After unknown busker Tones and I teamed up with unknown producer Konstantin Kersting, she soon became very well known indeed!
In 2017, 24-year-old Australian Toni Watson was living out of a van and busking in Byron Bay. Two years later, as Tones and I, she has a number-one single in more than 30 countries. Discovered and managed by music lawyer Jackson Walkden-Brown, Watson spent the whole of 2018 busking and gigging, using her setup of Roland Go:Keys and Casio keyboards and a Boss RC300 Loop Station. As the crowds got bigger, Walkden-Brown teamed up with Lemon Tree Music, a management company with another former busker, Tash Sultana, on their roster.
Tones and I's first single, 'Johnny Run Away' was uploaded on February 15 of this year, immediately went viral, and ended up double platinum in Australia. The follow-up, 'Dance Monkey', was released on May 10, and gradually grew into a global phenomenon. By mid-November, the song had enjoyed its fifth week at number one in the UK, and its 15th in Australia.
The staggering success of 'Dance Monkey' hasn't only been life-changing for Watson, but also for her main producer, Konstantin Kersting. In his studio in Brisbane, Kersting engineered, produced and mixed both 'Johnny Run Away' and 'Dance Monkey' as well as two other songs on Tones and I's six-track debut EP.
Kersting's first taste of success in this genre was the song 'Better' by young Australian singer Mallrat. "I co-wrote that song with the artist and it became a breakthrough thing, because it was both my first foray into collaborative writing, and into electronic music production, where pretty much only the vocals are recorded, and the rest is programmed. When you record a band, most of the time you really are just a facilitator. You make sure your signal chains and gain staging are right, and you coach them during recording, but that's it. By contrast, co-writing can sometimes feel more creative and exciting. That song became quite successful in Australia, and from there I started working more with signed artists, mostly in the alternative pop genre."
Kersting's studio in Brisbane includes hardware instruments such as a Moog Voyager, Korg Minilogue, Behringer Model D, Fender Jazz Bass and Stratocaster, and quite a few pieces of outboard. Amongst them are an eight-channel SSL X‑Desk, an SSL X‑rack with four EQs and two preamps, Lynx Aurora 16, Apogee DA‑16X and Crane Song HEDD converters, UA LA3A, LA2A, 1176, Smart Research C2 and Drawmer 1968 compressors, Sound Workshop 262 spring reverb, Roland R880 digital reverb, Roland RE200 Space Echo, and an API Lunchbox with JLM 99V preamp, JLM LA500 compressor and PEQ500 equaliser.
"The studio definitely is a hybrid setup now," comments Kersting. "I have a few synths that I use heaps, like the Korg Minilogue, mostly for pads and twinkly things, and the Moog Voyager for bass and for classic lead sounds, and any weird, crazy arpeggios. Until recently I also had a Roland Juno in the studio, but I ended up getting rid of the latter, because the TAL plug-in version sounds pretty much the same and is less noisy. For bass I often use either the Model D or the Voyager, and/or an Arturia soft synth. My sounds in general are a blend of hardware and soft synths. I just like touching things every once in a while and not just clicking everything in. It might not necessarily sound better, but it makes me feel better about my job.
"I think it's also important that the artist actually plays some parts, wherever possible. Tones always played several parts in the tracks we worked on together. Many of these parts were not complicated, and we could have easily drawn them in, but I feel like it makes it more exciting to actually play them. It also gives you more of a human feel, because you get slightly different velocities on certain hits. In this super-perfect music world, people still like things that sound slightly more human. Playing things in also makes the artist feel more involved, and when they hear their track played somewhere, they think: 'I played that!' It is very important to me to make artists feel comfortable, and like they are part of making the song. You want to have the artist walk out with a song that they are really proud of, and I feel like you get that way more when the artist is in the room with you, rather than just presenting them with the finished track at the end of the production."
It was this artist-friendly hybrid setup that Toni Watson encountered when she entered Kersting's studio in late 2018. "Tones came in with a bunch of demos — about six of them. They were all based on the loop arrangements she had created as a busker. 'Johnny Run Away' was the first song we worked on, and this actually already had a demo that she had made with another producer. The demo was really great in terms of structure and overall vibe and gave us a good idea of where to take the track. We just ended up re-producing it all at my place with a more modern take on the overall production.
"By contrast, we started 'Dance Monkey' without a demo. She played me the song in the studio the way she played it live, with her busking arrangement, which was based on a few loops. I also had seen her Instagram video of her doing the song like that. Her busking version had that main eighth-note keyboard line, the kicks in the pre‑chorus, the four-to-the-floor kick in the drop, and the drop bass line. It was a pretty sparse arrangement, but it gave me a pretty good idea of where to go with the song, and how to turn it into a pop production that could go on the radio.
"The sounds that she used for her live show were really cool, but we did not use any of them for the final version. Improving on these sounds was one of the main aims of the production. Her original keyboard sounds worked well, so we tried to keep the sounds in a similar vein, but for example her bass sound was from her Casio keyboard, and instead we played the part in on the Voyager and the Model D. We also put in some extra parts, like 808s in the pre‑chorus, and we made sure the claps sounded really good. I ended up with five different kick sounds in the chorus, making sure the blend was right to get the right sound. In general, it was a matter of taking elements from the original demo, and then improve on them and create the dynamics and forward movement in the song."
Kersting paid particular attention to making the song build effectively. "I try to do that delayed gratification thing with most of my productions, with the last chorus being the biggest moment. I don't like it when every verse and every chorus are the same. Sometimes you have to give away more earlier on, but I love it when you can get a song to build like that, and the last chorus comes in and everyone goes: 'There it is!' You have to let the listener know that you're still with them, and are not just repeating loops, and that there's something different going on for each section of the song. If you give everything away right from the start, by the time you get to the last chorus, it can get a little boring.
"Most of the building of 'Dance Monkey' was done here in the studio. Tones' version was more or less the same all the way through. In the final version the first chorus has just a kick, the bass line and a snap, and the second pre‑chorus and chorus adds some more elements. The second chorus actually is a double chorus, with backing vocals and a guitar and keyboard entering, and the final chorus has big group vocals, guitars, keyboards, and so on. I was filling things out, and was really intent on giving that final push in the last chorus, adding things that she could not do with her Loop Station.
"The first thing we laid down was the piano, because it's the most important and driving part, and after that the beat, and then the bass part. I think we started with an actual piano sound, but we ended up changing that to a more synth-like sound, and used the Korg Minilogue for that. Toni played the main keyboard parts in and then I'd quantise these parts, and run them through whatever synth we felt was the best fit.
"The beat was next, and it was all programmed in on the computer. We started the kick and the claps and filled that out with details. Initially we had claps everywhere, but then I decided to scale that back, because it was too intense. Many of my drum samples are from a company called That Sound, in Nashville. I have all their stuff, and it's really cool. Some of my drum samples come from Splice.
"Once the beat felt good, we moved to the bass. Tones played it in, and I then locked it to a grid, making sure it still sounded human in terms of the velocities she had played. She played the part on my MIDI keyboard, and I then ran those parts through my Moog Voyager, Model D and a Moog bass sound from the Arturia Mini V‑3. It's an emulation of the Minimoog, and is part of their V5 synth collection. I also swung the bass in a particular way, making it a bit more jagged, and this turned out to be very important in terms of driving the song along. Once we had the bass sounding right, it was a big moment in the studio, even though it was still early in the day!"
The arrangement for 'Dance Monkey' sounds deceptively simple, but a lot of detail went into the programming. For example, Kersting eventually filled in and refined the keyboard arrangement to 19 tracks. "In addition to the main Korg Minilogue synth, there's a piano sample, which sounded a bit too much like a real grand piano, so I added an upright sample and a steel drum sound. I found that more exciting than just having a straight piano sound. In addition, there are tons of little keyboard parts, with pads entering in the second chorus, using sounds like from a Juno, and Solina, and Farfisa organs, plus some more contemporary touches like vocal chops. The pads are mostly playing the same parts, the odd different inversion aside. The idea is that all the different sounds make one cohesive sound together."
Most of the recording and production took place in a single day. "She was around for the whole day, and we were throwing ideas around and having a great time. I guess the main thing was to make the drop feel really good, make the bass line pump and make sure the kick sounds good. I mixed the song the next day, and that mix existed for a while, but then Tones had the idea of having the group vocals in the final chorus. She wanted her friends on the track, and also because she lives in a different place she recorded these group vocals locally, and sent them to me. I mixed them in, and after that there were a few recalls, with Tones each time saying, 'Turn up the group vocal!'"
It's very common these days to start the mix process during recording and production, often rendering the final mix an afterthought. Kersting is not fond of this approach. "I try to keep production and mixing separate. I obviously create a blend during production so I have an idea of the track, and there'll be some vocal effects and vocal throws and some basic EQ to make everything sound good. But that's it. Mixing is a totally separate process for me. I know people want rough mixes, but I kind of hate doing them, because you end up with demoitis, and are fighting the rough later on. It's nice to have lots of wiggle room for improvement when you get to do the actual mix!"
Because Kersting doesn't do any serious mixing during production, the first stage of his mix process involves getting his session mix-ready. "I go into a mix zone, mentally, and I print any software instruments that may still be in the session, make sure everything is organised in a way that makes sense to me visually, get all my buses in, and my aux effects, and so on. It really is a totally separate process for me. I have a template, but it's always changing, as does my master bus.
"When I first started mixing years ago, I did all sorts of crazy things in analogue, with splitting things out with crazy parallel compression, but the recall issue just became too frustrating. The more I'm doing, the more I'm moving away from outboard, though I could not do without my Roland Space Echo, which is a really cool piece of kit, or my Moog Voyager, which sounds awesome and no emulation of it is as good. And I love the C2 on the master bus. These are some of the key pieces of hardware that I continue to use."
The extremely well-organised Pro Tools mix session for Kersting's 'Dance Monkey' mix contains 116 tracks. Download a larger, hi-res screenshot to inspect. inside-track-0120-protools-hi-res-screenshot.jpg.zip His colour-coding scheme has most aux tracks coloured dark green; audio tracks for drums (top) are red, followed by bass (yellow), guitar (blue), keyboards (light green), backing vocals (pink), group backing vocals (pink-red) and lead vocals (purple). At the bottom of the session there are 20 more aux tracks, split into 10 aux effect tracks (again dark green), five vocal compression aux tracks, four group tracks for keys, drums/bass, guitars and backing vocals, and a master bus.
"All my buses are added as part of my mix process," explains Kersting. "I tend to do most of my processing on these buses, rather than on individual audio tracks, because I know that the listener is, for example, not going to listen to five separate kicks, but to a blend of all of them. Normally I'll only add plug-ins to individual tracks if there's something particular bothering me about them."