Tonight I’m having a listen to Roar by Katy Perry . What hooks me about this song is the energy and strength of empowerment communicated through the arrangement which echoes the message of the lyrics. This is a really incredible song on many levels, resuscitation and as usual for me I’m having a peek behind the curtain as I best I can with my engineer/producer ear. Listen along through Apple Music.
The first impact of the song gives us three staples which maintain pretty much throughout: the shuffled march of the kick/snare pattern, emergency the eighth note regular ‘chink chink chink chink’ top end, and the heavily pre-fader reverbed “hey” on the upbeat of beat 4. In the second measure of this pattern we get a solid drop of most everything on beat 4 to build up the anticipation for the vocal/bass.
Breaking these sounds down a bit, the ‘chink chink chink’ is a layer of at least two sounds, one heavily reverbed with a high pass filter which sounds like it could be the chirp/whistle of a B3 type organ panned just right, and the lower part of the chord is an interval of a 5th, still high pitch, panned just left and almost no reverb by comparison. They play together so in our little orchestra it hits as one instrumental part. Now, one thing that’s cool (possibly only to a geek like me) is that a 5th is a power chord on the guitar. Here that 5th is light and feminine, almost child-like, but it’s a power chord just the same, and it gives me a preemptive feeling that we are going to hear her roar.
Ok, after that beat drop we get Katy’s quick inhale introducing her incredible vocal performance. A couple quick notes on this, I LOVE the naturalness left in. In such a produced track there is no sound not intentional, and these humanizing elements have a great intention. Also, you might not have noticed, but the super-reverbed “hey” is gated such that the whole first part of the syllable is chopped off. I think that’s a really cool way of making they “hey” more impactful at a much lower volume while the lead vocal which is significantly louder has something so intimate as a breath which makes it come across more delicately. (While of course her vocal performance is anything but delicate!)
More on her vocal sound in a minute, but first, let me tell you about that bass. Hitting in sync with her vocal, this deep sustaining monophonic synth has a mellow glide that hangs behind the the chord changes but has so much girth that just fills the floor of the mix with a subharmonic bear hug. Incidental to what it’s doing the floor boards I think it’s poetic that big bass man lumbers behind the limber lady, catching up on his own time while she leads the charge.
I love how sparse the verse is. You almost get silence between the beats which gives you some room to consider her lyrics. Her vocal is a single performance until “You held me down, but I got up…” which is a doubled unison. What I think is pretty cool is how incredibly tight the unison part is, almost indiscernible as a separate track. What pushes it above for some extra spectral shimmer is that it’s being driven through some other preamp or EQ that is being pushed into the distortion zone, but it’s so musical the distortion just sparkles with the dynamics of the vocal performance. On a pop track like this it’s not uncommon at all to have the vocal compressed and riding as one of the loudest parts of the mix. Often times that level of compression and limiting gives the performance nowhere to go volume-wise for more oomph. What is special about this track is that the extra kick up in vocal dynamic is still achieved not by loudness, but in a parallel vocal track whose distortion level is responsive with the original dynamics of the performance. It’s like it can’t get any louder than 10, so this let’s the vocal ratchet up to 11 (or even 12 and 13 as this song evolves with harmonies.) We get the first taste of harmony on the second time she sings “you held me down…” and we get our build to the chorus with a taste of echo “I see it all, I see it now…”
The chorus comes in on that dropped out 4 “I’ve got the eye…” and it’s really an incredible layer of doubled, tastefully reverbed and panned vocals. It is actually really hard to pick out how many individual parts there are to this vocal, but I can say this: you have unisons, slight harmony and a high octave ridden so flavorfully they hit as one very impactful voice. I’m really impressed at how well timed the vibratos are.
The other instrument here in this chorus has the effect of a sustained and very heavy guitar. It could be a guitar or just something being run through a guitar type of signal chain. Something that really makes it impact is that it’s the notes of the already familiar bass line, but bigger, massive sustain.
One really cool effect done to the vocal when it gets to the “ohoh oh oh oh ohoh,” part of the chorus we have a gate that chops off the first part of each note timed so it’s almost quantized to eighth notes. It gives a short impulse of silence (space) in the vocal with each “oh” really hitting hard. On the last “roar” almost the entirety of the arrangement drops out save for the drums. This let’s that hook really STATE itself.
A remark about reverb in this track, it is crucial to the space and arrangement. It’s sent on an almost a note by note basis, with many parts of the song layered, with only certain layers being sent (often pre-fader and therefore being entirely wet). What you hear on this “roar” is the drier more up front vocals are gracefully faded out, leaving that super reverb “roar” to sustain. In my opinion it gives a greater dynamic depth to the performance than if you had a single uniform reverb send used for melodic aspects of the arrangement. Instead of adding more parts or more notes or more instruments the (fictional) reverbant space is played as it’s own instrument, adding depth AND dynamic to the track. The reverb of the roar cuts off dramatically before the second verse.
In the second verse we get a more instant harmony on the vocal as well as a punctuated line encircled with a high octave “like thunder gonna shake the ground.” Also we have panned to the right a very wet “ahhhhh” type of pad. It’s low in the mix but it is a nice build for this chorus. Also, it’s the same notes as the bass. This is great, the listener isn’t bombarded having to wrap their head around new melodies or rhythms, but sonically they still get a journey through evolving textures along a set of changes that surely would pass the “old gray whistle test.”
There are a couple little extra vocal punctuation as coloring out this verse and even more in the second chorus.
The pre-outchorus is built up by basically ditching everything including the drums. What is left is our melody that was established by the bass, but played instead by a reverbed slightly less distorted guitar on the left and our “ahhhhhh” pad to the right. SO MUCH SPACE.
Big crescendo with the drums building us up to the completely open “I’ve got the eye of the tiger…” And the vocal layers are dense and so slick it comes out as just one insanely empowered Katy. With the whole shebang rolling for the outchorus we get some vocal riffing and improv driving it all home.
The last notes are basically guitar buzz as the last note is held out. One left, one right, asynchronous release that makes it feel that in the end it was just a couple of guys jamming.
Some final remarks here; while the pieces of this song are quite simple, quite memorable, the composite is the result of a very well-thought-out arrangement consisting of many disparate instruments and layers that are played together as one. The dynamics come largely from the combinations of these parts and its impressive that something can feel like it starts out at about a 7, going quickly to 9, then 10, then somehow 11, ripping up to a 13 before it goes out to about a 2 on the last note. I think this song would be quite a trick to cover because the simplicity in its melody belies a complexity in arrangement. Very very impressive and such a fantastic message. Thank you Katy and co.!