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November 29, 2015

Hello - Adele

Written by Adele Adkins & Greg Kurstin
Produced by Greg Kurstin
Mixed by Tom Elmhirst
Mastered by Tom Coyne

It has been mainstream news recently that things are changing constantly in the music business. There is little that has not changed over the last twenty years: how songs are written, how records are made, how long it takes, how they are distributed, how they are purchased, how they are listened to, etc, etc… Few things are constant.

There are however some details that remain steadfast: A great singer is a great singer. A great song is a great song. That said, you and I know at least one great singer with great songs who is not getting anywhere. Right? It is frustrating to see great talent not getting proper recognition and making a decent living writing and performing their songs because, you know, it’s so much better than that crap THEY play US on the radio. Isn’t it?

I think the problem is that it takes a lot more than a great singer and a great song to get through the ever elusive filter of the business part of the music business. It takes a network, a team of people from writers to producers to graphic designers to concert promoters to video directors, all with their own networks, it takes chance encounters with random decision makers in and out of the music business, willingness to suffer through mind numbing repetition, willingness to monetize your art without feeling dirty, willingness to sleep a few hours a night for the next 10 or 15 years and, I’m going to be technical here for a second, balls. A lot of them. It take balls to stick to doing your own thing in the face of initial success when the financial lives of all of the aforementioned talent becomes indexed on your every decision. Many have faltered and caved under that pressure. But, apparently, not Adele.

How did “Hello” become a hit?

AdeleIt’s a testament to her team, label and promotion team in my opinion, that Adele’s new single was a success almost before it was released. Anyone else noticed the dizzying velocity of the worldwide adoption of this ‘Hello’ song? It’s been exactly 30 days, as of this writing, that ‘Hello’ was released. It was heralded as the next biggest thing in the music business within 24 hours of it being released...on Youtube. And subsequently got a million digital sales in a week. How does one do that? I’m pretty sure I can say that the world was not lying there, waiting longingly for the new Adele song to be released. People were going about their usual business of being alive and then, boom, everyone who writes about this stuff made everyone feel like it was important that they listen to ‘Hello’. And it worked. Could you do that yourself, with your new single and the proper marketing budget? Probably not. It takes more than just a song and a budget. This overnight success is really the culmination of years and years of build up in Adele’s career. That said, I think it’s interesting to take a close look at the song to figure out what made it the right choice for this amazing publicity stunt.

First, it’s a ballad. What? But I thought you had to have an upbeat song to have worldwide success. Did you not hear at your last A&R meeting? Well, yes I did, and?

Second it’s almost 5 minutes long. Oh, but we can't have anything over 3.30min, it’ll get cut. Apparently not.

Third there are no proper drums or genuinely percussive instruments for most of the song. That won’t go.

I guess it did anyway. Fancy that.

Song Structure

AdeleStructurally, ‘Hello’ is a classic ballad with some nice harmonic motion worked in. The intro is 2 bars long, stating the chord structure that makes most of the song. Fm Ab Eb Db. Then we hit a long verse made out of two symmetric 8 bar sections. It is quite long when you think of it. It makes the listener wait 1 min and 6 seconds before the first chorus hits.

Then comes the pre-chorus. It’s 4 bars long and it’s the first time the song strays from the main chord structure. It wakes your brain up just when you were ready to start thinking of something else. The chord are very enharmonic to the verse and chorus chords, Fm Eb Cm Db, but they provide enough of a departure that the whole color changes (the Cm in that sequence brings a little ‘Time after Time’ vibe which is fun).

It’s also the only time it strays from the dotted quarter, eighth tied to a half note rhythm to very good effect. Notice how on bar 3 of both prechoruses, the harmonic rhythm switches to dotted quarter, eighth tied to a quarter instead of a half note, with the Db chord hitting on beat 4 instead of the rhythm we have been lulled into since the beginning (Which would have been expected to hit on beat 1 of the next bar). It’s very efficient. It creates a surprise, a little rush and it makes the next bar feel extra long, like a 5/4 bar, which makes the downbeat of the chorus feel delayed and dramatic. Very clever, very simple, and very badass. (Take 10 minutes, learn the prechorus and play it both ways, with and without that little beat 4 tricks on bar 3, and see which is more emotional sounding)

Then the chorus hits, mirroring the verse in chords and structure. It’s just a new melody over the same material yet it feels like it's new and soaring. Then we get another intro, exactly the same as the top of the song, and a new verse. The 2nd verse is only 8 bars, not 2X8 like the first time, it helps move the song along. I’m sure they felt it would have been dreary to have another 16 bar verse at this tempo. Or she ran out of things to say. Hard to guess. Then there is the second prechorus and the second chorus. Mirrors of the first ones.

The bridge is 8 bars and is based on the prechorus chords but with the same arrangement as the chorus. Then we get back into a 16 bar chorus with the outro being a bookend of the the intro with a cool reverb effect on the last piano chord.

Simple, elegant, hard to do.

Instrumental Production

Production-wise, there is not much that is extraordinary going on. It’s a combination of lots of things we have heard before on Adele records. The piano sound is quite great though. Very stereo without too much separation from bass notes to high notes. Nicely done, especially since the whole song is based on the interaction between the piano and the vocal. It is very interesting to pay attention to the reverb work on this track. Was it done at the production level or at the mix level? Hard to say, but the track is so sparse that the vocal reverb is basically the third instrument on the first verse and prechorus. Check out how it hits on the first ‘Hello’ and how different it is on the second ‘Hello’ at the top of the second 8 bar system of the first verse. Cool no? Can you hear the delay added and the treatment on it?

The vocal sound is very compact. Quite compressed but a slow enough attack we still get details and little hooks on the consonants that forces us to listen to what she is saying. It could be thicker though. There is probably a reason for this. Let’s see.

Side note on the writing. Let’s talk about ‘Hello’. Let’s not think for one nano-second that Adele and Greg Kurstin have not heard of Lionel Richie. They have. They know that song. They wrote that line in. It may have been accidental inspiration at first but I’m sure they asked themselves ‘Can we do this?’ ‘Is it a good idea?’ ‘Are we going to get panned for it?’ ‘Do we dare?’ And then they decided that is was fine. I see it as a kind of “macro alliteration” - a hook/sound that is referenced across tens of songs as opposed to a couple stanzas. You have to have written a lot of great original songs that stand of their own to pull this off but they have so here. There is also another interesting one in the verse when she sings ‘California Dreaming’. It pushes buttons. Does it not? The ‘Hello’ line is still unsettling the first couple times though, innit? I wonder what Lionel feels.

The first new instrument appears on the prechorus. A glossy pad-like thing. And then there is that reverse piano/vocal pad riser before the chorus that reminds us that this is not 1973.

The chorus is just a thicker version of the verse with the requisite single pedal note, high up on the strings. Note how the vocal does not disappear or move back in space when the chorus hits, even though she is singing out and the microphone was probably begging for mercy. Someone was planning ahead and made sure the verse vocal sound and the chorus vocal sound would match. It’s hard to do when the chorus is an octave higher and surrounded by a lot of goo, and the verse is low and intimate with a lot of space. I think this explains why the verse vocal sound was more restrained that it could have been. They went for a more even vocal sound throughout rather than the best sound possible at all times. You can hear a little burst of energy on the first words of the 2nd verse though. Would it have been nice to have that color through the whole first verse for example? What do you think?

Also of note is the drum sound. It is very hard to produce tasteful drums on these kinds of emotional ballads. The cheese is strong with these songs. Kurstin decided to low pass filter the drums to the point that they have just the energy of the beat but not the actual sound. You can try this at home, it’s fun: program a basic beat, put Filterfreak or something similar on it, choose a low frequency point, boom: ‘Hello’ drums. Was it us you were looking for?

Producer Greg Kurstin kept the pattern to just the bass drum for the first chorus but used the same filtering trick with a full drum pattern on the second verse and second chorus. The filter on the drums only opens on the last choruses, after the bridge, for an extra lift in energy.

Notice how there is little to no subdivision on these drums (No hihat seems to be associated with them). Instead there is a little electronic 16th note pattern that appears discretely half way through the second chorus. It takes a few bars to be able to latch on it because of the cymbal ring and other downbeat drama but it’s there, and it carries through the bridge nicely. Make sure you analyse how it comes on.

Otherwise the rest of the arrangement is all about layering the same parts with thicker and thicker sounds as the song progresses. Meaning that, besides extra vocals, there are no new standout parts, just more sound playing the same stuff. Extra pads on the chorus, tubular bells on the downbeat of the last choruses, held guitar notes drenched in reverb used as pads on choruses too. There are lots of little cool details like the super loud stereo claps on just beat 2 of the 2nd part of the last chorus but nowhere else (It’s at 4.16 ish if you’d like to check out), but no newlines, leads or arpeggios. It’s a big crescendo without new information.

Vocal Production

AdeleThe vocal production here is classic Adèle. It is reminiscent of previous singles like ‘Rolling In The Deep’. She sings solo until the second prechorus where the first harmony comes in on bar 3. And then on the second chorus she fills the holes in between lead lines with background vocals repeating key words and thickens the subsequent lead lines with harmony. Nothing terribly new but serious layering and recycling of ideas.

The bridge is built on “Ah Ah Ah” background vocals, a new part saved for the bridge, clever. It makes the bridge feel like a bridge. It’s the first time there is no lead in the the song - a well needed rest.

The last choruses have nothing new vocally but more of the same in step with the rest of the arrangement. More layers of background vocal supporting the lead at all times (Hard to hear but it’s there), more track of doubles on the answers, etc, etc… If the idea was to focus on the vocal then this production does that by providing little distraction from Adele’s performance.

The Mix

AdeleMix-wise, while it is clear that ‘Hello’ sounds leaps and bounds better than her previous piano/vocal hit ‘Someone Like You’ (available for reference at all self respecting non-revenue-sharing streaming retailers worldwide), it is interesting to pay close attention to the bottom of the record. Considering how defined and smooth everything above the bass line is, it can be quite surprising to see how lean and cloudy the drums + bass system is. Check it out. There is basically no bottom on this track. Why?

One can only guess but , from experience, filtered drums like these tend to be hard to make fat and defined, which in turn pushes the whole mix in a direction that feels a bit hi-passed and definitely not punchy. Now, does a song like this need to be punchy? Apparently not if one is judging by the general public’s reaction. It’s a matter of taste and priorities as always.

What would have you have done differently? Would you have a bass on this track or leave the bass to the left hand of the piano player as they seem to have done here? Would you have added a bass drum sample in the middle for the last choruses or would you have left it hollow like they did?

Do you like it? Yes? Great.

No? Should you decide to like it because it is very successful? Who’s in the right?

Good question. Thank you for asking.

While you come up with the answer take 20 minutes to listen to the song 3 or 4 times and write down all the little hooks that make this a good production for the purpose of instant world domination. Notice all the little subliminal details, beyond the commanding vocal performance, that make people listen to the song over and over again without boredom, but make sure that no one gets jarred in any way, shape, or form, from the first to the last beat.

See you on the other side.

Fab Dupont