Why is it that some recordings sound so spectacularly wonderful and others sound like second-rate demos? That's a question we get asked a lot, which is why we've been running a series of articles that encourage analytical listening, because figuring out how the experts do it can help us to raise our game. Whether you're creating an electronica track or a loop‑based urban composition, or recording a traditional drums, bass and guitar band, the principles remain the same, in that as a good recording starts out with a well‑performed piece of music that has been arranged so that all the elements work well together. That's one of the reasons why inexperienced bands are very heavily reliant on their producer, because when you're putting a song together it's very tempting to use the sounds you like or employ flashy playing techniques you've developed, without giving adequate thought to how they fit in with the rest of the instrumentation. Producers have the luxury of being able to distance themselves from that kind of distraction, so they can view the song in a more holistic way and figure out what it really needs, even if that means changing or leaving out parts.
During the last Sound On Sound Podcast we recorded, Hugh Robjohns related the story of a dance band who were recording their parts for a TV programme. The first piece they recorded sounded fantastic. However, the second piece, which used the same instruments and the same mics, and was equally well‑played, didn't sound right, and the only difference was that the scores were arranged by different people. In both cases, the notes all fitted together well enough and the harmonies were technically correct, but the overall effect was messy and congested. If arranging for a band of acoustic instruments that each make predictable sounds can be difficult, even for an experienced arranger, how much harder must it be to arrange a pop or rock song with instruments such as synths and guitars that can produce a huge range of different sounds, and by musicians who can overdub as many parts as they like? More than one producer has commented that with a good song, you should be able to pull up the faders for the drums, the bass and the vocals and have the essential structure of the thing in place. The other instruments are then fitted around these elements to support the vocals.
It's easy to appreciate how a mix can be made to sound too congested by choosing the wrong sounds, or even the wrong chord inversions. But unless you are fortunate emough to be a good instinctive arranger, the best way to find out what works and what doesn't is to sit down and listen to some good commercial records, not just to enjoy the music but to hear inside the mix, to identify the individual parts and appreciate why the various sounds have been chosen to work together.
With this in mind, we've recently started a regular Mix Review column, in which SOS authors assess recent commercial mixes with a critical ear, the idea being to give you some pointers on how to approach your own critical listening. And best of all, you can develop this skill on your way to work just by listening to songs on the radio or to your iPod — it's simply a matter of listening to the familiar in a more analytical way.
Paul White Editor In Chief