Joel Zimmerman is the man behind the Deadmau5 mask. His unique sound and character have helped him establish his name as one of the most talented electronic music producers of all time.
Zimmerman dips his toes in the world of commercial music from time to time. (8 of his tracks reached the top 40 in Billboard) But mainly focusses on his studio albums which are loved by his cult following.
In 2017, Billboard Dance listed “Strobe” as Deadmau5’s best song of all time on their list of the artist’s 20 best tracks. Let’s dive into this electronic masterpiece and try to understand what made it connect so effectively.
Creating A Recognizable Sound like Deadmu5
When people think of Deadmau5, their mind jumps to warm synths and interesting melodies. The square synth used in ‘Strobe’ that can be heard wide in the mix is a great representation of both of these characteristics. It’s not a complicated or particularly unique sound, but it has a sense of simple perfection. It is not harsh, resonant, or boxy. It’s got a pure tonal balance and fills the speakers across a broad range of frequencies.
Deadmau5 is known for his attention to detail and scrutinizing every sound in his productions to make sure it’s the perfect fit. He doesn’t endlessly layer sounds to eventually stumble across the perfect combinations. Endlessly layering sounds can make a song sound over-produced and bloated. This distracts listeners from the musical content. Whereas, creating rich sounds with just a few channels gives the music space to breathe. Deadmau5 uses this approach and it leads to his electronic music sounding like a song, rather than a simple and predictable ‘DJ Tool’. The take away from this is that digestible sounds connect better with listeners.
The infographic below gives us an idea of the instrumentation, frequencies and stereo placement of Strobe. The first interesting thing we notice is how Deadmau5 has covered a wide range of frequencies and the full width of the stereo spread with only a hand full of channels. The arrangement can be boiled down to Drums, Bass, Lead Synth, and Square Melody Synth. Most productions take a lot more than four elements to fill the speakers and create a rich and interesting sound.
The stereo overlap of the instruments works brilliantly with each element having plenty of space to breath. Notice how the square synth melody is pretty much the only thing happening super-wide in the mix. The click from the kick is also wide; but it is such a fast transient occupying a small bandwidth of frequencies that it doesn’t compete with the square synth melody. Having nothing else to compete with regarding frequencies and rhythm gives space for a complex melody and super-rich sound spanning from the low-mids to above 10kHz when the filter is at it’s most open state.
The bass is slightly wider than the kick in the low frequencies improving the separation in the low-end without cause phase issues. It then begins to get wider above 200Hz which adds some warmth to the side channels. The bass is a different tone to the square synth melody. And isn’t quite as wide which minimizes the conflict between the two channels.
The bass has a lot of energy in the low-end which tails off above 750Hz. This leaves space in the mid-channel for the lead synth which comes in at the climax of the song. The lead synth spans a wide range of frequencies and has no ‘lead vocal’ to contend with. The short impact of the transient snare doesn’t conflict in a way that detracts from the lead synth. Above 10kHz is left open for the Hi-hat and other FX.