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Essential Listening - The Classics

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening - Getting Critical

Sometimes a mix just does not turn out the way we want it to no matter how often we throw down the faders and start over. Or maybe we think the mix sounds great but when placed next to a major release it sounds sub bar.

While we can talk about compression levels, reverb, and all these other things for hours and hours, sometimes we need to just sit back and listen; listen not to the music directly but to the actual sound of the mixing. Does the reverb change part way through? Is the panning wide or tight? Is it heavily compressed or not at all? These questions look at the big picture of a mix and how the mix plays into the artistry of the song.

The classic albums that changed the way we record and mix are great not just because of the song itself, but because the engineer listened and mixed the song musically so as to enhance what the song was trying to do. By studying these great recordings we can gain insight into the mixing process these engineers used to create these wonderful recordings and in turn help us to create great recordings as well.

So with that in mind lets take a look at some of these great albums and see what it is they have to offer.


Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band

Like them or hate them, the Beatles changed the way the industry works. Using only four track recorders, Sgt. Peppers defied what could be done in the studio at the time. It is because of this album we also gained the term flanging through their use of ADT (automatic double tracking) on vocals.

What is to be learned from this album is that since they could only record four tracks at a time they had to be very deliberate in what they were doing and really think ahead; something we forget to do now and days with the benefits of near unlimited tracks, effects, etc.

Here are some points to listen for...

  • Clarity of the mixing; you can hear where every instrument is in the stereo field

  • Balanced frequency range from bottom to top, nothing is exaggerated

  • Reverb is present but not obvious and sits very well in the mix


Back in Black

Once again like them or hate them, AC/DC and Back in Black is a powerhouse of a album. Aside from being one of the top selling albums of the time, it really pushes having a full, clean, tight sound. This album primarily teaches us to not be afraid of a drier sound and the importance of making sure the musicians provide a quality performance. If the band did not deliver a true in your face performance the album would not simply have the impact like it does.

While it is true that the producer should be in charge of making sure it is a good performance, the engineer is just as responsible! If the performance is bad you will go nuts trying to mix it.

Here are some points to listen for...

  • The bare minimum of reverb if at all on most songs. If you do hear a reverb it is usually from the guitar and is still fairly subtle.

  • How delay is used to produce an ambience more than a reverb is which helps to maintain clarity in the mix

  • Notice how the guitars are usually in front of the vocals and how we can still hear the lyrics without the singer being right out in front like in today's mixes


Aja

Steely Dan and their album Aja is a true testament to perfectionism. The musicians and engineers constantly changed (practically from album to album) but the overall sound did not. It is a very tight clean sound with plenty of room for space despite having tons of instruments.

Aside from teaching us to be perfectionists, Aja really shows how to make sure every instrument has its placed in the frequency range and in the stereo field; no matter how complex the instrumentation gets you will be able to pick out every instrument. Always make sure you give every instrument its own place to set in the mix with appropriate levels and EQ.

Here are some points to listen for...

  • The very clean quality on the whole mix with a very crisp top end; the transients are very sharp

  • How the reverb is still audible despite the thick mix but at the same time does not jump out at you and is almost part of the band

  • Notice the very well placed stereo field and how if you close your eyes you really feel like the band is right in front of you


Thriller

Michael Jacksons Thriller is by far the biggest selling album of all time and the biggest influence on pop music ever. A instrumentally dynamic album that still maintains clarity and a slightly pronounced top end and bottom end; no doubt a driving force into today's over the top bottom and top ends!

What should be learned from this album, much like with Steely Dan, is to have patience to make sure everything is perfect if the performance was stellar. This album was not made over night and is very complex in nature and if they took the time to get it right so should you.

Often times engineers will set their faders and effects and leave them go for a whole song or even a whole album! Be sure to take the time to really make sure automation is set appropriately, EQs are not fighting one another, etc. Do it right the first time!

Here are some points to listen for...

  • The crisp clean quality of the vocals and drums, very reminiscent of today's sound despite being slightly older

  • How the vocals are right out in front since the song relies on them so much; stark contrast to AC/DC with the vocals being second to guitar

  • The compression levels are very minimal despite being a pop album; just enough to deliver a full sound but not enough to crush the transients


Dark Side of the Moon

Being one of the most talked about albums of all time and one of the craziest to produce, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is a true testament to what is possible in the studio. Nothing is ever stagnant in this album and it truly helps to enhance the spacey, and dare I say, trippy quality to the music.

What Dark Side of the Moon shows is to keep our mixes as dynamic as the music is and to make sure the mix reflects the art of the song. The vocals do not always need to be right down the middle and can even be sweeped across the stereo field!

Here are some points to listen for...

  • The slightly foggier quality to the album which reflects the hazy spacey sound of the music as opposed to Aja and Thriller with a cleaner sound

  • The sweeping pans and filtering effects in the mix to really emphasize spacey effects as well

  • How the reverb changes gradually throughout a song and is not stagnant; listen particularly to the song Money between the verses and the solo section


Conclusion for Now

Of course there are tons of other albums and singles that are amazing recordings but we cannot cover them all here. But these albums are timeless for engineers and are always good material to listen to for inspiration and study. Really sit there and try to pick out different elements of these recordings and after a while you will be able to do the same to your other favorite recordings.

Only once we understand what goes into a great album can we attempt to create one ourselves. In addition, if you are mixing a album that sounds a little bit like a successful popular band, use that other bands album as a reference! That?s all for today folks, thanks for reading!

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