Breaking it Down


 

Generally I don't write music to fit a particular kind of genre or style, I just write what I feel like writing at the time. However I've been recently trying to hone my writing ability by writing a Drum and Bass track for my most recent uni project, and as much as I love Drum and Bass, I'm not the best at writing it. Most of my attempts don't quite sound the way I want them too, and just generally sound awkward and for lack of a better term, "amateur". I figure the best way to combat this is to analyse a Drum and Bass track down to it's bare elements, so I can better understand how it's made and in turn reproduce it more accurately. So how exactly would I go about doing this? What do I need to be looking for and why? In this blog I will research methods used to analyse music, and how I can incorporate them into my own framework for critical listening.



 

Song Structure

First of all I'd want to look into what genre the track is. For example, if I was to analyse a Metal track I would want to get research specifically what kind of sub genre of Metal it is. Is it Death Metal? Is it Stoner Metal? Once I know this I can start taking apart what characteristics the song shares with that sub genre, and whether or not it incorporates a style of it's own to the genre, for example a Stoner Metal song with a heavy incorporation of synthesised elements is a special kind of Stoner Metal, and should be taken into consideration. Of course each song in a particular genre is going to have it's own unique style, and this will come with things like the key of the song, the tempo and BPM (Beats Per Minute), on a very basic level, and then on a more in depth level, things like time signature, melody, harmonics, all of those great complicated things. It will also depend of course on whether or not these things are relevant to the song being analysed, for example there might be a lot less chord structure and melodic progression in a breakbeat drum and bass track than there is focus on time signature and tempo. These kinds of things can change throughout a track, so it's a good idea to flesh out what parts of a song have specific characteristics by splitting it up visually in a DAW.



Some clever bloke by the name of Ethan Hein has written a blog about this very thing, and the image above is an example of Diana Ross's I'm Coming Out broken up into it's different sections. I think this is a great way to visualise a songs structure, and if I was to do it myself I would probably include changes in key, tempo, bpm, time signature, etc. if necessary.


All this encompasses the structure and foundation of a song, and so it should be the first thing to consider.


 

Instrumentation


It's one thing to understand the over all structure of a song, but in trying to recreate a song we need to know exactly what kinds of instruments were used to write it in the first place, because a Death Metal song played on acoustic guitar just doesn't quite sound the same. That's not all either, just picking up an electric guitar plugged into an amp and playing Holy Wars By Megadeth won't sound the same unless you have all the right distortion and effects to go along with it. This becomes a bit trickier when it comes to electronic music, just knowing what kind of synthesiser or drum sample is used isn't enough. Synths are multipurpose and can sound like anything the operator wishes them to sound like, from bass lines to pad synths, to sound effects and even instrument replication, synthesis is a whole other box of frogs. I will post a blog later down the track diving deeper into the world of replicating synthesis.


Not only looking into the types of instruments used but also the way they were used is essential. Sometimes you can be fortunate enough to find a Sound on Sound article about the way a song was written right down to the nitty gritty of amps and guitars can be a blessing but being so fortunate isn't always the case, especially if I'm analysing a song by Queens of the Stone Age who are notoriously protective of their techniques, a lot of the time I might have to take a step back and see exactly what techniques are used in the genre as a whole to understand just a song.


Simply understanding the way a song is written is one thing, but understanding the way it's played is everything, and that's why researching the instrumentation is an essential step in a track teardown.



 

Sonic Characteristics


So far we have everything we need for a nice little cover band, we know how it was written and how it is performed down to every technical aspect, but when trying to replicate the sound of a particular band on a record we need to look deeper into how the song was recorded and how it was all put together.


I remember back in trimester two my lecturer Guy showed us a track teardown he had done of a Queens of the Stone Age tune, which was in depth to put it lightly. It featured a graph of every instrument and where it sat in the mix in relation to frequency and stereo image. Below is a similar graph again from the blog of Ethan Hein.

Creating a graph like this makes all the sonic characteristics easier to understand in a visual format so we can clearly see where every instrument sits on the left and right channels and in the frequency spectrum. Noting the stereo image of a song is done by simply listening with headphones on and taking notice of where each element sits in your ear, however the frequency spectrum is a little harder for novice ears to hear. An easy way to visualise a songs frequency is by running it through a graphic frequency analyser, and as daunting as that sounds, you can often find this function in your every day Equaliser.

Above is a screenshot of my preferred EQ tool, FabFilter Pro-Q2. The X axis (bottom) of this graph shows us the frequency and the Y axis (side) shows the amplitude or volume in dB. Obviously if you play a song through this kind of tool you're going to get a frequency analysis of every part playing together so some listening skills are still required, but it definitely makes the work a lot easier.



 

Following this framework, I should now have an understanding of the songs structure (key, time signature, tempo, arrangement), it's Instrumentation (guitars, pedals, amps, synthesis) and how it was arranged in a mixing environment (frequency response, stereo image, track level). With all this in mind I will be posting a follow-up blog, breaking down a Drum and Bass track in preparation for writing one of my own.