Stone Temple Pilots – “Wonderful” : critical analysis of production elements and the emotional impact of musical performance and sonic attributes

This song was performed by Stone Temple Pilots (Scott weiland, Robert DeLeo, Dean DeLeo, Eric Kretz) on their 5th studio release “Shangri-La Dee Da″ in 2001. This album was produced and mixed by Brendan O’Brien, and engineered by Nick DiDia/Billy Bowers.

This article brings a critical analysis of the multiple aspects that make us connect emotionally to a certain song in the Alternative genre. By understanding the important elements of these highly valued performances and their emotional impact on us as listeners, we might learn what it takes to make a truly valuable musical piece.

I highly recommend reading this article while listening to your copy of the song, then watching the video on the bottom where I play the bass part with ultimate attention to the nuances of timing, articulation and dynamics in Robert DeLeo’s performance.

Critical analysis was performed using Ultimate Ears reference custom in-ear monitors.

Intro (2 bars)

The song starts with 2 bars of acoustic guitar, playing a simple C chord, with 1/8th note movement on the D string. The melodic movement of second intervals makes the chord change from suspended 4th to major 3rd, to suspended 2nd then back to major 3rd. Notice that the chord goes back from sus2 to major with a 1/16th note hammer-on on the D string, a simple example of using interesting movement and musical expression in an otherwise ordinary progression. This acoustic guitar is played gently, and compressed very lightly if at all. It has good note definition and sparkle, as well as a “woody” character. It has good body and thump (although the low end thump is filtered so it doesn’t sound boomy), and almost no boxiness. It is panned off center to the left. It sounds relatively dry, with the only reverb tail I hear is the natural reverberation of the room.

A bass downward glissando gets us straight into the first verse. Notice that this glissando is not “cleanly” played, but its timing is a little off, and has another note in a different string played before it.

1st Verse (8 bars)

“If I were to die this mornin’
Would you tell me things that you wouldn’t have?
Would you be my navigator?
Would you take me to a place we could hide?”

The noticeable widening of the stereo image at the very beginning of the verse is achieved by an electric guitar playing whole note chords. I have no clue how they have achieved this unusual sound and movement, but what I hear is the whole note length chords played on the extreme left side, with the majority of the high and mid frequencies filtered, followed by the same sound but with an upward sweep of the filter on the extreme right side.

Adding to the rhythmic movement is something that sounds like frequency swept sharp staccato 1/8th note electric guitar strums, which appears towards the right side, well tucked in the mix.

The lead vocals sound a bit mysterious, sung gently with a good amount of air. They have good body and healthy hi-mid and high frequency content, but don’t sound overly bright. The compression on them also seems to be smooth and pretty transparent, not aggressive or heavy. Adding to the sense of mystery is a very short slap delay tucked well under the vocals, almost unnoticeable. The vocals appear just a pinch off center to the left, while the slap delay appears a pinch off center to the right.

The drums play a very gentle part, rich in movement and syncopated ghost notes on the snare. Most of the movement comes from the Hi-hat, which is playing closed 1/8th notes on the 1 beat, an open hit on the first 1/8th of second beat followed by a closed one on the next 1/8th, closed 1/8ths on the 3rd beat and two open 1/8ths on the last beat. Notice that the articulation on the Hi-hat changes slightly over time. The different note lengths and dynamic accents on the Hi-hat add to the movement and most of the times define the musical personality of the drummer. One more thing that worth noticing, is the combination of the open Hi-hat hit with the snare on the 2nd beat of each bar, played a little laid back after a closed Hi-hat hit, which is one of the characteristics in Eric Kretz’s drumming. It is one of the elements that got me hooked to STP’s first major hit “Plush” from their debut album “Core”.

Drum sound:

The Kick sounds dry and soft, with almost no beater attack, and is pretty much tucked behind the bass. It is present and felt, but not prominent or aggressive in any way. It is panned center.

The Snare has good body, tone and attack, but doesn’t have a lot of ringing and doesn’t sound bright. It is panned center.

The Hi-hat has good sizzle and sounds pretty thin. It is the brightest sounding element in the mix, along with the acoustic guitar. The Hi-hat is panned a little off center to the right.

The cymbals sound very dark and somewhat distant. They are tucked in the mix and appear mono and centered.

The whole drum kit sounds relatively dry, with very little room spatial cues or added reverb, just so they appear glued together and not totally separated.

The bass plays a part which is based on the C pedal point on the first 3 bars, while the guitars play a C-Bb-Fmaj7 chord progression. The dotted 1/8th note rest on the 2nd beat every other bar adds to the tightness of the part and clears a space for the vocals in the beginning of each line. The bass sounds smooth and deep, with a somewhat scooped mid frequency content. It still has good body, but it doesn’t sound aggressive or very growly.

On the 4th bar, as well as on the 8th bar, a backing vocal line is introduced, sung a 4th above the lead melody. At the same time it emphasizes the 9th (on the first note of the line) and 6th (on the last note of the line) of the Bb chord, what adds to the harmonic content. The vocal line is double tracked, panned to the left and right and sounds brighter and a little forward in the mix than the lead vocals. Along with this backing vocal line, there is another one that emphasizes the major 3rd of the chord (a straight line singing high pitch D notes with the same phrasing of the other vocal parts), but this part is tucked behind the lead vocals and is more felt rather than being prominent.

A Snare fill prepares us to the 1st chorus, while overdriven double tracked left and right electric guitars enter on the last 1/16th note of the verse into the chorus.

1st chorus (6 bars)

“As I’m fallin’ out
I wonder what I lost
Must be movin’ on
Know I’ll be waitin’ here alone”

The snare fill, as well as the first snare hit in the chorus seem to be louder and with more attack than in the verse. It seems that a long reverb is added to it in the chorus. this reverb is pretty much tucked in and blends in the mix, and it sends the snare backwards in the mix.

The Hi-hat plays an open 1/8th note pattern, what adds to the open feel of the chorus.

On the extreme left side, a somewhat bright sounding 1/16th note tambourine part is introduced. It accents the 2nd and the 4th beats of the bar, where the snare is played.

The double tracked electric guitars sound crisp and smooth, and blend nicely in the mix.

The lead vocals move more forward in the mix, while another vocal part, sung an octave above the lead vocals is introduced.

A 1/16th note second inversion arpeggiated high pitched keyboard part is also introduced, creating sadness and depth in the chorus. It sounds thin and filtered, and blends nicely with the other instruments.

The bass plays a higher octave part, which emphasizes the major-minor progression in the second bar by playing the minor 3rd of the chord.

Also emphasizing the chord progression is a thin sounding melodic guitar line on the right, tucked in the mix.

On the 3rd bar of the chorus, the lead vocals get rough, while instead of the octave above part is replaced by double tracking of the lead vocals, as well as a harmony part sung a minor 3rd below the lead vocals. This part is also tucked in and adds to the harmonic richness rather than being prominent.

The last vocal line is sung in high pitch with a good amount of air. This vocal part is filtered in the high and low frequencies, with an 1/8th note delay is added to it.

The chorus ends with a tambourine drag and an emphasized 7th chord.

2nd Verse (8 bars)

“I wanna ask you to forgive me
I haven’t been the best with all that I had
Wish I’d only laid beside you
I think I spread myself a little too thin”

The acoustic guitar gets tucked in the mix, while a new dragging rhythmic loop is introduced on the left side.

A high pitched arpeggiated electric guitar part is introduced off center to the right. It sounds distant, with a mild tremolo effect and reverb added to it.

On the second bar, a distant backing vocal part is introduced, which consists of multiple harmonized vocal tracks. It is sung with a lot of air, and spread towards the left, while their reverb spreads also to the right. This part emphasizes the major 7th notes in the chord progression, adding to the sad and hopeless feeling. This part comes back on the 6th bar of the verse as well.

On the 7th bar, another vocal part is introduced on the right. It sounds distant, with a huge amount of long reverb which spreads it across the stereo image.

The drum fill now contain toms as well, leading to the next chorus.

The toms have a good body and tone, but almost no resonance and ringing. They are played gently, and do not have a lot of attack. They are panned towards the left and right of the image but not to the extremes. They appear to be mixed a little louder than the rest of the kit and stick out on the tom fills.

2nd chorus (6 bars)

“As I’m fallin’ out
I wonder what I lost
Must be movin’ on
Know I’ll be waitin’ here alone”

This chorus is similar to the first one, with the addition of multiple harmonized backing vocal parts on the 2nd bar, which supports the movement of the melodic guitar part on the right.

The chorus now builds into the bridge with a drum fill, and something that sounds like a distant downward slide electric guitar part on the right. It falls on the major 7th note of the first chord in the bridge.

Bridge (9 bars)

“You’re the everything
That led me to believe,
“Hold on, hold on”
You’re the wonder in everything
That’s wonderful”

The tambourine stops, while the drums move from the open Hi-hat to a dark crash cymbal drive.

The acoustic guitar is still tucked in the mix, but is played much more aggressively than before.

On the left side appears a melodic keyboard part.

The lead vocals get even more upfront, as another vocal part sung a major 3rd above them emphasizes the words “hold on” on the 3rd and 4th bars.

The electric guitar part on the right starts playing a part with more melodic movement, emphasizing a major 7th – 6th chord note movement on the first bar. The same notes repeat on the next bar, on which they emphasize a 6th – 5th chord note movement. This melodic movement returns on the 5th and 6th bar of the bridge as well.

Another distant downward slide appears on the right at the end of the second bar, while the right guitar plays the same melodic movement of the D string as the acoustic guitar in the intro on the 3rd and 4th bar. The bass and drums emphasize the last 1/16th note of these bars, supporting the melody (on the word “on”).

The distant slide appears again at the end of this part.

All instruments play a 2 bar open note, while the acoustic guitar is playing the same part from the intro. It is raised back in level to the level it was before.

Guitar solo (8 bars)

The slide guitar solo starts on the second 1/32nd note of the last beat. Notice that it does not fall exactly on that subdivision, the timing of this note is determined only by personal feel and intention. If you listen closely, you’ll also hear other notes in the solo that do not fall exactly on a distinct subdivision. It sounds good and musical because it conveys emotion with good taste and feel. These timing/phrasing nuances are part of the important elements that define a guitar player’s musical personality.

The solo is played over a part that is similar in texture to the second verse, but without the vocal harmony.

This guitar sounds pretty bright and midrange oriented, with good attack and note definition. It is surrounded by a long stereo reverb with long pre-delay, which prevents the guitar from sounding too distant. There is also a mono 1/8th note delay, tucked behind and adding depth.

A drum fill leads us to the last chorus-bridge section of the song.

3rd chorus (6 bars)

“As I’m fadin’ out
I don’t feel anything at all
Think I’m movin’ on
Know you’ll be safe but not alone”

This chorus is texturally similar to the 2nd chorus, except that the lead vocals are double tracked throughout. All instruments playing with more attitude and aggression than before.

Between the chorus and the bridge, the distant downward slide on the right is played a little behind this time.

Bridge (10 bars)

“You’re the everything
That led me to believe,
“Hold on, hold on”
You’re the wonder in everything
That’s wonderful”

It’s the same as the 1st bridge, with few minor additions.

On the 4th bar (the second “hold on”) There is a change in the melody, which drives up the emotional level even more, while the bass supports it and plays almost the same melody in the high register.

On the 5th bar, on the words “you’re the wonder in” there is a backing vocal part which emphasizes the 3rd above (minor 3rd at the beginning and major 3rd at the end) of the lead vocals.

On the 7th bar starts a turnaround chord progression derived from the chord change in bars 3 and 4 of the chorus, followed by the chord progression from bars 5 – 6 of the bridge, but cut in half.

A ritenuto on the last bar leads us to the end, which is a long open C chord played by the acoustic guitar and bass only, supporting the vocals. Also on this bar, the melodic guitar part on the right side from the 2nd bar of the chorus appears and slowing down with all instruments.

The hiss from the vocal track (I believe) stays and then cut abruptly, leaving a clean fade out of the last chord.

Feel free to let me know what you think, and if you liked it, don’t hesitate to share…

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