Brush up on your listening skills, as we dissect some hits from a recording and production perspective.
The vocals on this record could operate as something of a vocal ‘endstop’ reference for me. What I mean is that the amount of upper‑spectrum energy Rudimental have funnelled into the lead vocal parts rather neatly defines the boundary between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’, as far as I’m concerned. Macklemore’s opening lines, for instance, stay on the right side of the line: super‑close and crispy, with masses of world‑weary ‘grain’ to the vocal tone. However, I think Dan Caplen’s subsequent tone is a bridge too far, taking on a fatiguing, sibilant brittleness and lacking real timbral warmth. (The added emphasis it puts on the formant‑warbling side‑effects of his tuning correction is hardly flattering either, as on “this old” at 0:21.) Then Jess Glynne’s entry returns to a more palatable high‑frequency balance, albeit with a touch too much top‑octave emphasis on the sibilance for me. So if I were referencing a vocal in my own mix against this production, I’d feel comfortable brightening it up to Macklemore or Jess Glynne levels, but if I found myself overshooting into the Dan Caplen zone then I’d take that as a message to rein things back — and probably give my ears a break too!
Despite the unusually crispy vocals, there’s a recognisably chart‑centric profile to the overall tonality of ‘These Days’, with significant troughs in the 150‑300 Hz and 3‑6 kHz zones, combined with boosts below 100Hz and above 8kHz. (Other recent examples include Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’, Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’, and Clean Bandit’s ‘Rockabye’.) Losing low mid‑range in favour of deep bass has always been a means to generate a sense of warmth without woolliness. However, I’m increasingly wondering whether it’s also an attempt to squeeze the best apparent playback volume out of the loudness‑normalisation algorithms that are becoming ever more widespread on broadcast and streaming services. The ITU’s BS1770 loudness‑detection algorithm, for instance, features a high‑pass filter in its detection circuit rolling off at around 12dB/octave below 100Hz, which means that boosting your track’s ‘bassiness’ at 50Hz will cost you less playback loudness than boosting it at 150Hz. You might also argue that the 3‑6 kHz high‑frequency dip serves a similar function, because the BS1770 detector’s pre‑emphasis curve is also boosted by 4dB above 2kHz. In that light, adding brightness to a mix at 10kHz rather than 3kHz would make sense in loudness‑detection terms, as higher frequencies typically contribute less to the average level of a music mix than lower ones.
For many years, peak‑normalised playback has negatively impacted the sound of commercial music releases. While I’m delighted that current loudness‑normalisation schemes appear to be making progress in discouraging the extreme dynamics‑squashing tactics of the past couple of decades, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think they’ll make the loudness wars go away entirely, because I strongly suspect that tech‑savvy engineers are already skewing their production sonics to jack loudness‑detection algorithms in their favour. Mike Senior
Verse two of this song holds a couple of treasures. The first is the deft manner in which Ezra unexpectedly extends the first phrase to five bars by simply repeating the F#‑D# melodic oscillation of “never‑ending” for an extra bar (“helterskelter we’ll be out what‑”) before finishing the melody as he did in verse one (“‑ever the weather”). And the second pearl is when the lyrics “boom boom” are enacted by a couple of low tom accents at 1:16. Beyond their undeniable comedy value, though, what’s thought‑provoking about those toms is that they have considerably more 50Hz weight than the kick drum does. Far from being some kind of error, it underlines the truism that there aren’t any ‘standards’ for the sonic relationships between different elements in a drum kit (or indeed a whole arrangement) at mixdown. Here, it stands to reason that a kick drum would have its lower frequencies tightly controlled to maintain the rhythmic drive and low‑end clarity in this uptempo groove, and that the prominent low end on the tom‑toms would make their appearance a more arresting production hook for the listener. At mixdown, function trumps convention every time.
In addition, it’s worth listening carefully to the pitched transition effect (most likely a synth, I imagine) that rises out of the depths at 2:41, because rather than using a smooth upwards glissando, it appears to be stepping through a chromatic scale with a 16th‑note rhythm, or else has some kind of 16th‑note modulation effect applied to it. Whatever it is, it adds a useful touch of rhythmic urgency to my ear. In a similar vein, the 16th‑note guitar chugging first heard in the bridge sections at 1:02 and 1:49 also helps give the final choruses a little extra forward drive from 3:18. Mike Senior
One of the difficulties of hip‑hop production is that everyone wants huge kick and huge bass, but if both those elements are enormous then you quickly end up with a woolly combination that eats up way too much level headroom. One workaround is using strategic EQ cuts to clear selected low‑frequency pockets in the kick‑drum sound for the bass to inhabit, but then also making sure that the kick always hits while the bass is playing. This creates a kind of illusion whereby the kick seems more solid than it actually is by virtue of the bass filling the gaps in its low‑end spectrum. However, problems can arise with this scheme if the kick is ever called upon to appear on its own, whereupon it may sound uninspiringly thin. What’s very cool about this Drake track, though, is how the sound design and mix processing have squared that circle, so that the kick still sounds great even when the bass drops out at 2:41.
Part of the secret here is that the pitch range of the bass synth is pretty restricted when it’s layered with the kick, so that its powerful fundamentals occupy a well‑contained 50‑65 Hz region. No surprise, therefore, that the kick‑drum timbre exhibits a corresponding divot in that spectral zone. However, the kick‑drum still offers a good dose of beautifully controlled sub‑40Hz energy, which is tight enough to avoid any sense of flabbiness, but simultaneously powerful enough to counteract a sense of low‑end loss when the bass vanishes.
Notice also how the kick all but disappears when the bass line drops down the octave at 0:50 and 2:05. It seems that either the kick has been muted to avoid its low‑end conflicting directly with the sub‑35Hz bass fundamentals, or the bass has shifted register to allow the kick to be muted for arrangement variety, without sacrificing the texture’s apparent low‑end extension. Either way, it works for me. Mike Senior
‘No Tears Left To Cry’
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard such poor lyric intelligibility on an ostensibly pop production. Honestly, it took me a half‑dozen listens to guess three quarters of the lyrics, and the other quarter are still a mystery! But I don’t think I really blame the engineers here, because I reckon Grande herself should be carrying the can on this one. There’s a limit to what you can do at mixdown to salvage a performance with negligible diction, and I think that’s the root of the problem here. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that slightly reticent diction can be quite stylish in the right hands, but I just think she’s misjudged it here. There’s a fine line between ‘sultry’ and ‘medicated’.
Leaving that aside, though, the first chorus entry is a brilliant piece of smoke and mirrors, as far as the song’s long‑term dynamics is concerned. Although the arrangement at that point is, if anything, sparser than that of the preceding verse, it somehow makes drama out of this via simple contrast, setting the verse’s muscular, dry, choppy texture against the chorus’s muted, woody riff‑synth timbre and those wonderfully open‑sounding delay/reverb effects. (An even more dramatic example of ‘reverse’ verse‑chorus dynamics can be heard in Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, which I critiqued back in December 2017.) Showing such restraint early in the song means there’s masses of room for manoeuvre in terms of building the chorus texture over subsequent iterations, in this instance by adding a glacial pad in chorus two, and then doubling that with backing vocals in verse three, as well as lengthening the formerly well‑punctuated bass part into a fully sustained line. Mike Senior
In a sense, this smash‑hit production has become a victim of its own signature studio gimmick, because all anyone ever seems to talk about is its pioneering abuse of Auto‑Tune. That’s a shame, because the song’s densely layered arrangement has many other features worthy of admiration.
The guitar’s chorus hook, for instance, treats us to a prominent tremolo effect, something that’s quite rare in pop music. I reckon most producers reject it as a featured effect on account of its whiff of rhythmic ambiguity, but that very characteristic is part of what makes its so ear‑catching here, in my view. The strong three‑eighth‑note component of the chorus vocal’s delay/reverb effects is another highlight, contrasting with the verse’s simpler quarter‑note echo and interweaving with that filtered “after love” sample loop. (The latter is also a salutary reminder of how easily vocal‑sample manipulation can add interest to instrumental sections — a stunt I’ve shamelessly ripped off in plenty of Mix Rescue remixes!) The complex tempo‑related multitap delay on the middle section’s Eb synth ostinato is another little gem.
I’m also a big fan of the track’s fluid transitions, by which I mean programming and arrangement fills that evolve over time, rather than just being straight ‘notes’ or ‘hits’. In our post‑dubstep era, it’s easy to forget how many ’90s dance tracks sounded like they’d been constructed entirely in Cubase’s drum‑editing window, where MIDI Note Messages were all you had to play with, and even event duration information was considered an unnecessary frippery. Just the introduction of ‘Believe’ already gives us a variety of evolving swooshes and swirls (some clearly hand‑crafted rather than just courtesy of a synth preset’s modulation matrix) alongside other transition staples such as the long filter sweep and reverse cymbal leading into verse one. Other nice examples include the woozy Doppler‑effect backing‑vocal fall‑offs in the middle section, the tape‑stop conceit at 2:57, and the reverse lead‑vocal ambience most clearly heard before “I can feel” at 3:14 (nicely set in relief by the sudden effects dry‑up at 3:11).
The disparity between the verse and chorus vocal levels bugs me a little, though. In principle there’s a strong argument for it: with Auto‑Tune making the verse vocal inherently so attention‑grabbing in sonic terms, it can afford to be quite low in the balance without losing the listener’s ear, thereby affording the chorus hook’s more traditional vocal sound the opportunity to punch through much more strongly when it arrives — and it certainly does that! However, I can’t help feeling that the rather sanitised dance‑pop sound of the production as a whole becomes overshadowed by the chorus vocal, unnecessarily undermining its illusion of power. Mike Senior