Whatever your style of music, understanding how great music is crafted, layer by layer, will help you become a better producer. The technique of close listening can help.
Every music lover knows what it’s like to discover a brand new favorite track, something that speaks directly to your soul. While you can’t help but lose yourself in the song every time you hear it, more often than not, there’s a passage or a certain section of the song that ranks above the others, a moment of sheer transcendence that has you wondering in admiration and bewilderment, “How did they do that?”
For the EDM music producer – or ANY music producer – developing an ability to answer this very question is an incredibly valuable skill, providing you with tools and ideas to try out in your own music. It’s also important to learn fresh approaches to production in this way because you simply can’t get everything from a book. Music producers break the rules all the time, and knowing how to figure out how they’ve done it is the best way to pick up these ideas for yourself. As the saying goes, “always learn from the best,” so let’s figure out how to do it!
The closer you listen, the more you hear
The technique in question is what is often termed “close listening.” You might have already been introduced to close reading in your English Literature classes, an analytical process where short sections of text are inspected in detail from syntactic, semantic, and thematic perspectives to inform a better understanding of the writing as a whole. Close listening is precisely the same process, only applied to sound.
We can learn a great deal about the constituent elements of a music track by breaking it into smaller portions and considering them from a set of universal criteria common to virtually every piece of music under the sun. Once we know how the broad areas of interest are demarcated, we can train our ears to dissect new music according to its borders.
As any good student knows, when it comes to a thorough analysis, organization is key. Once we know the various perspectives from which to consider a production, we’ll have a much better idea of how to deconstruct any given track and sift through the results for music production inspiration. Let’s take a look at the most fundamental elements: layers, timbre, texture, and structure.
I often find it useful to think of music in terms of a score, or its modern equivalent, the DAW arrangement view. With time on the x-axis and tracks or layers on the y-axis, you can get a quick overview of how a production is made up by identifying the total number of instruments, parts, or sounds that are present.
Breaking this criterion up even further, it’s important to have an idea of what the typical EDM song contains in terms of layers so you know what to listen for from the outset. For example, most songs contain the following layers:
- Rhythmic (drums and percussion)
- Bass (guitar, low synth part)
- Lead melodic (vocals, high synth part)
- Accompanying melodic/harmonic (rhythm guitar, synth chord progression)
- Background (synth pads, textural sounds, SFX, vocals)
- Transitional (synth risers, snare rolls)
Using these core layers as a template can be useful even when it comes to analyzing more indistinct forms of music, such as ambient or new age. It should still be possible separate the “lead” sound – perhaps a synth drone of some sort – from a bass element, a textural element, an evolving transitional element, and so on.
Performing this simple process of separating a song into its constituent layers can tell you a great deal about a producer’s approach to sound: whether it’s sparse, dense, light, bass-heavy, texturally varied, homogenous, etc. Once you’ve analyzed a track in this way, you can begin to form an idea of the sorts of instruments you might try using in your next production.
To give you an example of how this sort of analysis might work, listening to the output of long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich reveals that he often favors dense arrangements containing many subtle layers, deftly mixed together. This approach achieves complexity without sluggishness. Now it’s your turn to work out your favorite producer’s approach in the same way!
The second fundamental perspective for close listening musical analysis is timbre, or tonal color. This term really refers to the typical frequency makeup of the sound produced by certain instruments. For example, the sound of a cymbal is described as “bright” because it contains lots of high frequency information, whereas a bassoon’s sound is termed “dark” because the bulk of its energy is present in the low to low-mid frequency range.
When analyzing music from this perspective, a good approach is to begin more broadly and then focus in on specific details when your ear is better trained. This means identifying general tonal characteristics of the track as a whole and then zooming in on different parts, layers, or instruments individually.
A frequency analyzer can be very useful when learning to listen to sound in this way, as you’re given a visual representation of what you’re hearing. The trick is ultimately to progress to being able to identify timbral characteristics quickly using your ears alone.
Listen to several different pieces of music and try to compare their tonal makeup. Perhaps one track is brighter than the others, containing lots of higher frequencies, or one has more of a murky, low-mid emphasis. Once you’ve figured these things out, you can begin to determine how the given sound has been achieved. Maybe lots of hi-hat patterns have been used to achieve a bright, sparkling sound, or deep TR808 bass drum notes have been used to achieve a rumbling, heavy timbral effect.
Of course, lots of electronic music is reasonably evenly balanced across the spectrum. In many cases this is the ultimate goal of mixing and mastering. If you decide that the majority of music you like falls into this category, then this is the sort of timbral makeup to shoot for in your music. This might mean using several layers of instruments carefully spaced out across the frequency spectrum; or fewer elements that each contain full, rich spectrums; or even cutting some of the high-end from a track using EQ or filtering. You have to listen and analyze to figure out what approach you like the most.
The next perspective I’d like you to consider is texture. Following hot on the heels of timbre, this is an attempt to analyze the essential character of the music being dissected, though this time we’re considering whether things sound smooth or brittle, metallic or organic, etc.
Similar to analyzing a track’s timbre, it’s best to start with the overall texture of the given track and then move inward. A piece of ambient music might sound fairly smooth and subdued, broadly speaking, while a dubstep track might have a rough, gritty feel.
It’s often much harder to determine the sources of such textural qualities than with timbre and layering, as texture can be introduced using a wide variety of means: recording technique, enveloping, time-stretching, layering field recordings, saturation, granulation, spectral processing, and so on. The best advice I can offer here is to familiarize yourself with as many ways of modifying audio as possible, as you simply won’t be able to identify if a vocal loop has been time-stretched unless you try this out for yourself first.
Using our ambient and dubstep examples again, the former might sound smooth because the sounds being used are largely sine wave-based, as in very pure sounds without lots of upper harmonics. Enveloping may also be used to achieve slow, gradual attacks and decays, removing the noisier, shorter-lived harmonics often found at the beginnings of notes (known as transients). A dubstep track might sound gritty because the bass line is being distorted, or several detuned waveforms are being used together. Testing these techniques out for yourself will help you to identify them in the work of other producers.
The final perspective I’d like you to consider music from when close listening is structure. This relates to the placing of parts in time. That’s right, we’re back in the analytical territory of the score and arrangement view.
This musical element is something a great many producers struggle with. Perhaps you’re familiar with the “I have an eight-bar loop but don’t know how to turn it into a four-minute song” conundrum? In these cases, close listening can be a real spark of light in the dark. Put on some of your favorite music and really study how the parts have been placed in time. Do many of the parts repeat for a long time? Do they fade away and then return? Are there relatively few parts playing for most of the track, with a much fuller, denser section right at the very end?
Answering these questions is a surefire method of accumulating ideas to try when you’re attempting to expand that eight-bar loop into something more substantial. The more music you listen to and analyze in this way, the more you’ll come to recognize familiar structural patterns emerging (particularly when it comes to more popular styles of music), which you can then choose to follow with your own productions or move away from.
Much like placing a grid over a photograph and studying each square in detail, close listening helps us to break down a piece of music into its contributing elements which we can then mine for ideas to apply directly in our own audio productions.
Know your weapons
As far as close listening can take you in your quest to better understand the work a producer has put into a given track, knowing the tools of the trade and how they work is the only way to then put these techniques into practice.
An excellent way to do this is to fire up your favorite DAW and explore its native plug-ins folder, or if your DAW doesn’t come with any default plug-ins, get one of the many excellent free bundles of processing software out there (such as MeldaProduction’s free bundle).
Take a single instrumental part, synth or sample, and try applying different effects to it in turn, from phaser to delay to overdrive, etc. This will help you figure out the differences in these sonic effects, as well as whether they’re being used in your favorite music productions.
I hope you’ve found my brief foray into close listening useful and that you can see how this sort of analysis can really help to improve your approach to music production. From the initial phases of listening to music from the four central perspectives outlined above, to learning about how different production techniques affect sound in different ways, the rewards to be reaped are bountiful. Good luck with conducting your own analyses and keep those ears open wide!
Niall McCallum is the co-Founder of ModeAudio (creators of royalty-free loops, samples & presets for music producers)
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