A producer’s role is so nebulous that at times it’s hard to tell from the outside exactly which ideas came from the producer and which from the band. Part of why we chose “Kids” for this week’s Sonic Deconstruction is because it provides us with a unique opportunity to know exactly which decisions were made by Dave Fridmann and which were not: before Oracular Spectacular, MGMT recorded (and presumably self-produced) the We (Don’t) Care EP with a friend in Athens, GA, from which the only song to make it to the full length was “Kids.”
Listen to the pre-Fridmann version:
By comparing this to the final version we can deduce which decisions were probably Dave’s.
Apart from the mix, the most obvious dramatic between the two is the lead vocal. Interestingly, the vocal is actually higher and more childlike timbrally on Oracular Spectacular. In addition to that version’s weaker performance, the vocals are much less distinct here than on the full length, which could be the product of coaching and coaxing in the studio or switching which of the two member’s vocal was featured.
This is what separates the men from the boys. Think about all the successful 90s rock bands, love them or hate them: Nirvana, Green Day, Blink 182, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam. All have instantly recognizable singers. And it’s not just because you heard them over and over–after hearing “Walking On the Sun,” I knew from then on when I heard a new Smashmouth single. A distinctive vocalist is paramount to a band’s success, whether it be the tone of the voice itself, the style/accent, or commonly chosen notes and rhythmic motifs. (More on this in a later article.)
One thing that helps the vocal’s strength is a background doubling on the verse vocal. The background vocal sounds tightly Vocaligned to me while the chorus does not, retaining verse-chorus dynamics and gives the chorus its singalong quality. Vocaligning is one of the many highly useful advanced editing services we offer at Fix Your Mix- we perfectly align background vocals with the lead vocal, allowing you to layer vocals many times over without making the arrangement messy or giving it a gang-vocal feel. The result is a kind of thickness that you can’t get with a chorus or doubler.
When producing a song, the very first things I think about are tempo and key signature, both of which are also generally dictated by the vocal. Exactly what makes a tempo “right” is often intangible, but I will say that one usually cannot change a song’s tempo very much before the vocals begin to drag or sound rushed (unless you change the vocal part to fit the new tempo).
Apparently MGMT were on the money tempo-wise, because Fridmann did not change the BPM of “Kids” from the EP version. He did, however, change the key. Pay attention vocalists: the key was moved down from Bb major to A major. For a male tenor, the high F which is sung repeatedly in the demo melody could very well be the “break” in their voices (these are hard-to-hit notes within a vocal range that comprise the transition from the chest to the head voice). Changing the key to A, thereby making that high note an E, strengthened the vocal drastically and improved the vibe of the song. The vibe of a key signature is even more nebulous than tempo, but out of pure conjecture I will say that Bb major is not a particularly common key for pop music, while A major is more familiar to the ear, which may play a role in creating the song’s “comforting” feeling, one of the things that most characterizes the song for me.
Ultimately, these decisions, centering around the vocal, made a world of difference in making the listener take MGMT seriously, elevating them to hipster cult status.