Marking the Downbeat: Flume – Some Minds

As a creator of any kind, it is important to notice patterns in what works and what doesn’t.

For instance, do you want to learn how humor works? Check out this article by Scott Adams. I’m linking this as evidence that patterns not only exist in art, but that they are useful as tools.

It seems to me that lots of musicians learn to “feel it” and go from there. That works great for some things. I use feel to improvise melodic and harmonic content*. But I’m a music producer, and that means I’m often stuck with separation between my ideas, my body, and my work.

Why would I want to limit my toolset? I wouldn’t.

By examining music I like, I can pull out common threads and find reusable, reliable patterns. And you can too!

Let’s dig in.

Click this link and listen from where it opens (3:15) to about 3:23. Did you notice the glitchy noise fill that plays at 3:20? We’re going to talk about that. To get a feel for where you are in the arrangement, the drop hits at 3:09.

The noise in question hits right on the downbeat of a 16 beat section. It’s serving as an audial “marker” for an important point. If you listen closely, you can hear that it sustains for one beat (if not precisely one beat, it can’t be off by more than some milliseconds).

Since Flume has a different sounding track here, it might be easy for a dancer to get lost, or pick up on what is going on. People don’t like it when they can’t immediately hear where they are in a track. You want to dance but you don’t know what’s going on; it’s awkward and uncomfortable. But because Flume has that glitchy noise included, we can hear (feel) where we are as soon as it plays.

Another observation: The sound occupies part of the frequency spectrum that is otherwise pretty empty. We aren’t getting distinct sounds up there. Without looking at a spectrum analyzer, it reminds me of sounds I’ve seen before that have a few resonant, non-harmonic frequencies. When it hits, it stands out, and effectively signals the downbeat.
One thing I wonder is, how much of this have I reasoned incorrectly? Would you still be able to distinguish the downbeat without the sound described above? Probably. Listen to the bass about 5 seconds before and after 3:20. What happens?

First, the notes start to play more frequently. They bass follows a similar pattern as the drums, but it plays doubletime as it builds near the end of the 4 bar (?) loop.

Then what happens?

As the track hits the start of the next loop, the bass moves up to play a higher note again. Higher notes roughly equate to more excitement. There’s another “marker” right there.

For completeness, I’ll also note there is a “shuffling” sound for 2 bars leading up to the start of the loop. Flume uses it again 2 bars later, in much the same way. These sounds all work together — the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

What can we learn here?

My intuition tells me the glitchy noise hit works as a marker for the downbeat because of a few important dimensions:

  1. Volume. It is loud. Not necessarily louder than the rest of the elements (it’s quieter than the melody), but significantly higher dB than whatever else is going on in those frequencies.
  2. Time. It sustains. Obviously I can’t A/B test this outside of my imagination, but I bet a transient hit just wouldn’t work as well.
  3. Frequency. As in the first point, the spectral space taken up by the sound is important. Imagine if another sound was used, like a lower pitch rumble. That might work too, except it would compete with the bass for space.

As a final remark, it is important to note that none of these things make the downbeat feel like the downbeat in isolation. Flume could take out one or two of those layers of instrumentation and it would still work, but it would be a different track.

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