We go hip‑hop this month, as we aim for a Dr Dre‑style sound with Preslin Davis' track 'Side Effects', and highlight the importance of artist‑engineer dialogue.
We don't get many hip‑hop tracks sent in to Mix Rescue, so when I happened across a forum post on the SOS web site from reader Preslin Davis asking how to achieve a Dr Dre‑style mix of his latest track, 'Side Effects', I immediately offered to help out. The remix ended up being quite involved, so rather than just skimming over everything, let's look in detail at some of the more interesting issues: how I developed Preslin's basic beat; how some editing helped with the mix; and how one particular sound went through multiple revisions between my first draft and our final, agreed version.
One of the biggest changes I made in the remix was in managing the way the kick drum and bass combined. I'm a long‑time fan of Dr Dre's production style, so I already had an idea what the basic requirement at the low end was likely to be: tight punchiness and lots of 100‑150Hz body in the kick, plus very carefully controlled sub‑bass, usually from the bass line. Unfortunately, Preslin's raw kick and bass sounds weren't fulfilling these criteria.
For a start, the kick drum was really soft‑sounding, and even with a shot in the arm from Stillwell Audio's Transient Monster it was still light-years off target. In addition, the bass sound had a strong 100‑200Hz region, which is usually where the kick tends to poke through in up‑tempo Dr Dre productions, whereas the important sub‑100Hz fundamental frequencies were undercooked. If Dr Dre hadn't been mentioned, it would probably have been sensible to leave the kick's pillowy nature unchanged, drawing some long seismic rumblings out of it to fill the spectrum underneath the bass. As it was, I figured I'd better rework things more in line with my expectations of Dr Dre's sound.
Remodelling the kick was simple: I just lined up a new super‑pokey kick alongside, from Big Fish Audio's Platinum Essentials 2 sample library. As always, though, I was careful to time‑align the two waveforms to get the best‑sounding combination. This took a little work, but the resulting layered kick‑drum then survived virtually unprocessed to the final mix, with the only further tweak being a broad 2.5dB boost at 750Hz for more 'knock'.
Reinforcing the bass part's fundamental was also a case of adding something new, namely my usual sub‑bass synth patch, running from the ReaSynth plug‑in that's part of my Cockos Reaper‑based mix system. I tweaked the sound's synth and filter settings (as well as the frequency and slope of a high‑pass filter on the existing bass track) to home in on the most satisfying low-mid range for the layered sound. Broad peaking boosts of 2.5dB at 410Hz and 5dB at 1.9kHz on the main bass part then shifted emphasis away from the 100‑200Hz region.
When it came to managing the bass levels, I spent a few minutes trying out different emulated analogue processors and discovered that the Universal Audio UAD Fairchild 670 produced some nice harmonics for the sub-bass synth, while an 1176LN added welcome aggression to the upper line. We were still lacking some fullness, though, so I plugged in Silverspike's Ruby Tube valve emulation as a parallel process for the upper bass layer, driving it hard to thicken the lower‑mid harmonics.
It was then time to give serious consideration to the balance of sub‑bass information in each part. In modern bass‑heavy music styles, the level of sub‑bass, to a great extent, determines how loud your mix can be played and mastered. If you get a whopping sub‑bass peak every time the kick drum combines with the bass, the mix may feel sub‑light between kick hits. One common hip‑hop/dance trick to deal with this is to ensure that the bass and kick always play together, whereupon they can rely on the bass sound to provide the bulk of the sub‑bass frequencies and actually fool the listener into thinking that the kick has much more low end than is actually the case: in effect, the kick borrows its low‑end weight from the bass.
However, if the drums ever appear without the bass, as they do in Preslin's track, this tactic falls a bit flat, because the kick becomes gutless on its own. Hence the need for a delicate compromise, leaving enough sub‑bass in both parts so that each can stand on its own, but keeping the levels controlled enough so that their combined sub‑bass contributions don't peak at too high a level. While the solution to this problem was really just a question of adjusting fader levels in Preslin's track, it was nonetheless a fine line to tread and required continual reassessment throughout the mix process.
It's tricky to keep the groove of programmed drums turning over smoothly unless you inject a little bit of ebb and flow into them. In urban and dance styles, this is often achieved by laying a sampled break over the programmed beat, but if your beats are totally programmed it pays to work in a little extra phrasing to avoid the plodding sensation that can arise if there's no variation at all.
My first opportunity to add some input of this type was when I layered in the second kick sample. There's little room for velocity shaping in a lot of hip‑hop beats, because the style to some extent defines itself by its relentlessness in this respect, but you can still reduce the feeling of stress on individual beats by shortening note tails, and that's what I did with my added kick sample. So, for example, the hit on the first beat of the bar usually had the full decay of the sample, whereas little upbeat hits were reduced to half the length, and the durations of other beats existed somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes, according to their importance in the groove. The result: a dose of extra forward momentum in the beat.
As I introduced the rest of the rhythmic elements, I continued to take opportunities for this kind of behind‑the‑scenes shading as they presented themselves. For example, the main hi‑hat part frequently doubles the kick‑drum, but it doesn't always, so I chopped the solo hi‑hats to a separate track and dulled the doubled ones, to lend a slight lilt to the alternation. This also prevented the combined kick and hat hits from seeming too clicky, despite a certain amount of high‑frequency transient in the kick that needed to cut through when the hi‑hat doubling wasn't there.
This kind of variation can work in a similar way over a slightly longer scale, and there are a few different illustrations of this in the remix. The first is the intermittent gated‑reverb effect I applied to the second higher‑pitched hi‑hat that often appears on the third beat of each bar. Because the odd‑numbered bars of the pattern have the reverb on this hi‑hat, but the even‑numbered ones don't, it increases the sense of a two‑bar pattern (as opposed to a simpler one‑bar pattern), and again encourages the listener to hear the long‑term flow of the music. I made sure that the end point of the gated reverb envelope occurred in tempo, so that I didn't undermine the rhythm.
Preslin had already put a nice reverse cymbal at the turn‑around of each four‑bar section, but I felt that this conflicted with the important pick‑up to each verse, so I shifted it a beat earlier to clear a suitable gap. I still felt there was more that could be done with transition effects like this, though, so I set to work to create some kind of whooshing effect tail, using another hi‑hat track that only appears during the choruses. It took a bit of time to design something that seemed to flow with the tempo of the track, but it turned what would otherwise just have been yet another hi‑hat into more of a distinctive chorus feature.
This particular remix reminded me of how important audio editing can be in making a mix work, both on a technical and a more aesthetic level. Perhaps the most interesting instance of this was the editing of the looped guitar feedback sample that subliminally underscores the majority of the song. The main reason I started editing this was because I wanted to get it out of the way of the little sample one‑shots ('Got It!', 'Ah Good!', and the couple of wordless yells). One of the things that can really make sample‑based records interesting to listen to is if each different sample in the arrangement has its own unique character, briefly transporting you into its own unique space. These one‑shots were a case in point, but the guitar feedback was veiling them and making them less involving, hence my decision to edit it out of the way. While I was at it, though, I couldn't help myself randomly trying out a few other cuts on that part to see what happened, and some of those were also quite cool. Dropping the feedback from the beginnings of the verses was a success, for example, clearing the decks after the choruses and refocusing attention on the lead rap.
The last edit I did on the feedback guitar part was one of a whole series in response to the lyrics, picking out turns of phrase that caught my ear and trying to draw them more to the listener's attention. For the line "You gotta suck to get to be famous”, I dropped the feedback guitar just for the word 'suck', and despite the comparative subtlety of the textural change, it made a really noticeable difference to that word, causing it to pop out of the track nicely.
Verse one had a great moment in 'I keep it heartless, uh, my name is Elvis', where Preslin had left a little pause before the 'uh'. I figured that I'd mirror that in the arrangement by dropping the backbeat after 'heartless' and then replacing the usual kick/drums pattern under 'Uh' with just a single kick hit. You can never quite be sure whether these things will work in practice until you try them, which is why the unlimited undo history in modern DAWs is such a godsend: you can safely faff around, editing little audio slices until you come up with a configuration that seems to enhance the vocal phrasing without interrupting the flow of the track as a whole.
Verse three had a similar little vocal phrasing I liked: "Get to third base, um, I mean fornicate.” In this case, though, it felt to me as if the 'um' should sound more like a real moment of hesitation, so I tried dropping out the beat underneath it. This seemed promising, so I pursued the idea further, experimenting with the channel‑mute buttons while listening back to see what else might be able to drop out as well. Normally, there'll be some tracks that work and some that don't, so it was a little bit of a surprise to find that I could get away with cutting the entire backing in this situation! As with any mute‑based edit, though, the start/end timings for each track were quite critical, with most of the tracks cutting out at the start of the preceding backbeat, while the bass finished only at the end of the backbeat note.
The last big lyric‑inspired edit I did was for 'Don't use words that are complicated' in the fourth verse, converting the beat briefly into an uncomplicated four‑to‑the‑floor pattern, but although I quite liked the result, Preslin was less enamoured, so we reverted to Plan A on that one!
In my experience, most musicians realise that a mix engineer can often bring something more to the table than just compression and EQ, and are happy to consider even quite radical editing and arrangement changes. However, it's important to remember who the music actually belongs to, so while it's great for a mix engineer to have the freedom to experiment, that really has to be on the understanding that the artist has similar freedom to give the thumbs-down if something doesn't tally with the outcome they envisage.
Rarely has this principle been tested as assiduously as by the harp sound in this mix, which made its way through no fewer than five different versions before we arrived at the one Preslin was searching for! This isn't the kind of thing that happens very often if you take care to agree clear reference points with the artist for the mix (as I had) and have spent enough time examining any original mix supplied. However, while a certain amount of technical understanding is required in mixing, there's simply no getting away from the fact that you're actually dealing with an art form, and in that respect no mix engineer can take anything more than an educated guess as to what the artist's intentions really are. This is why mix revisions are very much a matter of course and why, in my experience, it's unreasonable for anyone to expect the first draft of a mix to come out perfectly formed.
Luck's often been on my side in this respect, though, as my first‑draft guesses aren't typically too far off target, so resolving any remaining issues only usually requires a revision or two. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I have to confess that I totally got the wrong end of the stick with this harp sound! You see, I normally assume that if an artist bothers to include a sound in their mix at all, they probably want to hear it clearly, so I made the mistake of assuming that the mellow sound of the harp in Preslin's original mix wasn't desirable, because it seemed to me to leave the nature of the instrument obscured, despite it occupying lots of space in the mix. My first instinct was, therefore, to make it smaller‑sounding, but at the same time more lo‑fi and assertive in the high-mid range — a common approach when integrating the smoother sounds of classical instrumentation into the more aggressive sonic environment of urban music.
Preslin's response to the first draft was that I'd made the harp sound too crusty and mean, where he'd been after something more 'baroque, rounded, and plain'. The problems I anticipated in achieving this, though, were that the velocity programming in the original part felt a bit lumpy, and that there also wasn't the same sense of sustain and natural space that I'd expect with more classically oriented sonics. He'd programmed the part himself, so I suggested he send me his original MIDI part to see if I could re-program and re-trigger a better result from the Garritan orchestral collection I have on my own machine.
This initially seemed to be a step in the right direction, but the new sound's attack was now a little too prominent for Preslin, and it lacked a 'crystalline' quality that he still wanted. The attack I could deal with easily with a bit of transient reduction, but I wasn't at all sure how to translate the word 'crystalline' into engineering terms — so I made a stab in the dark, by taking a bit of low end out from 220Hz, and then sent through a third version.
Still no cigar. While Preslin thought the sound in itself was great, it was coming across to him as too hi‑fi, with an unsuitably rich sustain. What had become increasingly clear to me by this point, through our email discussions, was that there was a character to his original part that was being lost in the translation to the new MIDI instrument, so I was convinced I'd be flogging a dead horse if I continued work based on my reprogrammed version of his part. I was also fairly sure that I was thinking totally along the wrong lines about the part, and that I needed more input from Preslin about the harp's intended purpose in the production as a whole.
More emails bounced back and forth, and a number of new ideas emerged. The harp apparently needed to be as important as the beat and the bass, but with a slightly weird, almost shocking sound, distinct from the rest of the mix, in such a way that it didn't quite fit in. However, it was by no means essential that the sound be particularly identifiable as a harp — 'liquid' was the word that seemed best to characterise the sound Preslin had in mind, and he felt it could maybe wrap itself around the rest of the mix in some way.
Back at the drawing board, I therefore shifted my focus onto the idea of creating something out of character with the generally up-front and punchy production sound. Taking my cue from the 'liquid' and 'wrap around' descriptions, I mangled the raw track with compression and brought in some other-worldly reverb and modulation treatments to make the harp's sonic identity less stable and place it in a completely different, much wider space. I also brought the overall level of the harp up in the mix, to make it more of a feature, and finally gave it a bit of unique background noise wherever it appeared, so that it sounded more like a piece of audio lifted from a totally different record. Version four was duly sent off... and flunked out again!
Elaborating, Preslin said that it wasn't really a special‑effect sound he was wanting, but more just a clear tonal distinction between the harp sound's low end and the rest of the mix. The comment that finally triggered the long‑delayed forehead‑slapping moment of revelation on my part, however, was when he said that the sound on his original mix was actually pretty close to the sound he was after. What I'd assumed was unintended in the original mix was actually intentional, and once that penny dropped, things suddenly began to make a whole lot more sense. Preslin also finally managed to track down a Soul Assassins reference track containing a harp part that he liked, which confirmed that we were finally thinking along the same lines.
So — for the fifth version — I started by modelling the sound much more closely on Preslin's original mix, while still retaining some of the more well‑received aspects of my previous processing attempts: some fairly quick compression and transient control to smooth out velocity inconsistencies, as well as a small amount of the modulation treatments and background noise to keep the illusion that the sound was a sample from another record. Bingo!
If you're producing hip‑hop tracks, the importance of the bass and the beat can scarcely be overstated, so I'm often surprised by how little time and effort recording musicians take over this aspect of urban production. Hopefully, some of the ideas I've discussed this month will provide food for thought, but whether they're useful for your particular sub‑genre or not, the basic principle of giving the most important tracks the time they deserve still applies. Some judicious 'perforation' of subsidiary parts in your mix can also be a worthwhile time investment if you want your hooks and phrase samples to make the same impact on the listener as they made on you when you picked them out.
Irrespective of the style you're working in, though, there's no escaping the issue of mix revisions unless you only ever mix your own music. Mixing is inevitably something of a guessing game, and on those occasions when your initial instincts prove to be awry, you may need to strip things right back and start again a number of times if you're to get to the bottom of the problem. In this scenario, remember that an audio example is worth a thousand words when discussing mix issues, so try to relate the mix in progress to commercial tracks wherever you can.
Preslin Davis: "I wanted to make the mix sound like state‑of‑the‑art contemporary hip‑hop, rather than something out of a home studio. While I really liked the rawness of my mix, there was no way it could be taken seriously as it was. Every track somehow overlapped, and the low end was nearly non-existent.
"When Mike sent me the first draft of his mix, I had to hear it about 20 times in order to fully grasp what had happened. I was hearing an awesome, impossibly fat and clear‑sounding remix — but I didn't recognise the song! So we worked on some revisions to add more grittiness, inflate the mids and rethink a few of the cuts. As I heard each new draft, I was seized by an impression of high definition. Every single track and frequency fits neatly into its own space, and Mike's work on the vocals has also provided that sense of disturbing nearness I was looking for.
"The beat is prime dance‑floor banging material! Mike created an entire layer around the low frequencies and subs, which are a vital complement to the narrow Juno line. Even though I didn't validate all of the cuts and edits that Mike introduced, they've brought a lot to the overall clarity of the tune, allowing room for important lyrics, and making the whole song more dynamic. The final version calls to mind adjectives like bouncy, disturbing, fat, and dirty, which is actually my definition of a great rap song! I'm amazed, thankful, and just about to take over the world!”
Download the before and after mixes from /sos/feb10/articles/mixrescueaudio.htm if you'd like to hear what Mike and Preslin are discussing in this article.
Preslin Davis (aka Element or The Middle Man) was born and raised in Paris, and produces hip‑hop under the Side Effects Project moniker. He says his goal is to "extract the most pungent essences from hip‑hop music, drawing on influences from Dr Dre to Jimi Hendrix, right down to Brahms”. The idea behind the music and lyrics of this song was 'to take stock of what is required of a writer and musician in order to succeed in the music industry, delve right into it, then give it the middle finger and run!' You can listen to his material at his MySpace site.