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20 Jul 2015

THE MILL REPORT: HALF BAKED IS HALF ARSED

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When a song production leaves half its musical potential on the shelf, everyone gets disappointed. “If only they’d added X, Y and Z” people say… “the song would have been amazing!”

Some musicians don’t have this problem, of course. They throw every conceivable overdub at a song, hoping something will stick… and sometimes things do… so well that the mix engineer is left with a complete mess on their hands.

But others just come up short, either because they fail to have things stick or they’re reluctant to throw things at all. One problem is as bad as the other in some respects, although, like a builder constructing a house, as a mix engineer I know which problem I’d rather have.

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A lot of songs come across my desk down here at The Mill. Some are notepad sketches with their entire musical journey still ahead of them. Others are fully mixed productions ready for mastering.

Of these, a significant portion have had the kitchen sink thrown at them. Some have been in the pipeline for months or even years, and in that time had every conceivable overdub – from the crucial to the downright obscure – added to their burgeoning waistlines.

But there are less of these productions than you might think. What dominates the Australian musical landscape still is an even larger proportion of songs that lack even the most basic musical arrangement and production detail.

When left to develop on their own, these tawdry productions often wind up sounding like uncooked raw ingredients, arranged ever so neatly for the soon-to-be-tortured hapless listener like vegetables on a caesar-stone bench top. Do none of these people think to bring the elements together as a decent meal?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

When it comes right down to it, it’s as if no-one involved in these productions realises that having the basic ingredients  marks only the start of the musical journey, not the end of the road. You can’t be content with acquiring fresh ingredients and then think the cooking is done. If you do, you’ll nearly always wind up frustrated and bored by the results. Your work will sound incomplete… which, I assure you, it is!

The only cure for this frustration is, of course, experimentation. Trying things, even when you have absolutely no idea what the outcome might be, is nearly always worth the attempt. ‘Fortune favours the brave,’ as they say.

Actually, I’d go so far as to say that musical (or mix) experimentation should play a part in every song you produce, even if it’s but one element. Sometimes the most incredible music is produced where the outcome is unknowable. Using only the rational side of your brain to conjure up every element of a production can leave you with fewer flavours in the mix that you’d hoped for.

THE RAW DEAL

Getting back to our cooking analogy for a moment; have you ever known anyone to go to their favourite restaurant expecting a meal of raw ingredients presented in their original state? When you order an eye fillet steak, for instance, do you get a nicely cooked, well presented cut of meat poised jauntily on a bed of mashed potato with a fancy sauce drizzled delicately across it Jackson Pollock-style, or does the chef walk over to your table with a bag of potatoes in one hand and a cow in the other?

Even when the ingredients are raw, they’re never plated as such. There’s always artistry involved in their presentation in some form or other.

So it should be with music.

Here are a few tips that can help prevent a production from winding up sounding like the unremarkable sum of its parts.

WHAT LIES BENEATH

Truth is, even when you’re producing a song with a simple arrangement that’s exquisitely played, there are often secret ingredients required by the production and mixing processes to bring out what’s best about the song, a bit like spices in cooking.

Far too often musicians and amateur producers mistake the subtle complexity in the work of others for plain old simplicity, the ‘spices’ overlooked even though they may be playing a significant role.

They’ll say things like: “Oh I love that song because the mix is so dry,” when in fact it’s laced with all manner of delicate spaces that create an almost invisible three-dimensionality. Or they might say: “I can’t believe how beautiful he sounds, raw like that; just the one vocal and a guitar,” when in fact the song has two guitars, a harmony, a soft organ pad, reverb and double tracked vocals in the chorus. Time and time again people misuse their reference tracks in this way, falling far short of the mark with their own efforts as a result.

SIMPLE, NOT SO

One of the most crucial things to consider when recording something ‘simple’, for instance, is that clarity and exquisite detail aren’t necessarily always your best allies. Sometimes the sheer lack of mystery in a production leads to stark, sterile atmospheric outcomes, where the artist sounds like they’ve been recorded harshly under a brightly lit microscope.

This is not the fault of mic choices or compression ratios, but rather the context into which the artist is placed.

Not everyone wants their blemishes and wrinkles to show you understand. Sometimes a disguise, even though it may be subtle, can go a long way towards creating atmosphere, mystery and intrigue – like the difference between eating at a softly lit restaurant or under fluros. Even when the food is the same, context can make the experience quite different.

SOME EXAMPES

Guitars, for instance, particularly simple strummed acoustics, can often sound better double tracked and panned, than the single mono recording equivalent. So too can rhythm elements like snares and tambourines, when strength and width are lacking in a production. Two tambourines for example, will often sound less obtrusive than one, and sit less aggressively in the soundstage as they blur one another around the edges.

Tambourine is, in fact, perhaps the perfect example of a misunderstood production element. Often they’re recorded tight, dry and bright, when more often than not they should be recorded dull, back from the mic and hit at an almost vertical angle so they jangle waaay more than you think they should. That way they can be almost dry in the mix without sounding too short.

Vocals, however, are arguably the most commonly misunderstood element of a production. They’re obvious candidates for treatment in virtually every musical context, even when it’s a bare bones production. Extra vocal layers can always add mystery and depth without necessarily robbing the main vocal of its intimacy.

If you want them to, additional vocal elements can be all but inaudible to the naked ear, adding mystery and tonal complexity without adding more ‘parts’ to the arrangement.  Indeed, some of the most in-your-face vocal performances ever recorded – that an average listener might attribute to a single vocalist – are made up of three or four.

And if you want to frustrate the hell out of a mix engineer, just present them with a 100-track song to mix, with only one vocal channel.

In many cases, if a vocal sounds too exposed and stark in a mix, there may be call for adding subtle harmonies to key phrases, or double tracking here and there. If extra vocals are out of the question, delay can work wonders, adding depth and mystery in any quantity you choose. More often than not, a vocal delay that’s had some bottoms and a significant amounts of tops removed from its tone can go almost unnoticed by the vast majority of listeners while at the same time creating an invisible atmosphere for the singer to occupy. Think of it like a subtle drop shadow in Photoshop. It goes almost unseen in most contexts.

THE DELICATE BACKDROP 

There’s a whole universe of production techniques that can be added to a simple song arrangement that help give it a unique fingerprint, and for obvious reasons I can’t possibly begin to illustrate them all.

But if the final mix of your latest creation is sounding ho-hum, ask yourself this question: “If I mute four of the song’s key elements, what will I be left with?”

Better still, don’t ask yourself; try it and see.

Call up the mix and mute four of the main elements (assuming the songs has at least that many). Now have a good listen to the music you’re left with. Assuming there are things like room mics, extra instruments, mixing effects, side-chained element etc, you will find yourself confronted with a reinterpretation of the song that may surprises you. Perhaps now it’s an instrumental – who knows. Either way it should now sound quite different.

Next, ask yourself this: “Is the new version of my song still fascinating in some way?”

By creating this fairly arbitrary sub-mix, have you suddenly discovered that the song has a parallel universe running underneath it? If you have, great – that’s an encouraging sign.

What this exercise should do is now encourage you to hear the song from a different perspective: one that’s more concerned with the detail of the background elements than what’s out front. If, by temporarily muting some of the main elements, you’re inspired to add some subtle new components to this new ‘version’ of the song, these will go a long way towards adding that extra spice your mix previously lacked.

FIVE VERSIONS IN ONE

Most things I work on tend to have this capacity – the ability to surprise me when I remove some or all of the main elements. My favourite productions are those that can be sub-mixed in several different ways, and where each new version seems capable of becoming a musical piece in its own right.

To me this flexibility is a sign of a healthy arrangement, though not always. Sometimes it only proves that there are too many elements! But for the most part, when the background elements on their own have a certain vibe about them, you know you’re on the right track. I’d be far more concerned if the song sounded plain and lifeless with the main elements removed.

If the song your working on is a simple one, with a confident main vocal, imagine the outcome like a portrait painting. The person in the picture may seem amazing – the detail in the eyes etc – but that’s not the whole picture is it? The portrait won’t be complete without its visual surroundings. The singer’s performance is only either going to be enhanced or undermined by the context you then place them in. Put them in a bad one and the song falls apart.

So don’t be fooled – underworking your next production can be as bad, or worse than, overdubbing it to the brink of collapse. And if you’re referencing other people’s tracks during the construction of your next masterpiece, always remember: some of the ingredients will be obscured from view no matter how carefully you study it.

There’s always more to a production than superficially meets the ear… the best have backgrounds worthy of their own track!

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