In music, four-to-the-floor is a simple creature. One beat equals one strike on the kick drum, over and over again, for all eternity. Given the simplicity of counting to four, it’s mind-boggling how much music has been built on top of such a basic concept.
Born into the mainstream in the disco era, four-to-the-floor made itself at home in the world of nightclub dancing, and decades later, still drives the beat behind electronic dance music, albeit with fewer sequins.
In the late 2000s, our old friend four-to-the-floor experienced a mutation. Deep in the heart of London, four mad scientists, collectively known as Mumford and Sons, took four-to-the-floor in one hand, folk music in the other, and smashed them together in a song called “Little Lion Man”. The combination caught on like a drum kit on fire, and from that point on, four-to-the-floor was everywhere, making it possibly the most identifiable hallmark of early 2010s pop music.
The Original: Wake Me Up by Avicii
In 2013, four-to-the-floor achieved a beautiful full-circle moment with the release of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”.
Equal parts electronic dance music, folk, and soul, “Wake Me Up” is tied together by four-to-the-floor in a package that has come to be known as folktronica. Released as the lead single off Avicii’s debut album True, “Wake Me Up” was written as a collaboration between Avicii (a.k.a. Tim Bergling, a Swedish DJ and producer), Mike Einziger, and Aloe Blacc – who provided the lyrics and later released his own acoustic version of the song.
Song Structure (Original):
The song stays quite steady at 124 BPM (beats per minute), and is characterized by mostly acoustic verses and choruses, interspersed with instrumental sections with a distinctive riff. Electronic elements are used to increase energy at various points in the song, predominantly in the instrumental riff sections.
In terms of energy and drive, there are three distinct peaks in Avicii’s version. The first peak comes halfway through the first instrumental riff section [1:50], when the electronic elements are introduced. It drops down when Blacc’s vocals come in for the second verse [2:00], and builds again to the beginning of the breakdown [3:02]. Avicii uses the breakdown to lower the energy for the final build, which peaks for the last time at the mid-point of the final instrumental riff section [3:45].
Here’s a bar-by-bar breakdown of the song:
- Intro (4 bars) [0:00]
- Verse one (16 bars) [0:08]
- Chorus (16 bars) [0:38]
- Instrumental riff section (12 bars) [1:10]
- Instrumental riff section (electronic) (14 bars) [1:33]
- Verse two (16 bars) [2:00]
- Chorus (16 bars) [2:30]
- Breakdown (8 bars) [3:02]
- Instrumental riff section (electronic) (16 bars) [3:29]
The Cover: Wake Me Up by Simply Three
Now, what could be more natural than taking “Wake Me Up”, a dance-fuelled soul-folk summer anthem, and placing it into the hands of three classically-trained string musicians? In fact, quite a lot of things might seem more natural than this!
However, the three extremely talented musicians comprising the string trio Simply Three manage to pull off an entirely instrumental cover without losing a fraction of the original’s infectious energy.
Formed in 2010, Simply Three have made their name creating intricate, slick, and engaging covers of popular songs and releasing them on Youtube with equally intricate, slick and engaging videos. It’s a model that has been successful for a vast number of Youtube musicians, but Simply Three consistently remain miles ahead of the pack, in terms of both ability and creativity.
I’ve been sure to note some of the more eye-watering examples of their technical chops in the cover walk-through section below.
The musicians behind Simply Three are Glen McDaniel (violin), Nick Villalobos (bass), and Zack Clark (cello). Their cover of “Wake Me Up” was recorded and produced by Dan Parker at Valor Music Group, and mixed and mastered by Bill Hare.
Song Structure (Cover):
Simply Three take the song faster than Avicii, keeping it at roughly 136 BPM throughout. Similar to the original, Simply Three has peppered the song with electronic sounds, but use them more consistently than Avicii, giving this cover a less acoustic feel in spite of the instruments being used.
Like the original, the cover builds to three peaks. However, in their arrangement, Simply Three begin the buildups earlier and sustain the peaks longer for maximum impact.
The first buildup peaks at the beginning of the first chorus, and carries on through the entire instrumental riff section [0:54-1:23]. Right as the second verse is beginning, the energy pulls back, then slowly builds up again into the second chorus [1:24-2:19]. Finally, the breakdown [2:47] brings everything back down and builds one final time to the last chorus section [3:26], giving a cathartic feel to the end of the piece.
Simply Three structure their cover in a way that brilliantly showcases their instrumental talents and keeps listeners engaged throughout – all without a single lyric! Let’s go through the song section-by-section:
The first percussive sounds here are created at [0:11] using the body of the double bass. The camera only does a quick pan past Nick Villalobos, but you can see him creating the kick drum sound by knocking the front of the bass with his fist. The snare drum effect is created by slapping the rib of the instrument with his palm.
Zack Clark comes in on the cello halfway through the intro, recreating Avicii’s guitar line by playing multiple notes simultaneously (also known as double-stops or triple-stops) with the bow (this technique is known as arco).
Glen McDaniel takes the melody line on the violin for the whole verse starting at [0:26], while the cello switches from arco to pizzicato (plucking the strings). One reason a string player would choose pizzicato over arco is to lower the overall volume. Zack Clark uses this technique here to great effect; not only does the lower volume allow for the violin to really be the center of attention, but it also leaves room for the group to build to their first peak. This buildup begins halfway through verse one, when the first electronic elements are introduced.
The violin carries on with the melody line while the accompaniment picks up energy as the song flows into the chorus at [0:54]. This is mostly accomplished with the introduction of heavier electronic sounds, but the cello also contributes to this increase in vigor by switching back to arco, creating a much deeper, more sustained sound in the accompaniment.
Instrumental riff section
Zack Clark takes over the melody line on the cello at [1:23], giving the listener a break from the violin tone. When the violin returns to play the last half of the riff section, McDaniel plays the riff twice in the same register he used for the verse and chorus, then shifts up an octave to a higher register. This change in register creates a lift in energy. Here, the violin’s high register takes the listener right to the end of the first peak.
Okay, so remember when I mentioned eye-watering chops?
The double bass and cello each take half of verse two [1:51], giving them only eight bars apiece, but they make good use of it. Nick Villalobos starts things off on the bass, offering a nice contrast to the violin’s high register we heard at the end of the instrumental riff section. Leaping directly into thumb position (a technique required for playing in the high register of the bass and cello), he plays a statement of the melody and then proceeds to ornament it with a series of rapid descending patterns. This embellishment helps keep the melody from becoming too repetitive, and gives Villalobos a moment to shine.
Pause for a minute and appreciate this: the double bass is not an agile instrument. Playing clear, fast-moving passages is a little like trying to sprint the hundred-meter dash through a swimming pool full of Jell-O. The finesse with which Villalobos plays here is not to be understated; though he only takes 8 bars, he really makes them stand out.
Zack Clark takes over on cello where Villalobos leaves off. Not to be outdone, he, too, leaps directly into thumb position and skilfully plays his way through the melody. In case you were uncertain whether this classifies as eye-watering, I encourage any of you to try standing up and playing thumb position double-stops on an instrument meant to be played sitting down.
The violin re-enters at [2:19] in its high register, allowing it to stand out against the electronic sounds in the accompaniment.
While the bass and cello had their moments in verse two, the breakdown at [2:47] is all about Glen McDaniel on the violin. Playing four-finger chords, McDaniel uses a string-crossing technique found throughout violin repertoire, from the first of Paganini’s “24 Caprices” to Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres”, and continues this as the song builds to its final chorus.
McDaniel continues out of the breakdown and plays the melody line of the chorus [3:26] in the instrument’s higher register. Note how the recording has multi-tracked the violin here for an interesting effect, and how improvised violin lines can be heard in the background throughout the chorus.
Instrumental riff section
The cello takes the melody line again in the instrumental section at [3:54], with the violin, bass, and electronic sounds building their accompaniment to the very last statement of the riff, played in unison by the cello and violin for a grand finale.
Differences and Similarities
The first and most obvious difference between Avicii’s original and Simply Three’s cover? The latter contains no vocals. When you’re creating an instrumental cover of a song everyone knows is supposed to have vocals, several problems can arise.
The first is that the melodic lines of the verse and chorus repeat throughout the song. When there are lyrics, the changing words and the progression of sentiment they express go a long way towards keeping the listener engaged. When this element is removed, the melodic lines can become repetitive and boring.
Simply Three navigate around this pitfall by introducing electronic elements much earlier than Avicii, adding new sounds frequently so the listener’s ear is continually engaged. Also, in an effort to keep the repeating elements interesting, they trade the main melodic lines back and forth between the three instruments, ensuring that no single instrument will be overused and become boring.
Scaling the Peaks
This care taken in engaging the listener is probably the reason Simply Three have structured their peaks differently than in the original. While Avicii chose to place his peaks in the middle of the instrumental riff sections, Simply Three peak at an earlier point, choosing to hit a high point each time the chorus comes around.
In addition to reaching the peak earlier, they sustain the energy much longer, keeping it high until the end of the instrumental riff section. These early peaks, combined with the multiple electronic elements and various instrumental techniques used as accompaniment, allow Simply Three to keep these peak sections engaging from start to finish.
These subtle changes to the song form allow Simply Three to create a cover that showcases their unique instrumental abilities. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the extended breakdown section. While Avicii gives this section 8 bars, Simply Three take a whole 21, using the majority of these bars to showcase Glen McDaniel’s talent on the violin.
Part of what is interesting about this cover is how such drastically different instrumentation can result in a work that remains true to the original’s genre. The tempo, feel, electronic elements, and even the rhythmic patterns in the accompaniment all retain the integrity of Avicii’s version, making the overall effect as infectiously energetic as the original – without a single word being sung!
For more of Simply Three’s creative takes on popular tunes, check out their Youtube channel.
Cover versions are a great way to put a new spin on a song, whether you’re only tweaking it slightly or doing a completely fresh take! Check out our previous cover comparisons here and here for more artists that have covered famous tunes, with amazing results.
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