DIGITAL Editing John Mayer's *Heavier Things* 5.1 mix for greater dynamics and separation!

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This is what I call an edited version of John Mayer’s Heavier Things 5.1 mix! This mix suffers from weirdly-heavy compression (and resulting distortion), as well as a limited use of the surround sound space. In this piece, I go through both the mastering and the mixing, detailing why I believe the album was mastered so loudly and mixed so conservatively, then noting what I did to try and make the album more dynamic and how I tried to make better use of the rears.

Mastering​

Heavier Things, in both its 5.1 and stereo iterations, is one of the loudest-mastered soft rock albums I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard how Keane’s Hopes and Fears is often criticized for its loudness; Heavier Things goes a step beyond that. But why is it mastered so loudly? I believe it’s because of the heavy mixing compression present on “Bigger Than My Body”.

Of all the tracks on the 5.1 mix of Heavier Things, “Bigger Than My Body” is the odd one out in regards to how its signal looks, in that it’s compressed heavily, but with a bunch of small peaks visible. In contrast, other songs have a clearer line showing where the compression starts and ends.
01 Bigger Than My Body (Front Channels compared to other tracks.PNG


In regards to that compression, the 5.1 mix of “Bigger Than My Body” looks a lot like the 5.1 mixes of Room for Squares.
02 Comparing Bigger Than My Body to Why Georgia.PNG


While the 5.1 mixes of both Room for Squares and Heavier Things were mixed by Jack Joseph Puig, each features a different mastering engineer: Vlado Meller and Bob Ludwig, respectively. Given this, I think it’s fair to believe that the heavy compression on the 5.1 mixes of Room for Squares and “Bigger Than My Body” are the result of mixing (i.e. caused by Puig).

In addition, I believe that Puig’s compression on “Bigger Than My Body” affected not just its 5.1 mix, but its stereo mix as well.
See how similar the front left channel of the 5.1 mix (top) and the left channel of the stereo mix (bottom) look in regards to their compression.

See how similar the front left channel of the 5.1 mix (top) and the left channel of the stereo mix (bottom) look in regards to their compression.

This is important insofar that it can explain why both the 5.1 and stereo versions of the album are mastered so loudly by Bob Ludwig: for consistency. Otherwise, “Bigger Than My Body” could have been mastered a few decibels below its peaks compared to other songs on the album.

In regards to the compression on “Bigger Than My Body” and the 5.1 version of Room for Squares, I believe the heavy compression, at least in regards to the amount used, was an accident. What makes me say that? Well, Puig also mixed a number of tracks on the stereo mix Room for Squares*, and none of which seem to be compressed to the extent of their 5.1 versions.

You can see in tracks like “Something’s Missing” that the song does get more dynamic as it fades out, but the drum hits are compressed in a similar way, albeit much less aggressively than Room for Squares’s 5.1 mix.
05 Something's Missing (More Dynamic in Fade, zoomed in, circled bit, two channels only).PNG

See how to there’s a little peak there that I circled that wasn’t compressed like the rest of the line, similar to the amorphous compression line on “Bigger Than My Body” looks zoomed out? What I think happened is that Puig did intend to compress the mix to an extent, but accidentally set the threshold far too low when he mixed the 5.1 version of Room for Squares and when he was mixing “Bigger Than My Body”. I understand it’s pretty ballsy of me to claim that Puig was not aware of what he was doing to his mixes, but it’s not without precedent. In the decades of audio engineering, we’ve had mistakes happen such as…
It’s possible that he applied the compression as he was exporting the mixes for mastering, and didn’t hear them with such compression, or perhaps it was applied and he didn’t notice, as the music playing from the other channels—oddly enough, not compressed like the front left and front right—may have obscured the effect.

Mixing​

To call this mix conservative is an understatement; nearly nothing is mixed further back than the center of the surround sound space. (Some exceptions to the rule include some delayed vocals in “Clarity” and vocal reverb throughout the album, both placed in the rears.) Listen to how “Bigger Than My Body” sounds with its front speaker material mixed to the left, and its back speaker material mixed to the right. It doesn’t really take advantage of the front-rear dimension.

But for what reason is it so conservative? Is it due to John Mayer, who recently pulled the more adventurous Atmos mix of Sob Rock off streaming services for a more conservative one? That’s certainly possible. Keep in mind though that the proliferation of Atmos is much more widespread and accessible than the proliferation of 5.1 releases was in 2003. It wasn’t even possible 20 years ago to listen to 5.1 mixes without a DVD or SACD player. Nowadays, Atmos can be played through AirPods and is the default option for Apple’s streaming service, likely putting it under a greater level of scrutiny both by listeners and the artists themselves.

Editing​

My approach to editing was to declip, to subtract the rears (without vocal reverb; it was extracted via DeMix Pro) from the fronts, and then amplify the rears by 3dB. Declipping the signal really helped fix up the distortion as well as make the music more dynamic. You can hear in this comparison of “Bigger Than My Body”, with the left channel being the front left channel, and the right channel being that same channel declipped just how much the original master crackles. I amplified the rears by 3dB because I thought that would make up for the audio lost by subtracting it from the front channels… turns out it would need to be 6dB for that to be the case.

Regardless, I think how it sounds with my edits is pretty good, with there being a good balance between the front and back speakers, the bass near the fronts being a good counterweight to the guitars further back. One thing I noticed while editing is that there’s really not any separation on the front-to-back plane between different guitar bits. Despite my issues with Mayer as an artist (I think he’s a rather poor songwriter), he really is a wonderful guitarist, and it’s a shame the surround sound mix made no effort to further showcase that.

Here's a quick example of how the balance between the front and back of the mix changed with my edits, with the left channel being the front speakers, and the right channel being the back speakers:
[Before] [After]

In addition to the surround sound mixes, I also made some edits to the stereo release as well, trying to declip it to undo its distortion. You can hear those edits on YouTube, linked below. (You can also see how the edits look before and after here.)
  1. Clarity
  2. Bigger Than My Body
  3. Something’s Missing
  4. New Deep
  5. Come Back to Bed
  6. Home Life
  7. Split Screen Sadness
  8. Daughters
  9. Only Heart
  10. Wheel

Declipping Minutia​

Here are the details of how I declipped the channels, which may be too obscure for most users, but I wanted to include it regardless for posterity’s sake. I declipped the signal using Thimeo Perfect Declipper version 3.01 with a few different settings I created.

For the stereo mix, I edited all tracks but track 2 with the Electric Version (Lower) setting, and edited track 2 with the setting A-Punk (Pylon). All of it had the restored peaks setting set to 316%.
For the 5.1 mix, I had channels 1-3, and 5-6 edited with the Electric Version (3.3dB) setting, except…
  • Track 1 (ch. 1-3, 5-6): edited with the Clarity setting
  • Track 2 (ch 1-3): edited with the Bigger Than My Body setting
  • Track 8 (ch. 3); channels 5&6 of track 2, 3, 7-10; channel 4 of all tracks: not edited (i.e. lower them by them by 12dB)
The 5.1 mix was amplified by 5dB after all my edits (edits which include subtracting the rears without vocals from the fronts, as well as amplifying the rears by 3dB. The stereo mix was amplified by 2.1dB.


*Jack Joseph Puig mixed the stereo versions of “No Such Thing”, “My Stupid Mouth”, “Your Body is a Wonderland”, “83”, “3x5”, “Love Song for No One”, and “Back to You” on Room for Squares.
 
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