Reference Tracks (Week of 11/15/20)
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Here's this week's list of mixes I love and the reasons why...
1. Doja Cat - "Go To Town"
Mixed by NealHPogue
For me, this one's all about the group vocals. The hook is a particularly good lesson in background vocal mixing. The vocals are all placed well and have a nice reverb, making them sound cohesive without being washed out. In addition to aiming for good panning, EQ, and ambience, there are two thing's I've been doing lately to make my background vocals "pop" like this. First, I'll route them all to a bus and add a 100% unlinked stereo compressor...something like a DBX-160, Sta-Level, or TG12345 works well. This helps even out any distracting level jumps or dips between the left and right channels. Next, I'll often send the bus to a dual-mono reverb to get depth while still maintaining image clarity. Hard to say for sure if that's what's going on in the Doja Cat song, but it's is a good reference for me when I'm trying to get that effect.
2. Sparklehorse - "Shade and Honey"
I love how claustrophobic this mix sounds. Overall, things are pretty dry, but the real kicker is the lead vocal. Although it's super compressed and up front, it doesn't suffer from any of the aggression that often comes with that kind of treatment. The result is an incredibly intimate sound where each syllable, inflection, consonant, and breath can be heard. Also, as a side note, the acoustic guitar in the chorus sounds amazing.
3. David Byrne - "Fuzzy Freaky"
Mixed by Mark Saunders
It's hard to find faults with this one. It's a great sounding mix in its own right, but it's also clear that the arrangement is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here. The placement of elements in the stereo field along with the instrumental's proper apportionment of frequencies allows the vocal to sit right in the middle of everything, sounding well integrated but never washed out or overpowered. A lot of times if an arrangement is too dense, the vocal will need to sit on top of everything just to be heard...not always ideal.
4. Broods - "Peach"
Mixed by Mark Rankin
I like this record for the relationship between verse and chorus. Mark Rankin does a good job of making the verses feel close and small, filtering and heavily compressing the lead vocal. Then, in the choruses, everything opens up. The vocals (now washed in reverb) sound further back and the small sounding drum machine of the verse gives way to a bombastic live drum part. The sonic transition isn't jarring thanks to the pre-chorus, but even so, achieving such a diverse tonal palate in the same record isn't always easy.
5. Arcade Fire - "The Suburbs"
Mixed by Craig Silvey
Musically, I like the stilted nature of this track. There's a cool driving quarter note pulse running through the whole thing. I'm also impressed with the fact that the track is basically a four chord progression that loops for five minutes and it doesn't get boring. I think a lot of that has to do with the gradual addition of various instruments like strings, synths, and lead guitar. I also think there's something to be said for Win Butler's engaging lyrics and vocal performance. But to me, a big part of the song's success is the well balanced, engaging, and immersive mix.
6. Black Marble - "A Great Design"
Mixed by Chris Moore
This mix is washed out, muffled, and cloudy, but it's so perfect for the song. To me, it serves as a reminder that it's often better to eschew mixing "best practices" if they don't serve the emotional directive of the music. The best mixes are the ones you don't notice, and this one embodies that notion. Here, the songwriting, production, and mixing are all integrated in a way that makes the music feel both potent and singular.
7. Moses Sumney - "Quarrel"
Mixed by Ben Baptie
I like this one for the vocal treatment. It's undoubtedly a great performance, and the mix supports it well. The vocals feel close but not imposing, balanced but not sterile. I also like how Ben Baptie plays with reverb throws throughout. When Sumney goes high in his range, Baptie often gives him more reverb. Techniques like this vary the vocal sound to keep it engaging, but they also help give natural acoustic perspective to a vocal. If someone sings loud in a reverberant space, they're likely to excite the room more than if they sing softly. Your brain knows this, so when Baptie adds reverb, he's playing to our psychoacoustic circuitry.
8. Amy Annelle - "Buckskin Stallion Blues"
Mixed by Brian Beattie
This is more of a production thing, but there's one moment in this song that I LOVE. At 1:43, there's an eerie affected melody. I emailed Brian Beattie about it a while ago and he said it's a lap steel with some tape delay layered with a background vocal recorded in a bathroom and sent through a Leslie speaker. The whole song is great, but this is "that one part" that gets me every time I hear it.