I really admire deadmau5 (Joel Zimmerman) and his excellent music, including his use of chords and arps. He has a knack for it. I’ve watched him create on Masterclass and he just absolutely knows what he is doing. Moreover, he seems to be a guy who is limitless in his thinking while still knowing what he likes and dislikes. He doesn’t put out a ton of crap that is not up to his standards. Admirable.
Well, I wanted to know more about his producing talents, so I deconstructed some of his music, his chord progressions, and arpeggios. I’ll be adding more as I learn more, so stop back and check the “last updated” text below.
Last updated: 1-February-2019
The All in One Video Deconstruction
Someone made a video of how to deadmau5 and it is really quite good (excellent actually). Please check it out first:
Good stuff, right?! Watch the next one…
Polymeter was very interesting in that first video above, so I put another here that I found:
Base Material to Start
Splice offers some of deadmau5’s MIDI files, so I got one that has both a melody and an accompanying arpeggio – both made by deadmau5. This is what I initially analyzed.
I could have used any of the MIDI files out there with his music, but I wanted something that I absolutely knew was written and came from him. Splice has this and it is direct from deadmau5 himself.
To make it easier for me, I used Cthulhu, the chord and arpeggio machine made by Steve Duda with/for deadmau5. The chord section allows input of a MIDI file or reading from the piano roll (FL Studio) in a kind of “learning” mode. It then assigns the chords it reads to consecutive keys on the keyboard.
I just played the deadmau5 MIDI file of chords while Cthulhu read them in. Then I could play them from the keyboard. Better yet, Cthulhu identified the chords for me.
So that’s interesting. It is a chord progression of F# fifth (basically a F# chord missing one note), C# minor, A major, B major, F# major, then repeating. But, C# minor, A major, and B major are the same chords but with different notes of the chords in the two instances.
An observation about the eight bars above: Important here is that the beginning and end of the two four-bar patterns have the same F# fifth and F#major that match each other every time. No different notes used in these chord instances.
So basically, the “seams” match. In chord/music theory these chords are sometimes called “cadence chords.” This is what makes the repeating pattern match seamlessly yet sound different in the middles. In the picture here these are the chord sets that are outlined by blue boxes. Picture the pattern repeating again and again to the right and you will see that each is joined by the Fmaj and F#5 next to each other and in exactly the same pattern of notes. F# and F#5 only differ by one note being left out of the F#5, so these two chords are very closely related.
deadmau5 says that the pattern “resolves.” I like that terminology as well as the “cadence chord” term. I think “resolves” is better because it isn’t just limited to chords, but can apply to the melody as well.
Further analysis shows that this is probably the key of G# minor. In this key, the chords are as follows:
VII = F# (with F#5 closely related as described above)
iv = C#min
flat-II = Amaj (note this chord is “borrowed” from another mode)
III = Bmaj
The A major chord is what threw me off a bit. It is borrowed from another mode and fits nicely with this chord progression.
Maybe this means it is in the Dorian mode because the sixth is different in Dorian.
Maybe more interesting is the sequence: Major, Minor, Major, Major, Major.
Next, notice that there is a whole set of lower notes that are kind of segregated from the higher ones. These are part of the chords and are octave-separated notes of the base chords. In other words, the basic chords are up above and additional repeated lower notes of the chord follow along at the bottom, making the bassline. In the picture, these bass notes are the ones below the red line.
deadmau5 mentions this in his Masterclass that I would highly recommend you take if given the chance.
Note that they are all the same pattern without any variation as there are in the upper notes. This makes a nice, regular bass track. Imagine the regular, rhythmic thumping of the bassline. You don’t want variation in there.
To sum up the chord portion. here is a picture of the parts identified.
The progression of F#5, C#min, Amaj, Bmaj, F#maj did not line up with any of the chord progression charts I was able to find. However, it is close to the key of A in the Lydian mode. It also has a pattern of major, minor, major, major, major. I think it is important to note the deadmau5 says he works with his music until it sounds right to him. And this is key because this is important and it is why his music sounds like his music. To deconstruct it further would probably do a disservice to it and to him. It is artistry if you ask me.
Another thing I observed about Cthulhu itself was located in the chord menu. There are options for
- making all chords suspended,
- making major chords minor,
- making minor chords major,
- using the lower note of the chord as root
- 1 octave down, and
- 2 octaves down.
These options could have been put here for deadmau5 or at his request, so they are something to consider. The lowest note item is interesting as it is something that is a characteristic of the deadmau5 style, so it leads me to believe the inclusion in Cthulhu could be related to his method.
Looking at various deconstructions of deadmau5 songs, I am finding also that the Aeolian (Natural Minor) modes are used in quite a few of them. A few have Dorian, Major, and even a Locrian.
- All I Have – D-sharp, Minor, 128 bpm
- Alone With You – G-sharp, Minor, 128 bpm
- Arguru – E, Minor, 128 bpm
- Avarita – D, Dorian, 127 bpm
- Brazil – D-flat, Major, 128 bpm
- Faxing Berlin – B-flat, Major, 128 bpm
- Fn Pig – D, Minor, 88 bpm
- Ghosts n Stuff – B-flat, Minor, 128 bpm
- I remember – B, Minor, 128 bpm
- Maths – G-sharp, Locrian, 128 bpm
- October – G-sharp, Minor, 127 bpm
- Professional Griefers – B-flat, Minor, 128 bpm
- Raise Your Weapon – G-sharp, Minor 126 bpm
- Right This Second – B-flat, Minor 96 bpm
- Snowcone – E, Dorian, 98 bpm
- Some Chords – G-sharp, Minor, 127 bpm
- Strobe – G-sharp, Minor, 256 bpm
- The Veldt – A, Major, 128 bpm
- There Might Be Coffee – G, Minor, 127 bpm
But, this is far from the whole story. It is not as easy to just say he writes in one mode or another. I was working with some music by Thomas Newman, that I also like, and found the mixing of minors and major chords. The same I found in Olsen by Boards of Canada. In deconstructing Olsen with Scaler, I found the music matched the modes of Mixolydian in C and Dorian in E-flat. I made some chord changes using these variants and it sounded a lot like deadmau5 chord changes. So I would say that mixing of these is a must to get the deadmau5 sound.
Next, I used Cthulhu’s arpeggiator to replicate the arps in the deadmau5 composition. This was a separate file from the above-pictured MIDI notes. I used the non-arpeggio MIDI file from the last section as the chord portion of each step. This way, I know the arp was based on the chords.
I tinkered with the Cthulhu arp section until I got something that was exactly what deadmau5 wrote. Cthulhu could produce the same arpeggio as the MIDI of the deadmau5 arpeggio.
This was possible by using two screens of the arpeggiator. First was the note selection screen where I have a 6,6,7,6,6,8 pattern. The arp sequence was six notes long and repeating. The first note was the 6th highest note of the chord. You can see this in the left picture as the bar with a 6 on it.
Next was also the sixth like the first, but two octaves lower as shown by the graph on the right where there are two bars filled down from center on the second column over. So basically it is the same note repeated but two octaves lower.
The third is the seventh highest note of the chord, followed again by the sixth highest but two octaves lower (again the graph on the right shows this in the fifth column from the left).
This repeats and if I hold the keyboard keys for the appropriate amount of time on each, I can replicate exactly the arpeggio.
Again in this situation, I believe deadmau5 makes it so it sounds right to him.
I picked up on this polymeter thing without knowing what it was called. I noticed the 6 beats of the arp but the 4 or 8 of the measure. The 6 don’t fit, but if you think in polymeter terms, then o.k., yes, it works. So the polymeter concept is really good. (Try not to confuse it with polyrhythm.)
In a TwitchTV video from April 25th, 2016, deadmau5 has Cthulhu open and making a great sound using the settings shown in the picture below.
Here the pattern is 1,5,1,3,2,6. Again, like in the previous example, it is a 6 note arpeggio. I did not see his octave screen. He moved these around before and after this screenshot was taken. He was experimenting to get the sound right. He even had a pattern of 8 open at one point but then reduced it to 6.
Here below is the video it came from. Look around 1:25:06 and start watching from there.
And, some more below:
I tried yet another deadmau5 composition of chords and arpeggios. The pattern of this one was not there, but the repetition of the chord with the central parts variation was. So this could be consistency. There was also an unchanging bassline to the chord progression that anchors the bass with a steady beat.
Different were the number of steps in the arp and the structure of it was completely different. So was the chord progression itself. There was no clear major to minor relationship either.
What about that wonderful piano heard on tunes like Nyquist or any of the 7, or 777?
Well, it could be one of two different pianos by my estimation:
- The Kontakt instrument Grandeur piano from Native Instruments – A Steinway D.
- His own Steinway D piano.
I replicated the piano, also used on Nyquist, 7, and 777, very realistically using Pianoteq. You can search and find it on their FXP Corner section.
I hear people say he has backing synths with each note, but I do not hear it. In fact, in Pianoteq, there is no provision for a backing synth sound and I can replicate these piano sounds nearly perfectly using only the effects and microphones found inside of Pianoteq.
The track “Nyquist” has been around for several years in unreleased form. It takes some elements from “Terrors in My Head.”
He definitely uses Strobe by FXPansion among a bunch of other both software and hardware. The song, “Strobe” is probably named after the synth, Strobe.
You can see exactly what he uses by going to his Equipboard page.
deadmau5 says to do all of the mixing to sound good within the mix and not rely on the master chain to do it for you. I would agree.
Almost every channel has a compressor that is sidechained to the kick/snare to back out the level when those come through. But, he says that using LFO Tool makes more sense because it can do the same function without need of a compressor. Compressors keep the levels constant so that a drummer hits the drums at the same amount each time for example, but using them only for ducking is not necessary – use LFO Tool.
Here he shows FF Pro-L only to show what is going on. There is a limiter before this set at -11 and it looks like the in-built Ableton one. He is showing an example here of limited on the left and not on the right.
He puts a FF Pro-L limiter on the end of each mix bus (or instrument) set to limit peaks at -11 dB which is where he says he wants it. Then before going into the master, he increases the levels of those channels feeding in until the peaks are -6 dB.
Here he is showing the LFO Tool and that it shapes the bass (in this case) to what a ducking compressor would do. See how the shape of the waveform below is close to the LFO Tool shape. The LFO Tool triggers every time, so it sculpts the bass in this case to have that ducked out look. Mix that with the drums and you can really hear it.
deadmau5’s master chain in his Masterclass consists of a -6dB peak signal coming into a Line EQ –> MStereo Expander –> OTT –> FF Pro-MB tighter lows setting –> FF Pro-L.
Pro-L settings are showing:
- -5 dB foldback limiting in the image below. Further down the images show that he does not allow the peaks to limit.
- Signal with -8 to -10dB minima.
- Limiting at around 0 dB.
- The average signal is between -10 and -12dB.
- Gain is set at +16.2 dB in the image below. Further below you can see different values.
- Style is Dynamic
- Note the Lookahead, Attack, Release, and Channel Linking knobs. It is not possible to see the exact values, but you can see the knob positions.
He says this is just a style of EDM that gives it a bite that he likes. You can limit less, but this is what he does.
See below the screen showing the Pro L with an average level around -12 dB and deep valleys of the music (unlike above). This is huge dynamic range!
So contrary to what he says, it seems the peaks of the incoming signal are at around -12dB and with his gain turned up to +16, it makes sense (16-12=4) that he gets around 4dB of foldback limiting in the picture above (o.k. 4 or 5, but you can see what I mean).
deadmau5 uses a variety of hardware and software. I am concentrating on the software side of things because these are easier for me to obtain and analyze.
Xfer Records makes great products and it looks like deadmau5 uses their products extensively. He also uses Strobe and Sylenth.
Strobe by FXpansion is a synth that can be used to get exactly the deadmau5 sound. He made a track named Strobe because that is what he used to make it.
Items common to deadmau5 chords and arpeggios:
- The bassline of the chord progression is unchanging and the chord notes in it is an octave or lower while maintaining the key of the chord. This makes the bassline of the composition.
- The central parts of the chord progressions have different notes (also in the chord) to provide variation. But, the ends and beginnings of the chord progressions match and do not. This makes the chord progressions match and resolves well together.
- The arpeggios go up or down by octaves. I saw this in an analysis of another one as well.
The other items are different:
- Length of the arpeggios is different.
- Chord progressions are different and I cannot tell what pattern they follow.