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.
I’m working on a long paper right now with my colleague at Montclair State University, Adam Bell. The premise is this: In the past, metaphors came from hardware, which software emulated. In the future, metaphors will come from software, which hardware will emulate.
The first generation of digital audio workstations have taken their metaphors from multitrack tape, the mixing desk, keyboards, analog synths, printed scores, and so on. Even the purely digital audio waveforms and MIDI clips behave like segments of tape. Sometimes the metaphors are graphically abstracted, as they are in Pro Tools. Sometimes the graphics are more literal, as in Logic. Propellerhead Reason is the most skeuomorphic software of them all. This image from the Propellerhead web site makes the intent of the designers crystal clear; the original analog synths dominate the image.
In Ableton Live, by contrast, hardware follows software. The metaphor behind Ableton’s Session View is a spreadsheet. Many of the instruments and effects have no hardware predecessor.
Computers have revolutionized the composition, production and recording of music. However, they have not yet revolutionized music education. While a great deal of educational software exists, it mostly follows traditional teaching paradigms, offering ear training, flash cards and the like. Meanwhile, nearly all popular music is produced in part or in whole with software, yet electronic music producers typically have little to no formal training with their tools. Somewhere between the ad-hoc learning methods of pop and dance producers and traditional music pedagogy lies a rich untapped vein of potential.
This paper will explore the problem of how software can best be designed to help novice musicians access their own musical imagination with a minimum of frustration. I will examine a variety of design paradigms and case studies. I will hope to discover software interface designs that present music in a visually intuitive way, that are discoverable, and that promote flow.
I was motivated to create a surround remix of a Beatles song by hearing the Beatles Love album in class.
I chose “Here Comes The Sun” because I have the multitracks, and because I heard potential to find new musical ideas within it. Remixing an existing recording is always an enjoyable undertaking, but the process takes on new levels of challenge and reward when the source material is so well-known and widely revered. Much as I enjoy Beatles Love, I feel that it didn’t take enough liberties with the original tracks. I wanted to depart further from the original mix and structure of “Here Comes The Sun.”
This weekend my electronica band Revival Revival is doing some shows for the first time in many months. We’ll be doing a lot of what my non-electronic-musician friends consider to be cheating. The lead vocals and guitar will be live, as will some of the synths. Everything else will be canned, recordings played back from a laptop. Here’s the setup:
From left to right, you’re seeing an Mbox, the audio interface that goes with Pro Tools. We plug the vocal mic into it so that the computer can perform its magic, like Auto-tune and compression. Next is a little mixer sitting on top of a headphone amp. Then there’s Babsy’s laptop running one of our Pro Tools files, showing some of the backing vocals she’ll be singing over. On the right is a Line 6 Pod, a guitar effects unit and amp modeler. It’s a lot easier to carry to gigs than a real amp. Using a fake amp modeler isn’t very rock and roll but it fits perfectly with the spirit of electronica. For the show we’re going to use two computers, Barbara’s to run Pro Tools, and mine for Reason synths and playback of ordinary audio files.
The vast majority of music that I hear is recorded, and if you’re reading this the same is probably true of you. Most people don’t have a clear idea what the recording process is like, especially using computers. Here are my adventures in recording.
I grew up in the eighties. Cassette recorders were just starting to be ordinary household gear. My sister and I made a bunch of random tapes as kids, not knowing what we were doing or why, just that it was fun. We also taped songs we liked off the radio. We waited until the song we wanted came on, and then held up the tape recorder to the radio speaker. Go ahead and laugh, millenials, but this was such a widespread practice among my generation that there’s a whole Facebook group devoted to it.
Right-click or option click the links to save the track to your computer.
There are as many different ways of writing songs as there are songwriters. Barbara Singer and I have arrived at a good one, so I figured I’d share it with you in the hopes you find it inspirational.
Like all of our tracks, “Boys And Dance Floors” began life as a string of looped samples in Reason. Here’s the sequencer window.
Each brick is eight bars of four-four time. The top two tracks are different samples of “What Have You Done For Me Lately” by Janet Jackson, just synth bass and drum machine. Both loops are the same basic groove, but with subtle differences: one has a backwards cymbal crash building up to the end and the other has a quiet crash at the beginning. The third track down is a sample of Barbara singing “Fire, fire” in an intense voice that we have filter sweeping in at the beginning and end of the song.
Peach is for the intros and outtro. Light blue is verses. Green is choruses, with the darker green as the prechorus and the lighter green as the chorus proper. Orange is for instrumental breaks and purple is the bridge. If we ever try to release this thing commercially, we’re either going to have to license the samples or program something else. Hope Janet’s people are willing to make a deal.
Janet has been on my mind a lot the past few months, what with Michael, and I was driven to go listen to Control again. It must have been quite a shock for Ms Jackson’s fans when it dropped in 1986. I wasn’t aware of her teenage bubblegum pop stuff as a kid, though I suppose I must have seen her on Diff’rent Strokes. And then, all of a sudden, “Nasty.” It scared the heck out of me in the sixth grade. But the music was irresistible. I didn’t know why I liked it then, but now I can articulate: bebop phrasing over industrial drum machines and synths, that’s the sound of all the music I like as an adult.
The other song we’re working on remixing is “What Have You Done For Me Lately.” The chorus has that ear-grabbing E-flat dimished scale lick in the big synth, but this song’s most lasting effect on musicians was due its bassline, played on a Yamaha TX81Z, which blends overtones into a distinctively harsh sound. The module in the photo just generates electrical signals; you need an external keyboard or sequencer to control it and speakers to hear it.
The Lately bass sound is so popular that now every synth comes with a preset called LatelyBass. I’ll bet you there’s some LatelyBass being played on some dance floor in your town on any given night.
Here’s my favorite track from a much later Janet album, The Velvet Rope, released during the peak of my Grateful Dead obsession so I totally slept on it at the time.
Some notes about the Nasty remix/mashup:
The three singers, in order of entrance, are Candida Haynes, Babsy Singer and Nicole Bishop. I use slightly different sounds on them. Candida’s vocal is doubled, with one copy dry and the other Auto-Tuned to the chromatic scale. There’s quarter-note delay on both copies. The song she’s quoting is “Certainly” by Erykah Badu. Babsy’s sound is the one that’s emerged as our standard Revival Revival patch: three copies of the vocal, one dry, one Auto-tuned to the key of the song and one Auto-tuned to the tonic for extra wide warbles and posthumanness. The tonic track also has Amplitube on it for dirt. (When Babsy first enters, the posthuman track is soloed.) Nicole’s sound is the simplest, the same as Candida’s minus the delay. Everything else on the track is sampled from the Janet Jackson original, with some slicing and dicing in Recycle. Nasty!