Song Analysis: Above & Beyond – Walter White

Sam MatlaSong Analysis%s Comments

“This week’s Record of the Week is a tune inspired by the lead TV series Breaking Bad. He starts out nice, has a revelation and then breaks bad. Just like the tune.” – A&B

It’s one of the best TV shows of all time.

But have you heard the song that goes with it?

Walter White was first premiered during Group Therapy #001 in Bangalore, India. It soon became a classic, which is no surprise considering it was made by supergroup Above & Beyond (if you call yourself a producer and you’re not sure who they are, then you’ve got some study to do).

It’s a great tune, and I had a blast analyzing it. Like most A&B tracks, there’s a ton to learn from it, so I encourage you to do some analysis yourself.

Here’s the track…

Initial thoughts

I’ve heard this song countless times, so it’s hard to share my “initial” thoughts or give a first-listen perspective. That said, there are three key things that stand out in this track:

  1. There are a lot of less obvious elements in the track that contribute to the whole (vocal blurs, FX, percussion that interacts with bassline, etc.)
  2. There’s a HUGE amount of contrast between the breakdown—which sounds calm and beautiful—and the chorus chord stabs—which sound abrasive and powerful.
  3. The main idea (chord stab sequence) is incredibly simple, which is one of the reasons why it has so much impact (simple = big).

It’s worth mentioning the use of silence in this track. The bassline during the intro is rather “blocky” and almost sounds like it’s held back. This is characteristic of Above & Beyond’s more recent tracks.

For comparison, listen to the bassline in this track from Sunny Lax with Super8 & tab.

Analysis

Here’s the overview. You can check out the Google Sheet here (make a copy of it yourself if you want to edit it) or click the image below to enlarge it.

This is not complete, as I couldn’t have realistically included every little detail. But the main elements are there.

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-9-59-02-am

Click to enlarge

Bars 1-16 (Intro)

The track kicks off with a simple yet powerful drum beat.

A few things to note:

  • The kick is has some of the highs cut off. You’ll hear them come back in during the next 16-bar section.
  • There’s a crunchy clap that plays on beat 4 of every bar. This adds a bit of variation and interest to the sequence. A ride cymbal is played every two bars to “pull” into this crunchy clap.
  • A tom pattern fills the mids and low-end, and helps drive the straight rhythm.

At the end of this phrase, during the second half of bar 16, we hear a few sounds in rapid succession. The first is a pad sound, and the second two are from the bassline we hear later on in the track starting bar 49 (note that the first bass sound is panned hard left here, and plays in the center during the actual drop).

Bars 17-32 (Intro)

We hear a restrained crash cymbal, and a new tom over the top of the original beat.

A new percussion sound plays after the third beat of every bar (listen for the variation – there are two sounds layered, and only one of them plays during the second appearance).

As soon as this section starts, we hear a pitched riser increasing in intensity (and pitch, obviously). This, coupled with the extra hats that come in on bar 25, build tension into the minimalistic build section that follows.

Bars 33-48 (Build)

A lazor-esque sound aptly signals the transition from full-percussion-with-a-bunch-of-high-end to the low-energy starting point for this build section.

The underlying tom sequence continues, but we hear a softer kick drum along with what sounds like a simple saw wave with phaser applied to it. This quickly fades out. A riser comes in,along with an atmospheric synth stab.

Starting bar 41, we hear the hi-hats fading in.

All of this is interrupted by three loud snare hits, before a signature A&B glitch transition into the drop.

Bars 49-64 (Drop)

The first beat of the drop has a ton of impact. We can hear a vocal sample (“..go?”), a wide bass sound, and the restrained/shortened crash cymbal that we heard at the start of bar 17.

What follows is more interesting. Let’s have a look at the bassline.

There are three main bass sounds that make up the bassline:

  1. Buzz
  2. Formant Stab
  3. Dubstep impact

Not too complicated, huh?

I mean, if you looked at A&B’s project file, you’d probably find far more than three simple layers, but the fact is, there are three distinctive sounds. A lot of people listen to songs like this and assume the bassline is super complex, when it really isn’t.

Remember, simple = big.

Anyway, the first sound is just a simple buzz bassline. You’ll find sounds like this in most preset packs. Vengeance Electroshock 2 has a good amount of bass shots in this style as well.

The stab sound is a little more unique. It sounds like it’s been made in Massive, but that’s really just wild speculation.

The third sound is the one we hear on the first beat. It’s wide, and is dubstep-esque (hence the name I’ve applied to it). This plays every two bars to extend the sequence.

Bars 65-80 (Drop Lift)

The second section 16-bar section isn’t radically different to the first, but instead builds upon what’s already playing. At the start, we hear an off-beat hat play along with an extra percussion sound.

A pluck sound in the background helps build tension along with a few other elements (ride cymbal, noise, riser, etc).

Bars 81-96 (Breakdown Part 1)

The drums stop, and the bassline fades out as a serene pad fades in.

There’s a subtle rhythmic sine-wave pluck (distorted), that almost sounds like it’s under water. This contributes to the atmosphere.

Starting bar 89, we hear the chord progression which continues throughout the breakdown. This provides a bedding for the memorable guitar melody which is introduced at bar 96.

Here’s the chord progression:

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-8-26-47-am

Bars 97-124 (Breakdown Part 2)

The guitar plays the following:

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-8-37-44-am

This guitar has a full-bar delay on it, except the delay is processed differently; it’s much less bright and has less of a transient.

A few other elements help build tension:

  • A subtle arpeggiated pluck (you can hear it well around bar 107)
  • Vocal blurs
  • A 4/4 ride cymbal fading in

The chord progression also changes on the last play through. Instead of playing the D#7sus2 (correct me if that’s wrong), it moves up to an A#m. This doesn’t resolve. It leaves you in a state of anticipation.

One thing that also contributes to tension is the fact that we don’t hear the second guitar motif at bar 124. We expect to hear it, because that’s what’s happened the last few times, but this time we just get silence.

Takeaway: Playing part of your melody without resolving it can be a great way to add tension.

Bars 125-148 (Chorus Build)

Walter White turns toward the dark side.

We hear a massive chord stab sequence with a harsh reverb pumping around it. This sequence is incredibly simple, as can be seen from the MIDI below.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-8-53-48-am

Eight bars after hearing the chord stabs in isolation, a snare roll starts building up. This is followed by a riser, and a highpass filter removing the lows.

Bars 149-164 (Chorus)

The chorus is more simple than you think. For the first 8 bars, there’s nothing other than the chord stabs, a saw bass, a kick drum, and some noise.

The clap sequence we’ve heard throughout the song comes in during the second 8 bars.

Note: we hear a quick pumping bass note during the middle of bar 158. This doesn’t appear again until the chord change section.

Bars 165-180 (Chord Change)

To lift the energy, A&B change up the progression during the second half of the chorus. We hear the second-to-last chord in the original progression play for four bars before returning to the original chord.

This sounds quite uncomfortable, even more so than the original sequence. To me, it reflects the deterioration of Walter White’s life.

Other things to note:

  • There’s a new clap sample that plays on every beat.
  • Two ride cymbals play: a soft one during the first 8 bars, and a heavier one that enters during the second 8 bars.
  • A riser builds tension into the outro drop.
  • The bassline changes as well. In the first half of the chorus, it only played one note, now it’s playing two.

Bars 181-212

The outro drop is pretty straight forward. The bassline from the second half of the chorus continues alongside the heavy ride cymbal (which sounds a lot more like an open hi-hat or splash cymbal, but whatever).

A few extra hi-hats come in, along with some washy noise FX. The bassline starts to fade during the last 16 bars.

Bars 213 – 229

Not much to mention here. We have a subtle bass sound lying in the background. The drum sequence consists of a kick, clap, reverse cymbal, and tonal percussion sound.

A simple outro.

Key Takeaways

  • If you have a great idea, it’s worth extending it. The breakdown in this song is relatively long, and the guitar plays the same melody for a while. Don’t feel like you have to change things up every 8-16 bars.
  • K.I.S.S. Walter White certainly isn’t the most simple track. It’s rather complex by “EDM” standards. But it’s still simple–just listen to the drop. If you’re struggling to make your mix sound loud and clear, try removing some stuff.
  • Light & dark. You feel a different emotion when hearing the beautiful guitar melody compared to the dark chord stabs. Try creating polarity in your own music. Light/dark, soft/hard, complex/simple, etc.
About the Author

Sam Matla

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