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Archive for the ‘Sonic Deconstruction’ Category

Mixing and Mastering Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by FixYourMix On April - 3 - 20096 COMMENTS

otariAs 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.

 

Panorama

panorama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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 

moogpanned 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.

 

Sonics

 

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)

 

bx20The 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.

 

Mastering

 

dap-all-units1The 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.

A Production Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by FixYourMix On April - 2 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

A producer’s role is so nebulous that at times it’s hard to tell from the outside exactly which ideas came from the producer and which from the band. Part of why we chose “Kids” for this week’s Sonic Deconstruction is because it provides us with a unique opportunity to know exactly which decisions were made by Dave Fridmann and which were not: before Oracular Spectacular, MGMT recorded (and presumably self-produced) the We (Don’t) Care EP with a friend in Athens, GA, from which the only song to make it to the full length was “Kids.”


Listen to the pre-Fridmann version:



By comparing this to the final version we can deduce which decisions were probably Dave’s.


Apart from the mix, the most obvious dramatic between the two is the lead vocal. Interestingly, the vocal is actually higher and more childlike timbrally on Oracular Spectacular. In addition to that version’s weaker performance, the vocals are much less distinct here than on the full length, which could be the product of coaching and coaxing in the studio or switching which of the two member’s vocal was featured.


This is what separates the men from the boys. Think about all the successful 90s rock bands, love them or hate them: Nirvana, Green Day, Blink 182, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam. All have instantly recognizable singers. And it’s not just because you heard them over and over–after hearing “Walking On the Sun,” I knew from then on when I heard a new Smashmouth single. A distinctive vocalist is paramount to a band’s success, whether it be the tone of the voice itself, the style/accent, or commonly chosen notes and rhythmic motifs. (More on this in a later article.)


One thing that helps the vocal’s strength is a background doubling on the verse vocal. The background vocal sounds tightly Vocaligned to me while the chorus does not, retaining verse-chorus dynamics and gives the chorus its singalong quality. Vocaligning is one of the many highly useful advanced editing services we offer at Fix Your Mix- we perfectly align background vocals with the lead vocal, allowing you to layer vocals many times over without making the arrangement messy or giving it a gang-vocal feel. The result is a kind of thickness that you can’t get with a chorus or doubler.


mgmtWhen producing a song, the very first things I think about are tempo and key signature, both of which are also generally dictated by the vocal. Exactly what makes a tempo “right” is often intangible, but I will say that one usually cannot change a song’s tempo very much before the vocals begin to drag or sound rushed (unless you change the vocal part to fit the new tempo).


Apparently MGMT were on the money tempo-wise, because Fridmann did not change the BPM of “Kids” from the EP version. He did, however, change the key. Pay attention vocalists: the key was moved down from Bb major to A major. For a male tenor, the high F which is sung repeatedly in the demo melody could very well be the “break” in their voices (these are hard-to-hit notes within a vocal range that comprise the transition from the chest to the head voice). Changing the key to A, thereby making that high note an E, strengthened the vocal drastically and improved the vibe of the song. The vibe of a key signature is even more nebulous than tempo, but out of pure conjecture I will say that Bb major is not a particularly common key for pop music, while A major is more familiar to the ear, which may play a role in creating the song’s “comforting” feeling, one of the things that most characterizes the song for me.


Ultimately, these decisions, centering around the vocal, made a world of difference in making the listener take MGMT seriously, elevating them to hipster cult status.

Recording Techniques in “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by FixYourMix On April - 1 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

In our first time at bat on these Sonic Deconstruction articles, the song choice appears to be a swing and a miss on the recording techniques day. A calamitous choice for one simple reason: almost everything is a sample, loop, or synth! As a result, recording methods aren’t immediately intuitive in the way that King of Leon or Foo Fighters would be. It also doesn’t help that the one track that undoubtedly existed at one point in the real acoustic world (as opposed to tracks that could have been DI’ed or midi triggered) is the vocal track and frankly it doesn’t sound very good. But this is our dishwashing liquid and dammit, we’re going to soak in it.

outside

Recorded at Dave Fridmann’s residential studio in upstate New York, MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular is probably the ideal album to record there. In his September 2000 article in Sound on Sound Magazine, Dave intimated that the design of Tarbox Road Studios is somewhat less than ideal:

The design work required to turn the house into a studio was taken on by Dave himself, who felt that the recommendations of a professional studio designer would in any case be beyond his means…

‘When people are normally doing acoustical design they’re worried about a lot of isolation, and worried about floating floors and cement structures to isolate you from each other. And I was worried about it, but I really couldn’t do anything about it, so I didn’t worry too much, just did what I could.’

Like many residential type facilities—professional, pro-sumer, or hobbyist—layoutisolation is a concern. So when big bands come in wanting to track everything live you often get so much bleed that you lose flexibility in your tracks. Your guitars are in your drums, your drums are in your vocals, you can’t change one without leaving some ghostly artifact somewhere else. Well with a band like MGMT that consists exclusively of two musicians playing instruments that could very well exist entirely in the box, those issues are no longer a concern.

It is my belief that at least a few of the synthesizers were amped or re-amped for mixing. There is a lot of dirt and grit on the synthesizers, especially when compared with the infantile clarity of the sounds in the EP version, which makes me think that amp gain, color, and distortion are part of the sound. There is an audible grime on the melody synth that is evident when the keyboardist lands on that C# that holds for a measure. It almost sounds like that kind of battered old Leslie cabinet.

studio3The vocals are an interesting beast—they are exceedingly sibilant to my ear, which could very well be a combination of mixing and mastering (provided by Greg Calbi). This assaulting high frequency presence might indicate that Fridmann used a hi-fi mic on a less-than-hi-fi singer. I know that his favorite mic is his tube U-47 (one of my personal favorites as well), so he might’ve used that old standby. On a singer with an unpolished and young voice like in MGMT, I likely would’ve opted for a dynamic microphone with a bigger, heavier diaphragm to compensate for the vocal character like the SM7. These mics have the effect of covering up the less audible imperfections that might otherwise be present when a tube mic is used. Either way, the vocals are heavily processed with filters, fuzz, compressors, and fx so the original character of the vocal as interpreted through the microphone is likely lost except on the multitrack file.

By and large, the greatest assets to the sounds on the record would be the mixing techniques. Check back on Friday for some in-depth speculation. Dave, if you’re reading, feel free to set us straight!

A Compositional Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 31 - 20097 COMMENTS


(Be warned, this video is frightening, but 12 million YouTube plays can’t be wrong…Despite not being an official video or featuring the actual band members.)


There are a few key elements to the composition of “Kids” which give it a pop maturity.  The instrumentation of the tune plus the likely limitations of the performers themselves have informed the compositional parameters of the song.


One of the predominant elements of the song is that each instrument is monophonic—virtually no instrumental track plays two notes at the same time (with exceptions being the synth pad, which is barely audible, and the occasional two-note stab on the “answer” synth). Why? It may be a result of limitations: some vintage synthesizers like the MiniMoog actually limit the number of notes you can play simultaneously. Or it could be a product of musicians who don’t have the classical training to handle multiple notes at once, forcing them to use the hunt-and-peck method for their notes. Incidentally, these methods of melody creation often result in individual lines that stand on their own merit—that’s why there were so many memorable synthesizer hooks in ’80s songs such as those by The Cure and New Order.


Also, the fact that no instrument is playing multiple notes at once means that each voice is relegated to its own register. This means that there is plenty of room for each voice to stand out on its own without too much noodling. Imagine the song if there was an accompanying hand playing the harmonies on the melody synth and then maybe a rhythm guitar playing power chords over that. Already the composition becomes more dense and muddled with all the note doublings. The isolation of voices makes each note more distinct and creates an air of openness and space.


Though virtually all of this song’s elements are monophonic (i.e. no chords or dyads), I’ll start with the implied chord progression and work backwards from there.


In the key of A major:

F# minor, D major, A major, E major 1st inversion

Shorthand: F#-, D, A, E/G#

*Functional Analysis (Traditional): vi, IV, I, V6

*Functional Analysis (Jazz / Pop): VI-, IV, I, V/3 (Though less widespread, I will be using Jazz symbols to analyze music because I feel it more accurately reflects and expresses the way in which we hear modern music.)

The composition starts off with a synth ostinato pattern (do, re, mi, sol, la, ti, la, sol, mi, re) clearly outlining the key of A major. One of the most striking things about the composition is the surprise when the bass comes in on F# instead of the I chord. Because of the A in the melody (from the ostinato), this bar becomes VI-, which is a root functioning chord and the strongest, most common substitute for a I chord as per both traditional and jazz theory.

kids-progression

The bassline then continues from F# to D to A to G# with a harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar. Since one needs only a root and a third to imply a chord, we can safely say that the ostinato pattern on top of the synth bass outlines a VI-, IV, I, V/3 progression, especially since these thirds land on strong beats (beats 1 and 3).


During the fourth phrase of the chorus, two things change: (1) the ostinato changes [do, re, mi, re, do, re, do, la, do] which provides the 5th on the IV chord and an octave on the I chord and (2) this is followed by a quick melodic “answer” melody over the E/G#. I hear riffs like this in hit songs all the time–I like to call them “mini-hooks” because they are memorable, tie the song together, but are too quick to have the singalong factor of a real hook.


Because the song starts on F# minor, one could argue that the key of this song is actually the relative minor key of F# minor, but I contend that our ears hear “Kids” as A major for two reasons:

  1. The ostinato pattern is very clearly an A major riff when heard isolated. The song begins with this pattern.
  2. The lead vocal consists almost entirely of do, mi, and sol: the notes of the A major triad. It doesn’t get much stronger than that, folks.

The result is a kind of melancholy atmosphere created by starting a major key song on the VI minor chord. In general, I find that songs which start on anything other than the root chord automatically sound more well-written. (Not to say that a great song cannot start on a I chord–such a suggestion would be ludicrous.)


Another arguing point could be that the fourth chord is actually VIIº chord: G# diminished. After all, there is no E during this part of the phrase. This is one of those cases where you just have to use your ears: trying putting an E in the bass of this section, then try a D (which would be the diminished 5th of a G# diminished chord). The latter quite obviously does not work, except during the bridge, except during the bridge there is an E in the melody, erasing all doubt that it is, in fact, an E/G# chord:


The bridge starts on the IV chord a moves up the scale triadically using a whole note bassline and an arpeggiated synth to outline the harmony. The bass skips the III- on its way to IV and finally makes a tritone leap from D to G#, using this dissonance to grab the listener’s attention and signaling the end of this section. The result is as follows: D, E, F#-, G#º, A, B-, D, E/G#. The bass then hangs on an A octave for 16 bars (runs a bit long for my taste), cuts to playground noises for 4 and returns for one last triumphant chorus.


With a composition this harmonically straight forward, it could have ended up sounding more like an etude than a pop song. One thing that helps keep the interest is the leap from C# to E over the F# in bar 1. This is non-traditional because the leap is then followed by another step up to F# (also known as a leaping tone). In classical theory, leaps to non-chord tones should be resolved by step and in the opposite direction (for example, the E could have gone down to a D). Another mildly hip compositional device is that the major third in bar 3 is an anticipation.


While there is no doubt in my mind that MGMT had little or no concept of music theory when they wrote “Kids,” it can still be useful to understand part of why the song is so catchy. And although dividing up the notes of a chord progression among instruments and starting on a VI- chord is not an exact recipe for a hit song, consider this one of the many songwriting devices available to you.


Check out Weezer’s cover of this song via one of my favorite blogs


MGMT - Oracular Spectacular - KidsBuy “Kids” on iTunes.


MGMT - Oracular SpectacularBuy the album on iTunes.


*Note: For those of you non-music theory geeks following along at home, these Roman numerals represent the degree of a scale upon which a chord is based. For example, the IV chord in this song is a D chord, because D is the fourth note in the key of A. This is important because it allows you to analyze music in different keys relative to one another.

Sonic Deconstruction: MGMT “Kids”

Posted by FixYourMix On March - 30 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

Sonic Deconstruction is a monthly feature where we spend an entire week analyzing one song from every possible angle: personnel, instrumentation, composition, recording, mixing/mastering, and production. Check back every day this week for the next installment!


 

mgmt3kh3 Perhaps the joke is on us. According to their interview on caughtinthecrossfire.com, it wasn’t until Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden began writing pop songs as a joke that they started to realize their music-making potential. Writing under the name “The Management,” even their moniker was a part of the gag—a jab at corporate manufactured pop with the end-game to “sell out as quickly as possible.” We’ve all heard that same tired construct a thousand times in half-baked collegiate pseudo-comedy so even though they don’t get points for back-story originality, they do take home the prize for execution as their efforts have snowballed into genuine pop glory. Somewhere along the way the Brooklyn duo, now performing as MGMT, have forgotten the punchline and are enjoying the kind of global success not known to very many indie rock groups, serious or not.

 

 

MGMT is a peculiar entity combining an aged sonic sensibility with a somewhat naïve stage presence.

If you remember the 60s, you weren't there.  Or you weren't born yet...one of the two...

Critics often chide the youngsters for invoking a psychedelic persona that is worn like daddy’s oversized shirts. Even so, the group has certainly left their mark over the past year after earning accolades from Spin.com, Rolling Stone, and the BBC. Oracular Spectacular has been a global hit and was named best album of 2008 by NME. Their simple but infectious hooks have become part of the pop culture collective unconscious after being featured on numerous television shows, movies, and video games. “Electric Feel” comes pre-loaded on iPods and even French president Nicolas Sarkozy realized the inertiatic power of the pop-synth in “Kids.”

 

 

In researching their satire, MGMT unwittingly found the formula for crafting a perfect pop tune. Perhaps their greatest discovery is how to not muck-up the mix with unnecessary complications. Their magnum opus, third single “Kids,” is a modern hit in the sense that it hearkens back to presently fashionable periods in music history. Combining the dancey rhythmic simplicity of disco with the melodic simplicity of monophonic-synth driven New Wave, the song earns high marks by resisting the temptation of cluttering the mix with unnecessary production ideas like chords.

You could try playing chords on the MiniMoog, but you would fail...

You could try playing chords on the MiniMoog, but you would fail...

 

While the group tours as a five piece, the entire record is presumably the brainchild of the twosome plus indie rock super-producer Dave Fridmann. Fashioned over a period of time at his live-in upstate New York studios, Fridmann’s mature acuity is immediately perceptible. His guidance is especially evident when the album is measured against MGMT’s live show and even their pre-producer EP. His sounds are dense yet spacious and provide gritty credibility to what might be an otherwise adolescent romp.

 

 

Given the simplicity of their production implementation, MGMT would seem to be the perfect case study in how anyone can craft a terrific pop tune. I mean, if two stoned college kids (armed with only drum machines and synths) can do it as a joke and get signed to Columbia Records, then what’s stopping you?

 

 

Watch out for Part II of the Sonic Deconstruction: MGMT “Kids” saga with tomorrow’s contribution–an in-depth analysis of the song’s compositional elements!!

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