The way pop music is made and consumed has changed radically in the last few years. Pete Rycroft, aka Lostboy, has adapted better than most...
Having produced the likes of Little Mix, the Vamps, Anne‑Marie and Rita Ora, co‑written with Lewis Capaldi and Liam Payne and racked up hundreds of millions of streams worldwide, Lostboy (aka Pete Rycroft) is fast becoming one of the most successful studio names in pop.
Still only 26 and currently operating out of Rollover Studios in West London, Rycroft grew up in Moreton‑in‑Marsh in the Cotswolds where his interest in recording grew out of being a drummer in bands. “I sort of fell into production,” he says. “There wasn’t much around in terms of studios and we wanted to record our stuff. It was about being in bands and trying to make them sound less shit [laughs].
“But slowly in my teens I figured out that there was this whole world of songwriting, which was kind of what I was interested in, just as much as the production. To me, it’s always been a hand‑in‑hand thing. What I do day‑to‑day is writing‑slash‑production. So, I’m kind of just straddling that line of being the guy who has their back to the artist and the person who’s writing the song.”
Music was all around the house as Pete Rycroft was growing up, with his father being both a classical singer and a fan of polished or adventurous ’70s and ’80s rock and pop. These influences left their mark on his future producer son.
“Yeah, my dad was really into his choral stuff and that must have stuck with me subconsciously,” Rycroft says. “For me, the vocal and the melody of any production is always king and I think that’s probably where that comes from.
“He also used to listen to a lot of Genesis and Peter Gabriel and Seal and that really inspired my production palette. A lot of my weird gated reverbs and strange sort of prominent drums really nod to those Peter Gabriel records or whatever.”
After leaving school, Rycroft moved to London and enrolled on a songwriting course at university, before quickly discovering that he’d much rather be busy making music than studying it. “I just started doing writing sessions with all sorts of up‑and‑coming artists in London,” he explains, “and I ended up dropping out of uni after a year. My lawyer introduced me to my manager at that point and it really was a case of slowly meeting new people, hustling, and just building a way up.”
But even before he’d left the Cotswolds for London, Rycroft had already begun making in‑roads into the production world. Having produced some demos that brought him to the attention of Fraser T Smith, he started remote working for Stormzy, Adele and Sam Smith’s producer.
“Basically, doing additional production and little sprinkles on bits and bobs that he was working on,” Rycroft explains. “He was in LA at the time and he would send stuff over and I’d be sat in my little bedroom being just like, ‘Wow, this is a real artist and one I’ve heard of... This is a big opportunity.’ That was definitely how I got my first few credits on major label things like Anne‑Marie.”
By the time Pete Rycroft was living in a shared flat in West Hampstead in North‑West London, he’d rented a second bedroom in the loft to use as his studio. “At the top of the house and three foot by two,” he laughs. “It was just a nightmare because it was so hot. I initially just had a computer and some speakers, one keyboard and a microphone.”
In this environment, Rycroft worked with various major label names, including Gabrielle Aplin. “Artists like Gabrielle who I’d just met would come in and have to walk up all the stairs, past my flatmates’ bedrooms and there’d be one of them sat in his pants eating cereal. I’d be saying, ‘I’m so sorry, this is not what you’re used to, I’m sure.’ I was just panicking because I was like, ‘Oh God, they must be in Abbey Road every other day this week and now they’re here.’”
Initially, his panic extended to the session itself. Through time though, Rycroft decided that communication with an artist is key and began to slow down and get to know them. “When I first started out and was sort of freaking out internally when these people were coming in,” he says, “I would just rush into starting something and hope that they were into it.
“Eventually I realised that when you’re with someone you haven’t met before, the most valuable thing you can get from that session is the personal connection, and obviously that’ll feed into the song. You’ll get a song that means more to them and so it’s likely to make it onto the album or whatever. As opposed to you just panicking and making a rubbish beat, just because you think that’s what your job is. So, I normally spend at least an hour, especially if it’s someone I’ve not met before, just getting the vibe right.”
Move On Up
After moving on from his loft at home, Rycroft worked for a time at a North‑West London studio owned by Liam Payne. “It was a bigger room and a big booth there and it all just felt a little bit formal, to be honest,” he says. “I really love being in the same room as singers. And it really is such a cliché, but it is that sort of red‑light syndrome. As soon as you’re behind that glass, it’s like, ‘Oh, things are getting serious now, you better do a good job.’”
Rycroft has been in his room at Rollover Studios since January 2020 and has maintained the open‑plan feel of a home studio when working with singers. “I’ve got a couple of [Shure] SM7Bs here,” he says. “There’s one down by the sofa so if there’s someone on the sofa, they can use that. And then there’s one behind my desk which I can use. So, I’m just turning to people and being like, ‘This is how I hear it’. Y’know, I sing a little bit so I think if you’re trying to show someone or direct someone, it’s so much easier when you’re in the room.”
Unusually, back in his drumming and aspiring producer years, Pete Rycroft went straight to Pro Tools before trying out any other DAWs. “It seems like a weird choice actually,” he says. “But we were trying to do things by the book, I think. I’ve got a bit of experience working with Logic. But every year or so I’ll tell myself that I want to just challenge myself to learn Ableton. I’ve got into bits of Ableton but when it comes back to doing a session and you’ve got to be as fast and efficient as possible, I’m fastest on Pro Tools cause that’s what I started with.”
Nonetheless, Rycroft’s productions often sound like they employ Ableton‑like techniques. One notable example is the 2019 cut‑up vocal remix of Dua Lipa’s ‘Swan Song’ that Rycroft made together with Tom Mann, his partner in his parallel artist project, AboutAGirl.
“It’s been quite popular that remix,” Rycroft says. “I mean, it is literally just cutting stuff up. That’s one of the weird things is that people are surprised that I work in Pro Tools when they hear the kind of music I make. It tends to be electronic and quite sort of harsh sounds. I think people assume it’s Ableton.
“But for me Pro Tools is perfect for that because the way I work is so visual. Like, literally seeing a waveform and knowing where to cut it without kind of even needing to listen to it. Or being able to see the fades and really get into the details. So, the vocals in that remix are a good example of me just being able to really get into the depth of it with Pro Tools. I’ve tried doing that kind of stuff in Logic and I feel like I’m not seeing what I’m hearing.
“In a lot of my productions, it’s all quite choppy and dynamic. It’s just the way I work in Pro Tools. There’s a lot of bouncing down and then chopping and then bouncing again. It’s a little process, for sure.”
Even when Lostboy productions sound polished and pristine, they’re often the result of fairly random experimentation in the early stages. For instance, his 2019 co‑production of Zedd and Kehlani’s ‘Good Thing’ (125 million streams and counting) began life when he was “mucking around” in the studio with his friend and collaborator Starsmith (Ellie Goulding, Jess Glynne).
“He’s got this really weird upright piano at his studio,” Rycroft explains, “and it all started so organically with those chords on the piano and then it just built up and up and up. We got [co‑writer] Cleo [Tighe] in the next day and for me that’s the perfect session. Because I always find it hard to be boxed in as ‘producer’ or ‘songwriter’ and that happens a lot in LA when I’m working there. But that was perfect because day one I was producer and then day two, it was like, ‘OK, top line,’ and I fully focused on that.
“But even when we wrote it, we were thinking, ‘Y’know, it’s like a 6/8 kind of waltz, quite slow.’ So, there was no way we could’ve imagined that it was gonna go to this massive DJ [laughs]. We finished the song and thought it definitely felt US, but for like Selena [Gomez] or Ariana [Grande] or someone. A powerful pop girl.”
Rycroft took the song to LA, got great reactions to it in meetings with labels, but still no one picked up the track. Returning to London, the team gave the chorus lyric a more positive twist. “It was more negative: ‘I don’t need a good thing.’ And now it’s like, ‘I am the good thing, everything’s cool, I’m happy in myself and I’m a strong independent woman,’ basically.
“So, we just twisted that and then it all kicked off. It was almost like another excuse for A&Rs to hear it again. Which is kind of rare that you get that opportunity. Then I got an email saying they’d sent it to Zedd and he was really into it, and they were scrapping the next single. It was one of the quickest things to get over the line ever.”
...one of the weird things is that people are surprised that I work in Pro Tools when they hear the kind of music I make... I think people assume it’s Ableton.
Often, Pete Rycroft’s work takes him to Los Angeles, where he either works in various studios or on his own portable rig. “I’ve got a Mac Pro here,” he points out, “but I’ve also got a laptop and if I’m in LA, I’ll take that. But it’s a really basic setup. If I’m on the move I’ve got a [Universal Audio] Apollo Arrow, the bus‑powered little one, so it’s easy to plug in and you don’t need any US adaptors. A pair of headphones and a couple of hard drives and that’s it.
“But I love that,” he adds. “Sort of reinventing myself when it’s a really small setup and just being like, ‘Oh, OK, it’s got to work with this.’ There’s something about that pressure creates diamonds as they say.”
Rycroft experienced a trial‑by‑fire in Los Angeles in 2019 when one of his tracks, ‘Unbelievable’, was suddenly picked up by American boy band Why Don’t We. “I wrote it with two friends of mine [EMIR and Pablo Bowman]. At the time it was almost a little bit of a joke to us because that song is so repetitive. The chorus is just the word ‘unbelievable’, like, 15 times. But there was something about it that just felt really young and sort of fun.
“But I went to LA and Carrie West at Atlantic Records heard it and was like, ‘This could be amazing’. I was only there for just over a week and the rest of the trip was spent finishing it. It was quite a stressful experience to be honest [laughs]. Cause it was suddenly like, ‘We need this now’. I was in a hotel room and it gave me a lot of confidence in my portable setup. Now that I’ve delivered records on that setup, it’s kind of like anything’s possible.”
Similarly, ‘100 Ways’ by Jackson Wang — which went on to make Wang the first Chinese singer to reach the Top 20 at American radio — was written on spec while Rycroft was in LA. “We were in this massive house in the hills,” he says. “But it wasn’t a nice house, it was a bit grimy. There was a dead frog in the pool, that kind of vibe.
“I was just in there with some mates and my manager, who was staying with us, had gone to bed. He always says that he woke up at, like, 3am and he could hear the riff of ‘100 Ways’ and he thought it was a weird dream or something.
“We were just basically messing around over some beers, wrote this kind of weird house song and we were like, ‘Oh God, it’s gonna be so hard to pitch this, cause it’s a real niche.’ When you’re pitching to DJs, it’s very hard if you’ve got a full vibe. It’s much easier to pitch a piano and vocal. They want to add their own spin to it or whatever and we’d kind of made this whole thing.”
‘100 Ways’ sat around unused for a while, until it was played to Wang’s label 88rising. “A lot of people write off the Asian market,” says Rycroft. “We were, to be honest, a bit sceptical about the whole thing because at this point in my career I’m trying to build reputation. It’s not just about making money off songs. I’m trying to get credible cuts and build the portfolio.
“So, we let them have a go and then it just went mad. It’s the highest charting song I’ve had on US radio. Even more than Zedd and Kehlani. None of us were expecting that at all. It just goes to show you shouldn’t write off anything.”
Back In London
At Rollover Studios in London, Pete Rycroft likes to keep the sessions flowing by having everything plugged in and ready to play, using a Flock Audio Patch unit. “It’s an analogue patch bay but it’s digitally controlled,” he says. “It’s just changed my life. So, in this studio now, I’ve got a piano and amps and different bits of gear, and everything’s patched in. The Patch has a plug‑in interface on the computer and you can just drag sort of piano to Neve [preamp] to SSL compressor in the Apollo and you can save those as set channel strips. It’s honestly a game‑changer. I don’t know why they’re not in every studio everywhere because you can recall a whole setup.”
Monitors‑wise, Rycroft mainly relies upon his Barefoot MicroMain26s. “The 27s don’t have the extra midrange driver that the 26s have, so the 26s are a little bit punchier in the midrange, which is what I like because I think I tend to mix a little bit too bright anyway. These kind of compensate for that midrange brightness.
“The other thing about the Barefoots is they’ve got this little switch controller and you can set them to emulate the little cubes, like the Auratones, so that’s pretty useful. It’s obviously just an EQ curve happening internally but I think it’s pretty accurate. I’ve also got some tiny little Genelecs. They’re amazing. I think a lot of people use them for travel, cause they come with a little bag. I just have them here as a little sort of A/B thing.”
Having started out as a drummer, beats are a key feature of Rycroft’s productions. He mainly uses his own library of drum samples in NI’s Battery, aided by his recent discovery of XLN Audio’s XO.
“It scans your hard drive for drum samples and then creates a 3D map of these dots, and each dot represents a sample. So, say if you have a kick that you like, then the kicks surrounding that in the map will be really similar‑sounding. Like, a similar transient, a similar sort of decay. You can just navigate really easily in terms of the sonics as opposed to having to search through a Splice folder or whatever you’ve got. So that’s been great.”
When it comes to synths, Rycroft tends to work, at least initially, with plug‑ins. His go‑to for bass is Native Instruments’ Massive, with occasional detours into Future Audio Workshop’s 808‑styled SubLab. For general synth sounds, he’s a big fan of Arturia’s Pigments.
When it comes to synths, Rycroft tends to work, at least initially, with plug‑ins. His go‑to for bass is Native Instruments’ Massive...
“That’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s similar to [Xfer Records’] Serum, which I also use a lot. It’s quite light and doesn’t use too much CPU. It’s very easy to automate, which is a key thing for me. I sort of automate everything. Every channel I have in Pro Tools has got an EQ with a low‑pass, high‑pass and a reverb set up to go with automation before I’ve even got any instruments in there.
“It’s interesting, but ever since I’ve worked in Pro Tools, I’ve had basically the same chain at the end of every channel which is D‑Verb, the Bomb Factory 1176 and then just the standard Pro Tools EQ. So, it’s all the very basic standard stuff initially. I still use that every day, just those three.
“I think that’s a key part of my sound,” he adds. “A lot of wide‑open reverbs going to tight nothing, and basically lots of automation. There’s other things that follow the [synth] plug‑in that often are doing a lot to the sound. Like, there’ll be a reverb followed by an 1176 smashing it, so that it kicks up the reverb tail after the initial pluck. And if you took those away it wouldn’t sound anything like the Arturia preset or whatever it is at the front.”
Rycroft’s workhorse hardware synth, meanwhile, is his Sequential Prophet‑6, used in conjunction with a MOTU Micro Lite MIDI interface. “It’s amazing and I do literally use it as a workhorse,” he says of the Prophet. “It’s my MIDI controller as well. So, most of the time the volume is all the way down and I’m using it for MIDI. But it’s so versatile as a synth and just so raw or clean. You’ve got to do things manually and really craft the tone of the synth.
“Once I’ve worked something out with MIDI, then I’ll turn the volume up on the Prophet, send the MIDI to it and start playing with the cutoff and everything in the context of a track, as opposed to trying to dial in a synth tone that I don’t really know works.”
Any guitar parts that Rycroft records can be sent to be re‑effected through a pedalboard involving, among other things, Strymon’s TimeLine delay and BigSky reverb, and Dreadbox’s Hypnosis Time Effects Processor. “It’s ’80s kind of weird delays and reverbs,” Rycroft says of the latter. “I can basically send anything through this whole table. That’s what I love doing basically is sending and playing with stuff on loop.”
Singers being so important to Lostboy productions, Rycroft likes to keep his vocal chain simple but effective. In his API Lunchbox, he mainly uses his Chandler TG 2‑500 preamp routed into IGS Audio’s One LA 500 compressor. “So that’s sort of like a TG2 into an LA‑2A,” he says. “That’s what it sounds like. I’ve got a Manley Reference mic, a U87 and a couple of the Neumann pencil mics.”
For mix bus compression, if he’s at Rollover Studios, Rycroft generally patches in his SSL G Comp. If he’s on the move and using his laptop, it’s UAD’s SSL 4000 G Bus compressor. “The real one without a doubt has got some magic to it,” he says. “I’m not on a mad scientist level enough to know why that is. But it just feels warmer and more natural. And that might just be a placebo because I’m looking at the thing, thinking, ‘I spent a grand and a half on that' [laughs].
“But also, the UAD one is great and that goes into a multiband, like a Waves C4. Then the secret weapon if it’s quite a sort of loud pop arrangement is I’ll use a little bit of [Xfer Records’] OTT multiband compressor. But I’ll just use a tiny, tiny little bit of it and it really brightens up the whole thing. That was something that Max Martin’s guys told me about. And I was like, ‘Well if he’s doing it, let’s do it.’
“I have [Okesound’s] Soothe occasionally, which is great just to make sure there’s no harsh, disgusting things going on. Then finally it’ll be [iZotope’s] Ozone 9 for sort of loudness and limiting and maybe a few stereo image bits. The vintage exciter on there I find is really good for low‑end warmth. Just a really subtle boost.”
Rycroft relies a lot on headphones — in his case, Beyerdynamic T5ps — for mixing. “They’re a little bit hype‑y,” he points out. “Like, the low end is quite powerful, but I’m just used to them now. I’ll always make sure I’m listening to stuff on speakers as well and checking phasing issues, which is probably my biggest fear and something that I’m probably bad at.
“But I just thoroughly believe that everyone listens to music on headphones nowadays. If you’re not checking it on headphones, then what’s the point? That’s the main way people listen to music, so I make sure I finish stuff in headphones at least.”
Everyone listens to music on headphones nowadays. If you’re not checking it on headphones, then what’s the point?
During lockdown, Pete Rycroft managed to work remotely, producing tracks for UK guitar pop band the Vamps’ Cherry Blossom album, including standout single ‘Married In Vegas’. Often, he was directing the band via Zoom as they recorded at Metropolis Studios elsewhere in London. During the same period, he managed to produce ‘Gloves Up’ for Little Mix’s latest album, Confetti.
The producer admits that the world of streaming and Spotify playlists has inevitably affected the way he approaches structure. He’s often looking for different ways to grab the listener’s attention within the first 10 or 20 seconds of a track.
“Yeah, totally. It becomes annoying to me, and I’m annoying myself by doing it! For example, a common technique is to take a melodic refrain from the chorus or post‑chorus and whack that in the intro and have it filtered out. You’re like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ Just a little bit of ear candy so that your brain when you get to the first chorus or first post‑chorus, you’re like, ‘Oh! I know this. This is my song!’
“That’s great and it totally works. But then I found I’m doing it in every song. And because I work with different people every day, different teams and different artists are like, ‘Yeah, this is great.’ But for me, I’m like, ‘But I’m doing this in everything.’ Personally, I get to a point where I’m like, ‘OK, there’s got to be another way of grabbing attention straight away.’
“So, recently I’ve just been trying to play with structures even more. I think that’s kind of a more interesting thing. Songs are becoming shorter and shorter and that’s probably because of the streaming generation.”
Songs are becoming shorter and shorter and that’s probably because of the streaming generation.
TikTok has also had an impact, making pop producers think more about snippets of tracks that will work in 15 seconds. “With Little Mix, half the time we’re there going, ‘OK, but what’s gonna work on TikTok?’ Is there a weird little sound effect that pops out just before the chorus or in a drop? Like a doorbell or something, that you can imagine some kids doing on TikTok? [laughs].’”
In the long‑term, given the demand for Lostboy productions across the Atlantic, can Pete Rycroft imagine a time when he’ll relocate to the States? “I would love to but I think my mum would kill me,” he laughs. “I mean, the dream situation is to have a place here and a place there and then sort of float between the two. But I think I’ll be in London for the foreseeable.”