Production crew TMS LDN built their career the hard way — and wrote Lewis Capaldi's smash hit 'Someone You Loved' in an afternoon.
Back in July 2002, Sound On Sound's Readerzone series profiled "a six-man business partnership producing hip-hop and garage music for white-label release". Fresh out of school, the six-piece had put together a studio in a garden building, and duly named themselves The Musical Shed. Trying to make it big in music production was, inevitably, tough, and by 2009, TMS were down to a trio, consisting of Tom 'Froe' Barnes, Ben Kohn and Peter 'Merf' Kelleher. The shed didn't quite meet expectations, either, and although they kept the name, the group have worked their way through a number of different spaces.
Eventually, however, TMS did make it big, and they are now one of Britain's top pop production teams, with credits including G‑Eazy, Bebe Rexha, Maroon 5, Niall Horan, Dua Lipa, Anne-Marie, Ed Sheeran, Lewis Capaldi, Emeli Sandé, One Direction, Paloma Faith, Little Mix, Jess Glynne, Kelly Clarkson and Sigma. The occasion for this interview is their sixth UK number one, Lewis Capaldi's 'Someone You Loved', which was released in partnership with Live Life Give Life, as part of the charity's campaign to raise awareness of organ donations. (You can revisit the original Readerzone profile at www.soundonsound.com/people/tms.)
At the time of writing, the group that started out in a shed had just moved into one of the most exclusive studios in London. Formerly known as State Of The Ark, it is owned by the legendary Terry Britten and was the subject of a 2014 Studio File profile in this magazine. Reaching this point has, however, been a long road, as Kelleher describes. "In 2006 we worked with Lily Allen, and the next thing she was the biggest thing on the Internet. It was really educational for us to see somebody go from being unknown to well-known, and we ended up producing one track on her debut album. But it was three years before we had another release on a major record label."
Kohn: "Anybody who is trying to do this job knows it does not happen overnight, and when it does happen overnight, people often disappear overnight again as well. There are some shortcuts that can be taken, but we didn't take any of them. We had very few connections, and our manager, Paul Centellas of North Pole Management, learned as he went along, just like us. During the '00s we did have some success touring as DJs, in the UK, US, Australia, China and so on, and had a run of releases that gave us some public attention. But we never felt that performing was our gig. We always were more into studio work."
Barnes: "So we had this semi-successful dance act, called the Breakfastaz, that made us a bit of money. But it was very tough for many years, and Dan Kohn [Ben's brother] and Phillip Davenport went off to university and got 'proper' jobs. By 2009, Gavin Jones left for Sweden, where his mother was from. He still works in the music industry, mostly as a topliner. That same year our manager managed to blag us a deal with Sony/ATV, which gave us some financial security, so we didn't have to worry so much about money."
"We listened to a lot of hip-hop when we were kids," Barnes continued, "and for us it was very natural, when hip-hop started to become big in the UK, to take part in that. Through a friend of mine, Ben Scarr, who is A&R at Island Records, we ended up working with Tinchy Stryder on tracks for his second and third albums, Catch 22  and Third Strike . When we worked with Tinchy again he brought Dappy with him, and together we did 'Spaceship,' which was a UK number five in 2011. Immediately after that we did 'No Regrets' with Dappy, which became our first UK number one."
Kelleher: "We were doing sessions with the best people we could get, and off that you get your next pieces of work. It's not snakes and ladders, more ladders and ladders. If one job goes well, it leads to the next job. Soon after Dappy we did 'Read All About It' with Professor Green, and that also went to number one. So we had two number ones in the space of a month, and all of a sudden our whole world had changed!"
The reason that TMS were not climbing ladders from their shed was, says Kohn, because, "the soundproofing that was described in the SOS article wasn't as good as we hoped! My dad was getting lots of complaints from neighbours, so in 2003 we moved to a studio complex in Chiswick, which had a very grungy basement, like a rehearsal room, and we turned that into a studio. The studio was called RDS. We met Wayne Hector there, one of the UK's biggest songwriters, and we later worked with him several times. After four years, in 2007, we went to another studio, which we constructed ourselves in a former call centre, and called Grand Prix House. We stayed there for 12 years until recently we moved to State Of The Ark."
Naturally, the gear in these studios evolved greatly over the years, and the only constants have been Apple's Logic DAW and EXS24 sampler. Barnes: "We are very lucky to be sponsored by some companies. Our setups are laptops with UAD interfaces like 8p's and Satellites, and UAD expansion cards. We have 11 pieces of UAD gear between us, that are spread across two systems. Our main monitors have for many years been the Barefoot Sound MicroMain 27s, though we also have NS10s and Auratones."
Kohn: "We have tons of plug-ins, like Waves and Softube have been kind enough to give us a lot of stuff, which we use often, and we also have plug-ins by FabFilter, iZotope and Soundtoys. Those are our main workhorses. We're not going for anything super-new on this front."
Kelleher: "We might start buying some more hardware toys now that we have more space here at State Of The Ark, but we have always had a piano that came from Froe's living room when growing up, a Hammond organ and some guitars ready in our writing space. Our in-the-box instruments are by Native Instruments, like Kontakt, plus Xfer Serum, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Trillian and Keyscape, Arturia and Spire. Splice also is an incredible resource these days. We still use the EXS24, because over the years we have built up a massive library of samples for it. It's the most basic sampler known to man, and we wish they updated it.
"We tried Logic's Alchemy, but for us, simplicity and quick workflow are essential. One of our main things is trying to treat the DAW like an instrument, making it as fast as possible. It's frustrating when you have an idea in your head and you have to spend 20 minutes looking for a sound, and by the time you have found one, you've lost your mojo or can't remember the riff you had in your head. So speed and practicality are among the first things we look at."
Barnes: "It's the reason why we continue to use Logic. Apple have tried to dumb it down a bit, what we call its Garagebandification, but it's still powerful enough, and so much of a DAW is about what you're used to. We looked at PreSonus Studio One, but because we have used Logic for so long, and most of the time work with three systems, we can't take two weeks out of sessions just to work in a new bit of software. We continually bounce back and forth between our systems, so things like the track import function and being able to pull stuff in like drums in seconds, with saved channel strips and master bus chains, are really important to us."
Over the years, TMS have evolved a distinctive working approach, as Kelleher explains. "We don't really work as a trio, but instead we pair off in different combinations for writing sessions, with the third one doing production. When we have a five-day week, we'll have three days of writing, and then two days of production. And during the first three days, two of us will be sitting in one room, often with a singer, and the third one sits in our mixing room. We rotate every week to get different pairings, so we don't get stuck in one way of working."
Kohn: "The third person can be working on anything. He does not necessarily work on the same track as the other two are writing. He may be doing the nuts and bolts of a track that was done the week before, though it is actually quite exciting to all work on the same track at the same time, because it usually means the writing is going really well, and that the two in the writing room are so enthusiastic that they want to drag more manpower into what's happening. Of course, those in the writing room may also split, with one going on headphones, creating 20 sounds or so, and dropping that on the desktop of the other. Sometimes we literally synchronise the two systems by tapping the space bar!"
While writing, TMS usually work with a singer in the room, the artist or a topliner; they regularly work with topliner Sam Romans, for example. But in preparation of their writing sessions, the trio these days create what they call 'starters'. Kohn: "For many years we used to create complete backing tracks for people, and then we had a period during which we didn't prepare anything and wrote from scratch with the singer in the room. At the moment we're in this intermediate stage where, when we know a singer is coming in at noon, we start at 9am and spend three hours individually working out 15-second starters. They consist of one or two keyboard parts and some drums or a vocal, nothing too complicated."
Kelleher: "Our starters are the equivalent of a songwriter who comes into the room with a list of titles. We do as many starters in the morning as we can, and we may drag some in that we did the week before, and half an hour before the session begins, we'll all go on headphones and each of us will listen to all the starters and will mark them, individually. After that we compare notes, and the starters that we all picked are put in a folder and presented to the topliner or artist, who can then choose what to work with and develop further."
Barnes: "We don't do finished backing tracks anymore, because they take a lot of time to make, and you don't want to say to someone who asks to change the chords in the pre-chorus: 'Oh, but I just bounced 10 synths to audio and I love the way it sounds.' It can, in some situations, really work to give someone a full backing track, when they catch the vibe and love it and run with it. But many topliners say that working with a complete track can be a little bit intimidating. You give someone a completely finished article, and then all they have to do is put something absolutely perfect on top."
Kohn: "It's like saying to someone, 'Here's the Mona Lisa, without a face. All you have to do is paint the face into it. The background is amazing, and if you don't do it right, it is going to sound really horrible.' That's a lot of pressure. Also, people like it when they can be part of the making of a song earlier on. If they want the melody or chords to move, you or they can just go to the piano and feel where things want to move. In this way the song will feel more like a natural progression, and you can often hear that. It's also about the confidence of taking a four-bar loop and making that sound amazing. It's like, here are three parts, as is common in pop music, and let's see which ones create the right vibe and atmosphere and then let's bring it home and deliver it."
With nearly two decades of experience under their belt, the trio have taken a few other measures to perfect the art of songwriting. Now also calling themselves TMS LDN as well as Ghosted (a pseudonym under which they release records that don't fit in their pop writing process), they have turned the largest room at State Of The Ark into their writing room. Their Barefoot monitors there are in distinctly unorthodox positions, the point being that it's all about mood and feeling.
Kelleher: "Our writing room is like a living room, where people can feel comfortable. Another innovation, which may seem silly, is that we put the lyrics on a projector screen on all the time, so everybody can add and contribute to them. It helps to keep everyone focused. It's very easy, especially these days when everyone has a phone in their pocket, to sit down and stare at Twitter for an hour. Especially when you are an 18-year old artist! You know how when there's a television in the corner, it's hard to not to watch that? The projector screen is a bit like that. It's hard not to stare at it."
Barnes: "In the same vein, we stopped using a vocal booth years ago. We found that communication was hard with a talkback button, and it's also much easier to get distracted. The moment the talkback button is off, people start conversations about what they had for breakfast and things like that. Whereas when everybody is in the same room, everybody is involved in everything that's going on, you're much more present and focused, and of course it also is much easier to communicate."
All of this is in the service of a songwriting process that is, remarks Kohn, "like therapy, a lot of the time. An inordinate amount of time writing songs is spent chatting, trying to get to the heart of how you are feeling, what the artist is feeling, what they are trying to say. Bear in mind that you often have only just met this person. We had only met Lewis Capaldi four times when we wrote 'Someone You Loved' with him. You may have just met somebody for the first time, and within an hour you are talking about your auntie having cancer. That's why we prefer to be in the same space, and have that living-room atmosphere."
The mention of Lewis Capaldi invites a closer look at how 'Someone You Loved' was written, recorded and mixed, with TMS still at Grand Prix House. Kohn: "We had worked with Lewis earlier in 2018, and had done two tracks, and later connected with him again in LA, and then some dates appeared in August, and we did some sessions with Lewis and Sam Romans. Ninety percent of the final version is what we ended up with after one three-hour session. We had already done one track that day, and especially if you're working with someone you don't know that well, it's always nice to do a second song when you are feeling a bit more relaxed."
Barnes: "The first song had a bigger sound, with drums, and we were really into it. Then we broke for lunch, and did another hour when we came back, and when the momentum slowed down, we thought, 'Let's try something else.' Lewis was kind of messing on the piano, looking for something, and we recorded that on an iPad, to make sure we didn't miss anything. At one point he clicked on four chords, and a verse and a pre-chorus melody. At some point I took over on the piano, and we developed a chorus, and also knocked the lyric together between the four of us. Lewis drops these big gold nuggets of lyrics, and then it's a case of catching them and knitting them together."
Kelleher: "There was no mention of death, and the whole charity thing came much later, but we were aware that there were strong emotions in the song. You'll be surprised as to how often we talk about the feeling of 'sad elation'. That does come up in sessions quite a lot. Sometimes you really decide you want to make people cry, and you hit the heartstrings as hard as you can, and this can be a bit calculated. But that was not something we talked about on that day. We were just writing, it was stream of consciousness. We did the verse and chorus that day, so the bulk of the song, and then we came back a week later and wrote the middle eight and the second verse."