Grand Finale: A Pop Song is Born

[Interested in the three sets of bonus lyrics? Scroll past the episode transcript to find them!]


In the days of old, creating a song required a composer, a lyricist, an arranger, a recording engineer, a band or orchestra. Today, in the pop world, a single person often handles of those jobs in a single studio. In this extraordinary episode, you’ll hear two-time Grammy winner Oak Felder create a new song, in real time, start to finish—and you’ll gain incredible insight into how technology and talent team up to produce art.


Theme begins.

It used to take a whole crew to create a pop song. You needed a composer, a lyricist, an arranger or orchestrator, a band, a recording engineer, a sound mixer. But today, in the pop world, a single person can do all of that. And that person is called—the producer.

Oak Felder is a producer. A really, really good one. 

FELDER:           I’ve won a couple of Grammys in my career. I literally have a plaque upstairs that says that I sold, I think, 60 million records /. And none of that matters in this room. Because this is where we create. And I am serving the artist now.

In this extraordinary episode, this “Unsung Science” grand finale, we’re going to do something I don’t think has ever been done: We’ll record the entire sessions in which a professional LA producer creates a new song, start to finish, in real time. He’ll describe what he’s doing and what technology makes it possible. I don’t think you’ll ever hear a pop song the same way again.

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

First Ads

Season two, episode 25: Grand Finale: A Pop Song is Born. 

  So… I’m serious about that “grand finale” business. This is the final episode of “Unsung Science” season 2. Also probably the last episode for a while. I’ll explain more about that later. 

But before we talk about the future, let’s talk about the past. In January 2020, I reported a story for “CBS Sunday Morning” called, “What makes a hit song a hit.” We visited insanely successful songwriters, and asked them to identify the elements that make a pop song pop.

One of those people we interviewed was Oak Felder. 

FELDER:           I’ve always said that music is a way to– it’s like a conduit of emotion between the creator and the listener, right? That’s what music is.  And so the more organic elements you use in that music, the stronger the conduit is. It’s the way that you can make a person cry listening to a ballad. Or it’s the way that you can make a person shake their bootie in the club. (LAUGH) You get what I’m sayin’?

POGUE:           Yeah. I frequently shake my bootie in clubs.

FELDER:           Oh, that’s– that’s amazing.

POGUE:           All the time.

This guy, man. He’s won two Grammies. Apple has used his songs in two of their ads. He’s written songs for a few people you may have heard of: Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys, Mary J Blige, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Usher, Ariana Grande, Alessia Cara, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, Lizzo, Jennifer Lopez, and John Legend. 

Oak wrote songs like “Sorry Not Sorry” for Demi Lovato…

“Sorry Not Sorry” clip

…and “Here” for Alessia Cara…

“Here” clip

And “Good Kisser” for Usher. 

Good kisser

It’s safe to say that more people recognize Oak Felder’s songs than would recognize Oak Felder. But he is pretty recognizable.

FELDER:           Man, I’m six foot five and 300 pounds. 

That’s six-foot-five, not including the mohawk.

All told, he’s written hundreds of songs, maybe thousands. And yet he doesn’t call himself a songwriter. 

See, I’m a musician, too, but my background is pretttty different from Oak’s. I spent about a decade conducting and arranging Broadway musicals in New York. Oak Felder is Mr. Pop, Urban, R&B. 

And so for me, part of the joy of this experiment was going to be witnessing the difference between how Oak does song creation, both technically and creatively, and how they did it back in the Broadway days—you know, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Lerner and Loewe. 

Pogue:             What we used to call a composer, who would be two white guys in button-down suits, one that does the words, one that does the music, that sit at a piano and write a song that they then hand off to an orchestrator…

FELDER:           Right? 

Pogue:             … is all you! It’s all like– that’s what a producer is. You’ve, you’ve subsumed the rule, the roles of many of those things in one person. 

FELDER:           Yeah. I happen to work in an area where a producer is kind of expected to be able to do all of that. You can literally go from the bedroom to the radio or from the bedroom to Spotify. Mind you, some producers have people that work with them, like guitar players, keyboard players, drummers, etc. But typically a producer is supposed to encompass all of those roles at the same time. 

Oak Felder is funny, he’s chill, and above all, he loves explaining what he does. He’s done TED talks and YouTube videos where he explains how he created his various hit songs, kind of like they do in the podcast “Song Exploder.” 

So I had this cool idea: 

Pogue:             Like, “Song Exploder” is really cool. They take a great song and they go back and try to remember what it was like to write it. 

FELDER:           Right.

Pogue:             What I want to do with you is to create the song start to finish while we’re recording, so people will get an insight into both the technical aspects and the creative aspects. 

FELDER:           Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think it’s I think it’s going to be interesting, sort of showcasing the process, because people tend not to understand how nuanced it is? There’s the starts, the stops, the pivots, the, “oh, this is not such a good idea.” And “oh, I mssed up recording this part.” So I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s brilliant that that that you had this idea. I think it’s pretty cool. 

Pogue:             Well, I’m not going to lie. I was astonished that you said yes. Because like, you produce, you know, some really high level songs…you would think that this was a potential for risk for you, for embarrassment! 

Pogue:             No. No, I have two kids. You know, they embarrass me enough from time to time, so it’s all good. 

We met in his studio, in the mountains overlooking  Los Angeles. Not a bad spot.

Pogue:             All right. I mean, famous people have sat here with you and worked through a song together, right?

FELDER:           Yeah.

Pogue:             The way you explained it to me last year is, typically, you’ll start by just talking. Like, therapy style. 

FELDER:           Yeah, for sure. It’s important to be able to pull the, the emotion into the song, you know. Songs that are based on real situations or at the very least based on real emotions, I think tend to transfer better to the audience. 

Pogue:             Okay, well, that’s great. ‘Cause I have real childhood problems with my mother. 

FELDER:           Okay. All right! Let’s go diving into the deep end! 

Pogue:             No, no. I kid, I kid. But what I did do to save us time is I’ve written three complete lyrics, three radically different styles of songs. So I thought maybe I’d let you read —and you haven’t seen these. Ladies and gentlemen, he has no idea what’s on these piece of paper. 

FELDER:           No idea. 

Pogue:             All right. So here’s the first one. This is the “breaking up with a narcissist” song. It’s called You Do You. Here you go! 

FELDER:           Let’s see it. You have like a full lyric here. 

Pogue:             I mean, I didn’t know if you were going to be like, “this isn’t how I do it!”

FELDER:           I’m not gonna lie to you, there aren’t people who are usually as organized as this.

Pogue:             You can use the word “anal.” That’s okay. 

FELDER:           Okay. Yeah. Sure. We can use that word. All right, all right. Let me read these to you all, check it out. “You spend less time with me than you spend on your hair. When we hang out together, you’re not even there. Your favorite pickup line is, “Guess how much I lift?” Your sole religion seems to be that you’re God’s gift.” 

That’s really cool. 

Pogue:             There actually is no podcast, ladies and gentlemen. I just wanted to get Oak Felder saying that I’m cool!

FELDER:           This is your shot, man. This is your shot! [Laughter]

OK…going on with the cold reading:

FELDER:           There’s the hook: “You do you. You’re head over heels for you. You do you. You’ve got all the feels for you. You do you. Finally, we can agree. You do you—without me.” I like this one a lot. 

Pogue:             Okay, cool. 

FELDER:           Can we look at the other two options before we make our selection? 

Pogue:             So this is the second one. This is based on a true story. So I’m imagining she is singing to him before they have to be separated for a year. And she’s saying, “we will survive. We can make it.” 

FELDER:           OK.

Pogue:             But you can tell that she really doesn’t think it’ll last. 

FELDER:           Oh, no. Here we go. This is a ballad. This is obviously a ballad.

Pogue:             Yeah. 

FELDER:           “It’s only a year, baby. It’s only a year. And then I’ll be there in the spring. It’s nothing to fear, baby, it’s nothing to fear. A little break won’t change a thing. 

You said you don’t know, baby. You said you don’t know, how to feel while we’re apart. Give it a go, baby. Please give it a go. Aren’t you listening to your heart?”

You know what I like about this, by the way? Side note? I like how the font that you’ve selected to write these out are very, like…. Like this font? This is something that you would see on like a really thought out, like Hallmark card or…. 

POGUE:           It’s in italics.

FELDER:           Lotta love and care went into that one.

Pogue:             All right, so here’s candidate number three. This one proposed by my daughter, Tia. She’s like, if you want to reach the youths today…

FELDER:           The youths. Yes. 

Pogue:             …they think the world is going to hell. So maybe you do something on all the ways the world sucks, but the chorus is like, “But at least you and I have each other.” 

FELDER:           Yeah. “If I look at the news these days, I start not feeling well. Yeah, I can name a thousand ways the world has gone to hell. The CO2, the equine flu, the species that we’ve lost. The dying bees, the plastic seas. And how much groceries cost? The violent cops, the dried up crops, the heat waves in the fall. But I say, Oh, but even so, my headline tops them all. Chorus. I’ve got you, you, you. You make it all somehow make sense. Yeah, you, you, you. You’re my current of events.”

I dunno. I like all three of these. I think the “You Do You” idea is really cool. Yeah. I think that’s cool. All right…

OK. So at this point, Oak turns to his huge computer screen, angled slightly backward on his desk. There’s a keyboard right under it—as in, a piano-style keyboard—and then his computer keyboard and mouse are below that on a pull-out tray.

For the rest of this episode, you’re going to hear the musical creation process with minimal interruptions. I highly recommend listening with headphones or earbuds or good speakers, if you can.

Anyway. On his screen, he’s running Logic Pro, software that can display hundreds of parallel bands that represents the tracks of the song you’re making. One for bass, one for drums, and so on. Like a pro version of GarageBand, I guess. 

FELDER:           (plays piano) Like I have a lot of different instruments that are sort of in it that either I would install it or already come with the program. This particular piano, it’s called KeyScape. It’s a great sampled piano and it sounds like a real piano, which is why I like using it. 

And just to be clear: The musical keyboard on Oak’s desk is called a controller. It’s not a synthesizer; it doesn’t make any sounds of its own. 

FELDER:           It’s only a trigger, you know. So when I press the C note, the sound isn’t actually coming from the keyboard. It’s telling my computer to tell the Keyscape plugin that’s in Logic, to generate the sound that a piano would have generated if the C key on an actual piano were pressed.

Pogue:             That’s awesome. 

Finally, it was time to start actually writing. He set the metronome to 93 beats a minute.

FELDER:           All righty. I think 93 is a good tempo. Okay, so this is a darker concept. So right now, what I’m doing is I’m opening another program, or rather, I’m opening another plug in that’s going to give me yet another sound. I need, like a low rolly bass, I think. 

Plays a synthy bass

POGUE:           Oh my god…

FELDER:           All right. So now that I have my bass, I need a basic chord progression. So starting on this minor chord. 

Pogue:             Good call…

FELDER:           Because it’s a darker feel. Up to the major to kind of give it a little bit of light, but then—psych!—bring it back down. Okay, so now that I’ve figured out what my chord progression is going to be, I’m just going to play the bass line. And when I press Record, if you hear this— (clicking)—That’s my metronome. / I opted to go at 93 because it’s, you know, it’s fast enough to bop to, but it’s slow enough to cry to. 

He records the bass line.

Pogue:             I mean, it is already cool enough that I feel like we should have the conversation about the royalties. 

FELDER:           Oh, here you go! There you go! He’s learning, ladies and gentlemen. 

                        I have a I have a vocal idea. I think this is going to end up being, if I’m not mistaken, I think this feels like a female vocal. 

Pogue:             Yes. Okay. 

FELDER:           And that’s the thing: when you work with different artists. You kind of have to really get a sense of them. 

Pogue:             Mm hmm. 

FELDER:           Because every artist has a different sonic. What I call a sonic palette. And there are sounds that I would use for Demi Lovato that I would never use for, say, Ty Dolla sign. There are sounds that I would use for Selena Gomez that I would never think to use for Anne-Marie, the UK artist Anne-Marie. So that while I’m creating and while I’m adding sounds, usually they’ll be sitting back on on the on the couch right where you’re sitting, going, “Oh, that’s fire! Oh, that’s dope! That’s amazing!” When that doesn’t happen, that means I’m really bombing it. 

 So right now, I’m creating another sound here. This is called the Rhodes Keyboard.

Pogue:             Oh, I had a Rhodes!

FELDER:           Oh, man. These are the classic. 

Pogue:             That’s like fom the 80s. 

FELDER:           Yeah, absolutely. A little bit of reverb. 

Pogue:             Oh, my gosh. That’s cool. 

FELDER:           And then I’m going to add something called Wow and Flutter. And it basically takes the sound and makes it sound like it’s coming off of a really old-school tape. (plays) Hear it? It’s sort of emulating what, like, worn tape would do or like a warped vinyl. And believe it or not, that they use a lot of that in music. 

Pogue:             Are these standard—is this red and blue in your paint box? Are these things you use all the time? 

FELDER:           No. Because in my mind, the lyrics here—Look, you’re criticizing a person for being a narcissist. But it’s not spoken. But what makes it really awesome is that if the artist somehow insinuated. You think you’re all that and you think you’re this and you think you’re God’s gift to everything, etc., etc., etc.. 

And you know what? You do you. That, to me, is so cool. The insinuation of how awesome I believe myself to be, to let go of your egotistical ass. And somehow I think that that energy needs to make its way into the music. Wow and Flutter is instant cool. 


FELDER:           Absolutely. I should mention, by the way, that while I’m working on this, Keith and Alex are working on accompanying sonics to go with this. /Drum stuff. Ear candy, extra chord progression stuff. 

He’s talking about Keith Sorrells and Alex Nice, who’d been working in the same room this whole time, with headphones on. Keith and Alex are Oak Felder protégés, talented young producers in their own right.  

FELDER:           And shoutout to Oscar Linnander. He’s my assistant engineer. 

Oscar was recording this whole session on separate tracks, so I could make a podcast out of it.

FELDER:           So. Right now my voice is going through Auto-Tune. [sings:] “I have autotune on my voice!” 

Pogue:             You and T-Pain, man. 

FELDER:           Me and T-Pain.!

Speaker 1:       Oh, right. Yeah.

FELDER:           So I know that the word “you” is going to feature very prominently in this song.

Pogue:             Yes. 

FELDER:           I want to give a little bit of foreshadowing to that earlier in the song. [sings:] You! OK.

FELDER:           [00:36:46] / I have a little bit of reverb. And this particular reverb is pretty big. So kind of sounds like I’m in a big cavern. And then I have a little bit of wow and flutter on this track as well. Those things put together kind of create almost like a very vintagey sounding, sampled vocal. 

I’m going to add a snap right quick just to kind of set the rhythmic tone. 

Pogue:             On two and four?

FELDER:           That’s exactly right. I have a library of sounds. I have— I have —I have sounds. 

Pogue:             On the screen, he’s got like 75 clicks. 

FELDER:           I make the joke that a producer’s life is looking for sounds. You wake up, you brush your teeth, you look for sounds. You get dressed, you go to work, you look for sounds. You get to the studio, you sit down, you look for sounds. Like, that’s just a producer’s life—looking for sounds. So I want something not too crispy. 

[Tries snap sounds] 

Maybe that one. I like this sound, but I think it’s a little too, too low… (plays it) / And this is what it sounds like after pitch shifting it upward. 

Pogue:             Oh, yeah. 

FELDER:           … Which I think is cooler. All right. I’m gonna add one more instrument here. Something to add just a little bit of buzziness. First I’m gonna to find the sound that I want to use to layer. Again, looking for sounds. Here we are. Welcome to my life. 

                        So now we have this initial sound. So I’m going to layer it. I’ve created a duplicate track with another instrument, and I’ve just taken the data of what I’ve played and copied it down. And so now there’s a second track playing this. 


Pogue:             Sort of Blade Runner.

FELDER:           Very much. Matter of fact, the instrument that this plug in emulates was used to make the Blade Runner sound. That and “Stranger things.” 

Speaker 1:       Really? 

FELDER:           Yeah, totally, man. Very, very popular. So when you put those two together. So it kind of creates a little bit of a menacing feel like… 

Plays the song so far.

FELDER:           Because it’s scathing, right? I can see her delivering it in a very sort of pleasant tongue in cheek…

POGUE:           …poisonous smile.

FELDER:           / Very poisonous smile vibes here. / this is exactly what happens while you’re creating a production. You’re thinking about all the emotions and you’re trying to figure out a way to represent those emotions sonically. In a lot of ways, creating a pop song is you’re scoring the lyric that’s that —that it accompanies. 

So I’m gonna create an alternative section. [00:58:22] My man! Okay, so Alex just sent me some stuff. This is what Alex just added. 

Plays it

FELDER:           Come on, bro! Woo! And so these are all of the tiny details that go into a production that make it feel so much richer. 

At that moment, Oak’s other co-producer, Keith, sent his stuff to Oak over the network. Some fancier drum work.

Pogue:             So has he sent you his stuff now?

FELDER:           Oh, yes, he has!

Plays it

Speaker 1:       WHOO!! 

Pogue:             My God. 

Speaker 1:       Let’s go, brah. 

(music fades under)

And it was here, for the first time, that Oak started thinking about a melody for the song. He’d come up with the vibe first, then the chord progression, then the arrangement—and only then, the tune. 

FELDER:           OK. I can hear a melody for the verse. “You spend less time—you spend less time with me than you spend on your hair. When we hang out together, you’re not even there. Your favorite pickup line is ‘Guess how much I lift?’ Your sole religion seems to be that you’re God’s gift.’” Right?

These sounds… This is called the swish. Happens a lot of music. Mmmmwah! It’s like a buildup/release. So this is going into our pre-chorus. And our pre-chorus is a little bit of a drop off of energy. 


FELDER:           Then we go into our chorus.

Pogue:             (imitates drum fill) Doo-da-boo-da-boo-da…

FELDER:           Exactly! That’s exactly right. Then we go into our chorus.

FELDER:           I’m going to lay like a quick idea of what I think the melody of this should be. 

Now, here’s the part that really blew my mind. We’d both envisioned this song for a woman to sing to a man. And now he was about to lay down a rough scratch track of the vocal line—as a man! And, as you are probably aware, most men’s voices have a lower range than women’s voices.  

So get this: He transposed the key of the song down for his own sung version—with the intention of shifting it back up again later.  

Sample lower-key versions.

FELDER:           So what I’m doing is I’m pitching it down. I’m going to sing it pitched down. Then when I pitch it back up, my tone will have shifted to be a little more representative of what a female vocal would feel like. 

You may be familiar with an earlier use of this technique. In 1958, songwriter Ross Bagdasarian bought a tape recorder with a unique feature, as his son Ross Junior explains in a YouTube video:

ROSS:               This is the tape recorder. And what it was able to do that none of the other things could do back in those days, was to actually switch speeds. You could actually change the speeds so that then… my…dad…spoke…like…that…

Yeah. When Bagdasarian Sr. recorded his own singing voice normally…

SONG:             “Want a plane that loops the loop; me, I want a hula hoop…”

And then sped the tape recorder to its faster speed—voila. Alvin and the Chipmunks were born.

SONG:             “Want a plane that loops the loop. Me, I want a hula hoop!”

And now 65 years later, Oak Felder was about to perform the same trick digitally—not to make himself sound like a rodent, but to make himself sound like a female vocalist. Here’s his original performance:

FELDER:           “You spend less time with me than you spend on your hair. When we hang out together, you’re not even there…”

Then he did the same trick with the prechorus, a melody that he made up on the spot. 

FELDER:           You must be chilly with your veins full of ice…

And then with harmonies added on successive passes:

 FELDER:          You must be chilly with your veins full of ice…

And then here it is after Chipmunkization—introducing, Oak Felder, female vocalist:

FELDER:           You must be chilly with your veins full of ice…Since you won’t ask me, let me tell you my advice:

And finally, the moment of truth. The chorus. The hook! A super creepy, super ear-wormy leap to the ninth of the scale:

FELDER:           OK. Ok. “Baby, you do you. You’re head over heels for you. Baby, you do you. You’ve got all the feels for you, baby, you do you…you do you… 

So that’s my rough scratch of where I think the verses are. Can we do a crowd stack?

Pogue:             Are you guys the crowd? 

Speaker 1:       You’re the crowd, too!

Pogue:             I’m in it? 

FELDER:           Hell, yeah! 

Pogue:             All right!

FELDER:           Come on, now! We are all the crowd!

Pogue:             I get mechanical royalties now!

FELDER:           Hey, you can go get that AFTRA check!

Yes, we were about to do a crowd stack. Also known as a gang vocal. Also known as, being backup singers.

FELDER:           So let me explain, for people who can’t see what’s going on. We’re crowding around a microphone, getting ready to record what’s called a gang vocal. I like to do my gang vocals outside of the booth. Basically, anytime you listen to a record that I’ve done or somebody else have done, you hear a bunch of people shouting in the background. One good example is “Cheers,” by Rihanna. “Cheers to the frickin Wiccan, I’ll drink to that!” Everybody singing with them and her .

Crowd:            “Cheers to the frickin’ Wiccan, I’ll drink to that…yeah yeah!”

FELDER:           And it’s like 15 people all at the same time. More often, it’s actually 3 or 4 people, recorded numerous times to make it sound like there’s more than 3 or 4 people in the room, just like we’re getting ready to do. 

And the reason you would record a gang vocal: I find that a gang vocal is a way to inform the audience of what to sing. ‘Cuz if they’re listening to a song and they hear a group of people singing, your natural inclination is to want to join and sing along. And so it’s sort of an instruction that tells the audience, “now this is where you sing!” So that’s what we’re doing right now. 

It was Oak, and his assistants, and me. He sang the lick for us a couple of times.

FELDER:           All right, so the line: “Oooh!” That’s all it is.

ALL:                 “Oooh!”

FELDER:           [01:23:02] Fantastic. Gimme two more. 

ALL:                 “Oooh!”

FELDER:           Two more.

ALL:                 “Oooh!”

FELDER:           [01:23:20] Appreciate y’all. 

FELDER:            [playback] Might need a little bit of tuning, but ya’ll sound great! To tune this, actually, I have a program called Metatune that will tune anyting. It’ll tune all of the voices simultaneously.

Pogue:             Ohhhh!

Plays the song back

FELDER:           Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We’re going to stop the beat for dramatic effect. 

Pogue:             Oh, yeah!

FELDER:           Right there. 

Plays the song back

Pogue:             Oh, my God. 

FELDER:           It’s so good.

Pogue:             It’s so good!

Gotta tell you—the mood in that room was getting electric. We were creating something from nothing.

FELDER:           So yeah—that’s the process. For the most part, at least the writing portion of it. 

Pogue:             Yeah. 

FELDER:           Then there’s part two, which is the recording portion, where we get to the vocal. And that’s a little bit different. It kind of requires a little bit of a switch in mentality.

Pogue:             Yeah.

FELDER:           You know what I think we should do? I should book a vocalist to come in and sing this. Because my vocal wouldn’t stay on the recording. I’m not a singer. But once we get a vocalist to come in and knock it out and nail it?

Pogue:             Yeah? 

FELDER:           It’s going to sound fantastic. 

Honestly, that was my secret fantasy for this thing from the beginning. I mean, LA must be full of amazing singers, and Oak Felder probably knows a lot of ‘em.

And after the ads, you’ll get to hear how that went…and at the very very end of this episode, you’ll finally get to hear the mixed, final, finished masterpiece— “You Do You.”

Second ad break

The writing session you heard before the break, where Oak Felder wrote a song in real time, took place in October 2022. All we had left to do was get a great singer to record it—but getting that lined up took nearly a year. On top of his regular songwriting duties, Oak Felder started winning awards, writing more movie scores, and traveling a lot—and, of course, I live on the wrong coast. 

But finally, in August 2023, our stars and our schedules aligned. Oak invited an up-and-coming vocalist to record our masterpiece. Her name is Lex. She’s 24, she’s from Anchorage, Alaska, and as far as I can tell, her voice can do anything. 

She went into the vocal booth off of Oak’s studio, where Oak could direct her over an intercom setup. 

FELDER:           Mic check, mic check. You hear me? 

LEX:                 I can!

FELDER:           How are you feeling, my friend? 

LEX:                 I’m feeling great! Happy to be here!

FELDER:           Wow, you sound awesome right now. 

LEX:                 Thank you so much. Thank you.

Can I tell you how I expected the recording session to go?

I assumed that Oak’s folks had sent the song to Lex, so she could learn it and rehearse it ahead of time. Maybe they’d even written it out as sheet music? I dunno.

Well, boy, was I surprised. Upon her arrival at the studio, Lex knew nothing about the song. She didn’t know what it was called, what it was about, or how it even went. And she had no expectation that she would know!

FELDER:           Okay. So this is what we’re going to do.

LEX:                 OK.

FELDER:           I’m going to loop the first eight bars of this for you. 

LEX:                 Thank you.


FELDER:           So usually the process is up, especially when there’s a vocalist that has been cut, that hasn’t heard the song yet because she hasn’t heard this before. 

Pogue:             Right. 

FELDER:           So I just loop it section by section. She cuts it section by section. She’s going to learn it, and then we’re going to get like multiple passes. 

Pogue:             You’re doing like line by line!?

FELDER:           Yeah, we’re going to cut it line by line.

Pogue:             That’s—that’s normal?

FELDER:           Yeah, typically; about 60% of the time it’s like that. So yeah. 

Pogue:             Oh my god, that’s so different from what I expected!

But Lex wasn’t just recording each line once. She recorded each phrase over and over, even though each one sounded perfect to me.

LEX:                 “When we hang out together, you’re not even there”

FELDER:           Fantastic pass. Love that one. Give me another one. 

LEX:                 “When we hang out together, you’re not even there”

FELDER:           Beautiful! Great tone, homie. Three more passes, I think we got it. 

LEX:                 “When we hang out together, you’re not even there”

FELDER:           Fantastic. Next two passes, give me a little bit more emotion, too. 

LEX:                 OK.

LEX:                 “you’re not even there”

FELDER:           Beautiful. One more! One more!.

Pogue:             And the reason you’re doing multiple passes is because…?

FELDER:           Is because… so I’m going to have this time I’m going to have maybe like 6 or 7 takes here, and I’ll be able to cut between each of them to get the best parts of them to create one performance. 

Pogue:             So you might take one syllable from take one, one syllable from take four? 

FELDER:           That’s exactly right. And that’s what comps are called. That’s what comps are. Esssenlly, like this lyric here. “You spend less time.” I could literally take a word from each pass. 

So when you get a chance, look up “Billie Eilish comp.” First of all, she does, like, 80 passes. Literally a syllable from each pass. Google that. 

I did! It’s on YouTube. It’s a clip from the Netflix show “My Next Guest with David Letterman,” and Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas are showing Letterman the tracks she recorded on the screen, showing how the finished vocal line was cobbled together from individual pieces of dozens of different takes. 

Finneas:           Here is the vocal take for Billie’s song “Happier than ever.”

BILLIE:              So do you see all of the lines? Those are all cuts.

Finneas:           Separate audio files that have been put into one take. We got up to like 87 takes.

Finneas:           Pay attention. (playback) Different take. Different take. Different take. Different take. Different take. And you would never know!

And so that’s how Lex recorded the song…one phrase at a time, six or seven times apiece. Sometimes, Oak the composer/arranger/instrumentalist/sound engineer also gave her performance notes…

FELDER:           One thing I want you to focus on here: your “sole religion.” Watch your enunciation there. I want to make sure that the L is there. Otherwise it’s going to sound like “you’re so religion.” 

LEX:                 OK.

FELDER:           OK, one more time. You sound amazing, my friend!

Pogue:             And you’re a musical director, too. 

FELDER:           Got to be, man. Got to be. Because the thing is, is that being in the booth and recording a song is like being too close to a mirror. Like you need somebody with a further-away vantage point to kind of give you a pointer on what it is that they’re doing wrong, are doing right.

                        Fantastic, my friend! Let me get two more, and I think we got it.

Through the afternoon, Oak introduced me to new recording techniques… like stacking…

FELDER:           So we’re stacking. So that basically means I’m getting her to overlay the vocal that she’s already done, to make it sound like there’s multiple versions of herself. I usually stack four times and then pan them out to the left and right to make it sound wider. 

Pogue:             I can’t believe you say “usually,” like this is a well-known thing that everybody does.

FELDER:           Oh totally, man. 

Pogue:             But the consumer, the listener has no idea what goes on. 

FELDER:          They have no idea, yeah. There are so many technical things that happen that I think that the listener takes for granted. 

Pogue:          Yeah. 

FELDER:          But to be honest with you, if we’re doing our jobs correctly, then they should. Because, you know, it’s part of the art of making it sound great. And you don’t want to necessarily think about why it sounds great. 

Pogue:           Great. Yeah. 

FELDER:         You know, people who go to amazing restaurants don’t necessarily care how the chef made this compote tastes so good. It just tastes good, and that’s all they care about.

…I also noticed that he usually made up one harmony line while Lex was recording the previous one. Sometimes he’d sing it into his phone, into Voice Memos, so he’d remember it a minute later.

FELDER:           Gimme two more passes.

LEX:                 OK. (sings) “Since you won’t ask me, let me tell you my advice…”

FELDER:           One more.

Pogue:             So you’re thinking of harmonies? 

FELDER:           Harmonies. Yeah. We’re gonna have… (sings) Yo. Can I get a harmony right quick? 

Lex:                  Yup!

FELDER:           (sings) “Since you won’t ask me”—can I get that real fast? Here we go.

LEX:                 “Since you won’t ask me!” 

FELDER:           Here we go. “Since you won’t ask me!” Let me get a harmony there, too. Let’s go. 

LEX:                 “Since you won’t ask me…”

FELDER:           Beautiful! Thank you! Lex, you sound incredible, my friend. 

LEX:                 Thank you so much.

FELDER:           You already knew that, though. 

LEX:                 You know what? I like hearing it every now and then! 

FELDER:           I’m not mad at you!

LEX:                 The reassurance is great. I love that.

FELDER:           Reassurance is very important. That’s very true. 

Pogue:             I mean, you know, I think the world of you, Oak. But she sounds a lot better than your demo. 

FELDER:           Definitely sound a lot better than my demo. Yeah, no.

And I learned about punching in, where the software plays back a full line of what’s already recorded, but re-records only a note or two of it, a couple of seconds that you’ve specified in advance.

FELDER:           Punching is really cool because I get to just dip in and out of a performance that she’s already done. Like, let’s say she does a pass that sounds amazing. And there’s just one word that’s kind of out of place. I get to have her just jump in on that one word and leave the rest of the recording unaffected. 

Pogue:             And is that better than having her do the whole take, and you—? 

FELDER:           Typically, I prefer a whole take because it gives you a more natural performance. But sometimes when the performance that you have feels amazing and you just need it to be technically correct. 

Pogue:             Mm hmm. 

FELDER:           Sometimes it’s better to focus on technicality in a precise way. 

Pogue:             I see. I see. 

FELDER:           As opposed to trying to redo the whole thing. So, “tell you”… 

LEX:                 OK. “Sine you won’t ask me, let me tell you my advice…”

FELDER:           Thank you. I appreciate it.

Pogue:             Masterclass with Oak Felder. 

FELDER:           Masterclass with Oak Felder. 

You know what else was in his masterclass? This little bit of sneakery:

FELDER:           And then the very last line. Gotta deliver it with a lot of attitude.

LEX:                 “Baby, you do you, without me.”

FELDER:           Nice! Come on. Great vibrato. Jeez. So sometimes without knowing. I’ll just record them like I’m doing, right? 

Pogue:             Uh huh. 

FELDER:           She thinks he’s practicing it, but I’m actually recording it. 

Pogue:             Because sometimes you get gold that way!

FELDER:           Hell, yeah. And it’s a way for them to record without the pressure of worrying about getting it right, which makes you get it right more often. 

Just for the record, Lex didn’t get paid for any of this. None of us did. For Lex, it was all about working with Oak, hoping to sow the seeds for a big career. 

Pogue:             Regardless of this podcast thing—you will work with a total unknown, a young promising person just because, like, it’s investment, they might become somebody big?

FELDER:           Absolutely. Absolutely. Especially if I believe in it. I mean, to be fair, it takes a little bit of… delusion to be in the music industry. 

Pogue.             Yeah.

FELDER:           You kind of have to believe that unlikely things are likely to happen, right? But to be honest with you, I wasn’t even the space where I wanted to like, like develop an artist or anything like that. And I was skeptical at first. I was like, “OK, whatever.” And then she went in the booth and her voice is its own character, which is wonderful. 

And that’s how it went. Oak crafting the pieces of the song one snippet at a time, feeding it to Lex in the booth, while somehow keeping the bigger picture in his head. Oh, and we got to do another gang vocal!

FELDER:           So the note is—we’re going: “Oooh! Oooh!” Shall we do that?

All:                   (singing) “ooh! Oooh!”

FELDER:           Fantastic!

Pogue:             Such a cool lick!

OAK                 OK, give me four more.

All:                   (singing) “ooh!” 

FELDER:           Nice. Double that, please. Here we go!

FELDER:           Fantastic. Great job, y’all. The “You Do You” crew!” 

Finally, after only a couple of hours, it was time to give the whole thing a listen.

FELDER:           Fantastic. Lex, come on out for one second, my friend. Incredible. /

Pogue:             The two of you are like making stuff up as it goes along. And that is so not what I come from, where you have a piece of sheet music with the whole orchestra and everybody’s parts and everybody’s rehearsed it…. / I mean, Lex, I can imagine you walking out of here and not being able to sing the song.

Lex:                  Really!

Pogue:             Because you’ve only done it in pieces. 

Speaker 7:       There’s a lot of times where I forget what I did as soon as I leave the booth. But then, you know, after a while you kind of hear it back. 

Pogue:             Once it’s top 40 and you hear it coming out of every radio, then you’ll know it. 

FELDER:           Yeah, then you’ll know. When somebody stops you in the grocery store…. 

Speaker 7:       When I can’t even go to the grocery store! 

FELDER:           When you can’t even go to the grocery store!

Speaker 7:       That’s when I know that I’ve delivered. 

The singing was over—but there was a little spoken part I thought might make this song extra juicy…and Oak Felder himself volunteered to be the voiceover artist.

FELDER:           Okay, so now I’m going to put our outro here. At the very end of the song. I think that’s a good way to cap off the song, in my opinion.

TRACK:            “Narcissistic personality disorder is found more commonly in men. Symptoms include an excessive need for.”

FELDER:           Going to make my voice a little bit lower. 

TRACK:            “Narcissistic personality disorder is found more commonly in men. There is no cure.”

ALL:                 Ha ha ha. Love that. That’s cool. Oh, my God. That’s hilarious.

And finally—the grand reveal. We all sat on the couches, listening, grinning, and bopping, as we played back the rough cut.

FELDER:           OK. Let m me do some leveling here, and then we can play it down.

TRACK:            “You spend less time with me than you spend on your hair; When we hang out together, you’re not even there…”

But I’m not gonna spoil it for you. You’ll hear the finished thing in just a second. But when we finished listening, it was like…

FELDER:           Amazing!

LEX:                 Yayy! And the “You Do You Crew!” 

FELDER:           David and the You Do You Crew!

LEX:                 We got us one, boys!

FELDER:           That’s fantastic. I love that. That’s actually a really dope song! 

Speaker 4:       Definitely. I’m okay. So let me be 100% honest with you. So what I was, like set to the task of creating this music, creating this song. It’s like, “oh, you know, he’s got these lyrics written. He wants you to write a song to it,” my initial reaction that I had to suppress out of fairness was…”oh, I don’t know, I don’t know. You know, you never know if it’s going to be dope.”

LEX:                 Right!

FELDER:           It’s kind of a coin toss and it’s like a 60% chance that it’s not going to be good. And this sh* came out incredible. Absolute. This came out really good. 

Pogue:             So so when the public hears these songs, your songs, hit songs. They say, “Oh, have you heard that new Demi Lovato song?” Right? It when it really was your song? Does that bug you? 

FELDER:           No, not at all, man. I’m a servant. If I walk into a situation saying, “This is my show,” I’ve already failed, because it’s not it’s not my show. 

Pogue:             I’m not used to that approach in the arts. In the creative arts!

FELDER:           And by the way, I make the distinction of saying that producers are not artists. I don’t consider myself one. 

Speaker 4:       What? Oh, come on. 

FELDER:           Absolutely. 100%. Okay. 

Pogue:             OK, this interview is over. That’s ridiculous.. 

FELDER:           I’m dead serious. 

Pogue:             Every second of every beat. You were making artistic decisions. 

FELDER:           I’m making artistic decisions, but collaboratively with the other people that are involved. Somebody throws an idea to me. I say, “That’s dope.” I have an idea. I toss it in there. You get what I’m saying? 

Pogue:             No, because I saw you write the song, arrange the song, orchestrate the song and sing the scratch track of the song. 

FELDER:           That’s right. And then when this song is a hit, somebody is going to be like, Hey, play that new Lex record.. 

Pogue              That’s what I’m saying!

FELDER:           Nobody’s going to say “play that new Oak record.” Nobody’s going to say that. And rightly so. No one should say that. 

Pogue:             Like you created the rhythm, the harmony, the melody. 

FELDER:           Well, here’s the other thought process, Dave. You got to think of it in this way, man. After today, I don’t have to think about this song anymore. But if this song is a hit, Lex is going to have to sing this record for the rest of her life. This song becomes a part of her legacy. It’s going to be appropriate for someone to say, “Oh, it’s that new Lex record.” Of course it is, because it embodies she embodies the performance and the performance embodies her. 

Pogue:             All right, Well, I’m not. I’m not kidding, you guys. I had no idea this is how it works. I mean, the ideas fly in back and forth in real time. 

FELDER:           Yeah. 

Pogue:             That is not how we did it on Broadway!

FELDER:           Oh, man. 

Pogue:             Everybody shows up with sheet music. The charts are done, the tempos are frozen. And you start at measure one and you finish at measure 64 and you go home. I mean, this is much more like a, you know, almost like a jazz improv. 

FELDER:           Oh, yeah. It’s improvizational creation, which I think is such a magical thing. And the truth is that before we started this process, this didn’t exist. And then someone did something and then it did exist. It’s the biggest rush when you’re when you do it and you do it correctly. I feel like we did that today, though.

After the recording session, we all went our separate ways. Oak spent a little more time with the song, mixing all those tracks into the final version…and you’re about to hear it.

But I feel like the climax of this episode should be the grand reveal of the world premiere. So before we wrap up here, I’ve got two small notes.

First, remember how I wrote the lyrics for three songs for Oak to choose from? Well, I’ve posted all three of those lyrics at If you’re a songwriter yourself—oh sorry, a producer—and you feel inspired, feel free to set them to music yourself. Send me what you come up with—my email address is If I get a couple good submissions, I was thinking, maybe I’ll feature ‘em in a future “Unsung Science” episode. 50-50 split on the fame and fortune—how’s that sound? 

And the second big note: as I hinted earlier, we’ve come to the end of “Unsung Science” Season 2…and the beginning of my book break. I’m working on a new book for Simon & Schuster—the coolest idea I’ve ever had for a book—but it’s a massive project, and I’ve really got to buckle down and get that thing done. 

So if you haven’t picked up on it from the warm, honeyed tone of my voice over the last three years: This is my chance to tell you, officialy, how much I’ve cherished your listenership. Your reviews, your emails, your greetings in airports…it’s been a thrilling ride, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Thank you to you, and to the teams at CBS News, Simon & Schuster Audio, and PRX, who made “Unsung Science” possible.

If you haven’t heard all 40 episodes, go back through the archives—there’s some great stuff in there! Meanwhile, here’s a tip—don’t unsubscribe! I may still release an occasional one-off episode, like maybe the songs one I just mentioned. 

OK—and now… enough teasing. I’m proud to introduce you to the world premiere of a new song by Oak Felder and David Pogue, performed by Lex, recorded by Oscar Linnander, coproduced by Keith Sorrells and Alex Nice. Ladies and gentlemen: “You Do You!”

[They play the song.]

Bonus Lyrics

I wrote three sets of lyrics, to give Oak Felder a choice of which one to produce. Here are all three! If you feel like setting one to music, have at it! If you sent it to me (, I’ll consider it for a possible bonus episode of “Unsung Science”!

—David Pogue

You Do You


You spend less time with me than you spend on your hair

When we hang out together, you’re not even there

Your favorite pickup line is, “Guess how much I lift?”

Your sole religion seems to be that you’re God’s gift

You change your clothes three times before you’re out the door

Your strongest memory of each date is what you wore

You must be chilly with your veins all full of ice,

Since you won’t ask me, let me tell you my advice:

Chorus 1

You do you

You’re head over heels for you

You do you

You’ve got all the feels for you

You do you—finally, we can agree!

Yeah, you do you

You’re utterly right for you

Yeah, you do you

You’re the light of your life for you

You do you—without me!

Verse 2

The way you tune me out is getting kinda lame

And after all this time, your friends don’t know my name?

You were so charming once—we fell in love so fast

I should have figured out the sweet stuff wouldn’t last

[Voice:] “Narcissistic personality disorder is found more commonly in men. Symptoms include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, an inability to handle criticism, and a sense of entitlement. There is no cure.”

Chorus 2

And you do you

            You’re totally nuts for you

You do you

            You got such a crush on you

You do you—I’m settin’ you free!

That you do you

            You take your breath away

You do you

            Don’t let yourself get away

You do you—Without me!


I see…the way you’re always checkin’ out the room

I smell…a little whiff of somebody’s perfume

I hear…you’re not the Boy Scout boyfriend you once were

I know…you loved me once, but now I’m not so sure!

Chorus 3

So you do you

You’ll always be there for you

You do you

You’ll always take care of you

You do you—that’s how it’ll be!

Yeah, you do you

You have so much fun with you

Yeah, you do you

You’re clearly the one for you

You do you—without me!

Far and Away

Verse 1

It’s only a year, baby

It’s only a year

And then I’ll be there in the spring

It’s nothin to fear, baby

It’s nothin to fear

A little break won’t change a thing

You said you don’t know, baby

You said you don’t know

How to feel while we’re apart

But give it a go, baby

Please give it a go

Aren’t you listening to your heart?


A little time, a little space

A little missing your sweet face

A couple months, a couple flights

A couple hundred empty nights

It’s just a pause, it’s just a break

It’s just my universe at stake

A little time, a little space—

It’s not the end.



Are far and away the brightest star I see

And you

Bring far and away the best parts out in me 

It’s true

This is far and away the hardest day today

But I’ll love you

Even when you’re far and away.

Verse 2 

We’ll both make it through, baby

You know that it’s true 

Let me get this one thing straight:

I want only you, baby

I want only you

Don’t you think we’re worth the wait?


A little time, a little space

A little sadness on my face

A couple months, a couple flights

A couple hundred empty nights

It’s just a pause, it’s just a break

It’s just my universe at stake

A little time, a little space—

It’s not the end.

Right with the World


If I look at the news these days

I start not feeling well

Yeah, I can name a thousand ways

The world has gone to hell

The CO2, the equine flu,

The species that we’ve lost,

The dying bees, the plastic seas, 

And how much groceries cost

The violent cops, the dried-up crops, 

The heat waves in the fall

But I say “Oh, but even so,

My headline tops them all!”—


I’ve got

You, you, you

You make it all somehow make sense

Yeah, you, you, you

You are my current of events

And I, I, I 

Will manage to get by

Cause you, you, you—

Are what’s right with the world.


The culture fights, and voting rights,

Unsupervised AI,

Voting fraud, the ice caps thawed,

The heartland going dry

The crypto crash, and too much trash,

Alarming trends in crime

Our kids on screens, mutated genes,

Pandemics all the time


Now doomscrolling’s the only kind I do

The gloom’s rolling, and darkening the view

Resume trolling the sites I wallow through

Then power down,

Go into town

And spend the night with you…


I’ve got

You, you, you

You make it all somehow make sense

Yeah, you, you, you

You are my current of events

And I, I, I 

Will manage to get by

Cause you, you, you—

Are what’s right with the world.