As the theme to HBO’s How To Make It In America, Aloe Blacc’s “I Need A Dollar” has been getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere. It’s a pretty unique mix for this day and age; there’s a retro vibe that permeates the whole song, but it’s not the product of a scratchy sample. To better understand the sound of “I Need A Dollar,” let’s take a closer look at the production choices behind it.
The first thing that stands out about “I Need A Dollar” is how quiet it is. The drums, the piano, the horns; none of it punches or gets in your face. This perceived quietness is the result of a low-compression mix (to read more about compression, click here). Mixes like this sound old-school because modern compression technology didn’t exist in the era of Motown, Philly Soul, et al.
Another interesting facet to this song is its organic quality. Again, this is in part due to the lack of processing on individual tracks, but it’s also because the instrumentation itself is highly realistic. There are no synthesized instruments on this track, or if there are, they fooled me. And when I say synthesized, I don’t just mean Timbaland-style synthesizers that are obviously computer-generated; many drum tracks that sound like live recordings are in fact synthesized with high quality plug-ins, using oscillators, noise generators, and modeling. There is no such studio trickery on this song.
Finally, there is one more production choice that struck me as interesting on this track. Listen to the shift from chorus to bridge around 1:04 in the video – preferably on headphones. Did you hear the vocal move to the left? If not, listen again. The lead vocal shifts slightly to the left speaker/headphone at this moment in the song, with the horn sliding to the right to balance it out. Mixing lead vocals anywhere but straight down the middle is taboo in modern production, but artists experimented with this technique back in the 50′s and early 60′s. Again, this tweak to the mix places “I Need A Dollar” in a distant era, contributing to its retro aesthetic.