In our latest deconstructed we break down the arrangement of Purple Disco Machine’s ‘70s-style stormer, “In My Arms.”
Disco has long been mined by house music producers for inspiration. House music can trace its roots back to disco, which retreated from the limelight of the 1970s to sweaty, amyl nitrate-filled underground clubs in the ‘80s. Details may have changed, but the main blueprint—4/4 beat, catchy bassline, and soaring vocals—have not.
Dance music stalwart Purple Disco Machine has been crafting good-time floor fillers since 2009, and his 2020 “In My Arms” continues a string of catchy, history-inspired hits. As is typical of PDM, “In My Arms” sits firmly within the constraints of the disco genre—diva vocals, string stabs, funky guitar—but manages to sound fresh thanks to some French touch-inspired filter work and a bassline that won’t quit.
But what exactly is going on in the arrangement? Let’s take a look at the single edit and see what makes it work so well.
Things kick off in high gear with an echoed disco string stab sample that sets the mood for the entire track. This is accompanied by a 120 BPM 4/4 beat built around acoustic-sounding drum one shots, with a high-pass filtered kick, a snare that ricochets with a touch of reverb, 8th note closed hihats, a programmed tambourine part, and a lively congo line to keep things moving. Feedback from the string stab fades back in after a few bars, setting the stage for the next section.
Bar 5 sees the kick drum’s bass restored, adding weight to the low end of the song. This is accompanied by a piano loop sampled from Al Stewart’s 1976 pop song, “Year Of The Cat,” pitched to match the song’s key of E minor. This 16-bar chord progression forms the basis for the song’s harmonic content. It slowly opens over the course of the next 16 bars while a simple percussive melodic line keeps time alongside it.
“In My Arms” is a peak-time floor filler and it keeps the energy on the up and up with risers and other tried and true production tricks. The riser (used throughout) first makes an appearance at bar 8 (one bar ahead of the typical bar-9 change point) and continues until bar 21. Waves of synthesizer effects waterfall down, adding to the atmosphere. Shimmering chimes waft in around bar 13, fading out amidst heavy delays. Also contributing to the increase in tension is an analogue zap disco tom, a percussive sound with plenty of resonance and an envelope strapped across the oscillator pitch. Zaps are placed on the upbeat doubling the snare, with the envelope opening to elongate the pitch drop at the onset and create an exaggerated disco tom effect.
And there’s the bassline. At bar 21, we’re introduced to the song’s star, a funky, popping bass groove that sits above the rest of the mix, giving the song focus and propelling it forward. It’s a classic octave disco bass, with the second of each 8th note pair hitting the higher note to pull up the energy. It’s simple but infectious.
We’re introduced to the vocal line, sampled from Inner Life’s “I Like It Like That,” at bar 29. We’re not given the who loop yet, though, just Jocelyn Brown singing the line, “I can’t wait ’til you’re in my arms again” once at the beginning of the section and again at bar 33. A floaty, one-chord string swell fills in the space between the samples.
Bar 37 gives us a mini-breakdown, heralded by the string stab, with a return of the high-pass filtered kick plus hand claps (panned hard left) added on every other upbeat. We also hear a return of the riser from the beginning of the song, although shorter this time, and, most importantly, the full vocal sample, which deftly and satisfyingly lines up with the chord progression in the piano loop.
Here the vocals take a break, with the music sidling into the spotlight for the first time. We hear a Nile Rodgers/Chic-style rhythm guitar enter, playing one chord across the 16 bar progression. The choppiness of the playing gives it a palpably percussive feel and propels the energy forward. We also hear a new top piano line, blended into the Al Stewart sample. A slightly distorted synth line makes an appearance, although it’s fairly buried in the mix at this point. An alternate rhythm synth melody later fades in, completing perhaps the most musically rich part of the track. Note how the various musical elements are mixed slightly back. This helps them gel together, creating a sense of wholeness rather than that of four or five competing sounds.
At bar 61 we’re given the breakdown proper, with the bass of the kick dropping out again and the disco toms making a return in the same configuration as before. Creating rhythmic interest is a percussive line run through a creamy phaser, which adds a plasticky, spacey vibe. The vocal is sparse, as in step 5.
At bar 68 of the breakdown, a descending synth line run through a tape echo makes its only appearance. Much of the song is built around loops, and introducing the occasional unique sound like this can keep things fresh and lively.
The breakdown continues to build and at bar 77 we hear the disco string stab again, increasing tension. Next, surprisingly, military-style snare fills begin. The contrast between the disco groove—certainly the antithesis to anything martial—and the rat-a-tat rhythm of the snares doubles down on the tension, which grows as the snares build in frequency. The four-note distorted melody makes a comeback, and tape echo builds in intensity around the vocal sample, now appearing in its full loop form.
At last, the full song drops back in at bar 85, with all musical elements satisfyingly making an appearance. The vocal hook only appears once, letting the music do the heavy lifting for the remainder of the song. This euphoria continues for 32 bars, with all of the major musical elements reappearing for one last go ‘round.
The ever-reliable disco toms get an encore at bar 97, building in intensity as before and helping the song rise towards its crescendo.
The single edit ends on bar 101, with a crash and echoes fading out for a satisfying if truncated close.