“Hindsight is always 20/20” – Dave Mustaine
One thing I have learned in over a decade working with music is that a song is never truly finished. You can spend three days or three months recording and mixing it and there will always be something that jumps out at you when you listen back later. It could be a clumsy lyric that you later learned was losing its linguistics and language in limitless, ludicrous layers of liberal alliteration, a line that you could have sung better, a synth pad that got lost behind a wall of guitars, a snare drum that could have used a boost or cut to certain frequencies, an effect on a solo that didn’t quite do what you thought it was doing … there are endless potential flaws in a mix and endless definitions of “flaw.”
I use a lot of layers in my songs (usually between 50 and 80 layers, or “tracks”) but mixing is a little like making a painting; if you put too many colors in there on top of each other it just becomes a muddy, brown blur. It’s about giving everything its own space to shine and be noticed, without sounding too cluttered or too sparse. You must excite the listener’s ears but avoid overloading them with too much clutter.
In a way I am quite lucky to have a direct and open channel for feedback to my songs here in the comments section. You guys keep me on my toes and stop me getting complacent or arrogant. I can always tell when a song has done a good story justice by the reactions in the comments. Of course, learning which criticism and advice to ignore is as valuable as learning which to listen to, but I have generally found my audience to be very constructive and thoughtful with its criticisms.
I also get asked a lot of questions here, on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – sometimes too many to answer. So I came up with the idea of doing this column once a month as a way for me to:
1. Answer some frequently asked questions.
2. Tell you a little about the writing, producing and mixing process of the songs.
3. Respond to some criticisms.
I enjoy interacting with my listeners and fans and this will be another way to do that. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I do writing it and as usual I will be listening to the response!
I figured I would start off with the most common questions I get asked:
Can you make a song about ‘X’ game?
Yes, if it’s reasonably popular and I’ve played it/ have access to it. I always listen to requests and if certain games/movies/whatever get a lot of them, I will do it.
Can you read music/ can you make guitar tabs for these?
Nope, I cannot read or write music or guitar tabs. I taught myself by ear. If anyone wants to make tabs for the songs that’s cool with me, just don’t sell them – share them for free.
Can you make a song about me/my YouTube channel/my Halo clan/that one time I got a double-fakey 360 no-scope collateral multikilll on Nuketown?
No. I spend more time on some of these songs than most people will spend on Skyrim. I don’t have the time, motivation or inspiration to make songs for people/things I know nothing about. I have to be selfish sometimes and I will only make intro songs/ themes for people if I think it will advance my career and it’s for someone I know and respect. And no, offering me money will not change my mind on this – art must come from a true, honest place or it will be garbage.
My YouTube inbox/Twitter feed is spammed with literally hundreds of these requests. I may direct them to this page in future!
Lol, you’re stupid. Don’t you know the distance between here and the moon is not actually infinite?
Yes, I know that. Please go play Portal 2, then learn the meaning of “first person narrative/”
It feels fitting for me that the first song I get to talk about is “Normandy,” as it is the follow up to the song that really got my name out there into the gaming community ( “Commander Shepard”). It is also notable because it was by far the most difficult song I have ever put together. I lost count of how many emails I sent to Russ Pitts with “probably final mix” in the title. The version that made it to The Escapist and Gamesom’s BioWare booth was Mix 27 – that’s 27 times my “Normandy” got torn apart and rebuilt (26 more than the actual Normandy).
I wanted this song to have a more somber and serious tone than the aforementioned “Commander Shepard,” so it was going to be sonically deeper and heavier while retaining the Jack Wall-esque programmed 80s synths. I also wanted it to start quiet as a whisper and build into something huge and powerful, which is why the big guitars only come in for the choruses and middle section. If you listen carefully you will notice that the drumbeat does not fully kick in during the first chorus, it waits until just after it. This was part of the effect of keeping the tension there, letting it build and build, drop for the second verse, then BANG! The song takes off for real in chorus number two, reaching its climax for the “We Gave Our Lives To Normandy” chant.
The Mass Effect story was very emotionally affecting to me and I wanted to try and capture that epic scale and emotional punch. Most people agreed that I managed it, especially on repeated listens to the song. It is something I usually try to avoid – a “grower.” What I mean by a grower is a song that is not immediately very catchy and hooky, a song that reveals itself properly after a few listens. I usually try and make my songs as in-your-face catchy as possible, but for this one I resisted that and made something a little less obvious – something you would have to put the time into to get the most out of.
The lyrics in Verse 1 are trying to build a mood, rather than describe events, apart from the lines about the dying star which are a reference to Tali’s research – something I have a feeling will prove a much bigger story part in ME3. You’ll notice a long echo effect (or delay, as the pros call it) on the vocal, this is meant to imply space and distance. The rest of the song’s lyrics are about the Normandy crew (both Shepard’s team and the ship crew) reflecting on the events of ME1 and 2.
I just could not get this mix right for so long. There is so much going on in the song that some parts were being swamped and covered up by others. I eventually decided that as the lyrics were the most important part of the song, the vocals would take the lead, especially in the choruses. I also boosted the drums and guitars during the loud parts. Everything else was window dressing. The end result is a very big, punchy mix which I was actually quite happy with in the end.
I’m just more curious as to why he sounds North American when he sings despite being Irish.
Guilty – most singers have a talking accent and a singing accent. We grow up on American music and culture over here, plus an American accent lets you elongate vowels and pronounce words more easily as well as being generally relatable to most peoples’ ears.
Something about the back up singing to yourself with yourself with the auto tune just throws it off for me.
This poor lad got an earful from me over this, despite the fact he meant no harm. I do not, and never will, use Autotune. I despise it with the hatred and venom of a thousand Kratos-es. I hate everything it stands for and everything it has done to completely ruin the music industry. Anyone with a producer’s ear will hear the many flaws and irregularities in my voice when I sing – flaws that most singers these days are afraid to leave in their recordings. I believe Autotune sucks the soul out of a performance and if you ever accuse me of using it, be prepared for a harsh response!
It’s not as good as “Commander Shepard.”
I knew people would think this. “Normandy” was deliberately not as immediate and catchy as that song, as I wanted it to be more of a song that touched your emotions and rewarded those who invested time in it – a bit like Mass Effect.
“The Dead Don’t Shuffle (They Run)”
I’m going to be honest here – I don’t enjoy playing Left 4 Dead. That’s not because it’s a bad game, in fact it’s because it does exactly what it intends to do really well. I spend most of my time in L4D panicking, freaking out and feeling overwhelmed, anxious and claustrophobic. That’s the feeling I wrote about for the lyrics in this song. Pretty simple premise!
Musically I wanted to make a straightforward, aggressive sounding rock song with a kick ass, heavily distorted riff. There is also a heavy distortion effect on the lead vocal in the verses, to give it a bit more bite.
Some big honesty here: The first version’s melodies were quite different. It was only after my friend Gabe (no, not Newell) pointed out that it sounded very like a certain Foo Fighters song that I realized I would have to change it. There are only 12 notes in music, and songs often sound like other songs, but this was pushing it a bit too far for my liking and I don’t like being accused of ripping things off from other artists (although I will happily rip off the Foos’ production and mixing techniques, those guys have a hell of a big sound).
I’m very pleased with the Rob Halford-esque metal scream just before the last chorus – it’s wonderfully silly. I also like the four-part “They Run” harmony. Multi-layer harmonies are something I am totally addicted to. All in all this is a song I don’t have many regrets about. I’m happy with most of it.
Great music (instrumentally) as usual but also as usual terrible lyrics and what’s fast becoming boring vocals.
I picked this comment because I want to ask something from people: If you are going to leave this kind of criticism, please leave examples so I can look at them and perhaps learn from them if they are valid. Otherwise, well, you’re just being a douche.
It isn’t loading….why isn’t it LOADING???
I get this every single week. My vids come out the same day as Zero Punctuation. Come back in a while and the high traffic will have died down.
The lyrics in Miracle of Sound are usually the weakest part of the songs for me and that held true here. They have a tendency to be a little too literal. Sometimes they sound a bit awkward and forced.
You’d be amazed how many people tell me the exact opposite – that they’re not literal enough and are too “metaphorical and obscure.” You can’t please everyone. However, I do sometimes write clumsy lyrics (got a lot of flak over the Duke Nukem song, for example). I admit it and I’m looking into it.
So there you have it. If you enjoyed reading this, let me know in the comments. If there are any of the older songs you would like me talk about, any aspects of recording you’d like to know about, any other questions, or anything you would like me to add to this column them feel free to post that, too. I read all comments and will listen to you guys and what you want. After all, I wouldn’t be here doing this if it weren’t for you all!
And for any aspiring musicians out there, remember – a song is never, ever finished and you will never make one that absolutely everyone likes, but this is part of the beauty, mystery and wonder of how music works.