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Improve Your Recordings By Using Contrast

One of my occasional posts about recording and producing songs:

Recordings that are great but not too hard to understand are good to learn from, whether you’re an experienced producer or not. The recording of ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ by Thomas Dolby (listen below… and read along) works well along these lines. It’s a very ‘80s record with an arrangement/production that still pops out of the speakers.

I want to focus on the use of Contrast in the arrangement. Contrast and variety are important elements in keeping most things interesting. In a recording it’s usually good to have a varied mix of registers and sounds (low/high, thick/thin, etc.). ‘Science’, with its use of unusual and extreme (and extremely catchy) parts  is a great example of this.

The song starts with a melodic riff… that leads right into the main groove, which consists of three elements – a drum beat, a funky bass line, and a percussive keyboard part. These primary sounds are very crisp, and the bass and drums are fat and deep, leaving plenty of room for other unexpected developments to come through clearly.

Notice how the bass line is doubled with an instrument a few octaves up, so it really cuts through.

As the vocal starts (this is the Chorus) also notice how the same thing is done with the lead vocal – it’s doubled by a very high female-sounding voice… which also adds wackiness…,. which will become a major aspect of this arrangement.

Then notice that when the Title is introduced, it’s immediately trailed by a wavy synth sound that’s unlike the others we’ve heard so far, which have been punchy (think Contrast)

Then an ‘old codger’, out of nowhere, speaks the Title (‘She blinded me with science!’) with a lot of personality… things are getting weirder…

Then the intro riff again… and back to the groove, now with a funky rhythm guitar added.

Now we’re in the Verse. After each of the Verse’s two lines, there are unusual events. First a pitched-up-with-helium-like female voice sings ‘Blinded me with science’, followed by a very low (Contrast) foghorn-like synth playing another catchy riff.

(And remember that all of the rhythm parts – drums, bass, percussive synth, guitar – are punchy and have very little sustain and no long reverbs or delays in their sound. Due to this crispness, the other sounds come through clearly – there’s room for all the crazy stuff; it doesn’t get lost in clutter.)

Then, after the ‘old codger’ pipes in with a few more repeats of ‘Science!’ it goes back to the Verse.

These are the main parts of the song – Chorus and Verse – and what I’d like you to focus on today. Each Verse and Chorus doesn’t vary much between one and the next. There is a Bridge, which is fun but mainly just a nice change of pace (Contrast).

To review, the main elements are not many, but all very hooky and well chosen:

* Drum beat
* Bass line (doubled high)
* Percussive rhythm synth
* Lead Vocal (doubled high)
* ‘Old codger’ (repeating the Title)
* Rhythm Guitar
* ‘Helium female’ (repeating the Title)
* Low ‘foghorn’ synth part

This is a record that repays some close listening. After 30 years it still sounds good and offers a lot to learn for the record-maker… as well as a lot of fun for the listener.

By the way, notice how much and in how many ways the Title gets repeated and reinforced…?

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2 responses to “Improve Your Recordings By Using Contrast”

  • Lots of great tips here! I just wanted to add that doubling the bass an octave up is also a useful trick if you have a bass part that is not “reading” on small speakers, such as laptop speakers, that cannot reproduce low frequencies accurately. You can accomplish the same thing with the original bass sound if it has enough of a midrange component, but sometimes that doesn’t happen, and doubling can be a good workaround. You can make the doubling instrument wacky, as Tony mentions, or just something that sits there subtly, helping the part “read”.

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