Singer-producer SAKIMA on getting vocals sounding just right

SAKIMA is a UK-based singer and producer who focuses on bringing LGBTQ+ narratives to pop music without filtering or censorship.

His evocative sound and candid lyricism brings a refreshing presence to pop music, and he’s collaborated with the likes of Ryan Hemsworth, AO Beats, Danny L Harle and more. Following his newest pack release with Splice, we sat down with the multi-talented artist to discuss his writing process, how he records vocals, and his favorite plugins.

You have the rare combination of being not only a skilled and versatile vocalist, but also an accomplished producer in your own right. To start, can you give us some insight into how you got into producing and singing? Were you a singer-songwriter to begin with, or did you venture into vocals after learning to produce? Were you trained in a traditional way or self-taught?

I was self taught all the way – I think it’s important to take a hold of your own learning. I learned piano when I was 8 years oldish and started singing and songwriting around the same time. Then, when I was 14 years old I started to produce, but it took me a few years after that to combine producing with singing, which is more a story of confidence in ideas than it is about learning the craft. It doesn’t matter what you make or how skilled you are if you can’t find a personal faith in your creativity.

Can you give us a rundown of your studio setup (sans vocal equipment)? What DAW are you producing in, what does your physical studio space look like, and what kind of synths/outboard gear/equipment are you currently using?

I have a very minimal set up for myself at home for when I’m not in outside sessions. My number one advice is to find what you work best with, and then try to shed any gear acquisition you may have – it’s always better to work best with less. I exclusively use Ableton, although I’ll dabble with Logic when I have no choice. My favorite thing to do is pitch samples to a keyboard rather than use any synths designed for being played. Even if you’re making a middle-of-the-road pop track, just appropriating sounds in a less straightforward way rather than using a VST synth or whatever can give it the edge it needs.

Now onto vocals. You’re able to capture such a rich but intimate quality in your recordings (a great performance probably has a lot to do with that). Can you give us some insight into how you record and treat vocals? What microphones do you gravitate towards, and do you use a certain room treatment in your studio space or anything? How about processing vocals in post – do you prefer certain plugins to treat or EQ vocals? Do you have a preferred delay, reverb, or anything else that’s a “go-to?”

My favorite microphone is the Manley Ref C – it’s probably the best mic in the world. Especially when you pair it with a UAD Apollo Twin, it’s pure sonic magic without any clutter. But for on the fly stuff I use a Blue Baby Bottle (which is also much more affordable). I always reach for Antares Auto-Tune Pro for subtle and transparent tuning; it’s the only form of pitch correction anyone should be using in my opinion. Then I try to keep things simple – some deductive EQ and a fairly aggressively compressor (the Waves CLA-2A is one of my favorites that I put all over everything), then occasionally a second compressor but that could be literally anything, it really depends on the sound source.

Stylistically, I pretty much exclusively use ValhallaVintageVerb for spacing sounds, and then Ableton’s stock stereo delay plugin (usually with a bit of reverb so that the delay meshes into the mix more). I also always make reverb and delay sends, and mostly sidechain them to the lead vocal in a sung track.

We’d love some insight into your writing process. Do you come up with toplines while listening to a track, or is it something that might come to you earlier on, and then a track builds around it? Do you typically work fast, or do you often find yourself re-writing lyrics, re-recording takes, changing things up in a track, etc.? When writing lyrics, do you find yourself channeling certain ideas or places for inspiration?

The process of creation is totally unique for every song for me. I think because I do every part of the creative process, it’s hard to find a repetitive way of working. One day it’s a melody that starts off a song, another day it could be something as simple as a clapping rhythm. It’s just really important to never block yourself off from stimuli, listen to everything, spend as long as you can going through samples and artists/producers even if you think you found what you’re looking for, and just give it time.

I generally work pretty fast once an idea has started to take the form of a song. Then, it’s just a matter of using my intuition to piece together all of the elements I’m imagining in Ableton. Ableton is perfect for my way of imagining before making because it allows you to realize ideas quicker than any other DAW I know of. Lyrically, I never push too hard to get the perfect thing straight away – I just write and record what I can pull from my mind, and then once the form is there I return to tweak and develop. But never forget to check with yourself about how much developing an idea needs; sometimes the first thing you recorded, or the first way you played something, is the best.

While you’ve produced a slew of your own tracks, you’ve also worked with the likes of Danny L Harle, AObeats, Ryan Hemsworth, and more. What does your collaborative process look like? Do you prefer to work in a studio together, or send ideas back and forth with collaborators? How different is the process working with a producer vs. crafting your own songs – do you have a preference?

I prefer being in a studio when I’m collaborating with others, but once the song is done, I like to run away on my own and redo all the vocals and mix things by myself. I need isolation to feel totally comfortable to perform a vocal the way it should be delivered. And even though I love mixing and mastering stuff, it’s really not that fun when it’s a shared activity, so when you’re collaborating I think it’s important to know what ideas require other people’s input, and what ideas you shouldn’t push in the moment because you can just do that by yourself at home or wherever.

On the road and at home, do you have routines for vocal care and treatment?

I try not to sing in the morning. I always use conversations with other people, or talking to myself out loud, as a means to slowly wake my vocal chords up before trying to sustain any sung notes. I drink a lot of room temperature water and coffee, which sounds super gross but anything hot or cold can be really damaging, even just on a day-to-day basis when you’re not required to sing, so I always order my lattes “not too hot.”

Thanks for sitting down with us. Lastly, do you have any advice for vocalists (and producers) on the come-up, in terms of finding your voice (no pun intended), getting your sound out there, and staying inspired? What do you do to stay out of creative slumps and stay motivated?

I think unless you just want to be famous, the whole point of doing something artistic is to be different and unique, sometimes involving your own personal stories. One of the most exciting ways to create something new is to take a couple things that already exist and combine them into a new hybrid, especially with music. All new types of music are the result of cultures colliding. Also, just explore every avenue; even if it doesn’t seem interesting to you right now, you never know what a particular genre or artist can feed your creativity with.

In terms of getting your sound out there, you really need to first look at what you consider to be a success, like what you want to achieve that’s meaningful to you. Is it to have a million followers? Or is it to try and push an important narrative that you think people aren’t talking about enough? Just find the reason why you want the world to know your name and use that as your central motivation.

As far as creative blocks or being demotivated, the only way to deal with that is to not try to prevent those moments. If you’re struggling to get an idea out or feeling really shitty about your work, just stop for a day or two, take a break and rest. It’s probably just because your mind needs a minute to breathe so that you can get back to channeling your creativity properly again. And just always listen to yourself – your intuition may get you into trouble in day-to-day life, but it’s your guiding star in the creative process.

Add a myriad of colors to your sonic palette with SAKIMA’s “Blue Monday” sample pack.

July 9, 2018

Ken Herman Ken Herman is a producer under the name Exitpost and currently on the Sounds team at Splice.