In Synth Heaven with Adam Young
BY BLAIR JACKSON
HAILING from the rural southern Minnesota town of Owatonna (population 25,000), Owl City is actually just one guy, Adam Young, who has parlayed hundreds of hours working alone in his home studio into a surprise hit career. He is best known for a buoyant slice of synth-pop fluff called “Fireflies,” which topped the Billboard singles charts in 2009 and propelled his major label debut album, Ocean Eyes, into the Top Ten. The video of “Fireflies” has been viewed more than 47 million times on YouTube. (Previously, Young had self-released an EP and an album, both of which landed in the Top 20 of Billboard’s Top Electronic Albums chart.) Young also formed a live band in the summer of 2009 and has toured successfully in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Australia/New Zealand.
Speaking by phone from his home studio in Owatonna in mid-March (about six inches of snow on the ground that day; not bad), Young says he is pleased but still slightly baffled by the enduring allure of “Fireflies,” because “when I wrote that song, it was never in my mind that was ‘the good one’ off the record. It was kind of the opposite—I was debating whether I should put it on the record at all. So, when it started to connect with people and become successful, it was that much more of a surprise.” When asked whether its success has been constraining, because now there’s pressure to repeat its popularity, or liberating, because now he has that success under his belt, he says, “I feel liberated, and for this new album, I felt like I could write whatever I want. Writing-wise, I definitely didn’t feel like I had to follow some formula, and the songs on there are whatever hit home for me.”
Which is not to say that Owl City’s latest, All Things Bright and Beautiful, is some tremendous departure for Young. The hooks are every bit as catchy and appealing as they were on Ocean Eyes, the sentiments as sweet and wide-eyed—though there are certainly flashes of vulnerability and self-doubt. Young’s arsenal of synths burble and wheedle and soar on most tracks, and his pleasing lead vocals, which have always reminded me of a less-edgy version of Blink 182/Angels & Airwaves singer Tom DeLonge, caress the listener. Sonically, though, there is certain solidity and also a sheen to the new album—a product perhaps, of Young’s increasing sophistication as an engineer and producer, and also two days of mixing with Jack Joseph Puig at Ocean Way Studios in L.A.
“On the whole engineering/producing/ gear side of things,” Young offers, “before starting this record, I really spent a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the gear I’ve got, and also figuring out what other pieces of gear I needed to do a better job. Listening back and comparing Ocean Eyes and this new one, Ocean Eyes feels more unfinished. When I was recording Ocean Eyes, I was kind of blind in terms of what certain controls on various pieces of equipment were—as crazy as that sounds— but in some cases I was really just turning knobs, more or less. Sometimes I got lucky doing that, but it was hit or miss. On this record, I really worked hard figuring out how to get certain sounds and controlling the technology I have.”
Young’s home studio is “a big room in the basement underneath the garage. It’s soundproof, so I can be loud at four in the morning and not bother anybody. It’s almost like where I live is the studio, with three bedrooms attached, because all I’m doing is working down there,” he says with a laugh. Except when he’s upstairs at his piano, which he endlessly improvises on in search of songwriting inspiration. As for the actual writing, Young tends to work in Propellerhead’s Reason music software program in conjunction with both Logic and Pro Tools|HD and banks of synths he owns, ranging from the Clavia Nord Wave, the Moog Voyager (used for basslines primarily), and soft synths like Spectrasonics’ Ominsphere.
“The way I write and create, I might start with a little synth line in a session with nothing else,” Young says. “Maybe that will be the bridge of the song, and I’ll kind of build out that bridge specifically, and then write a verse or chorus to tie into that, and then piece this whole thing together. By the time this instrumental song is all woven together structurally, then I’ll go through and write lyrics last, and it’s at that point where I’m usually starting to demo out vocals, and I’ll start making all kinds of panning decisions and vocal and instrument treatment decisions. But it’s always very much layer by layer as it goes along, rather than writing all these songs and then going in and recording.”
Different songs start with different base elements—for example, on the new album, “Dreams Don’t Turn into Dust” began with “string samples in a Reason session. I remember being on the tour bus on my laptop and I put together that string intro—what’s now the intro and verses of that song—as a little loop, and everything beyond that was built around that revolving string part. I knew I wanted this kind of walking-speed, sort of hip-hop-influenced vibe; sort of like early Tribe Called Quest. Then, from those string threads I started building, adding guitar and all that.”
Young has traditionally done all his mixing at home in the box: “I started in Reason on an awful pair of computer speakers and I didn’t know what I was doing, but kind of developed my ears as I went, playing other people’s mixes, and trying to get my head around those. I was really interested in a lot of the Blink 182 records and how they went about taking such seemingly simple instrumental parts—guitar, bass, drums—and making this massive sound; that was really inspiring to me from the mixing side. So I tried to figure out how to translate some of those ideas into my own music—making it as big and lush and dynamic and interesting as it could be. Then I also learned a lot when I worked with Jack [Joseph Puig] in L.A.
“I went out to him at his room in Ocean Way kind of at the eleventh hour. I brought out the 99 percent-completed Pro Tools sessions, and we ran everything through his big Neve console, to put some polish on it. It was a collaborative thing we did in the space of two days, really. All my plug-ins I had used here in Minnesota were all printed to hard audio, so what we had was put through boxes— compressors and limiters and whatnot—at Jack’s place, and that really added a nice sparkle. He’s a great guy and so professional. I’m really happy with what he did.”