Mixing Clockwork Clown - A fHumbling Journey - Part 5 - Atmospheres & Transitions
by, 06-17-2012 at 05:30 AM (2056 Views)
This is a continuation of my blog on mixing the winning mix of the 1st round of the Slate Digital Cup. Here is the previous installment: http://forum.recordingreview.com/blo...-4-synths.html
... & here is the link to the actual mix: cLockWork cLown - fHumble mIx
Gather 'round boys & girls, let me tell you story...
Once upon a time, many decades ago, long before the term "mix engineer" meant anything to anyone, ancient electronic pioneers began recording musical performances. Years prior to the advent of close miking techniques, these recordings captured both the performance & the environment around the performer integrally....
What if you had more than one performer? Well, the recordist simply arranged the instruments around the microphone so that the sound was balanced. Highly skilled musicians effectively "mixed" themselves by playing louder or softer, & in some cases simply moving closer to or further away from the microphone.
On the instrumental side of things, not only were there songwriters, musicians & vocalists, but also arrangers who wrote musical arrangements which dictated not only the actual notes to be played by the musicians, but also the feel & dynamics of each individual performance designed to absolutely maximize the impact of the song.
So all you needed was a brilliant song, terrific arrangement, fantastic performers, an excellent space, & a brilliant engineer with great ears... easy huh? Not really, quite difficult actually...
..but when it all came together, magic happened.
I don't need to tell you, times have moved on, & music is recorded & produced very differently today...
What have we gained?
Well, there are probably too many things to mention here, not the least of which is the ability to still construct a brilliant musical event without actually having to have all those many & various (sometimes disparate) elements come together magically on one serendipitous occasion.
What have we lost?
Again, probably more than I could quickly outline here. However, imaginative musicians are still writing cool songs, & there are still brilliant, emotion fueled performances to be had. What has been lost is the natural innate sense of "space" atmosphere, & excitement that was so intrinsic to those old recordings. Coupled with this, highly skilled musical arrangers are a rare thing these days. While a songwriter may have the ability to write a catchy hook & a good melody, arranging these in such a way as to really mirror the intended emotional impact of the song is often where multi-tracked recordings can fall down.
Of course, once close miking techniques developed & multi-track recording grew in sophistication & complexity, the role of the "balance engineer" slowly morphed into that of the "mixer"... Soon recordings became "constructions" of a sort, & with the loss of the nuance & excitement of a simultaneous live performance, the mixer began to be called upon to "re-inject" excitement via careful manipulation of the multi-track performances, using effects & psycho-acoustic sleight of hand to punctuate the mix & create a dynamic contour that could (in some skilled hands) even exceed the visceral impact of the best live performances. They sought to immerse & engage the listener to such a degree that he/she unconsciously took a vivid "aural journey" with the artist through the emotional passage of the music & lyrics. Effectively, in many cases, the mixer could become somewhat of a substitute for the old-time position of the "arranger"... & so on to the era of the "superstar mixer"... Bob Clearmountain, Chris Lord Alge, Spike Stent, Dave Pensado, etc etc.
Why all this background? My point is: these days, a balanced mix is really only the starting point - It's the least that a listener demands from a song. While a great song & arrangement is a fantastic starting point, in these times of information overload, sensory bombardment & the resulting minuscule attention spans, something extra is often needed to capture & hold the listeners' attention.
The basis of much music involves principles of tension & release - eg. creating a tension via an unresolved harmonic structure during the verses, then releasing that tension by a chorus that resolves in a satisfying way. To heighten this effect, a mixer can often use eq, automation & effects to create atmospheres that parallel the narrative of the music & the lyrics. I described the way I mapped this idea out in my head when preparing to mix "Clockwork Clown" in my first blog: Mixing Clockwork Clown - A fHumbling Journey - Part 1 - "The Big Idea"
Basically, I used 2 very contrasting atmospheres in this song - one that was very narrow & lo-fi, the other full bandwith, wide & very much hi-fi. The next problem that presents itself is how to move from one state to the next - to just abruptly switch would be very disorienting to the listener- the musical equivalent of crashing though a "wall". The solution was to create transitions - musical "doors" for the listener to go through into each "room" or situation.
Transitions accomplish two things:
1. Makes the "journey" through the song's textures & atmospheres appear seamless, while the mix is actually bouncing between aural extremes.
2. If it is done right, it actually "signposts" emotional high (or low) points without the listener actually being aware of it.
Ultimately, as strange as it seems, the goal is for the actual mix to become invisible, not drawing attention to itself, but rather the narrative of the song, so that the listener is just caught up...
With that in mind, a good place to start would be to look at the basic atmospheres & how they were created:
Listen to the first 43 seconds of the mix - this is the clock tick, & the low-fi intro... right after the windup, a very soft "pad-like" sound swells up starting around 5 seconds in. After the other instruments come in & the vocals start, at around 33 seconds that same sound is repeated, but at higher volume, with another layer of atmosphere that comes in over the top...
What is it? It is actually the arpeggio guitar figure played in the intro, but reversed, faded in via a clip fade, then run through Guitar Rig 4's "Slow Motion Movie" preset - a combination of compression, amp simulation, multiple crazy delays & phasing. The reverse audio trick is amazing so simple. I've found this is a really cool way to take something that is already part of the song & give it a twist - It's amazing how our brains actually process that information... I have a theory that it actually induces a state of "musical deja vu" in which, once you've heard the sound reversed (even in a mangled form), when it is played forward, it seems instantly familiar somehow... I suppose, since the old classical composers used the "variation on a theme" schtick to flesh out their opus', & the jazz greats turned the melody upside down & inside out, this might be the modern mixer's equivalent?.. Hmmm, maybe we're getting uppity & high-brow; way ahead of ourselves...I dunno, but it sure is lotsa fun!
Anyway - Here's the part of the audio that I used before I reversed it:
Here's the signal chain:
& here's the final sound:
What about the general atmosphere that I used for these "lo-fi" section of the song? This came courtesy of an impulse in Voxengo's "Perfect Space" convolution reverb in Sonar called "Carpeted Room". As is usually the case, I couldn't resist eq'ing the response to get it to sound just the way I wanted. I low passed it around 2.5k & eq'd a dip of around 8.5dB centered at 1.2k.
Here's the screen shot:
... & here's what the reverb sounded like solo'd:
At this point, I'd like to refer back to the mix - listen to the transition from lo-fi to hi-fi that starts @ 40 seconds...
This contains another bit of mangled audio the forms the basis for that "blossoming" sound which culminates in the full-spectrum audio at around 44 seconds. This little 4 second sequence actually took a lot of work to get just right, but I think it was worth it.... so what was it? Here it is before processing...
Yep, that's right - just a simple electric guitar strum.
Now, reverse that sound, stretch it by 400%, fade it in, run it through Guitar rig, automate high & low pass eq's, throw a flanger on the track (automate it's parameters too), include a stereo widener automated to gradually move from mono to super-wide & what do you get?
Now, a lot of the processing on this was done in "mad scientist" mode, so I printed the fx with the sound & didn't save them in the chain. Here's the "nuts & bolts" of what remains in my session:
The lines on the clip in the bottom right hand corner of the clip represent all the automation parameters that are happening during the transition - about 7 all up!
Now what about the "atmosphere" for the hi-fi section? This was much less heavy handed. Again, using Perfect Space, I used an impulse response called: "Sanctuary - Omni Close Rear Centre" I high passed it at around 400hz, low pass it at 5k, & set 82 milliseconds of pre-delay to keep the mix elements right "up front".
Here's the solo'd reverb buss (you might have to turn this up) - You'll notice that there is no vocal in this, because I used a completely different reverb for the hi fi vocal to keep it out front:
The next transition was absolutely critical - this was the one following the breakdown, where the song really needed to EXPLODE into it's ultimate climax - take it to the next level, then right OVER THE TOP! To do it, I used the same guitar chord that I used in the "lo to hi fi transition"... again reversed, again with the same "Slow Motion Movie" Guitar Rig preset. But this time, there was no automation - just static eq high passed at 591 hz & low passed at 2450k, pre fader & effects. The reason being, there was no necessity to transition between two radically different sections - it just need to create anticipation of that big snare hit signalling the arrival of the BIG verse....
Here's the sound:
... as you can hear, in isolation, this is really nothing exceptional, but combined with the snare hit, it's dynamite.... tension & release...
So how do you follow that? You need to do something really different. One sound from my childhood still resonates with me still is the dream-like texture that I first heard on songs from the late 60's & early 70's like "Itchycoo Park" - check out the bridge that starts at 51 seconds & extends through to 1:07
Now, check out the moment from 3:03 to 3:22 in my Clockwork Clown mix. The lyric at this point in Clockwork Clown describes a dream - when I heard that, immediately that familiar flanging texture rose from the depth of my subconscious to the surface once again.
... ah yes, the ol' "flanger across the whole mix" is such a cool sound, & it's about time someone used it again! I'm puttin' my hand up for that! As they say: "Everything old is new again!"
So I plumped that sucker on the mix buss & simply automated the on/off button during that section.
There's something very satisfying about using a technique that I guess was written off as an anachronism years ago in a modern context...I gotta tell ya, I was so happy to get that in, & even more happy that it actually worked!
Skip forward in my mix to the final part, from 4:01 to the end - One last transition - from the hi fi "human" back to the little "lo-fi" clockwork clown in the cupboard.... I was envisioning the protagonist morphing, shrinking, his voice & actions becoming more & more mechanical as he walks slowly into the shadows, closes the cupboard door, & disappears into his box in the dark - the cycle completed.
Because I had set up the textures for each part by "multing" most of the tracks (ie. having both a "Hi Fi" & a "Lo Fi" version of each mix element), I decided to create the last transition simply by using cross-fades on each of these "multed" parts. You can see the cross fades in the screen shot below.... simple!
Ok, so that's it for "Atmospheres & Transitions"... One more part of this blog to go... "The Vocals" - a few little surprises to come as well, so stay tuned!