I often talk about the need to mix (and indeed master) with your target listeners in mind, because different playback systems and listening situations affect what people are likely to hear and appreciate in the music. In practice, though, most mix engineers understandably hedge their bets somewhat, in order to cater for as broad a range of listeners outside their core market as possible — as a chart-dance producer might do, for example, by layering some mid-range harmonics over a club-tastic sub-bass for the benefit of the small-speaker listeners driving his iTunes sales. But what makes this Kelly Clarkson mix such an instructive listen is that it boldly follows a much more no-compromise line.
As I see it, this is a mix that’s aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator as listening systems go: factory-floor boom-boxes, elderly AM car radios, office laptops, bar-room tellies, and ear-buds of every flavour. From a commercial perspective, the melodies and lyrics are primarily where the money’s at, so what matters most under such adverse listening conditions is that lead vocals and important hooks sound clearer and louder than any of the competition. However, it’s also beneficial if the bare bones of the groove and musical harmony also reach the listener intact, because these can both powerfully enhance the ‘stickiness’ of the hooks.
The mix’s overall frequency fingerprint certainly fits the bill in this respect, by hitting the 1kHz region unusually hard. This spectral bracket is about the safest port in a storm, because it’s lightweight enough to be transmitted over even the smallest mobile phone speaker, but nonetheless pretty robust when it comes to conquering 80mph road noise, passing through curtains, or echoing down long corridors. That ‘Stronger’ pushes the mid-range at the expense of the sub-100Hz zone should also come as no surprise, as it’s the low end that usually presents the primary limitation when mastering for maximum subjective loudness: this master’s metering 5dB peak-to-average, which is pretty unforgiving. Clawing back some illusion of fullness and power is then achieved by hyping the bass instruments in the less headroom-hungry area around 120Hz.
The stereo picture is pretty ruthless, too, effectively a kind of ‘wide mono’ that relies on its multi-layered mid-range instruments and a few effects returns to fill in the stereo image. As a result, the crucial relationship between vocals, bass, kick and snare remains rock solid in mono, but still with just enough harmonic information left in there to support the lead melody. All you really lose, in fact, is textural thickness, but this isn’t a great loss, given that it can compromise intelligibility in real-world mono playback scenarios such as shops, stations, and cafes. There’s nothing crucial panned heavily to one side either, so faulty stereo systems and shared ear-buds won’t throw any spanners in the works.
Of course, the way the individual instruments are treated is also a vital component. Predictably, the vocal is compressed and automated to kingdom come, its spectral top octave turned up to 11 to shove Kelly’s rock-diva nuances right up your nose. (The de-esser on that session is probably still in therapy.) Note, however, that the vocal also claims first dibs on the mix’s 200-400Hz frequencies, always in short supply in pop mixes because of their high-risk status — too much energy there and you’ll jeopardise the overall tonal clarity that’s practically a stylistic prerequisite. The kick has enough high end to cut through on small speakers, while the snare has sufficient sustain to hold its ground despite the transient-flattening collision with the digital end-stops at mastering. The bass has to trust its luck with the 100-200Hz region, primarily, so it’s fortunate that only the smallest systems fail to make a passable stab at reproducing those frequencies in practice, especially when that bit of the spectrum has been deliberately enhanced.
As far as general mix balancing is concerned, long-term dynamics are clearly playing second fiddle to audibility concerns here. So on the one hand you can hear the faders and/or buss compression working overtime to maximise every detail of the vocal transmission, as well as riding up backing parts to bridge the vocal gaps (check out the one at 0:24, for instance), while on the other you end up with choruses that struggle to imply any significant step up in energy, despite exceptional sleight of hand on the part of the mix engineer.
The outcome of all this is a mix that really pops out from the crowd in its intended environments. If you want an idea of how well it does this, try an experiment: mix the file with 0dBFS pink noise and then bandpass the result at 1kHz. It’s amazing how much of the information survives such a punishing combination of frequency masking, distortion and restricted bandwidth — especially when you compare the havoc that similar abuse wreaks on a lot of less specialised chart mixes. But when you push a mix to such extremes, something’s got to give: on studio monitors, ‘Stronger’ sounds like it’s suffering from light sinusitis, and everyone seems squished up against a sheet of glass — even once you’ve turned the volume down enough to render the saturated high frequencies listenable.
An interesting little addition to the discussion above is the way the backbeat clap/snare hit seems to slightly lead the kick-drum hit in time – listen to the first instance of this at 0:25, for instance. This slightly compromises the groove to my ears, but what it offers in return is that the backbeat’s attack becomes a whole lot more audible in the texture than it would have been if masked by the kick-drum’s already fairly HF-rich onset.
Another thing that strikes me is that this track’s chorus is the polar opposite to that of Carly Rae Jepsen’s 'Call Me Maybe' — the whole texture is just saturated, and there’s nothing in the arrangement that responds to the vocal phrases. In my view, whatever advantages Kelly Clarkson’s mix sonics give her don’t seem to stop Jepsen blowing her out of the water musically. Making your music loud is all well and good, but making music that people want to turn up louder is better.