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Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

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Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby Matt Houghton » Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:06 pm

How better to start off a column about chart hits than with the UK’s Christmas Number One? Actually, don’t answer that... Seriously, though, whether you’re a fan of The X Factor or not, there’s a lot to learn from this production, if only by referencing against the great opening vocal sound — warm, breathy and intimate, despite the gale‑force pitch‑correction. While we’re talking about the opening, let me also draw your attention to savage low‑frequency filtering of the acoustic guitars. Although it’s hardly the most natural of sounds (unless you live in a doll’s house), it’s nonetheless very effective in context, giving the impression of an acoustic guitar in the arrangement, while staying out of the way of the clean electric guitar and lead vocal in the low‑mid range. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that the lead vocal wouldn’t make nearly the sonic impact it does if such harsh EQ measures had not been taken.

Another aspect of the mix that rewards close scrutiny is the warm and beautifully controlled low end, when the drums arrive at 0:24. Although the bass is powerful in the 100Hz region, it rolls off from about 70Hz, leaving the bottom couple of octaves all but free for the kick drum to deliver a satisfyingly weighty oomph, all the way down to 30Hz or so. If you filter out the sub‑100Hz region, however, it’s clear that the kick drum still has plenty of higher frequencies with which to punch through, while the LF restrictions placed on the bass (and, indeed, the rest of the mix) ensure that the rest of the balance suffers very little. All in all, this makes for a great compromise between achieving good small‑speaker compatibility for chart purposes, and capitalising on the bandwidth extremes for car, hi‑fi, and home‑theatre listeners.

The biggest challenge of mixing an ‘all guns blazing’ pop arrangement like this, though, is generating a convincing build‑up without losing drum/vocal clarity, or running out of headroom. The kick drum keeps its head above water on account of its low‑frequency dominance, and also by interacting with the bus compressor — effectively indicating its presence by ducking the whole mix subtly on each hit. The snare can’t work these same angles, but nonetheless manages to remain dominant in the mix throughout. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it’s got a very sharp and prominent attack, which slices through the mix fairly effortlessly. Secondly, this attack is followed by a short, but extremely dense sustain, lasting roughly 80‑100ms. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was achieved by layering in some kind of parallel gated effect, but whatever it is, it allows the drum to retain its sense of body in the face of increasingly powerful frequency‑masking effects, as everything including the kitchen sink is piled into the arrangement. Thirdly, the reverb treatment helps to increase both the drum’s effective duration and its reach across the stereo field — a tactic that becomes applied more assertively as the overall texture thickens, and which has the beneficial side‑effect of increasing the mix’s overall sense of size and width at those points.

As I’ve already mentioned, one factor that aids the vocal clarity is careful EQ bracketing of other parts, but I’m guessing that the possibilities of this method were exhausted before an adequate balance for the choruses could be achieved. I can hear a fair amount of ducking of background parts such as guitars and strings in response to the vocal, whether by triggered dynamics, fader automation, or both. Some of this is quite mild, but occasionally it does get quite extreme, such as under the lead vocal’s word ‘if’ at 1:06 in the first chorus. (Interestingly, this ducking instance only really appears to affect the stereo ‘Middle’ component — perhaps there’s some sneaky M/S processing going on?)

So far, there’s much to admire, but I confess to being rather less impressed by how this mix uses the available digital headroom. I’m not squeamish about loudness‑enhancement processing, but here it’s taken too far even for me. To my ears, the sound already begins to suffer unacceptably from hitting the digital endstops at the downbeat of the second chorus (2:00). The kick drum simply folds in on itself and practically disappears, where I’d have wanted it to solidly underpin that important section’s arrival. My guess is that the mix engineer had nothing to do with the loudness processing in this case, otherwise I reckon he might have done something more to compensate for it by adjusting the mix balance. As for the middle section (2:33‑2:65), the distortion created by pushing the peak‑to‑average reading below 5dB (according to TT Dynamic Range Meter) is pretty unpleasant, not least because the generally clean‑sounding instrumentation doesn’t do much to mask it. Even on my grotbox speakers, it sounds like someone has accidentally nudged the radio’s tuning dial! Of course, once the middle section has maxed out both the possibilities for increasing the instrumentation and loudness, the only thing left to lift the final chorus is the traditional arranger’s admission of defeat: stepping up a key. Mike Senior

For more critiques of commercial productions, browse The Mix Review Index
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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby onesecondglance » Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:33 pm

the x factor arranger gets an extra ten quid for every key change he can shoehorn in. it's the only rational explanation.
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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby Mike Senior » Tue Mar 29, 2011 8:01 am

Glad people are liking this new column idea. Stay tuned for more of the same in future issues!

Because singles are often now available in different versions, and I do reference track times occasionally in the text, I figure it's probably worth making a note on this forum of which version I actually used for the review. In this case it was the official CD single. (Yes. That's right. I actually bought the X Factor single. How do I sleep, you might very well ask... )

I'll also try to give some information about the writing, production, mixing, and mastering credits for each of the reviews, seeing as it's those aspects of the production which are under discussion. This comes from the CD sleeve:

Written by Simon Neil.
Produced by Richard 'Biff' Stannard (for 365 Artists/Biffco) and Ash Howes.
Mixed by Ash Howes.
(Strangely, there's no mastering credit... )

Personally, I know Ash Howes best for his work with Dido and Alisha's Attic, and it's very interesting to compare this Matt Cardle mix with Dido's 'White Flag', which I have on my own reference CD -- it's another track with a very effective and controlled low end, as well as wafer-thin acoustic guitars. (It's also a good example of how to allow the vocal to take up a huge amount of space in the mix.) And if you need evidence that Ash Howes is perfectly capable of great long-term mix dynamics (whatever the mastering engineer might do to them further down the line), check out Dido's 'Hunter', which is brilliant -- not least for the great drop chorus at the end.
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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby BJG145 » Tue Mar 29, 2011 9:18 am

Mike Senior wrote:Glad people are liking this new column idea. Stay tuned for more of the same in future issues!
These are great - keep up the good work...
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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby RonnieG » Tue Apr 05, 2011 12:43 pm

Mike Senior wrote: (Yes. That's right. I actually bought the X Factor single. How do I sleep, you might very well ask... )


I bet you were voting every week too Mike!

Enjoying these articles.

Amazing what i can't hear when i listen to these songs.
Great insight.

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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby BJG145 » Tue Apr 05, 2011 1:41 pm

Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby PECO » Sat Apr 09, 2011 1:47 am

No doubt, I'm a fan of Simon Neil. His a one of a good writer in the industry.
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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby aekoi » Fri Apr 15, 2011 2:41 pm

Despite the overwhelming urge to poke my BM15As vigorously with knitting needles whenever I listen to this Matt Cardle's version of this track, I gave this a couple of spins promted by Matt's interesting analysis.

Before I go any further tho, will the various aspects of this analysis be apparent on different listening formats? I ask because I dont have a CD copy but listened on Spotify.

Thanks
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Re: Matt Cardle: 'When We Collide'

Postby forumuser743446 » Mon May 09, 2011 12:24 pm

The above post also begs the question: Where can I download 16/24bit / 44.1/96khz wav/aiff versions of these tracks? I don't want to buy the albums / order hard copy but would gladly shell out a few pence more then for the mp3 version if iTunes offered it! The collapsing kick-drum Mike pointed out is amazing! Still, it doesn't ruin what is an amazing, epic pop production that I hope never to hear ever again. Ever. EVER. E V E R!
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