Improving my critical listening – The Hills Analysis

One of my goals this trimester was to improve my critical listening skills. After reading  a few of Mike Senior’s “Mix Review” columns on Sound on Sound, I felt inspired to do a little critical listening of my own as part of my self-directed learning. So I decided to analysis the sonic characteristics of one of my favourite songs at the moment, “The Hills” by Canadian singer The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye).

“The Hills” is predominantly a dark R&B song. As a result it is quite slow with a tempo of 113 BPM. To fit with the dark theme of the song, horror-themed sounds are used such as bells and piercing female scream before the chorus. Distortion is also heavily used throughout the song particularly on the sub bass and Tesfaye’s voice. The chord progression is used throughout the song and the track is quite simple with focus on the tense and spooky atmosphere.

The main problem I found out was the sudden change in dynamics as the song transitions from the verse to the chorus. The distortion of Tesfaye’s voice is quite loud compared to the softness of the vocals. While this could mimic the sudden jolt reaction you often find in horror movies, it does make the song seem a bit inconsistent. Furthermore, to help it stand out and disturb the audience, the scream is slightly panned to the right speaker. Sadly its effect is diminished as Tesfaye’s distorted voice overpowers the scream.

To also prepare for the audience for the scream that leads into the drop, the last clap before the scream is noticeably different. The claps are usually quick and high-pitched. It sounds like the last clap was pitched down, bitcrushed and had more reverb attached to it.

Using a stereo width plugin, I was surprised to find out that the song sounded quite good in mono. The main things that were spread across the stereo field were the background vocals and the vocal reverb. The stereo reverb certainly contributes to the creepy nature of the song.

Overall, despite a few dynamic issues, I found the song to be mixed quite well. I liked how the subtle mixing changes added to the resulting creepiness of the song. For my next analysis, I plan on using the frequency scanning technique to see which frequencies are too strong in some areas and which frequencies could be boosted to fit the song.

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