According to Bell, he's done "probably 95 percent of my songs" at the room at Electric Feel. "I'll just sit in the studio and play different chords and things for hours. When it's flowing, it's like you're lost, you maybe don't quite know what you're trying to do, but you know that what you're playing is maybe a bit more true to what's inside of you than when you're just clicking in notes. The latter also takes longer, plus there's this thing that when you play chords, your fingers are not hitting all the notes at exactly the same time, so you get this natural flam. You're getting very slight delays, and imprinted in this is a very distinct emotion. The moment you try to quantise that, or you draw your notes in, you are almost trying to fool people. It's like you're reading off a script, it's not authentic any more. You lose the feeling, and the feeling is where the magic is. Of course, if I hit a wrong note or play one really late, I will correct it, but I try to keep as many of errors and flams as possible, because they represent how you felt the moment you played it.
"Quite a few of my ideas start a cappella," he adds, "in my living room or bathroom or wherever. I'll voice memo them into my phone, and I email them to myself. Then when I get to the studio, I'll go through anything that I remember may have been good, and I'll put chords to those melodies, and if it's magical, I'll continue. Otherwise I move on to the next idea. When I add chords, I like things to be subtly musical. I don't want to shove that down people's throat, and the fact is that you can get away with just four chords in a song, sometimes two. Drake's 'God's Plan' is just two chords, and these have some extra notes in them, like ninths, that give your ear something to play with. Michael Jackson's 'Remember The Time' also has just two chords, but they are very complicated and inspire an interesting melody structure.
"The initial melody and initial lyric are the most important, and you can then make things more complicated, with passing chords and an interesting bass line. I prefer more musical things, because they allow me to go more places with the melody. Sometimes you inject something different in the pre-chorus, so the hook will sound new again. Those things help you create something fresh. Though with rap music this is rare, because rappers are singing so much now, rapping in the verses and singing the hooks, you don't need chord changes to differentiate between the sections."
The main sound sources Bell uses in FL Studio are well-known ones. "I love Native Instruments' Kontakt, because it comes with so many libraries. I find quirky libraries and they may have just one or two sounds that are interesting to me, like a weird flute or harpsichord or unusual brass or choir. I love using '80s classic synth sounds and pads, and will find things that emulate things like the Prophet, the Oberheim, Clavinet, the Linn Drum, whatever it may be, and I will save these sounds and tweak them to give them more beef or fatness or maybe detune them. Kontakt gives me all these sounds.
"For synth sounds I use Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.5, because it has so many sounds, and the '80s synths it has. I love what Omnisphere allows you to do with sounds, how you can really sound-design and mess with many granular aspects. They somehow managed to implement the synthesis from the original synths, I think they replicated the algorithms that are in these keyboards, and they got pretty close, and the great thing is that you have full control over them. When you're creating it's really important to keep the flow, and for this reason it's good to have a one-stop synth, because you don't have to load tons of stuff, you can do it all in one place, which makes it much less of a CPU hog. I also often find one-shots from sample libraries, and then I manipulate them with plug-ins to give it some sauce and make them sound different from anything else I've heard. I like to layer these on top of more traditional sounds for a little bit of contrast. So Kontakt and Omnisphere 2.5 are my go-tos for organic stuff and synths."
"I'm super OCD when it comes to organising myself in Fruity Loops. I organise my sounds according to what song they remind me of, or according to year. Like I'll have drums sounds in folders from 2017, 2018 and so on, or I'll put all my 808 sounds together in one folder. Or I'll have folders with thousands of WAV files organised by piano, strings, harpsichord, brass, choir — you name it — with subfolders inside each. I just title and classify them in such a way that I can find them immediately.
"With my sounds super-organised, I start with sounds and chords, and sometimes a melody inspires a loop, sometimes a loop inspires a melody. I'll work on probably 20 loops a day, and the next day I'll do another 20, and then a few days later I go back and listen to all of them and I'll have a new perspective on these loops, and I know the ones I like right away, and ones that need more work. I work quickly. If you work on one song for too long, and it's not really inspiring you, you're doing more harm than good. It can hurt your ego a little bit as a creator. So if I'm not immediately hearing where a loop wants to go, I go onto the next loop. I also organise my loops nicely, and keep them organised by date."
By 'loops', Bell means short musical fragments he's programmed himself, not commercial beats. "I don't like using loops from sample packs, because I always wonder how many people are going to grab the same loop. I always want to feel that whatever I am creating, I am the only one creating it. So I like to program everything. What I'm trying to say is that I like to have all my sounds ready to go, and then I like to just play, come up with drum patterns, chords and arrangements, figure it out, make the loop more complicated. I like to create the most complicated loop possible in Fruity Loops, so I know all the sounds work together, and I can then start pulling sounds out again afterwards.
"I start the beats in Fruity Loops but will always export to Pro Tools right after I've made the beat. I don't take them any further in Fruity Loops. I don't use a sequencer in Fruity Loops, everything is played or programmed by me, and in four- or eight-bar loops, and I'll export those into Pro Tools, where I start dialling in EQs and so on, and sequence things and create the song structure. This means that sessions exist in Pro Tools for most of the time. The song structures get created in Pro Tools, not in Fruity Loops, and I'll also do some production in Pro Tools. I have a nice template in Pro Tools that allows me to pull up certain VSTs and plug-ins, and in which everything is colour-coded and mapped out."
The bottom end is crucial in urban and pop music, but it can be challenging to come up with something that works, particularly when convention dictates that there's often no bass line, just a TR–808-style kick drum. "I like to use the UAD Brainworx bx_subharmonics on the low end, particularly 808s, and on kicks as well. It makes kicks sound as if they have a bass underneath them. The Waves LoAir plug-in does the same thing. I also like to use the UAD Raw for adding distortion, and then cut off some high end if it gets too noisy. Not having a bass can mean that you're lacking frequencies around 100Hz and the Waves RBass is really good for that. It allows you to saturate a certain frequency. You can literally dial in a frequency above the sub bass and bring that out. But you have to be really careful how you automate it, and when it comes in.
"If I have an 808 in a song, I'll try to make sure that if you were in another room, you would recognise the song just from the 808 part. For bass lines in general I try to get a sound that I can play around with as if it is a live bass. I like to emulate the feel of a live bass player, except that I give it way more low end then a live bass player is going to get. I also tend to take some of the attack off the bass, unless I am going for that exact feeling. I often emulate that '80s Giorgio Moroder bass sound. I like to blend that in with a hard-hitting 808, which I think is an interesting balance that has not been done or that I have not heard.
"Post and Swae's track 'Sunflower' starts with an actual bass, which is an '80s synth sound that I ran through a bunch of stuff to give it a warbly feel, a detuned vibe. That track is definitely rooted in '80s synth basses, and then has an 808 underneath. I wanted it to have that balance to give it a hip-hop vibe. I didn't want the track to be a throwback to the '80s, I wanted it to be modern."
Once the magic has been created and captured, Louis Bell then spends a lot of time in post-production to present it in the best possible light. "I spend a lot of time listening to every single vocal take and comping and editing and tuning the vocals. I don't know whether this is again my OCD side, but I feel like if I don't listen to everything, I'm going to miss something. I listen to every single thing and do every single edit, and tune stuff. Unfortunately, you can't hire people to have your taste, so I have to do this all myself. I'll send what I have done to the artist for approval, and most of the time the artist is pretty happy.
"My go-to plug-ins for vocals are the UAD 1176, which really warms things up and makes them nice and loud, and the Waves CLA Vocals for EQ, which is a kind of one-stop shop which allows you to do many things easily. The 1176 is my go-to compressor. Once you have dialled in the ratio and you have set everything else right, it helps me to lock the sound. With the CLA you just go, 'I want more bite,' and it lets you manipulate instantly without really needing to know much. My favourite reverb in general is the [Waves] RVerb, which gives you a classic sound, and I love the UAD SPL Vitalizer Mk2. It brings out high end in the harmonics and widens things nicely, it's just magical.
"I do vocal tuning in Melodyne, and after that I add Antares Auto-Tune, very lightly, just to keep things tight. It's there just to make sure everything is locked in. Even after applying Melodyne there may be a note that strays a little. I know that many people think that Post Malone's vocals have a lot of Auto-Tune, but again, it's Melodyne, and I then throw Auto-Tune on specific lines, more as an effect, like a flanger or slap delay. It's not because he can't sing the part in tune, it's because it sounds cooler. People think that the shaking in his voice, for example in 'Rockstar', is Auto-Tune, but it's how he sings.
"Post likes to have Auto-Tune on when he is freestyling, because it helps him hear what the melody should be. But he doesn't need Auto-Tune after that. I want his voice to sound tight and futuristic and still have the wideness that he has, and most of all I want his soul to shine through. I want the honesty and depth of his unique tone. His voice is so unique, you don't want to dress that up too much. All I do is add the right reverb, because he likes a lot of reverb. He likes that wetness, because it makes his vocals feel anthemic and arena-esque. He loves ideas more when his vocals are wet, but sometimes I'll dry them up a little before sending them to Manny [Marroquin] for the final mix, depending on what's going on musically."
Louis Bell sums up his approach to writing and production in typically striking fashion. "I go for what I call 'predictable innovation'. There are predictable percentages out there of how much people expect a certain chord change to come next. Where the harmonies are and the overtones and so on are all factored into the where the brain takes us next. At the same time, with the new digital landscape, and music being way more disposable, because anyone is able to make music, there's some responsibility to inject something that's better. You need to challenge yourself, even if it is inspired by this or that artist. You find ways of taking the souls of your favourite songs and reincarnating them in new bodies.
"Music is like a recurring dream sometimes. There are these sounds that make you feel a certain way, and maybe you just keep playing it, or maybe you want to try to find a way of doing something new this time. Do you intentionally try to repeat the recurring dream, and keep gravitating towards the same sounds you had success with, because they make you feel something? Or do you try to move to the next thing?
"When I listen back to an idea a week or a month later and decide that it is special, if I don't find the right song or artist for it, I just let it sit there. I only use it when the right artist or song comes along. I've had ideas that sat around for three years before they were turned into a hit song. I do not want to give my idea away to the wrong artist. I'm not about making songs, I'm about making the right songs. I want to make sure that everything I put my energy into and put my name on is something I love in that moment."
"These days I prefer to work with artists in the room," says Louis Bell. "I start with playing them loops, and I look at their body language. I want to hear how excited they are, or not. I am waiting for a face that says 'Oh my God I'm really connecting with this.' I can tell if an artist is just trying to please me, or whether they really believe in what we're doing. Some artists may feel pressure to love my ideas, but I don't want to push an artist into doing anything. And when I have them in the room with me, I have a way better understanding what the person really likes and does not like. I can change or add things in real time while they are there, based on the reactions they are giving me. It is like I am at a poker table, and I have to read someone. I need to know what hand they have. I need to see their body language, hear the tone of their voice, and how they express themselves.
"An artist may come in a little indecisive or not feeling up to very much, but if you can play them things or tell them things that trigger something in their head and all of a sudden they start playing or singing something, you have to channel that. Many artists are empaths. They can be very empathic to your feelings, they can sense energy. So if you have beats and emotions to tap into, you can jump-start the artist. It's not a matter of me telling them what to do.
"I used to send my stuff to people, but now I see building songs like building a house. You have to find someone who wants to live in that house. I like to have all the different materials lying around, bricks, wood, straw, furniture, marble, whatever it may be, and when an artist comes in, I say: 'What would you like for a house?' I have all the materials ready to go, and build them a house. When I build houses with no-one around, I spend a lot of time making things that may not be useful at all. Sometimes an artist knows right away: 'I don't like these chords.' At that moment all the drums I put underneath mean nothing.
"Creating beats in the moment with the artist in the room can happen in different ways. But usually I'll have put together a sound template in Fruity Loops, specific to an artist or song idea. It means I have a collection of sounds that I know fit together, and that are ready to go. I may have nine snares and 10 claps ready to go, and I can quickly cycle through them, and one of them is usually right. And when you have someone in the room with you, their energy is imprinted on what you do. If they are there, they will feel it's their beat as well. Artists like Whitney Houston and Elvis Presley sang songs that others had written for them, and they were amazing performers who made these songs their own. But nowadays artists want to be really connected to the songs they sing, and this means it's much better to have them in the room while writing."