Nicolay breaks down the production and mix of Daykeeper by The Foreign Exchange (from Leave It All Behind).Backstory:
I came up with the basic track in november of '06, after coming back from my visit to Tokyo. Japan had made a huge impression on me and I was still in that state of mind, calling the track idea "Shibuya" before sending it over to Phonte to check out. I knew that it was very different from what we had done before, so I wasn't quite sure what to do with it and whether or not it would "fit", but when Phonte heard it, he knew that this was the direction that we were looking for and started to write to it. Not too long after, he recorded the hooks and verses together with Muhsinah and sent them back to me. I was so inspired by the song that I came up with the 3/4 section in the middle almost right away. In turn, Phonte and Muhsinah recorded their additional vocals to the middle section and with that, the song was complete.
The mixing process of this song specifically took well over a year, and if I remember correctly we went through at least a dozen different mixes before we had the final one. There's about 70 (!) tracks of vocals and about 40 more tracks of instruments in the session, so you can imagine that it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get everything balanced just right.
I'd like to acknowledge Khrysis for his stellar engineering of the vocal recordings as he does time and time again, to Soiree Records for the fine job mastering the album and a special thanks to my partner Phonte and to Muhsinah, who's duet on 'Daykeeper' will undoubtedly go into history as one of the great vocal performances of our generation. By now I must have heard the song hundreds of times, but it still gives me chills each time.
DISCLAIMER 1: I do not claim to be an authority on mixing and this blog is not meant to be read as a roadmap to instant good results. It should however give you a pretty good idea of my general approach to mixing, as well as of what tools I use and how I use them to get the sound that I am looking for.
DISCLAIMER 2: All software that I use was purchased legally and officially. I'm not mentioning that to be preachy, btw. Just sayin'.
A screenshot of Pro Tools with "Daykeeper" open | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.
The main drums consist of a kick, snare, ride and crash, all samples from my personal collection that I have built up over the years. Because the song is so haunting, we wanted the drums to sound punchy but "cold". I used the Duy DaD Valve plugin with the "snare" preset on both the kick and the snare to beef them up, and the Waves SSL E-Channel with the "Kick Drum" preset on the kick for some extra punch. On the ride track, I did a considerable cut at around 170 kHz because the original sound was resonating a bit too much in that range. I normally also cut the ultra-low frequencies (under 32 Hz or so, depending on the track) on the kick, so that it leaves enough room in the low-end spectrum for the bass. Nowadays the EQ plug-in that I come back to every time is the Sonnox Oxford EQ because its interface is the most intuitive out of all EQ plugins that I have.
The main drums are sent to subgroup with a Sonnox Oxford Dynamics compressor (also highly recommended) set to the "Sony Buss" preset. This subgroup itself is sent to a second subgroup with a Sonitus compressor set to a more extreme setting to create that sense of movement in the drums, as the ride ducks with every kick or snare hit. In terms of percussion, there's a shaker track with the Waves SSL E-Channel set to "Hi Hat" to add some high end and compression.
Sonitus compressor on main drums subgroup | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.
There's a second set of drums (kick, snare and hihat) that comes in just after the minute mark. They are much lower in the mix and are sent to a subgroup with a T-Racks 24 plug-in set to cut the frequencies under 200 Hz and over 1.5 KHz, creating a "radio" sound. And finally, there's a third set of drums that you hear "under" the main drums during the middle section. I wanted the drums in the middle section to sound more natural and organic and so I added an acoustic kit using Toontrack EZ Drummer with the "Vintage Rock" kit. I used EZ Drummer quite bit for 'Leave It All Behind', most notably on 'House Of Cards' and 'Sweeter Than You'. I can't explain exactly how they do it, but Toontrack has painstakingly sampled a number of different drumkits using various microphone positions, so when you use them you don't just hear the individual drum- or cymbalhits, but also the sound of the room, making EZ Drummer sound ultra-releastic.
Duy Dad Valve with "snare" preset | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.
The main chord part that opens the song at 0:21 is actually a bass-patch from the Motif. I don't know why I ended up playing some chords using a bass-patch, but I liked how it sounded and it stuck. While mixing the track, I used the Oxford EQ to cut all of the low frequencies that came from it being a bass-sound, and I boosted the high frequencies. I used the Digidesign Smack! compressor with a setting based on the "Acoustic Guitar" preset to help it stand out from everything else that's going on in the mix.
Sonnox Oxford EQ with preset used on main chord part | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.
Under the main part, there's two actual bass parts: Bass 01 is a fingered sound, Bass 02 is a lower acoustic bass sound, both from the Motif. On Bass 01, there's another instance of the DaD Valve with the "snare" setting to bring it up considerably. Bass 02, which doesn't come in until 1:05, has the Oxford EQ to cut most of the high frequencies of the double bass sound, and the Waves MaxxBass to, you've guessed it, boost up the low end.
...to be continued soon!
Thank you for listening,