The Review talks to three producers who, as well as being respected performers in their own right, help bring out the best in the artists who populate the UAE's music scene.
Shadow players: the producers behind the UAE's best music
They used to be the unsung heroes of the music industry, sitting behind a recording console, bringing audio ideas to life and helping artists realise their vision - all the while operating somewhere in the shadows.
But today, many producers more than match the weight of the big name acts who hire them. In some cases, they even outshine them. From Timbaland to The Neptunes, from Butch Vig to Mark Ronson, today's most successful music producers are stars in their own right. So too are Swerte, Mil Kyvernitis and Reiner Erlings, the UAE's most renowned stars of the mixing desk.
With the undeniable rise of hip-hop in the Emirates, Swerte has become a prominent player on the local scene. The Indonesian-Swiss producer whose real name is Lucky Schild, has played a key role not just in shaping original UAE hip-hop but also in helping spread it to every corner of the world, garnering following for his group in the US and South-east Asia.
As the main music composer for rap collective The Recipe, Schild has produced and performed (as a rapper) on a number of the group's most popular mix-tapes, including those of Perfect Storm, Young Vaughn, and this year's breakthrough rapper Kaz Money. He has even worked with artists from other genres of music, most notably with trip-hop soulstress Gayathri, kabuki actors Tokyo Towers and Sandwash, the groovecore rock band of which I am the lead singer. "The more experiences you have, the more weapons in your arsenal," Schild observes.
Graduating from the Manchester School of Audio Engineering at the age of 18, Schild worked in various recording studios in the UK before heading to Dubai to work as a composer and audio designer for Dubai Media Incorporated, home of Dubai One TV. It wasn't long before Schild was lured by the rawness and the DIY nature of the developing local music scene.
"A friend from work handed me a copy of a CD called Ampulance, which was a compilation of different punk and metal bands from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I was impressed. I thought this was how hip-hop should be - a group of different talents working together to get things going."
This collaborative attitude is central to Schild's philosophy as a producer. While the most sought after music directors are known to stubbornly heed only their personal vision for a song, Schild follows a simpler and more open approach.
"You start with what feels good," he explains. "You don't have to follow any rules. When I recorded Gayatri, I just let her sing with her guitar. I didn't even need a [tempo] click track. You have to go with the soul. Software can make anything sound good nowadays. But you have to bring out what the artist is trying to convey with their song."
In contrast, Mil Kyvernitis takes a more stringent stance on production. "It doesn't matter what music you're working on," he states. "Certain elements in the sound have to come out. The music has to hit you just right."
While Schild might be on every UAE rapper's speed dial, Kyvernitis is the go-to man for the community's hard rock and heavy metal bands. The Cypriot, 29, has worked with death metal heavyweights Nervecell, mastered the debut album of Sandwash and most recently, co-produced Juliana Down's second album Empires. In between, he has found the time to write and record music for his own metal project Private Government, whose video for the song Metallico Tis Evdokias has received more than 60,000 views on YouTube.
Though his work as an artist ranks high among the scene's best known recordings, Kyvernitis is still most popular for his work at the mixing desk. Applying his learning from London's School of Audio Engineering as well as years of supervising live sound in concerts, Kyvernitis explains that the key to a great rock record is not loudness but clarity. "Sound is perception," he comments. "And sound reaches maximum impact when you hear every note, every nuance."
His penchant for hard hitting production can be heard throughout Juliana Down's Empires, where songs written in the vein of Coldplay and Placebo have been treated with a punchy, bass heavy sound more often associated with the likes of Godsmack and Metallica. And through it all, every detail of the instrumentation stands out, from the plucking of guitar strings to the timbre in singer Dia Hassan's voice.
While Kyvernitis' production has a distinct sound, Reiner Erlings is known for his diverse range of styles. From producing two albums for singer-songwriter Jonas Desai to working on the acclaimed debut of Latin rocker Fatiniza, Erlings has earned a reputation as a versatile producer whose talents cover practically all genres of popular music. "There's this cheesy saying," quotes Erlings. "'The more you love music, the more music you love'. It's true. That's why I can find something to like and relate to in any style of music."
Hailing from Holland, Erlings spent his early days working as a sound engineer in recording studios around London before starting his own production outfit called Bright Lights Production with partner David Leary. The company enjoyed a steady flow of work, including songwriting projects for various acts under EMI Scandinavia.
However, while on holiday in Dubai in 2007, Erlings found that the city's developing commercial music industry offered exciting new opportunities. "It was the boom back then, and music composers had plenty of projects to choose from," he says. His first job as a producer in Dubai was taking the helm on Jonas Desai's debut album, which led him to the doors of a local studio called Creative Kingdom. There, Erlings soon started working as an arranger, composer and producer for various acts, among them Kaz Money and Indian hard rock band Junkyard Groove.
It wasn't long before Erlings became one of the most sought after talents in the country. And because of his abilities as a multi-instrumentalist, Erlings found himself producing and performing on more than just mainstream music. This year, he is working with the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra to create classical renditions of songs from the local music scene. "It's exciting because it makes you think differently about composing music," he comments. "But you still use your pop sensibilities to create something catchy."
More than an artistic challenge, Erlings sees it as his way of contributing to original music in the UAE. "I like the idea of being part of something from the beginning and to have played a part in establishing a music scene."
It's a sentiment shared by his fellow producers. "A few years from now, we could very well have a music industry on par with the west," comments Schild. "It would be an honour to have made that possible."
"We're here because we know that great talents are here," concludes Mil Kyvernitis. "If we help keep making great music, it's only a matter of time before the world takes notice."
Michael Fillon is a Dubai-based musician and the organiser of 2003's Turbulence, the UAE's first music festival exclusively for unsigned artists. He is also the vocalist and chief songwriter of groovecore rock band Sandwash.