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Secrets of Country Record Production

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CMA Close Up/CMA/ Nashville, TN -- By Fett
Many of today’s Country albums and singles share certain production sensibilities. Over the past 20 years or so, they’ve come to adapt numerous production techniques from other genres – particularly rock, pop and R&B – to the point that, if you strip away the vocal, fiddle and pedal steel, the remaining tracks sometimes don’t sound that “Country” at all. This may partially explain why more Country songs cross over to other charts than in the past. But how do you balance this success against the idea of “keeping it Country”?

Lead Vocals Out Front

One noticeable aspect of both modern and historic Country recordings is that the lead vocals tend to be positioned much more out front in the mix, above the music, than in other genres, especially rock. On a rock track, the producer and mixing engineer treat the vocals as an extra partner with the instruments; as a result, the vocals tend to sit back at generally the same volume as the instrumental bed.

“It’s very important that the lyric be understood because, for the most part, Country songs are more descriptive,” explained Nashville producer, engineer and CMA Album of the Year nominee Chuck Ainlay, whose lengthy credits include sessions with Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, George Strait and Taylor Swift. “Each word is quite important, so trying to make the vocal front and center has always been an objective with mixing a Country record.”

Besides volume, there are several ways to make a vocal stand more out front. First, audio compression limits the dynamic range — the difference between the loudest and softest parts — of the material. That way, certain soft words aren’t buried and other, louder words don’t jump out unnaturally. Once a vocal track’s dynamic range is compressed, its overall volume can be higher in the mix. Audio compression can also provide “presence” or, when used more aggressively, an “in-your-face” impact.

Similarly, a boost of equalization (or EQ, tech jargon for the balance of bass, midrange and treble), can help a vocal pop above the rest of the mix.

Pitch Correction

While the debate continues over whether vocal pitch correction, aka “autotuning,” is a good or bad thing, it is extremely rare to hear a modern Country record that doesn’t use it extensively — not only on the lead vocal but also on all background vocals. It can be either very subtle or extremely noticeable, depending on how extensively it is applied and whether it is used across the board or only on certain passages or notes. Overuse of pitch correction can result in a tonally unnatural-sounding vocal track or a mechanical quality to intervals between notes.

“Sometimes imperfections are what make us hear the passion in what the singer is doing,” Ainlay said. “Reaching for the note can be more powerful than just hitting it and holding it exactly on. I never use auto-tuning where it’s just set automatically to even everything out. I’m always just drawing in the pitch only where it seems necessary. I try to leave as much of the way into the note alone as I can. If it goes a tad too sharp or doesn’t reach it at the very end, I’ll help it out a little bit. But I would prefer not to turn on pitch correction at all.”

Compression and Limiting

Most elements of a modern Country mix, from guitars to drums to the entire spectrum, use a very heavy dose of audio compression. When applied correctly from the ground up, this can help each instrumental and vocal part stand out and give the overall mix presence and power.

Limiting happens when the amount of compression applied to the material, when the compression is activated, is extremely high. This type of compression is often applied liberally to modern Country mixes at the mastering stage, where it’s placed on top of all the compression already applied during mixing. Once a record has been compressed, limited and mastered, yet another layer of compression/limiting is added during radio broadcast.

RMS Loudness

Why are so much compression and limiting applied at every level of production and broadcasting? The main force driving this trend isn’t musical — rather, it’s commercial. Radio stations want their signals to stand out above other stations as listeners move around the dial. The largest commercial stations tend to apply the most extreme levels of compression and limiting and are therefore the loudest as well. Record companies, in turn, want their singles and albums to compete with what’s already on the radio, so they push the volume as far as possible. Thus, the “loudness war” becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

“Often, it really doesn’t actually make for a louder record,” said Ainlay. “It makes for a more distorted volume by the time it gets to the radio. Radio station compressors are designed to equalize the volume differences between songs. A lot of times, the records that are really pushed up there are just distorted and actually end up sounding softer.”

Midrange-Heavy Frequency Range

Modern Country recordings tend to be very heavy in the midrange frequencies. This is also to maximize perceived loudness and impact. It generally affects vocals, guitars and other stringed instruments and snare drums the most — all key elements in the genre. Contrast that with hip-hop, dance and R&B records, which have far more boost in the lower frequencies and emphasize bass guitar and kick drum.

Sampled/Triggered Sounds

Country productions take full advantage of the latest capabilities in the studio. One example is the use of “virtual instruments” to augment or even replace real, acoustic instruments on a track. For example, many drum parts on Country records might have been played by a real drummer, but the sounds we hear can be a combination of the original drum sounds as recorded through microphones and sampled sounds retrieved from a software library. Just as likely, those original sounds might be replaced completely by samples from different drum kits.

Metronome Tracks/Tracking to the Grid

Many Country recordings adhere to a click track, an electronically generated metronome that is set to a tempo expressed in beats per minute (BPM). More sophisticated click tracks can be programmed to change tempo slightly between verse and chorus, for example, to mimic the natural tendency when songs are performed live. But most are set to one precise tempo that doesn’t vary throughout the course of a song.

“I never put anything on a grid if it’s been recorded live,” Ainlay said. “I know a lot of people move the drums to the grid, but that’s just not how a drummer plays. You can make an impressive-sounding record that way, where when you first hear it, you go, ‘That sounds incredible.’ But it doesn’t last. There’s no heart and soul in it that makes you want to listen more than once or twice.”

Easy Does it / Less Is More

Many of the techniques and technologies embraced on Country sessions are apparently working, given the genre’s health. But while Country recordings can sound more current and sonically competitive than ever compared with other genres, they also run the risk of developing a kind of sameness to the point of being hard to distinguish from other recordings, within and beyond the genre.

“I’m always trying to put the same kind of warmth in the bottom end and create the same sort of stunning listening experience in the records I make,” said Ainlay, whose recent mixing projects include Lionel Richie’s smash Tuskegee. “That entails a lot of dynamics. That’s how you reach the heart and soul of the listener. There’s something there, as opposed to where everything is sort of flat-lined. A lot of new people making records these days haven’t been in the business very long. They’re just using the technology, rather than allowing to technology to help them. And it’s not just Country Music; it’s in every genre. We need more people willing to stretch out and make great music. If they do, our business will flourish.”

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