Welcome to the first instalment in my brand new series, Track Exam, where I'll be taking a close look at tracks that I find especially brilliant in terms of both production and general musical greatness. By examining various elements of these tunes in detail, I hope to reveal production tips and tricks that you might find useful and be able to apply in your own music.
To kick us off, I'm going to take a look at a track from one of my very favourite artists of recent years, Kuedo. A versatile young producer from the UK, Kuedo a.k.a Jamie Teasdale first made waves as one half of Vex'd, early pioneers of London's emergent Dubstep scene. After conquering the clubs and warehouses of Europe, Teasdale moved on to debut his first solo release, Severant, to widespread critical acclaim. An unmistakably unique blend of Ambient synths, Trap drums and Dubstep rhythms, Severant quickly established Kuedo as one of the brightest lights in electronic music today.
Forged whilst perfecting the sound that would eventually produce Severant, Kuedo's Starfox is an energising blend of influences featuring a wealth of excellent production turns that have become hallmarks of his sound. Let's take a look at some of the best of them, in the hope that we might be able to bring some of Kuedo's brilliance to our own music.
Set the Scene Alive
To begin a story, you need to set the scene. Kuedo is a master of this oft neglected area of musical composition, with many remarking on the cinematic and evocative qualities of his music. To do this, he borrows techniques that can be traced back to Vangelis' groundbreaking work on the Blade Runner OST, as well as adding his own special twists.
Starfox begins with a spacey, ambient pad sound, cloaked in reverb. This breathless opening sound creates a sense of vast space and challenges the listener to imagine what might come next. We also get hints of high frequency, tinkling sounds, that give the soundscape a mechanically quality, further putting us into a cinematic frame of mind and listening.
We are then treated to a loud, brash wedge of noise that is filtered and processed (most probably with a phaser and a ton of reverb), giving us the impression of vast movement (an aircraft readily comes to mind) that leads on expertly towards the beginning of the track proper.
Kuedo begins the main body of the track by stating two of the most prominent aspects of Starfox; rich, analog-style synth chords, playing out a worried, urgent 2-chord progression and a half-time, Dubstep-influenced drum pattern. To add intrigue, the drum groove isn't perfectly quantised, with the kicks slightly falling over one another creating a subtly faltering, loose rhythmic feel.
This is a technique made especially famous by the likes of Flying Lotus and often works to produce an organically groovy and dancy feel. A simple way to create this kind of pattern is to play or draw in a completely quantized rhythm and then experiment with pulling certain kicks and snares forward and back in time.
To enhance this relaxed, stumbly feel, the synth chords are placed every so slightly behind the main first and third beats of the drum groove. Contrasting with this laid-back approach to rhythm, the harmonic content of the synth chords creates a tension that carries our interest onwards towards the track's main riff.
This main riff is a brilliant and unusual combination of both a bass and synth part. Kuedo brilliantly economises the material in Starfox by having his bassline play out the first half of the riff, accompanied by a distorted, dexterous synth part in the latter half. This simple technique effortlessly binds together two of the main elements of the track, forcing them to work as one line or part. The cohesion achieved by this technique contributes to the sense of structural balance or unity to be heard in the track, a compositional element we will return to below.
An excellent trick Kuedo employs to keep his track interesting is to pepper it with SFX. From variants of the filtered noise we heard in Starfox's opening to LFO-modified synth effects, the producer brilliantly alternates their prominence in the mix to variously blend them into the background and push them up front for transitions between sections.
It takes careful listening to notice some of these sounds but when you do, you realise how much they contribute to the track's vibrant, lithe character. Some are layered deftly behind bass notes (kept low in the mix and low-pass filtered) so as to create musical movement and tension within the space of a single note, whereas others are abruptly faded in then out of the main groove for much the same purpose as drum fills are often employed.
As we touched on above, Kuedo has made unity a central compositional concern of Starfox. Whether you want to incorporate this as a main element of your music or disregard it entirely, it is at the very least incredibly useful for any producer beginning a new track to ask themselves how much unity is going to play a role.
Besides binding the bass and synth parts together in his main riff as outlined above, Kuedo achieves unity in Starfox through a number of means. Chief amongst those is his repeated use of stuttering and glitchy material that expands on the sense of looseness and freedom first established by the main drum groove. By combining this organic rhythm with chiptune-style synths that bleep in and out of the time with the music, Kuedo imbues the track with a restless energy that contrasts with the common, strict rigidity presented by the grid arrangement system of most DAWs.
Use Your Space
Another method Kuedo uses to conjure up such an energetic spirit in Starfox is the full use of stereo space. There is a great width to the insistent synth chords that appear at the opening and throughout the track but it is the constant intrusion of SFX, often panned hard left or right, as well as occasionally straying out across the centre of the track's stereo image that really lends it such athleticism.
Here ends my examination of some of the aspects that make Starfox such a brilliant track. It is by no means an exhaustive look at the compositional and production brilliance on display here but I hope to have brought your attention to a detail or two that might inspire your own musical experiments. Until next time, keep your ears open (in the metaphorical sense, naturally) and get creative!
Check out our complete set of Production Tips articles here.