German producer Zedd has become a star by bringing musicality to electronic dance music.
“There is a lot of amazing EDM out there, and there are many artists who create really interesting stuff with interesting chords and smart songwriting. But there also is a lot of EDM that is great-sounding, but boring. I sometimes like to play these songs live, when I DJ, because they have a certain energy. A distorted kick can carry all the low end and then all you need are a few single notes on top. It will sound good, because generally speaking, the less elements you have the better. If you don’t clutter your track with millions of things, each element will have more room. When you have complex chord progressions with changing bass notes it won’t be as easy to mix or as punchy. But for me, a distorted kick with just four notes on top is not that exciting.
“Sometimes EDM is less about the music and more about the functionality, of all the standard elements like risers and drops and breakdowns. A lot of EDM songs aren’t there to enlighten you musically in any shape or form, they’re there because they work. We call them ‘DJ tools’, and if you’re in front of 40,000 people and the crowd doesn’t react, you pull up one of these ‘DJ tools’ and you know you’re going to get their attention. It’s great that there’s music like this, and I have also made it, but currently I’m focusing more on musicality and songwriting. I want to feel something when I am listening. I want to create music that everybody can enjoy, that I don’t get tired of, and that doesn’t only work at festivals. I have played ‘Clarity’ every day for almost five years now, and I still get excited every time.”
Thus speaks Anton Zaslavski, aka Zedd, and the song he refers to is his first big hit single, released in 2013, with British singer Foxes on vocals. ‘Clarity’ has to date sold about three million copies worldwide, enjoyed 200 million views on YouTube, and earned Zedd a Grammy for Best Dance Recording. Zaslavski has since enjoyed success on an even larger scale, and approaches EDM — Electronic Dance Music for the uninitiated — from a slightly unusual angle, happily referring to his love of classical music, George Benson, the Beatles, Deep Purple and King Crimson in the same breath. The roots of his wide-ranging musical tastes stem from his childhood in Germany in the ’90s and ’00s, with classically trained parents: his father is a guitarist and his mother a piano teacher. Both are Russian, but moved to Germany when Zaslavski was only four. He grew up in Kaiserslautern in South-Western Germany, and considers himself German.
“My parents began teaching me how to play the piano when I was three or four years old,” recalls Zaslavski. “I played mainly classical pieces on the piano, but a little later also had a little keyboard with 12 tracks and a floppy disk. I wrote a song on it every day and my father gave me feedback. By the time I was 12 I was kind of over the classical thing, and started to play drums in a band called Dioramic, with my brother. We started somewhat Muse-like, and later we had a jazz-rock phase, and then we did alternative rock, and eventually we got into metal and finally we went very hardcore, with lots of screaming. Then someone introduced me to the album Cross by Justice, and I completely fell in love with it. The production was incredible and the mixes really amazing. I got interested in figuring out how I could do these kinds of things myself.”
Zaslavki’s encounter with the music of the French electronic music duo occurred in 2009, when he was just 18, and set him on a path that culminated in him becoming one of the big stars in EDM. Still only 27, his achievements are impressive, with remixes of tracks by Skrillex, Lady Gaga, and BoB, production and writing work for Gaga and Justin Bieber, two solo albums — Clarity (2012) and True Colors (2015) — and appearances on several hit singles by others. He was a guest performer on Ariana Grande’s ‘Break Free’ (2014) and on Hailee Steinfeld and Grey’s ‘Starving’ (2016), and has released 14 singles under his own name. ‘Stay’, with Alessia Cara on vocals, has been one of the big success stories of the Spring and Summer of 2017, amassing worldwide sales of over two million, and 385 million Youtube views to date. This Summer Zedd released his latest single, called ‘Get Low’, with One Direction’s Liam Payne on vocals.
Hearing Justice, he says, changed his perspective on the entire music-making process. “All I knew until then was that you play a kick drum, put a microphone in front of it, and that’s what you get. I did not know about sample packs or risers or sweeps. So I got into making electronic music, using Cubase, but was doing it for fun, just making tracks for my friends. I was giving them CDs and not even uploading things. Then I started uploading my tracks and people really liked them. I think not knowing about electronic music before that time was my biggest blessing, because I wasn’t aware of all the things everybody was doing. I wasn’t in a box thinking, ‘I need 60 seconds of intro and outro,’ because everybody was doing that at the time. I just made music I liked. This gave me a fresh take on electronic music.”
Zaslavski uploaded his first electronic music track to Soundcloud in 2010. A remix of the song ‘Ho’s & Disco’s’ by Lucky Date, his classical and prog-rock influences found it a niche in one of the many electronic music subgenres, ‘complextro’. Not long afterwards his big break came when he connected with Skrillex over the Internet, and the latter put one of Zedd’s songs on his MySpace page. “That was my biggest platform. I also toured with him, and then my own music took off.” To return the favour, Zaslavski remixed Skrillex’s song ‘Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites’. Zedd moved to the USA, was taken on by the same management company as Skrillex (Blood Company) and signed with Skrillex’s OWSLA label before moving to Interscope Records in 2012.
For a while, Zaslavski worked in Interscope’s studio in Los Angeles, but two years ago he moved to the Hollywood Hills, where he set up a studio in his house. “I don’t need a lot of gear. All I have here are my Augspurger speakers, the large ones you find in most big commercial studios, two small, five-inch KRK monitors, a Mac Pro with Cubase, an [Antelope Audio] Orion soundcard, a Slate Raven controller screen, a Slate Digital Virtual Microphone System, two MIDI keyboards — the Roland SV1 Stage Vintage and the Nord Stage EX88 — plus a very small two-octave MIDI controller with tiny keys, just to be able to really quickly check a synth sound or a sample.
“The Augspurgers are my main speakers, with plenty of low-end information, which I can drive hard when needed. But I use the KRKs to check things, most of all for comping vocals. If you want to comp or tune a vocal, honestly, a small speaker or even a MacBook is the best thing you can use. I’ve often comped vocals for hours and hours and felt that it was perfect, and when I then played them back via my laptop, I heard notes that were slightly sharp or flat. You can hear things much better because you only get a pretty narrow band of the frequency spectrum. If you have a lot of bass, it’ll mask things. The Roland is my main keyboard, and it has weighted keys that feel very real. I love playing it. I use the Nord Stage because I really like the electric piano sound, and it has pitch-bend when I need it.
“I don’t even have a vocal booth in my studio, because if I want to record vocals, I tend to go to Westlake Studios, which is just 10 minutes away from me, and that works well. I don’t do the engineering myself, which allows me to focus on producing a vocal, and arranging it and making sure the singer sings well. If I want to record some demo or backing vocals at my studio I use the Slate Digital Virtual Microphone System. But you know, it all works. The same with the soundcard. It’s not one of those things where I go around telling people one thing is a million times better than another. Just find a soundcard that works and that does not have a lot of latency, which is the main thing. For a long time I simply used the internal soundcard of my laptop!”
Steinberg’s Cubase is at the heart of Zaslavski’s creative process. “I have always used Cubase. When I was 14 and we were in the studio with the band, they were running Cubase, so for a long time it was all I knew, and I’ve never changed. I still produce and create everything in Cubase. I always have the latest version, though I don’t update immediately. I wait until any possible issues are sorted out. At least all the Cubase updates have been actual improvements. Cubase was incredibly late to get a sampler, which is one of the most essential things of most other DAWs. Native Instruments’ Kontakt also is not a great solution, because I don’t like the way the pitch works, as I want to be able to control the portamento. I’m really happy that Cubase has now finally thrown in a sampler.
“There are things that Ableton does better, and things that Pro Tools does better, but there are also many great things about Cubase that I don’t see on other platforms. I think I can edit anything in Cubase faster than anyone else in other platforms. But the way your DAW works affects the way you write music. Because I did not have a sampler in Cubase, I never used things like a synth shot sample. I was forced to get all my sounds out of soft synths, but this encourages you to focus on music and chords, rather than just thinking: ‘Oh, that’s a dope sound.’ But I’ve been jealous of other people having a sampler! I also think that the automation in Cubase is terrible, with a million lines everywhere and you don’t know what belongs to what.
“I don’t use any of the built-in plug-ins and sound sources in Cubase. I will sometimes use something like the Cubase Envelope Shaper, which is a good transient designer, but that’s all. My main synth these days is Xfer’s Serum, which is probably the most powerful soft synth out there right now. It’s easy to use, but extremely deep if you want to. You can layer audio clips into your sounds, so it’s not just oscillators. You can, for example, add the beginning of a kick as the attack of a synth sound. That’s really helpful for bass sounds, as they will have a very punchy attack to them. I also love Tone2’s Gladiator, Lennar Digital’s Sylenth, and Native Instruments’ Damage, the latter for more cinematic sounds. I also use the reFX Nexus plug-in for my piano sounds. It’s kind of incredible that a $20 plug-in sounds so good. All my drum sounds are one-shots [as opposed to loops], so essentially a bunch of individual sounds that I place in the timeline.
“While I program drums by placing the drum sounds in the timeline using a mouse, when it comes to the musical side of things I almost always play things on the keyboard, because it’s faster, and far easier to come up with cool chord progressions than if you try to insert or move individual notes with a mouse. When I play, I record both MIDI and audio at the same time. When I’ve programmed something in MIDI, I’ll also try to convert it to audio as soon as possible, because it’s far easier to chop up audio than work in MIDI. I’ll use MIDI only if I want to change a sound later on, and don’t want to play the part again. I’ll do a Save As of the session before I convert to audio, so I can always go back and pull the MIDI from an earlier session version. But it’s easier to change the length of audio, or chop it up, or time stretch it, and so on. Working with audio also pushes you to commit to something and not overthink things.
“While programming drums I will sometimes use loops, because it obviously saves a lot of time. Some people think it’s a shame to use loops, but I don’t have any pride in not using them, because it has nothing to do with the song. A good song is a good song. When I do program the drums manually, I get very detailed, and I may have five kick tracks, and five snare tracks, and five percussion tracks, and so on, placing them all in the time line. A snare might actually consist of as many as eight layers. I may have a snare for the body, somewhere between 200 and 250 Hz, then I’d have a pre-clap that’s just ahead, so you have a little bit of a shift, and a soft layer, and white noise later, and so on.”
Zaslavski elaborates on his working methods by tracing the writing, recording and mix of his biggest hit to date, ‘Stay’. Zedd’s hit singles cross over into the realm of pop, as is common these days with the world’s highest-profile EDM heroes, and so ‘Stay’ conforms to the common 21st Century scenario whereby high-charting pop songs are cooked up by a multitude of writers. The Wikipedia entry for ‘Stay’ lists Linus Wiklund, Sarah Aarons, Anders Fr en, Alessia Caracciolo, Anton Zaslavski and Jonnali Parmenius as writers, with Zaslavski and Wiklund both producing.
“The song is based on a demo created by Linus, Sarah and Jonalli, which I produced and then developed further. I knew I did not want the song to be only about the drop, so I worked on it chronologically, starting with the intro and then the verse and the pre-chorus and chorus. I wanted the verse and in particular the chorus to be as minimal as possible, and only kept the elements that really do something. So when the chorus starts you only have the lead vocal and the vocoder vocals in the chorus, with minimal reverb, and then when the drop comes in, it is absolutely shocking, and really grabs your attention. There is a build-up to the drop, but not the typical EDM sweeps and swells and snares, and the drop then carries over the melody of the chorus vocal, just played by some synths, some quite sharp-sounding, some more white noise-ish. Just like with the kick and snare, I also tend to layer my synth sounds.
“Sarah sang on the original demo, but she did not want to be on the final version. I’d performed a medley of some of my songs on TV with Alessia Cara singing last year, and she has a very similar voice to Sarah, so I asked her to sing ‘Stay’. She changed a few lines so she felt more comfortable singing them, and we recorded her voice at Westlake. I then spent more time at my studio developing the song, doing the vocal editing, adding things, changing fills, and so on. The most dramatic change was a new chord in the drop. I did not use it earlier on in the song, because it takes a moment to introduce a melody to an audience, and later when you are familiar with the melody, the different chord underneath makes it more interesting and unique.
“It takes me a really long time to add all the details and finish a song. In this case it took me a few months late last year, and I think version 26 was the last one. One of the aspects that takes me the longest is editing the vocals [see 'Vocal Perfection' box, later].”
Traditionally, a separate mix stage comes after the writing, recording, editing and arranging processes, but not for Zaslavski. “I mix as I produce. I don’t bounce everything out to a separate mix session. If I create a sound, and it doesn’t sound right, it’s not right. There’s no fixing it in the mix. I produce records in such a way that they sound perfect by the time I finish them.”
Next up for Zaslavski is a world tour called the Echo Tour, which will run to the end of this year, and he says he’s planning to release singles, rather than a new album. About his latest single, ‘Get Low’, he says that it’s “a Summer song. It is light and infectious. It reminds me of being by the pool or the beach, and you just see the sun shining.” Whether it’ll be one of the big hits of the Summer of 2017, time will tell, but the world is sure to hear much more from Anton Zaslavski, aka Zedd.
“If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making the vocal sound good!” says Anton Zaslavski. “I spend a crazy amount of time comping vocals. It can be 50 hours on one song! I probably spend more time comping than people spend writing and recording an entire song. But for me it’s a crucial part, which separates a successful pop song from a mediocre one. When I worked with Max Martin, I realised he does the same thing, and it pays off.
“I spend most of the time choosing the right takes. I am comping a song at the moment, and we did about 30 takes, and you go through all of them, and choose your favourite of each word, and then you start editing. But if you swap a word somewhere, there is a good chance that it won’t quite fit with the word before or after, and you have to edit these as well. Almost every syllable can be cut. It’s like a puzzle that you fit together piece by piece. The next step is to make sure the timing of each word is correct, and then there are sections of the song where you need two or four backing vocals and you have to match them all to that one vocal you have created.
“Tuning also is important, but I would never leave something in where you can hear it. I once worked with Sam Smith, and he’s probably the best singer I’ve ever witnessed, about as close to perfect as it gets, and I still put on Auto-Tune. I think of it as a little bit of glue. The slight artifacts it gives you add something to the sound. It just helps with the edges here and there. I mostly use Auto-Tune, and occasionally Melodyne for individual words, like if I want a certain bend that I did not get from the singer. But I don’t use Melodyne over an entire vocal, because it makes the quality worse and cuts the high end. Do I risk losing the performance when I edit so much? No. I spend that much time so you don’t hear Auto-Tune work, and to make sure it sounds natural.”
“I always have a few plug-ins on my mastering bus in Cubase,” says Zedd, “one of them being LVC-Audio’s ClipShifter. I feel that limiters cut your transients far too much, and especially in my music it’s not necessary to limit too much. So I use ClipShifter, which handles transients that go over zero better than your DAW. It can handle anything from 6-12 dB over zero. The signal then goes into the iZotope’s Ozone, in which I use a preset that gives me all the highs I need, with stereo widening. It also adds a bit of compression and maximising. At the very end I’ll then add a limiter, like the AOM Invisible Limiter or the FabFilter Pro-L, just for a little more volume.
“Skrillex’s stuff is amazingly loud! He is a magician. I don’t know how he does what he does. I don’t actually know how to make music that loud. I used to master my own stuff, but listening to it now I realised that it was just distorting. Things need to be loud in today’s world, but I think I have reached an audience that’s big enough to the point where I don’t have to fight this war any more. I can just make songs sound good, and people will still like them. But you can destroy the success of a song with a bad master, so I now send my songs to Mike Marsh at Exchange Mastering in London. He is incredible. He gets my songs to sound really loud and punchy, but without sacrificing quality. It’s something I could never do myself. For ‘Stay’ I gave him the note that my entire campaign is going away from the super-vibrant colours of before, to slightly more muted colours, and that is also how I mixed ‘Stay’, which does not have a crazy amount of high end, yet it’s very bottom-heavy and warm, and there’s a vinyl noise going throughout the song. I wanted that reflected in mastering: no crazy highs!”