Mixing “Call Me Maybe”

Sound On Sound ran this highly detailed account of mixing the inescapable summer jam of 2012. It’s the most thorough explanation of how a contemporary pop song gets mixed that I’ve ever read.

I’m interested in this article not so much for the specifics of the gear and the plugins, but rather just out of sheer awe at the complexity and nuance of the track’s soundscape. My cadre of pop-oriented music academics likes to say that the creativity in recordings lies not in their melodies and the chords necessarily, but in their timbre and space. “Call Me Maybe” is an excellent case in point. Its melody and chords are fun, but not exactly groundbreaking. Yet the track leaps out of the speakers at you, demanding your attention, managing both to pound you with sonic force and intrigue you with quiet detail. Whether you want your attention grabbed in this way is a matter of taste. I happen to love the song, but even if it isn’t your cup of tea, the craft behind it bears some thinking about.

Carly Rae Jepsen wrote “Call Me Maybe” along with Tavish Crowe, originally intending it to be a quiet acoustic song. Producer Josh Ramsay convinced Jepsen to turn it into a pop banger instead. After Jepsen and Ramsay built the track, Dave Ogilvie came on board to mix it. Ramsay has been a pop guy for his entire career, but Ogilvie is another story. He comes from industrial music, first as a member of Skinny Puppy, and then as a producer for bands like Nine Inch Nails, Tool, and Einstürzende Neubauten. This is not necessarily the resume you look for when choosing someone to mix your bubblegum pop hit, but who can argue with the results?

Ogilvie is aware of the yawning mismatch between his own sensibility and Carly Rae Jepsen’s, and he points out that genre distinctions don’t matter as much to the pop mainstream as they used to. This is most certainly true–Nashville country songs have rap verses, metal uses dance-pop synth breakdowns, and Kanye West is doing an album with Paul McCartney. As my audio production professor Paul Geluso once said, “Everybody’s music is in everybody else’s music!” Ogilvie thinks that his background in industrial music is actually a positive asset for a pop mix engineer:

I was trying to get the same feel in ‘Call Me Maybe’ as in a Nine Inch Nails song, making sure it had a pop sensibility, but with people not even noticing how aggressive the kick drum is.

Pop has absorbed a lot of other niche music over the years, so why not industrial? Brutal sonic maximalism is common to both styles. Elsewhere in the article, Ogilvie makes a hilarious comment:

Compared to a lot of the other pop stuff I mix, this session was quite minimal.

This from a guy whose Pro Tools mix session for “Call Me Maybe” had fifty-six tracks in it! Here’s a screencap:

The

The song has quite a few more individual sounds than are pictured here, but some of them were submixed down to single tracks to keep the complexity level manageable. For such a simple-sounding song, the density of the layered instruments and samples is mind-blowing:

  • The catchy string riff was played back from three different sample banks simultaneously (Miroslav, Orkester and EXS24) onto at least twelve tracks, and was then doubled on both electric and acoustic guitars. There’s yet another layer of strings from a sampled Mellotron.
  • There’s “only” one kick drum in the verses, but there are five in the choruses — two laid down by Ramsay, and three more added during the mixing stage by Ogilvie. The kicks are further reinforced with subsonic synth and bass guitar.
  • The snare sound is a blend of two different handclaps, an 808 snare, and sampled “real” snare drum. There’s also a quiet “ghost snare.”
  • In total, there are nineteen tracks of drums. Along with the ones listed above, there’s also a crash cymbal, a hi-hat, and four additional tracks of full drum loops.
  • The bass guitar is doubled by two synth bass tracks.
  • Every vocal part is either doubled or tripled via overdubbing by Jepsen, for a total of eleven vocal tracks.

Each one of these sounds runs through a battery of EQs and compressors, both hardware and software. I’ll refer you to the article for the complete list.

Let’s talk a little more about Jepsen’s voice. Ogilvie has placed the three overdubbed lead vocals so that one is in the center, one is hard to the left, and one is hard to the right. That way, no matter where in the stereo image you direct your attention, there’s the vocal, right in your face. While Jepsen gets a lot of processing, there’s less Auto-Tune present than you’d think. Part of this is her naturally strong pitch, and part is Ogilvie’s reluctance to slather it on as an effect. He tries to let as much imperfection remain in the finished product as the pop idiom allows for. As a result, in spite of all the treatment to her voice, Jepsen still sounds quite distinctive compared to other pop singers.

Ogilvie makes an observation that runs counter to the prevailing folk wisdom concerning the impact of all this technology on musicianship:

[M]usicians and singers have become much better because of advances in technology. They understand timing and tuning on a much deeper level and have incorporated that into their performances. I really like that.

My own musicianship has been immeasurably improved by all my time with the computer, so it’s nice to see that I’m not an oddball in that regard.

I read this kind of article and feel a certain amount of despair. The breadth of sample libraries, effects collections, and listening experience that guys like Ogilvie bring to pop production is staggering. It might not take much skill to program a four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern, but it takes tremendous creative and technical resources to get it to sound like “Call Me Maybe.” I don’t begin to have the patience or obsessive-compulsiveness to put this much attention into a kick drum sound, which explains why nothing I’ve produced has ended up on the radio. The art of pop production may not get much love from “serious” musicians and listeners, but it certainly deserves their respect.