Extreme Mixing With Philippe Zdar
The ‘Crazy Frenchman’ behind Cassius, Phoenix and now Cat Power’s latest album Sun, shuns digital workflow, and overworking in general, to make sure he eradicates the ‘cancer’ of comfort and takes risks with his mixes.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, the French are often seen as connoisseurs of the good life — romance, sex, art, great food, wine, long holidays — and it’s no accident that we use their term joie de vivre. Conversely, the French are also often judged as chicken at the tough stuff, like working hard, waging wars, occupying other countries, and so on. It’s odd, therefore, that many of the world’s most extreme risk takers were and are French. Consider the likes of Charles Blondin, who was the first man to walk across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1859 and whose name in his time became synonymous with the high wire; or Philippe Petit, who walked on a wire between the Twin Towers in New York in 1974; or Alain ‘Spiderman’ Robert, who climbs the world’s highest buildings with his bare hands; or Jean-Marc Boivin, one of the world’s foremost pioneers of several extreme sports and the first to paraglide from the summit of Mount Everest.
NO CANCER PATIENCE
The exploits of Grammy-Award winning French musician, mixer and producer Philippe Zdar do not involve putting himself in physical peril, but it’s nonetheless striking that he, also, appears to have a mentality that greatly emphasises the importance of taking risks and of not having a safety net, more so than any other creative studio person this writer has interviewed. From his Motorbass studio in Paris, Zdar says, rather starkly, “I believe that comfort is the cancer of every artistic expression. If there’s an artist whose work you love, and suddenly you don’t care for what they do so much anymore, you’ll find out that they most likely had become
Comfort as a “cancer”? It’s an extreme statement, but it clearly has its roots in that noble French tradition of turning risk into art. Zdar acknowledges that his cultural outlook may have something to do with his approach. In contrast to the 21st century Anglo-Saxon way of life, where every effort appears to be made to not just manage risk but to eliminate it (health and safety inspectors at one stage wanting to ban kids playing soccer at British schools is one good example). By contrast, risk, anarchy, chaos and danger continue to be highly regarded in the French way of looking at life, the universe, and the creative process. For Zdar this isn’t only a crucial part of the musical decisions he makes, it also is at the heart of his technical approach and the gear he prefers to use.
“It’s one reason why I prefer to work in the analogue domain,” he explained. “I’ve seen a lot of friends getting great results in the studio, and then, after they get a DAW, they were doing really shitty stuff. They tell me it’s better, because they can recall and they can do this and they can do that. But it doesn’t work for me. The problem with ProTools is that it’s easy to forget to take risks. But you have to take risks. I say to the record company and artist: ‘if you work with me, I don’t recall the mix, except if I made a big mistake. So you have to make decisions while I’m working, and you have to take a risk in the moment.’ I love that, and I hate the comfort and the safety net that digital provides.”
I believe that comfort is the cancer of every artistic expression
Philippe Zdar is one of only a handful of French mixers and producers who have made a name for themselves outside their home country. Although he’s been active as a musician, DJ, engineer and producer since the late ’80s, his international breakthrough on the mix and production front only came very recently, in 2009, when he produced and mixed Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the album by French alternative rock band Phoenix that signified the band’s, and Zdar’s, breakthrough in the Anglo-Saxon world (it reached #37 in the US and #13 in Australia). It also earned both parties a Grammy Award. Zdar’s work on this album was one of the reasons why the Beastie Boys asked the Frenchman to mix their most recent album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011), again to great effect (it reached #2 in the US and #7 in Oz). The Beastie Boys and Zdar had never met before the Frenchman went over to New York for the mix, and the tragicomic events of their first two days together provide further evidence of a French predilection for taking risks and Anglo-Saxon bewilderment in response.
Zdar: “We had considered mixing in the Beastie Boys’ studio, but although their Neve is great for recording, it’s not good for me to mix on. When you mix, you have to be the boss of your own decisions, and I knew that if I agreed to do a test mix at their studio, it wouldn’t be very good. I wanted to mix on an SSL, so we went to Electric Lady Studios. I also hired a lot of additional outboard, and many of the Neves and Pultecs and Ureis and Fairchilds and EMT reverbs arrived with a lot of dust on them, making me realise that people don’t work with this stuff anymore. The Electric Lady studio assistant was pulling out his hair when I was installing all the extra outboard, because I was doing all sorts of unorthodox stuff, but he was also fascinated, because it had been a long time since he’d done a session like that.
“Electric Lady also had a lot of outboard, and the Beasties brought some great cheap spring reverbs that you can’t find anywhere anymore, so I had a great setup. But when we started to work there was a big problem. I’m used to slamming my E-series SSL at Motorbass very very hard, so much so that I have to set the two-track tape recorder I mix on to -7dB, so it can handle the level. I did the same with the SSL at Electric Lady, and we found that we had this 4Hz frequency going through the mixes. We could see but not hear the waveform, of course, but it did seem to affect the way the ProAc monitors were handling the music. For two days we didn’t understand what was happening, and in the end we called in an SSL guy, who couldn’t understand what I was doing either and who was probably thinking something like ‘crazy Frenchman!’ The atmosphere became a bit charged at this point. In the end he told me that the J is not like the E and that I can’t overload it in the same way, so I took the input down a little bit, and then the 4Hz sound disappeared. He eventually realised that I did know what I was doing and why, and we became good friends. The Beastie Boys were also wondering, ‘whooaa, what’s going on?’ and for those first two days things were a little hairy.”
THE SHORT LIST
The risk-taking ‘crazy Frenchman’ was born in eastern France, in the Alps, as Philippe Cerboneschi. When he turned 17 in the late ’80s he moved to Paris, where he became a tea‑boy at Marcadet Studios, and gradually worked his way up to become an engineer. Around the same time, he met Hubert ‘Boom Bass’ Blanc‑Francard, with whom he worked on the first album by MC Solaar, Qui Seme le Vent Recolte le Tempo (1991), and he produced several subsequent albums by France’s number one rapper. During the ’90s, Zdar also realised his ambitions to be successful as a musician with the groups Motorbass (with Étienne de Crécy) and, with Blanc‑Francard in Le Funk Mob. And most famously and still ongoing, the electronic music group Cassius. The latter’s 1999 hit, appropriately called Cassius 1999, earned him his first international recognition. Since then Zdar has become increasingly known for his Midas touch as a producer and a mixer. Following the international success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix he has produced and mixed The Rapture’s In the Grace of Your Love (2011) and Kindness’ World, You Need a Change of Mind (2012), and mixed Chromeo’s Business Casual (2010), The Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011), most recently Cat Power’s Sun (2012), plus several songs on Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke’s solo album The Boxer (2010). And that, err, is it.
Most mixer and producers have credits lists as long as one’s arm, and then some, with some top professional mixers mixing over 300 tracks per year. By contrast, Zdar’s rather short mix and production discography is another indicator of his unorthodox approach. “I’m not a mixer,” he explained. “I am an artist who produces and mixes. And I only occasionally mix and produce. I have plenty of people calling me to mix or to produce, and most of the time I say no, because I don’t want it to become a job. For me mixing is a passion, and I will never mix something that I don’t like. I like and respect what mixers do, but I really don’t want to do hundreds of mixes per year. My DJ and producer careers are very important to me and intricately connected, and mixing is something that takes a lot of time and energy, so for me it really has to be something that I love. For this reason there are only very few projects that I mix without also producing, like with the Beastie Boys and Chan Marshall [Cat Power].”
Because of the intensity, focus, and, presumably, risk-taking that Zdar brings to the projects he works on, his involvement is often described as ‘career changing’. The man’s unusual methods are further illustrated by a quote from The Rapture band member Gabriel Andruzzi. In a lengthy article on Zdar in the New York style and music magazine The Fader, Adruzzi remarks, “Mixing is where I really think Philippe becomes an artist. There were always moments with him where he’d be like, ‘We can do it your way, and it’ll be shit. We can do it in between my way and your way, and I will not be happy — it’ll be shit. Or, we can do it my way, and it’ll be fantastic.’”
It’s a rather far cry from the ‘helping the artist realise his or her intentions’ ethos that’s almost universal amongst today’s engineers, mixers and producers. So is Zdar an egomaniac control freak, or a benevolent dictator, or was Andruzzi overstating the case? Zdar laughs when confronted with Andruzzi’s quote. “That’s a bit of a joke from Gabriel,” he responds. “Because I’m actually very collaborative with the artist, and I really want the artist or band to be there when I mix and give me their input. But there is some truth in what he says in that many artists don’t yet know exactly where they’re going until the mix, so it is important that I give them my input at that stage. Of course, when I produce or mix a band I bring my expertise from my musician and DJ backgrounds. DJ-ing in particular keeps me at the cutting edge. With many producers, their musical references stop at a certain point in time, and they end up always referring to older records. But when I’m DJ-ing, I listen to a lot of new records, and that updates my musical skills and outlook, which I bring back to my work as a mixer and producer.”
CAT POWER FINDS NEW HOME
Zdar’s mix of Cat Power’s Sun album has been the most recent project during which he wove his risk-taking mixing magic. American singer/songwriter Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, came out of the ’90s Indie rock scene, transformed herself into a soul and folk-influenced torch singer, and took another new direction with Sun. On it she experiments with electronica and drum machines and plays all instruments herself, apart from on the first single, Ruin, which features the Dirty Delta Blues Band, her stage backing group. In terms of international chart positions, Sun is Marshall’s most successful album to date. She wrote and recorded the material for the album in studios in Silverlake and Malibu (both in California), and Miami, and produced it herself. When her thoughts turned to mixing, she sought out Zdar, because she liked his mixes of the Beastie Boy’s Hot Sauce Committee Part II.
“She came over to Paris in the beginning of July 2011,” recalls Zdar, “and played me what she had and asked me whether I would mix it. The album wasn’t quite finished, but I loved what I heard. I felt that the basics were there, and there was a charm and honesty and naivety about her production that was important to keep. So I recommended she didn’t complete the album with another producer, but finished it alone. It shouldn’t become too polished or professional-sounding. We were on the same wavelength on this one, but she hadn’t always been comfortable working in the studios where she had been so she asked whether she could finish the album off in my studio. I agreed and also suggested a few friends of mine she could work with, like Jeff Dominguez [arranger and engineer], and Bastian Vandevelde and Julien Naudin [both assistant engineers]. It was supposed to take a few months, but she ended up recording in Motorbass for seven months! I occasionally walked in and gave advice. She wasn’t always working, so I could also use the studio when I needed it for my own projects.”
Motorbass is a top-quality studio, centred around Zdar’s favourite 40-input E-series SSL desk, plus a Neve 8816 sidecar that’s used to plug in many of the studio’s impressive collection of outboard effects. The latter contains vintage boxes by the likes of Neve, Pultec, EMT, Lexicon, Teletronix, Quad 8, many old spring reverbs, and more. Though the studio has the obligatory ProTools system, it also houses a 24-track MCI tape machine, as well as an Ampex ATR102 two-track tape recorder, and Auratone, NS10 and refurbished Eastlake monitors. Zdar completed the studio in 2009, having built it over seven years with money earned mainly from DJ-ing. Today he has income streams from producing, mixing, DJ-ing and music, though not from his studio. Renting it out to Marshall was a rare occasion. “I could rent it out every day,” Zdar explains, “but I don’t want to, because there’s too much music out there that I don’t respect. When you rent out your studio commercially, it will sometimes be hired by people who make horrible music, and that is impossible for me. So I can’t stand the idea of renting out my place.”
I was obsessed with the idea of it sounding like the Rolling Stones doing disco, but in a modern way
A rack full of Pultecs keeps the doctor away, as do enough effects racks to keep a mix risky…or riské.
SKETCHING A BLUEPRINT
After close to seven months of Marshall working in Motorbass, with Zdar occasionally drifting in and out to see how things were going and offering words of advice, the Frenchman finally set about mixing the album. He began with Ruin, which was to be the first single, for reasons that by now will sound familiar… “I always like to begin with mixing a big song,” he explains. “Because it puts some pressure on everyone. I don’t like to play it safe. I like taking risks. When you mix a big song first, it means that everyone has to concentrate and it also instils confidence in an artist or band. If you begin with an easy song, it can be cool, but it doesn’t mean you’re good enough to mix the rest. I also took Ruin because there was no sound for the record yet, no blueprint. I still had to find that sound and Ruin was perfect to create that with. Also, it was the first song she played me when she came to see me seven months before. The same happened with Phoenix. The first song they played me was If I Ever Feel Better [from the album United, (2000)], and that was also a big song and became the first song by them that I mixed.”
The blueprint that emerged from Marshall’s years of hard work and Zdar’s mix is a heady mix of smoky, impressionistic, often multi-layered vocals, backed by sparse-sounding arrangements featuring atmospheric reverb-drenched synths, pianos and electric guitars, and in-your-face drums that sound slightly ramshackle, whether played, programmed, and/or looped. It’s unlike anything Marshall has done before, and pretty much unlike anything else released in 2012, making the creation of a blueprint doubly important, and perhaps also more of a challenge. Zdar, however, insists that for him it was just a ProTools session that needed to be knocked into shape with his tried and tested analogue signal paths, working methods and headspace.
Zdar: “No challenges. I just went for it. I simply went for a good drum sound, a good bass sound, a good piano sound, and so on, even as there was a lot of experimenting. My vision for a track emerges while I’m mixing, especially during the first hour. That first hour of mixing is very important to me. It’s the time when the mix is taking shape. That’s a time when I don’t like being distracted. Afterwards you can talk to me, I can go to the restaurant, whatever. I’d say that 80% of the mix is there after that first hour. I generally start by working on the drums and the bass, and then I add the other elements in one by one. I bring the vocal in very early, because when I worked as an assistant engineer I saw so many guys creating incredibly good mixes of the music, and then when they put the vocal in, it wasn’t working. If you’re mixing a song, the vocal is the most important element, of course.
“With Ruin I actually started with the piano, because it’s the most important element. There were many piano tracks, because of the way she had recorded and produced the song. They all play the same riff, and they came up on three stereo pairs on the SSL, which each had slightly different compression and EQ. I then added the drums, the bass, and then the guitars. I really wanted the guitars to have a Keith Richards sound. I was obsessed with the idea of it sounding like the Rolling Stones doing disco, but in a modern way. For the same reason I wanted the bass to sound very clear, like a disco bass played by a rocker. I love this. That determined what I would add in terms of EQ and compression. If it’s a disco bass played by a disco guy, I’d be less into it.
“There were quite a few plug-ins on the ProTools session, which was in 24-bit/48k, but I took almost all of them off. I sometimes use specialist plug-ins, like the Izotope de-esser, because it works really well and there’s no analogue one that’s better, but I have all the hardware compressors and equalisers that I love. Digital doesn’t only sound like shit, it also makes everything sound the same. Plus working with outboard is very fast for me: it’s all hardwired into my desk, and I touch it with my hands, I set it and it’s working. Another advantage is that I don’t have to watch a screen. Because I can’t save the settings in analogue outboard, it forces me to have a mind-set of taking decisions in the moment. As I said, I don’t like to have a safety net. Mixing is a controlled performance, and digital takes the performance out of mixing. This is why I don’t use it. A tightrope walker who has a net is not interesting, because there’s no performance. But if there’s no net, it’s fantastic. Mixing in the analogue domain is like that.”