Case Study: The Pretender

Song: The Pretender

220px-foos-espg1

Album art for Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace

Artist: Foo Fighters
Album: Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
Tempo: 178bpm
Key: A Minor

Producer: Gil Norton

Band members:

Dave Grohl – lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Taylor Hawkins – drums, backing vocals
Chris Shiflett – lead guitar
Nate Mendel – bass

 

The Foo Fighters are an American hard rock band that formed in the mid 1990s after singer and lead guitarist Dave Grohl departed from his previous band, Nirvana, where he was the drummer and keen student under the guidance of Kurt Cobain when it came to songwriting. Dave Grohl’s influences include a range of hardcore punk bands as well as heavy metal bands.

Gil Norton, the producer behind the Foo Fighters’ 1997 album The Colour and the Shape returned to work on Echoes. Norton’s previous work includes albums by the Pixies, The Triffids, Eskimo Joe, Jimmy Eat World and more. With The Pretender, Norton has created a mix that is haunting at its softest and incredibly abrasive at its heaviest.

song structure

Song structure for The Pretender

The Pretender has an into (1), six verses (2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11), two pre-choruses (5, 8), three choruses (6, 9, 12), and an outro (13). The verses vary significantly, by way of a different mood, or additional instrumentation as the song progresses. Due to this, in my image I have labeled them as “snare verse”, “kick verse”, etc.

The waveform above shows you exactly how different the “haunting” or “abrasive” sections of the song are in loudness. You can also tell that it is overly compressed in the abrasive sections. Ordinarily you wouldn’t want this, but Foo Fighters have a history of trying to make cramped, distorted mixes work as heard in their song “Monkey Wrench” off The Colour and the Shape. It is particularly noticeable in the vocal, where it seems to be intentionally overdriven and re-recorded at a reasonable gain. That album was also produced by Gil Norton.

The sound field also demonstrates just how much of a noisy, cramped mix Norton was going for. The only tracks that have some room to breathe physically are the backing vocal and the lead guitar, both of which are panned to the left. All the other instrumentation is packed towards the front of the mix, and/or very close to the centre.

The instrumentation for this song is as follows:

  • Drum Kit (Kick, Snare, Toms, Cymbals)
  • Rhythm Guitars
  • Lead Guitar
  • Bass Guitar
  • Vocals (Lead, Backing)
Sound Field

Sound field for The Pretender

Drum Kit

Kick

The fundamentals for the kick drum in The Pretender are between 50-110hz, however it is the transient and harmonics of the kick drum that make it cut through the mix at approximately 6.5khz thanks to a plastic beater. The rest of the mix is already pretty bass-heavy and doesn’t really need the kick drum to provide the lower-end pulse. The lower-end pulse is provided by the fundamentals of the bass guitar, which is louder than normal for a headbanging rock song like The Pretender.

The kick drum, like many of the tracks on this song, sounds very compressed. There is a very fast attack and release on this compressor, and the kick drum barely has any dynamic range, leaving it sounding a little more like an EDM kick than a rock kick. I think this decision was very much grounded in the Foo Fighters attitude of “the rules were meant to be broken”.

Snare

The snare is the driving rhythmical tool in this song. Without a strong presence of a kick drum thump in the more aggressive sections of the song, the snare is keep all the musicians at least somewhat tight. The snare is yet another instrument that has been compressed a lot, however unlike the kick, Norton has allowed a slower release and added reverb through processing to mask it, and has done a great job at matching a hall reverb to Hawkins’ snare to give it depth. The snare is most present around 1.1khz for it’s fundamental and 5.2khz for it’s harmonics. It has got quite a presence in the bass range, but it does sound as though there is a high-pass at 100hz to clean the snare up a little bit.

Toms

It soundes like Norton has approached the toms in a similar fashion to the snare in regards to compression and reverb, the toms sound quite natural despite lacking some transients and harmonics in the high frequency range. They mainly sit at 150hz-270hz. It sounds like Hawkins has three or four toms, with the lowest being placed at about a 20% pan to the right, and as you go up in tom pitch, the tom placement shifts to near an 80% pan to the left.

Hi-Hat

A lot of the song utilises the ride cymbal or constant crash cymbal-thumping. The section of the song where the hi-hat is most distinguished is what I call the kit verse (4) as it is the first time the listener gets to hear all the absolute essentials of the drum kit (snare, kick, hi-hat). The hi-hat also exists in the pre-choruses and the other kit verse (7). The hat is very crisp and bright, and seeing as only the other cymbals occupy the 10khz and above range that they do, they have no problem being heard in the mix. It sounds like a very organic hi-hat sound, as Hawkins is playing loose hats and a mic to the side of the hats would pick up all of those bright sounds that are otherwise difficult to achieve. It is due to this reason that I don’t believe much compression, if any, was used on the hi-hat sound.

Ride & Crash Cymbals

The ride is the second-quietest sound in the entire mix. It can be heard in the choruses before Taylor Hawkins diverts to smashing the crash cymbals instead. The frequency you can really hear the ride coming through the mix at is 12khz, with a slight boost to 1.2khz as well. I’m fairly sure that this ride recording is just from an overhead setup rather than being close mic’d as it doesn’t share many of the processing elements that Norton has used on almost all of his close mics. The same can be said about the crash cymbals, as most of the change in volume seems to come from the velocity of hits from Hawkins, revealing a relatively untouched dynamic range.

Guitars

Rhythm

There are actually three different tracks that I identify as the rhythm guitar for this song, a left track, centre track, and a right track. The left track and right track mainly play host to an overdriven tone, with the centre track producing a much more distorted sound as I discussed in my Rockin’ Rocks case study. This setup of the three tracks creates an interesting, multi-dimensional stereo image that is harsh in the centre and bright to the sides. This is of course accomplished through equalisation as well, but the placement of the different tones is equally as important to this outcome.

The distorted guitars find their own place in the mix with the combination of an 800hz-900hz boost and the typical boost to the 1khz-2khz range to enhance the harmonics generated through distortion. The rhythm guitar tracks to either side have also had a high shelf applied to help contrast them to the more low-mid-centric centre guitar which has a few more fundamentals boosted around 400hz instead.

In the intro the left rhythm guitar just plays a quiet scratch sound to the beat while the clean melody is playing through the centre channel with a very pronounced 2.2khz resonance. The reverb was either added through a guitar pedal or through a hardware or software processing, as you’re just not going to get that much of a ring off of a clean guitar from room microphones alone. This of course opens the opportunity for more compression, but Norton restrains himself, acknowledging the importance of the two distinct feels of the production and allows the clean guitar melody to have access to it’s full dynamic range.

Lead

The lead guitar is a very simple, high-pitch, single-string-at-a-time melody. It comes through the mix at roughly 1.3khz for the distorted signal and a higher 4.5khz for the harmonics that it is producing. For most of the song it occupies the left side of the mix at about a 60-70% pan, but during the outro it switches to the right side of the mix at about a 10-20% pan and starts playing the chorus melody instead. The lead guitar is another instrument that sounds very compressed, even with what sounds like a slow release. It is always ringing at the same volume and consequently suggesting a destruction of the dynamic range.

Bass

The bass guitar comes through the mix at about 175hz for the fundamentals and 3khz for the sound of the picking, which is more exaggerated and helps the bass guitar really make in impact in the pre-chorus. It is a very precise equalisation that saves the mix from the realm of muddiness by not just putting a low shelf on the sub-bass and lower bass frequencies and calling it a day. The bass has been compressed, however not as brutally as the lead guitar, as you can still hear the difference in volume between the transient and the small sustain from the bass frequencies.

Vocals

 

At this point, you will probably need to scroll up a fair way to reference this, so I figured I would post this picture of the song structure here as well. There are a number of different configurations that the vocals are played in at different points in the mix.

song structure

In the first soft verse (2), there are two different takes of Dave Grohl’s voice, one proceeding the other by <10ms to cause a mild chorus effect that isn’t immediately noticeable because the two different takes are displaced very slightly from one another in the sound field, and the secondary take is a lot quieter in the first place than the primary. This effect is carried on in the other verses, but with a ~5ms longer delay between tracks.

In the choruses and second pre-chorus (8), there are three vocal takes: two of Dave Grohl, and one of Taylor Hawkins that is panned to about 60% left. In the last kick verse (10), there are three vocal takes of Dave Grohl, in much the same setup in the sound field as the verses, just with an additional take slightly behind the secondary take in the mix.

In the outro, Norton uses the configuration of takes from the choruses and adds a fourth take that is panned maybe 10% more to the left of Grohl overdubbing the verse which has been treated with a ~30ms plate reverb.

Creating a chorus effect in this way makes the track feel a lot more organic than any software or hardware processing and it allows a lot more creative freedom with how Norton wanted each individual layer to sound, unlike a delay or chorus effect could provide him from processing. Norton could have equalised different layers dramatically differently to each other or put each layer through different sets of processing to achieve the desired effect, similar to how foley sound is created for movies, television and games.

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