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July 20, 2014

The Way - Me'shell Ndegeocello

bob power mixing'The Way' from the album Peace Beyond Passion by Me'shell Ndegeocello is the epitome of perfection on all levels. The first time I heard it, I was in sheer disbelief and spent a lot of time tearing it apart to try and extract what made it so great. Nothing quite like it had been done at the time, it inspired a lot of producers, including myself, to try and get to that level of control and vision.

'The Way' was produced by David Gamson and mixed by Bob Power.

Listen here:
Please listen to the song at the very least on Spotify. You can also find 'so-so' sounding versions on Youtube. A CD version is better obviously, the itunes version is ‘ok’ but will work for this purpose.

Musically, the genius of this track is in the puzzle quality of the production. Everything fits together perfectly and somehow feels wide open and sparse even though there are tens of little events happening all the time. Things like the little processed Saxophone arpeggio right at the top only happen once and goes away, opening filter synth transitions, guitars switching stereo field, many different guitars sound complementing each other, real horns and fake horns playing off each other, etc, etc...

Producer David Gamson pieced that puzzle together while keeping everything feeling like it was played, which I’m sure it was to some extent, even though this kind of perfect layering can only happen with producer intervention. Please spend time noticing all the little events and new sounds that appear throughout the song, all the different guitar sounds and stereo locations, all the different synth sounds, the sax choir on the bridge, the wha-wha saxophone solo at the end, different effects coming in and out. Go ahead, I'll wait.


Structurally the song is quite special too. It starts with a vocal pickup straight into the first verse. Then the pre chorus comes on, supported by a nice set of back vox, then comes the chorus. (‘My sweet Jesus, I heard that you could save me’) which is actually shorter than the pre chorus. (Only 4 bars). Back to verse 2 which is symmetrical to verse 1, pre chorus 2 / chorus 2 mirror pre chorus 1 and Chorus 1. And then the surprise, a backvox only pre chorus comes after the second chorus to launch the wild instrumental bridge and its sax choir. Then back into a pre chorus after a very non sequitur chord on a filtered pad, to a final set of choruses with a wha-wha saxophone solo and new backvox riffs. Not a dull second on this track. Listen to it a couple times to memorize the different sections and check out the transitions.


Sonically, mixing engineer Bob Power shows his genius by anchoring the track around the wonderful kick + bass relationship (These are real drums played the exceptional Gene Lake from what I can tell). The bass provides the fat while the bass drum provides the punch and percussion in the low mids. The snare sound like a loose piccolo or a tight shallow drum to me and and provides the middle reference and gives the listener a reference as to the front to back depth of the track. Everything else hinges around that trio, to the left, the right in front and behind, using panning and space tricks to create the illusion of a back wall. Notice how the snare changes tone on the pre-choruses, subtle but effective at outlining sections (It goes back to normal on choruses). Also notice the snapback style effect on the snare. This is a great effect that gives the snare depth without having to drench it in reverb. The drums and percussions are actually quite dry, especially the shakers, which seem much more forward than the vocal that sits back in the middle of the track. It’s a very interesting visual effect. Especially on headphones (close your eyes, you’re safe at home).

Because of the puzzle like quality of the production, the steady middle of the track provides the canvas on which Bob Power could paint all the colors that David Gamson provided him. Notice how the groove depends heavily on stereo shakers for the motion. Also notice what happens on the bridge when they drop out. Everything becomes ‘vertical’ as opposed to the forward motion they relentlessly provided for the rest of the song. The stereo positioning is smart too, the shakers provide a bracket of focus for the rest for the arrangement.

The vocal treatment is quite interesting. Notice how the intro and first verse basically only have a bit of a chamber reverb but as the song progresses, the vocal get more and more affected with a long delay on the pre-chorus. And then more of a short slap delay on the chorus, which then stays on the 2nd verse (You can easily spot it on short words if you compare the first and the second verses to get the effect). This evolution of the effects on the vocals gives a certain motion to the whole track. Notice how the delay-returns on the vocal change tone all the time. Some of the vocals are going through tremolo effects (especially on the bridge). Lots of stereo unison vocal effects to add space to a part that just happens once or twice. It is a lot of work to set all that up. A lot fo thought went into it. It creates excitment but does not distact fro the main groove of the track. Very smart.

Other cool effects are the phaser type color on the electric bass. It peaks out at times when the bass is more naked in the higher range but is off when it’s playing pocket or holding the bottom of the track. Also, the very well done mix of acoustic and electric instruments with synthesizers allows for exceptional depth and layering. Check out the great Andy Sumner style chorused guitars flowing into an Oberheim style brass patch opening its filter. There is so much going on yet it’s so well integrated that it can take a few listens to realize that there is a piano coming in on the pre-chorus. It is eq-ed thin, almost like a Yamaha CP-80 piano. Also notice that nothing feels copy-pasted. It’s all slightly different, altered, pushed forward or backwards, played more intensely towards the end. This track must have been an intense amount of work. Don’t you wonder what would have happened on the track if there were no fade out? I do every time. That’s great production.

The rest of the album is worthy of purchasing too. Amazing writing, production, players, singing, recording and mixing. A truly rare record.

Enjoy the many listens it’ll take for you to get everything on this track.

Fab Dupont


Bob Power says:

I believe it was off two inch, and with all the tiny details to see to, I think I lost three weeks of my life waiting for tape to rewind.

It was in a fantastic room (what later turned out to be Pensado's room at the now-gone Enterprise), but since it was not ITB, we used all available inputs for FX that come and go during the course of the song.

David Gamson is a great arranger, as well as producer, and as we all know, Meshell is a real artist, with a totally unique and extremely compelling way of doing things.

Bob Power