Alawn – Producing K-Pop
By Markus Thiel
Originating from Lyon, France, the Houston/Texas-based multi-instrumentalist, producer and artist Alawn can be considered a true cosmopolitan — without any doubt. His vast established musical roots blend with multifaceted views on production which might be the reason for getting himself involved with the South Korean influenced culture of K-Pop. We talked with Alawn about his career, influences and his approach to an exceptional one-of-a-kind genre.
Can you tell us about your personal roots and influences that got you started?
I grew up in France, surrounded by music and attended many shows since a very young age. Music has therefore always been around me and is something I’ve always felt drawn to. I started producing when I was about 15, beginning by learning to play the piano. I then moved on to bass, guitar and drums.
Growing up I’ve always listened to all kinds of music, which I think led to this unique blend that you can find in my productions nowadays. From being a fan of hip-hop artists — such as Eminem or Jay-Z, being fascinated by movie soundtracks — like those of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, to being heavily influenced by the French Electro scene including artists like Daft Punk or later on, Justice. I’ve always been open to every genre and took what I loved the most from each one to make it my own.
Since not everyone is familiar with the K-Pop/J-Pop culture, can you describe some peculiarities and how and when it crossed your path?
K-Pop was presented to me when I least expected it. We had received a request to produce a theme song for the MBC’s Under Nineteen TV Show, which is really big in South Korea. This was my first introduction to the genre. The song was a great success and I was invited to my first SM Entertainment writing camp in Seoul, South Korea. I flew there without really knowing much about the K-Pop world and its culture. It was only while finding myself submerged in the center of the beautiful city that is Seoul, in these amazing studios — creating and writing songs, all while learning about the characteristics of K-Pop and what a successful K-Pop song is all about — that I completely fell in love with the genre and the entire culture that goes with it.
To me, the main thing that sets it apart, is the creative freedom that you find within those songs. Each section is different and introduces a new vibe, blending so many genres within the same piece of music. From the amount of vocal parts and harmonies to the chord changes. All are so appealing to me, and I’m really having fun during production.
Do you follow a special aesthetic philosophy regarding your compositions?
Not necessarily… I create what feels right to me and it’s different every time. I also challenge myself to create something that differs from the thing I did before. I’m always reinventing my creative process.
On the other hand, you may recognize some signature sounds in some of my productions — that will perhaps let you know I was behind the track — but I approach each track as one unique piece.
What’s most important for you when working with artists?
When I work directly with an artist at the studio, it’s very important as a producer to get to know them — to listen to their story and understand what they want to express through their music. So that’s the first step when starting a session. Of course, the next thing would be to discuss the direction they want to take sonically for their music and most of the time they have an idea but also totally trust me and the ideas I come up with — which is amazing. You always need a certain level of creative freedom.
When working on K-Pop it’s a bit different as most songs are written to specific briefs, provided by the record labels. However, once again there’s always creative freedom and if the song is great, it will generate interest and end up being placed.
Do you have a special production style or workflow?
As I mentioned, I always try to mix up my creative process. I usually start by going through sounds until I find one that really inspires me and then come up with the chord progressions. If the chords aren’t right or inspiring, the songwriters and I will not be able to deliver exciting toplines and this will bring the entire process to a standstill. So, making sure that you have an interesting chord progression, is essential to me and of course rhythm comes next, along with the drums. The vibe of the track will start growing and then it’ll be all about layering, formatting, finding the different parts and sections of the song!
What are your favorite tools at the studio and why?
Cubase is the brain and centerpiece of my studio. I love how I can do everything from composing, programming and vocal recording to mixing and mastering without leaving Cubase for once! I’ve been experimenting lately with the new Backbone plug-in which is really nice for drums.
Most of my work at this time is being done in-the-box, since I travel a lot and work all around the world. I like being able to open up a session or recall a mix wherever I am, and have it sound exactly the same without missing hardware inserts, for example.
I’m a big fan of the UAD and Acustica Audio plug-ins. They help me get a bit closer to a warmer and more analog sound. Talking virtual synths: I’ve been using Omnisphere and Serum a lot lately, but I’m always looking for new plug-ins to try and experiment with for new sounds.
One thing that I bring along with me everywhere I go are my Sennheiser HD800 headphones. Constantly working in new studios and rooms that you’re not familiar with can be acoustically very tricky. The headphones produce such a quality sound and I know them so well that it gives me a good reference that I can always trust in.
Any projects in the near future to look out for?
Most definitely, I am working on many more exciting acts that I can’t name right now, but you will hopefully get to enjoy what we’re working on soon!