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Page 2: Inside Track: Lewis Capaldi's 'Someone You Loved'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: TMS LDN By Paul Tingen
Published May 2019


One of the most striking features of 'Someone You Loved' is the fact that the arrangement is kept extremely simple: it's essentially just one piano, with some embellishments. Kohn: "We've definitely gotten into the production Bermuda Triangle, where you're making things complicated and you rely on someone coming in and saying: 'Stop! The demo was better!' Most of our hits have had real production journeys that took a long time to get right. We have been guilty of throwing the kitchen sink at a record, and then at the end we'd try to brutally strip it down again, asking what parts of the arrangement we really care about.

"With 'Someone You Loved' it really was two writing sessions, and us spending a couple of days finishing off and mixing. It's funny, simplicity is fashionable at the moment. Every A&R these days says 'Can't we make it simpler?' — not necessarily musically, but sonically. We were also dealing with a limited budget, and only with Lewis and his manager, so there were no A&Rs breathing down our neck wanting to try a million and one things."

Kelleher: "We bought into this restrictive environment, without being able to spend thousands of pounds on live strings or what not. We played into that purposely, and it really worked out. At one point one of us suggested to add drums, and another said no, and that was probably the moment that stopped the song turning into a cacophonous mess. Instead it remained very pared-back. We had totally not anticipated this becoming a number one, so this has been a lesson for us as much as anything.

"I played the piano on the song, and then Froe went into MIDI and made it work. So we had a piano that sounded great, and vocals that sounded great, and then we tried a string arrangement, but this clouded the arrangement up, so we had to keep that very minimal. In the end a guy called Phil Cook did a string arrangement for us, just for the second chorus and until the end, and we said it had to be dark and minimal. We only ended up using these strings in the middle eight section."

Nowhere To Hide

The arrangement of 'Someone You Loved' is indeed exceptionally simple. The Logic Arrange window contains only 17 tracks, a count which includes three muted non-treated original vocal tracks, a MIDI and piano pedal track that service the piano, and a Splice sound that's spread over three tracks so it can be treated slightly differently each time, plus a lead vocal that's split over three tracks for the same reason. The entire session contains just seven musical elements: the piano, a sub-bass track, the Splice hit, two string tracks, backing vocals and a lead vocal. The Mixer window adds three bus effect tracks, a bus for all vocals and a bus for all reverbs, a Stereo Out track, and a Master track.

To mix their songs, TMS normally use the services of star mixers Serban Ghenea, Manny Marroquin or James F Reynolds, but this was a rare case of them mixing a final release themselves. Barnes: "The simple reason for that was budget. By the time we had finished the record, Lewis had spent his budget, and we mixed the song for no extra fee, because we believed in it. It's a simple mix, but these are often the hardest, because there's nothing to hide behind."

Kohn: "It is important to state that by the time we send our productions to a mixer, we mix them ourselves to 98 percent of where we want them to be. We get it pretty close. Occasionally a mix will make a vast difference, but that's rare. This is not us being rude towards the mixers, it's just that we don't want to make their job hard and we don't want to rely on them adding the last 10-15 percent. You can't just turn over something bad and keep your fingers crossed. What the mixers do is a polish, a slight reimagining. And yes, someone like Serban has a little bit of his own sound, but when we know it'll be going to him, we will already be working towards that sound."

Barnes: "In the modern world, A&Rs also want to hear a finished product. They will push you as far as possible. And then it goes to the final mix, and then you go through the whole process of pushing it as far as possible again. With Serban, he prioritises the right things, drums and vocals, and he gets rid of clutter. He simplifies the mixes. He's also very true to your demo, so he's not going to change things that are really important. He sees your vision, and makes the most important things work, and gets rid of stuff you don't need. That's why he is so great at what he does."

Perfectly Imperfect

'Someone You Loved'

Written by Benjamin Kohn, Lewis Capaldi, Pete Kelleher, Sam Roman & Tom Barnes.

Produced by TMS.

The Logic Arrange page for the final mix of 'Someone You Loved'. The lead vocal has been split over three tracks and heavily edited! [You can download a large hi-res version of this screenshot as a Zip file; see link below.]The Logic Arrange page for the final mix of 'Someone You Loved'. The lead vocal has been split over three tracks and heavily edited! [You can download a large hi-res version of this screenshot as a Zip file; see link below.]

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When TMS do a mix themselves, Tom Barnes is the one who tends to get the most deeply involved, so he takes the lead in explaining the details of their 'Someone You Loved' mix. "At the top of the session is the original MIDI piano part, played with a Keyscape preset called 'Rich Ballad'. Merf played it and I was controlling the session, and I captured four bars, went into headphones, quantised it and copied it over and changed a few notes, turned velocities up and down, all to make it sound like a proper piano part. I also took one sustain pedal that was perfect, and looped that. Each one of those blocks is sustain pedal on and sustain pedal off.

"The Keyscape sound has a noise, some kind of hiss, to make it sound more real, and because the first four bars have a low velocity and are exposed with the piano on its own, we denoised the piano for that section. After that the noise adds a kind of colour to the piano underneath the vocal. I then added a UAD Teletronix LA-2A compressor, doing about 2dB gain reduction at its loudest point, in the chorus, to make it sound darker and edgier. Next is the UAD Ampex ATR-102 [tape emulation], to make it sound more realistic, and then the FabFilter Pro-Q 2, dipping 200Hz and 2kHz, and adding some high end. We listened to Adele's 'Someone Like You' and tried to get a similar frequency response from the piano. Finally, the piano has the Waves Abbey Road Vinyl, adding some darkness and movement and overdrive. In general, we were trying to make the piano sound as least in-the-box as possible. We then printed the piano as audio.

The song's main piano sound came from Spectrasonics' Keyscape virtual instrument.The song's main piano sound came from Spectrasonics' Keyscape virtual instrument.

"Below the piano is a sub‑bass from Spire, called 'Kung Fu', patch 9. We use that a lot. It consists of modulating sine waves on top of each other, giving you bottom end and also some definition and overtones, which will cut through on smaller speakers. It's not a sound you associate with ballads, but it adds a modern production element. It gives the track a modern edge. Next are the Splice hits, which are all one sound. Because I was working very fast, I just copied them across several tracks and tuned them up and down, rather than move the sound into a sampler. I put a Valhalla VintageVerb on it, with the mix set to 100 percent, so it's just reverb. We use the VintageVerb a lot, because it modulates and wobbles and moves around, which gives it a more interesting sound and more of a 3D effect. There's also a VintageVerb on our Omnisphere strings, which uses the preset 'Understated Strings'."

Double Exposure

All three lead vocal tracks have this plug-in chain, with the two compressors contributing a lot of gain reduction.All three lead vocal tracks have this plug-in chain, with the two compressors contributing a lot of gain reduction.The vocal tracks in 'Someone You Loved' are quite extensively treated, with up to eight plug-ins straight on the tracks and three sends to auxiliary effect tracks. The first five plug-ins on all vocal tracks are the same: Antares Auto-Tune EFX3, Waves PuigTec EQP‑1A, UAD 1176, UAD Empirical Labs Distressor and FabFilter Pro-DS.

Barnes: "We did a lot of work in terms of refining the timing and even moving breaths around. If there's a dodgy breath or even 'ess', we may take it from somewhere else. This is such an exposed vocal that you need to make it perfect. We compressed the vocal to bits, so things like breaths and tails get really loud, so it's important to fade them down. We didn't do this with volume automaton but by chopping up the audio, and then we gain the clips down. As for timing, whether you like things later or bang on time is a matter of taste. It's a bit of a dark art. But we tend to move vocals in bigger blocks, so you retain the natural timing, and then you move bits within that.

"In terms of the treatments, the Auto-Tune is very light. We set the key, and the Retune speed, which in this case is fairly slow, so you don't hear it as much. We added this on the day we did the demo, to make it sound good. For tuning we normally use [Celemony] Melodyne, and we tried that in this case, but we missed the Auto-Tune. We felt that it gave the vocal a modern edge. We ended up using Melodyne for a couple of corrections and kept the Auto-Tune on lightly. The EQP1A adds 10kHz, and then there is compression. A lot of compression! The 1176 has an 8:1 ratio, so it is slamming the vocal, giving between 10 and 20 dB gain reduction. It also has a fast release, all because his voice is so powerful and dynamic.

"The Distressor is set to fairly dry, and has about a 4:1 ratio, meaning 10dB of gain reduction, which is pretty aggressive. Mad really! The detector is set to high pass, because you don't really want to affect the low end. Normally you cut the low end on a vocal, but because there's nothing else in this track, we wanted to leave it here. The Pro-DS de-esser is set to its default setting, apart from that I dialled the Range back a bit. De-essers suit some people's voices and others not, but with this de-esser, I find that it just works. FabFilter have nailed it! Very occasionally I have to mess with the frequency of where it's hitting, but that's rare.

"The main lead vocal has another compressor, the UAD Tube-Tech CL 1B, which is not doing much ratio-wise, and is taking off 2-3 dB. And then there's yet another compressor, the UAD LA‑2A, which is doing the same as on the piano, giving the vocal a darker edge. And finally, there's the FabFilter Pro-MB, taking out a bit of mud between 200 and 500 Hz. That mainly acts in the verse, where Lewis is in the lower register. Somehow we got away with having a very dynamic vocal with no automation throughout the entire track. Normally I'd treat the chorus vocal differently, but that was not necessary here, though I pulled the vocal in the middle eight and the drop-down lead vocal to other tracks and turned these down a little bit.

Tom Barnes almost always applies aggressive high- and low-cut filters to reverb returns.Tom Barnes almost always applies aggressive high- and low-cut filters to reverb returns."The backing vocals have the Soundtoys Little AlterBoy, in Robot mode, so it's reducing them to a single note, and after that there's the Valhalla VintageVerb. This results in it being just this reverb-drenched single note, giving it an ethereal, contemporary edge. The vocals have sends to busses with the UAD EMT 140, UAD Roland Dimension D and the Valhalla VintageVerb. The two reverbs have the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 behind them, taking out low end and high end, because I'm not a fan of splashy top end reverb or muddy low-end reverb. I prefer to just have reverb in the mid-range. All reverbs then go to the 'All Reverb' bus, with the Waves S1 Imager, to widen the reverbs a bit, and again the Q 2, to take out bottom end and 
high end."

Compare & Contrast

All audio goes through the 'Stereo Out' bus, on which there are four plug-ins. Barnes explains: "The first plug-in is the UAD Oxford Inflator. I don't know exactly what it does, but it brings up some kind of subtle harmonic distortion/parallel compression thing, adding some harmonics. Next is the iZotope Ozone 8, doing a tiny bit with the Dynamics section, keeping everything in check and making sure no weird frequencies pop out, and we also used the Maximizer, doing 2-3 dB of limiting. I also have the UAD Pultec EQP-1A, boosting some low end, and finally there's the Kazrog KClip Pro, which is a plug-in that emulates clipping your converters by 1dB. It's a complete flat-lined, brickwall clipper, and it gives you 1dB extra level. It purely is a loudness thing."

Before the track was sent to mastering engineer Robert Vosgien at Capitol Studios in LA, the three TMS members went through a process that they call 'mix compare'. Kohn: "It's this really annoying thing that we started when we were getting different mix versions back from mix engineers. We'd put them in one file, and then each of us individually writes notes, and then we compare them. The key is that everything we listen to is at the same level, and for that we use the LUFS Meter by Klangfreund. We now also do something like mix compare when we are in the later stages of production, at the end of every day. It's a good way of being dispassionate."

The capacity to be objective is a crucial aspect of the songwriting and production process, but if there's one thing Barnes, Kelleher and Kohn clearly are not, it's dispassionate. They have pursued their dreams over many years with great passion and persistence, and take great satisfaction in achieving yet another number one, and, finally, the Holy Grail: another SOS appearance!

Shed Mics

State Of The Ark is "one of those places where there are drawers with 150 grand of gear in them," notes Peter Kelleher. However, it's unclear how much of this will remain in the building now that TMS have taken it over, so the trio are relying on their own mics for writing sessions.

After an extensive shootout, TMS chose to order a Sony C800G as their main vocal mic.After an extensive shootout, TMS chose to order a Sony C800G as their main vocal mic.Tom Barnes: "Our main vocal mic has always been a Neumann U87 — we've had one for 10 years — but we left it with the gear we have in LA, because we wanted to buy a new mic. We did a massive amount of blind testing to find the perfect vocal mic, and just put in an order for a Sony C800G. We picked that one out every time. It was interesting that the U87 was our least favourite during the blind testing! We liked the C800 because it is a very bright mic, and we had noted that we were always adding top end to every vocal we recorded, because it is the sound of modern pop music. So why not go for a brighter mic?

"We also bought the Townsend Sphere, as it works well with UAD gear and has many uses. To record Lewis Capaldi we used a Neumann U47, which we had borrowed from Eg White for our blind mic shootout. Eg's U47 was used to record Adele's 'Chasing Pavements', so it had good provenance! We have some other mics, like the AKG C414, which we use on the piano, Neumann KM184, which we use on our Hammond, and some small Neumann pencil mics, to record guitar. These are used for writing sessions, because we tend to record live musicians at commercial studios."

Share & Share Alike

To keep politics out of the writing process, TMS take a long-term view when it comes to credits. Peter Kelleher: "Probably the smartest thing we have ever done was to decide to share all credits and all money for TMS evenly between the three of us, regardless of who did what on a particular song. It's a long game, and if you're writing 250 songs a year, as is the case with us, you're doing well if two of these songs become big records. It means it's like the Lotto, you never know what songs are going to make it. And because everything we do is so collaborative, with shared files for everything, it would be a nightmare to split things up any other way."