Category Archives for "Production Analysis"
I heard the Katy Perry hit “Firework” sitting in a chiropractors waiting room the other day and marveled at how well the song is constructed and produced. Then it hit me that I had done a production analysis on the song in one of my Deconstructed Hits books, so I thought it might be a good time for an excerpt. The song was released in October of 2010, but as with most hits, I think it stands the test of time.
“Firework” epitomizes the best of current production (done by the production team Stargate and Sandy Vee, who are also cowriters of the song). The song was the third single from her second album Teenage Dream, and went to #1 on the Billboard charts and Top 5 in 20 countries around the world. It was also the fifth most played song in the United States in 2011, according to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems.
“Firework” is a more or less traditional pop song in that it has a common structure found in most hits that looks like this:
short intro ➞ verse ➞ B section ➞ chorus ➞ chorus ➞ verse ➞ B section ➞ chorus ➞ chorus ➞ bridge ➞ chorus ➞ chorus ➞ outro
That doesn’t mean it’s boring, though. The song builds nicely and takes us through a couple of peaks (one at the bridge and one at the outro), thanks to its built-in dynamics. It even has an ending, which is becoming more the norm for a pop song, instead of the slow fade that most pop songs once had.
While it’s easy to concentrate on the music of “Firework,” the lyrics may be much more important to the song, at least in the view of many listeners. Katy sings of personal empowerment, a theme that resonates with young and old alike, in an elegant manner that doesn’t seem at all forced. All the rhymes work where they need to, and where they don’t, they still feel natural.
The arrangement is state-of-the-art. The intro and first verse are very sparse, with the strings entering at the first B section and continuing to build to a crescendo through the first chorus. The chorus repeats with additional movement thanks to the entrance of the bass.
The first half of the second verse drops down to just eighth notes on the keyboards plus the drum pattern, but changes with the entrance of the bass on the second half—a very nice arrangement touch that keeps the interest high by changing the dynamics of the song.
Dynamics is a huge key to excitement, both live and on a record, and this song is an excellent example of how it’s done.
The Foundation: Bass and drums
The Rhythm: Keyboard playing eighth notes, strings
The Pad: Synth in the bridge
The Lead: Lead vocal
The Fills: Strings in the chorus
Once again, here is an example of how the sound of pop records has returned to the 1980s and ’90s in that everything except the drums has some ambience to it, which provides depth as a result. Katy Perry has what sounds like a timed triplet delay on her voice which triggers the reverb, so there’s depth and spaciousness without washing out. The same is true on the rest of the track in that there’s some space around each instrument except for the bass and drums, which are dry and in your face.
While “Firework” isn’t what we’d call “hypercompressed” where all of the excitement is squeezed out of it, it’s still heavily compressed. This is something that seems unavoidable in pop music these days, as every producer and/or label tries to make their record sound louder than the competition.
To the entrance of the line in-between the repeat of the second chorus.
To the harmony vocals on the repeats of the chorus.
To the background vocal answers in the outro.
To how the vocal melody subtly changes on the second and third choruses.
As mentioned, “Firework” features state-of-the-art production in all aspects. It’s a well-written song, it’s recorded and mixed very well, and the arrangement is top notch in that the song has a lot of dynamics that keep the song interesting and moving. Check out how the intensity drops and peaks throughout the song.
It’s easy to think of Katy Perry as a lightweight because of her celebrity and exposure, but the girl has some pipes and this song proves it. She really sells the song and pulls you in. Plus, she sings harmony vocals with herself very well, which many singers can’t do. Check out how the first verse and chorus are a single vocal, then doubled in the second chorus as the harmonies join in.
Great production is not only about getting great performances but making sure that the song is exciting. Mission accomplished.”
You can read more from The Deconstructed Hits series and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.
Although it may not be entirely obvious if you’re not listening carefully, music production has changed immensely from the early days of 16 and 24 track recording until now (hits made before multitrack recording were even more different by virtue of the limited tracks available). Here are some observations on how the production of today differs from what was done in the 60s and 70s.
1. Hits today are “less organic.” With so many songs built around beats, loops, sequenced tracks and virtual instruments, the intensity from section to section in a hit is changed by adding or subtracting an instrument or vocal, instead of a live player just playing more dynamically. This has changed the feel of the current hits, for better or worse.
2. Hits today are quantized or “put on the grid” in a digital audio workstation app. Back in the days of tape, performances generally weren’t perfect (Steely Dan aside). The track space was limited, and if a player played the part nearly perfect except for one flub, many times you couldn’t take the chance that the next performance would be played as well, and you might record over a better take. That meant that you lived with the mistakes, but that also helped the songs sound more human or organic. In other words, in those days there was no such thing as “undo.”
3. Effects layering is more sophisticated today. Back in the early days of hit making, the only effects that most studios had were reverb and delay, and usually only one of each. Today we have a huge array of effects available, and even the most basic native plugin is far more variable than any of the original effects used way back when. Plus, effects today can be easily automated so they can appear or morph for only a single word or beat, which make the hits of today sound more “slick.”
4. Most songs have an ending. Before the turn of the century, most hits ended with a fade. Not so today. According to one study, hard endings play better in the digital world, where a fade is more likely to make the listener skip on to the next song.
While there’s still a lot of music production that remains the same as it ever was, there’s a lot that’s different too. The next time you listen to a song, keep these observations in mind. It will make you think differently about what you’re hearing.
For a detailed look at the production of hit songs, check out my Deconstructed Hits series of books.
Usually you’ll find an isolated post or song analysis here on a Friday, but after a number of years of doing that and really taking a close look at many of the classic songs that we all grew up hearing, I thought that an overall analysis would be worthwhile. The 60s and 70s were a period of great experimentation in music, where in many cases the rules that are being used today were just beginning to be constructed. As a result, there are many telling differences between the songs of that period from what we commonly hear today. Let’s take a look at 4 ways classic songs are different from the popular songs of today.
1. The classic rock songs had no formula. The common formula for a hit song today revolves around the triad of verse, chorus and bridge, with a hooky instrumental riff for an intro and interlude. That’s also be the case with some classic rock songs too (“China Grove,” “Feels Like The First Time”), but more often than not songs of the era didn’t contain a bridge that provides a peak in the song. In fact, in many songs the peak (and what could be considered a bridge) happened as a result of the introduction of a completely new section that’s somewhat out of context with the previous part – almost like a different song melded into the original. Examples of this are “LA Women,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Layla,” “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” “Magic Man,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Free Bird.”
2. Tempo was never an issue for the classics. A look at the Top 40 of the last ten years shows that the tempo revolves around the 120 to 130 beats per minute area. The classic hits that we love have no such restrictions, as the tempo from song to song varies wildly, sometimes even within the song too.
3. The lyrical content was much more diverse. Hit songs have always been about love, either gaining it or losing it, and many have presented it in a lowest common denominator form with forced “moon – June” style rhymes. The classic rock songs certainly had some of that (“Feel Like Making Love”), but for the most part came from a different, more thoughtful place (“Layla,” “Magic Man,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Dreams”). That said, many of the hits of the past tell stories about everyday life (“LA Women,” “China Grove,” “Radar Love,” “25 or 6 to 4”) or interesting thoughts and experiences (“Don’t Fear The Reaper,” “Rocket Man,” “Kashmir,” “Smoke On The Water”).
4. Melody played a larger part in the song. Many of the songs on the charts in the last 20 years have revolved more around the beat than the melody. There’s always some sort of singable lyric involved or it wouldn’t be a hit, but melody played a much larger role in the classic rock hits. Sometimes the melody was closer to that of the standards of the 40s, like “Rocket Man,” or just had a wide range between verse and chorus (“Magic Man,” Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Feels Like The First Time,” “25 or 6 to 4”). Then again, there was also a fair number of songs where the melody of the verse was basically the same for the chorus (“Dreams,” “Layla,” “China Grove”) too.
So the next time you listen to a song, see if you can work out the song formula that it’s using. If you can’t, chances are it’s from an era long gone by.
The band Chicago has become one of the most long-lived American bands after starting in 1967, and still going strong almost 50 years later. Over the course of its history, the band has sold more than 100 million records, with 21 Top 10 singles, 11 number one singles, and 25 platinum albums. In fact, Chicago is the first American band to chart Top 40 albums in five decades. While the first album was a staple of underground, the second album broke the band into the mainstream with three Top 10 singles, the highest charting being “25 Or 6 To 4” at number four. While some believe the song is a reference to drug use, composer Robert Lamm has factually stated that it’s a song about writing a song at 25 minutes to 4 in the morning. Here’s a production analysis of the song.
“25 Or 6 To 4” is built around a single simple descending chord pattern that serves as intro, verse and solo, and an 8 bar bridge. The energy of the band’s performance and the signature horn lines and guitar soloing of Terry Kath turn that simplicity into gold.
The melody is memorable because of the ascending counterpoint to the main chordal changes of the song, which are descending. The chorus is much different from the verse, but the addition of the harmony vocals (always a strong point of the band) changes the section’s sound significantly.
The lyrics tell the story about trying to write a song in the early morning and reflects on the real-life experience that composer Lamm was having at the moment. The lyrics rhyme well and don’t seem forced, although they sing better than they read. The song’s form looks like this:
intro | verse | chorus | interlude (2x) | verse | chorus | solo (12x) | intro | verse | chorus | outro (2x) | tag
Chicago is a seven piece band which includes a three piece horn section, and with the exception of an overdubbed lead guitar, that’s exactly what you hear on the recording with very little sweetening.
The song begins with the dual rhythm guitars playing the signature descending 4 bar chord change, which is joined the second time through by the drums. The band joins on the third time through as the horn section plays its opening line. On the first verse, the intensity lowers a bit as the vocal enters and the band is stripped down to rhythm guitar, bass, drums and electric piano (a Hohner Pianet) and the holes between the vocal phrases are filled with different horn lines.
On the chorus the two harmony vocals enter and a lead guitar line fills the hole in between the two phrases. The song then begins a short interlude (twice through the chord pattern) with a horn line played against a short lead guitar solo.
The second verse is musically identical to the first with the exception of lead guitar fills in the holes between vocal phrases along with the horns. The second chorus is identical to the first except for the lyrics.
The guitar solo lasts for 12 times through the chord pattern, with the chord pattern changing to straight 8th notes on the 5th time and guitarist Terry Kath changing to a wah wah sound on the ninth time through as the intensity heightens. During the solo, the supporting instruments play off each other and the lead guitar as they would during a jam, which makes this section particularly exciting because of the interplay. The song then repeats the intro to the song, which is the same except the drums continue to play time and the lead guitar continues the solo.
The third verse is identical to the second, as the guitar continues to solo in between the vocal phrases. The last chorus is also identical to the others with the exception of a slight change in the guitar fill. The outro consists of twice through the instrumental patter, but it’s played much closer to the intro in spareness. The song ends with a ruboto (gradually slowing tempo) horn tag with different chord pattern for the first time in the song.
The Foundation: bass and drums
The Rhythm: keyboard, rhythm guitar
The Pad: none
The Lead: vocals, lead guitar, horns
The Fills: lead guitar, horns
Even though “25 Or 6 To 4” is based just around the seven pieces of Chicago, there are some interesting aspects to the recording. For one, the rhythm guitar that’s played throughout the song is doubled and slightly panned left and right. The horns are also doubled and panned hard left and right, but the arrangement of these parts is not identical, with the trombone sometimes hard to the left and sometimes the trumpet hard to the right.
What’s most interesting is that the drums are doubled, with the primary kit mostly up the middle and the secondary one slightly to the right.
There’s only one effect used on the song and that’s a nice long reverb that blends in so well that you can hardly hear it, yet it supplies the polish expected from a studio recording of the time.
Chicago II is much more experimental than the previous album in terms of taking more advantage of the multitrack format. Doubles on the drums, horns, and rhythm guitars make the sound larger without it sounding sweetened, yet provide some ear candy if the listener happens to be using headphones.
The drum track really propels “25 Or 6 To 4” along, although it doesn’t stick out of the mix. The fact that the song is based around a slight snare fill at the end of each bar almost goes unnoticed, yet it’s an integral part to the feel of the song, as is the constant 8th note kick drum that never wavers throughout the song.
The band’s performance really brings the song home, both through a commanding Peter Cetera vocal, Terry Kath’s guitar hero soloing, and the excellent interplay of the band, especially during the last half of the solo. All hit songs are exciting and “25 Or 6 To 4” maintains that excitement even after 40+ years of repeated listenings.
You can read more from The Deconstructed Hits series and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.
Jimi Hendrix still gets plenty of love from guitar players and producers alike, so here’s an excerpt from my Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock book. Maybe the definitive Hendrix song is one he didn’t write himself. “All Along The Watchtower” was written by Bob Dylan and released in 1967 on his John Wesley Harding album, which was given to Jimi by the publicist for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. The song was released as part of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third and final album called Electric Ladyland.
Recording began at Olympic Studios in London on a 4 track tape recorder with Experience members Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, along with Traffic guitarist Dave Mason on acoustic 12 string. On take 7, Redding, dissatisfied with how long it was taking, left for the pub and Mason took over on bass. On takes 11 and 12 Stones guitarist Brian Jones arrived at the studio drunk and insisted on playing piano. After playing poorly, he was asked to leave and Mason returned to 12 string.
Take 27 became the keeper, after which Hendrix himself added the bass. All subsequent overdubs and mixing took place at the Record Plant in New York City, first on a 12 track tape deck, then eventually on a 16 track. Rolling Stone Magazine has named “All Along The Watchtower” #47 of their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, while Britain’s Total Guitar has it as the #1 greatest cover song of all time.
“All Along The Watchtower” is interesting in that the song is made up of a single set of chord changes that repeat over and over. There are no other sections other than three verses, and solos that occur over the same verse chord changes. On that alone you would think that this would be a boring song, but that’s not the case, thanks to a constantly changing palette of sounds. The form looks like this:
intro 1, intro 2, verse, solo, verse, solo, solo, solo, verse, outro
The lyrics are more poetry set to music than anything, which of course, is the strength of Bob Dylan. The hook “All Along The Watchtower” is stated only once at the beginning of the last verse, yet it’s such a strong image that it supersedes the other lyrics by far.
The arrangement of “All Along The Watchtower” doesn’t change all that much in terms of instruments building as much as different sounding guitars entering and exiting.
The song begins with the bass, drums, and the acoustic 12 string playing the intro, which is punctuated with a vibraslap on beat 4 of every bar. Then a little twist that makes it totally interesting, and uncountable if you’re playing along, where there’s a half-beat guitar pickup going into the instrumental intro with the famous lead guitar solo line where the rest of the band enters with more intensity.
On the first verse you can feel the band pull back dynamically as the music gets less intense to make room for the vocal. A new dark sounding strumming electric guitar enters on the left channel that acts like a glue for the track, and the tambourine adds the high frequencies as it pushes it along. Also, at the end of bar 16 (half-way through the verse), the bass and rhythm guitar play the last chord as a IV chord, while the 12 string guitar plays it as a flat VII. Throughout the verse a lead guitar fills in between each vocal phrase.
In the solo section, the first one is similar to the previous lead sections in intensity and clean tone of lead guitar, but the second changes to the verse feel. In that solo, the bass also changes from a loose, ad-libbed part to one that’s structured on octaves, while the slide lead guitar pans from side to side. The next solo keeps the same feel but the lead guitar changes to a wah, which again pans left to right. The last part of solo increases in intensity while the guitar changes back to a slightly overdriven Strat sound.
The last verse is identical in structure to the previous two. The outro solo section differs in that the 12 string guitar is replaced with a 6 string acoustic strumming a different, more aggressive pattern than was previously used, while the guitar and vocal ad-libs pan back and forth from left to right over the ending fade.
The arrangement elements look like this:
“All Along The Watchtower” provides an interesting glimpse into the old recording world of 4 track as well as the then new world of multitrack all within the same song. You can hear the old world primarily on the drums and percussion, which were mixed in mono onto a single track. In order to make them sound stereo, they’re panned hard to the left and slightly delayed to hard right, which sounds somewhat odd as there’s a big hole in the middle as a result. This actually works to the song’s advantage as the center is filled up nicely with a number of guitars and the vocal. The tambourine, which subtly plays a big part in the song, gets the same stereo treatment as the drums. The bass is panned slightly to the left while the 12 string is panned slightly to the right.
Where the new multitrack world enters is all of the different guitars layered on the song. Virtually every solo has a different guitar sound, and there’s a very low and dark but important strummed electric guitar on the left that works as the glue to the song. On the outro the 12 string turns into 6 string acoustic.
There are a lot of effects layers in the song made up of several delays and delayed reverb. Except for the delay used to double them, the drums and tambouring are dry, but all of the other guitars have a slight delayed reverb that blends the track together well. The vocals and many of the guitars receive what sounds to be about a 350 millisecond tape delay with about three or four repeats. Since it’s tape, the frequency response is limited to begin with (most tapes used for tape delay wear out during the session from oxide shed, so the high frequencies suffer) so the delays decay seamlessly into the track.
Be sure to listen for the long reverb tail on the 12 string guitar in the intro before the vibraslap enters, and how the solos in the middle of song pan left to right and back again, but the echo still remains on the right.
“All Along The Watchtower” began as a co-production between Jimi Hendrix and his manager Chas Chandler (who produced his previous two albums), but Chandler quit early in the process over Jimi’s irregular studio habits and the fact that it was taking so long to accomplish anything. Without hearing the previous takes of the song, it’s difficult to say if a better one was played before the keeper at 27, but you have to like Jimi’s instincts on keeping that one, as well as the many guitar overdubs that it took to complete the song, which was the total opposite from the quick recording of his previous records. The song has stood the test of time, and considering it’s simple form, a big reason for that can be attributed to it’s production.