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How to Use Processing to Reinforce a Production Concept

How to Use Effects to Reinforce a Production Concept
How to Use Effects to Reinforce a Production Concept
Greetings, my name is Ian Vargo and I’m with Today I’m going to be showing you production and mixing techniques that will help you reinforce the meaning and the emotion of the lyrics of a song. The song I’m going to be using is Picture Phone by Ugly, Ugly Words. Check it out on iTunes.

I really believe it’s an underrated ability for a producer and mix engineer to really listen to the lyrics and figure out ways to reinforce the lyrics with production and mixing techniques.

This particular song, let’s take a listen to it.


Solo the lead vocal. Ok. so the lyrical content of the song is sort of silly. It’s about a picture phone, which is a term that we don’t use much society anymore now that we have iPhones and smartphones, but back the 90’s — and this song is supposed to sort of emulate a late-90’s/early 2000’s stoner rock sounding song — picture phone was a thing, like a crummy Nokia or Motorola that could take pictures. It was like a real thing.

So basically it’s about this phone that you can take underwater and take pictures of fish but beware of crocodiles is basically the joke of the song. So pretty goofy lyrics, so I tried to go with pretty goofy production techniques to really reinforce what we had lyrically.

So I started, for the intro of the song, but basically just finding samples of a robot spelling out picture phone. Let’s take a listen to the overall mix.


After that, since the sort of verse area over here, the lyrics are about being underwater, I wanted to create a vocal effect that made it sound like Andy the lead singer was existing and singing underwater. So this is the original, a sort of pre-verse sound, I’m gonna turn off any inserts, and take a listen to the original sound. I do believe I used a C-414 by AKG on this.

[solo lead vocal]

We also have a little harmony here.


[vocal harmony]

And what I wanted is a sort of warbly watery underwater sound. So what I did is I did re-amping. Which is essentially you take a signal out of Pro Tools or whatever digital audio workstation you’re using, and send it to a guitar amplifier. At that point you can either put a microphone in front of the amplifier or come back into Pro Tools direct. In this case I think I might’ve back in direct but let’s take a listen to the re-amp. And the double.

[lead vocal effect after reamping]

So in addition to me having re-recorded it with a tremolo effect which is basically amplitude modulation, that effect is available on certain amplifiers. I own a VOX AC30, I highly recommend it if you don’t mind lifting really heavy guitar amps it has a great sound. So we’ve got sort of that watery sound and then in addition to that, these are going to what is called re-amp bus. And on reamp bus, we’ve got FilterFreak which is a SoundToys plugin. And let’s take a look at what this plugin is doing. In fact I’m gonna turn off all these plugins and show you how I got this watery effect.

[watery vocal effect with SoundToys FilterFreak]

So that seems like it’s doing just sort of a low-pass filter getting rid of some of the highs here. Let’s add this second instance of the FilterFreak. That seems to be adding back some high end. After that I’ve got the CLA-2A.

[vocal effect + Waves CLA-2A]

Absolutely crushing the signal. And then the API-550A which is once again just getting rid of some high end and so let’s go to sort of the chorus.

[vocal + Waves API-550A]

Let’s add in the lead vocals. Ok, so while we don’t really hear that watery vocal way up front, I do believe that it really added to the sort of spacey stoner rock feel of the song. Another important part of this song was the groove — these are all programmed drums — if you look at the other tutorial I’ve done on the song Ray Gun you’ll see how I program drums. The groove is really important, let’s just solo the drums really quick. A lot of drums here, spent a lot of time programming.


[FXpansion BFD programmed drums]

And for the bass I sort of wanted a My Sharona sounding bass line. Let’s take a listen.

[drums + bass line]

And what I did since I felt as if I was already getting pretty wacky with production in this song, the entire bass I ran through sort of wah pedal sound and printed that and then used that throughout most of the song. I do believe I did some volume automation, let’s take a look. Yes, right here we’ve got some volume automation.

[bass wah parallel effects + volume automation]

Ok, after I had the groove, once again I was really mostly going by the lyrical content and using the melody as inspiration for everything. I felt like it needed to pay homage to Nirvana so I went with sort of a wall of guitars. Let’s take a listen really quick. A lot of tracks, gotta keep organized. So I’m gonna start here — guitar 1 print — we’re gonna go all the way down to here. Let’s take a listen.


This is the guitar solo right here. Let’s add in the vocal. This is really the riff that Andy the songwriter had along with the lead vocal. He pretty much comes every song with just a guitar/piano part and a lead vocal part. And so this was the riff.

[main guitar riff]

So sort of a fuzzy sound there. Let’s take another listen. And to really make it sound a little bit more beatle-y, I added sort of a strum my guitar right here.

[strummed guitars]

And plugins will only get you so far. I decided even before I recorded these that they needed to sit in different space, so you’ll hear that original riff had more of a low end tone. Whereas those strum my open chords are recorded in such a way that it’s a lot more bright high end. And those are decisions I think you should make while you’re recording if not even before you set up a microphone. And I think it really helps get the point of the song across if you make decisions early on. Alright, so I hope you had a good time. If you have any questions make sure to email me or leave a comment. Make sure to follow The Pro Audio Files. This has been Ian Vargo, make sure to check out Picture Phone by Ugly, Ugly Words on iTunes. Thanks!


Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch and learn more on his website.