On the day I’m due to meet the owner of Sonic Vista Studios, Henry Sarmiento, a storm is whipping through Ibiza. High winds and rain are battering windows and streets are starting to flood, so I send him an email to check we’re still on for our interview – in Ibiza this kind of weather usually sends people into instant hibernation. But then to my surprise, he confirms we’re still on and later explains ‘I’m on New York time, not Spain time!’ which explains a lot about the work ethic of this charismatic 43-year old. Sonic Vista studios is a recording suite set in the heart of the island that’s played host to some of the hugest recording stars of recent years – from the Ting Tings to Kelis to David Guetta – Sarmiento’s client list reads like a who’s who of music history. Having moved to the island 10 years ago, he’s since established himself as the go-to guy for artists looking to work when they come to Ibiza – largely as a result of his recording, mixing, mastering skills, but also because he’s a consummate professional. We met up to talk Lady Gaga, why Sonic Vista will one day be considered the ‘Motown of the Mediterranean’, and why music is to him, ‘one of the most powerful things on the planet.’
What is it that brought you to Ibiza?
I came because I love the island; I didn’t move to Ibiza for the clubbing life. I came to represent the music industry and I was the first person who brought a ProTools HD system here, and that’s the industry standard for audio. People who come here call me because I get it right – I make sure the clients are getting the right sound.
So when was your first time here?
I came in 2003 for a week with my good friend Miguel Migs, who’s a big DJ from San Francisco – a whole bunch of us came because he was playing at Pacha. And I really loved the island – it has a very special spirit.
What were you doing before?
I was running Herbie Herbert’s studio in San Francisco. He’s a guy who’s responsible for over 400 million records. He put together bands like Journey, Santana, Roxette – and he’s why my backbone is very professional and honest – there’s no time for slacking in his camp!
You were 16 when you started working in the music industry, was music something you grew up with?
Well it’s kind of an interesting story. When I was 15 I hitchhiked to a Max Creek concert. I was living in Vermont at the time and there wasn’t much culture; I was from NYC so I needed some vibes! You know, I was used to the city. So this gig was a two and a half hour drive away and I calculated it’d take me six hours to hitchhike there. But then I went, got picked up by the second car and was driven all the way to Hartford – I got there in two and a half hours – it was easy. So I got to the concert venue and thought what do I do now? I was bored! There was this huge parking lot with warehouse parking docks, so I sat in one and chilled out in the sun. And at 5.30 this big truck started backing up right where I was sitting, and it turned out it was carrying the band equipment. I told them my story and they asked if I wanted to help out. They gave me a pass, and I helped them with the show. I got to experience it from the perspective of the band and the crew, and to watch the crowd from behind the scenes. My friends were like ‘what the f**k are you doing up on stage!’ Anyway after the show, the band were like ‘Hey, you wanna come to New York with us tomorrow? We’re doing another show’, and I was like ‘yeah, that’s my city!’ And it was a night of pure rock’n’roll. I was underage at the time but I was with the band so it wasn’t a problem. That was a super cool weekend. The next day I got back on the freeway and hitchhiked home. My mom was like ‘Where you been?!’
And that was the start of it all?
Yeah. Then I got my licence and decided to drive to another [Max Creek] gig in a place called Providence, which was five hours away. And it was on a Wednesday. It was a 10-hour drive in total but I was like, I got wheels, I got gas, I got cash, I’m going! So I left right after school, drove five hours down there and stayed for the concert; I had this ‘in’ with the band now because I was helping them out which was totally cool. So I left at 2am and then drove back to school wearing the same clothes from the day before. I never skipped school but my teacher’s were like, ‘What the f**k!’ My friends told me I was crazy and I was like ‘yeah I am crazy but I’m having the best time of my life, you don’t know what you’re missing out on!’ And within a couple months there were five cars packed with people, driving down to the concerts on Wednesdays.
So how did you end up working in San Francisco?
I moved to California with $200 in my pocket. I had this amazing six-day trip across America with my friends in the craziest VW van with a Porsche engine. By the end of April we were in Wyoming and it was freezing; we had no heater and the van was about to blow up. I remember sending my mother a postcard from the middle of nowhere saying ‘I’m in Wyoming right now on my way to Boulder in Colorado, but this is just so you know my location in case you don’t hear from me again!’ From Boulder to LA it’s major desert but I made it and ended up living in Santa Cruz for many years. What an insane trip!
How did you get your first job there?
So I got to Santa Cruz and I was talking to bands saying I had experience as a roadie. And then I talked to my friend who was the main engineer for this killer reggae band and he said yeah, they needed help because they were doing big shows all the time. So I started the next day. Then two weeks later he told me he was leaving to go on tour to Europe with a band called The Itals. So I was like ‘that’s great man, when are you coming back?’ and he was like, ‘I’m not’. So I said, ‘who’s going to be the engineer?’ and he was like ‘You are!’ I was like ‘What! I only started two weeks ago as your technician!’ So I had six weeks to learn. And there was no Internet back then, no YouTube – if any kid now says he can’t learn something, in this day and age, he’s f***ing lazy! So I used common sense, I listened, and I learned everything. The band was freaking out when he said he was leaving but I was young and I wanted to make the best things happen for everyone. And they were like ‘So some 18-year old white kid is gonna be running our production?!’ But I was firm; I knew I could do it.
And that’s the kind of attitude you obviously bring to Sonic Vista. Do you think that’s why you attract so much top talent?
I represent professionalism in Ibiza, so artists know they can come here and get their stuff done. And their agent and manager know they haven’t lost their artist to parties for five days, you know. I’ve been here for 10 years and I’ve made a place where artists can come and work, because it’s not all about the party. Ibiza is inspiring; it’s not just about getting out of your mind. And that’s why Sonic Vista has more celebrities and more upcoming artists than any other place in Ibiza; all concentrated under one roof. In future I think we’ll look back and Sonic Vista will have played a major role in the musical base that came from Ibiza. A lot of great content is made here and there’s a lot of respect for it internationally. I think it’s important for the island that people can come and work here.
Is the studio a rock’n’roll environment?
In studio environments, and especially here because it’s secluded – people feel different. They’re coming because they’ve got responsibility to many different people – their management, their label and all those things. So when artists first come they’re impressed with the location, they can’t believe it’s a 400-year old finca in the middle of nowhere – and they get totally in the zone. There’s no debauchery because if they’re doing that there’s no point coming. It’s not like backstage after a gig – this is the creative hub where they make their hits. And if they don’t make hits they’ve got no future, so they come here to create.
Who’s the most talented person you’ve worked with?
There are so many singers, of all nationalities and genres. But Lady Gaga is extremely talented, extremely focused and a great model for other artists when it comes to work ethic. She’s all about the music and the fans. She recorded ‘Alejandro’ here. Her and Red One arrived from Amsterdam having already done some of the music foundation – they had the drums and the bass and the synth arrangements. But the whole lyric was done here. And she’s next level; I’d never seen anything like it. She sits down and she’s writing lyrics and she’s on her Blackberry texting at the same time. And the track’s running and it’s recording and she hits it perfectly every time. There were no bad takes. She just executes. She plays killer melodies without even looking at what she’s playing.
And have you had to work with any divas?
There was someone, and she wanted to bring her poodle and a couple of white candles and incense. And she wanted a special type of microphone that costs $10,000 – and it’s such a good mic that it’s only good for certain singers – so if you’re not note perfect it actually makes you sound worse. You can’t even rent it locally! I was like, guys, this is an island in the Mediterranean; you’re lucky we even have candles. And also I don’t want them burning in my studio. And I don’t want a white poodle pissing on my carpets! No one else has ever sent me a request like that.
What are the challenges the music industry faces now?
Well, Taylor Swift released an album this week that will hopefully go platinum. And if it does, it’ll be the first one to do it this year. If it doesn’t, there won’t be any platinum records this year. Taylor Swift will have the last ever platinum album, I’m telling you. Everyone’s gone to streaming – YouTube, Spotify, Pandora. Ownership is going down and streaming going up.
So what does that mean for the future of music?
Well if you can get a billion streams like Calvin Harris then you can generate some cash. But in the future, how can an industry survive if the people who write the hits aren’t getting paid? It’s a tricky time right now. We’re going through a serious phase of transition in terms of how people acquire music. Everyone is streaming videos from YouTube – it’s default now to check out new bands by looking at their videos. That’s why Beyonce releasing a video with each of her album tracks last year was a great thing, because people want to see the story. The future is exciting but I believe the creators of music should get paid. Without them there’s no industry. It’s not like in the sixties and seventies when bands wrote their own stuff – today you might just have a great vocalist or someone who looks good. And music is so devalued now – but do you know how much money and time it takes to create one song?
So is it still important to nurture new talent?
I do support new talent but they have to understand they need to have the right intent for the music they’re creating. You see a lot nowadays, especially in dance music – people make $300,000 a gig just for pressing play. And these 17-year old kids think hey, I want some of that money! And I want the girls, and I want the champagne and I want the Learjet. And that’s the weakest possible reason you could think of for going into the music industry. So if that’s why you’re doing it you can get out of my studio. Cos what am I gonna do with them? You’re not a musician so don’t talk music with me! But if their heart and their intent are right, then of course, incubating talent is a major thing.
Who do you admire musically right now?
Well, I’m a big fan of Iggy Azalea. I was checking her out way before she was in the mix. I told people about her before she got big, so when she did – I was like ‘I told you!’ I respect her delivery – she’s got it on lockdown. And her persona – because she’s not fake. I respect the kind of story where someone works hard and makes it happen. I mean she was sleeping on her manager’s couch two years ago. She’s a cool artist.
You do the audio production for the Ibiza Rocks MTV shows. Who was your favourite act this year?
I’d have to say Ed Sheeran because I’m all about the talent. I come from a vast music history – I’ve been in the business since I was 16, so I’ve been around incredible musicians all my life. I want to be entertained; I want to be impressed; I want to see talent. And Ed Sheeran is an incredible entertainer; he’s so in tune to his songs. At the end of the day we’re in the entertainment business. You might have a cool song but you need to understand you’ve got 3000 people in front of you. You need to make your fans feel your appreciation – so don’t be shy!
So from someone who’s witnessed a lot of musical evolution over the years, what do you make of the scene in Ibiza?
The unity was different 10 years ago – the boundaries of each genre are much more defined now. But I don’t think people know what they want – tourists come here for a week and they let go and they don’t remember what music they heard – they go where the hip thing is. I think it’s important Ibiza offers a wider spectrum of genres, just like a normal city. If you go to New York or London you can see dubstep or jazz or a band – and it’s all good talent. I have a lot of friends who come over and they’re not just clubbers, they want to check out other things. But the VIP thing looks bad for the island. You’re charging 15€ for a water? That’s a rip off and everyone knows it! Ibiza needs to step up, diversify and bring in new talent. If it’s only about drugs and getting fu**ed up, I’m not here for that. I’m here to make things happen, have a better life and be part of a musical revolution that changes the world for the better. It’s all about the music, so as long as we keep real with that – everyone in the industry – then we can all of us be better.
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