The Sores and Me - Production Insights and Reflection

A few years ago, my good friend David Rangel got in touch asking if I would work with him as a producer on an EP he wanted to record. The 4-track EP would serve to be his first release as a solo artist, and my first experience handling all elements of production for someone else’s music. This meant I would be taking his original guitar and vocal parts, expanding on them with full instrumental arrangements, and then proceeding to edit, mix and master each track. Even for a short EP, this would be no small undertaking.  

David Freeman and David Rangel being silly in the studio

(Me disapproving of David showing off his classic front-man ego!!)

At that point, David and I had known each other and worked closely together for many years, having founded a progressive metal act End Begin back in 2010. During this time, we developed a close friendship and working relationship, which resulted in an 8-track album titled Empire Fools, released in 2015. 

Sadly, End Begin eventually disbanded, but from that experience, I knew working with David on his new music would be a fruitful project for us both, and I was confident in our ability to communicate ideas effectively. I was also looking forward to the challenge of applying my own creative skills to songs that were not originally mine, and which I didn’t have any emotional connection to.  

Prior to this project, I had only ever really worked on my own songs and compositions or written collaboratively with bandmates.  Therefore, my connection to the music I had worked on had always been very personal, leading to a more subjective perspective. This dynamic can obviously impact how you work and the decisions you might make when creating music, so I was keen to experience approaching a project from a far more objective standpoint.  

I was aware, however, that this could also lead to potential conflict if I failed to respect or began to overshadow David’s original creative vision for the songs. Fortunately, this didn’t turn out to be the case, and navigating this issue proved easy enough, largely due to our existing relationship. I’m sure David would agree that through our collaborative efforts, the resulting music has not only managed to augment his original vision, but also enhance it.  

In many ways I think I stumbled into an almost perfect scenario for my first outing as a producer on someone else’s music. If I had been working with a client with whom I had no prior relationship, I’m confident that we would have achieved a similarly positive result, but I can’t say it would have been as easy.  

I was also keen on the prospect of overseeing and being responsible for all aspects of production. I knew from the outset this was going to be a considerable technical challenge for me and would stretch my abilities to their limits and beyond. But this is exactly what I wanted.  

It’s within the murky outer limits of what you know and what you can do where you make the most progress to improve in your skills and craft. In the moment it can feel daunting and even stressful, but after some time and distance, and with a bit of self-reflection, you realise that you’ve come out stronger and better prepared for the next project.  

As someone who is always looking to expand my knowledge and abilities, whether it’s with guitar, writing / producing music and sound, or improving in photography, graphics, or videography, I saw this project as a valuable opportunity to continue my pursuit of becoming a creative polymath. And now, having finished the project and being in the process of taking time to reflect and evaluate, I do believe myself to be a little closer to that goal.


Listen - The Sores and Me by David Rangel

So, having hopefully given you some insight and background into this project, here is the first track titled The Sores and Me from David's forthcoming EP.

The approach that David and I took when working on this project tended to be fairly chronological. Therefore, with The Sores and Me planned as the first song on the EP, it was the first track that we worked on and the first track to be completed and released as a single in November 2019. Obviously, some time has passed since then and now, and a certain notable event that occurred in early 2020 may have had something to do with this time-lapse. (I'll give you a clue - it starts with 'pan' and ends with 'demic'). But none the less, The Sores and Me helped to establish a lot of the style and direction in terms of the instrumentation and arrangement for the rest of the songs. 

We aimed for a lightly folk-inspired feel with more organic and even ethnic-sounding instruments. One particular example of this is the Koto that follows the guitar melody in the intro, blending in an almost metallic percussive quality to the softer and more mellow classical guitar part that it mirrors an octave above. Another example is the use of flutes in the chorus that give a subtle Celtic feeling to the track, which is also emphasised by the very pentatonic nature of the melody and harmony.

All of this helped to form the blueprint on which the others songs were built, particularly in terms of using more organic sounding instrumentation such as strings. In fact, strings feature in all four songs, along with other orchestral elements, which notably escalate to an almost full orchestral arrangement in the song Amber and The Cloverleaf. But I´ll talk more about that in a future post. Right now, I´d like to take a look at a few examples of things I think turned out well in the production of The Sores and Me, followed by a few things that could have been improved.


Reflection - Things That Turned Out Well

String Arrangement

The first example is the string arrangement, which works well to enhance the sense of tension in the second verse with a repeating staccato rhythm and swells. It also provides a richer harmonic backdrop to the climactic bridge section, and the solo cello in the second and third choruses adds to the sombre and melancholic tone of the song. Below is an audio clip where you can hear the strings in isolation from the rest of the mix:


The Sores and Me - Isolated Strings


As the budget for this project didn´t allow for many live instruments, we opted for sample-based string parts rather than hiring session players. Even though hiring professional musicians would have been the optimal choice in an ideal world with no limitations on time or budget, it proved better in the long run due to constraints imposed by the Pandemic. In the end, we used some quality string samples from EastWest and they provided a great starting point to build on with additional processing.

Of course, listening to the strings in isolation like the example above will reveal some of the imperfections of sample-based instruments. However, in the context of the full mix, only those with a trained ear would notice that they are in fact not real instruments. This is helped by a significant amount of editing done to MIDI note expression and velocities to give the strings a more natural and human performance. Then with the addition of effects such as a harmonic exciter and a plate reverb, the final result is one I'm pretty pleased with.


Image of harmonic exciter plugin and settings(Harmonic exciter used on Strings via bus FX channel)


Image of plat reverb plug and settings used(Plate reverb used on Strings via bus FX channel)


Vocal Arrangement and Mix

The plan with the vocals on this track was to keep things fairly sparse and simple, particularly as this matches the subject matter of the lyrics and the overall mood of the song - "Please leave my sores alone." However, it was necessary for key moments during the song to make the vocals more impactful, and we did this by adding some additional layers of double-tracks and harmonies. This, I think, led to a very successful vocal arrangement that conveys a sense of isolation and solitude throughout much of the song, but also helps it to carry weight and punch when it needs to. Below is a screenshot of the vocal tracks from the Logic session where you can see the relatively minimal amount of vocals lines.


Screenshot of vocal layers in Logic session

(Vocal layers in Logic Session - Green layers above are lead vocals. Turquoise layers below are harmonies)

As you can see, there are very few moments where there is more than one vocal line being heard. Often, these moments are during the chorus sections when the lead vocal is accompanied by a single harmony on a phrase. For example, the line that has the octave lower harmony in the first chorus; adding just a subtle bit of texture to the lead vocal. Other moments that contain more elements include the second verse, which has a double track and chopped up accents panned hard left and right to give emphasis on specific words. There is also the climactic bridge section that has a double-track and an intricate three-part harmony towards the end. But at most, there are only ever four vocal parts heard at one time. Below is an audio clip where you can hear the vocal arrangement in isolation from the rest of the mix:


The Sores and Me: Isolated Vocals


From this clip, you will have been able to pick out some of the processing that was done to the vocals. Most of this involves the typical steps of using EQ and compression to shape the tone and dynamics of the vocal performances. I usually do this directly on the audio tracks that contain the final vocal takes, as you can see from the screenshot below:


Screenshot of EQ and Compression plugins applied to vocal tracks in Logic

(Vocal audio tracks with EQ and compression plugins)

However, the processing that I would say creates the defining sonic characteristics of the vocals, I do as parallel processes on auxiliary channels. Typically this will involve four processes or effects: a warming mid-range distortion, a high presence/air boost, a reverb, and a delay. Primarily, these processes are done to the lead vocals as they are the most important, but I will also do the same to harmonies and other backing vocals, although often just in terms of adding reverb and/or delay. The benefit of doing this kind of parallel processing is that it affords you more flexibility and control of the individual sound characteristics of each element without affecting the original audio signal. Then you can use an auxiliary channel fader as a precise blending control to find the perfect amount of the effect needed for the vocal part. Below you can see a screenshot of the auxiliary effects channels for both the backing and lead vocals in this song.


Screenshot showing vocal auxiliary effects channels

(Backing and lead vocal auxiliary effects channels)

Warming Mid-Range Distortion

When processing the vocals to add a warming mid-range distortion, my aim is to create an additional vocal layer that can enhance the mid or low mid frequencies of the overall vocal sound. I usually achieve this with a distortion plugin like Sound Toys Decapitator and adjust the drive, mid-range focus and high and low-pass filter settings to suit the material I'm working with. The extra harmonic information this adds to the signal creates a warm and rich tone and can be very useful if a vocal is sounding thin. The flexibility of having this process done on an auxiliary channel is that you can easily automate the volume to increase the effect as and when needed throughout the song.

Below is a screenshot of how I implemented this process in The Sores and Me. I used a relatively high amount of drive and set the tone a little brighter than normal to compliment David's naturally darker sounding vocals. I also put a de-esser in front of the distortion plugin to help reduce the accentuation of any sibilances that this brighter tonal focus might have caused.


(Lead vocal warming mid-range distortion processing)

I found that the lead vocal could take healthy amounts of this effect mixed in throughout the full song. As mentioned earlier, much of the lead vocals are heard without any backing vocals, so this process gave the lead vocals more weight, helping them to take up more space and draw the listener's attention more. So there wasn't any need to automate the volume of this auxiliary track throughout the song, and I was able to set it and forget it once I'd found the sweet spot at around -10dB.

High Presence / Air boost

The high presence boost processing I did employs the exact same strategy as the mid-range distortion, just with the emphasis being on the presence and high frequencies of the vocals and the aim being to add more air and breathiness. Ever since learning this technique, I've found it to be an absolute go-to move for getting a lead vocal to pop out in a mix, especially in a very busy mix. It's a technique I find to be indicative of modern pop vocal production and the trend of a more boosted top end in mixes, which is something I tried to emulate with this track. Although perhaps not entirely successfully, as I'll discuss a little later.

Typically I'll use a harmonic exciter like Waves' Aphex Vintage Exciter, or Slate Digital's free Fresh Air plugin, which I've been trying out recently with some great results. Like the distortion, the harmonic exciter adds more harmonic information to an audio signal, albeit in a much cleaner way. This is very effective for adding more presence and air in the upper-frequency ranges, although it does require more attention to detail than the set it and forget approach I mentioned with the distortion above. Too much can introduce harshness to a signal and make things sound brittle, so a little more care is required when introducing it into the overall vocal sound. It will usually benefit from some volume automation to add more of the effect when needed and reduce it when it's not.

Below is a screenshot of how I implemented this process in this The Sores and Me. Those with a keen eye will notice that the settings are actually quite extreme, with the harmonic mix set to max and the SSL Channel strip cutting everything below 300Hz and adding a whopping 15dB high-shelf boost from 2KHz and up. I also send this boosted signal through some pretty aggressive compression settings to reduce the dynamic range of such an affected signal. I find this helps it to sit better with the other processed vocal signals, even when mixed in at a very low level. 


Screenshot of lead vocal presence boost setting in Logic X

(Lead vocal high presence/air boost processing)

These settings do result in a pretty extreme sound that you would never want to use by itself. But when subtly blended in with the other vocal signals, and in the context of the full mix, it is very effective at making the vocals stand out. It is also a little unsurprising that such extreme settings were required given David's naturally dark vocal sound.

Auxiliary Reverb and Delay

My method with both the reverb and delay auxiliary effects is pretty standard to what you would expect; a medium-long decay time on the reverb and a delay with around 20-25% feedback that is tempo-synced to a quarter-note delay time. In this song, I automated the auxiliary channel level to essentially turn the delay on just for verse two and the bridge section, and leave it off for the rest of the song. I left the reverb level static for the entirety of the track, partly because the song called for it, but also partly because I love the sound of Sound Toys Little Plate...probably a little too much to be honest!!

Again, the fact that they are both on separate auxiliary tracks allows for greater control of the effects and precise tone-shaping of the processed signal, without colouring the original vocal. I'll usually use a combination of standalone EQ plugins or filters built into these effects to cut the lows at around 300Hz, or sometimes even higher if it calls for it. I also like to cut a fair chunk of the high frequencies in both effects so there isn't a build-up of upper-mids and presence frequencies that can impact the overall clarity of the lead vocals. Although admittedly, looking at the screenshot below, I realise I didn't actually do this on the reverb, and in hindsight, this could be a contributing factor to one of the things that could have been improved, which I'll discuss later on.

That being said, I don't think this caused any problems with the clarity of the lead vocals in this song, mainly because of the dynamic EQ processing that I do after the signal has gone through the reverb and delay. In the screenshot below, you'll see I have an instance of Waves' F6 Dynamic EQ after both the reverb and the delay. This is a very powerful technique that I use all over my mixes as it allows you to dynamically make space in an audio signal based on an external input source. It's essentially side chaining the signal from another track to trigger a reduction in a specific frequency range, or multiple ranges, on the affected signal when input is received from another source. For example, you might want to dip some acoustic guitars somewhere around 3-4KHz every time the snare hits because the guitars are prominent in that frequency range, and the snare isn't cutting through. So every time the snare hits the 3-4KHz band is dipped in the guitars' signal. The attack and release times can be set according to your needs, and afterwards, the guitars' signal is returned to normal until the next snare hit.


Screenshot of lead vocal reverb settings in Logic X

(Lead vocal reverb and dynamic EQ settings)

In the context of The Sores and Me, I used F6 to dynamically reduce the reverb and delay signals around 3.5KHz, using the lead vocal as the external side chain source. This meant that whenever the lead vocal signal was active, these effects were attenuated around this frequency by -4dB. This made space for the lead vocal to cut through and prevented it from being masked by the reverb and delay signals. Then once the lead vocal signal stops, the attenuation stops based on a 59 millisecond release time, and the sound of the reverb and delay return to normal. This occurs exactly in the space between vocal lines when you want the full extent of those effects to be heard, and so it sounds very natural.


Screenshot of lead vocal delays settings in Logic X

(Lead vocal delay and dynamic EQ settings)

It's also worth mentioning that on the delay, I ran the signal through a compressor with a moderate compression ratio just to help flatten out some of the dynamics of the delayed signal. I find this can help the effect sit a little better in a busier mix and be heard with a bit more clarity.

Reflection - Things That Could Be Improved

Drum Reverb and Ambience

So having gone through a couple of features that I felt were successful in this track, it's time to look at a couple of features that I think could be improved. The first of these is the reverb and ambience effect that I added to the kick and snare during the first chorus. The aim of this feature was to add a sense of space and atmosphere to the drums that went beyond the typical application of room mics or reverb. I wanted to impart an ethereal quality to the drums in this section, in a similar way to the drums in the song Symmetry by White Moth Black Butterfly:


Much of the atmosphere and ambience in this song comes from the drums, which is something I was trying to emulate in The Sores and Me. However, the end result didn't quite turn out how I first imagined it. It fell short of having the impact that I was hoping for, and it certainly didn't achieve the same impact as heard in Symmetry. You can hear the final effect in the audio clip below:


The Sores and Me: Isolated Drums (Chorus 1)


The idea behind this was to have a large and expansive reverb triggered by both the kick and the snare, but with high and low-pass filters restricingt the frequency response somewhat. I used Valhalla DSP's Valhalla Shimmer as the source for the reverb, and high-pass and low-pass filters at 248Hz and 6500KHz respectively. I also ran the signal through Waves' Aphex Vintage Exciter to add harmonics, and then through a fairly aggressive compression setting to reduce any dynamic variation in the sound. You can see the settings I used to achieve this in the screenshot below:


Screenshot of drum reverb settings in Logic X

(Drum reverb/ambience settings)

As usual, I set up the effect on a separate auxiliary channel to allow for flexible control, then I used duplicates of the original kick and snare tracks to trigger the reverb. The duplicates were heavily filtered to focus on a specific frequency range; a lower one for the kick and a higher one for the snare (see screenshot below). Both duplicates were muted so as not to be heard alongside the original kick and snare, but the signal was sent to the reverb auxiliary channel via a pre-fader bus so they still triggered the effect in time with the drum pattern.


Screenshot of kick and snare reverb trigger EQ settings

(Kick and snare reverb triggers' filter/EQ settings)

This resulted in the alternating low and high reverb sounds heard in the audio clip above, which, as well as not sounding exactly how I originally intended, also didn't quite cut through in the full mix. I found it difficult to achieve enough clarity in the effect and give it more prominence without impacting the clarity of other elements in the mix. Instead, I settled on it being more of a subtle texture than a prominent feature like the example of Symmetry above.

I could have started the whole thing from scratch and tried a fresh attempt, but I felt it wasn't worth it when measuring the time-cost of this against the added value it would bring to the song. It's one of those calls you have to make in the moment and then just stick with, otherwise you open up the risk of going around in circles. Essentially, I felt at that point that I was close to reaching the law of diminishing returns if I continued to tweak the effect, and the time-cost of starting again was not worth it either.

With all that said, I think there is an argument to be made that whilst the resulting sound wasn't what I originally had in mind, it isn´t necessarily a bad sound, and it doesn´t mean that the techniques used to create it are not worth keeping in my toolbox. Taken by itself, and out of the context of this song, the resulting effect is arguably an interesting one. Perhaps it's just a case of finding the right context to make good use of it.

If I was to attempt it again, I would opt for a more open reverb sound and try to control the tone and mix with a dynamic EQ like Waves' F6, rather than using static high and low-pass filters. This would at least allow me to dynamically control the frequency content of the reverb based on what other audio is being heard at the same time, but it would still let the effect cut through when there is space for it. Multiple instances of F6 would also mean the attenuation of the reverb's frequency content could be triggered by different sources, allowing for space to be carved out more effectively. In addition, perhaps separate reverbs for the kick and snare would also be useful to have more individual control over each.

High Frequencies / Mastering

Another aspect of this song that I think could have been improved is the accumulation of high frequencies in the overall mix. This is something I alluded to earlier as being caused, in part, by some of the processing done to the vocals, but there are other sources that have contributed to it as well, such as the cymbals and koto. Whilst I was intentionally aiming for a brighter mix, and a boost to the presence frequencies in the vocals, in hindsight I believe this resulted in an overly bright mix that sounds a little brittle.

Unfortunately, this didn't really occur to me until listening back sometime after completing all the work on this track, and by that time it was too late to make any changes. David himself was perfectly happy with the song and had no complaints about it. But it's something I noticed after gaining some time and distance from the track, and more importantly, some perspective. Had I achieved this earlier, even after making the aesthetic mixing choice to produce a bright sounding track, it's something I still could have addressed in mastering

Looking back at the mastering session, it does seem I may have been somewhat aware of this as I made some cuts to the higher frequencies. Perhaps I might have been more aggressive with these EQ moves if I had maintained a greater amount of perspective.


Screenshot of the mastering EQ settings in Logic X

(Mastering EQ settings)

It is likely that this is a consequence of carrying out both the mixing and mastering myself rather than having two separate engineers for these tasks. It could also have been exacerbated by not allowing enough time between mixing and mastering, in order to approach the task with a fresher pair of ears and a more objective perspective. This is something I've improved on over the course of this project by allowing more time between finishing a mix and starting to master a song. That being said, there is arguably always going to be a limit to how fresh a perspective you can have when carrying out both the mixing and the mastering. The obvious conclusion to which is that it is best to employ a separate mastering engineer, at least when the budget allows.

Closing Thoughts

So, in conclusion, I think it´s safe to say that both myself and David are very pleased with how this track turned out. It proved to be an excellent starting point for my first time producing someone else´s music, and it facilitated some valuable insights and improvements in my production knowledge and skills, which I´ve since been able to build on.

Yes, there are aspects of the song that on reflection I would fix or do differently, but isn´t that true of any project when you look back on it? After all, it's not until you have gained some distance and perspective from a project that you're able to see with clarity the areas where things could have been improved. Or where you were too zoomed in on an idea that you couldn't see some of the better alternatives. Or where you simply didn't know or understand as much as you do now.

Perhaps it comes across as amateur, admitting to what you don´t know, especially in today´s hyper-filtered social media-driven business, where only the best possible versions of people are presented, and the less-polished and more complicated and messy aspects are cherry-picked out and hidden. For me personally, I like to know where the gaps in my knowledge and skills lie, and I like to reflect on this with hope and excitement at the prospect of filling in those gaps. And besides, what you don´t know doesn´t speak to what you do know!

Anyway, philosophical ramblings aside, you can find a link below to the official release of The Sores and Me on Spotify, as well as a link to David's website if you would like to learn more about him and his music. Be sure to give him a like and a follow on his related social and music channels and share his music with anyone you think might enjoy it.

Thanks for reading!

Official Release:

David Rangel:


Artwork for The Sores and Me single release

(Artwork for The Sores and Me single release. Credit: Rob Simpson)