Producer of the Year Paul Epworth on Adele, Cee Lo, Foster the People
When Paul Epworth co-wrote and produced “Rolling In The Deep” off Adele’s instantly classic album, 21, little did he know just how far that track would take him. Flash forward to the 2012 GRAMMY® Awards ceremony where Epworth humbly accepted statues in two highly coveted categories — Song of the Year and Record of the Year — for his work on the track. To further hammer home the point, Epworth also triumphed in the categories of Album of the Year for 21 and Producer of the Year — an impressive feat, by any measure.
Though many music fans first became aware of Epworth through his work with Adele, the man is anything but an overnight success. With decades of experience in the recording studio behind him, Epworth has assembled an impressive resume that includes production credits on Cee Lo Green’s The Lady Killer, Foster The People’s Torches, Florence + the Machine’s Ceremonials, and many others. As a remixer, his credits are equally impressive, including acts like Muse, Nine Inch Nails, U2, and Diddy.
Here’s what Epworth had to say about his multiple Grammy wins, the signal chain behind the timeless vocals of Adele and other artists, and the Universal Audio tools that help him bring his unique and potent production aesthetic to hit project after hit project.
Congratulations on the Grammy wins! It was very cool to see you accepting those awards.
Thank you! It’s funny thinking about how many people have seen it — I gather 37 million people watched that show. I tried to put that out of my mind at the time and tried not to worry about the pressure. I usually much prefer being in the studio. [Laughs.]
How did the awards affect you? Are you just back to business as normal, or has life really changed?
It’s pretty weird, but I am back in the studio today. I had some time off with my wife and daughter right after the awards. I was just trying to quantify the whole thing. It’s truly exciting. That producer award is possibly the highest accolade I could get in this business and my line of work. And to get another three awards for the album — Song and Record of the Year among them — I can’t believe it. It’s phenomenal.
“All the vocals on the Adele tracks I produced were recorded through the Universal Audio 6176, so you can credit Adele’s bright and crystal-clear, dulcet tones to the UA preamp and compressor. In terms of getting a feel for the track, I use the UAD Roland RE-201 Space Echo all the time.”
How would you characterize your production work?
I like to think of my work as dynamic. I’m really into textures, psychedelics, space, and, conversely, density. I love the idea of things that have harmonic depth. That’s something I’ve been able to explore more using Universal Audio gear and software. I’ve been able to bring harmonics out of the tracks we record — like trying to find those even-order harmonics that you get using tape. The Studer A800 and Ampex ATR-102 tape plug-ins let you really bring out the warmth and positive tonalities in a track.
What Universal Audio tools did you use when you were producing Adele?
All the vocals on the tracks I produced were recorded through the Universal Audio 6176, so you can credit Adele’s bright and crystal-clear, dulcet tones to the UA preamp and compressor. In terms of getting a feel for the track, I use the UA Roland RE-201 Space Echo all the time. The character, noise, and tonality you get on it are all true to the original unit, but you don’t get hums and some of the other quirks that aren’t always desirable. It’s an absolutely amazing piece of gear and its sound has become a standard part of my production aesthetic.
What about reverb?
The UA EMT 140 Plate is one that I use all the time as well. That was responsible for a lot of the vocal tone that was on the original demos with Adele. That sound helped define the aesthetic of the whole album.
How exactly did you use those tools?
I used the RE-201 as a tape delay and put something like a 60-millisecond slap into the 140 Plate. The whole vocal sound came from that combination. I also used the UA Pultec Pro EQ Plug-in and Fairchild 670 Compressor Plug-In for tonality and compression on Adele’s vocals.
Did you know before going into the studio with Adele how you wanted to use those plug-ins?
They’re standard things I use because they have character and they sound classic. They’re so close to the original items that you can’t tell the difference just by listening. But for this instance, specifically, when you’ve got a voice like Adele’s that sounds that classic, it’s important to try to do it justice with the processing you use on it. For that purpose, I would only choose to turn to these Universal Audio versions of the real thing.
Are there any pieces of vintage gear that don’t exist in plug-in form yet that you’d like to see a company like UA create?
Yes, I could give you a list. [Laughs.]
Another timeless voice you’ve produced is Cee Lo Green. What was your work like with him?
Cee Lo is a voice in a generation. I didn’t actually record any vocals with him — I didn’t get the opportunity because he was elsewhere and he cut the tracks remotely. He actually recorded his Band Of Horses cover, “No One’s Gonna Love You,” in Atlanta and sent me the files. We produced two versions of that track, used UAD plug-ins to get it sounding suitably punchy, and sent them back to him. A lot of processes these days are done remotely by email.
Does most of your production happen face to face, or remotely?
Most of the stuff I do is collaborating in a room with people, but it seems to come down to the fact that the busier I am, the busier the artists that I am with are as well. So that means that sometimes you might get as little as two or three hours with an artist to do what you can. Then the rest of it can be finished off via email and the collaboration continues remotely.
“I love the idea of things that have harmonic depth. That’s something I’ve been able to explore more using Universal Audio gear and software… The Studer A800 and Ampex ATR-102 tape plug-ins let you really bring out the warmth and positive tonalities in a track.”
That sounds challenging.
It is, but it’s the nature of modern technology, and it’s great that you’re able to work that way.
How long did 21 take to create?
Well, I produced two tracks on it, and I wrote one, which Rick Rubin produced. I think the process from writing to mixing was probably a year. A lot of that was writing, and the actual recording only took a few weeks.
Can you talk a bit more about your overall production aesthetic?
I’ve come to this place where I feel that my work is one part acoustic recording, one part electronic dance music production, and then the rest of it is basically formed by the artist I’m working with, including his or her influences and the records that have shaped his or her style. I always find that I try to hone in on something that’s specific to the sound of the individual artist, and I’ve always tried not to have a specific sound myself. I’ve also always tried to be diverse and versatile, and to explore new things.
You’ve done a huge amount of remixes, as well as productions. Is the producer part of your brain separate from the remix part, or is it all part of the same?
They’re part of the same process, but with remixes, there’s always specific criteria, otherwise you’ll end up with something that’s too close to the original track and is going to sound more like a second mix than aremix. I always think of remixes as opportunities to pull a track apart, find the things that work about it, and then invent new ways to interpret it. My remixes are almost always done with the artist absent, and therefore I can be quite disrespectful and brutal to the source material.
Sometimes what you’ll get out the other end will be stronger than the original mix, and sometimes it maybe won’t be so good. But most of the remixes I did were specifically designed for clubs and subconsciously, I think I was trying to show a different side of my production that didn’t rely on working with bands.
How did you get started producing?
I’ve worked in the studio for 20 years, but it was when computers got fast enough to run Logic on a laptop that I was offered the opportunity as a producer to express my ideas without having to deal with the cost of being in a studio. The first project I did was a remix for an artist named Shaznay Lewis. I was only given the a cappella vocal track, so I actually played everything else on the recording. That was the first thing I did on my laptop when I got it, and luckily, it happened to catch people’s attention. That opened the door for me to produce my first album with the Futureheads, which led to me producing for Bloc Party and Maximo Park and the rest. I’ll never look back.
Can you talk about remixing Nine Inch Nails’ “Capital G”?
I really enjoyed doing that mix. The parts that Trent [Reznor] and Atticus [Ross] came up with gave me so much good material to work with that I always knew the end result was going to be exciting. Working on that was a total buzz. Nine Inch Nails is one of those bands that I loved when I discovered them as a kid.
When you’re working with artists like Adele, is it difficult to switch from your more technical and production roles to a co-writing role?
For me, it’s just the creative process. I try to remember that the core of what draws people in to something long-term is melody and harmony, and that rhythm is the thing that draws people into something immediately. What I try to do is make sure to balance those elements primarily and try to make sure that the production suits and embellishes, rather than compromises, those things.
With any luck, I’ve also got a bit of freedom to do stuff that’s maybe a bit more off the wall or weird to try to make the work sound fresh. My tastes are very avante garde overall. Realistically, I figure I’m always trying to bring something a little left field or avant garde into the things I do, even if the songs are quite pop-oriented.
“I try to remember that the core of what draws people in to something long-term is melody and harmony, and that rhythm is the thing that draws people into something immediately. I try to make sure that the production embellishes, rather than compromises, those things.”
Can you give an example?
When we were doing “Rolling In The Deep,” even though the song itself was something we felt very comfortable with, we wanted the impact and feeling of the track to have a little bit of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. But for the bridges, we were trying to make the piano sound like “Brooklyn Zoo” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard. And when it came to the whole feeling of her vocal relationship to the track, we thought most like Cee Lo Green and Nina Simone. So those were the kinds of elements that were going into our thought process of how the song should come together in terms of production aesthetic and technique.
What about percussion on “Rolling In The Deep”?
Most of the kick drum was a multi-sample — I have this little wooden step in my studio which is hollow and has cables running underneath it, and we miked Adele stomping on it. We wanted it to sound like the stomps they used to do in the glam rock days when they tied pieces of wood to their feet. We really wanted the sound of people jumping and dancing to the record. So the closest we could get at the time was having Adele stamp on a step. The actual kick drum was a big marching drum strapped to the front of my kit, so it’s actually a 30-inch kick that we miked up.
Most of what you hear, though, is multi-tracked Adele stamping on that step. That sort of recording strategy was possible, I think, because I was partly approaching things from the point of view of an electronic music producer.
How involved are you in mixing albums that you produced? Do you do often do it yourself, or do you have collaborators?
I usually pass the task of creating final mixes off to other people because by that point, I can’t see a whiff of the trees. Who I pass it to depends on the track, artist, and genre. If there are multiple people working on the same album, often the artist, A&R, and other producers will have a say in it as well. And obviously, when there are multiple mixes, it’s very important to get one engineer to master it all. Usually the master comes back sounding just amazing, but now and again, I have to put up my hand and say, “That sounds totally shocking,” and get it redone. But that is very, very unlikely to happen, and it hasn’t happened in recent memory.
When you send songs off to be mixed, do you give a lot of guidance?
Yeah, I’m a total pain in the ass. [Laughs.] Now and again, something will come back that sounds so good that I’m left thinking, “I don’t know what they did to the mix, but it just sounds so much better than the track I delivered.”
Do you give notes to your mixing engineer and tell him or her what plug-ins to use where?
No, I supply a monitor mix in with the plug-ins in a session. Our monitor mix is usually close enough to being finished anyway, so having an outside mixing engineer work on it is just about bringing that extra tonality, proper dynamics, clarity, and texture. They always bring the extra ten-to-fifteen-percent that makes the track what it is. In the case of “Rolling in the Deep,” Tom Elmhirst really nailed that.
What are some other exciting projects you’ve worked on recently?
I’m doing some work with John Legend at the moment — some tracks for his new album, which I’m very excited about. He’s another artist with a classic voice and I can’t wait for people to hear what we did together.
Follow Paul Epworth on Twitter at @paulepworth.
Photo Credit: Richard Ecclestone
— Michael Gallant