Adele's second album, 21, has broken sales records all around the globe. Mixer Tom Elmhirst and producer Paul Epworth explain how they created its multi‑platinum lead single, 'Rolling In The Deep'.
Adele's record‑breaking sales feats are so extraordinary that she's been credited with single‑handedly reviving the music industry. In case you've just come back from another planet, the singer‑songwriter achieved an impressive lift‑off with her first album, 19 (2008),which sold nearly three million copies worldwide. However, it was its successor, 21, released in January 2011, that took her into the stratosphere. With seven million sales and counting, 21 is by far the best‑selling album of 2011, having reached the top spot, often for weeks on end, in two dozen countries. This included a record‑breaking 13‑week stint at number one in the UK, which resulted in the album going 10 times platinum. 21 has also gone multiple platinum in the US, where it spent 10 weeks at the top of the Billboard album chart.
The achievements of Adele's two albums were galvanised by several hit singles, notably four multi‑platinum worldwide hits: 'Chasing Pavements' and 'Make You Feel My Love' from 19, and 'Rolling In The Deep' and 'Someone Like You' from 21. 'Rolling In The Deep' reached number one in at least 13 countries, including the US, where it sold over four million copies.
Of course, Adele didn't reach these heights all by herself. Her album titles refer to her age when the respective albums were made, and XL Recordings have supported their inexperienced signing by enlisting renowned co‑writers and producers. Her first album was mainly produced by Jim Abbiss, with some help from Mark Ronson, while the impressive credit list for 21 features the likes of Abbiss, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Dan Wilson, Greg Wells, Fraser T Smith and Rick Rubin.
Another big contributor to Adele's success has been top mixer Tom Elmhirst, who mixed three of her big four singles. Elmhirst began his career in the '90s at SARM studios in London, where he worked with Trevor Horn; since the turn of the century, he has been the mixer of choice for a slew of top artists including Goldfrapp, Cee Lo Green, Amy Winehouse, Jonsi, Noah & The Whale and the Kills, and has already featured in Inside Track in our August 2007 issue, talking about Winehouse's mega hit 'Rehab'. Until now, however, he says "I have never mixed a US number one, and then 'Rolling In The Deep' holds that slot for seven weeks. Unbelievable!”
Topping the charts was not the first thing on Elmhirst's mind when he agreed to mix some of the songs on 19 and 21. Instead, liking the music and the artist are his first considerations. "Generally speaking, if I don't respond to a track, I don't see the benefit in having me mix it. It'd be difficult to mix something I didn't enjoy — more importantly, it wouldn't be respectful to the artist. Obviously it makes much more sense for me to mix albums, as I can have a better understanding of what the artist is trying to achieve, and I can help with that. Because I already mixed some of Adele's material on her first album, and knew what she was about, I was more than happy to work on the second. She's someone who breaks the mould. She's not trying to pretend to be something she isn't, and the way she presents her music is honest.”
'Rolling In The Deep' was co‑written by Adele and Paul Epworth, and produced by the latter, who will be well known to SOS readers through his work with Cee Lo Green, Maximo Park, Bloc Party, the Rapture, Florence & the Machine and Plan B. The way Epworth recorded and arranged the song — as described in the 'From Demo To Platinum Hit' box — played a large part in Elmhirst's mix approach. "Sometimes the job of a mixer is to add just two percent,” the mixer explains, "and others require more radical changes. 'Rolling In The Deep' was incredibly well‑formed. I loved the song and felt that I could bring a deeper, more dynamic sound to the mix. The calibre of producers and artists I'm working with means that it's possible that sometimes I can't do a better mix.
"Do I refer to the rough mix? Well, unless the reference mix is shockingly bad, you don't want to go miles away from it. That would be crazy. Normally people will have listened to the reference mix a lot — it's what they know and have come to love. On the other hand, while I will obviously have heard the reference mix at some stage, I try not to listen to it after that. Otherwise it'll affect the way I work too much. The biggest problem I'm having today is being sent reference mixes that are overloaded with mastering plug‑ins and limiters, because producers are having to compete for album cuts to such a degree. It's a battle for me as well, because people don't like it if my mix isn't as loud as the reference mix.
"Normally, my assistant Ben Baptie will load the Pro Tools file in the morning, and will have looked at it for an hour or so and done some preliminary bouncing by the time I come in, usually around noon. It'll take me about an hour and a half to figure everything out. I might do a bit more bouncing in Pro Tools, because I prefer not to have endless amounts of tracks going on. I always lay the outputs out over the console myself. Realistically, I have about 44 channels on the desk for audio, so I need to reduce the Session to that if it's larger. The rest of the desk is taken up with the returns from the outboard. I use faders for sends from the effects, especially on the vocal on which I may have four sends, like reverb, chorus, delay and so on, and I can ride these and play with them. It's very fast. You can't set something like that up in Pro Tools, because you can't play with four aux sends at once. It'd drive me completely insane to even try to do it in the box. You can't play, you can't dance. You can't vibe with a track while moving a mouse.
"By 2‑3pm, I want to be hitting somewhere near the reference mix, and then it's a matter of figuring out how to take it further. From that point onwards, I am in front of the board, though I may occasionally jump between the screen and the board. But sometimes I switch the screen off. You have to forget the screen, because you end up thinking about the music rather than feeling it. There's no magic recipe for taking the mix further. Every mixer has a different approach. I very much appreciate that the artist has worked for a long time on a track and usually has suffered to some degree in its making, and I remind myself that the final mix is a big day for the artist. Beyond that, I very much try to entertain myself. A lot of it is experience. I get to the balance quicker these days, and after that it's all in the detail. I can't quite explain how I get to the end result and know that a mix is finished. You simply learn to trust your own judgement.
"I have always printed stems, so I can easily do alterations to the mix later on. This happened with 'Rolling In The Deep', on which Adele added a small vocal section at the end after my master mix and I added some sub to the bass, creating an unnatural and wicked low end in the chorus. With 'Rolling In The Deep', I ended up using an instrumental stem, a separate bass stem and all the vocal, but normally I'll separate the music out, with a stereo stem for the drums, for the bass, for the guitars, the keyboards, and so on. It'll be pretty comprehensive, though it'll never be more than 12 to 14 stereo pairs.”
Tom Elmhirst: "Paul [Epworth] knows what he's doing, and the plan for the song was pretty clearly laid out. I just had to do more. It was as simple as that. The main issue was the dynamics in the mix. The song starts with a mono acoustic guitar and then when you get to the bridge, it opens up and get a bit wider, with a stereo acoustic coming in. Then the chorus comes in and all hell breaks loose. It suddenly goes from 2D to 3D. The chorus had to explode, it really had to hit you in the face. Adding the sub‑bass harmonic in the chorus in the stem session emphasised that, because it means that the mix opens up vertically as well. I wanted to accentuate all these things and make all the changes even more dramatic. One way of doing this was by adding delays to the vocals in the chorus. If I had a vision for this mix, it was to get a real sense of depth. It's like having a sense of perspective in a film, with some things close by and others far away. If everything in a mix is loud and right up front, there's no depth.
"The Pro Tools Session was very straightforward.
My stereo mix is right at the top, and then below that are the drums, then the bass, acoustics, electrics, pianos, lead vocals and backing vocals. Specifically, if you look at the Edit Window screenshot, you can see a kick sample that Paul added ['K102'], then the original live bass‑drum track ['1202', a reference to the D12 mic that recorded it], and then a kick sample I added ['BD11'], a snare track ['3001'] and snare sample I added ['8402'], overhead mono ['OH02'], and two tom tracks ['4210']. 'R88S' is a subgroup for four additional kick tracks underneath, 'HA02' is a binaural head mic, 'St01' and 'SR01' are footstomps, 'BNC' are bounced claps, and I added some extra claps ['PEN']. The drums are completed by two tambourine track, one original one and one I added, and two shakers tracks. The instrument tracks consist of just the bass ['bas'], the opening mono guitar ['cstc'], which goes into a stereo pair in the bridge ['CO A201'], a mono and a stereo electric guitar — the mono doubles the acoustic — and two stereo piano tracks. Below that are the vocals, starting with the lead vocal ['LdVb'], which subs the verse, bridge and chorus tracks below, while 'LVSE' is a Roland RE501 Space Echo track that Paul had recorded. Below are the backing vocals.
"I have a certain layout on the board. It moves around a bit, but lead vocals normally always come up on channel 25, with the backing vocals to the right of that, and I'll have the music on channels 1‑24, with bass drums on snares 1‑4, toms or maybe overheads on 5‑6, 7‑8 will be ambient mics, and so on. All channels go to bus 1‑2, and generally I'll send channels 5‑8 to buses 3‑4 as well, but not the close mics on 1‑4. I'll have a compressor on buses 3‑4, because compressing ambience gives you this lovely sucking sensation. Using buses 3‑4 gives me control over that; I can pull it back a bit in the verses, so the sound is a bit closer. Using the desk allows me to easily ride the compressor. 'Rolling In The Deep' was laid out like this, with ambient drum mics on 7‑10, the beginning mono guitar on 11, bass on 12, stereo acoustic guitar on 13‑14, electric on 15‑16, pianos on 17‑20, claps and percussion on 21‑24, lead vocal on 25, Paul's space echo track on 29, and backing vocals on 31‑34.”
"Outboard returns are at 46‑72, although there's a lot that I don't use for every mix — the Pioneer on 55‑56 is an old '70s‑'80s spring reverb that was made for the domestic market. For this mix, I mainly used the Orban (51‑52), possibly the [TC] M5000 (63‑64), the AMS DMXs (47‑48), the Boss CE1 chorus pedal (47), and maybe the Lexicon Delta T — I didn't use the 480. I definitely did some EQ and compression on the board, and there was a lot of riding stuff. But there weren't many plug‑ins or other effects on the instruments, mainly just some notch EQs to take out harsh frequencies. There's not a staggering amount of manipulation, just a Urei on the bass, and no other outboard effects. The verse acoustic guitar is much lower and darker than the bridge and chorus acoustic, which is more hi‑fi. I left it like that. It's a pretty honest representation of what was played, which was well recorded and produced.”
Drums: Digirack EQIII & Lo‑Fi, Waves Renaissance Bass & MV2, Dbx 160, Chandler TG1, Neve 33609, Smart C1.
"I'll tend to use plug‑in EQs for more surgical things, like notching out specific frequencies, for example 151Hz on the kick using the Digirack EQIII, although that EQ may have been on it when I got the Session. I think I also added some RBass on the kick to get more low end on it. On the snare I had another EQIII just taking out a little around 203Hz, plus there's a Lo‑Fi [plug‑in] taking off some top end and adding some distortion and aggression. The sound was probably too clean for my liking. There are several instances of the EQIII in the drums, but most of them aren't doing anything — they also came with the Session and I switched them off. The '2' on the overheads is the Waves MV2 compressor. It's what I call a creative plug‑in, because it's quite effective sonically, working a little like a multi‑band limiter.
"Channels one and two on the desk, which were bass drum and snare, each have the Dbx 160 on the insert, which is quite a snappy compressor. There are no other inserts on the drums, because all the more distant mics went to bus 3/4, the return of which came up on channels 69 and 70, on which I had a Chandler TG1 limiter, a Neve 33609 and the Alan Smart C1 compressor. That's a lot of stuff on a bus! Setting the bus up like this meant that I could easily vary the amount going into the compressors, like in the chorus I'd have increased the inputs for the chain and gotten an effect from that. I have the Chandler in limiter mode normally, and I had it set to a very fast recovery time and maximum input. It's quite trashy‑sounding and starts to pump very easily. It's a killer compressor! The 33609 and the Alan Smart were not doing a lot.”
"I had the Q6 on the chorus vocal, notching out 930, 1634 and 3175 Hz very, very heavily: ‑18dB, ‑18dB and ‑12.1dB respectively, with very narrow Q. I also had the EQIII on the lead‑vocal sub, notching something out again. Something obviously needed to be taken out. The vocal is the most important thing in the track, and taking those frequencies out allowed me to keep it up front in the mix, particularly in the chorus. You can never account for what mic the vocals were recorded on, and whatever it is that bugs me, I can take it out. 'T' on the lead vocal bus is the [Massey] Tapehead plug‑in, which wasn't used, but I did use two Waves De‑essers, one taking out at 5449Hz and the other at 11004Hz. Rather than use one to try to cover all the sibilance I used two. I do that quite often.
"Regarding the outboard, I had the Pultec EQ, Urei 1176 and the Tube‑Tech CL1B on the lead vocal sub insert (desk channel 25). The Pultec boosted around 100Hz and 12k. It's colourful, but not drastic. There was not a lot of gain. The blackface Urei had fast attack and fast release, whereas the Tube‑Tech had slow attack and slow release, it was more evening out the level. You can use compression as an effect, but on the vocal you mainly want control. You want to set it up right so you're not constantly moving the channel fader to fit the vocal in the mix. If you're constantly moving the fader, rather than just doing the occasional ride, you know that you need to look at your compression. There's also Paul's Roland Space Echo track, which I used throughout, and which was the only lead vocal effect in the first chorus. On the backing vocals I had the Digirack Trim, again the Lo‑Fi, and the EQIII, cutting a bit around 405Hz and boosting a little around 3.17k. I used quite a few spring reverbs on the backing vocals, because I wanted them to have a lot more ambience. In the choruses I would also have added several delays. The delays make the backing vocals swing a bit, and they also fill up the space and make sure that they fit in the mix.”
Final mix: Manley Vari‑Mu, Chandler Curvebender, Cranesong HEDD.
"The session was in 24/96, and I mixed back into it, going via the Manley Vari‑Mu, the Chandler Curvebender EQ and the Cranesong HEDD tape simulator, which did the A‑D conversion. I like the colour that the HEDD adds. I'd have sent a reference mix to the record label, using the [Waves] L1 and the UltraMaximizer to beef up the volume, but I took these off when I sent the file to the mastering engineer. As I said earlier, the loudness wars are a daily battle for me, because all reference mixes come in pumped, and I have to compete with that. I can't send in a mix that sounds 10dB less loud then the reference mix. These days I use the UAD Precision Maximizer for that, which is the best one I've heard that doesn't shred the sound.”
Tom Elmhirst's impressive track record allows him not only to be selective about the projects he works on, but to work 'out of the box', using the Neve VR console in London's Metropolis Studio C. "I have always mixed on a Neve VR, and the sound of the room is crucial to what I do. I have mixed in other rooms, but the monitoring in Studio C is a huge factor in why I am so comfortable there. You have to remember that whilst I enjoy mixing immensely, it is still a skill and a discipline that one has to work hard at, and that I am still working hard at. My reluctance to work on particular projects rarely has anything to do with lack of a budget. It's more about taste. Yes, mixing in the box may be much cheaper, and there are some practical benefits, but to my mind the console is still the best front end for Pro Tools, still the fastest way to get a mix going and still the most fun.
"I have never felt any pressure to change the way I work, but I'm sure there are projects I don't get considered for, because the temptation to make records as cheaply as possible sometimes triumphs over having a shot at making as good a record as possible. Budget should never be the overriding issue. You've got to be creative. There's still such a thing as down time! You'd think that I'd have artists kicking down my door, asking for a squeeze, some advice, a hook‑up, an opinion… I think people get the idea of a studio complex confused with the 'corporate music industry'. Studios should really be at the heart of creativity. I'm working on a record right now that has no budget at all, and I absolutely love it. Everyone has their heart in it and believes in it 100 percent. It's exciting.
"There's less and less money to keep a room like this going. But we should all do more to protect the culture of studios and the culture of assistants, who come up through the ranks. I had that experience at SARM, and I believe it's incredibly important. There are only a handful of studios left in London, and I don't know what these hundreds of kids coming out of music tech courses are going to do. So I will continue to support a studio like Metropolis. Not having my own room gives me additional choices. It means not having to say yes to everything I get offered. I can walk out of the door here and not worry about maintaining the place or taking on every session to keep it going. I wouldn't have that freedom with my own place.
"Studios and large desks are expensive. Yet for me, mixing continues to be about being with a board and with faders, because it allows me to have a physical relationship with the music. Plug‑ins are a lot more advanced now than when I first started. I just bought all the UAD stuff, and really enjoy using it.”
As well as the 72‑channel Neve VR desk, Studio C is home to some of Elmhirst's own equipment, including a Chandler TG1 limiter and Curvebender EQ, Manley Massive Passive EQ, Cranesong HEDD, "many old spring reverbs, effects units, pedals and delays; they're all things that sound original” and his favourite KRK 9000B monitors. "The KRKs must be 15 years old. Spike [Stent] and Cenzo [Townshend] also use them, and I couldn't mix without. The three of us recently got in touch with the French company that made them, and had it run off some spare drivers. When I mix I'll be jumping around for the first couple of hours playing the track loudly via my KRKs, and once I know the bottom end is rocking, I'll mix with low volume on the Auratones for the rest of the day. If I can make a mix work on the Auratones, I know I'm flying. I also use a Bryston amp, and don't have any subs, nor do I use the main monitors or the NS10s that are also here. But I like the look of the NS10s, they remind me of when I began!”
Adele's 'Someone Like You' is that rare thing: a one‑vocal‑one‑instrument number one (in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand). The track consists of only one stereo acoustic piano and one lead vocal, with a brief vocal doubling in the middle eight, and that's it. It doesn't come more minimalist than this, and according to Tom Elmhirst, the mix happened quite quickly.
"This was a great song to mix. The only issue for me was the vocal reverb in the reference mix. Obviously I wanted to retain the experience of Adele singing to a piano. I had three de‑essers on the lead vocal in this case, working at 4185, 7413 and 7712 Hz, and I did some notching on the [Waves] Q10, taking out 537, 2973, and 10899 Hz, with maximum Q in all cases. The [Sonnox] Oxford EQ simply takes out everything below 100Hz, and it adds a little around 8k. In terms of outboard, like on 'Rolling In The Deep' I had the Pultec EQ, and 1176 and Tube‑Tech compressors on the vocal insert. On the piano insert I had the Neve 33609 EQ. I also set up two Trillium Lane Labs reverb plug‑ins, the TL Spring and the TL Orban, which came up on the console on channels 43 and 44, like an outboard effect. This gave me more manual control.”
'Rolling In The Deep' was co‑written and produced by Paul Epworth, and began with an idea of Adele's in which she envisaged "the verses and bridge as one long mantra”. Epworth adds: "She said to me, 'I've got this riff that just won't go away,' so I grabbed an acoustic guitar and found some simple Tom Waits‑like chugged chords underneath, both for the verse and the chorus changes. The whole thing happened in under five minutes.”
Adele and Epworth were working in the latter's London studio — he's since relocated to Beethoven Street Studios in central London and renamed it Wolf Tone — where he recorded their basic ideas in Logic. "I wanted Adele to put her vocal parts down immediately, just to prevent her having to sing over and over again while I worked out my parts. I'm quite indecisive when starting a track about the arrangement I'm going for, as I need to feel the track out first. In order to make sure she had something to sing to, I put down some low piano chords in the key, added a click and recorded Adele singing the whole riff she had in one take. I counted her in — you can still hear this mumbled count-in at the top of the master. I left that in because I felt that it gave the song a stamp of authenticity. Later on we spent a bit of time structuring the arrangement of parts for her vocals. We worked out the bridge section, which came together quite quickly, and then Adele said 'I think I've got something for the chorus.'
"I recorded all Adele's vocals with my Rode Classic 2, going through my UA 6176 mic pre, and never went back to them. The vocals in the final version are all from the demo. She was really going through something and you can hear it in her voice. I think I also used quite a bit of Logic overdrive on her voice, too, to add harmonics. I then recorded the acoustic guitar chords, following which we set about working on a beat. We toyed with a skiffle tempo in double time, a break, but in the end it just made sense to make the track thump. The staccato element was always there. The acoustic and electric guitars were absolutely exhausting to play, because the part has to be played so evenly with right and left hands muting. You can barely hear the electric guitar that I added, but it helps give the track a seething tension that it otherwise would have missed Also, I was aware that the intention was for Rick [Rubin] to re‑record and produce the song, so we knew it was better for the arrangement to be stripped‑down and heavy.”
With the demo in hand, Adele went over to Malibu to re‑record the track with Rubin at the helm (footage of these sessions can be found on YouTube), but everyone involved appeared to have a serious case of demoitis. Epworth: "Rick's version was awesome, but there was a rawness in her original vocal performance and in the stripped‑down nature of the demo that was impossible to replicate. And in my experience as a producer a good demo is often hard to beat, particularly if people have lived with it for a while.”
And so Epworth was asked to upgrade his demo, something he decided to do at Eastcote Studios in London. "The final master was pretty much the demo with a few embellishments. I had played everything live on the demo: drums, bass, acoustic, electric and piano. I like to use a bit of live kit on a demo, because it makes a big difference, if that's how it's intended to sound. On this song, we used a '60s marching band bass drum up against the front head of my 1972 Super Classic kick to get a tight attack and a big boom. A lot of the stomp of the kick drum was actually Adele stamping on a wooden step in my studio. We tracked it up so it sounded really heavy. Blended with the kick, it had a real blues sound. At Eastcote, drummer Leo Taylor added more life to the demo drum recordings. The issue was trying to get an ambient sound without it being splashy. The ceiling is low in Eastcote, and we wanted a live take of the drums, so there was some juggling. Also, when you get a 26‑inch kick tuned low like that, you have to tailor the decay with mutes, a little bit of tape and a blanket, while being careful not to kill the impact or tone.
"The piano was replayed and embellished by Neil Cowley, and I replayed all the acoustic and electric guitars as I felt they should have been played. The main reason for recording at Eastcote was that I wanted to try and emulate Tchad Blake's binaural head sound from those Tom Waits records from the late '80s and early '90s. We recorded into Pro Tools at Eastcote and used a binaural head but with a couple of Schoeps [mics] either side — we couldn't get our hands on a Neumann — and we placed stuff around the room to get the stereo width. Mark Rankin [the engineer on the Eastcote sessions] close‑miked everything too, and we blended the close mics and head mics to get the desired depth. For recording the acoustic guitars, we used the [Telefunken] Elam 250 as a close mic, three feet from the front of my 1964 Martin to get the body and presence, and we used a head with Telefunken Elam 260s positioned horizontally at the listening position. The electric was a 1957 Les Paul played through a Mesa Boogie combo, and recorded with a Royer mic.
"As I said, the demo had been very close, but we managed to add a rich, organic quality with the live performances at Eastcote. Mark and I then pre‑mixed the song in the box, which mainly involved lots of shaping stuff to get the dynamics right. Tom then really nailed it in his final mix by refining the sound we had into something more focused. He got the ODB 'Brooklyn Zoo' piano sound we were after, and blended Adele's stomp with the live kit, et al. It was a tricky track to balance. Because there's so much space and so few elements in the song, it can easily slip. I had a hunch that the track would be really successful, but I never thought I'd have a US number one single! Just gotta make the next thing even better now!”
One of the many benefits of working at a large, professional studio like Metropolis is its meticulous record‑keeping. All of Tom Elmhirst's outboard gear settings for the mix of 'Rolling In The Deep' were written down and kept, in case the mix later needed to be recalled, and Tom has kindly made his recall notes available in PDF format for anyone who's interested. To download the recall notes and the full screenshots of his Pro Tools Sessions, head to /sos/sep11/articles/insidetrackmedia.htm.