A couple of weeks ago I produced another track for assessment. It’s by a songwriter called Kevin Reeves and I found raw multitracks of his song The Game on Mike Senior’s website (definitely recommended for mixing practice!). Mike is a renowned engineer who runs Cambridge Music Technology – an outlet offering studio services and educational resource. He also writes for Sound on Sound and wrote Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio.
Here’s how the track sounded from a straight bounce after importing the audio files:
Before attempting to tackle this mix, I listened to his other work to gain an idea of his influences. Then, I was able to compare to other songs by bands, and research into their production. I found he had elements of ELO, Supertramp, Queen and a general Beatles-y vibe – particularly in this track. This led to about 20 minutes of reference listening so I build on (nick) ideas for my own mix. Dave Pensado (The Dude) provides some fantastic advice towards referencing.
Looking more in-depth, I began studying those behind the sound of Kevin’s influences and sounds. Interestingly, I found Jeff Lynn, longstanding member and producer of ELO, also having worked with The Beatles. The other man responsible for ELO’s work is producer/engineer Reinhold Mack – who’s also just as famous for his tenure with Queen! This is all too big a coincidence – I sheet you not, I definitely made that call before this discovery!
“Triple H’s new entrance music written by Mika?” (Liam Flaherty 2012)
I’ll point out a few things which I thought defined this mix –
- It became a matter of modernising the sound of Kevin’s dated inspiration, and is clearly a pop artist with a rock backline. I enjoy the tightness of the drums in tracks like Queen’s Dragon Attack, however to bridge the gap between these genres, I took heed of pop rock producers to note their work on live drums. Max Martin and Dr. Luke‘s production on Behind These Hazel Eyes by Kelly Clarkson is a typical example of this as it involves MIDI triggered samples. I enjoy the prominence of the kit and the impact it gives.
- Using a subtle amount of parallel compression sprung the drums to life. I’ve learned a great deal since my blog on the technique as my examples are unconvincing and tasteless. By carefully selecting what drum channels (not just all) to send to the parallel bus, and by mixing in the Sends individually (i.e. not all 0dB), I resulted in achieving a way more impacting-but-not-impeding sound.
- In terms of the Wurlitzer-type sound from the start and the clean broken-chorded guitar part, I thought it had Mr. Blue Sky written all over it.
- The lead vocals I think were (as if Michael Bublé became a rock singer) best left with no effects until we get to the guitar solo. To make it sound ‘epic’, I tried to do something along the lines of Brendan O’Brien‘s production on Chris Cornell’s delayed vocals on Audioslave’s Revelations, Shape Of Things To Come in particular (arguably one of the best rock voice sounds ever). I used the standard Extra Long Delay II plugin to achieve this, as well as double-tracking the vocals, one slightly offset. The parallel compression used on the drums in this track sound awesome too and also acted as a catalyst for mixing mine.
Should I even talk about the backing vocals? You guessed it, I ripped on Bohemian Rhapsody (2:54). Just like Kevin did. But we can’t be that narrow-minded. Suited a lot of the mixing of the BVs as between that and a lot of Supertramp’s material. I was going for a distant feel, but at the same time quite present. I just went for it, and shelved at 4.49kHz. Adding a bit of reverb helped create the distance and a
I think overall the placement of the vocals sits well – maybe a bit too ‘in your face’ at times. But it’s definitely a vast improvement in terms of vocal control from my mix a while back, Signe Jakobsen – What Have You Done To Me?, which was facking awful and sloppy. In Signe’s mix it got completely lost in the pre-/choruses and the intelligibility overall is non-existant. I’ve learned heaps off the back of that, and found the reasons for the improvement were definitely better control over the guitars (i.e. compressed), and I didn’t go bananas with the cymbals.
- An effect to mention is on the middle section vocals (2:34). I started out with wanting something tape-echo-y like this. Not sure if I was happy with what came out of it though. I tried to see what George Martin was doing in Sgt. Pepper… but didn’t arrive at the desired effect. After a few plays though, it began to settle with me. Was aiming for that ‘typical breakdown in a song, then builds up’ kind of thing. I mix-automated the Send for the FX channel and the dry channel to intertwine, so on the last syllable of “life” the clarity is back and in time for the ‘epiphany’ feeling (got to believe your own bullskit sometimes…).
There’s a great SOS article all about vocal effects and its creative uses. I gained a lot from it, particularly about delays and the tape echo idea. You can find it here.
- There came a point where I had to stop somewhere, and I’ve been practicing this recently to build on ‘mix-confidence’, as the inner perfectionist needs taming (going 8 hours without food/caffeine is not advised). After deciding to stop, I began mixing from stems which cleared the air and allowed for more global adjustments. After bouncing a few (i.e. ‘vocal up’), I started playing back on different setups to see how it sounds. The mixing process overall involved a lot of objective thinking i.e. gating spill, however I’d say the most part is down to experimenting systematically and working out what suits the genre you’re working to. There’s obviously no hard and fast rules, so it’s down to experience and good decision making at the end of the day.
“If it was an exact science everybody would be doing it and would become filthy rich.” (Reinhold Mack, iZotope interview)
Some really good advice I got on testing any mixdown came from Alex Fenton who runs Swanfield Studios in Leith. I worked with him before doing gigs at the Wee Red Bar and I found him in his car one day listening closely to some of his recent work. He said to be as broad as possible with listening back – To play it on as much consumer products available: car stereos, iPods/Phones and their (rubbish) earphones, docking stations for mono compatibility, home hifis, larger systems, etc. Basically anything which brings the mix out of the studio, as not everybody owns prime studio monitors.
To further-review my mix, I went into work early and played it back flat through the system. Here are my findings:
The general width seemed a little tainted through a larger-scale setup, and sounded different to headphones/home monitors. Perhaps my panning wasn’t too hot in this case, with phasing playing its part as I found the snare sounded a lot different, if a bit muffled. Although, the depth still appeared to emanate throughout the room representing all frequencies evenly.
Thinking back to early first year (October 2009) after being set our first studio task, I think I’ve come a long way since then in terms of sound production. Taking into consideration I didn’t even know what bounce meant, I’ve definitely learned a lot, however I’m still very much a rookie and have got a long way to go until I can hang with Pensado…