From backing up the big names as one of the world’s top keyboard players, to penning hits for superstars spanning every musical genre, Argentinian Federico Vindver has nailed the art of modern music-making, morphing between the worlds of playing, writing and producing to become one of the most in-demand collaborators in the world of music today.
We caught up with him in his home studio in LA, fresh from his recent gig co-writing tracks for Coldplay’s upcoming 2021 album (including lead single Higher Ground) to get the lowdown on his creative process and what the ever versatile, ever adaptable studio maestro has coming up next.
You work with such a variety of artists. You must have to prepare a lot before a session.
“I try to work in a modular way. I prepare a lot of ‘tools’ that I can use on a session.
“First I really listen to everything the artist has ever put out and analyse what works great and what didn’t work for them. And then I look at what works in music today and if they can occupy a similar space.
“Based on that I make sounds that I know that are ready to go that the artist will be inspired by. So I don’t have to go through patches on a synth… Everything is ready to go.
“I use Ableton Live so it’s a drag and drop experience. I can bring in a box from my browser that’s every sound I need for a particular session.
How did you get started?
“In Argentina there’s a big rock scene so I was always in bands from when I was about 14.
“I got a jazz scholarship from a university in Miami and I played every gig you can imagine because I needed to make a living. Like 10 gigs in a week… Doing wedding band gigs… Like playing a Madonna song, you have to produce eight synth parts on one synth… Having to play the string parts, the horn parts… You really learn about arranging. I had to learn how to do it out of the pressure of having to pay my rent.
“My big break was with Lauryn Hill. That’s when I first moved to the US in 2005/2006. After that I toured with Ricky Martin, I toured with J Lo - A lot of tours. I was on the road for years, thinking that I wanted to quit and just be in the studio. I was making good money, so having the courage to quit was a big deal.
“I started working with a band in Canada - New City - who were signed to Universal. Timbaland thought they were amazing and wanted to sign them. They were like ‘Who produced all the music?’ and that’s when my name came in.
“I did a session with Timbo and those guys and from that day on we kinda kept working together. Meeting Tim opened up a whole other spectrum of things. But up until then it took about 11 years until I was making a living - until I could say I’m good, I’m on this path, I’m in it.”
What was your first ever keyboard?
“I had a Casio SA-21, which I actually ended up buying again much later out of nostalgia. Now that I know everything that I know, I wanted to see what I could do with that same Casio! And now I’ve bought one for my son, too. I wanted him to have that same experience.”
And then you stepped up to a touring rig?
“I was using about five keyboards. From Minimoogs to Hammond organ, Yamaha Motif, a laptop with Mainstage…
“When I was doing wedding bands one of my keyboards broke so I only had one keyboard so I would split the keyboard into 16 parts and then using velocity switching so I could hit harder to change the sound. That kind of became my thing, out of necessity.
“I’ve just moved to this house so I have a lot of gear still in my closet! I’ve got the Moog Grandmother here, my Mellotron, a Prophet X, a Behringer Poly-D, the polyphonic moog, and the Behringer Pro One. Also, an Akai MPC-3000, Korg MS-20, my Yamaha CS-10 - one of the first analogue synths I had which still sounds good. And a Roland HS-20, which is actually a Juno-106 with speakers.
“My Juno is in the shop - it breaks so often - so I have two. And then I have a little analogue area with an Arturia Keystep, synths from Make Noise, and the MPC is part of it. I can control it from my Ableton rig, too.
“My ARP 2600 is going to go here and I want to get more modular gear, and my piano is going to go here.”
Which is your favourite right now?
“Probably the Moog Grandmother. It’s just very useful. I push the limits of it to see what it can do. Because it’s semi-modular you can go to weird places.
“And my Empress Zoia. It’s a cool pedal. The way it’s designed is how I think. You can chain effects how you like so it’s very intuitive for me. And Ableton Simpler is my go-to sampler for things.
“Everything I ever do contains at least a few sounds that I made from scratch. When I need a sound I know a lot about sound design, so I know how to achieve a sound. I don’t go with a preset, I tailor it or do something that I wouldn’t normally do. I love doing that.”
What gear do you use for what?
“When I need a pad or something chordal I’ll use a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet. I have three different Prophets, the 10, the 08 and the X. I use my Juno-106. And for bass and leads I’ll go with a Moog. I have a Slim Phatty, the Model D or the Grandmother. And when I want to do more experimental stuff I use the Behringer Neutron and some plugins.
“I have friends who are really technical. They buy a crazy amount of gear and I’ll be like ‘You can do everything with just a laptop and a pair of headphones’. You can make the best music ever. I have a lot of gear ‘cos I’ve been working a long time and I like to play it. I enjoy that process. But it’s all about the song, and the artist and the performance.
“A lot of people get caught up in ‘I’ve got to have that’ because a famous producer or engineer has that. ‘It’s not going to sound good unless I have that’. And then when I hear their music I’m like ‘You’re just writing bad songs. That’s your problem. You should work with some good writers. Don’t buy that. Go buy a house instead!’”
So you like to work in the box too?
“I do 70% of my work outside of the house, so when I’m in a studio in another city it’s all in the box. I use an Ableton Push [controller] but sometimes I don’t even take that with me.
“It’s important to try and find different techniques to making music rather than doing everything the same way. Even though I’m a keyboard player I love just using the piano roll [in Ableton] - I force myself to not use a keyboard. Some days I do everything live with no MIDI, some days I just do stuff with guitars. I like different tunings and timings. Like when you have a lot of MIDI hooked up and the timing starts to drift. I’m like ‘that’s the beauty of it’. When it drifts. When the computer is doing whatever it wants. I’m like ‘leave it there’. I like to change it up. Keep it fun.”
“Ableton comes with this thing called Operator; it’s super-simple. I love grabbing something that doesn’t sound great and putting a spin on it that changes the whole thing up.
“And Max for Live has envelopes, sequencers, envelope followers… you can assign these to anything you want.
“When I was working with Coldplay I was using a bunch of layers so that when I play higher on the keyboard the filter opens up more, or if I go lower the release gets shorter. And then on the mod-wheel I have the delay time so I can control the level of sounds with the mod-wheel and morph from one to the other.
“I love doing things with the most mundane sine wave you can find but add on top a foley recording of birds I made outside. I’ll combine the two and put on an effect that modulates the two things together. That’s how you get your own sound. No other synth has that sound.
“I travel with a little Shure mic and I record a bunch of things outside, mix that with synth sounds or drum sounds. Try to get a little bit dirty.”
Would it be fair to say that sound design is a really a big part of your writing?
“It depends on the artist. Some people hate that! They’re like ‘no, let’s just do something on guitar!’ I like to switch hats so much.
“Maybe it comes from my jazz days; some weeks it’s like ‘how can I record the most amazing sound from just an acoustic guitar’, stressing about mic-placement… preamps… I go into that world with certain artists.
“But then, for example, with Coldplay, I created about 150 sounds that were my interpretation of ‘Coldplay sounds’ - pianos, guitars, effects chains. When you have someone as creative as Chris [Martin] sometimes I’d play one note and he’d say ‘keep that’ and he’d grab his guitar and write an amazing song on top of it.
“Like working with Timbaland, too. We’d be in the studio with Justin Timberlake and a lot of times it’s just me going through patches and they’re like ‘oh, that’s amazing’. It’s the sound that people react to. But it’s got to have playability, too. It has to be designed in a way that can be expressive. Because I’m a pianist I want to be able to feel how I feel when I’m playing the piano.”
“But someone like Kanye is completely the opposite. He doesn’t like any kind of gimmicks on anything. He likes that real, raw thing. With him it was more like ‘you’ve got this beat and it’s all electronic, but I want to hear that with horns. Everything has to be a horn.’’ He’ll throw those curveballs at you and you have to find all these horn players and record that… Or choirs… It changes a lot. But it’s fun. I like having fun. That’s why we do this.
Seems collaboration is a big part of making big records.
“You can only learn by ‘doing’ and working with other people. You learn when to leave space… And when to take care of things. There are people in the studio and all they want to do is shine and show how amazing they are, and that’s fine. We’re all human. But for the sake of making good music, you have to know that sometimes it’s not about you. Sometimes being silent and stepping back is what the song needs.
“Eventually you’re gonna hit the wall. When everything you do ‘kinda sounds like me’. That’s very boring for me - when I hear ‘me’ on something I want to hear something else.
“That’s when bringing in other people is great. I have some producers that are signed to me and they send me a bunch of folders of ideas. Not even whole tracks - we call them ‘samples’. Just three sounds… A chord progression… Thirty seconds.
“I’ll say ‘I’m working with this artist’ and they’ll send me ideas. Sometimes it’s a four-bar loop with no drums… And I put them together. They’re my ‘lifesavers’ in case I’m not coming up with something cool. I can go into this ‘reservoir’, but usually it goes pretty good. I like having ‘the magic trick’ ready to go.
“When I work with Tim[baland] there’ll be Timbo, me, two other producers, four different rigs with Ableton, all going into a master computer with Pro Tools. Timbo will say ‘I have this really crazy beat’, and one of the other guys will make the bass, and I’ll add some sounds. We jam that way - like a band - and we’re extremely quick because we’ve worked together. Like 30 seconds - in 30 seconds everybody has added their parts and you have a track.
“It’s like when you play in a band. You leave space for the other person. It’s the same thing.”
Did it work that way with Coldplay?
“At the end of the day, the band is the band and it needs to sound like them. Sometimes the part of Coldplay that doesn’t sound like a rock band with bass, guitar and drums is what other people bring in. Synthesizer work, drum programming, sound effects…
“That being said they do add a lot of those awesome sounds themselves, but they love to see what we can bring as well.
“We’ll take sessions in Pro Tools home and the songs will go to hundreds of versions. They’ll be like ‘you did this reverse thing on this version, we like that’ and then that will go into another version. Or Chris will come to me and say ‘just make weird sounds over everything, just go and improvise’, and then he’ll chop it and use what he likes.
“There’s songs where you might be there from the first note to the last, and there are songs where you touch one thing.”
Which was it with the single, Higher Power?
“Chris already had that. He played it for me and he said ‘can you add something to it?’ I started adding sounds and the main hook sound was one of the sounds that I added. I think that informed him on some of the writing, and of course Max Martin was super-involved on that.”
How was it working with Max? Have you worked with him before?
“No, I haven’t, but because of the pandemic we haven’t been in the same room. I’ve worked with a lot of people where we’ve never met. We just send things in our emails. Sometimes we’ll Zoom… Or a little bit of Audiomovers.
“I did an album for Meghan Trainor, her Christmas album, and that was a lot of big band elements, so I had to record brass, orchestra, drums, bass, guitar for this Nat King Cole-type of thing and we did it all remotely with Audiomovers. When I was tracking the horns, it was like I was in the studio.”
How do you balance the two worlds of writing and producing?
“If I love the song then I don’t mind that I don’t write on it. I like producing songs that I like. Sometimes when I work with an artist they’ll ask me to produce something, but if I don’t think the song is ready I’ll suggest changes. And if they don’t want to do it then I’ll be like ‘I don’t want to work on this one, because I’m not connecting with the song’.”
What is it that you bring to a session? Why do you think they’ve got you there?
“Interesting question… I’m pretty good at adapting to situations, that’s what I bring. Nowadays they call me because they like something that I’ve done.
“I’m working with Christina Aguilera right now and she’s like ‘There’s this moment in this song you did and I want something like that’. I guess I’m pretty good at sound design… Making things sound interesting and different. Also because I can play I can figure out musical solutions, chord changes, rhythms.
“I was working with a trap artist Polo G who had a Billboard number one a few weeks back, but in the same week I was making a song with Josh Groban… You couldn’t get any more different than that. Being versatile… A&R and artists know that when they call me I’ll know what to do!”
So do you have any tricks for getting a session going? Any tricks for kickstarting inspiration?
“Something that I learned from the amazing producer Julio Reyes - he’s the latin Quincy Jones in my opinion, one of the most amazing musicians that I know - and it’s one of the simplest things ever. But he always finds the best wine, and when he gets stuck he says ‘hey, do you want a cup of wine?’ Then he brings out this delicious, incredible wine, and you’re having a good time, you’re relaxed.
“You don’t want to get nobody drunk, of course, but a cup of wine at the right time really unlocks the creativity and keeps things moving forwards. A little pleasure goes a long way. Make it feel like it’s not work!”
“Working with Coldplay in Malibu, they rented this beautiful studio there. That was something that I looked forward to every day. They’re just the nicest people ever.
“Then I worked in Rick Rubin’s studio Shangri-La here in LA with Brockhampton. And just being in that location, you drop the music and you can hear the ocean waves.
“I feel the most fun sessions are when you’re close to nature… sunlight… things that make you feel good. Good food! Snacks are everything! People just don’t get it. You need to have amazing snacks. That’s more important than a Neve preamp or an amazing synth! A place that smells good! Some nice candles. You’ll be surprised. You’ll write the best song you’ve ever written!”
What are the big names like to work with in the studio? Kanye, Justin, Christina?…
“They’re all different. Every single person. Some people are more spiritual than others. Like they have to connect with the spirit world in an esoteric way.
“Then there are people who are more calculated - ‘I need a hit and this is how we’re going to do it’ - they have that ‘business’ thing. And there are people that are very passive - ‘let me put my vocal on it and I’m done’… Or there are artists who want to be a part of every hi-hat! Not just the hi-hat sound but every hi-hat hit! ‘The hi-hat that plays on the second note of bar sixty four… It needs to be pitched down one semitone’…”
“Every artist is different. You just have to find how to make that artist be the best they can be. Some people think being a producer is making beats, or writing songs… But I want the artist to shine. Like when you see Queen performing, or Elton John. It’s greater than life! Or Coldplay or Pink Floyd or Michael Jackson… Or maybe they just want to be the girl next door. I’m like ‘Great. Let’s find the best girl next door we can possibly find’!”
What have you got going on next?
“We’re finishing the Justin Timberlake album and it’s beautiful. Super enjoyable.
“Then there’s a new artist, Yendry. She’s from the Dominican Republic. I’m so excited about her - I think she’s fantastic
“I’m doing an album with an incredible group called Jessy & Joy. And Timbaland is releasing his own solo album, and that’s some of the most incredible music that I’ve heard in my life. There’s tracks with rapper Jack Harlow.
“And the new website, BeatClub, with Timbaland. That’s going to be incredible. And I’m designing a plugin with Sinevibes. Lots going on!”
What are your career highlights so far?
“The first time I played my music for Timbaland and he reacted to it. He was like ‘Woah, this is crazy!’ And I was oh my god I can’t believe that he liked it…’ Or the first time ever I was in the studio with Kanye and we hit play and he just started freestyling. He recorded about 20 songs and ideas out of beats that we had.
“I don’t know… everytime I make a great song it’s like the highlight. I have won Grammys but they kind of stress me out. I have that ‘imposter syndrome’ real hard. ‘Why are they giving me this?… Now I have to keep up this lie for years!’ But when I’m in the studio and feel like we’ve done something great? That’s the highlight.
“People ask me ‘How do I make it in the industry?’ and I always think that just the fact that you’re thinking like that, that’s your first mistake. If someone comes to you tomorrow and tells you ‘You’re never going to make a record with any artist… You’re always going to be unknown… Nobody is ever going to love your music’… If someone comes to you and says that, and you still want to make music, that’s when you know you should be making music.
“For me, ‘making it’ or ‘not making it’? Doesn’t matter. I will still wake up every day and make music. You’ve got to love it so much that ‘making it’ isn’t even a concern. If you have that mentality and passion, then every door will open for you.”