A reader's carefully crafted symphonic synth epic gets the SOS mix makeover treatment.
As soon as I heard the project that Hetoreyn sent me, I could tell that he was a very accomplished composer, so I was surprised when he later revealed that he's only been composing seriously for the past six or seven years! Apparently he works mainly in the symphonic medium and collaborates with several indie film groups, most notably Farragut Films who make the 'Trek' fan series Starship Farragut. Future projects include an indie sci-fi film called Polaris, a TV serial called Archangel, and music for the author Astra Crompton so his talent has clearly been recognised. His End Of Line project, from which this track 'Digitized' is taken is his first real foray into the work of electronica and was apparently inspired by his love of Orbital and the film Tron. In reality it is a blend of orchestral and electronica sounds with a bit of metal guitar added to one section of the mix — but it all works beautifully.
Composition started in Logic Pro but Hetoreyn mixes in Pro Tools, using an MBox Pro 3 interface. Most of his tracks are based on samples or software synths, with the Vienna Symphonic Library and Spectrasonics' Omnisphere playing a very large part. Unusually, he writes all his music using a pen tablet rather than a keyboard, which surprised me. He explained that he'd started to work with a mouse about five years previously, when he had needed a portable setup, which meant he couldn't take a controller keyboard with him. Later he was introduced to the pen tablet, which he found sped up the process of composition considerably. So, now he works this way by choice rather than necessity! Hetoreyn's studio includes an Adam A7 monitoring setup, which he teams with a Yamaha HS10W subwoofer.
When Hetoreyn first contacted me, he sent in a mix of his work, which sounded reasonably well balanced and nicely arranged to the extent that with a little tweaking at the mastering stage it would have worked well enough. But he said he felt it lacked depth and that the pounding electric guitar that occurs in the middle section of the track wasn't sounding as strong as he'd hoped for. He was also concerned that the overall mix processing wasn't delivering the big, filmic sound required. I said I'd take a look at it so Hetoreyn saved all the tracks as 48kHz, 24-bit audio files with the same start point and sent them to me via Dropbox. Most of his samples had some sort of ambience already added but this was not excessive and was generally appropriate to the style of music.
Getting My Bearings
My first challenge was to organise the tracks in a way that would make them easy to work with as there were around 70 stereo tracks in all, roughly divided into pads, bass parts, guitars, vocal-like sounds, orchestral strings, orchestral brass, arpeggios and drums/percussion. The pads section alone had 17 stereo parts. I discovered that all the guitar audio files had a small timing offset from the rest of the song so I corrected that before continuing. I handled this project in Logic Pro X as I needed to spend some time with it anyway to assimilate the changes made since Logic Pro 9.
First off I colour coded the members of each group and arranged them on the main page in Logic leaving a blank track between each section. Next I routed each to its own bus so that its overall contribution to the mix could be adjusted by a single fader. At first I wondered why there were so many pad parts, but on closer examination it was obvious that most of the different parts played at different times rather than all at once, so to give me some visual guidance when the screen zoom was too low to see waveforms I set about dividing each track into regions and then muted those regions where nothing was playing. Logic X thoughtfully greys out muted regions, so now I was left with blocks of colour only where something was happening. I did this for all the parts other than those that played throughout the piece.
Although I'd heard Hetoreyn's original mix when he first contacted me, and so had a rough idea of where he was heading, I decided not to listen to this again, instead aiming to achieve a balance that I felt worked. That way I wouldn't be unduly influenced by what had gone before. My plan was to send MP3s of the work in progress to Hetoreyn, to elicit his comments and to fine-tune any elements that didn't conform to his vision of how 'Digitized' should sound. Most of our dialogue revolved around those troublesome chugging guitars in the middle section. He'd used four different sets of samples arranged on four tracks where each had a different tonal character.
Hetoreyn's composing skills gave the piece a lot of subjective dynamics but very little actual dynamic range. That's because the pulsing deep bass that underpinned the piece ate up a lot of the headroom but was transparent enough to allow the layers that sat on top of it to create a good deal of light and shade. I added some gentle level automation to the overall bass subgroup to push it up a little during the loud sections and to drop it back during the quieter parts, which helped make the entry of the louder sections more dramatic.
Because of the considerable use of light and shade in the arrangement, I opted to balance the loudest parts first, which is, of course, normal practice. There's no point in getting a perfect balance for the quiet sections only to find there's nowhere to go when you need things louder. To ensure I'd have plenty of headroom to work with, after setting the initial rough balance I also pulled all the mixer faders back 10dB or so to allow me a decent margin of headroom to work with.
The main kick-drum part and the bass pulse seemed to lack much real depth, so I used the simple trick of patching in an instance of Logic's sub-bass generator to the main synth bass line, and then added just enough of the synthetic sub to bring about the desired weight to the sound without being too obvious. A 24dB/octave low-cut filter with a turnover frequency of 30Hz, placed after the sub generator, kept the extreme lows under control, while a couple of decibels of boost at 100Hz allowed me to retain the subjective warmth and depth.
For the electronic kick, I combined around 5dB of boost at 75Hz with some cut at 250Hz to keep it sounding tight. Because of the high-quality of the samples I didn't do too much in the way of EQ'ing on the majority of the tracks though I did apply a 24dB/octave low-cut filter to any non-bass parts that threatened to spill over into the bass region as unwanted lows can lead to mud and congestion, not to mention wasted headroom. Even bass parts can benefit from low-cut filtering at around 30Hz as there's seldom much audible going on below that frequency unless you're mixing for a club PA system.
I had some work to do on the guitars, as Hetoreyn wanted a deep, solid, chugging sound, which his mix didn't quite deliver. Again, I used the sub-bass plug-in, but on only one of the 'chug' layers, just to add a bit more low-end meat. Mostly, though, it was a question of balancing the parts to give the right blend of low thump and high raunch. I did reamp three of the 'chug' parts via Logic's Amp Modeller, using different models on each part to try to add some realism, but taking care to tweak the tone controls so as to keep plenty of low end and to keep the highs audible but not too gritty. There's a lot of room for subjective variance here as there is on a single definitive rock guitar sound, but what I ended up with worked, and gave the part a bit more definition. I'd have liked a greater sense of power and depth, but the original samples didn't quite have it — and that's not the kind of energy you can put back using EQ.
The other issue in this middle section was a very splashy open hi-hat, which really helps with the drama, but muting it for a moment showed up just how much sonic real estate it was occupying. Dropping it in level by just a couple of decibels made the guitar parts stand out much better.
Shaping The Mix
There's a very sparse opening section in this song, introduced by a pulsing Moog-style bass that's augmented with some vocoder-like vocal/synth sounds. A couple of sampled female vocal parts have also been added to the mix. These build up in a mildly psychotic way, with some equally tense synth arpeggios coming in. This all creates a sense of urgency. I used some generous 'church' reverb on the female vocals to give them a bit of a Carmina Burana feel, with slow flanging added to a couple of the more synthetic-sounding vocal-like elements. I also panned the opening sustained vocoder-like sound slowly from left to right.
After the vocals reach a crescendo, they stop, and a hypnotic bass line, which doubles the electronic kick, carries the next section forward in a way that wouldn't be out of place in a Terminator movie. The overall level automation of the bass subgroup really helped to emphasise these transitions between sections. Synthetic effects and stabs build up the tension, and this is then relieved by a drop into a chilled string section, but is still driven forward by that insistent bass line and supported by some tastefully placed blippy synths and arpeggios. One of the synths turned out to be quite raspy and until I'd figured out which one this was, I was actually worried that I'd blown one of my speaker cones, as it sounded a bit like clipping distortion or the death-rattle of a tweeter! I automated the high-cut filter on this track to reduce the spiky distortion during the more relaxed sections but otherwise left it as was.
Towards the middle of the song there's a crescendo heralded by a horn swell followed by those layered chugging guitar parts and joined a few bars later by some pretty manic solo guitar, all courtesy of Vienna. I kept the solo guitar parts in the centre and panned the layered chugs left and right to give some spread. I didn't feel the brass crescendo leading into this guitar section was quite assertive enough so I doubled it with a sampled French Horn and then fed that through an overdrive plug-in to give it some edge. This was added in so that it was only just audible below the existing brass part but seemed to helped launch the guitar part more dramatically.
This very dense guitar layering falls away at the end of that section via a spiralling descent of synths and orchestra stabs to feature some lush orchestral brass. Though there's no obvious 'whistle it on the way to work' melody to the piece, the arrangement is certainly melodic with great care taken over harmonies and sound choice.
Orchestral sounds sit side by side on the end section, which has a fairly chilled feel, again with that relentless bass synth as its foundation. Things build in a fairly orderly way towards the end before calming right down to a very sparse drum, synth blip and orchestra section that invites a slow fade. Which is exactly what I gave it.
When it comes to panning, I have to admit to having taken a very casual approach, usually based on finding two parts of similar 'weights' and musical importance, and then panning them to either side of centre. If they occupy the same part of the audio spectrum this can also help separate them, of course, but I like my mixes to sound right in mono first rather than relying on panning to de-clutter things. Bass sounds and kicks remain in the middle of course, and as most of the samples are stereo anyway, they still retain a sense of dimension even when not panned. With an electronic piece like this there are no artistic constraints insomuch as you don't have to create a believable panorama based on what a band might look like set up across a stage. Here I tried to scatter the bright synth elements to either side leaving the rhythm section to pound out centre stage.
The only send effect I set up was the church reverb and because all the samples had some ambience already added, I decided to try to make the mix work without adding any more. I also kept away from compressors, at least at track level, as the sampled sounds used here already had well-controlled dynamics. I did, however, succumb to the temptation to use parallel compression fed from the bass and drums submixes to add a little 'fatness' — this was mixed back in with the fader set at -15dB. In this instance I used a UA1176 compressor plug-in with all the buttons pressed in and set with the needle banging the end stops.
More compression was applied on the final mix using UA's Precision Bus compressor with a 2:1 ratio and set to give just two or three decibels of gain reduction on the louder sections. This was followed by the Slate Virtual Tape machine in its 16-track, 15ips mode to maximise the head-bump bass enhancement, then straight into a Pultec EQ with just a decibel or two of bass boost and a hint of HF for fatness and air. Finally, a UAD Precision Limiter took care of any errant peaks, but was set so as not to trim more than a couple of decibels off the highest peaks.
It was only when I'd finished the mix to my satisfaction that I went back and listened to Hetoreyn's initial mix. I think my version has a little more clarity and greater dynamics, but there was nothing too shoddy about Hetoreyn's. I felt that in that troublesome middle section I'd managed to make things sound less muddled, while retaining the sense of organised chaos, and the intro section seemed to build in a more natural way.
Where a composition comprises only high-quality samples, as in this case, the main challenge is achieving a good balance within the various sections of the piece; EQ and other processing are only really necessary where the samples don't quite achieve what you'd hoped. Fortunately, there were no layered very deep bass sounds, so I didn't need to get into phase-aligning things. Techniques such as parallel compression are effective when used in moderation to fatten up a mix, but as with any form of compression, you soon get to a point where adding any more is counter-productive, so at every stage I was cautious when using dynamic processing. What you have to remember is that many of the samples will already have been compressed during their production. In my mix there's a parallel compressor on the drum and bass tracks, and there's more compression added on the final output along with whatever compression the Virtual Tape Machine plug-in adds. And of course the limiter does it's bit too. If you don't take care with each of these dynamic processing stages you can very easily choke the life out of a mix!
The other consideration is that large projects like this one can become very hard to manage, unless you break them down into logical subgroups, and colour-coding the various tracks and regions really helps, as does identifying areas where nothing is playing. Busing the sections to separate groups also makes it much easier to make macro mix adjustments. You could also do this using fader grouping, but busing allows you to drop plug-ins into the bus inserts to affect the whole group where necessary. Finally, I have to say just how much I enjoyed working on this mix, as both the choice of sounds and the musical arrangement really worked. In fact a large part of my job was resisting the temptation to fiddle with things that were absolutely fine as they were and you'll see from my mixer view that many of the tracks had no EQ and no plug-ins applied at all. As they say, if it ain't broke don't fix it.
Hetoreyn: "The biggest problem I found with my own mix was that I wasn't sure if the drums were punchy enough, of if the bass was overdone. Typically I deal with orchestral mixing which is more about creating the virtual room space, so when it comes to writing and mixing an actual song... well, the phrase 'fish out of water' comes to mind.
"Paul's mix was a completely fresh look at my song, and right from his first beta mix I realised that I'm probably being far too conservative with my panning and processing. I loved his use of the Phaser/Flanger effect at the beginning of the song, and I was inspired to use similar effects on other songs on this album. It's easy to overdo it, but used subtly here and there, that makes for a very interesting effect. Paul certainly gave the kick drum much more punch, and the kit as a whole sounds very polished.
"Having used a rather large number of synth parts in this piece, it's been interesting to note which parts Paul decided to highlight. My first criticism of the initial work-in-progress mix was that my beloved 'Blaster Beam' synth sound (something I use on practically every piece I write!) had been mixed in mono; I'd intended this to be in the distant background, adding a grinding bass twang. Paul put this back into stereo on the next mix and now it sits beautifully in the background.
"The orchestral parts I never really worried about, as I'm fairly practised at mixing those, but Paul has got those sounding nice in the mix. I did worry about the guitars, though! I'd used the Electric Guitar patch from Vienna Symphonic Library, which I'd passed through one of Logic's amp modellers, applying EQ and Modeller tweaks to prevent the different parts (seven in all) sounding the same. I'm still not entirely sure the overall guitar sound in Paul's mix is as big as I'd like it to be, but there's certainly nothing wrong with what he's done: they do come out a lot crisper and clearer than in my own mix.
"I must say that I've learned quite a bit from listening to Paul's version. The mix is homogenous, and nicely punchy in all the right places. The use of EQ tricks and of certain processors and effects are very much things I wanted to learn from to better understand this kind of song format. I'm very grateful to Paul, and I'm very much looking forward to applying the techniques he has employed.”
To hear Hetoreyn's track and the SOS remix, head over to the SOS web site.