Madonna's latest production partner tells all about the making of Music
By Ernie Rideout
Well, howdy, and welcome to Madonna's hummin' and strummin', chart-toppin' new pop masterpiece, Music. Don't let the down-home title, acoustic guitar tracks, and Stetson on the cover fool you, pardner: This disc has a serious high-tech pedigree. Among the pop diva's collaborators on her eighth solo album are dancefloor master William Orbit (whose work on her Ray of Light CD we illuminated in the July '98 issue) and Guy Sigsworth (June '96), keyboardist and programmer for Björk and Goldie.
But Madonna's main sidekick on this recording is largely a stranger here in the Wild West. Mirwais Ahmadzai made his first sonic mark on the French scene in the late '70s with Taxi Girl, a punk/new wave venture that had a major deal with Virgin and an unfortunate penchant for self-destruction. Taxi Girl's rhythm tracks were as frenetic as their vocals were lethargic, but Mirwais's ever-so-slightly demented guitar parts hinted at the sonic mayhem in his future.
Following the demise of Taxi Girl in the mid-'80s, Mirwais formed Juliette et les Independants with his vocalist girlfriend. For the next ten years the duo cranked out highly melodic pop with an occasional curveball thrown in the form of an odd choice for a bass note here or a chord from left field there. His wild reputation preceded him into contract negotiations, though, and it took several years before they signed a deal with EMI.
Meanwhile, Mirwais focused his own musical energies on creating experimental, effect-drenched juxtapositions of guitar parts, sequenced lines, loops, and found sounds -- recordings in which he quite clearly was taking the technology of the time a little farther than it had been intended to go. Though he insists he never had any commercial ambitions for the results of his experiments -- he maintains that he still has no such primary goals for his music -- his tracks nonetheless created quite a buzz on the European dance scene.
So how did he finance his musical think tank? By doing what any gear-curious, poverty-stricken player would do: produce and engineer other people's music. Doing so kept his hands on new gear and gave him the opportunity to convince clients to try out his ideas -- skills that would come in very handy with his biggest client ever.
After working and re-working several tracks over the course of a few years, Mirwais found his studio tinkerings coming to fruition in a deal with Sony. The first release was a single called "Disco Silence" that featured a rather racy video produced by his friend Stephan Sednaoui -- best known in the States as the producer of several Madonna videos. "Disco Silence" and eight other moody yet danceable tracks were slated to be released on Mirwais's solo debut for Sony, entitled Production.
While Mirwais was finishing up the new album in the fall of 1999, Sednaoui sent a copy of "Disco Silence" to Maverick records, Madonna's label. A few days later, label head Guy Oseary asked for some additional material, and Mirwais obliged with several tracks in progress from Production. Then he got the phone call that changed his life.
Mirwais on working with Madonna: "Normally, it takes about six months to a year for people I'm working with to understand my ideas. With Madonna, the first time she heard it, she loved it. She listened to it and she said, 'Okay, let's do it.' It's because of this that I love to work with her. You don't have to spend six months explaining things."
First Time in the Big Time
How did Mirwais react to Madonna herself asking him to work with her? "I was relaxed about it," he says matter-of-factly. "In my position as an unknown, you can imagine that it would be the chance of a lifetime. But I was relaxed, because I knew she was asking me to do what I do, she was interested in me for my own work, and not for my ability as a performer or for what I'd done for someone else's songs. I knew that we would do very good music together. We were in tune, on the same wavelength." Shortly thereafter, Mirwais found himself at London's Sarm West Studios, face to face with Madonna.
"The first song we worked on together was 'Impressive Instant,'" he says. "It was the most complete of the demo tracks I sent her. It was an instrumental, and it wasn't supposed to be included on my own album. But she said that she had an idea for lyrics. When we got to London, I asked her to sing it for me.
"I was a surprised, of course, because it was new. But she improved my track! I was amazed. When you know your track well and it's finished, you're always afraid of what someone else can do to it. But I knew at the first listen that it was going to be cool.
"We realized soon that what she wanted was difficult for me to give her in the studio, with her there. I had to come back to Paris to work. And after one or two days, she agreed.
"There are a lot of chopped vocal tracks on 'Impressive Instant,'" he continues. "That was impossible to do in the studio. It doesn't make sense to rent a place like Sarm just to have me work on ten seconds of music all day, using only the one computer.
"In ten days we did most of the vocal tracks to a Sony 48-track -- backing vocals, acoustic guitar, everything I needed to get to work. Then I transferred the tracks into Logic Audio using the A/D converters of the TC Electronic Finalizer; I ran them in one at a time with timecode. Then I took my computer back to Paris to work. Alone."
Mirwais loves to mangle audio with hardware, but he has no qualms doing it with software too. "It's very, very complicated, slice by slice," he says of his vocal editing technique. "I put Auto-Tune on individual syllables. Sometimes I use 40 tracks of audio just on one vocal track. Each has a different level and treatment, and then I do a composite. I couldn't do this with a normal analog studio setup."
The Lone Arranger
Once back in his home studio, Mirwais worked obsessively, applying his trademark sound mangling to "Impressive Instant." The first weapon in his arsenal: the Antares Auto-Tune plug-in set for hard pitch correction [1, 2]. [Note: See "Drop the Needle" at the bottom of this page for info on the red numbers that appear throughout this article.] "In the past everybody used the vocoder," he says. "But the vocoder is not the same as Auto-Tune; Auto Tune keeps the characteristic of the voice. With the vocoder, it's the machine that makes the sound. Auto-Tune keeps the characteristics of the voice or instrument. It's the vocoder of the 2000s. You could propose using it to a lot of artists, and they'd be a little afraid. But Madonna -- no. She liked it immediately. To make it work, though, she had to sing a little out of tune and without vibrato."
"Impressive Instant" opens with out-of-phase synth LFO sweeps, panned hard left and right . Light and transparent, the sound forms a backdrop for the entire length of the track. "Those are from the Nord Lead, run through a lowpass filter," says Mirwais. "The Nord Lead is an impressive machine because it's so simple."
The bass part on "Impressive Instant" is elusive, seeming massive and muted at the same time. "It's more of a sub-bass tone. There isn't much information in the mid or high range," explains Mirwais. "It's all from the Korg Prophecy. It's my secret weapon, an amazing synth. It's the Minimoog of the millennium. It has the most incredible bottom end, and it's very flexible -- though it's not easy to use. I just use the straight sound; I don't process it."
The first hint of melody on the track is a grungy filter-swept fragment . "That's Madonna's voice, run through an Eventide H3000," he explains. "Then I ran it through an emulation of a phaser effect I get by using the filters and delay in the E6400. When you use the resonant filters on the E6400, you lose a little bit of the signal, especially in the high end." Similarly, "Music" begins with a nearly unrecognizable vocoded phrase, "Boogie woogie/Do you like to?"  In this case, though, Mirwais went old-school and used an EMS 2000 vocoder on Madonna's vocal track.
In addition to the Auto-Tune treatment, Madonna's vocals seem to go in fits and starts, sometimes subtly and at others stuttering as though the CD has a scratch on it . "I did all that stuttering in Logic," he says. "It's very, very complicated, slice by slice. You have to experiment a lot to make it work. I put Auto-Tune on individual syllables. Sometimes I use 40 tracks of audio just on one vocal track. Each has a different level and treatment, and then I do a composite. I couldn't do this with a normal analog studio setup.
"The starting and stopping thing, it's an idea I've had for awhile," he continues. "Normally, it takes about six months to a year for people I'm working with to understand my ideas. With Madonna, the first time she heard it, she loved it. She had a chemical reaction to it. She listened to it and she said, 'Okay, let's do it.' It's because of this that I love to work with her. You don't have to spend six months explaining things.
"It's important to get those ideas out. I may have an idea today, but if I release the idea one year later, someone else will have found it and I won't be the first to use it. To be able to react quickly in the music world is important. I don't see music as a competition, but I think there are so many people doing music on computers now that effects such as this can be found by lots of people. I'm not so pretentious to say that I'm the only person to have an idea. But it's important to try to be the first. If you spend six months trying to make your partners understand your idea, you lose it."
A little later in the track, Mirwais created a breakdown featuring his brilliant Auto-Tune surgery . The breakdown ends with an out-of-control burst of synth activity. "That's the Nord Lead, using its echo function." reveals Mirwais. "It's not an effect, it's an echo generated by the synth parameters. The Nord has no effects of its own.
"I worked maybe for 15 days on this track," says Mirwais. "Then I sent it to Madonna in New York. That version I made in Paris is very close to what we ended up with for the final mix. On most of the other tracks, Mark 'Spike' Stent, the engineer, added a lot to the mix. We tried to mix it first from the Sony digital tracks, but we couldn't get the original sound of the demo. So we took the sound right from my Yamaha 02R: the bass, the loops, and the kick. It was incredible. I trust my computer and my 02R. [Laughs.]
"A lot of engineers would've said, 'Okay, we can manage it, we can reproduce that original sound somehow.' But in this case, no, because the compression of the 02R is the compressor on the track. You can't emulate that sound. Every piece of gear has its sonic personality. I feel this track was made by the EQ and the compressor of the 02R.
"It used to be that if you wanted to have the best sound possible, you had to go to an SSL and record onto the Sony 48-track. Today with a sampler and a digital mixer, the technology takes you to a different world. There are different possibilities for working now."
Contrasting with the chopped and mangled sound of "Impressive Instant" is "I Deserve It," a track dominated instrumentally by nothing more than Mirwais strumming an acoustic guitar. "To me, the most experimental thing I did on the album was on 'I Deserve It': There's no reverb on that track. Spike did a great job recording it with an old German mic from the '30s. We added compression, but we didn't need anything else.
"That was a new thing for Madonna. She usually likes to track with a lot of reverb and delay. But that way, I can't check the tuning of the voice. I always listen to the vocal track without effects. The first time she listened to herself without effects, she was scared of it, and she asked me to put the reverb back on. But then one time I was checking the track without effects and she listened, too -- and she loved it. For me, it's the most important thing that we did to her voice on the album: to leave it naked.
"It was her idea to keep it that way. The mix on this track is very close to the first mix we did on the first day. She wanted me to keep it very simple. I wanted to produce it a little bit more, to take it a little further, but she told me, 'Okay, let's stop here.' I like the difference between a track like 'Impressive Instant' with a lot of effects, and a track as simple as 'I Deserve It.' It makes for a very interesting album."
The track isn't all just guitar and vocals, of course. The subtle synth parts are interesting in that they're simple, yet they have attitude. The organ-like suspended voicings behind the vocal are from the Waldorf Microwave XT . "It's a kind of fake Rhodes sound on the Waldorf," he says. "The part is kind of a church organ vibe, but the church organ sound was too obvious; there was too much characteristic of the sound in the track. We needed something more dreamy and discrete." The gossamer backing pads , sub-tone bass, and portamento lead part  are all from the Nord Lead. "The Nord is always very interesting because it's so warm," says Mirwais.
His acoustic guitar makes another appearance on "Don't Tell Me," with very different results. "This was a demo that I recorded in my own studio," he says. "I recorded it to my ADAT using a Martin D-28 guitar that I borrowed from a friend. I ran a Neumann KM84 into the preamp of the 02R. I deliberately played it poorly, and then I chopped it up to make it stutter. I made it for myself, just as a demo. I had a melody over it, but when Madonna heard it, she came up with her own."
"Paradise" was also a fully formed track when Mirwais sent it to Madonna. "Those are live strings, arranged by Cyril Morin," he says. "This track was originally for my own album, Production. When she listened to my tracks, she absolutely wanted to sing this one. My only problem was that I wanted to include it on my own album. So it's on both my album and hers! The only difference is I did a two-bar edit on my version."
The synth parts on this cut are typical of the level of control Mirwais prefers to exercise on a production. "The lead synth, that's the Prophecy with a lot of controller data," he says . "It's very difficult to do, but Logic helped me a lot. Just on this one synth part, I used about 20 tracks of controller data. One track controls the attack, another the envelope, and so on. On the first pass I enter the controller data in real time with a slider, but then I go back and edit each controller track. It took more than a week just to get that one lead synth part the way I wanted."
A Chart-Bustin' Philosophy
We noted earlier that Mirwais has traditionally shied away from characterizing his music as being targeted for commercial success. After years of underground notoriety and poverty, what does he think about the success of Music? "When Music went to #1 in the USA," he says, "I was very happy for myself of course, for a lot of reasons. But also it was a small victory for underground music. It's proof that you can make profit with creativity. A lot of people have said that if you want to be a big star in music, you have to make compromises. You have to format your music to make it in the commercial world. But I think you can be creative and experimental. This is proof that you can do it.
"You can say, 'Yes, but the success is because of Madonna.' What I can say is that Madonna doesn't go to #1 with each of her records. This record zoomed to #1 very quickly. For me it's a proof that -- even in the USA, where few people are focused on electronic music -- if people are exposed to this kind of music, it can succeed."
That said, he's quick to acknowledge Madonna's partnership in the production. "I don't mean at all to say that I did everything on these tracks. We produced together. It's all a common energy. She never imposed limits on me. My natural side leans toward more experimental music. And with Madonna, she's not only commercial. She's also experimental. She has a natural feeling for new music and for good commercial music. She listens to a lot of underground music. She has a natural feeling for it. The mixture of her energy and her character are good for that, good for this record."
Also figuring heavily into his outlook is the greater control of recording, synthesis, and other music technologies now available to the average musician. "Today, it's possible to see that beyond the machine is a musician, more than in past years. Even so, when I listen to some electronic music today, I still think the musician is dominated by the machine. It's unfortunate. Sometimes there are a lot of very long records, but with no music inside.
"We have to control the machines. Until electronics came along, the musician controlled when they played a note and when to stop a note. It's not so easy to have that control with computers. When you push a button, the computer can play for the rest of your life, and it's very exact. But it can be exact in the wrong way. It is for this reason that when people get involved in music, they don't realize the danger of the machines. It's difficult to preserve your creativity, because the machine makes it so easy to do things. You have to think a lot about what you're trying to accomplish, and you should have a philosophy behind your music.
"My problem with electronic music today, especially in Europe, is that each new musical wave starts with an open-minded, free approach about what music should be. Generally, you have this at the beginning, maybe for one year after. Then when the new scene starts to make money, everything becomes rigid. The electronic scene to me, when house music started, was very interesting. A lot of musicians had very open minds about it.
"But today, it's a dictatorship of bpm. You have four-on-the-floor fascism. The DJ tells you that if you want to make people dance, you should use a bpm of 120, and use a big kick drum sound. But ten years ago, there were a lot of different approaches, and it was a mixture of a lot of different music.
"I try to be against this rigidity. Music is music. You can make people dance in a lot of different ways. Now, everybody wants to make money, and that's all right. But I think we can do both: be creative and profitable, without losing the original idea of creativity. I think the two are compatible. Myself, I honestly try."
The Biggest Little Rig in Paris
The setup that Mirwais used on Music is about as stripped-down as they come, employing mostly synths, software, and hardware that you may already own. Yet for all the off-the-shelf nature of the gear, he still chose to bring his own computer to Sarm West Studios in London.
"I don't have so many synths," he explains. "The main thing was that I don't feel secure moving data on a CD-ROM. So I took my own computer. The biggest problem after that was loading the sys-ex from my system to the rental setup.
"I used a Waldorf Microwave XT, Korg Prophecy, Roland JD-990, Clavia Nord Lead 2 Rack, and an E-mu E6400. My computer is a Mac G3, 300MHz, with an Emagic Audiowerk 8 card and Logic Audio. I know a lot of people use Pro Tools, but this is enough for me. I've been using Logic since I was born [laughs]. I started with Notator and Creator. Logic never crashes.
"I think you should forget the software when you do music. The features are not so important. What's important is the music. I prefer to use software with fewer features that doesn't crash, rather than something with everything in the world but that I can't rely on. Logic never forgets anything when you boot up a file. It's really intelligent, the way they've done the audio. I think the plug-ins are fantastic, even the reverb and delay that come with the program. I used them as the main effects on several tracks on Music.
"The future for me is with software synths and plug-ins. Now, there are many great audio engineers who can work in a brilliant way to achieve incredible things in a studio. If you use a traditional compressor, okay. You can get a beautiful sound, but so many guitar and vocal tracks sound the same. The real creativity now is that you can use your software and really inexpensive plug-ins to get unique sounds on vocals and acoustic tracks. That's what I'm interested in: finding really exciting new sounds."
One of Mirwais's signature techniques is slicing and dicing audio tracks. "I need both the computer audio recorder and my E6400 to create my effects," he says. "I'm more creative with the sampler, because of the filters. It's easy to use a lot of small pieces of audio in a musical way. The strength of Logic's audio editor is on acoustic material, on live tracks. It takes a long time if you want to do a lot of slicing and chopping, though."
At the heart of Mirwais's musical philosophy, however, are synthesizers. "In the past I've used a lot of analog synths: Prophet-5, Jupiter-8, Minimoog," he says. "The Minimoog is great, of course, if you want to have that warm sound on the low end, and the sound of its envelope is unique. I love all these synths.
"But today, I think it's much better to have the control that you have over the new analog modeling synths. And with a piece of software like Logic Audio, it's really easy. You can use MIDI continuous controllers to get incredible sounds. You have much more control. You can do so many more things today than you used to be able to do. You know, there's the international argument about digital versus analog. But I think today the technology allows us to use synths in an even more creative way. We don't need to care about the differences between old stuff and new stuff. What's important is the language. I consider music to be language. When you construct a phrase to say something, the important thing isn't the words that you use, it's the final meaning, the result. Music is the same way for me. When you talk, you use old words and new words, or you can even invent words. Music should be the same. We don't care if we use vintage sounds or new sounds; what's important is the final sense, the meaning. It's like a language for me. If I use an analog synth, it's like using an older word.
"Electronic music and computer production is second nature to me, even though I'm a guitarist. I started to use synths in 1979 with the Sequential Circuits Pro-One. The first sequencer I had in my life was the one on the Pro-One. Then I had the [Roland] MC-202, Jupiter 8, the Sequential 440, Atari. I had everything. I'm interested in equipment, and have been for a long time. I sold all those old synths, though I'd like to get a TB-303 again. I don't want to use it in that acid house kind of way, but for its tonal characteristics. It's a unique sound."
The rest of Mirwais's studio is modest as well. Here's the recording gear that was involved with the production of his tracks on Music.
Drop the Needle
I don't want to be mysterious about the way I work or the way I use the machines," says Mirwais. You'll clear up the mysteries more quickly if you cue up the tracks on Music that correspond to the red reference numbers you find throughout the article. That way you'll be able to hear his sounds and effects as you read about them.
Ref.# Track Locate Points
For clips from just abut everything on Mirwais's discography, point your browser to www.mirwaisonline.com. To try your own remix skills on a track from Music, head over to www.madonnamusic.com. Did we say remix? At least you can turn the sounds on and off.
Here is a small section from another article with Mirwais: -
INTERVIEWER: Were you worried about having to compromise because of her pop background?
MIRWAIS: No, no, no because I'm exactly like her. I think provocation is a really important element of pop music because without it, music isn't exciting. Working with people like Madonna and trying to make something more experimental is provocation for the underground. Everybody wants to be underground, to be the next Bjork and for me that's the mainstream now. It's more interesting to invert the process. It raises the level of music and that's the future. Madonna's interesting because she understands that.
INTERVIEWER: Of the new tracks on the Madonna album, what percentage is her and what percentage is you?
MIRWAIS: It depends. We wrote six track together. There are a few track which are half her, a couple that are two thirds me. She brings a lot with her, especially the melody. For the first single, "Music" she brought the melody and the lyrics. She's really strong for structure and details.