If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
Without a doubt, Canadian actor-turned-rapper Drake has been killing it in 2015. From the release of his platinum selling record “If You’re Reading This Its Too Late” to the Future-assisted “What A Time to Be Alive,” Drake has been on a winning streak of unbelievable proportions this year. This makes the unexpected takeover of his latest record “Hotline Bling” just the latest jewel in his crown. Aside from the endearingly geeky dance moves present in the song’s music video, what makes this track so infectious? Today I’m here to break down the facets of this song and deliver to you in brief how to attain the somehow sunny yet contemplative vibe of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”
Good Vibrations: Hotline Bling’s Exceptional Use of Sampling
The very first element in this song is a sped up and chopped up sample of the 1972 Timmy Thomas record “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Already, the vibe is immediately apparent.
Multiple elements were taken from this record including its line of percussion, high plinking melody and subtle but present Hammond organ buried deep within the mix. The first aspect of this sample is the percussion line from an early rhythm machine, adding to the natural groove of the song. The most notable features of this percussion line is its low frequency and high amount of reverb. Drake’s usual songs (including this one) have sections where the entire track seems like it goes “underwater,” and the high-end is sucked right out of them, making the dynamics of this low percussion line feel at home in the instrumental- even when surrounded by booming trap drums. The sound present in this percussion line can be recreated by using a rhythm machine or even bongos and congas in 1/8th notes, so long as they’re run through a lowpass filter first in order to take out the high frequencies. The second part of this sample is the higher melody which is created by a Hammond organ.
Although these instruments are hilariously expensive in real life, it shouldn’t be too difficult producing a sufficiently quirky sound in a free synthesizer such as Synth1 or Tal-Elec7ro. The most important aspect to this sound is that the melody has the same ‘groove’ to it, in this case meaning that there shouldn’t be only straight 1/8th or 1/16th notes in the main melody, but rather a combination of both. Also, although this melody is higher than the other instruments in this piece, it should not have any very high frequency to it, anywhere from 5khz upwards should be reserved for the snares and the hi hats in this track to add to the melancholy feeling. The last element is the same organ played several octaves below the higher melody, a droning chord mixed very lightly that helps fill out the middle end of the frequency spectrum. This should not be ear catching but rather soothing, and in a minor chord.
808s and Heartbreak: Adding the ‘Boom’
After the elements of the sample are in place, the rest is fairly simple- 808s and drums. As for the bass, I always synthesize my own in NI Massive. To create decent sounding 808s, use 3 oscillators set to sine waves (at -24, -12, and -5 semitones respectively) with slight saturation and high passing to take out all frequencies 30hz and below. Make sure the -12 and -5 semitone oscillators aren't very loud, because the added harmonics sound great in moderation but ruin the bass line if overdone. A notable feature of the bass line in “Hotline Bling” is the fact that it is constantly moving, never settling on one note for too long. This allows for the track to have an extra focal point aside from the singing and single high melody.
Kick, Push: Laying Down the Drums
In the drum section, a thudding, overdriven 808 kick is used, placed on the 1 & 3 of the beat, but also used liberally throughout the track. Be sure to mix out any frequencies that would conflict with the bass. The main snare is on the 2 & 4 of the beat, layered with a high triangle sound. However, there are claps thrown in sparsely in order to add more energy to the beat. As per usual in trap music, fast paced rattling high hats are quite prominent throughout the entire beat, with 1/8th notes dominating most of the pattern, exchanged for rolls and 1/16th notes in other spots. Feel free to experiment, as different hi hat patterns will result in different grooves. As for the open hats, they are on every beat- 1, 2, 3, and 4- mixed softly as not to crowd out the closed high hats but still add more emphasis to the downbeat. Also, during the bridge heavily reverb-ed snaps are incorporated, above all the other low passed instruments but still fairly quietly.
The Fix: Tying It All Together
The most stand out choice in the structuring of this track is the complete lack of transition noises- there is no DJ Mustard-esque open hi hat hit making sure you know the beat has dropped, no loud and intrusive F*ck Up Some Commas siren, and no risers. There is only a full bar of silence at the end of every 8 bars like clockwork, except for a small sub bass riff. This allows Drake to sing the most catchy parts of the song- “Ever since I left the city YOU” and “I know when that HOTline bling” completely acapella until the syllables that need to be emphasized- YOU and HOT. This adds tension and is a very unique choice for a radio hit such as “Hotline Bling” but Drake and his producer pull it off wonderfully. As for the general structure of the beat, here are the elements we’ve talked about:
- Percussion line
- High Melody
- Low Organ
- 808 Bassline
- Open/Closed Hi Hats
Using these elements, we can piece together- section by section- the magic of Hotline Bling.
- INTRO: Element 1 only
- PRECHORUS: Elements 1-4
- CHORUS: Elements 1-8
- VERSE: Elements 1-8
- BRIDGE: Elements 1-6, 8-9 (with lowpass filter applied to each instrument, bass & kick volume reduced)
- OUTRO: Element 1 only
As you can see, the production in this song is not horribly complicated- however, it is very effective. My attempt at creating something like this track is posted below, give it a try and post your attempt in the comments section!
Also, if you're interested in my music, my album 'The Bacchae' can be purchased on iTunes!