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Producing Modern Pop with Kiyanu Kim

Jul 24, 2019
Producing Modern Pop with Kiyanu Kim

HU:MAN is the musical group consisting of producers/songwriters, Kiyanu Kim, Matthew Nelson and singer/songwriter, Torii Wolf. They’ve been writing individually for years, and have worked on some of the biggest songs in music—Kiyanu most noteably known for co-writing Miley Cyrus’s huge hit ‘Wrecking Ball’. We sat down with him to discuss the songwriting & production process behind HU:MAN’s self-titled pop dance album and learned how he’s built a reputation as a top industry collaborator.

Kiyanu, what’s collaboration process like for you guys in the studio?

We set up shop at Matt’s recording studio, Foreword Productions in LA. We normally get a chord progression or riff set fairly quickly, with me on guitar or piano humming some melody ideas and Matt at the console. Sometimes we’re both on an instrument (guitar, piano) and other times we just program some drums/synths and that gets the ball rolling. Often times Torii will be there ad-libbing some vocal ideas to ensure it’s an idea that we all connect to. This normally takes just a few hours and then we start writing.

Most of the time we can get a full song written with a scratch vocal the same day. From here, Matt and I will spend another day or two building the real track. During this process, we normally have some lyric and melody adjustments to make. At that point, Torii will come back in and we will record a more permanent set of vocals including backings and other vocal production. This helps us find the space that we need in the track to accommodate all of the vocals.

Matt and I are both engineers and producers, so we will share the duties in shaping the track, editing the vocals, and mixing everything together. At that point, Matt will master the song and we will live with it for a while, but that’s rarely the end. We may have Torii come back in to record a new vocal to be sure the delivery is complementary to the music and because it’s just more fun to record to a more complete and polished production. From there we get the new vocal to sit in the mix and continue to make fine-tuned adjustments until we feel it’s complete.

(from left to right); Kiyanu Kim, Torii Wolf and Matt Nelson are HU:MAN

(from left to right); Kiyanu Kim, Torii Wolf and Matt Nelson are HU:MAN

How do you bring out Torii Wolf’s edgy, breathy vocal style in the mix?

In addition to a great mic, pre-amp and compressor on the way in, we did some extensive post to get Torii’s unique edgy and breathy style to sit in these tracks. Sometimes we have an instance of auto-tune if we want that as a stylistic effect. From there we’re using several combinations of Waves plugins in various chains that include: Renaissance Equalizer, Renaissance Compressor, Renaissance Vox, DeEsser, CLA-76, C6 Multiband Compressor, Manny Triple D, C1 Compressor, V-EQ 4, API 550B, CLA Vocals, R-Verb [Renaissance Reverb], H-Delay, and Doubler. Of course, not all of these are used on one vocal, but a combination of them all prove to be useful in getting the vocals to sit right. We did also use Morphoder for some of the cool vocoder effects and layering.


Kiyanu uses several combinations of Waves plugins to bring out Torii Wolf's breathy, edgy vocals for the song "Don't Let Me Go".

We’d use many instances of the plugins mentioned, but often, each is just doing some really light lifting. One side effect of compression on a breathy vocal is the amount of sibilance and air/breath that is emphasized. Inevitably we had to do some pre-insert automation as well as post-fader automation. Also, some frequency dependent automation and compression was necessary at times. When Torii sings more powerful stuff, it’s much easier to get it to cut through as long as we’re careful in the gain structure while recording. For that reason, our plugin chain differs depending on dynamics and tone.

As a professional guitarist, do you ever find it difficult to keep it simple when tracking guitars for pop song?

If the song doesn't shine, then no-one shines. I just try to follow the mood that’s been established by the rhythm section and the main vocal before I track my lead guitars. Too many layers and colors can be distracting if you are not careful. I’m certainly not opposed to showcasing some chops here and there, but there has to be room for them, otherwise, there’s no real purpose. I try to remind myself that less is more and make it worthwhile.

On this album, I recorded most of the guitars but Matt also played a few. Having a good clean signal balance and establishing the tone before the mix are the most important things. It just depended on who had an idea, but most of the time Matt was at the board and I had a guitar in hand. We played a Telecaster or an SG through either a Fender Twin or Marshall JCM2000, but most of them we recorded direct through a Pacifica REDDI. It depended on how much time we had and if it was really necessary to play through an amp. Many of the effects were guitar pedals I’d collected through the years, but we’d always use some in the box processing as well.

When I start tweaking the mix, I try to roll off the bottom end of the guitars to create more space for bass and kick. For heavier guitar tracks, sometimes I would even duplicate a main rhythm track and use a different EQ setting to make it fatter. Most of the guitars, whether DI or mic’d, would have an instance of SSL G-Equalizer for some bite and a CLA-3A to reign it in.

Kiyanu and Matt lay down guitars at Foreword Productions in LA.

Kiyanu and Matt lay down guitars at Foreword Productions in LA.

What's the perfect balance between songwriting, instrumentation and arrangement?

The main goal is to deliver the right feeling. I’d say don’t be afraid to re-write, re-arrange and re-mix. In an ideal world, you’d get it right the first time, but refinement and reworking are what make a song as strong as it can possibly be.

I’d advise people to push themselves and not to settle on the first idea. Challenge it and seek out ways to improve it. Even if it just means you come back around to that initial gem knowing that it is the BEST possible part for the song.

Is there a formula to achieving true success in the music industry?

I believe that true success comes from failing and learning from your mistakes. It’s a long continuous journey and it takes a lifetime to understand your full potential as a musician. In my personal experience, heartbreaks and disappointments are the keys to finding the wisdom which will guide you through the rest of your life. I believe that fast success leads you to a short career which will eventually lead you to nowhere but stress and resentment.

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