Once again, Mix Rescue finds that the arrangement and harmonic structure of the song makes it difficult to mix. But we get by... with a little help from our on‑line friends!
Regular readers of this column will know that I'm not afraid to wrestle with arrangement and production issues if I think I might enhance the presentation of a Mix Rescuee's track in that way. For this month's project, however, the production aspect of the task took centre stage, as I helped SOS reader Signe Jakobsen to develop her song 'What Have You Done To Me' from a home‑brew demo right through to the final full‑band mixdown, via three separate live overdubbing sessions. Because this proceeded in a way that I think is quite representative of a lot of self‑funded productions these days, I'm therefore going to focus on how we dealt with the numerous practicalities involved to achieve a result that everyone was happy with.
My first contact with the song was hearing Signe's own demo, which she'd programmed using the virtual instruments package in Pro Tools 8 LE, overlaying live guitar and vocal recordings using an AKG C2000B mic feeding her Digidesign Mbox audio interface. There were many aspects of the demo that she was less than satisfied with (the guitar sounds and vocal performances in particular), but the song already seemed to me to have great potential, and its fundamental structure was already firmly in place: verse one, pre‑chorus, chorus one, verse two, Chorus two, mid‑section, chorus three, Outro.
Based on previous mix-rescuing experiences, I felt that the sonic issues could probably be dealt with in one way or another. However, there were a couple of specific aspects of the arrangement that started setting off alarm bells with me, so I emailed Signe to suggest that she tackle these before trying to develop the instrumentation too much further. The first question mark hung over the rather abrupt chord‑change into verse 2 (at 1:00 in the demo), which felt a little too disjointed. I suggested a couple of alternative chords that might smooth things over a little bit, but in the end she applied an equally plausible tactic of adding a two‑bar link section to the first chorus, containing further chords to bridge the harmonic gap more successfully.
My second issue was that the programmed piano part felt rather pedestrian, and didn't seem to be adding anything much to the equation. It turned out that she'd already tried both a busier piano part and a strummed acoustic guitar instead, but neither had done the job any better. Partly as a result of this, she decided that it was time to get some other live performers involved in the production, to give it more musicality overall. In the light of that, my advice was that she get those new guitar overdubs into the mix, and then go back and reappraise whether the piano part might simply be unnecessary ballast, or whether it could be reworked into something that supported the emotional flow of the music more strongly.
Following our initial email exchanges, Signe decided to give things the best shot she could, so chased down a couple of decent session musicians and headed over to Heartbeat Studio near Edinburgh to overdub not only various additional guitar parts, but also live drums and bass. She also re-recorded and comped all her vocal parts. The good news with all of this was that it had certainly brought the music to life much more, and the increased emphasis on the electric guitars had taken the style more into the alt‑rock arena that Signe had been aiming for. However, Signe had found herself struggling to get the best out of the wide array of tracks that she was now presented with, not least because it was her first real experience of mixing live multitracked drums. As a result, the sonics were falling short of what the performances deserved, and it seemed to me that there was too much that was distracting me as a listener from the essential message being communicated by the lead vocal.
In addition to mix‑related issues, the song's harmonies remained a real sticking point for me, because there were a number of moments where parts in the arrangement seemed to be disagreeing about what chord was most appropriate — the choruses and mid‑section, for example, as well as the new pre‑verse-two link section (which had also been re-used for an intro). At this point, I figured it made sense to get hold of the raw multitrack files from Signe, so I could investigate things more actively within my own Cockos Reaper‑based mix system.
My first goal was to weed through all the multitrack parts to ascertain what tracks seemed to be helping the production, and which felt like they were muddying the waters. I'd been pretty happy with the drum and bass performances I'd heard on Signe's mix, so I didn't anticipate difficulties there, but when I rifled through the raw recordings, I was only able to find a mono overhead track. This surprised me, given that the overdubs had been tracked commercially — and while everyone knows a few productions with mono drums, it's not a decision I'd normally expect to make for this kind of production.
In the event, Signe 'fessed up that she'd accidentally left out one of the overhead tracks while comping together her three raw multitrack drum takes. Fortunately, she'd very sensibly kept the original uncomped recordings on file, so I was able to recreate her comp fairly swiftly from scratch to reinstate the stereo overheads. I also took the opportunity to tidy up a few of the edits, which had been slightly lumpy before, as well as attending to a few hiccups in the timing, resulting from the transitions between takes.
In going back to the raw takes, I was also able to reverse some fairly savage gating that had been applied to the kick‑drum close‑mic track, in an attempt to clean up some glitching on the track. While I wasn't able to use that track in its raw form any more than Signe was, I was able to sample a good‑sounding unglitched hit and then trigger that from the live part to conjure up a fairly passable artificial recreation. (I also used SPL's DrumXchanger plug‑in to trigger an additional snare sample, just to fill out the drum's tone around the close‑mic signal, because the cymbal‑heavy overhead mics weren't providing much support in that respect.)
The bass part was a highlight of the song for me, and really helped to drive the verses along, in particular. I took some time to make sure its timing meshed nicely with the kick drum, however, as this can really help to strengthen the rhythmic backbone of a production. The clean verse rhythm guitar then fitted in pretty neatly alongside those two, although, again, with some careful timing adjustments to lock it in with the existing groove.
The main rhythmic chords of the chorus were presented on three different tracks, but all of these caused me difficulties. To start with, two of the tracks had been captured with a very curious timbre, which sounded very much as if it comprised a blend of a heavily overdriven amp recording and the guitar's clean DI signal. This sound resisted my attempts to turn it into anything particularly usable, so I ditched both parts. A third track appeared to be a simple DI signal, and while feeding this to IK Multimedia's Amplitube quickly gave it a sound which seemed to suit the mix, the guitarist had played minor in place of major for the third chord of each group of four, and this muddled the harmony significantly for me. Although I did end up using this particular track in the final mix, I had to notch out the minor third using a series of harmonically‑related notch cuts (based on the note's 372Hz fundamental frequency) before I was happy to go with it. I used Melda's MEqualizer plug‑in for this, because it's one of only a handful of plug‑ins that has a specialised facility for configuring and controlling such a set of cuts en masse — something that's very handy when it comes to targeting specific notes within a mixed signal.
The biggest culprit as far as harmonic conflict was concerned, though, was a double‑tracked electric guitar part, which had been realised using MIDI sounds (rather than live overdubbing). Regardless of the questionable musicality of the MIDI sound source used, I was keen to use this part if I could, simply because the melodic lines within it played quite an important role in the music of the chorus. However, some of the notes within these lines clashed with the song's underlying harmonies at a number of points, and the basic pitch‑shifting dodge I've used to remedy such things in past Mix Rescues was of no use here — if I shifted the higher line to match the harmony better, for instance, the lower line would then clash. Much as I was loath to mute the part completely, my hand was forced. The few little acoustic guitar licks Signe had included were also left on the cutting‑room floor, as they clashed with the intro/link section, and felt rather stranded elsewhere.
The song's middle section held further difficulties. Given the larger role Signe had given the guitars in her updated arrangement, she'd decided to relegate the original piano part to the mid‑section, final chorus, and outro, but its lumpen delivery during the two more exposed sections wasn't really helping the momentum of the song. In addition to this, the string‑style tremolo synth patch she'd overlayed it with wasn't sitting comfortably with it, or indeed with the repeated organ riff that arrives four bars later. As it turned out, I was able to salvage the string synth by virtue of some careful cutting and pasting of its available chords, but even then the organ part's long recorded‑in feedback delay also significantly blurred the harmonies across each bar line, and that wasn't something I could easily remedy.
This left me in a position where I'd ditched a good chunk of the chorus guitar parts, as well as the majority of the piano and organ recordings, so I wasn't too surprised that combining the remaining tracks gave a rather lacklustre result. The crucial thing, though, was that I'd now eliminated everything that felt as if it was undermining the harmony, so I was now in a position to start building up replacement instrumentation over a more solid foundation.
The biggest job for me, as a one‑fingered guitarist, was clearly going to be reconstructing a more effective guitar arrangement. First, I chopped the chorus rhythm guitar's repeated chord pattern around to generate a 'fake' double‑track, and then I tried adding a few stereo power-chords from Nine Volt Audio's 'Pop Rock Guitars' sample library. Both these strategies have been very helpful in the past, and I made a little headway with them here too, but there was still something of a gulf between what was coming out of my nearfields and what I wanted to hear. It was patently time to enlist some outside help.
In the past, I've drafted in various friends and acquaintances to help out with this kind of thing. However, a lot of home recordists don't have access to a local pool of good musicians, so I decided instead to turn to Studio Pros, one of the better known on‑line session‑player services, to demonstrate how you might go about using a commercial alternative instead. Once I'd set up an account with them, I uploaded various files to explain what I was after. These comprised Signe's mix; solo files of the electric guitar parts I wanted replaced/reworked; a solo file of the acoustic guitar part, on the off‑chance that the player could come up with something more suitable there; a rough version of my 'weeded' mix, with a single lead vocal line over it for context; and (most importantly of all) a 'readme' file containing instructions and suggestions for the player.
The deal with StudioPros is that the basic session fee includes not only the initial overdubbing based on your initial submission, but also an opportunity to request revisions before you receive the final files. You can continue requesting further revisions, but they understandably incur extra charges. Although StudioPros very kindly provided their service free of charge for this Mix Rescue article, I was keen to finish the job with only a single round of revisions, as I imagine most home recordists would wish to do.
The secret to getting the results you need quickly when working remotely is to provide the clearest information possible when submitting the initial files, so I took care to indicate which bits of each track I was unhappy with, and on what grounds. To help with this, I provided a cue sheet within the 'readme' file, so that it was always obvious which section of the track I was referring to in my comments, but I could equally well have used track timings instead. I also referenced some well‑known tracks (Taylor Swift and Alanis Morissette) that I felt would help to indicate the target style and the kinds of guitar tones/textures I was looking for. Finally, I tried to save the player as much time as I could by making sure all the audio files started at the same time in the project, so that they'd line up correctly the moment they were imported into the performer's DAW; by putting a click‑track count‑in preceding the start of the session audio; and by including information about file formats and tempo settings in the 'readme' file. This might all seem a bit tedious, but remember that the more you can help your sessioneer avoid hassle with technicalities, the more head‑space they have to give to their performance.
As I'd hoped, the first set of overdubs StudioPros sent back were very close to what I'd been looking for, and the guitarist had also suggested some interesting additional ideas for the intro section and the acoustic guitar part. The guitar tones were all very much in the right kind of zone, and the main double‑tracked chorus rhythm guitar part was a real step forward in terms of performance energy. The melodic MIDI electric guitar part had been nicely separated into two individual parts, and the lower line was spot‑on. My only real revision request was related to the upper line, which had stuck quite closely to the original line (though without the harmonic clashes!), where I felt that there were bonus points to be had by giving it more of a melodic contour. Because I had some specific ideas for this, I programmed up a guide keyboard part to point the guitarist in that direction, and then uploaded that file back to the StudioPros web site, along with some further written directions. The version that returned was much more what I was looking for, so the ball was now firmly back in my court!
Any new part you add to an existing arrangement has the potential to alter the relationship between the existing parts, so I made a point of re-scanning the track list once the new guitar parts were reincorporated, to refine the guitar arrangements in the different sections. During this process, I pruned out a couple of unwanted overlaps, and surreptitiously shifted a couple of notes using Reaper's internal pitch‑shifting, as well as culling the acoustic guitar tracks, which always managed to seem out of place somehow.
Once the guitars were tightened up, I was ready to attend to the piano and organ parts. Dealing with these was largely a question of MIDI programming, rather than anything to do with mixing. Signe had sent me the piano part's MIDI file, so I could use that to replace the part using 4Front's TruePianos virtual instrument, but it nonetheless took quite a bit of work with note velocity/duration settings and sustain‑pedal controller data to give the part a bit more life. The organ part wasn't as tricky from this perspective, working with GSI's VB3 Hammond instrument, but the note durations were still fairly critical in determining the line's sense of legato.
Finally, I brought in the vocals, and although these were mostly plain sailing to incorporate, it quickly became clear to me that some of the adlibs and backing parts were surplus to requirements — the arrangement now had a lot less need for vocal fireworks to generate a sense of excitement in the final choruses, and elsewhere the backing lines were often unduly distracting attention away from the main lead vocal.
Once the harmonies and arrangement were making more sense, the mix began to take on a logic of its own, so although it still involved quite a bit of detailed balancing work, there wasn't really anything drastic to sort out. The drums had the usual handful of unwanted resonances to be notched out, and benefited from a good dose of overall compression to draw out the cymbal sustains and add some rock‑tinged gain pumping. The bass needed some EQ and distortion to enhance the mid-range, so that it could carry through onto smaller speakers, and I spent a fair amount of time adjusting the low EQ of the guitar tracks in search of a sensible balance between them and the bass in the lower mid-range. Further EQ cuts at the high end of the drum and guitar parts cleared some room for the vocals to break through the heavier sections of the track, especially in the 3‑4kHz region, where harshness can so easily build up.
The send effects weren't tremendously complicated, and were mostly focused on adding sustain: a longer algorithmic reverb from Stillwell Audio's Verbiage plug‑in for lead vocals and the high guitar line; simple quarter‑ and eighth‑note delays for some of the vocals and the main chorus rhythm guitars. In addition, a global ambience reverb from Lexicon's Pantheon II reverb helped to gel all the close‑miked signals together with the overheads, and an instance of Betabugs's MonstaChorus blended and widenened the chorus lead vocal and its double‑track.
To be honest, though, it was simply managing the fader levels of all the tracks throughout the song that was the biggest challenge, if only because the numerous tracks available provided masses of potentially feasible balances for any given section. Making sense of this involved quite a lot of referencing against relevant commercial material (most notably Maroon 5's 'Harder To Breathe', a Michael Barbiero mix I've had on my reference CD for ages and which was a particular favourite of Signe's), and a good deal of time shuffling faders, multing track sections and automating internal details, but after I'd worked my way through a few draft versions, things finally began to slot into place. As in a lot of complex mixes, dropping out the drums and bass for a while was extremely useful for clarifying the balances between all the different guitar and vocal parts, and in verifying effects‑return levels.
This month's remix serves as a reminder that harmony and arrangement issues are frequently the root cause of home‑studio mixing difficulties. Although there was still some detailed balancing work to be done in Signe's case, even once these aspects of her production had been reworked, without this reworking it would have been pretty much impossible to deliver a successful final result — as she discovered for herself. This is why using on‑line overdubbing services such as StudioPros can turn out to be a very sensible investment: they allow you to head off insoluble mixdown problems before they arise.
Examples have been placed on the SOS web site at /sos/jul11/articles/mixrescuemedia.htm to accompany this article. The full original and remixed tracks are available, along with a number of individual tracks to show the differences Mike made in this Mix Rescue.
Many thanks to StudioPros for assisting with this month's Mix Rescue project. They really helped to improve the sound of this remix, and given the quality of the results, their service has to considered very cost‑effective: the first overdub costs $125, and each subsequent overdub layer costs an additional $25. In this instance, the five electric‑guitar layers used would have set you back $225 in total. For more information on the range of services StudioPros provide, check out their web site.
Signe is the Canadian former front‑woman of the band Minerva, but is now based in the UK and has been working as a solo singer‑songwriter since 2006. A number of her songs have been aired on commercial radio, as well as in film and television, and she's currently busy recording her third album, as well as singing for sessions and collaborating with numerous other writers. Signe arranged and recorded most parts of this month's featured song in her home studio, on top of which session players Denis Lynch (drums) and Sean Lithgow (bass and guitar) laid down their overdubs at Heartbeat Studio. If you like the song, why not check out the video too? You can watch it via Signe's web site.
Signe: "I'm a big fan of Mike Senior's mixes, and I felt that if anyone could dig the potential out of this song and bring it to the next level, it would be him. He's done a stellar job, meticulously weaving the instrumental and vocal parts together, giving each of them space when it's needed, and adding extra contrast between each part of the song. I love the added guitar parts and the satisfying fullness of the chorus, but also what's been taken away — my buzzy acoustic guitar part and the vocal reply in the bridge, for example. It's funny to realise only after the remix how cluttered many parts of the song had originally been. In addition, although my transitions were experimental, to say the least, he's made them work.
"The final result is a professionally polished song that is bright, punchy, and contemporary. And few could argue that it rocks! Mike has injected even more life into it than I could have hoped for, and I couldn't be more grateful to him for taking this song on.”