Artist Feature: Producer Marius de Vries
By Marsha Vdovin
I read liner notes. Obsessively, I might add. I wish they actually provided more information. I want a full-on "Behind the Music" for each album.
One day a couple of years ago, I had four or five of my favorite CDs out, and I noticed a common name on each one: Marius de Vries. It would be impossible to list all his credits here both as a keyboard player and as a producer, but I'll drop some names: U2, Björk, Madonna, Annie Lennox, David Gray.
Marius, a London native, studied piano at an early age but discovered synthesizers as a Rick Wakeman fan in his early teens. By his late teens Marius was playing in bands on his Hohner Pianet, Multimoog and Roland String Machine. He also ran a mobile DJ operation in university at Cambridge. After several failed attempts to get a band signed, Marius started auditioning as a session keyboard player.
So you became a keyboard session player in the early to mid-'80s? That was a very exciting time for music.
Marius de Vries
Yes, it was exciting for me. For the first couple of years I was on the road for most of the time (which in itself was a great adventure). I started to phase more into studio work during the early days of MIDI and at a time when the keyboard player/programmer was becoming much more vital to the whole operation of recording. It was a time of the explosion of electronic dance music and remix culture; the first days of affordable sampling. Those few of us who mastered the technological implications of these developments early enough did very well. I worked constantly.
Did you program synths also?
Yes, I did. I was pretty handy with the old Akai S900s (had four of them in a rack, and suitcases full of floppies). I used the MKS80 a lot, and DX7s, and a racked-up Minimoog for bass. I liked the Prophet VS for a while and always stayed loyal to my ARP2600, my Juno 106 and my VCS3.
How did you make the transition to producing?
It was a blurry transition. There was often a fine line between programming and production because of how crucial the keyboard/sampler rig was to the kind of records we were making. I learned a lot from a few of the producers I was working with regularly-in particular Danny D and Nellee Hooper. I slowly began more and more to drive tracks home on my own. I would also do a lot of remixes on projects I was working on, alternative dance mixes of tracks, which was a great way of gaining experience.
It was just a fairly natural transition, because it was just around the time when a programmer's job was often to go in and basically put all the music together and do all the arrangements. The entire studio process at that time tended to be very heavily centered on the programming environment. After a certain amount of time, people realize that you're capable of kind of running the ship on your own, and give you the chance to do it. So it was a natural evolution, really, of what I was doing as a programmer.
Did you have that one project that was your first big break as a producer?
No, it sort of just began to phase in. I was doing little bits of production for Björk and little bits of production for Massive Attack while I was still programming for them. With Annie Lennox as well. I did some production with her at the same time as programming the record. So it just sort of slid. There wasn't really one major breakthrough. It was a slow transition.
Do you think the fact that you come from being a musician rather than from being an engineer makes you a different type of producer?
Well, that's a good question, because there are as many different types of producer as there are producers. But yeah, although I do engineer, and obviously I've got the technical background of programming, I'm very much a sort of musician-centered producer, or music-centered producer. I tend to try and leave the engineering side and the sonic side to the people in my team who I trust, and spend 90 percent of my time attending to the musical content of what's going on, and the temperature of the performances and so forth. So yeah, the actual content of the music is the thing I think that I concentrate the hardest on.
Has the way that you work changed drastically as technology has changed?
The most earth-shattering changes really happened very early on in the process, with the advent of audio-based sequences. I remember the first Logic program that I got that enabled you to record four tracks of audio at the same time as running the MIDI, rather than having to sync up to a tape machine. That was enormously liberating. This stuff that had been married to a piece of tape, and manipulating it in any sort of time-based way which was inordinately difficult, suddenly became extremely easy. That totally changed the way I worked. Since then the advances in technology have been more a question of more and better, rather than a complete change-around in the way of working. Pretty much from that moment on I've been doing the same thing, but being able to do it in a more sophisticated and more accurate way.
Do you work mainly in Pro Tools or Logic?
I'm entirely Logic based. Unless I'm doing the sort of session where I'm leaving the recording side of it entirely to the engineer, like a string session where I'm out there conducting. If it's the engineer's preference then to use Pro Tools, I'm happy to do that. But when I'm driving, I use exclusively Logic. In terms of the flexibility, the ease of use and the way that you can customize it so that you have a completely tailor-made, personal environment, it's a tremendous piece of software.
Let's talk about the UAD-1.
In my main studio I have Logic as the front end of Pro Tools. In my second studio I have the G5 with the UAD-1, and that's a really nice environment as well. I do foresee the time when I'll be junking my Digidesign hardware and doing everything native.
Do you have any favorite processors in the UAD-1?
The LA-2A is my favorite, I guess. I use that without even blinking on just about everything I do. It goes on just about everything. As soon as I've recorded a vocal, the first thing I do is slap an LA-2A over it, and it always sounds great.
Can you describe the effect it gives, or the sound it provides, or why you do it?
To sound good. You can do quite extreme amounts of compression without getting any of those nasty artifacts that you get out of other compressors. I like the hardware version as well, but the software version has a real warmth to it. It seems to control the vocal without screwing with the sound too much.
I've also been using the Neve 1073 processor. I'm enjoying it a lot. The 1073 has a great color and you can work it hard without any unpleasant side effects.
You work with a lot of female vocalists, right?
Yeah. I should say probably 60 or 70 percent of what I do tends to be with female artists. Although not so much this year.
What have you been working on this year?
I'm just doing a record for a new signing to Island/Universal, who's called Luke Toms. It's his first record. So he's male. And I'm working with Marc Almond, who used to be the singer in Soft Cell, who's male, just about. And Josh Groban, as well, who's a big male voice.
Do you have a wish list of gear?
I've stopped reading the magazines because I used to have an insatiable appetite for gear. I used to know about everything that came out, and thought I'd always want to try everything. And I used to buy everything as well. God knows how I afforded it! Now I'm at the point where I'm just really, really happy with what I've got, and it takes an awful lot for me to buy a new instrument or a new piece of software.
It's like if you're a violinist, and you read about this new flute that's come out, and you feel obliged to go and buy it and try and play. The trick is being able to master the stuff you've got, not being able to be quite good at everything that comes out.
Are you mainly working in your own studio, or do you go to track at other places?
If I'm tracking anything that's like a multi-mic setup, if it's strings or drums or something, I'll go across the road to the tracking studio here, or to a bigger studio. But pretty much everything I do in my own place now.
Is there any artist that you'd love to have the opportunity to work with?
People often ask me that, and to be honest, I've worked with most of them. David Bowie, Scott Walker are two names that there were definitely moments where I walked in and thought, "God, I'm working with my idol!" I did a record last month with Phil Collins that was really special in a funny sort of way, because I used to be a huge fan of his in the early '70s when he was doing all his jazz-rock stuff. But no, there's no one who I'm sort of gunning for at the moment. I'm quite happy to work on what's put in front of me.
Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to be a professional musician or a producer?
Just make sure that you're really in it for the long haul, and that it's something that you feel absolutely compelled to do, to the exclusion of everything else. It's a very risky business, and a very tough business to get into. And unless it's a kind of all-or-nothing thing, you should be looking at other options.
What do you think about the changes in the record industry, and music on the Internet?
Well, it is what it is. You can't really look at these massive changes in the way music is distributed and that whole culture, and say it's a good or a bad thing. It doesn't impact on me that much, in the way it impacts on record companies, because people still need the product. The one major thing is they're not quite prepared to pay so much to get the records made as they used to, so things are tougher in that respect. But as long as I keep making music that people want to hear, the way that it's ultimately distributed isn't changing the way I operate too much.
I think it's good in a way that things like Myspace and those sort of networks are taking away the sense of record companies being overall arbiters of taste. A handful of select A&R men being responsible for what's considered to be serviceable music was never a healthy situation. Except way back in the days when those A&R people really were extremely talented musical souls, which hasn't been by and large the case in a long, long time. I think in the end, unlimited distribution of an enormous amount of music is a bit crazy, because there's no quality control, and it's a bit disorientating for the consumer. But on the other hand, when all of it was entirely controlled by four or five major record companies, that wasn't healthy, either. So there's probably a common ground that will be found.
Some industries are changing dramatically-all of these media industries are obviously being massively affected by what the Internet has done to the way that information can be translated and communicated. We're in for a bumpy ride, but then, on the other hand, times of chaos are often times of opportunity, and I think you certainly can't pretend it's not happening, and I think you have to embrace it and just steer it in ways that are going to be productive and creative.
Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. It sounds like you're career is still going strong.
I'm hanging on by my fingernails, thank you. [Laughs.]