Not many songs can boast 14 consecutive weeks at number one in the US, as well as being certified diamond (selling at least 10 million copies). Uptown Funk won two Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, and the Brit Award for British Single of the Year. It also has over 3.4 billion views on YouTube as of December 2018, making it the fourth most viewed YouTube video of all time.
So what helped this production connect with so many people? Can we define elements of the artistic brilliance and inject them into our own work? Let’s decode this mix!
Getting A ‘Live’ Feeling
Ronson isn’t a ‘fix it in the mix’ guy. When he’s recording audio, he’s trying to capture the best possible take and focusing on mic placement for tone. For example, he’s been known to use just one mic when recording drums (he did this when working with Amy Winehouse and Dap-Kings). This gives a limited amount of post-production control so the recording has to be as perfect as possible. Some may see this as a limitation, but Ronson feels this helps in two ways. Firstly, it gives the performer much more ‘intention’ and forces them to be more exact with their delivery. Secondly, it helps move the project forward as he has to commit to the sounds.
Photo credit: MusicOomph.com
With this approach, there’s less scope for quantization and more ‘feel’ is injected into the music. Try shooting for great raw performances in your own productions rather than relying on fixing things in post-production.
The Mark Ronson ‘Tough Compression’ sound
When speaking in an interview, Ronson said:
“The one plugin I use the most is probably the Waves CLA-3A compressor. That was something I picked up from [producer] Jeff Bhasker when we were working on “Uptown Funk.” You throw it on a vocal or a bass track, and it makes everything a little tougher and also makes the mix just a little more centered.”
Why does the CLA-3A add a ‘tough sound’? Because it introduces an emulated analog ‘Total Harmonic Distortion’ (THD) which changes signal shape and content by adding odd and even harmonics of the fundamental frequencies. So as you start to introduce the peak reduction and gain using the compressor, you begin to introduce distortion, which gives the unique character to the sound. If you’re looking for more grit and character for a channel in your production, an LA-3A emulation could be a good compressor to go for.
Uptown Funk is a great example of a successful track that broke a few ‘conventional’ rules. For example, the chorus drops after more than 1 minute into the track, and the entire length is around 4 mins 30 seconds. With most pop songs dropping the chorus in the first 45 seconds and lasting around 3 minutes this is certainly an anomaly.
Let’s look at the structure and figure out how Ronson kept the listener engaged for the duration of the track.
Intro: starts simple allowing space to build. At bar 5 funky guitar comes in and sets the vibe.
Verse One: begins very sparse just drums and vocals easily hooks in the listener. After 8 bars bass and synth/guitar ad libs enter adding more interest.
Pre One: drops down again to drums and vocals. Rising FX lets the audience know something is coming.
Chorus One: has sustained synth which gives a very thick texture. Dramatic difference from Verse.
Verse Two: Sparse again. Push and pull of instrumentation engages the listener. Instrumentation grows in the second half to keep it novel.
Pre Two: drops down again to drums and vocals
Chorus Two: Identical to Chorus One.
Bridge: Sparse and building. Novel funky guitar not heard elsewhere in the track.
Chorus Three: Double Chorus. First identical to Chorus One & Two. Second has offbeat ride cymbal which changed the groove and keeps the listener engaged.
The main ingredient of the structure and instrumentation here is that every 8 bars something gets added or taken away from the arrangement. This keeps feeding the listeners desire for novelty and change. There’s never a moment where you feel sick of listening to the same passage or loop.
Listen to your own songs subjectively as a fan would, and try to ascertain if there are moments where you could introduce new sounds or drop a channel or two to add more interest and change to your arrangement.
Uptown Funk has incredible clarity whilst not being overly bright. When we break down the instrumentation during the chorus and show what frequencies are heard we can understand why.
We can see that there isn’t a lot of energy happening around the 150Hz-450Hz area. The kick and bass occupy the center of the mix in this range and the spoken ‘Doh’ bass is pushed wide so the frequencies aren’t conflicting. Notice also that the kick has a very small amount of stereo width, whereas the bass is completely mono. This allows for a super powerful and clear low end with a lot of punch and groove.
There are also no instruments outputting much energy into the very high-frequencies (20kHz and above). The big synth and the brass start to roll off around 15kHz. It gives the mix a very warm feel and also hints to the sound of the funk influences of the track (Earth Wind & Fire, The Gap Band, Sugarhill Gang, Zapp etc).
There are quite a number of channels around 500Hz to 5kHz, but the stereo separation is clear. The vocals are most central, the brass is a little wider, the big synth is a little wider still and the extra vocal ad libs are super wide.
The success of the stereo placement is how the engineer positioned the conflicting frequencies to maximize separation. Along with keeping the low end free for the kick and bass to rule.
When talking about ‘What is a mastering engineer?’ Bob Katz (legendary mastering engineer) says:
“The mastering engineer must have a musical as well as technical background, good ears, great equipment, and technical knowledge… He must understand what will happen to the recording when it hits the radio, the car, the internet, or the home stereo system." Source.
So it’s important for us to take a look at the technical details (using EXPOSE) and see how the mastering engineer (Tom Coyne: Senior mastering engineer at Sterling Sound) approached the track.
The CD master is super punchy and dynamic. It wasn’t over-compressed or over-limited to get the track competing with the loudest tracks in the charts. This means the transients have retained their natural shape which lets the track breath. It has a true peak of -0.32dBTP (decibels true peak) meaning that it won’t clip when played back through earbuds or speakers, which gives an elevated listening experience. It also minimizes clipping that can occur when the Wav file is transcoded to lossy formats for digital delivery through Spotify and iTunes etc.
What Did We Learn:
- Limiting ourselves during recording can help force us to commit to sounds and get the best possible takes.
- Analog emulation compression plugins can introduce great sounding harmonic distortion that gives character and grit to the sound.
- Switching up the instrumentation every 8 bars can help keep the listener engaged.
- Keeping the low-end free for the kick and the bass helps achieve a solid mix. When instruments fight for the same frequencies in a mix, use stereo width to increase separation and clarity.
- You can make a hit record without trying to make it as loud as possible.
- Aiming for a true peak below 0dBTP enhances the listening experience.
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.