Photo of Flume by Cybele Malinowski.
It wasn't clear right away, but Flume has a formula. By the time of the release of his self-titled debut album in 2012 the Australian born Harley Streten had already emerged as a producer with a powerful command of sharp bass drums and snappy vocal samples responsible for rollercoaster-like dynamics. There were a lot of young bass producers working in similar lanes, but the giddy bombast of Streten's earliest work was like nitrous oxide—capable of producing giggly highs or rocket propulsion, depending on the context in which was consumed.
But once I finally caught him live at New York's Terminal 5—where I dodged bros with their partners on their shoulders and guzzled a few $13 well drinks—I realized his success relies on a recipe. As showcased on a number of high-profile remixes around that time, like his 2013 flip of Disclosure's "You and Me," many of his productions started featuring the same dizzy drop—these piercing flurries of stuttering synths and stomach-churning side-chain compression. It happens like clockwork at the climax of each of his most well known songs. You can see it on display in its earliest form within Flume's remix of Lorde's "Tennis Court," when after a slow build up of compressed synth washes, the sounds unravel into punchy halftime drops interspersed with short vocal snippets that pop in short succession. It quickly became clear that the sound was easily reproducible, and popular too.
In the years since, Streten has gone onto even more worldwide success, helped along the way by even more buzzy reworks and a 2016 sophomore album that spawned international hits (like THUMP's #2 track of the year, "Never Be Like You" feat. Kai, and "Say It" feat. Tove Lo). Eventually the sound became so identifiable it warranted its own handle. He's developed the style of his debut album—waves of bombastic synths that sound like gale force winds gusting safely outside your window—into a trademark framework that some refer to as "the Flume synth" or "Flume drop."
The style can be tricky to describe with concrete vocabulary, and those that attempt to describe it often do so phonetically. "When I think of the 'Flume sound', the only way to describe what comes to mind is several very large VVWWUUUM sounds playing a few chords, often interspersed with some big honks, over a heavy but infrequent THOOM," says Kitty, an electronic producer and songwriter based out of New York City. "I fucking love it," she admits. "I'm extremely sick of it, but I feel that it objectively rules."
It's certainly not rare in electronic music for a producer to find a style people enjoy and stick to it, nor is it it uncommon for other artists co-opt that style to their advantage. Eric Prydz, for example, saw his snare sound become the "Pryda snare," which has since been a subject of countless YouTube tutorials and other forms of Ableton appropriation. Like Prydz, Flume's unique production tactic has its own
Reddit thread, as well as dozens of YouTube tutorials that turn you into an effective Flume copycat. If you have 12 minutes to spare, you can even learn how to replicate the specific drop from his festival-friendly remix for Lorde.
But beyond the fact that the is visibly finding Flume and his followers success, what exactly is it that people like about it in the first place? It's a question at the core of all popular music: what makes people tick? "Personally, I think it's so popular because it's so satisfying to listen to," says Kitty. "Good EDM songs are built around the drop; the most basic pleasure of it comes from the satisfaction of hearing something grow as big as it can and feeling it explode."
Her take references what's long been attractive to many who produce and find pleasure in rib-cage rattling festival drops. But unlike the brash, nasty EDM drops deployed by the likes of Afrojack and Skrillex over the last decade, Flume's drops combine the structural formula of an EDM drop with something that hits softer and is more forgiving. Just go to a Flume show and you'll see people sway their bodies when the climax hits, versus the rabid fist bumps that typically accompany a big-room house anthem. "Before the Flume Renaissance, pretty much everyone was accomplishing their climactic moments with deep bass sounds and well-timed drums," Kitty says. "Flume found, or at least popularized, a more multidimensional approach to the drop by using negative space to make his huge ass synths bang rhythmically."
The style crept further into the limelight with the help of an iconic American snack: M&Ms. Enter "Candyman," the collaboration between EDM nice guy Zedd and Aloe Blacc that was featured in a commercial for the munchie institution in 2016. Unlike the electro and big-room-leaning style of most of Zedd's past work, the new found drop structure led to obvious comparisons to Flume's work. Diplo even ended publicly calling out Zedd for creating a "fake Flume drop."
The similarities were all the more striking given Streten's own dalliances with the ad world. A few years prior, computer behemoth Intel collaborated with Flume for a short TV commercial that featured both his custom stage apparatus and his thunderous, beaming chords. The brand's use of melodic, non-threatening electronic music here recalls Gap's infamous use of Daft Punk's "Digital Love" in 2001. While the songs are very different, they both fall within a long trend of brands utilizing cheery, sensitive tracks that speak to the plasticine sheen of mainstream retail environments. The Flume sound harnessed an extremely sought-after power—advertisers deemed it commercially viable to a broad demographic spectrum that includes both trendy club kids and soccer moms watching daytime TV.
And so the sound soon became unavoidable. Beyond advertisements, the style has also crept in the top tier of mainstream music. There's "Here Comes The Night" by Parisian artist DJ Snake, off his debut album Encore, that's built around a stuttering Flume drop—bright, choppy synths and pitched up vocals and sharp waves of bass—around the 90-second mark. And let's not forget the currents masterminds of crafting on-trend chart-busters, The Chainsmokers, whose 2016 hit "Roses" employed similar vocal editing and syncopated synths. Along with their massive hit "Closer," which spent a monumental 14 weeks as a #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, "Roses" employed the sound and surfed to the top of Billboard's dance chart again ("Roses" would peak at a respectable #25 on the pop charts).
More under-the-radar producers haven't tried their luck in replicating the style too, perhaps in hope it might help nudge them up the ladder of success. Take LA-based upstart Vincent—his track "Her" uses melodic trap snares and periodic choral chanting to preface the Flume-atizing of the song's various climaxes. Back in the summer of 2016, LA-based duo Party Pupils went live with a new hot take on Outkast's seminal "Ms. Jackson (mistake number one, IMO) that's filled to the brim with the same choppy synth patterns . It's another prime example of how successful SoundCloud producers have been just by slightly tailoring the sound to their liking; Party Pupil's track reached over 400,000 plays in two weeks and is now well over the million mark.
The up-and-coming Chicago duo Louis the Child hit their stride with a K.Flay collaboration called "It's Strange" in 2016. The track, publicly co-signed by Taylor Swift, certainly takes some cues from the aforementioned Australian. One commenter didn't only think it sounded like Flume, but that it was better than Flume. Personally, it'd be hard tell the difference in a blindfolded Pepsi vs. Coke-style listening test. But whether or not they're capably aping the sound he pioneered, happening upon so many of these tracks in a row can get a bit tiresome. Because their dopamine delivery systems all operate with the same machinery, employing this same sound over and over again can start to to feel rote—a compulsory production tic not unlike the brick-walled dubstep drop. EDM's latest nifty trick turns yet again into demonstrations of the laws of diminishing returns.
"That happens; it's life," says Australian producer and DJ Nina Las Vegas, when I asked about the international co-opting of Flume's style. Having hosted a show on popular Australian radio station Triple J for 11 years, Vegas watched the style develop firsthand, and counts Flume as a personal friend. As someone who's long had an ear to the ground for dance music's hottest trends, she seems to agree that it's been overused. "Good adaptations are welcomed in my opinion. The bad ones are obvious and those acts won't last," she says. "You can only copy a formula for so long."
Streten, meanwhile, seems to be progressing beyond the sound he pioneered. Take a listen through his 2016 album Skin and you'll notice he's moved away from whale belly flop drops towards something more centered around conventional song structure and pop-focused melodies—a play, maybe, for the legitimate chart success that others have found in his wake. With rumors of new Flume music on the way, only time will tell if the Australian is gearing up to pioneer a new sound that will take SoundCloud's many waveforms by storm.
David is waiting for Flume fans on Twitter.