Is there any sound quite as distinctive as a Kaytranada track? Whether it’s his solo work or one of his many collaborations, most listeners of electronic music could pick a Kaytranada tune within moments of hearing it. In a glorious genre mish-mash of R’n’B, house, hip-hop, soul, and much more, this Canadian producer makes beats that have made the world want to move endlessly.
So what’s the musical thinking and production techniques and choices that make up his iconic sound? We dove into a production analysis of the phenomenal opening track of Kaytranada’s album “99.9%” with Liveschool trainer Thomas McAlister – the aptly named, “Track Uno”. Thomas makes nuanced club music through his solo project, Big Ever and also works as one of our longest serving Liveschool trainers. While you’re reading, have a listen back to the iconic Kaytranada track in question, to get a sense for what we’re actually on about.
The Use of Samples and Structure
With some vinyl fuzz, the sparking of a lighter, and some self-recorded thumps driving across your left and right speakers, a synth spins through space before the primary sample of the track opens up the album, 99.9%. And when it comes to chopping up a sample, Kaytranada definitely has it down pat.
“The main motif/hook of the track is based largely around a pretty complex chop of a sample from the intro of Delegation’s ‘I Figure I’m Out of Your Life’,” says Thomas.
Like a lot of sample-based tracks, the OG is old school (1982), relatively unknown – leaving you thinking, “How did they even find this?”, and in true Kaytranada style, it’s brimming with funk. You can check out the original for a slightly disorientating listen to where Kaytranada took his inspiration for Track Uno. And it’s not majorly distorted to where it’s unrecognisable. Apart from the slight increase in tempo, Kaytranada pretty much uses the sample note for note. It’s only when we get to the first breakdown, that things start getting a bit whack.
“The chopped sample loop remains largely the same from when it is first introduced, to right before the first breakdown, where more articulation is added by pitch shifting the sample every fourth repetition of the looped phrase. The sample has also had sidechain compression applied to it (triggered by the kick drum) practically throughout the track, which gives it extra bounce and helps the added kick drum and sharp claps cut through,” Thomas says.
“Towards the end of the track, the sample takes a background role, fading to silence and leaving only the Kaytra-added parts, which are no longer following the samples lead as closely. Then one minute later, we have a complete switch up, with a new bassline, new drum track, and a new feel entirely – this could almost be a completely different track.”
Sound Selection and Design
On top of this funky sample, Kaytranada has added tonnes of his own flavourful additions, to bring the sample out of the 80’s and into the present. Kaytranadas’ percussion additions are probably one of the most distinctive things about his music – they’re sharp, energy filled, and have a tonne of swing. The percussion additions include a kick, hi-hats, clap and snare, and a shaker.
“The kick drum sound is a classic of sample-based hip-hop; in that it’s short, punchy and muted. It’s hard without being in your face. The claps are super crisp and set really wide, which sets them far outside of the space that the sample sits in,” says Thomas.
Next up – there are tonnes of added synths in this track. “The synth additions include a string-type synth, a bandpassed pad synth, and a mid-range arpeggiated synth,” says Thomas. But they’re not all stacked on top of each other. They each hold their own purpose – whether that’s the string synth fluttering over the looping sample line to create difference, or the pads bringing in some dreamy chords to transition into what feels like a whole new track.
There’s also that groovy synth bass, which moves underneath the rest with a mind of its own. “The bass sound is a very classic analog synthesis, most likely a square wave with a low pass filter, with its cutoff being moved either by hand or with some kind of modulation, which gives a bit of extra movement and life. I reckon the bass is played by hand, as its pretty free and heavily swung.”
Recall that iconic Kaytranada sound we’ve been rambling on about? Thomas thinks it primarily comes from the way he mixes certain sound selections with a unique blend of rhythms. “I think this combination of a very golden era hip-hop sound palette but set at a faster-paced, almost house tempo/rhythmic structure is something that he uses often – it gives it an almost crossover appeal, and stops it from being lumped in as pure “beat music” or classic instrumental hip-hop,” he says.
But the complex sounding rhythm in this track, isn’t actually that complex at all. “The rhythm of the drum track follows a very straightforward backbeat. Kick on every beat, claps on the 2nd and 4th beats and hi-hats/shakers carrying the 16ths and looking after syncopation. The four-to-floor pattern of the kick drum is key in the rhythm of this track, and the track overall, as it gives it a forward momentum, and separates it from more classic broken kick pattern found in a lot of hip-hop.”
The complexity you hear in the tracks’ rhythm comes from something else. “It’s the way the sample has been chopped. It provides the tracks’ syncopation and groove, sitting nicely between the plodding backbeat. A lot of the chops in the sample happen on the off beats, either on the 2nd, 3rd or 4th sixteenth of the beat. There’s definitely some swing going on in the sample chops too, giving it even more of a syncopated groove,” says Thomas.
Kaytranada also likes to play with your expectations of rhythm in subtle ways. “When he goes from a section without drums to a section with drums, he often doesn’t bring the drums back in on the 1. For example, when the drums first drop after the intro, they drop on the 3, which is a nice pickup, feeling direct and unpredictable.”
So there’s just a small run down behind some of the thinking and musical choices that go into a tune by Kaytranada. If you want more tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your songwriting, take a look around the Liveschool blog. We have loads of tutorials to take your productions to the next level like crafting instantly familiar melodies with Ninajirachi or our 6 ways to take your Chorus up a notch.