Philippe Zdar’s fingerprints can be found all over acclaimed music releases from the last 25 years. His credits extend from French rappers like MC Solaar to Grammy winners like Phoenix.
In addition to working on the music of others, his own group music projects like Cassius, La Funk Mob and Motorbass occupy a special place within the electronic music landscape. As such, I was excited to finally get a chance to talk to him about his discography, mixing techniques and music philosophy.
Hi Philippe. My understanding is that your first position in the industry was as a tea-boy for Dominique Blanc Francard. Is that right?
Yes, although more so for the studio he worked at, Studio Marcadet. I met Dominique after two days on the job, which had been given to me by one of his colleagues, Georges Blumenfeld. It was a great first job for me to have because a lot of American and English artists were coming through Marcadet at the time. In my first year there we worked with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Sade and Prince, and many Top 50 hits in France were recorded there. Working with that caliber of popular artist was great for demystifying the process of making big records, which was important for me. I wanted to see how things were actually done in the studio, rather than romanticize it.
But you were working as a tea-boy in the beginning, so I’m guessing they didn’t give you many technical assignments until you later became an engineer.
I never did technical stuff. Even now, I like gear that helps me achieve the results I want, but I’m not really a technician. At Marcadet, they probably hired me because I made lots of jokes and rolled good joints (laughs). Those kinds of small things helped endear me to the staff. I thank Dominique for not letting me go near the patch bay for the first year, because I wouldn’t have understood it. It took me a while to begin to understand stuff, and I still don’t mind if I don’t know what all the gear does. I’m happy to work as a craftsman who learned enough about the technical side to make what he wants.
But you did become a sound engineer later at Studio Plus XXX, so you did eventually learn the technical side of engineering whilst working at Marcadet, right?
Yes I did, eventually. But I learned a lot from watching other people work, which is very different from being taught step by step at engineering school. You learn to do what feels right in the recording sessions, as opposed to checking a manual or asking a teacher. I really didn’t have a choice, because I was thrown into the engineer’s seat one day when someone at the studio said to me, “The sound engineer isn’t coming today, so you have to help out with the recording“, and I was like “But I don’t know anything! ” and he said, “Shhh! Don’t say that out loud! Just get on with it “. So I did, and it worked.
When I left Marcadet, I continued to work as an engineering assistant for another year at Studio Plus XXX, until a well-known French singer asked me to come along to the studio he was working at and record him. When we were done, I got paid a month’s salary in one day, which made me go back to Plus XXX and asked if they could match that salary, but they couldn’t. So I left and became a freelance engineer, although I still continued do freelance work at Plus XXX. I was happy to not be a permanent staff member anymore, but it was still great to continue working with the people there for the next couple of years.
And how did you start working with MC Solaar? Were you making beats for him early on?
I started with MC Solaar as an engineer and mixer. My friend and later co-producer, Hubert Blanc Francard, hooked me up. He was working at Solaar’s record label when someone asked if he knew someone that could record the first single, for which he recommended me. So to thank him, I invited him to the recording sessions, where he played one of his beats and everyone loved it. That’s how we started to work on Solaar’s first album together. But at that time, I wasn’t interested in beat-making; I was a record producer. I loved hip-hop, but it wasn’t until I discovered techno and formed Motorbass along with my partner, Étienne de Créci, that my beat-making really got started. So until then, I was mainly the producer and engineer for MC Solaar.
So when La Funk Mob started releasing the instrumentals of MC Solaar’s tracks, those were mainly Hubert’s beats?
Initially, yes. The beats released as instrumentals from MC Solar’s albums were all done by Hubert. But later on, Hubert sent some of his music to Mo’ Wax label founder, James Lavelle, who liked it and wanted more, although he felt the beats were too short. James wanted them to be done as seven or eight minutes electronic music tracks, rather than three-minute radio-friendly versions. So Hubert approached me, since I was making beats with Motorbass at that point, and we decided to do La Funk Mob together. Hubert would ask me to do beats inspired by what I was already making with Motorbass, but without the 4-on-the-floor kick pattern, and that’s what led to tracks like “Motor Bass Get Phunked Up“.
Once you started working with Hubert on La Funk Mob, what kind of equipment were you using?
We both had an Atari 1040ST home computer, an Akai S1000, an Akai S3000, and synths like the Juno 106, the Studio Electronics SE-1 and the ATC-1, which we all sequenced in Cubase on the Atari. Eventually I made enough money to buy a SP–1200 and an MPC too. This was the same setup used for Motorbass’ music as well.
When the La Funk Mob beats came out on Mo’ Wax, did that raise your profile in the industry?
Those were the pre-Internet days, so building a name took time back then. But Mo’ Wax was the label everyone was talking about, so a lot of people got to know about us. But it didn’t really change my career. What it did do was open doors to work with my favorite artists. I remember joking with James that having Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig remix our music would have been great, and he was able to make it happen because he had direct access to them. So being on Mo’ Wax mainly gave us confidence because of things like that.
But how did you meet James Lavelle in the first place?
I had gone to London once to buy vinyl, and Hubert gave me James’ number and told me to call him once I got there. So I did, and he said “Thanks for calling! I just received one of La Funk Mob’s tracks in the mail called “Motor Bass Get Phunked Up” and it sounds great! “. I was like, “Oh thanks. I just finished it the other day and mailed it over “. After that, he invited me over to his label to meet him. That was around the time French electronic music was blowing up thanks to the hype from countries like England. Nowadays, everyone is used to seeing electronic musicians from France being successful, but back then we didn’t really have a global presence. So it was exciting for me and Hubert to be a part of an internationally-known label like Mo’ Wax.
Can you take me through the process of being signed to a label in the 90s? Today, most people use the Internet to build their hype, and may not even have any experience with real-life networking. How did it work for you guys?
I can tell you what happened to me as a part of Motorbass in the mid-90s. Etienne de Creci and I wanted to be DJs, and we noticed on the event flyers that the promoters would mostly book DJs that had released their own albums or were signed to a label. So one day I said to Etienne that we should make our own music and put it out, which led to Motorbass. We never sent music to labels, because we felt that we had to do things ourselves, which was normal at the time, especially in house and techno music. We made an EP, jumped in my car and drove to Amsterdam with some pressed copies and sold them to a record shop. We did the same in Belgium, and even took 40 records on a plane to London to sell them there as well. The record stores in places like Belgium were used to people just walking in with their new records, without an appointment, and the store owner would say “Alright, play me what you have “, and if they liked it, they’d say, “I like it! Give me twenty of those “. That’s how it was for me. I’d go to places like Fat Cat in London with my records, and the guy behind the counter would play it in front of everyone in the store, which could be a little stressful because those weren’t casual customers; they were actually there to buy music! But if you got a positive reaction from them, the guy would say “Okay, I’ll take 25 of those “. You’d leave him your phone number, and one month later he’d call you up saying “Man, we sold out. Can you bring back 100 of those records you had? ” That’s what I did for years with Motorbass before we finally released the “Pansoul” album. We sold 25,000 records that way, just by driving around with friends to record stores.
That sounds like a lot of vinyl to sell in those days. What was considered good sales for an electronic music group in the mid-90s?
10,000 copies was an enormous amount of sales for a vinyl-based label that sold house or techno. I remember when a record shop in Paris ordered 3000 copies of vinyl from us, and that was exciting.
Did you sell CDs as well?
Not until the “Pansoul” album. We had been so obsessed with Chicago house, Detroit techno and the vinyl that goes with those genres, so we stayed away from CDs; it wasn’t very “underground” to sell those. We even turned down offers from Virgin Records because we didn’t want to seem mainstream.
Do you remember what DJs were getting paid for their shows back then?
I don’t really remember. Because Motorbass had some early success, we were probably getting paid €3000 in today’s money, which isn’t a lot in the current DJ scene, but back then it was a lot for us. But we were lucky to have a good agent who made sure we got paid well.
Let’s talk about mixing techniques used in the 90s. Was there a big emphasis on compression at that time, the way it is today?
I think there’s always been an emphasis on that. I remember recently reading a book on recording the Beatles in the 60s, which was written by their audio engineer, Geoff Emerick, and it reveals that many British engineers at that time were copying the sound coming out of American labels like Motown, who had the Fairchild Compressor already. So when the Beatles’ record label, EMI, bought the Fairchild, the group loved it and put it on everything, from bass to vocals and even cymbals. So compression quickly went from a technical tool for taming dynamics to an artistic choice, and I think everyone just got used to that. You hear it on a lot of genres from the 60s and 70s, except maybe jazz music.
When I started mixing for MC Solaar, I was already obsessed by production crews like The Bomb Squad, who used tons of compression. So when Solaar’s “Qui Sème Le Vent Récolte Le Tempo“ album sold well, the label was generous with the budget for the second one and said to me, “We’ll pay for your studio-time for this album. What gear do you want? “ and I answered, “I’d like to rent a Fairchild Compressor for two months “. So I pretty much ran everything on “Prose Combat” through the Fairchild to get the pumping sound I wanted. I even added it to the mixbuss. That compressor became a trademark to not only my sound, but a lot of French hip-hop later on.
Once the late 90s arrived, Daft Punk had became the most famous French act out, and they had their own way of compressing. Once we became friends, I remember that Thomas Bangalter came to me and said “I love the way you used compression on that track “Obsoléte” by MC Solaar “, and I was like “Thanks! That was the first track where I finally found a good setting for the release on the Fairchild. It let me create that pumping effect from Public Enemy records “, and he was like “I love those records! “. We had all been looking up to Romanthony, who was our hero, and he had a crazy way of over-compressing that made things pump as well. What has become standard today with side-chain compression, he was doing back then, which wasn’t easy without plugins.
Was your use of the Fairchild different from Daft Punk’s way of compressing their music?
Yes. Daft Punk had their own way of compression, which was different from what I did in Motorbass. We were using a Fairchild, whereas they were using Alesis 3630 compressor, which was a pretty cheap one. But everyone started trying to copy them after they used that.
When I compare the compression of the house music of the 90s to the sidechain compression of today, it doesn’t sound like the same pumping effect. Have you noticed this?
You’re right, it’s different. Most of the 90s music was mixed on big analog desks and gear, whereas nowadays you have millions of plugins that you can use to compress everything to the point of limiting. But if you over-compress everything, you won’t really have any pumping effect anymore. So music today is mostly just loud, as opposed to pumping. You can’t make everything loud in a track. Certain elements need to be quiet or panned to the side, but instead, many mixers are overdoing it. Back in the day, I always had to choose what I wanted to emphasize before I ran out of studio-time. Now people can make changes to their mixes five minutes before the label sends it out for mastering. That might have its advantages, but I prefer to close a project when I feel like it’s done, rather than making constant adjustments until the end.
When I interviewed one of your peers, Philippe Weiss, he described the French and American school of recording in the 90s: The American school featured heavy use of EQ and compression which made things pump, but in the French school they used a lot less of that. Did you notice that difference when you were working in the 90s?
I wouldn’t say there was a French or American school. Sure, I knew a lot of purists who would say “I don’t use EQ or compression at all “, until they realized a lot of their idols actually did the opposite. I even compressed and EQ’d the MC Solaar albums during the recording session! But since a lot of the sounds were coming out of samplers, we could always fix any problems if we recorded something wrong. But if you’re recording a band, it’s a different issue; if you mess up at the source because you compressed wrongly, you might be screwed. So I think it was less a question of “schools”, because most guys had their own way of recording. Some guys, like me, always compressed, and others never compressed at the recording stage because they felt it would be easier to mix that way. I always felt that if I enjoyed the sound of compression during the recording, then leaving it on means less work for me during the mix. When you take the purist approach of never EQing or compressing during the recording, it could leave you with too many options later. I preferred having less options when its time to mix, because we had so little time. It’s not the same as today; back then you could only mix in a studio, which cost money, and you usually had only one day, whereas today you can do it at home on your own schedule. So my technique was to do as much as I could at the recording stage so I didn’t lose my mind during the mix.
You’ve mentioned analog consoles quite a lot. For the Motorbass album, how much did the SSL console at Plus XXX play a part in the sound of the music? Why did you opt for using the SSL, rather than go straight from the sampler to DAT?
We couldn’t have done it any other way. It would have been impossible to achieve our sound using only a sampler that had no effects or internal processing options. Motorbass wasn’t making rough Chicago house music, where you could go straight out of the sampler and still have it sound good; our music needed to be mixed. So since I was working at Plus XXX, I could easily mix on their SSL. But later when I stopped working there and didn’t have access to their board anymore, I mixed the remaining three or four tracks of “Pansoul” at my house on a Mackie board that had inserts on it. I would rent Massenburg, Pultec and Urei gear, take it to my flat, connect them to the Mackie inserts, and get a similar result to what I had on the SSL. So the desk really wasn’t that important to the sound on “PanSoul”. If we were to take a look at the album tracklist, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which tracks were done on the Mackie and which ones were done on the SSL. It’s not about big consoles, it’s about your taste, for which you only need the bare essentials. Personally, I always wanted a Massenburg GML8200 EQ, along with my favorite compressor, and that was enough to create my sound.
In your 2004 Red Bull interview, you said that when “Pansoul” came out, a lot of bedroom producers wanted to emulate the sound of that album, and they would ask you how to achieve it. But you said, “Look guys, we have a big SSL console in our studio, and you can’t get the same sound in your home studio“. Wasn’t that an indication that the desk was important to your sound?
I did say that, and I remember when people would come to me and say “We’re going to rent Studio Plus XXX and get the same sound as you “, and I would generally say, “No, don’t do that! “, because I knew guys who had already rented the same room I used, and had said to me afterwards, “Man, the sound in there is sh*t! “. That’s because you have to work with more than the just desk. The SSL is one thing, but it’s not everything. Also, we’re talking about an SSL, not a Neve where the EQs are incredible. On the SSL, you have good EQs, but they don’t go that low. So I would always tell my friends that they should’t fantasize about a desk just because it’s an SSL. The man behind the console is more important, and guys like me would always add our own sound to that of the SSL by using external gear.
As most people know, Mackie’s main contribution to music was the production of cheap, small consoles with quality pre-amps and inserts that allowed people at home to compete with the sound offered by big studios. When I had to do the last mixes of “Pansoul” on the Mackie, I was able to reproduce the sound I got at Plus XXX because I rented two Massenburg GML8200 EQs, an Eventide H3000, an AMS Reverb, a Lexicon 480L and PCM60. This is what I had been using in Plus XXX. So the most important thing for “PanSoul” was the high-end gear, especially EQs and reverbs. It’s still that way for me today. I don’t really need a console, but I like it because it allows me to work with my hands and be fast, like a performer. Using a computer limits me to a mouse that requires multiple clicks to get the result I want. With a console, I can do it in one second by pushing a few buttons. In 30 seconds of sitting at a console, I can try ten different things as I experiment towards a result. That’s impossible with a computer, where you can only do one thing at a time, click by click. It doesn’t leave that much room for happy accidents, which I’m always looking for.
I remember reading an interview from the late 2000s where you made a comment about digital reverbs. You said that there were no good plugin reverbs on the market. Do you still feel that way?
I remember saying that, but the plugin world has changed since then. Ten years ago, I couldn’t name one good plugin reverb. They were always a nightmare to recreate as plugins. But with today’s computers, it’s become possible. Now you have Soundtoys offering an EMT140 emulation for free! That kind of thing made me change my mind about digital technology in general. For example, I had always been printing my mixes to half-inch tape because the sound had remained unbeatable. But then I got the Burl converters, and suddenly I was happy with the sound I got in my computer. Similarly, when Pro Tools 12 came out, people told me “It sounds great now! “, and I tried it, and it was true! So you can’t deny that the digital world is getting better. My only concern is that plugins create a lack of variety in terms of sound. I have a real EMT140 reverb unit, which is more than 50 years old. But if I were to buy the EMT140 UAD plugin, it’s going to be the exact same reverb plugin as other musicians have in England, Japan, Mexico and America. This is a big reason why a lot of music today sounds the same. Back in the 90s, producers had a signature sound in a way that’s very hard to do today. Even if someone like Mike Will Made It or Metro Boomin creates a sound that’s unique to them, they soon have 100 guys copying them, and so the whole scene still sounds the same.
I understand what you mean. In the early 2010s, when the electronic music scene exploded worldwide, I can only think of Skrillex’s monster basses and Deadmau5’s analog synths that escaped being successfully copied by bedroom producers.
Everyone always told me those guys had a unique sound, though I never listened to them that much. For me, I remember the shift occurring around the time of the German minimal wave of 2008, where all the records on the radio started sounding the same. Now if you ask me who the most interesting producer of the day is, I couldn’t tell you. As a DJ, I buy certain records to play at my gigs, without really thinking much about the producer who made it. Their records are mainly tools for my DJ set. It’s a huge shift in music philosophy, in terms of how we handle production and think about our heroes. When I was younger, we would say things like “I love Brian Eno! I’m going to buy the same studio gear he has! “. Nowadays, people would essentially have said, “Who is Brian Eno? I’m going to build the studio I think is best “. The old landscape of new, revolutionary producers has been flattened out. But I don’t say all this just to sound like a critic or to be reactionary to the times. I fully accept that things change and this has become the future that we live in.
But do you really think that today’s producers, and youth in general, even have a choice from the substandard culture that they are being sold? They accept today’s culture because they don’t know any better, and this is the only thing that’s put in front of them.
But when they grow up, they will have a choice. Everybody has to make the choice to culture themselves, if that’s what they want. I was born in a no-name town in the mountains, but I always knew that I wanted to learn about 60s Italian movies after seeing one as a kid, and I knew that I’d one day listen to artists like Sly and the Family Stone. So even today, where kids have no choice but to take what’s being given to them by pop culture, one day they will realize that the Internet gives them the opportunity to discover new things. You can see a shift taking place from where we were in the late 2000s, where the influence of the iPod encouraged people to only listen to a few tracks per artist and then skip to something else. People are getting more into albums now, and I’m seeing it with my friend’s children. Blood Orange put out an album this year which is listenable from start to finish. I know because Hubert’s daughter listened to the whole thing. I’m seeing more and more of that, where kids are using the Internet to look for new music.
But what about the production side of this question? The digital revolution, hip-hop and electronic music have collectively changed popular music by shifting the focus from instrumentalists to beat-makers. The norm has become to click in a drum pattern on a MIDI grid, instead of playing it yourself. As a result, a lot of people are complaining that hip-hop and EDM has ruined pop music. But wasn’t it the same situation in the 80s and 90s? The older generation back then used to complain that rap music was terrible and house music was just noises.
Sure, but you’ll always have those who complain about new waves of music. Take Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” from 1979. It was incredibly well-recorded, using amazing musicians in LA. But then comes the 80s, and he turns away from recording with a live band to using synths and LinnDrums. Some people might have complained that “Thriller” would be less exciting than “Off The Wall”, but they forgot that Prince had been using a Linndrum for years, and everyone thought his music was great. So whether you use drum samples or a live band, the instruments are tools and it’s up to you to use them in an artistic way. If people want to make music in their bedrooms, that’s fine with me. Has the quality of music gone down? If you’re comparing today’s stuff to Aretha Franklin, then yes. I read an article recently about Etta James listening to Aretha Franklin sing “Skylark“, and afterwards going to Sara Vaughan and saying “Have you heard this Aretha Franklin girl sing Skylark? She sounds incredible “, and Sara said, “Yes I did, and now I’m never singing that song again “. That’s how impressed she was, and that was in the 60s! These are three technically amazing singers who could all sing “Skylark”, which has challenging melodies in the verse and chorus, including a modulation and a bridge, all written by masterful songwriters for expert vocalists to sing. How can you compare that to someone in 2018 in their bedroom with an auto-tune plugin who’s trying to make a radio hit using only two notes? Of course that’s going to bring the overall threshold of quality down, and some people will complain, whilst other people want to live in the present. That’s just life. Anyone who wants to take a different approach is free to do that. Personally, I still mix using analog gear, which requires a lot of work and time, but I do it to get the results I want. But if in 2028 I can get the same sound I want by mixing with a computer, then I might change to that. But for something like 90s hip-hop, you can’t get that sound in a laptop. A crew like The Bomb Squad were recording in Quad Studios on a big console with Bob Powers, who used Pultecs, dbx’s and Fairchilds. You can’t compete with that using a Waves L2 in an acoustically untreated bedroom with no experience behind you.
I get what you mean. Let’s get back to your career. Moving on from Motorbass, you and Hubert formed Cassius, and were signed to EMI. But you said in past interviews that EMI weren’t very interested in underground music, and seemed to want big hit singles from you. So do you regret signing with them?
No, I don’t, because we were both lucky and unlucky with EMI. To be honest, they never asked us for a certain type of record. They just said, “Give us whatever you have, and we’ll put it out “. So they never challenged us to do anything, which had upsides and downsides. Much of the 20th century’s greatest music was made when artists were challenged by their producer, label or management. But Cassius had no manager, we were our own producers and the label didn’t care about challenging us. So things just went the way they went, without us really understanding how our releases would affect our careers until later.
Following the success of “1999“, Cassius put out “Au Rêve” and “15 Again” in the 2000s, but the general consensus seems to be that “1999” was a commercial and critical success, whilst the other two were not. Would you agree?
Yes, I would agree with that. Some people even call the follow-up albums failures. They say we waited too long and switched up our style too much by doing vocalist-driven songs. I understand how someone from the outside would say that we messed up, but from our side, the experience of making those albums is a part of our lives, and we love them. But yeah, the pubic reaction was mixed. When we were doing the press run for our last album, “Ibifornia“, people were asking us things like, “Why have you been waiting so long since the first album to put out a new one? “. They didn’t even know we had released “Au Rêve” and “15 Again“, (laughs). But I’m happy with where we ended up, and ultimately, Cassius is secondary to my real life. Rather than have commercial success, I’d rather be able to go where I want and do what I want. I live by the saying, “I use my talent for my writing, and my genius for my living “, so I have no problem with my career being less successful than my real life. Some people say I missed out on producing big bands, but I don’t mind. Some of my American producer friends only take six days off in a year from their work, and if they’re happy doing that, then it’s fine. Dominique Blanc-Francard is still in the studio 350 days a year because that’s where he wants to be. But I’d rather be in the sun on holiday, do a quick DJ gig, and then go back to having fun and being with my family.
I can understand if the success of “1999” couldn’t be replicated because the music industry had it’s own expectations of you, but in terms of being musically critical, do you hear the difference between the first album and the later two? Do you know why people liked the first one so much, but not the later two?
Yes, I do hear the differences, and I would never use the changes in the music industry as an excuse for why our later albums didn’t resonate with the fans. We decided that we wanted to do pop music that featured vocalists. Whereas the self-titled album was an electronic album, done in three weeks at our homes with one sampler and two keyboards, the other albums were done in bigger studios with singers and rappers like Jocelyn Brown and Ghostface Killer. We lost track of the fact that people wanted more of the same. I still have people come up to me and say that they love “1999” more than anything else. So our new album that’s coming out next year is a return to dance music. Looking back at our past albums, I think we had too much freedom. Like I mentioned before, we weren’t challenged by the record company. If they really wanted us to replicate the success of “1999”, they should have come to us and said “Look, don’t over-complicate things with too many singers. Stick to your formula, and just make another electronic album in a short period of time “. But no-one told us that, and it’s only now that I’m saying to Hubert, “Let’s just make a string of three albums that are dance music-oriented and sonically similar“.
When I was younger, I loved bands like AC/DC and The Police, and they would release albums that sounded like they’d been recorded that same week, because the technology didn’t progress so quickly that a band could change their sound overnight. But the digital revolution came along in the early 2000s and gave us too many options for change, and Cassius got carried away. Back in the mid-90s, we were using an Atari S1000 and not much else. We had no way to record vocals. But on the second album, the label gave us access to a big studio with a 24-track, and Pro Tools already was gaining steam as a recording platform. So whilst technology is great, it did contribute to why people today might feel like Cassius fell off a little. I wouldn’t be surprised if some guy who works for Billboard one day writes, “Those Cassius guys made one great album and then messed the rest up “. It is what it is.
But in terms of you recreating your old sound, I’ve heard that you still have all the classic 90s gear at Motorbass Studios. So why didn’t we see a return to your old sound with “Ibifornia”? Even Daft Punk probably have access to their old gear, yet we don’t hear them try to do what they once did.
Yeah, because it’s very hard to do the same thing over and over. I really don’t want to do “1999” again; it’s twenty years later! I’m sure Daft Punk feel the same way. When they released “Discovery” you can’t imagine the response they got from the techno and rave crowds. We would go to raves and they would come up to us in the parking lot and chew out Thomas and Guy-
But one of the biggest singles of this summer in the club scene is DJ Koze’s “Pick Up”, which sounds like a tribute to Stardust. So even throwback talent does a shot of being occasionally recognized, even if we aren’t seeing any new Aretha Franklins.
Yes it does. But it was time for that sort of sing-a-long, well-produced 90s-inspired track, and the vocals play a big part of its success, just like with “Music Sounds Better With You“. People forget the importance of lyrics. That’s one of the reasons hip-hop dominates the radio, because rappers give the most attention to their lyrics. Even in today’s world of mumble rap, rappers are more concerned about their words than the pop guys. Pop writers still seem to think that throwing around the same 25 words that have been used for decades in pop music, like “sun”, “love”, “friend” and “freedom”, is just fine. Meanwhile in hip-hop, you have rappers like Chance The Rapper who still want to compete with Eminem, Rakim or Snoop Dogg. That kind of focus on lyrics has been missing from dance music, which is why a track like “Pick Up” is making such a splash.
Why do you think the older music acts like Daft Punk don’t just come out and change the music scene like they once did? Their last album didn’t have that kind of impact. Even though Ed Banger is still around, but they haven’t given us any groundbreaking artists since Justice.
You’re right in saying that “Random Access Memories” didn’t change the music scene, but that’s mainly because Daft Punk didn’t care about the electronic music scene anymore. I say that with all due respect to them. When you’re a part of a scene, you want to be active in it and contribute to it. But when you leave, it’s just not that important to you anymore.
Not everyone on Ed Banger can be expected to have the impact Justice did. All the other guys on that roster are still good artists, even if they aren’t as commercially successful.
Let’s talk about your work with Phoenix. When you were brought in to mix the “United” album, Laurent Brancowitz said in an interview that you saved the album. What was he referring to with that statement? You were the mixer on the album so everything had already been recorded and produced by the time you got involved.
Well, people sometimes understate the importance of a mix. I’m mixing an album right now, and recently the record label came to listen to what I’d done, and were impressed by how different the mix sounded from what they had heard before. So the mix can change everything, whether to destroy or complete a track. But now that the art of mixing has become accessible to everyone, I think it’s lost some of its magic in people’s eyes. For “United“, I don’t remember what I did, but you can defintely save an album by mixing it right. I guess the guys were a bit lost and I helped out by first mixing “If I Ever Feel Better“. I always start with the big single and try to make it sound as good as possible.
Do you know of any other projects where the mix saved the music?
When I mixed Sebastien Tellier’s “La Ritournelle”, which is one of my favorites out of all my mixes, the music had been poorly recorded, and I had to battle uphill to mix it. Even though they had Tony Allen on drums, it was a long journey to make it sound good. Stuff like that can be technically challenging to mix, but you might find a vocal effect that changes everything. I remember the day we mixed that track, and everyone was a bit stressed until we found the key to making the mix work. But you also have to know if you’re not the right person to mix a track, which is something I feel pretty quickly. That’s why I don’t do too many commercial mixes for big labels. Even when you do a decent mix for them, they still find a way to say things like, “Okay we like the blue version, but let’s try the red version “. That kind of indecisiveness doesn’t work well with me.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that when you mixed “United”, you were able to combine the sounds of different decades into the mix. The sound of the 80s from the SSL, the 90s from the Massenburg EQs and the 60s from the Neve gear. Can you expand on that? What gear would you reach for if you wanted to pull from the 90s and 2000s?
It’s hard to answer that question because since the 90s, mixes have become more homogeneous. To be totally honest, I would say just buy an L2 Maximizer if you want your mix to sound like it’s from the 2000s. Seriously. Maximizer plugins are the sounds of the 2000s. And if you want to sound like the 80s, get an AMS Reverb and set it to non-linear (laughs). The 90s is hard to characterize because it’s a mixture of different decades in one. I don’t remember exactly what I said in the interview, but the Massenburg EQ came out in the 80s, not the 90s. And besides, I wouldn’t say an EQ alone can encapsulate the sound of a decade. But if you want to discover which decade a record was made, then I would suggest you listen to the snare sound first, and then the reverb they used. Those two things communicate the most about when a record was made. In the 90s and 2000s, we saw the use of signature reverb sounds decrease because of the influence of hip-hop production, which emphasized sampled drums that already had reverb as a part of the sample.
Regarding your work on the album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix“, you once said that you didn’t use a 24-track tape machine for the recording, but rather chose to use a two-track on the final mix. So you don’t typically use 24-tracks to record your clients?
I used to, but not anymore. Pro Tools just offers up more possibilities and a faster workflow. I actually took a break from running the master to two-inch tape also, but have recently gotten back into it. I bought a new batch of tape for that this week. But the big question for me has always been the quality of today’s tape. It’s definitely not the same as it used to be in the 80s and 90s. Back in the day, each roll of tape sounded different, but today’s manufacturers are making tape that acts similar to a digital recording medium: they all sound similar and give you back exactly what you print to them. But I still intend to listen to the new batch I ordered, and if they sound good, I’ll use them.
It’s easy to get deceived by tape companies nowadays, because many of them aren’t consistent anymore. One batch may sound great, whilst the next one sounds terrible. For me, using tape is like eating at a restaurant: I love it when I eat at a place ten times, and the food tastes great all ten times. But I hate when it’s great the first time, yet terrible the next time. I’ve bought batches of tape that sounded great at first, and then the next batch was of lesser quality. So a lack of consistency turns me off. But there’s a company called Recording The Masters who apparently have a reputation for making really good tape. I just received a batch from them yesterday, which I’ll try out soon.
Let’s end the interview by talking about Motorbass Studios. Is it true that it’s one of the only studios left in the inner city of Paris, because most of the other studios are on the outskirts?
Yes, that’s true, but it’s even worse than that because many of the inner city ones are closing down. The latest one closed three months ago, which was Studio Grand Armée. They had to close because of the rent prices.
Does the closure of other studios mean more business for you, or would you say it’s just bad for everybody?
It’s bad for everybody. I’m not running a studio for the money. In fact, I only recently started renting my studio because I want to continue paying my assistant, and so that artists can keep recording here. I spend a lot of time away from the studio with my family, going on vacation or DJing, and Motorbass Studios is mostly empty. So it’s bad for everyone. But studio closures are happening all over the world, and I get it. If you can make a record that sells millions from your hotel room, why spend thousands of Euros a day in a big studio?
My understanding is that Tom Hidley, who created the Eastlake Audio, shipped over wood from England and stone from America to construct the studio you now own. Is that true?
Yes that’s true. Apparently he thought no French building materials were worth using (laughs).
How did those materials affect the sound of the rooms? Do the materials matter?
They do, especially with wood. The wood used to build Motorbass Studios could have been used to make Gibson guitars, and the wood makes all the difference between one Gibson and the other, even if it were carved out of the same species of tree.
When you bought Motorbass in 2000, was it expensive?
No, it was a bargain. Even with the recent changes in the value of the Euro, it’s still been one of my best purchases. I never bought a lot of stuff in my life, but the studio was financially worth it.
What kind of changes did you have to make to it after you bought it?
It was crumbling down, so I had to change everything. I tore a lot of it down and rebuilt things, all of which took me seven years. I had to replace the ventilation, redo the electrical wiring to the American kind, run new cables, etc. It took a long time because I’m hardly rich. It was my DJ gigs over the years that paid for it.
You have an E-series SSL4000 desk, but would you ever trade that out for something else, like a Neve?
No, I don’t think I’m going to make anymore major changes to this place. Motorbass Studios is almost like a hobby for me now. I’m not chasing after bookings, and I have a good balance between working with Cassius and doing mixing jobs when I want, so I don’t need to buy more gear for the studio. I might get an obscure effect unit that I think is interesting, or I might get a pre-amp that I like, because I want the studio to be used more for recording than for mixing, but I’m happy with my SSL and won’t be replacing it. I may not use the SSL mic pre-amps that often, because I prefer the color that I get from other brands like Telefunken or Neve, but when I’m mixing, I still use the SSL line pre-amps. I also love the SSL channel filters, compressors and EQs.
You’ve talked in past interviews about your use of EQs, and how you like to use specific ones to get a certain color. Can you expand on the the subject?
I can illustrate the differences between EQs by using three landmark units as an example. Let’s take a Pultec, a Neve 1073 and a Massenburg GML8200. When I buy a Pultec or a Neve, I’m paying a lot of money for those EQs because of the choices made by the original designers. A certain audio engineer or specialist made a specific choice to prioritize the frequencies that can be boosted and cut with those units, especially in the mid-range. So if I’m mixing a guitar or vocal, and I want to make the mid-range audible without having to choose from thousands of frequencies in the spectrum, I’m going to use something like a 1073, and choose among the fixed frequencies. Then I can do roll-offs afterwards if it’s necessary. So I’m looking for taste of the designer, in this case Rupert Neve, when I use his products. With a Pultec EQ, I’m looking for the taste of Ollie Summerland and Gene Shank. But the Massenburg is different. That’s a surgical EQ, invented by George Massenburg, and it offers you multiple cutting and boosting options in different parts of the spectrum, with two knobs for the bass and two for the highs, and lots of headroom.
I’m going to use certain EQs to get a sound from a particular time period where those units were used heavily, like James Jamerson’s bass sound from Motown in the 60s, which I was able to recreate with a Pultec. I’m currently mixing a new album for a French artist, and when I put all the guitars into three of my Pultecs, one each for the lows, mids and highs, and bussed them all into an LA3A Compressor, suddenly I found a sound that reminded me of guitars from the 70s.
I only do that sometimes. I use the SSL Compressor before the EAR because I know a tube compressor is slower than a transistor compressor. I occasionally use them in that way when I needed more snap before the EAR 660 kicks in. The SSL compressor allows me to control the dynamics of my track, whilst retaining the sound of the EAR. The EAR 660 is my favorite compressor, right up there with the Fairchild, although I don’t use it on everything. Recently I was mixing the upcoming Cassius album, and I had to use the SSL compressor on certain tracks because the EAR wasn’t working well on them. The tubes in my EAR were really old, and it took a while to order new ones, which took it out of action for a while.
Can you elaborate on fast compression versus a slow compression? Why do you say the EAR 660 fast but the Fairchild is slow?
The Fairchild is slow because at the time it was designed, the engineers were not thinking about controlling attack and release times. Compressors back then were meant to help the vinyl printing process by controlling dynamics so that the needle doesn’t pop or break when printing. And the music being recorded at the time was mostly jazz and classical, neither of which sound harsh or loud. But once the drum machines started being used in the late 70s and early 80s, a new level of dynamics were introduced, where attack and release times had to be considered. So the EAR 660, being built in the early 80s, is faster than a Fairchild 670, which was from 1959. But, having said that, a dbx 160A transistor compressor is even faster than a tube compressor. If I had to compress an instrument that was both musical and percussive, like a funk guitar with lots of palm mutes, I would use a dbx 160A because of how fast it is. I wouldn’t use an 1176, which is relatively fast too, but is known more for its sonic color. The more you use these different units, the more you learn how each one sounds and works.
I want to ask about panning. When you pan something on the SSL, do you feel like it has the same stereo imaging as in a DAW like Ableton Live?
Well, firstly, I think Ableton has to work on the sound engine in Live, and I believe that’s what they’re developing right now. They already know they have to fix this. Live is one of the best DAWs, in terms of the workflow and possibilities it gives you, but the sound is questionable, and the panning is also questionable. Hard panning in Ableton doesn’t always feel like it goes as far as it should, and there’s not much distinction between hard-right panning and medium-right panning. So it still doesn’t compete with an analog stereo image. In the analog world, between 12 o’clock and hard right, there are innumerable points of increments. But in some DAWS, when I pan, I only hear a few. That’s why I prefer to be on my SSL when I’m panning, because positioning your sounds is key. A lot of bedroom producers are just panning hard left or right and stacking sounds on the sides, which diminishes the impact of the track by compromising the mids. The power of a record is in the mids, not on the sides. So it makes no sense to pan everything hard left or right just because you want it to sound super-stereo. When your music is played in a club where the speakers are 20 meters away from each other, all that panning is going to be counterproductive. I’m hearing a lot of records where most of the sounds are hard-panned, and the only thing in the center is the kick and snare. Those tracks are hard to play in multiple venues because of how different the sound systems are.
Last question: are there any artists out there who you feel are doing interesting work musically, and what kinds of projects do you have in the works with other acts?
I think there a lot of people doing interesting stuff, even if they don’t get much mainstream attention, since not all of them promote themselves on social media. We’re in a culturally weak moment right now, where Instagram promotion is more important than talent, but the upside is that it creates push-back from the youth. Look at the 60s: we often say it was an amazing time for music and that musicians were very talented, as seen with bands like Yes and Led Zeppelin. But what genre exploded after that period of skill? Punk! The youth basically said, “I don’t want to spend hours listening to guitar solos and synth riffs. I’d rather play aggressive, energetic music, even if it sounds sloppy! “. So I think today’s youth will eventually push back against the same-sounding music that’s played on radio, and will demand more musicianship from their favorite artists. Just look at someone like MonoNeon. He’s a comedic bass player that makes popular Youtube and Instagram videos. Ten years ago, no-one would care about him, but now he’s having a lot of success because he’s both funny and very skilled. Prince even wanted to work with him before he died. So I think more proficient musicians like him will resurface.
I’m working with Adam Kindness and Hot Chip right now, who are bands that I really like. I don’t mind working with pop artists too, but I don’t really expect many of them to call me because the big ones tend to live in a bubble, and they can only work with people who respect that bubble. I would rather work with mavericks that want to make great music. I would also hope that the artists I work with are good people. To me, that’s more important than talent. If someone is an asshole, I’m not interested in going into the studio with them, even if their music is incredible. The way I spend my time nowadays is what matters the most to me.