When you think of songwriting and music production, do you think about mixing too? Or are they separate worlds for you? Not everyone produces and mixes their own tracks, after all, that’s what professional mix engineers are there for, right?
Each year, the worlds of production and mixing inch closer together as more tools are developed that close the gap between the creative and the technical, so you can make confident creative choices in the mixing stage—whether you’re a pro or just starting out. Acclaimed artist, songwriter, and producer Kimbra has integrated these tools into her own songwriting and production process.
“For me, mixing has been this gradual language that I've been learning, realizing that I can actually integrate it as a part of my songwriting process,” says Kimbra. “I just try to think of it not being a separate process, but my hands, what they're doing on Pro Tools, are just as important as what I'm doing on my instruments.”
We spoke with Kimbra about how she incorporated mixing into the production stage of her single, “Secret Tapes.”
Jump to a section below to read Kimbra’s approach to specific instruments in the mix:
Overall, how did you feel about mixing this track as someone who identifies as a music producer?
Kimbra: I found it really encouraging to give this mix a shot. I've always made the assumption that mixing is something left to other people and you have to be a professional mixer to do it. But, when I looked back at my process, having a tool like Neutron giving me access to palettes that a professional mixer would have access to is reassuring for moments when you’re getting lost in the mix and you're like, "Ah, I don't know where this cello should sit." Now you have this tool that's like, "Let me give you an idea." I find that really encouraging for someone who's learning how to integrate it into their tool set. And, it makes me think that I can give it a shot now.
What’s so special about your single, “Secret Tapes?”
K: It's a song that actually was in the running for my last album, Primal Heart. I was going through the archives and felt like releasing something new while I'm preparing for my fourth album—and it's a banger.
It was a big moment when the song went from an acoustic, finger-picked thing to being a raucous fuzz bass thing. That's the fun way production can completely change the way the listener receives the lyrics.
You know what it's like when you're making music from home and you want to try and get your vision as far down the line as you can and execute it with your own skills, so that you're putting your own stamp on it. It worked out great that I could use some of the new iZotope software to mix this and actually become acquainted with plug-ins that allow me to get 80%, maybe even 90% there myself is huge.
K: So, you've got these two really large dynamic spectrums, right? I'd say where I really started was having the drums talk to the bass, because the bass is really the star of the show in this song for me. There's two basses. There's the synth bass in this song and then there's also this really cool humbucker-style electric bass.
K: I have a live drum that's playing along with the programmed drums giving it a bit of a live room sound of just a kit playing along to give some air to everything. Once I got the drums feeling good I would listen back and make sure that I'm really getting that pronunciation of the kick, because the kick is four-on-the-floor for most of the song and it has to feel like it's our anchor, you know?
Hi-hats and snare
K: I really like to layer snares and have some of them be the sizzle, some of them be the chunky in the body. The hats, I found, were just piercing a little hard. So I used Neutron here to just scoop off a little bit of that, make sure that they're not too piercing. Although the hats are an important driving force in the song, I want it to be about the snare, you know?
K: I want to make sure that my bass is really knocking against the drums. This is the foundation of the song. So, we've got two basses running, two synth basses. The first one is, again, like the snare, the sizzle part of the bass. I really want a lot of aggression, distortion out of it. Then, the one below it is the more sub-y version of the bass. It's actually the same synth bass an octave down and just providing that sort of chest frequency.
Avoiding frequency masking in the bass
K: One of the cool things about the Neutron plug-in I found is that it really helps you with frequency masking. Sometimes, frequencies get lost, and you need to find the frequency that's actually muddying the foundation and pull it out. With that sub bass, masking was getting a little out of control—sometimes it was actually so bass-y that it was making other things in the mix dull, you know what I mean? So, through a little bit of trial-and-error, I found that at around 380 Hz is where it was getting a little complex. Just drag X down to get rid of that frequency altogether.
K: With these guitars it was important to, first of all, focus on panning. If you've got everything in the center there's just no differentiation. Each guitar is panned super hard off and one is center. I did the same technique with the snare and the bass where one of the guitars is acting as the exciter and the bottom-end is all being shaved out, then the middle one has got a little more of that midrange.
This means these three guitars aren't all sitting in the exact same space. They've all got their own spot in the mix and they've got their own purpose. And then, they're also panned out, so they're not going to get too jelled in with the cello. Now, we don't want to pan everything hard left and right, because then we get the same problem. So, the cellos are about halfway panned to the side.
Now we've got a picture forming. We've got the cellos, the guitars, the bass synths, the drums and it's starting to come together. It's starting to feel good.
K: At this point in the mixing process, we haven't touched the vocals and we haven't looked at them. I think that's always the best way to work when doing your own mixes from home. You want to get the track banging and make sure you're hearing everything you want to hear before you turn on any vocals.
Mixing vocals is your chance to make the really important decisions that can change the mix entirely. It can take it from being super dry and punk rock to being ethereal and sexy. If you listen to just the verse, we can get a sense of just how dynamic the song is, because it starts in a very low register of my voice and then shoots up to some of the highest register. So it requires a lot of tweaking to make it sound fluid.
VCA masters trick
K: A good trick that a friend taught me is to set up VCA masters when you're working this way. Set up a VCA master that has all of the instruments, and label each. Then set up a VCA master of all vocals. This allows me to just solo the instrumental and then just solo the vocals. It seems really simple, but I actually never used to work that way. This makes it easier if we want to get a sense of where they're sitting and, of course, use automation to bring up all the vocals. So, instead of going through and doing each channel’s automation, it allows for me to just do a big automation on all the vocals at one time, which has been really helpful.
K: Another thing that's on the lead vocal is a slight delay, I really like to use EchoBoy for that. It's just giving it a little bit of air around the lead. The tonality in the chorus becomes very pronounced and pushed out, whereas the verses are almost jazzy and liquid.
Mix Assistant for balance
K: I used Mix Assistant to mix the main vocal into the mix because I wanted to get a bit of an idea of a starting point. I made sure I had the track sounding really dope and then played the lead vocal alongside the instrumental to get the Mix Assistant to listen and make some suggestions of where the vocal could sit both level-wise, and also just what kind of EQ might sound good against this mix.
Track Assistant for vocal positioning
K: So, I used Track Assistant in Mix Assistant and solo’d the lead vocal. I want vocals upfront, of course, so the style I selected is Upfront, and the intensity is Aggressive. You can use auto-detect instruments here—in this case, I just selected it as a vocal, so it knows what we're listening to and can apply appropriate processing.
Select a point in the song where you’re going to get a series of dynamics. A bit of the verse, a bit of the chorus, and then press Accept.
Mix Assistant module chain
K: Let's see what it's doing on the EQ. It gave me a lot of top-end, which is a choice, not everyone likes really pop vocals that are shiny. I think that's actually cool for this song. I like that it's so present, and the bass is so dark, and the voice is really bright. So, I'd leave that as it is. It's scooping out 250 Hz, which you'll find it's a muddy frequency for a lot of the vocals. It's smart. It's taken out that frequency, that's what I would've done. The compressor it applied is hitting reasonably hard. The exciter is doing a lot, actually. I feel like that's really giving it some kind of extra danger. I want it to feel a little ominous, you know? So, it's really important that the vocals have that sense of creeping up on you.
K: The same way that some love doing the lead vocals, I love mixing background vocals. You can probably tell from my records, it's a big part of how I form my composition is. It's so much fun, because you can use your voice as an instrument for a synth pad or whatever. The way that Prince does background vocals has always inspired me. They're never safe—it’s sometimes even louder than the main vocal!
I like to think visually when it comes to lead and backgrounds. We have two tracks as the two main background vocalists. If they were on stage, they’re right by Whitney Houston—she’s in front and they’re back and to her sides. They're her main girls.
Then, we get the soft soprano voices that are doing the whispery R&B thing and, maybe, they're standing a bit further back. They're panned a little differently, so if you think of lead singer center, our two main girls are panned off reasonably wide, and then our whispery R&B girls, they're a little softer, they're hard, hard panned.
Adding vocal reverb
K: And, they're also reverb-y, which is the first time we've ever heard reverb, really, in this mix. I didn't want to use a lot of reverb. I wanted it to be like a smack in the face. But, in the chorus you do want a little bit of femininity to those vocals, and I always think of reverb as a way to make something feminine.
Using vocal presets in Neutron
K: Neutron is also doing a lot on these vocals. I used presets instead of Mix Assistant here. I went into the presets and I found the female background vocals preset, which was exactly what I needed. The great thing about Neutron is it allows you to go to the exact preset you need. Okay, “Vocal Telephone Effect”—perfect. Presets are really helpful for someone who's just getting used to mixing their own demos, to have these starting points and then use your own ears to tweak it is really valuable.
The background vocals preset gave quite a boost on the top-end, because usually you don’t want backgrounds to be too upfront, you want them to just be a whisper track. It's scooping a lot of bottom-end out, which is good. When we get too much bottom-end in stacks of vocals it gets like a puddle of mud. So, this is a great starting point.
Did you pitch-shift the vocals at all?
K: Oh, man, I always use the same pitch shifter, just the Pro Tools in AudioSuite, just, yeah, I do love pitch shift. I've used it a lot on my records to get an other-worldly effect, but I wanted it to also feel claustrophobic.
That claustrophobic feeling can sometimes be a bad thing when it comes to mixing. But then, at the same time, if it's a conscious, intentional choice, at some points in the song you might want the listener to feel a little suffocated, because then that gives you the chance to create contrast with Beach Boys-like harmonies—you’ve got some contrast to work with and that's the important thing.
Neutron and other tools like it make it possible for songwriters and producers to make confident mixing moves in the production stage. As Kimbra put it, “For me, [mixing] has been this gradual language that I've been learning, realizing that I can actually integrate it as a part of my songwriting process… [because] my hands, what they're doing on Pro Tools are just as important as what I'm doing on my instruments.”