TIM BERGLING was born in Sweden, also home to ABBA, Ace of Base, Max
Martin—a long tradition of impeccable dance-pop producers stretching to
Eric Prydz and Swedish House Mafia. Bergling’s earliest influences,
however, were singer-songwriters à la Jack Johnson, classic British
Invasion pop songsmiths such as the Beatles, and the Kiss, Pink Floyd,
Elton John, and Led Zeppelin favorites of older siblings. Bergling
quickly took to guitar and piano, but it wasn’t until a friend
introduced him to FL Studio (Fruity Loops) that the then- 18-year-old
found the means he would use to establish himself internationally as
Avicii, using a DAW as his Mellotron, his way to make loops oscillate
and arenas rock.
Leaking his initial efforts to blogs in 2007, just when the recent EDM wave started to swell, Bergling gar
nered support from such high-profile DJs as Tiësto. Bergling also counts Dutch producer Laidback Luke as a mentor. Avicii compositions (as well as some created under the monikers Tim Berg and Tom Hangs) are almost completely a process done in-the-box, outside of some preamps and assorted I/O, a few mics, some Jamo X and KRK monitors, headphones, and of course, MIDI keyboards; over time, arranging to chords and scales, as well as adding sample libraries that complement Bergling’s natural gift for uplifting melody.
“I’ve always been able to enjoy everything: really repetitive techno or harder electro stuff, or the way System of a Down blends melodies and then goes into something hard and freaky and unique,” says Bergling. “But house is my first love with electronic music, and I’ve always been more inclined to make house music the way the Beatles or Elton John make songs, putting together melodic, morphing sounds that build in clarity until they are epic.”
Bergling hints that he’s working toward an artist album that will blend the two sides of his influences—folk/rock and electronic— but in the meantime, he road-tests, compiles podcasts and satellite radio shows, headlines festivals (Ultra again last month), promotes a collaborative production campaign (aviciixyou. com), and in general stays busier than any 23-year-old you know.
Bergling’s track “LE7ELS” received a nomination for Best Dance Music Recording for the 2013 Grammy Awards. The development of “LE7ELS,” which marries an Etta James sample to melodic big-room house, showcases Bergling’s style of drawing in notes that he then changes to stacks of sawtooth synths in sets that have been detuned, lowpass filtered, and copied one octave up to create thickness. With envelopes shaped to control cutoff and decay by following key and velocity, the track is filled with bright, plucky accents that contrast nicely with synth stabs anchored to tightly articulated piano chords. All of this coalesces into a carefully dialed-in reverb over a lowcut bass groove/drum loop/white noise pattern and then, through a combination of sidechain ducking, chopped samples, and carefully arranged timeline regions, the track builds to that pumping pitch.
Here, Bergling offers a peek at how he selects instrument combos like he’s playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo, why there’s no shame in using samples and presets to speed the creative process, and why you don’t need to over-engineer if you construct balanced arrangements built on the cornerstones of melody, harmony, and energy.
Was there another production platform for you before FL Studio? Did you spend time with vintage Roland boxes, tracker programs, or other digital audio sequencers?
Once I got Fruity Loops, that was the thing. I’ve played around with others since, but that was the first and I’ve used it the most. And all my drums are sample-based, so the quality of production has increased so much from just the samples I’ve collected—the kick samples, or the claps, snares, effects, all of that.
I started with one kick, and now I have five or six for different purposes. But for your everyday purposes, you only need one kick once you find the one that really works for you. Other than better samples, what h
as really made the difference was just experience with mixing the samples in the program, learning how you can get more air in the mix, learning what is too loud, too low, what hits harder in stereo or in mono, and that knowledge just comes with time.
Describe your different kicks and how you lay them out.
Most of the time I have one main kick and one sidechain key. Sometimes, depending on the track, I’ll add another lowpassed kick with more weight on it after the break to make things hit harder, add a little top to the kick to make it go through in the production more, but usually all I need is that one kick sample and usually a duplicate as the sidechain key kick. Then I can alter the key to change the release on the kick, etc.
Do you spend time actually tuning the kicks, or do you just know which sample has the tone you’re looking for?
I haven’t really gotten into tuning the kicks that much; I just know what samples I have and how they will fit a song. I’ve always been so focused about the melody part of everything, and the technical part of mixing and mastering just came as a necessity following that. I focus more on the melody and arranging everything around it than playing with a single sample to transform it into something else.
How do you generate that initial melody?
Nowadays it’s mostly on piano, but sometimes I don’t play it in and I draw it out. That’s where I start a production; I’ll start playing around with a lead or just a piano to begin with. Then I’ll come up with a melody and build everything else around that.
After you build an arrangement, do you do most of your sound design in a VST instrument or by applying effects to the instrument’s channel?
I prefer to look for sounds that already evolve, but sometimes I’ll hear something and know it really could use a short reverb, just something a little wet. If I can’t find a sound that already has movement I can tune a piano with just a filter, setting automation on the cut-off frequency to set a mood.
Is there any particular way you customize that approach that you feel has become a signature?
One signature I like is pretty common. I like to go full on then into a breakdown with filters. I think that’s one of the closer things to sound porn, where everything is going and then you drag it all down with the filter, French filter house style, then bring the sample back from underwater; I love that coming up feeling.
Are there additional tones or sequences that you like to throw in as a watermark, as little background details that brand tracks as yours?
Yeah. There’s a bunch of stuff, I’d say. I use samples as effects most of the time; I’ll tweak background stuff like an explosion sound, and add stuff that I’ve collected over time. I think a lot of stuff like that you don’t even realize it’s in the background because it’s more of a dub sound, like I might have a crash or some squeal that you’ll recognize if you listen to a lot of the tracks. Also, there are these risers [melodic note progressions] and other plucky pitch stuff I’ve used. You fall in love with some of it and maybe abuse it a little bit.
Has your style been impacted by any soft- ware introduction beyond FL Studio?
Not really, there were just some basics I had to learn, just like everyone else. I used to spend a lot of time in online forums and I “met” Laidback Luke on his and he introduced me to this free limiter, the Kjaerhus Classic Master Limiter, which is basically one knob but that was perfect for the way I do things. I just needed a simple way to make sure that levels were more equal and didn’t go too loud. Simple stuff like that amazed me at the beginning, and I’ve been lucky to pick up things like that from people over time. I’m still not really using compressors all that much. I’m not very good at going deep into how things work technically. My strength is in recognizing a good sound and knowing how it can work with other sounds, but I’m not one of those people who wants to spend hours tweaking every setting.
What are some core components that give you those good presets?
I still use [reFX] Nexus a little bit [for building room, and punch], though not as much. I use [Lennar Digital] Sylenth1 a lot. I use [Native Instruments] Massive a lot, too. I do enjoy tweaking Massive; that’s fun, you can do a lot with that synth. I use Kontakt a lot, too, and a lot of different expansions for that.
As someone who loves melody, but also likes to arrange around those in-your-face builds, what place does distortion play for you? Do you try to work it in or cut it out?
I’ve been exploring it a lot more in the last year; it’s very addicting, though. You’ll start using it, you’ll notice that you can use it on almost any sound and make it cool and give it an edge, use it on vocals, on leads, on bass, but then it’s very easy to go over the edge, to get lost in it. Once you listen to a certain distortion level for a while you think it can use some more distortion, but it really couldn’t use some more distortion. You get snowed in, so you have to be careful.
I’ve always liked to use white noise, putting in these sweeps that build excitement, but those are like distortion and you can get lost in thinking you need more and more when you don’t. It only sounds amazing if you really think about where to put it and limit how much. If you use too much, the impact gets lost.
So walk me through your [January 2013] collaboration with Nicky Romero, “I Could Be The One,” and tell me the different tools and techniques you used to prepare your sounds and seat your arrangements.
One of the main elements in the song is the lead, which has this wobble that we did with [realtime VST audio manipulation system] dBlue Glitch. It’s a mix between having a gate effect as well as a pitched LFO on a bunch of different layered sounds [applied through a tempo-synced step sequencer]. I like the effect it got, very energetic. After the melody, that’s the main thing we processed to make the song stand out. We had the instrumental for a long time and I would put the Justice “D.A.N.C.E.” a cappella on it when I played that version [known for a long time as “Nicktim”] out. Finally we had the proper vocal [performed by Noonie Bao] pitched to us and [we] just fell in love [with it] straight away.
How did you establish the lead?
I’ve been playing around a lot with Glitch, first mainly for a crispy, randomized, bit-crushed sound, but I remembered an old track [Thomas Bangalter’s 1998 single] “Colossus,” and that song had a really wobbly, really funky sound that kind of inspired me to play around to create a bright and woozy effect. Again, the challenge was finding the perfect speed and pitch for the effect without losing track of who you are. Like with the distortions and white noise, you can fine-tune to the point you start to think more is better when it’s not. So we had a VST synth being processed with Glitch. A similar way to get the effect is from tweaking Fruity Loops’ 3xOsc [three-oscillator, subtractive synthesizer], which can be used to create a standard sawtooth and then you go under the channel’s instrument tools to pitch and there’s an LFO setting where you set the amount and speed and attack . . . finding the balance between those three knobs helps set the vibe. We had some of that in the track; it was several layers of sound.
It sounds like you are constantly switching between drawing in notes, doubling patterns, selecting VST instruments, clipping wave-forms, setting automation . . . where does arranging stop and mixing begin? Do you differentiate them as steps in the process?
They are completely, constantly ongoing simultaneously. I do them both as I go along, and it’s not done ’till the track goes to mastering.
Over time have the different environments of DJing and performing changed the way you approach your mix? Do you take into consideration the frequency response of different venues and sound reinforcement systems when you’re working with hour stems?
One hundred percent, definitely. I have no patience, so when I feel I’m close to finishing a track I start playing it straight away, and that helps me hear if a certain frequency stands out too much. I don’t mean anything as picky as whether things are a little bit harsh in the 7.5kHz area, but it helps me know if a section of the track sounds too quiet or the bass is too much. When you’re sitting in the studio you don’t always get a full understanding of whether a track has too much high end on the drop or so much bass it feels like you’re crumbling parts of the club. You need to make sure parts aren’t too harsh and that elements don’t get lost in this big rumble, and playing it out helps.
Do you approach sidechaining as a valuable control tool or is it similarly something that can be easily abused and overused, like white noise?
It definitely can be overused, but when you learn how to use it it’s the best tool. I don’t think there’s a single track I don’t have sidechaining on, but then there’s different levels of side-chaining. Even a very slight sidechain, where you don’t even know it’s sidechain, can make a huge difference in the mix. It just brings forth the kick without overdoing it. It makes for a more dynamic mix.
You’ve indicated much of what you do is through native Fruity Loops processing tools, but are there additional plug-ins you turn toward for fine-tuning?
Yeah, for vocals I use a lot of SoundToys stuff, the Decapitator or EchoBoy. It has a great deal of presets that are really good; it’s not overly complicated and it’s so much fun to play around with. Plus all the Waves plug-ins in general are lifesavers [especially for working with more “acoustic” sources and making samples sound less “movie music”].
Are those more for just tightening stuff up or for adding specific coloration?
A lot are for control, but they’re also for adding colors. The Waves Tony Maserati collection has a bunch of different toners and enhancers that add a really cool sound to a lot of different stuff. If you put it on the piano, it just kinda hoarsens it up a little bit . . . it gives it almost an illusion of being more real. It sounds like it’s older, sounds like it’s a real instrument recorded, and you can use it for so many things, not just pianos, to give it color: bass, synth leads, you can rough everything up a little or a lot.
Once you’re layering these treated samples and virtual instruments, where do they compete the most? Where does the most work go into making sure it’s not all snow?
When you know how to layer, they don’t really.
Is there a particular way you assure this through automation and/or EQ?
Not really, no. The way I layer stuff, I’m finding every sound has its own purpose, you know? The key is just don’t have two sounds for the same purpose because they’ll just clash, like two sounds on the same frequencies. You can have a really strong sawtooth waveform synth and use another really strong sawtooth and it’s not going to sound that good if they’re on the same octave, you know? So I avoid that trap. And then I place things like piano, which always sounds amazing and fills up a lot of that void. With the piano, I usually take big chords and then put the top melody on it, with some rhythm, too. Then I’ll double that pattern and go through basic styles to find stuff like a sawtooth stabby sound so I can add something extra on top that will stand out a little bit.
So you find being extremely familiar with all of your building blocks is a more valuable tool than spending hours customizing EQs?
One hundred percent. Mixing, some people say it’s an art to carve and dial things in, but I would say it’s more important to have experience listening and organizing. The more time you spend producing and mixing in general, changing levels, the more you’ll hear right away if something is standing out too much or too little, so you can solve the problem with your sample and melody arrangements instead of trying to force things to fit on top of each other at the end.
Tony Ware is a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician.