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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.















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.




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.




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.

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6 Responses to “Mixing and Mastering Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT”

  1. heywood kenobi says:

    This song sounds very much like a LCD Soundsystem song called Tribulations…the synth part at least.

  2. mike says:

    i don’t know. these guys aren’t that talented. i think the magic is in the production. haven’t heard or seen a good bit of them live and there’s a lot out there..

  3. Phil says:

    Heywood: You are definitely right about the bass synth being similar to Tribulations. It is an 8th note pattern played in alternating octaves. I’m fairly sure that both are MiniMoog synths or emulators. They follow different progressions but are indeed very similar.

    Mike: I wholeheartedly agree. Throughout the week we had been trying to underscore the importance of great production as executed by David Fridmann. If anything I thought we might have gone too far and denied any credit at all to MGMT who did write the song. But I think our series has definitely tried to emphasize the value of production rather than the singular genius of the band.

    I think it is wise to just come out and say that Keith and I are music nerds. We are the type of people who can find things to talk about in any song no matter how complex or simple it might be. As such, it is important not to confuse the length of the article with giving praise to the individual artist. We could probably write a dissertation about a I-V progression (*note for future article?)

    We are simply taking songs that are out there now, that people are listening to now, that are relevant now, and trying to distill any lessons, techniques, or novelties for anybody who’d be interested in reading about it.

    Thanks for the comments and we love to hear from you guys!

  4. Kyle says:

    I very much enjoy your blog and analyses. Electronic music is my favorite genre, and I was disappointed that the instrumentation was only explored as deep as mentioning they are “mostly monophonic synthesizers” (though the comment on the phasing was neat). So here’s my question: when it comes to synthesizers and samplers, how hard is it to identify and reproduce many of the sounds you hear in electronic music? From sources like this:, it would appear to be a very difficult task. Thank you very much for this blog!

  5. Keith says:

    @Kyle- unfortunately yes it’s hard to pinpoint what a sound is if you don’t have an in depth knowledge of synthesizers and synthesis software–there is no easy way to reproduce any given sound in the universe. My guess is that with time we will start to see more “convolution” software that can copy a sound and recreate it through synthesis. We already have this technology being applied to reverbs, EQs, and guitar amps. Usually the best way to find out is still to check out videos on YouTube and see what they use live, if you have that available to you. Another good thing to do is familiarize yourself with the most common synthesizers out there (Prophet 5, Mini Moog) and organs and electric pianos (Wurlitzer, Rhodes, Clavinet, Hammond B3) as a starting point.

    For samples, oftentimes the artist WANTS to obscure the source so that they can have the most original sounds possible. Again, I think technology will make this recognition easier in the future, with smartphone apps like Shazam or Soundhound which can hear a person singing a melody and tell you what song it is (to varying degrees of success, but it’s only going to get better).

  6. Kyle says:

    Thanks a lot for the speedy reply and advice. I suppose this is why I like electronic influenced music, the sounds can be very unique. Keep up the good work on the blog!


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