It began as a prank. Three childhood friends studying jazz at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music recorded cover versions of hits by Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Britney Spears. Then, for a laugh, they posted videos of their sessions online for fellow musicians to enjoy (or mock), calling themselves Dirty Loops for their practice of “loopifying.” Individually, the trio was already becoming busy as studio players, working the cogs of Stockholm’s music industry (“a lot of not very good music,” says singer Jonah Nilsson) where hitmakers like Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson often brushed elbows with lesser-knowns at the city’s recording hub, X-Level Studios. But soon enough the trio’s rough-cut black-and- white videos began racking up thousands, even millions of views on YouTube, and Nilsson (vocals/keyboards), Henrik Linder (bass), and Aron Mellergardh (drums) had what the Swedes would call an odjuret (monster) on their hands.
Lacking management or a PR strategy, Dirty Loops continued posting their covers to YouTube as their fame and videos went viral. From their fusion-y, hyper-stylized version of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” to similar treatments of Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Britney Spears’ “Circus,” Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” and Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” (re-worked as “Prude Girl”), Dirty Loops hit a collective nerve the world over. Andreas Carlsson signed Dirty Loops to a management deal, and über-producer David Foster inked them to a Verve Records contract. Ever the pros, Carlsson and Foster stepped back (save Carlsson’s lyric-writing savvy), and Dirty Loops recorded and produced their debut, Loopified.
“We wanted it to be organic,” Carlsson explains. “We didn’t focus on writing hip songs. I wanted the record to be exactly what the guys heard in their heads, something that was highly original. David Foster wanted it to be even more loopified, even more musical and complicated. We strived for perfection and it sounds simple, but it’s actually very complicated. Dirty Loops produced it and put it all together. David and I nurtured it.”
What is “loopified?” “We put the music into our Dirty Loops machine and what comes out is loopified,” Nilsson cryptically explains. “It’s like arranging, taking something that already exists, twisting it, and turning it into something completely different. Like we did with the cover songs: We stripped the songs down to the melody, and then created another song around it, basically. And not making it different to be different, but to make it as we want it to sound, what we hear in our heads. To make the best shape and form for the music. But nothing is actually looped!”
Dirty Loops mines the past and present to create something exhilarating, merging their brilliant instrumental technique with the programmed, plug-in-crazy productions of the hip-hop elite. Allied to Nilsson’s high-as-a-kite vocals, Linder’s quick-witted bass work, and Mellergardh’s Dennis Chambers-meets-Ableton drums is some serious song-craft. Plying edgy pop hooks in hyper, cut-up arrangements performed via a fusion-funk drummer, a progressive, seven-string-happy bassist, and a vocalist/keyboardist who can burn chemtrails in the sky, Dirty Loops have already sparked imitators on YouTube, performing tepid covers in “Dirty Loops style.”
“The music on this album is on a level I have never heard before,” Carlsson says. “Even Quincy Jones is a fan of Dirty Loops because Dirty Loops has taken it one step further. There is a combination here of a new influence and the old jazz world. It’s sensational and very different and new. It feels like something we haven’t heard before.”
Dirty Loops self-produced Loopified at three different studios. Nilsson recorded his vocals and keyboards at X-Level Studios in Stockholm; Mellergardh’s drums were engineered by Ronny Lathi at Soundtrade Studios (part of SAE Institute) in Solna, Sweden; and Linder tracked his custom seven-string Mattisson bass last, at his father’s home in Stockholm. Additional recording occurred at Interscope Studios, Santa Monica; DANDY Mansion, West Hollywood; and Mason Sound, North Hollywood. Mix engineers Nisse Westfelt and Simon Petrén also played large roles in the sound of Loopified.
Nillson, Linder, Westfelt, and Petrén all work in Steinberg Cubase; Dirty Loops records apart but writes together, as a group, in each other’s faces, as it were. They write a basic song form, play around with ideas, work up demos, improvise parts, and finally, track vocals.
“If we get an idea, we write the song in its basic form,” Nillson says. “If it’s a three-chord pop song, don’t overdo it. A great song doesn’t need a 1,000 chords and a huge arrangement. We work out the arrangement when writing the song. I make my demo in Logic and create a scratch vocal, some fake drums and bass lines and keyboards. Drums go down, Henrik records his bass part last, then my vocals.”
Nilsson tracks keyboards direct but his vocal chain consists of a Brauner Velvet microphone into a Focusrite RedNet 4 preamp. “That mic doesn’t get in the way and it sounds natural,” he says. “The Focusrite adds just a little brightness and perhaps strengthens the signal a bit, but it’s very natural sounding. That lets me do more afterward if need be. It’s more important that the particular vocal take sound as natural as possible, so it’s not too processed sounding. I usually sing verse by verse and chorus by chorus, and sometimes do longer takes if I have a feeling for it. Other times, the verse might be good and I’ll need to punch in a phrase.”
Though Loopified sounds heavily saturated, produced, and gridded in general, the production is the result of excellent musicianship, minimal software, and smart miking and mixing techniques. Nilsson’s small but potent keyboard arsenal included Korg X50, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Native Instruments Massive, Expert Sleepers Silent Way and Logic’s ESX-24 Sampler. However, Nilsson believes there is a better way.
“There are a lot of unique sounds in synths like Massive, but sometimes it’s not massive enough,” he says. “If you choose an oscillator and a straight sound with no effects and if you make a chord with that, it has a lot of over-notes; I like that. But the soft synths don’t have these special sounds,. To create something unique, I find a very straight sound, so I can hear the chord. I hide it under something that is more distinctive, so it sounds unique; it’s always doubled with something. If you choose a sound like that you will always have a very clear foundation. Usually you have to find a multiband compressor that will push some frequencies down and some frequencies up. But if you’re using this technique, you don’t have to do that. Logic’s EXS-24 has two sounds that I use for that purpose. When I write a song, I create that foundation first.”
Throughout Loopified the instruments lock together and flow like a single robo-organism. Dirty Loops’ instrumental brilliance is evident as a unit and individually. But if there’s a rising star among the three, it’s Linder, who scales bass heights rarely attainable by lesser mortals. He too cut his own tracks, straight into Cubase at his dad’s cellar studio. He ran his Mattisson bass direct via an Aguilar preamp.
“I tracked myself because I really needed a good signal,” Linder says. “I wanted the bass to sound like it does when I play it live, so there is not a ton of EQ on it. The only thing I did was simulate the tweeter effect from an amplifie. I boosted a lot from 7.2 kHz and upward. Then, of course, the mixers cut out some things and EQed it differently for every song to fit with the drums.”
Attention to micro-detail is a big ingredient in Dirty Loops’ sound, and Linder goes the extra mile, both in writing and recording. “We’re usually sitting together after Jonah has found a keyboard part, so that’s when I create my part,” Linder says. “It gave us a lot of control. We wanted the effect that if the keyboard played a more upbeat pattern, I added 16ths in-between. In that way we could make a pretty complex thing that was still grooving. We really spent a lot of time thinking how it should sound and the best way to do it. For some parts I transcribed Jonah’s demo takes. He would record an idea very fast, and we’d like that it sounded improvised. So I would play his idea back as a synth-bass thing, trying to play the same length of notes, synced with his keyboard. We did ‘Sexy Girls’ and ‘Sayonara Love’ like that.”
For a reworking of the Avicii smash “Wake Me Up,” Linder replicated a setting taken directly from guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s rig, including 16 series delays, all panned and modulated.
“I got a chart of exactly what the sound of his program is there,” Linder says. “I copied that but did it with 16 emulations instead of eight. On ‘Wake Me Up,’ especially in the second half of the first verse, it’s that sound. Generally we did a lot of mixing of the bass lines and changed small things, like the dynamics of the songs and bringing up the harmonics and EQ and having the right delays. During the recording phase, I experimented with different techniques because these guys were busting my balls! They wanted all of the notes to be shorter so I had to play with my palm, thumb, and index finger so the attack would be as short as possible. There was something new to learn for each song. Recording really developed our playing. These songs are far more arranged than our cover songs.”
Primary drum engineer Ronny Lathi tracked Mellergardh’s drums at Soundtrade, recording anywhere from five to ten complete takes, punching in as necessary. Lathi is succinct in his drum miking scenario, which featured “a Shure Beta 52 inside the kick drum and a Manley Reference Cardioid lying on the floor just outside the kick drum. I taped together a Shure SM57 and Electrovoice PL 10 for the snare drum. That way I only need one mic stand for two different microphones,” he explains. “The PL 10 gave a bit more bottom to the snare. For snare, I also used a SM57 distorted through an old Spectra Sonics Complimiter. Sometimes I add a bit of distortion to the snare drum to create more presence. Hi-hat was a Schoeps CMC 5; toms were Sennheiser 421s, with sub mics under each tom.” For overheads, he placed couple of Swedish Ehrlund EHR-M mics (with the triangular capsule) 24-28 inches over the crash and ride cymbals. “I also used Coles 4038 ribbon mics placed, one, under the drum chair and one, overhead, maybe 40 to 50 inches facing the snare drum and toms, minding phase issues with all these different mic placements. The Coles mics don’t sound so bright and I like the low frequency they have.” For room mics, Lathi placed two Neumann U87s in A/B, nine to thirteen feet from the kit and approximately nine feet from each other.
Nisse Westfelt is credited on drum technician, mixing, and tambourine duties on Loopified, and as the album is seriously production-heavy, his and fellow mixer Simon Petren’s contributions were invaluable. He offers a few tips for re-creating the album’s saturated, dance-friendly drum sound with minimal software: “My favorite plug-in to get just a touch of warmth and saturation on drums is the Waves Kramer PIE Compressor,” he says. “With a ratio of 1:1, it does magic for the low-mids without the typical pumping sound of a compressor working too hard. Westfelt uses use a lot of sidechain compression, but not in the typical way: “Sometimes I like to sidechain the ambient mics to the snare and kick to get even more ‘in your face’ sounding drums, but still making them sound big and roomy,” he says. “I use as few samples as possible, but sometimes I like to trigger the kick drum with a sub-kick, like a short 808 and a snappier snare drum. Luckily, we did sample Aron’s kit, so I used those samples to get some of the bleeding out. Good-sounding room mics are essential for drums, but if there are none, I’ll use Superior Drummer for ambience instead of the typical reverbs.”
Dirty Loops’ Technical Manager and Head of Production at Stockholm Sound, Simon Petrén, offers more recording tips: “A great plug-in is FabFilter’s Pro-MB Multiband Compressor to make surgical side-chains of different bands to my liking,” he says. “For instance, since Henrik’s bass is such an important part, I often sidechain only the stuff below 150 Hz or so to the kick and leave the rest of the frequency spectrum, making all his frenzied runs still cut through the mix. [If on a budget: duplicate the track, add lowpass respectively, highpass EQ, and only sidechain the low-passed track.] I also automate all synths and choirs to exaggerate any dynamic and musical ideas in the original files. When soloed, these parts sound ridiculous, but all in all, they fool the ear to perceive the drums as bigger, since they mimic the ear’s natural behavior of ducking when hearing a loud sound.
“The kick can make or break the mix for me,” Petrén adds. “When I’ve found the right kick, I tailor everything else around it. I’m not afraid of completely replacing the recorded kick drum with a more “controlled” sample, taking the song into more EDM territory. I blend Vengeance [Metrum/Expansions]-style kicks with attack from some crappy old acoustic kick samples to give it a less programmed feeling. Dirty Loops’ brand is, after all, their spectacular live performances, and it must still feel like a played part. I occasionally use a plug-in called [Boz Digital Labs’] Sasquatch Kick Machine. I use the tone generator part to replace the existing, often less-than-optimal-for-clubs fundamental of the kick with a new, clean one, perfectly adjusted to the song. And I sampled Dave Weckl’s snare from his album Master Plan, which was perfect for my room snare! The sampled snare and Aron’s snare together perfectly beefed up the original snare by adding a tight, gated room.”
Many of the loops on the record are actually recorded performances, which grants greater dynamic control and timing suited to the specific song, as opposed to using ready-made ones.
“Everything that sounds like live drums is actually played by Aron!” Simon insists. “No programming there—he really is that good!” Trigger samples, parallel compression, and transient shaping are added, making for an almost artificial sense of articulation of the snare and tom fills. In certain sections, Jonah’s percussion loops from earlier sessions are chopped up to stutter together with some synths behind Mellergardh’s fill. The entire drum bus also gets a flanger (Cubase Flanger), automated to dive in frequency, making the listener seasick for a few seconds.
“When I master the track I use pretty bold mid-side EQ and widening (iZotope Ozone 5 Advanced) to musically shift things around, making the illusion of even more space in the stereo image,” Petrén says. “To keep the punchiness of the drums even in a loud track, I also take great care in using transient shaping (Slate Digital FG-X), and setting the attack values on the limiter (FabFilter Pro-L) as extreme as possible, and then using oversampling to catch any inter-sample peaks. This enables the snare to keep if not all, most of its former glory.”
From sandboxes to sold-out stadiums, Dirty Loops have made play-time profitable. They’ve captured the imagination of both top producers and average fans. “We grew up together, and we formed each other’s musical influences and inspired each other,” Nilsson confides. “They were always my favorite guys to play with on other projects as well. We identify with each other musically and as friends, and we know our roles in this project very well. You could say we’ve got each other’s backs.”
Ken Micallef also writes for DownBeat and Modern Drummer magazines.