To find himself as an artist, Charlie Puth swapped high‑profile co‑writers for fan reaction on TikTok. It seems to have worked...
It’s easy to imagine that life is a bed of roses for an insanely talented artist who hit the big time at the age of 24, and has had half a dozen multi‑platinum hit singles and five Grammy Award nominations. However, in the case of Charlie Puth, you would be wrong. The American has perfect pitch and the aural equivalent of a photographic memory, an endless stream of high‑quality creative ideas, and a way with social media that attracts audiences by the million. Yet despite this abundance of talents and achievements, Puth’s big challenge throughout his career has been to find his own direction and identity.
Puth broke through in 2015 with three major hits in one year: ‘Marvin Gaye’ (with Meghan Trainor), ‘See You Again’ (with Wiz Khalifa), and ‘One Call Away’. Several more big hits followed, including ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ (2016, with Selena Gomez), ‘Attention’ and ‘How Long’ (both 2017), and ‘Done For Me’ (2018, featuring Kehlani). Following his 2016 debut album Nine Track Mind and 2018’s Voicenotes, Puth then released a number of singles that were due to appear on a third album called Sick. The co‑writers included big names like Andrew Watt, Louis Bell, Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco. But in early 2020, the project was ditched. Puth wrote: “I scrapped the album I was working on because none of the music felt real. It’s almost like I was trying to be too cool in a way. It’s back to the way it used to be. Me, alone in my messy‑ass room making beats.”
A dressing down from Elton John, who told him that his 2019 music “sucked”, played a part in the decision. “It was a bit of a wake‑up call!” says Puth. “But I agreed with him. I also met him in a restaurant, and he told me that I was working with too many people, and that I should go back to producing my music myself.
“I went through two major break‑ups, one professional and one romantic. I relied on a group of people at my record company, and one person in particular, to give me feedback on whether this or that song was good enough. The break‑up left me uncertain of myself, because I had been working in this way for six years. I was also surprised by how similar the feeling was of the crash‑burn ending of both the professional and the romantic relationships, even though the two had nothing to do with each other.”
Around this time, the Covid epidemic forced Puth to spend a lot more time in his messy‑ass room, where the songs for his eventual third album Charlie would come together. “The pandemic hit and we were forced to not see a lot of people. I had to start the album by myself, and by having conversations with myself. I almost called this album Conversations With Myself, tapping into feelings that I had never addressed in any musical form before.”
Deprived of the opportunity to interact with other writers in person, Puth reached out to his fans online. “I have written some of my biggest songs after coming off stage. I made ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ and ‘Attention’ immediately after having played a show, still feeling the energetic connection with the audience. Also, not having that key person at the record company any more to give me feedback, and having Elton, in the nicest, most loving way, tell me that my stuff was no good, I did not know whether anything I made was any good.
“So I turned to TikTok, and basically gave a preview of a song idea I had for ‘Light Switch’, and asked ‘What if there’s a song that starts with... would it be good?’ I really meant that. When I uploaded the video with the ‘Light Switch’ song idea, I thought, ‘If it gets a thousand views, maybe I’ll finish it.’ But it got 10 million views in one evening, I believe. That was a big, affirmative thumbs‑up to finish the song!”
Puth first presented his ‘Light Switch’ song idea on TikTok in September 2021, and continued to post new videos with developments of the song and details of his production process. He then teased his audience about release dates, creating a viral storm even before the song was released. It’s been described as the next step on TikTok, from songs going viral on the platform after their release, to songs being made and going viral even before being released.
Puth has since posted countless entertaining videos along the lines of, ‘What if I used this or that sound?’ and then building a song arrangement around said sound in Pro Tools. Sometimes the sounds are given to him by fans, with Puth using his perfect pitch to great effect, immediately identifying that, for example, two dog barks are a B and a Bb, and putting a groove and bass line underneath. In the end, several of the songs on his new album grew in interactions with his fans, because, says Puth, “I was yearning for the energy of people. So I got that through the Internet.”
In many of his online videos, Puth turns his perfect pitch into a party piece, as well as his seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of recorded music history, which he says is the result of his aural photographic memory. When asked whether these talents are a help or a hindrance when writing music, his answer is elaborate. “The best thing about perfect pitch is that I hear songs I’m writing in my head all the time. I may work out, or eat lunch, and if the song has not left my head while I’m doing other things, after a while I give myself permission to take it out of my head and put it into my DAW. I take these stems out of my mind and put them into Pro Tools. I don’t allow myself to do this if the song does not stick in my head.
Charlie Puth: All these songs that have reached millions of people have demo vocals. I’ve never been able to re‑record vocals that I was happy with.
“Perfect pitch allows me to do this, I guess, but it’s not essential for making music. It’s like the cherry on top of the whipped cream. Another thing that perfect pitch is good for, is that I never forget a song once I hear it. Maybe the two things are distant relatives. All I know is that I am profoundly terrible at everything else in life. I can’t cook, I can’t clean, but I certainly can hear a song and play it back for you.”
It seems that for Puth, his aural photographic memory is more important than perfect pitch. “I would not be able to make music without that memory. My previous album, Voicenotes, was all about that very important time period of the late ’80s, going into the ’90s, with Lisa Stansfield’s ‘All Around The World’, and Johnny Hates Jazz, when sonically drums got beefier, and everything led into dance music. Voicenotes was heavily nodded to that sonic period.
“With my new album, I am not really sure what to call the genre. My record label asked, ‘Is it a rock album, is it a pop album?’ I guess it is a pop album because all of the 12 songs came about from the feeling that I got from listening to some of my favourite pop songs. For example, there is a song by Jimmy Eat World, called ‘The Middle’, that came out in 2001. It reminds me of going to the mall with my friends. I made ‘Charlie Be Quiet’ thinking ‘How can I come up with a song that gives me that same feeling that Jimmy Eat World song did in 2001?’ Maybe somebody will listen to that track and have a similar feeling. I did that for all 12 songs.
“Songs don’t often start by thinking of the title, but I always have to feel something or see something. With ‘Attention’ I had the title, and then, it sounds ridiculous, 100 bpm popped in my mind, and the kind of bass you hear on Luther Vandross’ ‘Never Too Much’ , particularly the tone. ‘Light Switch’ also started with me thinking of the title, which came about from me actually seeing the light switch. I finished the song with Jake Torrey and Jacob Kasher, and it became a borderline theatrical song. Maybe I will never make a song like that again, but it is what I was feeling in the moment.”
Puth has referenced feelings, titles, unusual sounds, new songs appearing in his head and songs from the past as inspiration for new material. Being a skilled piano player, he also sometimes writes at the piano, singer‑songwriter style, though this process is less typical for him than one would expect. “I started playing classical music when I was four, and also know a lot about music theory. But that doesn’t necessarily make a good pop record, because you don’t want to go over people’s heads and for songs to become unapproachable. You sneak a little bit of dissonance in there, but still make it like a record with open arms that a listener can jump right into. If you make it too avant‑garde, it becomes a jazz record. But Quincy Jones told me that you have to have a little bit of an understanding of jazz to have the upper hand when you are making a pop record. You can hear it a lot in American music, where there is a greater appreciation of somewhat dissonant chords in pop music.
“Although piano is my instrument, my first two albums do not have a whole lot to do with playing the piano. I did not conceptualise the songs at the piano. I started off with a random synth sound, or something that’s not an instrument but that I turned it into an instrument, like the wind or something. I still do that, but a lot of these new songs actually started on the instrument. It makes me really happy, because that is how, for example, Carole King wrote Tapestry , which is a non‑skippable record. It is one of my favourite records. All those songs, from ‘I Feel The Earth Move’ all the way to ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, started off with her at the piano. So I was happy to be able to kind of do that for this record. Not that I am comparing my album to a brilliant album like Tapestry.”
Despite the recent switch to more piano‑based songwriting, Puth’s first instrument remains the recording studio. Growing up in New Jersey with a mother who is a music teacher, he initially attracted attention performing covers playing piano and singing. But in 2013, Puth graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, with degrees in music production and engineering, and production has become second nature to him.
There are several videos online of Puth showing people around his Los Angeles studio, but these videos date from a few years ago, and his equipment has continued to change. The latest incarnation contains an Apple Mac Pro and MacBook Pro M1 Max running Pro Tools, an Apogee Symphony I/O audio interface, two UAD Satellite Octo DSP co‑processors, ATC SCM45A monitors and sub, Yamaha NS10 monitors, a Dangerous monitor controller and Shure SM7B and Telefunken U47 microphones, plus outboard including a Universal Audio 1176 compressor, Neve Shelford and 88R channel strips, a Chandler Limited TG2 preamp (for synths), an Akai MPK 61 MIDI controller and, well, 27 synthesizers.
“I started out using KRK monitors, and then I worked with Focals. I mixed ‘Attention’ on Focals, though Manny [Marroquin] then takes my records to the next level. He has a way of not only making things sound better, but also bringing out the feeling. I double‑check my mixes on the Sennheiser HD650 headphones, which are wonderfully flat, and the Bose QuietComforts. When I get reference mixes back, I play them on the QuietComforts because they sound somewhat similar to what the average person is listening on, with an 8kHz boost.
“I also run everything through the NS10s; there’s something magical about them. I like mixing at low volume, and then play it really loud in the car. I got the 1176 and Chandler because I saw that Max Martin has these in his main room. People will be surprised to know that I am not as technically savvy as I make myself out to be. The idea is the most important thing, and I just want to get that out. I do engineer myself in my studio, because when I’m coming up with intimate songs that I try disguise with artful colours, I want to be by myself. But when I go to other studios, I work with my regular engineer, Ben Sedano.”
“I went a little overboard,” says Puth of his synth collection. “You don’t need 27 synthesizers to make music! I like hardware synths, not only because I like collecting them, but also because they have a human element that is lacking in synths today. Sometimes the Oberheim or the Prophet goes out of tune, and my Roland Juno breaks every other day. I try to include imperfection in every bit of my music. Some of my synths have MIDI capability, but I really dislike MIDI, and just play the synthesizers and record the audio. Max Martin told me: ‘Record the audio, and if it sounds fucked‑up, it is probably going to add some cool artefacts to the record.’
“I like soft synths, but I don’t start records off with them. Output’s Arcade has really useful sounds, and it’s the closest thing you can get to a vintage synth, because real humans make that plug‑in. I also have a crappy version of reFX Nexus, and I like the 2010‑ness of it, and bury it inside a sonic palette of layers to raise other instruments. Layering is inspired by getting the occasional call from David Foster, who is the king of layering. Listen to the big record he did in 1996 with Celine Dion, ‘All By Myself’. There are probably 100 different inaudible layers in that last chorus. But if you were to take one out, you would feel the difference. The record would not sound as big. That is where my obsession with layering comes from.
“However, I tend to start a song with a unique, singular sound, which usually comes from just one synth or sample. I then live with that for a couple of days, and figure out how I can make that singular sound more interesting. With ‘See You Again’ we had the chord progression, and we had the sample, and we just kept layering and layering, and it was not going anywhere. It was exciting to listen to, but there was no song, which is the most important thing. After layering for an hour, we just highlighted everything in Pro Tools and deleted it. We then played the melody that you hear, using a [Native Instruments] Alicia’s Keys piano sample, and that made me sing the melody that you hear today.”
The album that eventually became Charlie does not conform to recent trends. There are no 808s, no rapping, and no trap influences. The only bow to modern times and the TikTok generation is that many of the songs are under three minutes, but the feel, sounds and arrangements have more of an ’80s feel. There are plenty of synths, but also rock‑like drums, bass lines, and heavily distorted rhythm guitars.
“I love muscular drums,” comments Puth. “It comes from listening to records like ‘Easy Lover’ , by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins. It was unusual in the ’80s for those types of records to have the drums that are so loud. ‘In The Air Tonight’  is another classic example of the drums being really in‑your‑face. I am heavily influenced by Phil Collins and his pop approach to drumming. I am not a drummer, but I got into the music industry producing hip‑hop, and just have a borderline sophomoric approach to drum progressions and rhythm. I have a sample library, and I will just choose a sample blindly, and for example manipulate it like 16 times, so it does not sound like a snare drum any more. It turns it into a hi‑hat‑like noise that you put at the tail end of the transient. I try to find interesting sounds that nobody has used before, and that are not presets.
“I import drum sounds into Native Instruments Kontakt, and lay them out over the keyboard. Even though the drums are going to end up being quantised, there is something about the velocity of them being played by a human that you can’t get from dragging and dropping them into the timeline. Sometimes, if it is a quick little fix, I will drag‑and‑drop a sample from Splice or something, and I will put it in as a layer. But when it is an important drum part, I will play it.”
Puth regularly works with guitarist Jan Ozveren, saying, “I often put him through the wringer when he has to play guitar lines I made on the piano. He now records his parts at his own studio, while we are on FaceTime.” However, all Puth’s vocals are recorded at his own studio.
“What is crazy is that all these songs that have reached millions of people have demo vocals. I’ve never been able to re‑record vocals that I was happy with. Even if there is the sound of air‑conditioning on the demo vocals, which there often is, as LA is hot, I’ll still stick with them. I will then tune the vocals, and use compression and EQ. Over the years I have calmed down on the Auto‑Tune, but I still sprinkle some on. I remind myself of John Lennon, who used to drench his vocals in delays, because he was really insecure about his voice.
“Plug‑ins that I use on my vocals include the Waves NS1 Noise Suppressor at the start of the chain, to get rid of the air conditioner, and the UAD Pultec stuff. They wrote in the manual at the time that you should never turn the input up and the output down at the same time, but of course it’s the first thing people did, and it made such a cool sound. You hear it in that song ‘Summer Breeze’ [Isley Brothers, 1973] on the guitars.
“I love the UAD stuff. It sounds so real, it sometimes makes me question why I bought the real stuff. I also like using the FabFilter and Soundtoys plug‑ins, and I love the Sound Radix SurferEQ, that kind of does what the name suggests. It’s like an automated EQ. My favourite reverbs are those by Valhalla, which are fantastic, and the LiquidSonics Seventh Heaven, which is an emulation of the Bricasti M7 reverb.”
Naturally, Puth’s producing chops have greatly improved ever since graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2013, but he downplays the importance. “Yes, I have become a little bit more proficient, just from doing it so many times. But I find that if I overthink the production, it is going to end up sounding stiff, and obscure the actual song. I have learned to not care so much about whether this or that song sounds like what’s on the radio, or whether people are going to like it. That used to be foremost on my mind, but this album is the first time I have put my feelings first, and the music and production came after that.
“I finally had the record label that encouraged me to do that, and to make a whole body of work. I always had it within me, but it was being suppressed by the need to get hit songs out, one song at a time. Prior to that, nobody wanted me to finish an album. I had a lot of people encouraging me, because I wanted to make a body of work. Maybe people are focused on individual songs at the moment, but I believe that people still like bodies of work and will be obsessed with them.”
Charlie Puth dives into some of the standout tracks from his new album Charlie:
‘Charlie Be Quiet’
“This is a song that I wanted to make for myself. The TikTok video was part of it, but it is a song about what the inside of my brain sounds like when I drink too much caffeine, and go to bed and can’t sleep, and my mind is racing. These almost too‑loud guitars going into the pre‑chorus are what an overactive brain before sleeping sounds like. So this song started off with these really loud fake guitars that I made using the Yamaha Motif ES7, which came out in 2001. They sound pretty realistic, and I knew I’d layer them later with real guitars for texture. I was listening to a song by Kurt Cobain, in which he uses many chromatic notes, and also to the legato bass in ‘Californication’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I wanted to make something like that for the verses.
“There is a stark difference between the verses and the choruses, and I thought that if I called it ‘Charlie Be Quiet’ and it would get really loud with loud guitars, it would be delightfully unexpected. I was also thinking of a song by 100 Gecs, the duo with Dylan Brady and Laura Des, where it is borderline crazy hyper‑pop, and I wanted to take 10 percent of that. I was influenced by the snare drum of that song, and made a very roomy, ambient snare drum that hits you in the face.”
“This song started with me showering, when I am most relaxed in this turbulent world, and I was referencing real‑life experiences. There was a time period where I felt like a real loser, because I thought I had lost someone that I could benefit from being around. So I had the lyric, ‘I am such a loser how could I ever lose her.’ This was when I heard the synth arpeggio, and I made it on the [Roland] Juno‑60, using the arpeggio setting on the keyboard. There are certain notes that it was not hitting, so I pitched them, and made my own rainbow visual arpeggio in Pro Tools, each track separately, with different velocities. Eight notes up, and eight notes down. I did that for four bars, and once I got the loop, I put the drums in.
“I wanted the same kick drum as in ‘Stay’, the Bieber track. I could hear in my head that that kick would cut through really well. I then decided that I wanted the kind of snare that you hear in a Kacey Musgraves song, that everybody uses in country music, but nobody in pop music. Like the snare in ‘Vultures’ by John Mayer. And then it becomes more of an acoustic thing.
“My initial pre‑chorus was a little too complex, and Jacob Kasher, who has worked with Max Martin, really opened my mind, and made it more simple. Initially I thought it was going to be a synth song, but I was picturing a dirt road, and I was thinking: What reminds me of a dirt road? An acoustic guitar that sounds like Peter Gabriel, like ‘Solsbury Hill’.”
“I was trying to get out of manipulative types of relationships, and I wondered what instrument represents that feeling. I thought of a beautiful Fender Rhodes, playing chords that start in major but then become minor. I knew I wanted to side‑chain the Rhodes with a little bit of noise, and at the time I am literally singing, ‘You took away a year of my fucking life,’ in the pre‑chorus. It’s very heavy stuff, but I balance it out with the ‘hahahas’, which kind of take the heat off. I guess that is indicative of my personality, not taking myself so seriously, and knowing that everything will ultimately be OK. This track was the first instance of me wanting to take something super beautiful and then combine it with something super ugly. So I also added a really fat Moog sound, and distorted the hell out of it, using the Soundtoys Decapitator.”
‘I Don’t Think I Like You’
“It sounds ridiculous, but I was driving on the highway that brings me to my parents’ house in California, and it was a very nice day, and people drove very slowly, so I could just be with my thoughts, and the chord progression popped in my head. It’s a bit similar to the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ in the sense that there is a different chord for every phrase. The guitar tones are similar to Queen’s ‘Killer Queen’. Yes, I am heavily influenced by British music. Everybody’s favourite song is ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams. Or listen to a Rolling Stones record like ‘Miss You’, it has almost like a hip‑hop section. I like to be influenced by everything.”