The dazzling world of South Korean pop music confuses many Westerners — but Denmark's Thomas Troelsen has become one of its leading producers and songwriters.
Girls Generation; SHINee; TVXQ; EXO; Super Junior… Depending on your grasp of the pop scene in South Korea, these are either random combinations of words and letters, or five of the biggest bands on the planet. K-Pop — the supercharged, super-slick, über-commercial output of Korea's giant entertainment corporations — is now a multi-billion-dollar industry and a force to be reckoned with internationally. While obviously huge in Korea itself, the genre is colossal in Japan, growing rapidly across Asia and now gaining a foothold in the West.
Thanks to YouTube, kids in Europe and North America can tune into what's making their counterparts in Asia so crazy. In music videos with the apparent budget of major motion pictures, the 'idols' of the K-Pop girl and boy bands show off their androgynous looks, outlandish outfits and astonishing hair via complex series of choreographed dance moves, all set to a mash-up of pop, R&B, dance and just about anything else you can think of. The overall effect is a high-energy sugar rush of 100 percent pure pop: that is to say, hugely entertaining.
Thomas Troelsen has written hits for all of the above-mentioned bands and many more. Over the last five years, the 32-year-old Dane has become one the most sought-after writers and producers in K-Pop. His CV is similarly peppered with hits in Europe and the US, with more on the way this year from the likes of David Guetta and Flo Rida. All in all, Troelsen should be hard to avoid this summer, given that another of his tracks — 'We Are One (Ole Ola)' by Pitbull featuring Jennifer Lopez and Clàudia Leitte — has been selected as the Official 2014 FIFA World Cup Song.
Troelsen first tasted success at the tender age of 15, when his band Superheroes were signed to Cherry Red Records and had a string of hits in Europe. However, he soon realised that he'd rather be in the studio making music than out on the road and, showing wisdom surely beyond his years, ploughed all the money he made into buying equipment. Troelsen assembled a studio and started writing and producing for other Danish acts, including Junior Senior, whose 2003 single 'Move Your Feet' was a top-10 hit in the UK. A sign of things to come, the track is an irresistible three minutes of dance-pop perfection, co-produced by Troelsen and featuring his Michael Jackson-esque lead vocal.
After this breakthrough success, Troelsen was not short of further opportunities. He just wasn't interested in taking them. "The offers were coming in, but I was so young, I just didn't know what was good for me back then,” he says frankly, with no regrets. "I turned down a lot of things that I would have jumped on immediately today. My dream back then was to work with indie bands and help them grow. I guess I was semi-successful with that; I didn't invent the new Coldplay or anything, but I had some great records come out. But that was where my heart was set, and that's why I didn't jump on all the commercial artists at that time.
"I guess back then I was a little more… what do you call it? Into that Mojo magazine snob kind of thing! [laughs] Even though I've always loved all kinds of music, I wasn't secure enough in my own taste that I could just do whatever I wanted. I was afraid of what people might think if I did a really pop record. I mean, Sabrina's 'Boys' is one of my all-time favourite records, but I didn't want to do that kind of record myself back then, even though I loved the music. Now, I have this saying. You know the expression 'guilty pleasure'? Well, I don't feel guilty any more — I just have pleasure!”
Troelsen puts his subsequent success down to the same eclectic, egalitarian taste in music. "I used to be a record collector when I was a kid,” he explains, "and I think that has had a big say in what I can do in music, in general and for all over the world. I love music in every genre. Seriously, I love Ace Of Base just as much as Bob Dylan. To me it's all the same. The only thing I don't like is music without a point, when you play music just because you can. That's not really interesting.”
He's no snob when it comes to recording gear either. When the conversation moves towards the technical details of his recording process, Troelsen is apologetic, fearing his approach will not be complex or sophisticated enough to satisfy the average SOS reader. "You're probably a lot more into gear than I am!” he laughs. "I mean, I like the toys and all, it's not that. It's just that my philosophy is that a Shure SM57 is just as good as a Neumann U47, really. If you gave me a four-track cassette multitrack recorder I could easily write a hit on that, as much as a [Pro Tools] HD system. I do have an HD system and I have a lot of other equipment, so it may sound a little wrong when I say that the gear is not necessary. But I think that the way I'm using the gear that I have is very much the same as when I did 'Move Your Feet', which was done on a 16-track Studer [reel-to-reel tape recorder] — no computers, just straight to tape. I guess that philosophy sort of stuck. I didn't start using Pro Tools until something like 2005. So even though I'm quite young, my schooling was recording to tape. I don't use tape any more, but the way I use Pro Tools now is very much like tape. When I receive tracks to work on from the States, their Pro Tools arrangements are normally very complex compared to mine, which are normally like, maximum, 30 tracks.
"So, even though it's not necessary any more, I do a lot of mixing down, the way that you would in the old days to make four tracks into one track. I do that just to simplify my sessions. Once you make a choice — in the recording, in the mixing, in the production — it helps you to feel out what you're going to add or remove the next time you do something. So I never leave options. When I record drums, I always use just three or four mics — a very simple setup. Then once that is tracked, it has a sound and I will start to paint on the picture even more and keep going. Other people always say, 'Let's make a decision later on how we want to mix this.' The way I do my sessions, they always sound mixed when you open up the track.”
This stripped-down approach might seem surprising, given the ultra-polished sound associated with K-Pop, but Troelsen is quick to explain that the finished product is almost always a team effort. "It's only very few records that I've done 100 percent for K-Pop,” he says. "A lot of the time, I just send over a demo and they have their team work on it and polish it up. The only record that really sticks out is BOA 'Eat You Up' — that's my production all the way. Other than that there are very few productions that are just entirely me.”
Troelsen seems to thrive on this collaborative approach to composition and production. "Luckily, I'm both producing and writing,” he explains. "People from major record labels all over the world send me beats that other people have produced asking, 'Can you write a top line for this artist?' But I also might send out one of my beats to a label and suggest it for one of their artists, or they might ask me specifically for beats for a certain artist. Then they have other writers write on my beats. It means that, once I grow tired of one of those two options, I can switch. Most of the people I know, they do one thing really: they produce or they write. And if they just write, they travel all the time, so I think I'm really lucky that I'm able to do both.
"I prefer to write on other people's beats, because I think you translate that energy [from their production] into your top line. When I write the top line on my own beats I always feel like I've already written the song, because there's so much melody in the music already. I find it a lot more inspiring to build something new on what somebody else has done. I've never had the kind of writer's block that many of my colleagues have had, where they just grow tired of music or something. I've been doing music professionally since I was 15. I'm 32 now and I've never had a period in my life where I've felt I'm out of music. I've always felt the urge to do something better.”
The most immediately striking feature of Delta Lab Recording Studios, Troelsen's personal playground in the centre of Copenhagen, is the decor. Looking like a cross between a swinging '60s nightspot and the inside of a Lego brick (or, perhaps, the set of a K-Pop video), the stunning Delta Lab is a complete antidote to the stereotypical professional recording studio, with its moody lighting, dour colour scheme and panoramic vistas of acoustic foam.
"I built my studio not to look like a studio, because I don't like studios!” Troelsen says. "I guess the most unique thing about it is the interior, but my studio is also different in terms of what's inside it. All the gear is very non-standard. I think the only standard things I have there are Neumann mics, the Universal Audio Teletronix LA2A compressor and Pro Tools. But the rest is just really odd gear — prototypes and all sorts of things.”
The console at the heart of the studio is typically atypical. Built in Kelso, Scotland, by Tweed Audio, a company founded by a former Neve production manager, the desk found its way to Troelsen through a broker in London when the producer was just 17. He confesses that he spent another year and a half finding a new space to house the desk, relocating his entire studio in the process.
"I fell absolutely in love with vintage gear when [Superheroes] did our debut album at Tambourine Studios in Sweden, where the Cardigans and Tom Jones and numerous other people recorded,” Troelsen explains. "They had a lot of vintage gear. They had an old 16-channel Neve desk and I just fell in love with that equaliser. I guess at that time most studios were using these crappy, really flat-sounding consoles. I was so impressed by how much signature you could get into your recorded tracks. The channel strips on my Tweed console are basically identical to the Neve 1073. My two favourite things in the world are an old Sennheiser 421 and a channel strip from my console. It just beats everything that I've ever heard. Basically, if I had just one of those channels I would be happy.”
Delta Lab Recording Studios gets its name from a rather less exalted piece of gear. "I use a lot of early digital delay effects,” Troelsen explains. "The name 'Delta Lab' actually came from an American echo/delay company called DeltaLab. I chose the name because I love that cheap, stupid little digital delay! It has so much signature and it sounds so good. I also have a semi-rare spring reverb from Fairchild that I'm extremely happy with.”
The main monitors — a large pair of standmounted Tannoy SRM 15X Super Red Monitors with 15-inch coaxial drivers — are another unusual choice. "They're extremely good-sounding,” enthuses Troelsen. "I love those speakers, especially for tracking drums and stuff like that that has to be loud! They have such a cool mid-tone that just blows you away. They don't have a lot of bass but they sound really great. They're sort of similar to old Altec Model 19s — they're also horn-driven and sound really great.”
Troelsen also relies on a familiar pair of white-coned nearfield monitors, though his take on them might surprise you. "I guess my favourite speakers are the [Yamaha] NS10s,” he says. "I just think they sound really great! I know most people think that they sound really crap and that, when you have a great mix on them, it will sound great on anything. I don't think that's true. I think they are very colourful speakers. I think they are painting a lot more onto the sound than new monitors do. I also think they are more true to what you get in a car or on AM [radio]. Everybody's entitled to their opinion — I just think that it's a wrong 'fact' that I keep hearing, that the NS10s are crap, neutral speakers. I think they are not neutral at all, and they sound great!”
Troelsen moved his studio to its current site in 2005. Though initially available for hire, it has been closed to the public for the last five years. "I got tired of renting it to people because they always destroyed the gear and the interior,” Troelsen says. "And I think that it was just bad business for me to not use it myself.” Since then, the studio has been steadily turned into what Troelsen describes as a "100 percent overkill writing suite”.
"I've put MIDI into my entire synth collection, and I have it connected to a really cool MIDI matrix system,” he says. "Underneath my desk I have a small master MIDI keyboard where I can control all the parameters from all my analogue synths, so every time I hit a note it will come out of all my drum machines and all my keyboards at the same time. Then I choose on a small mixer which channels I want to open. That's something I decided to do a year ago, and I'm really loving it. I'm using a lot more of that gear than I ever used to. And I know all of those machines so well, I know how to take advantage of them.”
As you might expect from someone so committed to hardware and a multitrack tape-style approach to recording, latency is completely forbidden in Troelsen's studio.
"I haven't switched to Pro Tools 11 yet,” he explains, "because Sylenth is not available in AAX. Same thing with the Waves L3 plug-in. Also, Auto-Tune won't run on DSP yet. I'm allergic to latency, so I'm not doing anything until they've fixed it. Because I come from the tape world, I just don't like recording something that's not going to be the same when you hear it played back. It's just impossible for me to do. When I travel to other studios there's always a weird latency going on, and I think my studio is probably the most latency-free studio in the world!”
The rest of the studio is similarly arranged so that, when inspiration strikes, there are no barriers to Troelsen's creativity. Since no one else is using the space, Troelsen can keep the live room permanently set up the way he likes it.
"When I'm in my creative zone and doing something new, I basically just want the creative process to be as quick as possible,” he says. "So when I have an idea, I should just be able to go in, play the drums and get it down immediately. I haven't touched my patchbay in two years, which is really cool. I have two drum kits that are miked just the way that I want. One is a dry '70s sound. The other one is like a combination of a modern drum sound and a Motown 'live' sound, so I've got pretty much everything covered. I've also got mics set up for acoustic guitar, for piano, for vocals… So everything is just two clicks away on the computer: I just create a new track, hit Record and then I'm ready to go, whatever task is ahead of me.
"I find that really, really cool and it's something that I should have done as soon as I closed the studio to the public. But I was so used to the mentality of a recording studio, that every option has to be left open in terms of how to patch things, stuff like that. Now everything's just the way that I want it. That's something I can really recommend: simplify your setup and just make it for yourself.”
The same goes when Troelsen is working away from home. "When I travel, usually when I'm writing the top-line melody for someone else's production, I always ask the engineer to take a coffee break,” he says. "Rather than tell the engineer, 'Please record from here to there, please edit that part out,' or whatever, I just find it a lot quicker and easier to do it myself. When I write top lines, I just put a mic stand in front of the console or wherever I'm working. I turn the main monitors down so I just have headphones, I hit Record and sing in front of the computer to get the ideas down. So there's no movement, no reason to go into the booth, because that's just going to mean you forget the ideas you had. I'm really all about being impulsive.
"The way that Brian Eno makes music is very inspiring to me, the idea that you only have one try to do it. I really like that pressure. Like, 'Get your idea down now, don't try again. What you do now is the thing you're going to be using.' It just triggers something in your brain, a sense that you have to deliver. If you're all by yourself, and you have no client in the back looking at you, you might tend to be a little more easy-going, or do it all over and over again. Whereas, when you have an audience, you get it right. It's like a vocal performance. If you're in front of a crowd you do your best. If you're on your own you might not be that great. I think that applies to the creative process too.”
K-Pop is an industry worth billions of dollars. According to Troelsen, the success of the country's record industry, and the 'big three' K-Pop labels — SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment — in particular, is no accident.
"Over here in the Western world people talk about '360-degree management systems', and to me that sounds like management-talk, like, 'Oh yeah, we can finally control everything,'” he says. "But 'everything' is not everything, because what they've done in Korea, with companies like SM Entertainment, is really take it seriously. They've created new products and new markets for music that didn't exist before. They have dance academies over there [run by the record companies] where people come for dance lessons. Once they have those academies, they can keep an eye on new potential artists that they can then sign from their own school. And then there are the karaoke systems featuring their own music that they sell and distribute all over Asia. I'm just saying that, in terms of a '360-degree management system', they are way, way ahead of us. I think that if the record labels over here were more progressive, they would have taken advantage of the whole dance craze that has been going on for 10 years now — all the TV dance competitions and talent shows. The dance schools are full of people who want to learn how to waltz and dance hip-hop. Since they have to dance to music, why aren't the record companies supplying it? It should be such an obvious thing to combine the two.”
The same thoroughness and efficiency extends to the K-Pop industry's music-making activities, Troelsen says. It's a no-delay, no-nonsense attitude that seems to chime with his own approach to the creative process.
"The joy of working with labels over there is that they are incredibly efficient,” he says. "When they take one of your songs and tell you that they want to cut it, one or two weeks later they've finished. They've produced, mixed and mastered the song, everything! In the Western world, a great song can be on hold for several years before something happens to it. Over there, they are extremely focused. It's one, two, three, go! Let's make some music! It's really impressive to watch. They are so into it and really work non-stop to get it to work. That's very motivating for me too, because then I know that it's worth doing something for them again.
"That mentality has helped the Asian market to become the third biggest in the world now,” says Troelsen. "And if China comes along and becomes a big part of it too... I predict that in five or 10 years' time, China is going to be the biggest music market in the world — of course, just like in everything else. And it's going to be very interesting to watch how the Asian groups will then probably be very influential on the other markets in the world, because the rest of the world will want to get into their market. So I think we're going to see some changes in commercial pop music.”
While Troelsen is full of praise for the business side of the K-Pop world, doesn't all this ruthless efficiency and commercial focus get in the way of creativity?
"Just the opposite, actually,” he replies emphatically. "I think that what a record label is there to do, essentially, is to find new sounds. And once they have their sound, once they've decided which creative way they want to go, they should just go. There's no reason to hesitate. Once you know what you're doing, you should just do it. It's like me in the studio — there's no time to sit around and think, 'Is this a great idea or not?' I should just make the music and then decide if it's a great idea, once I'm done with it. You shouldn't really think too much!”
When trying to explain his appeal to the K-Pop audience, Troelsen feels his outsider status is key. "I'm from an indie/alternative background,” he explains. "I think the reason why they're so obsessed with my sound and my ideas over there is that I don't try to please anybody. That's how I got into it — it was totally by accident. My publisher sent over some random uncut song that I had. It was the weirdest leftfield song that you could think of, but they cut it and I thought, 'Well, if they like that stuff then I'll just make some crazy music — maybe they'll like that too.' And they did!
"So K-Pop is a lot of fun. Creatively, I think it's the ultimate playground. You can do all the stuff that you can't do in Europe and North America, where everything seems to be more calculated and predictable. I think that's where a lot of writers go wrong: they do what they think people want. I always do what I predict they won't like! I remember when I had been successful over there for a couple of years, I tried to do a copy of a really big song — to do the same again for the next one, like you would in Europe. Like, if I had a really big hit with Pitbull, I would try and do the same thing again, just to keep the cash coming in! But they don't like that over there. It's so funny — they want something new and crazy every time. It's pretty cool.
"I guess what they always look for is crazy ideas, like 'Spy' [a James Bond-themed hit Troelsen penned for Super Junior]. There's so many crazy records I've done that would never get cut over here, not even as a B side on some random thing. But over there, they just freak out about it when you do something really leftfield and crazy. I find a really big joy in that. I'm always trying to figure out how far I can take it, how far I can push it creatively and make it as weird as possible — really make it avant garde and artsy!”
Given his ongoing success as a writer for some of the biggest K-Pop acts, you'd assume Troelsen is a frequent visitor to South Korea, if only to pick up his cheques and the odd armful of awards.
"No, I've never been there!” he says. "I was in Tokyo with [Superheroes] when I was 16, but I haven't been back to Asia since. The labels normally come over here to see me. They listen to a bunch of new ideas I have that are very rough, just sketches of where to take it creatively: new crazy concepts, stuff like that. They say what they want me to keep working on, then we have a nice dinner and discuss what's going on in music. They come back every quarter.
"Again, I guess one of my strengths, both for the American market and the Asian market, is that I'm European. I don't really understand [the language and culture] 100 percent, even though I'm fluent in English. I think it's a great thing to be at a distance sometimes. Then you become exotic — you're not just around all the time. It's the same reason why I built my studios in Copenhagen, whereas other people would just move to Los Angeles and have their career over there. I guess I wanted to try and build my own world over here. So when people come here they get another experience. Hopefully, in time, they will all come here!”
Writing in another language is also, it seems, not a problem.
"I write English lyrics for the K-Pop market,” Troelsen explains. "A lot of the words are just fillers — mumbo-jumbo words — but the main concept of the song is always very strong. That's written out in English, and they always tend to use those English words along with the Korean or the Japanese or the Cantonese. They always like the concepts that I do, then they make a full lyric around it. I've never really checked out how they actually translated my songs fully — I don't really find that interesting, honestly. It's their take on it and I wouldn't understand the cultural references anyway. I think, creatively, it's just great that somebody else has built another brick on what I've done. That's how I consider it, and I keep it interesting that way.”
Thomas Troelsen's success illustrates just what an international affair commercial pop music has become. Collaboration between continents and across barriers of language and culture is the norm, and in this brave new world of pop sans frontières, the boundaries between different styles are steadily being eroded, one genre-mashing hit at a time. A new generation is growing up with unlimited access to all the music ever created.
"It's great for producers that they can just do music freely and not think so much about how it's going to be received,” says Troelsen. "That's not very creative when you're making music, if you have those boundaries. You have to be boundary-free. You can choose later if you think it's too much something or other, but in the creative moment you have to be able to let go and be free.
"I think the new guys coming through now — like, the 15-year-olds — are crazy, crazy good. Really more than ever. I don't know whether it's due to YouTube or what it is, but people really know their music and have a weird and creative way of putting it all together. I'm really impressed by the youth now. Whereas, like, 10 years ago I hated young people — I'd think they were so stupid and so uninformed. Now things have suddenly changed. I don't know what happened.
"I don't think it's down to the technology that's available because that has been around for a while now. But the young guys coming out now are so good. It's incredible. They can do music now on their laptops in ways I would never imagine. It's really, really creative, which is the most important thing — for people to be creative and come up with a new idea that hasn't been heard before. I think that that's ultimately the most important thing in music.”
Officially sanctioned as the soundtrack to this summer's football World Cup in Brazil, 'We Are One (Ole Ola)' by Pitbull featuring Jennifer Lopez and Clàudia Leitte is a samba-heavy feel-good dance anthem, equipped with an incredibly infectious whistled hook.
"I'd been in touch with Pitbull and his manager and we'd been working on some other records too, then I sent them a beat that had a sort of whistle thing in it,” Troelsen explains. "They really liked it for the World Cup and wanted to work on it then pitch it to the FIFA World Cup people. Then in November we had word saying the FIFA people loved it and it was their favourite song so far, because obviously lots of people submitted songs. Then they had J-Lo and Clàudia sing on it. Then it became official in late January that they were going with it. So it's a really cool thing. I think the fact that it's such a big competition means it's guaranteed a lot of spin regardless of how the song does commercially, and you never know. I've never predicted a hit before so I wouldn't predict this to be one either! I think it's a great song but I've no idea if it will translate into the biggest hit in the world.”
When it comes to mainstream pop, and the 'official song of…' genre in particular, there's a tendency to play it safe. Bigger usually means blander, and the more mainstream the target audience, the more all-inclusive the song — usually.
"Exactly,” agrees Troelsen. "But this is actually very far from a safe song. It's not — how do I put it — like a Suicide record, or a Silver Apples track. It's not that strange! But for contemporary music, it's definitely got some leftfield elements. It's not a playing-safe song at all, which is why I wouldn't predict it to be a worldwide hit. But I've never been right about that stuff anyway, so I should just not say anything about it, I guess!”
Delta Lab boasts a large collection of unusual drums, guitars and basses, but these are nothing compared to Thomas Troelsen's array of synths and keyboards. It's a collection that has undergone much refinement over the years.
"I've sold a lot of the keys that were very prestigious but I just didn't like that much,” he says. "The Minimoogs and the [Yamaha] CS80s, the Memorymoog, the [Roland] Jupiter 8… I think they are so overrated because they're really not that great. I really don't think so. My Jupiter 8 was in my storage room for two years. Maybe I'm just not good enough to use it. I just never found out how to make it sound cool. All I could get out of those synths were all the typical sounds I would always hear. That's why I sold them. Whereas I find the [Roland] Jupiter 4 — I've had three of those — has a lot more signature than the Jupiter 8.
"My favourite keyboards of all time are the Jupiter 4 and the ARP Quadra, which is like a weird combination of four other ARP synths that makes weird, weird sounds! It has some errors in there that you can take advantage of too. Then there's the Oberheim OBXa, which is just a phenomenal all-round keyboard, I think. And then, of course, like everything else, I like all the cheesy keyboards! If there's a cheap keyboard I can recommend, it's the Korg DW8000 or DW6000 — it's like the cheapest, best keyboard you can get. They cost something like £200 on eBay and they're pretty much all you'll ever need. It's just a great keyboard, but it's not hyped so it's not expensive.”
Troelsen is not a fan of software synths. In fact, his use of plug-ins of any kind is minimal.
"I use Sylenth [a virtual analogue soft synth] from Lennar Digital. That's the only thing I'm using,” he says. "I've tried out some more but, for my purposes, I couldn't really find a use for them because I have so much other great stuff that sounds, in my opinion, a lot better, and more crazy. I don't have anything against plug-ins, it's just that I don't really find them very attractive, especially all the emulations. When I see, say, a [Neve] 1073 emulation, it's like I just don't want to record into it. I just don't want to use it. I just use the seven-band EQ that's built into Pro Tools to fix whatever I've recorded, when I do errors, which I do all the time! I use a mastering plug-in from Waves called L3, which is a four-band compressor, and that's about it. I use [Synchro Arts] Vocalign, which is not a [real-time] plug-in but an Audio Suite, and… oh yeah, the most important thing: Auto-Tune!”