Download the files used in the David Guetta & Sia – “Titanium” pumping synth effect tutorial here. Includes the Pro Tools 10 session, plus audio files.
Watch the original video demonstrating the effect here.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people have been asking about how to achieve the “pumping synth” effect as heard on the David Guetta & Sia track “Titanium”. Here’s how!
If you get something out of this, read my other posts on the David Guetta & Sia track “Titanium”:
Part I: http://wp.me/p1E8ld-35
Part II: http://wp.me/p1E8ld-3f
Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin & Shellback, and produced by Scott Borchetta, Max Martin & Shellback, provides some interesting production ideas that aspiring (and current) producers can learn from.
One of the most interesting production ideas in the song is the use of changing dynamics to indicate different parts of the song. Of course songs should be dynamic, and good songs push and pull the dynamics to draw the listener in & create interest in the song.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” does this by changing the instrumentation and what the instrumentation is doing throughout the song. There are no less than eighteen different parts to this song, broken down by instrumentation and dynamics.
A lot of songs produced nowadays reach a climax close to the end of the song, then fall off and end pretty much like it started (see my previous posting for “We Are Young” for an example). “Titanium” doesn’t do that.
True, the final pre-chorus/chorus part is even MORE climactic than the others, but the song hits like a Mack truck at 1:16. This effect is emphasized by the keyed compression on the synth track, giving the synthesizer a pulsating rhythm opposite of the kick. This climax happens again at 2:32 and 3:33. There’s no need to continually build throughout the song here, the rising and falling of the track provide an enormous amount of movement for the song.
Related to the previous concept, you have to come down from the climax of the song at some point. If that climax comes early in the song (as it does here), you have to do something to give the listener’s ears a break. At 1:32, the song returns to the same “level” as it was in verse one. It just falls off, and you’re right back into another verse. It happens again at 2:48, but this time leads right into the bridge. The next fall off, at 3:49, is a hard stop that fades into reverb.
This tune would not work if the intensity level had remained continuous after it reached the first climax at 1:16. The listener needs a break! That much intensity for that long would provide no contrasting dynamics, and the result is that the song would sound “flat” for the rest of the tune.
Similarly, don’t feel the need to go for the knockout punch in the first thirty seconds of the song either. This song doesn’t reach any real climax until 1:16, but that also means that it spends from 0:46 to 1:16 building up to that climax. That’s thirty seconds of build. That’s a long time, in popular music terms, spent leading the listener to that climax. It’s not an automatic increase from the verse, it’s a process of increasing the intensity from low to high.
To help build the climax, Guetta relies on the judicious use of percussion instrumentation in “Titanium”. He doesn’t feel the need to continually use any single piece of percussion, and sometimes drops the percussion altogether (0:46 to 1:01, for example) to help create different levels of intensity and emotion. Same at 2:02 and 2:47. I dare say this song is percusisonless for maybe 25% of the song, and very little percussion for maybe 33% of the tune.
It’s simply not true, and removing elements of the percussion aids in creating different levels of dynamics and raising or lowering them by adding or subtracting them.
“Titanium” is a song written by Sia Furler, David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort, and Nick Van De Wall. Sia Furler started her career as a jazz singer, but has gained more fame as a pop and dance vocalist, releasing five albums (not including a recent “best of” album). Giorgio Tuinfort has also had success working on previous songs such as “Nothing But the Beat” and “Who’s That Chick?” with David Guetta (and Rhianna for “Who’s That Chick?”), as well as singles with Akon and Usher. Nick Van De Wall (A.K.A. Afrojack) is a Dutch DJ that has worked with the likes of Shermanology, Steve Aoki, Quintino, and The Partysquad, as well as multiple singles with Guetta. Guetta himself is an accomplished DJ and music producer, whose 2011 album release Nothing But the Beat has received many honors and awards. Guetta may be best-known for his work with The Black Eyed Peas on their 2009 hit single “I Gotta Feeling”.
Notice the very beginning of the song. There’s a guitar in the beginning. That guitar continues through the first verse. However, it stops when we get to the pre-hook at 0:46. Another instrument takes over the job, so the function of the rhythmic melodic instrument is still in play, but there’s no need to have that same guitar playing the same part throughout the song. The guitar DOES reappear in the 2nd verse, but again, only for that section. We never hear from it again.
A common techniques employed by producers is to set up certain instruments as identifiers of the parts of the song. Here, the guitar tells you you’re in a verse (or the intro, but that only happens once). Experiment with different instruments in different parts of the song, like you hear here. Notice that there’s a different pulsing synth sound used for the pre-hook/hook part compared to the chorus too.
Want to make a simple instrumental part stand out in a crowd? Add reverb, but don’t add it all the time. Play around with when it’s active and not active. Take the very beginning of this song, for example. The guitar plays a fairly simple part. Eighth notes with a bit of delay (Andy Summers would be proud!). To add some interest, Guetta plays around with adding reverb on some phrases the guitar plays, but not others. Imagine that amount of reverb on the entire guitar track – it’d be all you hear by the end. What Guetta does is turn the sends from the guitar track to the reverb on & off (a good reason to set up your reverb as an auxiliary track instead of inserted on the track) and mutes/unmutes the reverb tracks well, so that the reverb builds when the sends are on. As soon as the sends are turned off, there’s no more new reverb, and when he mutes the aux track, the existing reverb gets cut too.
One of the most prevalent music production techniques used in this track is the use of side-chained (A.K.A. keyed) compression. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re very familiar with the sound. It happens in this song multiple times, on the sweep at 0:42 to 0:46, and again at 1:58 to 2:02, the synth at 1:16 to 1:32, and again at 2:32 to 2:46. Notice what happens here. As the kick hits, it causes the sweep/synth to decrease in volume.
The kick track has been side-chained to the sweep and synth tracks, so that every time the kick hits, it turns the volume of the sweep or synth. Between kick hits, the volume of the sweep/synth is turned back up. It adds rhythmic elements to the track since the kick is rhythmic. It makes the synth track feel as if it pulses with the beat.
For an example of this, listen to 2:44 to 2:48. If you single out those two bars, notice that there’s no kick track. However, the synth is still pulsing like it was when you could hear the kick. Guetta mutes the kick track for those two bars, so you don’t hear them, but they’re still triggering the synth to turn down and up again in volume. For a fairly extensive lesson in using this technique (sometimes in more subtle ways than others), listen to Portisehead’s album Dummy.
What makes this song interesting, from a production and songwriting standpoint, is there is only a single chord progression used throughout the entire song. The typical use of chord structure and differing progressions to differentiate the verses from the choruses and choruses from the bridge do not exist here. Instead, melody and instrumentation are used to break the song up into different sections. Want an exercise to become a better songwriter? Take a basic chord progression and create as many different melodies as you can with that single progression. “Wide Awake” shows us that melody and lyrical content are extremely important, and creative use of each is necessary to successful music production.
As for the chord progression, the song is in the key of G minor. Kind of. Home base for the song is G minor, at least. The chord progression is Gm – B♭ – F – C, or i – III – VII – IV. The triads that originally appear in G natural minor are i – ii° – III – iv – v – VI – VII. All this jibes except for the IV chord in the progression. According to our naturally-occurring triads, that C chord is supposed to be a minor chord, but is, in fact, a major chord!
Now, we all know that minor keys are representative of sadness, loneliness, demure feelings, etc. G minor has an especially-revered position as being considered by Mozart, the best key signature for expressing sadness. In fact, many of Mozart’s minor key works were written in the key of G minor (including symphonies number 25 & 40, two of his most famous symphonies).
So, what happens when you change out the C minor chord that’s originally in the list of G minor triads for a C major triad? You turn the G minor key into a mode!
Let’s take a closer look. The out-of-place chord is the IV, or C major in this case. The original key of G minor has the C as minor, or a iv chord. C minor is comprised of C – E♭– G. The C major chord used is C – E– G. So, the next step is to see what happens when you replace an E♭with an E♮. The new key consists of the notes G – A – B♭– C – D – E – F, or G Dorian mode.
Dorian mode has a long history of melancholy and sadness. Take a listen to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and The Bealtes’ “Elanor Rigby” for a primer.
Also note that the E♮ that appears in the scale only appears in that singe IV chord too. Otherwise they’d have to change the other chords around, which probably wouldn’t make much musical sense.
This chord progression for “Wide Awake” is used in several other extremely famous melancholy and glum tunes.
In this series, we take the world’s most popular songs, hit by hit, and deconstruct them, bit by bit, to learn what makes them popular, memorable, and interesting. We look at the compositional techniques used in the song, such as chord progressions, tempo, and meter, as well as the instrumentation used to make this song a hit. We also discuss what makes the song such a memorable “earworm”.
Written by Adam Levine, Shellback, Benjamin Levin, Ammar Malik, Dan Omelio, and Cameron Thomaz
Produced by Benny Blanco, Benny Blanco, Robocop
Official Music Video (Explicit)
From the very first second (literally 0:00 on the YouTube counter), notice that the song begins with just the vocals, no instrumentation. People have a natural tendency to listen to other peoples’ voices. Think about it from a evolutionary standpoint. Our ancestors that were predisposed to paying attention to what other cave people had to say were the ones that learned that there was a sabre-tooth-tiger around the corner and didn’t get eaten. You and I are naturally wired to listen to the human voice above all else, and, when that’s the only thing going on, your attention is focused on the message being conveyed.
Additionally, the song begins with the chorus. Those of us whom have taken popular music songwriting courses in college have been told to get to the chorus ASAP. Well, they do it here. Those are the words the songwriter wants people to remember, so once the listener’s attention is grabbed, make the most of it and give them the single thing you want them to remember.
Speaking of the chorus, and why it’s so memorable, people also focus on personalization. Words like “I”, “you”, “us”, “me”, “your” get people involved in the story. Want a crash course in using this technique effectively? Listen to most anything the Beatles ever did, especially their earlier albums. A quick perusal over my iTunes gives me “I’ll Follow the Sun”, “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You”, ”Tell Me What You See”, and “P.S. I Love You”. People want to hear stories they can put themselves in, and making songs personal keeps peoples’ attention.
The introductory chorus includes very simple instrumentation, just enough to give the listener a feel for where the song is going, chord-wise. Just in case the listener’s stopped paying attention by the end of that first chorus, they grab your attention AGAIN by including a moment of complete silence around 0:18. Silent (along with vocals-only) sections are a wonderful way to break up parts of a song and capture attention, and are included in lots of popular music songs. People notice change, and changing from sound to no sound forces attention back to the song at hand.
The first verse is also not very climactic, taking out the bass added at the end of the intro chorus and bringing in an almost marching-band snare and kick drum. Not complicated, just a very sharp snare and punchy kick.
The drama is turned up a notch in the pre-chorus by adding background vocals (0:33, starting with “all of our bridges burned down”). Again, parts of songs that are repeated are the most important ones, and this pre-chorus is part of what needs to be remembers and sung along to. The sound of multiple people singing triggers the listener’s own desire to sing along.
There’s another vocal-only section at 0:52, and now the listener has the aural cue to pay attention when they only hear the vocals with no instrumentation. Back to the chorus/hook/song title. They knew they had to make is count here, so they bring in the whole band and multiple vocal tracks. The percussion that’s awash in reverb on the 4 of each measure introduces gives the listener the cue to where the downbeat of one is.
The chorus ends at 1:28 and is cued by that special-effect sucking sound, whatever that’s officially called, which is also used in this song to tell the listener there’s a change happening in the song. There’s no turn around, no time for the listener to stop paying attention after the chorus and forget about the song, but they launch right in to verse two. The song doesn’t go back to the level it was at in the first verse, but adds the bass and acoustic guitar to what we had in the first verse.
The second pre-chorus adds some vocal ornamentation in the background vocals (1:52 and 2:10, for examples). This gives the listener a cue that this is a different and more expanded chorus than what they’ve had before. It also keeps interest and lets the people singing along have fun with the ornamentation as well (as they try to mimic what they hear). Also seeks to turn up the drama another notch, on our way to the climax).
The Wiz Khalifa verse at 2:38 acts as a bridge for the song, providing a break in the song that’s different than the verses and choruses. This song also treats this section by changing the entire texture of the instrumentation, opting for an 808-style kick, snaps instead of a snare, and a woppy synth instead of piano.
The climax hits around 3:13, once again with no break in between song sections, and being introduced by a two-measure lay-out of the drums.
The end of the song is abrupt, which I’m sure radio DJs don’t care for, but works well for the song because the last line of the entire song is the first line of the chorus (“I’m at a payphone”), which also happened to be the name of the song. Genius use of music production techniques!