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January 24, 2013

Slate: How to make a Justin Bieber song

(Continued)

While Rechtshaid's songs have the deliberate, micro-managed feel of a lot of modern pop music, they come about through experimentation. Rechtshaid builds songs from the ground up, without a particular vision in mind. He describes messing around with chords on the piano or guitar, haphazardly throwing in drum tracks, running everything through various distortions. One of his rules is not to repeat himself. That means trying to outrun not only the so-called "formula" — a typical hit's rote journey through intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, lift, bridge and outro — but his own instincts. "I realized at a certain point that everything I knew, all my intuition, always got me to a place that I could predict," Rechtshaid explains. "That's less inspiring than when something unpredictable happens."

What's the most unusual song he's ever worked on? He points to "Climax," by Usher, which he describes as "all tension and very little release." Restless for a slow jam but reflective for a club track, the song throbs and smolders instead of "arcing" like a standard R&B tune. (It also just claimed the number three spot on the Pazz and Jop 2012 Singles chart).

But on a basic level, Rechtshaid says, pursuing the unpredictable just comes down to making counterintuitive choices sound-by-sound — reaching for sample B when he wants to use sample A. That he takes pride in rarely deploying the same sound twice shows how far pop music has come from the days when every hit consisted of guitar, drums, bass and maybe keyboard. (For comparison's sake, today's standard audio production software includes more than 75 virtual instruments. These can be modified to create thousands of sounds — not counting all the sounds you can collect by recording actual instruments, running them through filters, and applying various effects such as fades and echoes. A single composition on Pro Tools can support up to 256 simultaneous tracks, and the typical pop smash layers at least 30. Overachievers like the Pink song "Raise Your Glass" incorporate more than 90.)

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