Owl City Pro/File: Going Underground


Adam Young

Photo: Pamela Littky

With an amiable innocence and self-taught studio skills, Owl City — aka Adam Young — crafted his first major-label release (Ocean Eyes, Universal Republic, 2009) entirely on his own, albeit with a few uninvited guests.

“I recorded the entire album on an old Dell PC in a dark basement full of ladybugs and who knows what else,” Young says with a laugh. A former Coca-Cola employee who defected to the world of rock 'n' roll (“I love Coke, but working in a warehouse all day helped me figure out what I didn't want to do for the rest of my life.”), Young made good use of his nights off, and his insomnia, by setting up a studio in his parents' cellar.

“I used a freeware recording program called GoldWave and did all my programming and sequencing in [Propellerhead] Reason,” Young says. “I used an old Behringer condenser mic and an analog mixer for vocals and to record guitars — my uncle's old 1979 Alvarez Dreadnought and a Fender Strat.”

Living in Minnesota, with its frigid winters, wasn't always easy on the process. “I had to unplug the furnace in the basement for each take,” he says, “and by the time I was done recording vocals for a song, the ceiling was sprouting stalactites. It's okay though — I'm part Eskimo.”

Young — who, in addition to singing, also played, programmed and sequenced all of the instruments — used Propellerhead Reason's Malström synth almost exclusively on Ocean Eyes. “All the leads, keys and basses are from that synth,” he says. “I don't use any specific patches, but rather make all my own from scratch using only Malström and [the other instruments in] Reason. I use the Subtractor synth here and there for glocky ping sounds to brighten an otherwise dead mix.”

Young also relies on Reason for effects. “I put compression on everything,” he says, “and Reason has a reverb unit called the RV700 with a delay that allows you to apply high- or lowpass filtering to the actual slap back. It seems to really create a sense of depth in terms of vocals.”

On the song “Umbrella Beach,” Young played with some of the other features in Reason to achieve a distinctive transition. “I automated the overall master track volume in Reason and drew in the slope so that the track swoops up, then fades out very quickly right before going into the chorus,” he says (see Web Clip 1). “It still catches me off guard, and I like the mood it gives the track. I never really have preconceived ideas or inspirations for trying out new sounds. I prefer to experiment as I go until I find something that sounds good to me. I don't have very much tech knowledge about how the signal path works or about the ways sound can be altered. But I prefer doing things this way because I think it preserves artistic integrity, in that the music is really about the music and the way a person feels when it hits their ears.”

While much of Young's music might appear on the surface to be, as he puts it, “intentional accidents,” it's obvious how songs such as the lush “The Saltwater Room,” the thoughtful “Vanilla Twilight” and the escapist “Cave In” (see Web Clip 2) are garnering this neophyte talent plenty of attention. They showcase a melodic sensibility that's both ingenuous and deftly witty, captured by determination instead of reliance on top-notch equipment.

“I don't know much about recording,” Young says, “but I love how alive music can make me feel; that's all the inspiration I want. For me, it's more about songwriting and creativity than gear. However, ‘a mechanic is only as good as his tools,’ as they say, and I want to be the best mechanic I can be. So I have a lot to learn.”

Home base: Owatonna, Minn.

Primary software: Propellerhead Reason and GoldWave

Recording associates: insects and icicles