Imagine Dragons – Radioactive
Album: Night Visions
Writer: Ben McKee, Dan Platzman, Dan Reynolds, Wayne Sermon, Alexander Grant, Josh Mosser
Producer: Alexander Grant (Alex Da Kid)
Genre: Alternative rock, electronic rock
“Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons is an interesting song to analyze. It blurs two very distinct genres so that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on in the song. The only thing you can tell is that it’s good.
“Radioactive” has gotten flak for being overplayed and overrated. I think that’s all irrelevant because any critic would love to have the success Imagine Dragons have had with their award performances and teamups.
They teamed up with Alex Da Kid to produce their album Night Visions. With a Vegas rock band and an English hip-hop producers, something original is bound to happen. Regardless of the production of the song and all the ambient textures and dub step elements that are thrown in from time to time, their songs are inherently band-driven. As they told the Grammy’s, “All of our demos start off really basic, mainly just chord progressions and melodies. We’ve always felt that you have to get that right first. Production is really secondary to that. If you don’t have a good song melodically, you don’t have a good song, no matter what you do to it.” –http://www.grammy.com/news/the-making-of-imagine-dragons-radioactive.
That’s a really good point. If a production doesn’t have a song at its core it’s essentially an empty shell that doesn’t have any emotion. You can have all the tightest beats in the world and an arsenal of awesome synth patches but without a great melody or a catchy tune to tie it all together it’s basically a bunch of useless gear.
With that said, let’s look at the actual song structure before we dive into the grittiness of the arrangement.
The structure is a familiar one and has a catchy chorus, two common traits of a radio hit.
You could also say that the “I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones” could technically be a pre-chorus because it’s different than the “Radioactive” part but since you can’t really play one without the other I lump them together for simplicity. Another way to look at it would be to make the “pre-chorus” the chorus and the “Radioactive” part the “hook” but now we’d just be arguing semantics.
It’s a standard 4/4 meter but with a heavy emphasis on the backbeat. There’s no “groove” per say in the song, but rather a heavy slow march pounding steadily.
The song starts off quietly, and knowing what’s going to happen it’s almost like the calm before the storm. There are at least two guitars playing the intro, with one strumming chords while the other fingerpicks the main counter-melody that shows up in various parts of the song. The guitar chords are accompanied by oohing vocals doubling the hook. The second time through there is an additional harmony in the vocals and a filter slowly opens up a synthesizer sound that flows into the verse.
The first part of the verse consists of a kick and snare beat, a filthy dub step bass and vocals. The *GASP* moment is a very unique way to connect the two verses. In the second part of the verse the delayed electric guitar part adds an additional part to the arrangement.
The chorus starts on the upbeat before the drums explode into the chorus, a great way to add momentum into a chorus. The chorus sounds like it has an army of vocals, both doubling the lead vocal melody as well as ton of “oohs” in the background. The instrumentation all blends together in the album version but when they play it live they have one guitar playing sustained power chords while the other keeps playing a chordal melody high up on the neck. You can hear the lead line blend in quite nicely and you really need to crank up your headphones to hear how it’s played.
They dive straight into the next verse with the same instrumentation as the second part of the first verse. In the second part of this verse a Theramin or Ebow type synth sound plays the lead counter-melody from the intro.
The chorus is exactly the same as before. With such a strong melody and hard-hitting production you don’t really need to add anything to make people want to hear it again.
With that hard-hitting chorus a breakdown section is a perfect way to make the final chorus even bigger. The beat drops out and all we’re left with is a lonely vocal and the lead line in the background. Background “oohs” fade in with the synthesizer texture for the second half before the whole band punches in for the final chorus.
I’ve left all the interesting parts to discuss about the chorus until the end. The fact is that there are some pretty subtle production things to do with the rhythm of the beat as well as the melody of the vocal that make the song so strong. Listen especially to the vocal jumping an octave in the chorus, really punching the intensity of the melody home. Additionally, there’s a really subtle dynamic change when they sing the third “new age” right before they crash into the “Radioactive” hook. The gap in the drum and bass hit gives a subjective increase to the power of the downbeat of the next section. I think these two dynamic changes, the power of the melody and the sudden subtraction of the beat is what adds interest to the chorus.
The guitars and vocals in the intro have a touch of some really nice reverb to give them some space and depth. The acoustic strum is definitely the closest of the instruments in the intro and the vocals are the furthest away reverb-wise.
The drum beat is heavily processed with some distortion, possible bit crushing of some sort. Alex Da Kid likes using Logic and Bit Crusher would help create that gritty distortion in the beat. The snare has a reverse snare effect on certain hits that are processed as well. That effect is taken when you reverse the snare hit and align it in front of the actual snare beat so that it sounds as if the snare drum is inhaling before it’s hit.
The bass is the typical wobbly dub step sound that’s very popular in dub step and popular house music. It’s gotten so popular that even some of the biggest pop artists have started incorporating it into their songs (see Taylor Swift’s “I Knew Your Were Trouble for a country-pop adaptation of dub-step elements).
There’s delay on the vocals in the verse that keeps them pretty close while still giving them depth. In the choruses the vocals are doubled with additional backing vocals and I wouldn’t be surprised if some extra reverb were added to make the sound of the vocals bigger and further away.
The guitar in the second verse is either double-tracked or is panned to the left with a mono delay panned to the right speaker.
There’a a lot of different textures that aren’t necessarily musical notes that you should hear but rather something you should feel. There’s always something in the background that gives the song it’s ambience. The type of textures in the song lay the backdrop for the song, sort of like what a set in a theater would do in a play.
Key Take Aways
Counter melodies are key – Countermelodies that are recur throughout the song are great production elements. It’s kind of like if you had two melodies and you pick the stronger one for the vocal while creating a motif out of the weaker one to use in your instrumentation and arrangement. You will see this in many of the songs in this course.
Keep it dirty but out of the way – The grittiness of the drums and bass in the lower middle frequencies is very characteristic of the song. The added textures that live in the lower frequencies probably don’t help when you’re trying to clean up the mix but this song manages to keep the highs clear while making the mids gritty. It’s all about heavy EQ’ing and filtering things out of the way.
Jump octaves for a massive chorus – One of the cooler things in the melody is the jump from one octave to the other. This isn’t easy to do for a vocalist, especially not a baritone like Dan Reynolds but it really makes the song.
Layer backing vocals – You want an idea for a massive chorus? Double the main vocals, harmonize the lead melody and add a small choir of “ooohs” to top it off. There’s nothing cooler than a bunch of vocals making the chorus massive. Sure, you can do it with walls of guitars or other instruments but there’s just something pure about a wall of vocals.