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Last night, I was giving one of our mastering clients some mixing advice regarding vocal compression. I thought I’d post the email here for those of you who might still be struggling with the concept (I know I did for years) or to refer your friends to. Also note that this article is about sound compression or even more specifically “dynamic range compression” and should not be confused with data compression (mp3, zip, rar, etc.) This isn’t a comprehensive explanation of compression, you can find that elsewhere. This is just the bare bones essentials.

I used drums instead of vocals in the diagram below because I felt that would be the easiest to understand visually. Click for full size:

What’s the point of compression anyway?

Back in the old days, vocal compression was used for one purpose:

Compression makes the volume of a vocal more consistent overall.
In fact it was originally called “Automatic Level Control.” So if you’re singing or rapping some words louder than others, compression makes for a less drastic volume difference between the loud and quiet parts.

So above all else, vocal compression makes the lyrics easier to understand and helps to keep the words from being drowned out by the music. Obviously you could just turn up the vocal track to solve this problem, but then you’d have a new issue: when the singer hits a loud note it will now be way too loud compared to everything else, startling the listener and causing them to turn it off because they don’t like being startled. Or more likely they just turn it down. And you want people to blast your music right?

How compression works.

It’s pretty simple: Every time the compressor hears a sound that goes over a certain volume level (that’s your “threshold”), it turns down the volume for that moment.

Makeup gain.

After compressing a vocal track, it will be quieter than what you started with. To make up for this lost volume, most compressors have an output volume knob or “makeup gain” knob. (For our purposes, gain and volume are the same thing.)

So although technically compression turns down the loud parts with the quiet parts unaffected, if you raise your makeup gain enough you’ll effectively be turning UP the QUIET parts instead.


As I said before, your threshold is setting the cutoff point. Any word that’s quieter than the threshold will remain untouched. Everything above it will be turned down somewhat. For rap, you probably want to set the threshold so you’re compressing everything but the absolute quietest words. Until you get to the point where you can actually hear compression working (this can take years), you’ll want to use your gain reduction meter for this purpose.

Gain Reduction.

How you set your threshold will be relative to how loudly or softly your vocal was recorded. That’s a big part of why presets are only meant to be used as a starting point. The truly important value to watch is gain reduction, because a gain reduction meter tells you how much your vocal is actually being turned down at any given time.

If your compressor doesn’t have a meter, it’s hard to say where you should set your threshold. As I said before, compression is very hard to hear starting out. And your listeners will only hear it subconsciously. Or they might notice when it’s not there because it sounds like a demo and it’s not as smooth/consistent as a professional mix. But they won’t know why it sounds that way.


After using compression, the loudest notes will still be louder than the threshold, but not as much over it as before (see the diagram above). So post-compression, the difference in loudness between the loud and quiet words will be smaller. That difference is called “dynamic range”  and the ratio determines how drastic that difference is. High ratios (8:1 for example) make for a smaller range. Small ratios (2:1 or 3:1) will allow a bigger range.

Compression Today and the Effects of Attack & Release.

Today, compression is still used to make lyrics more understandable, but back in the day it pretty much only had one knob. More compression, or less. Today you’ve got more controls, so you can have different flavors of compression using attack and release. At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s the effect attack and release settings have on vocals:

Shorter attack and release times (smaller numbers) will make vocals sound more “energetic,” louder, and will also bring out the breaths between words.

Longer attack and release times (higher numbers) will make the sound “punchier” which obviously isn’t as important for vocals as it is for other instruments like kick and snare.

For vocals, generally you’re going to want the attack to be quicker than the release. It’s not worth getting into why for now. I will occasionally set the release time to its absolute shortest value if I’m having trouble getting a vocal to cut through or going for an extreme effect.

What a Compressor’s Attack & Release Knobs Technically Do (Versus Synthesizers and Drum Machines).

If you’re used to working with synthesizers and drum machines, you may be confused about attack and release settings for compressors. Unlike on a synth, the attack and release settings on a compressor do not tell you the attack and release times of the instrument the compressor is affect. You’re setting the attack and release of the compression itself.

Compression doesn’t turn on and off instantly. So attack is the length of time it takes your compressor to start compressing at full force. (How long it takes to go from zero to sixty, so to speak.) Release is the amount of time it takes for your compressor to stop compressing.

So what does all this mean in layman’s terms? Let’s say you’re compressing a snare drum and you’ve set a relatively slow attack time–80 miliseconds. And let’s also say you’ve applied this compression permanently to your sound wave and you’re looking at the waveform before and after. Visually, your snare drum probably already had a big volume spike at the beginning which trailed off, but now it will cut off even more abruptly since it was grabbed by the compressor after 80 miliseconds and taken way down in volume. You may hear this resulting sound as a punchier snare drum.

Now let’s say you set the attack to an EXTREMELY slow speed, like 1 second (1000 ms). You’re not going to be compressing the big pop of the snare drum much at all now because that pop lasts less than a second. We’re talking fractions of a second here. So by the time the compression kicks in you’ve already missed that spike.

If you want to control the attack and release of a recorded sound directly (like you would with a synth or drum sample) what you want is an “envelope follower” or “transient modulator,” such as Waves Trans-X, Envelope (built into Logic), or Oxford Transient Modulator. The most popular hardware version of this is called the SPL Transient Designer–for some engineers it was the secret to the 90s drum sound.


Limiting is the final effect in every mastering engineer’s chain but is also commonly used on vocals (most limiters are better suited to certain applications over others).

A limiter is a type of compressor which has an “infinite ratio”* which means that everything that goes above the threshold gets set to exactly the threshold’s level.

The controls on a limiter are also slightly differently from a compressor. Instead of using your threshold to push down the peaks and then compensating afterwards with makeup gain, for limiters you set the input gain, which pushes up the volume of everything at once, while the threshold is fixed at 0. (Go here to get unconfused about decibels.)

The end result is that although everything has been boosted by the same amount in theory, the volume of the quiet parts is effectively increased much more than for the loud parts, because the loud parts were closer to the threshold to begin with, and as I said before, a limiter doesn’t allow anything to get louder than the threshold.

If you’re working with vocals, you’ll probably want to use the limiter’s output gain control (if it has one) to turn the final result down.

A NOTE ABOUT LIMITING PLUGINS: Very confusingly, some of the most popular limiter plugins (including the Waves L1, L2, & L3) call their input gain control a “threshold” and use negative instead of positive values. In fact, the true threshold cannot be controlled at all–it’s fixed. Your L1 threshold is actually an input gain. The reason they’ve set it up this way is because it’s easier to understand visually. Unlike with most analog limiters, many plugin limiters have a vertical volume meter and use sliders instead of knobs. So the slider is positioned beside the volume meter, and you can drag the slider down as you watch the meter bounce in order to visually choose which peaks are limited and which are not. This allows you to use your eyes instead of your ears to decide how aggressively you want to limit something–do you want to flatten out the volume completely or only the loudest peaks? Or somewhere in between?

Feel free to leave questions in the comments.

*Some engineers consider anything with a ratio of over 10:1 to be limiting.

“Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 14 - 200932 COMMENTS

Key Signature: A minor, C Lydian
Time Signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Three-bar phrases, Polymeter, Polyrhythm, Modal harmony
Structure: Verse-Refrain-Verse-Refrain-C-D-C-D-C-Outro

Hover your mouse over terms underlined with dots (like this) for more information. If you’re following along with the album version rather than the video, subtract 5 seconds from any time stamps listed below to account for the video lead-in.

This blog mostly concerns itself with what can loosely be considered pop music, but today’s song violates what is perhaps pop’s most sacred and universal characteristic: structure. It’s not that “Ready, Able” has no structure, but it certainly isn’t your typical verse-chorus-verse. While a traditional pop song is designed to grab your attention and get to the hook ASAP, Grizzly Bear has no patience for people with no patience. And to those who wait, the payoff is that much sweeter.

A Narrative Of An Average Listener Experiencing This Song For The First Time (click to enlarge:)

A structural analysis of Ready, Able by Grizzly Bear.

“Ready, Able” starts with a sparse and confusing instrumental passage, which you eventually realize is part of the verse. Like the claymation monsters of the video that appear both happy and sad, you can’t tell whether to be scared by the droning, tribal mysteriousness of the rhythm section, or amused by the playful, almost upbeat vocal melody. You’re relieved to hear a chord–the first one in the song–at 0:42. This is the start of a new, more palatable section: the refrain.* Here Grizzly Bear builds anticipation for something that never comes. Right as the music sounds like it’s about to reach the tonic, the whole damn thing cuts back to the verse like a movie that ends on a cliffhanger, cutting to black at the most crucial moment. (And you still have no idea what “Rosebud” means…)

And now you’re brought right back into the verse. A push-and-pull dynamic is created with two different kinds of tension:

  • The verse draws its tension from rhythmic confusion, sparseness, and lack of harmony.
  • The refrain creates tension with full, but unresolved harmony.

After the second refrain, you are led to a surprising, but also cohesive and highly gratifying climax at 1:53 (the C section) which starts on an A minor chord and continues to build throughout the second half. It’s gratifying not only because of the lush production and arrangement elements that kick in, but because it took 2 damn minutes to get to the I chord! As shown in the image above, the music video works in the opposite manner. It starts off a little odd and then morphs into something truly bizarre. To better understand what’s so off about the verses, let’s go right into a rhythmic play-by-play:

Two Time Signatures Simultaneously – Polymeter

Disclaimer: Phil pointed out to me that the verses of this song could be more succinctly written and understood as 12/8, rather than my more complicated explanation of calling it 3/4 and 4/4 (with the later sections in 6/8 half time). If you count the verses in 12/8, they begin to make a lot more sense. I instinctively heard this section in small beat groupings (possibly because of the odd rhythmic patterns and lack of a steady drum beat), however, so I’m keeping this section as is for the sake of posterity.

The verses consist of 24-beat phrases demarcated by a kick drum. It’s hard to tell what’s going on: the vocals don’t quite match up with the percussion and those harp glissandos seem to sneak up and jump out at you from behind the bushes when you least expect them to. What’s going on here?

What you’re hearing is called polymeter–the simultaneous use of 2 or more time signatures sharing a common pulse. The verses in “Ready, Able” juxtapose a 3/4 waltz (the vocals and harp) on top of 4/4 (percussion). In this case, the shared pulse is the duration of the quarter note. Only after 24 beats do both time signatures start their down beats at the same time.

24 is a good number for polymeter because it can be evenly divided by the most common beat groupings: 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8. As a consequence, these 24-beat phrases also transition nicely into the refrain in 6/8 at half tempo. Now let’s move on to polymeter’s evil twin sister: polyrhythm.

Two Types of Beat Divisions Simultaneously – Polyrhythm

Congratulations, you’re about to dive head first into the metaphorical deep end of music theory. Drummers and music nerds, get ready to geek out.

Polyrhythm is when two different kinds of beat divisions are used simultaneously (not to be confused with beat groupings–that’s polymeter). In Western music, beats are typically subdivided in half.** This type of division is called duple meter and looks like this:

One whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight 8th notes = sixteen 16th notes = thirty-two 32nd notes

But there are other types of divisions, the most common of which is a triplet: when two beats are divided into three beats. For example, three 8th note triplets take up the same amount of time as two regular 8th notes.

During the C section (1:53), the lead synth (a Synclavier?) has a tremolo effect that creates 16th note tripets over the regular 16th notes of the other instruments. Here’s a simplified notation of this rhythm (click to enlarge):

UPDATE: I think it’s safe to say that this is an Omnichord, not a Synclavier.

Grizzly Bear "Ready Able" Polyrhythms

Welcome to Polyrhythmville. And what’s really trippy is we’re in 6/8. While 6/8 rhythms are grouped in sets of 3, each beat is still normally subdivided by multiples of two. But here the total number of 16ths per measure is 18–you don’t see that number often in music–and all this on top of 12 beats–a concept so mindblowing that only underline and italics at the same time could possibly come close to expressing the insanity. Half way through the D section, we hear this pattern again with a lofi hi hat sample. We’re beginning to see the number 3 take shape as a major theme in this song: beats grouped in 3s, beats divided by 3, and finally, 3-bar phrases:

Unusual Phrase Lengths
(See our explanation of bars, measures, & phrases for help with this section.)

In pop music, chord progressions and phrases typically last 1, 2, 4, or 8 measures. Deviating from this is a great way to shake up your songwriting without venturing into odd time signatures, which often means sacrificing accessibility. It’s hard for the average music listener to dance or rock to something in 5/4 or 7/8,*** but they will have no problem dancing to 5- or 7-bar phrases in 4/4.

That being said, when great songwriters use a device like this there’s a reason for it, whether they’re aware of that reason or feel its effect intuitively. “Ready, Able” uses 3-bar phrases throughout most of the second half, providing two advantages:

  • Vibe: We’re expecting 4-bar phrases, so 3-bar phrases have a cyclical, hypnotic effect. It feels like the thought is not quite finished.
  • Lyrics: If the D section had 4-bar phrases, there would be a big empty space when the lyrics finish, or they would have had to write more lyrics and extend the melody. By using 3-bar phrases, Grizzly Bear is able to keep interest high while retaining their original lyrical and melodic idea.

But there’s a problem. In addition to being super weird and hip, these odd phrases are leaving people hanging. There seems to be no destination. Solution? A 4-bar phrase at the end of each section. Consider your thirst for finality quenched. There’s also an extra bar at the end of the refrain (normally 4-bar phrases) to make room for a IV-7 (D minor 7) which has a strong pull to I- in this case.


  • Verse 1: Polymeter … 24-beat phrases
    • Vocals/harp: 3/4 (waltz) … 8-bar phrases
    • Drums/muted guitar/etc.: 4/4 … 6-bar phrases
  • Refrain 1: 6/8 half time … 4 bars+4 bars+1 bar
  • Verse 2: (same as Verse 1 except the first 24-beat phrase is cut short by 1 beat).
  • Refrain 2: (same as refrain 1)
  • C section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • D section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • C section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars
  • D section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • Outro: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+4 bars


  • Bullet With A Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins – 6-bar phrases during the choruses.
  • Radiohead‘s “Idioteque” – 5-bar phrases.
  • Just Like You Imagined” by Nine Inch Nails (aka “that song from the 300 trailer”) – bar of 4/4+bar of 12/8.
  • The phrase of OutKast‘s mega-hit “Hey Ya” reads like this (in quarter notes): 4+4+4+2+4+4

Single-Chord Harmony
(See our guides to chord abbreviations, tensions, and modes for help with this section.)

If you follow this blog, you’re already aware of the trend of rap songs without music. To the music snobs and hipsters frowning upon that concept, I am pleased to inform you that Grizzly Bear essentially does the same thing during the first verse of this song–there is no progression, only a vocal melody, lost in an enchanted forest of polymeter and the occasional harp gliss. But of course, context is everything. I doubt we’ll be seeing Ying Yang Twins comparisons any time soon.

“Wait’ll You See My D… minor 7.”

During the second verse, Grizzly Bear seems to have added a very faint guitar or bass on the note C. It seems that the key is now C major, the relative major from A minor. With the vocal melody notes included, the overall harmony of this section seems to be a single, but very colorful chord normally reserved for Jazz: Cmaj9(13) (C, E, G, B, D, A). In other words, every note in the key except F, which would be tension 11. 11 is usually considered an “avoid note” on a major 7 chord.

But listen again. There’s a drum tuned to F#, which would be the tritone of the C major. In the absence of a natural F, I’m prepared to say that we’re not in the relative major at all, we’re in C Lydian and the chord is Cmaj7 (9 #11 13), which includes every single note of the key signature. Lydian mode can be described as foreign and magical-sounding and the second verse of “Ready, Able” is no exception. This mode is often used by film composers for dream sequences. What’s even more bizarre is that the #11 drum is the lowest note in the section, making it sound especially dissonant. I wouldn’t call the chord an inversion though, because the drum comes on very weak beats.

Other than C and tension #11, the lead vocal provides every other note in this chord. Don’t get me wrong: not all melody notes should be considered part of a song’s essential harmony, but in this case the tensions (9 & 13) come on down beats at the beginning of the 8-bar vocal phrases, the strongest beats possible during this section.


For further reinforcement of this harmony, there’s a background harmony with 3, 9, and 7, and the harp hits 7 on its way down to 13. Also listen for faint pizzicato strings plucking between C and G, with a few interjections of perfect fourth dyads (DG and BE) for some exotic flavor. It’s also worth noting that based on the way these notes are stressed dynamically, the string arrangement sounds displaced by one beat–that is, its down beat begins one beat after the drums and palm-muted guitar. This gives the strings a light, playful feeling but also makes them sound somewhat detached from the rest of the music.

As stated earlier, the refrains create tension by never landing on I-. It’s also worth noting that the vocal melody single-handedly changes the chord progression with a major 6 interval on F, creating a second inversion D minor chord.

The C and D sections use one of my favorite progressions: I-, V-, IV- (see also: “My Love” by Justin Timberlake and “Ayo Technology” by 50 Cent). As I talked about in my Kanye analysis, the V minor usually sounds peculiar in a pop context, but it sounds at home in “Ready, Able.”

I was unable to find good guitar tab or piano transcriptions for this song online, so this will get you started if you’re a Grizzly Bear fan and want to cover this for YouTube:

“Ready, Able” Chords – Simplified For Rhythm Guitar & Piano
(See our chord abbreviation guide for help with this section.)

Verse 1: C (single note only)
Refrain: F, Fmaj7, to E- (plus D-7 during last measure)
Verse 2: Cmaj7(no5)
C section: A-, E-, D- (pianists: start on A-/E)
D section: A-, E-7, D-7

“Ready, Able” Chords – Full Harmony

Verses: Cmaj9(13)
Refrain: F, D-/F, Fmaj7, D-/F, to E-7 (plus D-7 during last measure)
C Section: A-, E-add11, D-
D section: A-9, E-7, D-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)

“Ready, Able” Chords – Functional Analysis

Verse 1: Imaj9(13)
Refrain: VI, IV-/3, VImaj7, IV-/3, to V-7 (plus IV-7 during last measure)
C Section: I-, V-add11, IV-
D section: I-9, V-7, IV-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)

This concludes my analysis. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an ultra music nerd like me and for that I salute you. I might be imagining or missing some of tensions, so if you hear anything different or disagree with my analysis, feel free to leave a comment.


*While some sources refer to choruses and refrains interchangeably (Wikipedia included), but there is a difference. I’m calling this section a refrain because it sounds like an extension of the verse music, whereas choruses typically either repeat the verse music with more production elements, or introduce an entirely new idea altogether. This section is fairly long for a refrain, but more importantly the movement is not harmonically strong enough to be a chorus.

**With the very notable exception of swing and shuffle grooves.

***In some cultures, dancing to odd meters is commonplace (Indian and Greek music, for example).

BONUS: In case you were wondering how much meth I had to smoke to write something this long, there’s method to the madness of those harp glisses:

  • During the instrumental portions of the verses, they come on beat 2 of the 5th and 7th measures of the phrase.
  • During the vocal portions of the verses, they come on beat 3 of the 3rd and 7th measures of the phrase.

I got an email from my father today directing me to an internet forum debate regarding how over-compression in mastering is ruining music today and I responded with what you’re about to read–the simplest, most easy-to-read breakdown on this topic I could come up with–an explanation that anyone will be able to understand. No flowery or abstract adjectives, just the meat and potatoes. If something still isn’t clear, leave a comment. I’m mostly posting this article to save myself some time (to direct our clients to) but this post may be helpful for other mastering engineers who’d like to do the same.

Note: this post refers to sound compression, not MP3 or zip compression. Learn more about the differences between sound compression and data compression here.

What Is Mastering Compression?

squashed waveform 2

Mastering compression* (“limiting”) reduces the dynamic range of a recording. Dynamic range is the range between the loudest and quietest point in a recording or section of a recording. Dynamics and loudness are inversely proportional: the less dynamic a recording is, the higher the average loudness of that recording can be, and vice versa. Today, there is said to be a ‘Loudness War’ between labels trying to release the loudest records possible.

The Pros and Cons of Loudness

When we’re talking about the consequences of loudness, we’re really talking about two different things:

  • From a macro perspective: A louder/less dynamic recording means all of the sections of the song will be about the same volume. For ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ style songs, the benefit is that the song comes in loud right off the bat and stays loud from section to section. The downside is it means the chorus doesn’t “hit you” or sound as big as it otherwise might because there is little or no change from the verse to the chorus. In fact, if there’s more stuff going on during the chorus, individual elements may actually get smaller. For example, heavily compressed rock mixes tend to have a bigger snare sound during the verses than the choruses.
  • From a micro perspective: Compression from one beat to another is hard for the untrained ear to hear, unless it’s very extreme. And even then it is hard to explain what it is you’re hearing–you just know it sounds bad. At this scale, compression makes the mix sound more “exciting” right away, but if overdone can be fatiguing on the ear to listen to. Perhaps more importantly, the drums will often be less punchy if a mix is more heavily compressed.** A former coworker and assistant to one of my all-time favorite mixers once said to me, “mastering ruins everything.”

Is Louder Better?

There was a psychological study which showed that people consistently prefer recordings that are louder, even by an increment as small as 1 dB, even when they’re not told what the change is. (Anyone want to find the link for me?) If you want an extreme example of over-compression, just listen to the radio. They use a more complex system of compression to get recordings even louder than CDs. And yet for every person who puts up a fuss in the blogosphere/messageboardiverse about mastering ruining music today, I have a memory of someone in my childhood telling me how they like the sound of radio. It just has that magic je ne sais quoi. There have been studies which indicate that loudness has a strong effect on which radio station a person will stop on when channel surfing.

While I consider myself to be more of a ‘new school’ engineer rather than one pining for the days of yore, I sometimes wish more records today had bigger dynamic changes. My favorite example is “Quiet” by the Smashing Pumpkins, which came out in 1993 before the Loudness Wars really began. It will probably be hard to tell on YouTube, but when the guitar solo comes in on the record, the song just gets so much louder. If you already have the song cranked, the solo will hurt your ears a little bit. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is rock & roll.

For a case study in consumer backlash against loudness, check out my post about the Metallica album Death Magnetic.

*The type of compression I’m talking about here is “limiting”, a specific type of compression that comes at the end of every mastering engineer’s signal chain. I’m using the term compression throughout the post because it will be more familiar to musicians and readers.

**If I know that a project I’m mixing will be mastered by someone else, I usually try to make my drums a little punchier than I want them in order to compensate for the effect that mastering will have, unless I know the mastering engineer tends to go easy on the compression. This is also why it is usually best to select a mastering engineer that your mix engineer has worked with in the past, so that the mix engineer can anticipate what will happen to the mix in the mastering stage and mix accordingly.

“Amazing” by Kanye West: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 20 - 20096 COMMENTS

Key Signature: C minor
Special Songwriting Devices Used: V minor chord, starting the chorus on a chord other than the root

Note: This post requires a basic knowledge of intervals, solfege syllables, and voice leading. If you don’t understand a term underlined with dots (like this), move your mouse over it for the definition.

The other day I was messing around with “Amazing” by Kanye West on guitar and noticed that it uses an often neglected chord in modern pop music, the V minor. Before we get into why the V minor is unusual (and what Kanye has in common with Coolio), here’s the chord progression:

Verse: C minor (2x), G minor, C minor
Chorus: Ab major, C minor, G minor, C minor

Or in Roman numeral analysis form:

Verse: I minor (2x), V minor, I minor
Chorus: bVI major, I minor, V minor, I minor

In “Amazing,” G minor is the diatonic V chord–the triad built on the fifth note of the scale. But V chords in today’s minor key pop songs almost always have either a major third (making it a V major chord borrowed from the parallel major) or no third at all. The diatonic V minor chord is rarely used.

Origins of the V Major Chord in a Minor Key Context

Most American pop stems from jazz or blues harmony, but if there’s one songwriting device that has carried over from classical, it’s borrowing the V major chord from the parallel major key in the context of a minor progression.* In these situations, there is a non-diatonic note: the V chord’s major third, which will always be the leading tone of the key. This note has a very strong tendency to resolve up to the root note by a half step. The result is better voice leading back to the root than a V minor chord would provide. Since a V chord resolving to I (or more specifically, ti going to do within that resolution) is considered the strongest tendency in any key, the voice leading is (apparently) so important here that composers have been using this non-diatonic chord for ages.

But Kanye doesn’t swing that way.

If you’ve ever studied classical music, you know that the concept of proper voice leading is meant to make things sound “smooth.” But smooth can often turn into boring, particularly in the context of non-orchestral music. By using the V minor chord, Kanye adds some much needed harmonic interest to a relatively sparse arrangement.

So rare is the V minor chord in pop** that hearing it played on a single instrument (piano in this case) sounds a bit unusual, even medieval. The expectation of that leading tone over the V is so strong that, even for me, it was difficult to sing the minor 3rd instead of a major 3rd.

Combined with a dragging groove of an upright piano, it ends up sounding more like something to be played in the background of a saloon shoot out scene from a Western/Cowboy flick than a hit single for a mainstream rapper.  In fact, if you remove the characteristic elements from this chorus–play V major instead of V minor and change the first I minor to IV minor (more on this below)–you’ve got Gangsta’s Paradise, choir and all:

Chorus Root Chord Placement

As I talked about in my analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, starting a progression on something other than the root automatically sounds more intelligently written. While pre-choruses and bridges often start on other chords (in order to build tension for the inevitable release into the section that follows), choruses almost always start on the root chord. When one doesn’t, it almost always ends there. “Amazing” is no exception and falls into the latter category.

But what’s interesting is that the chorus also has another root chord: the second one of the progression.  So to expand on what I said in the previous paragraph, here are your root chord placement options for choruses with four chords or less, listed in order from most to least common:

  • Option 1: Starting on the root chord. This option solidly establishes the key from the outset, allowing the chords that follow to create new flavors and define the overall emotional content of the chorus in relation to the root. By far the most common option.
  • Option 2: Ending on the root chord. In these cases, the beginning chords lift the listener up, create tension, and eventually resolve to the root–using the harmony to create dynamics. This is a fairly common option, but also very powerful and can be a good way to shake up your songwriting or cure writer’s block. Examples include “My Hero” by Foo Fighters and “Go With The Flow” by Queens of the Stone Age.
  • Option 3: Using the root as chord #3 out of 4. This technique tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be a three chord progression, then adds a fourth chord which says “nope, it’s still going, the thought/feeling isn’t done yet.” Can create a cyclical feeling. This option is not totally unheard of but it’s rare. MGMT’s “Kids” is one example.
  • Option 4: Using the root as chord #2 out of 4. By far the rarest option and probably for good reason. I have no idea how to characterize what this option does emotionally, but in the case of “Amazing” it’s a defining characteristic.
  • Option 5: No root chord at all. I can’t think of any pop choruses that do this, so if you can, leave it in the comments!

(Note: Although the above is applicable to most choruses, obviously the emotional results may change with different combinations of these options or a greater number of chords. And by the way, you won’t find this list in a text book.)

So not only does the chorus start on a chord other than the root (in this case the bVI major), but the progression goes back to the root on the second of four chords, which is highly unusual. The result is a unique, signature chord progression (in pop you only have to be unique within about 10 years).

Well folks, that about wraps things up. As with all of my analyses I expect some good counter points (ha…) and a healthy dose of “this song sucks” / “this song still sucks” comments. But before we part ways I want to answer a question that Phil posed in his latest blog post:

“When was the last time you at home got a record, sat down, and listened to it? Really listened to it. Didn’t put it on while you clicked through Facebook or checked the local news. Just listened?”

My answer to his question is 808s and Heartbreak. And when “Amazing” came on for the first time, I had no idea Young Jeezy was going to come in because he wasn’t listed in the song title. I’ll be honest, I’ve had mixed feelings about Jeezy since day one, but when I first heard his voice come in over this strange track with the reverse reverb, I thought it was the hardest shit I’d ever heard.*** I got chills. And the fact that I wasn’t expecting it made it 10 times more powerful, supporting Phil’s theory that the less we know and see about the music before we listen, the better.

Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak (Bonus Video Version) - Amazing (feat. Young Jeezy)Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on iTunes.
Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on Amazon MP3.

Read more posts from my Compositional Analysis series.

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*Actually, classical music**** tends to use a V7, which is based on a V major with a minor 7th on it, forming a tritone between the 3rd and 7th of the chord and creating an even stronger pull to I. Though we typically think of classical music as triadic, this is the one 7th chord that classical composers used regularly.

The V7 chord is dominant-functioning, which in layman’s terms means our ears hear it as having a very strong pull to another chord, in this case back to the I major. This movement is called dominant resolution. The V chord builds tension while the root chord releases it. Since we have this strong expectation of resolution from listeners, the voice leading used for this transition is considered to be particularly important.

**The only other recent V minor example I can think of offhand is “Clocks” by Coldplay, although in this case the V minor is used to help establish the song’s Dorian tonality. The opening piano arpeggio can be analyzed as follows: I/3, V-/5, IV/5 or in other words: I major (1st inversion), V minor (2nd inversion), IV major (2nd inversion).

***This transition is shortened on the YouTube version.

****Yes, I’m using the term “classical” in a colloquial manner here; I’m not referring to the Classical period. This is terrible… even my asterisks have asterisks.

“Atlas” by Battles: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On May - 27 - 20099 COMMENTS

Following the success of my compositional analysis of “Single Ladies”, today I’m here to talk to you about a song which is equally unusual but lives in a completely different realm of music and pop culture. Battles is a mostly-instrumental, indie-math-something-or-other rock band comprised of several other influential but fairly obscure bands and Boston scene veterans.* “Atlas,” the first single from their debut and most recent LP, Mirrored, illustrates a number of interesting songwriting techniques that you can use to expand or understand your own writing.

Tempo: 134 BPM
Key Signature: D Lydian (same notes as A major)
Time Signature: 4/4
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Shuffle groove, Modal harmony

What’s most compelling about this song is that it is haunting, but not dark in a depressing way–rather it is hypnotic, like an alien army marching into a battlefield. While there is plenty of interesting stuff going on here production-wise,** this post seeks to explore what gives this song its otherworldly feel from a compositional perspective.

The first thing to note is that the song was written in Lydian mode, a scale which is considered “mostly major” because it is the same scale shape as major except the fourth note is raised by a half step. (To turn D major into D lydian, you would change the G to G#). To  better help you understand what modes are, where they come from, and how they can be used check out Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians. Lydian is one of the least common modes in pop music today but can be the most beautiful. You hear it mostly in film music and 70s rock (see: the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Dancin Days“).


D Lydian is officially established when the vocals come in. The A-section melody (“People won’t be people when they hear this sound…”) outlines a D Lydian scale going down in perfect fifths starting on solfege syllable sol (A). These repetitive intervallic jumps in Lydian mode make for a trance-inducing result. The bassline underneath remains firmly planted on D, which is exactly where it stays except for moving to E at 3:29 (5:30 in the album version) for a few seconds. This lack of chordal movement is part of what gives Atlas its drone-like quality. In the absence of a chord progression, Battles relies on evolving melodies, syncopated rhythms and the frequent introduction of new elements/sounds** to keep interest level high throughout this seven minute epic.


Shuffles are kind of like the matrix. No one can be told what a shuffle is… Well, I guess really what I’m trying to say here is that the text book definition of a shuffle is not necessarily how we hear it. Shuffle is a fancy name for a triplet feel where the second note of the triplet is not played or generally emphasized. Often, though, we hear the third beat of each triplet not as part of a triplet at all, but simply a pickup note going back to the initial beat rather than part of a triplet. A song which uses all beats of the triplet is said to be in 12/8 time. One could argue that Atlas is actually a 12/8 groove rather than a shuffle because the drums often use all three beats of the triplet, but the vocal melody and bassline strongly reinforce a shuffle feel. Soloists sometimes use triplet patterns over shuffles, so the presence of a few full triplets here is negligible.

The Difference Between a Shuffle and Swing

Shuffle feel is actually a type of swing based on a tap dance (the shuffle). There are two main differences:

  1. Shuffles typically emphasize beats 2 and 4 while a swing groove often does not (see: the entire Jazz idiom). Atlas features a clap (speak of the devil) on beats 2 and 4 during the verses, with the snare drum eventually coming in.
  2. Though it sometimes sounds like it, swing is not thought of as a triplet feel. What’s actually happening is every other 8th note (or other note value) swings (drags) a little bit late, hence the name. The end result may sound like a triplet, but unlike in a shuffle, a timing of a swung note is inexact–some performers are known to “swing harder” than others and certain subgenres of jazz call for different types of swing feels. And again as with shuffles, triplets are sometimes used for soloing over swing time.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have any other observations about Atlas, feel free to leave a comment. If you find yourself writing in the same songs over and over again, try integrating modal harmony or a triplet feel into your next song. It could end up being the stand-out track on your album.


*My first experience with Battles was several summers ago, and Mirrored was just about to be released. A friend of mine convinced me to go on a road trip to New York City from Atlanta, one of our main objectives being to see brit-rockers The Noisettes. To our delight, we learned upon arrival that the show had been combined with a Battles show which was set to take place at elsewhere but had been cancelled. I was blown away by what I saw, and it looked a lot like what you see in the video above.

**To read about the Atlas vocal tone, check out Phil’s post on the Boss VT-1.

Buy “Atlas” on Amazon MP3

Battles - Mirrored - AtlasBattles “Atlas” on iTunes.

The Decibel (Producer Speak)

Posted by Fix Your Mix On April - 9 - 20092 COMMENTS

neve-flying-faders_1There are some instances when a limited amount of knowledge can do a great deal of harm. For instance, you might know that a bit of sun is good for you. If you are not fully versed in the effects of sun exposure to the skin, you might be wondering what those strange, asymmetrical spots are that keep popping up all over your body. Get those checked out; seriously I worry about you sometimes…


Other times, a basic understanding of something might be helpful the most of the time. Take Euclidean geometry for example. If you aren’t an astrophysicist or a nuclear scientist, pretty much everything you need to know falls into Euclidean space.


But there are also times when the common sense understanding of something gets you by enough so that you don’t realize all the other times that it is absolutely wrong and leads you astray. This is the case with our friend the decibel.


I was working on a record a while back with producer/engineer extraordinaire Paul Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies, Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and he mentioned something in passing that really caught my attention. I can’t really recall what the situation was, but we were setting up a session and he said to me “I can’t stand it when people ask me to change something by half a dB. A dB is the lowest possible change you can perceive, so saying half a dB is meaningless.”


Many nights I woke abruptly from sleep in a cold sweat tormented by what he had said. Something sounded so right and yet so wrong about that. I mean, if I told you to change something by half a dB twice—both equally insignificant changes by his definition—I would get a change of full dB, and therefore a significant change. Using some simple extrapolation, you can’t keep considering fractional changes in decibels as insignificant, because surely enough they add up.


So what exactly is a dB and what change in dBs is significant to our ear and in our mix? Well, without getting overly scientific about it and also restricting the question to audio applications (sorry electrical engineers), a decibel is a convenient unit of measure that expresses very large changes in magnitude against a reference level in a concise manner. Concision was important back in the days of hand calculation.


When they were busy wiring up the world for telephone usage, Bell Laboratories thought it’d be really swell if they could measure the amount of degradation in audio level over a mile of telephone cable. They did the calculations but soon found that expressing the quantities in conventional terms meant using insanely large and unwieldy numbers. So they decided to use a logarithmic function to bring the numbers to more manageable figures for simple calculation. Logarithms of numbers are useful because they have some of the same arithmetic applications as regular integers (for example, you can add two logarithms with the same base just like adding to regular numbers). The unit they came up with became known as a Bell in honor of the company and Mr. Alexander Graham Bell. So a decibel is actually 1/10 of a Bell.


So why do we talk about tenths of something? After all we don’t regularly deal in decimeters or decigrams. Well in the mid 1800s, some very clever psychophysicists began studying something called Just Noticeable Differences (JND) in sensation. A JND is the smallest incremental change in a sensation that is perceptible to the average person. This could be the JND in touch as measured in PSI or the JND in sight as measured in lumens. Someone discovered that a tenth of a Bell roughly correlated to the smallest detectable change in a sound to the human ear. As such, the decibel became a very important measurement in audio because it was simple to express changes that actually meant something with regard to common perception.

It is important to note that JNDs relate to the AVERAGE person. As such, musicians and audio professionals are often able to detect much more minute changes in audio level.

When studying JNDs, another useful but perhaps counterintuitive aspect of the decibel arose—a doubling of volume roughly correlated in a change of +/- 10 dB. This is useful but strange in that the arithmetic is skewed—you ’d expect a doubling in the perceived volume of something that sounds at +2 dB to be +4 dB. But then again, what is a doubling of something that measures 0 dB? This exposes some of the fundamental limitations in the simple definition of the decibel—human perception complicates the simple calculations.


Such problems spurred further investigation into situational applications of JNDs and Signal Detection Theory was born. In basic terms, the object of Signal Detection Theory is to figure out what extra factors go in to our perception of a sound and how it compares against “noise” or unrelated signals. For instance, does a +1 dB change to a signal still sound like an increase of 1 JND if the sound is played over white noise? What about if the original signal is 100 Hz sine wave? What about 30 KHz?  What if the original signal is a voice played over a country band?  Or a metal band?


It was discovered that the JND of a signal changes based on frequency range and initial level. A JND is around 1 dB for soft sounds at frequencies in the low and mid range—the frequencies we perceive most readily. Really loud sounds can have a JND of 1/3 to 1/2 dB. Really soft sounds on the edge of audibility might have JNDs of a couple dB.


Furthermore, other things can color sounds in such a way that you can take the same sound, add something to it and suddenly the JND might be more or less than a dB. Perceptual Encoding Theorists look for factors outside the Critical Band of Frequency for a sound (the frequency or frequencies that define a sound) that would alter our perception of it. For instance, adding a slight reverb in some cases might cause the JND to rise (meaning you need to turn the signal up more to get a perceivable change) or adding a harmonic exciter in most cases would cause the JND to lower (meaning you wouldn’t need to turn the signal up as much to get a perceivable change). This is because new nerve endings are being excited and these cause our minds to perceive the sound in a different way than we had previously.


As you can see, the decibel is not quite as simple as its common sense understanding in the audio world. So when you need to make something appear twice as loud, you know what to do. When somebody tells you to make their vocals 20 dB louder, you know that that is laughably extreme (for the most part) and you should adjust your corrections appropriately. When someone asks you to turn something down by 1/3 of a dB, you know that it is really only going to be detectable if that sound is already pretty loud.

“Single Ladies” by Beyonce: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On April - 8 - 200946 COMMENTS

Thanks to all of you over at Reddit for voting up this article. If you are a self-taught musician, you may find it helpful to check out my Solfege To Intervals Translation Chart to follow the melodic analysis.

This week, I’m going to break down the music theory behind one of the most unusual pop songs to come out in years: Beyoncé’s  “Single Ladies.”

(Click here to open the music video in a new window.)

Tempo: 87 BPM*
Key Signature(s): E major, E minor
Special Songwriting Devices Used: No back beat, Polytonality (technically polymodality**), Resolution using a Minor 6 chord, Starting a melody on sol

Several months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about whether or not this single would flop. Pop music has certainly gotten interesting over the past 5 years, but this song was, well, too interesting. To put it bluntly: “Single Ladies” is just downright bizarre. And yet as time went on, I began to see that it has what I call the Spice Girls Factor–designed to make groups of adolescent girls dance around in their bedrooms, sing into hairbrushes, and post videos of the whole ordeal on YouTube for their friends to watch.


To start, let’s take a look at the groove. In pop music, there is almost always some kind of clap, snap, or snare on beats 2 and 4, also known as a back beat (read my post on back beat options here). “Single Ladies” breaks the mold, especially for a pop song, with claps on every 8th note, which gives the song an uptempo-feel. In fact, to me these claps give the song more of a “1 feel” rather than strictly 4/4, which would mean every quarter note is an equally strong beat. Normally only beats 1 and, to a lesser extent, 3, are considered strong beats. Strong and weak beats become important when understanding how melodies and chord changes affect perceived key signature or tonality. This “1 feel” theory is reinforced by the dancing in the music video, in which the choreography consists largely of Beyoncé jolting around on every beat.

But it doesn’t stop there.

There is a snare drum in this song, and like virtually all hip-hop out right now, it’s not used as back beat. However, where normally hip-hop draws the line at syncopated southern-style fills or dotted 8th note patterns a la “A Milli“, there is a snare hit on the last 8th note of each measure (AKA the “and” of beat 4). This, combined with the 8th note claps, plays a big role in giving “Single Ladies” its memorable feel.

Now let’s move on to the harmony. During the song’s call-and-response section (“All the single ladies, all the single ladies”), she sings solfege syllable*** sol (as in do re mi fa sol) then riffs on mi, re, and do. Sol is a very common beginning note for a pop melody, adding strength (rather than color) to the harmony. Also note that she skips fa, which is common practice for melodies sung over a root chord because it forms a weak interval, a perfect fourth.

As I talked about in last week’s analysis, in traditional harmony and counterpoint, we only need a major or minor third interval to imply a chord. Beyoncé does exactly that during the verses: solidly establishing the key of E major by singing only an E and a G# with the occasional F#. The only “music” during the verses is a pitched noise, though the notes are indistinguishable, keeping in line with the current pop minimalism trend (see: 5 Pop Songs With No Music).

Pretty basic stuff so far. Now here’s where things get really interesting:

During the chorus, a bass synth comes in and goes from B to C, which is the bVI chord borrowed from the key of E minor. I will be talking a lot about borrowing chords from related keys and tonalities (aka modal interchange) in future Compositional Analysis posts, but what makes “Single Ladies” downright bizarre is that the melody doesn’t reflect this change in harmony at all, so what we’ve got is music in E minor and a melody in E major. This is called polytonality**, a technique normally reserved for highly esoteric jazz and classical music.

The result is a striking juxtaposition: a nursery rhyme-esque melody with a powerful, sinister bassline beaneath it, creating a bitter, almost shocking melancholy which underscores the “strong woman” image for which Beyoncé has become an archetype. The melody is distinctly feminine and “cute” while the bassline is aggressive and forceful (usually thought of as masculine traits). It is probably no coincidence that the bassline enters with the line, “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Here, the woman asserts her control over a man.

All this being said, she could not have pulled this song off were it not for a sparse arrangement, an exceptionally catchy beat, and the clout of being a well-established, top female artist, not to mention a role model for a generation of young, ambitious women.


Some music scholars might take issue with my assessment, in fact some don’t believe in polytonality at all, saying our ear cannot perceive two tonalities at once. With an arrangement this sparse, though, their case holds little weight.

But just for the hell of it, I’m going to do a standard harmonic analysis of this tune anyway, as if it were all in one key. Things often get vague when it comes to analyzing modern pop music because the harmonies are so fragmented. You rarely hear a full triad or seventh chord in rap and dance-oriented R&B these days (though I believe this trend is about to change) and “Single Ladies” is no exception. The result is often some funky looking chords with half the notes missing. Perhaps these bizarre changes serve to support my theory that we are hearing two different things simultaneously rather than this harmony:

Hypothetical functional analysis
1st Measure: V (no3), IV-/b3, III+ (no #5)/3, bVI (no3)
2nd Measure: V (no3), IV (no3), IVmaj7 (no3), IV-6 (no3)

Chord chart
1st Measure: B (no3), A-/C, G#+/3 (no+5), C (no3)
2nd Measure: B (no3), A (no3), Amaj7 (no3), A-6 (no3)

Chords in laymen’s terms

1st Measure: B with no third, A minor first inversion, G# augmented first inversion with no (augmented) 5th, C with no third.
2nd Measure: B with no third, A with no third, Amaj7 with no third, A minor 6 with no third.

Here, the two chords to watch are III+/3 and IV-6. The third chord in the progression does sound like a III augmented in that it is especially dissonant, but it’s also not functioning in a way that augmented triads are supposed to function (such as leading to the IV chord). And unlike major and minor triads, you are technically supposed to have the fifth when it comes to augmented or diminished chords. Augmented and diminished fifths cannot be implied. This again leads me back to polytonality because we only have two notes from the chord.****

The very last chord in the chorus sounds like it’s implying an A minor 6 chord (minor triad with a major sixth–A C E F#), though only the sixth is present. I say this is minor six rather than a II-/3 because I hear a strong pull back to the I, something a IV-6 has and a II- does not.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this analysis. I realize that this song is not for everyone, but it’s very important for songwriters to think about songs like Single Ladies, the songs that stretch the boundaries and yet are still wildly successful. It can speak volumes about how people connect with music, the future potential of music, and the realm of what is “commercially viable” (if you care about that sort of thing).

Beyoncé - I Am... Sasha Fierce (Deluxe Version) - Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)Buy Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” on iTunes

*While I have the tempo listed at 87 BPM, you could certainly argue that “Single Ladies” is in the upper 160-200 BPM range, making the claps quarter notes and the kick drum pattern repeating every 2 bars. For the sake of discussion, though, I chose to analyze this song at a typical hip hop tempo. This makes the snare and kick drum patterns one instead of two bar phrases.

**As many readers have pointed out, it’s actually more accurate to call this polymodality because the ‘tonal center’ is still E even though the scale is different from E minor to E major.

***Maybe it’s because I’m a guitarist and singer, but I like to think of melodies in terms of solfege syllables because they are instantly transferrable from one key to the next.

****The third chord could also technically be a III/3 chord, but in every music course I’ve ever taken, teachers have advised against analyzing something as a major III chord, let alone an inversion of it. Such a chord does not exist in any mode, so it could not be borrowed. The only other real possibility would be if it had a flatted seventh, making it a V7/VI- chord, but there is no indication that this is the case nor is that possibility even within the scope of this post.

Noisettes (The Water Cooler)

Posted by Keith Freund On April - 6 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

noisettesArtist: Noisettes
Album: What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?
Released: 2007
Sound: Indie Rock
For Fans Of: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Janelle Monae
Recommended Tracks: “Scratch Your Name,” “Don’t Give Up”

To get a feel for Noisettes, you have to start by watching frontwoman Shingai Soniwa’s electrifying performance in their music video for “Scratch Your Name.” This is classic case of a lead vocalist taking an act from good to great.

I saw them play a small Brooklyn night club a few summers ago. The show unexpectedly got combined with Battles at the last minute. (This was right around the time Mirrored came out, one of my favorite albums in the last 5 years.) The energy was unreal throughout the night. Since then, they’ve have toured with Bloc Party, TV on the Radio, and Muse.

While their sound is not “revolutionary” per se, Noisettes doesn’t particularly sound like anyone else. It would be a disservice to compare them to the decidedly darker and grimier Yeah Yeah Yeahs (though Shingai does list Karen O as an influence).

When Janelle Monae came out last year, I immediately thought “hey, she’s ripping off Shingai’s look,” (although she’s equal part Andre 3000). Musically, though, Janelle is a solid Motown-era soul singer while Shingai is an epic, class-of-her-own, wouldn’t-want-to-challenge-her-to-a-thumb-wrestling-match rock vocalist. Her signature is when her voice squeaks in just the right place at exactly the right time. You have to hear it to understand.

noisettes-s“Don’t Upset The Rhythm,” the second single from their yet-to-be-released sophomore album, has reached #2 on the UK Singles chart after being featured in a Mazda commercial. This track, along with the other single released from their upcoming sophomore album, ironically seem to indicate a directional shift for Noisettes towards a more processed, dance-y, Janelle Monae-esque sound. Guess indie rock wasn’t paying the bills. I will reserve judgment, however, until the new album drops.

Wild Young Hearts comes out April 20th on Universal.

Noisettes on Myspace

Mixing and Mastering Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by Fix Your Mix On April - 3 - 20096 COMMENTS

otariAs mentioned earlier in the week, this tune would be a dream to mix.  It is not very compositionally dense consisting mostly monophonic synth lines.  The character of the song derives primarily from the compositional techniques—each instrumental track gets its own identifiable melodic line and discrete part of the sonic register such that nothing really muddles anything else.  This allows for easy distinction between instruments and a general air of spaciousness without the track sounding empty.















Most striking to me is how static and simple the panorama and sonics are for a Dave Fridmann mix.  I’m used to hearing synthesizers leap across the sonic field and evolve throughout the tune from his landmark albums with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. There is none of that here as everything is quite stationary.


The song starts with a field recording of children playing, which is panned toward the right.  This creates a kind of imbalance waiting to be offset by the hook-synth 

moogpanned out middle left.  There appears to be a higher doubling way down in the mix and way out to the right.  It might be played an octave up, or it might be harmonic ringing in a counter-panned reverb.  This helps the synth sound more encompassing than it really is.


When the band enters there is the normal cast in the center channel with a kick drum, snare drum, handclaps-doubling-the-snare, lead vocal, and bass synthesizer as per the natural laws of instrument panning.   There is also an answer synthesizer slightly lower in the mix and panned out middle right (this is a polyphonic synthesizer because it hits at least a couple diads throughout the tune).  This plays off the ostinato synth, but is clearly subordinate to it.  Across the stereo stage there is at least one, but probably several synthesizer pads that give thickness to the mix and tie together what might be an otherwise hollow and disjointed assemblage of disparate synths and samples.


In the choruses, the vocal harmonies are panned out a little farther than you’d normally expect and the sides isolate the harmonies—the low harmony is pretty wide left and the high harmony is pretty wide right.  This might have been done to try and give the impression of distinct singers without placing too much emphasis on giving each singer his turn.


Curiously there is no crash cymbal until the bridge and no hi-hat or toms whatsoever until the final choruses.  Also quite striking is that the hi-hat and cymbals are panned very narrowly.  Under the normal mixing paradigm, drum kits are distorted and stretched across the entire spectrum with hi-hats appearing middle left (or right depending on perspective) and cymbals out wide.  In this tune, all the drum parts appear to be well within 30 degrees of center.


In the final chorus, the drums start to get a bit busier and experiment with fills and syncopation.  The toms too are very shallow (both in panning and volume), but the handclaps do pan out wide for two hits in the middle of the last chorus for accent.  The lead vocal gets the same treatment from time to time as a reverbed delay with feedback spreads certain words out wide.  This is probably done more to fill lyrical holes than provide accent because I don’t see much reason to accentuate momentous lyrics like  “…picking insects off plants.




One of the main questions I came across while researching this article is how Fridmann was able to attain such a clear delineation between the bass and the kick drum.  It’d be pretty effortless to accomplish with this orchestration.  The bass is played by a synthesizer with some pretty serious upper frequency harmonics—at least a couple times in the tune it sounds like it is doubled by another synthesizer quieter and an octave up.  All this subconsciously contributes to presence.  You might accomplish the same thing at home by adding some fuzz or amp distortion.  It also helps that the bass is the only thing playing a regular 8th note pattern, alternating between the root and an octave up.  Those upbeat 8ths really emphasize the bass part to the ear.


The kick drum seems to morph throughout the tune, though not overtly so.  In the opening when the drum kit is fully exposed, there is a big beautiful drum sound with only the slightest hint of that upper frequency paper *tick*.  When the band kicks in, it sounds like the EQ shifts wildly to place heavy emphasis on the upper frequencies of the drum.  This allows the synth bass to take up most of the bandwidth in the low end of the spectrum while the kick is audible in that Metallica-ticky-kick way.


As I mentioned previously, I believe the synthesizers are reamped or played through some sort of amp modeling plug-in to give them some edge, fuzz, and distortion.  It makes them much more ballsy in comparison to the naked and juvenile sound from the EP version and are a testament to how much a talented engineer/producer and professional treatments can positively affect a song. 


Continuing with synths, one of the pads has a phaser on it to give it some distinction while holding out those long notes and give it presence without overtaking the mix.  I personally abhor the sound of phasers, but they do the trick by creating subtle sonic intrigue for your ear to latch on to.


Also, note how much quieter the answer synth is in comparison to the main ostinato.  You’d think that the answer synth, providing some melodic interest, would be something worth highlighting in the mix, but it is barely audible and most people don’t even remember it as part of the song except in the verses.  This is an example of a mixer/artist realizing their priorities—in a pop tune like this it is more important to emphasize the hook than to emphasize the other stuff.  Always remember, in order for something to be big, something else has to be small.  As such, the ostinato is big, the answer is small (as are the pads, toms, crashes, hi hat, and BGVs)


bx20The vocals are clearly doubled, tripled, quadrupled, compressed, drenched in AKG BX20 spring reverb, and delayed with feedback.  It also sounds like there might be a chorus and perhaps even a flanger at some points.  All were probably used to thicken the vocal tracks and cover-up some of the imperfections of youth like vocal cracks and noises.  One of the comments on the youtube video for the EP version asks “Is that even the same Andrew?” 


(For those of you following along at home, know that you can use these effects on your voice and they do help a lot, but you have to be prepared to sound totally different than you are used to.  People often ask for their vocals to be treated thusly, but they hate the results because they don’t sound like themselves anymore.  We should ask the boys from MGMT whether or not they think the vocals sound like them and which one they’d prefer to have captured on record…)


The background vocals are also turned very low in the mix.  If you don’t pay attention you may not even realize they are there and may only register as the vocal suddenly getting thicker. In most pop songs, background vocals are not intended to be heard blatantly but rather to blend in with the lead vocal for emphasis.




dap-all-units1The vocals are very sibilant but I would fault the mastering.  There isn’t really much need for the vocals to be altered in order to make them more present or perceptible.  Given the instrumentation of the tune and the mix, the vocals should stand out well enough on their own.  I also see some superb de-essers in the Tarbox gear list, so there is no reason why they would be sibilant in the mix. 


Chances are the tune was shipped off to Greg Calbi, who does almost exclusively unattended sessions, and he decided that the tune overall needed more top end.  Whether he accomplished this with EQ, harmonic excitation, or some combination of both, he achieved his end with the artifact of sibilance. 


The tune is also heavily compressed on the two-mix.  Most of the dynamics stem from orchestration changes as opposed to real contrast.  Some spots in the chorus have audible compression artifacts such as the brickwall wash that occurs when the vocals hold out words (ie “A family of treeeeeeeees”).  These “flaws” are not necessarily a bad thing, just a reality of what mastering is these days.  The are further evidence hat very big, very popular tunes have audible compression artifacts as part of their sonic character.  To the average listener, they would not even be detectable, but hey we notice because it’s our job to notice.


Thanks to the composition of this tune, the instruments get to be very busy without the mix being muddled.  We get a very clear distinction between the instruments and also get to enjoy a bunch of little ear candy along the way.  The subtle changes that are low in the mix are easy to hear once you know they are there, but if you don’t they just wash over you and sound like a full yet spacious professional mix.

A Production Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by Fix Your Mix On April - 2 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

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.

mgmtWhen 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.


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