Right -- attention everyone! This contest has just moved up a gear!
(Step forward and take a bow mrtuesday.
Seriously, this is now the 20th version of this mix I've listened to, but it's the first one that's had me bopping around my living room. The drums sound full and cohesive; the vocal tuning is much tighter; the guitar textures have been subtly filled out with additional overdubs without overshadowing the band's own musical lines; the low end is both powerful and controlled, without muddiness; the clarity of all the individual parts is excellent; the small-speaker translation is splendid; the overall tonality and stereo spread are on the whole very well-judged; it sounds like there has already been a good deal of automation work to keep a close handle on the balance as the texture changes; and there are a dozen little production touches besides which keep tickling your ear to stop you zoning out. There's so much I like here that I'll be more concise if I concentrate my critique on the few remaining niggles, but make no mistake: for my money, this is currently the mix to beat.
So what could still be improved? Well, the first thing I'd suggest would be to have a closer look at the timing. I wonder whether you've already done some timing tweaks, because it feels like it skips along better than most of the other mixes, but it's possible that this is an illusion created by the balance itself. Whatever the case, there are still numerous points in this mix where the timing stumbles subtly, reducing the forward momentum of the track -- probably most starkly the two verses, but there are moments in the mid-sections and outro as well which I'd think of attending to if I were in your position. It's particularly the timing relationship between the drums and the massed bass/guitars rhythm that's my concern. There's also the odd section of tuning in the choruses that I might revisit if the vocal's going to be that high in the balance.
While I like the drums a lot, the tom fills feel thin-sounding and are rather low in the balance for my liking. I'd also be tempted to push the snare up another decibel at least. That might seem initially to imbalance the snare against the kick, but the moment you try to increase the loudness of this mix the snare transient that's currently slicing cleanly through the texture will lose some of that edge it's relying on. The snare might also benefit from some more high end just during the choruses, but I'm not sure. We're getting into 'suck it and see' territory here. And maybe you could have a slightly larger 'virtual drum room'? It's not wrong as it is, exactly, but it just feels a little like I'm sitting and watching a great live drummer in my living room, rather than in a live venue. Who knows, you might be able to achieve the effect simply by delaying the room mic a bit.
There's little to fault the guitar sounds, as far as I'm concerned, with the exception of one balance issue: the main high riff in the choruses feels a bit understated, where it's actually something of a hook. This is particularly apparent in mono, because that part is panned well to the left and therefore loses roughly 3dB in the balance against the vocals. I'd also like to hear a bit more riding of the melodic details of the chorus guitar parts, particularly where they plug the gaps in the vocal phrases.
The lead vocals sound great to me in the verses: tall and wide, with nice throaty things going on. However, in the choruses they're not quite as successful. For a start, I think they're a bit high in the balance, and you could make more of the effects and doubletrack in terms of matching the vocals to the more expansive chorus backing. At the moment, the vocal feels a little stranded out the front, and is undermining the otherwise excellent illusion of size generated by the rest of the arrangement. While I like the general direction that's been taken with the backing vocals, they're competing with the vocal in the midrange in a way that I'm not sure is ideal. I'd be tempted to give them less 2-3kHz and a bit more 'air'. Their reverb effect is a bit stodgy too, from a tonal perspective. You don't have much space in the mix for these backing vocals, so they have to be carefully carved to fit. You could bring them up higher in the outro too, I think, or even make a new SFX feature of some kind out of them.
I'd like to hear even more automation riding, pulling up melodic corners and fills in the backing parts, and really taking the initiative in directing the listener's attention towards the most interesting elements of the music from moment to moment. The lead vocals still aren't quite as stable as I'd like, either, and automation could help there too -- although you'll probably only be able to improve significantly on what's already there if you spend quality time with a single-point mono monitoring system. Automation might also provide some help with the first verse, which doesn't seem quite to sustain the intensity between the vocal phrases, now that the guitar has been ditched in aid of the long-term dynamics. (If rides don't go far enough, then other sampled effects might be introduced, or else some kind of interesting 'spot modulation' of the existing ones.)
And speaking of long-term dynamics, there's still more that could be done to provide that crucial final-chorus-entry pay-off. Given that this mix has already pushed the supplied multitrack material about as far as it can go, it seems pretty clear to me that people are really going to have to think outside the box to make significant further headway on this issue. It's probably the biggest single challenge of this job.
Although the stereo picture isn't too wide, by any means, there are still some mono-compatibility issues, in that I'm losing quite a bit of top end off the guitars and cymbals in mono. I wonder if a Vitalizer-style buss process might have been applied to the high end, in fact, which would help account for it. If it's not that, then maybe a little additional phase-alignment between the two sides of any stereo signals in the mix might improve matters. As a smaller point, the super-wide guitar chops in mid-section 2 feel a bit too far off-centre, so that they seem to stick out unduly. You could say that this is a nice bit of variety (as they're not essential to the texture), but I'm not sure I quite buy it in practice.
The overall mix tonality is within a gnat's whisker of the Thrice track, and generally very suitable for the style. Personally I might cut a decibel or so around 250Hz to combat a hint of tubbiness, and also maybe boost a decibel at 1.5kHz to slightly harden the overall tone. That said, mid-section 1 is already sounding just a hint harsh/hollow at the moment, so a bit of EQ tweaking or rearrangement may be required for that section independently of this.
There's a new line in the sand...