Decoding The Mix #5 - Grammy Winning Rock Production
Whether you create rock music or not, you’ll certainly learn something new from these geniuses! Muse are without a doubt one of the most popular and respected rock bands of all time. One of their biggest hits was ‘Uprising’ from their Grammy-winning album ‘The Resistance’.
In this blog, I’ll be decoding ‘Uprising’ to see what techniques we can take away and use in our next mix.
The stereo placement Infographic below shows a lot of wider elements, but the majority of ‘Uprising’ is mixed very Mono. The main components heard throughout the mix (Bass, Drums, and Vocals) are very central. The elements that jump in and out of the mix (backing vocals, lead guitar, synths) are super wide. If you listen to this mix in Mono you’ll hear that the fundamental sonics are almost identical.
The wider elements that we see (Synth 1, Synth 2 and Lead Guitar) are never playing at the same time (You’ll see this in the arrangement infographic later in this post). It could be a problem if they played simultaneously in the mix as they occupy similar frequencies and have similar timbres. This can cause masking and can be confusing for the listener.
Getting The Muse Sound
Uprising was mixed by mixing legend 'Mark 'Spike' Stent’. Stent has 34 Grammy Nominations with 5 wins, one of which he won mixing this track. The mixing was done in Muse’s private studio which has an SSL G-series console at its heart.
The recorded audio for this track was so good that Stent didn’t use any samples. He meticulously analyzed each drum and room track to check the timing and phase. When monitoring, he’s constantly flipping phase as he believes it’s essential for getting a big sounding mix through all playback systems.
Stent loves to fine-tune and sub-group. He’ll have 4 kick tracks, with effects on each channel, which are then sub-grouped and compressed to glue it all together.
Dominic Howard (the drummer of Muse) likes to make sure his awesome fills punch through the mix. So Stent ensured the toms worked tonally with the track and automated the hits to bring them into focus.
The drums are heard almost constantly through the track. Stents attention to detail ensured that the drums sounded huge, punchy and tight from start to finish. Here are the tools he used to get the drum sound: Waves SSL Channel, SSL G-Series desk EQ & dynamics, Metric Halo Channel Strip, Chandler EMI TG12413 (plug‑in) & TG1 (hardware).
There were 5 bass tracks recorded in total for Uprising. A bass synth, a DI, a bass sub, and two tracks of bass effects. It takes a genius like Stent to make this many bass tracks work together. Learning how to deal with phase really pays off in these situations.
The bass was EQed and compressed with an SSL plugin and was occasionally sent to a distortion plugin (Sansamp) to help differentiate different sections sonically. The top bass was gently limited using the Purple MC77 limiter to control the dynamics. The other 4 bass elements were sub-grouped and occasionally sent to the Sound Toys Filter Freak plug‑in for sonic variation between sections.
Matt Bellamy’s vocals are super upfront and clear without being harsh. How was that achieved? A lot of dynamic control and an interesting approach to de-essing. Stent used a Waves de-esser to heavily scoop out the harsh sibilances, then followed it with a Dbx 902 de-esser to just ‘tickle the signal’.
To control the dynamics Stent used a Teletronix LA2A, a Universal Audio 1176, follow by a Standard Audio Level-or. This succession of compressors allows Stent to sculpt the dynamic, tone and attitude of the vocal with great precision.
Stent went through each backing vocal track (there were many) to ensure the timing was on point. he also individually tweaked a de-esser to suit each recording perfectly. Stent is certainly a pro who doesn’t cut corners… The result is an incredible mix and another grammy sitting in his studio.
Structure & Arrangement
Muse is known for being influenced by the compositional traits of classical music. You can hear it in the harmonies and melodies used in their epic and cinematic songs. The instrumentation in Uprising is very rock based with a few synth sounds thrown in to give it a modern touch.
The Bass relentlessly drives the track from start to finish without taking even a bars rest. Most records I’ve analyzed intentionally cut the bass during the build-up or a verse to add variation, so this stuck out to me as a unique approach. Similarly, the drums are almost completely constant, resting for just 3 bars. This rhythm section along with the vocals are the three main elements that are heard throughout the track. The other instruments come in and out sporadically to add sonic variation to the different sections. I particularly liked how the synth sound changed from the first half of the track to the second half. Something I also noticed when I analyzed Calvin Harris - One Kiss.
Just by looking at this visual you can see how Verse 2 has more instrumentation than Verse 1. Chorus 2 and 3 are also fuller than Chorus 1. This makes each successive section more interesting than the last which keeps the listener gripped to the song.
(The infographic shows the structure of the radio edit purchased from iTunes which was 3mins : 35secs long. The YouTube edit was 4mins : 9secs and the Spotify version was an epic 5mins : 3secs).
Verse vs Chorus Width
This is something I’ve seen in almost every track I’ve analyzed. The chorus is mixed wider than the verse. This makes the chorus feel larger and more encapsulating than the verse. This can only be achieved if the verse is mixed fairly centrally to create the contrast.
Mark ‘Spike’ Stents thorough work correcting phase issues is displayed in the EXPOSE screen grab below. The correlation heat map is very focused towards the right-hand side ‘+1’ label. This mix would translate to mono very well!
The constant bass throughout the arrangement gives this track a loudness range of around 3 to 4. This means that the different sections have a very similar loudness.
When I dropped ‘Uprising’ (purchased from iTunes) into EXPOSE, I was expecting some horrific peaks… Considering it was released in 2009 when MFiT wasn’t a well-known initiative and streaming normalization wasn’t a factor that many engineers considered. However, as you can see, the track only peaks above 0dBTP (decibels True Peak) on three isolated occasions. This is better than many tracks in iTunes Top 100 today! I suspect that the track was mastered to 0dBTP using a high-quality true peak meter and the peaks were introduced when converting from a high-quality file to AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) for iTunes.
This track streams a little lower than the -14 LUFS average. This could be because of the considerably un-dynamic loudness range. Though this is just speculation based on my research on normalization recommendations described in EBU R-128.
Muse’s music has a particularly thick and compressed sound, proven by the fact that Spotify turned Uprising down by 5dB. Let’s see with their next album if they go for a more dynamic approach to optimize their music for streaming platforms. Perhaps they’ll stick to the sound that has worked for them for over a decade.
UPDATE : MUSE just released an official music video for their song 'Something Human' (new album coming Nov 2018)... Youtube plays the audio 5.1dB quieter than the original volume, so it looks like MUSE are sticking to their loud and compressed sound.
Youtube’s normalization process is super consistent. Yet another track coming in bang on -13 LUFS. For 2009, -8.6 integrated LUFS was fairly conservative, so ‘Uprising’ can be seen as a relatively forward-thinking production. Mastering to 0dBTP and a conservative loudness future proofs your music.
What Did We Learn
- Automating distortion to different sections of a track can help differentiate the sections sonically.
- Checking timing and phase on recorded drum tracks is absolutely essential for punchy drums.
- The G-Series SSL console was used extensively to get the ‘Muse’ sound.
- Switching synth sounds after the first chorus can help keep the progression of the track interesting.
- Two de-essers can sound better than one.
- Getting the mix to sound very similar when heard in both mono and stereo can help get a super solid mix that translates well in many playback scenarios.
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.