Back to blog
June 29, 2014

Angel - Massive Attack

This is one of the best bottom-end reference tracks of all time. Mixed by Mark "Spike" Stent circa 1998 on an SSL at Olympic Studios in England.

Listen here:


If you can, listen to the actual record, CD, or even the Spotify version rather than the Youtube version. The Youtube version turn into mulch half way through, as always on Youtube (Youtube is a place on the internet where good sounding music goes to die)

What is impressive musically here is that the whole song is based on a C pedal but never gets boring. It's also wonderful to see a band take their time with a song and offer completely off the wall structures. More than a minute passes before any vocals come in. When the verse comes in it;s so sparse that one wonders if it's even a verse. It's a build up to a big instrumental section brought in by a Love You chant that bridges the two parts elegantly.

When the second 'verse' comes in, its the same lyric. (So we should probably call it a chorus then). This time, it's half the length and there is no "Love You" chant to bridge the next section, which itself is different from and longer than the first. The Love You chant briefly appears to bridge out of that second instrumental back into the final fade. So we are talking about a 6:20 song, with two Choruses of differing lengths, Instrumentals masquerading as verses, and Intro's and Outro longer than a minute each. When I heard it on the radio, I had to stop the car and figure who it was and why such a track was playing on the radio. (It was in France, on FIP mind you, but still). It took serious vision to dare do this and to follow through on the business side afterwards.

The sonic key to the track is the interplay between the kick and the two basses. The kick itself is the center of the track but is not very fat. The fat of the track comes from the two Basses: A dirty one that starts the track, and a clean one that appears about 20 seconds in. It's important to keep track of these two throughout the song. There is mastery in managing those three elements while developing the songs expansive dynamic range around them.

If you listen on a clean playback medium you'll notice that even though lots of other elements come the kick never collapses. Even with when the (more) real drums come in the center three elements stays put. And even when hell breaks loose, the center and bottom still anchor everything (Not if you listen on Youtube, but you knew that already).

Spike made some really amazing decisions and esthetic choices on this track. First, the side stick is almost completely dry (There is a slight room on it, but no tail) yet the vocal are very wet. Actually everything is very wet and ambient on the song except the low end drums and the side stick. It's a magical sound. Take a minute to check it out and analyse all the instruments and mentally put them in a wet or dry column and see the effect that gives to the song. The vocal get their distance through a variety of delays and reverbs. Some of these effects seem shared with some of the guitar effects. (At the time, these were hardware reverbs, it probably was an enormous setup to achieve the sounds you hear.)

Notice the other smart choices like the first hihat on the right stopping or being severely tucked in when the center distorted hat comes in, leaving room guitars on the sides.

Also notice that the scary-dry rimshot gets taken over by some sorts of a snare doubled by a pitched effect every two beats when things get hot. Focus on the center on the song and listen carefully to the snare. Have you heard anything like that before or after? I have not. That's probably a production thing more than a mix thing, but it allowed Spike to drown the dry sidestick without leaving a hole (You can hear it reemerge when the snare fades out around 5.40 ish).

The crushed spring reverb on the snare is also pretty fierce. good idea to keep up the insane amount of grit. The long pre-delay on it allows to keep the snare's impact. Smart smart smart.

The guitars are used for a lift for the instrumental parts. There are no guitars per se on the choruses. The guitars sound very Pink Floyd-y to me. (The Wall era). Notice how they are quite thin sounding (to leave the bottom of the track alone) and almost DI-ey sounding. They are crunchy but not very present, they are used as kind of a buzzy animated pad. They feel huge through the huge of delays and reverbs he added to enhance the tail. but they are not classic, huge, amped guitars layered in stacks.

There is so much detail on this mix that you will discover new things with each listen. For example that little guitar arpeggio on the right at 5.40ish, that just comes in once, super far away, just because.

Or how the kick changes shape slowly at the end fade.

Or the super rad stereo snare call before the first instrumental.

Keep in mind that this was done on a console, probably with tape as the source. It's a very very involved mix and it took a lot of mind-share to pull all off in hardware.

All and all this is a pretty perfect mix. I have personally been using it for years to check speakers when I travel or when I work in other rooms. It will show you right away if your room is bass heavy or light. Take a few listens to the song in various environments. If it sounds bad then the environment is bad. Not the other way around.

This is a great track to 'own and own'. Meaning 'have on your drive and have in your head'.

Mix Analysis by Fab Dupont