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Marius De Vries: From Moulin Rouge To Björk

Programmer & Producer By Tom Flint
Published November 2001


Baz Luhrmann's ambitious film Moulin Rouge integrates radically reworked pop classics into a historical romance. As well as co‑ordinating this unique musical project, programmer and producer Marius de Vries somehow found time to work on Björk's acclaimed new album Vespertine.

"Sometimes I worry that my own artistic instincts are in danger of getting a little bit buried over time," admits Marius de Vries. "To do what I do you have to sublimate your instincts to those of the people you're working with. But I think I do have a stamp that I leave on records and people tell me they can instantly recognise one of my productions. My collection of sounds and my arrangements are fairly distinctive, and those things add up."

Marius' ability to change his approach to suit the project and the artist he is working with may well cause him the occasional crisis of identity, but it has also made him one of the most sought‑after programmers and producers working in the music industry today. By the time Marius was interviewed in the September 1998 issue of Sound On Sound, he was already a long‑term collaborator with big‑name artists including Madonna, Neil Finn, Massive Attack, Björk and U2. He had also worked with Annie Lennox, Tina Turner, Robbie Robertson and Alison Moyet and on the film soundtracks of movies like Tank Girl, Romeo + Juliet, Batman Forever, Goldeneye, and The Avengers. Since then, Marius has extended his CV credits even further by producing Melanie C's Northern Star and contributing to David Gray's chart‑topping album White Ladder.

MUSICAL DIFFERENCESHowever, he has spent most of the last two years working on Baz Luhrmann's hugely ambitious musical Moulin Rouge. As musical director and co‑composer, Marius was involved in every aspect of the making of the film from beginning to end, and it led him to work with the film's leading actors Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. "Working for Baz was an all‑consuming, challenging, thrilling and exhausting experience," explains Marius. "When I became involved, the first draft of the script was just about there and the major casting was done. The overall concept was fairly well established but there were no details of how we were going to do it. We knew we wanted to do a break‑into‑song musical using recognisable — and preferably iconic — songs culled from high points of 20th‑century popular culture, but they had to be chosen and licensed, and we had to sketch out how we were going to do them stylistically.

"The first eight or nine months' work was the pre‑production stage, which we spent figuring out the details. One of my biggest jobs was working on the singing of Nicole and Ewan and the rest of the cast. Ewan has a very musical temperament and music is a language he understands, although his voice was perhaps a little underdeveloped when we started. For Nicole, though, music was pretty much a foreign language, so she had an awful long way to go before she was able to go in front of the camera. The whole process for Ewan and Nicole and the rest of the cast took an enormous amount of courage — something like standing up stone‑cold sober in a karaoke bar in front of 50 million strangers. I wouldn't have fancied doing that."

Choosing The Songs

Work on Moulin Rouge started at Baz Luhrmann's home in Sidney, Australia where a music studio was set up in one of the living rooms. Thanks to the financial backing of 20th Century Fox, Marius was able to specify the setup he required, which was almost an exact copy of his own studio in London's Strongroom (see photographs). A second replica studio was also built at the Fox film studio so that Marius could work on the music while rehearsing with the actors and scriptwriters.

A team comprising Luhrmann, de Vries, musical director and supervisor Anton Monsted and screenwriter Craig Pearce assembled at Baz's home to begin working on the songs and arrangements. Marius explains how they went about it. "I would rustle up a piano and vocal sketch for each song so we could start making a few stylistic decisions. It was really important that each time we used a famous song we reinvented it in a way that would be unprecedented and startling, so for example 'Roxanne' became a tango and 'Like A Virgin' became a piece of 'Hello Dolly'‑style song‑and‑dance entertainment.

Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge."Once a song felt like it was working we'd start to add other elements — maybe some drums, or a choral arrangement. By the end of the day we'd have something with a rough orchestra on it from the JV2080, some beats, a bit of piano and my voice. I've got some extraordinary recordings where I've overdubbed myself onto cue sketches in the style of Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent. And so, when we had something that was sophisticated enough to test it in scripting, then we could get the actors in to roughly record their parts.

"It was important to get the actors to try out their cues early so we could check the keys against their voices. Sometimes we'd get well into the process and then have to start again because we found we'd put a part out of an actor's range. When you're making a record with seven or eight principal dramatic performances in it, finding a key that works for everyone is a nightmare. Sometimes you have to put quite challenging key changes in just for that reason."

After the preliminary choices as to what songs, styles and storylines would form the core of the film, the long process of recording and filming began in earnest. But firstly the film‑makers had to decide how to go about making a modern musical. Marius lists the options: "Musicals are not common these days but according to what textbook cases we had as a reference, there are three things you can do with vocal recording. You can pre‑record everything by deciding how the vocal and musical structure will be, produce the tracks and then pre‑record the vocals over the top of the tracks. Then you film the actors lip‑sync'ing, acting and dancing afterwards.

"The second method, which is fraught with difficulties, is to record all the vocals in the moment on‑set with some sort of minimal accompaniment, and then go back afterwards and orchestrate it. The problem with this is always the clanking of cameras and the noise of the accompaniment, which you don't want to bleed into the vocals. There are phenomenal radio mics now which you can fit into the hairline and they're as thin as a hair — they're not the quality of a Neumann U87 but they do give a very acceptable vocal sound — so we did use that technique. And then you have invisible earpieces, which are standard fare in on‑stage monitoring these days. We did a lot of that in the quieter and more sensitive moments where we didn't want the emotion of the moment to be driven by something that's playing on a tape.

"The third approach, which we also did a lot of, was lip‑sync to something very roughly and then go back and add the singing afterwards. We had to get the actors to watch very carefully to see what their lips were doing and then we painstakingly recorded their vocal on top of that, as you would with additional dialogue recording. From that beginning there are all sorts of things you can do in Pro Tools, Vocalign and Logic to massage the timing of your audio, so when something is a little soft against the lips but has the mood you want, you can just manipulate it until it works — and that was something we got very good at. The ability to do that, and other possibilities afforded by hard disk recording technology, gave us enormous freedom in terms of constructing the musical, but once we had made Baz aware of what Pro Tools and Logic could do in terms of editing, by God, he abused that freedom! The structure of all the major cues was pretty much plastic right to the end of the making of the film, so many big alterations were continuously needed because of script changes.

"So we decided to use all of those three vocal recording strategies because we didn't really want to commit to one method or another: they all seemed to have their merits and they certainly all had their problems. It was important to Baz and myself that as far as possible the dramatic performances were not constrained too much by the tyranny of the pre‑record, because that is something that has rendered a lot of modern attempts at the musical arguably very sterile. You tend to end up with an overall piece of work that feels episodic and musical moments that feel shoehorned in and don't really have any root in the naturalism of a dramatic performance. Moulin Rouge has generated very polarised responses, but whatever else is said, the one thing we've at least partially succeeded with is integrating a great deal of the performed musical material into the fabric of the film in a really dramatic way."

Battling It Out

Agreeing on the musical direction of the film and the various processes that were available for recording was difficult enough, but there was also the agenda of the other departments to consider. Marius describes how the problems really started. "Films are much more collaborative beasts than albums, and music isn't at the top of the tree. You create all this music then everyone else has something to say about it, but not necessarily from a musical point of view. All the other departments, from sound effects to dialogue to visual editing and choreography have their own requirements, and you have to learn a certain amount of humility and subject yourself to the fact that music is one of many gestures which are subsumed into the overall gesture of telling a story.

"It was an intense and, at times, tense process of musical collaboration between my music department and the visual editing department because visual editors are used to being kings of the post‑production process, and they're not used to composers telling them that they might need to think about cutting in a certain way because of the demands of the music. Normally when you're scoring a film you know your place and you figure out some way of making things work, whether it be sudden tempo changes or all sorts of other strangenesses and blurs — any number of tricks — but it becomes problematic when the music is really up‑front and is de facto the primary reason for the existence of the scene.

When the fabric of the piece is built upon upon the music there are rhythmical laws that have to be followed; for example, one... two... three... four is a bar. There might be something that happens visually between 'two' and 'four' that is ugly or is interfering with the visual editor's sense of the rhythm, so what he or she might want to do is not one... two... four, which would be kind of OK, but one... two... thr‑four. They'll be doing cuts in finished pieces of music that just remove three‑quarters of a beat in the middle of something where you really need the music to be consecutive because you're about to hit a big emotional point! They might say 'The camera lingers on Ewan's face for too long there, I can't have that,' and I (with Baz's support, thankfully) would say 'Sorry, but there are four beats in this bar, not even God can change that!' Of course, they can drop a snippet of film in that makes up the missing beat, and that is what we would try to suggest, but anyone who has put that much effort into a film has, emotionally, an enormous amount at stake in the process so you have to work your way up to some sort of compromise. I learnt a lot about what needs to happen when you're creating a cinematic musical and what the dangers are. A lot of that became really apparent in post‑production.

Three of Marius's monosynths: the physical modelling Korg Prophecy and Yamaha VL1 flank a classic OSCar.Three of Marius's monosynths: the physical modelling Korg Prophecy and Yamaha VL1 flank a classic OSCar."The relationship between music and choreography was a lot easier than in some other cases. Choreographer John O'Connell and I got on very well. I'd never been involved in a dance‑heavy medium like this before, and it was fascinating learning to work with the subtly different ways they count musically. John was very patient, sympathetic and responsive to the gestures that I wanted to make. But you do get the same sort of problems. For example, on one occasion we had a couple of bars in between verses during which the actors had to get across the room with a certain sequence of steps, but we discovered at quite a late stage that the gap was not long enough, so we had to put in another bar. Fortunately, having Pro Tools there, we could do that pretty instantaneously on set. But at least choreographers still count in multiples of one — there's an identical basis in mathematics to the directions you go in, so everything is solvable."

Interestingly, Marius regards the challenge of having to change arrangements to accommodate the demands of the picture and choreography as a positive influence: "That is one of the challenges that is creatively liberating in the end, in spite of the fact that it seems like an imposition at first. Having to remove or add a couple of beats can so often be turned into a virtue. What's often most boring about contemporary songwriting is the way that everything is in bars of four and blocks of eight, which is arguably driven by the way the software is designed. Good creative songwriters will always be searching for ways to jettison a beat in a bar or add another couple of beats before releasing the chorus, for example."

While the demands of the filming process forced the chopping and changing of the songs, Marius was in contact with London‑based composer Chris Elliott, who had the job of arranging many of the orchestral parts. "We were emailing back and forth," explains Marius. "This was before the Rocket Networks thing really happened, otherwise I'm sure we'd have been using that. But for a long time I sent him MP3s of the backing tracks and pencil sketches on score paper suggesting where I wanted to go, and he'd send MIDI files back to me which I printed out from Emagic Logic and fed into my JV2080 and S6000s to listen to what he'd done. We built up the orchestrations that way until he came out to Sidney. Alexis Smith was working over here in the UK as my programmer while I was in Sidney, and he would sending over grooves and ideas for drum beats and sound design. By the time we got to the shoot, we had everything developed up to a stage where the orchestrations were coming in a relatively realistic manner out of the JV2080, our rhythm tracks were pretty realised and our vocals were recorded to a stage where they were ready for lip‑sync."

Let The Show Begin

When it was time to begin filming, the studio at Baz Luhrmann's house was relocated to the 20th Century Fox film studios to join its twin. On site, the studios were linked up with those of the music editing, sound and special‑effects departments. "At one point we had five systems all based around heavily packed G3s, and later G4s, with hundreds of Gigabytes of storage, all ethernetted together because they all needed to be very heavily integrated," explains Marius. "Any information on any of those systems was instantly accessible from any other. I think it was probably one of the biggest Pro Tools networks that's ever been put together. We were pushing the envelope of how many interfaces and expansion chassis you could get going at the same time. We couldn't find anyone to ask for advice, put it that way!"

The final part of the production of the songs was to turn them into finished tracks which could be included on the soundtrack album. As with many other aspects of Moulin Rouge, the process wasn't entirely straightforward. Marius: "We wanted to collaborate with as many people as possible so that it would feel as stylistically eclectic as the varied choice of music suggests it should. For example, David Bowie sings 'Nature Boy' on the record, whereas that's a John Leguizamo cue on the film.

"In essence it's a cast album made up significantly from the cues in the film. If they're different it's because there were rhythmical or structural changes that made sense on the screen but felt awkward on CD. Then there are things like the 'Lady Marmalade' track, which features in the film, but is part of a much more complicated cue in the film and has been simplified to make it more of a listening experience. But by and large the soundtrack album is what it should be, a souvenir of the movie experience."

Back To Björk

Shortly after completing Moulin Rouge Marius was asked by Björk to help her finish her latest album, Vespertine. This was only the latest step in a working relationship which began when Marius was working on some remixes for the last Sugarcubes record. "Back then, she was really the first artist who I connected with who provided a home for some of the odder and more outlandish aspects of what I do in terms of programming and sound design," admits Marius. "She's very au fait with contemporary avant garde music and the more pioneering electronic stuff. She's always been very comfortable and enthusiastic about both, and it's also a passion I share. To find someone who is making pop records but was prepared to accommodate such influences was very exciting for me, and I think it was great for her to find someone who was capable of turning out professional‑sounding records and understood those languages. In many respects Vespertine pushed some of those elements even further because of the involvement of people like Matmos, Matthew Herbert, Thomas Knak and Zeena Parkins, who are all phenomenal musicians and composers in their own right."

MUSICAL DIFFERENCESIf Marius had been hoping that Vespertine would offer some light relief after the all‑consuming Moulin Rouge, he would have been disappointed. The recordings were almost complete but Björk had spent a long time gathering material from many different musicians based in many countries and it all needed to be pulled together.

"Björk collaborated with numerous people on just about every continent. For example, the harpist Zeena Parkins was from New York, Matmos are based in San Francisco, Thomas Knak in Denmark, Bogdan Roszinski in Toronto, and Matthew Herbert and Guy Sigsworth are based in London, so Björk was travelling around with Jake Davies who was archiving and keeping the Pro Tools sessions organised. By the time I came to Vespertine Jake had many hard disks full of people's contributions. All the parts needed a lot of sorting out and comping, and they all needed to be kind of introduced to each other. Most of what I did was to do with this kind of organisation and maybe add little bits here and there where I thought they were needed. Then there were a few new tracks such as 'Pagan Poetry' and 'Palm Stroke', which we more or less started from scratch."

Marius' task of collating and arranging the Vespertine sessions was made particularly difficult by the different formats of the recordings. "Any given song might have been spread across three or four Pro Tools recordings, some of which came from the early sessions in Spain when it was just Björk and Jake's programming, a scratch vocal and maybe something from Guy if he was passing through. Harp sessions would have been recorded later in New York, in some cases as an overdub on top of a slave mixdown of that Spanish stuff. Then she would have posted it off to Matmos and asked them to add their stuff. Matmos are happy to work with a stereo track, so Jake would have sent an MP3 stereo backing track, Matmos would have worked their stuff on top of it and sent it back as consecutive DAT streams, with a sync pulse on the front of each track. Occasionally there would also be some additional programming Björk had done on her Powerbook. I took this weird collection of sessions and assembled them into one big Logic session and then put it together track by track.

"It was useful that I came in late because I could see the wood for the trees and I didn't have an overly emotional attachment to any particular overdub. There were sacrifices that had to be made but I had to be very sympathetic to everyone's contributions because these are all brilliant musicians and everything they do they do for a reason. Before attempting to mix and match it all together I examined each individual contribution and made sure I was being sensitive to what they were trying to do."

Boxing Clever

One of the most distinctive instruments used on Vespertine is a music box. The parts were first scored by Björk in Sibelius before being sent to New Jersey where they were transcribed and made into music box cylinders. When the finished cylinders were returned it was just a matter of feeding the tube into the custom‑built music box for it to play, but the method was not without its drawbacks. "A music box is not a metronomic device, because the punched holes are not as accurate as a quantised MIDI track," explains Marius. "Nor do its variations have any meaningful feeling, it's just the way it comes. Also as the spring winds down it slows, so there is no locked tempo.

"Part of me wanted to fill an S6000 with music box samples in classic multisampling fashion. Unquestionably that would have made the process much easier, but I'm glad we didn't do that. I'm sure we would have sacrificed something sonically because of all the cross‑resonances involved. And somehow the pain we went through to get all that stuff to work was part of the necessary process. Consequently we had Matmos' very precise, quantised rhythms together with these rather wayward music box parts that had to be cut and put into time.

"Another complication was Zeena's playing. She's one of the great harpists of the world and when she plays around the edges of a mathematical timing grid, there's always a reason for it so you record it into Pro Tools and respect it, leave it alone. On the other hand, when I record myself playing acoustic guitar on top of a tune and I just want it to fit in, I will strum through, get the chords down and then I'll go in with the Pro Tools scissors and cut it into time. I will effectively quantise the audio by moving the bits that are drifting and I do that a lot with instrumental overdubs where I want something to do the job but I don't want it complicating the timing picture too much. But when you've got a harp performance by Zeena and you're trying to add programmed material to it you have to go the other way round. In that situation I would move the MIDI devices' parts around moment by moment until they are no longer violating the timing of the harp performance. It's not a pleasant job, it's very skilled and very painstaking but it's part of what I do.

The Apple Powerbook (left), increasingly important to Marius de Vries' work, sits atop his Yamaha SY77 workstation: also visible are his Clavia Nord Rack and Roland JP8080 virtual analogue synths.The Apple Powerbook (left), increasingly important to Marius de Vries' work, sits atop his Yamaha SY77 workstation: also visible are his Clavia Nord Rack and Roland JP8080 virtual analogue synths.

"There were moments on Vespertine where Zeena had played on top of something we'd done and I felt we just needed to pull her into time there because it had to work with the music box and it was more of an overdub. But on the pieces that started off as just her playing and Björk singing, that was the heart of the piece, and I didn't mess with that. You have to somehow find some middle ground between all those wonderful influences that doesn't compromise any one of them."

Following the editing and organisation process, all the tracks were mixed by Mark 'Spike' Stent. "Spike is phenomenally adept at coping with whatever you throw at him," enthuses Marius. "He's got this amazing setup down in London with a 96‑track Pro Tools system sitting next to a 48‑track Logic system, and he has a team there who really know how to use that stuff, it's astonishing what he can pull together from the most chaotic situations. We did present Spike with a lot of very evolved and designed sounds but he added to them significantly as well. Spike is very good at processing sounds and making them better, sometimes completely transforming them. But we did get this stuff pretty organised for him because we had to work fast. We mixed the bulk of this album in less than two weeks, sometimes three tracks a day. We had two rooms going at once. I was upstairs in one studio working with Matmos or sometimes on my own preparing the multitracks for the next day while Spike was downstairs mixing. Björk was downstairs keeping her eye on the overall sound of the mix. It was like a production line."

Back To The Future

After spending much of the last two years on Moulin Rouge Marius is determined to spend the immediate future getting back into making records, and already has several projects under his belt: "After Vespertine I recorded some tracks for an album with Perry Farrell and I have been doing some work with ex‑Sneaker Pimps singer Kelli Ali who has a really strong debut album on the way. Later in the year I'll be hopefully working with Emiliana Torrini who is another Icelandic star in the making. I've been writing for Grace Jones, working with the Appleton sisters, and then I'm doing some songs with a new singer on Epic called Naomi Striemer. I'm spreading myself a little bit thin but I just wanted to get back in to making as many records as possible. Hopefully I'll have all of that finished by the beginning of 2002 and then it's back into the movies for a few months. I'm doing another musical which I can't name now but it will be set and shot in Rio during carnival time, so I'm beginning to immerse myself in Brazilian music and '70s tropicana stuff!"

It seems fairly clear from the ever‑growing list of artists lining up to work with Marius De Vries that he has qualities and skills which are both desirable and hard to find. He thinks for a second before trying to sum up why it is that artists like Björk, Neil Finn and Madonna want to use him again and again on their records. "I am a good organiser. I'm good at focus, I'm good at pulling projects together, I'm good at finishing, and I'm also good at responding to the desires and aesthetics of the people that I work with. I wouldn't approach a Madonna record in the same way as I'd approach a Björk record, for example, because I know both of those personalities and know that they have different priorities and sensibilities. There are things that would turn one off that would turn the other on. Being sympathetic to the person I'm working with is an important part of what I do. You can't go into a room and just pull the same trick every time."

Sound Selection

Two highly desirable analogue synths, the ARP 2600 and Oberheim Matrix 12.Two highly desirable analogue synths, the ARP 2600 and Oberheim Matrix 12.One of the reasons artists like Madonna and U2 call upon Marius to work on their records is to take advantage of his considerable sound‑design and programming skills. Marius explains how he builds a sound library.

"Selecting sounds is something that is very instinctive. I've been getting into the Waldorf Wave again recently. I've borrowed Björk's before and I've been using it again since we made Vespertine and I've been getting into designing some more sounds on that. I do still do a lot of pure sound‑design sessions where I'll put a day aside and work for an hour or two on the ARP 2600 or on the VCS3 with the tape running continuously.

"The EMS VCS3 — one of Marius de Vries' favourite sound‑design tools.The EMS VCS3 — one of Marius de Vries' favourite sound‑design tools.More frequently I'll be working with Supercollider or Absynth or Reaktor or one of my more unusual Powerbook‑based processing tools. With the help of Alexis, my programmer, I'll spend a couple of days editing through the audio, chopping it up making it into meaningful fragments. Those are turned into Sound Designer II files, loaded into the Macintosh and become part of my sound library. I don't have a very good memory for very many things in life but I do for sounds. I'll often be working on a song and have a sensation that I'll need something buzzy and I'll think about a Sound Designer session from months ago and I'll pull it out, manipulate it and try to make it fit.

"It's important to me to travel with a library of noises that I've created or gathered for myself. It's part of what my sound is about — I'm not passionately against using presets, but most of the signature sounds that I use are home‑made."

The Björk Language

MUSICAL DIFFERENCESMarius describes the concept behind Vespertine and how Björk communicated her ideas. "The working title for a long time was Domestica. It was all to do with Björk wanting to make a record as a reaction to the wanderings and the pain she experienced making Dancer In The Dark, and how much that had taken out of her, to make a record about the place you come back to after you've wandered. The chamber‑music dimensions and intimacy of Vespertine are all very much driven by that overriding aesthetic of being homely and comfortable.

"Björk describes what she wants in terms of sounds in a language that to an observer might appear surreal or even nonsensical. But Björk and I have had a connection for a long time, and the people she chooses to work with are often selected with an eye on this. I remember from our very early sessions how she described a sound by saying 'You know when you get a tube of toothpaste and you squeeze it and you watch the toothpaste coming out the end of the tube? You need to have it sounding more like that!', and on another occasion she said 'Hold a pineapple in your hand and look at the fluffy bit at the top, well it needs to sound more like that!' They tend to be very poetic descriptions of what she wants to hear, and you either get it or you don't."

Marius' Studio

Marius de Vries now does most of his programming work in his own room at London's Strongroom studios. The large rack at left contains, from top, Alesis DM Pro drum module, Korg O1R/W sound module, Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter synth with MPG80 programmer, Studio Electronics MIDIMoog synth, two Akai S3200 samplers, Emu Vintage Keys and Morpheus sound modules, Kurzweil K2000R sound module, Roland MKS50 and JV1080 sound modules.Marius de Vries now does most of his programming work in his own room at London's Strongroom studios. The large rack at left contains, from top, Alesis DM Pro drum module, Korg O1R/W sound module, Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter synth with MPG80 programmer, Studio Electronics MIDIMoog synth, two Akai S3200 samplers, Emu Vintage Keys and Morpheus sound modules, Kurzweil K2000R sound module, Roland MKS50 and JV1080 sound modules.

Some of Marius de Vries' outboard gear. From top: Digitech Vocalist II effects, Yamaha SPX900 multi‑effects, Alesis Quadraverb GT and Quadraverb multi‑effects, Mutronics Mutator compressor, Avalon input channel, Yamaha REV7 multi‑effects, Alesis 3630 compressor and Tascam DA30 DAT recorder.Some of Marius de Vries' outboard gear. From top: Digitech Vocalist II effects, Yamaha SPX900 multi‑effects, Alesis Quadraverb GT and Quadraverb multi‑effects, Mutronics Mutator compressor, Avalon input channel, Yamaha REV7 multi‑effects, Alesis 3630 compressor and Tascam DA30 DAT recorder."My system has hardly changed since I last spoke to SOS," says Marius de Vries. "I have a few new things like the Sherman Quad Filterbank, Roland JP8080 synth, Korg Prophecy, and an Alesis DM Pro drum module. I've added the Akai S6000s, but I just use those as huge S3200s and fill them full of memory and do most of the programming on the S3200s because that's what I'm fastest at. I still use the Mac running Logic, I still use my bread‑and‑butter sounds from the JV2080 and do lots of programming on the Nord. The big revolution for me has happened in Powerbook and soft‑synth land, because the processors on portable computers are now fast enough to meaningfully run Logic with lots of audio and five or six soft synths all at the same time. I have something that is becoming more and more of a central workstation for what I do. Now I can carry my studio around in my backpack, I can take it on the plane, and I can walk into a studio, flip the lid and off I go. I'm not tied to a place any more.

"Obviously I still have my Pro Tools rig and I need those interfaces to speak to the bigger studios and, at times, it is nice to sit in front of my big G4‑based system and revel in the luxury of the wide screen, but the attraction with the Powerbook is that I can write and produce meaningful music almost anywhere. I'm still very fond of going back to the VCS3 and ARP and doing stuff, but I'm spending more and more time in the Powerbook playing with soft synths and processors and using those to generate the sounds, even if I then sample them and turn them into Akai multisamples.

"On Vespertine we were doing a lot of the sound design with a text‑based synthesizer called Supercollider. It's a programming language, really, and it's horrendous and impenetrable once you first get it but I've cracked it enough to do some basic sound design. There is something about typing commands in and hearing the noises come out which is very different from tweaking knobs and it really does take you in surprising directions. It's a way of disrupting the normal circuitry between you and the sound‑making machinery.

"Absynth is a gorgeous new soft synth which has been bought up by Native Instruments. Its great strength is its wackiness. It has these almost infinite‑stage envelopes that let you build polyrhythms into the sounds. You can clock every single slope with great precision, so you have a really complex curve that is completely controllable and then each individual envelope, whether it's driving a filter or the amplitude of the oscillator, or the DDL time, can cycle at any particular point. When you get a few of these envelopes and start applying them it's fantastic what you can do rhythmically."