Making music used to be a solitary, nocturnal pursuit for Adam Young, aka Owl City. Now, it's his day job — and there are co-workers involved.
It seemed like an equitable trade-off: swapping sleep for pop stardom. Before he became a household name, Adam Young, the mastermind of the one-man electronic band Owl City, began composing and tracking his electro-pop music in the dead of night, from a makeshift studio in his parent's basement in Owatonna, Minnesota. Young's sleep-deprived schedule eventually paid dividends when he posted his techno-psychedelic dreamscapes onto the Internet and, before long, cyberspace was buzzing about Owl City's 2007 EP Of June, which featured the infectious musical gem, 'Hello Seattle'.
After signing with the Universal Republic label in the US, Young released the playful single 'Fireflies', in part an ode to his insomnia. It shot to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and went platinum four times over. The song blazed a trail for the success of Owl City's 2009 full-length album Ocean Eyes, which topped the Billboard Rock, Alternative and Dance/Electronic charts. Since then, Young has released two more albums, 2011's All Things Bright And Beautiful and this year's The Midsummer Station.
For someone who previously controlled nearly every aspect of the creation of his music, Young seems to have loosened the reins on how — and with whom — he records. "[Collaborations] make you think outside the box, and they force you to be open to things you might not have come up with, because there are other minds working on the same material,” he says, and The Midsummer Station is bolstered by a hip and successful cast of stellar artists and producers. Involved in one way or another are reigning queen of the pop charts Carly Rae Jepsen, Blink-182's Mark Hoppus, celebrated Norwegian songwriting/production team Stargate, Nashville-based songwriter Josh Crosby, producer/songwriter Emily Wright (Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus), and three of today's biggest mix engineers: Serban Ghenea, Chris Lord-Alge and Robert Orton.
Young no longer records in the cellar of his parents' house, but he's still in a basement in Owatonna: his own Sky Harbor Studios. Although he says that "ninety-five percent of the record, aside from Mark Hoppus' vocals and Carly's guest vocals, were recorded in my studio,” Young also scheduled pro studio time and exchanged digital audio files to help complete the record. His production process has developed too, since the early days when he would demo his material with a scratch vocal track.
"For this record, I bypassed the rough vocals as a step in the process, because I found that letting the song live and breathe with demo vocals gave me 'demoitis',” says Young. "Once I cut the finals, the vocals would always catch my ear in a weird way. On this record, I went into the vocal booth the minute I'd finished writing, and cut the finals then and there.”
It took Young "on and off, about four months” to write, record and mix The Midsummer Station, in a highly non-linear fashion. "Everything I do as far as mixing is 100 percent in the digital world,” says Young. "I've never mixed on an analogue console to date, and I'm not sure I'd even know what to do if I was asked to mix on one. I don't know much about signal path, which is probably something the digital world allowed me to bypass, for better or worse.”
However, for global sonic consistency, Young treated every mix on the record with a piece of outboard gear: a Manley Variable-Mu stereo compressor, which was "inserted on the mix bus, just to round off some of the peaks. That box is like pouring warm butter all over your track, and I love the way it sounds. I use the Dangerous 2-Bus for summing and I've got a great eight-channel workhorse Seventh Circle Audio preamp that does a lot of the work as well.”
The gear has got more expensive, but Young's sound has remained consistent: there's still plenty of big bass tones, well-placed handclaps, moments of symphonic splendour, killer melodies and, of course, layered instrumentation, most of which is performed by Young himself: "I played a bit of electric guitar and bass in tracks like 'Dementia' and 'Embers'. My friend Chris Carmichael did all the strings on the record and my co-producer, Josh Crosby, did some guitars/synth in 'Gold'. Most of the rest was all programmed or played by myself.”
One of Sky Harbor's key attractions to Young is its very dead acoustic: he prefers to record as dry as possible and add reverb later if appropriate. "I record as dead as absolutely possible, because I compress too hard, and the old pros probably hate me for this. I record through a Blue Bottle [microphone] into a Universal Audio 620 MkII preamp, then a Tube-Tech CL1B, a Universal Audio LA2A — all hardware — and then into Pro Tools where I'll EQ to taste with the Sonnox Oxford EQ plug-in, through the Universal Audio Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-in. Next I'll de-ess with Waves Renaissance De-esser to lighten the impact of those 'esses' and other similar sounds.”
As he'd done in the past, Young programmed and sequenced tracks for The Midsummer Station in Logic, before mixing in Pro Tools. "I do most of my sequencing and programming in Logic and once I get the instrumental [sections] to a place where I'm happy with them, I'll do an 'Export All' to 24-bit WAV, and import those into Pro Tools for mixing and additional tweaks. The thing I've never liked about Pro Tools is its inability to handle a ton of plug-ins, specifically virtual instruments, and with Logic being 64-bit, I'm into that. I just bit the bullet recently and upgraded my Pro Tools rig to HDX, which has a 'cache memory' option, and that seems to speed things up. But I'm still waiting for them to go 64-bit.”
His Moog Voyager synth drives major bass grooves and, in the past, lead synth lines. "I like the size and feel of the Voyager, to a point where I just sit down in front of it and feel inspired, because it's like I'm sitting in a cockpit of a plane,” says Young. "There's something magical about that synth. Whether you're using it as a controller or otherwise, it's just fantastic. There's something fantastic about the Maelstrom synth in Reason, as well. I can get sounds out of that thing I can't get out of any other synth, software or hardware.”
Another favourite soft synth, much used on The Midsummer Station, is Spectrasonics' Omnisphere. "I could make entire records with just that plug-in alone. It's usually my 'go-to' instrument because of how flexible it is. I also used a lot of sounds from reFX's synth engine Nexus2. A lot of dance producers swear by it, and The Midsummer Station was very influenced by my love of dance and trance music, so getting that plug-in was a must. I've been really into putting a little bit of degrader or lo-fi into the signal to give an otherwise smooth synth sound a little bit of grit and sharpness. I work primarily in the box, but here and there I'll re-amp a synth track through a Vox AC30 in a big empty room to capture some life.”
A major contribution to the sound comes from layered and treated samples, mostly collected by Young himself. "On maybe half the songs on the record I went through my hours and hours of field recordings I've made over the years with a little Edirol R09 handheld recorder. I cut up little bits of audio into loops that I like to lay under the hi-hats in my tracks. There're just little snippets of movement or breathing, you name it. I just love manipulating sounds that weren't intended to be rhythmical and finding room for them.”
"Everything that came to me already sounded good,” says Robert Orton, who mixed eight of the 11 tracks that appear on the record. "I guess you can say I brought a new perspective to the tracks. I didn't go in and change a ton of stuff. I think it was a matter of presenting what Adam had done in the best possible light, really. Adam would have been sending me Pro Tools sessions, 44.1, 24-bit. I don't think there were any plug-ins or effects he wanted — it was like a blank canvas in that respect, with no heavy directions. I always spend a long time listening to the rough mixes, because chances are someone spent a long time getting it to that point. Adam said, 'Do your thing and see how it turns out.' I love working for people like that!”
Like Young, Orton did his mixing 'in the box' using Pro Tools. "I've got a Pro Tools rig with six [PCI] cards; it's not one of the new HDX systems. It's funny, you have loads of plug-ins, but you end up using the same handful again and again, apart from when you need something very specific. I spend a lot of times using Waves plug-ins and [McDSP] Filterbank E6 and Massenburg [EQ]s and Sound Toys. Those are the staples.”
One of the many highlights on The Midsummer Station is 'Shooting Star', which was co-produced by Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen, aka Stargate (see SOS May 2010: /sos/may10/articles/stargate.htm), who'd heard Young's early ideas for the song and wrote a track around them. "The Stargate guys programmed the 'synth guitar' chorus,” says Young, "that awesome, borderline cheesy, synthesized guitar sound that I really dig. I think it was off of a Roland V-Synth. They also did some arranging and helped out with the overall vibe.”
The vocals of the song are fairly dry in the verses, but enlivend by some epic delay effects in the choruses. "That echo effect around the vocals in the chorus is a delay that bounces from one side to the other, and there's a reverb on the delay as well, which is what gives it that big feel,” says Orton, who was using Sound Toys' Echoboy, Waves H-Delays (for the ping-ponging effect) and Digidesign's Revibe reverb on the track. "That comes in on the chorus. The vocals in the verses are more in-your-face, you know? They're more direct-sounding. But during the chorus and right before it, the mood of the song shifts, and that echo is one of the things that helps lift the chorus up.
"Some of the other things I would have brought to the song would have been the filter sweeps that you hear on the drums. For the filter sweep, I would have used the Filterbank [McDSP Filterbank E6]. It was a combination of an unfiltered sound and then a filtered sound that kind of swept in underneath [the rhythm track], so you get that slightly strange phase shift that goes with it.”
A favourite effect of Young's, meanwhile, is the 'telephone vocal', as heard on 'Good Times'. "I admit I use that vocal effect a lot, but there's always room for it, in my mind, and I enjoy how it ties a song together,” says Young. "I like how it catches the ear; I like how it's just another texture, another colour on the canvas. To get that sound, I record my vocals through a Shure Green Bullet harmonica mic.”
For the wall of voices in 'Good Times', Young recruited the talents of nearly 50 schoolchildren from the Minneapolis Youth Chorus, who he recorded at Minneapolis' Terrarium recording facility. "We got the gist of what Adam wanted in a little clip, an MP3, he sent,” says Patrice Arasim, musical director and founder of The Minneapolis Youth Chorus, who conducted the choir. "I wrote out the phrase we needed to sing, the kids learned it, and off to the studio we went. They were thrilled. The thing is we sang in a completely different style of voice than we would normally. You know, when you do both the Carmina Burana and Owl City in the same season... you have to employ different stylistic techniques! We had to practice a more nasal, twangy quality.”
Because of the density of the chorus, and the ease with which Young's and Carly Rae Jepsen's vocal performances could be lost in a forest of voices, the track was one of the more challenging songs to mix, as Orton recalls: "What was difficult about it was that I had to make sure that the kids were loud and prominent in the mix, but not taking away from Adam and from Carly's vocals. Both of their vocals are really strong and you want to hear them both sing together. But, at the same time, you want to hear the kids' choir, too, as it really lifts the chorus. [The choir] actually gets louder as the song goes on.
"There's not much compression on the choir, but there's a bit of EQ that makes space for the [lead] vocals. Obviously, the selling point of the song is Adam and Carly's singing. They should be front and centre. I tend not to do loads of EQ on things. I normally go in and EQ things when there's something that needs fixing, rather than just trying to shape it into something else. In this particular instance, the track needed the space in order for it to work. Technically, what I'm doing is pushing the slightly out-of-phase sounds more than the in-phase sounds. I used the Massenburg DesignWorks EQ quite a lot on vocals, both of their vocals, just because it's nice and smooth and you can brighten up the vocals quite a lot, so they don't sound as harsh. Compression-wise, I'm using the Waves Chris Lord-Alge 1176 model, which is just brilliant, brilliant on vocals. You can compress a vocal really hard and yet it really gives it character and brings it out front.”
The bottom end was very important to the song as well. A simply irresistible clipped bass riff repeats note-for-note every four seconds (or so) of the song, from approximately 0:14 through to 0:26. "I've been using the Moog for a lot of mono bass lines, sending MIDI to the synth and recording two different patches playing the same line, then panning them hard left and right,” says Young. "I like really wide bass tracks to make sure there's a lot of space in the middle for kick, snare, clap, and so on.”
"Kick drums at the moment are mixed pretty loud, when you listen to the radio,” adds Orton. "I don't send mixes really loud to mastering, but I think a lot about how the kick will sit in the final version of the track. The other thing you need to think about is how the kick is going to sound on the radio. Maybe you want the kick really loud, but you don't want the radio compressors going nuts every time the kick comes in. On this particular song, it was not a problem. What was there was sounding good, and it was just a matter of finding the right balance.”
Like his use of Robert Orton to add a creative dimension at mixing, the involvement of children's choirs and guest singers is all part of Adam Young's quest to retain freshness in his music. "I believe an artist should never repeat himself,” says Young. "It's all about progression and experimentation to me. I enjoy taking myself in and out of my comfort zone, because so often, that's where the magic is.”