SODASOUND Studios – Julien Maurel [Engineer/Studio Owner]

My interviews with recording studios in Paris continues with me talking to Julien Maurelthe founder and chief engineer of SODASOUND Studios. Located in Paris, and equipped with a 32-channel API 1608 as it’s centerpiece, the studio has been serving everything from DJs and electronic musicians to rappers, film projects and corporate clients for almost a decade. I visited the studio to chat with Julien about the studio, their past work and his music philosophy.

Hi Julien. Thanks for sitting down to talk to me about your studio. Can you tell me how you founded SODASOUND?

I come from Marseilles, where I created my first studio in 2004. When I moved to Paris in 2006, I chose to study audio engineering and created my second studio in Aubervilliers called SODASTUDIO. So I worked there with one of my classmates, Sébastien Petit. We later renamed it “SODASOUND” when we co-founded a company of the same name in 2011.

And what background did you have in audio before founding the studio?

It was a family passion. I have two uncles who are self-taught drummers and guitarists, and at seventeen I was playing guitar with my friends at school. During that time, one of them said, “I have a studio at home where we can rehearse. Let’s use that “. So after the experience of playing in a band, I decided to pursue a life in music. I bought my first pieces of gear in 2004, which was a computer with Cubase SX 2, an 8 x 8 M-Audio interface, and three SM57s to record my amp, vocals and snare drum.

You said SODASTUDIO became SODASOUND when you guys formed a company around it. What led to that?

The company came about because we got hired for some contraction work. We were still in music school, and I was working a lot with Sébastien on homework and music projects. We were approached by the father of one of our schoolmates about a job for the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES). He asked us to do the sound design for the videos he’d made for them. That was a big contract for us. When it was done, he asked us to invoice him, which is why we created SODASOUND, just so we could get paid.

And how did SODASOUND expand from a post-production company to include a studio, label, event management and branding services?

The label was an intuitive move for us because Sébastien and his brother, Benjamin, were already DJing in clubs and bars in Paris, and we had always wanted to distribute our own music. The recording studio was also intuitive because our early customers were musicians. Event management started off with parties that we threw in Paris as a way to promote our DJ friends like Tata From Cosmos and Julien Villa, who we went to school with.

And how is the studio work divided up between yourself and Sébastien?

Because of his music education, Sébastien is the Music Director. He has classical training in music theory, as opposed to me being self-taught. So I handle logistics, engineering, mixing and mastering. Benjamin is our Graphic Designer. He also works as the Art Director for Konbini, a popular French media channel, and has made all the visuals for SODASOUND, like our logo and videos.

I see some other people walking around the studio though. Who are the rest of your team members at SODASOUND?

We currently have four permanent staff members: myself, Sébastien , Olivier, who is the Communication Manager and Giorgio, who is another engineer that has been with us for about two years. Benjamin’s role with SODASOUND isn’t full-time though. Also working part-time with us are a web developer, another freelance engineer called Jason, and our interns.

(Above left: Julien, Above right: Sébastien)

What has it been like running a studio in Paris for the past eight years, when big studios are closing down and artists seem to prefer working at home?

I think we set up SODASOUND at the most crucial point of the digital transition. It was 2011 and many big studios were still around, like Studio Grand Armée, Studios Ferber, Studio Davout, and Studio Plus XXX. Many of those have either closed or downsized now. But back when they were still here, we had to find a way to stand out. Our solution was to use social media to help our growth. So we had a little studio, but a nice Facebook page with a good online presentation, which many of the other studios didn’t have at that time. So from the outside, we may have looked impressive, and a lot of young customers came to us because of that. Also, because of our events and DJ friends, we particularly got clients who wanted mastering services. So we became good at that, and people came to respect us for it.

But how did you manage financially if you still had to compete with the big studios? Those places charge a lot to cover their expenses, so how were you able to earn money when you couldn’t charge the same rates as them?

We chose to apply a different policy, where we offer our clients good customer service during their sessions, but also include post-session services. So we would stay in touch with them even after the recording or mixing was done in case they needed anything else. Bigger studios didn’t do that; they knew that the major labels would send them clients, and once the session was over, the studio would just wait for the next label booking. Nowadays, the artist is a bedroom producer who makes music in his spare time, and when he goes to a commercial studio, he wants a worthwhile session and a generous post-session service. I think you have to provide that in order to do well as a studio in Paris. Even the big artists are self-producing their music these days, so regardless of who the client is, you have to offer good post-session services. Because we did that, we were able to compete with bigger studios.

And what about the smaller studios that are the same size as you? Is there a lot of competition from them?

From 2011 – 2016, yes there was. But nowadays, because of our résumé and equipment, we face less competition. We might be the only studio of our size with this kind of analog gear available. We have a lot of the gear most customers want, without them having to pay the price that bigger studios command. Our competition is still out there, but it’s less harsh than before because of how we’ve built up the studio.

So what’s the biggest challenge for you guys right now, since it’s not competition?

To get a bigger studio (laughs). You can buy all the gear you want, but the studio space is still limited. So we’re planning to move to a bigger space next year. However, we won’t be changing our rates, because we’d like to continue to be accessible to all our clients.

Is that a good business model though? Paying more overhead whilst keeping your rates the same?

I think it’s the necessary business model, which all companies will have to consider at some point. Things aren’t like they used to be in the 2000s, where you needed lots of money to afford luxury items. The average person today can be seen wearing Gucci or Prada shoes that they bought online or on sale; ten years ago that was very uncommon because those were exclusive brands that were sold in expensive stores. So I think the new business model is about making good products and services that are accessible to most people. If a studio doesn’t want to do that, I don’t think they can make it in France. It’s not like the US or the UK, where they have decades of studio culture that artists respect and will pay high rates for.

Do you only work with clients in France, or do you have international clientele as well?

We have some clients in Belgium, the UK and the US, who are mainly electronic musicians. They contacted us through our website after seeing the gear we had and the prices we charge. But they represent about 10% of our total customers, most of whom come from France.

Your website says that you offer branding services to your clients. Can you give me some examples of that kind of work?

Sure. Two years ago, the French Football Federation reached out to us via their advertising agency to oversee the music to be played at their venues, such as stadiums and the presidential suites. So we were tasked with helping them manage their brand through music by making playlists and booking DJs to play at their events.

We’ve also done work for The French Open, Veuve Clicquot and Sosh, by composing and arranging music for them, as well as supervising their music needs. We recently had a job for Montpellier Airport, were we made edits of music for them to use in their airports and on their radio stations.

And what about the event management side of SODASOUND? Is that still active?

We used to throw events called SODASOUND PARTY, but we don’t do them anymore because we’re so busy in the studio nowdays. But from 2012 – 2016, we threw a lot of parties at different clubs in Paris by booking DJs, either through their agents or management companies.

The event management side of SODASOUND has now been merged with the branding part, hence our work with companies like the French Football Federation or The French Open. For example, we’re working in Champs-Élysées next week with Japan Tobacco on their cocktail event, which will be attended by many of their customers. That’s an example of both a branding and event gig, which we’ll be providing DJs and music for.

And what about the SODASOUND label? Are you still releasing music on that?

The label has been on a two-year hiatus because one of our electronic music artists has left, and his project was put on ice indefinitely. So we moved on to a pop music project, which is more challenging to produce than electronic music. We’ve had to record drums, guitars, keys and vocals, as well as mix the music and shoot the video for it. It’ll be out this spring, and we intend to release an EP in the fall, and perhaps an album after that. Also, Sébastien and Benjamin are making an electronic music EP under the name Marius & Cesar. So we’re looking forward to releasing more stuff on our label soon.

I don’t see any dedicated live room in this studio, so how did you record drums and guitars for the upcoming pop project?

We do have a live room. Our post-production space is like the laboratory where we record everything. We have all the instruments we need here, like amps, keyboards, a piano, and different drum kits; we just have to set them up when we need them. Sure, we don’t have a big live room with a five-meter high ceiling, but all the equipment you need to make well-produced music is here.

One more question about the label: what kind of infrastructure do you have to market and sell the music that you release?

We’ve been with our current digital distributor, FineTunes, for three years now; they’re now a part of Sony. We also have our old event and radio contacts from when we used to throw parties and promote DJs, so we can reach out to them as well if we need to. We also have a press agent that we work with.

How does your studio workload look nowadays? Do you still get post-production work?

Most of our bookings are for recording and mixing, but we still get post-production gigs, although that tends to be music-related as well. Last year, for example, we mixed and mastered a feature film in 5.1, but were also asked to handle all the music aspects of it.

For our next studio, we’re going to create a bigger mixing room with a 7.1 JBL system and M2 monitors, which are some of the best audio-visual speakers available, which we’ll pair with our Avid C24 console.

Cool. I see on your website that you also do voice-over work. Tell me about that.

We recently got a voice-over contract from an American sports company. They asked us to dub their sports videos for various European markets. So we partnered with another company who handle the translation of the script into German, Italian, Russian, Spanish and French, whilst we do the recording.

Tell me about the E-Studio services you offer, where artists can get their tracks mixed and mastered remotely?

We launched the E-Studio when those kinds of services became popular a few years ago, but we later realized that it didn’t fit our philosophy. We still offer remote mixing and mastering if our clients request it, but we prefer to have the clients in the studio with us. Mixing can become a complex process that involves a lot of choices, so it’s best that our clients can hear what we’re doing and share their opinions. But if they really can’t be present, we’ll e-mix or master for them.

What kinds of rates do you charge at SODASOUND?

Our basic rate is €50/hour for mixing, before taxes, and mastering is €55/track. Recording is €50/hour. For a full day of recording it’s €400.

For post-production, we charge €75/hour if it’s for a regular mix, and a little more for mixing in 5.1. But for audiovisual projects, clients usually approach us with weeks worth of work, so we’re able to offer them package deals that make the price more attractive.

For the gear we have, we’re definitely one of the cheapest studios in Paris.

Let’s talk about some of the work SODASOUND has done. I’ll run through some of your notable clients, and you can tell me about the work you did for them.

Red Bull: We recorded Red Bull Music Academy from 2014-2017. We also recorded Villette Sonique for them, which is a kind of festival. We’ve also mastered some content for Red Bull Radio.

Canal Street: They rented a boat on the Seine for their end-of-year event, and we hired DJs and gear to make the party happen.

Canal Plus: They had a web series called “Comité d’Entreprise”, which consisted of artists playing live in a rehearsal room, and we handled the recordings of that.

Pitchfork: We recorded live shows and DJ sets for Pitchfork Festival in 2016, though we only did one or two stages for different promoters.

Vice: Our label artists did interviews and cross-promotion with them before the channel really blew up. This was back when we were throwing parties in Paris. We also recorded interviews for Vice, did mastering jobs for the artists they worked with and helped one another to book events.

Sony: We did mastering for some of their artists, and recorded some of their signed rappers. Believe it or not, they booked us mainly because we had the microphone the wanted. They called us up and were like, “Hey guys. Do you have a Sony C-800G. You do? Okay, then we’d like to book some sessions “. It’s a famous mic for rappers, and was used people by like Dr Dre.

Based on your work with Sony, you guys have a major label affiliation that can bring you more work in the future, right?

Every year Sébastien and I have said, “This is the year for us to go the majors, show them our résumé and suggest they book more of their artists at SODASOUND “. But we keep getting more and more studio bookings from our indie clients, so we never have the time (laughs). But hopefully, we’ll do it next year after we move into out new studios.

I saw SODASOUND’s social media posts about the new gear that you’ve acquired, like the EAR 660 and the Lexicon Model 200. How much new gear do you tend to get on a regular basis?

We buy new gear every chance we get because it’s fun to spend all of our hard-earned money. We also seem to enjoy eating nothing but rice and noodles (laughs). No, I’m just kidding. Not everyone can have high-end gear at home, so we decided to buy units that are classic like the EAR 660, the Wurlitzer, the LA2A, the Lexicon Model 200 and the 1176. If it’s not a classic unit, we don’t buy it. It’s an expensive habit, but you can’t get the sound of classic gear with plugins, so you have to pick the best of both worlds and manage that balance.

You don’t think the Universal Audio plugins are perfect emulations then?

No, they’re not the same thing as the analog units. We haven’t bought UAD plugins yet, because we didn’t haven’t the opportunity yet; we prefer to get all their plugin bundles or nothing at all (laughs). However, I have met their European representative. He came to the studio once and asked if we wanted to try out their plugins, but I told him I was searching for the LA2A instead. He was like, “Sorry, but those aren’t available in Europe anymore“, which isn’t what I wanted to hear (laughs). So I bought two of them from eBay instead. But we’re saving money for UAD plugins in the future.

Tell me about your console: the API 1608. Out of all the other options, why did you decide to purchase that one?

In 2016, we felt like it was time to buy a proper console for our studio. Prior to that, we had been dreaming of getting an SSL 4048, but when it finally came time to make a decision, our feelings had changed. We felt that the SSL sound was something of the past; the sound of the 2000s. Also, an SSL requires a lot of maintenance, and you need a separate room for the cooling units and power supplies, which we don’t have here. So getting an SSL would have created complications. We also don’t have a permanent technical supervisor. If you want an SSL or even a Neve VR, you need an on-call engineer that can manage the electronic components on a daily basis. So we had to reconsider our options and settled on an API console instead.

Did you feel like the API was a compromise?

In the beginning we might have felt that way, but when we finally saw the 1608, it struck us as very well-designed, and the feelings about having compromised started to disappear. But API consoles are difficult to obtain in Europe. We looked at the different consoles in France and hardly found any commercial studios that had one. Sure, you can go to Gang Studios, where they have an API 3288, but it’s an expensive place to book. It’s hard to work there if you’re not Daft Punk or something. Most of the small commercial studios that used to have APIs are closed now, so we’re one of the only ones left.

We found the API 1608 to be magic once we started working with it. It sounds extremely clear, with an up-front sound, though not aggressive. But it was a risk for us, because we never thought about engineering or mixing on an API whilst we were at school. We did have the 2500 compressor, but that’s not a desk. Ultimately though, the desk turned out to be better than we thought.

How did you manage to purchase the console if it’s difficult to obtain in Europe?

We just had to wait. API only have one distributor for Europe, so when you order a console, it takes time; it’s like ordering a Ferrari. It takes anything from weeks to months for it to be manufactured and shipped across the Atlantic.

You said the sound of an SSL console is something of the 2000s. But Motorbass Studios has an SSL, and Philippe Zdar seems to have done okay with that, even in the 2010s. Do you think his sound is past?

No, but that’s because Philippe Zdar is a modern producer who was able adapt to the changing sound of today.

SSL consoles compress and EQ the mid-range frequencies in a particular way. This is what created a sound that people like Zdar and Dr Dre are famous for. But an SSL is what I like to call “16:9-sounding”. Here’s what I mean; there are three dimensions in audio: the width (stereo image), the depth (front-to-back perception) and the spacial height. Most classic records that were mixed on an SSL console tend to have limited height because in order to achieve the trademark SSL sound, you have to drive the console hard, and the resulting compression will reduce the height. There are mixers who have a lot of bass and width in their mixes. But in order fit all of that into the final mix, they have to cram in lots of compression and EQ, at the cost of height. So the final product feels like it has a 16:9 aspect ratio; very wide but not that high.

SSL compression is sometimes discernible on a record, and when it becomes possible to discern the sound of the equipment used to make a record, instead of just hearing the music, I think that sound is past.

But we clearly hear the sound of SSL compression on Dr Dre’s records, and people still love his stuff.

I love it too! But I prefer listening to Dre on my hi-fi system, rather than my studio monitors, where his music can sound a bit too compressed.

In Dr Dre records, the arrangement is very sparse. It’s not like a Zdar or a Phoenix record where you have four guitars, a bass, three synths, sampled drums, acoustic drums and multiple vocal tracks. That’s why Dre’s records have so much punch and bass, thanks to how he drives the SSL, and because he only uses a few sounds, whilst Zdar’s SSL sound is more squashed because of how dense his arrangements are.

On hi-fi monitors, it’s harder to discern the console used on a record, but on studio monitoring it’s much easier, and I can hear how the SSL console compresses. The API is less noticeable. SSL desks obviously have a more flexible workflow and offer more routing options than an API, but the API 1608 still has a good sound.

But you said earlier that the API 1608  has an up-front sound. Don’t you have to use compression to achieve that? That’s what the SSL is doing.

You don’t necessarily need compression to get an up-front sound with the API. The SSL sounds good when you drive it hard, whilst API consoles sound good in other positions. You can drive them hard and still get a pleasing sound, but you don’t have to. Even if you run an API at unity gain, it still sounds detailed and up-front. But if you want an API to sound harsh like an SSL, you need outboard gear to compress the low-end and mids like the SSL does, and tight EQs to add drive. But the up-front character comes from the desk itself.

Let’s talk about the other gear you have. I’ll run through some categories, and you can tell me what SODASOUND has available.

Compressors:

We have the EAR 660, which is fantastic. I was asking Sébastien yesterday, “How did you ever manage without it? “. It’s magic on the master.

We have two LA2As, and two silver-faced 1176s. We also have two silver-faced Manley VARI MU compressors with the T-bar. That was the first classic compressor we bought on eBay. We learned about analog compression by using that, which is very different from using a VCA compressor. It’s an all-purpose compressor that we use when we can’t think of anything else.

We also have two Tube Tech SMC2Bs. It’s our favorite compressor for vocals when nothing else works, because it’s the only one that adequately compresses the mid-range.

We also have the Focusrite Red. It works wonders on 808s and kick drums….and nothing else (laughs).

We have the Hand Crafted Lab’s VARIS compressor. They’re a Ukrainian manufacturer, and the machine is a bit bizarre. I don’t know how all the knobs work, but when you send a signal into it, it works.

We also have two Urei 1178, two Valley People Dynamites, two Summit Audio TLA 50s, and some other things.

EQ: 

We have the API 550As and 550Bs, as well as eight black and brown SSL EQs in X-Rack format. We also have a GML 8200, but it took us a while to start using it because we were so accustomed to our older EQs. When we finally ran vocals and bass through the GML, we loved it; it’s very precise. SSL EQs, are known to sound boomy if you overuse them, but with the GML you can add six to eight dB in the bass or mid-range and it still sounds natural. So it’s great not only for vocals, but for effects tracks too. If I have a reverb track that’s set up to return on the console, and it sounds muddy, the GML is good for removing that and even bringing out the high end.

We’re eventually going to buy some Pultecs, though I don’t know if I want the vintage ones or the reissues. But I think modern reissues are well-made.

What are your thoughts on using console EQs versus outboard EQs?

They don’t have the same application. The APIs sound good, but you can only adjust the frequencies in 2 dB increments; not all sounds need 2 dB boosts or cuts. Also, API EQs have a common feature: they all sound musical and can’t be used to trash anything. You could boost all your API EQs to the max and still get a clean sound. So it’s hard to make mix decisions using only API gear. Let’s say you run vocals through your 550As, and push the 15 Khz – 20 Khz shelf as hard as you can. You’d think, “Wow, now the vocal sounds amazing“. But you’re going to destroy your mix by doing that to all your sounds. So at some point you have to get out of the API world and use other EQs that make more sense for each sound. The SSL EQs don’t have the API quality: when you turn a knob on an SSL, it’s for a particular purpose. You might like what they do on bass, but not on the mids. So I try to use different EQs for different purposes.

It’s interesting that you’re describing the API console as being “clean-sounding”. I always hear people say that APIs are good for recording drums because the pre-amps make them sound “crunchy”. Does that mean the pre-amps are “crunchy” but the EQs are “musical”? It feels like a contradiction.

Well, putting aside the terms people use, I think people like API consoles because of how favorable they are to recording transient sounds, like drums. The way a console interacts with transients is what determines how upfront the recording is. Favorable transient-response is a part of the API sound, and the 2520 Opamps that are in every channel-strip on the console are a reason for that. But the transient response doesn’t mean the console isn’t musical. Like I said before, if you try to destroy a sound by driving it hard on an API, you won’t get the same trashed sound that you get on an SSL.

Synths:

We have the ARP Odyssey MKI, the Juno 106, the Roland SH-101, the Yamaha CS-15, the Korg MS-10, the Prophet ’08, and a Roland TB-303. We also have a Jomox Xbase 999 drum machine, which is like a hybrid of an 808 and 909. Even though they’re not synths, I can mention that we have a Wurlitzer and the Rhode MKII as well.

We’d like to get a few more synths, but we have to wait with that. We might use the Xbase three times a month, whilst microphones get used everyday, so it makes more sense to built a good mic collection right now, rather than a synth collection.

Microphones:

We have a reissue of the Telefunken U47which is our favorite mic. I mentioned the Sony C-800G, which is the best purchase we’ve made, due to how many labels and rappers like it. We have two AEA R44s, which are reissues of the RCA 44, used by artists like Frank Sinatra. It’s a big ribbon mic with a dark sound and natural compression. We also have dynamic mics like the Sennheiser MD421, Beyerdynamic M201, Sennheiser E906 and others. We have a pair of AKG C214, the SE Electronics SE1A, the Neumann TLM170, the Neumann KM184 as well.

We just bought the Telefunken ELA-M 261, which is like a cross between the C-800 and U47. It gives you depth, whilst still being facial. The U47 gives you depth, but it picks up a lot of low-end that diminishes its up-front qualities. So the ELA-M is a good blend of the two, and it’s a good mic for female vocals, which the U47 isn’t always good for, in my opinion.

Speakers:

We mainly use Focal SM9 speakers. I think they sound dynamic, yet not brutal. We tried others like ADAMs, Neumanns and ATCs, but in the end we settled on the Focals. We initially bought a pair for the post-production room and were using ADAMS in the main room. But one day I decided to do a mix on the Focals, and when I listened to the mix at home, I realized it sounded better than what I usually did on the ADAMs. So we switched the ADAMs for the Focals, and later got another pair of Focals for the post-production room. The Adams now live under the C24 (laughs). We later got multiple Focals to create a 5.1 system.

The next step is to buy a pair of ATC SCM150s for our walls in the new studio. The ATC near-fields can be flattering on the ears, which makes it hard to finish your mixes. We tried a pair of them in the main room, but when we listened back on the Focals, we realized that the mix wasn’t finished; there were still more details that had to be addressed. But the stereo image is great on ATCs, so I think we’ll have them in the walls of the new studio as our mains, and keep the Focals as near-fields, along with the Yamaha NS-10s that we already have.

People have different opinions about the NS-10s. I’ve had people tell me that you can’t hear much bass on them, so therefore they aren’t useful for mixing today’s music.

You do have bass on the NS-10s. In my opinion, if you don’t hear any bass on them, it’s because there’s no bass in your music. I mean, of course you won’t hear sub-frequencies, like 50 Hz, but you can hear 60 Hz- 100 Hz just fine. If you want to add impact to your kick drum, you can dial that in on the NS-10s and use your main monitors to check the subs. But if your mix doesn’t have any impact on the NS-10s, I think it’s because your mix is lacking in that. I get it, it’s not cool to listen to music on an NS-10, but if your mix sounds balanced on that, it’s a good sign. I spend half a mix session listening on the NS-10s. I even have a spare pair in case the current ones break down.

When you record a vocal , the NS-10s are good for revealing the character and spatial positioning of the voice, specifically because of the low-end content in the speaker. You can hear if the singer was too close or too far from the mic, or if the vocal mic pre-amp didn’t have enough gain, which is something I don’t hear as easily on the Focals. So the NS-10s are good for revealing the depth of a sound in the mix.

Do you think the Yamaha HS Series are the modern equivalent to the NS-10s? That’s kind of what they’re marketed as.

No. They’re very, very different. Firstly, I don’t think their internal amps are good; the frequency cutoff on the amp is very audible, which isn’t a good thing. The HS Series are hopeless for addressing sounds under 80 Hz. Whether you boost at 65 Hz or 70 Hz or 80Hz, it all sounds the same. But because of the cheap price, it’s a good compromise for bedroom producers who make music at home. But other than the color, it’s nothing like the NS-10.

This has been a great interview. Thanks Julian. What’s next for SODASOUND?

The move to a new studio is happening next year, so we’re making plans with architects and technicians on how to build things and what gear to use. We also have to think through the patchbay routing, to make our gear easily accessible. We also have to plan how the gear will be stored. We want EQs, compressors, digital effects and analog effects to all have separate racks. Every rack will be patched with EDAC connectors, which are very efficient because it allows you to easily switch out your gear from room to room. We also have to plan our finances to get the big ATCs and the JBL 7.1 system.

We want to be the only studio of our size that can compete with the big ones in Paris; that’s our goal, and we plan to do that by bringing the appeal of commercial studios back.