Song Sifting: Loud Pipes

What is Sound Sifting you ask? Here’s what it’s all about.

Artist: Ratatat
Album: Classics
Year: 2006 
Is there a more aptly named album than Classics? It’s hit after hit. Montanita comes on and I think “this song embodies the Ratatat sound.” Then Lex comes on and I think “no this song embodies the Ratatat sound.” And so on. 
The arrangements are sparse. Each instrument is right up in your face. Nothing comes between the listener and the music. The album is remarkably consistent and cohesive in terms of quality and sound. When I listen to these songs, I recall the following quote, attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.“
Loud Pipes exemplifies this ideal. 
When listening, I ask myself: What element would you take away? I have a hard time coming up with one. Every element of Loud Pipes is essential. And when each instrument carries such weight, just switching one for another within the arrangement is a dramatic act. For example, at 1:25, the bass drops out and is replaced by a light, high register keyboard. Dynamic variation is one of the hallmarks of these compositions. We’ll explore more examples of this nature in the final section of this post. 
I wouldn’t describe Loud Pipes as fancy, flashy, or advanced. And that’s the beauty of it. Mastery of the fundamentals.
Their debut, self-titled album sounds slightly less refined in comparison. For example, I love the guitar riff in Desert Eagle. But the song lacks the command in dynamics demonstrated on Classics. The sections last longer than necessary and lack enough variation to keep them fresh. Desert Eagle would have more impact if it were shorter. There isn’t a single song on Classics that makes me feel that way. 
In a Reddit AMA, Ratatat member Evan Mast mentioned how the duo has “been figuring things out as we go since the beginning. Our first album was recorded VERY simply and we’ve slowly expanded things with each album. The best way to learn is by putting in work. Sometimes people with the least amount of technical knowledge make the coolest sounding records.1” 
Comparing Desert Eagle to Loud Pipes highlights this progression. It’s satisfying to see their work become more dialed in over time. Their production techniques continue to advance with each album after Classics. Later songs show stylistic flair where there was once only practical utility. This is an observation. Not critique. Not praise. Each listener has their own preference. But Classics remains a hallmark example of how much can be accomplished with a bare minimum setup. 
Well maybe not bare minimum. When recording their debut album, they didn’t even have guitar amps. The guitars were recorded directly into their laptop through a distortion pedal. 
“For Classics we upgraded to amps and microphones.2
Still pretty minimal, I’d say. 
There’s hardly any effects processing to speak of either. The clap has some reverb on it. And it stands out because everything else is so dry. If you focus on the quiet gaps between notes you can hear a hint of reverb across other instruments. This reverb is probably just the sound of the room they recorded in rather than any significant post processing.
Each instrument in Loud Pipes has a pleasing saturation to it rather than a clean tone. This helps blend them together to form one cohesive sound. Nothing sounds sterile or out of place. Then again, the extra distortion and noise may not please everyone. But as Evan points out, imperfections add “a certain character to the track. [I’m] generally not a fan of overly clean and polished recordings.3
With that in mind, consider the tone of the bass. It’s somewhat flappy and blown out. If played in solo, the sound probably wouldn’t be desirable. But it’s never heard in solo. The bass is always supported by other instruments. Those guitars, keyboards, etc fill the sides of the mix and leave plenty of room in the middle. That allows the big booming bass to be the uncontested centerpiece of the mix. It’s tonal character is complimentary and fitting to the whole.
It can be a challenge in instrumental music to keep the song sounding interesting and complete without a vocal present. People expect to hear singing. Ratatat is the standard for those looking to take on that challenge. As described above, Ratatat’s careful song production gives each element it’s own space. When one of these spaces is left empty, it builds anticipation. When they are all occupied, the sound is satisfyingly complete.  Just because a song lacks a vocal doesn’t mean it lacks a focal point.
Sometimes, people feel compelled to add vocals to instrumental songs. In most cases, I assume, this is just for fun. Adding personal flair to a song they love. Otherwise, it’s missing the point.
“I’m flattered that people are inspired to record vocals on our tracks, but honestly I never really like what I hear. The songs are designed to be instrumental so it always sounds messy to me when there’s another layer in the foreground.4
And we’ve come full circle back to the Exupery quote. Nothing to add. Nothing to take away. That’s how you know when your work is complete.
Continue reading below for a more granular analysis of Loud Pipes:

Instrument overview and opening impressions:
  • Center panned: Bass, Kick, Snare
  • Left: Organ
  • Right: Guitar
  • Claps have some special information, roughly back left
Just about everything in this mix is hard panned. Doing so leaves the center clear for the big, loose toned bass. That sets up an opportunity for dynamic contrast. When the bass drops out at 1:25, it leaves a wide hole to fill.  A high key part takes its place at 1:27. One switch takes the mix from dense to spacious. These skillful swaps are key to keeping forward momentum in a song with a relatively sparse instrumentation.
Structural overview:
Anything less would be incomplete. Anything more would risk becoming repetitive. 
Section A
  • The intro is two complete cycles of section A, without guitar. This lasts 8 bars.
    • The guitars enter and repeat the main riff over 16 bars
    • A matching guitar comes in on the left. But, the right guitar is louder which shades the overall guitar sound right of center. This leaves space on the left for the organ to play along with the guitars.
Section B
  • A gliding synth lead enters. Reversed guitar chords too, swelling each chord of the progression. The combination of the two creates a swirling sensation. It’s immersive. It feels like you’re being swept up and surrounded by sound. The structure here works in tandem with the instrumentation to provide a dynamic transition into section C.
  • The gliding synth is doubled on the left for the second cycle
Section C
  • Starting at 1:27, this section calls back to the intro. It’s sparse and open. The heaviness of the bass now replaces with a feather light piano. Soft flutes take over the backing chord duties. They are helped by muted guitar plucks placed hard left and right. These guitars are the polar opposite of the distorted strumming heard previously.
    • When the strumming returns, it is just one mono, hard panned right guitar. The distortion is reduced. It sounds like reminiscing. Recalling the earlier high energy sections, but enjoying a break for now.
  • This section ends at 2:09 with a brilliant pause, as if taking a breath before diving back in. The lone guitar on the right is briefly doubled on the left. All other instruments drop out for two counts. Then, bam. The chorus lands like an on time arrival. Satisfying.
  • A shaker is introduced in this section. It bounces left and right each beat, punctuating the guitar plucks.
Section A 2
  • There’s a couple additions to this section for its second pass but they are subtle
    • A lead tone guitar enters on the left, covering the organ. The harmony raises during the second 4-bar cycle, suggesting the song is reaching its apex
  • There is a tambourine on the 2 and 4 that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else in the song
Section B 2 – 2:32
  • Nearly identical to first B section, but the gliding synth is doubled from the outset of the first cycle. It appears to again add a layer for the second cycle, perhaps going from 2 to 3. This is the most densely orchestrated moment of the song.
Section C 2
  • No plucking guitars this time. The organ is on chord duty now, panned right for the first time all song. 
  • Unlike C1, we have bass this time. But, its played an octave higher to keep things light.
  • No strumming guitar comes in this time, instead the section fades out, completing the song.

Parting thought:
“Ending the day with a song that didn’t exist that morning is the best feeling in the world.5