You are here

The Chainsmokers

Drew Taggart & Alex Pall: Producing So Far So Good By Paul Tingen
Published June 2022

The Chainsmokers are Drew Taggart (left) and Alex Pall.The Chainsmokers are Drew Taggart (left) and Alex Pall.

The Chainsmokers’ new album shows off some serious production and songwriting skills.

When DJ duo the Chainsmokers released ‘#Selfie’ in 2014, it had the feel of a one‑hit wonder. But within two years they had enjoyed several more major hits, notably ‘Roses’, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and the mega‑hit ‘Closer’. Six years, three albums, 40 singles, 31 music videos, 38 remixes, one Grammy Award and four Grammy nominations later, the Chainsmokers have become part of the American musical landscape.

Despite their success, though, there has always been an anti‑establishment, against‑the‑grain element to the EDM‑pop duo. Within weeks of the release of their third album World War Joy in late 2019, Drew Taggart and Alex Pall vanished from the public eye and from social media for two years. Aside from an ill‑fated concert in July 2020, and a soundtrack album, Words On Bathroom Walls (2020, with Andrew Hollander), the Chainsmokers seemingly disappeared from the face of the planet. Not until this year did the duo return to global attention with a couple of remixes, followed by the singles ‘High’ and ‘iPad’, several live performances, and a fourth album, So Far So Good, released on 13th May.

Burned Out

The Chainsmokers

“After we put out our third album at the end of 2019 and finished our second North America arena tour, we were just cooked,” explains Taggart. “We had been touring 180 shows per year, and been around the world multiple times, and we didn’t have enough time to stop and be creative. It got to the point where with some of the records we were making, it wasn’t like we weren’t proud of them, but we were like coughing them up. We kind of lost touch with what we felt was really special about our music.

“Instead of taking months off, we went to Hawaii in the very beginning of 2020, with Ian Kirkpatrick and Emily Warren, and Whethan. They are people we love making music with. We got this amazing house close to the beach, built a makeshift studio in it, and this gave us the opportunity to make music without any pressure. We only stayed at the house in Hawaii for two weeks, but we ended up making the backbone of our fourth album there. If there had been no pandemic, we’d have come back sooner. But hearing how the album turned out, it was a blessing in disguise to have this forced time off.”

Pall echoes the words of his partner in describing what happened. “It definitely felt like we had been on a carousel, going round and round and unable to get off. For six years, if we didn’t do something productive in the studio, we felt we wasted an opportunity. So when we went to Hawaii we did not expect anything. Best‑case scenario, we’d come back with some music; worst‑case scenario we’d come back refreshed, having had a great time in Hawaii with some of our best friends.

“We needed to rediscover what it was about our music that we loved so much, and this happened in Hawaii. Removing the stress of making a song that would come out two weeks later allowed us to fall back in love with the process of experimenting, writing and producing. In Hawaii it was not about starting an album, but a matter of ‘Let’s just make music right now, because it’s what we love to do. Let’s just make stuff that feels fun, and see where it takes us.’”

Alex Pall: Removing the stress of making a song that would come out two weeks later allowed us to fall back in love with the process of experimenting, writing and producing.

EDM Explosion

In part as a result of the pandemic, So Far So Good finally sees the light of day almost two and a half years after those initial sessions in Hawaii. The album is more eclectic than anything the Chainsmokers have ever done, which is saying something, because they have always taken their inspiration from many different places, despite being at heart a pop act with strong EDM influences. “We draw our inspiration from everywhere because we’re massive music fans,” elaborates Taggart. “I played drums and guitar in a band and I was gothic when I was 10 to 12. I was the only kid in my town in Maine who had eyeliner, all dressed in black, hair in a mohawk. I was always hyper‑passionate about music. I listened to screamo and metal, then went into pop/punk, then into Death Cab For Cutie, then into the Postal Service, which is a huge inspiration on our new album in particular.

“I heard dance music for the first time when I was in Argentina. I was 15, and this was 2005, when no one was listening to anything electronic in America. I heard Daft Punk, David Guetta, Trentemøller and was like, ‘What the hell is this stuff?’ I had never heard anything like it sonically. I wanted to figure out how to make that sound. So when I was probably 16‑17, I bought Ableton. At the time it was a relatively new program. There were a lot of DAWs that were just kind of starting out and that was the one I chose.

“None of my friends listened to EDM, but I was obsessed with it. I spent all my time making it. It’s all I did. We then watched it become part of mainstream music in America. Since then I’ve become a fan of everything. I’m a huge fan of pop music. I never liked pop music as a kid, but we look up to guys like Max Martin, and it’s cool to know him, and Benny Blanco, and other people who have been at the top of the charts of pop music for so long. Later all these genres were converging, and I was excited about the core of the Chainsmokers sound coming from EDM, coming from the dance world, and that we add all these things that we love into it. That’s what the Chainsmokers sound is today.”

Making A Contribution

Drew Taggart has long been recognised as the production genius behind the Chainsmokers, which means there’s been a degree of mystery about Alex Pall’s role. “I started out as a DJ, not a producer or musician,” he acknowledges. “When we began the Chainsmokers, Drew was producing and he said, ‘I can’t make music and survive because I don’t make any money.’ Meanwhile I had tons of DJ shows all over New York City that did make money. That’s how our initial partnership was formed. We get along on a multitude of levels, but that was our initial trade off. Over the next couple of years, Drew would be sitting in the room doing remixes, while I was doing the marketing side, the outreach, getting our music into as many people’s hands as possible.

“What was funny for me was that while I played some guitar while growing up, I did not really have the vocabulary to express myself clearly on where I’d think songs should go musically. It was almost like communicating with someone who speaks another language. So when we started working on original music, it became clear to us that while DJ’ing is amazing, we also wanted to perform these songs live, and not just hit Play, with Drew maybe singing.

A self‑confessed non‑musician when the Chainsmokers began, Alex Pall has devoted much of the last six years to developing his keyboard skills and music theory knowledge.A self‑confessed non‑musician when the Chainsmokers began, Alex Pall has devoted much of the last six years to developing his keyboard skills and music theory knowledge.

“Right before the release of our first album, Memories... Do Not Open [2017], we decided to start performing as a band, which was crazy, because it was the moment that I decided to learn to play the piano. I literally started taking piano lessons for two hours every day, which I did for 18 months before the first tour, and which I still do. I’ve by now had six years of two hours of piano lessons every day!

“It’s been amazing to learn how to read music, how to write music, to learn about Bach, Mozart, all these people. I began to understand the language of music and that was really exciting for me. And then to have a deeper understanding of what makes the Chainsmokers music from an actual songwriting standpoint, versus before when I would understand emotionally where we sat, but not what makes the chords in ‘Closer’ so incredible. So it’s been a hell of a journey, and it’s still ongoing.

“I used to need six months to learn a show, now I it takes me a day or two. It’s also cool to progress from a songwriter standpoint, where I can write some cool chords that may form the basis of a song. I have no problem knowing that Drew is a far superior producer/songwriter than I, but I think this will probably speak to a lot of new artists that are becoming writers or starting to break into the scene: it’s like a game of confidence. You have to believe that what you’re contributing will be important, but also be OK with it being overlooked.”

Writing Songs

So how, then, do the Chainsmokers write songs? “We’re influenced by everything, all the time,” Pall stresses, “whether it’s real‑world experiences, music that our friends make, or stuff we discover. Emily [Warren] has always been a good source of inspiration. During our first week in Hawaii we mostly just played music for each other. Fred Again was a great source of inspiration in getting back in the studio and having fun. As DJs we’re gigantic consumers of music, because it’s your job to seek out tunes that people may not know but that provide a soundtrack to an amazing night. We’re constantly scouring blogs and Hype Machine and Spotify playlists and now TikTok to try to find things that get a fire going.”

“The writing of every song is completely different,” adds Taggart. “Sometimes things start with a lyrical note I’ve written in my notepad, sometimes with chords that Alex plays, sometimes a cool synth line, sometimes some programming. It’s really random. Going back to our older hits, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was the result of me dating a girl who was into trap music. We didn’t make trap music, so I made that beat to impress her. It also was the first song we wrote with Emily, and it became a really great start to our friendship.

“With ‘Closer,’ we were on tour with Louis The Child, and Freddy and I got really drunk one night after one of our shows, and worked on the song on the tour bus driving from one city to another. I had bought a 25‑key mini‑keyboard, and I’d play those chords all the time, as they were the biggest chords I could play on that keyboard. So when I was drunk, they were the chords that came out. I’d also been listening to Blink 182 and Death Cab For Cutie and that kind of super‑specific story‑telling, and I’d written this poem into my phone, which I then fit to the beat of ‘Closer’, so it’s super random.

“Shaun Frank also helped me write ‘Closer’, and he is the reason I sang on the song. I said to him, ‘I don’t sing,’ but he convinced me to sing it exactly like in the demo. He Melodyned my voice, and made it sound like something I wanted to listen to. We still planned to replace my vocals with those of someone else, but as we kept playing it for friends, we ended up falling in love with it, and it became our biggest song.”

The Right Studio For The Job

The musical development of the Chainsmokers since the enormous success of ‘Closer’, which also features Halsey on vocals, is as much the story of Pall becoming a musician as that of Taggart becoming a bona fide singer. Their live performances, with Matt McGuire on drums, have increasingly resembled those of a rock band, and they’re far more self‑sufficient in the studio than ever before. Although star producer Ian Kirkpatrick, topliner Emily Warren, and young pop/EDM arrival Whethan played a crucial part, work on So Far So Good mostly took place with just the Chainsmokers at their own studio, with help from drummer/tech head McGuire and mixer Jordan Stilwell.

After the two weeks in Hawaii, Taggart and Pall continued working on new material in their own or Taggart’s home studio. There were a couple of days with some other songwriters, 10 days at Jungle City in New York at the end of 2020 (without Pall, who had Covid), and a trip to the Joshua Tree National Park for more sessions with Kirkpatrick. The album was eventually finished with the help of Kirkpatrick, Warren and Whetan.

Drew Taggart (left) and Alex Pall at work in their purpose‑built studio.Drew Taggart (left) and Alex Pall at work in their purpose‑built studio.Photo: Claire Schmitt

“I have a studio in my own house, but our main studio is just around the corner,” says Taggart. “We’re super proud of it. We used to rent studio space, like everyone else does, but those studios were kind of archaic and not suited to the way we produce. There are many amazing studios in Los Angeles, but the gear of many of them is not a match for new producers. We all use laptops, we all are in the box a lot. When we pay all this money to be in a studio, and all I’m using is the speakers and for the rest I bring my own stuff, it’s kind of ridiculous. So we decided to build our own studio.

“After years of touring, we ended up buying this really vibey house, which feels like a home. Everything in the studio is perfectly integrated for the way we work on laptops. There are patchbays in every single room, seven rooms in total, so where ever we are, if we feel inspired we can just plug into the wall, and that wires to the master bedroom, which is our main studio space, where we have our main ATC monitors and outboard and analogue synths and so on.

“I started producing using MIDI. So in our studio I play something on a MIDI controller, and then I can send anything I write or edit to any of the analogue synths. This can be a lot of fun, because sometimes you send code to synths that are set to patches or that are monophonic, and they don’t understand the code you’ve written, so they just kind of do their own interpretation of whatever you’ve come up with. With a few songs on the new album we got these really cool synth lines just by sending over‑complicated code that whatever patch couldn’t handle.

“Our studio has been really beneficial to our creative process, allowing us to use all this amazing gear, without it getting in the way of how we taught ourselves how to produce. We have these beautiful custom ATC SCM 110ASL speakers, and Yamaha NS10s. The ATCs are incredible. I have a smaller version of them at my home studio, which has a room similar to one of the rooms at Jungle City. It’s where you go at 3am and party, and then at our main studio the sound is perfectly tuned and balanced.”

Deep Dive

Taggart and Pall are clearly proud of the new album, and were keen to go into detail on some of their more unusual production choices, such as the vocal sample in ‘Maradona’. “That’s Fatman Scoop, a legendary MC,” says Taggart. “We wanted to make a dreamy Postal Service‑type beat, and Ian [Kirkpatrick] found a radio drop that Fatman Scoop did in 1993. The sound of his voice is such a classic late ’90s hip‑hop sound, it was all over the radio at the time. He was the go‑to MC guy, and to put that over heavier drums, on that Postal Service‑type beat, is just a crazy juxtaposition. We chopped up the voice sample and played it like a synth. So he’s not really saying anything. You’re just getting that random hyped‑up feeling that’s just super unexpected.”

The song ‘Solo Mission’ starts with vocoded singing in a direct homage to Daft Punk, and closes with an extended and dramatic ending, with live strings. “We started that song in Hawaii,” says Pall, “with Ian Kirkpatrick. We were listening to ‘Doing It Right’, and we’re like, ‘Damn, this is such a banger!’ So we tried to get some of the same magic. That song was really challenging from a songwriters’ perspective, as in: how do we bring obvious Daft Punk inspiration in to the Chainsmokers world? It also was one of the first times we went out and hired an orchestra, to create that massive Kanye West, 808, feeling in the ending.”

“Yeah, it’s like a movie at the end,” adds Taggart. “It felt so cinematic. We felt like the strings breathed fresh air and life into the song. Getting an orchestra to play something you’ve written on synths is always eye‑opening. I love watching renditions of artists doing things with orchestras. You get to really appreciate the detail and production. So we wanted to do that on this record. It’s a really fun moment.”

‘Testing’ has a stark scene change in the middle, suddenly switching to a trap beat. “I’m super excited for people to hear this song,” explains Taggart, “because it has three lives. It started with me making this glitchy kind of laid‑back lo‑fi record, and then we found that cool ‘Front a Busta’ sample. We clicked on it, and in context it sounded so random and weird. We made that song with Whethan, and we were like, ‘What if it goes super hard trap out of nowhere?’ It felt super exciting and head‑turning. And then that song ends with this kind of video‑game double time outro. We wanted to create this absurd musical journey.”

Alex Pall: I think this will probably speak to a lot of new artists that are becoming writers or starting to break into the scene; it’s like a game of confidence. You have to believe that what you’re contributing will be important, but also be OK with it being overlooked.

The songs ‘I Love You’ and ‘Cyanide’, meanwhile, appear to share the same drum pattern. “The drums on ‘Cyanide’ are the best drums that have ever been on a Chainsmokers record,” explains Taggart. “Ian and I spent so much time on those drums. It’s 50 tracks of programmed, layered drums, and I’m so proud of the detail on that. I reused them in ‘I Love You’ because ‘Cyanide’ is beautifully layered, long and calm, and then it gets crazy, it’s more of a feature film. I felt like the drums deserved another moment with a different feeling. So ‘I Love You’ is drunk Drew in the studio at 3am listening to the drums over and over again and just playing instinctively. That entire song probably got written in three hours.”

Many tracks on So Far So Good have big endings, and ‘You’re Serious’ is another case in point. “The inspiration for that was a song called ‘Pizza Guy’ by Touch Sensitive,” says Taggart. “The song started out with me creating a wall of guitars, with like 12 different guitar parts, that felt really euphoric and warm. We put Xfer LFO Tool on it, on the eighth‑notes setting, and all of a sudden those guitars sounded like really cool synth lines, but very undefined because of the way the volume envelope was affecting them. Then we added rock drums and it’s like an indie rock song, but with the volume envelope it makes it feel electronic. It was really exciting to us to combine this electro stuff that we grew up on in NYC in 2008 with real rock drums, and a modern production style.”

Mining the past and the present for inspiration, and creating new blends from very disparate influences, is what has made the Chainsmokers big. On their new album they’re taking this process to new heights. How it will be received is anyone’s guess at the time of writing, but, as they so aptly put it, so far, so good…

Tools Of The Trade

The Chainsmokers use both hardware and software synths. “Out of the box, I’d say we use the Roland Juno‑106 the most,” says Drew Taggart. “It can do the job of like three sounds that you put together in the box. I often forget just how warm the Juno sounds. So we used it a lot in the new album. We also have an Oberheim OB‑6, and a beautiful Mellotron that gives a fun organic texture to just start a song with. But I have to admit that the Mellotron plug‑in really is good and is a little bit easier to navigate.

“We also use the Moog Sub 37 and the Subsequent 37, which are the best for really rich and full bass sounds. Sometimes I get lazy and I’m using plug‑ins for bass sounds and when I plug the 37 in, it’s just like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so much fuller and adds so much depth.’ It’s just shocking. The Subsequent gives us the effect I was talking about before. When you send too much information to it, you get these really cool electro sounds, that remind me of Justice or Mstrkrft, kind of glitchy and all over the place.

Analog Lab has a lot of essential‑sounding stuff, and it’s a really good, easy‑to‑use suite, easy to navigate, with just a bunch of classic‑sounding synths.

“In the box we use a ton of stuff. I’m downloading new stuff all the time. I love all the Arturia plug‑ins, particularly the Analog Lab and the Pigments. Analog Lab has a lot of essential‑sounding stuff, and it’s a really good, easy‑to‑use suite, easy to navigate, with just a bunch of classic‑sounding synths. Pigments has more out‑there sounds that are easier to program, so I use those a lot. I also love Pitchmap by Zynaptiq. It is really fun because sometimes when it starts to feel generic, I’ll take a random sample — it could be a vocal thing or a guitar thing or some kind of atmospheric texture — and I’ll throw Pitchmap on it and then I’ll have this amazing new texture on top of whatever I was playing.

“I’m really into the lo‑fi nature of manipulating audio. You make one thing and instead of adding a new sound, you just bounce it to audio and figure out how to manipulate it. That’s become a big part of the sound on this album. When you manipulate an audio track, especially in Ableton, you have all these warp modes, and if you were to pitch something up an octave and have it on the beats warp setting, it makes it all fucked up and granular. Embracing that sound is something I find really interesting. That’s one way to make things sound bigger and kind of alien, without all these in‑the‑box sounds that can sound very generic after a while.

“Another way that we do that is by using iZotope Trash 2, which I use all the time. It has this cool setting called ‘convolve’. If I have a sound that I kind of like but that sounds too generic, I’ll throw on any kind of distortion, but Trash has a bunch of settings that mask the entire sound and put it in a really weird space in the speakers. It puts it in a whole new world, to make it sound more sampled and less clean and plug‑in‑like.

“I have many NI Kontakt libraries. I often use the Rickenbacker Bass and it fools everyone into thinking it’s a real bass. There are a lot of great Kontakt pianos, for example Soft Piano. We have a Kemper for outboard gear, which is amazing and we used it in a bunch of tracks, especially on the Sick Boy album. But recently I’ve been getting lazy and just use Guitar Rig, which I used for the guitar in ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, which is probably our most iconic guitar line. I also like all the Output plug‑ins. They’re very programmed and are not easy to manipulate, but the sounds are really fun to play with. Analog Strings, Analog Brass, Signal and Rev are some great ones.”

Vocal Tracking

Drew Taggart: “The main mic I use is a Sony C800G, which is super‑bright, and we use a TubeTech CL‑1B compressor and BAE 1073MP mic pre with it."Drew Taggart: “The main mic I use is a Sony C800G, which is super‑bright, and we use a TubeTech CL‑1B compressor and BAE 1073MP mic pre with it."Although he was initially reticent about singing on record, Drew Taggart’s voice has become an increasingly important part of the Chainsmokers’ sound. “The main mic I use is a Sony C800G, which is super‑bright, and we use a TubeTech CL‑1B compressor and BAE 1073MP mic pre with it. Since I sang on ‘Closer’, my voice has changed a lot. For So Far So Good, I had time to really work on my technique, and I’m singing a lot softer on this album. Maybe not so much with the single releases, ‘High’ and ‘iPad’, but in general I think there’s something unique to the way my voice sounds now. It’s almost like I’m talking to you. The Sony really grabs that. It allows me to sing without much energy, and it gets this really special vocal tone.

“We also use the Shure SM7, for example for many of the demo vocals in Hawaii. It’s great because it doesn’t pick up the rest of the room and we’ve gotten a lot of really magical demo vocal takes that have stayed on the album. It gives you that authentic ‘vibe of the song being written’ scratch feel. A lot of the time we use scratch vocals. I recorded one of the upcoming singles on the Sony in our studio, while our friends were having a conversation. You can hear them in the background before the hook comes in, and we left it in there because it felt real and authentic.

“We record my vocals straight into Ableton. We now have this really awesome vocal booth at our studio. Jordan [Stilwell] used to record my vocals. However, I think out of laziness, I started cutting vocals myself in the room with headphones and the Sony. I realised that I could be really meticulous about breaths and one word here or there, and it was just so much quicker instead of someone else cutting them. It just feels more efficient and I also realised that I give a different type of performance. So now I cut all my vocals myself just sitting at my computer with the mic right in front of me.”