Going Retro <Insert Vibe Here>

I have recently fallen in love with the sounds I hear in Bang Bang by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj. It happens to be another song by Max Martin, who partnered this time with Savan Kotecha, Rickard Göransson (of Carolina Liar), and Onika Tanya Maraj (Nicki Minaj). What I love about this is its total retro feel. Jessie J sings Aretha Franklin-style vocals over the top of background sounds straight out of the disco era. But if you listen closely, that is where the retro ends. Yes, there are guitar and full-blown background vocals (thank heavens!). But the guitars consist of two licks that are peppered throughout. The vocals are layered and at times fool the ear into believing there’s a horn section. The rest is percussion, bass, and what I like to call sonic glitter.

The music industry has been using samples from the past for the last 30 years or more. One of the most recognizable examples is from 1995. The Grammy-award winning song Gangsta’s Paradise sampled Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise. The strings and choir you hear add tension and a vibe to this, a vibe you can’t get “in the box.” They used a lot of this track back then, certainly more than we would hear on today’s charts. What made Gangsta’s Paradise current in the mid-nineties was the addition of a hip hop beat, extra bass, and an emcee. Today, like in Bang Bang, we hear a lot of retro sounds, but they have been boiled down to their essence. This could be a reaction to copyright law, or it could be due to short attention spans. In either case, samples are still heavily in use because they give a song “vibe.”

So, it’s time to talk a little bit about “vibe.” It’s so intangible and can make or break a recording. First, let’s be clear about the current state of the recording industry. What you hear on the radio or the internet is digital. While technology has moved to digital, our ears and brains are still analog. This means we like natural sounds. We actually crave a little imperfection. Some record companies are reacting to this by releasing some of their music on LPs (I’ve even seen cassettes — CASSETTES!), but the majority of the market is streaming and mp3s. What’s more, most pop music production is created digitally in programs like Reason, ProTools, and Ableton (in the box). With the exception of vocals, very little production gets any air. So, we hear so many samples of old recordings current production, because the air of former recording techniques adds instant vibe.

Before the digital revolution, recording sessions involved instrumentalist and vocalist in the same room, recording songs from beginning to end, not in four-bar segments. Recording actually caught performers in the act of playing off each other’s energy. Sure, you got some bleed, but it gave the music life. Sometimes vocals were recorded in bathrooms or stairways because of the natural reverb (there was no artificial reverb then). Here’s a modern example. Shelly Peiken is an established songwriter, who had the opportunity to cowrite on a project. However, to make the deadline, she had to record the demo while on vacation. She ended up recording it on her laptop in a hotel bathroom. Apparently that was enough to create vibe (see photo below). I’m not suggesting you hop in the tub when you’re ready to record, nor am I suggesting you steal other artists’ sounds. But maybe it’s time for us to start thinking “outside of the box” and get our vibe back. Maybe it’s time to let a little more nature into our electro pop. It could add a little adventure to our lives (rubber duckies optional).


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