Case Study: Cone of Silence

As a part of my advertisement project, designing audio for the ANTA Sportswear commercial, I will be using this track as a reference in either deciding on royalty-free music to use for my ad, or using it as a reference for my own composition, depending on time constraints.

Song: Cone of Silence
Artist: Matt Ragan
Album: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 OST
Tempo: 107bpm
Key: D Major

Artist Information

Matt Ragan is an American composer and sound designer, who found his first work in the music industry playing at biker clubs in Southern California, before undertaking a formal music education at USC (Ragan, 2010). This is where he learnt to compose electronic and orchestral music, the former of which being evident in this track. Ragan then went on to work as a staff composer for Electronic Arts Seattle for five years, his first project being the first Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit game. He has since worked for Omni Audio, done his own freelance scoring, and has most recently become the Lead Audio Designer for game company Zynga.

Genre Information

This kind of music is a little hard to apply a label to, though most appropriate would be be Industrial Rock. It contains synthesis elements as well as a guitar sound influenced by modern hard rock. Most people would associate the Industrial Rock label with bands like Rob Zombie or Nine Inch Nails, however the aesthetic that Ragan employs is more similar to Big Beat acts such as The Prodigy or The Crystal Method, as heard below.

 

The reason that this sort of music is so hard to classify stems from the fact that as technology has advanced along with the accessibility to synthesized sounds, more and more rock bands have started to implement electronic components to their compositions. This compositional choice may be as glaring as in Cone of Silence, or it could simply be used for intermittent effects such as in Rush’s The Spirit of Radio. Similarly, as electronic music has grown as an umbrella-genre, more acts have branched out stylistically to include elements of rock music.

This has led to many different subgenres, the naming of which is often distinguished by the sort of music (rock or electronic) the band or act had originated in before fusing styles. This stylistic fusion should assist in approaching the keywords of the brief for the advertisement, including: sound designactuatedrhythmicedgyhigh tech fast paced, and erratic. Though the BPM of the song is not very fast, faced paced can also be interpreted as the feeling of momentum, which I feel this song provides through the main guitar riff. It also incorporates the actuated, edgy, and high tech components through the use of synthesizers. The intensity that the guitars bring to the mix also conveys a competitive feel to the song.

Song Structure

Song Structure

The song’s structure is very modular, which is an advantage if someone was to edit it for the purpose of pre-production. In the case of my advertisement project, it would be useful to edit from the start of the song’s main riff section to the end of the synth break sections so that I could pause the music for dramatic effect during the slow-motion visuals or the glass floor shattering when the tennis ball lands.

The intro to the song spans six bars, broken into three two bar sections, which begins with a high-frequency-dominant recording of the main riff, which then leads into the start of the drums, and is then followed by a layering of a more powerful, low-to-mid packed recording of the main riff. The song then has it’s first “synth break”, which is some synthesized sounds and a disc-scratching effect prevailing over a palm-muted riff. These “synth breaks” all last roughly two bars, and are generally preceded by two bars of the main riff of the song.

On the thirteenth bar of the song, it reaches the first of four longer interludes, of which I’ve named the “synth lead” section. These interludes generally last eight to ten bars. This particular one contains a slower-paced synthesizer with some heavy reverb, as well as a harsher disc-scratch esque texture. The song then proceeds to alternate between main riffs and synth breaks until the next interlude section which I have simply dubbed “bridge”, and is equal parts guitar and synthesizer.

There is one main riff section and one synth break section before the next interlude which I have called “rumble”, because the nature of the sound reminded me of the rumble of a car engine due to the dense bass guitar. The main riff and synth breaks are alternated between again, until it reaches “bridge 2”, which is very similar to the first bridge. After this, the song alternates again between the main riff and synth breaks to reach the outro, which is a drum fill extension to the last synth break section, which lasts one and a half bars.

Instrumentation

Sound Field.png

Stereo field of Cone of Silence

Guitars

The guitars on this song include two electric guitars and a bass guitar. The electric guitar is the fundamental instrument on the song, providing either the main riff or a strong backing for all parts except for the synth lead section. The bass guitar is debatably just as important, as it there is a noticeable difference in the amplitude of the song when it comes in on the fifth bar with the left hand rhythm guitar. It also plays a fundamental role in providing the texture for the “rumble” interlude. Both types of guitars are heavily distorted and compressed and you can hear the compression clearly from the lack of variation in volume between the start and end of strums. The bass guitar sits at the front of the mix, giving the track a powerful feel, while the rhythm guitars sit to either side of it and lower in the mix.

Guitar Right.PNG

Right-hand guitar Spectrum Analysis

On the right you can see a frequency spectrum analysis of the right-hand guitar that is isolated in the first two bars. The analysis tells us that the electric guitars’ focal frequencies are between approximately 1.8khz and 4khz. This is standard for electric guitar, as it emphasises the distortion on the instrument. From this you can also tell that there is a steep high-pass filter from about 60hz and lower as well as a band pass filter from 300hz-1khz, allowing for the bass guitar to occupy it’s own space in the frequency spectrum. The low-pass filter from 4khz onwards also makes room for the electronic components and parts of the percussion such as the cymbals and shakers.

Percussion

The percussion on this song, which begins two bars into the song, includes a sampled drum kit and shakers. What makes me think that the drum kit is sampled is the lack of room noise that would be present in a live recording of a drum kit. Room noise is generally caused by the spill of the noise from each instrument into the discrete microphones, a room mic (typically omni polar pattern) placed away from the drum kit, or is picked up from the overhead microphones that are used primarily to record the cymbals but also the feel of the kit as a whole.

The snare is easily the most audible part of the drum kit, being at the front and centre of the mix. The body of the snare sits at roughly 600hz while the transient comes in at about 1.1khz. There is a short reverb to the snare sound that sounds like either part of the sample, or like it was added digitally, and this resonance occupies the part of the frequency spectrum above 600hz, as it is built from the harmonics of the flat snare sample. It sounds like the snare doesn’t occupy much of the frequency spectrum below the 600hz mark, which was a decision made in the mix likely due to the busy low-end of the guitars and some electronic components. In a lot of rock music, tom drums would also occupy this part of the frequency spectrum, however in this song the toms are mainly heard through their high-frequency transients, a decision that was no doubt made to assist clarity in the mix.

The first shaker is panned right and is to the back of the mix. An additional shaker track is utilised during part of the first bridge, the rumble section, and the last nine bars of the song. This track is a little louder in the mix than the right shaker and is panned to the left. As much of the track is comprised of low-mid to low frequency sounds, Ragan has used the shakers to fill out the high end of the frequency spectrum (approximately 8khz and above)  for a more complete sounding song. This is part of the spectrum is also occupied by the hi-hat and crash cymbals, the former being panned slightly off-centre to the left, while the three cymbals have a large stereo image of a hard-pan left and right, with another in the centre.

Electronic Components

There are 6 or more different synthesized sounds on this song, as well as a disc scratch sample. I will be using subjective descriptors to refer to the synthesized sounds that stood out to me:

  • Drone (synth lead, bridges)
  • Delay (synth lead, bridges [start of delay not the full melody])
  • Harsh (synth lead)
  • Harmonic (bridges, rumble)
  • Scratch-like (bridges, rumble)
  • Wow (rumble, main riff 5, 6, 7, 8)
  • Disc Scratch sample (synth breaks synth lead)

The electronic components almost all have a defined high-frequency tone to them, occupying the space above 2khz. This excludes the drone, which occupies the low to low-mid section of the frequency spectrum, as well as the delay which varies between 600hz and 3khz, as it sweeps between notes. Ragan has done a thorough job of automating the panning of the electronic components to keep the mix interesting, and as such the stereo field diagram above should only be used as a rough guide for this part of the instrumentation.

I suspect the drone and harsh sounds were made with some form of FM synthesis, whereby two oscillators are used, one as the base sound and the other as a secondary sound which is also used to modulate the first. The delay synth sounds more like square wave based modular synthesis, where multiple many modules have been configured to create a more complex sound, that has then had reverb applied. There is also a synth sound that represents a pinch harmonic on a guitar, and a synth with quite a scratchy texture that is unlike the disc scratch sample, which I suspect is either a heavily processed recording that has been sampled, or was greatly inspired by the sounds that I’ve mentioned and they have been created using modular synthesis. The wow sound is reminiscent of FM synthesis that has been processed through a plugin such as Talkbox to give it some qualities of the human voice. Most of the synth sounds have the dominant aesthetic of a sawtooth waveform, which compliments the distorted guitar.

Dynamics

dynami range

Dynamic Range

This is the stereo waveform of the song up until four bars into the synth lead section, to give you an idea. The first four bars of this song are the intro, and as mentioned previously only include the electric guitar, and after the first two bars, the drums and has an RMS level of about 15-20dbFS . As soon as the bass guitar and second electric guitar kick in, the dynamic range is filled out by a lot of compressed tracks being played at the same time and at a loud volume, with an RMS of roughly 10dbFS. The compression is more forgiving when it comes to the synth lead section,  measuring in at 15dbFS again when the electric guitars are silenced. The contrast in dynamic range between the heavy compression of the guitars and the freedom of the synth parts is what makes the guitar parts sound so powerful and heavy.

References

Jordan, K., Kirkland, S. & Morello, T. (2001). Name of The Game [Recorded by The Crystal Method]. On Tweekend [Album]. New York, NY: Geffen.

Lee, G. & Lifeson, A. (1980). The Spirit of Radio [Recorded by Rush]. On Permanent Waves [Album]. London, United Kingdom: Mercury Records.

Ragan, M. (2002). Cone of Silence. On Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 [Video Game]. Seattle, WA: EA Trax.

Ragan, M. (2010). MattRagan.com. Retrieved from: http://mattragan.com/about-3

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