A post to consider another artist’s work and appreciate the elements that make it valuable

Song Sifting: Eyen

  • Post category:Song Sifting
Song: Eyen
Artist: Plaid
Album: Double Figure
Year: 2001

Eyen unfolds like a journey, a car ride lets say. The chord progression is our car. An 8 bar loop that repeats throughout. It’s not changing. It’s not stopping. Nice and reliable. You can relax your focus and enjoy the views passing by out the window. And what’s going on out there? Every 8 bars or so, we encounter some new instrumentation.

An acoustic guitar provides the chords. After 8 bars, a distant synth pad percolates up from beneath the surface. Momentum builds when the bass creeps in. The first minute of this song is a clinic in building anticipation. An electric guitar emerges, outlining the chord progression. The bass, still repeating a single note, switches from a double pulse to a full eighth note beating. Then, it changes again, adopting a funkier rhythm. Then viola, drums appear; just the release we’ve been waiting for.

So the first minute is spent collecting all of the foundational elements. Almost like packing the car. Once we have the drums, it’s full speed ahead. Drive ahead 8 bars and we find a whistling flute melody. Eight more bars and it’s passed, relegated to the background as a new electric guitar layer comes into focus. Now that you get the idea, you’ll see the rest of the song develops in this fashion.

With one aspect of the song so constant, you expect to find an extra focus on variation elsewhere. We see this with the revolving top layers. But it occurs on a more subtle level as well. Take the hi hats for example. They are quite low in the mix, and sometimes difficult to hear. But zoom in on them and you’ll notice they’re alive. Always moving from the left ear, to the right, and back. Such details reveal the level of care and craft taken in the composition.

Now lets consider the bass. Often in electronic music, you get simple, repetitive bass parts. Utilitarian. The synth line that comes in at 2:09 is like this. Just a straight eighth note rhythm. Now rewind to 1:00. Listen to all the character in that bass. It really jams. There’s a nice fill going into 1:39 and for the next 30 seconds, the bass goes wild! Completely unexpected in a song like this. But a welcomed surprise. After 2:09, there’s so much layering above it that it settles back into a straight rhythm so as not to clash. Relegated to the background, but not before some fun.

Eyen is satisfying in its simplicity. The chord progression is peaceful, even hopeful, with the way it turns upward at the end of each cycle. There’s anticipation with each upturn, to see what will appear next. We get complacent. Yes, what we hear now will soon pass. But something new is coming to replace it, and it’s always just as nice. Until it’s not. At 3:12 a change occurs. Unexpected and irreversible. The journey has lead us far from where we began.

Try this at home:

1. How many different top layers can you craft that fit your foundation? Better question. How do you tie them together so they flow seamlessly from one to the next. Like views out a car window, not junk out of a grab bag. Make more than you need and only keep the best.
2. Attention to detail: Where can you add subtle variations that add life to the mix? Remember, these aren’t necessarily focal points and shouldn’t be stealing attention from whatever is.
3. Anticipation requires two key components. Ask “What am I building toward?” and “How long until it arrives?” Command the tension and release dynamic. Otherwise, you’re just meandering.

P.S. If you’re new to Song Sifting, here’s what it’s all about

Song Sifting: Rev8617

  • Post category:Song Sifting
Song: Rev8617
Artist: Skee Mask
Album: Compro
Year: 2018

Rev8617 opens with a low-pass filter engaged. Only the heavy sub bass elements push through. Soon, a synth line fizzles into awareness. Skittering hi hats follow. The drums are choppy and fluid at once. Fast, but not frantic. Instead, fluttering and laid back. To me, it sounds like a drum break as been sliced to oblivion. Perhaps by using a tremolo effect. Then he added a big bass drum and crisp, rim hit snare to provide a foundation. Otherwise, the beat would be too fragile to hold together.

The main synth line has a similar fragility. The notes evolve constantly, as if changed by the act of our hearing them. The whole song is based off this one motif. And yet, it never plays back the same way twice. It’s center panned, which leaves room spatial effects to the left and right. Listen between the instruments. Hear the space they inhabit. The richness of that space is what sets this song apart.

The reverb is lush and immersive. A delay effect propels each note outward. Each echo morphs it’s way through the space. Sometimes swirling, sometimes reversing midway and bouncing back. The result is an organic atmosphere, where the instruments are living, breathing entities.

Here’s an example of the space itself evolving: At 1:12, the end of the melody line reverses. From underneath, a flanging effect comes in. The echos sound like they’re passing through thin tubes. The drums stop to let you hear the new texture. Hear the note at 1:20? It sounds like a droplet of water. It’s the only moment in the song that sounds that way. So this is what I mean. The track is 3:44 long and is based on one 4 second motif. But you never hear it the same way twice.

The last 40 seconds mirror the songs beginning. To start, we heard the lumbering bass make a close approach. Now, the sounds are thin and distant. Skee Mask gracefully completes the circle.

Try this at home:
1. Experiment with tremolo effect on a drum break. Does this recreate the fluttering effect or lead somewhere else entirely?
2. Try using multiple delays on a lead line. Use automation to trade off between them.
3. Embrace minimalism. How many different ways can you express one motif?

P.S.  Here’s what I mean by Song Sifting, in case it wasn’t clear

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

Song Sifting: An Introduction

Some songs are damn near flawless. Stand outs among stand outs. They command your complete attention from beginning to end.
Can you think of a song like that? It shouldn’t be too difficult. In fact, it’s probably a favorite of yours. One you’ve heard countless times. Well, listen to it again now. This time, like a scientist. Take it apart. 
    -What’s unique about this song? 
    -What does it remind you of? 
    -What part gets stuck in your head? 
    -How do the other instruments support that part? 
    -What’s the most subtle element of the song? What role does it serve?
This is what I mean by song sifting. At least in part. You might find a sound you’ve never heard before in a song you’ve loved your whole life. That’s an exciting feeling. Music is like that. There’s always another layer to peel back.
The trick is to do this not just once, but for many songs. And across genres. Only then will the big picture come into focus. What patterns emerge? What common traits? Can you find links between songs now that you’d never have thought to compare before? Learn to recognize the essence of great music, no matter what form it takes.
Now, this isn’t to say that all the best songs follow some magic formula. They don’t. And even if they did, knowing that equation would only be a fraction of the process. There are other factors. Intangible factors. What about creativity? Inspiration? Emotion? How do you account for those? Much of the process is elusive. Even mystical, depending on whom you ask.
But let’s focus on what we can control, the tangible elements. Begin a list of skillful techniques you hear in songs you enjoy. This will be your toolbox when it’s time to create. A reference when you inevitably get stuck. Recognize the fundamentals that define great music. Know them anywhere. Your appreciation for music will expand from this process. And the more music you can appreciate, the more material you have to learn from.
Still, the creative muse will continue to elude. It cannot be summoned, or even invited. Show up every day to maximize the probability of an encounter. Keep your tool box freshly stocked and close at hand. Some day, you may be graced with an unannounced visit from the muse. Best to make the most of an opportunity to channel “the giver of much delight.”
Future posts in this category will feature breakdowns of songs that inspire me. You’ll see what I see when I take a part a song. Not because it’s the correct way. Rather, the alternative perspective may inspire you to reassemble the pieces in a way that’s not yet been done.
In short,
Observe🕵 Ponder💭 Create🎧

So, that's all for now...

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