Reference Of The Week #2

Outkast: 'Bowtie' (2:46-3:15)

Outkast's double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was one of the classic hip-hop releases of the early 2000s, including number one hits 'Hey Ya!' and 'The Way You Move'. However, the track that ended up making its way into my reference collection isn't one of the singles, and it's a reminder that it's not necessarily the most famous numbers by a given artist that provide the best sonic benchmarks -- that kind of success is usually determined at least as much by the songwriting or any connections with other media and current affairs, after all.

This is definitely one of those references I have as a general quality benchmark while mixing. There's plenty of energy at the frequency extremes, but it's beautifully managed to avoid flabbiness at the low end or abrasiveness at the high end -- the latter largely a result of giving the lion's share of the top spectral octave over the percussion transients and high brass stabs. Or, to put it another way, by filling out to the edges of the spectrum in a carefully controlled way, the mix still sounds both bright and smooth, as well as both bassy and unmuddied, which is often a delicate balancing act in urban productions. I love the short-sharp impact of the kick too, as contrasted against the most extended bass notes.

But the thing that I like most is the combination of clarity and depth. What I mean by 'clarity' is that the arrangement is packed full of interesting internal details by that point in the timeline, but all those details are carefully placed and balanced so that they come through clearly and nothing seems to be obscuring anything else. Indeed, it's so clearly presented that it's almost slightly overwhelming trying to process everything that's going on -- this is definitely one of those productions where you keep hearing new things in it every time you listen.

By 'depth' I mean that, despite the generally fairly restrained use of delay/reverb effects, there's a wonderful sense of front-back dimension here, with the kick, bass, and claps right up front, the main massed vocal line a little further back, and the brass, vocal ad libs, and sound effects taking up a variety of positions in the background. And yet I don't get any sense that the ensemble as a whole is having trouble gelling together -- it's expertly placed in that goldilocks zone where the mix is ambient enough to be cohesive, but not so much so that the production as a whole feels distant from the listener.

And, as an ancillary benefit, I've discovered over the years that both the clarity and the subtle depth cues in this mix quickly begin to collapse unless the monitoring system and room are both pretty well controlled in the time domain -- so it's a decent test for speaker systems into the bargain. Listen to this track in a really great monitoring environment, and it almost feels like the audio equivalent of detailed holographic star chart, whereas on a lesser system that becomes something more akin to a low-resolution two-dimensional JPEG, rather blurred and flat.

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