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The Weeknd: Blinding Lights - Song Analysis

Aktualisiert: 22. Juli 2021

Tendencies of synthetic sound design in pop culture in 2020 compared to the 80s.


As part of my master's degree in media informatics, I conducted a song analysis for the seminar "Work Analysis: Electronic Music". In this I go into the worldwide chart topper "Blinding Lights" by The Weeknd and explain the development of the 80s synth sound. Which correlation between the synthetic sound generation of the 80s and the song to be analyzed exists you will learn in this term paper. This paper is aimed at those who want to learn more about synthetic sound design in pop music.


In the following video you will hear a cover production I made for the written argument.

The hands-on project was performed in Ableton Live 10. You can find the session under this link. This video, the overall piece is considered first and then in the individual instrument groups.



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. About the Artist

3. Song Structure

4. Synthetic Sound generators of the 80s

4.1 Reverb as a Sound Effect

5. Sound Design of "Blinding Lights"

5.1 Synthetic Percussion Instruments

5.2 Synthetic Sounds

5.3 Vocals

6. Summary and Conclusion

7. Source List


1. Introduction

In this term paper, a written work analysis of the song Blinding Lights by the performer The Weekend is conducted. This song was released in 2019 and is based on the 80s sound. The song is the most successful song in 2020 (Cf. chartsurfer.de: Blinding Lights) and represents the current musical trend of pop music. The music influences and biography of the artist will be explained in more detail in the second chapter.


The topic of this term paper is synthetic sound design in pop music. In this term paper the following question is examined: Do the 80s have a sonic influence on the sound design of current pop music? To answer this question, the sound design characteristics of 80s music production will be examined in more detail and a comparison will be made with the song "Blinding Lights".


Pop music is one of the most sought-after media forms in society, and it is getting a lot of influence from electronic music. In media studies, pop music provides a representative reference point for the trend lines of auditory consumer products. These trend lines are ascertainable from music charts and can be categorized by sales, country, time period, etc. The objective of this work analysis is a comparison of the song Blinding Lights and the 80s pop culture. The term paper offers thereby an overview of the tendencies of the sound synthesis in the electronic Pop music. It does not represent a successful concept for songwriting of sales hits.


In the context of the work analysis for electronic music the song "Blinding Lights" is analyzed on technical and structural level. The term paper can be structured as follows. At the beginning, the song structure is discussed, which divides the song into sections and reflects commonalities in the temporal course. In the following chapter the characteristics of the sound-technical and synthetic development of the 80s are considered. In addition, it is explained which signal processes play a role in the sound design and which sound-coloring and spectral relationships arise from it. These are brought in the last chapter in the context of the work analysis. For this purpose, the song elements are classified into instrument groups and then examined on the sound design level.


As an additional part of this work analysis, the instrumental part of the song is post-produced in order to apply findings of this analysis to a practical example. This can be considered independently of the written work and is provided in the form of a video and an Ableton session in the appendix.


2. About the Artist

Canadian singer and musician Abel Makkonen Tesfaye was born in Toronto on February 16, 1990 and is known by his stage name The Weeknd. The name is program and derives from the phrase "left one weekend and never came home " (cf. allmusic.com: The Weeknd). The unusual spelling arose because there was already a Canadian band of the same name.


His musical influences are soul, hip-hop, funk, post punk and indie rock. He owes his first successes to a small fan base that emerged in 2010 after he released his first videos on YouTube. He achieved an ever-growing breakthrough with the collaboration with the also Canadian rapper Drake.


In 2013, the artist made it to number two on the album charts, both in the U.S. and Canada, with his debut album "Kiss Land "(cf. fan-lexicon.de: The Weeknd). At number one on the album charts in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. with the album "Beauty Behind the Madness" (cf. allmusic.com: The Weeknd). The Weeknd reserved a place for himself among world stars and received worldwide recognition (cf. chartsurfer.de: Blinding Lights).


The single Blinding Lights will be released toward the end of 2019, landing chart-topping hits in seven countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England, USA, Finland and Denmark) in 2020 (cf. chartsurfer.de: Blinding Lights). The synth pop song takes listeners back to the 1980s and is sonically inspired by the 1984 song Somebody's Watching Me by artist Rockwell. Other influences include performers like Michel Jackson, Depache Mode and The Human League at the time. The song was written and composed by Swedish producer Max Martin. Among others, Oscar Holter, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Quenneville and The Weekend itself were also involved (cf. zeit.de: The Weeknd).


3. Song Structure

The arrangement is very much based on commercial chart hits, with many repetitive elements (s. fig. 1). The transitions between the individual segments are striking. Predominantly FX sweeps and risers were used for this purpose. These create the listener's expectations for the next part and provide a certain tension. Typical of this type of effect are noise sweeps or reverse cymbals (cymbal hits that are played backwards). Another feature is pauses, which at some transitions bring the listener back into the action and intensify the focus. In the process, the percussive or soundscape elements are briefly faded out (cf. bondeo.de: 5 Tipps für emotionale Songs). The arrangement can be divided into the following parts:

Figure 1: Arrangement divided into parts (created in Studio One 3)

The commonly used length of 3:19 min can be traced back from the book The Manual (How to have a number one the easy way). In this book the two authors Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty describe in a manual (the Golden Rules) how to compose number one hits in a simple way. The recommendation is to use a continuous dance groove, which is perceived as "[...]Käufergeneration[...]" (cf. bondeo.de: 5 Tipps für emotionale Songs) for the "[...]unwiderstehlich[...]" (cf. bondeo.de: 5 Tipps für emotionale Songs). The song should not exceed the 3:20 min, because the radio DJs would try to fade out the song prematurely, in order to introduce the next program point (cf. Drummond 1988: The Manual).


Looking at the audio profile of the song, the time signature can be assigned to a four-fourths rhythm with a tempo of 172 beats per minute (cf. getsongbpm.com: Blinding Lights). This is consistent with the song Take on Me by the artist A-ha, which was released in 1985. If one also determines the factors of danceability, energy, acousticness and liveness, an increased correlation between the two songs can be seen (cf. getsongbpm.com: Take on Me).

Figure 2: Audioprofile in Compare

The mentioned parameters classify songs in their metrics and illustrate to which property they can be assigned. This audio feature was developed by Spotify and is accessible to everyone via the Spotify API (cf. theinformationlab.co.uk: Getting Audio Features from the Spotify API). Danceability characterizes how danceable a track is. Based on the factors: tempo, rhythm stability, beat strength, and general regularity. For example, danceability would indicate a rather low value for dynamic film music with frequent tempo changes. A measure of the intensity and activity of a track is composed of Energy. This is measured from the perceived loudness, timbre and general entropy. Whether a track has many acoustic or electronic elements is determined with the Acousticness. Liveness indicates a probability for the presence of an audience (cf. klangspektrum.digital: Klangspektrum).


On these bases, the following statements can be made about the arrangement's character traits. Danceability is rated at 52%. It is true that there is a continuous beat without tempo changes since the beginning of the 2nd intro, which would contribute to a high value of Danceability. However, this value can be explained by the varied transitions through sweeps and pauses.


The song is very intense with 80% energy and has a high rate of activity. This is also confirmed by the measured loudness of -6.8 LUFS (Loudness Units relative to Full Scale). Compared to the loudness of Take on Me with -10.9 LUFS, which represents a popular 80's hit, it has a much more limited dynamic range with a higher loudness. From these values the following question arises: Why is the loudness of Blinding Lights not adapted to the song Take on Me, if it is supposed to be based on the songs of the 80s? The answer can be found in the ever-increasing loudness trend or loudness war of the last 40 years and the generally assumed listening habits. This can be justified by the constantly growing pressure of upcoming radio hits. Every artist wants to stand out from the crowd and be heard on the radio. The perceived loudness is one of the most influential factors (cf. media.npr.org 2009: A Visual History of Loudness).

Figure 3: Measured Loudness: Blinding Lights - Take on Me (created in Studio One 3)

Since this is a studio-only recording, no audience presence is expected. Nevertheless, the Spotify API assigns 10% in liveness. This could be explained by the sung backing vocals. These are noticeable in the verses, in the instrumental part, as well as in the bridge. In addition, the vocals are underlaid with many delay and reverb effects, which creates a slight polyphony. The song consists mainly of electronic elements, with the exception of the vocals. On this basis, it can be explained why the acousticness is only 1%.


Summarizing the song from a macro-level perspective, a composition is presented that represents the sound of the 80s and has been adapted to today's listening habits. The arrangement is composed with memorable segments and catchy rhythms. The varied transitions and pauses provide a recurring arc of tension.


4. Synthetic Sound Generators of the 80s

The main characteristic of the 80s sound is the musical use of synthetic sound generators. These offer a creative approach to bringing sounds together to create new complex timbres. The process used can be electronic or mechanical. In the electronic method, oscillators usually form the basis of the artificially generated oscillation. The resulting fundamental is modulated by control voltage through further electronic processes in the overtone structure or in the volume. Real existing instruments can be reproduced sonically in this way. By stringing together and linking many different modulation sources, all possibilities are open to the user (cf. Russ 2008: 4-5).


With the available technologies of the 80s, versatile sound synthesis methods have been developed. These can be used individually or in combination and, depending on the technical complexity, can be realized on an analog, digital or hybrid basis. One of the common types of synthesis offers the subtractive synthesis, which is composed of many sound changing modules. Depending on the sound generator, these components can be freely linked and strung together. In contrast, some sound generators provide fixed structures (cf. Müller 2014: 19). In the following, a few of these modules are briefly described.


The amplifier regulates the volume of a sound (cf. Raffaseder 2010: 215) This is mostly influenced by the envelope generator in the temporal course over the control voltage. This generator therefore influences the envelope of a sound, which is divided into the four phases attack, decay, sustain and release. Figure four illustrates such an envelope. On the abscissa (X-axis) the time is represented and is in dependence of the ordinate (Y-axis), which represents the level in relative values. Depending on the wiring, this can be activated (note-on/off) by entering a controller. After entering the controller, the signal adjusts to the set volume of the sustain phase. The Attack parameter determines the attack time of the signal in milliseconds. The Decay phase determines the time in which the signal adapts from the maximum deflection to the level of the Sustain. If the controller is no longer entered, the decay time (release phase) is initiated. The signal is faded out.


The envelope can be used to distinguish between percussive or sustained signals. While, for example, string instruments level off and are sustained, percussion elements sound off directly after the maximum deflection. In the latter case, the sustain level is set to 0% (cf. Raffaseder 2010: 218).

Envelope curve in graphical representation

Sound coloring changes can be made with the filter. Depending on the filter type, passive filters restrict part of the frequency spectrum. Filter resonance is used to boost frequency ranges. In combination with the envelope generator, filters can be modulated over time (cf. Raffaseder 2010: 215). Low-frequency oscillators offer another component for modulating linked parameters. In contrast to the high-frequency oscillators, these output a non-audible oscillation between near zero and 30 Hertz. This can be used as a control voltage for other modules (cf. Raffaseder 2010: 219).


Additive synthesis, on the other hand, acts on the subtractive form at the origin of the sound source. This generates several smaller partial oscillations from a periodic oscillation with the help of amplitude modulation from the pure sinusoidal oscillation. Based on the Fourier transformation theory developed by the mathematician Joseph Fourier, this form of modulation results in a new waveform with a different overtone structure (cf. Ruschkoski 2010: 310). In most synthetic sound generators, there are prefabricated waveforms in addition to the sine wave. These are designated according to their basic waveform: triangle, sawtooth, square. Another possibility for additive synthesis is randomly generated noise, which covers the entire audible frequency spectrum (cf. bonedo.de: Synthesizer und Sounddesign #1).


FM synthesis follows a similar approach to additive synthesis. In this, the frequency is modulated by another high-frequency oscillator. A second fundamental with overtone structure is created in the frequency spectrum. Depending on how the modulation frequency matches the carrier frequency in an interval, they are harmonic to each other. The timbre then changes from metallic to a bell-like sound (cf. Raffaseder 2010: 222).


4.1 Reverb as a Sound Effect

Another significant feature of 80s pop culture is the use of reverb effects. As with synthesizers, the development of reverberation rooms experienced a digital turn in the 80s. In addition to algorithmic reverb effects, there was early experimentation with various reverberation rooms as a mixing effect. The simplest, but not most compact way to add room information is to capture it additionally with a microphone. Either this is done during the recording by additional room microphones or the corresponding signal was sent by a loudspeaker in another room and recorded again. This procedure is necessary to compensate for the missing room impression during close miking (cf. Kühne 2007: 16).


The first known attempts to reproduce reverberation artificially were made by spring reverberation. In this, two or more metal springs are stretched, which are made to vibrate by the transmitter and picked up again by the transducer. The dry singal generates a magnetic field by its electrical voltage in the transducer coil. The metal springs start to vibrate and can be picked up again by the pickup coil through the resulting induction. A similar process is offered by plate reverberation, in which plates are used instead of metal springs (cf. Kühne 2007: 20-22).


With the emerging trend of powerful computer machines towards the end of the 1970s, compact hardware reverberators could be developed. Thus, Lexikon conquered well-known recording studios in 1979 with the 224L and later with the 480L. In addition to the numerous reverb algorithms of various room properties, it was possible to make adjustments to room size, reverberation time and many more. These technologies unfolded the creative process in a music production. Several reverberators could be connected in series in a simplified way and supplemented with further effects (cf. Kühne 2007: 24-25).


5. Sound design of "Blinding Lights

As was made clear in the last chapter, there are no limits to electronic sound generators. The signal chains can be extended by countless modules and effects. In this chapter the possibilities were briefly explained, in order to bring them in the following in the context of the work analysis. For this purpose, the sound sources are assigned to the instrument groups and examined more closely on the micro level in each case.


5.1 Synthetic Percussion Instruments

According to the assessment of this analysis, the percussive elements of the piece are based on the electronic dance music of the 80s. Typically, the synthetically generated sounds are drum machines that use their sequencers to create automated drum patterns. One of the most common drum machines at the time was Roland's TR-808. The analog circuitry for the beat machine was designed by electrical engineer Hiro Nakamura. The installation of the off-spec transistors created a special timbre. These provided a distinctive crackling sound. This drum machine became popular through hits like "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" by Whitney Housten and many other chart toppers. In modern times, countless recorded sample files of the drum machine can be found, which are still used in music productions (cf. roland.com: Vier Jahrzente, ein Sound).

The synthetic drum sounds of the TR-808 can also be reproduced with other synthesizers. These cannot replace the unique sound character of the analog drum machine, but embody a common method of creating drum sounds. Characteristic for the dynamics of percussive sounds is a short attack time without a sustain phase. As mentioned in the previous chapter, this characteristic of synthetic sound generators can be influenced by the envelope generator. Furthermore, the sound of a bang-like noise extends over a wide sound spectrum. This is simulated by the noise generator and limited in frequency spectrum by the use of a filter. The fundamental tone of the percussion can be generated in parallel with another oscillator. Depending on the intended overtone structure, the fundamental can be modulated by amplitude modulation of another oscillator (cf. musicradar.com: How to recreate [...]).


In the following, the song "Blinding Lights" is examined with regard to the percussive elements. The kick and snare form the foundation of the song. They are represented from the 2nd intro (bar 9) to the outro (bar 133) in 4/4 time. The groove is based on fast rock and repeats after two measures (cf. bonedo.de: 5 Grooves, die jeder […]). Starting in the instrumental part (measure 13), the hi-hat is added with a continuous 1/8 beat. Two beat breaks are found in the transitions bar 84 and bar 116. A special feature are the claps, which can be heard in the transitions and in the middle of the instrumental part. These fill-ins bring the parts together and give the listener a short break from the beat.


Comparing the sound character of the TR-808 to the drum sounds, a similar approach can be seen. All percussive elements have a short attack time and a different decay time. While the kick and snare are distributed in the middle of the panorama, the hi-hat is to be placed on the left. These have a very direct and spatial effect. The claps are found in the middle, but have a slight stereo width with its echo effect.


Another feature of the sound design is the reverb room of the snare. This sounds very large, but has a short decay phase. Typical for this type of reverb is the gated reverb. The basic idea of this technique is to shorten the reverberation time of the enriched signal with a gate. Thus it is possible to select extreme room sizes as reverb effect without getting negative effects in the whole music mix. The origin of this effect chain can be found in the song "Intruder" by Peter Gabriel from 1980. This concept became very popular with many other artists and was also adopted, for example, by Phil Collins' world hit "In The Air Tonight" (cf. musicradar.com: How Genesis´s Peter Gabriel [..]).


5.2 Synthetic sounds

The 80s pop culture is the starting point of the commercialization of synthesizers. From the analog unaffordable electronic sound generators of the 70s, digital affordable models followed. Thus, Japanese manufacturers such as Akai, Casio, Kawai, Korg, Roland and Yamaha managed to develop synthesizers in digital form. Expensive large analog components and complex circuit boards could be replaced by microchips. A race ensued between analog and digital turn (cf. bonedeo.de: Die Geschichte der elektronischen Musik #13).


In today's pop scene, many music creators still highly appreciate the analog synth sound. Therefore, both construction forms of the synthetic sound generators find a relevant value. Between the two categories also exist hybrid forms, in which both components are built. But there are also digital replications of well-known analog synthesizers in the form of VST plug-ins or standalone programs. The facets of today's possibilities to create synthetic sounds are therefore almost limitless (cf. bonedo.de: Die Die Geschichte der elektronischen Musik #14).


In addition to the percussive elements of the song, other instruments are added that cover a wide area. The lead synth, which plays the main melody in the instrumental part, can be recognized very concisely. Sonically, this has a broad overtone structure with a slight beat. The basic structure of the synth chain can therefore be assumed to be two oscillators with a sawtooth wave and a slightly inharmonic tuning. Furthermore, the synthesizer sounds very spatial, which suggests a reverb effect. The envelope of the sound starts with an average attack time of under 20ms and a slightly reduced sustain level. This can be recognized by the rather bouncing character.


The same dynamic can be noticed with the key element of the instrumental part. This jumps up briefly before leveling off to a fixed volume. Sonically, the basic structure of the keys is more reminiscent of an organ. However, this seems very soft compared to the lead synth. Here a low-pass filter was used, which lowers the treble with a slight slope after estimation up to the upper mids. This synth also sounds very spatial.


The bass forms the foundation of the piece and is present from intro 2 (bar 21) to the outro (bar 133). Characteristic for the bass synth is the floating sound with its concise soft overtone spectrum. This also suggests a sawtooth-like waveform with a low pass filter. A special feature of the bassline can be found in the instrumental part. This opens parallel to the bass fill and is modulated with a filter up to the upper mids. This briefly releases more harmonics and additionally creates a bursting spherical impression.


5.3 Vocals

Tesfaye's vocals are very direct and spacious. In addition, the main voice is accompanied by many backing vocals from himself. While the backing vocals are mainly distributed in the panorama, the main voice is arranged in the center. The use of various echo effects is particularly noticeable, which are partly arranged in a ping-pong effect. Compared to the song "Take on Me", a strong parallelism can be noticed here again. With the difference, the voice doesn't seem as direct as Tesfaye's.


5. Summary and Conclusion

When comparing the songs "Take on Me" and "Blinding Lights", some parallels can be found in the song structure. The measured values from Spotify provided information about the audio profile of the songs, which could then be compared. A tempo of 172 BPM can be determined in both songs. The arrangements show a medium danceability, which differ by 5%. The activity and intensity of the music mixes are rated very high. The song of The Weekend shows a higher loudness than the song of a-ha by -4.1 LUFS.


With the more advanced and financially affordable synthesizers since the 1980s, more and more music creators produce their songs with synthetic sound generators. In the following years, many number one hits appeared with synthetically produced arrangements. Synth-pop took over a high position in the music industry. Furthermore, the technologies of sound-altering effects devices increased. Reverberation chambers could increasingly be reproduced digitally. This opened up new inventive approaches to the signal chains in a music production.


The sound design of the drums of "Blinding lights" are sonically based on the TR-808. The envelope generator plays a crucial role for the character of the synthetically produced sound. Thus, the area-covering elements are mapped with the sustain phase in contrast to the percussive elements. The vocals sound spatial and resemble the effects of the song "Take on Me".


To refer to the synthetic sound design in pop music, a comparison of the 80s to today's popular music was drawn on the basis of the song "Blinding Lights". As question it is to be answered whether it is to be recognized a sonic influence of the 80's with the present Pop music.


The question could be confirmed as follows. The sound creative processes of the 80s have been established in electronic music and can be found in the song "Blinding Lights". The sound aesthetics of the initial pop music are still a popular stylistic device for many well-known artists. They convey to the listener a format that is already familiar and reminiscent of a piece of music history. In contrast, there is an increasing trend of loudness, which has become prevalent in today's music production. In addition, a change in listening habits can be seen in relation to the mix of music. Elements sound more direct and are more precisely tuned in relation to each other.


In this work, the basics of synthetic sound production will be briefly explained for the elaboration of the work analysis. The topic is taken up on the basis of the song to be analyzed and brought in the context of the technical execution. The focus refers to a part of the general pop music and leaves out the initial developments of electronic music. Pop music is in constant change of new and old approaches. It pursues the goal of covering far-reaching needs of society.


7. Source List

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musicradar.com: How Genesis´s Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins stumpled upon the ´80s gated-reverb drum sound. Bath: Future Publishing. URL: https://www.musicradar.com/features/how-genesis-peter-gabriel-and-phil-collins-stumbled-upon-the-80s-gated-reverb-drum-sound (Access: 24.03.2021)


Raffaseder, Hannes 2010: Audiodesign. Akustische Kommunikation. 2. Auflage. 81679 München: Carl Hanser Verlag


Ruschkowski, Andre 2010: Elektronische Klänge und musikalische Entdeckungen. 2. Auflage. Stuttgart: Philipp Recalm jun. Gmbh & Co. KG


Russ, Martin 2008: Sound synthesis and sampling. 3. Auflage. New York und London: Focal Press


roland.com: Vier Jahrzente, ein Sound. Wir feiern das 40-Jährige Jubiläum der TR-808 Drum Machine. 65428 Rüsselheim: ROLAND Germany GmbH. URL: https://www.roland.com/de/promos/roland_tr-808/ (Access: 22.03.2021)


theinformationlab.co.uk: Getting Audio Features from the Spotify API. UK-EC4M 9BR: The Information Lab. URL: https://www.theinformationlab.co.uk/2019/08/08/getting-audio-features-from-the-spotify-api/ (Access: 30.01.2021)


zeit.de: The Weeknd: „Blinding Lights“ ist der Song des Jahres. D-20095 Hamburg: ZEIT ONLINE GmbH. URL: https://www.zeit.de/news/2020-12/04/blinding-lights-ist-der-song-des-jahres (Access: 29.01.2021)

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