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Why I Love... Modern Pop Production

Ringo Jedlic By Ringo Jedlic
Published March 2024

Ian Kirkpatrick in his studio.Ian Kirkpatrick.

When I first heard Dua Lipa’s 2020 record Future Nostalgia, I was blown away. This was a new smash hit pop record that was good. Really good. And I don’t mean this in the backhanded ‘I can really respect her as a talented artist and performer’ kind of way, or the pretentious ‘I think it’s an objectively good album’ kind of way either (both of which are usually followed by a ‘but...’). Being the wannabe hipster and music snob that I am, my immediate reaction should have been to discount Lipa’s album as some sort of commercialised product of the culture industry, a cheap postmodern nostalgia trip, or insert whichever depressing insight we often have into the modern pop industry here. The music speaks for itself, however, and Future Nostalgia was — at least to my ear — something new and different. Sonically, lyrically, and conceptually this album represented for me the culmination of several trends and new approaches in music‑making which make me cautiously hopeful for the future of pop music.

In Robert Strachan’s 2017 book Sonic Technologies, the author observes a shift that happened in music production throughout the 2010s, whereby an increasing number of top‑charting pop songs were being produced on what some people had previously considered non‑professional DAWs. Sure, many top artists are still recording in Pro Tools and the software is still used for a lot of tracking and mixing (often in conjunction with other DAWs, as we can see from Sound On Sound’s 2023 interview with Rob Bisel about working on SZA’s 2022 hit ‘Kill Bill’) but this speaks to the larger point of Strachan’s book: the DAW — which was once just a tool for recording — has become the central creative instrument for music‑making. Gone are the days of expensive studios, session musicians, and labels developing artists, and as Strachan suggests, we have entered the era of small, hyper‑exclusive teams of hybrid producer‑songwriters recording on laptops in hotel rooms and bedroom studios.

The DAW — which was once just a tool for recording — has become the central creative instrument for music-making.

This brings me back to Dua Lipa. Reading the SOS interview with Ian Kirkpatrick (pictured) about producing for Lipa was an eye‑opening look into this new world. Kirkpatrick uses Cubase, works in a home (bedroom) studio, and does everything in the box. He often relies on using plug‑ins in strange and creative ways to create the core rhythmic and melodic components of his tracks. Although Lipa’s music has dance elements, Future Nostalgia isn’t electronic. It is a full‑blown bubblegum pop hit — a pop hit made/written in the box in Cubase, with vocals recorded on a handheld mic. Kirkpatrick’s session breakdown videos on YouTube also demonstrate this in‑the‑box approach to writing pop; he’s constantly fiddling with plug‑in parameters and experimenting with different ways of using various effects and software instruments.

Now to get to my ultimate point here, I think that the adoption of the DAW as the central creative instrument in pop music represents a new era of using the studio musically and expressively, In a way, it’s reminiscent of the type of experimentation that blossomed in pop recording during the late‑’60s multitrack revolution.

An up side to the decline of the pop industry and rise of streaming is that at least producers are given a decent level of creative and sonic freedom, as labels can no longer afford (or are no longer willing to pay for) expensive studios with ageing executives and similarly ageing but worse-looking technicians in them breathing “but what’s the setup?” down their necks.