What do you think of Dua Lipa

Ian Kirkpatrick produces Don’t Start Now for Dua Lipa

by Paul Tingen; Translation: Matthias Fuchs,

“Quite a few people actually believe that pop is inferior music. I, on the other hand, believe that this is the most interesting and also the most mysterious music of all, «says Ian Kirkpatrick, one of the hottest pop music composers and producers around the world. "Why? Because you can make an incomparable number of people happy with it! "

"And the key to this is and will remain a riddle," he continues. »Of course there are people like Max Martin who offer you recipes for hits and are certainly not entirely wrong. Nevertheless, you keep stumbling over things that make a hit, but which should never have worked according to the recipe. A pop hit remains an unsolved mystery - a totally crazy and fascinating thing ... "

In fact, Ian has only recently made a lot of people happy - namely as the man behind Dua Lipa's megahit Don’t Start Now, number 1 in nearly a dozen countries and represented in the top ten of several dozen countries. Ian is also responsible for the success of Dua Lipa's 2017 MeeToo anthem New Rules. In addition, his portfolio includes credits for songwriting and production with artists such as Selena Gomez, Jason Derulo, Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas and many more.

Given his impressive and extensive credit list, one would think Ian Kirkpatrick writes hits in no time - far from it: “I never thought what kind of hard work pop music is. At the beginning of my career, Mike Caron from APG Music sent me about a ton of A Capellas by Jason Derulo with the request to produce a track with them. For a whole two years I kept making new attempts - all of them were rejected. But that's exactly why I became obsessive about the matter. I kept asking myself why my stuff doesn't sound as good as what you hear on the radio. I was sure that the reason had to be found in me.

Whenever you've reached a new career level, you think, now you've got it right. In reality, however, you start all over again - surrounded by new competitors who are just as good at it. When you finally have a song in the charts, your new competitors also all have songs in the charts. So I developed a plan B: To be on the safe side, I continued to earn my living programming websites and recording local bands. Together with my manager (Dan Petel from This Is Noise) I continued to obsessively search for the reason why my songs were consistently rejected. Even after I signed a contract with Warner Chappell, that didn't really change that much at first. We were really good losers for a long time - until one day the knot finally burst ... "

From drums to computers to pop songs. That Ian's desire to get into the world of pop charts was downright obsessive seems all the more strange given that for a long time he himself did not have a high opinion of chart pop. Ian's world revolved around avant-garde electronics by artists such as Aphex Twin, Autechre or Squarepusher. Apparently, however, there have been some moments of enlightenment with regard to the perception of pop music. One of them is said to have happened at the age of 15, according to Ian - exactly ten years after he made his first musical steps as a drummer:

“A friend played me an Aphex Twin CD one day and I was blown away! Back then I had no idea what kind of sounds you could make with computers. I played in bad, unknown bands and as a drummer I had no influence on the music. If the music sucks, then it stayed sucks. Even then, I was a bit of a computer nerd - without money, but at least equipped with ambitions and a PC. I got myself a package of music software, all of which were cracked, and enjoyed the new feeling of now having unrestricted control over my musical output. I quickly got into things and started making beats. Together with my current manager Dan, I soon set up a small studio.

Despite my affinity for beats and computers, I still saw myself entirely as a traditional producer in traditional studio sessions. So in my early twenties I worked with numerous alternative rock bands, did pre-productions, etc. In 2010 I even had a hit with a band called Plain White T's (Rhythm of Love) and the following year with Breathe Carolina (Blackout), whereupon Mark Wilson (A&R Director Pop / Rock at Warner Chappell; editor's note) had me sign with Warner Chappell.

At that moment, the world of a paid pop songwriter opened up for me. Mark put me in sessions with tons of songwriters. It took a few more years, until 2015 to be more precise, until I finally hit the bull's eye with Jason Derulo's Want To Want Me. After that the phone didn't stand still ...

What drives me now is the idea that a song can really please everyone. I believe I can write songs that everyone can enjoy. I also got offers to produce songs under my name as an artist / producer - for example ›Ian Kirkpatrick featuring Dua or Selena‹. To do this, however, I would have had to commit myself to my very own sound and image in the long term. And I had no idea what that might have looked like. Disco or maybe more electronic like Daft Punk? No idea. I am fascinated by the idea that countless people really like my songs. This is completely new to me and an extremely delightful and satisfying thing! "

Especially Cubase

Ian Kirkpatrick lives and works in Tarzana, Los Angeles. His studio is in a converted bedroom in the house he bought two years ago. »Originally I wanted to convert the garage into a studio. But apparently I felt more at home in the bedroom. The affinity to bedroom studios probably still depends on me ...

I work with Mac, Cubase and an Apollo 16 audio interface as well as Barefoot Sound MM27 monitors. My outboard rack is not always in use, but it is quite well equipped. There is a Shadow Hills The Equinox for summing and monitoring, two BAE 1084 Mic-Pres, an Empirical Labs Distressor, a Thermionic Culture Vulture as well as a GML 9500 Mastering EQ and the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor. I also use a Kemper Profiler modeling amp for guitars. Incidentally, sometimes I mute unused guitar strings with slightly incised earplugs - so I can concentrate fully on the two strings that are being played.

Most of the time I work on the computer and keep things as simple as possible. Less is more. I'm totally into Cubase and have been working with it since version SX3. In the cracked software era, I tried Acid first, then Reason - which, like Ableton Live, I still use. Even then, I made friends with Cubase. Today it's my favorite DAW. Cubase has become another part of the body, so to speak. It offers features that I haven't found in any other DAW. This includes the slide function - really difficult to describe, but totally useful! Editing is wonderfully quick. It's like flying. The media bay for managing samples is also great. Although my sample library is now 400 GB, I can find the samples I want very quickly with the Media Bay. I don't know of any DAW that can offer something similar.

I had an opportunity to meet the Cubase developers. I was impressed by their claim to constantly come up with new and crazy features. Of course, this doesn't always work without bugs. Nevertheless, I would much prefer a manufacturer who keeps reinventing their product than one who relies solely on stability. Cubase is very reliable to work with, and I love its new features. If you have familiarized yourself well, you will hardly encounter any limitations. I can implement my ideas immediately. It was only difficult when Cubase did not yet have any playlists, here called track lists. After Ableton finally introduced this feature, the other manufacturers followed suit - fortunately, because I couldn't get along without playlists.

Reason is one of the software products that I also use. His synth still has a unique sound. I also like the effects. I use Reason as a plug-in with Cubase and Ableton Live. Live always works a little differently than Cubase. The sampler, for example, has some really crazy functions for cut-ups and for finding transients. Sometimes I start songs with a certain sound concept in Ableton, but in the end everything is done with Cubase - right down to the stems for the mix engineer.

I also use Native Instruments Reaktor. Kontakt is also a great sampler with tons of sample editing options. Razor is my favorite bass synth. I also really like the Arturia synths as well as Roland's Cloud Juno and Jupiter 8. I have tons of software instruments, including Massive, Addictive Drums, Addictive-Keys, Omnisphere, GForce M-Tron, Reason and Battery, the latter mainly for drum programming without a timeline. "

Fig. 01: The lion's share of the extremely groovy bass sound, which almost alone carries the verses together with the drums, is made up of the Scarbee MM-Bass from NI Kontakt.
Fig. 02: The vocals are compressed three times differently and put together again in snippets as required.
Fig. 03: The Xfer LFO Tool is used to modulate lead vocal and reverb. The modulation strength is shown in the automation tracks (above).

Co-writing

Ian works in his studio either alone or with selected co-writers: “Over time, it becomes clear with whom it works best. That's why I mostly work with the same people. These include Caroline Furoyen and Emily Schwartz. You make a good team. Don’t Start Now was created with them. Emily was also involved in New Rules. Selena Gomez ’Look At Her Now and Bad Liar were created with Julia Michaels and Justin Trenter - these two are also a great team. Over time you find out who is most likely to be eligible for which songs.

Sometimes I do writing camps. In this way I can get to know numerous new authors in a short time and find out who I would like to work with in the future. Writing camps are a bit like speed dating. You are in a room with people you have just met. A maximum of ten minutes later you talk about your most radical experiences and try to write a song about them. It can get very intense quickly - one of the reasons why I try to work with the same people as often as possible.

New Rules was also created in such a writing camp. However, the A & R’s didn't like him, and so he failed. Finally, my manager emailed Dua's A&R and asked, “What do you think of this?” Dua came over later and changed a few things on the song. You occasionally write songs into the blue - some fit and some don't. Then you have to rework. But usually when you write a song you have a certain artist in focus. It was the same with Dua and her Don’t Start Now.

Usually we write the songs in the absence of the artist. It is easier for us if we complete one variant and only then try the next one, and so on. Of course there are exceptions. So Selena Gomez was present on all the songs I wrote with her. Artists like Selena and Dua have strong personalities - without Dua's voice and her presence, Don’t Start Now would not have been what it has become. "

Basics for Don't Start Now

»A not inconsiderable part of my studio work consists of playing track suggestions to artists. Not all artists like this - some can quickly feel blocked if they don't like the tracks. You have to be a little careful. Selena Gomez's Look At Her Now didn't work right away either, because she wanted something with more speed. So I pulled a beat with a snippet of vocal out of the drawer. I had already offered it to other artists, but without success. So I was really excited. Lo and behold - both Selena and Julia liked him. Thank God…!

Don’t Start Now began at Emily Warren’s Wyoming home. At first we didn't get anything useful. After all, it was probably a pretty crazy club night that made the difference. A couple of piano chords - since I'm a pretty bad pianist, I like to use some plug-in tools such as Scaler or Xfer CtHulu Chords - and Emily and Caroline were able to contribute their ideas. Later I added drums and the bassline. Incidentally, basslines are my favorite pastime. In this case it was a stylistic mix of daft punk and old Euro-House DJs such as Alan Braxe, Fred Falke and Cassius. So the song is not really influenced by disco, but rather by these European funky basslines. «

The YouTube video for Don’t Start Now has an amusing comment. It means that the bassline is the only one in the video with more sex than Dua Lipa ... The bassline actually sounds very sexy and gives the impression that it was recorded by a real bassist. When asked about this, Ian laughs and explains: »The main bass sound was created with the Scarbee MM-Bass plug-in (see Fig. 01). I recorded and edited the part on the keyboard. Underneath there is a sub-bass, which is cross-faded with a slap bass in the drop. The latter is a Trilian patch and a thumb bass.

Strings can be heard towards the end of the song. They are a mixture of Kontakt session strings and a weird Nexus 1970s string patch - all mixed together and supplemented with live strings. "

complete package

Many songwriters and producers pass their work on to the artist or to additional producers at a certain point. Others, including Ian Kirkpatrick, prefer to stay on the ball throughout the entire production process. “Maybe it's because I use a different DAW than most LA producers, maybe I'm just a control freak - the sure thing is that I do I'm happy to be involved in all phases of production, at least before the song is passed on to the mix engineer. I like the timing and tuning-related fine-tuning in Cubase, and I like getting things done. It makes me happy to have finished all of my successful songs on my own.

Usually I also record and produce the vocals. Dua enjoys recording with me and using my Telefunken 251 or occasionally my Shure SM7. She sang most of the current vocals with the SM7 - held in her hand. Of course, I also get recordings from other artists. I then basically ask about all the takes, because no matter how good the first one delivered may be, I like to have several options.

For my vocal recordings, I like to advise singers to give maximum emotion and not pay too much attention to their intonation. I can optimize the intonation afterwards, but of course not the emotions. The artists should not just present texts, but really convey a story in a believable way. Only then can the listener identify with the artist, and only then does good pop music emerge. When the recordings are finished, I first compress them and then pack everything into Melodyne. I use both Melodyne and Autotune. Working with Melodyne is really a bit like playing God - you have so many opportunities to influence! «

After finishing the vocal recordings for Don’t Start Now, Ian spent the next two weeks finishing the song. That also included a high quality rough mix. After that, the stems were sent to mix engineer Josh Gudwin. “After Dua sang her vocals, I perceived the song differently and we decided to make some changes. So, Dua's A&R, Joe Kentish, decided the bridge would sound more like an afterthought, and he was right. A snippet of vocal, inserted into the bridge, helped. In addition, the drums of the first version didn't sound fat enough. I thought it would make the song sound too classic, too much like disco. Something was missing for the perfect mix of old and new. I was inspired by the really fat drums in The Weekends I Can’t Feel My Face and put a few more drums under my track. "

Detail work

With almost 100 tracks, Ian Kirkpatrick's Rough Mix by Don’t Start Now is quite extensive, especially since numerous tracks have already been downmixed. »There was a separate project for the chords before the drop because I couldn't decide on the right combination of piano and synths. For this part, I initially had about 25 different sounds, of which I combined four and finally reloaded them into the main project. Usually, but not always, I print MIDI parts for the mix.In this session everything is rendered except for the sub-kick MIDI part. This is a contact sound with an additional low-end.

I tend to tinker with a rough mix forever and try things out. My favorite plug-ins include the Universal Audio LA-3A and Oeksound Soothe. I often use the latter for de-eating. It's really incredibly good there. I'm also a fan of the Xfer OTT multiband compressor. You can start it up vigorously, but small doses also work very well. I often use it to brighten sounds a little or to remove annoying, mid-range frequencies.

What better reverb than the Valhalla Vintage Reverb? For me this is the absolute best reverb and I use it all the time. His shimmer reverb is great too. Crazy things can be done with it - such as rendering and then editing with time correction. Some of the Abbey Road Hall plug-ins are really great too. And I still like Reason's old reverb, too.

I react quite sensitively when mix engineers add reverb afterwards, because I like working with the stereo field and want these effects to be retained. There aren't that many parameters that you can use to add dynamism to a song. There is the volume, the sonic brightness, and there is the stereo field. So sometimes I want a chorus to puff out. Or I leave the drums mono at a certain point in order to make them wider. And it can be a great contrast effect if you suddenly cut off a reverb tail: the listener gets used to the room and suddenly - nothing more! That means immediate attention. I pay close attention to how my reverb tails are placed and when my delays end.

It was once planned to do the final mixing in our studio. That's the main reason I own the Shadow Hills parts. Today I'm glad I have these devices and occasionally use the mastering compressor to level out a mix. Just like the Culture Vulture, I then switch the Shadow Hills into an insert. This little teenage engineering OP1 synth is also interesting. Sometimes I use it to distort sounds. In addition, almost everything happens in the computer. Of course, I could also achieve very nice distortions with the Culture Vulture, but in the end I use plug-ins like FabFilter Saturn or iZotope Trash.

If I am satisfied with the rough mix, I send the stems to the mixer. Most of the time, the mixers get all of my work, including the effects, but as separate stems. I only send dry files on request. The fact that nobody else works with Cubase has its good points: I give access to everything that could possibly be improved. Things that I attach particular importance to, however, I withdraw from a further processing option - such as the stereo effects mentioned above. This gives me a great deal of control over my work. I think that is essential, because the line between musical arbitrariness and genius is a very fine line - and I want to determine my own path as far as possible. I'm also obsessed with the desire to hand in a job that feels perfect for me. "

bass

»The Scarbee bass is on the first track, which is doubled with other sounds depending on the part. 'Bb-slap' is from a Trillian patch. ›Bbsecondprebass‹ is a drone note for the hook. Below is the sub-bass - it is a copy of the main bass, but tuned an octave lower. Since there are no subharmonics available in the Scarbee, I added those with NI Reaktor in the subbass. That makes the sound a bit bolder. ›Trill‹ in the pre-chorus is also a Trillian sound, with which I wanted to get away from the disco thing in favor of a 90s vibe. There is an Xfer LFO tool on the bass bus. Ducking is generated via kick and sidechain. The FabFilter Pro-C2 provides a slight compression. «

Vocal chop signal chain

»The Sound Toys Little Alter Boy shifts the formants of the vocal samples down, making the voice appear more voluminous. Since it was originally a mono sound, I added a slight stereo effect with the Micro Shift. The Waves HDelay generates dotted eighth notes, but works very discreetly because the Saturn compressor follows in the signal chain. Its setting is made with the small dynamics control next to the drive. The clean tape section roughens up the sound a bit. The Saturn is an incredibly good, fantastic sounding compressor. It also creates the sidechain effect on the delay: as soon as the vocals stop, the compressor pulls up the delay. When the vocals start again, the delay disappears. The Waves C1 smooths out all level peaks and brings the delay even further forward. It has incredibly fast attack and release times. In this way, sounds can be reliably compressed to a certain level. The FabFilter Pro-DS, on the other hand, does little here. The Xfer LFO Tool ensures that the beginnings of the vocal samples sound less percussive. It creates an 'ohwow-ohwow' sound. "

Lead vocals

»I compress vocals in three passes. The entire song is compressed three times. I tune and time these three files, and finally compress them again. The use of the compressed files 1C, 2C and 3C can be seen in the screenshot (see Fig. 02). It happens that I lose the thread in hours of compression sessions. So at the end of the day I can quickly decide which version is the best and use it.

My vocal effects chain starts with the bx_cleansweap V2. It first cuts the low end by 30 Hz. Subsequent compressors respond better to the crucial frequencies, namely the low mids. The Vulf Compressor is really great, but here it just provides a little more analog feel. The Waves LA-3A works very softly and maintains the natural sound of the voice. Here he slightly compresses the vocals. Since the lower mids dominate in Dua's voice, it is also necessary to compress this area away a little. The Oeksound Soothe takes care of that.

The UAD Pultec EQP-1A removes a little more low-end. It also increases the frequencies by 12 kHz. So the vocals sound airier. The UAD-Pultec is a great EQ. It sounds very nice and soft. Sometimes I counter the boosted highs with a DeEsser - this is also the case here. After the Pro-DS comes a normal EQ, the FabFilter Pro-Q2. In turn, it compensates for what the DeEsser may have done too much.

Finally we have the Xfer LFO Tool (see Fig. 03). I control its level modulation using the sidechain: If there is a kick, the volume is reduced to 10 percent, in the verses it is reduced to 40 percent. These are exactly the things Josh Gudwin should be careful of when mixing. If he had compressed the stem further, the LFO ducking would have been lost. The LFO effect is very important here, because it ensures that the song and vocals interact with each other and both work from a single source.

As a vocal reverb I use the Valhalla Vintage Verb with a downstream Xfer OTT multiband expander / compressor. The automated LFO effect is also on the reverb - that was absolutely necessary. Finally, the vocal reverb is compressed again with the UAD 1176. «

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