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Bad Habits

by Ed Sheeran

The low end of this mix is very nicely managed to deliver impressive weight and punch. For a start, it’s leveraging the old House trick of putting the bass line on the off-beats of a four-to-the-floor kick pattern, thereby improving the subjective level of both kick and bass by avoiding frequency-masking or headroom-competition between them. The kick’s as tightly-controlled as you’d hope within that context, with a powerful energy focus around the 50Hz zone – a region that’s deep enough to keep the track sounding bassy even while the fundamentals of the bass line itself traverse all the way from 37Hz (low D) to 73Hz (an octave above). But I also like that it manages to punch through the mix on small speakers without recourse to an overly aggressive upper-spectrum ‘click’.

A couple of nice arrangement moves are worth listening out for too. The first is the way a subtle percussive loop is added underneath the second chorus’s beat to give it an extra sense of ‘lift’ relative to the first – try switching directly between those sections in your DAW and you’ll see what I mean. Likewise, the second half of that second chorus provides another gentle ‘opening out’ by virtue of what sounds like a touch more reverb cushion behind the main chordal riff.

But my favourite moment has to be the drop chorus at 3:00. Stripping back your arrangement for the onset of your final choruses is a well-worn device, but what I particularly like about this particular instance is that he’s not only stripping back the instrumentation – he’s also stripping away the production values, after a fashion, by making a feature of the rather shonky-sounding guitar part, with all its clacks and buzzes. For me, that makes this stock-in-trade manoeuvre significantly more dramatic in practice.

Stay

by Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber

Blimey – actual honest-to-goodness production values! Things are clearly looking up post- 'Without You'. That said, the Kid’s most attention-grabbing lyrical move still seems to be the F-bomb, the lazy effectiveness of which appears to have rubbed off on his collaborator at 1:17. If Laroi’s not careful, that expletive may begin functioning as a musical ID tag – you know, like when Jason Derulo sings his own name at the start of every song he does. (Admittedly, it might be rather fitting…)

Putting that aside, I was interested to note some similarities harmonically with another recent hit from The Biebs, peaches. There we got a repeating IV-iii-ii-I pattern in C major, whereas here we have I-II-iii-vii in F# Lydian mode, but both comprise three step-wise root motions and one perfect-fourth leap. The only common factor in the song-writing credits appears to be Justin himself, so perhaps he just likes drumming his fingers on an arranger keyboard in ‘one-finger chord’ mode…

On a technical level, there’s something interesting going on with the opening chorusey piano riff, because it’s actually stronger in the stereo signal’s Sides component than in its Middle component. Specifically, it has more low mids to the sound, and thinking about it I can see how this might be a canny move in terms of mono compatibility. Now, it makes some sense to give a pop lead vocal as much low midrange as you can get away with, because this usually helps make it sound fuller and ‘bigger’ in the mix. The danger with this, though, is that if you want to put any other warm-sounding parts into the arrangement, there’s a tendency for those to create a frequency build-up in conjunction with the vocals, making the whole mix tonality sound stodgy. Here, though, the piano part’s feeding its warmth frequencies more into the Sides component, which means it makes the stereo mix sound warmer without as much of a sense that it’s bloating the overall tonality – after all, the low mids aren’t bunching up in any specific area of the stereo panorama. Then when the mix is summed to mono, the extra piano warmth in the mix’s Sides component vanishes, preventing any low-midrange frequency build-up now that the entire mix spectrum’s coming from one location. Neat!