Reinvented by a little-known Norwegian production team, a song about not being famous any more made Mike Posner more famous than ever...
It’s the irony to end all ironies. In 2010, singer Mike Posner enjoyed a couple of hits, amongst them ‘Cooler Than Me’. In the same year his debut album 31 Minutes To Takeoff reached number 8 in the US. However, instead of taking off, his career as an artist stalled. Posner did co-write two big hits for others, Justin Bieber’s ‘Boyfriend’ (2012) and Maroon 5’s ‘Sugar’ (2014), but his label shelved two solo albums because the material on them supposedly wasn’t commercial enough. So Posner changed labels, and penned a rather sad, autobiographical ballad, ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ in which he takes a pill, feels 10 years older when coming down, warns people, “you don’t wanna be high like me,” calls himself “just a singer who already blew his shot,” and repeats: “You don’t want to be stuck on stage singing / All that I know are sad songs, sad songs”.
The song was dressed up in a relatively traditional, folky arrangement, featuring Posner’s voice and acoustic guitar, and his new record company was planning to release it as part of a four-track EP, which, it was widely assumed, would be a low-key affair. However, some bright spark ran the EP tracks past an obscure Norwegian production and remix duo, who spotted hitherto unrecognised potential in ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ and turned the song into a tropical house dance track. The resulting outlandish mashup of Scandinavian and tropical, electronic and folk became one of the best-selling singles of 2016. People the world over are happy to dance to it, and in some cases, one presumes, take pills to it, despite the cautionary lyrics.
As a result, a bemused Mike Posner found himself catapulted into the big time once again — as did the previously unknown Norwegian duo who reinvented ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’. Simen Eriksrud and Espen Berg are known as Seeb, after their initials; and the success of ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ was all the more momentous for Seeb because it occurred not long after a career change of their own. Berg had been working for 20 years as an engineer and producer, and also for a number of years as a mastering engineer. Eriksrud, who is, like Berg, originally from Trondheim, has a background in classical and jazz piano, and went on to make EDM. As of 2001, the two occasionally joined forces to produce other artists, and Eriksrud rented a room at Berg’s Living Room Studios. During the last four to five years they worked more consistently together as producers, and some of the songs they worked on became hits in Scandinavia. Then, about a year ago, they decided to stop producing other people’s music. “We got tired of working on endless single and album projects and doing the same thing every day. So we sat down and said, let’s do something completely different,” Berg recalled.
This was the birth of Seeb, and the duo’s aim was to use it as a vehicle for their own music. Remixing other people’s songs was initially intended to be purely a side activity. “We did some remixes just after we started Seeb,” Eriksrud begins, “just to have fun. To start with only an a cappella vocal is amazing. When we produced artists we could spend three days recording a vocal, and polishing and editing it. When we remix we start from the first moment with finished vocals, which are a really good starting point to be creative.”
Berg continues: “Our whole purpose was to skip the production process. One remix we did was for a girl called Keisza, who we had met while travelling in the UK and the US during the last three years, when we were out there getting into the business and connecting with music industry people, writers, artists and record companies.”
Eriksrud: “The ‘Ibiza’ track came to us via our label, Island New York, who asked us whether we wanted to remix one or more of the four songs on Mike’s EP, so they sent us the Pro Tools sessions of all four songs.”
Berg: “The label at that moment did not realise that ‘Ibiza’ was a potential hit. Neither did we, by the way. But when we heard it, we immediately thought that the vocal line and lyric were very interesting. When you hear the opening line [‘I took a pill in Ibiza / To show Avicii I was cool’] you’re thinking: ‘What the hell is this? I have to hear what this guy has been up to!’ It initially sounds like a parody, but then eventually you realise that it’s about a real experience and that it’s heartfelt, and it really changes your perspective.”
Oddly enough, though perhaps not so odd in the context of a generally very odd project, neither Eriksrud nor Berg listened to the original version of the song all the way through. Berg: “I loaded the entire Pro Tools session into Ableton Live and started listening, and after about 30 seconds I said to myself, ‘No! I have to get rid of the rest of the session, because it sounds so good.’ Martin Terefe [the Swedish producer of the original version, fitting in nicely with the Scandinavian theme of this story] did a great job, and to be able to do something different, we just had to move away from it immediately.”
Eriksrud: “It is very important when you remix a song that you don’t make it sound like a pimped-up version of the original. By the way, we tried to remix some of the other EP songs as well, but that did not work, so we just focused on the ‘Ibiza’ song.”
Seeb like to take the most drastic possible approach to remixing: they remove all original instrumentation, leaving only the vocals, and reimagine entirely different instrumental backings, even with different chord structures. They reinvented Shawn Mendes’ ‘Stitches’ and Coldplay’s ‘Hymn For The Weekend’ in this fashion, but their reimagining of ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ is arguably even more radical, as Seeb also dramatically altered the song’s tempo, something that was technically impossible until not so long ago.
Berg: “Yes, it’s not remixing, really. We try to completely rethink the original song and present it in the way we see and hear it. We stopped producing because we had to present the song in the way the artist wants it, and if we changed it too much, people got annoyed, and sometimes upset. But we really wanted to take someone else’s art and create new art from that. Also, remixing traditionally does not focus on the vocals; instead, it’s all about showcasing what the remixer can do with the music and with effects. But because of our background as pop producers, we wanted to honour the vocals, and make the background fit the vocals. You can hear in our version of the ‘Ibiza’ song that the vocals are always the central focus.”
Eriksrud: “After we took off the backing tracks we had these amazing vocals by Mike Posner, who has a really natural voice, with a very natural presence, so you can really hear the lyrics. We started out by putting a couple of simple synthesizer sounds behind his voice, but then we realised that the tempo was too slow for anyone to dance to. The original tempo was 74bpm, so we moved it up 5bpm, and then another 5bpm, and eventually all the way up to 102bpm. It still felt a bit slow, but the vocals now had this weird vibrato that we liked. Ableton made it sound natural enough, so we decided on 102. After we changed the tempo we started messing with the harmony, and created the basic harmonic structure for our version. We never start with the drums. We only work on the drums once we have a proper melody and harmonic feel for the song.”
Berg: “We like tempos around 100bpm, or maybe a little faster. Right now that’s where all these tropical house people are. We don’t think in terms of musical style, though, we just think in terms of melody and harmony, which for us are number one. If there’s one thing that sums up the way we have been working for the last 10 years it’s our focus on harmony. We work until we have a few places where the song gives us goose bumps, and in that we try to have this balance between melancholic and uplifting. It’s like a duality, typical of how we are in Scandinavia. We have these dark and depressing winters, and then in the summer the sun never goes down, and we almost go crazy. It’s probably why we like using minor chords that are uplifting at the same time. The melancholic vibe actually resonates with people, and gives them a good feeling.”
Eriksrud adds that the vibe was to some degree created through, “what people call ‘art by accident’. You play around with sounds and samples and suddenly you get something that sounds special and that you would otherwise never have been able to create yourself, certainly not if you’re working with a mouse and QWERTY keyboard. Ableton invites you to connect to it with a MIDI keyboard, and to play. You can of course draw the notes in, but we never work like that. We like to play. But you don’t need to be a great player. I’m a trained keyboard player, and was amazed when I first saw Espen create new, strange sounding things, even though he’s not a good keyboard player.”
Berg: “I know that lots of young people draw notes on a MIDI piano roll, and sometimes they’re very creative and create new chords and melodies, but I think you need to play an instrument to some degree. We use MIDI keyboards, and the Ableton Push 2, and that makes you play things differently. In the ‘Ibiza’ track, Simen started to play what we call these plucked sounds behind the vocal, with his left hand, so they sound a little bit weirder.”
Eriksrud: “If I use my right hand it often gets too complicated, as in: ‘Here comes a keyboard solo!’ I have learned to keep it simple. We tried these plucked sounds to see if we could get some kind of riffy part behind the vocals, like an engine that drives it.”
The “plucked sounds” play the rhythmic keyboard part that enters underneath the vocals right at the beginning of the song. As Seeb explain, these form the backbone of their arrangement, and contribute to the dream-like, trippy quality of the track. Berg: “The plucked sound consists of one sound from Native Instruments’ Massive and one from D16’s LuSH-101, the Roland SH-101 emulation. Espen played one part and I played the other, and we both played slightly different melodies, that combine in a musical way. They were a little off in places, but in a way that sounded good. The dream-like quality comes to a large degree from the harmonic movement between these parts. We’re always searching for the perfect and most emotional chord structure, and mess with layers of chords and layers of melodies. When it works it leads to something trippy and transcendent.”
Eriksrud: “We quantised the plucked sounds, with about 40 percent swing. We then added a couple of pads, from [reFX] Nexus VST, to enhance the chords, and then a bass sound from the OB-Xd Oberheim emulation plug-in. It’s all about playing new sounds and parts on top of each other, and mixing them together until you find a good balance. Again, it’s about trial and error. I read about that approach in the Inside Track on Spike Stent [www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb10/articles/it_0210.htm], and it stuck in my mind. So we often just try out stuff. The sounds themselves, of course, are as important as the parts. If you just worked on a piano, it wouldn’t have the same feel. So we have these electronic sounds, and combine two or three or four, and that inspires us and gives us something new. There was a Norwegian artist who said a pop song is like a sausage: it tastes good, but you don’t want to know what’s inside it. If you listen to some of the sounds we use alone, they won’t be impressive, and can even be cheesy. It’s the combination of sounds, and also the plug-ins that we put on, that turns them into something new.”
Berg: “We use many soft synths and samplers for our sounds, U-He’s Diva and the LuSH-101 being particular favourites. After the pads and the bass we added a keyboard acoustic guitar and some samples from Kontakt, like an mbira, a Celtic harp, and finally a marimba at the end, which all enhance the rhythmic feel. We often find samples from weird sample libraries that nobody uses, and we also get some samples from splice.com, which is a great site. During our many years in production, we collected a huge sound library which got bigger and bigger, and in the end we just got rid of most of it. We now just try to keep a simple library, with only some of the sounds that we like from before. There is no point taking a whole day to go through a kick drum library. You will probably have a kick drum that will work within the first 20 that you audition. Nobody cares, as long as it sounds cool. Many people try to do things very complex, but it can be done very simple.”
Eriksrud: “We programmed the drums last. The great thing about the plucked sound, and some of the other sounds that we used, is that they’re very percussive, which is why we could keep the drums very simple. We had a kick drum, a tambourine, some claps, just simple stuff. If you listen to the first drop [starting at 0:57], it’s just the kick drum and a clap, because there’s so much rhythm going on in the keyboards. In general we like to use percussive keyboard sounds so we can keep the drums simple. There’s no snare in this song at all, for example.”
Berg: “We tried to change things every eight bars, bringing in tiny elements to notch things up a bit. When the percussion comes in in the repeat of the drop, it takes it to another level. It’s a Dr Luke trick to add a tambourine or something like that in the second eight bars.”
Containing just 34 tracks, the Ableton Live project for Seeb’s remix of ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ is small by modern standards. The session is very tidily laid out, with vocals at the top, then drums, then music and effect tracks. Each of these categories is sent to group tracks called Vox, Drums, Music and FX, and all groups apart from Vox are sent to a Music bus. Both the Music bus and the Vox group go to the Master bus, and plug-ins are applied at every level.
- Vocals: Ableton Live warping, EQ Eight & Compressor; Antares Auto-Tune; 2C Audio B2; Plug-in Alliance Maag EQ; Brainworx BX_dynEQ v2.
Eriksrud: “As we mentioned before, Mike’s vocal sounded great, and we took it from 74 to 102 bpm for danceability and more of a trippy vibe, and then we added a cool reverb and a couple of other things, and it sounded amazing. We did not have to put on layers and layers of sound to compensate for the fact that the singer is not good.”
Berg: “We worked in the [Ableton Live] Sample box to speed up the vocals, setting it to Warp, and then we could mess around with the tempo. You can see the original tempo of the vocal, and to be able to play it at 102bpm we enabled the Pro way of working, and we set the Formant correction to 100, and the Envelope to 128. The Sample box is a really powerful tool in Ableton which allows you to warp audio in a very natural way. If you want, you can even pitch it up four or five semitones, and it still sounds natural in a cool way.
“Because we changed the tempo so much, the vocal did sound a little shaky, so we added [Antares] Auto-Tune to control that a little bit. After that we had the Ableton EQ Eight, to take out low end below 100Hz and emphasise the mid range, and then we had the 2C B2 reverb, set to a ‘Cascade Space’ setting. The reverb was also on the insert, because we side-chained it. When the vocal stops, you still hear the reverb tail, and we side-chained that to the trigger track, which is a four-to-the-floor bass drum track which we muted, but side-chained many elements of the track to. So the reverb tails pump along with the rhythm of the track, which adds to the chill-out vibe. After that we had the Ableton compressor, which is one of Ableton’s best plug-ins, and then the Plug-in Alliance Maag EQ, because we like its air band function. It adds air at 40kHz, which no-one can hear, of course, but it nonetheless brings something out in the top band. The last plug-in in the insert chain is the Brainworx BX_dynEQ v2, with which we lowered a harsh peak at 4626Hz. We use the v2 all the time on vocals to notch out difficult frequencies. There also are some backing vocals, which came from the original session. All vocals are combined in the Vox group, but we did not add plug-ins on that, and there isn’t a separate Vocal bus, because the vocals already sounded really good. We didn’t want to overdo it.”
- Drums: Ableton Live EQ & reverb.
Eriksrud: “Once again, the drums are very simple. In general we try to keep things simple and limit the amount of tracks we use, because we learned the hard way, as producers, that as you put more and more instruments in your track, it will eventually sound smaller and smaller. So there’s a bass drum, the trigger track, which you don’t hear, a percussion track, two loops, an ‘Effects GRP’ track which is a drum loop that we took from another song of ours, a few fills, and a percussion verse track.”
Berg: “There weren’t many plug-ins on the drums, just a three-band EQ on the bass drum, so we could filter out the high and low end in transitions, and we have high-pass filters on some of the sounds, to get rid of some rumble. There’s an Ableton reverb on the tambourine, and for the rest, basically nothing. It’s in part because the samples that we use already have reverb and EQ on them.”
Eriksrud: “We like samples that sound good, not that need 10 plug-ins to sound good!”
- Music: iZotope Ozone 5; SoundToys Echo Boy & Filter Freak; Ableton EQ Eight, Simpler, Compressor & Saturator; PSP Noble EQ; Waves Renaissance Bass; Audio Damage EOS.
Berg: “There also are relatively few plug-ins on the most of the individual samples and synth sounds. The LuSH-101 half of the plucked sound has the iZotope Ozone 5, while the Massive sound is an ‘Electric Lead’ guitar, which we treated with an Echo Boy delay and the EQ Eight. We always struggle to get enough bass in our tracks, so the OB-Xd bass sound does have a lot of treatments, starting with the Ableton EQ Eight, to boost the low end, and it’s also side-chained to the trigger track. That helps us to notch out a few milliseconds of the attack of the bass to make space for the attack from the kick. Then there’s the PSP Noble EQ, which is Simen’s favourite EQ plug-in. It’s a kind of Pultec-like EQ, which boosts at 80Hz, and then we also have the Waves RBass.”
The drop that Eriksrud earlier mentioned in passing has become Seeb’s most famous addition to Posner’s song — indeed, when the singer now performs the song live, he bases himself on Seeb’s version, at roughly the same tempo, with Seeb’s song structure and chords, and with the saxophone playing Seeb’s drop melody, or simply a backing track playing the plucked sounds and the drop.
That drop has been the source of much speculation, particularly the melody sound, as Berg explains: “The most important part of the music is the drop hook, about which we have been getting emails and questions online, and we’ve even seen a tutorial on it! In fact, it’s very simple, it’s just the Ableton new Simpler plug-in warping and looping a sample of Mike Posner’s voice singing ‘I know’. The Simpler is a basic version of Ableton’s sampler that can treat just one sound at a time, and it has some really cool warping functions, including pitch bends that keep the formant correct, so you can warp the audio in all kinds of directions and you can also automate the loop points. We cut off the beginning of the sample, and have the loop set to ‘snap’ and the warp to 88 percent. After that it goes through the Ableton compressor, then the Ableton EQ Eight, taking out low end below 100Hz and boosting the high mids, and then a SoundToys Echo Boy, an Audio Damage EOS reverb, and finally another Ableton compressor, which is side-chained to the trigger track.”
Eriksrud: “Side-chaining is the current sound in dance music. Almost everything is side-chained in this track, and if we took it all off, it would sound really weird. EDM also needs a drop: if it doesn’t have one, it’s not EDM. For us it was fun to create a drop that’s a completely new section to this song. We like to mess with the vocal in general, and we came across this way of doing it, which to us sounded a little unusual. We did it on a few songs, and people are responding to it very strongly. We now get requests all the time from people to do remixes of their tracks, and include this kind of drop, but it’s basically really simple to do it. It just involves the Ableton Simpler.”
Berg: “The moment I realised the drop worked was when I played to my sons, and the oldest, who is nine, was just rolling around with laughter when he heard it, and said: ‘Dad, this is crazy, you can’t put this in that the song!’”
Eriksrud: “So the drums go to a Drums group, and all the music parts go the Music group, and the latter group has the Ableton compressor, side-chained, of course, and two SoundToys Filter Freaks, which make the beginning of the song a little darker — it’s a simple DJ trick — and the Ableton Saturator to make everything sound a bit more saturated and gritty the moment the drop comes in. You can hear it distorting. We like it, because it gives the song some edge. At the bottom of the session are the FX tracks, which are sweeps and crashes, to give it a more electronic dance feel. We don’t have any plug-ins on the FX tracks, apart from the Ableton compressor, again for side-chaining.”
Berg: “The Drums, Music and FX groups all go to the Music bus, because of the way we were used to working with the SSL. We like to have a Music bus at the end before the master bus. It gives us the option to add more processing to the music without over-processing the vocals. If you treat everything in the master bus it is easy to overdo it, and you can strangle the music. In this case we have the Ozone 5 on the Music bus, which does several different things using multi-band dynamics, making it sound more musical.”
- Master bus: Ableton Glue; iZotope Ozone 5; U-he Satin; Slate Digital FG-X.
Berg: “Because we are all the time mixing while working, we also all the time send everything to the master bus. Because I worked as a mastering engineer, this is very interesting to me, but we also try to keep it as simple as possible, so we actually have to work a bit harder at the mix itself to make it sound good. But without the master bus treatments it would sound a little bit dull. We have quite a few treatments on the master bus, namely Ableton’s Glue compressor, which is an SSL 4000 clone, iZotope Ozone 5, the U-he Satin tape machine, which adds some tape compression, and another Ozone only applying EQ, and finally the Slate Digital FG-X limiter. The Ozone has become the standard for a lot of electronic music, it adds a special sound that we like. The Slate doesn’t do that much, but brings the sound together a bit more. I have every limiter in plug-in format that there is, and this still is my favourite. We don’t use it so much to make it louder, because Ableton itself allows you to clip the outputs of the master bus quite heavily without creating audible artifacts. We find it a bit of a weird mystery and wonder whether it has some in-built limiter. But it sounds good and very natural, so we use it.”
After its release in July 2015, Seeb’s version of ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ inititally did nothing at all. But then it was put on a playlist on Spotify, and soon it was hitting 200,000 streams a day in Scandinavia. From there it gradually spread around the world, exceeding 2 million sales in the US and more than half a million sales in the UK. Apparently it reached the top 10 in 27 countries. Eriksrund notes: “We wouldn’t be where we are today without Spotify.”
In addition, not only did the Ibiza tourist office get upset about the drug reference in the song, but Seeb also had to make some weird tweaks to the lyrics for some territories. Eriksrud: “We had to do two clean versions of the song, one for the US, for which we had to take out the f-word, and one for the UK, and either New Zealand or Australia, for which we could keep the word ‘fuck’, but had to replace the word ‘pill’ with ‘plane’.”
Mike Posner will doubtlessly have noted the irony of these local guardians of so-called good taste and civility, just like many others, totally missing the anti-drugs message of his lyrics. What has been impossible to miss, though, is the millions of people that have listened, and danced, to the Seeb-enhanced music.
Both Seeb members repeatedly emphasise the importance of simplicity, a philosophy which also extends to the gear they use, and quite strikingly so. Espen Berg: “I have been in this place since 1999. I called it Living Room Studios because when I moved in it had a living-room feeling, and was a hang-out place for DJs. We’re at the top of a three-storey building in a secluded area of Oslo, with bars and restaurants in the street, so we can work 24 hours a day. There are several rooms here, and I rented out some of the rooms, including to Simen, who eventually became a partner in the studio. Five years ago I built a completely new studio here, with properly designed, acoustically treated rooms, which was quite costly and perhaps not the best investment I have ever made. The studio had a 3.5m wide, 56-channel, SSL 4000 G-series and tons of outboard.”
Simen Eriksrud: “Espen in particular was very involved in the technical side, even building his own compressors and other outboard. But because we had so much gear, we spent more time servicing it than creating music.”
Berg: “We came to the realisation that we were not only getting bogged down in production work, but also in technical stuff. So over a year ago we got rid of all the equipment, and went completely ‘in the box’. It felt really good to get rid of all the outboard that I’d been collecting for years, and suddenly have the freedom to do everything on a laptop that you can carry around. It freed up so much creative energy that ideas came popping out.”
Eriksrud and Berg currently rent out two of the four rooms at Living Room Studios, and retain the two others for themselves. The gear in Eriksund’s room is as 21st Century as it gets, with just a laptop, Yamaha NS10 monitors with a KRK S12 sub, a Benchmark DAC1 D-A converter, Avid S3 DAW controller, SPL 2Control monitor controller, Akai MPK249 and MPK88 MIDI keyboards and the Ableton Push 2, and for the occasional bit of audio recording, a Miktec CV4 mic, BAE 1073MPF mic pre and Tube-Tech CL1B compressor.
Berg’s room has a couple of Dynaudio BM15A monitors, and, he says, “I have a few analogue synths, like the Nord Lead 3, a Moog Sub Phatty and a Prophet 6, and I also have the Push 2 and a Focusrite Clarett Thunderbolt I/O. I’m very happy with that, but since we sold everything, we don’t put much focus any more into audio gear. Before that we were crazy, comparing 0.1dB differences between gear, but now we’re trying forget about all that. If it sounds good, it sounds good. The only thing that really concerns us is low latency. When I worked as a mastering engineer, I got myself some ATC SL50 Pro monitors, which were amazing. But I sold them not so long ago, because when you work on speakers like that, you’re constantly depressed. It never sounds as good!”
Ericsrud, “I think we were focusing too much on the sonics with the ATCs. You first have to work on the fun of creating chord structures and melodies, and then later you tweak for the sonics.”
The one exception to Seeb’s current shoulder-shrugging attitude towards gear is their use of Ableton Live. Eriksrud: “Ableton gives you the tools to be creative and have a lot of fun. We also have Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, we’ve used everything. But in Cubase, for example, doing anything is a big process, with lots of menus and lots of complicated settings, and then after a while the creative energy is gone. And then you go and take a coffee, and you still have not done anything. With Ableton everything is immediate. You think and you act, and in two seconds it is done. There are no limitations, it encourages you to mess around with the tempo, the pitches, and other things, so quickly. Although it is easy to do automation in Ableton, we maybe prefer Pro Tools for mixing, and if we were to mix a song someone sent us, we might do it in Pro Tools. But our sessions don’t have so many tracks, so they are really easy to mix. We also mix while we write and program, so there would be no point in transferring one of our sessions to Pro Tools and mixing it again. If we can do everything in one program, it’s so much easier.”