills is immediately obvious on hearing the three major hits that the trio co-wrote and co-produced: Rihanna's 'Only Girl (In The World)' and 'S&M' and Katy Perry's 'Firework'. Stargate are mainly known for ballads such as Ne-Yo's 'So Sick' and mid-tempo hits like Beyoncé's 'Broken-Hearted Girl'. Vee's involvement appears to have pulled Eriksen and Hermansen into new territory, because 'S&M' and 'Only Girl (In The World)' wear their club influences on their sleeves. Likewise, the chorus of 'Firework' sports a four-to-the-floor, uptempo feel and house-style swirling keyboard sequences. Vee recalls: "Something happened the moment we began working together, and I'd say that half of the work we are now doing now is together. Our collaboration isn't just about the music any more. We are like family now.”
By last August, it became untenable for Vee to commute between France and the US, and he moved to Manhattan, where he now again is building his own studio space. "I have a big room in my flat,” explains Vee, "which was soundproofed by Whisper Room, inside of which they also built a vocal booth. I like working where I live, and I'm looking for a big studio to buy. I have a 12-core Mac in my studio with two 27-inch Apple screens and my monitors are Dynaudio Acoustics BM15A, which sound great, and a pair of Avantone Mixcubes, which are good for checking a mix after you've finished it. I also have several external synths, like the [Roland] V-Synth and the [Access] Virus TI, Korg M3, [Yamaha] Motif XS, and Korg Radias.
"To be honest, I've been working more and more with soft synths and in the box in general,” explains Steinberg endorsee Vee (see box overleaf). "Having said that, I do miss faders and buttons, and I'm talking with the guys at SSL about getting an SSL AWS924 for my next studio, which is great because you can control your DAW with it. I use [Steinberg's] Nuendo 5, and have used Nuendo for many years. Now that I'm in the US, I encounter Pro Tools all the time, so I also have Pro Tools 9. However, I still far prefer working in Nuendo. I write in Nuendo, and will often export tracks as stems to Pro Tools, using AAF, with everything sounding great. We know what colours we want, so it's not a problem to have less flexibility. After recording in Pro Tools, I will at the end select everything and export it again as an AAF file, and I'll then import that into a new Nuendo session. In that way, I have the same arrangement in Nuendo as I had in Pro Tools. Everything is flat — ie. without plug-ins — but it's the way I want it when I begin to arrange and then mix a song.
"I know Pro Tools very well, but for me that system is a bit 2000. It's slow, particularly when you are using the TDM. I did a test recently with virtual synths. I opened 200 virtual synths in my native Nuendo system, and the demand on my CPU was around six percent. When I tried to do the same thing with Pro Tools, I had run out of CPU when I had opened just eight virtual synths! Pro Tools is cool for tracking — it has hardly any latency and is really easy to use — but my Nuendo rig with two Universal Audio Quad cards simply destroys an HD6 system. In Nuendo, I can have a session with 200 tracks, and have 300 plug-ins open and 30 VSTi virtual instruments, all at the same time, and it's totally stable. The audio in Nuendo also sounds fantastic. Everyone says that all DAWs sound the same, but that's simply not true. I've done tests comparing the sound of the same session in different DAWs, and Ableton sounded terrible, Logic and Pro Tools were OK, and Nuendo sounded incredible. Editing in Nuendo is also really fast. Pro Tools is just a standard, it was the first to come onto the market and everybody uses it now, almost out of habit. People in the US don't know about Nuendo, but I'm sure that if they did, many would switch.”
Vee's studio was still in Paris when he rustled up the musical idea that would form the foundation for Katy Perry's 'Firework'. He exported several of his ideas using AAF and took them to the New York studio of Stargate, who imported them into Pro Tools. The Stargate duo were very fond of one sketch in particular. "I'd already programmed the beats,” recalls Vee, "and they added the strings and a bridge, and then we created the structure of the song together. We felt that the song had something special, and when Katy dropped by in the studio, she loved the track. Together with Ester Dean, she wrote the lyrics and the melody line and the whole thing suddenly was magic!”
Katy Perry had burst onto the international music scene in the summer of 2008 with her monster hit 'I Kissed A Girl', which became the 10th best‑selling hit of the 21st century so far, and earned Perry her first Grammy nomination. The American singer has gone on to enjoy a staggering further four multi-platinum hit singles in two and a half years: 'Hot n Cold', 'California Gurls', 'Teenage Dream' and 'Firework' and two multi-platinum albums, One Of The Boys (2008) and Teenage Dream (2010). Prior to 'Firework', Perry's major hits had all involved the production and writing skills of Dr Luke and Max Martin.
'Firework' is Perry's paean to self‑belief. She has called it "the most important song” on Teenage Dream, and the way that Stargate's, Vee's, Dean's and Perry's talents complement each other is particularly evident in the combination of the stirring strings that begin in the pre-chorus with Vee's pulsating bass and four-to-the-floor bass drum. Unlike the overtly synthetic strings in Rihanna's 'Only Girl (In The World)', the strings on 'Firework' could be mistaken for the real thing.
"We got a call from Katy Perry's manager,” remembers Vee, "who asked us if we wanted to re-record the strings with real orchestra. Mikkel, Tor and I talked about this, but we felt that the strings sounded pretty good as they were. Mikkel had cut Katy's vocals, and the only other element of the song that wasn't done in the box was the bass guitar. After we'd finished recording the song in New York, I exported all tracks again using AAF and returned to Paris, where I added real bass, using my Stuart Spector bass. There are no other live instruments on the track — I had programmed the drums as audio, using a Korg pad. After that I mixed the music for the song. Phil Tan (interviewed in SOS February 2007: /sos/feb07/articles/insidetrack_0207.htm) later mixed the vocals in.”
The 'Firework' Nuendo Project is made up of a staggering 177 tracks, although this number is a little deceptive, as tracks 129 to 166 are in fact stems, or submixes from the audio tracks, which are tracks 1 to 128, while 167 to 177 are effect tracks. Vee explains the ins and outs of getting 177 to fit into two.
"The 'Firework' mix was not very typical for my way of working, because it had gone through Pro Tools. For songs like Pitbull's 'Hey Baby' and Taio Cruz's 'Higher', I used Nuendo from beginning to end. One consequence of using Pro Tools for the 'Firework' session was that I had these stems, or group tracks, from 129 to 166. When you export a stereo track from Pro Tools, you get two mono tracks, L & R, and in Nuendo 5 you can import them as interleaved stereo, which works much better than having two different plug-ins on two different channels. Tracks 129 to 144 are all drum tracks, with two buses for the kicks, and three buses for the drums, two for the snare, and so on. [A bus called] 'Kick 1' is the main big kick, which consists of perhaps three different kick sounds, and 'kick 2' has some softer kicks, perhaps to add some bottom end.
"The session was in 16/44.1. I always work like that, because where do people buy their music? On iTunes. Where do they watch videos? On YouTube. If I'm recording an orchestra — and I'm talking about doing a movie score — I may go to higher resolution, but I don't think it's worth recording in 24/96 for pop songs. Of course, 16/44.1 helps to make the session easier to manage, but especially because I'm using the UAD Quad stuff, I'm not in danger of running out of processing power, even though I do everything in the box. I don't use outboard gear at all — these days many plug-ins are as good as the out‑of‑the‑box counterpart. I've compared the outboard Manley Massive Passive with the plug‑in, and I don't hear any difference, it's incredible.
"As I mentioned above, I work extremely fast, and this means that when I'm working with Stargate, we sometimes write and record three or four songs a day. Mixing is also very fast. I take two hours to do what I call a premix, which is bringing the mix to a point where I think it sounds good. At that point I take a break, and one or two days afterwards, I go back and finish the mix. When you work for many hours on end, your ears get tired. It's stupid to spend 10 hours non-stop on a mix, because after a few hours you don't hear anything any more.
"The first thing I do when I begin a mix is to simply get a balance, without adding plug-ins, just to get a good level for everything. Then I'll remove the vocal so I can focus on the music and get the right balance for that. I'll usually start by working on the drums. My sound is really focused on the kick, which I want to have really fat and loud‑sounding, with a lot of dynamics and a huge bottom end. I can go a little bit crazy and have like six or seven or eight layers of kick. Some kick sounds can be mixed in very subtly, but they still add magic. After working on the kick I'll work on the snare, and the hi-hat and then the other drum parts, and I try to glue everything together.
"I don't use too much compression, because when you are compressing too much, you are killing your sound. It sounds more open without compression. When I have the right balance, I send the drum elements to a bus, and compress them a bit with parallel compression. I love using FabFilter's Pro-C plug-in for that. Once I'm happy with the drums, I'll add in the bass, using a lot of side-chaining. Side‑chaining is an important part of my sound. I love to make the bass sound a little bit dirty and saturated. After I've finished working on the bass and drums, I'll add in the other elements, like keyboards and guitars and strings.
"In general, I like to add quite a bit of distortion. I feel that it creates more warmth, more 'aliveness'. Maybe it's because of my French touch, but for me dirty means warmer. I can use compressors for this, turning them into a very creative effect. For me, mixing is about taking risks, and I may do things a more traditional engineer will never do. He might think I'm crazy, but you get much more interesting results by taking risks. For example, I may capture a note of Katy's voice, loop it, add crazy EQ and distortion, put it through a bus and create a very strange sound, which is mixed in the back and hard to hear, but if you'd mute it in the mix, you'd miss it.”
"There's too much stuff going on to give you a complete overview of what I did, but I'll highlight a few things. I love the sound of the Linn Drum and have many of its sounds. The Linn Drum sounds and other smaller parts go to a bus. Even when I use the sound of a big, live drum kit, I still like to add layers with sounds from other drum boxes. I mentioned above that I like to layer several kick sounds, because if you just use one kick sound, you're very limited and you'll quickly have distortion as you try to EQ and compress it. One kick sound may have great bottom end, another I may love because of the low-mids, and so on, and if you layer many different sounds, you can apply different levels of EQ and compression to each, and your final kick will sound amazing. All the kicks together will result in the Sandy Vee sound, and this is what Tor and Mikkel love! [he laughs]”
"I have the UAD EL7 Fatso on the Linn Drum bus, and the URS N12 EQ and UAD EMT 140 reverb. I love the N12 because it is the only graphic EQ plug-in that I know that has a Q [setting] on it, so you can be very precise. The Fatso acts purely as a compressor, keeping things in place. I tend to put the reverb at the end of the chain, but sometimes I put it at the beginning, because a compressor after a reverb can create something special in the sound. The reverb here adds a little bit of life to the drums. It's a very basic effect. On the main snare track, I have the UAD Dbx 160 compressor and UAD's Harrison EQ, which is one of my favourites. It adds a fantastic colour and I love to use it to make the higher frequencies more sparkling. I also add 1-2dB at 200Hz. Many people tell me that they roll off the low frequencies on the snare, and I'm like: 'What?! No way! I love lots of bottom end on the snare.'”
"There's a synth bass and my Spector bass guitar. I had the Sound Toys Decapitator on the synth bass, because I love a dirty bass sound. There was too much sustain on the notes, so I used the SPL TwinTube to work on the transients. The UAD Pultec EQ does a great job, and the Waves CLA-2A gets the bass to sit and fit. It has amazing peak reduction, and I often use it in a side-chain to make it pump, with the kick as a trigger. Finally, the SPL Vitalizer created more drive on the synth bass sound. You can also add really cool bottom with this one.
"My chain on the Spector bass guitar was the UAD Fatso, going into the Waves SSL Compressor in a side-chain, and then the Waves API 560 EQ and finally the Waves CLA-2A. The Fatso adds some colour, and the CLA-2A is more for controlling the level. I cut the bass around 250Hz with the API, because there often is a resonance in the bass guitar that doesn't sit well with the kick. Just by cutting somewhere between 200 and 300Hz on the bass, the track may suddenly become more alive. I also often boost between 2kHz and 4kHz, for definition in the bass.”
"I've included a screenshot of a single phrase in which you can see how it's possible to work directly on the vocal in Nuendo. The different coloured blocks indicate the different notes, and you can tune the vocal or change the vibrato. It's incredibly easy and you don't need Melodyne or Auto-Tune. This screenshot is for demonstration purposes only, because we didn't actually have to tune Katy's vocal, she was right on the note. Of course, Phil mixed the vocals. I bounced tracks 129 to 166 to stereo and I sent this to Phil, as well as a screenshot of my mastering chain, my treatment of the stereo master. So once Phil had mixed in the vocal, he could reproduce my mastering chain by using the same plug-ins and looking at the screenshot. In this way, the music is done, and all Phil has to focus on are the vocals.”
"My mastering chain consisted of the UAD Manley, Waves API 560 EQ, PSP Vintage Warmer and Oxford Limiter. The Manley plug-in sounds fantastic, just enhancing the sound a little bit, I cut a little bit around 1kHz on the 560, and the PSP adds something very warm to the mix. I generally add between 10-30 percent depending on the knee setting; you don't want to add too much or you'll kill the dynamics. The Oxford is, to me, the best limiter on the market. It's transparent and you get a crazy level with it. I didn't add too much, I used the limiter in a very basic way.”
Talking on the eve of the Grammy awards ceremony, Vee remarks that if he wins, it would almost be a nightmare, because he'd have to do loads of interviews and would barely have a chance to sleep before returning to New York the next day. He explains: "You know, I'm just a regular guy, I'm doing it for the music, I don't need all this attention. I'm very happy now, because for a while I was doing the electro stuff, and I like the energy of club songs, but in the end I missed harmony and melody and song structure, and so on. Songs like 'Firework', or 'Higher', you can do them just with one guitar. I'm very happy to do real songs again, and to try and make music that mixes the best of both worlds.”
In our interview, Sandy Vee is very enthusiastic about Nuendo, and also appears to use plug-ins made by Waves and Universal Audio almost exclusively. While his enthusiasm comes across as very genuine, he's happy to divulge that he's endorsed by the likes of Steinberg, Waves, Universal Audio, Softube, FabFilter, Arturia, GForce and Rob Papen. In return, Vee is a beta-tester for many of these companies, and he's even joined the board of Universal Audio. Apparently all this dates back to Vee developing a professional relationship with Steinberg France many years ago, and things developed from there. Given how busy Vee now is, creating hit songs, one wonders how he manages to still find the time for all these side-activities. This never becomes clear, but he does lift the lid on some of what occupies him in this arena.
"I'm talking directly with the developers of Nuendo in Germany. I did six months of beta-testing for Nuendo 6 before the release. I have recently also been testing Cubase 6. I recently compared Cubase 5 to Nuendo 5, and even though they supposedly have the same software engine, I found that Nuendo sounded better. But with Cubase 6 the sound is amazing, exactly the same as for Nuendo 5. I have several friends who used Logic and have moved over to Nuendo, and they're all very happy. I just think that Steinberg need to be more present on the market, particularly in America.
"With regards to UAD, I'm involved in a new project, the Satellite, which is joint plug-in/hardware, just like the Quad, and which will make it possible to mix and record everywhere in the world with just a laptop and two Satellites. The Satellite works with Firewire 800. We're talking about doing a video showing how easily you can work anywhere in the world. This is a big step in the mixing process. I'm also testing Arturia's new drum machine, which is called Spark, and love it. I still play and program drums directly into audio in the [Nuendo] Arrange window — I love to layer drums in real time. But sometimes I enjoy programming a full beat with a drum machine and Spark is great for that, because it comes with a great hardware controller. During the last few months I've also been testing a new beast called ImpOSCar2 for GForce that sounds awesome. It's their version of the old analogue OSCar, and version 2 is fantastic. I have never heard a soft synth sounding like that!”
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