Greg Kurstin “Hello” from the Inside

“I thought I was on a roll, but I wasn’t on a roll. And then Greg Kurstin came to London, and we wrote ‘Water Under the Bridge’ and ‘Hello.’”

Adele

The enormous success of Adele’s 2011 album, 21, left an army of new fans waiting for the next one. As it turns out, Adele was waiting too. “When I started writing, I realized I had nothing to write about. No inspirations, no chords were moving me,” she says. “And that’s the thing: If I don’t care about a song, I’m not going to sing.”

After writing one promising song with producer Ryan Tedder, Adele again felt stuck. So she reached out to Greg Kurstin, as well as other top producers including Paul Epworth, Max Martin, and Danger Mouse. “I thought I was on a roll, but I wasn’t on a roll,” she says. “And then Greg Kurstin came to London, and we wrote ‘Water Under the Bridge’ and ‘Hello.’”

Adele’s creative collaborations were highly successful. And the songs were everything her fans had hoped for. To overwhelmingly positive reviews, the lead single “Hello” and the new album 25 broke every music sales record that matters.

For anyone familiar with Kurstin’s track record, his hand in Adele’s repeat success was no surprise. A multi–Grammy Award nominee, Kurstin is known in the industry as an “artist whisperer” who brings out the best in performers like Sia, Beck, Katy Perry, Foster the People, and many more. He does it by bringing a unique set of producing skills to his sessions — world-class ability as an instrumentalist, deep understanding of music and song structure, and a highly effective writing and producing process that runs through Logic Pro X.

Photo credit: Alasdair McLellan

At a Glance

Multi–Grammy Award nominee Greg Kurstin is one of the most sought‑after music producers in the industry. Besides collaborating with Adele on 25, Kurstin has played on, written, and produced tracks on albums by Kelly Clarkson (Stronger), Lana Del Rey (Ultraviolence), The Shins (Port of Morrow), Tegan and Sara (Heartthrob), Ellie Goulding (Halcyon Days, Delirium), Santigold (Master of My Make-Believe), and Pink (The Truth About Love).

Writing with Adele

Kurstin joined Adele in a London studio for three weeklong writing sessions over several months. The first week, they wrote “Water Under the Bridge” and most of “Hello.” “A Million Years Ago,” one of the last songs to make it onto the album, was written during a later visit.

In the studio, Kurstin and Adele kept it simple. “Most of the time, it was just jamming in the room really, with me at a piano,” says Kurstin. “We were simply playing with ideas, looking for some chords and a vibe. It was more of an old‑school approach.”

Kurstin took an equally basic approach to recording their sessions, choosing to bypass most of the studio’s production gear for a mobile recording rig that consisted of little more than a MacBook Pro, Apogee Quartet, and Logic Pro X. “I certainly love using a studio’s professional mic preamps and dynamics processing, but I prefer my traveling Logic rig for the recording and production,” he says. “I just like to avoid potential technical issues as much as possible, and I know my mobile kit works.”

In London, the system worked flawlessly. As soon as they had a song idea or melody, Adele wrote lyrics while Kurstin recorded himself playing piano, guitar, bass, and drums into Logic Pro to build up the tracks. “I’ve always been into working fast,” he says. “That’s one reason I like to play all the instruments, because it’s more decisive. I know what I want to hear and I can just do it myself on guitar and keyboards. Working that way, I can usually finish a song in a day.”

When Kurstin needed a sound he couldn’t create, he’d find it in a Logic Pro project containing a select set of sampled vintage synth and keyboard sounds. “I was working on my MacBook Pro away from my own studio,” he says. “And playing a rented guitar with none of my favorite pedals. So I didn’t have all my trippy effects there. But I was able to pull out everything I needed from my plug-ins, channel strips, and effects.”

Adele works on lyrics during a recording session for 25. Photo credit: Alasdair McLellan

The Backstory on “Hello”

“Hello” came out of the same uncomplicated studio approach. But its path to becoming a ubiquitous hit was not a straight one. “I really didn’t expect that song at all,” says Kurstin. “I was in a daze, probably a little jet-lagged, trying out a bunch of ideas on the MIDI piano in the control room. Then we moved out to the grand piano in the live room, and I just started playing chords.”

The chords were promising, and Kurstin and Adele were able to write most of the song that day. But they couldn’t finish it. “We tried different choruses, but we didn’t quite nail it,” he says. “And I didn’t know if we ever would. I thought maybe this one was going to end up on the shelf.”

But Kurstin was called back six months later to finish the song. He used Logic Pro X instruments and plug-ins to enhance the bass line and drums. More radically, he lowered the entire song a half step at Adele’s request. “We tried really hard with a bunch of different ideas,” he says. “And we finally got it right.”

For Kurstin, the song didn’t feel finished until they recorded Adele singing the chorus. “When Adele gets on the mic, she blows your mind. I was moved when I first heard her sing ‘Hello,’ and I’m still moved every time I hear it.”

“When Adele gets on the mic, she blows your mind.”

Greg Kurstin

25: By the Numbers

85 countries where “Hello” topped iTunes singles chart
first-day views of “Hello” video
albums sold the first week

Instruments at His Fingertips

In his Los Angeles studio, Kurstin writes and records with other artists much as he did with Adele in London. He starts by carefully selecting a set of sounds and instruments that might work for that vocalist or band. “I put a lot of thought into preparing for a session,” he says. “The one thing I always do is build a Logic Pro project template ready with inspiring sounds, like maybe a choice soft synth or special drums. For me, that’s more important than preparing musical ideas.”

Kurstin developed his template strategy after experiencing anxious moments in the studio early in his career. “Artists will frequently ask if I have any cool sounds,” he says. “If they do, I don’t want to be struggling, looking through ten thousand patches I’ve made over the years. I’ve learned that you just want to be ready. With Logic Pro X, I have all the instruments I use to write the songs at my fingertips.”

Recording engineer Alex Pasco, who works with Kurstin on many of the sessions, sees the results firsthand. “Greg’s the only producer I’ve worked with who has such a large palette of instruments ready to go at any moment. When he hears the song in his head, he has the tools to get it out.”

Capturing Every Last Sound

Kurstin’s Los Angeles studio was custom built to complement his workflow. “Because I like to work fast, everything in the studio is plugged in and ready to go,” he says. “All the keyboards are patched in at all times. The drum set is mic’ed. All the channels are there. So whatever I play is instantly in my Mac Pro in Logic Pro X. This lets me get right to the idea. I’m not really one to fidget around with this guitar cable or that mic pre. I just want to get it down.”

Getting it down often involves using sounds pulled from the studio’s wall-to-wall array of vintage analog synthesizers, electric and acoustic guitars, pianos, digital keyboards, and percussion instruments. Over the years, Kurstin has created a massive library of samples from classic synths using the EXS24 sampler to augment an equally vast set of digital sounds. “I pretty much sample all of my gear and instruments,” he says.

Kurstin’s Favorite Instruments
  • Keyboards and Synths
  • Moog Minimoog
  • Yamaha CS-80
  • Sequential Circuits Prophet 5
  • Korg Polysix
  • Chamberlin
  • Plug-ins
  • Logic Pro X EXS24
  • Logic Pro X ES2
  • LennarDigital Sylenth1
  • reFX Nexus2
  • Arturia instruments

Player to Producer

Kurstin attributes much of his success as a producer to his ability as a player. “When people who don’t know me ask me what I do, I throw musician in there because songwriter/producer doesn’t always mean musician. But I spent so many years trying to perfect my playing, because that’s what I always wanted to do.”

The playing started early, with piano at age 5. He also picked up guitar and joined his first band at age 11. At 12, he cowrote his first published song, “Crunchy Water” — the B-side to “My Mother Is a Space Cadet” — with his classmate Dweezil Zappa. “That was a pretty crazy experience,” he says. “We were recording in Frank Zappa’s studio, so sort of a big jump. After that was over, it was back to the garage.”

In the garage years and after, Kurstin’s career closely followed his musical tastes, from Talking Heads and Devo to British bands like the Clash. And even then he was thinking like a producer. “I was always that guy in the band,” he says. “If I was playing with a punk band with maybe not the best players, I was very patient. I’d say, ‘Hey, let’s try this’ and show the bass player the part or play keyboard with the guitar player to get some syncopation going.”

An obsession with New York jazz took him into a deep exploration that included ten-hour-a-day piano practice sessions and studies with Charles Mingus’s pianist Jackie Bayard at the New School. He credits those years with helping him develop the ability to write on the spot in any session.

After returning to his hometown, Los Angeles, Kurstin wrote and performed in the alternative band Geggy Tah, then worked as a sideman for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beck. Eager to write and record his own music, he formed “the bird and the bee” with singer Inara George. A publishing deal got him a chance to work with Lily Allen, and their breakout success established him as a go‑to creative producer.

Getting Technical

Kurstin’s comfort with the technical side of producing came from a strictly musical urge. “I was really into the music and the gear and playing,” he says. “I’m a musician at heart. And that’s all I cared about. I just wanted to get the idea down. Get an audio signal onto the tape. So at first I didn’t really pay attention to technology.”

Pursuing new sounds in different bands led Kurstin inevitably into new ways of creating and recording them, from early experiments with synthesizers and the Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard to various MIDI programs. But his creative process changed when, during a recording session, an audio engineer showed him Logic Pro. “Learning how to use Logic was a big breakthrough,” he says. “For the first time, I was independent of having people recording for me.”

“With Logic Pro X, I have all the instruments I use to write the songs at my fingertips.”

Greg Kurstin

Fast-Forward

Kurstin works fast, but with so many successes, he works pretty much all the time. “It’s been busy, which is great,” he says. “I feel fortunate. There were lots of years that I was not busy at all. So it’s still hard to say no.”

One artist who got a resounding yes from Kurstin recently is Beck, with whom Kurstin used to tour. “We did that song ‘Dreams,’” says Kurstin. “And we’re continually writing and working on new material.”

These days, Kurstin rarely has time to perform with “the bird and the bee.” But he’s very excited about his recent Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for their Recreational Love. Although he is better known for his writing and producing, Kurstin was able to fully mix one of the best-sounding albums of the year in Logic Pro X. “I never studied engineering,” he says. “But I do put a lot of care into the sounds when I’m recording and mixing, so being recognized for that feels great.”

His current plan is to go with what is already working so well. “I love writing songs and producing them,” he says. “I’m going to continue to do that with new artists and the artists I now work with. I’m not sick of it. In fact, I can’t get enough of it. And I still feel inspired. So I just want to take it as far as I can.”

A Deeper Look

A detailed account from Greg Kurstin on producing songs for Adele.

“Hello” “I have SoundShifter on the piano to pitch it down a half step. We wrote the song higher and changed the key, but I liked the piano sound and didn’t want to replay it. I sampled my Roland TR-808 kick drum into the EXS24 and used that in the chorus to double the bass. Valhalla’s VintageVerb is on the guitar single-note stuff. I filtered the drums with the Logic AutoFilter. I used SPL Transient Designer to shorten the length and add attack on those drums. And there’s a little bit of Sylenth1 playing a sine-wave, organ-like pad under the chorus.”

“Water Under the Bridge” “I have a sampled-tom EXS instrument, which I have set on a 16th arpeggio repeat under the drums. There’s a little bit of side-chain using the Vengeance VPS Multiband to bring out the accent on the off beats. The clap reverb on the verse is the Logic Pro guitar amp reverb. And there’s a little bit of Logic Rhodes sound under the piano to warm it up. Adele had sung a rough melody idea over the verse, kind of a repetitive chant. I ended up putting it in the chorus. The notes fit the verse but not the chorus, so I used the Logic Pro Pitch Correction plug-in on 0.00 ms response and selected only the D# so all the notes get pitched to the root note of the chorus. I used some Effectrix to add a little glitchiness and delay. The intro voice ‘oooh’ is Decapitator, for a little mid boost and saturation. AutoFilter was used as a low-pass filter. And I used VintageVerb.”

“A Million Years Ago” “Not a lot of tracks in this one. I used some Logic Channel EQ to EQ out some low end to the guitars. Didn’t have access to an upright bass in London, so Trilian came to the rescue at the end of the song.”

  • Third-Party Hardware
  • Apogee Quartet
  • Apogee Symphony
  • Plug-ins, Instruments, and Effects
  • Logic Pro X
  • AutoFilter
  • Channel EQ
  • ES2 Synthesizer
  • EXS24 Sampler
  • EnVerb
  • Flanger
  • Guitar Amp Pro
  • Multipressor
  • Overdrive
  • Phaser
  • Pitch Correction
  • Sample Delay
  • Space Designer
  • Spreader
  • Stereo Delay
  • Tape Delay
  • Tremolo
  • Vocal Transformer
  • Third-Party
  • Camel Audio CamelPhat
  • FabFilter plug-ins
  • Lexicon reverbs
  • Soundtoys Effect Rack
  • Spectrasonics Trilian
  • SPL Transient Designer
  • Sugar Bytes Effectrix
  • Valhalla VintageVerb
  • Vengeance VPS Multiband
  • Waves CLA-2a, CLA-3a, and CLA-76 compressors
  • Waves SoundShifter

Logic Pro X

Available from the Mac App Store for $199.99. Just click to download and install.

Logic Pro X $199.99