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The Expensive Vocal Sound And Other Unicorns

Brandon Drury —  September 5, 2011 — Leave a comment

I’ve had this bad habit for some time of always going for the “expensive” vocal sound? What is the “expensive” vocal sound? Hell, I don’t know. We all know it when we here it. For me, it’s got plenty of air. That’s strike one.

This song has the kind of vocal sound where you actually notice the vocal sound.

This is strike one because this song’s arrangement is about as wide open as [insert skank joke here]. Try to put this on a Pantera or Basement Jax and you’ll be in for a long month.

Another aspect of the “expensive” vocal sound is it’s often scooped in the 1.5k range. This thins it out considerably. Here’s a good example.

This kind of vocal sound is pretty badass with the right chick singing falsetto with the right arrangement. The arrangement is the operative word here. This particular arrangement reduces the instruments to about the same level as women when they were framing that Constitution thing. If the mix were remotely dense, we’d have a giant problem with the vocal sounding just right on some stereos and WAY down on others because the frequencies doing the cutting are a little narrow. If the stereo in question has null at the “prime energy location” of the vocals, guess what. No vocals.

Again, when songs haven’t been custom tailored for that vocal sound, you end up with a total wreck. Notice that they went for the totally opposite EQ curve here:

Listen to this chorus, which is quite a bit more dense. Is this a “cheap” vocal sound? It’s anyone’s guess as to what gear they used, but I wouldn’t be any more surprised if it was a 57 ran through a guitar pedal or a U47 through 1073. Does it sound “cheap”? That’s where all this gets subjective, tricky, and fun. I think the production is tip top and actually stands a cut above most pop productions in the past few years.

The thing that hit me when I studied this production was I NEVER go for this chorus vocal sound. What a MAJOR flaw on my part! I’m too interesting in sounding “good” to actually go for a sound that serves the song. Someone was given some leeway to have fun with the vocal sound somewhere in this production. When I think of much of the mixing advice I see online or the critiques clients give of mixes, I rarely see people willing to take such chances and do the “lo-fi” thing on a production they are paying for. There’s something about predictable mixing that some equate to being “professional”. I’ve yet to see this pan out.

Divide And Conquer

This is just a couple pop songs from the past year or so. The more you dig, the more you’ll realize that any damn rule you can concoct will be broken. It seems the only rule of modern pop music is that you must be breaking rules.

The sounds I continually hear are those that actually have an opinion. It doesn’t matter what you are using too much of, as long as you are using SOMETHING to excess. Basically, a mix MUST offend somebody for it to excite anybody else.

If your mix isn’t getting harsh criticism from some asshole, that’s probably a bad sign. I hate to throw out the mediocrity word, but that very well may be the diagnosis. It’s taken me some time to accept it, but I’ve grown to need the butchering as the only logical way to define that I have a mix that truly can divide and conquer.

The Some-Rules Dilemma

The confusing part about this is there ARE some rules. You can’t break all of them all the time, but you have to break some of them all of the time based on my Divide And Conquer strategy. It seems that big boys mixes, with all their bold twists, always seem to excite. Maybe it really is as simple as that. If you excite them, you win.

That doesn’t help much. It certainly doesn’t help us teach the new guys trying to mix at home. We can arm them with the basic, teach them how to use the tools, but there is a point where all of us have to go out alone and figure out a way to wedge 50 tracks into something that can make a person feel something.

Technical Chops vs Excitement Chops

I’ve noticed in various contests we’ve had around here, some guys are damn good with EQ or whatever. They seem to be able to nail the sweet spot in terms of sonics. It’s often intimidating. However, every time I’ve heard such a mix in a contest, I’ve said, “But why is this mix boring? While does the chorus pull so hard when it doesn’t on mixes done by a person with lesser technical ability?” I don’t have a real answer for this, but it’s clear that they are two completely independent skill sets. (I don’t mean to say they are mutually exclusive. It’s just that I can’t recall a person getting a 10 on both.)

Some mixers have this way of making songs feel more dangerous, more over-the-top, or just more fun regardless of whether their sound quality isn’t as “expensive” as they would probably prefer.

The Worst Audience

The more I do this, the more I find myself relying on my primal musical instincts and the less I want my brain involved. Bruce Swedien talks about this in his book, Making Music Mine. Regardless of whether the music is Beethoven, Dream Theater, or Pink those elements that excite us belong under the boobs-n-beer category of our brains. The part of us that can assess the structural integrity of a suspension bridge does not deal with emotions. Spock can’t dance.

If there is any group of dickheads out there that has absolutely no business helping others with their music, it has to be the jaded engineer that forget why they started this gig. Those unintelligent swine who have no problem telling you that your music is “garbage” or “the downfall of humanity” have lost all touch and forgotten that this stuff is SUPPOSED to not be for everyone. If you’ve made music for everyone, you’ve made it for no one.

When To Step Up

At what point does a new guy just learning quit listening to the critics? On some levels, the answer is never. We all could always be better. Few big boy mixers skip the mastering guy. There’s a reason for that. However, it seems the instant you feel someone doesn’t “get” what you are trying to do creatively, it’s time to find someone who does.

If your mixes don’t have enough personality to push this envelope a bit, you may want to consider why. The only time I can see this making sense is when the job of the recording is to get the hell out of the way of the music. The Rick Ruben-produced Johnny Cash sessions come to mind.

A Good Example

Some dudes I record on a regular basis showed me this (before I heard it on the radio several times).

They were shocked that this was on the pop station following Christina Aguilera and Rhianna. I wasn’t all that surprised. I’ve given up on this objective quality business. I don’t expect the engineer to win an engineering Grammy, but the sound of this recording has an opinion. Mission accomplished. I can respect that.

Virgin Ears

There’s something about being an engineer for a long time that makes you a sissy some times. For example, after doing a bunch of indie rock-type stuff where the kick is rather natural and tame. I did an electronic mix for a different group. They heard the kick and said, “Uhhh…wait a minute”. They played Deadmau5 “Some Chords”.

I said, “Ohhhhhh. Now I get it.”

No one bothered to tell this group that a kick drum shouldn’t kill kids and kittens. They hadn’t taken a decade to have all their rough edges worn off. If you new guys can hang onto those audio opinions and quirks that make you you, you have a tremendous advantage over us worn down old guys.

The only shame of this is we often have to show a precedent to back up our claims. This is part of the problem. It’s okay to have a gigantic deep kick since Deadmau5 did it. It’s okay to use this trick because Incubus did it. We really start hitting home runs when we are doing things because NOBODY did it. Easier said than done.

Conclusion
–If your mix doesn’t offend someone, it’s chances of blowing someone away are slim
–Remember that we need the asshole to apply his objective view of the world on our mixes just so we know we are on to something….unless you agree.
–In a world were everyone on Earth has a small recording setup, it seems that uniqueness is THE only asset you have. Mix to your tastes and ignore anyone who doesn’t like.
–Technical chops never hurt, but I buy music for the excitement chops. So do you.
–The guy just learning, get all the help you can get, but ignore anyone who doesn’t “get” what you do. It’s important to maintain your opinion before it’s been rounded of.

Saved Comments

garageband – 09-27-2011, 09:19 AM Edit Reply
Spock can’t dance.
But he can play the shit out of that alien harp. There’s a lesson for you metalheads out there. And Christina Perri is insanely hot.

ajs – 09-27-2011, 09:48 AM Edit Reply
Great post. I really like how you back up your points with videos right there, so I know exactly what you’re talking about (like an essay, we’re you an english major?). I think one disadvantage to being new though, is that because you aren’t yet a ‘great’ mixer, you also may be tricked into thinking that what you want is ‘wrong’ also, and let the bigger boys push you around when they tear your mix a new one. As you pointed out though, if you have the right confidence, and stay true to your vision, then the bashing can only help you. In the world of mixing today, because there’s so much accessibility to home recording, the uniqueness will be the thing that saves you.

billpsyches – 09-27-2011, 09:53 AM Edit Reply
Fantastic post…thanks!

Juston Payton – 09-27-2011, 10:31 AM Edit Reply
Nice collage of sound! Speaking of unusual mixes, check out some big time mids: Thile/Daves This makes me want to lo-fi everything.

sarrcford – 09-27-2011, 11:01 AM Edit Reply
Thanks for the great post Brandon !

paul999 – 09-27-2011, 12:11 PM Edit Reply
This is a great article! IMO there is a sound scape that is doesn’t hurt anyone’s ears and has full low end without offending the speakers to the point that it uses all the movement available. The great mixers use 100% of this sound scape and never color outside the lines of that. However what happens inside this 100% of the sound scape is like the wild west. Anything goes. Beginning mixers tend to use 110% or more of the available sound scape making the sonic image collapse or hurting peoples ears with highs etc.

midKnight – 09-27-2011, 12:24 PM Edit Reply
No one bothered to tell this group that a kick drum shouldn’t kill kids and kittens.
Haha.. this should be the quote of the week for sure. I hadn’t actually heard any deadmau5 before this, but I totally agree. This kick could stop a pacemaker. holy crap. It’s kinda growing on me though..(the kick sound, not deadmau5.. sounds like some kind of crap a guy does in his basement with a casio when he’s stoned.)

MMI – 09-27-2011, 02:18 PM Edit Reply
This is a kick ass post.Loved the examples. Especially the way they cross genre boundaries. We listen to what we like and take lessons from that but there is often much to learn from that the stuff we wouldn’t make the time for otherwise.

MMI – 09-27-2011, 02:29 PM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by midKnight
Haha.. this should be the quote of the week for sure. I hadn’t actually heard any deadmau5 before this, but I totally agree. This kick could stop a pacemaker. holy crap. It’s kinda growing on me though..(the kick sound, not deadmau5.. sounds like some kind of crap a guy does in his basement with a casio when he’s stoned.)
It’s not just the kick sound. But the also the way the kick is side-chained to a compressor to duck much of the rest of the track. This has been a common technique in dance/club music for a few years now. I’ve read somewhere that this track was the first big club hit using it (this video is probably NSFW):

Since then it’s become an FAQ in the UK recording magazines, “How do I get that pumping sound?”

Autosonic – 09-27-2011, 02:52 PM Edit Reply
This post really makes me stop and think. I agree 100%, and it’s very well written with great examples. I have been trying to do things “right” a lot lately. But “right” has never been a reason to listen to anything, actually. It’s time to go extreme Thank you for a brilliant forum!

Mackanov – 09-27-2011, 03:54 PM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by MMI
I’ve read somewhere that this track was the first big club hit using it (this video is probably NSFW):
Jesus Christ, where is that gym?

brandondrury – 09-27-2011, 03:54 PM Edit Reply
Nice collage of sound! Speaking of unusual mixes, check out some big time mids: Thile/Daves This makes me want to lo-fi everything.
Maybe it’s just my screwed up tastes, but I don’t hear “lo-fi” one bit. That’s a badass, ballsy recording if you ask me.
like an essay, we’re you an english major?).
That’s the first and probably last time I’ll ever be asked that. While I did well in English in college, I’m used to people sending me emails asking me to commit suicide and learn some grammar.
deadmau5.. sounds like some kind of crap a guy does in his basement with a casio when he’s stoned.
You are right about the stoned part, but most of these synths are clearly ultra-high end analog synths. At least it’s clear to a guy who monkeys with synths daily. It’s funny how the little specific crap (engineering, I guess) doesn’t cross genres. I’d guess most fiddle players aren’t impressed with a Hughes and Kettner Triamp or an Engl.Brandon

jrod9900 – 09-29-2011, 09:57 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by MMI
It’s not just the kick sound. But the also the way the kick is side-chained to a compressor to duck much of the rest of the track. This has been a common technique in dance/club music for a few years now. I’ve read somewhere that this track was the first big club hit using it (this video is probably NSFW):

Since then it’s become an FAQ in the UK recording magazines, “How do I get that pumping sound?”
Does anyone know how much monthly dues are at this gym?

I know another one that everyone would know is “One More Time” by Daft Punk. Some serious ducking going on there with the horns.

dudermn – 10-01-2011, 02:39 PM Edit Reply
So vocals gotta ‘stand out’ is what this is saying ? Maybe vocals need to ‘duck’ the rest of the song with a good ol gate….Would sound weird but….

moleunion – 10-03-2011, 02:12 AM Edit Reply
Great article Brandon. For this very reason I’ve been really getting into the sound of the band “The Black Keys”For Example: Mono drums, distorted vocals, bass guitar panned to the right… not really following “the rules” here. But the song and the sound is awesome.I think that when you try to make everything as objectively perfect as possible then you end up with this (dare I say) homogenized nashville pop/country sound where everything is sonically the same because it’s cranked out as if in a factory.I think it’s more important to sound “interesting” (whatever that means) than objectively good. On the other hand, engineering can suck to the point where it’s totally distracting and detracting from the song. I think the best engineers are able to achieve both the objectively good and the interesting and then artistically mix the two.

coqui – 10-04-2011, 04:07 PM Edit Reply
Jam, the sound of this BKs video is awesome! Reminds me a bit of the old british bans a la Spooky Tooth. Good article Mr. Drury. Thanks.

tj.jude – 10-05-2011, 01:51 AM Edit Reply
awesome that was man ! i was sort of in a numb stage for a while trying to get my mix sound like everyone elses !! thanks man

Juston Payton – 10-11-2011, 11:06 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by brandondrury
Maybe it’s just my screwed up tastes, but I don’t hear “lo-fi” one bit. That’s a badass, ballsy recording if you ask me. That’s the first and probably last time I’ll ever be asked that. While I did well in English in college, I’m used to people sending me emails asking me to commit suicide and learn some grammar. You are right about the stoned part, but most of these synths are clearly ultra-high end analog synths. At least it’s clear to a guy who monkeys with synths daily. It’s funny how the little specific crap (engineering, I guess) doesn’t cross genres. I’d guess most fiddle players aren’t impressed with a Hughes and Kettner Triamp or an Engl.Brandon
Maybe lo-fi is too subjective of a term. I think of ribbon mics as sounding a little lo-fi, just because they don’t usually hype the highs. It is definitely a bassass recording; made me rethink the project I was involved with at the time.

Dr. CornTone – 10-12-2011, 10:21 AM Edit Reply
Thanks, now my brain stem is bleeding.

james rock – 10-14-2011, 11:09 PM Edit Reply
I much prefer the foster the people style of engineering as while of first listen it may not shock me or wow me (like the first time I heard heavy dubstep) but I can listen to the whole and dont feel like my ears have been murdered. The vocals go for a lo-fi vintage sound but the mix is wide enough to still sound modern and while it may sound weird after Christina I dont listen to pop radio (not saying I dont listen to pop as I believe to be the best producer/musician/engineer you have to listen to nearly everything anyone considers decent. Great post highlighting how different vocals do sound which you dont notice on a concious level (with the pop music) straight away but by comparison can hear huge differences.

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Nanowire – 10-15-2011, 09:08 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by james rock
I much prefer the foster the people style of engineering as while of first listen it may not shock me or wow me (like the first time I heard heavy dubstep) but I can listen to the whole and dont feel like my ears have been murdered. The vocals go for a lo-fi vintage sound but the mix is wide enough to still sound modern and while it may sound weird after Christina I dont listen to pop radio (not saying I dont listen to pop as I believe to be the best producer/musician/engineer you have to listen to nearly everything anyone considers decent. Great post highlighting how different vocals do sound which you dont notice on a concious level (with the pop music) straight away but by comparison can hear huge differences.
Foster The Parents is the least “offending” here. The only thing that struck me was the “little too much” reverb in the chorus. We have had lo-fi lead vocals already. Excellent song though.

Great post and for sure you gotta have something to say to sell it. That goes for the song as well as the mix. I usually find myself swimming in options without the ability to choose and a lot of stuff to learn.

ZanetheVocalist – 10-21-2011, 10:05 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by midKnight
(the kick sound, not deadmau5.. sounds like some kind of crap a guy does in his basement with a casio when he’s stoned.)
I know someone who does just this rofl

dudermn – 10-22-2011, 07:28 PM Edit Reply
Russian Unicorn!

Vulconizer – 10-23-2011, 05:53 PM Edit Reply
What gave anyone the idea that I can’t dance? I do the fucking Watusi every single time I hit Kirk with a surprise phaser blast in the ears. Excitement in a mix is something I am still learning how to do. I do agree it is that intangible that all should strive for though. By the way, hello all. I’ve been mega-busy for quite some time.

teaforce – 11-17-2011, 02:34 AM Edit Reply
the “Technical Chops vs Excitement Chops” section is something I’ve been internally wrestling with for a while. While I’m afraid to make a mix that has poor frequency balance, I’m scared to DEATH to make a mix that sounds uninteresting; however, I feel like it happens often. Here’s hoping time and experience can make improvements

Lee Macdonald – 11-26-2011, 12:12 AM Edit Reply
I enjoyed this article even though I ended up listening to Egg-lazy-ass. Ugg.p.s. The black keys are wicked at sounding new and old at the same time!

Sungoddess Studios – 01-11-2012, 06:54 PM Edit Reply
Well I guess I should throw one of my Sennhiesers against the wall so I can get that shitty sound. start using a harp mike for vocals. Finally oversaturate all my recordings with reverb and corus

garageband – 05-01-2012, 02:15 PM Edit Reply
I know I haven’t figured out how to get that Christina Perri vocal sound yet (I talk about it here The Expensive Vocal Sound And Other Unicorns). None of the tools at my disposal seem to jump out as being capable of that.
I’ve been giving this material a lot of thought and listening. “One Hundred Years” also. Might you get your H3000 to get you most of the way there? I dunno, from what little I’ve heard out of that box, it certainly seems like the right direction.

Best part of working on this problem (and learning one of her songs for a gig) is just flat staring at that woman. Over and over. Mesmerizing.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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