The fact that de Vries doesn’t rely only on samples to create rhythm magic is demonstrated by his work on Madonna’s Ray Of Light album, especially on the track ‘Little Star’ on which — with rhythm programmer Steve Sidelnyk — he did some masterful drum and keyboard programming. He was called in to the project at a late stage, when William Orbit and Madonna had already finished much of the album, and ended up co-producing ‘Skin’ and ‘Nothing Really Matters’ with Madonna and Orbit, and ‘Little Star’ with Madonna. He also did some additional programming on ‘Frozen’ at a point when Orbit and Madonna weren’t quite clear how to finish that track and wanted some new energy and input.
De Vries: “I had to be very sensitive with what I did, because the aesthetic of the album was already well established by William and Madonna. So I had to work within a well-defined framework. ‘Nothing Really Matters’ was almost like an older-style Madonna tune, and my work was to help keep the appeal of something that she might have done five years ago, and at the same time updating it and keeping it in sympathy with the stuff William had been doing. I did most of the handiwork on that track, though William was there with his ears and suggestions. ‘Skin’ was really a true multi-programmer situation, with both of us having our rigs in the studio and battling it out. The biggest challenge was ‘Little Star’ because it was a song that could easily have become sentimental. I wanted to keep the delicacy of the track above everything, but I also knew that it needed some energy for it not to be too fey. So what I decided to do was to create a fairly energetic double-time drum arrangement, but using very soft sounds. There were no loops on that track, instead Steve and I programmed everything by hand, using jazz brushes and brushed ride cymbals, ie. softly hit things, so that the whole track would have this gossamer, fluttery energy running through it. It was a fine balance. Whenever it got too heavy, it sounded like the track was weighed down by overproduction, and whenever it was too light, it just sounded sentimental. I orchestrated that track mainly with noises rather than keyboards, chasing the idea of things drifting in and out of focus to achieve a dreamy quality. I actually used a lot of the Waldorf Wave on the Madonna tracks. I borrowed one from Björk, and spent a couple of days generating hundreds of sounds which I fed into a sampler, and used one way or another for the backdrop for the songs.”
De Vries’s programming on ‘Little Star’ is a brilliant — OK, let’s call it ‘performance’ — that would make any ‘real’ musician proud. It shows what modern technology, used in the right way, is capable of. According to de Vries, the trick is to create and maintain a core to your system that is simple and consistent enough for you to work it totally intuitively. “The issue of complexity is very important, because together with simple technical failures it is one of the most distracting things when working with music technology. The way seems to be to have a central working space that is essentially simple and focussed and where there is a limited amount of things going on. For me that is when I sit in front of my computer screen with Logic Audio on it, with my Pro Tools hardware and Akai samplers close at hand. Add a master keyboard and that’s it. That is where 95% of my work happens, and handling it is totally second nature.”
Source: excerpt from Sound On Sound magazine, September 1998