Los Angeles-via-London composer Marius de Vries has had the kind of career most producers yearn for. Since the early-1990s, he’s helped shape the sounds of artists like Madonna and Massive Attack, overseen the scores and soundtracks for major motion pictures like Romeo + Juliet and La La Land, been nominated for more than five Grammys, and won two BAFTA awards. One of the secrets behind de Vries’ remarkable body of work? A workflow wedded to plugins and soft synths.
For our newest edition of Patch and Play, we sat down with the musical polymath to discuss how he uses Native Instruments in his music, how he creates film scores, and the inspiration behind his exclusive preset for MASSIVE X. Two Left Feet, blends bleepy sci-fi sensibilities with crumbling, crackling organic sounds courtesy of the synth’s two Noisetables – with a result reminiscent of an ambling robot exploring a mysterious planet’s rocky crags.
Listen to de Vries demo the patch and download it for yourself below.
You’ve been a Native Instruments user for many years – since the beginning. What was your first plug-in?
Yes, I was there from the start! I got really into Reaktor when it was called Generator in, I don’t know, 1997? Massive was a long way in the distance then. Back then, Generator was tremendously exciting; to have that complexity and configurability in the box was pretty unprecedented, and I’m really happy that 25 years later, Reaktor is still thriving and sitting there solidly underneath all the other great Native Instruments stuff. The Reaktor community is still a treasure trove of odd, imaginative, envelope-pushing goodness. It didn’t take long to meet some of the people involved in those early Native years, and I’ve enjoyed a wonderful friendship with the team and the product ever since.
The next thing that properly sold me was Absynth, which I was a fan of since I had it as a beta v0.1. I got to know Brian Clevinger, who invented it, and just loved the synth from the start. When Native Instruments picked it up – and didn’t mess it up – it was a sign of very good taste. I also used the B4 Organ II and the old FM7 all the time.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the patch you made for Massive X?
When Massive X came out, I wanted to get to know it as thoroughly as possible, so the inspiration really came from just digging around in its furthest corners to see what could happen. I wanted to make something which you likely couldn’t make on any other wavetable synth, and I wanted to make something strange yet playable – the Mod Wheel routing was important! I loved that when I shared it with my associate Eldad Guetta, who’s a true synth-programming expert, he couldn’t work out how I made it – for a minute at least!
I’m sure there hasn’t been a record I’ve made that hasn’t been full of Native Instruments’ plug-ins.
Do you have any favorite records you’ve produced with earlier versions of Native Instruments’ Komplete?
Since working with Madonna and Massive Attack in the 1990s, I’m sure there hasn’t been a record I’ve made that hasn’t been full of Native Instruments’ plug-ins. Sometimes when a software is central to your process, you kind of forget it’s there – and that’s very true of me and Komplete/Kontakt. In some ways, I wish I used Kontakt a bit more deeply and could do scripting and stuff more fluently.
How do presets influence the music you make?
Not so much. I started life without them. Obviously they are useful and can be inspiring, but for me the thrill of the sound design chase is a big part of the process.
You’ve played so many roles – producer, writer, musician, music director, and composer – across various records and films. Which hat do you feel the most comfortable wearing?
I guess I just like having a lot of hats! It’s nice to have a breadth of experience to draw from.
Your film credits are incredible; you’ve been a musical director on Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, and La La Land, to name a few. Do you typically create the scores in pre-production, or do you work on them with the actors or artists next to a piano?
I generally get to start on films earlier than most, because I’m so often involved in prepping for onset music and getting the cast ready. One of the great thrills of what I do is getting to work with actors as they prepare for the role, often, yes, sitting next to them at a piano – in fact one of the recent highlights was getting Ryan Gosling into shape for his piano-playing on La La Land with the help of my piano-teacher guru Liz Kinnon.
How would you describe a typical writing session once you’ve met with the directors?
Oh, it’s different with everyone! Some directors are very hands-on and involved in detail, some are happy to give general guidance and then give you space. I like it when they come with a degree of musical literacy or at least musical instinct – you learn more then.
I know you started 2020 with a number of movie projects in process. How have you navigated this through the COVID-19 pandemic?
I have to say that the year has been pretty great for me in many ways. I’ve been plenty busy, but the deadlines relaxed for a while so I’ve had time for some more personal and extracurricular projects. And one of the films is an animation, which is a godsend because we are not subject to the challenges facing live production at the moment. Having said that, two other live action movies are up and running, and we’re learning how to manage that, too. It’s an interesting time for sure, and an alarming one on many levels. I’ve been super-lucky, and I’m constantly thinking of those who haven’t been.
Words: Chloe Lula