Every month 5 Magazine’s Man+Machine features talks about musical machines and the men & women who love them.
This month, ahead of his date headlining 5 Magazine’s Eight Year Anniversary Party, we talked about the production process with dance music legend Victor Simonelli. Victor is one of a very small handful of producers & remixers to thrive across multiple eras, from cutting tape in the late 1980s to utilizing the modern digital workstation in this decade.
Victor walked us through that process of transition from analog to digital, to developing one’s own individual sound and working with vocalists. (In addition, we feature five tracks that Victor Simonelli released under various aliases from the year 1993 alone that still sound great today.)
You’re one of a few people who had a successful career in the era of cutting tape that has been equally successful in the new era of DAWs, digital production & digital distribution. Can you describe that transition? Was it difficult, and are there any frustrating tasks you’re glad you don’t have to do anymore that were a problem with tape?
Love for music is where it all begins and comes from. Transferring back catalog from tape & DATs to digital can be difficult, and it takes time. I have masters in various locations. I’ve spent much of the last thirteen or so years transferring back catalog, and I’m still not finished. With time, I hope to have the whole complete catalog transferred to digital and online.
Being so active with new music, the back catalog also keeps growing. The way music is distributed has completely changed, going from vinyl and CD to digital. I think it’s very important being flexible, being open-minded and being patient. It’s the music that counts in the end, whatever format it may be in.
I do like the sound of vinyl and tape – it’s so warm. I like the fact that you can hold and touch vinyl. Having the artwork in your hand feels good, and is a nice reference. But it’s important not to get stuck there. I appreciate it but also move forward.
I enjoy cutting tape and recording to tape. I can’t think of anything that I dislike about tape, other than it can take up so much space when you have so many of them! [laughs]
One thing I dislike about CDs is how much time went into just putting music on CDs in order to play at gigs. I like playing with USBs and Pioneer CDJ 2000s now. It feels similar to playing vinyl.
I appreciate the past, but moving forward is just what life does. I find it is so important being in the “now”.
Victor Simonelli presents Sound of One: I Know A Place: One Records was Roger Sanchez’s initial foray into the label business, and he tapped Simonelli’s “I Know A Place” to give One its “sound”. Using the first four words of The Staple Sisters’ “I’ll Take You There” for its title, the blistering vocal sets the tone for One’s most enduring release, a record simply called The EP.
It’s been suggested that though there are more tracks being made then ever before in history, they often sound similar to one another (meaning, many tracks sounding virtually the same, with less emphasis on developing a personal style). Do you agree? And what do you attribute that to?
I think relying too much on stock sounds and settings can be a contributor to that.
No matter how far things may go into a software world – in my mind, I live in a hardware world. In other words: even though I may be using a plug-in, I think of a “compressor” as a piece of gear – not as a plug-in. The same for a gate, reverb, harmonizer, etc. Having worked in various studios over the years with so much hardware, it’s helped me to understand what each piece of gear does and how to best utilize it. The same goes for instruments. Working with so many different types of musicians over the years, I’ve become more familiar with the sounds of so many different kinds of instruments. Even though much may be done with plug-ins now, I am going at it from a hardware and actual physical instrument point of view.
Victor Simonelli presents Solution: Feels So Right: Another classic from 1993, featuring a signature Simonelli bass line intro, a rolling piano hook and an unforgettable vocal. “Feels So Right” was reputedly bootlegged repeatedly from 1993 until Simonelli re-established control over it in 1996. It was the dodgy copy on E-Legal Records that made it to the UK first, and became so closely identified with Graeme Park’s sets at the Hacienda that “Feels” merited instant inclusion when Peter Hook got around to issuing the Hacienda 30 anniversary compilation last year.
What is the most important piece of equipment in building a studio? (Many have answered that it’s not hardware or software or a synth or a sampler or a drum machine, but good monitors. Do you agree?)
Yes, I think good monitors are very important. I still like Yamaha NS10s, for reference. When building a studio, the room itself, the material used for insulating and location are all very important to consider first and foremost.
I work in some great studios, though I have also come out of some bedroom studios with some great tracks. It all starts and is built on ideas.
Really, much of it is what you do with what you have.
Victor Simonelli presents International Connection: I Can’t Help Myself: A slow-burning vocal track that would define the garage sound for the rest of the decade.
Do you find yourself relying more of software or hardware? How much hardware do you use these days? Have soft synths progressed far enough for your standards?
I think both software and hardware are important. Soft synths have progressed and I find myself using them often. Yes, I also use my actual synths/keyboards often. I guess “creative use” of the equipment best describes whatever I am working with…
Victor Simonelli presents Inner Faith: I’ve Been Changed: When the spirit enters… A deceptively simple piano hook sets the table for a delirious vocal that eventually expands to a full tabernacle choir.
In dance music, few people get their start working with vocalists (or musicians in general). You’ve worked with a lot of singers over the years. Do you have a favorite performance from your back catalog? And any hard-earned advice for young producers recording vocals for the first time?
No single favorite performance from back catalog, though there were many magical moments. The space where the vocal recording is being done is important. Obviously, also quality microphones, placement of the microphone and testing recording levels firstly. A pop shield/filter/screen may sometimes be helpful or necessary. Making sure talk back is working properly, and headphone levels are right for the artist is very important.
I like to record everything from the second the vocalist steps into the recording booth. Even when just warming up. You never know – they may hit it right, instantly… Though it can sometimes take numerous takes to getting the desired result.
Doubling (lead) vocals is a good idea. Obviously stacking background vocals properly. Harmonies add nice flavor to vocal production.
Every session and vocalist is different. I learned from day one, though, that it’s very important making the vocalist feel comfortable. Expressing yourself to the vocalist is essential and so is giving them plenty of room. I keep the end result in mind, and strive for that as best I can, while staying open to suggestion. After getting the basic idea down, it is always fun recording ad libs.
NY’s Finest: Do You Feel Me: Simonelli’s output from this entire era is staggering (we haven’t even mentioned any of his recordings on Sub-Urban or Nu Groove, which some count as his best). His recordings under the alias “NY’s Finest” include “Do You Feel Me”, one of the truly magnificent productions of the ’90s and the first on one of the decade’s most underrated labels, Bassline Records.
A budding producer wants to get into the game. What are some hardware/software essentials you would recommend to begin the process?
Much of the music I am doing currently is being done with Logic or Ableton Live. Learning either (or both) is a good idea.
I started in the studio as an intern and it gave me invaluable lessons. For me, using plug-ins as I do comes from understanding hardware first.
Studio life (and life in general) is a continued learning experience. I’m always learning. Always ask questions when you do not understand, stay focused, listen, watch and learn from people that you admire.