As mentioned earlier in the week, this tune would be a dream to mix. It is not very compositionally dense consisting mostly monophonic synth lines. The character of the song derives primarily from the compositional techniques—each instrumental track gets its own identifiable melodic line and discrete part of the sonic register such that nothing really muddles anything else. This allows for easy distinction between instruments and a general air of spaciousness without the track sounding empty.
Most striking to me is how static and simple the panorama and sonics are for a Dave Fridmann mix. I’m used to hearing synthesizers leap across the sonic field and evolve throughout the tune from his landmark albums with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. There is none of that here as everything is quite stationary.
The song starts with a field recording of children playing, which is panned toward the right. This creates a kind of imbalance waiting to be offset by the hook-synth
panned out middle left. There appears to be a higher doubling way down in the mix and way out to the right. It might be played an octave up, or it might be harmonic ringing in a counter-panned reverb. This helps the synth sound more encompassing than it really is.
When the band enters there is the normal cast in the center channel with a kick drum, snare drum, handclaps-doubling-the-snare, lead vocal, and bass synthesizer as per the natural laws of instrument panning. There is also an answer synthesizer slightly lower in the mix and panned out middle right (this is a polyphonic synthesizer because it hits at least a couple diads throughout the tune). This plays off the ostinato synth, but is clearly subordinate to it. Across the stereo stage there is at least one, but probably several synthesizer pads that give thickness to the mix and tie together what might be an otherwise hollow and disjointed assemblage of disparate synths and samples.
In the choruses, the vocal harmonies are panned out a little farther than you’d normally expect and the sides isolate the harmonies—the low harmony is pretty wide left and the high harmony is pretty wide right. This might have been done to try and give the impression of distinct singers without placing too much emphasis on giving each singer his turn.
Curiously there is no crash cymbal until the bridge and no hi-hat or toms whatsoever until the final choruses. Also quite striking is that the hi-hat and cymbals are panned very narrowly. Under the normal mixing paradigm, drum kits are distorted and stretched across the entire spectrum with hi-hats appearing middle left (or right depending on perspective) and cymbals out wide. In this tune, all the drum parts appear to be well within 30 degrees of center.
In the final chorus, the drums start to get a bit busier and experiment with fills and syncopation. The toms too are very shallow (both in panning and volume), but the handclaps do pan out wide for two hits in the middle of the last chorus for accent. The lead vocal gets the same treatment from time to time as a reverbed delay with feedback spreads certain words out wide. This is probably done more to fill lyrical holes than provide accent because I don’t see much reason to accentuate momentous lyrics like “…picking insects off plants.”
One of the main questions I came across while researching this article is how Fridmann was able to attain such a clear delineation between the bass and the kick drum. It’d be pretty effortless to accomplish with this orchestration. The bass is played by a synthesizer with some pretty serious upper frequency harmonics—at least a couple times in the tune it sounds like it is doubled by another synthesizer quieter and an octave up. All this subconsciously contributes to presence. You might accomplish the same thing at home by adding some fuzz or amp distortion. It also helps that the bass is the only thing playing a regular 8th note pattern, alternating between the root and an octave up. Those upbeat 8ths really emphasize the bass part to the ear.
The kick drum seems to morph throughout the tune, though not overtly so. In the opening when the drum kit is fully exposed, there is a big beautiful drum sound with only the slightest hint of that upper frequency paper *tick*. When the band kicks in, it sounds like the EQ shifts wildly to place heavy emphasis on the upper frequencies of the drum. This allows the synth bass to take up most of the bandwidth in the low end of the spectrum while the kick is audible in that Metallica-ticky-kick way.
As I mentioned previously, I believe the synthesizers are reamped or played through some sort of amp modeling plug-in to give them some edge, fuzz, and distortion. It makes them much more ballsy in comparison to the naked and juvenile sound from the EP version and are a testament to how much a talented engineer/producer and professional treatments can positively affect a song.
Continuing with synths, one of the pads has a phaser on it to give it some distinction while holding out those long notes and give it presence without overtaking the mix. I personally abhor the sound of phasers, but they do the trick by creating subtle sonic intrigue for your ear to latch on to.
Also, note how much quieter the answer synth is in comparison to the main ostinato. You’d think that the answer synth, providing some melodic interest, would be something worth highlighting in the mix, but it is barely audible and most people don’t even remember it as part of the song except in the verses. This is an example of a mixer/artist realizing their priorities—in a pop tune like this it is more important to emphasize the hook than to emphasize the other stuff. Always remember, in order for something to be big, something else has to be small. As such, the ostinato is big, the answer is small (as are the pads, toms, crashes, hi hat, and BGVs)
The vocals are clearly doubled, tripled, quadrupled, compressed, drenched in AKG BX20 spring reverb, and delayed with feedback. It also sounds like there might be a chorus and perhaps even a flanger at some points. All were probably used to thicken the vocal tracks and cover-up some of the imperfections of youth like vocal cracks and noises. One of the comments on the youtube video for the EP version asks “Is that even the same Andrew?”
(For those of you following along at home, know that you can use these effects on your voice and they do help a lot, but you have to be prepared to sound totally different than you are used to. People often ask for their vocals to be treated thusly, but they hate the results because they don’t sound like themselves anymore. We should ask the boys from MGMT whether or not they think the vocals sound like them and which one they’d prefer to have captured on record…)
The background vocals are also turned very low in the mix. If you don’t pay attention you may not even realize they are there and may only register as the vocal suddenly getting thicker. In most pop songs, background vocals are not intended to be heard blatantly but rather to blend in with the lead vocal for emphasis.
The vocals are very sibilant but I would fault the mastering. There isn’t really much need for the vocals to be altered in order to make them more present or perceptible. Given the instrumentation of the tune and the mix, the vocals should stand out well enough on their own. I also see some superb de-essers in the Tarbox gear list, so there is no reason why they would be sibilant in the mix.
Chances are the tune was shipped off to Greg Calbi, who does almost exclusively unattended sessions, and he decided that the tune overall needed more top end. Whether he accomplished this with EQ, harmonic excitation, or some combination of both, he achieved his end with the artifact of sibilance.
The tune is also heavily compressed on the two-mix. Most of the dynamics stem from orchestration changes as opposed to real contrast. Some spots in the chorus have audible compression artifacts such as the brickwall wash that occurs when the vocals hold out words (ie “A family of treeeeeeeees”). These “flaws” are not necessarily a bad thing, just a reality of what mastering is these days. The are further evidence hat very big, very popular tunes have audible compression artifacts as part of their sonic character. To the average listener, they would not even be detectable, but hey we notice because it’s our job to notice.
Thanks to the composition of this tune, the instruments get to be very busy without the mix being muddled. We get a very clear distinction between the instruments and also get to enjoy a bunch of little ear candy along the way. The subtle changes that are low in the mix are easy to hear once you know they are there, but if you don’t they just wash over you and sound like a full yet spacious professional mix.