Decoding The Mix #4 - The King Of Hip Hop
Dr. Dre has had a colossal influence over the sound and development of Hip-Hop. His golden touch boosted the careers of many household names such as Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Eminem… the list goes on.
In this blog post, I’ll be decoding his iconic song ‘Still Dre’ to uncover his approach to music production. Hopefully we’ll come away with inspiration and ideas we can utilise in future productions.
In the infographic below, we can see that Dre has mixed the main elements very centrally. The kick, bass/cello, piano riff, vocals and snare are all mixed almost completely mono. The chorus vocals and synth pluck are the only elements that are mixed considerably wide.
There is a logical explanation for this. Dre started his music career DJing in a club called Eve After Dark. When he began making music, he would play his track in the club, see how the crowd reacted, then make tweaks in the studio. The club will have outputted the audio in mono, so his mixes had to sum to mono well.
If you listen to ‘Still Dre’ and toggle between stereo and mono, you’ll hear almost no sonic difference.
Dre’s mixing approach of favouring mono is further backed up by one of Dre’s protégés who discussed a technique he picked up from working with Dre.
“Dre always told me that if I could get something to sound amazing on crappy speakers, it’ll sound brilliant on normal speakers. I mix on just one Auratone, because I like specific elements of the mix to pop out, and listening in mono on that speaker really helps me define that. It’s difficult to assess your balance [in stereo], whereas when you listen in mono, you can gauge the true value of how everything sits in the mix.” Source.
This is a killer technique to help you get solid mixes. In addition to monitoring through a limited range speaker in mono, try turning the volume right down so you can barely hear the audio. If your main elements still feel balanced and you can still decipher the lyrics you’re on the right path to a great mix.
Structure and Arrangement
‘Still Dre’ repeats a very simple but infectious 2 bar piano riff throughout the song. The drum loop and bass/cello are also relentlessly driving the track without pause. Keeping it simple with these three unchanging elements allow the lyrics to become the focal point to grab the listeners attention. The high strings jump in and out of the arrangement to give a subtle change every 8 bars; though they aren’t unique to either the verse or chorus. Contrastingly the synth pluck only comes in during the chorus, solidifying the structure and progression of the song.
‘Still Dre’ has a fairly sparse arrangement, but the sounds are so full-bodied that they fill the speakers and hit the listener in the chest. So how does Dre get that thick transient sound? When talking to Studio Sound in September 2001 (2 years after releasing ‘Still Dre’) Dre said: “I like the compressors on the SSL. I usually have the ratio up to about eight or 10 on a lot of things.” This approach to compression can get your clicker transients sounding thicker. I’ve run a snare through these settings to give you a visual how the audio can change.
There is very little dynamic variation between the different sections of this track. It comes in at 1.8LU, which is about as low as it gets.
A low loudness range is common for Hip-hop, but analyzing a few others shows that 'Still Dre' has a more static loudness than many of the other Hip Hop hits… All except the one produced by Dre.
• Sugarhill Gang - Rappers Delight: 2.4 LU
• Grandmaster Flash - The Message: 4.1 LU
• Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg - Nuthin But A G Thang: 1.3 LU
• Notorious B.I.G - Juicy: 3.2 LU
• 2Pac - California Love: 2.9 LU
• 50 Cent - In Da Club: 2.1 LU
• Rob Base - It Takes Two: 2.2 LU
• Eminem - Lose Yourself: 12.1 LU
• JAY Z & Kanye West - Paris: 4.8 LU
• OutKast - B.O.B: 5.2 LU
4.0 LU Average
How Do New Tracks Compare?
When comparing ‘Still Dre’ to ‘God’s Plan’ by Drake, It was clear that there were a number of differences. Most notably, the tonal balance was almost incomparable. The screen grab of REFERENCE below shows that ’Still Dre’ has almost 6dB less perceived volume in the low frequencies than ‘Gods Plan’. The low frequencies are also much punchier in ‘Still Dre’. ‘Still Dre’ has more prominent and more compressed mid frequencies compared to Gods Plan. Not surprising considering we learned that Dre likes to turn the ratio up to 10:1 in his SSL. The high frequencies between the two tracks are fairly consistent.
It’s good to know and understand how trends have changed. You can then find the perfect balance of being influenced by iconic tracks and infusing the mixing trends of current chart-topping hits.
'Still Dre' plays back pretty quiet on streaming platforms. Youtube plays it back at -17.3 LUFS and the Stats For Nerds shows this is 4.1dB below their target level. However, they don’t increase the sound of quieter tracks.
It’s a similar story on Spotify with a playback level of -15LUFS int. On the quieter side of the spectrum and slightly below the average of -14 LUFS int.
What Did We Learn?
• Mixing in mono through one limited range speaker can help build a super solid mix.
• Simple arrangements allow for rap vocals to take center stage.
• Subtle but frequent changes in the instrumentation can keep the listener engaged.
• Using a high ratio on a compressor can thicken up your transients.
• Hip Hop often has a low Loudness Range.
• Modern Hip Hop tracks have a considerably different tonal balance to this iconic song.
• Youtube doesn’t turn quiet music up, so aim for about -13 LUFS int, or you could end up sounding too quiet.
Now It's Your Turn!
Deconstructing a mix like this is a great way to make real improvements in your music production. One of the six cheat-sheets in my eBook ‘Never Get Stuck Again’ is a cheatsheet to help you decode any mix in minutes.