Half Baked is Half Arsed

/February 3, 2016

When a song production leaves half its musical potential on the shelf, it’s disappointing.

Some musicians don’t have this problem of course. They throw every conceivable overdub at a song, hoping something will stick, and sometimes things do… almost too well.

But others just come up short, either because they fail to make things stick, or they’re reluctant to throw things at all.

One extreme is as bad as the other in some respects, although, like a builder constructing a house, as a mix engineer, I know which problem I’d rather have.

A lot of songs come across my desk down here at The Mill. Some are notepad sketches with their entire musical journey still ahead of them. Others are fully mixed productions ready for mastering.

Of these, a significant portion have had the kitchen sink thrown at them – from the crucial to the downright obscure.

But there are less of these productions than you might think. What dominates the Australian musical landscape still is an even larger proportion of songs that lack basic musical arrangement and production detail.

 

EXPERIMENTATION

The cure for this is experimentation. Trying things, even when you have absolutely no idea what the outcome might be, is nearly always worth the attempt. Fortune favours the brave, as they say.

Actually, I’d go so far as to say that musical (or mix) experimentation should play a part in every song you produce, even if it’s but one element. Sometimes the most incredible music is produced where the outcome is unknowable. Using only the rational side of your brain to conjure up every element of a production can leave you with fewer flavours in the mix that you’d hoped for.

Here are a few tips that can help prevent a production from winding up sounding half-baked.

 

WHAT LIES BENEATH

Even when you’re producing a song with a simple arrangement that’s exquisitely played, there are often secret ingredients required by the production and mixing processes to bring out its best, like spices in cooking.

Far too often musicians and amateur producers mistake subtle complexity in the work of others for plain old simplicity, the ‘spices’ overlooked even though they may be playing a significant role.

They’ll say things like: “Oh I love that song because the mix is so dry,” when in fact it’s laced with all manner of delicate spaces that create an almost invisible three-dimensionality. Or they might say: “I can’t believe how beautiful he sounds, raw like that; just the one vocal and a guitar,” when in fact the song has two guitars, a harmony, a soft organ pad, reverb and double-tracked vocals in the chorus.

Time and time again people misuse their reference tracks in this way, falling far short of the mark with their own efforts as a result.

 

SIMPLE? NOT SO

One of the most crucial things to consider when recording something ‘simple’, for instance, is that clarity and exquisite detail aren’t necessarily always your best allies. Sometimes the sheer lack of mystery in a production leads to stark, sterile atmospheric outcomes, where the artist sounds like they’ve been recorded harshly under a bright light.

This is not the fault of mic choices or compression ratios, but rather the context into which the artist is placed.

Not everyone wants their blemishes and wrinkles to show. Sometimes a disguise, even if subtle, can go a long way towards creating atmosphere, mystery and intrigue – like the difference between eating at a softly lit restaurant or under fluros. Even when the food is the same, context can make the experience quite different.

Guitars, for instance, particularly simple strummed acoustics, can often sound better double-tracked and panned, than the single mono recording equivalent. So too can rhythm elements like snares and tambourines, when strength and width are lacking in a production. Two tambourines for example, will often sound less obtrusive than one, and sit less aggressively in the soundstage as they blur one another around the edges.

But unquestionably the king of all misunderstood production elements of a vocals. They’re obvious candidates for treatment in virtually every musical context, even if the production is ‘bare bones’. Extra vocal layers can always add mystery and depth without necessarily robbing the main vocal of intimacy.

If you want them to, additional vocal elements can be made all but inaudible to the naked ear, adding mystery and tonal complexity without contributing more ‘parts’ to the arrangement. Indeed, some of the most in-your-face vocal performances ever recorded – that an average listener might attribute to a single vocalist – are made up of three or four.

And if you want to frustrate the hell out of a mix engineer, just present them with a 100-track song to mix, with only one vocal channel.

In many cases, if a vocal sounds too exposed and stark in a mix, there may be call for adding subtle harmonies to key phrases, or double-tracking here and there. If extra vocals are out of the question, delay can work wonders, adding depth and mystery in any quantity you choose. More often than not, a vocal delay that’s had some bottoms and a significant amounts of tops removed from its tone can go almost unnoticed by the vast majority of listeners while at the same time creating an invisible atmosphere for the singer to occupy. Think of it like a subtle drop shadow in Photoshop. It goes almost unseen in most contexts.

 

THE DELICATE BACKDROP

There’s a whole universe of production techniques that can be added to a simple song arrangement that help give it a unique fingerprint, and for obvious reasons I can’t possibly begin to illustrate them all.

But if the final mix of your latest creation is sounding ho-hum, ask yourself this question: “If I mute four of the song’s key elements, what will I be left with?”

Better still, try it and see.

Call up the mix and mute four of the main elements (assuming the songs has at least that many). Now have a good listen to the music you’re left with. Assuming there are things like room mics, extra instruments, mixing effects, side-chained element etc, you will find yourself confronted with a reinterpretation of the song that may surprise you.

Next, ask yourself this: “Is the new version of my song still fascinating in some way?”

By creating this fairly arbitrary sub-mix, have you suddenly discovered that the song has a parallel universe running underneath it? If you have, great – that’s an encouraging sign.

What this exercise does is encourage you to hear the song from a different perspective: one that’s more concerned with the detail of the background elements than what’s out front. If, by temporarily muting some of the main elements, you’re inspired to add some subtle new components to this new ‘version’ of the song, these will go a long way towards adding that extra spice your mix previously lacked.

 

FIVE VERSIONS IN ONE

Most things I work on tend to have this capacity – the ability to surprise me when I remove some or all of the main elements. My favourite productions are those that can be sub-mixed in several different ways, and where each new version seems capable of becoming a musical piece in its own right.

To me this flexibility is a sign of a healthy arrangement, though not always. Sometimes it only proves that there are too many elements! But for the most part, when the background elements on their own have a certain vibe about them, you know you’re on the right track. I’d be far more concerned if the song sounded plain and lifeless with the main elements removed.

If the song you’re working on is a simple one, with a confident main vocal, imagine the outcome like a portrait painting. The person in the picture may seem amazing – the detail in the eyes etc – but that’s not the whole picture is it? The portrait won’t be complete without its visual surroundings. The singer’s performance is only either going to be enhanced or undermined by the context you place them in. Put them in a bad one and the song falls apart.

So don’t be fooled – under-working your next production can be as bad, or worse than, overdubbing it to the brink of collapse. And if you’re referencing other people’s tracks during the construction of your next masterpiece, always remember: some of the ingredients will be obscured from view no matter how carefully you study them.

There’s always more to a production than superficially meets the ear… the best have backgrounds worthy of their own track!