Vive La Ressistance! Philippe Zdar: The Mastermind Producer behind Cassius

From The Creators Project: More than just one half of DJ duo Cassius, french producer and sound engineer Philippe Zdar talks about what it’s like shaping some of the best records of the last 20 years with Phoenix and Kindness weighing in on working with the hi-fi master.

To our readers – We thought we’d share this one. But first, let us introduce Philippe Zdar. Zdar is a well known producer and trained sound engineer from Paris. He’s also a member of the French musical duo Cassius that records and releases music in the house music, indie dance and synthpo  genres.

A Zdar Is Born
Philippe Zdar was born Philippe Cerboneschi, in rural mountain country in the Alps. In the late ’80s, age 17, 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 MC Solaar album, Qui Seme le Vent Recolte le Tempo (1991), as well as on subsequent albums by the rapper. During the ’90s, Zdar realized his ambitions to be successful as an engineer/mixer, producer, DJ, and musician, in the groups Motorbass, and, with Blanc‑Francard, Le Funk Mob and most famously and still ongoing, Cassius. His credits as an engineer, mixer and producer include MC Solaar, Phoenix, Daft Punk, the Rapture, Beastie Boys, Kindness, Naked and Famous, Cut Copy and Chromeo.

Zdar: “I started playing drums as a kid, so I play drums the best, but in fact I play everything badly. I’m an electronic musician, so I play guitar badly, bass badly, and drums badly, but I’m quite good at programming. All my activities, studio, DJ, musician, are completely related. When I produce a band, even a rock band, I bring my expertise and sounds from my DJ experience. I DJ maybe three times a month — producing and mixing takes the most of my time. But DJing is very important for me, because it 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 DJing I listen to a lot of new records, and that updates my musical skills and outlook, and also gives me a lot of energy.”

So, Zdar definitely knows his stuff. He knows it so well that he no longer listens to engineers who tell him what he should do to play by the rules.  He was also featured on Future Music Mag # 221 for the interview and producer masterclass feature.

Now, when expressing yourself in a foreign language you may come across as arrogant, or may not get your point across really well. But Philippe is not arrogant at all, and he knows his stuff just as good as or better than any other good engineer. In my opinion he’s one of the best French sound engineers, and has a great studio – Motorbass. When I visited his studio in 2010, surprise surprise… Pultec’s, Urei’s, big SSL, AMS, AMT Lexicon, reverbs, AMS delays. Neve preamps, totally cool gears. CS80, OBX, PPG, good stuff. So, for those who criticize harshly Zdar calling him “arrogant”,  and a “rebel” of  “flagrant ignorance”: Can you tell me a little about your philosophy on compression? In French please?

I believe the SP1200 was the weapon of choice of those guys back then before they started using computer sequencers e.g. Logic. I read an interview of Alan Braxe saying how much he loves that particular machine, and that he produced Stardust’s Music Sounds better with  you using only the SP, a small mixer, and some cheap 8 track recorder.

We’re including in this post the text of an excerpt from a lecture/interview given by Zdar in Rome, Italy, and a video of the full lecture/interview, thanks to Red Bull Music Academy. We hope you enjoy! ~ AA

Phillipe Zdar (Phoenix / Daft Punk / The Beastie Boys / Kindness / Naked & Famous…) interview on compressor & french house sound

Interviewer: Torsten Schmidt, Red Bull Music Academy

RBMA: »Were most of the records, that were coming out of Paris at that time, being mixed in the same place, or by the same people?«

Philippe Zdar: »No.«

RBMA: »Because there were certain, well, if there was one common thing it was that ‘whooom’ sound.«

Philippe Zdar: »Yeah, the compression. In France we are really into compression and after it was, for example, Daft Punk, who completely made a beat, a sound that everybody tried to emulate. So that was really funny because they are doing a sound and three months later, everybody was buying the same compressor because everything was to do with the compressor. The basic rule about compressors is to trust your ear, to have some taste, you must have some taste. Me, I don’t even know what a compressor is! I don’t know how many years, like 15 years that I’m doing this and I still don’t know what is a compressor. I know what it’s doing and I’m touching the buttons, but when I like it, I keep it like this. When I started there was some sound engineer coming in the studio and he says: “Are you crazy?” The errr… what do you call it (makes flickering dial motion with his hand)?«

RBMA: »The meters?«

Philippe Zdar: »”The meters are going too high! The meters supposed to be on the left.” And I say: “But when I hear it, I like it.” And he says: “But it’s not possible.” And I’m like: “Leave me alone.” (applause) I think it’s the key for you all, although you don’t need to learn it, you know it already. Everybody’s learning by his own way, so when you’re at home, you’re listening with the ears. I like it when it goes in the red, if it starts to do ‘skkkkskkkk’ (makes grating noise), you notice it and you take it a little bit down, but there’s no theory in music for me. Everybody who comes with a theory, you can keep your theory – probably it works for you, but for me it doesn’t. So the compressor’s secret is to trust the ear and another secret for me is the meter, it has to move a lot. If the meters like this (makes feeble motion with his finger), it’s not good.«

Lecturer: Philippe Zdar
Interviewer: Torsten Schmidt, Red Bull Academy
Lecture: Philippe Zdar (Rome 2009)

Philippe Zdar’s quotes:

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 too comfortable.

Young artists and producers should really get into the gear and make their own sounds and develop their own ways of working, but that’s not happening enough.

[The Beastie Boys] They’re super‑intelligent, and super‑cultured, and they’re all really into equipment, and really into the sound of analogue.”

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.

The only secret I have about compression is to trust your ear. Have some taste.

When I was a tea‑boy at Marcadet in Paris, I never looked at the way people were working, I always listened to the end result.

The problem with Pro Tools 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.

Digital doesn’t only sound like shit, it also makes everything sound the same.

Mixing is a controlled performance, and digital takes the performance out of mixing. This is why I don’t use it.

The ‘French Touch’ thing happened mainly because, in Paris, we love Chicago.

To make a place for the bass is very easy – you just take out bass from all the rest.