Last year MGMT burst on to the indie rock radar, with their stunning debut Oracular Spectacular. The thing that made this record turn heads compared to most indie releases was the ability for the record to sound old, while still sounding fresh. The melding of David Bowie, T. Rex, Talking Heads and modern electronica sensibilities (Justice, Daft Punk, DFA) excited the ears of kids in every college town in America. For the album, the band enlisted the production of the infallible Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Clap Your Hands And Say Yeah, Black Moth Super Rainbow) at his Tarbox Road Studios in upstate NY. One of the more shocking things about the sound of the record is it’s strong combination of 70′s drumming and harmonies, with big fat synthesizers. While many bands who go with the retro vibe choose to do it in a more guitar rock driven way, or incorporate drum machines in to the mix (though the record does incorporate drum machines at times), they take a backseat to the live drums on majority of the songs.
If you scour the audio nerd message boards you will see complaints about the sound of the mastering of the record, by todays standards it has a much more dynamic feel than most, but you can never please the Internet these days. Distortion is employed for much of the compression on the record. Even with this distortion the record does not have the high ratio compression used to obliterate most modern records. To my ear the distortion that annoys many listeners is the tracking of the record to give it a interesting sonic character. Preamp distortion and crunch is used in a creative and awesome way throughout the recording.
On the boards you will see much discussion of the synth sounds and looking to achieve them. Some insight as to the way they are made is in this video which shows the making of the song “Electric Feel”
Many people who have seen the band have complained about some of their sloppier performances. The Internetz message boards began reasoning that Fridmann is the genius behind the group. While Fridmann made another one of his consistently amazing recording with the band, this theory is easily disproved. Abundant on many blogs and file sharing sites is the band’s demo for the song “Time To Pretend,” and within one listen you hear that all of the compositional ideas were already there when they recorded it with a former bandmate back in 2005. Obvious leap and bounds were made in the new performance and bells and whistles added to the track, in addition to a vocal performance that doesn’t sound like it was recorded while on Nyquil. While all of the synths on the demo were done in Reason, it is clear upon listening to both version that they were recreated on analog synths on the LP.
The song is obviously based off click tracks and loops since loading it into a DAW at 101 BPM gives you an exact lockup throughout the whole song. This production decision was an important one for a band with a very synth-based sound. Making the songs easily remixable (as this record later with amazing remixes by Holy Ghost, Soulwax and Justice as well as countless mashups) and dance floor friendly by having a lock tight tempo. While many retro groups shun this and stick to the loose sound of rhythm variances when trying to get a late 70′s early 80′s sound, this is one of the points where they fail. Since the youth of today have all been raised on the steady tempos of drum machines and edited performances, this gives a listener friendliness and polish to the record. This production decision alone kept MGMT from being another retro rock band for the stoners and the burnouts and got them on DJ playlists and dance blogs (in other words stoners and burnouts in neon).
The lyrics of the song are not the most emotionally relatable to listeners. This helps add to the band’s society-drop-out apathetic vibe. Detailing a hyperbolic story of the excesses and daydreams of what goes into fame and how blasphemous the dreams of becoming a rock star can be – a declaration of why would you do anything else but drop out of society like a love child of the late 60′s and live the bling-bling rock dream and the inevitability of how ridiculous it becomes if you are successful at it. Since the lyrics are not what draws the listener in to the song, I find the amazing sound and catchy melody to be the power that keeps all the kids with Pocahontas bandannas on their heads humming along. A true testament to the strength of composition of the track.
After doing this article it struck me that this production has one of the most dense layers of ear candy and arrangement depth I have encountered. The production makes sure to always be adding something new and exciting without ever cluttering the song. Amazingly tasteful! Fridmann is notorious for spending longer than most on the mix. An old friend of mine who recorded with him said they took just as long mixing the record as they did tracking it. This level of attention to the details truly shines in this track.
The songs starts with 2-3 tracks of monophonic synths bubbling away in a sea of Plate/Spring reverbs with a long reverb time. The synths present in bars 1-4 can be easily replicated using a standard mono synth like any standard Moog. The low bass synth seems to have some added harmonic distortion, while the higher pitched of the synths have lots of pitch modulation via LFO on them. At bar 5 the first melody of the song enters(will be referred to as panning poly synth), a standard lightly distorted synth sound easily reproduced on most poly synths (such as the Roland Juno 106 found on Tarbox Road’s equipment list), dialed with a fast attack and minimum sustain and release. This synth pans every other note (mostly alternating between A and D) back and forth across the stereo spectrum, which I am sure has made many of their stoner fans in the dorms across the land go totally wild. As this synth plays the synth bubbles slowly fade out. Every other bar on beat 2 a light bell tone is hit as an accent to the panning synth melody. In the middle of bar 8 the Lead Hook joins the song, played on another mono synth, dialed with some LFO on the pitch of a sign wave. Very lightly in the background at bar 5 when then poly synth enters, this leads melody also is heard on the poly synth tone as a very subtle texture. At bar 12 the drums kick in with an off beat very 70′s stoner rock (Carmine Appice anyone?) style drum fill. The drums enter the song with a crunchy distorted snare with a good amount of snare rattle. The snare is small in size no larger than 3.5″ in depth, and the distortion sounds like it was added in post by overloading some sort of class A equipment such as a Neve EQ or preamp (Tarbox has plenty of these). The kick is tuned very 70′s without a lot off muffling on the resonant head and some room mic on both sounds giving them a realism and both sound(as well as giving a modern touch to the sound as opposed to the disco-y sound of much 70′s rock of similar tempo). If I could wager a guess the kick and snare are reinforced with samples and were tracked alone with the Hi-hat and the toms added as separate overdubs later.
All previous instrumentation drops out except for the drums which play a 2 bar long looped kick and snare pattern. A hi-hat plays plays an off beat pattern incorporating accents with open hits. A notable difference between these and many others in today’s music is they are hit relatively soft. When trying to get a big sound, many bands beat the piss out of the drums to get that aggressive sound, instead MGMT take a noticeably retro approach and are quite gentle on the hi hats. In the background a rim shot pattern plays another pattern of accents, giving the rhythm a subtle extra complexity. At the end of each 4 bar loop a hand clap buried in a long spring reverb hits twice on the 3 and 4. A final subtle detail giving the beat some extra charm is on the snare which hits on the 2 and 4, each have a different length reverb. The 4 gets a longer reverb tail which gives it a stronger down beat, which is a common trick used in many dance songs over the years.
Playing the chord changes is a low voiced poly synth (again easily done on a Juno 106 and many others). It is usually a two voiced chord except on the 4 And of every bar where it goes monophonic before changing chords. This is a great, clever trick to give a simple chord change some complexity. The synth has a good amount of sustain and a high amount of resonance and filter modulation. A good amount of lo-fi distortion is added to this riff, which chops off much of the synths treble content. Anything from a Boss DS-1 on to a Big Muff could give similar but not exact results. The synth is quite dry, absent of noticeable delay and reverb, giving it a very upfront feel. One of the unique things about this song is this synth is voiced so low there is really no need for a bass line. The low end power of the song is all derived from this synth.
The vocals sings a constant two part harmony. The vocals have a very loud and noticeable slapback and multi-tap delay. The vocal is at a medium push through the whole song, and like most of the record it never seems to get overly emotional, mimicking David Bowie’s very common apathetic tone. The breathes are not erased but ridden lower to get them out of the way of the melody and to give the vocal performance some polish.
The instrumentation stays identical in this part of the verse but a high vibratoed mono synth comes in playing a half/whole note melody. This tone is one of the cleanest and least distorted tones in the song. At the last bar the drums play a short 8th note fill.
The chorus of this song is very unique in form. When many bands think of how to shake up a song form, they think in very broad strokes like how to not go V-C-V-C-B-Cx2. Instead MGMT does a very interesting chorus that alternates to between two different parts and then repeats to drive the hook home. To get out of the chorus they use a resolving part and tag before going back to the verse.
In the chorus the drums turn to a non stop 4 bar tom-kick-snare pattern. Playing a constant fill like pattern employing 16th notes in the tom pattern. A modulated synth sweep effect swoops over this part. A TR-606 “jeep” keeps a a 16th note pattern subtly in the background. The vocal take on a longer plate reverb sound in addition to the previous parts. The crash cymbals are noticeabley distorted and compressed, their envelope clips out very hard after the initial hit. The poly synth part from the intro rejoins the song.
The drum part from the verse returns minus the rim click pattern, but a 16th note hi-hat pattern now plays subtly in one ear. The vocals drop out. A little synth splash of an arpeggiated mono synth comes in with a big of reverb on it to pepper this apart. The lead modulated synth holds down a high note pad throughout the part. The main chord change poly synth holds steady on a A and through this part. A guitar now plays the panning poly synth melody from the intro lightly in one ear.
CH1A is repeated with the only difference being the vocals are sining new lyrics and a similar melody.
CH1B is repeated exactly the same.
The drums for the first two bars remain the same as CB1B and for the second two bars they get a floor tom playing 8th notes until doing a half bar snare fill. The main poly synth changes here where in CH1A it played G and D the whole time, CH1B playing A and D (much like the panning synth lead) it now gives us conclusion by going to A and E, which gives a great conclusion to the chorus. The panning synth lead is played faintly in the background.
In the tag the drums go back to the verse beat, there are small snare fills at the end of each 4 bars with an open hi-hat thrown in during them. A 8th note hi-hat pattern is introduced in the left ear. A crash cymbal starts the part. The main chord change poly synth plays F and D for the first 2 bars and switches to G and D in the second 2 bars. The modulated lead synth is reintroduced in the song to give it a hook and repeats through the whole part. There is a bubbly analog synth playing some accents very low in the mix on the second half of every bar. The vocals repeats the hook of “to pretend” twice to reinforce this hook.
When verse 2 hits everything drops out except one thin poly synth and an organ like tone holding a pad. Some of the LFO synths from the intro reappear as well as some other pitch LFO heavy high voiced synths. The main chord change poly synth is gone till the third bar when they rejoin with the drum for a huge impact of rock glory that is found in many metal songs.
The drums give two kick drum hits with distorted crash cymbals on the third bar and a single Kick and crash before coming back into the song with a quick tom build that is concluded by a snare fill that is similar to the one that started the song.
The vocals appear immediately and are slightly drier then the rest of the song to give it a more sparse feeling.
VS21A is repeated with the exception of a vocal melody and lyric change.
CH1A is repeated with a vocal and melody change. An organ pad like sound from a poly synth (similar to what is holding down the chord changes in the VS2A) is added keeping the chord changes. A filter sweep is applied to a synth across the 4 bars to give suspense going into the next part.
CH1B is repeated with the same with that organ like sound playing the chord changes as well. At the last bar of this phrase a synth trumpet plays a small lick replacing the arpeggiated LFO synth that took us out of CH1B.
CH2A is repeated with a lyric and melody change. On the last line on the words “everything must run it’s course” an additional layer of harmony is added to give it a bigger impact.
CH2B is repeated with a triple crash cymbal fill thrown in to the second bar. The synth trumpet play through the whole part this time.
CH1E is repeated with many variations including lyric and melody. A steady 8th note floor tom plays till the same 8th note fill plays out the part that did CH1E. The guitar comes back plays in one ear mimicking the vocal most of the time. Another guitar plays palm muted 8th notes with the floor tom changing chords with the song.
Same as the first tag with new lyrics and melody. On every a high pitched synth LFO hit is applied. On the bubble synth a new melody is played and slowly faded up as the song ends it is VERY distorted.
The drums play the same beat as the first tag until bar 7 where they do a large fill. On the final two bars they play the pattern from CH1A. The song is cut off on the 4 And of bar 15 with an open hi-hat catch. A tambourine is hit on the down beats and gets a shake after the songs last bear.
The vocals sing it out with a “yeah yeah yeah” refrain.
The reverb from the synths rings out this song as it is cut abruptly short with some fast mute automation.
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!