The virtual band Gorillaz was created in 1998 by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. In April 2017 the Gorillaz released their 5th studio album ‘Humanz’ which was mostly composed using GarageBand on an iPad. The album was a commercial success debuting at number two on the UK Albums Chart. It also reached number two on the US Billboard 200 with 140,000 album-equivalent units, of which 115,000 were pure album sales.
Andromeda was released as the fourth single from the album and is certainly a notable ‘stand-out’ track from the collection. It was nominated for Best Dance Recording at the 2018 Grammy Awards and held the 60th position on the 2017 year-end chart for Billboard’s US Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. Let’s dive in and see what we can learn from this excellent production.
Andromeda was mixed by Stephen Sedgwick who has mixed all of the Gorillaz music as well as working with other heavy hitters in the music business such as Blur, Paul Weller, and Adele. His magic mix bus chain remains the same on every song starting with a Chandler Curve Bender EQ going into an Alan Smart C2 compressor, going into a Manley Variable-Mu compressor, and then going into a Cranesong Ibis mastering EQ.
These are his go-to tools to add the finishing touches to any mix he’s working on. The Curve Bender helps him tonally shape the sound and introduce analog vibes. The Alan Smart C2 lets him dial in some punch to bring out the transients across the whole mix. The Manley Variable-Mu gives the mix that final glue and he uses the Cranesong Ibis EQ to dial in top-end sparkle when it’s needed.
In your next session, load up 4 plugins on your mix bus that have the following functionality:
- Analog emulation EQ (Pultec / Curve Bender / Maag / Manley Massive Passive)
- Punchy Compressor (Distressor / Slate Digital VBC / Fairchild 670 )
- Glue Compressor (Manley Variable-Mu / SSL G-Master Buss Compressor / Shadow Hills)
- Sparkle EQ (Pultec / Curve Bender / Maag / Manley Massive Passive)
When you’re ready to make the final adjustments to your mix, tweak these plugins to get your mix jumping out of the speakers and sounding great.
Andromeda was recorded to half-inch tape on a Studer A820, recorded at 30ips on 900 tape. As with the other records in the album, Sedgwick pushed the CAL to +7.5 and had it peaking high. You have to be careful when running a tape machine or a tape emulation plugin too hard as you begin to lose the clarity and separation in the mix. However, when you get the settings just right you get a really solid bottom end and the high-frequencies become smooth and sweet sounding.
Andromeda is an example of a beautifully balanced mix that creates a very rich and interesting texture using only a handful of sounds. Looking below we can see that the lead synth and vocal have their own space in the mix, the kick and bass occupy the low end, and there are two pads that essentially fill in the gaps. If you imagine the image below without the blue ‘High Pad’ and the pink ‘Pad Synth’ the arrangement would look and sound empty. If you feel like your track is sounding thin, try using a strategically positioned pad to fill up that space and see if it adds richness to your mix without messing up the clarity.
The kick has a touch of width which is an uncommon approach when it comes to placing the low-end of a kick in the stereo spectrum. Often the sub is felt rather than heard, but in this instance the width lifts the punch of the kick’s sub-frequencies making it more obvious in the mix.
The totally mono bass interplays nicely with the kicks placement. The bass has a fairly complex rhythm but the patch doesn’t have an immediate attack which allows the kick to dominate the punch in the low frequencies. Getting the attack of sounds to compliment each other enhance the listener’s ability to identify individual sounds, which increases clarity. If both the kick and the bass had sharp transients it might be hard to determine which was which for the average listener, making it confusing.
Mixing Classic With Commercial
Andromeda has a distinct and unique sound, full of character and vibe. Albarn and producer Twilite Tone got their inspiration for this track from two of their favorite records, ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson and ‘I Can’t Go For That’ by Hall and Oats. So much so that the original working title of Andromeda was ‘I Can’t Go For Billie Jean’. They wanted to take the magic and groove of those classic tracks and inject it into a commercially relevant production.
The mixing approach was to make it sound modern so people listening to current Pop and R&B would connect with it. The goal was to keep the mix comparable to other chart-topping hits regarding punch, bottom-end, clarity, and separation whilst tastefully nodding to old-school classic tracks. The songwriting and production choices (mostly Prophet and Chroma sounds) give the track so much inherent character that it would have been almost impossible for the mixing or mastering engineers to make the song sound bland.
One of the reasons Andromeda sounds incredible is that it ticks all the boxes regarding technical details. Going easy on the limiter whilst still getting a competitively loud sound means the track retains the transients and punch of the mix before it was mastered. Our audio quality control plugin EXPOSE shows that the dynamic range reading stays relatively high at 8.0DR showing how transparent the approach to limiting was. At -11.1 LUFS integrated it will only get turned down slightly by streaming sites and the mastering engineer also made sure there were no true peaks. All round perfection on this one.
What Did We Learn?
- Using a magic mix-bus chain can help you add the finishing touches to any mix.
- You have to be careful when running a tape machine or a tape emulation plugin too hard as you begin to lose the clarity and separation in the mix.
- If you feel like your track is sounding thin, try using a strategically positioned pad to fill up that space and see if it adds richness to your mix without messing up the clarity.
- Adding some width to the kick can bring out the punch of the sub. Don’t go too wide and be sure to put the bass in mono so the two compliment each other.
- Be inspired by classic tracks but keep the mixing approach relevant to make it accessible to today’s consumers.
- Nailing all the technical details is the icing on the cake of any production.
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 cheat sheet to help you decode any mix in minutes.