The Prodigy – ‘Breathe’: A Case Study

Overview and History

The Prodigy were formed out of the hardcore rave scene in England in 1992 however soon started pushing the boundaries by blending other genres into their music including Industrial, Breakbeat and Techno with a solid dose of Punk and Rock thrown in for good measure. The song ‘Breathe’ (from the 1996 album ‘Fat of the Land), was a major worldwide hit smashing the no.1 spot in Britain and much of Europe and reaching no.2 on the Australian charts. Most of their tunes were violent, chaotic and confronting but extremely well produced and their music videos were the same. I distinctly remember the angst and concern on mothers faces as they saw what their kids were watching on MTV and Rage at the time, but this in no way stopped the Prodigy as despite the clip for ‘Breathe’ earning an ‘M’ rating in Australia, it won the viewers choice award for best video from MTV in 1997. One of many awards they received for their music and videos.

The video matches the song admirably and is dark, manic, aggressive and nightmarish. It was directed by English film director Walter Stern who created several music videos for The Prodigy and has other notable credits including Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, The Chemical Brothers and Madonna. The visual representations in the video demonstrated the bands overall attitude to the music scene at the time demonstrating their clear intent to shake it up with something the world had not heard before.

It was also a particularly opportune moment for the band as in 1994 the UK Government released the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which was specifically aimed at the rave parties so popular at the time and ‘section V’ of the legislation included a ban on ‘music gatherings with repetitive beats’! The Prodigy’s militant nature suited the feelings of rebellion and anger against the establishment that was attempting to stifle the creativity and expression of the days youth.

Band Members

  • Liam Howlett: keyboards, synthesizers, programming, laptop, computer, samples, sequencers, turntables, drum machines, producing and mixing (1990–present)
  • Keith Flint: dancing, vocals (1990–present)
  • Maxim Reality: MC, beatboxing, vocals (1990–present)
  • Jim Davies: guitar (1995–1996, 2002–2004)
prodigy01
The Moog Prodigy was so adored by Liam Howlett he appropriated the name to the band!

The Song

  • Bpm: 132
  • Key:  A flat minor however the guitar appears to be tuned down to Drop D
  • Song Length (radio edit used here): 4.00mins

Primary Samples Used

Sample: Drum beat
Taken from: Thin Lizzy – “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” (1977)

Sample: Ringing percussion
Taken from: The Meters – “Here Comes the Meter Man” (1969)

Sample: Swords clashing
Taken from: Wu-Tang Clan – “Da Mystery of Chessboxin” from the album called “36 Chambers”.

Sample: Guitar sample
Taken from: John Barry’s James Bond score

Song Structure

  • Intro: Bars 1 thru 20 however I also split the intro into two at Bar 9 thru 20 which is where the sword clashing sound appears (seemed to make sense to me)!
  • Verse One: Bars 21 thru 28
  • Chorus / Hook: Bars 29 thru 38
  • Bridge / Interlude: Bars 39 thru 55. Once again this section seemed to have two key parts so I split at Bar 47 thru 55 which is where the drums and bass line come back in and build to Verse Two.
  • Verse Two: Bars 55 thru 63
  • Chorus / Hook Two: Bars 63 thru 71
  • Bridge / Interlude Two: Bars 72 thru 91. Again this section seemed to be split into two parts the second commencing at Bar 78 thru 91
  • Intro Repeat: Bars 92 thru 112 with a split featuring sword clashing which re-appears at Bar 100
  • Verse 3: 113 thru 120
  • Chorus / Hook Three: 121 thru 128
  • Outro: Bars 129 thru 132Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 11.21.15 am

N.B. The bar numbers are not exact due to the nature of a lot of The Prodigy’s music.  Sections will come in slightly early or late ‘off beat’ (up to half way through a bar). I believe this is all part of the band imposing the manic, unapologetic and disturbing aura to their music they are renowned for. Mins / Secs would have been much more accurate, but the above is very close as a reference.

Drums

Dynamic Range: The primary drum sound used in this song is from the Thin Lizzy sample however listening to that sample it is obvious to me that Liam Howlett has also used a drum machine to beef up the sound.

emu SP1200 Drummachine
E-mu SP1200 Drum Machine

Most likely the same one he used to create the first hit on the album ‘Firestarter’, the E-mu SP1200. The kick sound of all the percussion sounds is quite dominant dynamically (apart from the sword clash and sampled cymbals in parts). The sampled Thin Lizzy drum beat is very steady throughout and has probably been compressed to achieve this.

Spectral Balance: There is a rich diversity of frequencies throughout this song but the dominant frequency range in amplitude is between approximately 50Hz and 150Hz. This is where the kick is sitting. The snare sounds like it is present in the  2k – 5k range and has a sharp ‘whack’ to it. There is another percussive element that appears often throughout the song and that is the cymbal hits of ‘The Meters’ sample. It is also occupying a higher frequency band than the snare at what seems be about 10k.

Spatial Characteristics: The sound is relatively dry and there is not a great deal of reverb throughout. I think there is some delay on the snare hits however. The only panning I can detect is on the ringing cymbals of The Meters ‘ringing percussion’ sample which are maybe 75% left. This is balanced by another element I have not discussed to this point, which is a triple ‘click’ that answers the cymbals on the right the same distance. The kick is dead on center and not as far back in the mix as in many forms of music however for this style, more forward than normal is correct!

Guitars

Dynamics: There are three guitar parts in ‘Breathe’, one is the James Bond sample which features as a key element in the intro (bars 1 thru 20) and again in intro 2, (bars 92 thru 112). The second is played by Jim Davies in the Bridge / Interludes (which provides the most peaceful and natural sounding sections of the piece). The third, also played by Davies is a harsh chord progression providing the beef along with the synth bass in support of the verse and chorus sections. The sample has some interesting dynamics in it with emphasis and therefore amplitude being felt on the high notes of the riff as it is played. A similar guitar sensation is evident on guitar two: there is what appears to be an low open string being played with that underpins the other notes of the chord. This low open note then places the emphasis on the higher notes providing more dynamics for the listener. Guitar three however seems to have a bunch of compression applied to it. The levels are very even as it strums one single chord at the start of each bar.

Spectral Balance: Most of the frequencies on the guitars are in the low mids to lows apart from guitar two. Guitar two has the open string below which is about as low as I can sing so feels between 200 down to about 100Hz (depending on what part of the riff is being played), but the higher notes of the chord must be hitting close to 500Hz. A nice contrast for a guitar.

Spatial Characteristics: Guitar one seems to have some panning left and right going on and I think this is emphasised by the dynamics between the lower and high notes in the riff. It is front and centre in the mix as is the only instrument in a couple of sections but plays second fiddle and moves to the rear as the bass brutally muscles its way to the front in the sections it plays. Guitar two is much the same however it has some reverb on it giving it the sound of being in a larger space and also like guitar two it is the star of the plate until the throbbing bass and drums come in to push it back out. Guitar three seems to be pretty much in the middle of the mix left to right and just behind the vocals when they come in.

Synth Parts (Bass, Overhead Melody / Chords and Swords Clashing Sample)

Dynamics: I consider the bass line performed on a Roland W-30 to be the dominant

W30 Live photo
Liam used the W-30 to trigger all other equipment for many years.

element to this song as it is usually in the mix and at the forefront. The dynamics are relatively stable in the bass part, however there is a percussive pulse present which makes for enough dynamic presence to create a certain foreboding and expectancy for what is to come for the listener. In the verse and chorus the bass leads the guitar in a downward progression where this pulse disappears and the vocals become the focus. There is little dynamic range in these parts however at all other sections of the song the listener is pummeled by the dynamics and changing amplitude of this pulsing bass. The overhead melody (as I call it as it always appears to be above and to the rear),  has an interesting dynamic range. For example in the intro sections it appears a few times and creeps in rising in volume until it is cut off as it reached its highest amplitude. It also is a harbinger (like the pulsing bass), of what is to come in the chorus. Really quite effective. The final primary synth part (although there are other minor and less noticeable ones in this song), is the ‘Wu-Tang Clan’ sample. I had always thought of it like a whip cracking before my research revealed it was a sword clash and it  really does have a metallic industrial type ring to it. As far as dynamics go, this element by its very contrasting frequency and sound when arriving against the duller hum of the bass synth provides it’s own. It is louder on the highest and last strike also.

Spectral Balance: The throbbing bass synth is in the lower frequencies i.e. approximately strongest between 50 and 100Hz throughout and is more powerful than any other element in the song as a result. Its presence dominates in all sections where the vocals are not present. The overhead chords and melody synth lines seem to be around 1.5 to 2.5k. The clashing sword sample is higher again on its final strike and perhaps about 4k. These elements all seem to work well together with all clearly present and none really fighting for space in the mix.

Spatial Characteristics: The bass synth really remains forward in the mix and in the centre in some parts, to the left in others, only taking a backward step to the vocals in the verse and chorus. The syncopation of the base line does however provide a sense of left to right even when it is actually slightly left. The chords and melody synth remains marginally right, but creep from back to front using an increase in amplitude in almost all cases. The sword clash sample however slides from centre and behind to the front and far right at its peak. All in all not a lot of movement in these elements as they are all features when they appear in the tune (except the synth chords which never really become the star). Another interesting aspect spatially provided by the synth appears in the Bridge / Interlude Two (2.25mins), which is the sound of wind moving from far left to far right for the duration of this section.

Vocals

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Dynamics: Two vocalists to consider in this deconstruction; Keith Flint on lead vox (very Lydonesque), and Maxim Reality who provides a reply to the lead vox lyrics which is more of a ‘shout’ than a real melodic element. It would appear that a fair amount of compression has been used on the lead vocals as I have heard them live and Keith is very passionate. Therefore, the lyrics in this song should by default demand some dynamics. There are parts where the amplitude does increase slightly and I think this is very important to the brutal frontal assault of the lyrical content. On the backing vocals the dynamic range is more noticeable however e.g. “Psycho-somatic addict INSANE“, but it is certainly not overbearing and the producer Liam obviously understood the importance of ‘keeping it real’ but not letting it get ‘too real’ for a listener on CD or radio!

Spectral Balance: Lead vocals move to as low as approx 120Hz with ‘Come play my game’, but generally remain in the 500Hz range. The shouted reply to the lead vocals get a little higher at approx 1k, on the final ‘INSANE’ line, probably 2k.

Spatial Characteristics: Lead vox is primarily in front as is to be expected and in the verses is quite central in the mix. However, at times lead swings a little right and is answered by the backing vocal shout slightly left. There is quite a bit of reverb on the backing vocals but not a great deal on lead.

Conclusion

A great song and great album currently celebrating its 20 year anniversary. An interesting but more difficult song to case study than expected due to its structure and my minimal knowledge of electronic elements.

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