Deadmau5’s 10-minute-and-33-second long masterpiece ‘Strobe’ written in Ab minor and peaking at 128BPM is one of the most emotionally resonant songs in the modern-day electronic music scene. Its production is simple, even minimalist. It focuses only on the journey but it takes you many places. This record was officially released over a decade ago on September 3rd, 2009 and, to this day, it moves me.
I’ve deconstructed this track in terms of the arrangement, sound selection, and production techniques used. After reading this, my hope here is that, as a producer, you start to listen to music in a different way and that this exercise gives you a tool that will help you understand what’s happening in your favorite tracks.
Please note that the names I'm giving to the sections here are arbitrary but I hope they are useful for this discussion.
Ambient Entrance / 0:00 - 3:27
The intro starts off at a slower tempo than the final BPM. We hear some repetitive plucking notes followed by an active melody line that has a wide range of notes but with the same sound. Accompanying the lead, we hear a pulsating mid-low frequency synth arp. The beauty of this melody is that it uses a droning tone to create a mesmerizing effect. In other words, it is somewhat repetitive but it flows well. The motif repeats a couple of times throughout the introduction.
Halfway through this part, a synth bass starts fading in. This adds a feeling that the track is moving forward. The grand piano joins the piece to support the harmony moving across the track. This is when we hear the lead synth moving to second place in the back of the mix. The bass synth meanwhile becomes more important in the mix. We start hearing the high-end distortion on the bass synth as well.
Two thirds through this section, we hear a white noise down swell introducing the orchestral strings. By this, I mean that the swell itself is on the downbeat. It's like a cymbal hit where you hear the transient and the sound dies off. But instead of a cymbal, it's white noise. We hear the ensemble accompanying the harmonic progression while the main motif is repeated. The orchestral composition gives this introduction a more dramatic feel. Percussion and shakers are introduced to add further texture here.
This section ends with the last chord sustaining and fading out as the next part of the track comes in.
Intro / 3:28 - 4:21
In this section, the tempo increases and finally attains the BPM it will keep for the rest of the piece, while the orchestral ensemble fades away altogether. We hear the percussive shakers still present throughout. At this point, the lead synth has a rounder mid-frequency focus giving the sound a tamer and cleaner feel. We also hear a hollow pad layer in the background that sounds like the wind blowing.
A reverse cymbal swells in with a percussive hit introducing the kick for the first time in the track. The kick comes in with most of the low end filtered out. Sixteen bars in, the low end of the kick opens up and stabilizes the main groove. This section ends with an upswell leading the track to the first drop.
First Drop / 4:22 - 5:05
This is where the sub of the kick opens up, a technique used a lot in progressive/underground music. We have a kick and a bassline driving the groove. A plucky arpeggiated lead with synth chords in the background is progressively building in the track. We hear a swell adding movement to the track. A clap and a hi-hat are added as the filter on the lead opens up. Brighter high frequencies are heard coming into the forefront of the track. This part ends with a swell leading up to the break section.
Break / 5:06 - 6:44
The kick is removed in the break. We hear the chords and the lead present in the forefront of the mix. The low pass filter on both of these sounds progressively closes while reverb and delay are added. This is where the lead fully opens up. It becomes the focus of the track while we hear a delay and a reverb on it. The filter on this lead opens up again. An underlying synth melody starts building as its reverb becomes wetter. This adds movement to the part. We hear a percussive hollow hit that builds tension leading into the next section of the track. A swell lead is introduced with a Pryda snare bringing us straight to the main drop.
Main Drop / 6:45 - 8:14
The main drop comes in with the full kick and bass. There’s a white noise side-chained to the kick, helping with the impact at the entrance. The synth lead is fully open and we hear high-end saturation to the point of distortion very clearly. The snare and hi-hat are present here at the climax of the track. The secondary lead comes in from the break to add movement and finality to the climax. This section repeats until a swell is introduced. Shakers accompanied by a bright second lead are brought to the forefront of the mix. A riser and a swell lead the track to the post drop.
Post Drop / 8:15 - 9:14
The kick and the bass are maintained in this section of the track. We enter the post drop with a down swell. The second lead is removed from the mix. The snare is maintained while a new layer of hi-hats is added to the mix. Some ambient percussive sounds accompany the fade out. The main lead is being pushed back with the frequency parameter of the low pass filter being automated. The final swell introduces the outro.
Outro / 9:15 - 10:33
The kick is still present in the outro. We hear the mid synth chords which were present in the drop becoming more obvious now. We hear ambient textures filling up the background with some howling sounds. The intro shakers come back in to add more texture. Finally, a swell brings us to the end of the song. The kick dies down completely as well as the lead synth and we’re left with the final ambient textural sounds. The track ends with a low-end tonal impact hit, a whooshy texture, and what seems like a plucked droplet sound washed in a lot of reverb.
The process of analyzing and noting down everything I hear has been quite revealing to me. When I sit down to describe what I hear to someone else, I end up hearing so much detail that, otherwise, I would not have consciously been aware of. Even the most minimal sounding tracks have a lot of movement. Through this kind of exercise, we get to see the simple complexity of a track. We understand how many decisions go behind such a complete and satisfying production. To this day, Strobe remains one of my favorite productions not because of any specific over the top production or sound design technique but instead because of the simple choices that DeadMau5 made that makes the track timeless for me. What makes a track timeless? We’ll leave that discussion for another time...