It’s time once again to have a delve into a classic track and see what makes it tick. It’s an important way of learning about music – by analysing a successful track we can start to see what’s so good about it, what the different elements and techniques are that makes it work so well, and hopefully how we can use some of those techniques in our own work. So this week, we’re going to look at Skrillex’s breakthrough track, ‘Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites’.
‘Scary Monsters’ was actually a breakthrough in all sorts of ways. At this time, dubstep was starting to make some headway in the US, largely through the likes of Caspa, Rusko, and some of the Dub Police crew. The prevailing sound was ‘wobble’; the filthier, noisier cousin of the deep original sound. So when Skrillex took that template and ran with it, it was a huge success. It went platinum, sold over a million copies and even won a Grammy. It also meant that dubstep was firmly established in the US rave scene, and even laid the foundations for the subsequent wave of furiously noisy electro house bangers that dominate the EDM and Trap scenes now.
So the first thing to note about the track is that it’s very much a dubstep tune. It’s at the standard dubstep tempo of 140BPM, and follows the obvious template of having a mellow intro followed by a huge bass drop. But the big thing Skrillex did that pushed this track to the fore is to amplify everything about it. It’s a hyped-up, over-caffeinated explosion of a track, which took the emerging new dubstep sound and launched it into space. How?
Let’s start at the beginning. The intro isn’t just some ambient pads with spacey FX and a hihat, which was a common vibe at the time; it’s a catchy, cartoony, video game style riff with super-bright synths. That was a smart move for several reasons. First, it means that when the tune drops, the switch into a grimy bassline has much more impact. Also, because it’s catchy and memorable, it means Skrillex can return to the intro for fills and breakdowns later in the tune (more on this in a moment).
The intro begins with a filtered beat on 16th notes, setting up the driving groove right from the start, and the melodic riff is on straight quavers; again, it’s pacy and driving. The harmonic progression is simple; just ascending three whole tones – it’s the melody that really grabs you, as it leaps up and down the keyboard. But the melody itself is only four bars long – it doesn’t evolve or develop with the track. Even the structure leads you into the tune – Skrillex has shortened the normal 32 bar intro down to 24 bars to get to the meat of the track more quickly.
Once we get to the drop, the emphasis is entirely on the ‘filth’. The drum groove is minimal – heavy kicks and snares that could be lifted from a Sub Focus track provide the pulse, but most of the rhythmic action really comes from the bassline. We’re not going to go into technical details of the bass sounds here; the thousands of forum posts and Youtube tutorials on ‘How to make Skrillex-sounding bass’ have that one covered pretty well. It’s how he actually uses the bass that is really interesting. Firstly, of course, its mixed extremely loud. It’s the dominant feature of the track, and thus needs to be front and centre. There is plenty of sub-bass present, but it’s the midrange that really gets boosted, to give a further impression of loudness without eating up all the headroom.
The bass is also chopped, edited and re-sampled to an extensive degree. There are actually three main bass noises, and if you listen to how they interact you can see how much work has gone into this track. They’re chopped up 5 or 6 times per bar, and it’s literally never the same twice. By re-sampling the hits, Skrillex can make sure that each time you hear the sound it’s filtered, or pitched, or sliced, differently to the last bar. The rhythms that he creates also keep things interesting, triggering the bass samples slowly at the beginning of the drop, adding stuttered edits for fills and effects. The overall effect, then, is not just of serious noise impact, but also of hyperactivity – you’re never allowed to settle into a steady groove.
Another trick that Skrillex uses to great effect is returning to the intro melodies. If you listen to the drop, we only get 6 bars of bassline before the intro melody returns as a fill. In the next phrase, it happens again – indeed at no point in the tune do we get more than 6 bars of bassline in a row. This increases the crazy hyperactive vibe even further, and also means that Skrillex gets to do a ‘mini-drop’ every 8 bars to keep the crowd going crazy.
After 32 bars there’s a breakdown, which reprises the intro in full. It lets the crowd breathe, and creates a buildup to the next heavy drop. The second drop is also 32 bars long, and after that we roll straight into the outro. It means there’s surprisingly little bassline in the track – the outro effectively starts at around 2 minutes 50. That’s shorter than the average pop song!
This is an important point. It illustrates again how much Skrillex took the key elements of dubstep as he saw it – drops, filth, impact – and distilled them as much as possible. There isn’t an ounce of fat in this record; he didn’t worry about trying to stretch an idea out for 5 minutes, he just spent his efforts making the most insane bass noises possible, finding the catchiest melody possible (even if it was only a four bar loop), and then clobbering the listener over the head with both.
It’s worth thinking about – this record is not tasteful, or subtle in any way. Skrillex certainly didn’t worry about whether it was cheesy or over the top; he just pushed the envelope as far he possibly could. And the result was a blistering success. It’s something we should all keep in mind when writing music. What is the track all about? Have we gone far enough in trying to communicate that? Could it be developed any further?
Categories: Classic Tracks