SAE Oxford alumnus James Cunningham helps Korean pop band BTS beat The Beatles’ world record

17 May 2019

SAE Oxford Audio alumnus James Cunningham was part of the production team who helped K Pop band BTS beat The Beatles’ Billboard Chart record for the highest number of No. 1 records in a year.

In less than 12 months, the Korean boy band has landed a third No. 1 album on the US Billboard 200 chart with Map of the Soul: Persona, which was released on 12 April.

We spoke to James to find out more about his work on the band’s music, and to find out how his studies at SAE prepared him for his current role working with James Reynolds, in addition to working as a Studio Assistant for TMS -  the producers who had a No.1 with Lewis Capaldi’s ‘Someone You Loved’.

What did your work with BTS involve, and which tracks did you specifically work on?

My work involved downloading and checking all parts are delivered correctly. I was also responsible for organising and preparing the mix for James Reynolds, which included adjusting the timing and layering of vocals; de-breathing vocals; EQing vocals; De-noise/De-click vocals; Matching parts to the reference song; organising the audio multitrack into sections; creating and routing bus for the relevant track; general project management and organisation so that James can jump straight into mixing; a second pair of ears for James whilst mixing; starting and preparing the mix session and dealing with any noticeable problems; essentially tidying up and preparing the sessions so when James comes into the studio he can mix straight away. I also create Premaster files, deliver and print both Mix Stems, Multitracks and Premasters for final deliver, contact the Korean office and handle communication on the project, and mixed the Japanese version of ‘Idol’.

I have worked on ‘Idol’, ‘Idol ft. Nikki Minaj’, ‘Idol (Japanese Version)’, ‘Make It Right’, ‘Mikrokosmos’, ‘Fake Love’ and ‘DNA’.

What was James Reynolds role in the project?

James Reynolds was responsible for the Mixing of the songs mentioned above. He checked and adjusted all the mixes for the last time before Mastering, using his years of experience as a mixer to manage large sessions of 200-300 files, and creating an amazing sounding track. He was also responsible for connecting producers and songwriters with the BTS team after his previous work on their older releases, knowing they can trust his judgement.

We had our friends called Arcades who produced the two songs, and our friend from Cornwall, Marcus McCoan, write the lyrics for the titles ‘Mikrokosmos’ and ‘Boy With Love’, from the latest album.

How did you find the experience of working on the project?

To be honest, I still can’t believe that I was even a small part of this team that have managed to break this world-record. The experience has shown me that anything is possible if you just believe in yourself. I can’t blow my own trumpet too much as I was honestly one of the smaller members of this team, compared to the Mastering, Mix engineer, producers and songwriters. However, to say you have had a small creative input in a No. 1 album across 85+ countries and over 7 million sales is quite an overwhelming statement in itself, which I still can not believe. I’m looking forward to having my first ever double platinum disc on the wall!

The hours were super long as the project sizes were +200 parts to make the entire track, so it would take me a full day just to go through the vocals. This required patience and dedication, especially when working a full time job whilst working as a full time freelancer.

How do you feel to have contributed to a record which beat a record previously held by a band as big as the Beatles?

As I mentioned before, I still can not really believe it. Especially when you are seeing the track you worked on around billboards in central London! It hasn’t hit home yet that this album is taking The Beatles off the world record table. BTS and K Pop are truly taking the world by storm - bring on the next album!

How did your studies at SAE prepare you for this role?

When I joined SAE, I wanted to learn new skills and develop myself as a person and student more than needing or wanting a degree. The degree was a plan B in case music didn’t work out for me: at least I should be able to get a job somewhere else. Fortunately, I am now working full time, making a living from music alone.

However, being able to spend 2 years somewhere where you can talk, express, debate and just be a part of music everyday instead of having to work a full time job and find the spare time to do music as a hobby was amazing and very fulfilling. To me I feel that this is something that really goes beyond the standard education. It’s more about being part of it - becoming a part of the SAE. It brings a new level to the Audio world as it suddenly becomes your life, rather than a dream. If you take everything it has to offer it can really benefit you. Then it is up to you once you finish to make sure that dream becomes your lifestyle.






Do you have any wisdom to share about mixing K-pop specifically as a musical genre - what sort of elements are required?

Firstly, it’s just like Pop music over in the UK & US. Hence why it’s managed to hit the market so well. In fact, nothing in pop is really the same genre of music these days. We can have anything from Hip Hop, Drum N Bass, House Music, Rock, Indie, Heavy etc. - as long as the crowds love it, it becomes pop.

K Pop has so many elements infused from other genres of music, so having a vast knowledge of many genres is really a skill required to deal with these sort of tracks. One of the challenges is not always understanding, with the words being in Korean. So you have got to try and get a feel for the song through other means. This is where having great reference tracks can really help, giving you an idea of which direction the track needs to be taken.

Secondly, don’t be put off by a song with more parts than screen size. It’s easy to scroll too much on songs like these and get completely lost. For example, the Japanese version that I mixed reachined around 325 parts. Just try and group your work together and tackle the issues that stick out in front of you. James Reynolds and myself have worked with the BTS team now for a few years and have developed a good working relationship, where they will give mix references but trust us enough to get the sound they want.

Also, be prepared to work Korean hours. The Korean music labels are so different to the Western World in the way they work and run. They are super hard-working - not that our Western labels aren’t, but I have been in contact with the Korean label Big Hit Entertainment throughout all hours of the day! They seem to work 24/7, and not just within office hours. Their hard work and dedication to the band really show that they have a strong team on all fronts.

The language barrier can sometimes be an issue, but luckily the label in Korea have some great English speakers.

The labels run different; they have different requirements and specifications regarding how they wish for a track to be delivered compared to UK labels. Knowing and understanding this workflow was key throughout the process.

Visit James Cunningham’s Facebook page and Instagram.

Click here to visit James Reynolds’ website.