When I do Song Critiques for my Hit Makers Club, I frequently come across songs that are pretty well put together and recorded, but lack the pizzaz that a hit has. The reason why is that the songwriters thought more about crafting their song than their production. Like all musicians, the first thing that you listen for when analyzing a song that you like is your instrument, and usually the last thing is the little tweaks that make the song special, especially the vocal. That’s why this isolated vocal of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an important learning tool.
Sameness Is Boring
What I find is that many songs by indie writers are boring because it’s the same track droning on and on for the entire song. There’s no variation, no change in sounds or effects (the ear candy), that subconsciously makes you want to listen. Like I said above, this is especially obvious in a vocal that’s the same in every section of the song.
In “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” there are no background vocals or answer vocals, yet the isolated track shows how well produced it is (let’s forget for a moment how well it’s sung, which is a given in virtually all hits today).
Let’s take a look at how this vocal was produced (you can listen below).
Tension And Release Is Where It’s At
The verses have a single vocal with a fairly long, dark delayed reverb. It’s very edgy distortion-wise (don’t know if that’s in the recording or done in mixing), and well-compressed in that you never hear the compression yet it’s totally even in level and you can hear every word (the console automation helps a lot here).
The B sections change it up though. It’s an overdub that’s mostly dry, electronically doubled, and spread out left and right. It’s a subtle yet effective change to make the B section different and special.
The choruses go back to the vocal in the center, but now now it’s doubled to make it thicker, and goes back to the longer dark reverb.
You can hear the tension and release. Wet, dry, wet. Mono, stereo, mono. Low intensity, high intensity, low intensity. That’s great production, and I bet most people never consciously hear it.
They’re not supposed to though because that’s how great production works. It doesn’t sound like much is happening, but underneath the covers it’s there’s more going on than you ever thought.
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.