Need Mastering?
Learn more now









© 2015 Fix Your Mix. All rights reserved.

Archive for the ‘FYM’ Category

UPDATE: The graphic and article have been updated with a more accurate explanation of limiting.

Last night, I was giving one of our mastering clients some mixing advice regarding vocal compression. I thought I’d post the email here for those of you who might still be struggling with the concept (I know I did for years) or to refer your friends to. Also note that this article is about sound compression or even more specifically “dynamic range compression” and should not be confused with data compression (mp3, zip, rar, etc.) This isn’t a comprehensive explanation of compression, you can find that elsewhere. This is just the bare bones essentials.

I used drums instead of vocals in the diagram below because I felt that would be the easiest to understand visually. Click for full size:

What’s the point of compression anyway?

Back in the old days, vocal compression was used for one purpose:

Compression makes the volume of a vocal more consistent overall.
In fact it was originally called “Automatic Level Control.” So if you’re singing or rapping some words louder than others, compression makes for a less drastic volume difference between the loud and quiet parts.

So above all else, vocal compression makes the lyrics easier to understand and helps to keep the words from being drowned out by the music. Obviously you could just turn up the vocal track to solve this problem, but then you’d have a new issue: when the singer hits a loud note it will now be way too loud compared to everything else, startling the listener and causing them to turn it off because they don’t like being startled. Or more likely they just turn it down. And you want people to blast your music right?

How compression works.

It’s pretty simple: Every time the compressor hears a sound that goes over a certain volume level (that’s your “threshold”), it turns down the volume for that moment.

Makeup gain.

After compressing a vocal track, it will be quieter than what you started with. To make up for this lost volume, most compressors have an output volume knob or “makeup gain” knob. (For our purposes, gain and volume are the same thing.)

So although technically compression turns down the loud parts with the quiet parts unaffected, if you raise your makeup gain enough you’ll effectively be turning UP the QUIET parts instead.

Threshold.

As I said before, your threshold is setting the cutoff point. Any word that’s quieter than the threshold will remain untouched. Everything above it will be turned down somewhat. For rap, you probably want to set the threshold so you’re compressing everything but the absolute quietest words. Until you get to the point where you can actually hear compression working (this can take years), you’ll want to use your gain reduction meter for this purpose.

Gain Reduction.

How you set your threshold will be relative to how loudly or softly your vocal was recorded. That’s a big part of why presets are only meant to be used as a starting point. The truly important value to watch is gain reduction, because a gain reduction meter tells you how much your vocal is actually being turned down at any given time.

If your compressor doesn’t have a meter, it’s hard to say where you should set your threshold. As I said before, compression is very hard to hear starting out. And your listeners will only hear it subconsciously. Or they might notice when it’s not there because it sounds like a demo and it’s not as smooth/consistent as a professional mix. But they won’t know why it sounds that way.

Ratio.

After using compression, the loudest notes will still be louder than the threshold, but not as much over it as before (see the diagram above). So post-compression, the difference in loudness between the loud and quiet words will be smaller. That difference is called “dynamic range”  and the ratio determines how drastic that difference is. High ratios (8:1 for example) make for a smaller range. Small ratios (2:1 or 3:1) will allow a bigger range.

Compression Today and the Effects of Attack & Release.

Today, compression is still used to make lyrics more understandable, but back in the day it pretty much only had one knob. More compression, or less. Today you’ve got more controls, so you can have different flavors of compression using attack and release. At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s the effect attack and release settings have on vocals:

Shorter attack and release times (smaller numbers) will make vocals sound more “energetic,” louder, and will also bring out the breaths between words.

Longer attack and release times (higher numbers) will make the sound “punchier” which obviously isn’t as important for vocals as it is for other instruments like kick and snare.

For vocals, generally you’re going to want the attack to be quicker than the release. It’s not worth getting into why for now. I will occasionally set the release time to its absolute shortest value if I’m having trouble getting a vocal to cut through or going for an extreme effect.

What a Compressor’s Attack & Release Knobs Technically Do (Versus Synthesizers and Drum Machines).

If you’re used to working with synthesizers and drum machines, you may be confused about attack and release settings for compressors. Unlike on a synth, the attack and release settings on a compressor do not tell you the attack and release times of the instrument the compressor is affect. You’re setting the attack and release of the compression itself.

Compression doesn’t turn on and off instantly. So attack is the length of time it takes your compressor to start compressing at full force. (How long it takes to go from zero to sixty, so to speak.) Release is the amount of time it takes for your compressor to stop compressing.

So what does all this mean in layman’s terms? Let’s say you’re compressing a snare drum and you’ve set a relatively slow attack time–80 miliseconds. And let’s also say you’ve applied this compression permanently to your sound wave and you’re looking at the waveform before and after. Visually, your snare drum probably already had a big volume spike at the beginning which trailed off, but now it will cut off even more abruptly since it was grabbed by the compressor after 80 miliseconds and taken way down in volume. You may hear this resulting sound as a punchier snare drum.

Now let’s say you set the attack to an EXTREMELY slow speed, like 1 second (1000 ms). You’re not going to be compressing the big pop of the snare drum much at all now because that pop lasts less than a second. We’re talking fractions of a second here. So by the time the compression kicks in you’ve already missed that spike.

If you want to control the attack and release of a recorded sound directly (like you would with a synth or drum sample) what you want is an “envelope follower” or “transient modulator,” such as Waves Trans-X, Envelope (built into Logic), or Oxford Transient Modulator. The most popular hardware version of this is called the SPL Transient Designer–for some engineers it was the secret to the 90s drum sound.

Limiting.

Limiting is the final effect in every mastering engineer’s chain but is also commonly used on vocals (most limiters are better suited to certain applications over others).

A limiter is a type of compressor which has an “infinite ratio”* which means that everything that goes above the threshold gets set to exactly the threshold’s level.

The controls on a limiter are also slightly differently from a compressor. Instead of using your threshold to push down the peaks and then compensating afterwards with makeup gain, for limiters you set the input gain, which pushes up the volume of everything at once, while the threshold is fixed at 0. (Go here to get unconfused about decibels.)

The end result is that although everything has been boosted by the same amount in theory, the volume of the quiet parts is effectively increased much more than for the loud parts, because the loud parts were closer to the threshold to begin with, and as I said before, a limiter doesn’t allow anything to get louder than the threshold.

If you’re working with vocals, you’ll probably want to use the limiter’s output gain control (if it has one) to turn the final result down.

A NOTE ABOUT LIMITING PLUGINS: Very confusingly, some of the most popular limiter plugins (including the Waves L1, L2, & L3) call their input gain control a “threshold” and use negative instead of positive values. In fact, the true threshold cannot be controlled at all–it’s fixed. Your L1 threshold is actually an input gain. The reason they’ve set it up this way is because it’s easier to understand visually. Unlike with most analog limiters, many plugin limiters have a vertical volume meter and use sliders instead of knobs. So the slider is positioned beside the volume meter, and you can drag the slider down as you watch the meter bounce in order to visually choose which peaks are limited and which are not. This allows you to use your eyes instead of your ears to decide how aggressively you want to limit something–do you want to flatten out the volume completely or only the loudest peaks? Or somewhere in between?

Feel free to leave questions in the comments.

*Some engineers consider anything with a ratio of over 10:1 to be limiting.


Client Feature: The Dirty Dishes

Posted by Keith Freund On January - 6 - 20102 COMMENTS

Ladies and germs, I present to you what is perhaps my favorite release that I’ve worked on to date: In The Clouds, a five-song EP and debut release from Boston-based indie rockers The Dirty Dishes.


The Dirty DishesI mixed and co-produced the record, also sharing mastering duties with Dave Cooley (produced both Silversun Pickups records and has mastered for J Dilla, Madlib, & Polyphonic Spree). They’re something like a female-fronted Silversun Pickups or Autolux. But fresher. And maybe with a dash of Smashing Pumpkins. Listen to all five songs on Bandcamp. My favorites:


» “Deer In Headlights” (catchy, indie)
» “Stolen Apples” (fun with a hint of evil)
» “Thin Air” (epic shoegaze)


Haggle with your favorite ticket scalper tonight outside Boston’s House of Blues to catch the Dirty Dishes opening for Passion Pit at their sold-out show. And in case you haven’t noticed, these blogosphere darlings have been hyping the hell out of the Dishes:

Download any song from their EP for free on Bandcamp or support the band by buying the whole thing:


http://www.myspace.com/thedirtydishesmusic
http://www.facebook.com/thedirtydishes


BLOGGERS: feel free to post an mp3 for free download. You can also embed their Bandcamp player on your page by clicking the song title and then “Share”.

Client Feature: Miss Geo

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 25 - 20091 COMMENT

Miss Geo is a Rhode Island-based singer songwriter. Her new album, The Story, is an excruciatingly (yes) catchy indie-pop record with clever lyrics and tons of stand out tracks. Check out “Broken Wrists”:


I’ve been meaning to feature Miss Geo for a few months now, not only because the music is killer, but because I want to talk about a lesser known service that we offer at Fix Your Mix called stem mastering. Stem mastering, sometimes also called stem mixing or separation mastering, is a hybrid between mixing and mastering. To explain how this works, I’ll tell you a little bit about how this record was made.


miss-geo-album-coverThe Story was produced, engineered, and mixed by my good friend Rob Arbelo here in Boston. What I received from Rob was stereo “stems”–a single stereo track of drums, a stereo track of all the guitars combined, stereo vocals, bass, and a stereo track of synth/harmonies/noises combined. The benefit of mastering from stems is twofold:

  1. You can’t always be sure exactly how mastering will affect a mix. Sometimes guitars get louder, the snare’s sustain increases, the kick gets lost in the chorus, etc. By effectively mixing and mastering at the same time, I was able to quickly and easily tweak basic levels and EQ while retaining the essential character of Rob’s mix.
  2. One of the most often-cited benefits of mastering is an objective ear to lend fresh perspective to a mix. In my opinion, stem mastering is infinitely more valuable in this capacity than mastering alone.

I love working from stems, so if you’re a self-produced, DIY artist and want to mix it yourself without sacrificing the energy and clarity of a professionally mixed record, this may be the route to go. Or if you’ve spent months producing the hell out of someone else’s record and you’ve got a great mix that just needs a little tweaking, stem mastering will allow you to take a nice long nap while some other guy does the boring stuff!


UPDATE: We are now officially offering stem mixing at $80/song.


“Broken Wrists” was featured on Hype Machine yesterday and tons of people have been favoriting it, so if you like the song, heart/ReTweet this to bump Miss Geo up on the HypeM charts:


“Broken Wrists” on HypeM


You can also stream the full album on Miss Geo’s Bandcamp page. I recommend the tracks “Snake Soiree,” “Statuette,” and “Time Travel.”


Miss Geo links:

“Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 14 - 200932 COMMENTS

Key Signature: A minor, C Lydian
Time Signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Three-bar phrases, Polymeter, Polyrhythm, Modal harmony
Structure: Verse-Refrain-Verse-Refrain-C-D-C-D-C-Outro

Hover your mouse over terms underlined with dots (like this) for more information. If you’re following along with the album version rather than the video, subtract 5 seconds from any time stamps listed below to account for the video lead-in.


This blog mostly concerns itself with what can loosely be considered pop music, but today’s song violates what is perhaps pop’s most sacred and universal characteristic: structure. It’s not that “Ready, Able” has no structure, but it certainly isn’t your typical verse-chorus-verse. While a traditional pop song is designed to grab your attention and get to the hook ASAP, Grizzly Bear has no patience for people with no patience. And to those who wait, the payoff is that much sweeter.


A Narrative Of An Average Listener Experiencing This Song For The First Time (click to enlarge:)


A structural analysis of Ready, Able by Grizzly Bear.


“Ready, Able” starts with a sparse and confusing instrumental passage, which you eventually realize is part of the verse. Like the claymation monsters of the video that appear both happy and sad, you can’t tell whether to be scared by the droning, tribal mysteriousness of the rhythm section, or amused by the playful, almost upbeat vocal melody. You’re relieved to hear a chord–the first one in the song–at 0:42. This is the start of a new, more palatable section: the refrain.* Here Grizzly Bear builds anticipation for something that never comes. Right as the music sounds like it’s about to reach the tonic, the whole damn thing cuts back to the verse like a movie that ends on a cliffhanger, cutting to black at the most crucial moment. (And you still have no idea what “Rosebud” means…)

And now you’re brought right back into the verse. A push-and-pull dynamic is created with two different kinds of tension:

  • The verse draws its tension from rhythmic confusion, sparseness, and lack of harmony.
  • The refrain creates tension with full, but unresolved harmony.


After the second refrain, you are led to a surprising, but also cohesive and highly gratifying climax at 1:53 (the C section) which starts on an A minor chord and continues to build throughout the second half. It’s gratifying not only because of the lush production and arrangement elements that kick in, but because it took 2 damn minutes to get to the I chord! As shown in the image above, the music video works in the opposite manner. It starts off a little odd and then morphs into something truly bizarre. To better understand what’s so off about the verses, let’s go right into a rhythmic play-by-play:


Two Time Signatures Simultaneously – Polymeter



Disclaimer: Phil pointed out to me that the verses of this song could be more succinctly written and understood as 12/8, rather than my more complicated explanation of calling it 3/4 and 4/4 (with the later sections in 6/8 half time). If you count the verses in 12/8, they begin to make a lot more sense. I instinctively heard this section in small beat groupings (possibly because of the odd rhythmic patterns and lack of a steady drum beat), however, so I’m keeping this section as is for the sake of posterity.


The verses consist of 24-beat phrases demarcated by a kick drum. It’s hard to tell what’s going on: the vocals don’t quite match up with the percussion and those harp glissandos seem to sneak up and jump out at you from behind the bushes when you least expect them to. What’s going on here?


What you’re hearing is called polymeter–the simultaneous use of 2 or more time signatures sharing a common pulse. The verses in “Ready, Able” juxtapose a 3/4 waltz (the vocals and harp) on top of 4/4 (percussion). In this case, the shared pulse is the duration of the quarter note. Only after 24 beats do both time signatures start their down beats at the same time.


24 is a good number for polymeter because it can be evenly divided by the most common beat groupings: 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8. As a consequence, these 24-beat phrases also transition nicely into the refrain in 6/8 at half tempo. Now let’s move on to polymeter’s evil twin sister: polyrhythm.


Two Types of Beat Divisions Simultaneously – Polyrhythm


Congratulations, you’re about to dive head first into the metaphorical deep end of music theory. Drummers and music nerds, get ready to geek out.


Polyrhythm is when two different kinds of beat divisions are used simultaneously (not to be confused with beat groupings–that’s polymeter). In Western music, beats are typically subdivided in half.** This type of division is called duple meter and looks like this:

One whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight 8th notes = sixteen 16th notes = thirty-two 32nd notes

But there are other types of divisions, the most common of which is a triplet: when two beats are divided into three beats. For example, three 8th note triplets take up the same amount of time as two regular 8th notes.


During the C section (1:53), the lead synth (a Synclavier?) has a tremolo effect that creates 16th note tripets over the regular 16th notes of the other instruments. Here’s a simplified notation of this rhythm (click to enlarge):


UPDATE: I think it’s safe to say that this is an Omnichord, not a Synclavier.


Grizzly Bear "Ready Able" Polyrhythms


Welcome to Polyrhythmville. And what’s really trippy is we’re in 6/8. While 6/8 rhythms are grouped in sets of 3, each beat is still normally subdivided by multiples of two. But here the total number of 16ths per measure is 18–you don’t see that number often in music–and all this on top of 12 beats–a concept so mindblowing that only underline and italics at the same time could possibly come close to expressing the insanity. Half way through the D section, we hear this pattern again with a lofi hi hat sample. We’re beginning to see the number 3 take shape as a major theme in this song: beats grouped in 3s, beats divided by 3, and finally, 3-bar phrases:


Unusual Phrase Lengths
(See our explanation of bars, measures, & phrases for help with this section.)


In pop music, chord progressions and phrases typically last 1, 2, 4, or 8 measures. Deviating from this is a great way to shake up your songwriting without venturing into odd time signatures, which often means sacrificing accessibility. It’s hard for the average music listener to dance or rock to something in 5/4 or 7/8,*** but they will have no problem dancing to 5- or 7-bar phrases in 4/4.


That being said, when great songwriters use a device like this there’s a reason for it, whether they’re aware of that reason or feel its effect intuitively. “Ready, Able” uses 3-bar phrases throughout most of the second half, providing two advantages:

  • Vibe: We’re expecting 4-bar phrases, so 3-bar phrases have a cyclical, hypnotic effect. It feels like the thought is not quite finished.
  • Lyrics: If the D section had 4-bar phrases, there would be a big empty space when the lyrics finish, or they would have had to write more lyrics and extend the melody. By using 3-bar phrases, Grizzly Bear is able to keep interest high while retaining their original lyrical and melodic idea.

But there’s a problem. In addition to being super weird and hip, these odd phrases are leaving people hanging. There seems to be no destination. Solution? A 4-bar phrase at the end of each section. Consider your thirst for finality quenched. There’s also an extra bar at the end of the refrain (normally 4-bar phrases) to make room for a IV-7 (D minor 7) which has a strong pull to I- in this case.


»

  • Verse 1: Polymeter … 24-beat phrases
    • Vocals/harp: 3/4 (waltz) … 8-bar phrases
    • Drums/muted guitar/etc.: 4/4 … 6-bar phrases
  • Refrain 1: 6/8 half time … 4 bars+4 bars+1 bar
  • Verse 2: (same as Verse 1 except the first 24-beat phrase is cut short by 1 beat).
  • Refrain 2: (same as refrain 1)
  • C section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • D section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • C section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars
  • D section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • Outro: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+4 bars

»

  • Bullet With A Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins – 6-bar phrases during the choruses.
  • Radiohead‘s “Idioteque” – 5-bar phrases.
  • Just Like You Imagined” by Nine Inch Nails (aka “that song from the 300 trailer”) – bar of 4/4+bar of 12/8.
  • The phrase of OutKast‘s mega-hit “Hey Ya” reads like this (in quarter notes): 4+4+4+2+4+4


Single-Chord Harmony
(See our guides to chord abbreviations, tensions, and modes for help with this section.)


If you follow this blog, you’re already aware of the trend of rap songs without music. To the music snobs and hipsters frowning upon that concept, I am pleased to inform you that Grizzly Bear essentially does the same thing during the first verse of this song–there is no progression, only a vocal melody, lost in an enchanted forest of polymeter and the occasional harp gliss. But of course, context is everything. I doubt we’ll be seeing Ying Yang Twins comparisons any time soon.

“Wait’ll You See My D… minor 7.”


During the second verse, Grizzly Bear seems to have added a very faint guitar or bass on the note C. It seems that the key is now C major, the relative major from A minor. With the vocal melody notes included, the overall harmony of this section seems to be a single, but very colorful chord normally reserved for Jazz: Cmaj9(13) (C, E, G, B, D, A). In other words, every note in the key except F, which would be tension 11. 11 is usually considered an “avoid note” on a major 7 chord.


But listen again. There’s a drum tuned to F#, which would be the tritone of the C major. In the absence of a natural F, I’m prepared to say that we’re not in the relative major at all, we’re in C Lydian and the chord is Cmaj7 (9 #11 13), which includes every single note of the key signature. Lydian mode can be described as foreign and magical-sounding and the second verse of “Ready, Able” is no exception. This mode is often used by film composers for dream sequences. What’s even more bizarre is that the #11 drum is the lowest note in the section, making it sound especially dissonant. I wouldn’t call the chord an inversion though, because the drum comes on very weak beats.


Other than C and tension #11, the lead vocal provides every other note in this chord. Don’t get me wrong: not all melody notes should be considered part of a song’s essential harmony, but in this case the tensions (9 & 13) come on down beats at the beginning of the 8-bar vocal phrases, the strongest beats possible during this section.


»

For further reinforcement of this harmony, there’s a background harmony with 3, 9, and 7, and the harp hits 7 on its way down to 13. Also listen for faint pizzicato strings plucking between C and G, with a few interjections of perfect fourth dyads (DG and BE) for some exotic flavor. It’s also worth noting that based on the way these notes are stressed dynamically, the string arrangement sounds displaced by one beat–that is, its down beat begins one beat after the drums and palm-muted guitar. This gives the strings a light, playful feeling but also makes them sound somewhat detached from the rest of the music.


As stated earlier, the refrains create tension by never landing on I-. It’s also worth noting that the vocal melody single-handedly changes the chord progression with a major 6 interval on F, creating a second inversion D minor chord.


The C and D sections use one of my favorite progressions: I-, V-, IV- (see also: “My Love” by Justin Timberlake and “Ayo Technology” by 50 Cent). As I talked about in my Kanye analysis, the V minor usually sounds peculiar in a pop context, but it sounds at home in “Ready, Able.”


I was unable to find good guitar tab or piano transcriptions for this song online, so this will get you started if you’re a Grizzly Bear fan and want to cover this for YouTube:


“Ready, Able” Chords – Simplified For Rhythm Guitar & Piano
(See our chord abbreviation guide for help with this section.)

Verse 1: C (single note only)
Refrain: F, Fmaj7, to E- (plus D-7 during last measure)
Verse 2: Cmaj7(no5)
C section: A-, E-, D- (pianists: start on A-/E)
D section: A-, E-7, D-7


“Ready, Able” Chords – Full Harmony

Verses: Cmaj9(13)
Refrain: F, D-/F, Fmaj7, D-/F, to E-7 (plus D-7 during last measure)
C Section: A-, E-add11, D-
D section: A-9, E-7, D-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)


“Ready, Able” Chords – Functional Analysis

Verse 1: Imaj9(13)
Refrain: VI, IV-/3, VImaj7, IV-/3, to V-7 (plus IV-7 during last measure)
C Section: I-, V-add11, IV-
D section: I-9, V-7, IV-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)


This concludes my analysis. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an ultra music nerd like me and for that I salute you. I might be imagining or missing some of tensions, so if you hear anything different or disagree with my analysis, feel free to leave a comment.


»

*While some sources refer to choruses and refrains interchangeably (Wikipedia included), but there is a difference. I’m calling this section a refrain because it sounds like an extension of the verse music, whereas choruses typically either repeat the verse music with more production elements, or introduce an entirely new idea altogether. This section is fairly long for a refrain, but more importantly the movement is not harmonically strong enough to be a chorus.


**With the very notable exception of swing and shuffle grooves.


***In some cultures, dancing to odd meters is commonplace (Indian and Greek music, for example).


BONUS: In case you were wondering how much meth I had to smoke to write something this long, there’s method to the madness of those harp glisses:

  • During the instrumental portions of the verses, they come on beat 2 of the 5th and 7th measures of the phrase.
  • During the vocal portions of the verses, they come on beat 3 of the 3rd and 7th measures of the phrase.

I got an email from my father today directing me to an internet forum debate regarding how over-compression in mastering is ruining music today and I responded with what you’re about to read–the simplest, most easy-to-read breakdown on this topic I could come up with–an explanation that anyone will be able to understand. No flowery or abstract adjectives, just the meat and potatoes. If something still isn’t clear, leave a comment. I’m mostly posting this article to save myself some time (to direct our clients to) but this post may be helpful for other mastering engineers who’d like to do the same.

Note: this post refers to sound compression, not MP3 or zip compression. Learn more about the differences between sound compression and data compression here.

What Is Mastering Compression?

squashed waveform 2

Mastering compression* (“limiting”) reduces the dynamic range of a recording. Dynamic range is the range between the loudest and quietest point in a recording or section of a recording. Dynamics and loudness are inversely proportional: the less dynamic a recording is, the higher the average loudness of that recording can be, and vice versa. Today, there is said to be a ‘Loudness War’ between labels trying to release the loudest records possible.


The Pros and Cons of Loudness


When we’re talking about the consequences of loudness, we’re really talking about two different things:

  • From a macro perspective: A louder/less dynamic recording means all of the sections of the song will be about the same volume. For ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ style songs, the benefit is that the song comes in loud right off the bat and stays loud from section to section. The downside is it means the chorus doesn’t “hit you” or sound as big as it otherwise might because there is little or no change from the verse to the chorus. In fact, if there’s more stuff going on during the chorus, individual elements may actually get smaller. For example, heavily compressed rock mixes tend to have a bigger snare sound during the verses than the choruses.
  • From a micro perspective: Compression from one beat to another is hard for the untrained ear to hear, unless it’s very extreme. And even then it is hard to explain what it is you’re hearing–you just know it sounds bad. At this scale, compression makes the mix sound more “exciting” right away, but if overdone can be fatiguing on the ear to listen to. Perhaps more importantly, the drums will often be less punchy if a mix is more heavily compressed.** A former coworker and assistant to one of my all-time favorite mixers once said to me, “mastering ruins everything.”


Is Louder Better?


There was a psychological study which showed that people consistently prefer recordings that are louder, even by an increment as small as 1 dB, even when they’re not told what the change is. (Anyone want to find the link for me?) If you want an extreme example of over-compression, just listen to the radio. They use a more complex system of compression to get recordings even louder than CDs. And yet for every person who puts up a fuss in the blogosphere/messageboardiverse about mastering ruining music today, I have a memory of someone in my childhood telling me how they like the sound of radio. It just has that magic je ne sais quoi. There have been studies which indicate that loudness has a strong effect on which radio station a person will stop on when channel surfing.


While I consider myself to be more of a ‘new school’ engineer rather than one pining for the days of yore, I sometimes wish more records today had bigger dynamic changes. My favorite example is “Quiet” by the Smashing Pumpkins, which came out in 1993 before the Loudness Wars really began. It will probably be hard to tell on YouTube, but when the guitar solo comes in on the record, the song just gets so much louder. If you already have the song cranked, the solo will hurt your ears a little bit. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is rock & roll.


For a case study in consumer backlash against loudness, check out my post about the Metallica album Death Magnetic.


*The type of compression I’m talking about here is “limiting”, a specific type of compression that comes at the end of every mastering engineer’s signal chain. I’m using the term compression throughout the post because it will be more familiar to musicians and readers.


**If I know that a project I’m mixing will be mastered by someone else, I usually try to make my drums a little punchier than I want them in order to compensate for the effect that mastering will have, unless I know the mastering engineer tends to go easy on the compression. This is also why it is usually best to select a mastering engineer that your mix engineer has worked with in the past, so that the mix engineer can anticipate what will happen to the mix in the mastering stage and mix accordingly.

Client Feature: Lazy Mane & Kosherbeets

Posted by Keith Freund On September - 18 - 20092 COMMENTS

Kosherbeets and Lazy Mane

It was 2003 when I first discovered Lazy Mane & Kosherbeets through the grapevine as they began to generate a buzz in the North Atlanta area. I got Kosherbeets’s number from a mutual friend, picked his brain about music, recording, etc., and the rest is history. I cut my teeth mixing his solo release, Dude, College, and now his joint effort with long time collaborator Lazy Mane: Supreme I.N.K.


They’ve since shared the stage with a number of hip hop notables including Atlanta mainstays the Ying Yang Twins and quintiple-platinum act Nappy Roots (of “Awnaw” fame). Tonight, Friday, Sept. 18th, 2009, you can catch the duo at Lenny’s in Atlanta performing with Dungeon Family* artists Killer Mike (featured on a number of OutKast songs), Cool Breeze, and Rico Wade of Organized Noize.


Lazy Mane and Kosherbeets at Lenny's

I don’t know exactly where to pin down their sound-a little Bone Thugs here, some early OutKast there, and a combination of all those jazz records, photographs, and history books they’ve got lying around the studio. The result is a classic sound that spits in the face of trends and resonates on both an intellectual and primal level.


Supreme I.N.K is their best to date, particularly The Springtime, which is a sample-based, major key uptempo song with “instant classic” written all over it, and The Galaxi, a trippy, dark, futuristic beat with lyrics and live sax to match. 


In honor of the album’s release, I’ve thrown together a sampler with some of my favorite cuts from the album:


Stream the Fix Your Mix Supreme I.N.K Sampler (NSFW)


Mixing In An Unfamiliar Environment


Mixing in an artist’s studio is kind of like becoming fluent in Pig Latin. You’ve already got all the skills you need, it just takes a little bit longer to get your ideas out at first. To get familiar with their speakers (Event 8s) and room, I referenced their influences for similar instrumentation/arrangements but used more recent mainstream songs to get the low end sounding current. We also checked mixes in a number of consumer environments including a few vehicles with decked-out audio systems and took notes for revisions.


Supreme I.N.K. is the only full album that I’ve mixed entirely independent of my own gear and rig.** It was done entirely in the box (plug ins only, no outboard gear) using primarily the Waves Diamond and SSL plugin bundles in Pro Tools.


Fixing Their Mix


I consider all of my projects to be collaborative efforts, but especially in this case–they did the rough mixes and final tweaks, I sculpted the sound into a more professional and cohesive arrangement. So this was one of those cases where I literally “fixed [their] mix” rather than playing the traditional mix engineer role.


I read that one of my favorite engineers, Rich Costey, did this on Foo Fighters’ latest, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. The tracking engineer did the initial mix work if I’m not mistaken and RC was brought in to finish it off.


They’ve intentionally eschewed iTunes and Amazon in favor of a more grassroots approach by giving away the album for free online and selling physical copies at shows. So check them out at Lenny’s if you can, and grab the album. It’s free!


supreme-ink-album-coverDownload the album for free @ SupremeINK.net


*I owe Will (Kosherbeets) a special debt of gratitude for introducing me to my favorite rap album of all time, Dungeon Family’s Even In Darkness. Dungeon Family is a more or less defunct (hibernating?) collective which includes OutKast, Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo, et al.


**For my clients reading, note that I don’t generally do attended sessions–the time we save from this is one of the ways we can provide an incredible value at a rate that’s affordable for independent artists–but I made an exception for these guys because of our long time relationship and hey, it gave me a good excuse to go back to Atlanta for a few weeks.

Client Feature: SV & DJ Jove

Posted by Keith Freund On September - 9 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

jove l_b8773d77364c4ab2960378a79e018012Earlier this year, Phil and I began working with rap crossover group and production team, SV & DJ Jove, who have become two of our most promising unsigned clients. Check out a sampler from their club anthem “Act Stupid!” and SV’s catchy R&B single “You Know” (currently on the front page of FixYourMix.com).


You may recognize DJ Jove (birth name Vinnie) from MTV’s new reality series Is She Really Going Out With Him?, a show about bad boys that date good girls or as the network puts it, “douchebags and the women that love them.” From the creator of popular blog and book Hot Chicks With Douchebags, Is She Really Going Out With Him? chronicles the trials and tribulations of an alpha male in his natural habitat, which in Jove’s case includes his internet show, Reset Radio, where two porn stars have a cannoli-sucking contest live on the air.



Watch more highlights on MTV.com by clicking on the image below:


WATCH DJ JOVE ON MTVThis guy knows how to work a crowd. A little YouTubing turns up dozens of live shows including a video of Jove doing part of a set in a bra (I’ll spare you the link). To get a sense of his live presence, also check out clip 2 from the MTV.com series where he spins in a club filled with scantily-clad women. He raps the first verse on “Act Stupid!


As a producer, SV has a diverse but signature sound from club rap (think Black Eyed Peas) to pop-R&B (a la Rihanna or Akon). Although born and raised in Brooklyn, some of his beats have a Miami feel to them, particularly “Act Stupid!” In others, he juxtaposes tribal and Middle-Eastern sounds with a mainstream, synth-based club minimalism (like in Rich Boy’s “Drop”). SV is also making moves as a rapper and lyricist–his hook writing ability in particular is phenomenal.


Breaking Onto The Charts


Look out for these guys in the coming months. Today, there are really three ways for an artist to break onto the rap and pop scene, any of which could propel SV & DJ Jove to the top of the charts:

  • A guest spot from an established artist – the Drake model
  • “Going viral” – the Soulja Boy model
  • Grassroots / paying dues – This is the model for most big rappers today including as TI and Lil Wayne. Can take up to a decade to reach peak potential. One could argue that like with rock music, these artists largely benefited from the promotional dollars of the “old music business” (pre-2000s) and that this sort of success may not be as viable in today’s short-attention-span/everything’s-free marketplace. On the other hand, if you told me that Wayne was eventually going to be a Top 40 artist back when I was jamming on his Tha Block is Hot album, I wouldn’t have believed you. I always thought of him as one of the under-appreciated members of Cash Money Records. So I think there’s actually an objective reason for why these artists stood the test of time and went from moderately successful Southern rappers to Top 40 artists: talent.


DJ Jove & SV - Act Stupid! - Single - Act Stupid! Buy “Act Stupid!” on iTunes


Buy “Act Stupid!” on Amazon MP3


www.djjove.com
SV on Myspace


SV & Jove in the studio

“Amazing” by Kanye West: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 20 - 20096 COMMENTS

Key Signature: C minor
Special Songwriting Devices Used: V minor chord, starting the chorus on a chord other than the root

Note: This post requires a basic knowledge of intervals, solfege syllables, and voice leading. If you don’t understand a term underlined with dots (like this), move your mouse over it for the definition.


The other day I was messing around with “Amazing” by Kanye West on guitar and noticed that it uses an often neglected chord in modern pop music, the V minor. Before we get into why the V minor is unusual (and what Kanye has in common with Coolio), here’s the chord progression:


Verse: C minor (2x), G minor, C minor
Chorus: Ab major, C minor, G minor, C minor


Or in Roman numeral analysis form:


Verse: I minor (2x), V minor, I minor
Chorus: bVI major, I minor, V minor, I minor


In “Amazing,” G minor is the diatonic V chord–the triad built on the fifth note of the scale. But V chords in today’s minor key pop songs almost always have either a major third (making it a V major chord borrowed from the parallel major) or no third at all. The diatonic V minor chord is rarely used.


Origins of the V Major Chord in a Minor Key Context


Most American pop stems from jazz or blues harmony, but if there’s one songwriting device that has carried over from classical, it’s borrowing the V major chord from the parallel major key in the context of a minor progression.* In these situations, there is a non-diatonic note: the V chord’s major third, which will always be the leading tone of the key. This note has a very strong tendency to resolve up to the root note by a half step. The result is better voice leading back to the root than a V minor chord would provide. Since a V chord resolving to I (or more specifically, ti going to do within that resolution) is considered the strongest tendency in any key, the voice leading is (apparently) so important here that composers have been using this non-diatonic chord for ages.


But Kanye doesn’t swing that way.


If you’ve ever studied classical music, you know that the concept of proper voice leading is meant to make things sound “smooth.” But smooth can often turn into boring, particularly in the context of non-orchestral music. By using the V minor chord, Kanye adds some much needed harmonic interest to a relatively sparse arrangement.


So rare is the V minor chord in pop** that hearing it played on a single instrument (piano in this case) sounds a bit unusual, even medieval. The expectation of that leading tone over the V is so strong that, even for me, it was difficult to sing the minor 3rd instead of a major 3rd.


Combined with a dragging groove of an upright piano, it ends up sounding more like something to be played in the background of a saloon shoot out scene from a Western/Cowboy flick than a hit single for a mainstream rapper.  In fact, if you remove the characteristic elements from this chorus–play V major instead of V minor and change the first I minor to IV minor (more on this below)–you’ve got Gangsta’s Paradise, choir and all:



Chorus Root Chord Placement


As I talked about in my analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, starting a progression on something other than the root automatically sounds more intelligently written. While pre-choruses and bridges often start on other chords (in order to build tension for the inevitable release into the section that follows), choruses almost always start on the root chord. When one doesn’t, it almost always ends there. “Amazing” is no exception and falls into the latter category.


But what’s interesting is that the chorus also has another root chord: the second one of the progression.  So to expand on what I said in the previous paragraph, here are your root chord placement options for choruses with four chords or less, listed in order from most to least common:

  • Option 1: Starting on the root chord. This option solidly establishes the key from the outset, allowing the chords that follow to create new flavors and define the overall emotional content of the chorus in relation to the root. By far the most common option.
  • Option 2: Ending on the root chord. In these cases, the beginning chords lift the listener up, create tension, and eventually resolve to the root–using the harmony to create dynamics. This is a fairly common option, but also very powerful and can be a good way to shake up your songwriting or cure writer’s block. Examples include “My Hero” by Foo Fighters and “Go With The Flow” by Queens of the Stone Age.
  • Option 3: Using the root as chord #3 out of 4. This technique tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be a three chord progression, then adds a fourth chord which says “nope, it’s still going, the thought/feeling isn’t done yet.” Can create a cyclical feeling. This option is not totally unheard of but it’s rare. MGMT’s “Kids” is one example.
  • Option 4: Using the root as chord #2 out of 4. By far the rarest option and probably for good reason. I have no idea how to characterize what this option does emotionally, but in the case of “Amazing” it’s a defining characteristic.
  • Option 5: No root chord at all. I can’t think of any pop choruses that do this, so if you can, leave it in the comments!

(Note: Although the above is applicable to most choruses, obviously the emotional results may change with different combinations of these options or a greater number of chords. And by the way, you won’t find this list in a text book.)


So not only does the chorus start on a chord other than the root (in this case the bVI major), but the progression goes back to the root on the second of four chords, which is highly unusual. The result is a unique, signature chord progression (in pop you only have to be unique within about 10 years).


Well folks, that about wraps things up. As with all of my analyses I expect some good counter points (ha…) and a healthy dose of “this song sucks” / “this song still sucks” comments. But before we part ways I want to answer a question that Phil posed in his latest blog post:

“When was the last time you at home got a record, sat down, and listened to it? Really listened to it. Didn’t put it on while you clicked through Facebook or checked the local news. Just listened?”

My answer to his question is 808s and Heartbreak. And when “Amazing” came on for the first time, I had no idea Young Jeezy was going to come in because he wasn’t listed in the song title. I’ll be honest, I’ve had mixed feelings about Jeezy since day one, but when I first heard his voice come in over this strange track with the reverse reverb, I thought it was the hardest shit I’d ever heard.*** I got chills. And the fact that I wasn’t expecting it made it 10 times more powerful, supporting Phil’s theory that the less we know and see about the music before we listen, the better.


Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak (Bonus Video Version) - Amazing (feat. Young Jeezy)Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on iTunes.
Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on Amazon MP3.


Read more posts from my Compositional Analysis series.


Learn more about Fix Your Mix™ – a mixing, mastering, and editing service.


*Actually, classical music**** tends to use a V7, which is based on a V major with a minor 7th on it, forming a tritone between the 3rd and 7th of the chord and creating an even stronger pull to I. Though we typically think of classical music as triadic, this is the one 7th chord that classical composers used regularly.


The V7 chord is dominant-functioning, which in layman’s terms means our ears hear it as having a very strong pull to another chord, in this case back to the I major. This movement is called dominant resolution. The V chord builds tension while the root chord releases it. Since we have this strong expectation of resolution from listeners, the voice leading used for this transition is considered to be particularly important.


**The only other recent V minor example I can think of offhand is “Clocks” by Coldplay, although in this case the V minor is used to help establish the song’s Dorian tonality. The opening piano arpeggio can be analyzed as follows: I/3, V-/5, IV/5 or in other words: I major (1st inversion), V minor (2nd inversion), IV major (2nd inversion).


***This transition is shortened on the YouTube version.


****Yes, I’m using the term “classical” in a colloquial manner here; I’m not referring to the Classical period. This is terrible… even my asterisks have asterisks.

“Atlas” by Battles: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On May - 27 - 20099 COMMENTS

Following the success of my compositional analysis of “Single Ladies”, today I’m here to talk to you about a song which is equally unusual but lives in a completely different realm of music and pop culture. Battles is a mostly-instrumental, indie-math-something-or-other rock band comprised of several other influential but fairly obscure bands and Boston scene veterans.* “Atlas,” the first single from their debut and most recent LP, Mirrored, illustrates a number of interesting songwriting techniques that you can use to expand or understand your own writing.



Tempo: 134 BPM
Key Signature: D Lydian (same notes as A major)
Time Signature: 4/4
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Shuffle groove, Modal harmony


What’s most compelling about this song is that it is haunting, but not dark in a depressing way–rather it is hypnotic, like an alien army marching into a battlefield. While there is plenty of interesting stuff going on here production-wise,** this post seeks to explore what gives this song its otherworldly feel from a compositional perspective.


The first thing to note is that the song was written in Lydian mode, a scale which is considered “mostly major” because it is the same scale shape as major except the fourth note is raised by a half step. (To turn D major into D lydian, you would change the G to G#). To  better help you understand what modes are, where they come from, and how they can be used check out Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians. Lydian is one of the least common modes in pop music today but can be the most beautiful. You hear it mostly in film music and 70s rock (see: the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Dancin Days“).


battles_narrowweb__300x4220


D Lydian is officially established when the vocals come in. The A-section melody (“People won’t be people when they hear this sound…”) outlines a D Lydian scale going down in perfect fifths starting on solfege syllable sol (A). These repetitive intervallic jumps in Lydian mode make for a trance-inducing result. The bassline underneath remains firmly planted on D, which is exactly where it stays except for moving to E at 3:29 (5:30 in the album version) for a few seconds. This lack of chordal movement is part of what gives Atlas its drone-like quality. In the absence of a chord progression, Battles relies on evolving melodies, syncopated rhythms and the frequent introduction of new elements/sounds** to keep interest level high throughout this seven minute epic.


Shuffle


Shuffles are kind of like the matrix. No one can be told what a shuffle is… Well, I guess really what I’m trying to say here is that the text book definition of a shuffle is not necessarily how we hear it. Shuffle is a fancy name for a triplet feel where the second note of the triplet is not played or generally emphasized. Often, though, we hear the third beat of each triplet not as part of a triplet at all, but simply a pickup note going back to the initial beat rather than part of a triplet. A song which uses all beats of the triplet is said to be in 12/8 time. One could argue that Atlas is actually a 12/8 groove rather than a shuffle because the drums often use all three beats of the triplet, but the vocal melody and bassline strongly reinforce a shuffle feel. Soloists sometimes use triplet patterns over shuffles, so the presence of a few full triplets here is negligible.


The Difference Between a Shuffle and Swing


jazzdrummer
Shuffle feel is actually a type of swing based on a tap dance (the shuffle). There are two main differences:

  1. Shuffles typically emphasize beats 2 and 4 while a swing groove often does not (see: the entire Jazz idiom). Atlas features a clap (speak of the devil) on beats 2 and 4 during the verses, with the snare drum eventually coming in.
  2. Though it sometimes sounds like it, swing is not thought of as a triplet feel. What’s actually happening is every other 8th note (or other note value) swings (drags) a little bit late, hence the name. The end result may sound like a triplet, but unlike in a shuffle, a timing of a swung note is inexact–some performers are known to “swing harder” than others and certain subgenres of jazz call for different types of swing feels. And again as with shuffles, triplets are sometimes used for soloing over swing time.


I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have any other observations about Atlas, feel free to leave a comment. If you find yourself writing in the same songs over and over again, try integrating modal harmony or a triplet feel into your next song. It could end up being the stand-out track on your album.


WARNING: BEFORE COMMENTING ON THIS POST, WRITE YOUR COMMENT ON A SEPARATE DOCUMENT AND THEN PASTE IT INTO THE COMMENT BOX. WE HAVE BEEN HAVING PROBLEMS WITH COMMENTS GETTING LOST ON THIS PARTICULAR POST. THANKS.


*My first experience with Battles was several summers ago, and Mirrored was just about to be released. A friend of mine convinced me to go on a road trip to New York City from Atlanta, one of our main objectives being to see brit-rockers The Noisettes. To our delight, we learned upon arrival that the show had been combined with a Battles show which was set to take place at elsewhere but had been cancelled. I was blown away by what I saw, and it looked a lot like what you see in the video above.


**To read about the Atlas vocal tone, check out Phil’s post on the Boss VT-1.



Buy “Atlas” on Amazon MP3


Battles - Mirrored - AtlasBattles “Atlas” on iTunes.

Recent Project: Ex Norwegian

Posted by Keith Freund On May - 18 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

Miami-based indie rock band Ex Norwegian is a Fix Your Mix artist we’re excited about right now. They’ve been featured on XM radio, performed live on Sky News (London) and at the 2008 CMJ Music Marathon in New York City where I saw them play for the first time.


Click here to check out “Sad Wonder” off their new album Standby.

Ex Norwegian


I was blown away by this song upon first listen. Usually when you think of psychedelic music, you think of effects, but to me, these chord changes are psychedelic. Add a catchy melody, loud-soft dynamics, and an arrangement that holds your interest all the way to the end and you’ve got a recipe for success.


I knew right off the bat that I wanted to emphasize the synth pad “ahhhs,” so I mixed the chorus first. That’s how I usually begin a mix: pick a section or element of the song that excites me the most and build the rest of the mix around it.


They were going for a retro sound with a modern twist. Drum samples and compression define the modern rock sound, so I dropped the former and kept the latter.


Rock mixers today tend to rely mainly on samples for drum ambience rather than reverb or room mics. Instead of doing either of those, I downplayed the drum ambience altogether and focused on punchiness instead. This was also important because the other instruments were being sent to several different reverbs and delays.


To keep it modern, the individual elements and overall mix were compressed a good deal more than Ex Norwegian’s old-school references (Big Star, David Bowie, ELO) and I added a vocal stutter edit during the first verse for some extra modern flare.


I also went heavier on the low end than a standard rock mix, which worked out perfectly because the electric bass locks up with the kick drum. (This goes along with one of the themes that tends to comes up when Phil and I have philosophical discussions about music: Arrangement is King.)


Standby is filled with stand out tracks. My personal favorites are Sad Wonder, Aventura, and Add Vice.


Ex Norwegian on Myspace


Buy Ex Norwegian’s debut album Standby on Amazon MP3.

WORK WITH US







Featured Columns