I know people who work on dead bodies. I have several friends who, after graduating from college, went on to medical school. They were given cadavers (dead bodies) which lasted throughout much of their schooling. They dissected the bodies so they could learn how the body works; where nerve bundles are found and how muscles are connected, among other things. In time, understanding the parts of the body meant gaining a better understanding of how the body works together as a whole.
Dissecting a song is a way of understanding what makes up a song and how it works as a whole. When you understand the song at a deeper level, you can mix to get that sound – or close to it. For example, let's say next week the worship team is going to play "Revelation" from the new Third Day album. They want to sound great and they have many of the same instruments as are played on the album. Now it's time to understand how the song is mixed in order for the congregation to hear that great Third Day sound. By dissecting the album version, this is possible.
Grab a pencil and paper and follow along!
1. Get the Right Song
The first time running through this process with a song, pick a song you know well, has been produced well, and fits the type of music you mix – pop/country/bluegrass/whatever. Don't pick a "live from abc" song or a recording of your friend's garage band, pick a regularly mastered song.
2. Grab Headphones or A Really Good Stereo
I prefer using my headphones as I can clearly hear all the instruments and vocals. Headphones are especially helpful when listening for left/right panning. The idea is you want to hear the song as clearly as possible.
3. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
You will listen to the song over and over so if you have a programmable stereo or music player (mp3/whatever) then set it to repeat. Each time you listen, you'll be listening for something different so it doesn't get old…well, maybe a little.
4. Press Play
You'll want a notebook and a pen or pencil. Write down the name of the song and the performer at the top. Now, during the following steps make notes regarding what you hear. After doing this with songs in the same genre, you might review your notes looking for similarities.
5. The Vocals Have It!
This is the hardest part of the process. You can master it with one simple hint; hum along. Listen to the lead vocals in the song. Listen to them as if they were notes, thereby listening not to what is being said but how the tune is carried. I find humming alone helps me clear away the words and listen to the flow of the words. Note the volume relation of the words to the other instruments. List when the vocals become louder such as during the chorus or bridge. List any effects, reverb or other, added to the vocals at any time. This might include how backing singers come in on the last line of each verse. Can you hear the singer inhale before singing a line? Is it a clear vocal or does it have a live airy sound? List anything that relates to the vocals. By doing this you will see how the vocal line is entwined with the other sounds in the performance.
6. 'Cuss at Me
Now listen to any percussion instruments. This includes the snare drum, djembe, shaker, etc. Percussion can be used to drive a song to provide subtleties to a song. Note the placement of the percussive sounds. Are they out in front, driving the song? How have these instruments been eq'd? Do you hear the thump of a rock drum or something more light and airy? Notes might look like this…"snare drum not used until first chorus. snare not used to drive the chorus but to add to the overall sound. Shaker used throughout song but placed in the back of the mix."
7. Panning for Gold
This is where it helps to wear headphones. Listen for the location of the instruments. I found my favorite song had two rhythm guitars and one was panned slightly to the left and was playing up an octave. It also had drums panned in the center but the hi hat panned right.
8. Wearing Overalls
Note the overall sound of the song. Does the bass boom throughout? It is an airy light song or does it have a deep dark feel. What parts of the song are loud and soft? Record all of this stuff. I had a song where I couldn't tell if the second or third part of the song was louder so I opened it with Audacity so I could "see the song." Sure enough, the last part of the song was the loudest.
Finally, The Real Song Rings Through
The list of notes you made about the song now present a picture of how the song has been professionally mixed and arranged. It must be said, the nuances of the mix can only be observed in a limited sense. You aren't putting a puzzle together – it's not that easy. You are providing the audience with the overall feel of a song. You'll have to eq your channels so each instrument and voice sounds best in your environment.