Track Focus: Rihanna “Umbrella”
This huge hit song is very interesting from a mix perspective, so if you’ve somehow managed to avoid hearing it (perhaps you’ve been on the Mars mission or something) then do surf over to her official site and take a good listen.
What is most arresting to me about this mix is the ruthlessness with which the engineer Manny Marroquin has approached the balance in order to get the lead vocals and drums upfront.
This is most apparent in the savage mauling of the synth parts, which end up being more illusion than anything else: there’s enough of them there to give the impression of something powerful happening if you are concentrating on the vocal, but if you actually focus your attention on them you realize that they are actually a clever use of smoke and mirrors.
Part of the illusion is that the frequency extremes of the synths have been emphasised, which is one way to simulate loudness psychologically. In addition, Marroquin appears to also have deliberately over-enhanced their stereo image as well. While this inevitably compromises mono compatibility, we can only assume he was making a calculated gamble in this regard.
Yes, the synths are much quieter in mono, but most mass-market mono playback devices are little domestic radios/TVs or shopping-centre piped-music systems, so any reduction of the synths in the balance helps keep the vocals and drums even clearer — an important consideration given the levels of ambient noise in such scenarios.
That’s not the end of it though. By putting reverb on the drums and not the vocals (it’s mostly delays you can hear on Jay-Z and Rihanna) Marroquin has pushed the latter even further forward. The comparatively restrained use of vocal double-tracking is also notable, given that this is ostensibly R&B, but that too makes sense given that double-tracks tend to homogenize the vocal sound and reduce the emotional immediacy of a performance even more.
Mike Senior is a professional engineer who has worked with Wet Wet Wet, The Charlatans, Reef, Therapy, and Nigel Kennedy. He has transformed dozens of amateur mixes for Sound On Sound magazine’s popular Mix Rescue column.
As part of Cambridge Music Technology he also provides in-depth training courses and workshops specializing in the documented techniques of the world’s top producers. His new book ‘Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio’ is a down-to-earth mixing primer which shows how to achieve commercial-grade sonics within real-world project/college setups.