Classic Tracks: Skream – Midnight Request Line

Time to delve once more into the vault for another look at a classic track, and a chance to take it apart to see how it works. What makes it such a good tune? Why was it successful? How can you try to get some of this magic into your own work?

So this week we're heading back to the early days of dubstep. Not the absolute beginnings, as it morphed out of garage and grime, but the period when it really started to take on an identity that Imost would recognise today – heavy half-step beats, dubbed-out sound FX and slow motion bass riffs. As this happened, some familiar names started to emerge, who would be seen as the dubstep originators; for instance Mala, Pinch, Loefah, Benga, and of course Skream. It was Skream who came up with one of the tunes that defined the whole scene, and even made people outside of dubstep prick up their ears; Midnight Request Line.

This track illustrates perfectly Skream's knack for coming up with a great, memorable hook line, and giving it space to breathe. It's what has pushed his career to such heights lately, and it's in evidence here; what's really remarkable is the simplicity. What we're talking about is that synth line that runs throughout the track.

It's essentially just an arpeggiated chord; a minor chord going up a single octave, which moves down by one whole tone, and then back to the original note. There's a tight delay on the sound, in 16th notes – there's a lot of delays in this track – which gives it more movement. But it's the way that the riff is handled which makes the real difference. Listen more closely and you'll hear that the synth line develops by moving to the 5th note of the scale; we first hear this when the bass drops in. When it does so, it also drops to half the speed; the riff is on 8th notes rather than 16ths, and the delay changes to 8ths as well. This gives the track the feel that it's let up in intensity; it's dropped down in pitch, as well as speed, and you find yourself anticipating the move back up to the original key and original speed. When it does so, it feels like the track is kicking on again, there's a real sense of momentum.

So far, so good. But the real masterstroke is Skream's balancing act; as mentioned, he steps the riff down at the same point the bass and full drums come in. Many producers go for maximum intensity at the drop, and could have it the other way round. This way, however, the bass and drums give the drop the oomph it needs for the dancefloor. Then, eight bars later, the riff returns to the original speed, giving the track an extra push of momentum. Simple, but extremely effective. The riff then switches up every eight bars; the next time round, he introduces a subtle high-pitched hi-hat on 8th notes to give the track a touch more drive. After that, the gunshot sound effects and simple harp arpeggio (which is just the same minor chord as the riff, but descending this time).

The riff is further tweaked in the second drop; it's on a slightly different synth sound (there's a bit of a resonant filter on it) but it's basically how we hear it in the intro; just the first two notes of the riff, with some hefty delay. It works as a switch-up, and then we're back to the main riff in all its glory – and original synth sound - as the track finishes off. This really is an object lesson in how to take a simple melody or sample, and base a whole track around it; changing it just enough to stop it being boring, and structuring it so that the energy and drive of the track benefits as a result.

There are a few other tricks that Skream uses to keep things rolling, too. The drums are outwardly in a simple halfstep pattern, but he has a flurry of hi-hats (quite hefty sounding ones too, probably a 909 closed hat sample) between the kick and the snare. Closer examination reveals they also have a very tight delay on them, probably 1/32nd note, pretty quietly layered into the mix. This gives a sense of space and movement on the mixdown, and helps the otherwise sparse beat sound a bit more full. The clap also changes each bar; on bar one of the loop it's got a layered snare or pitched-down clap in there, on bar two it's just a clap. Again, it switches up after the second drop; the layered snare suddenly has a huge reverb on it which filters down at the end of the tail.

We mentioned the harp arpeggio earlier; this is used in two ways. The first time we hear it, it's like an intro to the drop; just the three notes that signal a new section is on its way. This is how it's used throughout most of the track, and it makes a nice change from the usual risers and white noise whooshes that many producers use. But then when the gunshot section comes in, Skream takes this fill and uses it as a main element instead.

We could go on – there are plenty more subtle details in this track that would bear scrutiny. But the real lesson with this track isn't about any one particular detail. It's about attention to detail in general. Nothing in this track happens the same way every time; delays speed up and slow down, reverbs appear and disappear, one melody ascends while another descends, a riff mellows out while the drums get tougher. Everything has been thought about, and while none of the changes are huge, they all add up to a track that works on the dancefloor but is still superbly listenable on headphones or at home.

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