DA Studios: Pegboard Nerds give a breakdown of their entire ‘Pink Cloud’ EP
Welcome to DA Studios, a feature that dives into the world of production. We’ll bring you a variety of installments that will include guest posts from artists offering inside tips, detailed looks into the minds and tools of producers and more.
In this edition, Danish/Norwegian duo Pegboard Nerds break down, track by track, stem by stem, their recent EP, Pink Cloud. All sales from this 5-track EP, which was released through the independent record label Monstercat and reached #2 on the iTunes Dance Chart, are donated directly to the non-profit Fuck Cancer to aid in breast cancer research, treatment, and global awareness. The ambitious, philanthropic producers make use of the stems (provided at the links under each track title below) to explain the important elements of each song in terms of musicality, sound design, or both, as well as provide some choice pieces of advice where applicable.
When you download the stems for any of the tracks on the Pink Cloud EP, it’s important to realize one thing. You are getting a “window” into how each song is assembled, and some sounds might be immediately apparent/audible when you listen to the whole track, but all of them (hopefully) play an important role in the song as a whole. What you DON’T get when you see/listen to the breakdown of a song, is the WHY and HOW of how the elements in question came into being and ended up staying. For each song the reasons are individual but at the same time the same – they all grew with the track and were slowly added as the track started to live it’s own life. It’s a process!
The main goal with the EP was to do something less “drop-centric” and more melodic and “listenable” outside of a club or festival. You can (almost) always remix stuff into a club track anyways!
The juxtaposition of the rapid tremolo of the pad and the accentuation of the chord progression done by the envelope filtered dyad chord is important. They both make each other “stronger” in a way. The vocals sound really grainy and stretched, and not perfect in any way, but sometimes this works well in the proper context. The first half of the song was written very quickly and in a fun kind of way, not overthinking it. But, due to other commitments, “Emoji” turned into one of those songs that were sitting around half-finished for way too long, so it was really hard to get back into it and finish it. You kind of lose all sense of what works and what doesn’t and you start questioning everything, even stuff you know you loved about the song earlier. In the end we managed to wrap it up somehow though, hopefully with the initial fun and light feeling intact. Listening back, the mixdown could have been better.
The drop was assembled by taking parts of the intro/hook synths, pairing them with processed synth sounds, mostly from Serum. We’d make a bunch of patches, render out various notes and variations as audio, layer them, looking for a sequence of sounds that work well together. Once we had that, it was all about refining the “phrase” and making it clean. Small fades on every audio clip to avoid clicks and pops, making sure sounds don’t overlap where they shouldn’t, cleaning out sounds that shouldn’t be there as you often end up with little remnants of ideas you tried out earlier.
For as simple a song as it is, there’s a lot going on “under the hood” of “Pink Cloud”. The chords during the hook sound like maybe 1 or 2 patches, but in reality there’s like 5 or 6 sounds going on. Why so many? You can obviously end up adding too much, so it’s on a case by case basis. In this one it just worked gradually building up layers of tones and “flavours” to make it sound really thick and big. Sometimes when you do big chords, it really helps to have a separate “bass pad” patch doing the root note an octave or two down, rather than just doing low octaves of the high synths. Having one dedicated powerful low end synth really makes the higher synths sound big. Also having a one-note lead “character” synth on top of chord layers helps add a “sonic personality” to your melodies.
In general having one prominent character layer and other layers surrounding it to support it works well a lot of times.
The first rough version of the vocals were sent to us from Max when he was staying at a hotel during one of his travels. He had recorded the vocals playing guitar and singing softly into his iPhone so he wouldn’t get noise complaints from his neighbours, but we could already tell it was catchy and would be amazing! We actually couldn’t wait so we immediately put the rough audio into the song and continued working on the song for a while with that until we got into a proper session to record it all! We finally recorded the full vocals at Sphere Studios in LA with the amazing Francesco Cameli as engineer.
Max’ voice also sounded really cool pitched up! Always try and pitch audio around, with and without timestretching. Sometimes you get really cool results.
All of the vocals were recorded and edited in a separate session as there were quite a lot of dubs and harmonies and would have been way too cpu heavy for the main song session.
Finally: Initially “Pink Cloud” had a more complex drum pattern, but we ended up simplifying it drastically to keep it more groovy and easy to follow. Don’t be afraid to simplify!
(Fun fact: I actually think parts of the original iPhone take from Max remains in the song..)
JUST LIKE THAT
Most of the instrumental of “Just Like That” was written and produced on a 2.5 hour car ride. It was just one of those songs. It’s important to “listen to what a song is trying to tell you”, because you get to that point in every production where the track takes on it’s own life and almost makes itself.
The lush intro ambience was made by taking an early render of the song, reversing it, and time stretching the outro chord progression really long.
The lead sound in the drop is the classic vocal chop-turned-synth, so nothing really special going on there, but it worked for the song. The thing is, just because something was hard to do, or took you very long to do doesn’t necessarily make it right for the song, or good at all. A lot of people (including ourselves sometimes) fall into the “process purism” trap, rather than focusing on “result purism”, which is much more important.
When the “drop” hits it’s consisting of a stack of sounds from the sub, through low mid synths up to higher octave saw layers to create one moving body of sound, doing a call and response action with the vocal-synth. We did some experimenting with what kind of layers worked well and went with what we thought sounded best. It’s important to try and EQ the layers so they “gel” well and avoid too much frequency buildup in one area, creating unpleasant sounds. Even better, try to pick your sounds so they naturally do this, i.e. you only need one sharp sound for the whole thing to sound sharp, you only need one saturated layer for the whole sound to have a saturated character, etc.
Sometimes, if you feel like your synths don’t have enough high end, try to layer a simple high-passed white noise. If done properly, it blends with the lower layers and your brain interprets the sound as being brighter.
At one point, when the song still had no vocals, we sent a private SoundCloud link to our friend Konrad in Vancouver, who’s a producer, just for him to listen to. A couple of hours later, he emailed us and went “you might hate this, but please give it a listen”. I remember being at the beach and just listening back on my phone speaker, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly these amazing vocals starting flowing out of the speaker, and I was dumbfounded!
Turns out he was doing a session with one of his artists, and at the end of their session they had quickly ripped the song from SoundCloud, written and recorded all the vocals for the song. Awesome!
…or the “Lion King” song, as we refer to it. The intro chant reminds us of the movie for some reason. Not much to say here, you could probably use the rolling bass in one of your own songs, or put the synths into a sampler and create new melodies with them!
Some notes on how some of the sounds were made:
The “rusty” intro 1/8th pluck is a fairly simple envelope filtered plucky square with a little vibrato and room on it, run through Izotope Trash 2. The fact that the reverb also went through Trash gave it a nice gritty character. It’s supported by a filtered saw pluck playing 1/8th note chords. A lot of soft, full pads, rendered vocal and synth reverb tails add to the ambience in this song.
It was a bit of a process making the drop bass sound good, as we could either have gone with a “drone” sub just sitting under the 1/16th top bass and kind of just hit with every kick, or actually have the sub follow the top bass 1/16th notes. The thing is, it’s tricky to make it sound tight and not just be a rumbly mess of bass, and the problem gets worse the bigger the PA you play it on. So you need to be careful! In the end we decided to go with the 16th note sub as we made each note quite short and with a little fade out on them. Paying strict attention to the kick length and your sub sidechain is key. Actually if you have a 1/8th long kick, you might consider not having sub notes where the kick is active at all (no point in having them there only to sidechain them out, no?) and rather just have them fill in the space between the kicks. The top bass (while still being sidechained a bit) will fool the ear to think the sub is also playing 1/16th notes all the time. Alternatively, having a 1/16th kick and then have the sub hit on the next three 16ths also works, it’s all about what flavour and “drive” you want to your song!
The post hook lead is the classic PWM lead we love to use sometimes :) It’s basically just a pulse oscillator with an LFO modulating the width of the pulse fairly slow, (as most of you know: PWM = pulse-width modulation). It’s just such an instant Commodore 64 vibe!
END IS NEAR (FIRE IN THE HOLE VIP)
We have played around with a dnb version of “Fire In The Hole” for years, but never got around to finish it. Mostly because the dnb part didn’t go down too well live. Which is why, in the end (pun), we decided to drop (pun 2) the dnb part and go halftime through the whole song. Some people were disappointed, but alas, you can’t win them all.
It was a bit of a challenge making the complex bass riff from the original fit the radically different tempo of the VIP, but in the end it worked out pretty good. We didn’t have any of the original synth patches anymore (And besides they were processed quite heavily so it would’ve been hard to recreate anyway), so all the audio had to be completely chopped up into individual one-shots, stretched in various ways and sequenced in a way so that it maintained the riff of the original, but at the new tempo. Double-timing the riff didn’t work at all, which is why we ended up making it “slow” or more drawn out (technically going from 110ish to 87.5bpm – or 174 halftime if you wish).
There are a lot of euro-dance references in the intro when it comes to sound design/choices and riffs.
Having the VIP also made the song “fun” to play at shows again, so it was a good way to revive it. We just tried to go crazy with it, adding fun sounds and switchups.