Unfinished business: our engineer reworks a track he produced several years ago, and finds he'd left himself with plenty more to do!
This month, I want to take you through my recent mix of 'Strange Sensations', a track by the band Captain. I say 'recent' but I actually recorded the track as part of an album project I produced for the band way back in 2012. The album was mixed by legendary producer Steve Osborne (Elbow, Gregory Porter, New Order, Happy Mondays, U2...) but was only released last year, under some sad circumstances (see the 'Featured This Month' box). Along with a couple of other tracks from those sessions, 'Strange Sensations' didn't make its way onto the final album release, though, and the band decided they'd like to develop this material as 'extra content' for their fans — similar to what we might have thought of as B-sides a few years ago — as they work towards another new album early next year.
I'd enjoyed working on this song and had been a little disappointed when it didn't make the album, so when the band initially asked me if I could work on it again, I was obviously very happy to do so. But I was also a little worried about the prospect of getting the original Ableton Live project up and running. Several years had passed since I worked on the album, and I was already a couple of computers down the line. I'd changed DAWs in that time as well, and remembered that we'd used a number of software synths that I've not used for years, along with programmed drum parts and audio that had been recorded to several different locations! Thankfully, while the main Ableton session resembled the Swiss cheese I'd suspected it would, I'd had the foresight to archive the whole session for possible re-mixing at a later date. Not only had I consolidated all the audio parts, but I'd also bounced all the soft‑synth parts down to audio and, to my pleasant surprise, they were even nicely labelled, with a few helpful descriptive notes! This was a valuable reminder of the importance of archiving and future-proofing projects — I shudder to think how much more time and stress this job would have involved had I not had access to the all-audio archived project. It's all too easy to overlook this sort of thing when there are lots of other demands on your time (children, for example!).
Opening the project afresh gave me a new perspective on the song, and it didn't take long to understand why it hadn't made the cut. I still liked it, but it now seemed overly long. In particular, the synth parts seemed a bit passive, and we should definitely have been more ruthless in terms of the number of parts we'd left in. It's not hard for your focus on such things to soften when working on a project over a very long time — in fact, if you're heavily involved in a project as producer, that can be a very good reason for using another mix engineer. With so much distance from the song, though, it was obvious to me where the arrangement and instrumentation needed a little nip and tuck. So I resolved to make these decisions quickly, before over-familiarity began to cloud my judgement.
To do this, I felt the need first to 'present' the song properly, so I spent about 45 minutes in broad-strokes mode, building a rough balance and organising the parts into meaningful groups. I then determined to focus on three or four key areas, and really tried to discipline myself to address these before disappearing down any mixing rabbit holes.
The first of these areas was the overall length of the song. Despite the arrangement being quite traditional (an intro, a couple of verses and choruses, a middle eight and an outro) the song was over six minutes long. I can't recall precisely what our thinking was — we'd probably been planning a fade-out on the super-long outro. But I now decided a proper ending would be better, and that the song could comfortably lose a good 60 seconds of outro and still retain the feel of the song somehow 'drifting off' (which I think was the original idea). I also decided to axe half of the drum intro and to lose a few bars of the intro before the lead...
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