Dissecting Dilla: Characteristics of the Production & Mix
Now, I do now a couple of engineers who have personally worked with Dilla and they have all said the same thing. That when it comes to the sonics they tend not to do much. He pretty much did his thing and that’s why you hear a fairly homogenous sound across the board. Basically the engineers who were working on projects he produced were basically just trying to make the vocals interact with the beat properly and otherwise leave things as they were.
One more piece of rant. You’re gonna get a lot of good information in this tutorial, but it’s how you apply the information, how you filter it through your own creative sense. That’s what makes you great. You’re never going to be better at being Dilla than Dilla was. And that applies to all producers. THere’s nobody who does Premier better than Premier, there’s nobody who does RJD2 better than RJD2. It just doesn’t happen. You have to do you to be the best you you can be. Ok, little speech there, moving on.
Let’s listen to some Dilla tracks here. I picked a fairly random selection so let’s start with one of my favorites, this one is called Call Me.
[Slum Village – Call Me]
I’m gonna play a couple others real quick, and we’re gonna flip back in between them and compare and contrast a few things. Alright, this next one is called Climax. This one is called It’s Your World.
Now I’m gonna play all three again in quick succession and then I’m going to start talking about certain things that I’m hearing across the board.
Ok so the similarities and differences are gonna be fun. Remember a moment ago I said that the engineers that I knew all basically were just trying to make the vocals work with the beat? The beats have a lot of similarities in those songs. The vocals all sit in completely different places. I think that that’s pretty funny. Anyway, just a little coincidence there. Probably not a coincidence. Ok, but let’s talk about the instrumental part.
Let’s start with the low end. I think if Dilla is known for anything first and foremost besides maybe his chopping technique, it’s probably the way his low end functions. When we listen to those three records, the kick is very similar in all three. It’s very frequency centered in the lower tones: 60 to 80 Hz. It’s a very round sounding kick and the kick itself is very exposed and up in the record. Let’s listen again.
I would almost describe the kicks as soft sounding. They have a certain pillowiness to them. They don’t have an aggressive attack, they have a very round attack. And if you’ve seen, if you’ve purchased my Mixing with Compression tutorial. Can we get like a shameless plug right here? Yeah. If you’ve purchased the Mixing with Compression tutorial you know that I talk a lot about shape. So it wouldn’t be anything new to you. But basically the idea is instead of having this spiked attack forming your kick, like a really hard dum dum dum type of sound, it’s more like it’s a soft kind of curve, like a boooom kind of sound. And it’s very focused in the lower lower tones as opposed to, say, EDM kicks or a lot of Hip-Hop kicks even that have a lot of 2k up to 6k where there’s that tick and that attack.
So one thing that we’re gonna have to do when we’re pulling together our mix in part 2, is focusing on getting the contour of the kick correct.
Alright let’s talk about where the bass sits.
The bass is sitting frequency-wise almost in the same spot as the kick. And this is not something that is common of most arrangements. It’s tricky to get that to work and it requires a little bit of ingenuity and we’re gonna talk about that in a moment.
again, the kick and the bass are sitting in a very similar spot frequency-wise. That kick has a little bit more of that like 140 Hz to 200 Hz punch. But there’s a lot of sub tone in it as well and then the bass is almost exclusively sub tone.
Now there, again, it’s a very clean bass, it’s sitting in sort of the more natural bass range about 80 to 100 Hz but the kick is like almost right there: 60 to 80 Hz and so they’re very close together. That will be fairly consistent across the board when it comes to Dilla’s stuff. Now there are some mixing techniques that are required to make that work. One is simply level. The kick is significantly louder than the bass. Although the bass is very present. But, having that disparity in volume allows one to be heard and because the kick is still shorter duration than the bass, we can hear the bass regardless of how loud the kick is. Now, in addition to that, if you listen to records like Donuts or The Shining, you’ll hear this very clearly, there’s actually a pumping movement going on between the kick and really most of the record but certainly the bass. Where the kick hits and the bass actually ducks out of the way a little bit when that happens. You can really hear the release timing actually on a lot of records on The Shining. This is something that isn’t unknown in the world of Hip-Hop, but it was kind of unknown back when Dilla was doing it. Which is kind of what makes it cool. In EDM it’s done all the time. The idea is the kick hits, it triggers a compressor, and that compressor ducks the bass and the bass releases and it creates this pumping noise. That wasn’t really done in Hip-Hop until maybe the mid 2000’s which is after he passed away really. It was stylistically a fairly new thing. So he was a little of the curve on that one.
Alright, let’s listen to the rest of where the drums are sitting in these records.
I think the Common record, that third one that I just played is probably the best example of this in terms of where the snare drum is living, the snare on Dilla’s records are like almost as loud as the entirety of the rest of the record. Like they’re really up in the mix. And the hats tend to be fairly pronounced as well. They’re not quite as loud as the snare but they’re definitely present. They tend to be tighter, either frequency wise or dynamically or both. And they tend to live in a very specific area of the tweeter, which is like floating right above the rest of the record. So keeping those things in mind is going to be really important. The other thing that I noticed about the snares is that they are all very pointed snares. So unlike the kick which is very round sounding, the snares have a lot of sharp attack to them and that distinction and that contrast is going to be really important. I think that’s part of what makes his sound his sound. Let’s listen one more time.
So you hear that contrast from the kick to the snare. It’s like it creates a movement in itself because it’s so different it makes the snare really pop even more than just the level of it does.
Alright, let’s talk about the samples that are actually being chopped into these three records and how they’re living relative to the beat.
So the samples all seem to even though they’re very present, somehow they seem to sit behind the snare and kick. And again, if you listen to the instrumental albums: Donuts, Shining, Diary, whatever, you’ll hear that this ducking thing happening with the kick on the samples as well, where the kick is hitting and the sample is ducking down. And that’s what allows it to sit forward but when it needs to be about of the way of the drums it sits back. And that’s what gives it that behind the drums but very forward kind of feel. The other thing is frequency-wise the samples are not EQ’d out very much. There’s a lot of the original sample that’s left in and in a lot of commercial tracks and even in a lot of noncommercial hip-hop tracks, a lot of times people will really filter out the unnecessary stuff in the sample. But Dilla seemed to leave most of that stuff in. Now, the content that sticks out all seems to stick out in the same way so it’s like you have your sub and your kick kinda living here, and then you have your sample sort of providing this thick — I call it a belt — in the midrange, and then you’ll have your snare poking out on top and sort of covering the track. And then your hi-hats are tinging away up here. So it does form this sort of pyramid of frequency distribution, but it’s not to say that things are carved out in that particular way. And that’s an important distinction to make.
Alright, so the other thing about these records is that they all have that sort of distinct analog sound. And I put analog in quotes because it’s kind of hard to put a finger on it. Especially since a lot of the effects that Dilla would’ve been using would’ve actually been digital effects. Which is a good thing because it means that you can to a certain degree, recreate the sound inside a computer. Because an MPC was a digital sampler. It had analog outs, but all the effects that were onboard were digital. But, a lot of the sound of a lot of Hip-Hop from that time and before actually came from how the MPC amps were reacting to the output drive. So driving the output amps a little bit hot would often times impart a little bit of extra flavor onto the sound. And I think that was an important but small piece of the overall puzzle.
The other thing is that almost all of these records were mixed on some kind of console. And a lot of them were actually dumped to tape first. At least in the earlier Dilla days. Later on that might not have been as true, but I suspect that even as late as 2002-2004, there was probably a lot of records being dumped and played back to tape because that was the way the sound originally would’ve been produced.
So there’s definitely a lot of analog along the way, and it was probably cooking the gears pretty hot. Not super hot, but pretty hot. Anyway, let’s listen to a couple other records that I want to point out because I think they’re unique to Dilla’s sound and it’s gonna emphasize a really cool point.
I like that record as an example because it’s so stripped down it really points out his taste in kicks and snares. That snare is really pointed, it’s very sharp, it’s very distinct in it’s frequency band which is in the upper pretense range. And the kick is very round, it’s very poofy, it’s very clean focused in the lower range. And I have here a frequency analyzer so we can actually see it in motion.
So we can actually see the kick hitting here at about 50 Hz and the snare hitting over here between 3 and 5k. So it’s like upper presence — sub. And that’s really where the distribution is. And just to reinforce that, here it is on Call Me.
So you see when the bass is hitting, there’s a lot of content even lower than 50 Hz, where you hear that really deep sub. That’s like 38 Hz to 40 Hz. That’s like super sub. And then the snare. The snare is not quite as upper present as the Q-Tip song, but it’s still somewhere around that 3k zone which I think is pretty cool and nerdy. And then one more that I have to point out because it’s probably one of the most well known Dilla tracks. But it’s also going to help to emphasize the difference. You know, when people say Dilla style, sometimes we lock that into a box a little too much and don’t realize that some of the records he does actually almost don’t even sound like him. But check this out.
[Common – The Light]
I’m gonna get crucified if I get this wrong but I believe the sample in that song is Bobby Womack. Somebody is gonna leave a comment and rip me to shreds if I’m mistaken about that. Anyway, what I want to point out is the way that that record lives is very distinctly difference than all four of the other records I just played and most of the records off the shining, most of the records off donuts, most of the records off the Slum Village albums. It’s not to say that — and I suspect that Dilla probably didn’t actually mix that record. That one might’ve been more hands on with another engineer but you’ll notice that the kick was a lot harder sounding. It had a lot more of that upper midrange going on, the bass itself was really taking the sub more than the kick and the snare was much more focused in that 1k kind of knock zone. Let me play it again.
[Common – The Light]
So just focus on the kick real quick. Sounds remarkably different, right? The reason why I wanted to point that out is because it will help to emphasize that now you might here more clearly what I mean when I say round and low frequency centered as opposed to the kick in The Light which is more upper midrange base and it’s harder sounding. And also the snare and the other differences as well. So check out these records and we’re gonna get into part 2 in a moment. Part 2 is going to be all about mixing a record in that style and the choices that I would make in order to get it there. Alright guys, til next time.