Being Both Artist and Producer
By Hollin Jones
Tyler Smyth is a Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter and musician with over 1,000 live shows to his credit. He was named by Billboard as the first #1 Hot Hard Rock Producer on the chart’s debut, holding the #1, #2, and #5 spot simultaneously with his productions for Falling in Reverse and I Prevail. Based in Los Angeles, he has also worked extensively with Sega as songwriter and producer on the Sonic game series. We caught up with him to find out how he juggles so many different roles and how Cubase helps him push the boundaries of creativity.
How did you first become interested in music and performance?
It started with my father, who at a young age really instilled a love of rock and roll guitar in me. I’m actually very left handed but he gave me the choice of learning left or right handed playing, and I chose right handed. So he’d take me to guitar lessons and I’d bring in songs I liked and ask the teacher how to play them. From there I graduated to playing in bands and toured for a decade, as guitarist and vocalist but never really with the intent of becoming a music producer. I just had this artistic itch to create music — I started learning Cubase as a way to demo my own bands’ songs since I couldn’t find anyone in the area to record us. So it's kind of a roundabout way to become a producer. I’m still touring as an artist but the production side just sort of snowballed, people kept asking me to help out. It’s like I get to join everyone’s band for a while when I’m producing them!
Were you always drawn to rock music?
I was always a bit flustered with what sound do I play — do I have to stick to rock, or can I also do pop or country, or EDM? Being a producer has enabled me to do all of those things and bounce around between them. So I might hear an EDM sound that I love but have no idea how to make it into a song, but I get excited at the prospect and I’m like well, a lot of people figure it out so I can too! And that’s where my competence with Cubase helps, if I can hear it in my head, I can create it. I love the challenge of trying to create all these things and being a producer lets me work in all these different genres. There’s something amazing about helping so many other people’s music come to life.
Was there a moment you felt was your big break, or was it more a culmination of things that led you to where you are today?
Looking forward, the path is never all that obvious, even if you’re on it you might not even know it until you get to a point where you can look back and take stock. So I was getting bigger and bigger production jobs but still seeing it through the lens of being an artist, squeezing in records between my tours, even mixing records while I was on tour, on a laptop. I do recall doing an album called Trauma for a band called I Prevail which was something of an epiphany moment, that was my biggest break up to that point. I’d worked with them previously and they reached out to me to write a couple of songs but I ultimately got hired to produce and write the entire record. That record gave both of us our first number 1 song and we received two Grammy nominations for the album including best rock album.
Did the level of success take you by surprise?
That was never on our radar at all — our type of rock music generally doesn’t get recognised by the academy like that. We knew that it was cool, but that didn’t mean it was going to connect the way it did. I did another song for a band called Falling In Reverse, a song called Popular Monster and still to this day it’s the biggest song I’ve done. That song is on track to go double platinum this year, but when you’re making it you just don’t know how it will be received. But it does a lot for your ability to trust yourself. Somewhere around 2018 I stopped listening to label managers and started to understand what the real role of a producer is — you are ultimately creatively leading projects so you have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of the artist.
How do you approach the songwriting process?
It’s almost always melody or some type of chord progression that does it for me, I know some people are more influenced by lyrics but for me I’ll often just voice memo a melody or a progression on my phone. I think if the progression is right, the vocals flow naturally from that. I have music playing in my house all the time and I’ll explore music that I’m not well versed in — I’ve just finished a big classical music kick. I have these folders that I call “artist kits”, they’re like sample packs that I put together either for myself or for when I’m working with artists and I’ll modify and take from those as I go along.
One trick I use a lot in Cubase is transposing, it’ll do so much for your creative brain. The emotion of a song can totally change with even a slight transposition. Sometimes I pitch shift around until something starts working. My songs change tempo and key quite a lot, probably more than most people’s! I also use the Arranger track all the time, I just ninja chop my songs, clipping out and moving around parts of songs with a few clicks. Anything that fosters creativity, for me is impossible to put a price on.
Are you a mostly in-the-box kind of producer?
I started out being completely in the box and I’m definitely of the generation of the bedroom producer! Today I use some outboard, but mostly limited to my vocal chain. I don’t have a live room at my home studio but I do have a vocal booth, and also some outboard for mastering. But I still travel to clients so there’s a lot of working on the laptop, and I have a flight case for my iMac. So I am still kind of that bedroom guy. A lot of the built-in Cubase stuff is my favorite stuff — especially the Cubase compressor. I do use other plug-ins of course but I prefer the ones that are simple, and not trying to do ten things at once.
You have worked with Sega a lot on its Sonic series of games. How does that process differ from “regular” songwriting?
I was initially brought on because the music director in charge at the time happened to be a big fan of my band Dangerkids, which was just random luck. We started out working on Sonic Forces and I got to do some songs for Team Sonic Racing, both were very different in terms of the cues and the deliverables. With the first game we got to be featured artists and write a song like we’d normally write. But then for the racing games you have to do different music for different levels, different courses, and even different speeds for the last lap and crossing the finish line!
What’s coming up for you this year that you’re able to let us in on?
I’m working on the new album for I Prevail which I can’t talk too much about, and an EP for Falling In Reverse called Neon Zombie which is getting close to being finished. Both of them are the biggest, coolest things I’ve ever worked on! I’ve never felt so confident or so proud — these artists are incredible, and they’ve totally outdone themselves. I think we’ve found that together we know how to really move the barometer on the rock scene we’re in, how to offer something different. And I’m hoping that stays true on these new albums. I’m really excited to see how people react to them.