An extremely spiky drum sound here, providing brutal small‑speaker translation. Although
the track I’ve long associated with this kind of drum sound is Perry’s previous single
‘Hot & Cold’, it’s possible this one might have the edge, if only in terms of a bit
more satisfaction at the low end. As usual, with high‑quality pop productions, slick
vocal touches abound too: the subtle stereo double‑tracking for the end of each phrase
during the verses (eg. 0:07‑0:22); the low-octave double during the pre-choruses (eg.
0:23‑0:35); and the soft, high, harmony thirds (first heard in the second half of the
first chorus from 0:53), which become increasingly prominent as the song unfolds. And
it’s also some kind of small miracle the way the producers have managed to slip in an
’80s‑style sax solo at 2:53 without it sounding too cheesy. The Black Eyed Peas must
surely be gnashing their teeth...
But the main thing I wanted to talk about in
the context of this track is a strange waveform clipping artifact that I’ve seen several
times before on commercial mixes, particular those of Serban Ghenea. As anyone who’s
looked at the waveforms of chart tracks in their DAW will probably already know, the
practice of clipping mixes as a loudness‑enhancement technique is widespread (for better
or worse), especially in styles of music that rely on clicky, sharp‑edged drum sounds.
Although the side‑effect of clipping is distortion, this distortion is quite readily
masked by bright and aggressive drums, so some engineers consider it a less harmful
side‑effect than the timbral softening or drum‑balance alteration that any kind of
limiting would typically incur for a similar loudness hike.
Whatever your views
about using clipping in this way, though, it’s always pretty much been established
wisdom that it should, like all loudness processing, be applied as the final stage of the
mastering process. And that’s why this track puzzles me. If you look at some of the drum
hits, you’ll see that most of them are flat‑topped at the ‑0.1dBFS level, but
there’s also a more‑or‑less flat diagonal section following some of the horizontal
clipped waveform regions:
What this says to me is that the original
mix has been clipped, then high‑pass filtered, and then clipped again — high‑pass
filtering any file with flat‑topped drums will tilt the flat region of the waveform off
the horizontal. Assuming that I’ve arrived at the correct conclusion about this, what it
strongly suggests is that Serban Ghenea is delivering clipped files to mastering, but that
the mastering engineer (Brian Gardner in this case) is not rejecting them with the stream
of invective that most of us would expect. So what’s going on here?
horse’s mouth remains firmly closed on this issue, as far as I’ve been able to
ascertain, my take on it is this: Serban Ghenea specialises in the kind of music that is
often clipped at mastering, and has decided that because the distortion artifacts will
inevitably affect the tone of his drums, he wants to be aware of the ramifications of this
while mixing. After all, many engineers have already gone on record that they mix through
a bus compressor (or even a mastering‑style limiter) so that they can compensate for the
gain‑riding effects during the mixing process. However, the fact that Ghenea isn’t
bypassing the clipping to generate his final mixdown file means that he’s effectively
taking the choice of what type of loudness processing to use out of the mastering
engineer’s hands. Once a file is clipped, you can’t substitute limiting for the
Which leads to numerous further questions. Is Ghenea doing this
because he doesn’t trust record companies and/or mastering engineers to
loudness‑process his mixes with as much clipping as he’d like? If he’s got enough
industry clout to get away with delivering clipped mixdown files, then why doesn’t he
have the clout to deliver unclipped files and then dictate clipping levels to the
mastering engineer — surely a more successful approach in terms of final sonics,
especially where EQ is required to match different mix tonalities on the same album? And
on what basis can we recommend that students of chart‑style mixing deliver unclipped
files to mastering, when arguably the most successful mix engineer on the planet appears
to have his reasons for doing otherwise?
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