The Continuing Saga of Erin

I’ve talked with some people about mixing/producing “Erin,” by Brendan Loughrey, and it comes up, often, that I’m not completely happy with the album as it is available, now, via iTunes, Amazon, Google, CDBaby, and so on.  Now, that is not to say that I think it’s a badly produced or mixed album.  My dissatisfaction, actually, is largely because I’m a freaking perfectionist, for one thing, and secondly, and most importantly, we were in a time crunch and I don’t think I gave Brendan’s music that he poured his heart and soul into enough time, love or attention.  There are some mixers out there who would say that three to four weeks was ample time to mix 13 songs and, on some level, I concede that fact.  That said, when you’re learning things from the ground up and having your utopian little mixing world turned upside down as you encounter things you’ve not had to work with before, a month is nowhere near sufficient. 

I think what I’ll do, here, is a track by track look look at challenges that each track introduced and how, now, in retrospect and in practice with new attempts at mixes, have addressed them.

Track By Track

01 – Tiocfaidh Ár Lá

If you look up the definition of “Irish Rebel Rock,” this should be the definition you find.  Full of vitriol and bite in the original versions you can find smattered across the youTubes, this song lost some of that when we recorded and produced it.  It sounded…produced.  Weird, right?  Well, part of the charm from the originals that was missing were doubled vocals and some fairly yelled.  Now, we didn’t record any that were that up front, no yelling.  That said, we did several takes.  So, when listening to the version on the CD, it always felt…softer…than I wanted.  Part of that is the violin.  It adds a lot to the song, but also introduces a kinder, gentler dynamic.  That’s OK – it needed a little polish, especially since it’s to be featured in the film “Dougherty,” later this year.  Anecdotally, it would seem they chose to use, at least for the trailer, the version of the song from YouTube.  I’d rather they use the version I have, now.

So, the biggest challenge was keeping the bite while giving it some polish.  There were other factors involved, but what I have in front of me, now, is a much better mix, in my opinion.  Also, I believe I was able to get better dynamics out of it, as well.  The waveforms look better and are only marginally different when played at the same volume, back to back, with the new mix being ever so slightly quieter…maybe 0.5dB, tops.

Finally, and this was just a personal “I wonder if this will sound good” addition, I placed Liam Neeson’s delivery of Michael Collins’ quote about “refusal” leading into the music.  I think it worked.

The CD version of the song:

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The new mix:

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02 – I Believe

“I Believe” is a fun romp that will get your toes tapping and your hands clapping.  Seriously.  It’s a fun song and it’s got a lot going on, even though it’s just the guitar, bass, vocals and drum.  Brendan’s strumming style is actually what opened up some challenges, this time around, as it tended to eat the high hat with the sound of the strum.  Equally problematic, the drums sound, to me, like “metal” drums and not necessarily, “Irish Rebel Rock” drums.  When it went to press, I felt the vocals were too far forward, the dynamics of the drums were less than I wanted and the drums, themselves, sounded too “big,” if that’s the right term; they just didn’t fit, to me.  I didn’t know what to do with with, then.  The more I tweaked the vocals, the more the guitars disappeared.  The more I tweaked the drums, the more subdued the vocals got.  The more I pumped the bass into the mix, the more everything got overwhelmed really quickly.  So…

I wanted to try the multi-take, vocal doubling on this, as well.  It wasn’t really as good, in a lot of ways: it actually lost power – softened it up, a bit. So, I basically just worked on stereo expansion at the “power points” in the chorus.  My problem is, I don’t like how a lot of the stereo expanders sound, so I knew I couldn’t just apply it to the main vocals and go.  I ended up copying the main vocals out four times, setting them at –100, –45, 45 and 100 degrees, respectively, and applied volume automation to make them come in at the correct times.  It sounds fairly seamless, which is what I was going for.  I also just had a problem with just how dry everything was, except for the drums, which leapt out of the mix, so this time, the big focus was balance.  I think I found it while still retaining a decent dynamic range.  There’s only a miniscule difference in volume between the two, but this is a MUCH better mix.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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03 – Lyrics of Your Own

This was a hard song to get a handle on.  First and foremost, the snare on the CD version, in the intro, is harsh, snappy, way too forward and kind of painful to listen to.  On the release, though, the vocals were just about right.  Actually, pretty much everything else with the song made me really happy as it got sent off to press.  It all came back to the snare, for me.  Well, that, and the overall volume pushing and lack of dynamic range.

So, what I set about to do was get that snare reigned in – mostly an EQ issue, as the “honk” tone was really what stuck out, to me.  From there, it was just getting everything to sit nicely in the mix and balance each other out.  Thankfully, like I said, I was pretty happy with the one that went to press, so there wasn’t really a lot to do.  Now, it just came down to keeping the dynamic range in check.

The CD Version:

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The new mix:

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04 – Happy Days

A nice, shuffl-y, groovy song that, really, my only kibitzes revolved around how out front the vocals are and how overly pumped the whole song was.  Well, that, and I really wanted to give it drums that didn’t sound like they would be at home in an Amon Amarth song – they just didn’t fit, to me.  That, and we made the executive decision to cut out the whistle because I didn’t know how to wrangle it into the mix without just cutting through and stabbing your ears.  I wanted to see if I could put it in, in some capacity.  The dynamic range, as was the case with mostly everything, needed a little caressing, as well.

So, a lot of re-balancing and EQing.  I also wanted to give it more depth and give the vocals a bit of reverb.  I ended up with light reverb almost all around, but mostly on the back edges, since it wasn’t really a song that needed much more than just that little sprinkling of depth.  The whistle fit in, but needed automation.  I ended up with it coming in during the intro and then, sparingly, during the chorus.  It seemed to fit and work pretty well.  Overall, I like the balance a lot better and I reclaimed some precious dynamic range in the process.  I also tweaked the bass a little to give it more of the “precision” sound.  It fits well.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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05 – I Quit Drinking

Another romp of a song that could very easily be a country hit, if given the chance.  This song was a bear, mainly because it is such an upbeat and busy song.  There’s a lot going on with the high hat.  There’s a lot of strumming.  The bass guitar line is rocking.  That said, the vocals had to be pushed hard to stand out in this mix and the bass was a different bass than was used on a lot of the songs and cut through with aggression to burn.  So…dynamic range was out the window with this one when sent to press and I cringe when I listen to it, now, hearing the vocals crisp out, or the guitars get a little thin or the bass crunch.  So, really, the challenge was to get the song to the same level of energy and at least close to the same volume without pushing the song into the realm of absolutely pumped out.

So, I had gone the route of a billion tracks in order to give the vocals some beef without compressing the hell out of them, and, well…I trimmed those back down.  A compressor here, a limiter, there, and it started to sit well, together.  The one thing that I started doing was not only mixing in mono, but without anything on the master bus – leaving the mastering to…the mastering.  It was interesting, though, because the song didn’t have much punch, that way, in mixing, but I could hear where everything was sitting and could make sure everything could be heard.  Now, in this case, to squeeze this for everything it was worth, I have less dynamic range than I would have liked, but it’s still much more shapely than what we shipped and, volume-wise, they’re close, with the CD version winning every time.  That’s OK – this still rocks and I don’t hear anything sizzling, crisping, crunching or otherwise cringing under the weight of the compression.

The CD Version:

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The new mix:

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06 – Another Year

This track is why I started writing this blog entry, originally.  It was Brendan’s brother Barry’s birthday.  The crux is that Barry died 15 years ago, leaving Brendan with a huge hole in his heart and what, after hearing the story behind it, is a very hard song to edit.  If there was a song you just want to *be*, it’s this one.  So, criticizing it, in any way, is hard, too, because of how close it is to the heart, anyway, so it was something I tried very hard to make “the perfect track” (there’s no such thing…) for Brendan.  I, ultimately, wasn’t happy with the result.  Sort of the same reasons that have been cropping up – the voice a bit too up front, the flute was almost invisible, there was a note on the guitar that was just off.  I’m glad Brendan went with the thunder in the beginning – he was initially afraid it would draw quick comparisons to Garth Brooks’ “Thunder Rolls.”  That said, I did a poor job transitioning that into the beautiful guitar and violin parts on the album version.  So, bottom line – this song deserved better and I was going to give it a go.

What I really wanted to do was get it to where it was right after the first listen with Brendan after we did a rough mix with the violins.  For reference, it hit everyone and was pretty emotional – we were all awestruck at how much that violin added.  The mix on the album, though, I don’t feel had that same raw, emotional feel.  So…how to capture that – that’s the question.  I think I did.  We’ll see.  There’s not a huge difference in waveform or dynamics because it wasn’t horrible, it just needed finesse.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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07 – Pack Your Bags

I’ve described this track a number of ways – freight train, monster, behemoth, and so on.  The bottom line is that it is an absolutely huge track with a massive amount of sound, the proverbial “wall of sound,” if you will.  Basically, I was happy with how it ended up on the album, but, again, vocals that were a little too up front and there was a deplorable lack of dynamic range.

One of the biggest challenges, and why the vocals kind of stick out more than I wanted to, was because the vocals employ a good deal of dynamics, themselves, moving closer to and then away from the mic, giving it enough variation that just picking a level and going will lead to one line being way too soft – almost unintelligible – while the next line will blow your ears out.  The key was automation and taking the time to learn some different techniques, as well, for making vocals thicker and louder without crisping them out.  I started looking into other methods and found an interesting method by which I wrote a vocal track with a rider to an automated track.  This gave me a leveled, partially processed track that didn’t sound as forced or crackly as what I had gotten when trying “normalization” techniques.

The biggest challenge was something that I discovered with compression on this track for the CD – the more one thing gets bumped, the more something else disappears.  It was really frustrating to try to get each element to sing on its own: the voice, the guitar, the drums, the violin, the bass and the bagpipes all needed room to breathe and it was really crowded.  This time around, I used a bunch of different methods, but the thing I really tried to do was make sure the frequencies weren’t battling it out.  The guitars and violin are the main challenge, as they occupy a lot of the same frequencies and I couldn’t just use ducking because of the strumming style on the guitar – it would ALL be ducking. So, I just shifted where they were in the sound field and it seems to work pretty well.  The waveform doesn’t look a whole lot different, but there is room to breathe – though, not much – so there’s, to me, at least some feeling that I brought some dynamic range to this monster powerhouse.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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08 – Most Days

This was a song that was much easier to work on before knowing the stories behind it.  It’s wasn’t as much from the “oh, man, what a downer” or anything along those lines but more from the same standpoint as “Another Year” and that’s wanting to make it perfect.  Of course, that is the bane of any mixer/producer’s existence, that fabled “perfect.”  In this case, though, I was really happy with the overall feel of the song.  The violins were perfect.  The voice was emotive, though, again, forward for my tastes, and the drums didn’t sound like they were borrowed from Arch Enemy.

So…again, the main focus, here, was getting the vocals to sit better in the mix – and the mix allow them to sit and still be heard clearly – and to get the dynamic range back because even for a ballad-esque song, this baby was pretty beefed up, signal-wise.  So, my goal was give the mix enough headroom that everything was crystal clear but still able to amplified, tweaked, compressed, you name it, and still maintain a good waveform with dynamic range.

Now, it’s quite obvious the new mix is quieter.  It’s consistent with the rest of the album thus far, though, and I prefer the more sedate version where I let the vocals get crisp – gruff, even – in a couple of spots.  I could have used automation to “iron it out,” as it were, but, you know what?  This is such a visceral song when it comes down to it…I don’t see it as out of place.  I would actually pay money to have a version of this where Brendan duets with Tom Waits.  At any rate, the drums don’t sound “metal,” the bass is still quite present, the guitars carry through and the violins soar while Brendan croons, which is as it should be.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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09 – Jack

“Jack” is another jamming song full of vitriol and catchy hooks.  It also had, when we sent it to press, vocals that were too far forward, drums that sounded a bit too “metal,” and, again, very limited dynamic range.  That said, this is a song that is meant to be in your face and pushy.  So, there was a balance I had to find with it to give it aggression as well as a mix that had gotten a bit more massaged and opened up a lot.

The vocal rider wasn’t as necessary, but was a good first step.  I was able to trim down from my original attempt to beef the vocals without over-pushing them, which ended with 10 parallel tracks at different pans with different levels.  So, it was nice to have only two tracks – main and the reverbed background vocals.  The drums just needed a little massaging since they needed to have the power they had, but needed more life.  Reverb on the snare brought that out.  From there, it was just a matter of getting things to sit, properly and not overwhelm each other or disappear, completely.

I managed to keep the apparent volume almost identical.  By apparent, I mean, obviously, it’s reduced in the overall dB output, but it still *feels* loud and in your face enough to be considered “Irish Rebel Rock.” 

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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10 – Sweet Road

This is a song that would fit perfectly playing in the background of a bar scene, black and white, with a man holding a glass of whiskey – Irish, of course, alone while the rest of the world bustles around him.  Capturing that feeling was my primary goal and I feel like the album version falls short, in that regard.  Again, a lot revolves around the vocals.  In addition to them being too far forward, I missed a LOT of distortions – mainly as a result of pumping the 44KHz audio further than it should have been – that, for me, took away from the overall feeling of the song.  That said, I could see how some distortion in the voice could definitely add to the song, giving it more of an air of that desperation that would fit.  Unfortunately, it was the peaky, crispy distortion that makes me cringe.  Also, the drums were too “metal” and the bass could have used some EQ shaping.  So, what to do, what to do…

My main goal was to give roughly the same volume while dialing back the vocals to a point where they fit well and sound good and opening up a lot more dynamic range throughout.  I felt the vocals needed some reverb, too.  Not the 80s “every song sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral” reverb, but some plate reverb to give it a little more life and breath and fill in some of the hollow parts of the mix.  The snare needed some reverb, as well, to help it poke through the guitars.

The “perfexion” mix sounded a LOT more polished than the CD version, making it sound more like a demo, something that makes me both happy and sad.  I wished I had been able to give Brendan *this* version for the CD.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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11 – Tattooed on My Tears

This song was really fun – it’s a great song, with a great vibe and great movement.  The violin shines, the drums fit nicely, the guitar sits well, the bass is rock steady and the vocal line is really engaging.  So, what’s my problem with it?  Like the previous song, I have a hard time listening to the CD version because the vocals are a bit too up front, but more important, are victimized by distortions and compression issues that came from only having a limited experience in trying to get the vocals out front.  Now, it’s sort of another wall of sound song, inasmuch as just about all frequencies are spoken for at one time or another.  That said, there was still “space,” and it needed reverb.  Not whooshing reverb, but some life to the vocals, snap to the snare and maybe some delay/verb on the violin to just make it pop.  There was also a need for dynamic range because, well…the top waveform looks like a little stuffed sausage.

The most important part of “perfexion” was to get the vocals to work – and be loud enough – while keeping everything else in balance.  I think it turned out nicely, and, again, wish that this was what I could have given Brendan on his CD.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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12 – What’s the Use?

Another song that would fit perfectly in a bar scene, it’s another one where I listen to mix and feel sad that I wasn’t able to do better – the bass is audible, sometimes; the guitar sits nicely, but doesn’t have much personality; the violin feels like an afterthought and the vocals are a bit far forward. 

So, again, the challenge was to keep the perceived volume in line with the CD version while giving each instrument its own voice and space within the mix and still having breathing room in the dynamic range.  In actuality, the violin actually fit better In a more background capacity, this time, and fit well, while still adding depth.  Overall, I really like how the new mix sounded: more subdued but, in my opinion, more powerful than the CD version.  I think the biggest change was simply pulling the vocals back a little, but also reigning in the drum so that it wasn’t making the overall track compression go a little overboard.  I reclaimed a bit of the dynamic range and gave it to the guitars.  I think it worked a lot better.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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13 – Old Ireland

A slow building rebel-rock tune, this builds in volume and energy from the beginning to when the first chorus kicks in, bringing the full force of the song to bear.  If it weren’t for crisping out of the vocals and a little bit of “burying” in the overall mix, I would say this is one of the ones I was most happy with on the produced CD.  My main complaint was that the “reentry” portion of the song lacked enough dynamics to give it a lot of power.  By re-entry, I mean where the song lulled to a slow drive and then jumps back into the full-bore, driving, song. That said, I really like the “perfexion” mix a lot.

I EQ’d the drums a bit better.  I put reverb where it needed to be – mainly the snare.  I reigned in the volume a bit, but without stifling any of the energy.  There’s a lot to be said for a CLA76 thrown into the mix, so to speak.

The CD version:

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The new mix:

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In summary, “Erin” was an amazing album to be a part of, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity.  My only regret is that I wasn’t able to give Brendan that album I feel he deserved because I didn’t have the skill he needed, then.  I’m glad things are changing and I’m learning a lot and producing better music and, like I said, I’m so grateful for the learning opportunities and experience.  Oh, and as a bit of a shameless plug, you can find Brendan Loughrey’s “Erin” on Amazon, CDBaby, GooglePlay, iTunes, and from Brendan, himself when he’s at shows. 

Maybe, at some point, I’ll play the new mixes for Brendan, if he wants, but for now, I’ll keep refining and learning – not necessarily on these songs, but will be getting to a point where if there’s a new album to record, or simply wants a remastered version of “Erin,” I can give him what needs and what I wanted to give him, the first time.

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