Suddenly Marius de Vries sounded almost indignant. For most of the interview he had been airing his opinions in a soft and friendly manner, but the issue at hand clearly stirred him up. The question was one which is central to the territory that SOS covers, and to Marius de Vries's work: is a programmer a musician?
Fifteen years ago, when sampling and sequencing still demanded expensive and monolithic machines like the Fairlight or the Synclavier, those who specialised in operating them became known as 'programmers' -- and some, like the Art Of Noise's JJ Jeczalik, were quite happy to declare themselves 'non-musicians'. Since then, programmers have become more and more involved in arranging and writing music, but many people would argue that there is still a big difference between their role and that of a 'real' musician. They would, however, get short shrift from de Vries, who is in no doubt that programmers are musicians: "Of course they are! Pete Davis, who programs for me at the moment, is both a consummate musician and a programmer, as are all the best programmers that I know and have worked with. Programmers who know the technology well, but who aren't very good musicians and don't get on with people in the studio, don't become successful. And there is a shortage of people who can work the technology, and who also have the right musical sensibilities and the right social skills... If you want to carve yourself a career as a musician in the record industry today, then the thing to do is to get right on top of the technology and learn how to capably run a good audio editing and sequencing system, and really master a few synthesizers."
One of the reasons why de Vries feels so strongly about this issue is probably because he started out as a musician, rather than an engineer or technologist. He was born in London in 1961, sang as head chorister at St. Paul's Cathedral Choir and received a piano and violin education there as well ("a wonderful general music education"). From 1984 to 1987 he worked both as a freelance music journalist (testing keyboards for International Musician & Recording World) and as a session musician, and played with The Blow Monkeys. He recalls: "I started out playing keyboards around the time when MIDI first came into the world. I remember going to a music shop in Denmark Street and seeing somebody play a DX7 which was connected to a Roland JX3P. There was this miracle of a cable allowing one keyboard to talk to another. It's something that seems so primitive now, but at the time it was a magical and exciting thing. When I was working with The Blow Monkeys, I met a technical assistant called Axel Kroll, who was the first person I saw who was what we would now call a programmer. He worked with a Linn 9000 and what he was doing crystallised for me the direction in which I wanted to go. So I became a programmer at a time when we were still very much regarded as kind of the magicians of the session world, because not many people understood what was going on under the hood".
It wasn't long before de Vries could dump his journalistic distractions to concentrate fully on a blossoming music career that would not only see him work with many household names, but also be instrumental in the creation of some of the hippest and most cutting-edge music made in the last 10 years. As a programmer and keyboard player he has worked on all of Björk's three solo albums to date, Madonna's album Bedtime Stories and the single 'Frozen' from her last album, Eno and U2's Passengers album, U2's Pop, Annie Lennox's Medusa and Diva albums, Massive Attack's Protection, and Bono's and Madonna/Massive Attack's tracks on the Marvin Gaye tribute album, respectively 'Save The Children' and 'I Want You'.
On top of this, de Vries has a notable production career. It started with modest co-production credits for the 25th of May, The Soup Dragons and the Sugarcubes in the late '80s and early '90s. He then went through a spell when he was too busy programming for the greats, with only incidental co-production work here and there. Recently, however, his production career re-ignited with a string of prestigious co-production credits: five tracks on Robbie Robertson's Contact From The Underworld of Redboy, three tracks on Craig Armstrong's The Space Between Us, three tracks on Madonna's Ray Of Light, and seven tracks on Neil Finn's first solo album, Try Whistling This. What's more, all these albums were released in 1998! As if this was not enough he also co-wrote, programmed and co-produced the BAFTA-winning score and soundtrack CD for the movie Romeo & Juliet (1997, together with Nellee Hooper and Craig Armstrong), was music supervisor, executive producer and album producer for the forthcoming The Avengers film soundtrack album (featuring Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, Sinead O'Connor, Stereo MC's and others), and also did additional production and mixes for PJ Harvey's forthcoming album.
When I met up with him in the idyllic surroundings of the residential Hook End Studios in Berkshire, he was spending more time in his role of the 'definitive '90s musician', producing and programming the debut album of The Lucy Nation, a new signing to Madonna's Maverick label. De Vries first cut his programming teeth on an Roland MSQ700, and then moved on to the Atari, initially running Hybrid Arts' Midi Track software, and then C-Lab's Notator. A few years ago he finally switched to Macintosh and Digidesign, on which he still runs C-Lab/Emagic software, namely Logic Audio: "I was quite slow switching from the Atari to the Mac, because I had experiences of working alongside people with Macs that appeared to be crashing all the time. But things are a lot better now, and I am really happy with my Macintosh, although admittedly the timing could be better on it. The timing of the Atari was probably more stable, but then, are you going to spend your whole life worrying about the fact that there is a millisecond delay on the bass drum, or are you going to listen to the music and try to make that sound good? The '80s ethic seemed very much to make sure that everything was very precise and glued to a grid, but there's room for things to be much sloppier now, and better for it."
De Vries explains that he learnt 'sloppiness' as an approach to programming from working with Nellee Hooper, initially on Björk's first album: "He has a real intuition for how space and untidiness can be a better approach to making music than trying to nail everything down." This, again, appears to touch on the dichotomy at the heart of de Vries's approach to music making; although throughout our conversation he de-emphasises the role of technology whenever we speak about things from a musical perspective, he clearly trips out on it when talking from a purely technological angle. A few weeks after our first interview at Hook End I visited him in his own studio near Cambridge, Blue Barn Studios, and when he showed me around the impressive hardware that he has collected there, he was as proud and excited as the proverbial kid in a toy shop. But he remarks that even though he did extensive programming when producing Robbie Robertson and Madonna, he now tries to take "less of a hands-on approach when I am producing. It's definitely possible to use technology to stamp the life out of musical performances. When you're programming you can spend a day comping and pitch-shifting various vocal takes and after having gone through every syllable you sit back and listen to it, and it is totally flat. In the beginning you often won't admit this to yourself, because you cannot believe that you just wasted a day making something worse. But the fact is there, you have taken all the life out of it. And the only remedy is to keep walking out of the room, and keep walking back in again once you have a clear head."
These days, therefore, De Vries leaves a lot of the detailed work to programmer Pete Davis: "Programming is all about going in and dealing with the details of the track, whereas producing is about being able to step back and hear what is going on and deciding whether something is good or not. Those are two very different dynamics. But programming is in my blood, and so I can't keep totally away from the computer. We had three Pro Tools systems up and running in Hook End, and I still get my hands dirty. During pre-production it is often just me and the artist working and sketching out ideas in the computer, and once I have a clear idea of what the song is going to sound like, I'll give it to Pete who will develop it, label things properly and organise everything for me. He also does a lot of archiving for me. I tend to rely on prayer for backup." De Vries laughs. "I sort of think, if God wants the data, he can have it."
This is another sign of the apparent dichotomy between de Vries's total fascination with music technology on the one hand, and something between healthy disrespect and reckless disdain on the other. The same thing shows through when he enters the debate about the merits of 24-bit digital recording: "It has to be said that basically most people won't hear the difference -- it's too subtle. Though personally I find that 24-bit has a better dynamic range, and crudely speaking there'll be less hiss on very quiet bits of an orchestra. So there are all these arguments whether to use 16-bit or 24-bit, or Neve or an SSL, or to mix to tape or DAT. There may be incremental differences in each case, but they are so marginal. When you have a great piece of music and a fantastic performance it doesn't matter what medium you're using. Though all credit to Digidesign for pushing the boundaries forward. And what's really great is that I can plug my new 24-bit TC Fireworks effects unit digitally into my 888, and that gives me a nice warm feeling because you know it's all talking in 24-bit, and so of course it sounds better, because when you feel better, things sound better." He laughs again.
These lines are obviously spoken by the technologist in de Vries, the man who loves state-of-the-art gear purely for its own sake. But he does not follow this philosophy to the exclusion of all other approaches. Answering the question 'how do you get the same sense of life and excitement when programming as musicians do feeding off each other?' de Vries offers "By getting musicians to play! Either guest musicians, or you get the people you're working with to play live. We started the Lucy Nation record by recording musicians live, and a lot of those recordings survived intact, and then some were chopped up, and some were mangled to such a degree that you wouldn't recognise the original performances. There are no rules about how to achieve a 'live' feel, but generally it is a good idea to get 'real' musicians in at some stage. The best ideas come from good musicians. But it can go either way, because sometimes you're lucky enough to program something that works perfectly, and may not be improvable. That's why you need to be a good musician as a programmer, because sometimes you'll be the main musician on a track."
This is exemplified by de Vries's work on Robbie Robertson's excellent Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy. On this album Robertson has again gone back to his American Indian roots, following in the footsteps of his previous album, Music For The Native Americans (1994), which was a soundtrack. With his hands free to make a regular studio album, Robertson wanted to explore how to put native American music in a contemporary context, whilst avoiding the New Age pitfalls that have marred many other such attempts, like the abysmal Sacred Spirits. So Robertson enlisted the production assistance of a range of people with experience with technology, dance music, and hip-hop, such as Howie B., de Vries, Tim Gordine and Jim Wilson -- the latter three all being keyboard players and programmers. De Vries was involved as a co-producer on five of the album's 10 tracks, co-wrote the music on two tracks with Robertson, and did programming on six. In several cases the only thing played by a 'real' musician is Robertson's electric guitar, and the rest of the material is programmed and/or treated in a computer. De Vries & Co nevertheless get some excellent grooves and feels going -- and several of the tracks again highlight the issue of the blurring boundaries between technology and music.
De Vries: 'It's becoming harder and harder to distinguish between when something is a performance and when it's programmed, and so accreditation is becoming harder too. Robbie arrived at my studio here with a suitcase full of DATs, containing performances that he had collected over the last two decades and said: 'let's make a record out of this'. I spent two months just listening and cataloguing and narrowing it down to one DAT with what I thought were the most promising bits. It was a big learning curve, because I knew little of American Indian music, and I had been in the first instance a little wary of the project anyway, because I was not aware of any records that had successfully put American Indian music in a contemporary context. So the whole thing was a real challenge. Then I threw the DAT compilation into Pro Tools and started experimenting with treatments. In some cases we did very little to the original recordings, like the vocals in the track 'Peyote Healing' (which were recorded specifically for the album at an actual peyote ceremony in Santa Fe). In other cases they were heavily treated and re-worked. Like on the track 'Sacrifice', everything on that was me and my Macintosh, apart from the guitar and vocals. There, flute and drum credits were samples that I had taken and manipulated and incorporated into the framework."
There are many great grooves on Contact, and with no 'real' musicians in the rhythm section, the simple question (that de Vries is reluctant to answer) is: 'how do you do it?' De Vries: "There are so many methods involved. It is very difficult to pinpoint a particular way. How do you program a good feel? It's impossible to describe. People have written many articles about drum programming, and with all respect for the thoroughness of their approach, I have not resonated with a single one of them. It all seems a bit academic to me. It runs counter to my whole approach to music."
Further prodding elicits a slightly more specific response: "OK then, probably about 80% of the backdrops that you hear on the records I've programmed are constructed of samples of one kind or another. I try to avoid using very obvious samples, partly for legal reasons, partly to try to keep things fresh. I sample from the same places that everyone else does, mostly records and previous sessions. I'm not too keen on sample CDs. I own about 10 that I think are worthwhile, amongst them A Poke In The Ear With A Sharp Stick, Diffusion Of Useful Noise, the two Cuckooland ones, Fred Frith's Etymology, and a Gamelan CD.
True to his assertion that there are too many methods to list, however, de Vries does not always work by using samples to create soundscapes and hip-hop grooves. On Neil Finn's Try Whistling This he stayed miles away from any hip-hop feel, instead helping the former Crowded House frontman to expand on the "multiple-chord tricks that are so easy for him to do, being one of the finest songwriters on the planet. To create something that justified him having become a solo artist we tried to make him sound a little darker and make the song structures a little bit more simple without losing his sense of melody. It was interesting to sit down with Neil and run a loop for five minutes and get him to write something on top. That's how the track which we co-wrote, 'Sinner', came into being. One of the seeds for that you hear at the beginning of the song: it's a sample from the wonderful very early Mellotron that Neil owns, one of those Rolls-Royce-like Chamberlains with the complete original tape collection, from the days when they recorded rhythm sections in the studio to create a collection of rhythm tapes to accompany the melody sounds, just like with modern home keyboards."
The rhythm of the Chamberlain sample is rather at odds with the rhythm of the rest of the track. When queried, de Vries explains that this was "another rhythm trick" developed in hip-hop, namely to superimpose samples with different rhythmic feels and get a kind of polyrhythm going, which results in things that are "much more interesting than you could ever get by working things out mathematically." Another trick that he divulges is the use of filtering -- applying a strong low-pass on a sampled rhythm -- and using the rumble that you get as a kind of bass line. Conversely, he might apply a high-pass filter, or sweep between the two. According to de Vries, Massive Attack applied this method to much effect on the track 'Exchange' on their new Mezzanine album. Finally, the fact that de Vries doesn't rely only on samples to create rhythm magic is demonstrated by his work on Madonna's Ray Of Light album, especially on the track 'Little Star' on which -- with rhythm programmer Steve Sidelnyk -- he did some masterful drum and keyboard programming. He was called in to the project at a late stage, when William Orbit and Madonna had already finished much of the album, and ended up co-producing 'Skin' and 'Nothing Really Matters' with Madonna and Orbit, and 'Lit
|"...the trick is to create and maintain a core to your system that is simple and consistent..."|
De Vries: "I had to be very sensitive with what I did, because the aesthetic of the album was already well established by William and Madonna. So I had to work within a well-defined framework. 'Nothing Really Matters' was almost like an older-style Madonna tune, and my work was to help keep the appeal of something that she might have done five years ago, and at the same time updating it and keeping it in sympathy with the stuff William had been doing. I did most of the handiwork on that track, though William was there with his ears and suggestions. 'Skin' was really a true multi-programmer situation, with both of us having our rigs in the studio and battling it out. The biggest challenge was 'Little Star' because it was a song that could easily have become sentimental. I wanted to keep the delicacy of the track above everything, but I also knew that it needed some energy for it not to be too fey. So what I decided to do was to create a fairly energetic double-time drum arrangement, but using very soft sounds. There were no loops on that track, instead Steve and I programmed everything by hand, using jazz brushes and brushed ride cymbals, ie. softly hit things, so that the whole track would have this gossamer, fluttery energy running through it. It was a fine balance. Whenever it got too heavy, it sounded like the track was weighed down by overproduction, and whenever it was too light, it just sounded sentimental. I orchestrated that track mainly with noises rather than keyboards, chasing the idea of things drifting in and out of focus to achieve a dreamy quality. I actually used a lot of the Waldorf Wave on the Madonna tracks. I borrowed one from Björk, and spent a couple of days generating hundreds of sounds which I fed into a sampler, and used one way or another for the backdrop for the songs."
De Vries's programming on 'Little Star' is a brilliant -- OK, let's call it 'performance' -- that would make any 'real' musician proud. It shows what modern technology, used in the right way, is capable of. According to de Vries, the trick is to create and maintain a core to your system that is simple and consistent enough for you to work it totally intuitively. "The issue of complexity is very important, because together with simple technical failures it is one of the most distracting things when working with music technology. The way seems to be to have a central working space that is essentially simple and focussed and where there is a limited amount of things going on. For me that is when I sit in front of my computer screen with Logic Audio on it, with my Pro Tools hardware and Akai samplers close at hand. Add a master keyboard and that's it. That is where 95% of my work happens, and handling it is totally second nature."
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