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Under The Hood Of An Exceptional Song, part 3 (production)

This Max Martin/Ali Payami production sounds very full but, relatively speaking, there aren’t as many elements as you’d think. The parts are not numerous… but something changes in some way each time they come around.

As Max Martin says, “I like it when a song is like a journey, building up along the way. That they start out smaller than they end. Along the trip, you add elements that make the listener less likely to tire…”

To break down the main elements:

* The Chords give the song a bit of a ‘dancehall’, almost carnival-like, vibe and are very propulsive. This is the riff that starts the song in the 2 bar Intro. Overall it’s the beginning of the same 8 bar pattern that plays through all Verses and Choruses.

* Bass plays variations on a basic pattern throughout the Verses and Choruses. The most unusual aspect is that the bass doesn’t play at all on the downbeat of each bar – the bass drum takes care of that and the bass begins each bar by bouncing on the second 16th note.

* Drums and Percussion consist of a fat bass drum (syncopated in the Verses, playing every quarter note in the Choruses), claps on beats 2 & 4, and a 16th note shaker-like sound way in the background. Finger Snaps are also used with and in place of claps.

* Lead Vocal has a pristine sound, clear and present, mostly without a lot of apparent effects (although there are quite a few that aren’t immediately apparent). The effects on the Lead Vocal change from section to section; typical in this kind of production.

Intermittent elements:

* Background Vocals and Lead Vocal ad-libs in Choruses.

* Synths in Pre-Chorus and Rap/Bridge  (different sounds for each; both are very different from the main synth/chord sound).

* Guitar – single-note – in Pre-Chorus only.

* High, swirly string sound in bars 6-8 of Verses and Choruses (You’ve got to listen closely for this!).

There’s always something new happening when a new section enters. This is a big part of the Max Martin production approach.

As he says, “If you listen to the first, second and third chorus of a song, they don’t sound the same. It’s the same melody and all that but what really happens is that the energy changes. It’s all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration… Then, at the end, euphoria.”

Let’s walk through this song and see how this is done.

(Note that at end of every section there’s some kind of final ’build’ element to excite the transitions – almost like the way a drum fill would function in a band… either a ‘backwards cymbal’-type effect, vocal delay repeats, or some kind of fill.)

* Intro. The first 2 bars introduce the Verse instrumental elements (Chords, Bass, Drums)) but with the low end frequencies removed; a kind of ’telephone’ effect.

* Double Verse. When the Vocal enters everything kicks in full-frequency, giving the song a real jump-start. Listen for the high string line that fades in in bar 6 all the Verses and Choruses.

* Pre-Chorus. Total contrast. No Drums or Percussion at all. A new big Synth sound (joined by bass) bangs out the chord changes while a 16th note Guitar playing single notes keeps the rhythm – both new elements are very ’80s! Long delay on the Lead Vocal.

* Double Chorus. The Bass Drum switches to ‘4 on the floor’, hitting every beat. The Verse elements are joined by Perry’s doubled lead Vocal (with a short delay added), and Background Vocals (with a lot of reverb and delay, to contrast with the Lead) that emphasize words that are important both lyrically and musically – ’Turn it up’ (2x),  ‘Yeah’, ‘Mm-Hmm’, ‘Drink’, ’To the rhythm’ (3x). Then there’s an extra bar of Drums (with an overlay of vocal repeats) that transitions to –

* Verse. This is very interesting. All the elements are exactly the same as Verse 1 except… the track (not the Vocal) has a filter on it that, at the start of the Verse, removes all its high frequencies. Almost all thet’s there is the Lead Vocal. As the Verse progresses, the filter gradually sweeps the frequencies back in, until the sound is back to being full-range by the end. The claps on 2 & 4 are out for the first half and then fade back in too. Check it out; I love this.

* Pre-Chorus. This is pretty much identical to the first Pre-Chorus, except it has claps and snaps on 2 & 4.

* Double Chorus. Also almost the same as the first Choruses, with the addition of vocal ad-libs by Perry.

* Bridge/Rap. This has no drums or percussion – only a grandiose organ-type synth sound. The rhythm is carried by the rap, sometimes with doubled voices and delays, ending with vocal triplets that lead into –

* Chorus. Nothing plays on the downbeat here. The vocal comes in as usual on the ‘and’ of 1 and the track returns on the second beat… creating a ‘falling off the cliff’ effect for a second. The rest of this single Chorus continues as usual, with additional ad-libs from Perry.

* Final Chorus. The regular Chorus vocal melody and lyric go away until the end, replaced by repeats of “It goes on and on and on…”, with Perry ad-libbing, until –

* Ending. Voices only, singing the Title, “Yes we’re all Chained To The Rhythm”. Very effective; another surprise at the end.

OK… That’s all I’m going to write about this song… for now!

Let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below:

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