Brass monkeez

Having played around with presets on (mostly software) synthesisers, I know that the brass settings can be pretty cool - although I usually like adding enough effects that it'll sound like something else in the end.

I've read keyboard enthusiasts say that the early brass settings were often the best sounds in a rather ordinary collection. (And when I think back to the role of synthesisers in popular music, I often think they're something of an acquired taste.) But the synthetic sounds never sound as cool as proper brass.

I remember seeing Wynton Marsalis leading the Lincoln Center Orchestra through a set of Duke Ellington songs and when the 12 brass players were all blowing it was incredibly powerful. The dynamic was almost overwhelming, more so than the sounds at most gigs I've seen. More than the guitars of Fear Factory or Sepultura but probably not the production in an Amon Tobin set, that show seriously felt like my atoms were rearranged.

So I can't help but think the sounds on the Timbaland production for Madonna and Timberlake are incredibly cheesey.

There's an interview with the bloke who mixed this tune in Sound On Sound and he says there are 16 stereo tracks of brass on the track. Trumpets, trombones, tuba and a flute sample. There also sounds like some of those synthetic 'ooh' and 'aah' vocals sounds which adds to the cheese factor IMO.

I can't deny that Timbaland makes some amazing sounds but I think this track is incredibly underwhelming for a combination of three of the biggest names in popular music. (And before you point to the charts and say 'but', let's remember that the charts aren't based on any science other than marketing. They're a combination of figures from select sources and count pre-orders as much as what actually sells. It's basically just a fact sheet to tell kids what's 'cool'.)

It's not surprising, Timbaland seems over-exposed. He's got his solo stuff and he's all over the charts, both solo and writing material for other people. As one of the few producers to become so well-known since Phil Spector, it must be tough to keep the hits coming - especially as he's moving in different and more elaborate directions.

Bjork remarked in an interview with Pitchfork that she felt like she was pulling him back to his early work when they collaborated on a track for Volta. And, as much as you can hear Tim incorporating a more rave sorta sound into R&B (that's obviously influenced the genre at present) with his single The Way I Are and he's also had a go at the other trend in R&B that's reviving the classic soul sounds (a la Gnarls Barkley, Daptones - especially via Amy Winehouse) in his single Scream.

I think he's missed the point a bit with the hyped production style still evident but the thing I do like about Timbaland, aside from his classic "boom tee boom" sounds and the inventive things he's done with pop like the baby sample in one of the Aaliyah tracks or being ballsy enough to distort Timberlake's voice on Sexy Back, is his sense of humour.

At one level some of his vocals are more of the usual music industry sleaze but when he has to lip sync along in the clips you see this short, tubby sorta guy with sleepy eyes and you realise he's actually playful. It's like there's a spectrum between two main roles for men in music film clips, the buff sexually aggressive sort like Nelly and the fun or goofy, friendly but harmless sort like Sean Kingston. Unlike women who really only get one role I guess. I'm trying to think of goofy women and Diaz and Jennifer Hawkins come to mind but only Bjork comes close in the pop world.

Anyway, back to the Madonna track. I really like that kick sound in the breakdown section. It's got a buzz about it that's really hyped up. However, it's nothing compared to the breakdown section in Madonna's follow-up single with Pharrell, Give It 2 Me.

Madonna looks great, doesn't she? And Pharrell has always appealed more to my aesthetics by using natural sounds in his samples. That Balinese sorta break that makes the track for me seems ruined by having the first lady of pop say "get stupid" over the top though. Awesome keyboard line in the song, love the way the filter opens up in the choruses.

But, I digress. The brass presets also get a small role in Kelly Rowlands single Work (Freemasons Remix). You can hear a thin-sounding trumpet in the pre-chorus. Weirdly, I can't include the film clip here as the versions on YouTube all say the embedding function has been disabled by request.

The Freemasons remix of this track is the single in non-US markets and I like the way they throw a heap of ideas into it but, to be honest, I haven't heard the original mix so I can't be sure about who did what.

The song itself has the same breathless-sort of lyrical delivery that Beyonce, Rowlands' partner from Destiny's Child, used in her solo hit Crazy. Actually, when I think about it, other female singers have done similar stuff like Christina Aguilera in Dirty. (Dirty would be a killer song to try and sing while dancing.) It's like singing lyrics written for rapping. (And reminds me how much respect I had for Jon Bon Jovi after I tried to sing Bad Medicine on a karaoke machine.)

I'd guess the original version of Work doesn't have the bhangra-style loop in the verses. These remind me of the track Jay-Z remixed for Punjabi MC, Beware The Boys. Then, after the thin-sounding trumpet preset in the pre-chorus that sounds a bit spaghetti western, the song blasts into a disco-style chorus.

Yes your correct the free mason's sample a urdu song, but before that it was a song from the hindi movies's, ie bollywood movies. the song from the hindi movie is quite old, and was then covered in urdu. Practically urdu and hindi are the same, with very little differences in words. Also some the dance moves, are tradional bollywood dances moves, which have been successfully blended and incorporated into modern dance moves. Great video, and excellent pieace of work, by Kelly Rowland.

The lyrics for the chorus really are over the top and you're left thinking the only lines are "put it in, put it in, work". I read an interview where Rowlands said the producers tried to convince her it was actually about the work a bloke needed to put in to get a woman to respect him. It's really just another bunch of male fantasies about how hungry she must be for cock. Which is why the dance move near the end of the clip where she's brushing herself seems apt. Like she's trying to clean off the icky feeling you get about the unsexiness of the tune.

Then again, maybe she's referencing a bunch of Bollywood dance moves. What do I know? The examples I've given of fake brass are dance tracks so everything about them is exaggerated beyond the natural sound of anything. The bass is a sterile kick, probably a few kicks actually, then there's usually a synth and everything pops and breathes with dynamic compression. Great on the dancefloor.

"The mastering wars? Haha! Tim and I are partly to blame for that! We made some records that were clearly very loud and this became a bit of a trend-setter. Of course it can cut the dynamics on some records, and you definitely get fatigue listening to records that loud for a long time. But it's what people want to hear. Whether you want to do this depends on the kind of music. If you like that sound, then great. If you're making a jazz record you're not going to make it as loud as a pop record. You're not going to make a blues record louder than a heavy metal record. Hip-hop is the new popular music now, and pop has to be loud!"

The thing that stands out about the fake brass sound of the synthesiser presets for me is I've been watching them next to Amy Winehouse and the dapper soul revival. The production values are understated and I think it kinda makes me respectful because I feel like I'm being treated with respect. And it's real brass.