When Tom Norris was 10 years old, he watched his cousin use FL Studio and recalls being “blown away that a normal person could make music on their computer.” He downloaded it the second he got home, and as he says, “never stopped using it.”
Norris started playing piano at a young age, and in high school joined a band that became Allstar Weekend (its 2011 second album hit No. 49 on the Billboard 200), but he never felt at home on stage. He later met mixing engineer Manny Marroquin, and the encounter reignited his interest in and passion for the more behind-the-scenes role. After graduating from UC Berkeley, where he studied linguistics, Norris’ decided to pursue the more technical position full time, thanks to a nudge from friend Kyle Trewartha (one half of the brother duo Grey) — and the two, along with Kyle’s brother Michael, moved to Los Angeles to kick off their respective careers.
Once in L.A., Norris (who is predominately self-taught) seamlessly fell into mixing mostly dance records. He looks at his role as a “finisher,” the person who comes in at the final stage of production. “It’s sort of like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this basically complete idea, but it’s not quite there yet sonically,’” he says. But he insists the job is more than “just janitorial work, going in and cleaning up bad fades and mic bleeds. That is part of the job, but another part is trying to take what’s there and make it more exciting.”
Now, while self-quarantining due to the pandemic, Norris has kept busy working on movie trailer cues, video game sounds and remote production work — and celebrating the chart-topping success of his biggest project to date. Below, the 28 year old breaks down some of his most notable work, some of which came about within the span of a few months. “It really is like, when it rains it pours.”
Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, “The Middle”
Norris met Kyle from Grey in 2015, and the pair quickly started working on music together; soon after relocating to L.A., now-megahit “The Middle” began to take form. In 2017, Grey had received a vocal from Monsters and the Strangerz’ Sarah Aarons, and as Norris says, “I got brought along for the ride.” Using Aaron’s topline, Grey finished about “90-95%” of the track with Norris mixing — and then, as the now infamous story goes, “30-40 singers” were considered to complete it.
Plus, as Norris recalls, “There was some drama that ensued, like, ‘Was Grey a big enough artist to do this song?’” — which is how Zedd, an early mentor of Grey’s, ended up signing on and securing Maren Morris as the track’s vocalist. “At the time, I was still getting my feet wet with this whole thing, so I was like, ‘Is this how songs are put together normally?’” says Norris. “In hindsight, I realized it was the most insane process that I’ve ever seen for music production.”
The track ended up scoring a Grammy nomination for record of the year, and peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Skrillex, Boys Noize & Ty Dolla $ign, “Midnight Hour”
At the top of 2019, Norris heard a demo that longtime friend and collaborator Skrillex was working on. The DJ had just started playing it at various shows in Miami, and that summer tapped Norris to add finishing touches on what became the Grammy-nominated “Midnight Hour.” As Norris recalls, “We pored over trying to make the sonics right, especially with the drop section. It was like, ‘How do we make it sound contemporary and still banging, but not too overtly EDM?’ It was this really precarious balance to nail, because it’s easy to just start cranking and make it super over the top, and then suddenly it sounds dated.”
Norris says they worked on the track every day for weeks, and though it wasn’t “as commercially acclaimed as we all hoped,” the Grammy nod (for best dance recording) did offer some validation. “It was an adventurous record — there’s this R&B intro with Ty’s vocals and then it just goes into Berlin techno — so it’s this jarring experience. But that’s where Skrillex has always succeeded, in introducing people to completely juxtaposed, new vibes.”
Lady Gaga, Chromatica
Norris says that without a doubt, mixing the entirety of Chromatica is his highest-profile project to date. Bloodpop, whom he met at the end of 2017 and has stayed friends with, invited him into the process, which had a relatively small core team: Bloodpop signed on to executive produce alongside Gaga; there was Ben Rice, her vocal producer and engineer; and Burns, who produced a majority of the tracks, though a handful of others are credited throughout. As a result, Norris says “it felt like summer camp,” and recalls how they would all show up at Henson studios in L.A., “play Tetris, order food and hang out.”
Amidst it all, he says there were moments of lucidity where he’d realize the weight of working on a Lady Gaga album, specifically when he’d hear a song and think: “This is something that literally only Lady Gaga would do this way.” He first experienced that jolt while hearing a mostly-finished version of “Enigma,” for the first time, which was the first song he worked on. He says: “That has a special place in my heart by dint of it being my first exposure to the world of Chromatica.”