kottke.org posts about Mazzy Star

How to make your own slow jamsAug 26 2013

A couple of weeks ago, a slowed-down version of Dolly Parton's classic ballad "Jolene" went viral. A lot of people who heard it loved it, a few people didn't, but everyone seemed to agree that it was like listening to either an entirely new song or the same song again for the first time.

One of the things that's eerie about this is that if you listen closely, everything is just a little bit out of tune. There's conflicting information about exactly how much the track has been slowed. Some people have said that it's simulating a 45 RPM record played at 33 1/3, which is certainly the most common way people who lived with record players heard popular songs at slower speeds. But that would actually be quite a bit slower and lower than this.

The other figure I've seen (forgive me for not citing everything, I'm typing as fast as I can) is "Jolene" has been slowed by 17 percent, which sounds about right and would explain why all the notes seem just a little bit sharp. Here's the formula for slowing or speeding up a recording to shift the pitch but generally stay in tune:

(2 ^ (semitones change/12) - 1) *100 = Percent Change

So -- as one does when procrastinating from remunerative work -- I made an Excel spreadsheet.

If you want to drop two semitones, you shift the speed down by 12.2462 percent; drop three, you shift by 18.9207 percent, which significantly changes the track. To imitate a 45 RPM record played at 33 1/3, that's about 25.926, but very few records still sound like something a person actually made at this speed. All of these slowdowns are interesting, even the ones that don't work.

You can do all of them in the free/open-source audio processing app Audacity; it's very fast and very easy. (If you want to get freaky, you can also use Audacity to change pitch without changing tempo, or vice versa, or to start out slow and go fast, and all manner of lesser and greater perversity.)

But after messing with Audacity for longer than was strictly necessary, I can tell you that some songs and transformations work out better than others, and they tend to be those that share a lot of the same characteristics as Jolene:

  • A mix of quick and slow instrumentation, so there's a lot of information density. It almost has to be fractal; the more you slow it down, the more minute structures you find. The original song itself can actually be slow or fast; many fast songs really don't work, and quite a few slow ones do.
  • High-pitched, typically (but not always) female vocals, so the song sounds like a person singing and not a voice-distorted growling dude from To Catch A Predator.
  • The song needs to be fairly popular, so you can listen to the slow version and keep the regular-speed version in mind. This kind of continual allusion just makes it a richer experience.

And so, here are some of the results:

I described this Prince track as sounding like the slowest, sultriest, funkiest Sylvester song you've ever heard.

Mazzy Star surprised me. I always thought Hope Sandoval's vocals were gorgeous but a little warbly, which gave them character, but that's almost entirely a production effect. When you slow it down, you can really hear how clean and sustained her notes are.

My Bloody Valentine is the best example of that fractal quality. You can slow it down almost indefinitely and it still sounds like My Bloody Valentine. At this rate, though, it really just turns Bilinda Butcher's vocals into Kevin Shields'.

There's more at my Soundcloud page, including The Breeders' "Cannonball," "House of Jealous Lovers," Hot Chip's "Over and Over," Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks" (which I actually sped up), and more. (Finally, if slowing a track down and posting it online somehow breaks copyright, let me know and I'll take them down.)

Update: Andy Baio tips me to a second remix of "Jolene" that slows down the track, but corrects the pitch. Sounds great.

Update 2: Here's Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." slowed from 127 BPM to 110 BPM, leaving the pitch as-is.

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