Why mixing Bhangra is different from mixing pop music

by | 18 Feb 2014 | Blog | 0 comments

Life is varied at a commercial recording studio. We literally don’t know what’s going to come in next. This is great because it keeps us on our toes and helps to keep our perspective wide. A couple of weeks ago I received my first Bhangra song to mix. While I had done quite a lot of recording of Dhol and the like (including all of the forthcoming Samplephonics sample pack which was done right here at Circle Recording Studios Birmingham) I had never been asked to mix the genre before. I thought I’d share the experience here. As I didn’t know the vibe well I had no preconceived ideas. In the circumstances I asked the Executive Producer to provide his favourite tracks as references. I was gobsmacked by what he sent to me. Without exception they all sounded thin, distorted and over compressed. As a result I decided to ignore them and just mix the track the way that felt good to me and then see how the client felt about it.

The second surprise was the moment I pushed up the faders to hear what I was dealing with. The assault on my senses was reminiscent of Sarajevo in the thick of the Bosnian conflict (yes I was there with Bruce Dickinson in ’94 so speak from experience). If you haven’t listened to full on Bhangra I recommend that, unless you are a morning person, you don’t listen first thing in the morning but rather let yourself wake up gently first with a cup of strong coffee. For me in any case it sits in the up tempo/party section of my sensibilities rather than the gentle morning-wakeup playlist on my iPhone!

As I understood from the Exec Producer that most Bhangra is mixed as cheaply as possible ITB and mastered by the same engineer in the same studio, I decided to take a very different approach and mix OTB on my API desk (though I used hardware plugins for compression on the relevant tracks so I could automate ITB) and send it out to a top mastering engineer.

To be honest, at the outset I didn’t ‘get it’. It was very different from a standard rock or pop tune with only the kick and bass fighting over the low end. This Bhangra track had 3 bass lines (a sub bass, a bass and a regular bass drop), a kick drum and twelve dhol all fighting for the same frequency space. All in all I tried 3 or 4 approaches before it all seemed to click together. Now I’ll say at this point that once I ‘got it’ I realised that it was actually remarkably well arranged track. Everything had it’s place… it was just incredibly busy! Squeezing all the frequencies in reminded me a bit of when they open the doors for the post-Christmas sales and hundreds of people all try to squeeze in at the same time! Once I did ‘get it’ though, things came together remarkably quickly.

Ultimately I ended submixing into a number of stems (there were over 60 tracks at mix and my desk has only 48 including busses) keeping separate channels for the lead vocal, the piano and the mandolins. I cut problems frequencies ITB with a simple digidesign parametric eq and then sweetened stems with the desk EQs. As I mentioned earlier, compression was done using hardware plugins so I could automate ITB.

The lead vocal had been recorded in India. I don’t know who by but it was very hot. There was very little headroom left so I inserted a ProTools trim plugin before bringing it to the board. From there I added a bit of distortion by driving the desk and inserted a Retro 176 to fatten it up. I also used a tape delay plug-in and the UAD plate 140 on the lead vocal both of which I brought back to the board.

Once you get into it Bhangra is a really fun genre. I found it intensely catchy and found myself singing it days later (though I can’t speak the language). My kids are still asking to hear the rough mix in the car on the way to school in the morning!

I was slightly nervous when the production team came around for the first listen (check them out at http://www.redvalvestudio.com/). I’d been a bit naughty and had over compressed and distorted the opening 15 second sequence as a sort of pastiche of the reference tracks I’d been given. At the 15 second point when the track opened up and kicked in fully, the production team were visibly shocked! They listened three times before commenting at all. It was a beautiful sight. I’d made the bass sound more like an R&B track, brought the kick higher up the frequency range using my VOG and left the dhol in the space above that. I’d brought the Nhal much more forward than is traditional in this type of music. Initially this was the part they objected to most, along with the delay I’d put on the lead vocal. Mandolin, guitar and pianos were automated up and down to provide a sense of movement to the mix. I suggested they take the track away and listen overnight before making any decisions on mix changes.

The following morning they arrived bright and early. They explained that, for the genre, there was too much delay on the vocal though TBH for standard pop music I’d played it pretty safe. They knew the genre and I didn’t however so I nudged it back. After that they had two requests, first that I provide a dhol up and dhol down track and second, they love the big fat dirty bass and asked if I could push it even more. I was slightly nervous about pushing the bass further as I didn’t honestly think the track would take much more without upsetting the mix. As a result I also provided a bass up and bass down version.

They called me back later that day. They wanted the bass up but dhol down version. In addition, after getting used to the idea, they thought that the nhal forward version together with the bass up made for a fresh take on the genre. They left very excited indeed.

All that was left then was to upload the track to the awesome Mandy Parnell at Black Saloon Studios (Bjork, Sigur Ros etc) for mastering. Check her out over here: http://www.mandyparnell.com/Blacksaloon%20Home%20.html. A few days later, just after I had started stripping down my patchbay for a reorganisation, the mastered track appeared back. The client and production team listened. I couldn’t listen on my ATCs due to the state of my control room. However, the client loved it and approved the master directly with Mandy. It’s due for release early in the summer.

I understand they had both the singer and the Bhangra dance team flying over from India to shoot the video. Unfortunately I had a songwriting engagement during the shooting so couldn’t go down for the full experience. So, at this point, I wait with bated breath for the release!