Connect with Artist
Fraser T Smith’s production CV reads like a veritable who’s who of the great and the good in contemporary music. Having produced, mixed and co-written with Adele, Kaiser Chiefs, Tinchy Stryder, Example, Britney Spears amongst many others, Fraser won a Grammy for his production/co-writing on Adele’s global smash Set Fire to The Rain and has contributed his keen mixing skills to no less than six UK and US number one singles.
With his company, MyAudioTonic Productions operating out of London’s swish Matrix Studios, Fraser T Smith invited Roland UK to talk tech, tips and TR-8s with an Integra-7 chaser.
You’re known for keeping yourself busy; what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new punk band called, Slaves who are fantastic and I’ve also been doing some amazing stuff with Jess Glynne who’s just had two number one hits. There’s a guy called Rag and Bone Man and I’m also working on CeeLo’s next record…so it’s all quite eclectic.
Do you have a different production modus operandi for working with someone like Adele than you do with, say, Tinchy Stryder?
I think when you’re working with great artists, you learn so much from each one that it hopefully translates into your other projects….say, the soulfulness of CeeLo into working with a punk band or the energy of working with a punk band back into working with someone like CeeLo. I grew up listening to all sorts of music so I guess it’s more a case that I’ve never been able to work out what my favourite music was; I was into everything from old Philadelphia soul through to bands like Joy Division and New Order. I love immersing myself into a project and then going to do something completely different after it as it keeps me on my toes, fresh and always learning.
So, you’re keen not to get pigeon-holed into one particular genre or style of music?
When you have success with one particular project the nature of the music business is that everyone will then try and get you to replicate that on their project. I’ve always been quite careful to not try and repeat myself too much. If you put yourself in a position where it’s hard to repeat yourself, if, say one minute, you’re working with Adele then the next you’re working with Slaves then that stops you getting pigeon-holed into being one of the producers who has a certain snare sound or a particular way of writing.
Putting yourself into different situations really helps then, hopefully you can aim to become a more consummate producer who has a resume like Rick Rubin who has worked with everyone from Beastie Boys, Dixie Chicks and Black Sabbath right through to Johnny Cash.
Are you quite excited that hardware is making a big comeback?
Yeah, because I think hardware’s coming back with the added capabilities of the laptop. So, we’re in the situation now where we’ve got the best of both worlds. Obviously, Roland are adding the System-1 and the TR-8, which are the best of everything, really. It’s OK drawing notes in or clicking around on a laptop but, as musicians, I think we’re all very tactile creatures and I see that when anyone walks into the studio and people like to get involved with the hardware synths and drum-machines we have set up. When you’re immersed in a laptop it can be a sort of barrier…you can’t be sure if someone’s making music, checking their email or posting on Twitter! I think when you’ve got tactile instruments that demand your full attention then you can really get immersed in the music again.
You’ve recently taken ownership of an Integra-7 Sound Module, how are you finding that?
I’ve always been a big fan of the JV series; I’ve always had a 1080 or a 2080 in my rack but my big thing with them was that they had so many sounds that it could become a little overwhelming when you were looking for new sounds. With the iPad connectivity via the Synth Tone Editor it’s incredible using the Integra-7. I might be in a song-writing session or production session and somebody might say, “how about some timpani there” or (laughs) “how about some Indian nose flute in the chorus?” Before, you’d be scrolling through your sound-library whereas you can now go directly to it and get an amazing sound when you click into it. That helps keep the energy going in a session too.
So, the Integra’s found a place in the heart of your studio workflow then?
Absolutely; I have a MIDI workstation that’s replete with the Integra and I do a lot of my drums on an MPC4000 and I’ve started using a lot of the drum sounds from the Integra…the 808 stuff and especially the multi-sampled acoustic kits, which are fantastic. Being able to edit them really easily is great too. I would never go into a JV-1080 to edit the sounds whereas now it’s easy just to edit the effects or any of the parameters, which is what we’ve become really used to from working with soft-synths and samplers like Kontakt or EXS so it really helps that you’ve got the ability to do that within the Integra now.
Are the Integra’s onboard sounds a source of inspiration?
I think it’s fantastic as it gives me that whole sound palette of live instruments but also a lot of the onboard synth sounds are creeping into what I do as well. I do still use a Juno 106 in the studio but more and more I’m using the Integra for synth-patches and basses over and above the traditional things I’d use it for like pianos, strings and more live-sounding instruments. Some of the PCM sounds are amazing and, even if you’re recording live stuff on top then having them underneath can give you a really different texture. Having, say, a Spanish guitar sound running underneath a played Spanish guitar part helps it become something interesting.
Jumping back to your Grammy-winning work with Adele on Set Fire to the Rain…how did that initially take shape?
We’d met before so I knew she wanted to do something rhythmic and quite driving so we had that in the back of our mind. I got some drum loops going on the MPC and started the piano riff and we built it from there, really. I put some live instrumentation on and we built the song around the lyrics Adele had and we worked on some together.
So, was it very different from usual sessions?
It was an amazing song-writing session but, in terms of the process, it wasn’t any different from normal. Obviously, when you’re working with someone the calibre of Adele, she’s bringing these incredible lyrics, melodies and concepts to the table. In terms of the sounds, I tracked up some strings from the JV-2080 for the initial demo and then at the end of the recording process we got Ash Soan to put some live drums on top of the programmed stuff and then asked Rosie Danvers to come up with a string arrangement to really complement the strings from the demo.
Were there lots of takes to capture that brilliant Adele vocal?
We actually used the original vocal we’re recorded for the demo because it was just so good! It wasn’t that much of a drawn-out process as Adele was really hands-on in terms of what she wanted for the production…she’s very good in the studio as she’s always questioning whether things are really needed or not. There’s a lot going on in that track but I think she kept it down to the minimum of what was required to get the emotion across in the song. It’s incredible to start a song in a small studio, add bits and pieces then it goes on to be part of this incredible ground-breaking album.
Does the new Roland Aira range appeal to your sensibilities?
It’s really good to see Roland bringing those units back and introducing them to a new generation of producers and beat-makers. Original TB-303s or 808s go for about £1500 nowadays, which is out of reach of most producers, really. I used an 808 on a session and it sounded great but the programmability is slightly archaic by today’s standards. What’s exciting is that Roland have brought all these legacy products back in, not as soft-synths but as hardware controllers so everyone gets to experience the best of what they’ve always done. But also with the ability to then hook it up with your laptop and use of the processing power from that to have instant recall and all the things we expect now from modern instruments. It’s obviously testament to Roland’s initial designs that the 303, 808, SH-101 and all their synths like the Juno 106 are as relevant today as they were thirty years ago!
If any aspiring song-writer/producers are reading this, what advice would you give them?
Listen to as much music as possible…so, if you’re into hip-hop then try listening to some classical, some thrash-metal and maybe some of the great singer-song-writers to try and appreciate all different types of music. Get out and see music played live and also try to look at every single part of the production process, which now encompasses things like helping a singer with a lyric, miking up instruments, programming a beat, increasing your palette of sounds…all these different things. Look at where you can improve as there are so many ways of improving nowadays from online courses and YouTube videos. Look at what you’re weakest at and focus in on that for a bit, which will usually help your other areas improve too.
Interview by Hamish Macintosh