Big Tracks Dissected - Todd Terje: Inspector Norse

Every now and then we like to examine a fairly recent track that has attained – or is in the process of attaining - some kind of 'classic' status. What can we learn from it? How does it work? Why did it get so popular? In the age of viral sensations, a single big track can turn an almost unknown producer into a global star – just look at Baauer, Joy Orbison or Ben Pearce. So it's obvious that we should look to some of these well loved tunes and see if we can work out how the magic is done. This week we're going to dissect a track by one of the kings of Nu-Disco, Todd Terje – his punningly titled 'Inspector Norse'.

Todd Terje has been on a rich run of form recently. His tracks 'Ragysh' and 'Strandbar' both crossed boundaries between house, disco and balearic, and 'Inspector Norse' did the same – but was the most successful of the three. It combines deep house grooves with layers of melody and colourful synths, but despite being poppy and catchy, somehow manages to stay just the right side of cheese. What's the secret?

The key here is to take apart the layers and layers of synths that initially appear to make up a complex web of synths, melody and harmony. It looks pretty daunting at first. But that's the genius of this track; it's actually rather deceptively simple. It just implies a lot more movement than there actually is, and subtle use of filters and reverb help keep things interesting.

The first thing to notice is that the track is in F major, and it spends a lot of time centred around the tonic of the scale – the F.

Take the bassline. A sawtooth synth, fairly clean. And rhythmically it's very simple too – just straight quavers. But it creates a lot of offbeat energy by sitting mainly on the tonic of the scale and alternating between low and high octaves. The higher octave is always on the offbeat, which gives the line that bounce. (It's also doubled later with a square wave bass on the offbeat, with a touch of delay, to emphasise this bounce).

The bass pattern anchors the tune, and goes from the 7th note of the scale (E flat) to the tonic, spending most of the time on the F. Occasional fills on 8 and 16 bars give it some variety, but mainly it's E flat to F, up and down the octaves.

Then some synth chords filter in. These follow the bass, playing E flat 7 and then an F6. They're nice chords but not overly complex; they're not inverted or anything. But they do play a different rhythm; dotted quavers this time, helping to fill out the spectrum some more, and the filtering and delay keep the ear tuned in. Melodically, we're still spending most of the time on the F.

So these provide the foundation for the real key to the track – that cheeky little melody that sits on top. And sorry to have to say this, but there's not a lot of faking it when it comes to writing a memorable melody. It takes a lot of practise. But there are things we can learn – for instance, this melody is also heavily centred around the tonic. The main motif has those two high notes that really stand out, and they are a G (once) and then an F (three times). So it keeps you rooted in to the key of F major. Again, Terje keeps things moving by switching up and down the octaves, although there are a couple of variations.

Having set up this very strong basis for the track, it's easy to let it build in the lead-up to that big key change. He simply works the filters on the chords, bass and melody line, and fades in a big sustained analogue whine. Which, like much of the track, is playing an F – the tonic – and switching up through the octaves. You might be seeing a pattern emerge here.

The other major point is the big key change halfway through the track. This is notable for two reasons. First, it means there is no real breakdown in the track: just a big shift in feel, and that's fairly unusual in a big deep house track. But he gets away with it because that big bassline changes the mood so dramatically. Also, since the new bassline implies a different key, he can leave the main melody exactly the same, because the harmonic relationship has now changed. So the melody feels fresh and different, even though it hasn't changed at all. This is a really useful compositional trick – moving a bassline around underneath a static melody or chord – as it can imply a lot of cunning harmonic movement that you might not write otherwise (or even know what it is).

We could write as much again on the mixdown and production techniques that Todd Terje uses – the simplicity of the drums, the subtle reverb on the bass after the key change, and so on – but they are not what makes this track so successful. And that is melody and harmony.

It all stems from that one chord progression – just two chords that alternate – and derives a melody and bassline from there. Then he works them well but simply – filters, delays, volume fades, reverbs, dropping things in and out for a few bars – to make sure we don't get bored of them. It sounds easy, right? Well, unfortunately simple doesn't always mean easy. But it should give you some inspiration to go out and get composing your own melodies!

 

Listen to the track here:

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