Wayne Wilkins: Keepin’ it Simple
How do you become a great producer? Having produced chart topping hits for Beyonce, Jordin Sparks, and Natasha Bedingfield, British producer Wayne Wilkins is as qualified to answer that as anyone can be. As a child, Wilkins was classically trained on the piano, but - perhaps more than anything else - what boosted Wilkins’s pop music production career to its present towering heights was the tutelage of the legendary mix engineer, Mark “Spike” Stent of EMI. At EMI, Wilkins cut his teeth by working on projects with some of the most legendary pop acts of all time, witnessing first-hand how their records fit together on the multitrack. The product of Wilkins’s experience is a straightforward, tightly-focussed approach to songwriting, producing, and mixing. Below, Wilkins systematically explains that approach, and summarizes many of the most important lessons he has learned over the course of a prestigious, yet still-nascent music career.
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Hit Talk: Your production on Battlefield and Sweet Dreams is great. It must be extremely rewarding to see songs that you’ve both written and produced taking off and becoming huge hits.
Wayne Wilkins: Oh yeah, that’s one of the best feelings when you’re driving in your car and your song comes on the radio. Along my journey into work, I’m lucky enough to have my convertible, so when I’ve got the roof down in the car, and my song comes on, and I’m driving along the beach… that’s like being in a movie, basically. I have to kind of check myself a bit when that happens. That’s one of the most amazing feelings.
Hit Talk: Having both written and produced so many songs, you have a lot of your own creativity invested in them, does part of you want to be the one performing them?
Wayne Wilkins: Oh for me, I’m more than happy to be the guy making the song and the music behind the scenes. It’s never been an ambition of mine to be on stage performing stuff. What I absolutely love about what I do is that when you’re involved in both the writing and the producing, you can actually make sure the song gets all the way there. And obviously being able to produce the records as well as write them means that you can ensure the song is a hit. And that’s one of the most rewarding things… when you hit on a great concept and you hear it sung for the first time and you know there’s a great idea there, then to take it further and make it into a hit, there’s a lot of work between the start and the end, you know you’ve just gotta keep on going and improving the song and improving the production until it gets all the way there. There’s a lot of work involved, but it’s amazing to be able to do that process and make sure the song ends up exactly how you [want] it. And that’s one of the most important things to me, you know, I don’t really produce other people’s songs … because of that thought process. When you get the initial vibe, and you’ve got a vision for what the song’s going to be, you can make sure you see it all the way there.
HT: And you’re still getting well-paid.
WW: Yea Yea, and you know what? the thing with producing… the way the music industry is now, it’s a real advantage to be able to get paid for your work, but the most important thing is getting the copyright out there because any amount of money that any of us get paid to make a record kind of pales in significance to when a song’s a big hit. So I’ve always got my mind set on the bigger picture. As opposed to “what am I getting paid now to write this record?” it’s more like “let’s get the best song we can possibly get,” and if you do a great song, you get rewarded for it after the fact.
HT: And how many hours would you put into taking the song all the way there, as you say?
WW: Oh my goodness, a long long time. Here’s what it is, this is just my personal experience: in a month I might do anything between 8 and 10 songs… and there might be one or two of those songs that I think are great, and worth taking to a point where you can send those records out. Because what I find, for me, it’s much better to do one amazing record than to try and output ten records that are all of an average quality, or a good quality. You need to find the records that are the magic ones, the ones that have that something extra special in there.
HT: And then pouring your energy into those ones.
WW: Exactly, So on one song, I will never spend less than five days on it, but sometimes it might turn into two weeks because I’ll want to make sure the vocal is exactly the right way and then I’ll get great demos of the records I really believe in. I’ll make sure that the demos are, you know, amazing. So I’ll work really hard on the vocal production as well as how the harmonies go together, as well as the track and beat.
So everything has to work together, and then once you’ve done that, there’s probably about another two or three days if you’ve got a great singer that ends up doing it, like an artist… someone like Natasha Bedingfield that I work with. She’s such an amazing singer that the actual recording process is really enjoyable and is faster than most artists … because she’s so incredible. But there’s still the work that goes in after you’ve done the demo to make sure that the artist has given the right performance. You work through all that stuff with them. It’s a very big job to get a world class sounding record out… in my experience.
HT: Speaking of your experience, you’ve been a pop music fan pretty much all your life.
WW: Well I actually started out doing classical music, funnily enough.
HT: That’s right, you were a classically trained… and then when you were a bit older you got interested in pop music.
WW: Yeah, you know I always listened to the radio, and I was learning about how music was put together. [I was copying] how people did pop and RnB production. I’d be listening to the radio and copying that stuff, but I started off in the classical world, and doing more film score kind of vibe. Then I kind of fell into songwriting in my 20s.
HT: On that topic… that’s kind of what we do at Hit Talk, we teach how hit songs are put together. You’ve had that classical background, do you think that was necessary for you to be able to copy those pop songs?
WW: Here’s what it is, in my experience. There’s two skills that you can have as a musician. You can be a classically trained musician where you’re playing your interpretation of someone else’s work. So you’ll be looking at music and you’ll be looking at the notes, and you’ll be saying “This is how this piece of music sounds”; you do your interpretation. That’s one skill set, the other skill set is to be able to listen to stuff and actually be able to play by ear, and in terms of doing pop music and songwriting, it’s more that side of your brain you need to be using.
HT: And not everyone has that.
WW: Yeah, it’s actually amazing; there’s proficient classical musicians that you might hear playing, but if you took the music away from them and said “right, now just make something up, or improvise something,” a lot of those musicians would then find themselves very unsure of what’s going to come next. Whereas you might take someone who’s never had any training in their life, and they can just listen to stuff and say “oh yeah, that sounds like this, and you do this, and that’s this chord progression here” That’s a whole different skill set and obviously in terms of writing hit songs and being creative and writing your own music, that’s more the skillset that you need.
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So to answer your question, it really helps me to have that kind of formal training, but I’m one of the lucky ones that can actually switch that off … but it’s definitely not an essential skill to be a classical musician, or to have that training. It’s just nice to have that. If I need to I can always fall back on that. If I go and record a string session, I can converse with those musicians in that way if I need to.
HT: So, after your education, you started working with Mark “Spike” Stent at EMI on projects for Madonna and U2. Was there a moment working with Spike when you thought “holy hell, look at the people I’m working with!”?
WW: Oh yeah, that was an amazing experience for me, because … what would happen there is Spike - who’s a really close friend of mine now, we work on a lot of things together - he would be getting multi-tracks of bands and you’d see how all the records of all the top artists in the world were put together. I’d be seeing multi-tracks from Prince to Timbaland to Oasis to No Doubt. That’s really when I learned about music production. Obviously being able to work with someone who’s an amazing mix engineer, as well as a producer, taught me a lot of stuff. That’s probably one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had I think.
HT: What do you think was the most important lesson you learned from that experience working with Spike at EMI?
WW: Here’s what it is:
When you do a record, the vibe of the record and the vibe of the music - in terms of mixing and getting the sound of the record - the actual vibe of what’s going on is far more important than it being technically perfect. The most important thing is how the music affects you, as opposed to thinking “where do I want that piano sound to come in?” So it’s more the feeling of the music and actually the way the sound impacts you. That’s in terms of the mixing front.
In terms of actually putting a record together, you want to use not too many sounds. You want to get exactly the right sounds for the job that you want to achieve. So rather than trying to build up a sound from loads and loads of different soruces, you try to source a drum or source a sample, and you try to find exactly the right sound. So what it means is every sound is focussed, and every sound is there for a reason. For certain types of records, you could get away with using five or six sounds. That actually makes the record much more powerful than cluttering it up with lots of things.
In terms of the songwriting front, it’s a similar thing. You want to be very clear with what your song is saying, rather than trying to get lots of clever things in there, you know it’s nice to have a few artistic words, but you really want to be clear with what you’re saying and you want the listener to grasp. If you listen to any hit song, generally the biggest hit songs have a very simple thought that runs through them that people can understand and can connect to.
And also in terms of writing songs, you want to try and find concepts that stand out and that make people want to listen. So even from the title of the song, if you can come up with a title that inspires a certain thought or a certain feeling, it makes people engage in that song. Or even, they’ll look down and see the CD cover, and think “I wonder what that song’s about” It’s good to have those kinds of things where everything’s very focussed and clear, as opposed to lots of crazy words and lots of images and all that.
From the last few years that’s what I’ve picked up.
HT: So on all fronts of songwriting, mixing, producing, keep it simple, clear and focussed.
WW: Right … there’s a common thread that goes through there. Here’s a more clear example of that. As a trained musician, when I was younger, I’d know all the inversions of chords, and I’d know how to add notes into chords and make the chords sound beautiful. But … that would steal from what I did on the melody. If you play a chord a certain way, and it’s got lots of notes in it and lots of tensions in it, it doesn’t allow you to go places with the melody.
HT: You’re dividing the listener’s attention…
|WW: Yeah, you’re actually getting some of the excitement out of what the chord is, so in terms of songwriting, what you need to be doing is making the melody an amazing thing. So if you played a straight C Major chord, what it allows you to do is actually make the melody amazing over that. So that’s another example. You want to try and keep things … simple. Obviously if you’re doing movie scores, it’s the opposite, you want to try and get some amazing tensions from the music, you know?But … for hit songs, you need to basically play the simple chords that actually allow you to write great melodies, as opposed to playing the complicated chords that tie you down to certain melodies and restrict a singer in a big way.|
HT: While we’re on the topic of production skills and principles, you’ve talked in the past about playing the mixer like an instrument. We’re just wondering what specific skills are you referring to?
WW: Out of the interview … what I’d love for people to pick up is that less is more and the simple stuff is the best stuff, and with mixing it’s the same thing. It’s the most important crucial thing, and again this is my opinion, … the best results come from getting great balances.
The first thing is having great sounds on the multitrack. A lot of inexperienced producers, new songwriters, will be going “oh yeah, but it’s going to be fixed in the mix; the mix is going to make it sound amazing.” The truth is this: you’ve gotta have great sounds on the tape. You’re only going to get a world-class sounding record if the sounds on the multitrack are the right sounds and sound amazing already. If you listen to urban records, there’s gotta be sub frequencies in there that actually fill the bottom end. If you’ve just got kick drums and bass that stop above 200Hz, there are little tricks mixers can do to add sub frequencies in there, but it’s never going to be as good.
The second thing is getting the balance. Before you put all the EQs and all the reverbs and delays, you’ve just gotta put the faders up in a certain way where everything is gelling. To me, [the first priority] is the balance and the compression, before you start adding all the reverbs and delays, you know all the tricky stuff. You’ve got to get the simple stuff working properly. Once you’ve built that, you can add all the other stuff in there.
|Another thing that I’ve learned which I like doing is putting the vocal up first. That’s the fundamental thing, if you’ve got a song, people aren’t going to be singing the drums, they’re going to be singing what the singer’s singing. So what I like is going to back to the focus, and making sure the vocal is right up there first. You can really hear what’s going on with the vocal and then put everything else around that. That’s the way that I always do my stuff because that’s the bit to me that makes the song a hit. People want to hear what the person’s saying. They’re not going to be singing the tom pattern generally [laughs]. You know what I mean?|
I’m learning every day still from all the brilliant people that I work with. Less is always more. You end up not needing to put all the crazy effects on, you know unless you’re going for a record where it needs to be like that. You end up doing less of all that stuff, and [asking] “right, have I got a great melody, have I got great lyrics, and are the sounds the right sounds?” It makes the mixer’s job really easy. Everything’s in place, and then you just need someone really brilliant to take you that ten percent.