~ Or: My obsession for music sometimes gets really weird

Sometime in late November of 2021, my then brand-new voiceover friend Roshelle Simpson had the idea that it would be fun to do a cover song of “Take a Bow” by Madonna, a song co-written by her and Babyface.

I think what she had in mind was finding an instrumental or karaoke version of the song and singing over it.  A logical choice all things considered, really.

I had different ideas.

Something I’d been wanting to do for a really long time was take a crack at deconstructing a popular piece of music by ear, figuring out all the parts, and re-recording my own version of it.  When Roshelle suggested that song, it brought back all kinds of memories of when the song first came out.  I realized in that moment that -that- was the song I wanted to tackle.

I think she thought I was insane when I came back with that suggestion.  She was correct.  I’m straight-up bat-guano crazy.  But I set my head out to figure out how to deconstruct and rebuild this massive smash hit.  It scratches a punctilious itch in a seriously effective way that I didn’t even know existed.

Did I succeed?  I’ll let you the reader and listener be the judge of that.  The actual video we made for our version of Take a Bow is later on in the post.

The following entry is a summary of how I approached tackling this behemoth of a pop song, things I listened for, and many of the challenges I ran into.  Some of my analyses may be incorrect!  I wanted to find a multi-track version of the song to compare to and cannot so I’m going with my gut on this one.  Here’s how it all breaks down.  Welcome to a peek under the hood!

History of the Song

Following some of the more controversial subject matters of a more explicit image in the early 90s, Madonna was on the hunt for a change of style.  The idea of adding new-jack R&B to her library was very appealing at the time.  After exploring prospects with a few different producers, she decided on working with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds in appreciation of some of his work with other pop artists of that era.  As well as his own material.  When they got together, it turned out that he already had a beat and some music for a song but he wasn’t sure where it was going yet.  That song became Take a Bow, which was a chart topping smash hit for both of them.

Instrument Analysis

This is the part where I’m going to go into some details of the instruments I was able to identify when listening and some of the guesses that I made to see how close I could get.  Once again, it’s not going to be entirely perfect.  I do have this strange æffinity to 80s and 90s music due to being a byproduct of that era, so maybe I got close enough!  Let’s see how this all played out.

Electric Piano

Doogie Howser!  MacGyver!  The Quintessential Sound of the 80s and 90s!  And now: Take a Bow!

I do loves me some electric piano.  There’s just something so mellow about the way it sounds with just enough plingy round attack to tickle the back of the spine.  In that good way.

This instrument was not only super popular in music of the era, it is also the first readily identifiable instrument in the song in question.  Right out of the gate before hearing anything else, in comes the electric piano.

In my mind’s eye and childhood impression, Take a Bow was predominantly a vehicle for this instrument.  I was surprised to find out that it certainly is in there but not nearly as prominent in the mix as I recall.  Just goes to show what our brains focus on when listening to a song during one part of life while sounding completely different later.

Ever had that sensation where when you revisit a song from an earlier part of life with a good driving beat, when you listen to it again it sounds like it should have been faster but is, in fact, not?  That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Actually, that sounds like a good blog post for another week!


Electric piano.  This instrument is featured from start to just about the finish and provides a great sonic foundation for everything that is to come.  It was also one of the easier instruments to pick out and either recreate or get close to.

Here’s a sample!


Strings were much easier to pick out for the most part when compared to electric piano due to their presence.  They were also one of the most difficult parts to execute on.

The strings for the original version of Take a Bow were recorded by a live ensemble in the recording studio.  Which sounds fantastic.  It really sets the mood, borrows from some Asian influences, and creates the sense of melancholy that the lyrics absolutely beg for.

The only problem here is that I don’t have a string orchestra.

So, East West Hollywood Orchestra to the rescue!

Now, they may not necessarily be the best string library available.  I picked this up on a sale about 6 years ago to score something completely different that I never got around to finishing.  But I have it.  And out of everything I have access to, this is the closest I could come up with.

I definitely spent hours listening to the instrumental version of the song to try and pick out all of the subtle nuances between the ensemble instruments.  Recreating the notes was only one half of the entire project though.  The other side of it was trying to recapture the feel of the performers and the direction they must have received.

This is probably the part where I fell the furthest from the original.  And it is due to a lack of education on my part for the tools in question.  Hollywood Strings has a significant amount of power under the hood and I was only scratching the surface.  If more time was available, I probably could have continued obsessing about it and gotten far closer to the feel.  As it stands, though, it worked enough to fit into the cover version of the song and accomplish the goal of “getting close.”  Again, Google thinks it’s the original.  Who am I to argue with Google?

Here’s a small section of the Take a Bow strings!

(side note: I HAD to use the section where the strings did the run up.  HAD to.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the song as far as a mood escalation goes)


Like virtually every other pop song of the era, no piece of music – Take a Bow included – was complete without the benefit of a strong, solid foundation.

Here is one part where I deviated though.  The bass in the original song was, to my ears, a synthesizer of some kind.  I chose to just record live bass instead of sample hunting.  Whether or not that was a good idea remains to be seen, however I felt like I was in much more control of the bottom end of the song that way.  Not that I’m averse to the idea of synthetic bass.  Please don’t get me wrong. There’s a time and a place for everything.

It’s just that as a bass player, the time and place for real basses is always Right Now.  So I took the deviation gamble and recorded my version with an electric bass rather than using a synth patch.  I think it turned out mostly ok!  It doesn’t quite have the same kind of consistency as a synth patch would have had but it just felt better.  I’m weird that way.

Here’s a sample of the bass from the Take a Bow cover:


This was the bane of my life.  More on that in a bit.

This is separated into two parts.  First is the general electronic drums, and then second is more percussion-based.

The drum beat itself was pretty standard 4×4.  Slow groove, Kick on the 1 and the 2&, snare-ish sound on the 2 and 4.  By itself, though, there was definitely something missing.  This consists of a kick sample, two different claps, a side stick, and a snap.  Is that accurate to the original?  Not sure!  If any of ya’ll know how to ask Babyface, let me know.

Here’s the beat by itself without any percussion backing it up;

The percussion for Take a Bow was a lot of fun to pick out!  At least most of it when I thought I had it down.  What you are going to hear here is the final version of it without the thing that I was missing for months.  The bongo conga thing, shakers, tambourine, that kind of stuff.

So that’s how they sounded when separated out.  So what about when combined together?  I’m going to come back to that in a little bit in a challenges with beat section.  Take a Bow might be a beautiful song but dang it had some complex stuff happening in the beat department!

Other hidden but necessary instruments

It sounded like there might be some acoustic guitar and electric guitar arpeggios from time to time and I had to kinda try to approximate what I thought I heard.  I am not making any claims to accuracy on this one.  Just took the gamble based on what I was hearing and hoped I got it right!

Here is a snippet of the acoustic guitar.  Worth noting: rather than actually playing and recording it, I ended up using a brand new Steinberg acoustic guitar instrument that sounds DELICIOUS.  I think you’ll agree.

And then some electric guitar on top of that.  Not super distorted or anything – this isn’t a metal track.  Yet with just enough spring reverb to feel bouncy amidst the otherwise more somber feel.  The juxtaposition is fun to think about!  Here’s a snippet of that one too:

Why bother including any of these samples in the first place?  That goes to something I learned a bunch of years ago from a top mixing engineer by the name of Jack Joseph Puig.  He demonstrated this with the multi-track version of the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” song.  He played it back normally, then removed something and suddenly the song sounded naked.

What did he remove?  Acoustic guitar.

That’s right. There’s a super delicious acoustic guitar track in that song that isn’t exactly noticeable unless you’re really listening for it.  But its absence is deafening.

When listening back to the mix without these two elements, it’s just Not. The. Same.  Take a Bow suffers the same fate without those instruments.  So on that front, I knew that I had something there.  I wasn’t sure it was correct, but it definitely filled a gap.

Very brief polysynth drone

No, nothing to do with flying spy devices.  I don’t even know if this was actually in there or not but I heard something and this was about as close as I could get to recreating it.  There’s also a synth of some kind near the very beginning and the very end but I couldn’t pick them out well enough to try to do anything with.  Regrets, I haz them.

Here’s a quick clip of that very tasty synth though:

Challenges With the Beat

The drum beat for this song destroyed me.  For months.  I’m not gonna lie.  I’d pick it up, try again, put it down frustrated, leave it alone for a while, rinse and repeat.

I was so completely stumped that I actually called Babyface’s management team to find out if there was ANY WAY to pass a question to him while on tour.  Which there was no answer to but that’s ok.  I still can’t believe I actually did that …

The ultimate answer was a forehead slapping moment and I feel foolish for having missed it the first time around.

Beats 2 and 4 were consistently the same sound throughout almost the entire song.  Kind of a side stick, clap, clack, something sound.  Except every time I tried to create that sound, it came out sounding empty.  Completely devoid of all fullness.  It was like … waifish.  Puny.  Diet beat.  I wanted full-fat beat.

It wasn’t until MONTHS later that it finally hit and I only noticed it when listening back to the original on headphones and listening carefully.  I had been missing something critical to the sound.

The bongos and congas were pretty easy to pick out in almost every part of the patterns.  What I missed for months was that the pattern started at the very beginning of each measure, not just later.  The absence of that thick hand-percussion sound was the thing that was causing the foundation to drop out from under the beat completely.

Was adding it back in the magic bullet that I was looking for?  Mostly!  I still feel like it’s lacking something and I realize that I can spend another 6 months hunting for it.  Instead, it’s “good enough for release” and here we are today!

Here’s the combined reconstructed beat for your listening pleasure:

Yes.  I did mix the bongos too loud in the final mix.  I can’t decide if it was an error or because I just couldn’t believe how silly I was in not being able to hear it for so long that I needed that reminder to pay more attention in the future.

The Final Product

So then it was all done!  The music complete. Mixed down, exported, ready to go.

Then an accompanying video where we took some selfies in those cute hats with the veil and accompanying gloves – yes, me too – and made a mockup old-time movie slideshow out of it!

Yes, we had an incredible amount of fun with pretty much every aspect of the song.

Take a Bow completely assembled!  FINALLY!

Here’s the video!

The Curtain’s Down

So ultimately, what did I accomplish with the recreation of this song?

Firstly, it was a challenge I set out for myself.  I wanted to see if  could do it.  Was I hoping to re-create it as accurately as possible with the tools available to me?  Absolutely.  Did I successfully do so with the level of accuracy that I had hoped for?  Not exactly.

Even if my phone hears this version come on and it recognizes it as the original – which is funny and kinda endearing in a way – it’s still just ‘close’ and not quite the level of accuracy I’d hoped to achieve.

Secondly, I wanted to do something fun that featured the incredible singing voice of my new friend.  On that front, I feel like I succeeded.  So at the very least I can feel pretty good about that goal.

So if I took this project on knowing then what I know now, what would I do differently?

I would likely take more careful notes of every sound I hear.  Actually document specific things and combine note-taking with what my ear picks out. You know, like with a pen and paper and stuff, instead of immediately trying to track what I think I hear.  Slowing down is the order of business there.

I would definitely alternate between headphones and speakers when doing this documentation process; some things are much easier to hear in speakers, some much easier in headphones.  Different volumes at both of those mediums would be much more useful as well.  When I finally heard the percussion I was missing, it was at a different volume than my normal listening volume.  That made a huge difference.

Finally: would I do this again?


I already know which song is next and I can’t wait to dive into it.

And learn new lessons in the process!  Hopefully ya’ll will enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoy recreating it.

Thanks for going on that journey with me!  I’d take a bow myself but I’m already sitting and that would get awkward…

Until next week.

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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