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electronic MUSICIAN

COVERT Operation

By Ken Micallef | June 1, 2003

If a producer received a call from Madonna, he would do anything to keep the Material Girl happy, right? Not so for Paris-based veteran Mirwais Ahmadzai. When Madonna called on his production skills for her 2000 release, Music (Warner Bros.), the admittedly underground artist Mirwais was relieved that his trademark hypnotic grooves and retro sounds didn't end up on the chopping block.

“I was happy when she called,” Mirwais says, “not just for the fame and money, but because I knew we could do some really great music together. With Madonna, I didn't have any pressure, because she asked first about [my single] ‘Disco Science,’ which is an extreme track. If she liked that, then I knew she would not change me. You don't call me if you want me to change.”

“Disco Science,” the opening track to Mirwais' album, Production (Epic, 2000), also appears in Madonna's husband Guy Ritchie's punch-drunk film epic Snatch. With its loping beat, swerving scratch guitar and what sounds like a sarcastic alien crying for help, “Disco Science” is a gooey slab of French house that combines the funk of Chic with the primitive man-machine tones of Kraftwerk. Yet Production's nine tracks are shockingly romantic. It's a perfect meeting of weirdly warm tones and subtle electronica — with beats so sexy you could dance in slow motion at zero gravity. “Naive Song” matches tripping acoustic guitars with squirming synths. The underwater funk of “V.I.” recalls Velvet Underground grooving with electronic composer Morton Subotnick. “Definitive Beat” is a pounding sound clash of scattershot snare drums and reverberating guitars. Production also includes the beautiful “Paradise,” a woozy outerspace tribute to emotional dislocation that Madonna ended up including on Music.

When it came time to record the follow-up to Music, Madonna again enlisted Mirwais for the controversial American Life (Warner Bros., 2003). But this time, she wanted Mirwais not only as producer but also as co-songwriter. What transpired was Madonna's wholesale adaptation of Mirwais' style and sound. “I couldn't say that,” Mirwais admits. “There is some influence from my work. I am what I am. But she wants to be minimal in terms of structure. This way, this album is like one of my albums. It is a very close collaboration. Technically, I am the producer, but I don't work with many people because I am not interested to work like that. Yet if she wasn't famous, I think we could work together exactly the same way.”

In the early 1980s, Mirwais was in the Parisian electro-punk-disco band Taxi Girl. So the programmer and songwriter has had many years of experience to form some definite views about electronic music. “Too much electronic music has been used for fashion and is overly popularized,” Mirwais says through his thick accent. “It is time for the music to go back underground. I am not so interested in focusing on the technology. It is more interesting to push the songwriting and lay the technology underneath; I describe it as modified songwriting. It might sound simple at first, even rough. But when you pay attention, there is a lot of technology underneath.”

That approach was an imperative for American Life. Recorded at three different studios — Sarm West in London and Wheatfield and Webster Lake in Los Angeles — using Mirwais' own gear in addition to the studios' SSL mixing consoles, the album's recording process was often laborious but with a less-is-more philosophy that is reflected in the music's sparse arrangements.

“We tried to underproduce many tracks to make them sound rougher than the average international pop production,” Mirwais explains. “We wanted to do something totally modern and futuristic but not very apparent. You have to be very minimalist and choose every sound very carefully. Some tracks were composed in the big studio; that can be very dangerous because you can lose perspective. But all initial directions of the tracks were made in my home studio.”

CAN YOU S-S-S-S-SAY STUTTER?

American Life is suffused with Mirwais' trademarks: stuttering instruments and vocals, oscillating looped tones that recall 1950s sonar pulses, vocals that morph wildly from grunts to squeals and treatments that make the music freeze midrhythm. “Many people think stuttering is my trademark,” Mirwais says. “But in the future, everyone will do this. People get upset because they think it is not natural to skip and stutter the music. But I do it because it is natural. The stuttering can help you create a new groove. Everything has been done, but with the Pro Tools, you can play with the silence. I stop the audio to create a silence, and it gives something exciting to the music.”

Mirwais uses different tech tricks to create a cool effect as long as the effect doesn't overpower the songwriting. “When I say the technology is not apparent,” he says, “I am thinking of a track like ‘I'm So Stupid.’ That is one of the most innovative tracks on the album. The vocal starts very gently; then, I freeze it using the Roland VP-9000. It is the only machine that can do this. It is not a sample loop; it is a freeze. When she sings ‘Aaaaaahhhhhh,’ the vocals freeze. It is a gently modified track. It sounds natural, but it is not natural.”

A PLAN, A PROCESS

“Hollywood” is a standout on American Life. Beginning with a fingerpicked Martin D-28 acoustic guitar (another Mirwais constant), a clubby disco beat underpins a mammoth bass line with freaky percussion, queasy arcing tones and madly treated vocals.

“‘Hollywood’ was a very old song,” Mirwais says. “We weren't satisfied with the original version, so Madonna found an alternative melody. I used a very minimalist drum kit with old percussion I found in an E-mu sampler bank. I used an old drum loop in addition to the basic programming for the disco feel of it. I needed to use a smaller-sounding kick because I wanted to have the bass synth sound very big. The bass is the Nord Lead Rack 2 with a lot of filtering manipulations. I had many problems with that. When I started to use the filter on the Nord Lead, I had to change the bottom; it lacked weight. I had to find exactly the right frequency on the Yamaha O2R mixer. It was very hard to find the right kick, too, because if I chose something bigger, the track would have sounded like an average club track. The vocals were recorded with heavy compression in her headphones to help her to get the feeling of the performance. We experiment a lot with vocal sounds. For example, the pitch-down vocal at the end was initially much longer. The mix of this one was very hard — like almost all tracks — because there was so much stuff going on. This is why maybe the final version is so simple.”

THE BATTLE OVER MACHINES

Two machines were used for the extensive vocal editing in “Hollywood” and “I'm So Stupid.” Madonna preferred the Antares Auto-Tune plug in; Mirwais chose an AMS 1580 S-DMX pitch shifter.

“I am not a huge fan anymore of Auto-Tune,” Mirwais says. “But Madonna wanted to use it because people know the effect, but more in a dance context than a pop context. If it had been me, I would have gotten rid of it. We used mainly analog compressors on the vocals, sometimes very cheap or midbudget stuff, recorded with a Sony G800 tube mic, a Neve 8081 preamp and an LA-2A compressor/limiter. But everything is about the setting, my friend.”

Mirwais loves gooey tones like donuts spinning in hot oil. Getting that sound is a long and often labor-intensive process, which Mirwais experimented with when Madonna was away from the studio. “I use the portamento mode [for gliding between pitches] to create something more in the sound,” he says. “You have to be very careful with the controller and the way the filter is used. With bass-synth sounds [from the Nord Lead 2], if you don't use the legato, if you don't add expressiveness, it is very static-sounding. This is why some electronic music is very cold. For the main bass line in ‘Hollywood,’ you can't imagine how long I stood there with the controller — for several days — to make the bass the most expressive possible, the most alive. I try to not use the portamento too much, but it is so easy; it gives excitement. In a way, I use it like a guitar, but with the synth, you can do more than a human.”

The experimentation process is also, at times, time-consuming when it comes to creating beats. “I program the drum beats in Logic or step-by-step,” Mirwais explains. “And I change the timing. I generally don't use samples. The actual sounds come from everywhere, but, honestly, I couldn't say where they come from. If I need something really particular, I go and listen to any album, and I sample and then try again and again until I get what I need. I have a lot of zip files of old songs in my E-mu. Generally, I go to my own bank and use samples from there and construct a new kit.

PAST TO PRESENT AND BACK

The production sounds on Mirwais' Production and Madonna's American Life often recall the crusty loops and fried radio waves of Ralf and Florian — era Kraftwerk. Mirwais doesn't deny the influence — he embraces it. “Kraftwerk is my most essential influence,” he says. “When people talk about dance music, they talk about funk, but that is not the end all for me. It is about funk and electro, like Kraftwerk, especially Man Machine, the late-'70s work. The mixture of this European sound and the black American sound created electro, techno and rap. I try to make the link between the European sound and the black soul sound. I don't want to restrict myself.”

And when will Mirwais record more of his sounds? Don't hold your breath. Mirwais is a man of thought and action, but the latter is on hold for the foreseeable future. “I just finished one year on American Life, and I have to relax a little bit. I am drained; I have no inspiration. But it is good. When you do good music, it gives you youth; you are young forever. But if you are doing bad music, it keeps you old forever. But music is not just music — it's a language. Consequently, you must pay attention to what you want to say.”

PREACH TO CONVERT

Always looking for new ways to maximize his sound arsenal, Mirwais looks beyond today's plug-ins to an era of cheap gear and endless possibilities: “The sound of plug-ins is not always so good. If you use a simple A/D converter with all the software, it sounds exactly the same. When you use Pro Tools 888 to output your synth plug-ins, they will sound exactly the same because of phase cancellation. When the Nord Lead Rack 2 and the Nord Lead 3 pass through the 888 converter, they will sound both the same. The converter is the problem; the answer is to have a lot of cheap converters, and you could choose the coloration you want for your synth. I am waiting for a new generation with cheap converters for synth plug-ins, something that costs $50, and you could buy 10 of them and have a different color.”

MYRIAD MIRWAIS GEAR

Alesis ADAT (3)
Alesis QuadraVerb processor
AMS 1580 S-DMX pitch shifter
Antares Auto-Tune plug-in
Apple Mac G4
Clavia Nord Lead 2 rack module
Clavia Nord Lead 3 rack module
dbx 120XP Subharmonic Synthesizer
Digidesign 888|24 I/O interface
Digidesign Pro Tools
Emagic Logic Audio
EMS Vocoder 2000
E-mu E6400 Ultra sampler
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer
Gibson Les Paul Goldtop guitar
Ibanez SDR-1000 effects processor
Korg Prophecy keyboard
Mackie HR8 monitors
MAM VF 11 vocoder
Martin D-28 acoustic guitar
MOTU MIDI Express XT interface
Roland JD-990 Super JD rack synth module
Roland VP-9000 VariPhrase Processor
TC Electronic Finalizer
Yamaha NS10 monitors
Yamaha O2R mixer
Waldorf Microwave XT synth

SLICING AND DICING

One Mirwais trademark is extreme editing, which causes guitars, vocals and beats to hiccup and skip like a gentle jackhammer. “These days, people are more artificially tuned,” he says. “They are so used to electronica, if you don't change the timing and work with various compressors and effects, they get bored. I put all the important things in terms of groove directly on the beat. I did it in Logic, but you can do it in Pro Tools. It's very complex and involved; I do it slice-by-slice. I put Auto-Tune on individual syllables. You have to be very careful, though: It can sound unnatural. Sometimes, I used 40 tracks of audio on just one vocal track. Sometimes, you can just change a syllable in a line, and it can give you such a different feeling. When you get rid of the whispers, the breath, it sounds a lot more modern. I am talking about a line that sounds normal but has been changed to put it in a kind of not-human way of sounding. I tried to make it work in a natural way. When you sing a song, nobody could be on the beat like a machine. Nobody. I won't do it on the whole line, just a word or a syllable. By doing this, you can add this extreme geometry to the track.”

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