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October 29, 2015

Lean On - M. Lazer & DJ Snake

Lean On CD CoverThe current Pop music way of writing songs consists of ‘toplines’ over ‘beats’. In practice it means that a bunch of people play with computers in studios, bedrooms, hotel rooms or tour busses, put as many ideas as possible together using plugins and whatever else strike their fancy, take the tracks as close to a finished record as possible and then hand the instrumentals over to someone who is good at coming up with catchy melodies and lyrics. And boom: hit. Sometimes. This slightly disjointed process (It’s a long way from someone crying on their guitar to expunge the pain from their last breakup for example) tends to produce music that is more linear and formulaic. It’s hard to pick a key when you don’t know who is going to sing the song or it’s hard to write a bridge that feels like a bridge if you don’t know which part of the track will be the chorus right before it. Overall, in my opinion, it tends to produce music that is pretty generic.

Unless the team is good. Very good. Like, for example, the Diplo team.

Today’s track is a collaboration between Diplo, under the Major Lazer name, DJ Snake and features on vocals, it's called (Somebody to) Lean On.

Listen here:


The number one thing that I think is fantastic about the track is that the first time I heard it I knew Diplo was involved on the production side within 4 beats of the chorus. It’s impressive to see someone develop a distinctive sound across several styles of music. It’s rare enough these days to be noted. You can hear vocal treatment tricks throughout the track that are reminiscent of DJ Snakes ‘Turn Down for What’ (particularly chorus and bridge) but the core of the track sound very Diplo to me. Structure wise, this song is a good example of where radio has gone since EDM took over, whether the track is EDM or not. In this case, the same 4 chord loop backs the verse, chorus and bridge, the intro is just the first chord repeated 4 times (This is a telltale sign that this started has an instrumental beat idea, probably in Ableton Live, on someone’s laptop).

The verse has two parts, 8 bars each. The first 8 bars have no drums and then the bass drum comes in for the second 8 bars. That second part kinda feels like a chorus but it’s not really lifting that much, so on first listen it acts as a pre-chorus of sorts leading to the EDM style instrumental chorus. That section is also 8 bars, with the same chords but with the lead instrument being a vocal sample as opposed to the actual singer telling us a story to remember. Many many songs are doing this these days, it comes from of dance floor friendly structures. A lot of current producer/writers have formed their tastes spinning records for club crowds and brought that way of creating emotion in people to the pop music world. Diplo is definitely one of these guys.

The 2nd verse goes back down in energy and rolls out perfectly symmetrically to the first verse. ‘Verse then pre-chorus then chorus’. Mirror image. Then comes the breakdown/bridge. So far a very classic structure, not that different from a run of the mill radio format, save for the instrumental chorus. We are granted a 2 bar break from the chord loop and then we hit the bridge which is an extension/development of the chorus concept with the vocal sample. Then we get back to the pre-chorus part which kinda feels like a chorus now that we have heard it three times. So which is the chorus?

The 'Blow A Kiss' part or the ‘Wheee ahh whheee ooo’ part? You decide. Maybe we need to invent a new name for these kinds of sections. Overall the song is 2 minutes and 57 seconds. They could have added another instrumental chorus after that last pre-chorus but they decided not to. It probably was hard to pass on that cold ending and the anthem-ish last line sung by Mø 'Somebody to lean on!'. It would have been artificial sounding to add that line at the end of an instrumental chorus and it would have meant chaos for the rest of the structure to rearrange it all to fit that extra instrumental without the song being a minute longer. These tempos are tough to manage. These are tempo for stoned Reggae jams not for hyper manicured pop hits. This was probably the most efficient way of doing it. It works great.

In these kinds of tracks, production and mix tend to happen at the same time, meaning the song is pretty much finished, mix included, before the vocal is even recorded (The mix gets retouched after vocals are done but I have seen tracks go through as is). It creates interesting challenges. Anyone who has mixed a whole track and un-muted the vocal last will know how hard it is to leave room for the most important instrument in the mix when you don't know what it is. It’s an art form and in the Diplo team someone seems to be very good at it. How do they do it? First, notice how the same 4 bar chord loop backs the whole track but its sound changes throughout.

There is a Moog-type filter opening and closing constantly within sections. Needle drop between the first chorus and the second verse for an example (The transition between the two is super obvious). This helps keep the track lively without having to come up with new elements and taking too much space. Try and track the tone of that chord loop throughout the song. See if you can hear transients becoming sharper on some sections too. This element makes the song. It's the skeleton for everything. It's hard to build 3 minutes of music on a 4 bar loop and have be interesting at all times. Great inspiration there. Drums wise this track is very interesting. Diplo has a fascination for all things Reggae and Dance Hall and it shows here and all other Major Lazer records. The bass drum is a cool thing to observe. It feels fat but it’s really not that thick actually. If you pay real close attention, you’ll hear that the bottom of the track comes from a sub-bass synth sound, probably a simple sine wave, that sits right below the kick allowing the kick to be lean and punchy. Check it out. You might need headphones for this one. The sub bass is playing held notes for full bars, no groove down there except for a bar or two in the 2nd verse. It leaves all the room for the bass drum patterns to do their thing. I think it’s really cool to see that the bass drum does not just do the standard four-on-the-floor thing. Check out the 2nd verse and the bridge. Cool broken down grooves there.

My favorite part is the nasty hat/sidestick groove on the instrumental chorus. It’s worth listening to over and over again. I think it makes the track. It's so nasty and grimy and it makes the groove sway magically. The slight swing is key. Also notice all the little 16th notes hi-hat rolls augmenting the groove on the chorus. Note the effect of the straight fills versus the swung pocket. It’s all in the details. A lot of these elements are recycled tastefully. For example the snaps from the 2nd verse are used on the last pre-chorus. The team used the drums to contrast the sections since the chords are the same throughout. It’s good exercise to go through every section and see which drum sound plays which part and how they relate. For example the first pre-chorus bass drum and the first chorus bass drum do not sound the same. The chorus one is heavier. It helps the track grow. The few bass drums in the second verse are the same as the 1st chorus ones but they play a different pattern so they don't steal any thunder. Then the 2nd pre-chorus hits with the same pattern and bass drum sound as the 1st chorus. These are subtle tweaks but they make the track move neatly. The bridge beat is completely different from every other section but the sounds are the same. Then we get back to the straight beat with added backbeat in the shape of the recycled 2nd verse snaps. All very elegant and modern sounding. Hard to do well.

They killed it. The other way they constructed sections is by using crazy vocal sample treatments everywhere. One could spend hours trying to figure out what plays where. Try listening to the track in three passes with great focus on everything above the beat line. I guarantee you you’ll hear new vocal snippets every pass. They are using vocals as their main textures, like the oooh-ooohhh in the pre-choruses, the upbeat 'hey' on the instrumental choruses, the long ‘heeeeeeooooo’ on the second one, etc, etc… The oooh-ooohhh in the pre-choruses are doubled with some sort of a bell-like sound up an octave but the texture is mostly vocals yet reads synth-ey. The upbeat 'hey' on the instrumental choruses is kinda like a reggae guitar backbeat but it's vocal based.

It's fun to try and keep track to all the little screams drenched in reverb or delays, and all the reverse reverb transition tricks. It'll keep you busy for a while. For the more obvious vocal tricks, check out the low one on the intro section, see how it relates to the bridge lead. Also listen carefully to the differences between the first and the second instrumental choruses for some cool treated vocal interventions (with lyrics) that only happen the second time. Cool no? The lead vocal gets its fair share of treatments and tricks. Check out the one-line doubles, the constantly changing reverb and delay throws, the stutter effects. They also do a good job of contrasting vocal locations. Check out the pre-choruses: the call, ‘Blow a Kiss, fire a gun’ is centered and diffuse by using lots of doubles and harmony, the answer ‘We all need somebody to lean on’ is very localized in stereo much more focused. See how it feels. Lots and lots of time was spent building this track and these vocal treatments. Speaking of treated vocals, it’s fair to say that the lead sound on the bridge is very unique and cool. Definitely not a preset. These guys roll their own. How you think they made that? Figure it out and send us a postcard. We probably should shoot a video on that kind of treatment.

Last but not least, it is enlightening to pay attention to the few other synth textures that are not vocals. Notice the ‘swoosh’ used to transition from verse 1 to pre-chorus 1. It's classic filter sweep stuff but it's discreet enough that it does the job without being cheesy. See how they use that trick over and over again in various transitions. I'm also particularly fond of the reggae like 'shank' coming in on pre-chorus 2 too. There is also a hi-pitched pad coming on the instrumental choruses, it’s faint, see if you can make it out. Sonically the mix may be a little brighter and more pinched that one would enjoy but it’s probably a casualty of the process discussed above. It’s also mastered quite loud, which does not help. The balances are great though. So, while this may not make in your ‘sonic reference track’ folder, it’s not in mine, it should be in your ‘badass production track’ folder for sure. For more stuff from these guys, check out ‘Where are You Now’ under the name Jack U, and spend some time browsing Major Lazer’s Free the Universe album. Diplo has kept busy.

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.