Technique - The Breakdown

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Tensnake – ‘Coma Cat’

Attack’s composition expert Oliver Curry examines the melodic elements which help make Tensnake’s 2010 single ‘Coma Cat’ a modern classic.

The Breakdown is a new series in which we break down (get it?) well known tracks, showing what makes them so effective. Unlike our Passing Notes series, the emphasis here isn’t on practical tips. We’re not trying to show you how to recreate these tracks, but to get under the skin of a few classics, new and old, and to explain what makes them special. Sound design, composition, mixing, structure, even lyrics – anything goes.

Coma Cat – background

In the first edition of The Breakdown, we’re going to look at a number of simple but effective musical elements of Tensnake’s 2010 crossover hit ‘Coma Cat’. Let’s start by listening to the track:

‘Coma Cat’ has two prominent melodic parts – the bass and vibraphone lines. Both melodies are taken from Anthony and The Camp’s Jellybean Benitez-produced 1986 track ‘What I Like’:

Pentatonic scales and syncopation

The bassline uses just the pentatonic notes from the D minor scale. For an explanation of minor pentatonic scales and their use in house basslines, see a previous Passing Notes article.

Looking at the piano roll below we can see that the notes highlighted in blue fall on the 16ths immediately before or after the first beat of each bar:

This syncopation (or swing) is key to the feel of this bassline and is a rhythmic trademark of funk and disco basslines.

A similar rhythmic effect is implemented throughout the vibraphone part, which also employs chords built using the D minor scale to reinforce the melodic structure of the bassline:

D minor 7 inversions

The intermittent, delayed, piano chord hits (at 1:48, 1:57 and so on) play different inversions of a D minor 7 chord (see Passing Notes on deep house chords for an explanation of 7s):

Inversions of a chord use exactly the same notes but at different pitches. In this case the D (highlighted in yellow) is just moved alternately up or down an octave to change the sound of the chord without affecting its key or context, as we can hear below:

This subtle variation in the construction of this chord helps provide movement and continuity in the track.

Structure

Finally, the simple but effective way in which the track gradually combines its parts contributes hugely to its uplifting dancefloor appeal. The DJ-friendly intro uses percussion fills, vocal cuts and a very minimal, stripped-down bassline, before the vibraphone parts are introduced on their own at 1:27.

When the drums and bassline finally drop with the cut vocals (at 1:43), the vibraphone is omitted. At 2:15, the anticipation of having heard both parts separately for so long means that the effect of introducing them both simultaneously is hugely increased. This is a very simple and commonly used structural approach in house.

After dropping and reintroducing the various parts once more, the main elements are all reintroduced for a second time later in the track, providing one last focal point before the long, percussion-led outro.

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  • Words: Oliver Curry
  • Date: 22nd October 2012
  • Jack Levin Wrote:

    Thanks for the breakdown, but I think you should focus more on the structure part of the song next time in order to know which parts can be extended or why there is a break just where it is. That’s my humble opinion. Thank you one more time.

  • Attack Wrote:

    Thanks Jack. We’ll be concentrating on different aspects of the track each time, depending on what’s most important to its overall sound and feel. The structure of ‘Coma Cat’ is relatively simple, hence why we’ve focused primarily on the melodic elements here. We’ll definitely be covering structure in depth at some point in the future though.

  • Celso Wrote:

    Very good…I am a big fan of the site. Can you do an Afro House breakdown as well something like Black Coffee superman would be nice ;)
    Thanks again

  • bob Wrote:

    great tutorials as always

  • Ablore Wrote:

    Loving the tutorials as always. Just being able to see the piano roll is a God send.

  • Edward Wrote:

    Another great breakdown – thanks Oliver. The only thing wrong with these theory tutorials is that they end too soon! It’s great to see theory related back to specific tracks; most books and theory resources for contemporary music are oriented towards rock and pop. Even where the theory behind the track is simple, as here, it’s great to hear the key elements in isolation from the track and think about how much can be made out of a few good ingredients.

  • Nick Wrote:

    Excellent….lovin these. Any chance you can make the Logic Piano Roll shots bigger. I am going seriously cross eyed trying to copy that grid into Logic :)

  • Attack Wrote:

    Hi Nick. Click the screenshots to enlarge them! Hope that helps.

  • John Wrote:

    Hey, just stumbled across your site today. House ain’t really my main focus – but this article is a great insight.

    Is there a way to subscribe to this series – I’m always looking to improve the arrangement and structure of my tracks.

    Well done – keep up the great work!

  • Simon Wrote:

    This plus Beat Dissected and Passing Notes series are fanastic!

  • shannon Wrote:

    Fucking awsome as always