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, and even to his own music projects like Cassius, La Funk Mob and Motorbass. As such, I was excited to finally do an interview after being put in touch with him by his friend, Philippe Weiss.
– 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 because a lot of American and English artists were coming to Marcadet at the time; Bryan Ferry, Sade and Princeare some examples, and many French Top 50 hits were recorded there. Working with that caliber of artist was great for demystifying the process of making big records, which was a big help for me because 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 got any technical assignments. 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 told jokes and rolled good joints (laughs). Those kinds of things helped endear me to the staff, and I thank Dominique for not letting me go near the patch-bay for a year because I wouldn’t have understood it. It took me a while to begin to understand stuff, and I still don’t mind not knowing what all the gear does. I’m happy to work as a craftsman who learned enough about the technical side to achieve 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 didn’t really have a choice because I was thrown into the engineer’s seat one day when someone said to me, “The sound engineer isn’t coming today so you have to help out with the session “, 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 working as an assistant for a year at Studio Plus XXX until a well-known French singer asked me to record him at another studio as a one-time gig. When we were done, I got paid a month’s salary in one day, which made me go back to Plus XXX and ask if they could match that salary, but they couldn’t. So I left and became a freelance engineer, although I still did 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.
– And how did you start working with MC Solaar?
I started with MC Solaar as an engineer and mixer. One of my friends, Hubert Blanc Francard, was working at Solaar’s record label and he recommended me when a staff member said they needed an engineer to work on the first single. So to thank him, I invited him to the recording sessions and when he played one of his beats, everyone loved it. That’s how we started working Solaar’s first album together. But at that time, I wasn’t interested in beat-making; I was a record produce, and it wasn’t until I discovered techno and formed Motorbass with Étienne de Crécy that my beat-making really got started. 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?
Yes, that’s right. But Hubert later sent his music to Mo’ Wax 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-minute club tracks, rather than three-minute radio versions, so Hubert approached me since I was making beats with Motorbass, and we decided to form La Funk Mob. Hubert would ask me to do beats inspired by what I was already making with Motorbass, but without the four-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 computer with Cubase installed. For samplers we used the Akai S1000 and Akai S3000, and for synths we had the Juno 106, the Studio Electronics SE-1 and the ATC-1. Eventually I made enough money to buy a SP–1200 and an MPC. I used the same setup used for Motorbass’ music as well.
– When La Funk Mob got released on Mo’ Wax, did that raise your profile in the industry?
Since Mo’ Wax was the label on everyone’s lips, a lot of people got to know about us. But it didn’t really change my career though, although it did open doors for me 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 due to connections like that.
– But how did you meet James Lavelle in the first place?
I’d gone to London once to buy vinyl, and Hubert gave me James’ number to call him once I got there. So I did, and he said “Thanks for calling! I just received “Motor Bass Get Phunked Up” in the mail and it sounds great! “, and I was like, “Oh thanks. I just finished it the other day and mailed it over “. He invited me to the label offices to meet him and that was the start of our relationship. That was at a time when 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? How did it work for you guys?
Etienne 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 I suggested that we make our own music and put it out, which led to the creation of Motorbass. We never sent our records to labels because we felt that we had to do things ourselves, which was normal at the time for underground music. When we finished an EP, we’d jump in my car, drive to Amsterdam with the vinyl and sell them to a record shop. We did the same in Belgium, and even took 40 records on a plane to London to sell. Record stores back then were used to people walking in unannounced with their new releases, and the store owner would be like, “Alright, play me what you have “. If he liked it, he’d say, “Sounds nice. Give me twenty of those “. I’d go to places like Fat Cat in London and the guy behind the counter would play my record in front of everyone at the store, which could be a little stressful because they weren’t casual customers – they were actually there to buy music. But if you got a positive reaction from the crowd, the guy would buy 20-25 of your records and take your phone number. One month later he’d call you and say, “Man, we sold out. Can you bring back 100 of those records you had? “. That’s what I did for years with Motorbass and we sold 25,000 records that way, prior to releasing “Pansoul“.
– What was considered good sales for an electronic music group in the mid-90s?
10,000 vinyl copies was an enormous amount of sales for a house or techno label. I remember when a record shop in Paris ordered 3000 copies of our records, and that was a big deal for us.
– Did you sell CDs as well, or only vinyl?
We didn’t sell CDs until “Pansoul” came out. We’d 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, and 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, but we were lucky to have a good agent who made sure we got paid well. Because Motorbass had some early success, we were probably getting paid €3000 in today’s money. It’s not a lot in the current DJ scene, but back then it was.
– 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 reading a book on recording the Beatles in the 60s, which was written by their audio engineer, Geoff Emerick, and it revealed 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 EMI bought a Fairchild for their studios, 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. When Solaar’s first album sold well, the label was generous with the budget for the second one, so I rented a Fairchild 670 for two months and pretty much used it on everything for “Prose Combat” to get the pumping sound I wanted; I even used it on the mix-buss. 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 group in the world, 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 compressed stuff on MC Solaar’s “Obsoléte” “, and I was like “Thanks! That was the first track where I finally found a good release setting on the Fairchild, and it let me create the same pumping effect from Public Enemy records “. We all looked up to Romanthony, who was our hero, and he had a crazy way of over-compressing that made things pump as well. He was doing back then what’s become standard today with side-chain compression, which wasn’t easy to do without plugins.
– Was your use of the Fairchild different from Daft Punk’s way of compressing their music?
Yes, Daft Punk’s way of compressing was different from mine. I used a Fairchild whereas they had the Alesis 3630, which was a pretty cheap unit. But everyone started trying to copy them after they used that.
– When I compare the compression of 90s house music 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 outboard, 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 lose the pumping effect, so today’s music 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?
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, and since a lot of the sounds came from samplers, we could always redo something if we recorded it wrong. But if you’re working with 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” since most people had their own way of recording. Guys like me always compressed; if I enjoyed the sound of compression during the recording, then leaving it on meant less work during the mix. When I took the purist approach of never EQing or compressing during the recording, it’d leave me with too many options later. I preferred having less mix choices because we had so little time. Back then you could only mix in a commercial studio that cost lots of money, and sometimes you 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 desk at Plus XXX play a part in the sound of the music? And 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. Since I was working at Plus XXX, I could easily mix on their SSL. But when I stopped working there and lost access to their board, I mixed the remaining three 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 that album. If I 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. So 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 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?
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! “. I knew guys who had already rented the same room and had said to me afterwards, “Man, the sound in there is crap! “. That’s because you have to work with more than the just desk; the SSL isn’t everything. Also, we’re not talking about a Neve, which has incredible EQs. There are decent EQs on an SSL, but the bass doesn’t go that low. So I’d always tell my friends not to fantasize about an SSL desk. 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 GML8200s, an Eventide H3000, an AMS Reverb, a Lexicon 480L and PCM60. Those are what I’d used at 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, but after 30 seconds at a console, I can try ten different things that leave that room for happy accidents, which is important for me.
– 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, but recreating them has become possible with today’s technology. Soundtoys even offers an EMT140 emulation for free! That kind of thing made me change my mind about digital technology in general. For example, I’d always been printing my mixes to half-inch tape because the sound remained unbeatable, but then I got the Burl converters and was suddenly happy with the sound I got in my computer. Similarly, when Pro Tools 12 came out, people told me “It sounds great now! “, 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 plugin, it’ll have the exact same sound other musicians have in England, Japan, Mexico and America, and it’s 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 achieve now. 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 the whole scene sounds monotone as a result.
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, and if you ask me who the most interesting producer of today 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. 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 youth even have a choice from what’s being sold to them? They accept the culture because it’s the only thing that’s put in front of them by big corporations.
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 if today’s kids have no choice but to take what’s given to them by pop culture, one day they’ll 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 iPod encouraged people to 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 things? The norm has become to use samples packs and program all your drums on a MIDI grid instead of playing them yourself. As a result, a lot of people are complaining that hip-hop and EDM has ruined pop music.
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 came the 80s and he decided to use synths and LinnDrumsinstead of a real band. 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, and was written by masterful songwriters for expert vocalists to sing. How can you compare that to someone using an auto-tune in 2018 to make a radio hit by singing 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. But 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 a bedroom with no experience behind you.
– I get what you mean. Moving on from Motorbass, you and Hubert formed Cassius and were signed to EMI. But you’ve said in past interviews that EMI weren’t interested in underground music and wanted hit singles from you. Do you regret signing with them?
No I don’t, because it was both lucky and unlucky for us to sign 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 we were never challenged 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 motivating us, so things played out without us understanding how the releases would affect our careers.
– Following the success of “1999“, Cassius put out “Au Rêve” and “15 Again“, but the general consensus is that “1999” was a commercial and critical success, whilst the other two were not. Would you agree?
Yes, I 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 putting vocals on the 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 did the press run for our last album, “Ibifornia“, people were asking us things like, “Why have you waited so long since the first album to release a new one? “. They didn’t even know that “Au Rêve” and “15 Again” had come out (laughs). But 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.
– Do you hear the difference between “1999” and the later two albums? Do you know why people liked the first one so much, but not the later two?
Yes, I do hear the differences. Whereas “1999” 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 Killahr. We lost track of the fact that people wanted more of the same, and I still have people come up to me saying that they love “1999” more than anything else. Like I said, I think we had too much freedom and weren’t challenged by the record company. If they really wanted us to replicate the success of “1999”, they could have told us, “Look, don’t over-complicate things with too many singers. Stick to your formula and just make another electronic album “. 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’d put out albums that sounded like they’d been recorded the same week of the release. The technology back then 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, but on the second album the label gave us access to a big studio with a 24-track tape machine. So whilst the technology was great, it’s the reason why people might feel like Cassius fell off. 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.
– 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 they don’t seem interested in doing what they once did.
It’s very hard to do the same thing over and over. I really don’t want to do “1999” again, and I’m sure Daft Punk feel the same way. You can’t imagine the response they got from the techno crowd when they released “Discovery“. They would come up to us in the parking lot at raves to chew out Thomas and Guy-
For me, “Discovery” was a great continuation of “Homework”. It’s like when Bob Dylan came out with an electric guitar and people were mad because they wanted to see him with an acoustic. So you have to distinguish between those who are in this industry to make art and those who are just here to be famous. Unfortunately, there are a lot of fame-seeking people in the music industry, and today’s culture rewards them for being that way. When Aretha Franklin passed away, Questlove posted on Twitter that if she had been twenty years old today, she would never have been discovered because of our culture’s preference for entertainment over talent, and he’s right.
Yes it does, but it was time for that sort of 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; it’s one of the reasons hip-hop dominates the radio, because rappers give more attention to their lyrics than other genres. Even in today’s world of mumble rap, rappers are more concerned about their words than the pop guys. Pop writers are still throwing around the same 25 words that have been used for decades in pop music, like “sun”, “love”, “friend” and “freedom”. Meanwhile in hip-hop, you have acts 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 have the impact they once did? Their last album didn’t do much, and even though Ed Banger is still around, 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.
People sometimes understate the importance of a mix. I’m mixing an album right now, and the label recently came to listen and were impressed by how different the mix sounded from what it was before; so the mix can change everything. But now that 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 definitely 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?
One of my favorites mixes is the one I did for Sebastien Tellier’s “La Ritournelle”. But I remember that the music had been poorly recorded, and I had to battle uphill to overcome that. 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. Everyone in the studio 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?
It’s hard to answer that question because since the 90s, mixes have become more homogeneous. To be totally honest, 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 capture the sound of a decade. But if you want to discover which decade a record was made, then listen to the snare sound and the reverb; 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 hip-hop productions, which emphasized drums that already had reverb as a part of the sample.
– For “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix“, you said that you didn’t use a 24-track tape machine for the recording, but chose to use a two-track on the final mix. So you don’t use 24-tracks to record your clients?
I used to, but not anymore. Pro Tools just offers up more possibilities and a faster workflow. 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 latest 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, but the next batch was of lesser quality, and that 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.
– Let’s end by talking about Motorbass Studios. Is it really one of the only studios left in the inner city because most of the others are on the outskirts of Paris?
Yes, that’s true, but it’s even worse than that because many of the inner city ones are closing down. The latest one to go was Studio Grand Armée, which had to close because of their rent prices.
– Does the closure of other studios mean more business for you, or is it 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 out Motorbass because I want to continue paying my assistant. 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?
– Is it true that Tom Hidley, who created the Eastlake Audio, shipped over wood from England and stone from America to construct the studio?
Yes that’s true. Apparently he thought French building materials weren’t 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 they were carved from the same tree species.
– 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 was never someone who bought too much stuff, but the studio was financially worth it.
– What kind of changes did you have to make to it after buying 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, 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 SSL 4000 E-series, but would you ever trade that out for a different console, 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 a pre-amp that I like, but I’m happy with my SSL and won’t be replacing it. I don’t use the SSL pre-amps that often because I prefer the color of brands like Telefunken or Neve, but I still use the SSL line pre-amps when mixing. I also love the SSL channel filters, compressors and EQs.
– You’ve talked in past interviews about your use of EQs, and how specific ones give you certain color. Can you expand on that?
Sure. Let’s take three landmark units as an example: a Pultec, a Neve 1073 and a Massenburg GML 8200. I’m willing to pay a lot of money for those EQs because of the choices made by the original designers. A certain engineer made a specific choice of which frequencies to boost or cut with those units, especially in the mid-range. So if I’m mixing a guitar and I want to make the mid-range audible without having to choose from hundreds of options, I’m going to use something like a 1073 and pick a fixed frequency. I can do roll-offs afterwards if necessary. So I’m drawn to the taste of Rupert Neve when I use his products. With a Pultec EQ, I’m drawn to the tastes 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 each for the bass and highs, and lots of headroom.
I use certain EQs to get the sound of 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 one. I occasionally pair them together if I need more snap before the EAR 660 kicks in. The SSL allows me to control the dynamics of my track, whilst retaining the sound of the EAR. The EAR 660 is my favorite compressor alongside the Fairchild, although I don’t use it on everything. I was recently 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.
– Can you elaborate on fast compression versus a slow compression? Why do you say the EAR 660 is fast but the Fairchild is slow?
The Fairchild is slow because the engineers who designed it in the 50s weren’t thinking about controlling attack and release times. Compressors back then were meant to control the dynamics during the vinyl printing process so that the needle didn’t pop or break when printing. Also, 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. But,having said that, a dbx 160A transistor compressor is even faster. 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 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?
Firstly, I think Ableton has to work on the sound engine in Live, and I believe that’s what they’re developing right now. Live is one of the best DAWs in terms of the workflow and the possibilities it gives you, but the sound is questionable, and so is the panning. Hard panning in Ableton doesn’t go 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. There are innumerable points of increments when panning with analog consoles, whilst certain DAWS only have a few of them. That’s why I prefer to be on my SSL when panning, as 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 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 as a DJ because of how different the sound systems are from place to place.
– Are there any artists who you feel are making interesting music right now?
There’s a lot of people doing interesting stuff even if they don’t get much mainstream attention. 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 bands like Yes and Led Zeppelin were super talented. But after all that skill came punk music. The youth basically said, “I don’t want to spend hours listening to complex 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 homogeneous music that’s played on radio. 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’ve cared about him, but now he’s having a lot of success because he’s both funny and skilled. Prince even wanted to work with him before he died. So I think more proficient musicians like him will resurface.
– Thanks for talking to me Philippe. It’s been great. Can I end by asking what projects you have in the works?
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 expect many of them to call me because they tend to live in their own world and can only work with producers who respect that bubble. I’d rather work with mavericks that want to make great music, and I’d also hope they were good people. To me, character is more important than talent. If someone is an asshole, I’m not interested in being in the studio with them even if their music is incredible. The way I spend my time nowadays is what matters the most to me.