Anatomy Of A Song #10: All Mixed Up

Friends of th' Process! What the fuck does it take to wash one's hands of the filthy, filthy world and wend one's way back to these sweet blue walls? It's like th' polesmoking Odyssey trying to get back to the important, important work of completing "I Could Try".

Let us raise a glass and bestow many thanks upon th' gods of the road that allow us to once again return to the arms of our sweet and complex Penelope.

When we left our friends on Thursday the last, we had completed all rhythm instruments, culminating with clean guitar and leslie'd guitar. Over the course of the next few days I was able to throw up a rough mix of "I Could Try" and slap it onto a CD. Listening on various systems out there in the world was invaluable, and I'm able to return to the song with a fresh perspective and some new ideas.

First things first, however; we must commit our 8 tracks to two-track stereo mix so that we can open up tracks to continue with vocals, trumpets, keyboard solos and the inevitable stacks of (ostensibly) warm, creamy harmony. The Beatles would have called this a "reduction mix" and they would generally have taken four tracks of instruments and summed them to a single, mono track. This is the point at which George would have stepped in to record his guitar solos and vocals would have been cut and all that. As they headed into the "Revolver" era, Paul would show an increasing tendency to cut his bass part at this juncture. It wasn't just bettered technology that inspired Paul's heights of imaginative bass playing; it was also the ability to compose it to a largely finished instrumental track.

I work on a TASCAM digital 8-track which works in tandem with my computer for signal processing, mixing down and mastering. I could probably just run some huge-ass 24-track thing on my computer but I like the old knobs, you see? And eight tracks for me, especially digital, is always enough. In fact, it's decadent. Plus, setting up th' whole computer deal would take valuable writing and recording time. So; we have eight instrumental tracks to mix. They are distributed thus:

1. Rhodes piano
2. Bass guitar
3/4 (stereo pair) Acoustic piano and leslied guitar. "Music Box" recording.
5. organ
6. electric guitar
7/8 (stereo pair) percussion, loops, drums

How 'bout that, hey? What to do? How to make a stew from these bits of bone 'n' celery? How about this:

The Rhodes: we give the Rhodes a tiny kiss of room ambience and a touch of tube saturation. We throw it over to a mix position of about 10:30 or 11 o'clock, or "soft soft left".

Th' bass guitar: the bass is almost center-situated in the soundscape. Nothing ever truly ends up in the middle- this is one of the best tricks to keep space open for the all-important lead vocal. Hence, we place the bass guitar one or two "C.H"'s (official studio term of measurement) to the right, say about two minutes past midnight. You foller me?

We also apply a limiting-type of compression to the bass guitar. This means a very fast high-threshold, high ratio compression; it will not touch the signal until it reaches a certain level at which point it will step on it harder'n a college boy on an eightball. This is strictly for level management as opposed to signal treatment. Makes life a little easier. You see, I don't use compression for effect on the bass guitar. Compression on bass is for those who don't play the god damn thing right. And I, my dears, play the little fucker right. Don't call me for locksmithing or the eradication of pests, but if you have a bass needs playing I'm your man.

The acoustic piano and stereo leslied guitar: these are recorded in stereo on a pair of tracks and never happen at the same time. When we have different signals on one or two tracks we can either watch their levels, eq's, etc. during mixdown and switch them back and forth or we can bounce one of the sources to another stereo pair at a level and eq setting that will be appropriate to the mix and then bounce it back. Thus we don't have to worry about it during the mix proper.

So: we set up a rough mix of the instruments and bounce the sections of this stereo pair to a pair of virtual tracks, adjusting the volume appropriately as we go. We then bounce the "new" stereo piano recording back to the stereo tracks over the old piano.

We compress the piano lightly and apply a small amount of reductive eq to it, removing a tiny bit of brashness. Both the piano and the guitar will be treated to a small amount of the ambient reverb we are using on the electric piano during the final mix.

At this stage we delay the right side of the stereo leslie guitar by about 25 or so milliseconds. This will widen the sound and give a feeling of space that will help it exist apart from the also-hard-panned stereo piano. Back in the day we had to run the signal through a digital delay at mixdown. In this day 'n' age we copy and move it. Brilliant. That much more time is opened up for listening to my new copy of spiritualized's superlative 1997 cd "ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space" later on. Sweent indeed.

Also on this stereo pair is the "Music Box" recording. This we will simply pull down in volume when it hits.

Let's deal with the organ now, shall we? Heh. I love playing keyboards on "Dance To The Music" by Sly because they have a section where the instruments are introduced: "you might want to hear my organ...we're gonna ride, Sally, ride..." I like to a) change this to, "you might want to see my organ..." or b) dial up some ridiculous patch on the synth and say, "you might want to hear my c'or anglais..."

Musician humor.

Anway- yucks aside- we want the organ to balance out the final remaining single track which is the guitar on track 6- we'll soft-pan these two elements opposite each other so the organ will go to the 9 o'clock position or soft left and the guitar (more later) will go to the 3 0'clock position.

Now, the organ is an instrument with no dynamic range- no matter how hard we strike the keys the volume is the same- hence it need not be tamed with any dynamic tools. Simple. The only fluctuation in volume with the organ is in the form of volume swells and these are intentional. We apply a fairly rich, long, mono reverb to the organ which we pan as far away from it as possible for separation i.e. to 5 o'clock.

This brings us to the mono guitar, which as we know is being panned soft right. We will leave this guitar dry but apply some stereo chorus to it for some much-needed modernity and some stereo spaciousness.

Finally we have our stereo pair of all drum and percussion elements. We run our mix from the top to see how these elements "sit" with all the panning and processing we've done with the other instruments. Pretty damn good, to be frank. Some of the shaker is a bit loud but we can ride this down in passages where no other percussion is happening. I also end up dialing out a bit of bottom from this stereo pair in the 80 Hz range to accomodate our bass guitar. This is not a drums-n-bass extravaganza so the loss won't hurt. In fact it's in character with the retro vibe- not a lot of 80 Hz going on on "Pet Sounds". Finally we squeeze this stereo pair with a little slow, subtle compression at a 1.1:1 ratio. Just for mental fun.

Woah! We're close, fuckers! Let's throw it up and see how everything lives together. It's all about clarity, separation and room for upcoming vocals at this point. We dial some upper mids out of the acoustic piano. We bring the organ up a tiny bit. A lot of the percussion is living in the space we've engineered for the vocals but these sounds are "transient", i.e. short and sharp, and won't disturb or mask the vocal.

Three takes later we have a lovely stereo mix of our rhythm tracks. We back up our work to CD, wipe all tracks and bounce our stereo mix to a newly open stereo pair.

Tomorrow we will cut a new guide vocal to stack harmonies against, perform our acoustic piano and Rhodes solos, lay down fake horn guides and score these on paper for upcoming trumpet sessions.

Today's listening for "I Could Try":

Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space- Spiritualized
The Drugs Don't Work- The Verve
Joe Jackson- Symphony Number 1
Bobby Lightfoot- LA Lullaby

Today's Pallette Cleansers:

Bartok String Quartets
Frantic- Bryan Ferry
Buena- Morphine


Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

Paul would show an increasing tendency to cut his bass part at this juncture. It wasn't just bettered technology that inspired Paul's heights of imaginative bass playing; it was also the ability to compose it to a largely finished instrumental track.

Colin too on some of the later records. Sadly, lots of musicians don't share this perspective. I got into some disagreements recently about this and basically conceded the point. I did get to do it about two years ago on a track I played on with Soundsurfr, but the vocalist was very unhappy about it. He wanted to hear the bass much earlier on then he anticpated. If you are in a rehearsal studio working on the songs for a few weeks, it isn't as necessary, but if you are building the track from the demo up in the studio, it accomplishes two things: 1) The bass player doesn't over-play and also doesn't limit the choices of other instruments by staking out some territory that might be better suited to other instruments. 2) The bass player gets to incorporate melodies from the lead instruments into his part that wouldn't have even existed yet had he played on the basic track. I like to sometimes take a guitar lick that is played over the verse and sneak into the chorus, mimic some phrasing from the lead vocals, play a snippet of a horn part from the chorus on the fade etc. Learned all that from the best rock bass player ever mentioned earlier in this post!

And I, my dears, play the little fucker right.

Indeed you do.

8:25 PM  
Blogger beyond passionate said...

"C.H."- heh, indeedy. Back in my TV studio cameraman days we used to say "R.C.H" (red- an even finer degree of measurement) as in, "Camera 2, pan left just an R.C.H".

8:34 PM  
Blogger roxtar said...

I got out of the commercial production biz before digital, but I'm so happy that the RCH and CH have survived as units of mesurement.

7:26 AM  

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