Mix Analysis: Scars To Your Beautiful by Alessia Cara
This is going to be an in-the-dark tutorial, meaning there are no visual cues, we are just using our ears, and I’m going to be analyzing “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara, mixed by Phil Tan, mastered by Colin Leonard. Let’s get into it.
So the first thing I want to talk about right off the bat is the vocal, and particularly the top end.
One of the things I listen for in a vocal sound, particularly a female vocal sound, is the way that the treble range, when you have a lot of the non-harmonic content, like the sibilances, soft palette sounds, that kind of stuff — how that connects to the harmonic stuff that lives in the upper mid-range.
A lot of microphones do not play nicely with female vocals, because they seem to create this, like, ghost effect, where the very top of the treble range seems to be a different source than the rest of the frequency bands, and it sounds like two sounds happening.
Now, sometimes, that can be a good thing, but most of the time, we want a vocal to sound really connected. What I love about this vocal is it sounds really bright, but it doesn’t sound like the high end is disconnecting, and I think that I hear sort of a saturated quality that’s going on up there, so I think that there’s some processing happening to help that along.
A couple of ways that you can do that, if you happen to get a vocal that’s maybe recording on one of those Rhode mics or something like that that tends to pronounce that effect of like, having the ghostly top end.
One of the ways to fight against that is to take a very wide band EQ. Something like the Maag EQ, or one of its predecessors, like the NTI, or the Night Pro, or like a Pultec style EQ, where you turn the bandwidth all the way to the right so that it’s really, really wide, and go from a high corner frequency, but the slope is wide enough where it extends all the way down into the upper mids, and down into even the mid-range.
Clariphonic EQ would do this as well, and you boost that to get it to where you like, and it’s going to pull up everything.
Once the top treble range starts getting to be too much, and that sibilance starts getting too pronounced, and it becomes overwhelming, that’s when you start using either a de-esser, or another EQ to kind of rein it back in.
So what happens is all of the content that is between the upper mids to the treble, that stuff starts coming forward, but then we lock our treble back down, kind of to where it was.
That’s one way to do it. Another way to do it, if you really need to glue it, because there’s just something missing there between 4kHz and 6kHz, something like that, is to use some kind of either an exciter, or a piece of equipment that specifically helps that tone along.
A lot of analog equipment, when you start driving into it will start rolling off the very top end, but will start creating nice, exaggerated harmonics in sort of where the upper mid-range meets the treble, and so that’s another way of doing it.
Or just doing something with a multi-band exciter. Like, iZotope Ozone has one, or something like that. So that’s a deliberate way of doing it as well.
But the point is to listen for it and to be aware of it. Sometimes, the ghostly top end can actually work for records where that exists, but not most of the time.
Alright, now I’m going to jump over to the chorus here.
So I want to talk about these drums. Listen to the drums as I play this through, and I’m going to talk about the concept of tight verse loops.
So, obviously the drums are drawing on that Lynn Collins big beat sort of influence. Some sound that we’ve heard back when the Fun album dropped, and Alicia Keys Girl on Fire.
Here, it has that big beat sound as well, and the way that you get that sound is by taking your drums and throwing them face first through a compressor, basically.
Now, let’s talk about the idea of controlling a mess and tight verse loops.
When we say that something is tight, we use that as a catch-all to mean good. But let’s put some actual meaning behind it.
There’s tight in the sense of frequency content, and there’s tight in the sense of dynamic shape.
So, in terms of frequency content, if you have a kick, and it has a lot of energy at 80Hz, and it has a lot of energy at 75Hz, and it has a lot of energy at 68, and 64, and 50, and 45, that is a very tonally wide low end that I’m describing. It is the opposite of something like an 808 where you would have 55Hz and nothing else.
That would be very focused and tight.
So a natural kick drum will be somewhere in between most of the time, or we will go for something that’s somewhere in between.
The other version of tight can be dynamically, where we mean that the kick punches through and goes away, as opposed to loose, where I would say that means the kick punches through, and it stays there. The sustain flies up, and the room tone flies up, and so the kick is just kind of hanging out.
Now, if we have something that is both tonally wide, and also dynamically loose, we’re going to have something that takes up a ton of space in the mix, and so we have to decide if we want to fit other things in, what we can actually get rid of.
Can we tighten up the dynamics? Should we tighten up the dynamics? Should we tighten up the frequency content? How do we do it?
In this particular case, I think that Phil chose to tighten up the frequency content, and the reason why I say that is because if we listen to this chorus, if we focus on just the kick drum, it actually does not sound that — well, kick drums, — they actually don’t sound all that big when you’re just isolating in your brain just the kick.
But when we listen to everything altogether, the whole record sounds huge.
Now I want you to listen to the snare, because the opposite is going on with the snare drum.
Listen specifically to the reverb tail. Very closely to the reverb tail of the snare.
The snare is so broadband, I don’t think it would even be possible to tighten up the frequency content of the snare, and if you did, it would probably make the snare vanish.
So that’s not really an option.
Of course, we also need a certain amount of that pumpy texture to be occurring as well, that heavy compression sound that brings on that big beat feel, but if you notice, the tail of the reverb suddenly just cuts off. It rolls away very quickly.
That’s called a gate.
What I believe is going on here is that Phil is gating off the very tail of the reverb, kind of like how they would do on those 80’s rock ballads, where you would hear that big boom, and then it just slices away, and suddenly there’s silence.
It’s not that exaggerated, but it’s still cutting away. What that does is it gives everything else space to breath. It allows the articulation of the attack of the kick, and whatever comes next to cut through, because there’s no longer this huge broadband reverb tone sitting over it.
So that’s how the snare is being tightened up. The kick I think is being tightened up with careful EQ attenuation, and the snare is being tightened up with a gate.
Alright, now I’m going to jump through to the bridge.
And actually, I want to play the transition from the chorus into the bridge, and I want you to listen to the drums, and how they change. Then once we’re in the bridge, start listening to the reply of the chant. Those backup vocals that repeat what Alessia says.
So in the chorus, the drums sound like they’re in a big space.
In the bridge, the drums sound like they’re in a gigantic warehouse, and I think there’s a few really cool things going on here, and I think this is Phil just being brilliant.
First of all, I love the reverb choice. I love that it’s filling out the frequency spectrum. It’s making it feel like the energy never goes away, even though the arrangement becomes stripped down to just drums and vocal.
So I think it’s serving a practical purpose in that regard. I love the color of the reverb. That warehouse concrete sound. It has a sort of rawness, and like, an emotional intensity that it’s hard to put into words, but it just feels right for that particular moment.
Like, it sounds like a rally of rebels in a warehouse, basically, and it just paints a really great image.
The other thing that I really like is that the backup vocals sound really connected to the drums. Like, it all sounds like it’s all happening in the same space, so here’s what I think went down, and I’m really — I’m grasping on this one, but I think this is what happened.
I think the kick drums showed up with room tone already on them, and very present. I think that Phil was just riding with it through the song, and making it work, and then when he got to the bridge, he created a new aux send, and put Altiverb on there, using one of the warehouse convolutions, and he sent the drums — some of the drums to that, a little tiny bit of the lead vocals to that, and a lot of the backup vocals to that to create this warehouse type of sound.
So there’s compiled reverb on top of reverb, but the new reverb is helping to create a cohesive sense of space between the backup vocals and the drums, and I wanted to point this out because this is something that you can incorporate into your own production and mixing, as is all my advice, but this is particularly thinking about accomplishing multiple goals with one move.
It pragmatically is serving the purpose of keeping that energy and fullness up when the arrangement becomes sparse, but it’s also complimenting the feel and emotion of the song, and it’s also putting things in the same space. It’s doing all of these things, and I think that’s really upper level mixing when you start to think on those levels.
Alright guys, I hope that you learned something. I love this record. Buy it. Buying music is fantastic, and also I did an interview with Phil. You might want to check that out. I’m going to send him this link and see if I can get him to chime in and tell me whether or not I hit the mark or if I missed it, but I will catch you guys next time.