The Chainsmokers had immediate success with their debut EDM single ‘#Selfie’ released on Dim Mak records in 2014. Their unique sound evolved from EDM into more mainstream electronic pop music and only 2 years later they released a worldwide smash hit. Closer was the first number one single on Billboard Hot 100 for both The Chainsmokers and singer Halsey. It held the number one spot for an incredible 12 weeks. In 2018 Closer was certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for selling over 10 million units in the United States. As of 2019 Closer is the 3rd most streamed song on Spotify of all time with over 1.4 billion streams.
Let’s try to uncover the finer details of this track and decode some of the reasons this was a success.
Even The Best Producers Use Mixing Engineers
Chainsmokers duo, Andrew Taggart and Freddy Kennett, are world-class music producers. They know how to write engaging songs and their technical knowledge enables them to make great sounding records. But, that doesn’t make them complacent… They believe their music should be flawless before it’s released to the public, which is where their mixing engineer Jordan ‘Dj Swivel’ Young comes in.
In an interview with Sound On Sound, Young talks about how many of the producers he works with are so talented that the mix arrives 90% finished. He just has to make a few volume, panning, corrective EQ and compression adjustments. He and Taggert work closely together trying to find issues with the sound and fixing it in the production rather than in the mix. In ‘Closer’ they agreed that a softer bass patch would help it work better with the kick, and it did. You can go round in circles trying to fix something in the mix when a simple production tweak might give much better results.
Even if you’re super happy with your sound, it’s worth getting opinions from people you trust to give you feedback on your music. Getting a mixing or mastering engineer to tweak the final sonics of your audio helps bring out the absolute best in your music, and most will offer feedback to help you get the best result for your music. It’s a small investment compared to the hours of your life you have already invested in creating a song.
"LEVELS is the perfect tool to use as a second set of ears. Sometimes an unfamiliar mix environment doesn’t always translate sound very well. LEVELS allows me to double check and make sure the room isn’t playing any tricks and that my mix will translate well wherever I go.”
- Jordan ‘DJ Swivel’ Young (Mix engineer for Closer - The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey)
Less Is More
DJ Swivel’s Pro Tools mix session of ‘Closer’ contained 82 tracks, 39 of which were vocal tracks. It’s incredible to think that such a pure mix had so many elements adding to the rich final sound. It’s good to have complete control over your mix when you’re in the production stage, but try to consolidate at the later stages fo the mix to help you get into a flow. Many of those 39 vocal channels can be bounced into just a few stems once they’re mixed, making them easier to manage.
A Simple Set Up and Talent Is Enough
In an interview with Billboard, Taggart said: “I never thought we’d be able to write and record a song in the back of a shitty tour bus that would be this successful”.
Sound On Sound reproved that mixing engineer Young mixed all of the Chainsmokers material in his home studio, which consists of just a laptop, DAW and monitors. Specifically, Genelec 8351a monitors in a room with no acoustic treatment.
Having the right gear can help bring out the best in your talents, but not having specific gear can never be used as an excuse for not creating great material. Working hard at your craft and knowing your gear inside out is a great way to maximize the value of what you already have. Read your plugin manuals, take mixing and mastering courses, invest in your talent first. The gear is secondary to this.
Stereo Spread and Frequency Balance
The most notable thing about this mix for me is the extremely warm and rich sounding synth chord stabs that you can hear during the drop. It’s placed fairly wide in the mix and spans a wide range of frequencies (around 90Hz - 12kHz). Lower frequencies (below 150Hz) can be problematic when placed wide in a mix, and you can hear a bit of phase cancellation with the synth chord stabs when you monitor the track in mono. The sound becomes much thinner and less rich, which would be a problem in clubs. So as great as it sounds in stereo, this is something to watch out for if you want your track to sound great when played through a club or festival sound system.
Another interesting characteristic is that the kick and bass take up very little space in the frequency spectrum. The Chainsmokers chose sounds that are very strong and punchy, without taking up much mix real estate. This reduces the competition between the various elements in the mix.
During the drop, the focus is on mostly the kick, synth chord stabs, and the lead synth. The rest are tertiary and back up those main three channels. This makes the mix very easy to digest and doesn’t require much effort from the listener. Fine tuning just a handful of channels to sound absolutely perfect is a great way to keep the mix sounding both rich and decongested.
Spotify reduces the volume of Closer by around 5.36 dB (assuming they didn’t upload a track had digital clipping…)
And YouTube reduces the volume of closer by 4.7dB
Closer is a punchy track, but when you listen to the hi hat’s in the sides and some of the percussive elements they get a little lost in the limiting. Like the transients are squished and lose clarity. They might have achieved a more clear and punchy track by creating a streaming version with less limiting. Even 1 or 2 dB less limiting can make all the difference and let the track breathe.
What Did We Learn?
- Getting a mixing or mastering engineer to tweak the final sonics of your audio helps bring out the absolute best in your music.
- Less is more. Consolidate channels you’ve already mixed to help speed up your workflow.
- Having the right gear can help bring out the best in your talents, but not having specific gear can never be used as an excuse for not creating great material.
- Lower frequencies (below 150Hz) can cause phase cancellation when placed wide in a mix. The sound becomes much thinner and less rich when you monitor the track in mono, which would be a problem in clubs.
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.