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February 22, 2017

Ariana Grande - Into You

Worst year 2016Aaaaah, 2016, what an awful awful year, BUT! Not everything sucked. NO! There were isolated signs of not sucking here and there. They stuck out.

For example, I feel there was an uptick in originality in music, or at least artists got bolder in their choices on tones and colors or grooves. The US charts (the ones I know best at this point) blossomed with grooves imported from elsewhere in the world, providing much needed variety and, hold onto your chair (hold on better please) quite few really good sounding tracks were released. Isn’t that wonderful?

It’s a lot of work to sift through all of 2016’s music but it’s worth it. Lots of dos and don’ts to be discovered, inspiration and a solid education on the amazingly wide range of stuff that is being released and promoted these days. It’s interesting to take an afternoon (or two if you are thorough) and go through a playlist like this one (I picked this one because it’s not curated by a label or hipster magazine trying to convince you of what THEY think should be successful)

Anything hit you right off the bat? (this hits me everytime):
Isn’t it amazing how all over the place everything sounds? So much for the traditional cocktail hour conversation about “everything being so homogenized” and “labels keep putting the same song out over and over again just with a different name” or “It’s the same three guys who do all that stuff.” It’s simply not true. The HITS OF 2016 playlist sounds extremely random to me both in songs and in sound. Don’t you think? Please do take at least 30 minutes and needle drop thru the first 30 tracks. Take notes as you go. Do it just to get first hand information. (Second hand information can kill).

To focus on sound, it’s interesting to compare the bottom-end of all that stuff. Two things come to mind immediately:

1/ It seems hard to have a good bottom-end on your song (we knew that already)

but also,

2/ It does not seem to matter that much for the success of a song considering how emasculated most of these chart topping track are

Let’s just ignore that last point and keep on our quest for the sublime, shall we?

So, my personal pick for one of the best constructed mixes of 2016 is:
Ariana Grande “Into You.”

I can sense from here the pushback against the blatantly pop slant of this choice. Why not “this guy” or “that guy,” “what about Crosby?”

Ariana Into You

Na, I don’t care, the production on “Into You” is rad and the mix sounds great, plus she has the best ponytail mojo, what do you want from me? And Serban Ghenea crushed it (not with a limiter, with skills).

First and foremost the bass drum is perfect. It works by itself and it works when the very fat long note bass comes in on the downbeat of the pre chorus and it works when the chorus unleashes on us. It never loses focus and it never looses power or gets buried. Hard to do.

Ariana studio pictureThe vocal placement is quite special. It moves. She is coming closer and closer to the listener over the course of the first verse. Check out the amount of that very long reverb changing from phrase to phrase. It took balls to not start the first verse with the vocal front and center as would be expected from that artist on such a song. You can really feel the tension building all the way until the chorus thank to that increase in level and presence in the lead vocal.

Everything else is also slowly evolving to prep us for the chorus. Filters are opening and levels are rising slowly. Notice how the upbeat synth line is going from a closed filtered single sound to layered sound on the chorus, but it’s the same line. As a matter of fact the whole song is build on this one riff but never gets stale. SUPER hard to do.

Ariana in the studioCheck it out. Layers come in and out from section to section but the whole song builds steadily until the bridge. Compare the first bars of the first verse with the first bars of the second verse for an example, or compare the two pre-choruses with one another. Really great layering and subtle enhancements are added to keep the song moving forward. There is no feel of A/B/A/B. It just drives. Most producers and mixers fail to achieve that kind of restraint.

Here’s an exercise: find a riff that you and the rest of the world should be able to enjoy for 3:30 without interruption. Got it? Cool. Now write a song on top of that that feels like it has a verse and a chorus and a bridge good enough that we will all feel like listening to it again once we hear it once. Got it? Awesome. Now arrange the song and resist the temptation to use sounds we have heard before and also, of course, no new lines, it has to be just the riff or you don’t get credit for the course. How’s your track coming up? How’s your ponytail?

Meanwhile back at the ranch, notice how the vocals are not copy-pasted from verse to verse. Again compare the two verses and pre-choruses. The vocals keep changing subtly. If you pay attention the track goes from a single voice with lots of space on verse 1, to a crazy stereo unison Ariana-a-thon on the chorus. The chorus feels wide open because there is no center focal point on the vocals, leaving space for the bass drum and the added backbeat 808 like snare.
Roland 808

Isn’t that badass? It also requires a great singer to make that work because few singers can pull it off at that level. Of course it could be the magic of Melodyne+Voc-Align. Maybe she’s born with it but only her hairdresser knows.
We’ll ignore the crazy melodyne glitch on the Ariana riff after the first chorus because we are not that kind of girl and we’ll move on to more cool stuff like how the 1st chorus manages to stay interesting in its second half by just adding an upbeat hihat. Before that, no subdivision, everything grooves around the upbeat synth pattern and just that, how classy is that? Then the second chorus starts where the first one left off but adds a sidechained synth coming in on the same midway spot. Quiet but groovy. Makes sure you listen for it.

The crazy thing is that the chorus sounds very pure and simple but, in reality, it is probably an amazing complex session with crazy phase problems across all those layers of the same riff and all those vocals. It sounds both clear and thick. Serban managed to make all the layers feel like a cushion/back wall behind his chosen featured instruments (kick, snare, upbeat synth layers, and the 372 layers of Ariana and her ponytail) but there is a lot of stuff going on in the back that enhance the section without sounding fuzzy. VERY VERY HARD TO DO. This kind of production is why you need a dedicated mixer to sort out the chaos of such a puzzle.

Import that chorus in your DAW of choice and loop it. At every pass try and make out a different layer from the tightly mixed whole. It’s like pop music impressionism. There is the piece you hear from a distance and then there is the piece from up close.

Impressionism All good things must come to an end, or at least take a pause from time to time. That’s when it gives us a short break from the riff. And then in the broken down chorus one can really hear the vocal/vocoder layer of the riff. Had you heard that one before it was exposed in solo?

While we are still near the bridge, check out those delay throws on the lead vocal. Nice delays.

Now go check the chorus again. He using the feedback of the delays to fill the holes in between phrases. Discreet but efficient. And he’s probably pushing hard into the same delay to overwhelm it and get that saturated ringing effect on the bridge.

Notice the snap backbeat on the broken down chorus. Cute.

More cowbell!! And then on the last choruses, notice the cowbell-like pattern on the left and right, and also notice how the upbeat balance is changed and enhanced with more weight.

It’s also interesting to pay attention to what the mastering job did to the track at this point.

Notice how the fact that the arrangement has grown a lot since it’s youth on the first and second choruses is actually getting pushed back against by the the high RMS choice of the mastering engineer (Most likely the choice of the label, or some sort of pressure/expectation combo at work between label and mastering house) So we have a last chorus that should sound HUGE because the production is set up to do so but if you needle drop between second and last chorus the difference and growth factor is much less than expected and much less than what it could be.

Love the surprise upbeat ending on last 16th of beat 4 of the last bar. It’s also nice to be able to hear whatever reverb tails Serban had picked for the vocals no?

Serban Ghenea All and all, this song is mastery with a little bit of unnecessary squish. Things are looking up regarding the squish by the way as streaming is really taking over for music distribution and there is the emergence of some standardized playback levels that are actually reasonable on those services. But that’s for another article, or maybe a video.

If you are looking to study more badassery in this style, either by Serban or his studio partner John Hanes I can recommend my two runner ups: “Can’t Keep My Hands to Myself” by Selena Gomez (with ponytail mojo vastly inferior to Ariana’s) and Jason Derulo’s “If it Ain’t Love” (absolutely zero ponytail mojo on this one)

Fab Dupont


Producer/Engineer at EMW Music Group, freelance audio expert with focus on building strong foundations for young talent.  Pop, alternatve, dance, house, rock, and hip hop.