Just a less than a week after the latest album from the swedish band Swagger & Stroll Down The Rabbit Hole landed, critics have praised the new work all around the Internet. One curious absence of all the reviews is the most evident: the mixing.
Don’t blame the “YouTube compression”, the tracks sound fine unless you’re listening to the 240p stream in a smartphone on 2G. Hit it a 720p and you will note that every songs doesn’t feel quite right with past productions.
I’m not joking around when I point the mixing is weird. All listeners commenting on the album cannot describe accurately how “the mixing is off”.
After I put a thread on Reddit asking for opinions over the new album, the reactions varied from “its fine” through cheap chinese bluetooth speakers, to “its utter shit”, as it would be from someone listening on some Airpods Max via Apple Music Lossless. Well, anything that it was engineered to sound right instead of selling by the volume.
To me, it feels like those cheap “Virtual Surround” toggles of old media players, that artificially widened trebles but muddied everything in between, making part of the central instruments sound behind a wall of plastic.
There is a nice wiki about Mixing and Mastering that will give you the short story:
Mixing is the stage of music production in which the recorded tracks (instruments and components), known as multitracks, are all mixed together to make a final stereo track.
Mastering is the stage in which the final mix (usually a stereo track) is made ready artistically and technically for its final release to the public.
Here is another take from Bob Katz:
As you can read (or hear), it’s not about the mixing, but something in the Mastering pipeline went bad: stereo image, transients, limiting, you name it.
Roberto Laghi knew what it was doing
The main responsible of how the mix pans out is Roberto Laghi, producer of the album. The producer is in charge of creating the album: scheduling the recordings in a studio, preparing the studio and the instruments, hiring additional members to help with some parts, hiring an engineer for mastering, among other things.
Mastering is an art on itself, and Roberto was the one behind this album. There are producers who good at mixing and mastering, which gain the advantage of already knowing the properties of the source material. Others prefer to hire someone devoted while they move on to the next project. Considering how Pandora’s Piñata (2012) sounds, Roberto and company surely knows its knobs.
It’s not the first time he has produced an album. He has a lengthy record of productions dating back from 1991, and is the fourth time he has worked with Diablo Swing Orchestra. He was also responsible of Pacifisticuffs, and if you compare both albums, you will note that they share the same mixing and mastering, but Swagger & Stroll Down The Rabbit Hole pushes the knob up to eleven.
What about COVID-19?
Another point of contention is COVID-19. The virus has many side effects, and Sweden was hit very hard mid 2020 and received another peak of contagions around year’s end. Since July 2021 things have been steadily improving health-wise.
Considering the information the band shared in Facebook in June 1th, it took 13 months from recording to mastering. Mixing started after August 29th 2020, and ended December 2th 2020, effectively rendering the mixing and mastering a six months journey, which is reasonable considering COVID-19 effects across Sweden plus the number of instruments and arrangements that a Diablo Swing Orchestra album is known about.
If you can’t picture how COVID-19 can affect productions, imagine schedule conflicts, transport disruption and courier delays.
For example, a microphone decides to die, and the replacement comes just next week for a recording that must be done today. A cable is lost, and the store is out of stock. An assistant doesn’t comes to work for 5 days because is isolated until the CRP test arrive. COVID-19 can make any problem worse.
What went wrong then?
Considering DSO publicly claimed the mixing and mastering was intended, there is no doubt they wanted to sound “like this”. But what if their covering their asses because something went wrong?
- Mixing or Mastering equipment malfunction (very weird, but can happen).
- The mixing didn’t go fast or well thanks to multiple COVID-19 reasons.
- There was not enough time left for further mastering.
- The mastering was done by a third party.
- Someone at DSO pushed their own artistic decisions.
Whatever happened, there is no doubt the album is a bang in the artistic sense, musically it’s varied with something for everyone. It’s just a shame that the huge talent shown in Swagger & Stroll Down The Rabbit Hole is watered down by a very weird, almost infuriating, mildly tone-deaf mixing.