Mix Analysis: I Don't Know - Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney recently released his 18th solo album, Egypt Station, which was produced by Greg Kurstin, who himself has had a huge amount of success over the past few years with artists such as Adele, Foo Fighters, Beck, etc.

According to Paul, the words Egypt Station felt to him like the “album” album they used to make in the past. The concept of Egypt Station is that it starts of at one station and through the various songs you end up at the end station, just like a concept album.

Egypt Station was mixed by Mark Spike Spent who has done work for Ed Sheeran, Beyonce, Muse, and many others.

Paul was definitely surrounded by top professionals to make this record.

The song I Don’t Know, which according to Paul’s website is, “a plaintive, soul-soothing ballad as only Paul can deliver.” I believe the song was one of two first singles that was released ahead of the album and it definitely caught my attention, with it’s awesome drum sound, beautiful melancholy piano part that mainly drives the song, and, of course, Paul’s distinctive vocal.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, listen to the song below and I’ll see you afterwards.

Structure wise, it’s as follows:

  • Intro 1

  • Verse

  • Chorus 1

  • Verse 2

  • Bridge

  • Verse 3

  • Intro 2

  • Chorus 2

  • Verse4/Outro

Pretty standard, however, listening to the song there seem to be no obvious chorus because the verses sound more like a chorus with the signature line, “I got crows outside my window, dogs at my door.” and the chorus sounds more like a verse. Also, going from the bridge section to the verse doesn’t immediately sound like a chorus as we are used to. Maybe that’s why the song has this floating kind of feel.

But let’s start at the beginning:

The intro starts off with a piano, most likely played on a 1905 Steinway Vertegrand, which has been doubled on a cimbalom, with a lot of reverb on it. The piano is very dynamic and so is the reverb return, that is, it has not been very much compressed so every time Paul hits the higher notes you get an “explosion” in the reverb which gives it a very nice feel. Also, the piano has also been high-passed, helping exaggerate, together with the reverb, this distant/dreamy feel.

 A cimbalom. Used to double the piano intro.

A cimbalom. Used to double the piano intro.

After the first round of piano an acoustic guitar enters, it doesn’t have the same reverb applied to it, so is not in the same dreamy space, helping us “travelling” back and get ready for a dryer/more in your face verse.

To end the dreamy part we get this piano drone taking us into the dry, main piano riff. It sounds like the trick usually done with cymbal hits where you reverse a cymbal hit and use it between section to create a clear distinction, almost like a page-turner. Although, in this case, they used a reversed piano note instead. More fitting with the spirit of the track.

The verse:

The main piano riff doesn’t have the same reverb or the amount of reverb applied to it as the intro piano, and the low-end is back. This gives us this intimate, in your face and warm piano sound. The travel from the dreamy state (intro) to being in the room with you, is now complete. The piano is also much less dynamic and doesn’t have any apparent peaks as in the intro.

Notice how the image of the piano changes from the intro. In the intro, since it has so much reverb, has lost a bit of its wideness but when we get the dry piano we get the full stereo image too.

Now we are also introduced to the drums, and they sound awesome. It has been played by a real drummer, on a real drum kit (maybe Paul played it?), however, after repeated listens it feels to me that the snare has a sample underneath, perhaps an 808 or similar. The overall tone and compression of the drums are awesome. It sounds like the colour from a Fairchild or similar style of compression.

The main groove is kick, snare and hi-hat but the dynamic on the hi-hat is very interesting and has some very cool accent, making it the star together with the snare drum. Make sure you listen for it.

The vocal also comes in at this point and is obviously very well performed… it’s Paul McCartney. The vocal itself is not drained in any FX, reverb or any autotune (again, it’s Paul McCartney) as many of today's hits are. It’s mainly driven by the tone of his voice and the fact that he is a great singer. Why mess with it? Although it doesn’t feel like he is completely dry, it feels like there are some long delays/reverb, with a low-pass filter, making his vocal having this space behind him.

The bass is also introduced here, playing mostly whole notes, with a fill every time the hit the major 7 chord. It definitely sounds like the Hofner bass Paul made famous back in the 60’s. This is most apparent when he is playing that fill I just mentioned and in the choruses.

If you can get your hands on a Hofner bass, get it. They record so well. Maybe doesn’t fit with every musical style out there but you won’t be disappointed.

That’s the verse, quite simple.

Moving onto the chorus:

As mentioned above, the chorus sounds almost like a verse with a sadder feeling.

The only instruments added in the chorus are an electric guitar with a tremolo effect on the left and what sounds like a mellotron of some sort on the right. They almost play the same part, with the mellotron laying off some of the notes the guitar is playing and is instead holding them out.

The other instruments and vocal stay in the same place and space.

Egypt Station.jpg

Second Verse:

In the second verse we get back the acoustic guitar we heard in the intro, it’s very subtle but it’s there to accentuate the piano riff. Also, the electric guitar comes in and plays two chords when going to the major 7 chord. This is when he sings, “…lessons to learn, what am I doin' wrong?”

After this we go into the bridge section:

Instrument wise, what get’s added here is a synth which you can hear being pretty far back in the mix, slightly to the right and a cello on the left. We also get introduced to the backing vocals for the first time. They are also panned quite narrowed, but still leaving the centre spot for the main vocal.

Back to the third Verse:

It’s very subtle, again, but for the third verse they added a percussion, just staying behind the groove of the hi-hat, and it sounds like an egg shaker. Beyond that, it’s the same instrumentation as the second verse. They don’t play the full verse here, instead, only half then they take us back to the intro again.

Intro 2:

Same piano riff as in the intro but with the full band added and some ad libs from Paul.

Chorus 2:

Same as the previous chorus but with an added acoustic guitar.

Verse 4/Outro

Coming to end of the song here, there are no big surprises which have been the theme throughout the whole song, but we do get the shaker back again just to lift it a tiny bit.

For the outro, the drums change to a tom based groove and Timpani drums come in on every downbeat. There’s also some other percussion that sounds like some sort of a vibraslap, but it only plays twice, first downbeat of the outro and the downbeat four bars later. Works very well to bring a feeling that the song is coming to an end. The backing vocals also get re-introduced, singing, “Now what's the matter with me?” three times before the song ends with piano and acoustic guitar.

Conclusion:

This is a song that’s built on a minimalistic approach, both in term of production and mixing. Everything is based on making the song speak and not having anything distract the listener. There are a lot of subtle things going on to give the song the depth it has, in terms of the space behind the instruments and vocals, and it’s fantastically done. By introducing various instruments, such as the shaker for the third and final verse gives the groove that lift it needs. Also, the song never gets boring because by introducing various instruments, rather than mixing tricks, gives it this feeling of something that is floating very nicely from section to section.

You never notice the mixing side of the song and it’s a masterclass of how to make a song speak for itself without any mixing trickery. Very, very difficult.

Now, let me know what you think. Did I miss anything super obvious? Do you want to read more of these? Let me know in the comments below and give me any song suggestions that you would have a mix analysis of!