In this blog I’ll be analysing the mix of the most streamed song of 2017; Shape Of You by Ed Sheeran. This track boasts over 3 Billion plays on Youtube and holds the record for most weeks in the Billboard Top 10.
By closely analysing this massive hit hopefully we can come away with some useful ideas to infuse into our own productions.
Keeping The Listener Engaged
As you can see from the arrangement and structure infographic below, there are three main elements playing throughout the track; Vocals, Guitar Percussion Loop and Plucked Chords. Other elements come in and out to add contrast between the sections, but they are secondary. This focus on simplicity keeps the listener engaged to the music without too much effort on their part.
What can we learn from this? When we’re producing and mixing, often it’s better to use less sounds rather than stuffing the mix with a load of layers. Too many layers can make a mix sound congested and ends up confusing the listener.
Separation in The Mix
During the busiest sections of the track, there are about 11 elements playing simultaneously. Let’s look at how the mixer has placed each element in the frequency spectrum and in the stereo field.
As in any mix, the frequencies of the different elements overlap, but everything more or less has it’s own space in the mix. Let’s unpack it further.
Low Frequencies analysis
The kick and bass only come in simultaneously during the drops and the final chorus. The kick dominates the low end and punches through at a slightly higher frequency than the bass. The bass has a rounded low end and soft harmonics. The bass sits subtly behind the kick in the mix whilst proving a solid foundation of the key.
The kick is short and punchy whereas the bass has a longer tail. These contrasting characteristics means they aren’t competing for space and attention so they glue together well.
I can hear that the kick is mono whereas the bass is a little wider. The low pass filter in the stereo spread section of LEVELS helps me confirm this…
If the low frequencies were pure mono they would be dead centre but there is a little bit of width in the bass. Not enough to cause any problems, just enough to add some separation between the kick and the bass.
Middle Frequencies analysis
This is where the bulk of the action is happening. The three driving elements of the track (Lead Vocals, Pluck Chords and Guitar Percussion) all sit in the mids. Notice the Pluck Chords and the Guitar Percussion don’t compete for the same frequencies and can therefore both be mixed centrally in the stereo field. The vocal sits on top of the mid frequencies in terms of volume.
The mixing engineer has used the stereo spectrum to push overlapping frequencies wider so they don’t compete for space. The strummed guitar, BVs and Choir are pushed wide to give space and attention to the Lead Vocal and Plucked Chords (which drive the track).
As you can see below, the instruments and vocal in the verse is placed very mono.
Whereas during the chorus the mixing engineer has really opened up the stereo field. This contrast between the sections gives a really interesting lift to the chorus.
High Frequencies analysis
Many pop tracks have a glistening top end with hi hats and FX. Shape Of You doesn’t! Above 10kHz you’ll only find natural frequencies and harmonics giving the track a warm and organic vibe.
Effects and Depth
If you listen to the track with headphones you’ll get the most obvious picture of the reverb used.
The reverb used throughout the track is quite subtle which gives a really close feel to the music. I can hear that the instrumental elements have a short reverb (around 1 second) and the vocal reverb is slightly longer (2-3 seconds). The vocal reverb is mixed in slightly quieter than the reverb of the Plucked Chords making it seem closer and larger. A great approach to get an upfront vocal.
Some producers like to use the same reverb settings for all their tracks and change the wet/dry amount for variation and separation. In this track I believe the mixer used slightly different settings for each element to create different depths. For example the Synth Atmosphere during the chorus has the most reverb and sits quite far back in the mix.
The tone of each reverb is very consistent across all channels. There aren’t any particularly bright or resonance reverbs that stick out of the mix. This gives the track a very cohesive sound.
As ever is the case with most major label releases, I was disappointed with my findings regarding the technical details of this track.
I bought this song from the MFiT section of iTunes, only to find it definitely wasn’t mastered for iTunes. The peak level was +0.39dB (decibels) and +1.21dBTP (decibels true peak). So when it plays through laptop speakers or earbuds it’s distorting… MFiT is supposed to account for the fact that the WAV uploaded will get transcoded to AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) but whoever mastered this track must have not checked correctly. I always check my masters with EXPOSE and select the MFiT preset to ensure I don’t run into these problems.
Shape Of You is one of the louder tracks on Spotify! Usually tracks stream between -12 to -16 LUFS integrated, but Sheerans track streams at a slightly louder -10.7 LUFS. (It’s just speculation but Spotify might favourably increase the volume of some major label releases. A conclusive answer would require further investigation).
Spotify’s normalisation algorithm turned the track down by 2.13dB. They certainly could have used that headroom to create a punchier sounding master for Spotify.
YouTube’s normalisation algorithm reduced the volume of Shape Of You by 4.28dB, making the track stream at -13.5 LUFS. Considering this track was heard over 3 Billion times through Youtube, I think it would have been beneficial to use that 4dB of headroom to create a punchier and more open sound.
The songwriting and arrangement was good enough to make it the most streamed song of 2017, but they could have delivered a better quality and more dynamic final master to their listeners.
What Made This Track Stand Out?
Shape Of You is a prime example of the fundamentals done right. Great songwriting, great structure and arrangement and a super solid mix.
When writing this song, It wasn’t originally going to be released by Ed. Checkout the video below where the songwriters discuss their approach to the song. The lesson I took from the video is: Due open to working with new styles and ideas. Breaking out of your production mould can make hits. Never stop exploring and learning new techniques.