Mixing It Like The Foo Fighters
So like anyone with taste, I’ve become a huge fan of the Foo Fighters. On top of the fact that Dave Grohl’s a geek and a mind-blowing performer, the dude’s also got an amazing voice, their music is interesting without being overproduced, and it runs the gamut from hardcore to soft and passionate. You’ve also got to respect that this goofball from Seattle rose from the ashes of an okay-yet-ridiculously-famous grunge band to front one of the most genuine, least pretentious major acts out there today.
Yeah, I called Nirvana okay. Warm up the hate mail, but read the rest of this first.
As I’ve been working on the new album, High Orbit Saves The Pandas, I’m living on a steady diet of Foo Fighters albums as inspiration… but I’m not trying to copy their sound. Far from it- there’s no way I can make my voice do what his does without hurting myself. There’s no way I can get that huge guitar sound without… well, guitars. Right now I perform as a two-piece, so that ain’t happening.
One of the things I do as a musician, producer, and engineer is try to deconstruct every piece of music I listen to. It’s how I learned the piano in the first place, actually. Sure, I learned to read music from age 5, but I mostly learned by ear (thank you, Suzuki method). Now that I’m applying that ear to rock instead of Rachmaninov, it’s driving the sounds I produce with each new album.
Deconstructing The Foo
One of the reasons I’m transfixed by the Foo Fighters’ sound is its simplicity. All of the big rock tunes in their arsenal really don’t have a lot going on, at least not that I can tell. If all you listen to is Top 40 or Pandora’s Today’s Hits channel, you’re mostly hearing badly-produced clusterfucks with way too much going on to engineer properly.
The first thing I notice about the Foo Fighters Sound™ is an immaculate drum mix. Makes sense, Grohl’s a drummer first. No matter what else is going on in the song, the drums are crisp and punchy. They are the starship’s chassis, everything else is bolted on wherever it fits. Lesson learned: keeping that kick and snare right in your earface will give the whole song serious impact.
After that, it’s amazing how few layers are added. Of course there’s a bass guitar and a couple layers of vocals, but most of the songs sound like there are very few people playing at once. Often it’s just one guitar during the verses. So how the hell does it sound so huge?
Doing More With Less
Something I learned while engineering The Lives of Dexter Peterson was that you’re better off mixing by rearranging, not riding the volume or EQ. For example, if a piano part is stepping on the lead vocal, I could turn the piano down or pull down the piano’s 2kHz range, but that makes the piano sound weak- especially when I’m not singing.
OR I could try transposing a part that I recorded to get it out of the way. The beauty of recording all-MIDI parts is that, as I’m mixing, I can take my right-hand part up or down an octave and see how it affects the mix. What sounds thin or weak as a piano part may be exactly what’s needed in the mix.
Or maybe I should just delete an instrument or two during various parts of the song. It’s okay for an instrument to not be playing through every single measure.
When I listen to the Foo Fighters, they seem to have mastered the art of arrangement. The guitar isn’t just strumming or chunking to establish a chord, they’re playing a specific line that sounds precisely designed to fill a specific hole in the mix. When a second or third guitar kicks in, it’s doing the same. No instrument is trying to do another’s job.
And speaking of doing their job, fixing a song by arrangement will make the engineer’s job a LOT easier when it comes time to make the album.
Why Anyone Should Care
If you’re not already a paying subscriber, you’re not getting all the song sketches I’ve been releasing. Otherwise, you’ve been hearing this evolution of mine one sketch at a time. The same song with the same instruments can sound lifeless or muddy without the right arrangement.
But as soon as every piece is living in its own space- the vocals, bass, keys, drums, are all able to breathe and interact with each other -the sound suddenly explodes. I’m trying to bear all this in mind as I write and arrange the new tunes.
It’s also why good albums take so long to produce; just writing a song isn’t enough, it can take months for all the pieces of a single song to finally fit together, and that’s before you even get it into the recording studio.