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Inside Track: Kylie Minogue 'Dancing'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Sky Adams
By Paul Tingen

Sky Adams in his London studio.Sky Adams in his London studio.Photo: Halo Jones

Successfully integrating dance and country music on Kylie Minogue’s latest album posed a new challenge to producer, songwriter and mix engineer Sky Adams.

When a veteran pop star intends to explore country music for the first time in her life, who is she going to call? In Kylie Minogue’s case, the answer was a producer of Nigerian‑German descent who lives in London and specialises in urban beats. The 20‑odd collaborators credited on Minogue’s new album Golden include high‑profile Nashville writers and producers Nathan Chapman, Liz Rose and Steve McEwan, along with well‑known names from the pop world such as Richard Stannard, Ash Howes, Eg White and Mark Taylor — but Sky Adams has more production and co‑writing credits than anyone else on the album. Given that he is, on the surface, as non‑country as it gets, it’s clear that something unusual was afoot during the making of Golden.

Golden Days

Inside TrackAccording to a press release, the country‑meets‑dance‑meets‑pop direction of Golden was the brainchild of Minogue’s long‑standing A&R manager Jamie Nelson. First contact between the Minogue camp and Adams was made by Nelson via Will Blake of Sound Collective, an artist, producer and writer management company in London, who have Adams under contract.

“A year ago Jamie was working with another artist called Earl,” recalls Adams, “and they were looking for singles. So he contacted Will, who suggested me. I did some work on that project and didn’t hear from Jamie for months, until November 2017, when I got a call saying they were looking for a single for an album by Kylie that had mostly been made in Nashville and that otherwise was pretty much wrapped up. I was supposed to do one or two sessions with Kylie at my studio, to see what we’d come up with.

“The day before the session Jamie sent me ‘Dancing’, saying: ‘Show us what you can do with this song!’ I listened to it, took off the entire production, which had been done in Nashville, kept Kylie’s vocals, sped them up a bit, created a new arrangement, and sent it back. They were like, ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing!’ When Kylie arrived in the studio the next day, she was very excited. So we did the two sessions, and then they booked another four sessions, and we just kept going. She ended up staying a whole month, and we did 11 or 12 songs! After that I spent several weeks mixing what we worked on.”

Keeping It Real

One of the things that differentiates Sky Adams from many producers working within the electronic and dance genres is his capacity to play ‘traditional’ instruments, especially guitar, and this was obviously particularly helpful in integrating country music into Minogue’s sound. In addition, he says, his working methods also make it possible for him to work very fast, and to focus on vibe.

Inside Track“I think a main reason why they came over to my studio is because I am a vibe guy. I am a people person, and for me producing is not just about sitting in front of a computer making a beat, but it’s about what happens in the entire room. Sessions are about creating an atmosphere in the studio, and I’m told I’m good at that. I make sure I keep the vibe up in the studio, and they loved that. With regards to speed, I will do one track a day. In four to five hours I can get a track 90‑percent finished, and after that it’s just a matter of small tweaks.

“It’s all about keeping the flow going. One of the most annoying things when you are an artist is being in the room with a producer who is just busy pressing buttons, or trying to find the right kick drum sound. That just breaks the flow. Being able to play an instrument certainly helps to keep the flow, and it also allows me to be part of writing songs in different ways. It’s quicker to get a feel when I play guitar. When I’m doing pop stuff, on about 50 percent of the songs I help to write I’m on the guitar. For example, we started the Zak Able song ‘Unstable’ on guitar, and that turned out awesome.

“When playing guitar it’s also easier to write with other people in the room. We may all be writing lyrics and vocal melodies; I tend to record these early ideas on a phone. I like to develop these song ideas until we have a verse and a chorus, and once there’s enough of a shape, I’ll load it into the computer and I’ll start working on the arrangement and production. While I’m busy doing that, someone else may come up with the second verse, and so on, and by the time we’ve put those down I will have completed the production, and soon afterwards the song is finished.

She ain’t heavy, she’s Kylie Minogue: Sky Adams (left) and songwriter Danny Shah give the artist a lift.She ain’t heavy, she’s Kylie Minogue: Sky Adams (left) and songwriter Danny Shah give the artist a lift.Photo: Sky Adams“I worked this way with Kylie. Various songwriters came in at various stages. We had four days booked with Steve McEwan, who came over from New York, and the first day the three of us wrote ‘Love’ together. The second day Steve was there I brought in Danny Shah, an amazing songwriter with whom I at one point got 60 track placements in four months! Between the four of us we came up with ‘Stop Me From Falling’. I started that one off on guitar, and then Steve joined in on guitar as well, and added some parts. Danny began ‘A Lifetime To Repair’ on guitar. I was busy recording some of Kylie’s vocals, and Danny went into another room, where he played the opening riff, and came up with the first line, ‘Cupid don’t love me like he used to do.’ That was awesome, and Kylie continued writing the lyrics from there, and we all added to the song. On the fourth day Steve was there, he began ‘Low Blow’ on guitar, and again we all continued writing that song together. It was all very free‑flow.

“I think for Kylie and her team it was about the entire package: the vibe and the speed at which I work, and also my approach to doing vocal recordings. Some people might spend a whole day getting down an idea for a song, and then they say: ‘Let’s finish tomorrow.’ But for me, it really is important to finish a song every day. In general, finishing tracks is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter whether your idea is great or just OK, as you long as you finish it you can always come back to it and decide what needs improving. Finishing ideas demonstrates professionalism.”

Engineering A Balance

The main challenge throughout the making of Golden was to find the right balance between the new country elements and Minogue’s musical roots. The singer herself put it like this in a press release: “It had to stay ‘pop’ enough to stay authentic to me, but country enough to be a new sound for this album.” She also said she regularly asked herself, “This is great, but back in the real world — my real world — how will this work?”

For Adams, getting that balance right was not a matter of him simply adding some urban beats to a country feel. Instead he was genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of finding deeper ways to integrate urban and country.

“Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up’ opened people’s minds to country music in electronic music. I liked it, but I never delved into it. When Jamie first contacted me he of course told me about the country lane they were going down, but the thing for me is that I don’t categorise music. I simply see music as patterns. Everything is always connected, and whether I’m working with reggae or dance or country, I see rhythmic patterns and feels that may be slightly different in each case, but that you can always connect with. In fact, I love challenges and creating new sounds, so for me working with country was exciting. I was like a kid in a candy store, having access to all these things that I had never worked with before, like slide guitars and banjos! I got to experiment and have fun!”

Fine‑tuning the balance to everyone’s satisfaction sometimes proved onerous. “I often had Jamie on the phone,” the producer recalls, “saying ‘Too country!’ and then later he’d come back and he’d say, ‘Too dance!’ The whole thing was a big deal, so everybody was eager to find the right balance. Towards the end, when we were about to mix, I was asked to redo everything we had done in a country style. I was rather down about this, but Kylie and Danny picked me back up, and over a weekend I just soaked up Dolly Parton. I downloaded all her albums, and for hours all I freaking listened to was ‘Jolene’! After that I went to work, putting on extra banjos, slide guitars, and so on. I flipped everything, and made it super‑country. And then I got a phone call saying: ‘Too country, mate, too country,’ so I reverted to where we had been first!”

Know Your Gear

All this took place at Adams’ studio, then in the Shoreditch district of London, where he was working with a very 21st Century setup. He’s since moved to a new space, but explains: “I still have this setup in my new studio. It’s very simple: a Mac with Logic Pro X, an Avalon VT‑737SP mic pre/compressor, which is great on vocals, an [Universal Audio] Apollo Twin MkII soundcard, Focal CMS65 monitors, and just one microphone, an Aston Origin. The Aston went straight into the Apollo, job done! I moved to my new studio in Queens Park because I needed more space. I have other A‑list artists coming through now, and people like to be able to dance around the room!

“I’ll be upgrading to Focal Trio 6 BE speakers, as they are larger and have more impact and depth. But the Focals are all I use. I’m not into having tons of monitors. It’s all about personal taste. If it sounds good, then it is good. Of course, you need to know your room and your speakers, and I play things back on my laptop, and in the car, and in other different spaces. But you can mix anything on any speakers, as long as you know what you’re listening to.

“I also intend to get some outboard, like Neve compressors and things like that. When you’re recording it’s difficult to duplicate a good outboard compressor. The quality of voice recordings I get with the Avalon is just amazing. But for the most part, for me it’s not really about the outboard, but rather about the signal chains I get in the box with plug‑ins. Even though I have a regular template and vocal chain, I’m quite experimental with plug‑ins, and I fool around a lot with distortion and overdrive. I can get pretty much any sound I want without using outboard.”

For the other tracks he worked on, Sky Adams recorded Minogue’s vocals at his Shoreditch studio, but in the case of ‘Dancing’, he opted to retain the entire 27‑track vocal arrangement from the original Nashville production. Adams’ engineering skills came into play when he pointed his Aston microphone at Michael Stockwell’s acoustic guitar, but for the rest, his arrangement was constructed in Logic, using instruments and samplers like the Native Instruments Kontakt 5 and Massive, Logic EXS24, Spectrasonics Stylus RMX and SampleScience Nostromos.

Order, Order

The final Logic project for ‘Dancing’ contains 54 audio tracks, plus a template vocal bus, two reverb busses, one containing D16’s Toraverb and one Logic’s Space Designer, a Kylie vocal bus and a master track with iZotope’s Ozone 8. Unusually, Adams has arranged his sessions more or less how one hears music, with vocals at the top, musical instruments in the middle, and drums below, with the kick right at the bottom, the only exception being his sub‑bass, which is below the kick.

This screenshot shows the entire 54‑track Logic project from Sky Adams’ mix of ‘Dancing’.This screenshot shows the entire 54‑track Logic project from Sky Adams’ mix of ‘Dancing’.“For me, if I put the vocals at the top and start with them when mixing, everything turns out better!” Adams comments, adding, “I do probably 90 percent of my mixing while I’m recording and arranging and programming the track. One reason was that during the time I did so many songs in the studio, I was working under pressure most of the time, and sometimes I had one day to finish 10 songs, so I’d have one hour for each song! In that one hour I had to think of every possible way I could improve the track. This meant that I would think of as much as I could while doing the session, so that I had almost everything covered by the time I got back to it.

This Logic mixer screenshot reveals Adams’ plug‑in choices as well as his extensive use of the built‑in Channel EQ.This Logic mixer screenshot reveals Adams’ plug‑in choices as well as his extensive use of the built‑in Channel EQ.

“Today I still have plug‑in presets and templates to be able to work more quickly, and I still usually spend only one to two hours on a mix. In the case of the mixes for Kylie’s album, I had help from Savvas [a producer/DJ also under contract at Sound Collective], who provided a second pair of ears. When I mix I also am a vibe guy. I don’t really listen to stuff in isolation, but tend to work with everything in, even though I may click through the tracks really quickly to hear what sounds good and what doesn’t sound so good. My main focus is on balance, and when something sounds muddy, I clean it up with EQ.

“Once again, I try not to overthink when I am making and mixing stuff. What I learned over the years is that the times when I was not thinking and when I was just throwing stuff together, I came up with the more unique, special tracks. Things just tended to sound a little bit more fresh. So most of the time I just throw a bunch of things together, then go in and change something and it is like: ‘What does it sound like if I do this?’ What I do is not very systematic, it is very intuitive. If it sounds good, then it’s good.”

The 27 vocal tracks in the ‘Dancing’ project break down in two lead vocal tracks — one for the verses and one for the choruses — and 25 backing vocal tracks, consisting of eight ‘ah’ tracks, 12 ‘ah harmony’ tracks, four breath tracks, and one with the phrase ‘I wanna go out’. The instrumental tracks start with an EDM riser track, followed by a couple of crash tracks, a ‘Kylie vocal chop’ track, a pad, five baby grand piano tracks, a couple of sampled guitar tracks, four acoustic guitar tracks, which include Mike Stockwell’s guitar tracks for the verses and choruses, doubled with a ‘low pass’ sample guitar track, a kalimba track, two more synth tracks including the bass synths, a KSHMR snap, a drum loop, a kick, and two bass sub tracks.

Vocals

Some of the individual vocal tracks have processing from Antares’ Auto‑Tune, but there are no other plug‑ins on them, with all treatments being done on the vocal bus. “The vocal tracks that I got were pretty much comped and tuned. I added Auto‑Tune more for effect: it adds a kind of sheen to the vocals. Everyone uses Auto‑Tune these days, and that definitely has to do with the gloss that it gives to vocals.

Waves Butch Vig Vocals, with the de‑esser and compressor both at 50 percent, adds some presence and air to Kylie's vocals.Waves Butch Vig Vocals, with the de‑esser and compressor both at 50 percent, adds some presence and air to Kylie's vocals.“My vocal chain on the Kylie bus begins with a Logic Channel EQ, with a high‑pass at 69Hz; I also boost 285Hz and 3100Hz. Next is the Waves CLA Vocals, with which I again boost some high end and add some compression, and a tiny bit of reverb; altogether it enhances the vocals a bit. The third plug‑in is the Waves Butch Vig Vocals, with the de‑esser and compressor both at 50 percent and adding some presence and air, all to give it some sharpness. For some reason Butch Vig gives a nice saturation and clarity on vocals, but I find that it only works on the Aston microphone. With every other mic I’ve used it tends to sound too distorted.

“The next plug‑in is a Waves dbx 160 for some more compression, then the Waves SSL G‑master bus compressor, set to a ratio of 2, attack 1 and release 3, and the Waves C4 multiband set to the Pensado preset, adding above 8kHz, the Waves API 560 EQ adding yet more high end, and the Waves RVox, with the compressor set to 4.2. I find that the RVox really helps to bring the vocal to the front.

Among the many plug‑in effects on the vocal bus was Waves’ C4 multiband parametric processor.Among the many plug‑in effects on the vocal bus was Waves’ C4 multiband parametric processor.“My main reverb in this session, which I used mostly on the vocals, and my favourite reverb in general, is the Toraverb. It’s really hard to find a good reverb, but I freaking love it, and I use it on almost everything. It has a wonderful tail off, and also a delay that works really well. ‘Crystal Cave’ is a favourite preset, which I use mainly on vocals. I don’t mind using the same reverb on everything, but in addition I sometimes use Logic’s Space Designer, which also has a great sound, and a wonderful tail that you can crank all the way up. The latest update, the Chronoverb, is amazing.”

Instruments

The acoustic guitars in ‘Dancing’ play a country part but don’t sound very country‑like, as they have a lot of mid‑range and some distortion. “It’s not a very Nashville sound, is it?” admits Adams. “But Jamie [Nelson] loved it because of the rough sound and distortion, which I also added to Kylie’s vocals. I could have done a polished guitar thing, but I wanted the guitar to have some edge.

Nicky Romero’s Kickstart plug‑in was used to add a side‑chained pumping effect to the acoustic guitars and main synth.Nicky Romero’s Kickstart plug‑in was used to add a side‑chained pumping effect to the acoustic guitars and main synth.“The plug‑in chain I put on the acoustic guitar track consists of the Logic Channel EQ, mostly adding mid‑range and high end, the Waves CLA Guitar, the Logic Overdrive and Space Designer plug‑ins, and Kickstart, which is developed by Cableguys and Nicky Romero. The Overdrive is great to get drums to sound fatter, and it also works on guitars. I love the Kickstart plug‑in. It imitates a side‑chain effect, to get tracks pumping and to add rhythm. It’s an EDM staple effect, and I use it on everything. It’s super dope. I don’t like it when guitars sound too straight, so I also use it on them. You can set different kinds of rhythmic effects with the Kickstart, and I like to change the rhythm on each part that I use the plug‑in on.

“There also are ‘fake’ guitars in this session, using the Guitar plug‑in in Kontakt, which is pretty amazing. I placed them underneath the real guitar, panning them to the right and Michael’s guitar to the left, and I high‑passed the latter, so most of the low end came from the sample guitar. The piano also came from Kontakt, and I had again a Channel EQ on it, as well as the D16 Group Devastator, which is great for grit on keyboards. Plus I also had the Kickstart on the piano, and on one of Logic Exciter. Similarly, the main synth track has the Channel EQ, Devastator and the Kickstart, again for more movement.”

Adams also used Logic’s EXS24 plug‑in to generate an effect track containing vocal cut‑ups. “I created these from her vocal tracks. The EXS24 chops the vocals for you automatically, which is a pretty cool feature.”

Sky Adams’ secret weapon for EDM kick drums is Sonic Academy’s Kick 2 plug‑in.Sky Adams’ secret weapon for EDM kick drums is Sonic Academy’s Kick 2 plug‑in.Elsewhere, continues Adams, “There’s not much on the drum and percussion tracks, other than the Channel EQ and the Space Designer verb. By the way, Sonic Academy’s Kick 2 is great for EDM kicks. It has one kick that works for everything! Here is a secret that nobody knows: go into settings, and find the Pop kick, and one of them, the Car, is perfect. All you do is take a bit of low end away. For everything it is my go‑to kick. You can also set transient settings in the plug‑in. It also has a super‑cool trap kick with the perfect boom, ie. a lot of sub‑bass.

“I played all the parts on the keyboards, and I also tap the drums in. But for drums I like to find loops that already sound pretty full and have the right feel, so there also is a drum loop in this track. I get my loops mostly from Splice.com, which really is the future. You can get anything you want on there, it doesn’t matter what it is. The other day when I was working with this Bollywood singer, and realised that I didn’t have Indian samples and loops, so I just typed that into Splice, and a ton of stuff came up. It’s amazing!”

Master Bus

“I just have the iZotope Ozone 7 on the master bus, doing a tiny bit of limiting. I like the sound of the Ozone. I have sent mixes out without having used Ozone, and when they came back from mastering, they sounded weird, so now I just leave the Ozone on. I don’t push it up too much, it really is just for the sound of it. Ozone 7 and 8 are pretty much the same, but 8 has a slightly different sound, so I will have to adjust my ears to it.”

Minogue’s Golden is by far the most high‑profile project Sky Adams has worked on. Has it increased his own profile? “Absolutely,” he replies enthusiastically. “The phone is ringing all the time, and I am doing my best to juggle things so I don’t take on too much! It’s very different from the point in my career when I felt like I was just floating, and I wondered why I wasn’t getting anywhere! But my manager Will really opened a lot of doors for me. Believe me, that’s what it is about: having someone out there who believes in you and will go out there and sell you like you’re the next big thing. And then, of course, you have to deliver! With the Kylie record, to be honest, I would have loved to have had a whole year to work on that album. That would have been fantastic, but I only had a month. It came out pretty good anyway, and it went to number one!”

For the moment, Adams is flying. It’ll be interesting to see where he can take his career, but with the talents he has displayed so far, clearly the sky is the limit.  

Sky Adams

Sky Adams’ career encapsulates in miniature the global, genre‑defying nature of today’s music business. “My father is Nigerian and my mother German. I lived in Nigeria for the first 10 years of my life, and we then moved to Germany, between Aachen and Cologne. When I was 17 I moved to London, because I wanted to make it as a rapper. I learned to play guitar at the age of 21, because I thought it’d be cool to be a guitar‑playing rapper, and for a few years I played in a band called Life Imitates Art. We mixed rock, metal and hip‑hop, a sort of Pendulum meets Black Eyed Peas vibe. We did quite well, but I’d also been working on making beats, and in the end I had to decide whether to focus on the band side or the producing side. I went with the production thing.”

Adams, who says his real name is “unpronounceable”, began working with DAWs about 10 years ago, around the same time he began playing the guitar, and he developed his guitar and beatmaking skills to a large degree through watching YouTube videos. He eventually managed to get signed by Phrased Differently, a leading independent UK publishing company, and three and a half years ago he was taken on by management agency Sound Collective, who he says were instrumental in advancing his production career.

“I’ve had all the downs of the studio industry. Every time someone does not reply you have to tell yourself to keep going, trusting that when one door closes, another opens. After I got signed I was for many years working with tons of in‑house artists, doing paid jobs just to keep the lights on. One particular year I was doing two sessions a day, and none of the cuts I did were released. I was like: ‘What is going on?’ I eventually learned to, rather than work harder, be smarter, and that it’s about filtering what projects I work on, and policing the songs after they leave the studio, to make sure something happens with them. Some people spend days working on a song, send it off, and get no reply. But I eventually made sure that the songs were so amazing by the time they left my studio, that I always got a reply. And then I followed up.”

Adams credits his capacity to get the songs he works on to sound “amazing” in part to his decision to learn to play the guitar. “That was the best thing I did in my life. Before I learned to play the guitar I knew nothing about music, I didn’t even know what chords were! Picking up a guitar changed everything. I would not be able to do most of the stuff I do today if I didn’t play the guitar. I also learned to play keyboards. If you are able to click in notes on a screen you may have one hit, but afterwards what are you going to do? You’re going to be very limited. You’ll be trapped in the same genre, and you won’t be able to work with different kinds of genres and different artists.”

Multi‑Tasking

Like many of today’s most successful producers, Sky Adams has had to develop a very varied skill set which includes not only engineering and mixing, but also songwriting, programming and, crucially, vocal coaching. He points to YouTube as one of the resources that taught him much of what he knows, as well as to the endless sessions he’s done over the years with other producers.

“I was soaking it all up. You gain experience and your ears develop, so you notice more and more of the details that are going on. Plus nowadays when you send demos to labels, everything has to sound pretty much finished, ready to go. This means that I had to acquire all these skill sets — writing, arranging, recording, mixing and producing — and be hands‑on and quick, with everything!”

With regards to vocal coaching and recording, Adams explains: “I tend to ask the singer to do 10 takes of each section or of an entire song, and if necessary we do another 10 takes. I comp while we are recording, so by the time we get to the end, everything is pretty polished, and we can move onto the next section. I may later do minor changes, but that’s all. Some people like to comp after the recordings, but it saves time if you do it while you’re recording, and like that you also don’t keep the artist waiting. When I’m working with vocals the main things I look out for is sincerity and authenticity. You don’t want it to sound forced!’

“You also need to be able to say: ‘Enough! We have what we need!’ You can spend hours and hours going into minutiae that no‑one will ever hear. You have to know when to let go. This is a general issue when producing, of course. It needs a degree of self‑confidence to allow flaws, and focus on feel. You want to retain some flaws, because if you iron imperfections out too much, you take the life out of things. Sometimes if a guitar part is perfectly in place, I may put it a little out of place. Or I might put on a random plug‑in that messes up the sound. If you don’t, it’ll sound like everything else. I always try to move away from making things sound too clean. When you experiment it adds more character.”

Published July 2018