Download the files used in the David Guetta & Sia – “Titanium” pumping synth effect tutorial here. Includes the Pro Tools 10 session, plus audio files.
Watch the original video demonstrating the effect here.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people have been asking about how to achieve the “pumping synth” effect as heard on the David Guetta & Sia track “Titanium”. Here’s how!
If you get something out of this, read my other posts on the David Guetta & Sia track “Titanium”:
Part I: http://wp.me/p1E8ld-35
Part II: http://wp.me/p1E8ld-3f
For you musicians, here’s a question: When you record your performance, do you pay attention to what you’re actually playing, or focus on the way it’s “supposed to sound” according to the performance you have set up in your mind?
Another question: When you listen to your recorded performance, do you actually hear what’s coming from the speakers and judge that performance, or do you “perform” the part again in your head, as the playback is rolling, and focus on that performance you have set up in your head again?
This is pretty much what I asked Robert Woody, a guy that knows how musicians’ minds work. He decided to make an entire article about it on Psychology Today’s website, as well as his personal blog.
Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin & Shellback, and produced by Scott Borchetta, Max Martin & Shellback, provides some interesting production ideas that aspiring (and current) producers can learn from.
One of the most interesting production ideas in the song is the use of changing dynamics to indicate different parts of the song. Of course songs should be dynamic, and good songs push and pull the dynamics to draw the listener in & create interest in the song.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” does this by changing the instrumentation and what the instrumentation is doing throughout the song. There are no less than eighteen different parts to this song, broken down by instrumentation and dynamics.
- Intro – The tune starts with a single acoustic guitar, digitally warped with a few notes reversed & an interesting stereo knock on the guitar’s body to catch the listener’s attention.
- Verse 1 – Adds a kick drum. Still simplistic instrumentation to highlight the vocals that are telling the story.
- Verse 1, Part 2 – Halfway through the verse, some additional sound is added to the kick. No new instrumentation, but the kick simply has a different sound. Probably by adding another sound to what was originally triggered, or maybe a change in the EQ of the kick drum.
- Pre-Chorus – The part with the “Oooohs”. Add a bass playing straight 1/8th notes and hi-hat rhythm, that swells into
- Chorus 1 – Add background vocals, a huge snare, and additional guitar parts. The bass part changes from 1/8th notes to longer notes, with lots of space in between, basically the opposite of what you heard in the verse, which slightly swells to
- Chorus, Part 2 – Similar to the previous verse, the chorus gets added to in the second half, with additional melodic instrumentation. This part of the chorus also includes a two-bar change in the rhythm of the song for “You go talk to your friends..”. Back to the original rhythm when you get to “But we are never…”. Probably my favorite part of the song.
- Turn Around – After the chorus, there’s a short turn-around of two measures that serves to take the song back to a lower dynamic level for verse 2.
- Verse 2 – Starts at the level the second half of verse one started, so it’s not just a repeat of verse 1, by adding the bass (again playing 1/8th notes). This verse is only half the length of the first, so we continue on the the
- Pre-Chorus 2 – The “Ooooh” part again, where there’s a hi-hat again, with some addition of delay on some of the vocal tracks, along with additional background vocals, which rises to
- Chorus 2 – Similar to chorus 1, but adds additional lead vocal ad libs, which swells (larger than last time) to the interesting
- Chorus 2, Part 2 – Two-bar rhythm change, plus some additional lead vocal ab libs. See Chorus 1, Part 2 above.
- Turn Around 2 – Actually the pre-chorus in dynamics and instrumentation, but there’s no downturn in intensity until it swells to the
- Bridge – Takes out everything but the vocals, bass, and kick to start with. The acoustic guitar riff comes in with the high frequencies rolled off & phased/filtered, and gets louder/less equalized, and less phasey, until it gets to the
- Fall Off – Not really a “part” of a song, but the entire instrumentation falls off so it’s just the spoken “like, ever”. To put a fine point on the concept, which reverse cymbal rises into the climax
- Chorus 3 – All instrumentation, additional BGVs, lead vocal ad libs. The climax of the song
- Chorus 3/Outro – Adds more instrumentation, but nothing heavy-handed. Adds an almost club/dance snare track leading in tot his final chorus, along with a rhythmic keyboard part.
- Last line in Chorus – Climax is over, intensity decreases to just kick, vocals, BGVs, bass, and guitars, which ends the song with
- The Very Last Line – “Getting back together”, with no instrumentation.
The Song Doesn’t Need to Continually Build to an End Climax
A lot of songs produced nowadays reach a climax close to the end of the song, then fall off and end pretty much like it started (see my previous posting for “We Are Young” for an example). “Titanium” doesn’t do that.
This song works, and is different, because the song continually builds and falls, from verse to chorus and back.
True, the final pre-chorus/chorus part is even MORE climactic than the others, but the song hits like a Mack truck at 1:16. This effect is emphasized by the keyed compression on the synth track, giving the synthesizer a pulsating rhythm opposite of the kick. This climax happens again at 2:32 and 3:33. There’s no need to continually build throughout the song here, the rising and falling of the track provide an enormous amount of movement for the song.
Give the Song a Break and Give the Song Somewhere to Climax To
Related to the previous concept, you have to come down from the climax of the song at some point. If that climax comes early in the song (as it does here), you have to do something to give the listener’s ears a break. At 1:32, the song returns to the same “level” as it was in verse one. It just falls off, and you’re right back into another verse. It happens again at 2:48, but this time leads right into the bridge. The next fall off, at 3:49, is a hard stop that fades into reverb.
This tune would not work if the intensity level had remained continuous after it reached the first climax at 1:16. The listener needs a break! That much intensity for that long would provide no contrasting dynamics, and the result is that the song would sound “flat” for the rest of the tune.
Similarly, don’t feel the need to go for the knockout punch in the first thirty seconds of the song either. This song doesn’t reach any real climax until 1:16, but that also means that it spends from 0:46 to 1:16 building up to that climax. That’s thirty seconds of build. That’s a long time, in popular music terms, spent leading the listener to that climax. It’s not an automatic increase from the verse, it’s a process of increasing the intensity from low to high.
There’s No Need to Have Continuous Percussion
To help build the climax, Guetta relies on the judicious use of percussion instrumentation in “Titanium”. He doesn’t feel the need to continually use any single piece of percussion, and sometimes drops the percussion altogether (0:46 to 1:01, for example) to help create different levels of intensity and emotion. Same at 2:02 and 2:47. I dare say this song is percusisonless for maybe 25% of the song, and very little percussion for maybe 33% of the tune.
Do NOT feel like you always must have a percussion element keeping the beat in the song.
It’s simply not true, and removing elements of the percussion aids in creating different levels of dynamics and raising or lowering them by adding or subtracting them.
Produced by David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort, and Afrojack
“Titanium” is a song written by Sia Furler, David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort, and Nick Van De Wall. Sia Furler started her career as a jazz singer, but has gained more fame as a pop and dance vocalist, releasing five albums (not including a recent “best of” album). Giorgio Tuinfort has also had success working on previous songs such as “Nothing But the Beat” and “Who’s That Chick?” with David Guetta (and Rhianna for “Who’s That Chick?”), as well as singles with Akon and Usher. Nick Van De Wall (A.K.A. Afrojack) is a Dutch DJ that has worked with the likes of Shermanology, Steve Aoki, Quintino, and The Partysquad, as well as multiple singles with Guetta. Guetta himself is an accomplished DJ and music producer, whose 2011 album release Nothing But the Beat has received many honors and awards. Guetta may be best-known for his work with The Black Eyed Peas on their 2009 hit single “I Gotta Feeling”.
Lessons to be learned from this production:
You Don’t Have To Use The Same Instrumentation Throughout the Song
Notice the very beginning of the song. There’s a guitar in the beginning. That guitar continues through the first verse. However, it stops when we get to the pre-hook at 0:46. Another instrument takes over the job, so the function of the rhythmic melodic instrument is still in play, but there’s no need to have that same guitar playing the same part throughout the song. The guitar DOES reappear in the 2nd verse, but again, only for that section. We never hear from it again.
Do NOT feel like you must have the same instrumentation included throughout the song.
A common techniques employed by producers is to set up certain instruments as identifiers of the parts of the song. Here, the guitar tells you you’re in a verse (or the intro, but that only happens once). Experiment with different instruments in different parts of the song, like you hear here. Notice that there’s a different pulsing synth sound used for the pre-hook/hook part compared to the chorus too.
Reverb Control as Special Effect
Want to make a simple instrumental part stand out in a crowd? Add reverb, but don’t add it all the time. Play around with when it’s active and not active. Take the very beginning of this song, for example. The guitar plays a fairly simple part. Eighth notes with a bit of delay (Andy Summers would be proud!). To add some interest, Guetta plays around with adding reverb on some phrases the guitar plays, but not others. Imagine that amount of reverb on the entire guitar track – it’d be all you hear by the end. What Guetta does is turn the sends from the guitar track to the reverb on & off (a good reason to set up your reverb as an auxiliary track instead of inserted on the track) and mutes/unmutes the reverb tracks well, so that the reverb builds when the sends are on. As soon as the sends are turned off, there’s no more new reverb, and when he mutes the aux track, the existing reverb gets cut too.
One of the most prevalent music production techniques used in this track is the use of side-chained (A.K.A. keyed) compression. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re very familiar with the sound. It happens in this song multiple times, on the sweep at 0:42 to 0:46, and again at 1:58 to 2:02, the synth at 1:16 to 1:32, and again at 2:32 to 2:46. Notice what happens here. As the kick hits, it causes the sweep/synth to decrease in volume.
What’s happening is called side-chain compression because a compressor (what turns down the volume) is placed on the sweep/synth, but the kick is what is actually controlling the turning down of the volume.
The kick track has been side-chained to the sweep and synth tracks, so that every time the kick hits, it turns the volume of the sweep or synth. Between kick hits, the volume of the sweep/synth is turned back up. It adds rhythmic elements to the track since the kick is rhythmic. It makes the synth track feel as if it pulses with the beat.
One of the cooler uses of this technique is to trigger this side-chain compression with a percussive track that’s not routed to the main outputs.
For an example of this, listen to 2:44 to 2:48. If you single out those two bars, notice that there’s no kick track. However, the synth is still pulsing like it was when you could hear the kick. Guetta mutes the kick track for those two bars, so you don’t hear them, but they’re still triggering the synth to turn down and up again in volume. For a fairly extensive lesson in using this technique (sometimes in more subtle ways than others), listen to Portisehead’s album Dummy.
Written by Katy Perry, Bonnie McKee, Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, and Henry Walter
Produced by Dr. Luke & Cirkut
Katy Perry’s single “Wide Awake” shows what it’s like when someone wake up from a dream and realizes that their worst nightmares have come true. In this case, the dream-like state was, as history is doomed to repeat, a bad relationship (ostensibly with Russell Brand in this regard).
Use of Melody
What makes this song interesting, from a production and songwriting standpoint, is there is only a single chord progression used throughout the entire song. The typical use of chord structure and differing progressions to differentiate the verses from the choruses and choruses from the bridge do not exist here. Instead, melody and instrumentation are used to break the song up into different sections. Want an exercise to become a better songwriter? Take a basic chord progression and create as many different melodies as you can with that single progression. “Wide Awake” shows us that melody and lyrical content are extremely important, and creative use of each is necessary to successful music production.
As for the chord progression, the song is in the key of G minor. Kind of. Home base for the song is G minor, at least. The chord progression is Gm – B♭ – F – C, or i – III – VII – IV. The triads that originally appear in G natural minor are i – ii° – III – iv – v – VI – VII. All this jibes except for the IV chord in the progression. According to our naturally-occurring triads, that C chord is supposed to be a minor chord, but is, in fact, a major chord!
The Katy Perry – Mozart Connection
Now, we all know that minor keys are representative of sadness, loneliness, demure feelings, etc. G minor has an especially-revered position as being considered by Mozart, the best key signature for expressing sadness. In fact, many of Mozart’s minor key works were written in the key of G minor (including symphonies number 25 & 40, two of his most famous symphonies).
Turning a Minor Chord into a Major Chord
So, what happens when you change out the C minor chord that’s originally in the list of G minor triads for a C major triad? You turn the G minor key into a mode!
Let’s take a closer look. The out-of-place chord is the IV, or C major in this case. The original key of G minor has the C as minor, or a iv chord. C minor is comprised of C – E♭– G. The C major chord used is C – E– G. So, the next step is to see what happens when you replace an E♭with an E♮. The new key consists of the notes G – A – B♭– C – D – E – F, or G Dorian mode.
Dorian mode has a long history of melancholy and sadness. Take a listen to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and The Bealtes’ “Elanor Rigby” for a primer.
Also note that the E♮ that appears in the scale only appears in that singe IV chord too. Otherwise they’d have to change the other chords around, which probably wouldn’t make much musical sense.
Other Tunes With the Same Progression
This chord progression for “Wide Awake” is used in several other extremely famous melancholy and glum tunes.