Back to blog
April 27, 2015

Hella Good - No Doubt

No Doubt CD CoverA lot of modern pop music does not age well. You hear tracks 10 years later and you think ‘Yuck, how could they use that snare sound/reverb/vocalfx and keep a straight face’. But there are tracks in pure Pop music that transcend time. Hella Good is one of them. When it came out, I listened to it a trillion times. It was so fat and so simple but incredibly tricky at the same time. The Nelly Hooper production and the Spike Stent mix have made this otherwise not-a-nobel-prize-for-literature-winning song a must listen on loop for a while. Plus it’s great to check speakers and rooms with it, because of its perfect balance of top and bottom. I have tuned many rooms to this mix.

Structure-wise it’s quite simple. It starts with a badass, drum only, 4-bar intro going into a quick statement of the riff for another 4 bars. Then verse 1 which is 16 bars long, loosely broken into 2x8-bar sections straight into an 8-bar Chorus (without a prechorus, fancy that). Verse 2 is a perfect mirror of verse 1 with 16 bars. Chorus 2 is a double chorus with 16 bars. Then there is a ‘guitar solo’ kinda thing for 8 bars and then a re-intro/hang for another 8, right back into 16 bars of chorus. There is a deceptive 8 bar broken down outro but then the groove comes back in for 8 bars before the real outro. So in summary: 8-bar intro, 16-bar verse, 8-bar chorus, 16-bar verse, 16-bars chorus, 16-bars bridge, 16-bar chorus and then 16 bars of noodling with the cool parts that make the song, otherwise known as outro. They could have had a shorter structure after the last chorus but my guess is that No Doubt had the clout at the time to push this to radio, as is so they did. And why not?

Listen here:

The production is like lace, it looks simple from a distance but it’s very intricate when you look up close. Everything is based on the interaction of the straight drum pocket and the two complementary patterns that are unveiled in the intro. (The one on the electric bass in the middle and one on the synth in stereo). The synth riff stays steady throughout the song, except for the guitar solo and bridge part. The 2X16th and 8th note patterns help propel the track and provide the reference for the slight swing feel that makes the track pump. The electric bass gives the growl and outlines the chords. Notice that there are basically two chords to this whole song except for the guitar solo. Also notice that the chorus riff is basically an expanded version of the bass riff in the verse. The synth riff stays as is, but the bass riff hits on beat one and is lengthened to be the whole chorus’ backbone. Since the bass is basically the same, the chords are the same, the drums are basically the same (the hat opens up a little), what makes the chorus lift is all the added parts and subtle interventions.

No DoubtThere are two basic ways to create dynamics in a track. Either you: 1) let the set number of instruments that are part of the arrangement get louder or softer, or you.. 2) add or remove instruments to the arrangement. In this kind of production style, there is little room for individual instruments to change intensity over the course of the track. There are a lot of loops and a lot of specific parts with specific sounds that don’t lend themselves to being played differently from one point to the other. It’s more of a programmed-samples approach even though there are players involved. So they created dynamics by adding and removing elements as the song progresses. Let’s go back and check it out.

We saw that it starts with just the drums, then the basic pattern is laid out. That’s the framework. On the verse the bass answers the voice and is doubled by a stereo rhythm guitar when it does so. There is no bass when she sings. Instead there is also an upbeat synth part on the the left for the first 4 bars and the ‘FunkyTown’-style synth part that comes in on the second 8 bars on the right. Check out the white noise synth with opening filter on the downbeats and the breathing noises panning around as ‘support’ for the riff. There also is a little scream used as an effect that goes ‘aaaaargh’ and a square wave synth washed in reverb in the center on the second 8-bar section. It’s a lot of stuff but it does not feel crowded or extraneous. It’s extremely well blended together.

Take a few minutes to loop this first verse and really pay attention to every little detail. Try and memorize them. They come back later in various forms and it’s interesting to realize how.

No Doubt playingThe pick-up to the 1st chorus has three fills. ‘get over here, get over here’ by Gwen on the right, a fun reversed-guitar thing on the left and a simple snare call. The lift is provided by the growly synth bass doubling the bass riff, the distorted guitar doing the same on the side, the multi-tracked vocals and vocal answers. There also is a steady 16th-note synth on the left, placed where the electro hat is. (Pay attention to the hat pattern on the left on this first chorus). The initial burst of energy is enhanced by a new part on the left-side upbeat synth. (It’s easier to analyze the different parts of the chorus in the broken down version of it at the end during the outro) There’s also an effect going ‘pweeeoooo’ doubling the snare on beat 4 of bar 4. How’s that for detail? Interestingly a great deal of the chorus vibe is created by the drummer switching from eight note hats to quarter note hats and surrounding the subdivision to the fake hat and the synth. Cool move. Check it out. Lastly notice the descending sound effects that provide a smooth transition between the chorus and verse 2. Crafty.

Verse 2 is a carbon copy of verse 1. To keep it interesting, they introduced more detail and ear candy. Like for example the drum fill on bar 2., the spoken vocals on bar 8, extra noises at bar 12 and the ‘oh oh oh’ on bar 16.

The same reverse guitar riff is used to introduced Chorus 2 but notice the different hat pattern on the left. And the louder steady sequence synth in the same location. The descending synth create the turnaround at bar 8. Another hat comes in - in the middle - with a different pattern. More detail, more ear candy but the same exact pocket. The nice touch is that, if you pay very close attention, the hi-hat is slightly more open on this chorus than on the first one.

The guitar solo always puzzled me. For some reason it always felt small compared to the rest of the track but I never paid attention as to why. I think that the number one reason is that the drummer switches to an open hat sound and it slows the forward motion (probably by design). The stereo synth stops too. The bass pattern switches to a much plainer one and drags everything down. It gets quite singsong-ey. This is an interesting choice of bridge on such a song, especially since the next section just shows off all the little production elements and - before we hit the chorus again - nothing new happens there. Between you and me, I have been in similar situations before. It’s called: ‘someone forgot to write a bridge, let’s just make one up with parts that we have right now, thank you’ syndrome.

No Doubt during an interviewOn the last chorus notice how the left hat and the synth as steady now, in full unison. There are more little noises here and there too, of course. And the hat is wide open like on the bridge. It’s a good idea to import the track in a daw and cut it up to line up the different choruses so you can compare how they feel easily. The magic is there.

Space wise it is fun to notice the highly typical SSL console compressor and gate sound on the kick and snare (I suspect samples, too). The individual drums are cut up by the console processing but Spike added a discreet space around them. It is so consistent that I think that it’s electronic space, as opposed to room mikes. (The programmed hyper-stereo cymbals are also a giveaway of that trick, usually) Listen to them carefully on the outro chorus, since there is no vocal to distract you.

It’s also valuable to spend time listening to how they played 'wet versus dry' as the song progresses . Very very tasteful. The vocals have a very discreet hall and maybe a slight delay but the melodic synth have obvious tails. Some synth is washed in reverb in the middle but the drums are basically dry with room ambiance for space, in the same area. It creates an impressive front to back depth. The contrast is key.

The spectral quality on the track is perfect and it’s not too squished by mastering. Notice how most of the 'bottom fat' really comes from the bass and the punch from the bass drum, which is different from the typical 'pop mix' stereotype.

I think this is one of the best-sounding pop tracks ever. It should live in your reference folder alongside ‘Angel’ (also mixed by Spike Stent). You could probably listen to it 30 times and hear different details every time. That’s the key to it. Multi-faceted detail. I expect this track took many, many (and many) hours of work to put together..and many more to mix. These things don’t just happen. It’s a good example of how good a mix of electronic and organic elements can be spot-on and fascinating to listen to. There are other amazing songs on the Rock Steady record. The Nelly Hooper stuff and the Sly and Robbie stuff sound wonderful. Highly recommended.

Fab Dupont


Pianist and Resident Engineer of Fuseroom Recording Studio in Berlin, Hollywood's Musicians Institute Scholarship winner and Outstanding Student Award 2005, ee's worked in productions for Italian pop stars like Anna Oxa, Marco Masini and RAF, Stefano 'Cocco' Cantini and Riccardo Galardini, side by side with world-class musicians and mentors like Roger Burn and since 2013 is part of the team at Alberto has worked with David White, Niels Kurvin, Jenny Wu, Apple and Apple Music, Microsoft, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Virgin Airlines, Cane, Morgan Heritage, Riot Games, Dangerous Music, Focal, Universal Audio and more.