I took an amazing class at UCLA during Spring 2017: Music History 8 - History of Electronic Dance Music (One of the coolest classes to take at UCLA, according to Buzzfeed Community). My final assignment for the class was to analyze a DJ set, and I chose The Chainsmokers' set at Ultra Music Festival 2016.
To illustrate some of the analysis, I've created several interactive graphs throughout this esssay, focusing on bpm, drops, and mix transitions using Highcharts.js. Enjoy!
The Chainsmokers (a duo composed of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall) have come a long way in the EDM industry. I still remember the first time I heard the song "#SELFIE", and watched it become viral. In addition, I also witnessed their cringeworthy performance on American Idol. During those times, everyone thought The Chainsmokers were the epitome of EDM failure. However, in the past couple years, The Chainsmokers made an incredible comeback from their #SELFIE days, releasing top-hits such as Roses" (2015), "Closer" (2016), and "Something Just Like This" (2017). "Closer", which was The Chainsmokers' 2016 Summer hit, resonated with that year's sentiments, primarily [holding] on to vitality in the face of draggy capitalist realities". They have captivated the general public, and found a formula to continue their pop-influenced EDM streak.
This is a comprehensive set review of The Chainsmokers' performance at Ultra Music Festival 2016 in Miami, Florida. Through this analysis, I hope to reach a better understanding of how DJs prepare their sets.
The Chainsmokers have a style that we did not cover in class, since we had concluded on dub-step and bro-step. A few of The Chainsmokers' recent songs exhibit a combination of electro-pop. For example, "Roses" (21:35) exemplified future bass, as indicated by the the hard-hitting bassline with detuned synthesizers. These sound waves are modulated using some low-frequency oscillation, which controls the cutoff of an audio filter (a low pass or high pass filter); this can make the waveform sound quiet or loud. "Don't Let Me Down" (53:20) is a combination of pop and trap, shown via double or triple-time division hi-hats, heavy kick drums from a Roland TR-808 synthesizer, and layered synthesizers. Interestingly, only 25 % of the songs in the set are Chainsmokers' songs, either original or remixed. The rest of other tracks that are either remixed by The Chainsmokers or prepared for the set unaltered. A modern DJ set seems to contain a variety of different genres, as we will analyze in the next section.
The Chainsmokers Ultra Music Festival Set is 57 minutes 43 seconds long, and features 60 songs grouped into 28 mixes, each lasting from 1 to 4 minutes. In addition to some of the Chainsmokers' own tracks/remixes, such as "Until You Were Gone" (2:58), "Split" (18:05), and "Kanye" (37:17), the set also contained various mixes from other well-known artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge", (20:30), Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself", (23:48), and Coldplay's "Yellow", (51:50). A distinctive feature of modern DJs is that they tend to sample older songs; Chainsmokers trap-style track "Split" samples its intro from Ashanti's "Only You" (2004).
As with any radio station, there are popular songs and unpopular ones; the key is to spread them out, and that is exactly what The Chainsmokers did with this set: they knew that "Don't Let Me Down" was their hit of the year, so they made sure to save that (and the related remixes) for last. In addition, "Roses" was their hit from the year before, so it was a great song to play at around the 23:00 mark to pump the crowd up again. An interesting observation was on the DJs' use of non-EDM songs as breaks between the intense, bass-enhanced EDM mixes. Examples of this include classics such as "I Miss You" by Blink-182 at 25:18, and soul-pop "7 Years" by Lucas Graham at 34:01.
The Chainsmokers opened up with a strong Belgian Hoover bass, before introducing themselves (0:20). The Belgian Hoover bass was interpolated with the familiar chorus build from their hit single, "Roses"; while it only lasted for less than a minute, it was enough to stir the crowd into motion. Then, they followed with consecutive trap mixes, such as "Game Over", by Lookas & Crankdat (0:46) and "Rockin" by Ricky Remedy (1:25). The first Chainsmokers original song they played was "Until You Were Gone", an electro-pop which provided both the vocal build-up (2:57 - 4:12) as well as the bro-step bass (4:13 - 4:43). This song had an intro that was a fast keyboard arpeggio, at around 120 bpm. This provided a quick transition from the drop before into "Until You Were Gone".
A couple other notable pieces in the beginning included the addition of unaltered hip hop song "Panda" by Desiigner (11:16), which was immediately followed up after some bro-step with an unaltered "Shut Up And Dance" by Walk The Moon (13:25). In order to make the transition smooth across these two unaltered songs, The Chainsmokers added a 2-step beat (11:55) that increased in bpm until a drop at 12:20 that lasts until 13:26, when "Shut Up And Dance" begins. These two tracks provide some lyrical respite in between the intense bro-step/trap mixes.
The middle component begins with a classic unaltered "Under The Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. From observing the crowd on the YouTube stream, I noticed that the primary audience had a age-range of 20s to 30s; this means that they had grown up listening to bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In fact, Taggart even says "We're going to play the singer you guys grew up on" (20:25), referring to Anthony Kiedis. This occasional straying from traditional trap/house EDM songs parallels when Oakenfold played movie soundtracks to create a more cinematic feel during the emotional breakdowns sections in his set. Oakenfold's Goa Trance created an environment that links EDM to something the crowd is familiar with: cinematic soundtracks. Similarly, The Chainsmokers wanted to connect with the audience through old classics, then add 2-steps or arpeggio beats to transition into drops. The crowd was very familiar with these classics, singing along with "Under The Bridge" until 21:25, when The Chainsmokers made transition to "Roses" by looping the word way in 'Take me all the way' verse from "Under The Bridge", ultimately releasing a huge drop at 21:45. "Roses" contain a simple cross rhythm of bass drum and high hats, occurring like the following:
This cross rhythm is a great complement to the singer ROZEZ's vocals.
The Chainsmokers seem to shuffle songs that are a couple years apart, implying that they understand their audience demographic, and yearn to please every age group. Consecutively, they played a diverse set from 23:48 to 28:50: "Love Yourself", by Justin Bieber (2015), "I Miss You" by Blink-182 (2003), and "Goodness Gracious" by Ellie Goulding (2012). Once again, they concluded this middle set portion with one of their own works, "Kanye" (32:42), but not before unleashing some classic bro-step from Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" (35:50).
Before beginning the last portion of their set, The Chainsmokers spent around a minute to address the crowd. With no music playing and no lights on stage, Taggart polls the crowd "If you've seen this before, make some noise!", followed by some blinking lights, igniting a wave of cheers and applause from the crowd. Taggart uses this opportunity to make a political statement: "Do not support Donald Trump!" he yells. This acts as both a message, as well as a well-deserved rest (probably for the two DJs), as they prepare the last 20 minutes of their set. After a few rounds of trap mixes, The Chainsmokers used a great song to build up to their ending, "Yellow" by Coldplay at 51:50. Its slow bpm (80-85) allowed for a quiet respite as preparation for the ultimate song of the set: "Don't Let Me Down". In addition, Taggart turned off all the lights in stage, and asked the crowd to turn on their smartphone flashlight; 70,000 lights waved around instantly, creating a surreal scene. Perhaps this usage of modern technology (flashlight on smartphones) help the crowd come in unison, similar to the One introduced in P-Funk. The Chainsmokers looped the word so from "You know I love you so", increased bpm from 80 to 126, and introduced an enormous drop that leads to their original song "Don't Let Me Down" (53:45).
The beats-per-minute of the set varied throughout, with a maximum of 161, a minimum of 70, and an average of 127.67, typical of most EDM sets. The Chainsmokers started with a 99 bpm, a slowed-down mix of "Roses". This helped establish a drop at 0:44, when they started to play "Game Over" by Lookas & Crankdat, a song heavy with bass and cross-rhythm. From 21:43 - 26:16, the bpm seems primarily stagnant, staying constantly at around 100. A possible explanation of this is due to consecutive playback of the songs "Under The Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Roses", and "Love Yourself" by Justin Bieber. These songs were appropriate choices for grouping, since their bpms were all very similar.
Notice the 0 bpm at 41:00. This was marked 0 because Taggart spent some time talking to the crowd, a technique we will look at in the next section.
Key characteristics of EDM sets, bass drops have become a crucial component of a DJ's performance. The Chainsmokers had 39 drops in their hour-long set; to allow ease of analysis, I have further broken down these drops into three categories of intensity: low, medium, and high. More detail:
A significant drop in The Chainsmokers' set is during their "Roses" mix. Starting at 22:03, "Roses" began playing, with its initial synth sounds. This buildup accumulates to 23:28, when Taggart and Pall both shout "Let's Go!", initiating the popular drop in the song that brings the crowd to their feet.
Drops are instrumental to a successful DJ set, as they capture the peak emotional intensity of the crowd. The Chainsmokers made sure to include intensive, large drops in the beginning and end of their set, as indicated by tall red bars. Most of their weaker drops are in the middle of the set; this can be explained by the observation that the crowd will already have high-energy, so it doesn't take very strong drops to propel them to motion.
After listening to the set for a couple of times, I noticed that out of the 28 mixes, some lasts much longer than others. One explanation is the number of songs remixed: Mix number 28 had four songs remixed together ("Yellow", "Don't Let Me Down", "Don't Let Me Down (Illenium Remix)", and "Don't Let Me Down (Zomboy Remix)". I created two graphs and overlayed them on top of each other: the line graph shows the each mix number's associated duration time, while the bar graph shows the number of drops in each mix.
There appears to be strong correlation between the number of drops and the mix duration; while this is expected, an interesting observation arises from the four main peaks in the graph. These peaks (both for the mix duration and for the number drops) indicate that DJs deliberately spread out their largest drops and their longest mixes. Mix # 2, 10, and 27 have the longest duration AND the largest number of drops (3).
The Chainsmokers are definitely not the type of DJ or EDM artist that we studied in class. In fact. one could argue that they are hardly in the EDM genre at all, given their propensity for pop-influenced songs and Billboard Top 100 hits. However, their performance at Ultra Music Festival 2016 shows that they have truly found their place in the current EDM culture. Moore's Law allows DJs to experiment with new avant-garde music styles cheaply and efficiently; through their experimentation, The Chainsmokers have grown to understand the audience appeal, which is beyond hardcore EDM; they've mixed not only bro-step and dub-step into their sets, but also pop, rap, hip hop, and trap. The Chainsmokers' unique approach to target a wide variety of audience is what brought them international fame and recognition.
Copyright © 2017 Frank Chen. All rights reserved.