“Shape of You” has topped the charts in just about every country, and it’s Ed Sheeran’s latest single from his upcoming album, ÷. The song was mixed by Mark “Spike” Stent, and today I’ll be taking an in-depth look at the mix to find out what makes it so special.
Just to clarify, this is NOT a song review…I’m not necessarily talking about the songwriting but instead focusing on the mix and the production. From a recording standpoint, how does this song stick out amidst a world of ever-increasing similarity between pop songs?
Well, it’s certainly not the chords. The song has already garnered criticism for sounding like Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” What makes this song special is the way the mix engineer balanced the song. Allow me to explain.
This mix is quite different from most other pop mixes in 3 distinct ways:
- There’s way more sparsity than most traditional pop songs
- The bass is much thinner/less important that most traditional pop songs
- The song is extremely punchy and rhythmic, yet it’s also super loud and leveled, which is rare for most songs (or just REALLY hard to achieve)
I explain these points in the video below.
Depth in the Mix
Use of Space and Sparsity
Most songs have at least one or two instruments where their sole function is to lay a sonic bed to support the rest of the instruments. These are called “pads” or “beds.” It might be a strings section, or an organ, or a really soft droning synth. Whatever it is, you’re not supposed to really notice it, but you’ll certainly feel it’s presence.
Not in this song. Almost every element is rhythmic. From the drums section to the guitar riffs to the backup vocals.
This frees up space in the song for all those other elements to be just a little thicker, a little louder, and have a little more reverb or delay.
Reverb and Delay
The mixer (Mark Stent) wanted to keep this sparse-but-loud quality for this mix, so he kept the reverb and delay somewhat more conservative. There’s a very nice but thin reverb on the lead vocal, and a darker, more colorful reverb on the electric guitars in the chorus. There’s also a 1/4 note length reverb on that opening hook instrument. It would sound totally different if that hook were dry (and probably much more Jon Bellion-esque!).
Using Dynamics to Define Distance
The dynamic balances of the individual instruments can often create the most accurate representation of depth in a mix. For example, there is an electric guitar playing staccato notes on beat 2 in every measure in the choruses (~1:15), but it’s really quiet in the mix. It’s almost drowned out by the gang vocals, and even though it is barely audible, we still feel it as a part of the bigger sonic picture, and it’s this contrast between loud and quiet that provides that 3rd dimensional feeling.
Width in the Mix
The lead vocal is right up the middle, but the backup/support vocals are pushed way out to the sides. This is a pretty common pop technique, so that’s not super surprising. From what I’m hearing, just about everything is either right in the middle or panned hard left or right. Later in the song when the chorus gets crazy, the vocals are panned so that they are painted across the entire stereo image, which gives us a pretty cool “wall of sound” effect.
But other than that electric guitar that’s panned slightly to the right and the gang vocals, everything else is very central, if not symmetrical across the stereo field. And that rhythmic hook in the beginning (which I’m assuming is the sound of Ed slapping the body of his guitar) was recorded in stereo, I’m almost sure of it!
Height in the Mix
Taking an in-depth look at the frequencies using a multi-band EQ, I found that there was hardly any bass content except for some of the choruses. But that low sub-sonic bass was mixed into the track at a very low level.Without a super thick bass sound, the mixer would be able to keep some of the other instruments relatively full-range.
However, that’s not what he did. Instead, he decided to shave many of the instruments relatively thin with subtractive EQ, so that way there’s no load up of frequencies when compressed. Because, while thin, this song has a laser-like dynamic precision that I just can’t wrap my head around!
The vocal is rolled off around 120hz, which means that when there’s no bass, then there’s almost no frequency content below 120. As a mixer, I know that would make me feel uncomfortable and I would try to fill it with some kind of bass or other part. But the lesson here is that you don’t have to always fill up the space. Sometimes that’s what makes your mix different from the others.
It’s extremely difficult to hear the complex intricacies of dynamics without years of experience. And this one falls into the category for me of shaking my head and thinking, “how did he do that???”
It’s incredible how even and leveled out this mix is dynamically, yet how punchy and clear it is at the same time. I’m guessing he used a fair amount of compression to get this mix to be so consistently loud, but a few things happen when you put on compression:
- It thickens the sound
- It “colors” the sound, usually in a harsh or cold way
- You lose punch (depending on the amount of compression and the attack setting)
So the fact that this mix remains punchy, clear, and full all at the same time is pretty astounding. Here’s why I think it works in THIS case:
- The instrumentation is very sparse, allowing the mix to still breathe when heavily compressed.
- The relative lack of low-end allows the compression to work well with minimal coloring of the overall song. And if it does color or thicken the sound, that thickening is actually a good thing since there’s very little bass anyway.
- The mix contains a lot of automation, which keeps the song energized and keeps our ears attentive.
Automation unlocks a whole new possibility for your mixes because it allows you to have complete control over every aspect of your mix. And great mixers know how to use it in a tasteful way without falling into the rabbit-hole and getting lost in a sea of automation.
Let’s face it, we’ve all been there.
The key is that they use it mostly for slight level tweaks that change the sonic identity just enough that the listener feels like they’re hearing something new. It’s a fine and beautiful sub-art within the larger art of mixing, and it’s what separates the amateur from the professional.
You can hear the automation in “Shape of You” when you listen to all the choruses back to back. Specifically listen to the electric guitar I talked about earlier, the one that plays a staccato chord on beat 2 of every measure.
That’s guitar’s volume is a bit louder in each subsequent chorus. This was done through automation, and it’s because of the tiniest of details such as this that we listen all the way through without dying of boredom.
After all this talk about the mix, it’s no wonder “Shape of You” is at the top of the charts in just about every country in the world right now! It is a fantastic mix, simply because the mixer was bold enough to take an A-list song and try a different mixing style with it. He could easily have mixed it just like any pop mixer would have… by adding tons of sub-sonic bass and lots of ear-candy effects.
But he didn’t, and that’s why this mix sticks out from all the others.
Although I spent lots of time trying to cover every aspect of this mix, I am only one human with one set of ears. You all will undoubtedly hear it differently than I do, and I welcome your comments! And, as always, please keep suggesting new songs for me to break down. I love doing this for you guys, and I truly want you to learn and grow from every review I write! Thanks for reading!