I Produced A Song Tracked Only With Shure SM57’s and SM58’s (pt II)

With every song I produce I try to get as close as I can during tracking to what I’m hearing in my head. Committing to sounds and the overall vibe of any song early on has proven to not only lighten my workload considerably, but also sound better in the end. It wasn’t as easy to do this while tracking every source in a song like this with only one flavor of mic at my disposal as it would be with a variety of mics but it was not even close to difficult either. When it came to mix time I didn’t feel like I could not achieve anything I was hearing in my head for this song.

I use Cubase’s stock plugins for a lot of my day-to-day mixing so I just did the same for this mix. They are flexible and sound really good to my ears. The plugins that I used that didn’t come with Cubase are available free (legally).

DRUMS

Kick Drum
The hardest part to get right of the whole kit was the kick drum. These mics roll off pretty much everything below 100Hz so there isn’t the same amount of low end that I would have to work with under normal circumstances. The song is in E, with E2 being 82.4Hz so I gave the kick mic a 3dB low shelf boost there. I also sweeped the low mids to find that cardboard-y/bouncing basketball sound and cut that a decent amount. To get the extra low end I wanted I also cheated a bit: I generated a 82.4Hz sine wave (with Cubase’s TestGenerator), with a gate triggered from the kick mic signal. I also blended the triggered kick samples we took (see pt.1) in there to give me some extra attack/slap. On my KICK buss there is also a HPF(high pass filter) at 20Hz.

Snare
The SM57 is still the go-to snare mic in many, many of the world’s top studios today and we had a beautiful Ludwig Black Magic snare to work with, so getting a cool snare sound was not difficult. I gated the snare and blended that with the triggered snare samples to a buss. On the snare buss, I added a HPF, a wide boost at the snare’s fundamental frequency (around 210 in this case). as well as a high shelf boost at 8KHz to give it some top end. I also felt like I wanted the snare to snap some more, so I used Cubase’s EnvelopeShaper (basically Steinberg’s version of Transient Designer) to help me get that.

Toms
I like lots of compression on toms to bring out the sustain and power so I used a combination of  EnvelopeShaper (with the Release boosted) and Vintage Compressor to get the toms to sit the wanted it to sit. Since it’s only a floor tom and I liked the low end, I had the HPF at 20Hz. I also boosted a bit at 100Hz, gave it some high-shelf boost at 12KHz and cut some low mids at 475Hz (after sweeping) to get rid of the “cardboard”.

Apart from the toms in the actual drum track, there’s a pair of tribal-sounding toms that we overdubbed and panned creatively to make the pre-choruses feel wide and powerful. They were treated the same way as the other toms.

Overheads
The SM57’s actually surprised me on OH as they weren’t as dark as I thought they’d be. I only gave them a wide high shelf boost of about 3dB at 12KHz and a HPF at 80Hz.

Drum Buss
I always use Bootsy’s FerricTDS, a free tape simulation plugin, on my drum buss. Used lightly, it seems to really bring drums together and give it just a little extra “something”. I also had a subtle high shelf boost at 8KHz and a slight cut at 350Hz.

Percussion:
All percussion (shakers, tambourine, triangle) have fairly high HPFs on them. The “intro” right after the first chorus has some percussion that was treated with a lo-fi/telephone filter to give it some vibe.

BASS

I only worked with a mic’d cab for the bass sound in this song. I gave it a touch of low-shelf boost at 100Hz. We often forget that the highs and mids are as important for a good bass guitar sound as the low end. Your ears can’t hear that massive low end if you don’t give them something to find it with. I added a high shelf boost at 5KHz to give the bass sound some clarity, along with a small amount of 1KHz to bring out the power in the notes. There is also a HPF at 20Hz. Even though I tracked with a fair amount of compression I still felt like the bass wasn’t sitting 100% as I wanted it to, so I knocked off a couple of peaks just a touch with some compression from Vintage Compressor.

GUITARS:

Acoustic Guitars
I got very close to the sounds I wanted for the mix during tracking so I only added HPFs (80Hz on one track, 120Hz on another) and a slight cut at 4160Hz on one of the guitar parts, where I felt that the high mids got a little annoying.

Electric Guitars
I always try to get the sound that I need finalized during tracking. I hate having to “work” guitars too much during mix time. Processing consisted mostly of HPFs and LPFs (Low Pass Filters). There’s something cool that happens on the LPFs on some analog consoles where, depending on how they are setup, there is a slight boost just before the rolloff. Cubase’s channel EQ has a LPF that mimics this and I sometimes use it to my advantage to brighten up guitar parts while still getting rid of any unusable high-end information (aka fizz).

I didn’t feel the need for any compression during the mix.

LPF with a slight rise just before the rolloff.

LPF with a slight rise just before the rolloff.

Electric Guitar Buss
I sent all my electric guitars to a stereo buss, where I took out a little bit of 350Hz, which cleared up some lo-mid mud and I added a very subtle, wide shelf boost at 16KHz to open the guitars up a little – really just to sweeten them.

VOCALS

Main Vocals
I compressed and EQ’d the vocal going in so I didn’t use any additional compression in the mix. I did add a HPF at 80Hz and a high shelf boost at 16KHz to add some “air” to the vocal. I always do a lot of vocal riding (aka volume automation) on vocals. I also used a combination of volume automation and the stock de-essing plugin in Cubase to smooth out s’s.

To give the vocal a bit more “size” and make it “pop” more in the mix I had 2 wide-panned, slightly delayed, copies of the vocal that were tuned +8 and -8 cents and HPF’d at 3KHz mixed in with the main vocal.  This comes from an old trick that was used in the 80’s with Eventide’s to make vocals a bit bigger.

Backing Vocals
BGV were tracked with the same chain as the mains, so no additional compression was added in the mix, but I did ride them quite a bit. EQ was a HPF at 120 Hz, a cut at 350Hz and a subtle high shelf boost at 16KHz.

FX
I treat Cubase as a mixing console so I’ll always have a couple of sends setup. My main sends are usually a couple of different reverbs (but not so different that things sound like they’re in different spaces all the time), delays at different note-lengths.

In this mix the reverbs plugins used were Cubase’s REVerence convolution reverb plugin. One instance was loaded with a PCM 90 plate impulse response, used mostly for drums, and another was loaded with an impulse response from Bricasti’s Concert Hall preset. Both had quite a bit of low end filtered from them to not muddy up the mix.

3 different flavors of delay were used in this mix:
1. A 1/4-note delay with some HPF and LPF to give it a bit of an analog feel, which gives me more depth.
2. A ping-pong delay that went into some subtle phasing and quite heavy filtering for effect.
3. A more standard 1/4-note ping-pong delay, with some HPF and LPF.

Main vox and BGV are sent to the #1 delay. While the main vox weren’t sent to any reverb, the BGV were sent to the Concert Hall reverb.

During parts of the song, the kick and snare, along with their reverbs during these parts, are sent to the #2 ping-pong delay, which creates a nice “drum-loop”-type vibe on the sides of the mix. Tons of vibe! Throughout the mix the snare and toms were sent to the PCM90 reverb.

The high, synthy guitar riff during the choruses are sent to the #3 ping-pong delay to make it soar “around” the mix a little.

While different guitar parts were sent to various effects, depending on the parts, I should mention that I like to add some depth to main rhythm parts by sending them to a subtle delay (the #1 1/4-note delay in this case).

STEREO BUSS
I really like the way SSL-style compression on the stereo buss “glues” a mix together. My favorite flavor of this is the TK Audio BC1 (I have the mk2 version). I had 2-3 dB of gain reduction going at a 4:1 ratio, 10ms attack time and release time set to “Auto”.

I also had an EQ on the stereo buss, taking out a very small touch at 350Hz and boosting a little at 10KHz. The boost, rather than being a shelf, is a very wide bell. I use this often as a way to mimic the way a Pultec-style EQ works and I find that it brightens up mixes without making it as harsh as a shelf EQ sometimes does.

CONCLUSION

As much as this was a super fun experiment, it was also a really great learning experience. It taught me again how important it is to commit early on. It also refreshed and reinforced to me that every piece of gear is just a tool. It doesn’t make or break a song, and there are always means to get what you need even if it means having to work a little harder. And it made me love my trusty SM57’s even more than I did before.

Revved Up Tracks With The Rev – Breaking Benjamin’s “Diary Of Jane”

Album: Phobia
Producer: David Bendeth
Mix: Chris Lord-Alge
Mastering: Ted Jensen
Released: 2006

Chris Lord-Alge is a genius. Whether you’re one of the folks on the internet who love to hate on him because of tons of reasons that might even seem reasonable, or you’re one of the thousands of audio guys out there who would give anything to know his secrets, there is no denying that he is one of the biggest of the big guys. It may very well be because he’s gotten the most important skill of this record-production business 100% right: rather than just giving the listener some good audio, he knows how to sell emotions. He might come across as walking a super fine line between confidence and arrogance but just in the way that he talks about the records he works on you pick up that he is SUPER excited about what he does and that translates to his mixes. He seems to squeeze every ounce of energy and emotion out of whatever song he’s working on. Breaking Benjamin’s “Diary Of Jane” is the track where this first hit me. All the hours of effort I may put into what I try to achieve as a producer/engineer/mixer are pointless if what I deliver doesn’t make the listener feel the way I feel when I hear this.

Now, obviously the beginnings of this record were crafted masterfully by the band and producer David Bendeth. They captured beautifully thick guitars (which apparently had them retuning baritone guitars every 8 bars) with soaring lines that still stay thoroughly out of the way of a vocal performance with energy that most of us can only dream of, supported by some of the most cleverly constructed backing vocals I’ve ever heard. The bass line does that melodic thing where it makes the guitars almost sound “sad” in some parts, while laying down the low end so hard that it feels like it’s about to bloat everything up, yet never does. The drums strike that perfect balance of providing a backbone so that the song never seems to lose any power while still being extremely intricate. It’s almost like, since the kick and snare have basically zero dynamics through the bulk of the song, the toms and cymbals add the dynamic back in by being wonderfully exciting and complex without ever becoming overbearing. And I love the use of atmospheric soundscape-y type stuff that they bring in to offset the blunt-force groove of the rest of the track. The source is friggin’ everything!

Thing is, I’ve heard the other tracks on the rest of the album that was not mixed by CLA and, while by no means bad, they just didn’t do nearly as much for me as “Diary Of Jane.” Not even close. They don’t seem to have the cohesion that this mix has while still jumping out of my speakers (even a pair of small el-cheapo PC speakers) and they don’t make me want to pump my fist in the air and growl that guttural “noooooooo” like Diary Of Jane does. But there are more than a few of his mixes that do fit these criteria, so: Chris Lord-Alge.

Maybe CLA cheats or gets super lucky. Many times. I know he uses that one kick sample and that one snare sample that you’ve heard on a bunch of “his” hits a lot. Maybe those just worked really well with the guitars and bass in this track. His use of what is probably be the original snare for just a few bars in the beginning before that snare sample kicks in is the kinda thing that makes me walk around for days asking myself “who does that?”. The bass sound is something I strive for in every rock mix. That thing where, when I drive in my car, it sounds like the bass line is being sent up from the road below the car. Not many mixes do that without becoming muddy and bloated. No, I can still hear every single note that’s being played. Then there’s the way that the vocals sit in everything, or the way everything sits around it – I struggle to make up my mind. It seems like everything is super aggressive and it almost feels like Benjamin Burnley is fighting to be heard but also not really because at the same time his vocals are being carried by this massive force that will plant it right in your face. And everything is clear and bright, but not overly so, to the point where it seems like the mix is extending way beyond what any speaker should be capable of. The cymbals are so smooth they could’ve been made of that ice cream Heston Blumenthal makes at Christmas.

There is massive space behind/around the mix but it sounds like it’s a transparent and dry space that never softens its brutal force. CLA’s use of delay is masterful. I wish I could carve a snare reverb the way this guy does. The depth in the guitars during the verses literally pounds me in my chest even at low volumes (I never listen to music at super loud volumes) and feels like it goes “whoob whoob” without it ever feeling like anything is breaking loose from the tightness of the overall mix. And with top and bottom end like that it’s not like the mids are so scooped that the mix ever loses its energy and stops flying out the speakers. No, it’s as if they were carved with a scalpel. For a guy who constantly overcompresses, according to lots of folks in audio-forum-land (what serious, busy studio dude has time for that BTW?), this mix is stupidly punchy and dynamic, from that atmospheric intro, through the 2nd part of the intro where you think “hot dang, this kicked like a mule” to the parts after that which left you without teeth. Hurrah for the one dude who taught me what automation can do!

I think my favorite thing about this track is that it’s like a good Mel Brooks film – you can either just sit back and enjoy something that’s so good that you can’t help but be excited about it, or you can dig deep and discover layer upon layer of genius that went into making it. This is one of my reference tracks so I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. I’ve been listening to it on repeat since I started writing this. Every time – every single freakin’ time – that breakdown/bridge happens where the whole production comes to a head, with Burnley screaming “what have I becoooooome”, sending it into that final chorus – I get goosebumps and I have to stop typing for a bit. Hoping that one of my mixes/productions can have that kind of effect on someone is what makes me get up and open my studio every morning.