Grammy nominees Grey on co-producing Zedd’s “The Middle”

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a committee to write a hit song.

“The Middle” by Zedd, Grey, and Maren Morris has all the makings of a hit – it’s catchy, it’s heartfelt, and above all, it’s a simple and straightforward pop song. There was nothing simple and straightforward, however, about bringing it to life. What started as a demo by production duo The Monsters & Strangerz and vocalist Sarah Aarons eventually landed in the hands of producers and Singular Sounds head-honchos Grey. After they gave it their signature touch, “The Middle” was soon brought to Zedd, who embarked on a talent search rivaling the most competitive casting of a major Hollywood blockbuster, with 14 vocalists vying for the topline – eventually, country vocalist Maren Morris was chosen for her unique sound. The ensuing song has now been nominated for a handful of Grammy awards and honored “Hook of The Year” at Variety’s Hitmakers, an annual event celebrating the creative minds behind music.

In the process of bringing the track to life, producers Grey found themselves somewhere… in the middle. We sat down to chat with them about collaborating with Zedd, being recognized for the multitude of awards, and their tips for up-and-coming producers.

Talk to us about how “The Middle” came to life from conception to execution. Tell us about hearing the demo for the first time, and bringing it to life with your unique touch.

When we first heard the original demo from Sarah Aarons and The Monsters & Strangerz, we knew that it had something really special. Within a day or two of production passes, we already felt like we had something pretty close to what we had envisioned. When we showed what we had to Zedd, he was super into it so we sent him the stems and he worked his magic on it. At this point we still didn’t have a singer, so we literally spent months just trying out different singers to see who would fit the best. Eventually Zedd ended up flying out to Nashville last minute to cut Maren, and she absolutely killed it. For a minute there, we weren’t really sure if we would have a singer in time for the release date, so we we’re obviously super stoked!

Take us into your creative space – what does your studio and DAW look like? What plugins, synthesizers, and hardware do the two of you abide by?

We use Ableton for production and Pro Tools for cutting vocals. Plugin-wise, we tend to use a lot of organic Kontakt libraries and things like that – we try to stay away from synths as much as possible. If we ever do use a synth, it’s almost always in support of a natural element. For all the guitar, we record it ourselves in our room. Electric guitar is done through a Kemper, which is so, so convenient.

That axe sound on the snare! We always love hearing foley and odd sampling incorporated into tracks. How important to you is creating and crafting unique sound design within your work? Do you get fixated on particular sounds like that one? Do you play around with granular synthesis at all?

Sound design is super important obviously, but we try to make sure that it’s always in support of a good song. I don’t like adding random shit for no reason – everything has a purpose. Since neither of us really understand synthesis, we’ve just learned other ways to get interesting sounds, mainly by manipulating weird sounds we find online or record ourselves. For instance, if you cut up a lion growling and process the hell out of it, the end product will sound way cooler than any synth in my opinion.

How does your songwriting process differ from artist to artist? Tell us about collaborating with Zedd. What do you try and bring to the table, and what do you try to get out of your collaborators?

Most of our collaborations are done remotely – we like to have time to ourselves to get it sounding the way we want, and then pass stems back and forth. Zedd is so good at knowing which elements are helping the song and which ones aren’t. I feel like we just throw paint at the canvas, and he’s able to organize everything in a way that sounds cohesive. At the end of the process our mixing engineer, Tom Norris, takes the song to a new level every time. He’s been with us since the beginning so he knows exactly what we’re going for in terms of the mix, so that really lets us focus on the part that we’re good at and not be so worried about the final step.

Tell us about the Variety Hitmakers Awards. How did it feel to be nominated?

The award show was really dope! It was awesome to be surrounded by so many other nerds who love making music as much as we do. The fact that we were even a part of something like this is really humbling, to be honest.

Lastly, can you share three tips for new and aspiring producers? It can be anything from ritualistic to production-focused to aspirational.

  1. The most important thing in your song is the song. Most producers rush the writing process and make chords, melodies, and rhythms that aren’t as good as they can be. If you do this, you’re digging a hole for yourself later and you’ll try to fix it with sound design or mixing, which is impossible. If you have a good topline and good writing, anything you voice it with will sound great.
  2. Once you’re at an intermediate level or above, I would really recommend not listening to music all the time. I basically only listen to podcasts, and when I do listen to music, I listen to movie scores and stuff like that. Combine that with the fact that we work in chunks, so we’ll spend 3 days going in on a production, and then take time off to reset. In my opinion this really helps our stuff stand out, because the decisions we make while producing aren’t so heavily influenced by what everyone else is doing. By the way, I wouldn’t recommend this if you are just starting out with production, because of that whole 10,000 hours thing, you gotta immerse yourself in it and know what you’re doing before this stuff even matters.
  3. Don’t be afraid to resample the hell out of stuff and keep going down the rabbit hole of sound design. When people start out producing, they usually keep way too many things in midi all the time, which is not the right approach if you want a unique sound. For example, we found this technique recently where you take Soundshifter from Waves and set it up an octave, then put another one after it down an octave (so you end up in the same octave you started). Do that over and over again like 6 times. Your computer will not be able to handle this, so just resample it (your computer will sound like it’s performing an alien exorcism), and then listen to the result. It gives it this lo-fi watery texture thing that’s really cool, and softens all the transients. This is just one example of how you shouldn’t be afraid of going down a random path with an unknown ending – you almost always learn something new. Related to this concept is this video. You need to be able to switch between the left and right brain to make good music. Watch that video and train this skill, and it will change your life.

Be sure to check out Grey’s sample label Singular Sounds for memorable sounds that inspire, used by the likes of Zedd, Skrillex, Diplo, and more.

February 7, 2019

Ken Herman Ken Herman is a producer under the name Exitpost and is an editor of the Splice blog.