Lana Del Rey has topped charts worldwide with her signature retro sound — and it all started with a demo that became a viral hit.
Released on the Internet in June 2011, Lana Del Rey's breakthrough hit 'Video Games' became an online sensation. Orchestral arrangements and otherworldly electronic sounds frame Del Rey's lost-love lyrics and bleak delivery, while the song's atmospheric and grainy video, cut together by the singer, perfectly complemented the whole high-art-meets-low-art vibe. Del Rey was duly signed by Interscope, which released 'Video Games' officially in October and saw it climb to the top 10 in the UK and half a dozen other European countries.
However, Del Rey encountered a backlash even before Interscope released her major-label debut album Born To Die at the end of January. Notwithstanding the fact that Del Rey had co-written all the songs on the album, there were accusations of her being manufactured, criticism of her voice, her lyrics, her change of name from Lizzy Grant, and of her live performances. Critics were divided as to the album's merits, but it has sold in large numbers, debuting at number one in the UK, Germany, and a handful of other countries, and at number two in the US.
'Video Games', the song that started it all, was co-written by Del Rey and Justin Parker, and was arranged, played and produced by Robopop, a then-unknown production duo consisting of Daniel Omelio and Brandon Lowry. Their contribution consisted of a serendipitous two-day romp through Cubase, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, IK's Miroslav Philharmonik Orchestra and various dance music sample CDs, culminating in Omelio laying down the track's electronic and orchestral arrangements in one inspired six-hour late-night session. He immediately realised he'd found a signature sound: "I remember coming home that night and telling my girlfriend that this was going to be a defining track for Lana. I knew right away that it was a pretty epic piece of work and that it would put her on the map and define her as an artist. It was such a heartfelt and real piece of music, that I felt sure that people would connect with it right away.”
Two attempts later on by name mixers to 'properly' mix the track came to nothing, with everyone involved deciding that Robopop's rough mix had the magic. It was released on the Internet and later made it to the album.
The Demo That Wouldn't Die
Both Omelio and Lowry are the epitome of the 21st Century approach to music-making, having cut their teeth in music schools, rather than recording studios, and being entirely comfortable with working in the box. Lowry is a native of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and studied classical piano and music technology at Duquesne University. Omelio was born in New Jersey, but grew up in Pennsylvania and studied music theory, studio engineering and production at Syracuse University, where his main instrument was classical percussion (he also plays guitar, bass, piano, trumpet and drums). Both men moved to New York City to pursue their dream of a professional music career, and joined forces as Robopop three years ago, landing themselves a publishing deal with Cherry Lane/BMG, working out of the small and very basic BMG demo studio in New York City.
Come 2011, two of these demo projects would shape their future. One was a track they wrote and called 'Stereo Hearts', which was picked up by the label of the rap band Gym Class Heroes, and adopted by the band, guest singer Adam Levine and producer Benny Blanco. The resulting track became a major hit in dozens of countries. The other track was, of course, 'Video Games'. It was unusual, remarks Lowry, because while their demo of 'Stereo Hearts' went through "myriads of changes to the song and production, in 'Video Games' everything we did remained exactly the same”.
Despite the success of the latter track, it was the last project Lowry and Omelio worked on together. They have since gone their separate ways, with Omelio retaining the Robopop name, and regularly working with Benny Blanco (amongst other things on Gym Class Heroes' most recent hit, 'Ass Back Home'), while Lowry assumed the professional moniker Sterling Fox, and continues to work on his own material and with up and coming BMG artists at BMG Studios. From the BMG demo studio in NYC he says, "Dan and I are still friends, but I just wanted to go into a different directly musically. I'm tilting more to the left in terms of production, doing things that are more unusual. It's a challenge, but I'd like to push the boundaries a bit of what pop music is doing. And yeah, 'Video Games' certainly is in that direction.”
Lowry explains that they first heard the song as a simple piano/vocal demo made by Del Rey and Parker. "Dan and I were immediately excited about the song, and we suggested that we'd do a demo. We did this over two days in February 2011 at BMG Studios [see box].
"The first thing we did was slow the song down. I found out that Lana is influenced by a lot of downtempo music, and it seemed appropriate for this song. We pulled the tempo back to almost 60bpm, like a dirge, almost as if the whole song was in slow motion. We also made a few changes to the lyrical content and the melody.”
Omelio adds: "We felt that the original demo was a bit rushed. Slowing it down gave it a more heartfelt feel.”
The first step involved Lowry playing and programming the piano part using Steinberg's Cubase 6. Lowry explains, "I started in Cubase because I've used it for years and it has the audio capabilities of Pro Tools and the MIDI editing capacities of Logic, so it has the best of both worlds for me. I still use Cubase for the majority of my projects, especially when starting them. I spent about four hours doing the piano, playing the part as MIDI into Cubase, and then tweaking the MIDI until it sounded perfect. Because the piano is in the forefront so much, I wanted to make sure that it's perfect. I'm big on MIDI editing, making sure all the voices are in time and audible. I drew the velocities for every single note, because when you're playing it's easy to play certain notes harder than others, and that can screw up the voicings sometimes. I also edited the sustain pedal data in MIDI, so that none of the chord tones were holding longer than they were supposed to. These are very basic things, but a lot of people don't always think of doing it.
"I was using the 'Ambient Concert D' patch in Synthogy's Ivory plug-in. I may have tweaked the piano sound a little bit in Ivory, but most of the tweaking happened by using the Speakerphone plug-in by Audio Ease, the Waves H-Comp compressor and an [IK Multimedia] CSR hall reverb. The Speakerphone effect was cool because it expanded the piano sound, panning it out really widely. It's a plug-in that you normally use to get a megaphone or telephone effect on vocals, but for whatever reason I put it on the piano. The piano sound on its own was a little one-dimensional, and because it is so important in the track, I wanted it to sound more unique. The piano sounds in Ivory are made to cut through, but with the Speakerphone plug-in the sound became instead very muddy, and filled up the entire stereo spectrum. Basically, it over-inflated the sound and it also made it sound warmer.”
The strangely treated, echoey piano track became a cornerstone for the other-worldly quality of the song. It certainly appears to have inspired Lana Del Rey when laying down her vocals. Lowry: "Once I had perfected the piano part I exported it as 44.1kHz/24-bit audio and imported it into a Pro Tools 8 session, and we recorded the vocals. I was pretty sold on the low end of Lana's voice. She has a great voice in general, but it is at its most unique in the alto range, so we wanted her voice to be in that range, and the Telefunken U47 AE worked great for that. It added a crazy amount of richness and depth to the vocals that really helped. It then went through the Avalon 737 with a little compression, and the Chandler TG1 EQ with a high-pass cutting off below 90Hz. We also did some EQing in Pro Tools to accentuate the lower frequencies.
"We did perhaps 20 different vocal takes. We didn't actually need 20, but the longer we went on, the more changes we decided to make. Honing in on the phrasing and small details in the lyrics and melody can really separate a great song from a mediocre song. Lana's vocal performance was really good. With most singers I'll go in and Melodyne problem sections, but her pitch was on point. With the takes we got, we didn't need to do any pitch correction, just some comping and minor timing corrections. She has a completely unique voice, with a large and interesting deep tone, and that's something all producers will seek out.
"The Pro Tools session is really simple: just five tracks at the top that were comped from the 20 or so vocal takes below that are greyed out. All the vocal takes are in the session, as I don't like using Playlists in Pro Tools. It's a bit of an old-fashioned approach, but I like to see all the takes I'm working with at the same time. Instead of layering vocals we went for a killer lead vocal with a few doublings, and then did some vocal treatments inside of Pro Tools. The vocals were bussed to an aux track and we had several plug-ins on the bus. In addition to the high-pass EQ, we had a Waves de-esser to knock out some of the pops and hisses, and a Waves compressor with a light ratio but a heavy threshold, and then another compressor, the H-Comp, with a higher ratio. I like to run multiple compressors in a signal chain, with none of them compressing too heavily. It does not 'small' the sound as heavily as one maxed out compressor. After that, we had an H-Delay and an RVerb, just set to a hall reverb, mixed in really high but with the bottom and top end rolled off, so the main reverb you were getting was mid-range. There's a lot of reverb in this track, mostly coming from the piano and vocals. Drenching things in reverb is part of Lana's signature sound. But as far as we were concerned, the effects we added were simply for vibe and demo purposes, as we fully expected the tracks to be mixed by an outside mixer later on.”
Bells & Whistles
Having laid down and edited and treated the vocal tracks, Omelio and Lowry exported the piano and vocal tracks as a 44.1kHz/24-bit stereo bounce and imported what they regarded as a 'scratch' track into Ableton Live 8. That evening at 8pm, Omelio began his epic orchestration and mix session, which finished at 2am. He recalls, "I guess the mood really took me. It was a kind of being in the zone thing. I locked myself in the room, switched off the lights and went full into it. I already had a pretty good vision of what I wanted to do before I went in, and the execution didn't take that long. I guess all the years of theory, ear and counterpoint training came in handy, because I was able to hear the parts in my head and play them in, and then edit them as needed from a counterpoint and melodic perspective. I didn't think about whether the parts would be replaced later on, I simply tried to make the strings and the harps and the other stuff sound as live and real as possible. There definitely was some tweaking involved after I had laid down the arrangement, but mostly it was about having a strong vision and a clear through process of what I wanted the track to sound like. I think I achieved that!
"Listening to Lana's voice and just the piano was really inspiring and it was easy to get creative. A lot of what we had used of Lana's singing was first and second takes, because you get the most vulnerable takes, and so her vocal really set the tone. When you're doing a pop record, you try to get as many takes as possible and then you comp and edit them to perfection, but with Lana we focused on maintaining and enhancing the natural vibe. I began by working in [IK Multimedia's] Philharmonik and went through string patches that felt the most real and the best connected to the sound of the piano and the timbre of Lana's voice. I think I found something called an Expressive patch and I also played with some compressors and reverb, delay, and really tried to make the strings sound as real and uncut as possible. I used the compressor, reverb and EQ inside of Philharmonik, but also plug-ins like RVerb, H-Delay, RCompressor and so on, all stuff that I work with a lot. Staying inside of Philharmonik, I then took a harp sound, then a chime sound, a choir patch, and a snare sample. Philharmonik has a palette of orchestral percussion sounds, and I selected some snare rolls.
"I felt that after the halfway mark the song needed some sort of drive for the ebb and flow of the track. The song starts haunting and thin, with piano and vocal and a reverse vocal effect, and then builds up towards the end, when it returns to the simplicity of the beginning. Perhaps it was the drummer in me, but I felt that it needed something to push it along, so I selected these American Revolution-type marching snare rolls that give a different and perhaps unexpected feel. I also added an 808 subkick, because a lot of Lana's album is very hip-hop orientated. I was fishing around for sounds and heard this 808 sub which almost sounds like a bomb going off, and maybe it was because of the American Revolution snare drum part, but that low-end explosion really seemed to fit. It comes in at the one of every bar, and even though it's a rudimentary kick pattern, it served well as low end.
"Finally, I added audio WAV files from various dance music sample CDs that I cut up to make them fit. Lana's managers were adamant that they wanted a little Robopop in there, ie. electronic goodies to go with the stripped-down, organic feel of the song. Some of these files were white-noise textural things, taken from an electronic music sample pack, and intended for use in breaks in electro or trance loops. When I do hip-hop stuff, it sounds cool to put a white noise track, or a clap or a stadium applause track in, and duck it and put tons of reverb on. It's a sweet texture that lifts the song.
"I was mixing as I went along, even though I expected to track to be mixed by another mixer later on. When I'm working on a track, I always try to make it as sonically pleasing as I can, as opposed to keeping everything dry. I like for everything to sound pretty neat and tidy and on point. I will try to make the pre-mix as good as possible — make it as sonically tasty as I can. I did it in Ableton, because it's the first program that I ever got into, and it is very user-friendly, and I know it like the back of my hand. It's really quick, and for me it's a comfort thing, as I'm used to making everything sound crispy and sonically pleasing in Ableton.”
Lowry, who has the Ableton project in front of him when we speak, provides more details of his former partner's work: "Philharmonik is a cheaper orchestral alternative to East West or Vienna, but the sounds are very versatile if you know how to tweak them. For a producer, it's important to listen to classical or jazz music once in a while, so you know how instruments are played and are supposed to sound. Dan layered the strings with choir and hard techno synth pads, which created some nice sustained tensions in the last chorus. He filtered the pads to give them the bowed feeling that the strings already had, which was clever. When you do a song at 60bpm, you need something to keep the listener from falling asleep so he used these transitional effects from a dance sample collection and sprinkled them in the space between the vocal phrases. Many of them were run through Autopan and the Filter Delay, which is an Ableton Live plug-in.
"The finished Ableton Live session had 32 tracks in total, which is not a lot. At the top, in blue, is the stereo bounce of piano and vocal that Dan was working to. There then are five tracks of sample library sound effects (Audio 3-7), which as I mentioned before, had the Ableton Filter Delay plug-in and Autopan on them. They had filters on them and Autopans to move them in the stereo field, and were kind of buried in the mix.
"Tracks three and four contain the white noise, tracks six and seven have bleepy, synth-sound arpeggios, sounding a bit like video-game sounds, and 11 is a sweeping sound effect. Tracks 12-13 are the 808 sub, and tracks 14-30 have all the Philharmonik stuff, with legato (14-20) and pizzicato strings (22-23) and the choir, harp and snare-roll tracks. The harps were on 24-26 and were panned for each swipe, the snare is on 27-28, and the church bell that opens the song on 29-30. Track 32 is a timpani.
"As I mentioned before, most of the reverb in the track was on the vocals and piano, but there were some reverbs on the strings as well. Dan bounced his final mix from Ableton, with an L3 [Waves limiter] and the [IK] T-Racks S3 Classic Compressor on it, with some slight stereo image manipulation, and an EQ with a 2dB hump in the low shelf below 200Hz and above 2000Hz. That was it. The piano and vocal stems never got dumped in the track dry. We anticipated doing that later, as we regarded this mix as a work in progress. We came back to it in June 2011, when I took another stab at mixing it and added the yellow piano track . In my mind, some of the orchestral stuff would also be replaced by live instruments, and we talked about using a live harpist. But there was something cohesive about Dan's mix, even though it was more lo-fi. It seemed to gel better, so we ended up rolling with that.”
According to Lowry, the decision to release the rough mix wasn't as unusual as it may appear, because the boundaries between the different music-making disciplines are increasingly getting blurred. He remarks: "It's important for both producers and mixers to understand that the differentiation between mixing engineer and producer is becoming less and less clear. Most of the productions I do today are 90 percent mixed by the time they get to the mix engineer, if they get there at all. With label budgets being the way they are, a producer who is also a good mixer has a distinct advantage. At the same time, mixers need to be flexible enough to take on production tasks, whether it's layering drum samples, or changing the song structure, or even learning music theory and sitting in with good producers.”
With regard to 'Video Games', Lowry admits that he's "not sure how or by whom the decision was taken to put our rough mix on the Internet. But once that was done, it quickly began accumulating a lot of attention in high-profile blogs and became this viral sensation. At this point, she got major record-label attention and signed to Interscope, and there was again a lot of discussion about what to do with the song. But everybody had already heard the rough mix version, which is why it was decided to officially release it as well. Yeah, I'm aware that there's been a lot of controversy since then, with the name change and charges of her being manufactured, but you have to listen to the music and base your judgements on that. At the end of the day, she came into this studio unsigned, co-wrote the song, was there for the sessions, and definitely was the creative force behind this song. All the production, apart from the piano, was built around the vocal. It was the lead vocal that helped to keep things focused rather then distracting. It's difficult to produce an instrumental track and then throw a top line over it. The vocal and the song always need to be in charge, and were in the case of this song.”
Omelio concludes: "From the moment I met Lana and heard her demos, I knew there was something real there and uncut and not processed. This song was very emotional, and the ebb and flow of the strings really matched her voice and the lyrics, and the whole package showcased her in a way that had not been done yet. There are a lot of indie artists with their own style and sound, and I felt that with Lana there was something that was, and is, new and vulnerable and natural, and that is something I really jumped onto. The end result is a beautiful mix of dark and light, dirty and clean, sweet and innocent, and this bad-girl thing. Lana portrays both sides in the song, and you can hear it in the way she changes her vocal timbre in different sections, and in where we doubled or tripled her vocals and panned them out with a softer timbre and some reverb, and also in the very intense first vocal in the first verse. That's where it immediately hits you.”
'Video Games' is discussed in the Mix Review column elsewhere in this issue.
BMG Studios, where 'Video Games' was recorded and mixed, is located on Broadway in New York, and consists of two acoustically treated rooms with the most basic of equipment: Studio A contains a computer, a set of Yamaha HS80MS monitors, an Avalon 737 preamp and Chandler TG1 EQ, a Telefunken U47AE mic and some keyboards. In short, it is probably more modestly equipped than many readers' home studios, yet it was in these unassuming surroundings that Daniel Omelio, Brandon Lowry and Lana Del Rey wove their magic. As Lowry remarked: "It's just a pre-production room, but it shows that you don't need the craziest setup to produce records that are successful. We were working entirely in the box, and while outboard is great, if you're limited in your studio setup, you simply have to make do with what you have. There are plenty of people who have outboard and don't know how to us it. Conversely, when you know how to use the in-the-box tools at your disposal, you can get great recordings. There's no doubt about that.”