Max Martin – the personification of a hit machine
Analyzing 5 distinctive production methods of the man himself
We are reaching the end of 2017 and the best selling album of the year seems to be already defined. After being released in November, only 1 month ago, selling over 1.05 million copies in the first week and being streamed more than 500 million times on Spotify at the moment of writing, it’s quite extraordinary. We are talking about Taylor Swift’s album ‘Reputation’. But this article is not about Taylor Swift’s album. It’s about the man behind the hit songs on the album: Martin Sandberg, known professionally as Max Martin.
For the general public, the name Max Martin might not ring an immediate (cow)bell, but they definitely know his song productions. Over the last 20 years Martin has written or co-written 22 Billboard Hot 100 number-one hits, most of which he has also produced or co-produced, including Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (2008), Maroon 5’s “One More Night” (2012), Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” (2014), and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” (2015). Martin is the songwriter with the third-most number one singles on the chart, behind only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26).
Martin’s production skills are extraordinary, but at the same time he’s a man of few words and likes to keep things simple, rarely speaking in public. He speaks through his music, especially his hit-records. In this article we have selected 5 of his very distinctive production techniques to get a glimpse. Let it inspire you!
1. Repetition in a not-so-obvious way
We like repetition and it is a principle of music to repeat the theme. Having too much information in the song is definitely something to avoid, according to Martin. Especially if the chords change a lot over the course of a song, Martin says it is better to stay within the same melodic structure. But if you do so, do it in a not-so-obvious way. You want to make it sound familiar, not like it is stuck on repeat.
“If you listen to the first, second and third chorus of a song, they don’t sound the same. It’s the same melody and all that but what really happens is that the energy changes. It’s all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration.” ~ Max Martin
Another theory is that you can also sing the chorus melody as a verse, like Prince does a lot. Martin explains:
“…take “I Wanna Be Your Lover” with Prince. The verse and chorus of that song are exactly the same. But as a listener, you don’t really notice since the energy of the chorus is completely different compared to the verse. Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before. And you have! You’ve heard it in the verse. It automatically creates a sense of familiarity. Prince does this a lot.” ~ Max Martin
2. Everything is shorter in life
The very structure of pop songs changed over the last 20 years, and it keeps changing all the time (trends in pop music). Take for example the EDM trend of the last years. It was a period when the average pace of a song was 128 bpm and it was in some way DJ-related. But again, also this changed. These days, there is no dominating trend among the Top 40-songs. A hit can be someone just singing to piano music, anything.
Martin has seen a lot over the years he has been writing and producing some of the most important pop songs. But the biggest change he noticed is how we deal with time and how this reflects on the actual structure of a pop song:
“Today [everything] is more ’Boom!’ … The same thing has happened to pop music. There’s less downtime. Pop music follows the evolution of society in general. Everything moves faster. Intros have gotten shorter.” ~ Max Martin
And this makes sense, in pop music, we do not listen to 40 second intros anymore, we get bored too easily. Technological advances of the digital era have forever changed how we listen to music, and pop music may even reflect that our attention span is getting shorter.
The ability to quickly shuffle or fast forward to the next song while listening to Spotify, Tidal, or other skippable music services has resulted in chart-topping songs that have instrumental intros that are four times shorter today than they were in 1986, according to a new study from the Ohio State University (OSU): If you look back historically, technological changes have likely shaped the way people compose and listen to music for a long time . . . the compact disc brought along an ease of skipping that was leaps and bounds ahead of vinyl or cassette tapes. We’re operating in an ‘attention economy,’ and attention is scarce and valuable. (link)
3. The vibe (artist relaxation)
There is no one size fits all approach to songwriting or production, and that is because it is a personal process. It usually goes with an intuitive approach that is rather based on feelings and emotions instead of theory and structure. For Martin is all starts there, having everyone be comfortable enough to say anything and be themselves. Walking around in his house, the feeling is still that of visiting someone’s home. And that is the whole idea. Martin does not want it too fancy, he just wants everyone to relax. A place where people sit down for lunch, get a snack or a coffee in the kitchen and stand around talking before disappearing into one of the six different recording studios scattered around the house. It is like a regular but unusually homey office. Only difference is that the people hanging out in the kitchen are often the world’s most celebrated artists. All the people who hang out and work in the house have one thing in common: their love of music.
“Artists sometimes feel uncomfortable in studios where every hour feels like it costs money. That goes for some of the young producers too (who only work on their computers), some of them have never been in a real recording studio.” ~ Max Martin
To Martin, vocals are of prime importance. As a producer, he is very present whenever he records the vocal track. “Singing involves a great deal of psychology. If the artist isn’t having a great day or finds it all boring, my role becomes that of a coach. Getting the very best out of the artist.”
Adam Levine of Maroon 5: ”There’s nothing but music in the room when you work with Max. No politics, no money, Max just loves making music.”
A residential building with six different studios is also a great fit for the way today’s pop music is being made. Today, almost every great hit song is the result of a collaborative effort.
Back in the day, pop songs were typically crafted by two people; one person writing the music and another penning the lyrics. Today, focus has shifted from melody & lyrics to tracks & hooks. The sound itself, the production, is of such great importance that it has become an integrated part of the composition. Contemporary pop songs are often created by four to five co-composers.
4. Less is more
Martin really stresses that there should not be too much information in the overall sound. There should never be too many new elements introduced at the same time. He works a lot on getting it all as clear and distinct as possible. What characterises a great pop song, according to Martin, is that it should be felt the moment you hear it.
“You can hear songs that are technically great, songs that tick all the boxes. But for a song to be felt, you need something else. It’s incredibly important to me that you remember a song right after the first or second time you hear it. That something sticks to you, something that makes you feel: ”I need to hear that song again”. That’s fundamental. Something you want again. And again.” ~ Max Martin
5. Song impact
Letting Martin speak: “I like it when a song is like a journey, building up along the way. That they start out smaller than they end. Along the trip, you add elements that make the listener less likely to tire. Then, at the end, euphoria. That’s really true for all songs. It’s all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration. When I play a song to someone and ask ”So how do you like this?”, I don’t care all that much about what they say. What I really pay attention to is how they act, their body language.
People who lose their concentration give themselves away very quickly. If they start fiddling with their phones as the second verse kicks in, there may be something about the tune that wasn’t good enough. Something also happens when I listen as if with other people’s ears. I get nervous and think to myself, ’Shit, this part is a bit too slow’.” ~ Max Martin