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January 25, 2016

Sorry - Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber Sorry CD CoverAll the music on the radio sounds the same. Right? I mean come on! It’s all the same stuff recycled over and over again. Right? It’s so damn boring that there’s no point listening anymore. You already have enough of being subjected to it while leafing through People magazine at the checkout line of the supermarket. What a bore.

Well ladies and gentlemen that is, forgive me for using a deeply a technical term, bullshit.

What's on air today

Have you listened to the radio lately? Or whatever replace radio in your world? It's fascinating to me. Let’s have a quick look at the Billboard HOT100 for this week.


  • Justin Bieber - Sorry We’ll get back to this one.
  • Adele - Hello We’ve discussed this.
  • Justin Bieber - Love Yourself Guitar and vocal, no drums?
  • Drake - Hotline Bling Have you closely listened to that production?
  • 21 Pilots - Stressed Out What were the odds anyone would ever channel Sugar Ray before the 22nd century?
  • Selena Gomez - Same Old Love Ever heard anything like this before? Where’s the big chorus?
  • Shawn Mendes - Stitches Oh, a singer songwriter with claps. Nice.
  • Justin Bieber - What Do You Mean I’m glad someone finally found my grandmother's long lost clock. I was getting worried.
  • Alessia Cara - Here Portishead sample? On the HOT 100 in 2016?
  • Meghan Trainor ft John Legend - Like I’m Going to Lose You Good old Motown 6/8. Never fails.


And it goes on.

What can we learn from the top 10 Billboard Hot 100 songs, apart from the fact that Justin Bieber has one badass publicist and a very good radio promotion team? Well, there are not two tracks that sound/feel the same. The range is super wide. All of it shows tremendous skills and vision either in production, writing, mixing and performance. As a reminder in January 1986 the #1 track was Say You Say Me, in 1996 it was One Sweet Day by Mariah Carey and Boys to Men, in 2006 it was Mariah Carey again with Don’t Forget about us.

Nuff’ said.

Let’s take a look at that Bieber track. Sorry. (That’s the title)

Written by Justin Bieber, Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter, Sonny Moore, Michael Tucker
Produced by Skrillex, Yektro, Blood Diamonds
Mixed by Andrew Wuepper, Josh Gudwin

Song Analysis

Justin Bieber playing keyboardsI find it fantastic that this was adopted by the whole USA as their favorite track. Maybe it’s because of the tropical vibe being in sync with the unusually mild winter we’ve had. Maybe it’s because it grooves nasty. Not sure. No matter what brought this to our shores, I think it is a very interesting modern take on the classic jamaican Dem Bow (or Poco Man Jam) riddim. Skrillex, who produced Sorry, took a page from Diplo’s book on this track. Diplo and his Major Lazer team have done a lot in the past couple years to bring Dance-Hall, Ragga and Reggae sounds and production style to the mainstream US and world audience. Their stuff tends to be dirtier and less accessible than ‘Sorry’ (unless they really want it to be)

So, what makes this track tick? First, we’d like to assure you that no live musicians were hurt in the making of this track. In case you were concerned. I’ll bet my plugin collection that most of this was generated in Ableton Live on a Macbook laptop. One can tell from the tone of the vocal sample manipulation. Live allows for every quick and dirty pitch and time manipulation and its ease of use has allowed tweaky producers to come up with cool new tones. Check out the vocal arpeggio in the intro for example. And how it gets reused in the structure.

Sorry’s song structure is interesting to look at. Like most computer generated tracks, it’s very copy-pasted. But there’s a twist. After the 4 bar intro that let’s know what you’re in for with the vocal hook and a simple mellotron string sample pad, you get two 8 bar verses. The first one is very lean and bare, bass drum and some sort of a marimba like sound setup the riddim. The second one adds the hihat and the modern touch with the sidechained pad. Then comes the chorus. Or is it the chorus? The beat breaks down which tends to indicate we’re preparing ourselves for something bigger, but that can be deceiving (Check out this track that my friend Sandy Vee produced where he coaxed the whole world into jamming to a beat free chorus - Only Girl In The World by Rihanna)

Justin Bieber with SkrillexIt does say ‘Is it too late no to say sorry?’ Should be the chorus. Whatever it is, it’s 8 bars and then it’s filled by fun horn like stabs and the sidechained pads again. The next section relies on the sampled vocal hook and simple ‘Sorry’ answers. It’s 8 bars. Uses the same shape as the previous part but build on it by being supported by the full riddim. Let’s upgrade it to chorus until further notice. Which would make the previous part the prechorus.

Next is the first interesting twist. There is a two bar ‘re-intro’, a simple replay of the first thing you hear before hitting the chorus. Why? Probably because it did not feel good to get back into the verse right away (Feel free to make an edit to see how that would have sounded and decide what you like best). Why not 4 bars then? Probably because that felt too long a purgatory because you hit verse 2 again. It’s asymmetrical and it’s ok.

Verse 3 is a copy paste of Verse 1 including the startling scream at the 4 bar point. There is the interesting addition of the whole music track filtering down to create a different fill into the next section.

Notice how there is no Verse 4 before we hit prechorrus 2. It keeps the pace moving. There is very little unnecessary anything on this track. Prechorus 2 is virtually identical to prechorus 1 and then comes the second twist. The prechorus is doubled which is highly unusual. Actually I cannot think of another (famous) song that has a double prechorus in this fashion. If you can, send me a postcard with the song name on it. Why would they do that? Your guess is as good as mine. They showed shrewd control of the song pace so far so why delay the release that the second chorus would provide by coming right where it is expected to come?

Further considerations

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Maybe they had something else to say that would not for in the verse melody. The lyric does change and deliver a crucial piece of information we could not live without: ‘I’m not just trying to get you back on me, oh no, no’
  2. Maybe they realized that everyone expected the chorus to come back right there and decided to delay the ‘drop’, like producers do in dance tracks, to get more out the same arrangement.
  3. Maybe someone hit

I don’t know. You pick.

Justin Bieber singingThen we hit a double chorus 8+8 bars which is a perfect copy paste of the first two choruses with a couple added adlibs but no new elements and no attempt to make the energy rise. It kinda reminds me of the super well dressed guy in the corner of the dance floor who is dancing, but not dancing too hard. Can’t dance too hard. It’s not cool to dance to hard. Real men keep extraneous body movement limited (On the dance floor of course). Anyway.

The ending is a replay of the intro without the hook. 4 bars. Done. It is really interesting to note how much they have done with so little. Listen to a pass of the song and take note of the little interventions that spice up the track without taking over. That horn/trumpet like melody. Would you have dared to make that happen? Pay attention to the delay tail on it. Check out all the little percussions that mark the 2 and 4 bar points and how they are treated throughout the song. Notice the nice riser noise at the end of the prechorus and the associated descending filter sweep replacing a cymbal hit on the downbeat of the chorus. Notice also how everything is recycled. Is it laziness? Maybe. What if it were a minimalist approach? Maybe. Would the track feel the same with different fills every two bars, different textures on every chorus, and a bigger beat on the chorus? You decide.

Mix analysis

Justin Bieber with a fan in the studioMix wise, this track is all about space. It is very hard to imagine how much wass done at the mix and how much was done at the production level. One thing is for sure: it’s much wider feeling than most current mixes, partly due to the fact that you can pinpoint the transients of all those little interventions very clearly by the lack of clutter around them. And they were put on the sides. Fancy that. Notice how the vocals just sit on top of the bass drum neatly and have quite a bit of reverb AND delay. Both my captain. It creates a cloud that hovers on top on the beat. Without a super heavy bass and with such a tight arrangement, the track was able to pass the industry loudness filter and compete with the surrounding pancake-mastering jobs without having to be crushed. All very smart and well done.

Overall this track is a great exercise in restraint and excellence in minimalism. It’s very very hard to do. It's much easier to layer 4 bass drums and 18 keyboards to get impact. But when something is done with such precision and control it’s really powerful, isn’t it? Give it a try. Count the elements that you think really matter in this track, make a list of them, and make a track from that list. Fun right? It’s nice to see that world music influence is making its way into the mainstream as much as it has recently. There is a lot of beauty out there that can be used to bring new colors to our daily soundtrack. I hope more comes through in the next few years.

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.