Doc McKinney: working on The Weeknd’s Starboy

Doc McKinney in his Toronto studio. (Photo credit: Zoe Prinds-Flash)


Once upon a time—well, it does seem like an alternate universe these days—people wrote songs with pen & paper, and a guitar or a piano. As a general rule, songs were written by one or two people. However, it appears that with each development in music technology this number has gone up. The introduction of drum machines and samplers in the 1980s allowed non-musicians to write music, and to sample and/or reconstruct existing songs. This led to longer song writing credits as both the creators of the original sample and of the new work had to be credited.

The 1990s saw the rise of the DAW, which seemed tailor-made to create whole swatches of one-man bands and should have heralded an era of bedroom songwriters flooding the world with each song written, recorded and arranged by a single individual. Strangely, the total opposite has happened, in the pop/R&B genre at least, where songs are credited to ever-lengthening lists of song writers. The reason is that DAWs allow users to send each other files and work on them at the press of a button, with a crucial bit of help from that other bit of modern technology, the Internet.

These days the most common approach to writing pop, R&B, and hip-hop tracks is that someone comes up with a ‘beat,’ usually a combination of a drum pattern with some characteristic, hooky musical ingredient, which can be a sample, a chord sequence, or a melody. This is passed on to someone else who adds another musical bit, and so on. At some stage in the process the artist, or a topline writer, will add melody and lyrics. A sign of the times is that topline writers now form an entire subsection of the music industry. Meanwhile, the entire process is pulled together by a handful of producers, who sometimes, but not always, are the original beatmakers.

A scan of the vinyl version of The Weeknd's Starboy

A scan of the vinyl version of The Weeknd’s Starboy

A typical example of the ever-lengthening lists of song writers is The Weeknd’s third album and worldwide megahit, Starboy. Not one song on the 18-song album is credited to less than five writers, and a quite amazing 40 song writers are credited on the album in total. There also are between two and five producers per song, including well-known names such as Daft Punk, Diplo, Max Martin, Labrinth, and Benny Blanco.

A downside of this modern way of working is that quite a few pop/R&B albums with long lists of writers and producers end up as a disparate patchwork. By contrast, Starboy sounds remarkably coherent, like it was all cut from the same cloth. This is almost certainly due to the two creative people who were at the heart of its making. First and foremost there is The Weeknd himself, aka Abel Tesfaye, who is not only the album’s executive producer, but also is credited as a co-writer on all songs and as a co-producer on thirteen. At his side throughout most of the album’s making was Martin ‘Doc’ McKinney, who also acted as executive-producer, and who has a co-writing and co-production credit on 11 of the 18 songs.

On the phone from Los Angeles, McKinney confirmed that he played a central role in the making of Stargate, even as he was at pains to make sure that Tesfaye and the other contributors were given their due. “Abel is really hands-on and super-creative, and always working, and when I came into this record, there already were quite a few song ideas. Abel is a close collaborator with Max [Martin], and they had already recorded most of the two songs that were to appear on the album [“Love To Lay” and “A Lonely Night”]. Abel had also worked on the basics of the song he’d written with Benny [Blanco] [“Attention”]. Plus he’d been in Paris working with Daft Punk. So the making of this record was very different situation to that of the other records I have worked on with Abel.”

Cover of The Weeknd's first album

Cover of The Weeknd’s debut mix tape

Doc McKinney’s relationship with Tesfaye goes back to the beginnings of the latter’s career. McKinney co-wrote and co-produced, with Carlo Montagnese, aka Illangelo, five of the nine songs on The Weeknd’s debut mix tape, House of Balloons (2011). The two also co-produced all songs on The Weeknd’s follow-up, Thursday (both 2011). McKinny, unlike Illangelo, was not involved in the third mixtape, Echoes of Silence (2011), nor in the making of the Weeknd’s first two big label albums, Kiss Land (2013) and his international breakthrough Beauty Behind the Madness (2015).

“I first met Abel very early in 2011,” recalls McKinney. “He had already been writing and recording with various people, and had put four songs on the Internet a few months earlier. Henry ‘Cirkut’ Walter and Adrien ‘AG’ Gough has been working on one of these tracks, as part of a production team that I was mentoring called The Dream Machine, and they told me to check Abel out. I invited Abel into my studio on January 1, and we very quickly established the kind of natural connection that occasionally happens in music between an artist and a producer or writer. I’m quite a bit older than him, I have two kids and a family, and his third mix tape had more sexual content and we didn’t seem to be able to get that right, so I dropped out of the making of that. We also didn’t manage to connect for his first two albums, but then he asked me to come on board and produce the new record.”

McKinney currently is 45 to Tesfaye’s 27, so there’s a generation difference between the two men. It meant that Tesfaye could lean into 25 years of music writing and production experience on the part of McKinney, who has therefore in places been referred to as his mentor. At the same time McKinney has throughout his career always been at the vanguard of music, and working with a younger artist like Tesfaye came and still comes very natural to him. He has said in another interview, “What people don’t understand about me is that I don’t give a fuck. I grew up punk rock as hell. I squatted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when I was 13, 14.” And as a result, “I’m not motivated by money, so the music for me means everything. My main thing is developing artists.”

Doc McKinney in his Toronto studio. (Photo credit: Zoe Prinds-Flash)

Doc McKinney in his Toronto studio. (Click to see full-size. Photo credit: Zoe Prinds-Flash)

McKinney was born in Canada, but grew up in Minneapolis, where he started his music career playing guitar in punk-rock bands. It was during his first tour at age “13, 14” that he squatted in Manhattan. Growing up as a black kid playing guitar elicited sneering responses, but at least he could point to nearby guitar-slinger Prince as another example of music not being bound by skin colour. In 1994, in his early twenties, McKinney decided that there wasn’t much space for him to grow as a musician in Minneapolis, so he moved to Toronto. It was here that he began the duo Esthero, with singer Jenny-Bea Englishman—their debut album Breath from Another (1998) became a trip-hop classic.

From there, McKinney went on to work as a co-writer and producer with artists like Kelis, Raphael Saadiq, Stiffed, and Santigold. Because of his background as a musician and a guitar player, he says, “there’s a lot of room for me to be creative when I’m working with new artists. I definitely have a lot of ideas and like to be involved in every aspect. I collaborate on every aspect with the artists I work with, at least in the beginning stages.”

Although McKinney wasn’t involved in the beginnings of the making of Starboy, he was involved in all levels of its making: song writing, engineering, playing, programming, producing and executive producing. Some of the song writing with Tesfaye took place at McKinney’s own studio in Toronto. But for seven months they were based in Conway Studios in Los Angeles, where they had a lock-out of the entire studio and beatmakers and musicians were coming in and out and working in all rooms.

“Abel and I had not worked together for a long time, so we were initially just fooling around with ideas and playing with different sounds and from there beginnings of songs started to come together. He loves doing music, and he was also preparing for a world tour, so things were a bit crazy and we really had to work hard to make sure all the material was really strong. The modus operandi of how we wrote changed all the time. Some of the stuff he and I wrote from the ground up, some of it was built on ideas that he or I had previously, or we’d expand on ideas from other collaborators.”

The Weeknd and Daft Punk

The Weeknd and Daft Punk

Delving a bit more deeply into the song writing process, McKinney began by elaborating on the point as above, namely that song writing in pop and R&B is a very collaborative process. “Writing in pop and traditional song writing are very different now. Producers and beatmakers have turned into writers and anyone who contributes a musical idea gets a credit. It’s not like in country music, where one person comes up with the lyric and melody and chords and is the sole writer of each song. In contemporary pop many different producers add things to the production. If someone comes up with a cool two words, he’s a writer. So you now see many writers per song. The situation on Starboy is typical.”

“In the beginning, it was just Abel and myself working at my studio. He’s a very strong song writer, but he likes to collaborate with many different people. So at Conway we had a core team, of Abel, Ben [Billions, aka Benjamin Diehl], Cashmere, Cirkut, and then other people dropped by, and they’d be writing and doing production in different rooms. Sometimes all three rooms would be filled, but a lot of the time it was very empty. Abel is very private. But most of the production took place at Conway, and then obviously Daft Punk did their thing in Paris, Max Martin at his compound, Benny in New York, and so on. But many of them also came to Conway at some stage.”

Mckinney elaborated on how a number of the most striking songs on Starboy came into being, like for example the guitar-driven and punk-like “False Alarm.” “That was one of the first ideas Abel and I developed when we got back together and were writing. We were just talking and listening to music and then we got a vibe we’d start wailing away on guitars or keyboards or drums. That song in particular started out as a punk jam session, with me on guitar. So yes, many songs resulted from actual playing, rather than programming, and musician friends of ours would drop by and play along, vibing with us. We were not serious about trying to create a pop song or a punk song. We were not trying to fit things into genres. Instead we just tried to make great music and create something that made us feel something.”

Another guitar driven track, sporting a number of guitar solos, is “Sidewalks.” “That’s me playing the lead guitar! I also play some of the guitars in ‘False Alarm’.’ I rarely credit myself for instruments on records. I don’t like these credits that go like, ‘hi-hats programmed by X, bass in the bridge by Y.’ It’s too much. But ‘Sidewalks’ started with an idea I laid down maybe a year earlier, together with a producer called Bobby Raps, and I did the drums and guitar and Bobby killed the bass line. Abel liked it, so we worked on getting it to the next level. We got Ali Shaheed Jones-Muhummad from A Tribe Called Quest in who did some cool orchestral stuff on it, and Kendrick [Lamar] did an amazing job. I was stressed out, because he wanted to start tracking so fast, and I was still in Ableton, so I had to cut his vocals in that. Ableton is not an ideal DAW for cutting vocals on, but of course it came out amazing.”

Daft Punk as they appear in the "Starboy" video

Daft Punk as they appear in the “Starboy” video

Sometimes extraneous elements made it to the album, for example the Ethiopian vocal sample from Aster Awake that connects the songs “False Alarm” and “Reminder.” The sample is a reminder of Tesfaye’s Ethiopia roots, but Ethiopian music is not otherwise an influence on Starboy. Nonetheless, explained McKinney, Tesfaye’s love of Ethiopian music was “another chamber of inspiration. As we tried to create the story of the record we put that in because thought it sounded cool.”

And most of all there are the eye- and ear-catching two tracks co-written and co-produced by Daft Punk, which bookend Starboy. These two songs were the opening title track, which was the lead single from the album, and the album closer “I Feel It Coming,” which sounds like an out-take from Random Access Memories. In an interview with Zane Lowe, Tesfaye explained that on the last song in particular Daft Punk were trying to get as vintage as possible, going as far as using vintage mics and signal chains, similar to the way Random Access Memories was a homage to the funk and soul music of the 1970s.

Many questions have been asked of those who worked on Starboy about the working methods of the secretive French duo, but McKinney said that he couldn’t elaborate much. “Abel had already worked on “Starboy” with them in Paris, and they got the bulk of it down. Cirkut and myself then did some additional stuff on it, and when the Daft Punk guys came over we put the final touches on it. They recorded ‘I Feel It Coming’ in LA with live musicians, but I was not at those sessions. We also then finessed that track together at Conway.”

The Fisman Triple Play, McKinney's preferred guitar midi interface

The Fisman Triple Play, McKinney’s preferred guitar midi trigger

Having already referred to his use of Ableton, McKinney went into more detail on his tools of the trade. “I’ve been primarily working Ableton for the last 10 years, even as I also use Logic and Pro Tools. Ableton is very transparent for writing and production. It’s very flexible when you’re changing things like pitch and tempo. But if I was scoring a movie, I’d use Logic, which is great for midi and composing. Pro Tools is the best for cutting live instrumentation and vocals. Many different people cut Abel’s vocals for this record, by the way. If the spirit catches him, every way works for him. If I recorded him, I used a vintage Neumann U67, which sounds amazing on him, and a Urei 1176 Blue compressor. Sometimes a Shure SM7 or SM57 also works great on Abel. But Max Martin or Daft Punk might have used a different mic and recording chain.”

A very unusual aspect of McKinney’s approach to writing and arranging is that he does everything on a guitar, as opposed to the keyboard midi trigger virtually every other beatmaker uses. “I use a midi guitar to do all the keyboards and even the drums. I also have real drums, bass, and keyboards in my studio, but whether I use them depends on what the project needs. My midi trigger is the Fishman Triple Play, which has the fastest latency of any midi guitar, short of the ones that work with buttons. I’ve been working with midi guitar for so long that I’m used to latency, but the Fishman is totally workable. I used it a lot on this album, as well as playing regular guitars. I’m lucky that Abel is a big fan of guitars, so many of the ideas we came up with started on guitar.”

McKinney continued his exposé of the making of Starboy by explaining that virtually all tracks on went through a process of lengthy and repeated re-writing and re-arranging. “With artist-driven records, like this one, you often come up with you’re the basis of your songs with a core of collaborators. Sometimes it takes five minutes to come up with a melody and a chorus, but then after that you can play around with that for a week or a month or longer. You keep making changes to the vocals and sometimes the song itself, until the very end. Sometimes we’re close to the end, and the bridge still hasn’t been written, or it’s not quite right yet. And then you have that moment of inspiration. We play with pitch, tempo, sometimes we try a melody or a song over a trap beat or a house beat or whatever. You’re constantly playing with the song. The production may change, the key may change, and inspire another change, and so on.”

Antares' AutoTune plugin, indispensable and ubiquitous on modern pop records

Antares’ AutoTune plugin, indispensable and ubiquitous on modern pop records

One major production decision was the extravagant use of Antares’ Auto-Tune on Tesfaye’s vocals, despite the fact that he’s an excellent singer whose vocals don’t normally need tuning. “We had lots of conversations about this, remarked McKinney. “Abel’s voice is beautiful and he can sing, so he doesn’t normally need Auto-Tune. Instead we used it to creating a certain vibe. It was not about trying to sound cool. You can be a great guitar player on the acoustic guitar, or you can be a great electric guitar player. They are two different things. It’s the same with singing with or without Auto-Tune. In the case of a song like ‘Sidewalk,’ which has a classic soul type sound, there have been so many soul-type covers with that vocal style, for Abel to have sung that without AutoTune would have made it sound derivative. So yes, it did also help make the record sound more current.”

Making the album sound current was one major brief during the making of Starboy, but by the end of the seven-month gestation process at Conway there was another concern. McKinney and Tesfaye now had whittled the writing process down to 18 songs, often in very different styles, with substantial parts of the sessions recorded in various places across the world. Pulling it all together into a cohesive whole was a substantial challenge.

“Practically speaking we spent a lot of time on what we called pre-mixes, with for most tracks Cirkut doing rough mixes in the box before he handed things over to the two mix engineers, Manny Marroquin and Serban Ghenea. Cirkut likes to work in Cubase, and before things were sent off for the final mix they were transferred to Pro Tools. But 18 songs is a lot of material, and to draw that all together was difficult. There are few other artists, perhaps only Prince and Michael Jackson, who can go from pop to rock to hiphop and be convincing. Fortunately Abel also is comfortable in all these genres, and he has the ability to use different aspects of his voice and different vocal sounds. We also had a great team and we were working in a great facility, , continually chipping away at things, carving things out and so on. But most of all, Abel has the ability to still be excited about songs after five months of working on them and to keep things fresh. He really is a visionary.”

© 2017 Paul Tingen.

Previously published in Audio Technology (Australia) and as the cover story of Sound & Recording (Germany) magazines in 2017.

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