We study four key elements in three hit ballads to see what sets them apart and binds them together
A ballad can be an incredibly important song in an artist’s repertoire. Ballads are often the songs that define an artist, help an artist reach a new audience, or show a musical or emotional facet of an artist that hadn’t been revealed in previous work. Ballads have a distinguished legacy in popular music and have been the breakthrough hit for countless popular music artists.
What is a ballad? Very often, a ballad is a song with a lyric about love – or lost love. Usually slower in tempo (there are also mid-tempo ballads), most ballads are based on a fairly predictable song form with lyrics written from either the first or third person, often sung directly to the person who evoked the sentiment of the song or telling a personal story with some kind of emotional punch.
Writing and recording a compelling pop ballad takes a winning combination of an exceptional lyric, a musical score that propels the lyric, and a production that enhances the emotion of the song so the performer connects with the listener in a meaningful way. The best ballads communicate to both the heart and the head of the listener, and achieving that usually requires some experimentation to put together the best possible arrangement, instrumentation, tempo, and mood.
It is often the producer’s job to determine the right instrumentation, proper tonal colors, tempo, and most importantly, the right vocalist for the job of selling the all-important lyric. A great pop ballad is a bit like a mini movie in that it will tell a story that matters to the listener or take the listener on a journey.
Let’s take a look at (and listen to) three ballads that were chart-topping hits to see what makes them tick. By deconstructing “Yesterday” (The Beatles), “Waiting For A Girl Like You” (Foreigner), and “Adorn” (Miguel), we’ll discover four essential production elements that help communicate each song’s emotional message to listeners with various musical tastes and inclinations.
The building blocks of a ballad
Like we mentioned, a ballad is something like a mini movie, and just like a movie, a ballad needs a script, a star, a cast, and a pace that keeps the story unfolding – we’ll call this the heartbeat.
1. The Script. You have to start with some kind of a strong emotional base to build your ballad’s production around, which is almost always the lyric. Sometimes the music drives the emotion (“Yesterday” was famously first a complete musical idea fitted with the working lyrics “scrambled eggs”), and sometimes the lyric starts the process. Perhaps the lyric is complete, or maybe there’s an idea for a chorus or simply a phrase or song title that has potential to grab the listener.
2. The Star. Probably more than with any other type of song, a successful pop ballad relies on a starring vocal performance that embodies the emotional message of the song and captivates the listener. The performance does not necessarily have to be technically flawless, but it has to be sung convincingly and at an emotional level attuned to the lyric. Check out the lazy delivery of Bobbie Gentry’s #1 hit “Ode to Billy Joe” or “Just Like a Woman” by Bob Dylan. While neither would be considered technically dazzling, each of these vocal performances fit their respective ballads like a hand in a glove.
If you’re serious about getting your ballad out to a wider audience, you may want to consider whether or not the vocalist has the ability to really sell the song as strongly as possible. If you’re not sure, consider having two or three different vocalists do a recording of the lead vocal and choose the most compelling one.
3. Supporting Cast. Most of the best ballads have a strong supporting cast. While an effective lead vocal performance is a must, the producer has a nearly limitless range of sound designing and music arranging options he can use to flesh out the supporting cast.
4. The Heartbeat. Effective ballad production means that there will nearly always be a steady rhythmic pulse that lasts from start to finish to support the song. It may be as simple as a steady finger-picking pattern on a solo acoustic guitar or a slow, deep synth bass patch that keeps time while the narrative unfolds.
“Yesterday” (The Beatles)
It is nearly impossible to talk about any genre of pop music without referencing the Beatles. The Beatles wrote many ballads which are recognized as masterpieces (“Michelle,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “The Fool On The Hill,” and “Something” among them), but we will be analyzing the production of “Yesterday,” which zoomed to the top of the U.S. pop charts in 1965 but was not released in the U.K. until 1976 because the band felt it was too different from their previous recordings.
“Yesterday” is a break up song written and performed by Paul McCartney, though the co-writing credit was given to John Lennon as part of their publishing agreement. Paul is the only Beatle performing on the track, beautifully produced by George Martin.
It begins with an acoustic guitar hard-panned to the right channel with McCartney’s lead vocal centered in the stereo field. The vocal is sung with just the right level of poignancy and has a beautiful reverb wrapped around it. The guitar begins with open fourths and then quickly moves into a chord progression that was more complex than the usual pop ballad of the day. Each of the song’s three verses includes at least one statement of the song’s title, overall he sings “Yesterday” nine times in the 2:04 recording. Repetition is a key element in many pop ballads.
Juxtaposed against the short verses is a bridge or “B section” that provides the listener with what purportedly happened and inspired the song. There was a girl who left for an unknown reason, probably due to something the singer said, and now he’s heartbroken. At the beginning of the second verse, hard-panned to the left is a string ensemble classically arranged by George Martin. Thus, the producer builds the song by adding more supporting cast members. After the second verse, the B section is then introduced and on its third and fourth lines: “I said something wrong/Now I long for yesterday,” McCartney doubles his lead vocal to add more texture and intensity to those words.
To keep the song short and to the point, the bridge and third verse are simply repeated to drive home the song’s message. A nice production touch is the addition of a high, sustaining single note (called a pedal tone) played on the first violin, which adds another poignant touch in the final verse. The track ends with a slowed-down repeat of the last few chords with McCartney meditatively humming the melody, rather than singing it to demonstrate his resignation.
To the casual listener, “Yesterday” may sound simple, but it’s the textbook example of how to produce a song with the right tone, temperament, and arrangement to perfectly portray its emotional center.
The choice of using a string ensemble as a counterbalance to the strummed acoustic guitar and vocal was a risk at the time it was recorded. The decision to forego any harmony vocals reinforces the sad, solitary plight of the singer, and the placement of McCartney’s vocal dead center separates the hard-panned timbres of the guitar and strings, perhaps to suggest the then and now of the lost relationship.
The artful composition and production of songs like this is what makes the Beatles’ music commercially successful, enduring, and often profound. Add the arranging skills George Martin, and what seems so simple becomes a very rich example of outstanding ballad production. It’s been estimated that the song has been covered as many as 2,200 times since it was released, though none have ever eclipsed the original.
“Waiting For A Girl Like You” (Foreigner)
In 1981 Foreigner released “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” which was one of three top ten hits found on their fourth album, titled 4. The other two hits, “Urgent” and “Juke Box Hero,” hew more closely to the hard rock formula the band rode to success on their first three releases. “Waiting for A Girl Like You” proved to be a major breakthrough for the band, allowing them to cross over to a wider and more lucrative audience, resulting in the sales of 4 surpassing six million units. The album was co-produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Foreigner’s Mick Jones.
When you start listening to the track, one of the first things that may jump out at you is the highly synthesized instrumentation. It’s a 180-degree turnaround from the up close, organic sound of “Yesterday.” “Waiting” sounds as if the only real acoustic instrument may be singer Lou Gramm’s lead vocal. Using electric keyboards, synthesizers, electric bass, and muted drums, the producers create a lush supporting cast to support this tale of passionate longing which also includes Thomas Dolby, who was hired by the producer to create many of the signature synth patches and melodies found on this album.
Unlike in “Yesterday,” the protagonist here does reach fulfillment during the 4:52 track. Another difference is that Gramm is singing directly to the girl of his dreams, and we are able to listen in, making us a party to his plea to move the budding relationship from what might be seen as a casual affair to “the love that will survive.”
The recording begins in a gauzy sound collage using an ethereal synth pad, which leads to the drum groove and processed electric piano bringing in the next section of the intro. As soon as this thick texture is established, a synthesized keyboard enters playing a descending lead pattern of eighth notes that sets up the entrance of the singer. That descending pattern becomes a mini hook of its own, and at each recurrence it informs us that the narrative is about to resume.
Gramm begins singing in a subdued, confessional tone, an extremely effective construct for drawing in the listener. Throughout the song, nearly all the synthesized instrumentation is soft in timbre with intentionally long attack and release times – no jarring accents in this track! This choice by the producers furthers the dream-like ambience over which the story is told. It also helps support where the story is going: the singer’s finding a true love.
The songwriters use frequent suspended chords, furthering the unresolved nature of the verses, while the pre-chorus shifts to a strong major key center, asserting that the singer has found fulfillment. Notice how the bass plays a single note repetitively throughout the verses to build tension. This cues the listener to anticipate some sort of pending resolution, musically and lyrically. This happens in the pre-chorus that follows each of the verses. A nice touch is the use of a smidgeon of the ethereal synth sound from the intro to punctuate the verse vocals, reminding the listener that our hero is awash in powerful emotions.
Lead synths lines are panned hard left and right with complex processed vocal backups in the chorus, swirling around in the stereo field. (The band 10CC was one of the first to use heavily processed vocals in place of strings on their 1975 hit song, “I’m Not in Love.”) Like “Yesterday,” “Waiting” has a fairly simple song form with a two-part verse plus pre-chorus leading up to its catchy and impassioned – yet still vulnerable – chorus. Note that the first verse has one more lyric line, “It feels so right/So warm and true/I need to know if you feel it too,” (and four more bars) compared to the second verse. This is an example of how ballads often have a variation in their form, most often for the purpose of staying true to their script. In this case, they use the extra four bars to set up the first statement of the pre-chorus.
Right from the start the listener is engulfed in sound, primarily layers and layers of keyboards. Only during the chorus do the background pad textures thin to give prominence to the song’s lead vocal hook phrase. Notice the producers don’t allow any background vocals on the title line during the chorus, to make sure the listener gets that hook firmly implanted in their brain. They provide variety and balance in the chorus (and lengthy vamp) through the dreamy, swirling background vocals.
Finally, something must be said about the lyrics. They leave little to the imagination, clearly stating the sexual nature of their relationship. But the song’s emotional center isn’t about sex, it’s about true love and the fulfillment that the singer hopes will replace the longing that has had him “waiting too long.” This emotional longing, beautifully expressed in Lou Gramm’s vocal delivery, clearly resonated on a gut level with a huge audience. In total, the lyric, vocal performance, and music production all worked together to create this powerful and superb power ballad.
The artistry and craft paid off as the single version of the song was reported to have sold an additional one million copies. “Waiting for a Girl Like You” has also been covered many times, including on Glee and the Glee Project, as well as included on a number of video games, all resulting in additional earnings for its writers, producers, and record label.
Let’s move into the present with “Adorn,” a track that embodies many of the production approaches and techniques found in today’s pop ballads. Recorded and produced in 2012 by Miguel, this Grammy award-winning song follows the model of many classic examples of an R&B ballad. All the production elements are perfectly integrated with thumping kick and pumping ultra-low frequency synth bass, sample loops, and a totally arresting lead vocal performance. You owe it to yourself to listen to the track on headphones, because the tiny speaker in your computer or laptop won’t reproduce the rich electronic tapestry of sound that the producer weaves around the overarching lead vocal.
First, what a vocal performance! Miguel’s delivery is passionate and classy, with just a touch of vulnerability, reminiscent of some of Marvin Gaye’s greatest records. Both the lead and background vocals are wrapped in plenty of reverb with tasteful delay in the mix. Such processing used on the lead vocal adds richness, texture, and body.
Unlike the first two songs we analyzed, “Adorn” is firmly anchored on the alternating phrases, “Let my love adorn you,” and “You know that I adore you.” Between the many restatements of those two key lyrical elements in the song’s choruses, the song has two verses and a breakdown section followed by a bridge. Miguel lets the listener know that he is a gentleman who respects his lady while falling under the spell of love. “Adorn” also uses typical contemporary music production elements including samples, loops, and highly processed sounds to create a sonic collage that provides the bed for the vocal.
Miguel, who wrote, produced, and performed the track, keeps it interesting throughout by adding subtle sounds, whispered voices, and varied processing on the track elements so that during the 3:13 song, something new or different is nearly always happening – but at a lower volume level than the starring vocal. The production on “Adorn” is like an onion: there are layers and layers of sounds that are barely noticed to the casual listener but actually give the track its rich and memorable sonic textures and hooks.
The intro is a textural masterpiece. It begins with the sound of vinyl-surface noise emulated by a digital plug-in known as “LoFi.” This effect creates that old school “get in the mood” romantic record needle drop. There is the sound of water dripping along with the triggering of closing envelopes controlling a low-pass filtered noise spectrum (see note 1, below) alluding perhaps to a steamy lover’s environment, especially if you listen on headphones. Three long, sustaining and rising synth pad chords are played and with each triggered envelope, the chords move upward adding anticipation. Over this we are greeted by a reassuring and romantically soothing voice that is heavily processed using reverb, flanging, and EQ effects, creating a calming hypnotic effect. That all happens in the first ten seconds of the track!
The downbeat bass drum hits hard and the musical love-fest begins. Miguel chooses a classic Roland 808 drum machine’s R&B pattern timbre, a constantly panning electric piano chord progression, and a variety of whimsical vocal hiccups to punctuate and accent the sinuous groove.
Also in the loop is a processed (EQ) voice that occasionally mentions that the couple is also “friends.” This statement, along with the giddy hiccups, add to the sense of wonder that underpins the track: wonder at the power of love that has gotten the singer so passionately sharing his deepest feelings. The loop continues as we hear Miguel’s first vocal entrance and prepare for his seductive and soulful vocal performance.
When the loop comes around again, a penetrating highly distorted ultra-low synth bass is side band compressed with the kick drum (see note 2, below) creating a granular sounding bass beat that continues throughout most of the track. Backup vocal doubling on various phrases in the verse, along with backup harmonies in the choruses, bring out the singer’s intentions. Within this sonic image, occasionally there are short string synth hits to add musical accents.
At approximately 2:09 seconds, there is a musical breakdown where the pumping bass suddenly stops while the background vocals and synth keys are pushed to the front of the mix. The short bridge is just long enough to set up the return of the chorus, and rather than a fade out, which is common on R&B ballads, Miguel mutes all the instruments and chooses just vocals to drive home the song’s final two lines, “Ohh, put it (my love) on baby/Let my love adorn . . . you.” After a pause, he speaks the last word, and this little touch makes the perfect ending for the song’s production and helps it stand out even further.
This contemporary R&B love ballad clearly falls within the definition of ballads mentioned above. It’s slow, tells a story, speaks about a relationship and is poetic. However, what makes this R&B ballad so very different from all the songs previously mentioned is its totally self-produced. Unlike “Yesterday” and “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” where star producers, studio musicians, and arrangers were hired to guide the purposeful direction of the song, Miguel is the sole creator recording, producing, and singing all the parts.
NOTE 1: Side band compression is a process where a compression setting on a bass drum is sent to another instrument such as a bass synth via side band insert and both instruments respond to the bass drum compressor identically. This creates a powerful and unified bass drum and synth bass pounding effect.
NOTE 2: A low-pass filter is a device that filters out the high frequency component of a sound above the cutoff frequency point. An envelope generator can be used to control the low-pass frequency cutoff and shape the noise spectrum in terms of the attack, decay, sustain and release times of the envelope.
Keith Hatschek is author of The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, which tells the story of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Iola Brubeck as they took a stand against segregation by writing and performing a jazz musical titled The Real Ambassadors. Hatschek, who directed the music management program at University of the Pacific for twenty years, has authored numerous music industry books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Music Industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros, and The Historical Dictionary of the American Music Industry.
Jeff Crawford is a recording engineer and producer with more than 30 years industry experience. He also teaches music technology at Pacific.