Mastering The Mix

Decoding The Mix #2: The ‘Hit Maker’ Engineers

In this blog, I’ll be analysing the track My My My by Troye Sivan. I chose this track as it was mixed by Serban Ghenea, who is currently without a doubt the most sought-after mixing engineer in the world. The track was mastered by Randy Merrill, one of the senior mastering engineers at the highly acclaimed 'Sterling Sound' studios. Serban and Randy are credited with some of the most successful releases in recent years.

 

By taking a really close look at how these ‘hit maker’ engineers approached the track we might uncover some ways we can improve our future productions.

 

Structure and Arrangement

 

This track is led by the vocals, bass, and kick, which are heard almost constantly throughout the track. These three elements are embellished by the secondary channels that come in and out of the track to add contrast between the sections and to keep the listener engaged. This simplicity helps keep the musical ideas simple to digest which adds to how memorable the track is.

 

The track’s arrangement can be broken down into 10 main elements (counting the backing vocals as one). Next time you’re sitting in front of a mix with 90 channels, ask yourself if simplifying the arrangement would give you a better result. Perfecting a single sound will often give much better result than adding layer upon layer. Too many layers will eventually give you a bloated sound and your mix will suffer.

 

Structure of My My My - Troye Sivan

 

Separation In The Mix

 

During the busiest sections of the track, there are about 9 elements playing simultaneously. Let’s look at how Ghenea has placed each element in the frequency spectrum and in the stereo field.

 

Stereo Spread My My My - Troye Sivan

 

This track is mixed super wide! There’s a build-up of instruments from 200Hz to around 5kHz, so to give each element it’s own space, the stereo width has been utilised.

 

Low Frequencies Analysis

The kick and bass drive throughout the whole track at a pretty constant level. The only times they’re not in the arrangement is during the 4 bar intro and the 8 bar bridge. Both the kick and the bass have a short and punchy character and they almost glue together as one sound. The kick is slightly louder than the bass in the balance of the mix and has a slightly higher frequency range. The kick is pure mono whereas the bass is mixed slightly wider which gives some separation to the two channels. The kick and bass have no obvious volume automation from verse to chorus. 

 

LEVELS low pass

 

Mid Frequencies Analysis

The majority of the channels have energy in the mids, so the mixing engineer has had to use the whole stereo spectrum to give each element it’s own space. As you can see from the image below, LEVELS is showing that the correlation during the chorus is right on the brink of phase issues becoming a serious problem.

 

LEVELS chorus wide

 

Listening in mono certainly changes the mix considerably. The widest element in the mix is the Vocal Synth which is what has the most obvious phase issue. It’s soloed during the intro so I was able to zone in and uncover how much phasing was going on. The image below shows what happens when you push sounds super wide. It sounds great in the context of the whole mix, but some frequencies disappear when heard in mono.

 

LEVELS showing phase issues

 

High Frequencies Analysis

The verse has quite tame high frequencies with the focus being the vocal, kick and bass. The hi-hats in the chorus open up the sound and give a dramatic lift to the high frequencies. The vocal synth has a slowly opening low-pass filter during the last 8 bars of each verse. It then opens out during the chorus giving a massive lift to the energy of the track in the high frequencies.

 

Verse Width vs Chorus Width

The verse seems to be deliberately mostly mono with a hint of wide elements here and there. This puts the listener in a frame of mind and sets a reference for the width of the song. The chorus is mixed extremely wide, giving an almost shocking juxtaposition to the verse. This contrast differentiates the sections and keeps the listener gripped to the song.

 

Verse mono chorus wide

 

Effects and Depth

 

I find using headphones the best way to unpick the use of reverb and spatial effects in a mix.

 

The musical elements in this track have an amazing sense of space yet still sound really punchy, and if you listen to the reverb in the first verse you can see why. A gated reverb has been used on the rhythmic elements. A gated reverb opens up the space then cuts out before the next transient. This let’s you increase the reverb while keeping the overall mix clean and transparent.

 

Gated reverb explanation

 

The vocal reverb during the verse is quite subtle, giving a close sensation to the listener. This then opens up to a more prominent and longer reverb during the chorus which gives the impression of a growth in space.


Technical Analysis

 

Transients

Just by looking at the waveform we can see this isn’t your standard ‘loudness war’ master. The transients are very clear and the sounds haven’t been squashed by compression or limiting. The sections are very clear and distinguishable. The verse looks more sparse and slightly quieter than the chorus and the middle 8 shows a considerable change in loudness and instrumentation.

Punchy transients master

This kind of master is only possible when a lot of thought goes into carefully controlling the dynamics during the mix. You can get the same result from a balance of great tracking, purposeful automation, and transparent compression.

  

MFiT

My My My has the ‘Mastered for iTunes’ badge on the iTunes store, so I was surprised to find that my download was clipping. The idea with MFiT is that the mastering engineer leaves enough headroom to ensure no clipping will happen when the file is transcoded to AAC for delivery to the customer.

That being said, the master is a lot more dynamic than what you would expect to find from a loudness wars master. During the loudness wars, it was common to find tracks mastered to -6 LUFS integrated. At -10.5 LUFS integrated this track certainly hasn’t had the life compressed out of it. 

The loudness range is 6.9 LU, which shows there is a considerable dynamic difference between the verses and choruses.

 

Mastered for iTunes technical analysis

 

YouTube

This is where it gets interesting… In the ‘Stats For Nerds’ section of YouTube, you can see that the normalisation has only brought the track down by 0.1dB. If they had uploaded the same file as the MFiT bounce, YouTube would have reduced the loudness by about 2dB. That leads me to believe that they created a ‘YouTube optimised’ bounce.

 

Youtube Stats For Nerds audio analysis

We can see that the YouTube bounce has more punch (+0.7DR) and a lower loudness relative to the peak compared to the MFiT bounce. So they reduced the compression to create a more dynamic master whilst keeping the peaks much lower. Bottom line is that this is a great example of mastering for YouTube done right.

 

(The red at the beginning is EXPOSE catching the phase issues from the Vocal Synth).

 

Youtube master technical analysis

 

Spotify

My My My Streams at -14.1 LUFS integrated which is almost bang on the average of -14 LUFS. The peak is a little lower on Spotify at -2.34dBTP (decibels true peak) which suggests that they may have used the same bounce for both Youtube and Spotify. Considering the track is already very dynamic, I would consider making just one ‘streaming’ bounce perfectly reasonable.

 

Spotify master technical analysis

 

What Did We Learn:

 

  • When there is build up in the mids, use the stereo spectrum to achieve separation.
  • Gated reverb gives rhythmic elements space without compromising punch.
  • Mixing the chorus wider than the verse adds impact and contrast.
  • We can still get a huge sounding mix with just 10 elements.
  • We should be creating streaming bounces if we’re not already.

Now Its 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. I’ve filled in the cheat-sheet for My My My below.

 

Never Get Stuck Again cheatsheet

Never Get Stuck Again cheatsheet

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