Decoding The Mix: Strobe - Deadmau5

Joel Zimmerman is the man behind the Deadmau5 mask. His unique sound and character have helped him establish his name as one of the most talented electronic music producers of all time.


Zimmerman dips his toes in the world of commercial music from time to time with 8 tracks reaching the top 40 in Billboard, but mainly focusses on his studio albums which are loved by his cult following.


In 2017, Billboard Dance listed "Strobe" as Deadmau5's best song of all time on their list of the artist's 20 best tracks. Let’s dive into this electronic masterpiece and try to understand what made it connect so effectively.


How Pros Make Hits


Creating A Recognizable Sound

When people think of Deadmau5, their mind jumps to warm synths and interesting melodies. The square synth used in ‘Strobe’ that can be heard wide in the mix is a great representation of both of these characteristics. It’s not a complicated or particularly unique sound, but it has a sense of simple perfection. It’s not harsh, resonant, or boxy. It’s got a pure tonal balance and fills the speakers across a broad range of frequencies.


Deadmau5 is known for his attention to detail and scrutinizing every sound in his productions to make sure it’s the perfect fit. He doesn’t endlessly layer sounds to eventually stumble across the perfect combinations. Endlessly layering sounds can make a song sound over-produced and bloated which can detract from the musical content, whereas creating rich sounds with just a few channels gives the music space to breathe. Deadmau5 uses this approach and it leads to his electronic music sounding like a song, rather than a simple and predictable ‘DJ Tool’. The take away from this is that digestible sounds connect better with listeners.


Creating A Recognizable Sound

Different Edits For Different Scenarios

Deadmau5 is a music producer that puts art first, this is one reason why he is so well respected by his following. The original 10-minute edit of Strobe has over 48 million streams on YouTube, which is 100 times more than the radio edit. In most scenarios, the radio edit gets a lot more traction than extended or club edits. This shows the willingness of Deadmau5 fans to appreciate the artist’s initial vision for the music.


That being said, the radio and club edits were released which meant the tack could be heard in many different scenarios. Someone unfamiliar with Deadmau5’ work might not be willing to listen to the slow build up from the 10-minute original. Having these different edits gives the music more chance of reaching more people and can be the gateway for a new fan to hear his music.


Think about the different edits you could create for your next production that will help you reach new people in various scenarios whilst also serving your current fans.


Different Edits For Different Scenarios

Stereo Separation

The infographic below gives us an idea of the instrumentation, frequencies and stereo placement of Strobe. The first interesting thing we notice is how Deadmau5 has covered a wide range of frequencies and the full width of the stereo spread with only a hand full of channels. The arrangement can be boiled down to Drums, Bass, Lead Synth, and Square Melody Synth. Most productions take a lot more than four elements to fill the speakers and create a rich and interesting sound.


The stereo overlap of the instruments works brilliantly with each element having plenty of space to breath. Notice how the square synth melody is pretty much the only thing happening super-wide in the mix. The click from the kick is also wide but is such a fast transient occupying a small bandwidth of frequencies that it doesn’t compete with the square synth melody. Having nothing else to compete with regarding frequencies and rhythm gives space for a complex melody and super-rich sound spanning from the low-mids to above 10kHz when the filter is at it’s most open state.


The bass is slightly wider than the kick in the low frequencies improving the separation in the low-end without cause phase issues. It then begins to get wider above 200Hz which adds some warmth to the side channels. The bass is a different tone to the square synth melody and isn’t quite as wide which minimizes the conflict between the two channels.


The bass has a lot of energy in the low-end which tails off above 750Hz. This leaves space in the mid-channel for the lead synth which comes in at the climax of the song. The lead synth spans a wide range of frequencies and has no ‘lead vocal’ to contend with. The short impact of the transient snare doesn’t conflict in a way that detracts from the lead synth. Above 10kHz is left  open for the Hi-hat and other FX.

Stereo Separation Deadmau5 Strobe

Technical Details

Below we can see the technical details of Strobe as heard on Spotify displayed by EXPOSE. Strobe streams a little louder than the -14LUFS average. This is most likely because it has a dynamic loudness range of 5.8LU. This means there is a considerable difference in loudness between the quieter buildups and the louder drops. From my research, it would seem that a greater loudness range leads to louder choruses on Spotify.


One very noticeable issue in Strobe is the correlation heat-map which displays phase issues. All of the red parts of the waveform show where the track might sound very different when heard in mono. It’s clear that the culprit is the wide ‘Square Synth Melody’ placed very wide in the mix. This is happening because the left and right channels of the square synth melody are so similar that when they’re summed to mono they overlap and cancel each other out. The way to fix this would be to make sure there is enough of a difference between the left and right channel to reduce overlap and cancelation. One way to achieve this is by using subtle modulation or sample delay to either the left or right channel (but not both).


We can determine the original loudness of the loudest part of the track by taking the short-term LUFS (-11.3) and taking away the peak dB reduction (-2.90dB). Assuming the original production peaked around 0dB this gives us -8.4 Short-term LUFS as the original loudness of the loudest part of the track. Strobe is certainly on the more conservative side considering many club tracks are around -6LUFS short-term. This explains the punchy dynamic range reading of 7.1DR.

Technical Details


What Did We Learn?

  • Digestible sounds connect better with listeners.
  • Different edits can help you reach new people in various scenarios whilst also serving your current fans.
  • The music breaths better when each element doesn’t have to compete with other elements in the same frequency range or stereo position.
  • Phase issues occur when the left and right channels have too much similarity. It can be reduced using subtle modulation or sample delay to either the left or right channel (but not both).


Now It's Your Turn!

Deconstructing a mix like this is a great way to make real improvements in your music production. One of the six cheat-sheets in my eBook ‘Never Get Stuck Again’ is a cheat sheet to help you decode any mix in minutes.