Curse Your Branches: Mixing & Mastering Notes

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BAZAN Curse Your Branches
Mixing & Mastering Notes
As recalled by Timothy William Walsh, several months after the fact.

studio

Dave recorded most of this stuff at his house in the finished basement. It’s got drywall and carpet. I haven’t been there in a while, so I don’t know what it’s looking like now, but the drum recordings were pretty “live” in that you can hear the reflections off the walls and ceilings.

I think he came out to my house in Massachusetts twice towards the end of 2008. My mixing/mastering room is in my mostly unfinished basement with some acoustic treatment. He would be finishing edits on his iMac while I was mixing. We did some of the vocals at my house too. My main lead vocal sound approach on the entire record was EQ & compression with single “slapback” analog style delay. The primary vocal delay is a plugin by Audio Damage called Dubstation.

I remember the process being really fun and relaxed. Dave and I got along well and we were really in our element. Way moreso than I ever felt when I was in his band, in fact. It was a good time and I think the record reflects that we were unified in trying to make this thing great.

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1. Hard To Be
If I remember correctly, this was one of the toughest songs to get the drums right on. The part is syncopated and the performance was a bit loose. There’s no eighth note ride mechanism…so the drums needed to carry through every measure without the natural momentum of the high hat.

There are also a lot of dense, atmospheric elements which all needed their own space in the mix. So I carefully EQ’d and panned each track, just trying to create a complete picture. I also applied just enough reverb and delay to give the song depth. It’s always a challenge to make a song exciting without loud guitars, so I needed to use compression to add that dimension. The acoustic guitar and piano are compressed just enough to sound exciting and cut through the mix, but not too much as to lose their dynamics.

2. Bless This Mess
This song is pretty bombastic, and again, it’s lacking loud electric guitars. Dave really wanted the organ-ish synths in the intro really loud (what we call an “Achtung Baby” mix approach, where a single instrument is louder than the rest of the mix combined), and it was challenging to get it just right. The EQ needed to be such that those would cut and rise above the mix, but wouldn’t get painfully harsh.

Originally, a lot of the tracks in this song were run through some wacky pedal Dave had borrowed from John Roderick (The Electro-Harmonix POG?), but we decided that the cumulative effect of that used repeatedly was ruining the mix, so we went back to the original, or “natural” sounds.

I remember that Dave wanted the gang vocals all shimmery and bright, but I thought that they should be a bit more dull and “bandpassy” and Dave went along with me. I think that Roderick’s pedal may have ended up on some of those vocal tracks.

There are handclaps throughout this entire song – an interesting aesthetic choice. I think I bussed them in with the drums so the drum compression would bring the claps up in volume during gaps in the drum pattern.

Synth bass has a lot of subharmonic content, so you have to be careful. I think there were several versions of the bass with various overtones and I chose different ones for different sections of the song.

3. Please, Baby Please
I remember the vocals being problematic on this one. Dave had recorded them with a mic I had recommended (Joly Oktavamod MK-219), but he had compressed them to “tape” with a Distressor and there was something funny about the dynamics. He also seemed to have moved around a lot during the performance, so the EQ on the track was all over the place. I had to work hard to whip them into shape with lots of EQ, compression, and automation.

The doubled nylon string guitars propel the song nicely. Josh Ottum’s little punctuated guitar parts are great. I used a stereo delay on Josh’s tracks and panned those pretty wide. Great backing vocals by Dave on this song.

4. Curse Your Branches
This might be my favorite song on the record. There are a lot of cool details…originally, it featured acoustic drums, and during the beginning of the song you can still hear an “echo” of these in the background, in the left ear. The guitar tones are awesome and the parts are really well written. Little things swelling up here and there, and there are weird delay noises that come and go. Dave recorded all those – they weren’t really mix introductions. I love how the drums drop out for the first chorus. It sounds majestic.

Again, I just tried to create space for each element in the song through EQ, panning and ambience. The drum machine needed to be dry and punchy, and a bit squishy.

5. Harmless Sparks
The intro of this song was kind of a nightmare. We had a couple takes of it…but I think they were both single tracks with both guitar and vocals together through the same microphone. Once again, Dave had compressed it as he was recording and something just didn’t jibe, so I had to sculpt it quite a bit to make it work. It still sounds a little janky to me.

It was also difficult to get the relative volume and sound of the intro to work with the rest of the song. The intro had to be audible, but the song had to get huge after the intro, and it all had to flow together. This especially became an issue during mastering, because you have tracks on either side of this song and you can’t have people adjusting their volume over and over again. I remember that the floor tom/kick drum sounded pretty bad too, so that took a while to figure out.

I’m pleased with the stereo imaging on this one. I was able to pan the acoustic guitar pretty far left for the whole song and it doesn’t sound asymmetrical. Great steel guitar by Casey Foubert.

6. When We Fell
My other favorite on the record. I played bass. I don’t think Dave gave me any comments or feedback as I was doing it – it just seemed like the natural thing to play, and I guess he liked it. My bass is a Kay hollow body from the 60′s. I played with an orange Dunlop Tortex medium pick, and I went direct through the Radial J48 direct box into the OSA preamp. Hopefully my part fits the song and propels the thing forward.

I think the drums are a combination of James McAlister playing a floor tom and a drum machine on the kick and snare. Anyway, this song has a great White Album vibe, and I’m glad Dave got to finally express his love of that record through a song of his own. There’s a little bit at the end of the second chorus where we added some reverse reverb on the snare. I was skeptical about the idea, but Dave persevered and in the end it sounded cool.

7. Lost My Shape
I think this was one of the first mixes I finished. I drenched everything in reverb, and I remember thinking it sounded awesome until I came back to it later after several more mixes. I still kept it pretty close but maybe just tightened it up a bit. I wanted it to sound like Mazzy Star, or what I imagined Mazzy Star to sound like, because I’ve only heard one song of theirs. Dave likes his vocals very loud, and I remember this song seeming problematic in mastering because it feels like the whole song gets a lot louder when the vocals come in. Again, awesome lap steel from Foubert.

I think it was my idea to mute the band at the beginning of the second verse, and fade in the acoustic guitar. It just seemed like the song needed a dynamic shift there.

First time I’ve ever mixed a song with triangle in it.

8. Bearing Witness
Very well-written song, but a nightmare to mix. The drums were recorded with one microphone, and without much thought. Dave ended up liking the performance, though, and wanted to keep them. We did a LOT of work on the drums, and they sound fine, but the song does not rock nearly as much as it could have.

The approach we took in the end was a kind of a “Beatles” mix with panning the drums to the left. It was difficult to get the balance of the instruments right with the drums panned, but when I had them in the middle, the mix got way too cluttered and the drums competed with the vocals. Ultimately, after many iterations of the mix, I got it right.

I like the little piano trill at the beginning of the second verse. Dave had me adjust the volume of that 1 second piano part at least 5 times. I like the guitar lead in the intro sections. I think Dave wrote that part several years ago.

9. Heavy Breath
This song went through a couple different versions. At one point I actually thought it would get scrapped because it wasn’t working. The original arrangement was kind of a Pedro the Lion thing with electric guitars and acoustic drums, but it sounded uninspired and sonically crusty. Things started to click when Dave decided to go with electronic drums, strummed acoustic guitar and synth strings. When he added the lead guitar licks it really came together.

I really like the Space Echo reverb on the snare. During mixing, Dave changed a couple chords in the bridge and I remember objecting to it. This song reminds me of Starflyer – especially the bass intro with the strings and tamborine.

10. In Stitches
This song is special to me because Dave’s dad plays piano. Big Dave hunching over the keys with his gigantic hands gently pounding out the chords…that’s an evocative image.

There isn’t really anything unusual about this mix, except I was careful and deliberate about getting the right drum mix and the correct piano sound, since it’s so central to the arrangement. I think it was my idea to mute the acoustic guitar in the first verse and have it come in part of the way through the song. It’s nice when you can make arrangement changes during mixing and preserve the illusion that it was performed that way.

I love the piano outro. It’s so well composed and beautifully performed. The final chord…the lifting of the pedal…the breathing. Heavy.

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Mastering
There are actually three versions of this master. I did the first CD master in January with plugin/digital EQ and a Crane Song STC-8 mastering compressor. This master was used for the promotional press copies, and is probably what most reviews are based upon. This master sounds good. It’s dynamic and warm, but a little dark. It’s also kind of on the quiet side. It might be interesting for superfans and collectors to check out if they can find it.

Some time after I made this master, I traded the STC-8 for an API 2500 and I also picked up 2 API 550m mastering EQs. I checked with Dave, Bob and Barsuk, and there was time to revise the master before the retail manufacturing started, so I went ahead and did it again with my new setup. I basically replicated the EQ from the first master with the analog EQs, and just went with my gut on the compressor. The transformers on the API added a nice creaminess to the low mids, and preserved the high end better. I love the coloration. I also took a different approach to the final brickwall limiting on this version. Initially I experimented with clipping the inputs of my Lavry Blue converters, but ultimately I used Voxengo Elephant 3.0. I did want the record to be accessible from a loudness standpoint, so I tried to bring up the level without compromising the transients too much. There is a dimension of “squishiness” to the sound introduced at this point in the process, but I preferred it to the distortion or clipping of other approaches I tried. Dave liked it better too. This is the version in retail stores and being distributed digitally.

My favorite master is the one I prepared for vinyl. I delivered something very close to the second CD master – API EQ and compression – but with almost no limiting. It’s a very open and dynamic sound. These files are also 24 bit as opposed to the CD-quality 16 bit files, and contain 50% more information. There’s so much depth there. I’m looking forward to hearing the record on a turntable.

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Gear
The record was mixed “in the box”, but we did occasionally run tracks out to effects and re-record the return signal. During mixing, we were monitoring through a MOTU 896 with a Black Lion Audio Micro Clock. But by the time I was mastering CYB, my converters had been upgraded to Lavry Blues and a Benchmark DAC-1. My speakers are B&W Matrix 805′s. My amp is an old Bryston 2B. Stereo EQ: API 550m’s. Stereo compression: API 2500.

Overall this was a fun project and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. It was also nice to come full circle in my working relationship with Dave.

You can read more about my studio, my work and how to contact me at http://twwalsh.com.