Whether you like it or not, the current music industry is a hit-driven environment. Album-Sales are down, and the songwriters, producers and engineers who still earn solid money in this job are the ones that attach their name to a huge worldwide hit-record.
Regardless of what genre you’re working in, I firmly believe it’s part of our profession to keep an eye on what’s moving the masses, and pay attention to what works commercially, and why.
This is something I expand on in the chapter called References and A/Bing in the new book – you need to know where RMS-levels and dynamics are at, what the frequency-curves of mixes are like, and always have current references at hand – especially when your plan is to do something opposite to the current trends.
2014 will go down in pop-history as the year of Taylor Swift. That is mainly, because contrary to industry trends, Swift sells A LOT OF ALBUMS, in fact her album 1989 is the ONLY NEW ALBUM in the US in 2014 to go Platinum (more than 1.000.000 sales). That, connected with the fact that Swift’s label Big Machine Records pulled her ENTIRE back catalogue from Spotify, made her the most talked-about artist of the year as well.
A very good reason to look into the lead-single of the album 1989, “Shake It Off”, written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin and Shellback, produced by Max Martin and Shellback, mixed by Serban Ghenea.
Make yourself familiar with the sonics of the track – best to buy it on iTunes, it’s a great mix reference.
The song is also nominated for a “Song of the Year”-Grammy at the upcoming Grammy-Awards.
“Shake It Off” debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart of the week ending September 6, 2014, after having one of the most spectacular impacts on Mainstream Top 40 US radio stations in history.
The backbone of this mix is the incredible recording of the live drum-loop. The kick drum occupies pretty much the entire low end up to 150Hz. The bass, well, there IS NO BASS AT ALL in the verses. A subtle bass plus an electronic Kick is added in the chorus, so let’s go into the details:
1. The song is written in G major, based on the chord progression
a minor / C major / 2 x G major (II-IV-I-I). The tempo is 160 BPM
2. Bass notes used and their frequencies
(referencing musical notes and frequencies) link
C1 – 32.7Hz (root note to C major, the subdominant chord)
G1 – 48.9Hz (root note to G major, the tonic chord)
A1 – 55 Hz (root note to a minor, the minor parallel to the subdominant chord)
3. The bass sound used is a synth bass, and it’s ONLY USED on the chorus.
The frequency-spectrum of the sound used is dominated by both the 1st harmonic and second harmonic, but keep in mind – the bass plays a very minor role in this mix. When it comes in on the chorus, it’s long standing notes that sit way behind the transients of the drums.
4. List of frequencies occupied by bass and kick drum
Here’s the complete list of frequencies:
32.7Hz – C1 (fundamental frequency)
48.9Hz – G1 (fundamental frequency)
49.5 Hz – Synth Kick added in chorus (fundamental root note, tuned to the root note of the song key!)
54 Hz – Kick (fundamental root note of the verse’s starting chord)
55 Hz – A1 (fundamental frequency)
65.4 Hz – 2nd harmonic of C1
68 Hz – Kick (harmonic)
98 Hz – 2nd harmonic of G1
110 Hz – 2nd harmonic of A1
140 Hz – Kick center (harmonic)
152 Hz – Kick sides (harmonic)
To sum it up, it’s fascinating how precisely the Kick Drum Set is matched to the key of the song, and the bass notes used. In both songs I’ve looked at, “All About That Bass” and “Shake It Off”, the fundamental frequencies of the two Kick Drums matching the starting chord (in the verse) and the root note of the song key (in the chorus). It is also remarkable, that no bass note and kick frequencies ever step on each other.
This shows the incredible skill involved in modern pop production, and one vision consequently thought through from composition to final master.
“Shake it Off” is a production with a very minimalistic instrumentation. live drum loop, lead vocal, a few light percussion elements in the verse, and bass, hammond organ and stereo backing vocals in the chorus. A plate reverb on the LVs, an 1/8-note stereo echo with three repeats that blends into the plate and thats it!
Oh yeah, and of course the funny brass-sample riff in the verse and some light trombones in the chorus, sitting very unobtrusive in the mix, no lows, no highs.
The minimalistic instrumentation creates room for immensely powerful vocals and one of the best sounding live drum sets I’ve heard on a Top 40 Mainstream record.
I’ve also made it a habit to look into the level-correction iTunes does on a track when in “Sound Check”-mode.
“Shake It Off” is a fairly loud master, but definitely not squashed or over-compressed.
It sitting at a fairly average -7,4 dB, values I have seen a lot for mixes by Serban.
BTW, if you have no idea what iTunes “Sound Check” is, and how to use it for your own mixing, have a look at the Gain Staging-article.