Have you ever listened to a song on the radio and thought to yourself, "I could have written that." No? Well, I definitely have. So with the guidance of a renowned producer, I decided to try and make a hit in a week:
I wanted to try to write a pop song that had the qualities of current hits on the radio— synth textures, dramatic melodies, affected vocals. So, I met up with music producer Ricky Reed to learn about his process. He’s written and produced music for Jason Derulo, 21 Pilots, Meghan Trainor, and more. When I interviewed him, he’d been working on his own music and just that day received news he was nominated for a Grammy Award for Producer of the Year.
Before I got into my own process, I sat down and got some tips from the master first.
Like me, Ricky got into the music world when he started playing punk, except Ricky turned his passion into a serious career. In college, Ricky got into the Bay Area hip-hop scene, and he started a musical project, Wallpaper. That led to him getting signed by a label, touring, and then ultimately producing.
“When I started trying to produce records for other people, one of the first tracks I wrote and produced was sort of a ‘Kelly Clarkson circa 2008,' kind of big-brassy, guitar-pop, rock song," Ricky told BuzzFeed. "I was like, ‘I can do this. I can make pop songs,'" Ricky said of his early foray into producing. “It was bad,” he said.
“I had a whole year or so of trying to do what I thought was pop music. What I ended up learning was that I had to do what I do well, and do it really well and say, 'Maybe there is no pop music that sounds like this now, but I can make it so maybe tomorrow what I like can be what everybody likes,'" said Ricky.
Jared: What is pop music even?
Ricky: “The definition of pop music is distilling a simple idea that affects people from all walks of life," said Ricky. "So, to me, pop is not a genre, and it’s not necessarily something that sounds mainstream or something that sounds obvious."
Jared: It can be sometimes though, right?
Ricky: “It can be. Doesn’t have to be though. Because pop is always changing, I think that the one thing that really ties it all together is a simple idea presented in a way that emotionally affects people.”
I told Ricky about my background playing punk music and my indie proclivities. “You can’t try to stuff those down and say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna write a David Guetta song,’ he said. But still, I wanted to try out Auto-Tuned vocals, pumping synths and 808 beats. So, Ricky gave me some homework. He told me to listen to the work of “the greatest living pop songwriter and producer,” Max Martin. Ricky was actually up against Martin for Producer of the Year.
I headed back to work and listened to a ton of Max Martin’s music. Martin broke so many acts, from the Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears, to Kelly Clarkson’s "Since U Been Gone." He also worked with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and, more recently, the Weeknd. There was a lot to digest, but I noticed some through lines and the evolution of the songwriting and production throughout the years. The chord progressions get simpler, and the layering more subtle (compare Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off").
I wanted to get started writing my own pop song as soon as possible, but because I have a wife, a baby, and a day job, I'd only be able to write and record between the hours of 8:30 p.m. and however long I could stay awake. I gave myself one week to write and record a song to present to Ricky for feedback.
There’s an Onion article that I always click "like" on or even "heart" when it gets shared on my Facebook feed. It’s titled “Find The Thing You're Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.” This is what the next several nights were like for me. The first night went well. I started with a beat, got a piano melody in my head, and that led me to a vocal line. It was a pretty good start. I wrapped up before midnight hoping I'd be able to build on what I wrote the next night.
Here I am, jamming in what little free time I have as a full time video producer and dad:
However, the next night I couldn't come up with anything. I played with keyboard sounds and guitar, but for whatever reason couldn't build anything on top of what I had. I didn't like any of it. I went to sleep without adding anything to the song.
On night three, I abandoned my scratch track. I ended up writing something that sounded more like college radio than it did Top 40s radio, so I scrapped it. On night four I opened a new project, called myself a piece of shit, and went to bed with nothing. On the fifth night I came up with this Daft Punk–esque nothing of a track, so on night six I decided to take that beat and just bang out simple parts so I had something to give Ricky for feedback.
I took the Sara Bareilles approach to writing a hit song and decided to make a song about being tired of love songs. I spammed the office for ideas for lyrics. They had some good ones:
After spamming the office to get lyrics about being tired of love songs, I finally recorded some vocals on night seven. I had a complete track — but was it a hit? Was it even pop? I wasn't sure, but I knew I wanted to be done with it.
“The song is good,” Ricky reassured me. I was happy with it before I added vocals, but after singing on it I immediately wished it was someone else’s voice. Ricky added, “I can hear you thinking a lot through it. Luckily, you gave us enough to work with where we can shrink it down and you’ll have something even more potent.”
Jared: On a scale of 1 to 10, how catchy would you call it?
“8.5,” Ricky said. “Coming from me, that’s good. I’m a tough critic.”
“I’m gonna give you a 6 on structure.”
Jared: At least it's over the halfway point.
“I think the structure is where you’re having the most trouble. The structure is too smart almost.”
Jared: I wanted to attack a lot of different elements I’ve heard and made this hodgepodge of a pop song.
“A lot of what we do in the studio on a day-to-day basis is you try to cast a line as far out as you can out into unknown waters and reel it back in, cut out stuff that isn’t working, cut out stuff that isn’t connecting to people.”
Jared: How radio-ready is it?
“It’s not radio ready.”
Ricky only had the song for about 30 minutes before the interview, but he had a lot of specific notes. In regards to the Auto-Tuned intro I'd come up with, he said, “First and foremost, I would cut from 4 seconds to 27 seconds. Just remove it. That’s really the reason I had to start you at 2.5. When I was listening to it, I was like, ‘I’m lost. Is it gonna be like this the whole way through?’ and then once I got to this next part I was like, ‘Cool! This is great!’”
The next part he gave feedback on was the actual verse which I sung in the style of ‘hipster Roy Orbison.’ “I would do two bars of those drums and go right into that,” said Ricky. He liked that vocal that I felt was the least "poppy" part of the song.
For the verse I had a bass line with another bass line harmonizing on top just because I thought it sounded cool. I liked it but I didn't know if it fly for a pop song. It ended up being an element Ricky liked a lot. “I was gonna say to turn that up. That sounds to me like one of the catchiest feeling things. You gotta make sure to EQ it. Scoop some of the bottom end off of it so it doesn’t interfere with bass frequencies. Just roll it off from at least 300 hertz or so.” I was having a lot of fun getting notes on a song and geeking out about semi-technical, creative choices.
“The second pre-chorus, you go to the falsetto with no layer," Ricky said. "I love that.” In the first pre-chorus, I had a layer of vocals an octave lower in my natural vocal range. Falsetto is a vocal technique used to sing higher than your normal range by what I can only describe as singing with your skull as opposed to your diaphragm. After exporting the song and listening to it, I thought the falsetto-only section sounded creepy and weird, but I didn’t have time to record more vocals. But Ricky said, “Falsettos are supposed to scare you at first. If anything in a pop song, it’s better for sections to be jarring than boring." That made sense, and it was a lot easier having someone decide that for me than figuring out if I liked it on my own.
On to the chorus.
“I’m usually not an octave layering guy," Ricky said. "I try to avoid it, but I think in this song the chorus sounds cool with both layers coming out of the falsetto-only pre-chorus.” I never noticed until Ricky gave this note how a lot of songs create contrast between sections. “Part of what structuring a great song is, in addition to which part comes where, is also how you layer and move the register of your vocals around. That was actually one of the things that was more problematic: Because of the way the vocals are layered and stacked, it’s hard to differentiate the sections from one another on the first couple of listens. It’s really not evident the first time around.”
He liked the lyrics but thought some of the direct references to suicide should be changed if it were going to be on the radio. I brought up Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” which has the lyric, “You're way too beautiful girl/That's why it'll never work/You'll have me suicidal, suicidal/When you say it's over.” Ricky brought to my attention that there was actually a radio edit of that song which replaces “suicidal” with “in denial.” So I’d change all of my references to suicide with euphemisms.
Ricky had a lot of great edits: Move the electro section to the bridge, move the half-time chorus to the end, and one thing I would never think to do: “The very last thing I would say is take your vocals, your bass, your chorus guitar, and probably your bridge sounds as well, and nudge them all at least 10 milliseconds to the right.” What’s that do? What’s that for? “For groove. It’ll make it sound less like it’s pushing and pulling.”
I asked Ricky if I did all this stuff correctly, where would it get me on the radio readiness scale of 1 to 10? “I think you’re gonna be surprised at how much it’s gonna jump. I think we’re gonna be up in the 8s — 7, 8s territory.” He laughed about that. There is no radio-readiness scale, of course. But it sounds like a single, right? “Exactly. I think a better way to think of it too, is instead of competing at radio (level) or whatever it is, think about yourself really. On new music Friday at Spotify, scrolling through songs, the drums come in, if that vocal doesn’t drop in about six seconds, I’m either gonna scan forward or I’m just gonna go to the next song, you know what I mean?” Definitely. “We’re talking about pop music — like, get to the good stuff.”
I took all of Ricky's notes in some form. The edits alone made the song a lot more concise and listenable, but nudging all of those tracks like he suggested was the more dramatic change for me. It just felt tighter — more on time. I have yet to submit the song to a radio station, but I felt like I got Ricky's stamp of approval. Could I be a professional songwriter? I don't think so. It was a pretty painful experience. Then again, I also didn't take some of Ricky's advice early on. “If you go into the studio trying to write a single, you won’t. Don’t do anyone else’s version of a hit song — it’s gonna sound terrible. You just have to do what you do well and crank it up to 11.”