Soft Cell – ‘Tainted Love’: A Case Study

OVERVIEW AND HISTORY

Soft Cell were a band formed by two English art students, Marc Almond and Dave Ball in the late 70’s. The song ‘Tainted Love’ became their most successful single and despite delivering 4 more ‘Top 5’ British chart hits from the same album ‘Non Stop Erotic Cabaret’ (1981), most people consider Soft CellSoft_Cell_-_Non-Stop_Erotic_Cabaret_album_cover a ‘one hit wonder’. I believe this is in part due to the fact that ‘Tainted Love’ was such a massive worldwide hit that their other songs have for most paled into insignificance. ‘Tainted love’ went on to spend a record breaking 43 weeks on the American Billboard Hot 100 charts and has endured as a club staple throughout Europe and the USA for decades.

The song was originally composed by songwriter Ed Cobb in 1964 and performed the same year by former backing singer for Elvis Presley, Gloria Jones. At the time, the song was not much of a hit and Jones subsequently retired as a performer focusing on composing music for Motown artists such as Diana Ross, The Commodores and Marvin Gaye. In 1975 however, she re-recorded the song with then boyfriend Marc Bolan of T-Rex and despite again performing poorly on the US charts, the tune made its way to the underground clubs of London. It was there that Almond first heard it and thought he would try and mix this soul song with Soft Cell’s experimental electro style and see what transpired.

The mood in England in 1980 was glum. Thatcher had been in power for a year and was shaking the foundations of English culture, initiating changes that were dividing the country into the ‘haves and have nots’. Unemployment was at 10%, inflation at an all time high of 22% and the working class were desperate and at times violent. It is from this experience that the DIY Punk revolution had arisen and whilst this movement was still in full swing, there was another quietly manifesting, unseen by the mainstream media that would help shape the future of pop music as we know it today. This group was growing organically without any organisation and no apparent center throughout Britain and was evolving around the new technologies becoming affordable to DIY musicians.

Robert Moog had created the first modular synthesiser in 1964 but the price of these

robert moog
Robert Moog

units was restrictive with only the most successful musicians being capable of affording them. In the 1970’s these included progressive rock bands like ‘Pink Floyd’ and ‘Yes’. By the late 70’s however, the Japanese manufacturers such as Korg who had focused on adding a keyboard to the new synthesiser technology, had enabled many struggling but highly motivated musicians to pick up a ‘Mini Korg’ or similar for about $1,500AUD. These new DIY post punk synth pathfinders were inspired by the early founders of electronic music Kraftwerk and included bands that were destined to be heard, such as Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Depeche Mode, The Human League and Devo. Whilst Soft Cell had embraced the new technology of electronic music, their ultimate mission was to add exuberance and passion creating a  sound less manufactured and cold.

BAND MEMBERS

  • Marc Almond: Lead Vocals and Percussion
  • Dave Ball: Synthesisers and Percussion

THE SONG

  • Genre: Synth-pop / New Wave
  • BPM: 145
  • Key: G minor
  • Song length (radio edit used here): 2:41mins
  • Producer: Mike Thorne

SONG STRUCTURE

  • Intro: Bars 1 thru 5 – (5 Bars)
  • Verse One: Bars 6 thru 21 – (16 Bars)
  • Chorus One: Bars 22 thru 35 – (14 Bars)
  • Verse Two: Bars 36 thru 51 – (16 Bars)
  • Chorus Two: Bars 52 thru 73 with a variation on chorus (different vocal melody), at Bar 66 thru 73 – (22 bars)
  • Chorus Three: Bars 74 thru 94 with a variation on chorus (different vocal melody), at thru 86 thru 95 – (22 Bars)
  • Outro: Bars 96 thru fade-out (8 Bars)

PERCUSSION (Kick, Snare and Clap sound)

Dynamic Range:  Producer Thorne recalls “Their drum machine was busted, so I borrowed [singer] Kit Hain’s old Roland. It was just a little wooden box and, since it only had one output, Paul Hardiman separated the kick from the tinny, electronic-sounding snare by using EQ and recording them on different tracks for the convenience of having more kick or more snare as we required”. The kick is quite muddy and well down in the mix dynamically as opposed to the snare sound which along with the bass synth line really holds the track together.  The double clap sound that appears intermittently in the verse on beats one and two and beats three and four in the chorus is the most aggressive sound dynamically in the track. Its like a snare sound but has a metallic ring to it which cuts through the mix like a whip crack.

Spectral Balance: The kick which sounds to be sitting around 100Hz is muddy but warm and certainly not a prominent feature as it is overwhelmed by the bass synth in that frequency range. The tap of the snare appears in the 3 – 4k range and the clap appears present about 5k.

Spatial Characteristics: The kick is back in the mix but definitely centre. The snare is also centre but in the middle due to a short reverb. The clap sound appears present at around 50% – 75% left and has a larger delay applied enhancing the ‘crack’ sound.

SYNTHESISERS (Bass synth, Mid synth, Lead synth, pad synth and Stab synth)

Dynamic Range: The bass synth quite prominent dynamically throughout the track as a whole and maintains an even dynamic range in all sections. The mid synth however has a richer variation of dynamics and this is due to the syncopated elements it performs. Much like the bass synth, the lead synth maintains a regular amplitude throughout. The pad synth in contrast has a wider dynamic range and swells and fades increasing the emotive aspects of the different sections. The stab synth is probably the most forceful element of the group with its offbeat accents that shape the distinctive rhythm the song is famous for.

Spectral Balance: The bass synth operates in the spectrum at between 85Hz and

NED_Synclavier_II_&_floppy_disc_drive_(front)
Thorn’s Synclavier used to generate the Pad Synth sound

400hzand has a full and warm sound. This synth really drives the whole song and as mentioned overpowers the kick in most parts of the song particularly in the lower frequencies of its melody. The Mid synth is present around the 500Hz mark and is quite ‘bright’ in timbre. The Lead synth for the most part mirrors the notes of the bass synth line but 2 octaves above at between 1.5 – 3k. It has quite a tinny timbre and sounds very electronic indeed. The pad synth is very ethereal and is present between 600Hz and 1.5k.  The Stab synth is what I have called the synth that provides the ‘Pum Pum’ sound that syncopates at beat two1/2 and four. It also supports the percussive clap sound on beat one and two in all sections. It operates at approximately 1.5k in the mix.

Spatial Characteristics: The bass synth is slightly left in the mix but up front. This is balanced by the Mid synth which is slightly right but back in the mix slightly in comparison with subtle reverb and distortion applied. The lead synth appears dead centre and is (like the bass synth), forward in the mix. The pad synth pans left to right during the song emphasising its airy, unearthly sound. It is in the middle of the mix depth wise with medium reverb and a slow attack. The Stab synth is about 50% left and quite forward being one of the main features of this track.

Vocals (Lead and Backing)

Dynamic Range: All vocals were performed by Marc Almond as Thorne recalls “When we were still working on getting the right sound, Marc did a run-through, and it’s fortunate that we recorded it because that’s the one we ended up using, he poured his heart out on it and what you hear is a complete take”.  The story goes that during this first take the compressor was on quite heavily and Thorne’s assistant (in a panic), went to make some adjustments but they ended up leaving the settings as it sounded good! You can tell the lead vox is heavily compressed as their is little dynamic range througout the track with the difference in amplitude of only a few dB in any given section. The backing vocals are similar however seem less compressed with a bit more variation in amplitude. This is accentuated by the backing vocals strengthening the lead vocals at the ends of each verse.

Spectral Balance: Marcs voice operates around 200Hz thru to 1.5k in this track and is strongest at around 600 – 800Hz. The backing vocals are firmer at the 1k mark.

Spatial Characteristics: The lead vocals are front and centre throughout the song, very smooth and warm. Reverb has been applied sparingly on the lead vocal but is much stronger on the backing vocals which are also centred in the sound field. The backing vocals are however deeper in the mix and give a sensation of being above and bahind the lead. It sounds like a small delay has been used to increase the fullness of the vocal support and some additional panning left and right enabled by double tracking them.

CONCLUSION

Whilst the lyrics of the song are quite dark, the upbeat nature of the melodies, warm timbre of the vocals and syncopated percussion, serves to confuse the listener into believing that there is an upside despite the downtrodden lyrical content. It is one of those tunes that everyone has heard and after becoming the no.1 selling single when released in 1981 (UK charts), went on to re-chart again at no.5 ten years later in 1991! It has been covered by many artists since 1981 most notable Coil and Marilyn Manson and remains a regularly played track in clubs around the world.

REFERENCES

Buskin, R (2012), Sound on Sound https://www.soundonsound.com/people/soft-cell-tainted-love retrieved on 16th August

 

 

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