Back to Top

Eyes Closed

by Ed Sheeran

This is another incredible mix from one of my own personal engineering heroes, Spike Stent. Although, funnily enough, if you’d asked me blind who’d mixed this song I’d probably have guessed Manny Marroquin, because it reminds me a great deal of his iconic work on Rihanna’s debut smash ‘Umbrella’. Both these mixes manage to pull off that rarest of mix stunts: giving over the foreground overwhelmingly to very few mix elements for maximum mass-market translation (in this song it’s the lead vocal and bass/kick/snare, whereas for Rihanna it was more just vocals and drums), but somehow managing to lightly sketch in all sorts of background detail in such a way as to leave you with the impression after listening that the arrangement was actually saturated with a legion of other instruments.

This illusion requires incredible restraint and self-discipline, with the mix engineer fighting the natural human instinct to get bored with existing mix elements during repeated listening (an essential part of the mixdown process, of course) and adding only the very minimum of background interest necessary at any given point – just enough sonic novelty to progressively reward the listener’s ear with new sensations as the arrangement momentum builds through the song, but never enough to overwhelm the absolute primacy of the foreground elements. Behold this mix, ye mixing students, and marvel!

The onset of the first chorus in particular gives me chills, because it’s so beautifully managed. It’s simply magical how Stent manages to build up such strong anticipation through the verse and prechorus with the skimpiest of means, so that when the chorus actually arrives it feels like a tremendous payoff. And yet, when you really pick it apart with hindsight, that chorus entry actually adds very little beyond the bass part. He basically manipulates me, as a listener, into kind of ‘imagining in’ more mix additions than actually materialise. Which is a bit freaky to be honest!

Another great example of the mix restraint/efficiency I’m talking about can be heard in the evolution of the piano sound as the song progresses. I say ‘piano’, but although it does appear as a traditional instrument element at times, particularly during the second verse and prechorus, during the song’s early choruses in particular it seems like it’s been stripped back to just some kind of ethereal piano-like wisp – a flavour of piano that implies the instrument’s been involved in the process somehow, even though it’s hard to actually pin down where it is any more. It’s kind of like a bay leaf you put in while cooking, but then remove before serving! Now, I don’t know how Stent pulled off that sonic sleight of hand, but I’m guessing that we’re hearing some fairly in-depth sound-design work – were I trying to emulate this, I’d probably get busy with my audio editing first, building a collage of reversed and faded-in/out snippets of piano sustain, and then feeding the result to some kind of 100%-wet resonant-chord or mechanical reverb emulation. But it doesn’t really matter how he did it. The point is that he’s managed to squeeze more sonic and arrangement mileage out of just that one piano element than lesser mixers achieve with half a dozen different instruments.

Oh, and what an arrangement drop for the chorus coda at 2:05! Honestly, I’m kind of hoping that idea came from Max Martin or Shellback (two of the other big names associated with this production), just so I can hold onto the hope that Stent’s still a mere mortal like the rest of us…