Over the Top and Back – Avoiding the Uncanny Valley in Music Production

uncanny reverb valleyOne of the dangers of nibbling away at mixing songs – commonly with your mouse rather than a dedicated audio control surface or mixing desk, is that it’s easy to be far too conservative when adding effects and the like.

What typically happens is you slowly push the level of an effect up until it starts to sound like it’s too much – then you back it down slightly to get a nice balance of “wet” effect vs the “dry” sound source. Ahhhh. Nice.

This is fine – but there are often different contexts that effects work within when the balance of effect vs dry sound change radically – so by using this conservative method, you’re always remaining inside the one safe context of the sound balance without ever realising any of the other creative possibilities available.

If you keep pushing the level of the effect past the point where it sounds bad or too much, then you can sometimes get beyond the audio version of the “Uncanny Valley” into a different range of possible sounds.

A simple example is reverb. The first “conservative” range remains within the context of adding a nice subtle tail to a sound to make it blend, or perhaps to give a subtle halo of space around the sound.

As you keep pushing the reverb level up – the sound becomes muddy and cluttered as the dry sound and the reverb fight each other. This is the audio version of the “Uncanny Valley”.

If you keep pushing the reverb level even further, you will change the reverb’s context completely. The room environment is now dominant, with your instrument or voice existing within it. Of course at this point it will probably also become apparent that there will need to be some tweaking of the reverb to clean it up a bit – adjusting predelay, reverb time and perhaps applying some low-cut EQ to take out some mush.

Reverb is not the only thing that this works with – try it with any applied effect like chorus, flange, distortion, echo etc. Or try going to the extreme and remove the dry sound completely. (Try pre-fade effects sends with the fader pulled right back).

It certainly opens up many more creative possibilities and can help you discover fresh sounds for your mix to make it a little more exciting. Plus it doesn’t take much more effort or time to do this and it has zero risk! So make sure you go way over-the-top when applying effects, then just bring it back to where it works best for the song.

3 Common Mistakes of Lyric Writing

As a producer, one of the things that is most apparent to me is the difference between an amateur and professional songwriter – even if that amateur is talented and doing well in their career. Many bands and artists come into the studio with what initially seems to be a great song, but in the process of putting down the vocals, it can become increasingly apparent that the lyrics have not had the same level of development (or writing expertise) as the rest of the song, often with basic mistakes that can leave an otherwise excellent song fundamentally flawed.

Lyric-writing is a craft as well as an art – words have more or less power and meaning depending on the order and context in which they are conveyed, and knowing some tricks to getting the maximum impact (and least amount of song self-destruction) from your lyrics should really be of high priority. Of course, there are no “rules” in writing, but there are observable effects on the listener depending on how you construct the lyric, and you can simply choose to use these tools or not.

Here’s my three worst contenders for shooting yourself in the lyrical foot.

1) Don’t use perfect rhymes

This is probably the most amateur mistake of all.
Try to use other types of rhymes instead – eg family rhymes, internal rhyme, additive, subtractive, assonance or consonance rhymes.
Although a part of our brain always desires perfect rhyme, we have come a long way since the early days of songwriting, and all those obvious perfect rhymes have been so well-used that they are now totally cliched and too-predictable.

Get yourself a rhyming dictionary (there are online versions too, although I prefer the MasterWriter app) and choose rhymes that are less obvious and maybe pleasantly surprising. Instead of using the perfect rhyme “Bread” and “Head”, maybe use a family rhyme – eg “Bread” and “Web” or “Tear”. In singing, we generally tend to rhyme vowel sounds, and the consonants matter less. Check out books/articles/workshops by lyric guru Pat Pattison for more details on rhyme types.

Note that sung rhymes are not usually the same as written rhymes, so make sure you sing them as you write to make sure that they ARE singable.

2) Use “spotlighting” effectively

There are natural accents within a musical bar that will automatically highlight or spotlight to the listener any word or syllable placed upon it. These spotlights tend to be on the downbeats of the bar, plus a big one at the end of a line, and even bigger at the end of a verse.

Ignorance of this behaviour means that you may end up with “nothing” words like “the”, “and” or “but” placed on these prize positions in the bar rather than your cool meaningful words.
This risks weakening your lyric and can even undermine the meaning of it by placing importance on the wrong word.

Back in 2007 I wrote a song, just before going to a Pat Pattison workshop, that included this lyric:
“The tide is slowly rising, Blood red sun on the horizon”
Spotlighting these words:
Tide, slow, rise, bloodred, sun, the, horizon.

Notice how “the” has a spotlight that it really doesn’t deserve?
I fixed it in this example by removing it from the spotlighted position:
“The tide is slowly rising, Blood red sun on ….the horizon”
Here’s the link if you want to listen (warning – ultra-demo quality!): Tied up in Knots
Note also that “rising” and “horizon” rhyme when sung. 

And in relation to syllable position:

3) Don’t put the “emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble”*.

As much as possible, try to sing as you would normally speak in conversation. If you don’t, you risk breaking the meaning of what you are trying to get across, and it can sound contrived, amateurish, or just like you haven’t taken the time to make the lyric fit the music properly.

You should be able to read your song lyrics out, spoken-word fashion, and the phrasing shouldn’t be too far away from how you sing it. Or vice-versa. This is most noticeable when you’re going for an “authentic”-style delivery (rock/blues/indie) rather than stylised (r’n’b, soul, pop) – accenting the wrong syllable can instantly break authenticity. The listener will go “huh?” and the flow and belief is broken.

There are many more lyrical tips than this, of course, and some equally or more important, but the best idea is to do a proper workshop or short course on it, or at least get a decent book or two about how to structure your lyrics.

For those of you who balk at being told what to do – I remind you that these are not rules as such – they are simply based on observable effects on a listener, and you can still go ahead and do whatever you want.
Sometimes you might need to make a call between including a word that adds the perfect meaning to your lyric, and having to jam it in there a bit more clunkily since it doesn’t quite fit. But you should definitely be aware of the risks on how the listener will receive and decode your meaning when you decide to do things like this.

And finally – you should ALWAYS use some kind of rhyming dictionary – otherwise you are relying on a choice of only the rhymes that you can currently remember. Which is often only a small fraction of the huge amount of available rhymes – many of which are probably more interesting than the one you can currently think of. 

*As spoken by Mike Myers in “A View From the Top”.

References:

Pat Pattison: Essential Guide to Rhyming (Formerly titled Rhyming Techniques and Strategies) Berklee Press, distributed by Hal Leonard January, 1992
You can order all these three books – Writing Better Lyrics (second edition), Essential Guide to Rhyming and Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure for a special price here

Jason Blume: Writing Hit Lyrics with Jason Blume – get the book here

The Lucky 13 Song Mixing Tips

Before I get started I just want to reinforce something I’ve mentioned in earlier posts – sometimes a reduction in parameters actually generates more creativity. Being aware of a set of limitations, or guidelines, can actually allow you much more creative control over your final mix.This could mean limiting the amount of effects that you allow yourself to use, or a more obvious one is to only use a particular set of effects that suits the genre or style. If you have the permission to do it, perhaps editing tracks or even removing “surplus” instrumentation or vocal is the first step.

Approach-wise, ideally you want all aspects of a song to reinforce together and create a stronger impact, and if you aren’t aware of what you’re doing, it’s very possible (in fact more common than you think) to get a generally nice balance of instruments that somehow doesn’t “gel”. You can hear everything, but it lacks emotional impact.

So here’s a bunch of ideas to think about next time you’re mixing a song – there are many more ideas and concepts to experiment with than these, but I stopped myself before the post became a novel.

1  Know what the song’s about. Clues are in the lyrics. Knowing what it’s about gives you the opportunity to amplify the concept rather than inadvertently fighting it. That doesn’t mean you have to “follow” the lyrics with the mix in a literal sense – you might do nothing at all in that regard, but at least you won’t be fighting the meaning of the song without even realising it, and when it comes to trying to think of creative mix directions, it’s yet another clue to help you.

2  Know the context of the music. What’s the genre or style of the artist. How does it relate to the artist’s identity? Being aware of this really makes it much more likely that you’ll promote that artist’s identity and overall concept, plus the artist will be more likely to appreciate what you do with the mix. For example does the artist exemplify “authenticity” where a raw, “character” sound with any intonation problems remaining unfixed is most desirable? Or is it about slick and smooth production?

3  Be adventurous. A mix is not a simple balance of levels of the instruments in a mix, it’s about featuring various aspects that you think the listener would like to hear, or more accurately needs to hear at any given section of the song. Pretend it’s a movie – how do you present each section of the song? Don’t be scared to go “over the top” with effects, fader moves and featuring of mix aspects – you can always tone it back if need be. Don’t be scared to turn vocal up loud – trying to hide weak vocals makes it even worse. Even ugly actors have to have close-ups in a movie to make it all work.

4  Think about texture and tone. It’s partly tone, partly level, partly how dominant something is in the mix. If you compress something – its texture changes. Listen out for it tonally as a sound rather than just checking it’s variation in level. How pervasive is it compared to everything else, despite its volume in the mix?
How does it link into the overall texture of the song? Textures are like a tonal colour palette – you probably don’t want to mix a neon green element in with some nice earth tones (remember there are no rules!), but then again you don’t want everything the same shade of beige.

5 It’s about melody In even the most distortion-fest mixes, our human nature will use our built-in pattern-detecting algorithms to extract a melody out of it somewhere, whether it be in the movement of the harmonics in the wall of guitar noise or in the groovy bassline. Make sure there’s one dominant melody at any given instant, or if there’s more than one, that they aren’t fighting each other and canceling out.

6 The pocket. It’s more than something to put your wallet in. It’s that magic interaction of instruments when it all suddenly locks into a groove. Spend some time adjusting relative timing of instruments to see if you can help the groove “gel”. You’ll know when it happens because it’s magic and you’ll start moving with the music whether you want to or not. Note that Beat Detective and other forms of quantization can fight this effect – it’s “felt” rather than being on an exact grid. Saying that, if the playing is too loose then a timing grid is definitely a step up.

7  Keep it simple stupid. Less is more. These things are fundamental truths, despite our over-familiarity with them often leaving them as meaningless statements in our minds. Think about the mix as a photo – the more people you want to appear in the photo, the smaller they’ll have to be. Don’t be scared to bring the main things to the foreground, and push other things back to the point of blurriness or being hidden behind the main elements. A good mix is not about individual band members’ egos, it’s about the overall blend. When you think about it, the individual band members have the least idea about what the mix should sound like – they all hear completely different versions of a mix depending on where they stand/sit when they perform.

8  Three “Tracks”. Back in the olden days, after mono and stereo, there were three tracks. One was for “Rhythm” (and could include drums, bass, percussion and rhythm guitar for example), one for Vocals and one for “Sweetening” which might be things like brass, strings, lead instruments etc. This strategy is still a great one to keep in mind for mixing. It forces you to think about your rhythm section as one single thing, and you need to make it all gel. Bass needs to lock in the pocket with the kick drum. Sweetening nowadays is whatever else you need outside rhythm and vocals. Think carefully about which mix elements fit into each of these three roles, and if all three are already populated – maybe it’s time to do some cutting. Note that some instruments such as guitars might switch between modes depending on what they’re playing at the time – rhythm, fills or lead.

9 One thing at a time. Rather than thinking of one of the aforementioned three tracks as just “Vocals” perhaps it’s better to look on it as “Melody”. The melody line often chops and changes between vocal, instrumental fills and solos. If you think of these three elements as playing a similar role at different times in the song, it makes it easy when trying to decide on levels/sounds between the three. It also highlights that you shouldn’t have any of those melodies crossing over each other and fighting at any point – keep ’em separated!

10 Getting the bass sitting right is tricky – especially when it needs to work on both large and small speaker systems. Try mixing the bass while listening on the smallest speakers that you have, to get it sitting at the right level. Then adjust the tonal balance while listening on bigger speakers to reign any extreme frequencies back in. Sometimes you might need to layer the bass sound to get this to happen effectively.

11 Don’t over-compress everything. Listen to the TONE while compressing each instrument and keep it sounding natural if possible. Pay close attention to the start and end (attack and release) of the notes of each instrument you compress. Your final mix should be sitting at an average RMS level of about -12 to -18dBFS with peaks no higher than around -3dBFS. Leave the mastering engineer to do the final compression and limiting. Remember to leave dynamic range in the mix – contrast! Our ears need some sort of contrast to determine what’s loud and soft. If you hammer all the levels to the max you may as well just record the vacuum cleaner at close range and overdrive the mic/preamp. Hmmm. Might have to try that.

12 Easier than Automation. In these days of automation, it’s easy to spend inordinate amounts of time tweaking automation changes on instruments or vocals between different sections of a song (eg adding more reverb to the vocals in the chorus or adjusting rhythm gtr levels in the bridge). With today’s digital audio workstations, extra tracks are usually in ready supply, so rather than fluffing about with automation for a specific section of the song, why not just move that part over onto another duplicated track instead, then just make whatever changes you need to suit that section. Much quicker than continually mucking around with automation on the same track. By the way – make sure your mix is dynamic. A mix is a performance in itself, not a static set of levels.

13 Use submix busses for each element of the mix. Eg drum subgroup,  guitar subgroup, vocal subgroup etc. Rather than send all your drums straight to the L/R or Stereo mix, first send them all to an Aux return channel instead. Then send that Aux to the LR/Stereo mix. (Tip: disable solo on the Auxes) This makes it simple to do overall tweaks to your mix even after you’ve automated levels on individual tracks.
You need to be careful about aux effects returns and where they come back though, as their balance might change slightly if you adjust the instrument subgroups.
And hey, what about creating just three subgroups – Rhythm, Melody, Sweetening? Let me know if it works ;o)

Sources: Stephen Webber, Bob Katz, Mixerman, Mike Senior.