Forensics Of A Song: Katy Perry “Hot N Cold”


Note: This article was originally published on 3/11/09 and has since been modified and updated. 
Every so often we bring you the Forensics of a Popular Song. In this feature, we take a song that was played to death and figure out why it died that death.

Katy Perry “Hot N Cold”
Tempo: 133
Key: G
Length: 3:40

Anywhere you went in late 2008 or Katy’s slightly (by being the daughter of two pastors standards) controversial song “I Kissed A Girl”, both produced by aspiring young producer Benny Blanco (Spank Rock, Brittany Spears) and very experienced hit producer Dr. Luke (Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone”, who also co-wrote these hits with Max Martin). Both songs incorporate a very simple Kick on the 1+3 and Snare on the 2+4 through the whole of the song. Following cue from Soulwax that Justice brought to the mainstream, the song incorporates this steady kick and snare pattern with a tempo between 120 and 135, just as those bands employ(“I Kissed A Girl” clocks in at 130). Also echoing modern dance music trends, both feature buzzy, distorted synth tracks hitting some of the lower notes in the track. This also echoes a trend popularized on Justice‘s “Cross” record.

Sound wise, the standard pop EQ is present in both tracks, with a slightly crunchier vocal sound than say Avril Lavigne or Kelly Clarkson. Most likely, during the mix, extra compression or channel overdrive is being applied to the vocal to give it a tad bit more edge. The mastering is generous by today’s standards while still being quite loud, when the songs die down in their quiet parts they still kick in pretty hard in the chorus.

The lyrics are one of the things Perry has become known for, being edgy by mall standards and speaking on matters such as bi-curious make out sessions, PMS, bitches, and emotional strife. Many credit Lilly Allen and Amy Winehouse for bringing these lyrics back into the mainstream and us out of the dark ages of wholesome teeny pop or cheesy LA 80′s metal lyrics. On a recent episode of Iconoclasts on Sundance Channel, Bill Maher was hanging out with Clive Davis and accompanies him to a meeting with Dr. Luke in which Bill entertains the philosophy that it doesn’t matter what you are singing as long as the hook is there. While Maher is partially right in that you can have a hit when the melody and song is there, the good Doctor puts him in his place and contends that the lyrics made “I Kissed A Girl”. I will offer the hypothesis that both of these songs may have been relative hits had they had your usual mediocre Avril/Miley lyrics but the tapping into the zeitgeist with both songs lyrics are what made them amazingly huge and over the top, above average hits.

Without further ado we are going to do a bar by bar breakdown of what makes this song work:

Song Form:

Intro: (Bars:)1-3
The songs starts with the kick and snare, both sounds are a mix of a live drum sound and a traditional 909. It would be very easy to gain both of these sounds from the library of Native Instruments Battery. The Snare has a really nice crunch applied to it most likely from a blended in compression or distortion. A slightly open HH plays a 16th note pattern with a short cheap ambient reverb on it. The only melody in the intro is the pitched drum sound, which can easily be found in Battery as well. The blending of the two tones is an often-used trick and can be used to great effect and keep a track with a drum machines punch and the rawness of acoustic drums.

VS1: 3-19
The vocal joins the song in a very airy falsetto, with breaths left in for effect. The breaths help add to the mood of the desperation in the verse to get out of the situation she is in; a very subtle, well-done production detail. As the verse ends, she kicks the chorus vocal tone in with her full voice. The vocal is treated with a quite loud delay that is also fed into a medium length reverb. By today’s pop standards, the VS vocal is extremely bare, a single vocal, no harmony or doubles whatsoever. This helps to contrast how many layers the vocal adds in the CH, helping the chorus get a big explosion.

The melody is also sung surprisingly staccato leaving a great space for the air, breath and delay to shine through and give the track a sparse ambience. This also helps the VS to sound more distressed, contrasting when the CH melody comes in very slurred and strung together in delivery it is given the happier lift.

From the first beat the distorted, buzzy, arpeggiated synth is right under the vocal. A classic synth sound with the modern treatment of a bit of overdrive and a lot of resonance buzz. This sound can be easily attained by most diverse synths, it is a near stock setting in something like AIR’s Xpand, Hybrid or NI’s Massive. It plays a steady chord progression of G/D/Am/C in a four bar loop.

The drums stay the exact same as the intro, with the open high hat dropping out and a reverse cymbal being introduced in the last bar to bring in the suspense for the CH.

The A chorus introduces a new full voiced, thick, doubled, tighter delayed vocal, with the harmonizer nice and loud. The vocal is noticeably more tuned (Melodyne would be my ears guess). The trick of using a tighter delay in the chorus helps keep the vocal bouncing but much less ambient than the VS. When she sings the majority of the chorus she is using a slurred together vocal approach but when she sings the part from 23-27 she adds some snap to the end of her words to reinforce some more aggression to the vocal and giving it some more arrangement depth and making us not notice the repetition of the melody in the song while still repeating a basic melody theme.

A true testament to the great mix on this song: many choruses rely on their size based on the bass getting bigger and usually playing lower notes. The repaginated bass that is cranked in the VS disappears in the chorus and a very quiet simple bass line joins the chorus. The semi distorted guitars take over the power of the song strumming thick chords with a fast eighth note strumming pattern with some nice accents. The guitars aren’t particularly bassy in tone either, this gives them a nice clear distorted Tele-like tone driving the chorus and giving it an anger and frustration the VS doesn’t have.

The chord progression stays the same through the chorus simply changing the rhythm in which it is played and the instruments it is played on.

The drums lose the pitched drum and now bring back the open high hat sound playing off beat 8th notes. Despite all the new instruments the kick and snare stay cranked keeping the song with the modern dance vibe. A small 16″crash cymbal sample is inserted on the 1 of the chorus to give it a strong kick in.

On the first beat of the chorus a “Delayed Filter Sweep Synth” echoes over the first bar, this helps to give the chorus a big entrance.

CHB1: 27-35
The B part to the chorus has something I have rarely heard in any other song: a one-word hook. When the “You” is introduced it is a pretty magic moment. When I first heard this record this song didn’t particular blow me away, later I would find my self having that damn “You” in my head all the time. The nice staccato of the “You” with the real cutesy, girly bend in her voice really makes this part stand out. During this part, they introduce a layer of harmonies not present on the rest of the chorus. Once this part changes, the “Hot N Cold” line repeats, the lack of harmony from the previous part gets you ready for the song to get a little less thick when we return to the next VS.

As we all know, the key to a good chorus is repetitions and we get that with the “Hot N Cold” line in the B part however rather then just having a quick copy and paste as often is done in a formulaic chorus of 16 bars this line would repeated on bar 9 of the loop. Instead it is reintroduced on bar 13, giving the song a subtle complexity. Both the “Hot N Cold” hook and the “You” hook are both repeated twice in each chorus driving home two magnificent hooks.

The crash cymbal sample is inserted again on the 1 of the B part and then 4 bars later when they repeat the Chorus tag line. While the “Delayed Filter Sweep Synth” from the top of the chorus takes us out of the chorus with a very hard chop off when the 1 of the Intro VS hits giving the transition a clean break.

IntroVS2: 35-39A crunchy EQ’ed Delay repeats the last word of the chorus fading out till the next VS starts, giving us a vocal break for 4 bars till the next VS starts. The arpeggiated bass has been reintroduced to the song and is carrying the accompaniment progression for the song through this part. As the verse comes in a flanged pad sound is swelled in to give some suspense for the incoming vocal.

The drums are the main variation in this part. A closed hi hat plays on the quarter notes when the drums are hit. Another common technique from Justice’s (Blanco also remixed Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E” earlier this year hence why I keep up the comparison) songs is used where a reversed version of the SN swells into the snare of the beat. The Drums are dropped out for the last part of the verse intro to give the verse a kick in, a reverse cymbal is added again to bring in the suspense that is matched perfectly in sync with the above mentioned synth.

VS2: 39-55
The main vocal for the first half of the verse remains similar to the first verse with just a lyric change and a near exact rhythm and melody. At bar 46 a reversed glitches echo starts to come through the holes of where the vocal isn’t singing. My money says this vocal was created in Melodyne by the sound of the glitching in the track. The accompaniment remains only the arpeggiated bass we got to know in the first verse.

A crash cymbal starts this vocal. The closed hi hat now plays a very grooved eighth note pattern. At bar 46, a syncopated tambourine comes in quietly, this give a great pickup to the VS to bring a new rush to the repetition of the melody. The drums all drop out on the last 2 beats of the verse to give the greater exaggeration of the next chorus coming in even stronger.

As the VS draws to a close, the “Delayed Filter Sweep Synth” starts on the last bar and carries over into the chorus. The reverse cymbal is also present but much quieter then any other appearance in the arrangement.

CHA2: 55-63
While the majority of the chorus is a copy and paste from the first chorus, the big change is the harmonies are now poured on super thick throughout the A part and again when the chorus is tagged in the B part.

CHB2: 63-71
The B part adds a new odd hook of “Oh-What-Oh” after the first “You” and then an “Oh-Oh-Oh” after the second “You” with a crazy delay on both. Tricks like this were all over Benny Blanco‘s work with Spank Rock Bangers N Cash, which was probably one of the best Hip-Hop releases of last year (the crazy thing is this kid is doing all of this at 20 years of age!!!!). Like the rest of this chorus, the harmonies are poured on heavier all over this part. At the end of the chorus we get a big “Ohhhh Ohhh” note, leading us into the bouncy dance bridge.

BRINST: 71-79
Like the last chorus, a pitched version of the last word of the chorus is multi-tap delayed over the duration of these 8 bars. The delayed filter synth is also echoing over into this part from the previous chorus. A large burst of reverb with a very long tail from the snare pitched down rings both into this part and on the last 4 of this part. This is a nice effect stolen from many an 80′s metal record and is great when you don’t have a live drummer to flam an accent to give a part some intensity.

The electric guitar is no longer doubled like it was in the chorus and now has some delay and plate reverb. It is playing a single low note counter melody to the poly synth. It is similar to the guitar in the bridge of Dr. Luke‘s other mega-hit “Since You Been Gone”. This guitar riff caused him a serious critical tongue lashing for its similarity to the bridge guitar riff for The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s tearjerker, “Maps”. In his defense Bowie, taught him how to take the cool things from the underground and properly exploit them for pop sales gain.

The main melody is played by a poly synth that can be found in any of the above-mentioned soft-synths. Like the arpeggiated bass, it has very similar effects. It plays a classic “90′s techno” pattern. The bass is yet again ridden very low hidden playing along with the poly synth in a lower octave. This is the one time the basic chord structure of the song changes to Em-C-G-D still in a four bar loop.

This is one of the only times in the song you hear the snare pattern change when you get a single eighth note hit at the end of the phrase. The closed hi hat is back playing the swung eighth note part as well.

BRVOX: 79-88
Katy rejoins us for another full-voiced, distressed vocal. Like the chorus, all of the breaths are removed and she is singing a clean but pushed, heavily doubled, harmonized vocal melody. The harmonizer is being ridden up for this part as well as the tight delay used in the chorus. The layers in the vocal are as thick as what will come in CH3.

The synth pattern from the first part repeats and the guitar continues counter it.
As we get ready to take everything to the songs quietest part all tails are cut off by the 1 of the next part except the guitar, which will ring out.

A 16th note tambourine part is introduced to make the part move a little faster in this part. We yet again employ a very loud reverse cymbal to reinforce the hard cut into the quiet VS.

QuietVS: 89-93
The first lyrics of the song are repeated in the first half of the quiet VS. The same vocal treatment is applied here. The interesting trick in the arrangement here is many people will drop out before the last chorus and then have a swell into the last chorus but doing so for 2 bars as opposed to a half or full bar is a bold trick. In this case, the feedback guitar and “Delayed Filter Sweep Synth” really make this one kick in extra hard. The song gets really quiet for a pop song today and a lot can be said for that. Having a chorus kick in big one last time is a priceless commodity (actually it does have a price in record sales), many amateur songwriters think having many parts playing in a chorus will kick it in but nothing kicks a chorus in like good harmonized layers and a good drop out before the chorus.

There are no drums in this part and the only thing keeping the accompaniment progression going is a guitar not being picked, but instead just sliding to the frets (OK it does pick twice and slides twice) which adds to the gentleness before the intensity.

CHA3: 93-101
Like CH2 the music has been copied and pasted though even more harmonies have been added to give this the epic ending it deserves. There is a “Scat Track” introduced during this chorus of “Whoah-Oh-Oh” sustained over long notes adding to the intensity of the songs ending.

The “Delayed Filter Sweep Synth” is now playing along and giving a nice little fizz and added thickening for the last chorus.

CHA4: 101-109
A Moog lead now starts to play along with the lead vocal giving us even more reinforcement of the hook and a way to build this double chorus. Some portamento is added for expression and complexity.

Here they give another nice arrangement trick: where an amateur may repeat the B part and then possibly the A part again, you are hit with the A part a second time before going to the B part. This enables another repetition of the hook while still being able to conclude the song in the same way all of the choruses conclude.

CHB3: 109-117
From 109-113, the pouring on of extra harmonies continues. However, the clever trick is that they then thin it back out to the same layering as CHB2 for the final tag to bring us down. During the final tags, Katy yells a loud pushed accent of “Cold” and “No” in a very distressed vocal tone lending the song some final urgency and distress.

Ring out: 117
The song rings out, they employ a slowing down trick easily done with any of today’s audio editors. The delay of the last word delays over the end like all of the choruses until the record slowing down effect dies. Most likely, if you were hearing this song on the radio, TI and Rhianna are on next with “Live Your Life”, which coincidentally we will be covering in one of our next installments. Stay tuned for more Forensics Of A Song. If you think we were wrong or messed anything up let us know in the comments that is what this section is all about!

Jesse Cannon is the editor of Musformation. He produces records at his studio Cannon Found Soundation. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseCannonMusF. For more info please visit his website.

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  • asbaldas

    Great job and insight, would also like to mention that before Katie sings the bridge, the chords to it are played for the first time in the song rather than an instrumental of say the verse or chorus in most songs.

  • Aziz


  • Samuel Hanson

    Fucking awesome

  • Tudor Robb Williams

    Job well done!

  • Tudor Robb Williams

    Job well done!