The Gorillaz are a virtual band from the UK whose music has proven to have that rare timeless quality that keeps listeners of all generations listening.
With a handful of wildly successful albums, world-spanning tours, and a sound that perfectly captures the imagery of the fictional characters that comprise the band, the group seems to have landed on a recipe for success, at least from a production side of things.
Producers at any level and genre can learn a lot by studying the music styles and techniques Gorillaz use in their tracks. So let’s dive into one of the productions of the Gorillaz in hopes of learning what this music production recipe for success is.
The Drums Of A Gorillaz Track
The drum group in the majority of the Gorillaz tracks is quite minimalistic. Classic breakbeat patterns are a fantastic way to lay the foundation for the rhythm.
Here Are The Main Takeaways We’ll Be Discussing:
- Why texture of the drum hits is as vital as the groove itself
- How to blend digital drums and acoustic sounds to create genre-blending patterns
- What a straightforward layer of humanized syncopation can do to elevate your entire drum groove.
Let’s dive in…
The texture and character of the hits are more critical when creating drums like the Gorillaz. Producers should aim to find hits that fit the vibe of a rock and roll kit; it should sound acoustic and live. Kicks should be punchy and warm, hats should be dusty and thick, and snares should have some weight.
Once the bedrock of the drum groove is created using live-sounding drum samples, spicing up the beat using hyper-digital accent hits and ghost patterns can be the perfect way to bridge the gap between authentic and virtual-sounding percussions that the group is so well known for. You can see these hits playing every other bar in the image above and hear them for yourself in the entire track breakdown below.
But even these loops will get repetitive fairly quickly, so adding incidental drum hits can be a fantastic way to make a drum loop feel less…. loopy. Look at the image above and see how adding a short 1/16th note fill to the 6th bar of the loop suddenly adds enough variation to maintain interest over a more extended period.
The last step is to add a bit of humanized syncopation to the primary drum loop. Clap samples, wood blocks, and other similar sounds are a great way to add more accented swing to the loops and give your listeners an extra layer of percussions to latch onto.
The Theory Behind A Gorillaz Track
Once a basic foundational beat has been laid down, it’s time to start talking about the harmonic structure of the production. Gorillaz music has a very cascading quality and rarely comes across as formulaic and predictable despite its roots in electronic dance music production (which thrives on repetition and predictability). Producers of any genre should always be trying to replicate this in their music, so let’s see how it’s done.
Here Are The Main Takeaways We’ll Be Discussing:
- How both ending and starting a loop with a root chord can play with expectations.
- What a basic bass line sequence to for implying a more complicated chord structure
- Stacking simple loops together is essential for creating more complex and exciting interactions and harmonies.
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So let’s dive in…
With the drum line in place, the next piece of the grooving puzzle will be the bass line. The Gorillaz often rely on more acoustic-sounding timbres for their low-end, like bass guitars, but you can replicate their style using any plucky instrument you prefer.
Point Blank unpacks this further in their video below, but the primary bass line in ‘Feel Good Inc’ comprises two layers, a heavy low-end bass guitar and another more funky guitar pluck. These elements play the same riff; only the most rudimentary notes in the Eb Minor scale create a harmonic foundation for the rest of the music to use as a springboard.
Once the bass line is written, the rest of the track is just about stacking simple loops together to create complex interactions between the various layers.
Sound selection becomes all the more critical, as you must do your due diligence and find sounds that “make sense” together. We already have a mesh of digital-sounding drums and warm acoustic-sounding basses, so let’s reach for a guitar plugin to help round out the record’s sonic palette.
The strummed guitar helps establish a rhythm while offering complimentary timbres when played against other instruments in the composition.
Once the simple rhythm section is in place, we need to pad out the composition with more delicate ear-candy elements to help keep the track sounding fresh and offer more options to play with when it comes to creating a dynamic and fleshed-out arrangement.
In the full track breakdown below, Point Blank’s instructor reaches for a crystalline guitar pluck sound that plays what is essentially a two-note riff that plays off of the syncopation of the drum pattern. Look at the notes the guitar is playing below and pay particular attention to how simple the sequence is.
The Final Elements In A Gorillaz Track
Finally, we need one more piece to the puzzle. Most of the instrument choices and sound selections leading up to this point have been rhythmic plucking, gliding, and washed-out sound that perfectly complements the track’s sound palette.
Using Sylenth1, the Point Blank instructor creates a glissando-like synth that plays higher notes to create a dazzlingly digital soundscape above the rest of the acoustic synths. Are you starting to see how vital choosing contrasting sounds in your productions is now? Good! Because it’s the secret sauce of good songs, mixdowns, and productions.
Pro Tip: The notion of contrasting sounds goes a step further as the Gorillaz often like to spice up certain sections of the arrangement with unique-sounding chord blasts and off-genre sound selections to switch up the vibe between verses, choruses, and bridges. Watch the full breakdown below to see how they pull that off during the arrangement step.
Watch the Full Track Breakdown Of A Gorillaz Track
There are simply too many minor details that go into making a track like the Gorillaz, and while the above article is fantastic for getting the primary loop and vibe of the track going, there is always more to learn.
Point Blank put together one of the best track deconstructions available.
Here Is The Main Takeaways The Discuss That Weren’t Covered In The Above Article:
- Using complex MIDI plugins to generate intricate ear candy motifs
- How varying the chord structure helps dictate the flow and story across an entire arrangement
- Cutting up samples and instruments to achieve perfect rhythm sections
- Tips on using Ableton’s session view to make arranging a track a breeze.
- A short and sweet analysis of vocal processing to get Damon’s signature telephone-style vocals.
- Creating attention-grabbing synth shots that help keep the arrangement interesting.