Automation - A case study, looking into the details

A guide to mixing music - Part 112

Last week Yours Truly had the boldness of giving you some homework: to analyze the mix of "The Look" from an automation point of view. This week it is my turn to do the honors.

It's easy to notice right from the start the automation of the main keyboard's volume, as well as that of the reverb, which give the listener the impression of sound getting closer. Do note that this synth is somewhat to the right of the stereo image and seems relatively distant, even when the automation is finished.

Then the drums and vocals come in for the first verse. The vocals are right at the center, wrapped up in a deep reverb which consequently doesn't extend too much to the sides.

Next comes the chorus. There's a significant change on the drums: the hi-hats on the right stop to give way to the ride on the far left. For its part, the piano doesn't move a jot. On the other hand, the main vocals appear more upfront, certainly due to the help of a delay doubling the vocal line at both extremes of the stereo field, together with a wider, shorter and less deep reverb than the previous one.

At the end of the chorus, the bass line announces the next section: an instrumental bridge that boosts the atmosphere of the song. Apart from the bass, other events clearly highlight the contrast between this and the previous section. The most obvious one is the entrance of the guitar. The latter is far right in the stereo field but it is doubled at the other extreme with another almost identical track.
Regarding the rhythmic instruments, the ride once again gives way to the hi-hat on the far right and a jawbone (aka charrasca) appears on the extreme left.

As for the main keyboard, it goes from the left back to the front right without troubling too much the listener, so the effect it produces helps unconsciously reinforce the interest of the audience. This results in the entire bridge sounding closer and wider than before, without the split being too obvious. Hats off! This instrumental section ends with an exchange between the ride and the hi-hat to highlight the arrival of the next section.

Next we go back to the verse, which has almost the exact same mix as the first one. Do note however how the bass line and the jawbone prevent the song from losing too much energy, while the return of the main synth to its original position gives it more depth, in contrast to the preceding bridge. What's more, the doubling of certain words subtly reinforce the forward motion of the musical story.

The second chorus is almost the same as the first one, except for one major difference: the size of the background vocals. On paper that doesn't sound like much, but from a strictly auditory point of view, the trick really hits the nail on the head providing the chorus with a personality of its own and without which it wouldn't be distinguishable from the previous one. And what do you know, it also contributes to the climatic evolution of the story, which seems more "lively," for a lack of a better term.

Next we have a different bridge. While the main keyboard remains identical as on the verse, the kick is slashed from the drums and the snare gets a more noticeable reverb. The ride/jawbone couple remains the same, too, whereas the bass and vocals disappear to give way to a new synth masking everything with some soothing ethereal chords. This provides the song the necessary calm before the storm, to reinforce the emotional impact of the following part – the solo. By the way, at the end of this bridge the background vocals come in followed by a bass note which serves as a springboard to take the listener to the real climax of the song.

The setting of the solo is almost the same as that of the instrumental bridge, except for a new element that is introduced at both extremes of the stereo field: claps. Once again, it is so subtle that the listeners will be completely taken in. However, unconsciously, these claps will make their heads bob more enthusiastically to the music, especially since the previous bridge has already prepared the terrain. Regarding the solo instrument, an '80s kind of synth, it is right at the center of the stage and doesn't move the slightest throughout the entire performance. And yet, if you pay attention, you'll realize that some new harmonies are introduced when the melodic line is repeated, especially in the highs. This tiny change, together with the switch between hi-hat and ride, all by themselves help retain the attention of the listener. Nice isn't it?

After such a climax it would be hard to finish the song on a fade out without losing energy. Yet, the producers risk it and it works out well. The main keyboard simply slips away quietly, the same way it came in on the intro. The joys of repetition! Furthermore, the instruments fade out at different speeds. It's almost imperceptible but, among other things, that's what makes the claps clearly distinguishable all the way through. All in all, the fade out seems quite lively. Remember: The devil is in the details.

One final remark before we call it a day. I didn't mention it in my analysis but I would like to draw your attention to the intelligibility of the vocals. That's without a doubt the result of a painstaking automation of the vocal track's volume fader. A word to the wise...

And that's it for today. As I said last week, this is only a quick analysis done after a couple of listening passes and I have no way of guaranteeing that the things I revealed here are the actual result of automation. But I can guarantee that you can achieve all of this by the same means.

I hope you find this case study useful. Personally, I think this Metronomy track is absolutely fantastic from a production point of view. The lessons we can all learn from the subtlety and effectiveness of the production are priceless and they can be applied to any musical genre. I'm sure your future masterpieces will be very grateful!