Building Bridges With “Boys On Boards”
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
In the last article I wrote of how I planned to make Boys On Boards to be both a farewell to the Girls On Bikes Production Palette and a stylistic bridge between my music at present and the change in style planned for my forthcoming album (release date yet to be confirmed, but likely towards the end of 2019). However, before we examine what I did with Boys On Boards in an attempt to achieve this, let’s look at the gap I’m aiming to bridge (from both sides).
Stylistic traits of the Girls On Bikes Production Palette
My aim with this production style has always been to capture a sassy, plucky and light-hearted character that could be aligned with notions of Saturday morning cartoons, 80s commercials and so on. I focussed on this with a three-pronged approach; synth sound design, drum sound design and arrangement ethos.
1 - Synth sound design: A lot of FM and wavetable based sounds (typical of late 80s/early 90s pop music). The bass is almost always created on the Yamaha DX21 and there are Yamaha DX and Roland D-50 style electric-pianos throughout much of these productions. The blend of these tones alone gives a distinct style that is (for me, at least) very reminiscent of late 1980s and early 1990s TV music (as well as a lot of pop music from this era).
Build the backbone of a tune with DX bass and D-50 electric-piano and the pepper the tune with energetic sawtooth and square-wave tones keeping cutoff filters reasonably open. I often like to assign filter cutoff to note velocity, meaning the harder you press the key, the more tonal information is present in the note. I believe this stems from my background as a pianist. I’m rarely satisfied with synth tones that only do quiet and loud; I like there to be velocity related tonal characteristics too.
2 - Drum sound design: Some producers in the retrowave scene (especially the heavier stuff) really nail that massive EDM kick drum sound (and by extension its relationship with bass). I’m always impressed by this as despite many attempts, I’ve never been able to replicate this style of kick drum in my own music. Unable to achieve what some of my contemporaries are doing with their drums I decided to take my drums in a different direction. Airy, open, more traditionally 80s sounding. Design a kit that’s an amalgamation of several classic drum machines alongside some other random sounds I liked. Drums processed using mostly just EQ with delicately applied compression and multi-band compression on key component parts of the kit.
Use a selection of distinctive percussion instruments such as claves, woodblocks, cowbells, agogos, shakers and reverse cymbals which feature heavily in most of my arrangements. They’re also part of this same custom drum kit mentioned above and are processed the same way (light EQ and little to no compression).
3 - Arrangement: This one isn’t totally specific to this style of production as it’s somewhat just how I like to roll (musically). However, I made strong efforts to refine and improve this aspect of my production for the Girls On Bikes era. Extra attention paid to writing melodic phrases underpinned by subtly interesting harmonic changes (using different modal scales or slipping in cheeky key-changing chord progressions to enable melodies to have ear catching moments).
More focus on rhythmic phrasing; note lengths and using ever-smaller rhythmical divisions (32ths and 24ths). More precision on all fronts of arrangement, punctuating arrangements more frequently and being ruthless regards editing/cutting parts out of the mix. Not only did this clean up mixes, but also made the songs much more energetic and lively.
Taking inspiration from jazz and funk I started writing bass lines like melodies with much more use of staccato and syncopated bass lines. Bass lines would move around more dynamically and compliment melodic phrases.
All in all, more carefully composed melodies and harmonies performed on a blend of FM, wavetable and subtractive synth tones typical of the late 80s, underpinned by open, punchy drums and the overall musical whack-a-mole approach to arrangement. Top it all off with a very clean production aesthetic that uses little to no distortion or saturation effects and there you have the Girls On Bikes Production Palette that I’ve been dining out on since late 2016…
Stylistic traits of where I’m going next
At the time of writing Boys On Boards, I was about 75% done on the album and knew exactly where I needed to go with Boy On Boards (although I’m not giving everything away just yet, as I still want to surprise the audience a little).
Some of the musical seeds I wanted to sew with Boys On Boards were subtle, but significant in light of the above.
Drums - a wider variety of drum kits and sounds
Bass - more Roland Juno and Moog style bass sounds (less DX bass)
Piano - more real, acoustic piano
Electric Piano - proper electric piano (Fender Rhodes style), not DX or D-50 electric piano
More emphasis on melody driven content
More harmonic sophistication
The upcoming album, you see, makes use of several different drum kit combinations. The Girls On Bikes drums still feature in places, however I’ve created two other drum kit sets that are deeper, warmer and even lo-fi. There’s hardly any DX bass on the album, lots of piano, strings, brass, orchestra hits, and some very heavy jazz-funk influences.
Let’s look at what this means for each song on Boys On Boards.
Boys On Boards
The opening synth swell has major detune on it (and to a lesser extent so too does the outro synth). This sort of lo-fi element is new to my sound, but present on the album.
The bass isn’t a DX bass (let’s just let that sink in for a moment - one of my only non-DX bass sounds since 2016!).
Orchestra hits are present and although subtle are another aspect I use a lot throughout the album.
The mid-section breakdown has piano underpinned by soft ambient synth pads. Another subtlety that’s foreshadowing what’s to come on the album.
Attentive listeners with have noticed the synth solo towards the end of this song is a combination of the synth solos from Girls On Bikes and Boys Fall Easy. This is a tributary nod to the previous EP and intended to help bring a sense nostalgia for my own, earlier releases. A very meta reference that’s nostalgic for nostalgic music. A sort of nostalgia-inception.
The Girl’s Hard To Read
The bass on this record is DX, but it’s designed and handled differently in that it plays quite melodically at times, even swinging and leading the rhythm in places. This is definitely a characteristic I utilise more throughout the forthcoming album.
The unmissable detail of this song is just how much piano there is. This whole song is built around the notion of a lead piano part and a big piano solo section.
Whilst this song is almost country-pop in nature, the forthcoming album has lots of piano throughout that I wanted to allude to on this record. On the album I revisit my musical roots, incorporating much more piano as I explore aspects of jazz and blues. Extensively using piano on this song, yet keeping it within the usual Girls On Bikes sound, I’m hoping to better familiarise the listener with there being more piano in OSC work to come.
Skateparks At Sunset
This is quite a departure from the whole Retrowave sound as I see it, and I was very surprised to hear many people in the scene cite this as their favourite track on the EP.
The snare drum is different! Seriously, that’s a big deal for me as I’ve been rocking the same snare drum more or less now for four years! Anyway, the drum sound on this record is just hinting towards there being new and different drums on records in the future.
No DX bass, and the lead melody is handled by a Fender Rhodes electric piano sound, underpinned by soft synths and piano. I’m confident you’re getting the idea of how I’m tonally moving towards a different sound here.
This is where I start to get very much more aligned with future output. The squelchy Moog bass that swamps the mix at times, the jazzy little flourishes every eight or sixteen bars and a key change into the chorus.
Whilst this song seems light and breezy on the whole, it’s musically one of the more complicated songs on the EP, a design ethos I use throughout the upcoming album - simple sounding, but actually quite complex.
There’s new percussion too, in the addition of congas, mark-trees and triangles. There’s a reasonable amount of arrangement whack-a-mole.
On the whole, if we were to create a scale whereby 0 is unlike the new album and 10 is exactly like the new album, this would be a 7. It’s not fully there, but it’s close.
Drive Safe, Kids
This song shuffles and swings. The bass isn’t DX and there’s all kinds of percussion similar to James’ Mom. I tried to make greater use of the three-dimensional space in the mix. Some parts are sitting back in the reverb, just doing their thing behind whatever’s in focus at that time, another production design approach I've taken with the new album.
I was trying to get a slight Stevie Wonder mood going on with this song. This is intrinsically representative of the fact I’ve been looking to the 1970s for inspiration as opposed to the 1980s. Like previous songs on this EP, there are key change shenanigans, the occasional slightly jazzy flourish and a big piano solo section, to really hammer home the notion that piano features heavily in the OSC sound looking forward.
To sum up, whilst I’ve kept this record on brand with the Girls On Bikes Production Palette, I’ve nudged, tweaked and hinted at what’s to come later this year. I was pleased with how this record shaped up. Of course, on reflection there are some things I’d have done differently, however it is what it is now it's released and once the new album’s out I’m hopeful that Boys On Boards will have served its purpose of preparing the listener for the changes that are to come.
Aspects not addressed by Boys On Boards are just how technical things are getting with the upcoming album. I’m turning the arrangement whack-a-mole up to 11 for starters. Also expect to hear orchestral components such as strings and horns. Musically I’ve devoted hours to crafting technical and intricate harmonic and melodic passages that whilst complicated on paper will hopefully sound just as easy-going and whimsical as I’ve tried to make my music sound in the past. The overall production is softer, warmer, deeper and won’t be quite as crisp as the Girls On Bikes Production Palette. Oh, and the funk is way more intense than I've ever made before!
Will it be considered a “Retrowave” record…? Who knows?! But I’ve tried to prepare the listener with Boys On Boards and hopefully the change of direction will be a welcomed and exciting one, as opposed to unexpected and jarring.