From humble beginnings in provincial Norway, the Stargate team have gone on to become one of America's leading hit factories. Songwriter and producer Mikkel Eriksen explains how their hard work and talent brought success.
Since 2006, Norwegian songwriting and production duo Stargate have been storming charts around the world. In the US alone, they have enjoyed a staggering 21 top 10 hits during the last four years. Since their US breakthrough with Ne‑Yo's 'So Sick', they have become first‑call songwriters and producers for American R&B and pop acts such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lionel Richie, Chris Brown, Jennifer Hudson, Flo Rida, Mary J Blige, and many others. Stargate now have a room in Jay‑Z's prestigious Roc‑the‑Mic studio in New York, and have also joined forces with the rapper in a publishing company and record label called StarRoc.
Stargate's ascendancy to the top of the American music scene came off the back of a lengthy involvement in the European music scene. During 1999‑2004, Stargate, at the time a trio with third member Hallgeir Rustan, enjoyed 40 top 10 hits in the UK. The following year, the other two members, Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen decided to risk all and set off across the Atlantic…
Eriksen clearly feels that they owe their success to having had the opportunity to hone their skills over a long period of time. The 37‑year old was introduced to music technology as a child in Trondheim, the north‑western Norwegian coastal town where he grew up, in 1980. "I started taking classical piano classes when I was seven years old. It wasn't really what I wanted to do, so my parents sent me to private lessons with some of the leading musicians in Trondheim. One of them had a big home studio, and as a result I was able to play with synthesizers and drum machines and sequencers very early on. I got really hooked on that, and ever since then all I wanted to do was to have my own studio and create music. My mother is an actress and my father an engineer, and I guess I got the creative side from her and the technical side from him. So from age 10 I started building my own studio. My first instrument was a Wurlitzer that my father gave to me. I got into buying and selling equipment and worked in cover bands and did music for commercials and radio and TV. I invested all the money I made in equipment, and quite quickly in the early '80s I was working on Commodore 64 and running a sampler program with MIDI and dividing drum loops and so on, way before that was common. I also had an Ensoniq Mirage, all the Roland stuff like TR303, 606, 808, 909 and MKS, and even an Emulator 2. Every day after I finished school I'd go into my tiny room that had equipment everywhere. My father had to raise my bed for me, so I could have equipment under the bed.”
Given Eriksen's single‑minded determination it was not surprising that his first successes arrived quickly. At the age of 12, he already had a children's song on the radio that he had written with a childhood friend, and in 1991, when Eriksen was only 17, he enjoyed his first hit with a song called 'Friends', sung by Stella Getz. "Her record sold half a million copies around Europe and funded the commercial studio that Hallgeir and I subsequently built, in which we were really able to develop our craft. In 1997, I heard about Tor [Hermansen], who was working as a talent scout and A&R coordinator for Warners Norway, and who was supposedly the only other person in Norway who was into American R&B. I went to his office, and he was very impressed with our songs and production, but not with the artists that we had. So we began working together on some of the artists that he had signed for the label. That was the beginning of our partnership as Stargate.”
The name Stargate had apparently been dreamt up earlier by Hallgeir Rustan when he and Eriksen set up their studio in Trondheim. "We laughed about it at first, because it seemed a little pretentious to suggest that an artist becomes a star when passing through our stargate. But we liked the name and somehow it stuck.”
As a trio, it did not take long for Stargate to honour their name, and the first artist they propelled to the top of the charts was Noora Noor. Stargate's first major UK hit as writers and producers was 'S Club Party' by S Club 7. Eriksen: "In our early days as a trio, we did a lot of remixes for the European market, mostly of American artists. So we'd get a cappella versions of songs by Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Brandy, and others, and we'd create remixes, and these would often be the main European versions. The remix thing got our name out to the record labels, and we were then able to write and produce original music for the likes of S Club 7, Blue, Mis'Teeq, Hear'Say and so on.”
Stargate went on to become one of Europe's leading hit factories, but then, in 2004, recalls Eriksen, "our business in the UK was slowing down and we were all doing separate projects. At that point Tor and I decided to take a shot at New York. Because of family commitments, Hallgeir couldn't come with us.”
Eriksen and Hermansen set up shop in a room at Sony Music studios in the beginning of 2005, and initially met with little success, before they bumped into Ne‑Yo in the corridors of the studio later on in the year. 'So Sick' changed everything for Stargate and Ne‑Yo and they wrote a further three songs for his debut album, In My Own Words, including 'Sexy Love', a US number seven hit. Later in 2006, the Stargate and Ne‑Yo combinatio produced two more international monster hits: Rihanna's 'Unfaithful' and Beyoncé's 'Irreplaceable'. The next year Stargate co‑wrote and co‑produced worldwide hits such as Beyoncé and Shakira's 'Beautiful Liar', Rihanna's 'Don't Stop The Music' and Chris Brown's 'With You', and the year after that they had major success with Rihanna's 'Take A Bow' and Ne‑Yo's Grammy‑winning 'Miss Independent'.
It would be hard to point to a signature Stargate production style: instead, their songs tend to draw on the more old‑fashioned qualities of melody, chord progression and emotion. Their productions are always wholly supportive of the song, rather than attracting attention in their own right, and many of Stargate's songs are minor‑key ballads or medium‑tempo numbers that allow the singer space to shine. It's understandable that all this makes Stargate popular with singers. What's more, Hermansen and Eriksen also almost always co‑write with fellow songwriters and often with the singer, which gives the latter even greater scope to make the song his or her own.
"'So Sick' was definitely an eye‑opener for us, in that it really worked to have singers write the lyrics,” explains Eriksen. "When we were in Europe, we used to write most of the lyrics ourselves. We'd hum melodies into a dictaphone and I used to sing on our early demos. We learnt from that what works as a good vocal melody. But now we really enjoy working with American lyricists and top writers, because they are on another level, lyrically. We then focus on writing and recording the music that we love the most, which is great. We put a lot of instrumental melodies in our music that singers and lyricists can use and adapt. Our goal is to inspire singers to come up with melodies, and then we edit these melodies and lyrics. We might say: 'Why don't you repeat this line,' or 'Perhaps change that word?' The other thing we discovered with 'So Sick' is how simple a good song can be. You don't have to have loads of vocal harmonies and overlapping lines in the background. The most important thing is to have one great lead vocal throughout the song. You can sprinkle it with all sorts of stuff in the background, but you try to keep it focused on the lead vocal and you make sure that the melody and the lyrics are great.”
Like more and more hitmakers these days, Stargate weave their magic using a state‑of‑the‑art Pro Tools system and little else. Says Eriksen, "As you know, everything is moving towards smaller production facilities, because you don't really need big consoles or lots of outboard any more to make a good‑sounding record. We have a G‑series SSL at Roc‑The‑Mic, but we only use four channels on it, two for Pro Tools and two for the iPod. We do everything in the box and the desk is just there to make our room look like a real studio [he laughs]. Back in the days in Norway we used quite a bit of outboard, but now it's all plug‑ins. Of course, this means that a lot of big studios close. We had to leave Sony Music Studios because it closed, and we then moved to Battery Studios, which also closed, after which we came to Roc‑The‑Mic.
"I think we were one of the first to move to Pro Tools for writing. We'd been using Cubase for 10 years, until we moved to Pro Tools 10 years ago. Of course, Cubase was much better for MIDI, but since we did all the vocal recording in Pro Tools, we felt that it made sense to work in just one platform, and Pro Tools was more convenient. MIDI in Pro Tools is now also becoming great, but in the end it doesn't really matter what you use, whether Cubase or Logic or Pro Tools. Everybody with a laptop and a small keyboard can create records that sound just as good as the ones on the radio. It's about the ideas now and not about the equipment.
"Tor and I both play keyboards, and we have all the different Yamaha Motifs, like the ES, the EXS, and so on. The Motif ES is my master keyboard. We also have the Roland Fantom and Fantom‑G, and we still have several older modules, like the Roland JV, Proteus 2000, and so on, but we rarely use them any more. We use mainly soft samplers and soft synths, the main ones being Digidesign's Structure and Access Virus Indigo. We also use Xpand! a lot and the new Transfuser software, in which you can put your sounds and it chops it up for you and you can mess with it. We have pretty much every soft synth on the market and several symphonic sample and drum libraries. The main danger is having too much stuff and too many possibilities, which is why we often go back to our own sample libraries that we have collected over the years. But to be honest, we don't really care whether we use a preset or our own sound. Many times we start with a preset, and then we'll modify it; at other times we create a sound from scratch. We don't focus too much on the sounds, and more on the ideas and the songwriting.”
Stargate are thoroughly 21st Century creators in that they work directly into the DAW, without notepads or demos. "We only write when we're in our studio,” asserts Eriksen. "Basically, Tor and I are standing in front of each other, each behind a keyboard, and we jam. We get sounds and we start playing melodic ideas and feels, and when one of us gets something the other likes, the other might say, 'Oh, do that again,' or 'Why not try this chord instead?' and so on. We're going for a unique feel, or melody, or chord progression, or an interesting sound, anything can be an inspiration. We rarely start off with a beat, most of the time we start with a melody or a chord progression. We put a lot of thought and attention to having strong melodies in our tracks, and the feedback we get from singers and lyricists is that they love that there are already so many melodies in the track, which they can use.
"Although we sometimes have Pro Tools running while improvising, we normally we don't record anything at that stage. We generally prefer to develop a musical core before we do that. There are two of us, so we tend to remember what we play. We'll refine and develop our idea, and only when we think we have something that's worth going for we input it into Pro Tools, and we start layering, adding other sounds and other melodies, a drum track, and so on. We might change things or strip away things later on, and only keep the three most unique elements. Tor and I don't really have a strict labour division, though most of the time I am in front of the Pro Tools system. Tor can also do programming and operate Pro Tools, but I have more of a technical background and tend to be the system controller/operator. I also was very into jazz when I was young, and learned improvisation, which I think is a big strength. Tor's strong side is coming up with unique melodies and he has a great sense of arrangement. We complement each other.”
Stargate's output is phenomenal by any standards. "We may have 500 song ideas a year,” admits Eriksen, "though good finished songs amount to 100, maybe 200 per year. As I said, we have developed our craft over a long time, so when we have an idea it is easy for us to execute it. I can have the right sounds in five minutes, and we have very effective and quick ways of working without compromising quality. One thing that makes things more straightforward is that in focusing on melodic ideas, we have learnt that we can keep tracks open and sparse. If a core idea is good enough, you don't need five sounds doing the same thing. The less you have in a track, the better it is, because when it's played on the radio and you get compression and everything, it sounds better if you have fewer elements. In the R&B genre, things sound better stripped down. It's like when you're cooking: three great ingredients work better than 10 different tastes competing with each other. For that reason we try to focus on simplicity and primary colours in our songs and arrangements. We use bright red and yellow and try to keep them separate.”
Another element that adds to the duo's productivity is the fact that they prefer to write songs for the pure fun of it; although they do write to order, it's not their preference. Eriksen, "We sometimes have specific sessions for an artist or a record label, but our experience is that the best stuff comes when we don't think of any artist in particular. We just write songs, and we later see who might be a good fit. If we were to write a song for Whitney Houston, the risk is that we limit ourselves by thinking, 'It has to be in this genre, and she sings like this, and it can't sound like that.' It's better to just create something that you love, and then maybe afterwards you may think, 'Oh, this would be a good song for Whitney Houston.' And often things work that you didn't think would be a good fit. 'Irreplaceable', for instance, was not written for Beyoncé. Everybody thought that it didn't fit in the R&B genre and that it was too different to be played on the radio. Even after Beyoncé recorded it, people still thought the radio stations wouldn't play it. And then suddenly everybody was playing it. A good song is a good song, no matter how you wrap it.
"It is what comes naturally for us. We never think: 'We have to make this sound right for the radio so that it will sell.' The best stuff we make is stuff that we personally like and are inspired by. That is our starting point, our motivation for doing it. The greatest feeling is if you start off with nothing during the day and at the end of the evening you have created something that you feel is special.”
Stargate's and Ne‑Yo's commercial and creative American breakthrough, 'So Sick', has since become a blueprint for the Norwegian duo's way of working. The simplicity of the song is embodied in the basic Ebm/Cb/Abm/Db chord sequence and pedal Cb chord. Erikson traces the song's genesis and how it shaped their working methods. "The song consists of a good feel in the harp sound, three drum sounds, an Indigo bass, and a lead synth, and that's it. We actually wrote the song in Eb-minor, because it's very easy as keyboard players to just start something in A-minor or F or whatever and fall into a pattern and just play the same chords over and over. So sometimes we choose to start in a song in a strange key, so you have to search your way and you can stumble across interesting things. In the end, the chord sequence in 'So Sick' is pretty standard, but I think we would not have arrived at that choice of notes had we written it in another key.
"The song started with me playing the harp sound on the keyboard and a theme that was much longer. Tor then said, 'Why don't you just repeat the first section?' We tried that, and it really worked. Writing it was very spontaneous and quick; I think we wrote and recorded the whole track in 25 minutes! Ne‑Yo loved it when he heard it, and he used the harp tune at the beginning of the song as the base for his vocal melody, plus he wrote the lyrics, all maybe in half an hour. We then recorded what was intended as a quick demo of his vocal. I think he did one take for the verses and a couple of vocal overdubs which took another half hour, and that became the actual vocal on the finished version. So the whole song took less than two hours from improvising the first notes to the end result. It just shows that it doesn't necessarily take long to create something great.
"When Ne‑Yo first heard the song, the whole structure of 'So Sick' was pretty much there the way it is today. We always try to have the structure of our songs and the arrangements very clear in our recordings. We'll have the verses and choruses and bridges and transitions complete. Of course, a singer or another co‑writer may want to extend or shorten parts of the song, but it's much easier to do that if the song was already very structured to begin with. And in some cases we'll completely change our backing after the singer has overdubbed his or her vocal. We might change the beat, or the chords, or completely rearrange the song. Like in the song 'Take A Bow' [a UK and US number one for Rihanna in 2008], our original track had an almost Asian feel, inspired by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It was much more left-field, and then after Ne‑Yo wrote the lyrics and the melody, we changed the whole beat and made the song more straightforward.
"We will often try left-field ideas that we later adapt. We constantly search for different sounds and different inspirations. You don't want to be stuck in one lane and just to repeat versions of your last hit record. We tend to play and program all parts on our songs ourselves, but sometimes the guitars are done by Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklund, who are a Norwegian writing and production team called Espionage. They are great songwriters and they had the guitar idea for Beyonce's 'Irreplaceable' and also for some of our other songs, like Rihanna's 'Hate That I Love You' and Chris Brown's 'With You'. We took elements from their guitar parts and created complete tracks around them. We also sometimes use guitars by Bernt Rune Stray, for instance in the track 'Closer' by Ne‑Yo. He sent an idea in 6/8 and we sampled it and chopped it up and totally changed the feel. Sometimes it's inspiring to use someone else's starting point. We use ideas like that almost as a sample.”
For this very reason, many Stargate‑written and ‑produced songs have an extended list of writing credits, which often includes the singer, and/or writers like Johntá Austin, Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds, and Britons Amanda Ghost and Ian Dench.
Stargate's modern approach also manifests itself in their willingness to engineer and record, as well as write and produce. "In fact, we also engineer almost everything in our songs, apart from occasionally the vocals or the strings. But whatever is recorded in our studio I record myself, because it is so much quicker than me telling someone to press Record, or which take to keep. Many artists are surprised that we do our own vocal engineering, but I've been doing it for 15‑20 years and I'm very specific about how I want it. Getting a good vocal sound makes a big difference to the production. The gear I use depends on the vocalist, but we often use the Blue [Bottle] microphone, which we like a lot, and that goes into an Avalon compressor and then straight into Pro Tools. We also love and use the classic Neumann mics and the AKG C12.
"I've also developed a handy technique for comping vocals. While recording I mark the parts that are good and I cut those out immediately and drag them down to a new track, while remembering what was great about that section. Once I have enough sections, I drag all of them to a new track, and get the transitions right and have a listen. If it is good enough we move on, if not we record more. It is a much more efficient way of comping than recording 20 tracks and then having to listen to all of them again before comping them.”
When it comes to vocal sounds, however, he insists that the equipment is of secondary importance. "We worked with a lot of great singers in Europe, but we were really trying to get that sparkling and fat American vocal sound. We didn't manage and wondered how they did it. When we came here to New York, we discovered that it is not about the microphone chain or the microphone or the EQs, but that it is about the vocalist. The best vocalists in the world just have that sound in their voice. Basically, when I'm recording vocals, it is just a matter of not f**king it up. I'll have a very simple vocal chain and will just add a little bit of sparkle, some compression and an effect of choice, and it will sound great. For this reason we are not very particular about the gear that we use. We travel a lot to Los Angeles and Miami, and it is not really about the equipment. We can make anything work anywhere.”
Moving on to the last stage of the production process, legendary British mixer Spike Stent recently commented in SOS February 2010 on differences between British and American pop mixes. Eriksen agrees. "Yes. Somehow the music sounds warmer and richer in America, and more bass‑heavy, and they have a fantastic vocal sound. In England, the music tends to be more mid‑heavy, and sharper. It is like a different expression. I don't know exactly why this happened, because we all use the same equipment. It must be just a matter of taste. Our sound changed after we came to America, and we feel that we have found our own expression here. When we finish recording our tracks, we do our own rough mixes, which will sound pretty much like the finished mix. We do everything to make it sound like the finished record. We do all the compression and the EQs and vocal effects and the delays and so on. Phil Tan [or KD Davis; see SOS October 2008 for an analysis of KD's mix of the Stargate track 'Closer'] might even use many of our mixing effects, but he will then make that sound even better. He will make all the sounds even louder and the bass even thicker and the vocal even brighter. It's great!”
Mikkel Eriksen tells the stories behind some of the Norwegian duo's greatest hits.
'Beautiful Liar' (2007)
Artists: Shakira and Beyoncé.
"This song is very simple. Most of the time we have more chords in a song, because we find it hard writing a great song on just one chord. But if you do it right, you can make it work, and this song is an example. We had written the backing track a year earlier, and played it to one of our managers, TyTy [Tyran Smith], who loved the track and said that it'd be perfect for a duet between Shakira and Beyoncé. We were like, 'Yeah, right!' and laughing and shaking our heads and thinking it could not be done. But he was really devoted to that idea. We didn't have a lyric or a top melody, so various writers had a stab at finishing the song. The first two or three attempts weren't good enough, and then he had the idea of putting us together with Amanda and Ian, who we hadn't heard of, and they wrote the lyric and the melody. It originally had a Spanish title and different lyrics, but then Tor said, 'You have that line "beautiful liar” in one of the verses. Why not use that as a feature?' So that became the punchline. We presented it to Beyoncé, who loved it and added her own twist to the lyrics and then recorded a version of it, but they could not get Shakira to feature on the song in time for the release of B'Day. A few months later, Shakira agreed to sing on the track, and she recorded the vocal and her people also added the ethnic strings and percussion break. The song became a huge hit around the world and is now included on the new version of B'Day. It illustrates for us the importance of having dedicated people around who believe in your ideas and your music and push it forward to make it happen, and we've had a lot of support from our management team, TyTy, Tim Blacksmith, Danny D and Jay Brown.”
"This song began with some guitar chords that were given to us by Amund and Espen, and we arranged them and added bass and drums and strings and melodies and everything else. The chords were leaning towards country, so we had fun exploring something new. Ne‑Yo is also not locked into one genre, and when we presented the song to him, he wrote lyrics to it and added a melody, and magic happened. It was actually an A&R person who suggested that the song would work better when sung by a female. A couple of labels wanted the song, but for a while nothing happened, until Beyoncé heard it. She loved it and recorded it, but it didn't seem to fit on the album she was doing at the time, B'Day, which was supposed to be a hard‑hitting club album. Finally, one of the producers on the album, Swizz Beats, said that she'd be crazy not to include the song on the album. It was released on the album as track number nine, and then spent 10 weeks on number one as a single, and in the new edition of the album it's the second song, immediately after 'Beautiful Liar'.”
"Tor and I created the original track, which was dark and moody, taking our inspiration from the rock band Evanescence. The song was originally called 'Murderer'. The first thing that we had was the piano melody and we created the whole structure of the song with just the piano, and then added the percussion and the strings. The long synth and piano intro was also there from the beginning. The strings on the finished track are real, they were arranged by Robert Mouncey, based on what we had done. In many other cases our sampled string arrangements end up on the final version of songs. I find that how natural it sounds is not so much about how realistic the string sound is, but more about your choice of notes and how you play and program the strings.”
'Broken‑hearted Girl' (2009)
"Originally this was a classic, full R&B track, that we wrote with Babyface. He came in and changed one chord and wrote the lyrics and then he added a falsetto voice that we recorded as a demo. From there we proceeded to change the entire backing track around his vocal. We changed the chords, everything, and this is where that four to the floor piano emerged. The song is in D-minor. I suppose many of our songs are in minor keys. We probably lean towards more a moody, melodic expression. It's what comes most natural for us.”
'I Am' (2010)
Artist: Mary J Blige.
"That song was based on some string samples that a Norwegian friend of ours had recorded in Prague. He's a film and classical composer, and sometimes sends us snippets of what he records. We sampled it and you can hear echoes of it in the staccato string break in the middle. We created the entire backing track, and Mary J Blige overdubbed the vocal with her own people, and after we received her vocal, we changed the drums and did an entirely new production. Ester Dean had written the lyrics for the song, but Mary J Blige thought the verses could be better, so we got Johntá Austin to write new verses, and then Mary J Blige came in to re‑sing the verses and do some additional vocals. After that Ron Fair did a new string arrangement, so we ended up not using the original sample.
"We always like to get all the elements of each song back, and we go through everything to make sure it's as good as it can be, and we do some additional tweaks.”