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Nobody Does it Better

The sky’s the limit for the team behind Adele’s Rolling In The Deep who, with the help of Karen Carpenter’s ghost, brought to life a bona fide classic James Bond theme song.


16 October 2013

If you had to ascribe the archetype for a ‘classic’ James Bond theme song partnership, you’d be a fool not to put down the martini and coolly bet the farm on the Bassey/Barry double. A classic James Bond theme song has drama, tension, an orchestra, and preferably — no offence to McCartney, Tom Jones and Chris Cornell — a Bond girl. Not the hapless heroines and femme fatales who take Bond’s fancy, but seductive crooning beauties like Shirley Bassey and Nancy Sinatra. 

Adding herself to this historic roll call is Adele, who along with her writing partner/producer Paul Epworth has managed to create one of the most ‘classic’ Bond theme songs since Diamonds Are Forever, and claiming their place as the modern day Bassey and John Barry.

When it comes to Bond theme songs, success isn’t a guarantee, it’s a prerequisite. Even for someone that sold 25 million copies of her last album, there’s a lot of pressure following in the footsteps of best sellers like Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, Tina Turner, Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Chris Cornell, Alicia Keys and Jack White. Skyfall, however, exceeds all expectations. The track begins with restraint, just with orchestra and then solo piano, later joined by bass and electric guitar, over which Adele sings the first two verses. Drums, bass, and a huge orchestral arrangement come crashing in at 1:24 for the first chorus, immediately raising the level to 11. Yet somehow the track sustains its momentum until its ending at 4:50. Critics have widely praised the song, calling it a “majestic ballad”, a “classic James Bond song”, and noting “the rousing instrumentation elevates the vocals to soaring heights.” The song’s commercial reception has been exceptional, with the track reaching number one in more than a dozen countries. After the seemingly non-replicable success of her album 21, Skyfall was in every respect a perfect next step for Adele. 


The success of Skyfall could largely be attributed to the old adage ‘never change a winning team’. Adele co-wrote the song with Paul Epworth, who also produced it, and it was mixed by Tom Elmhirst — both men had fulfilled the same roles on smash single Rolling In The Deep. In an ante-room in Air Lyndhurst in London, where Epworth was working with Paul McCartney on the British legend’s forthcoming solo album, he explained how Skyfall came into being. Which takes us back to the second half of 2011. 

“Initially the film’s producers were sounding Adele and I out. Then they gave us the script to read,” recalled Epworth. “It got to a point where it said, ‘Title Music’. And I was thinking, ‘Shit, this will be a tough one.’ Adele wrote the lyrics for the song right after she’d read the script and texted them to me. So they came before the music. We actually sat down and discussed what the emotional quality of the song should be, and we decided that it had to be like two people standing back to back against all odds with everything coming down around them, and then to have an all-conquering ending. For me it was a challenge to do something that was so specific to a brief. I spent nearly a year on it in terms of thinking about it and learning what the other Bond songs and film scores were. All the James Bond music has a certain modality to it, like the C minor 9th chords and all those John Barry and Monty Norman inflections which are indicative of 1960s jazz arrangements. I spent a long time figuring out these chords and how to put them together.

“The chords for the song came to me when I was working at Henson Studios in LA and had this weird eureka moment. I had been talking to one of the assistants in Henson and he was saying, ‘Legend has it, Karen Carpenter haunts the place.’ About an hour later I was on my own noodling around on the piano in the live room and began feeling like I wasn’t necessarily alone. I don’t want to make out I saw a ghost or felt a presence, but I found myself playing chords which I’d never played before, in a key I never use, with inversions and voicings that I had never discovered until that moment. It was really spooky. Maybe in my mind I imagined Karen Carpenter handing me the chords and that was the inspiration. But if you go back and listen to them, they do have that resigned melancholy the Carpenters specialised in. In any case, I felt lucky the chords came in a way that I would remember. 

“You can hear that exact piano part at the beginning of the song. I continued to work out the chords and the song structure, and I had this descending motif in the chord sequence that sounds like something is falling.

“I then put a demo arrangement of the whole song together in my studio, Beethoven Street, in January. I played everything: drums, bass, guitar, and piano, though Nikolai Torp Larsen came in to redo the piano. I had to find a way to make it swing and played this drum arrangement that was almost like a Bernard Purdie shuffle. I also wrote an orchestral arrangement and demo-ed it with samples and MIDI. After that I called Adele and asked her if she wanted to come over and have a listen. She came in and immediately cut her vocal. Most of the vocals you can hear in the final version are that first take. She heard the music and just sang the part. It was pretty amazing. I also had never imagined that she would do those Shirley Bassey jazz inflections so well. It shows what a great singer she is.”

Leo, Tom, James and Nikolaj laying down the basic tracks at Abbey Road.


The next steps for Epworth and Adele involved replacing the demo arrangement, completing the singer’s vocals, adding backing vocals and editing the song to make sure it had the desired structure and length. This was done over three days of sessions at Abbey Road Studio 2, during May. The musicians were Leo Taylor on drums and Tom Herbert on bass (both from the band The Invisible), James Reid on guitar, and Danish pianist Nicolaj Torp Larsen on piano.

“James is an old friend of mine,” explained Epworth. “Nicolaj plays with The Specials and he’s an amazing pianist. We cut the band live to a click track. They played basically the same parts as were on my demo, embellishing things a little bit here and there. The orchestra was still my MIDI arrangement, but all the band parts were replaced. We also recorded the climactic call and response vocal parts at the end, which was Adele’s idea. She demoed that in Beethoven Street and then we thought, ‘Why not go all Ennio Morricone, and add a choir?’ That was done by the Metro Voices. Adele and I really thought about the dynamic shape of the song, and we had this idea for the arrangement at the end of the track to create this huge, grand ending. The swell of the first chorus was like the euphoria of standing against the odds, while the second half was like a death knell, and then a rebirth at the end.”

Epworth recalled that he had recorded Adele at Beethoven Street using a Rode Classic microphone going into a Telefunken V72. At Abbey Road she was recorded with a Neumann U49, but he wasn’t clear on other details, saying, “I’ve never been less hands-on with the engineering of a project, because the intricacies of the music required so much of my attention. At Beethoven Street I had been assisted by my assistant Joe Hartwell Jones, and the whole approach was very throwaway, much in the same way as with Rolling In The Deep. We had also used the Rode on that song, and because it sounded so good we used it again. The first Abbey Road sessions were recorded by my assistant Matt Wiggins, although I did guide him in the sounds I wanted.”

In my mind I imagined Karen Carpenter handed me the chords


The essentials of Elmhirst’s mix of Skyfall involved a particular focus on the vocals, the orchestra, and most of all, the dynamic shape of the track as a whole. Elmhirst explained, “Adele’s vocals were a constant fiddling process. Because her vocal was recorded in sections in different places, and not in one take or on one day. I had to do a lot of work to unify it sonically. That’s why I brought back the original vocal during the second mix at Electric Lady, rather than just using the vocal stem. I used a Decapitator, because it can put an extra harmonic in there and change the timbre. It’s not driven hard, so there’s no distortion. Other plug-ins I used on her vocals were the Waves De-esser, UAD 1176 compressor and UAD Pultec EQ, and the Digirack EQ. The outboard was probably my Urei 1176, Tube-Tech CL1B, a Neve 1081, and reverbs. Doing her vocals took a lot of time!


Matt Wiggins cut his engineering teeth at The Pool studio in south London. Epworth used to visit the studio regularly and it was there they first worked together. He then went on to work with Epworth on records by Florence + the Machine and Bloc Party, and began assisting Epworth full time about a year ago. Wiggins recalls, “We spent much of the first day at Abbey Road Studio 2 with Paul in the live room conducting and producing and getting his vision across, and everyone playing the parts over and over again. After that we recorded the band in just a couple of takes. We also recorded several overdubs, because while the feel is better when everybody plays together, you get more precision with individual overdubs. The guitar and bass amps were placed further away and baffled, so we had enough separation to be flexible, with spill only being a problem on the piano.

“The desk in Studio 2 is a Neve 88R and because we were at Abbey Road, there’s a lot of EMI stuff, compressors and EQs and so on, and we went mad with those. I had a Neumann FET47 and AKG D30 on the bass drum, and a Shure SM7 and Sennheiser MD441 on the snare, Neumann U67s on the toms, Neumann KM84s on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, AKG C24 for overheads and Coles STC4038 and a couple of Schoeps M50 mics for the ambience. There was also a kit side mic, the Coles STC4041, which has a really gnarly sound. I always set up loads of mics, but don’t use everything. We had a rack of Neve 1081 preamps and for the most parts used those and then went through the desk, using EMI gear like the TG12345 Curve Bender EQ on overheads and plenty of other things on the way in, like API 550B EQs, and Fairchild and Distressor compressors.

“The bass was recorded with a DI and an AKG C12, and then treated with compressors such as the Distressor, Fairchild, EMI RS124 and Teletronix LA-2A, and EQs like the API 550B and the Pultec EQP-1A. We had three guitar amps set up, but only used two, and we recorded them with Shure SM57s and DIs. The piano was recorded with two Neumann M49 mics and a Sennheiser MD441 and captured the piano room with an old RCA 44BX. I also put up a Shure SM7 so I could listen to what Paul was saying while I was in the control room. As for Adele, we began by recording her with a Neumann U47 but then changed to the M49, because it sounded better. Her vocals then went through the Neve 1081 and then a Urei 1176 compressor. The choir consisted of just four male singers, who were recorded with the piano mics, being the two Neumann M49s and the RCA 44BX, but placed just a bit further away to capture more of the room sound.”


Following the session at Abbey Road studio 2, recalls Wiggins, “Paul and I spent two to three days editing the song and doing monitor mixes, to give the mixer, Tom Elmhirst, an idea where Paul wanted to go with the song, and then Tom took it to the next level. The work I did was all in the box, the main area of concern was ensuring Adele’s vocals sound consistent throughout the track.” After Elmhirst completed his mix, at his room in Metropolis in London (see below), Epworth presented the song to the Skyfall producers, who gave the song the final go-ahead and the budget to re-record the MIDI strings and brass with a real orchestra.

Epworth elaborated: “I was hoping that Thomas Newman [who composed the Skyfall movie score], would do the string arrangement, but his schedule was so crazy that we went with J.A.C. Redford, who is a great arranger and composer in his own right. J.A.C. and I sat down for a day with the MIDI parts that everyone had lived with for a while. He ran with it and turned it into something amazing. His arrangement was a hybrid of my MIDI parts which had existed from day one, a conversation we had about how I intended to hear those parts, and J.A.C.’s detail, colour, voicings and dynamics. He was very receptive to my input and we changed a fair amount of it again when we recorded the orchestra at Abbey Road Studio 1 in the beginning of September.”

Wiggins added, “They were recording the cues for the movie score, and we got to use the orchestra for one afternoon. It was incredible. Paul was pretty involved with the arrangements during the recordings. Simon Rhodes was the engineer, and I sat in. After the session we went through everything to be able to send it as quickly as possible to Tom, who by that time was in New York and was planning to start the mix the next day. The session was in 96k and quite large, so we had to start uploading the 5.1 orchestral stems that same evening. When they record an orchestra, stems are always routinely created, both in stereo and 5.1. We later sent the entire session over so Tom had all the individual tracks to work with as well. Tom then made everything sound great. It’s a really dynamic song, and the dynamics that he created were phenomenal.”


“My two main reverbs in the session were a Trilliam Lane spring and UAD EMT140 plate. These two often are my general reverbs. The spring is quite particular and would not have been used on everything, but the UAD EMT is really good and would have been used on many different things, including the vocals. During the first mix session at Metropolis I would have operated them from the console, but once I was in the stem session they would have been on a bus in the computer. Aux 2 is the TL and Aux 4 the EMT. The song lent itself to a more diva-esque vocal sound for Adele, and the reverbs helped here, but I also wanted it to sound like Adele, which is quite simple, without too much processing. She had to sound quite grand and classic, but at the same time, natural.


One of Britain’s star mixers, Elmhirst was until last Summer based in Studio C in Metropolis studios in London, but moved in July 2012 to Electric Lady Studio C in New York. “I felt I had become a little bit too comfortable in London, so I wanted to shake it up a bit,” explained Elmhirst, adding that he bought an identical desk to the one he had at Metropolis, a Neve VR72, at CRC studios in Chicago. He also had his extensive collection of outboard gear shipped from London to New York, including pieces from Shadow Hills, Manley, EMI and plenty more. The only genuine gear change involved him abandoning his beloved KRK9000s, because he had problems finding new drivers, in favour of ATC SCM50s. “I love them,” enthused Elmhirst. “They’re great. They and my Auratones are the monitors I use the most now.

“I mixed the Skyfall session in two parts,” said Elmhirst. “I first mixed it in London, which was the band recorded in Abbey Road with MIDI strings and brass. This was the bulk of the work and it was a complete mix in itself. Many people would have been happy with that version. The strings sounded great, even though they were programmed. Once they got the go-ahead and scored and re-recorded the MIDI material with a 90-piece orchestra at Abbey Road, I did a second mix, using mainly stems from the first mix and of the orchestra. I had a strange day in New York pondering whether to mix the whole orchestra again, but I ended up working in the box with the provided stems, only bringing some of the original tracks back in when I wanted to have more control.”

There’s a significant difference between the pre-mix session screen shot sent by engineer Matt Wiggins, which shows some extensive, sprawling guitar, vocals and choir tracks recorded in Abbey Road. Elmhirst’s own screen shot, by contrast, is exceptionally tidy and compact, with the final mix at the top, and then an aux track, the band in stereo, an instrumental version track, timpani, new percussion, piano, brass, horns, strings, and Adele’s vocals all neatly arranged. “We do a lot of bouncing,” explained Elmhirst. “What I’m left with is one page of extremely clear information that makes it easy for me to work. I can’t work by looking at page after page of stuff. Obviously, the one page idea is slightly redundant now, because you can get screens that are absolutely massive, but for me it’s still about clarity of thought.

“My assistant, Ben Baptie, prepares my mix sessions, organises everything and does a lot of the bouncing, so when I first look at the session, I’ll immediately be able to understand it and assign outputs on the console without complex bussing. It’s my job as a mixer to get to the core elements and concentrate on those. I always equate going into the studio to going into the ring with Mike Tyson, which means I have to give everything every day. You can’t do it half-hearted. And when I sit down, I want to be able to go straight into it and reduce any complexities, problems, and distractions, so I can focus on what is essential.”


Surveying the end result a few months later, with a track that is regularly described as “the best James Bond song ever,” and that also made serious dents in charts around the world, Elmhirst reflected, “It’s quite tough to create a James Bond track to order, but I think they did an amazing job. It touches on many things, including the nostalgia of John Barry’s string moves, yet at the same time it’s contemporary. They did that brilliantly.”

So did Paul Epworth know he was onto a good thing during the making, or did the response take him by surprise? “I knew,” said Epworth. “I always felt like we were doing the right thing. I found chords that I would not normally play, and that was a real learning process for me as a songwriter. But I can give chords to people all day, and in the end it might not mean anything. It was Adele’s lyrics and vocal performance that made it all count. That’s what makes it worth everything.”

Then they gave us the script to read... It got to a point where it said, ‘Title Music’. And I was thinking, ‘Shit, this will be a tough one’


“The orchestra stands very proud in the final mix. In the pop world an orchestra can be quite lush and non-aggressive and non-attack-like sounding, with a lot of bass, and all that stuff gets lost in the mix. It can be a battle to get the orchestra to cut through. This being a Bond song, the orchestra had to be a real feature. That wasn’t too hard, though, because there was very little fighting the strings and the brass, apart from perhaps the guitar and the piano. But once the drums kick off, the main areas of interest are the vocals and the orchestra. I wanted to keep the drums in there and for it to sound chunky, but there’s a lot going on and it’s not easy to discern everything. It does become a wall of sound, even as everything finds its place.

“At Electric Lady I used the Waves Q10 EQ and Q4 parametric EQ, and the UAD Neve 33609 compressor and 1081 EQ on the real orchestra to try and replicate what I had done to the MIDI strings in London. They were really well done, so I kept some of these MIDI orchestra parts in the final mix. The Q10 dips out specific frequencies that were bugging me, 1074, 3175, and 5301Hz, with very narrow bandwidths. I do that a lot. High mids can really bug me, and I often find myself fighting this harshness in the 2-5kHz area in pop records. It looks drastic, but it doesn’t sound that drastic. I use EQ much more frequently to reduce things than to boost. I didn’t use any outboard on the strings during the New York mix session, but they’re bussed to an aux track (NUST) where I did a lot of riding and also had some EMT140. But the orchestra was well-recorded; they know how to do that at Abbey Road, so the volume automation was the main thing. In general, the dynamics were the hardest and most important part of this mix. I had to make sure that things kept on going and kept on building.”

Elmhirst’s house warming at Electric Lady
Elmhirst used Waves’ Renaissance Bass to intensify the bass guitar.
Squeezing every bit out of those ghostly Karen Carpenter piano chords makes the intro really stand up.


“I had the UAD SSL bus compressor on the final stereo mix. I really like it and I used it because of the weird hybrid I had  in New York of stems, original parts, and the new orchestra. So all the tracks were bussed to an aux, on which I had the SSL compressor to hold it all together. Everything went through my EMI Curve Bender EQ and the Manley Vari-Mu compressor outboard boxes. The latter is quite slow, so the SSL would have done most of the work. Finally, things went back into the same session via my Cranesong HEDD.”


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