Reference Tracks (Week of 10/25/20)
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Here's this week's list of mixes I love and the reasons why...
1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – "O Children"
Mixed by Damon Iddins, Mick Harvey, Nick Cave, Nick Launay, and Warren Ellis
In addition to being a great song, I think this is a fantastic mix. Two things stand out to me specifically. First, the drum sound is perfect for the song. It's nice and open, and you can really hear the room around the kit, almost like a marching band kind of thing. Also, the open hi-hat sound
is spot on...such a good way to anchor the groove. One thing Kevin Killen always said in his class at NYU was that "the mix starts in pre-production." The best records have the final sound in mind from the start and everything is recorded to meet that sonic end goal. This drum sound really seems to embody that idea. They're tuned great, played tastefully, and not over-miked (I'd be surprised if there were more than 8 mics on the kit, tops). The second thing I love about this mix is the way the soundstage builds. At the beginning, things feel a little claustrophobic. But as the track builds, new elements are added and the soundstage widens, reaching a final climax with a full choir, piano, open hi-hat...the works. A good reminder that it's sometimes worth playing your cards close to your chest in order to save enough sonic space/width for the most exciting sections.
2. Alex Cameron – "Real Bad Lookin'"
Mixed by Ivan Vizintin
I love the way this mix sounds. I think it's a great example of "vibe," a word that often seems to gets thrown around when people talk about mixing. There are a bunch of things that help give a track like this its vibe. The vocal compression, slap echo, guitar panning, and synth saturation all help, but to me, building a vibe is about finding the way each discrete musical element fits together to build a sound that is greater than the sum of its parts. In my opinion, that search for vibe is the true creative part of mixing.
3. ÌFÉ – "HOUSE OF LOVE (Ogbe Yekun)"
Mixed by Stuart Sikes
Part of this song's musical success is that it doesn't really change much. The drum groove pretty much stays the same throughout, peppered with the occasional 808 sub or percussion accent. Similarly, the sparse three-chord progression loops until the end. At almost six minutes, that might seem like a recipe for boredom, but this track stays engaging the whole time. As a mixer, that's not an easy thing to pull off. For me, this one's all about the vocal arrangement and mix which features a variety of evolving treatments. Through creative filtering, compression, panning, and reverb treatment of the vocals, Stuart Sikes keeps the listener tuned in for the duration of the record.
4. Miya Folick – "Thingamajig"
Mixed by Michael Ilbert
I've been lucky to have had the chance to mix a few vocal-forward ballads like this one. They're some of my favorite things to work on, but they can also be extremely challenging because the vocal is so exposed. Whenever I mix something like this–even if it's recorded and performed well–it's practically a given that I'll have to work each syllable, automating volume, EQ, compression ratios, reverb throws, etc. Of course, this kind of intense fine tuning should never be noticed by the listener; it's all part of making things as natural, emotive, and engaging as possible. All of this is to say that in my opinion, this is a phenomenal sounding vocal mix. Yes, Miya Folick is a classically trained singer who probably has great mic technique and the track was produced by Justin Raisen. Even so, I'm sure there was a lot of work that went into mixing this, and the beauty is that you can't hear any of it...the mix just sounds natural and appropriate, not an easy feat.
5. Portugal. The Man – "Feel It Still"
Mixed by Manny Marroquin
This track is a great reminder that there are so many ways to build excitement over the course of a record. Instead of progressively widening the sound stage throughout the track, Manny Marroquin plays with the frequency spectrum, using creative filtering to add excitement to each section. Granted, some of this is built into the arrangement, but filter automation is something for which Marroquin is known. The beauty of this song is that even though there's a repeating chord progression, each section sees arrangement and mix additions that drive the track forward. First, listen to how the intro (0:00 - 0:12) transitions into the first verse (0:12 - 0:24). In the intro, the bass has almost no real low-end and the hi-hat has a high-end rolloff. As soon as the vocal enters, the bottom kicks in on the bass and the hat opens up. As we enter the first chorus (0:24 - 0:48), the addition of a kick makes things more exciting, but we're missing a snare drum. Instead of filling that space with the clap on the back beat, Marroquin keeps things reserved. The snare finally enters in the second verse (0:48) - (1:00), along with a background synth which gives the whole tune a lift and carries things into the second chorus (1:00 - 1:25) where things are all finally grooving together and the bandwidth is nice and wide. After that section, things shrink back down in the bridge until we reach the final chorus (2:14 - 2:43) where everything seems to burst. The top end is wide open and there's added sub bass filling out a lower octave that didn't exist until now. Even if you don't like the song, this is a masterful mix (and arrangement) and it shows why Manny Marroquin is one of the top mixers in the game today.
6. Bruce Springsteen – "I'm On Fire"
Mixed by Bob Clearmountain
Bob Clearmountain is often referred to as the father of modern mixing, and for good reason. One of the things for which he's lauded is his ability to create incredible depth with his reverbs and delays. This track is a great example. The drums and guitar–hard-panned left and right respectively–exist in a rich sonic universe that underpins the vocal and allows it to take the foreground in the center. The ambience reminds me of Elvis Presley's version of "Blue Moon," but to me, the element separation in the Springsteen mix allows the vocal to cut through much more rawly.
7. Angel Olsen – "New Love Cassette"
Mixed by John Congleton
I'll just start by saying this track comes from my favorite album of 2019, and top three for the decade. I love the way it incorporates seemingly disparate textural motifs and makes them work together. Specifically, the way in which the mix introduces new levels of fidelity re-contextualizes the song as it plays. But instead of feeling jarred, each addition pulls me in closer. The verses sound so gritty and bloated...almost lo-fi. Then, when the chorus hits, things open up. There's a lofty vocal reverb treatment and the ride cymbal brings a certain degree of hi-fi crispness. As the song progresses, a vintage sounding string arrangement takes things to another level. This close, intimate, saturated, modern sounding track shouldn't work with the strings, but it does and it's awesome and you should listen to it.
8. Soul Coughing – "Rolling"
Mixed by Tchad Blake
The me, the star of the show in this mix is the drum sound. Super punchy, gushy, lo-fi...and mono! I love the way the saturation (almost certainly a SansAmp) on the kit anchors the track and leaves room for all the other elements to make their various cameos, popping up in different locations across the stereo field. Also a big fan of the processing on Mike Doughty's vocal. I was big into this band in my early teens, but I only recently re-discovered them. Yes, they sound a little dated, but they're also seriously underrated. Don't sleep on Soul Coughing.
9. Ata Kak – "Obaa Sima"
Mixed by Ata Kak
Ata Kak is a Ghanaian artist who's self-produced cassette recordings were widely circulated in the mid-1990's in Ghana and have since been reissued by the record label, Awesome Tapes from Africa. The whole album is incredible, but I chose this song specifically because I love the way the noise floor on the cassette tape eats up the dynamic range. Listen to the short reverb on the main syncopated synth motif gets cut off, almost like a gated reverb but much more textural. I'm sure its a technical quirk of the recording process, but the little spaces between note attacks does so much to enhance the groove. There's a similar gated quality to the vocal that makes it sound super close and almost super-imposed. If anyone has more info, I'd love to learn about how this was made and the history of the style.
10. ROSALÍA – "A Palé"
Mixed by Jaycen Joshua
I think one of the main tenants of modern pop mixing and production is the marriage of ultra-pristine, crystalline, lush sounds and fucked up distorted ones. I love it. To me, that kind of textural contrast is just really compelling and "A Palé" is probably the best example I can think of. In the intro (0:00 - 0:29), Rosalía's voice is treated like it's coming from an old TV set, filtered and slap-echoed. Then the main instrumental hits (0:29 - 0:36) and we're brought to the 21st century. There's a gnarly distorted 808 rubbing shoulders with super crisp percussion and airy vocal samples/adlibs. In the pre-chorus (0:53 - 1:08), Rosalía's super modern, bright, compressed vocal is thrown into contrast with a chopped up lo-fi synth/sample while the background vocals whisper on the sides. It's just so perfect. This one is also my go-to pop reference on new systems. It helps me gauge soundstage, low-end thrust, midrange presence, and ultra top-end air.