It wasn't so long ago that different musical genres required, or at least lent themselves to, distinct production techniques and approaches. One didn't hear distortion guitar in '50s country music, for example, or open-tuned toms in '60s reggae. But in recent years, the lines have blurred. It's no longer surprising to hear scratching on a rock record or an inverse room reverb on a country-music production. Increasingly it seems that genres are defined more by instrumentation and musical content than by specific production techniques. In other words, anything goes.
I canvassed a broad cross section of mixdown engineers and producers — Elliot Scheiner, Tony Brown, Chuck Ainlay, Bob Clearmountain, and Al Eaton — to get their perspectives on producing hit records in this brave new world. Although some interviewees occasionally detailed production approaches specific to particular genres, more often the discussion turned to universal applications for getting a great mix. Here's what these studio veterans have to say about producing hit records.
Elliot Scheiner has recorded, mixed, and produced many of the biggest names in pop, rock, R&B, blues, and adult contemporary music. From Toto, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles to B.B. King, Natalie Cole, and Dave Grusin, this multiple-Grammy Award winner has done it all. His recent projects include tracking for a new Steely Dan album and mixing sound for the IMAX movie All Access: Front Row. Backstage. Live! I caught up with Scheiner between mixdown sessions for Clint Black and Boz Scaggs.
Let's be up front
Scheiner approaches each song differently, but he admits that his mixes tend to be fairly heavy on drums. “When I mix, I set up the drum sound first,” says Scheiner. “I start with whatever compression I'm going to add to that and then put in the bass. Usually, the bass and the bass drum, and maybe the snare, are the loudest things in the mix to start with. I try to make it so you can hear both the kick and bass very, very distinctly.”
Scheiner frequently adds low bass-shelving EQ boost on the kick-drum track. “I'll do a fair amount of boost at, like, 30 cycles,” he says. “I'll also throw a stereo compressor across the drums' stereo feed, and I'll use compression on individual drum tracks as well.”
To avoid a muddy sound and to make room for electric bass in the mix, Scheiner usually applies some EQ cut to the kick-drum track at about 300 Hz. He tends to EQ bass tracks in the 200 to 250 Hz region, whether cutting or boosting, so that they're more clearly defined on small speakers.
Scheiner uses drum samples as seldom as possible, unless they're to control mic bleed. “I used some samples on the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over album [a live concert recording],” he explains. “Don Henley was singing, and a lot of times, I wanted to get some of the vocal leakage out of the drum tracks. I think I used two different samples, layering them with his original snare. But I never completely replace anything.”
Double your pleasure
Scheiner says he often uses synthesizer tracks to perform unison doubles of acoustic guitar, string, and horn tracks to beef up pop and rock productions. Although double- and triple-tracking of electric guitars is less common now than in the past, it can provide a cool effect.
“I produced a Toto record a couple of years ago,” Scheiner recalls. “Guitarist Steve Lukather's tendency is to double, sometimes to triple, a lot of his parts. He'll do a single eighth-note [ostinato] part and then double it and then VSO [varispeed the doubled part] up. Then he will triple it and VSO that third track down.” Scheiner says the individual parts may be panned apart or to the same location in the stereo sound field.
According to Scheiner, most contemporary rock-lead-vocal tracks employ few if any time-based effects (reverb and delay, for example). However, they are often recorded with two preamps chained together in series to create a little distortion. “I've come across a lot of that lately,” he says. “I did it 30 years ago, not only on vocals but primarily on guitars.”
Scheiner doesn't like to stack tons of background vocals in his productions. “I can't imagine anything that needs 32 channels of vocals,” he says.
The days when an entire band played together to create a live take are a distant memory for most engineers. First-pass, basic tracks for a typical pop or rock session now consist of bass, drums, one guitar, a reference vocal (that later will be replaced), and sometimes keyboards. Nevertheless, on Steely Dan's newest record, the band laid down tracks the old-fashioned way — all at once. To keep down bleed in the small room the group recorded in, Scheiner kept the bass-guitar amp set to a fairly low volume and housed the electric-guitar amp inside stacked gobos.
Scheiner almost always straps a stereo compressor across the stereo bus when mixing. “I love the sound of the Neve 33609,” he says. “I don't use it for compression as much as for the sound of the compressor.” He uses a maximum of 2 to 3 dB of compression on peaks, with a 1.5:1 ratio.
Scheiner generally avoids mixing on large monitors, relying instead on industry-standard Yamaha NS-10Ms to get the perfect stereo mix. “I can't live without the NS-10Ms,” he says emphatically. “They're generally all I use to mix in stereo. I monitor very softly, at maybe 65 dB SPL.” If he's adding effects to individual tracks, he monitors louder. But once he gets everything in, he listens softly.
Tony Brown is not just the president of MCA Records in Nashville; he's also one of country music's hottest record producers. Brown's discography reads like a Who's Who of country music and includes albums by Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, Wynonna, Reba, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood, and Alabama. The prolific studio veteran has produced or coproduced in excess of 100 albums, more than 40 of which went Gold, Platinum, or multi-Platinum, and which together spawned more than 90 No. 1 singles. The recipient of multiple Grammy, Country Music Association, TNN, and Billboard Awards talks about how country music has evolved during the past several years.
Back to the future
“In country music, '80s rock is alive and well,” Brown says. “Some of the guitar solos and other sounds are very reminiscent of the late '70s and early '80s.
“Drum and percussive loops are especially big now,” he adds. “I think I'm one of the last holdouts, but I finally succumbed to using them. But some people are overdoing it. In country, when they use some of these loops that you'd hear on a hip-hop or pop record, it just sounds really cheesy to me. They're trying to be hip, but in fact, a lot of times they're being unhip. I've always thought that the song has to lend itself to that kind of treatment, and the artist has got to be able to pull it off. If the artist can't pull it off and the song is really a country song dressed in pop trappings, it just sounds like a record with no home.”
Brown has a reputation for working fast in the studio. His approach on the past few George Strait albums is typical of the way he likes to work. The first recording pass usually includes drums, electric lead guitar, acoustic guitar, steel guitar, fiddle, keyboard, and upright or electric bass. “We cut the tracks live in just four days,” he says. “The only things we overdub are background vocals and strings. I don't go in and start moving parts around. We fix anything that needs fixing while [Strait] is there. It's a performance kind of record.
“I'm a big rhythm section kind of guy,” he continues. “Most of the acts I worked with when I first started producing — including Jimmy Buffet, Vince Gill, George Strait, Wynonna, and Reba — like recording with the full band. So when you go back into the control room and hear the tracks, you're almost hearing the finished record.”
The vocal rules
If country music has a prime directive, it's “don't step on the vocal.” That means, among other things, keeping the arrangement tidy and the effects levels under control. “Country music favors singers with chops, those who can do tricks with their voices,” says Brown. “And the lyrics telling the story are so important — they have got to cut through. If you put too much stuff around the voice, it just soaks it all up. I'm into the clean approach.” Skilled musicianship is also a must. “To me,” Brown says, “country music has always been about musicianship and a voice.”
Even though the drums and guitars on contemporary country records are typically louder than those on past recordings, the vocal must be out front enough for the lyrics to be heard clearly; the drums continue to play a supporting role. “They typically hit on the two and four,” Brown says, though he notes that statement can be an oversimplification. Any drum fills, he adds, are usually found going into the chorus or leading into the bridges.
Brown says that you can have a country record without fiddle or steel guitar, but acoustic six-string guitar is less dispensable. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, a country record will have an acoustic guitar,” he says. “The acoustic is still the best thing to glue and hold the track together with the drums. It can be either strummed or used to play arpeggios. In either case, the acoustic player on a country session has to be really, really good.” That's because the same guitarist is often called upon to use a wide variety of techniques, from bluegrass licks to open tunings and so on.
Keyboards are frequently used as “sweetener” tracks in country productions. Those tracks are usually mixed in at a low level for a subtle effect. “I'll add an organ or a really subtle synth pad that you can feel more than you can really hear in order to add some depth to the track,” Brown explains. “That can give a country track a sheen and make it sound less brittle.”
Although he started out recording local rock acts in the Nashville area, Chuck Ainlay has become one of country music's hottest engineers. His song-by-song approach to mixing — as opposed to following an established country-music production route — kicked his career into high gear because Nashville was looking to hear something new. A Grammy and TEC Award nominee, Ainlay has worked behind the mixing board for a diverse range of artists including Vince Gill, John Anderson, Wynonna, Trisha Yearwood, Steve Earle, Melissa Etheridge, Peter Frampton, Dire Straits, and Mark Knopfler (whom he also has produced).
“I did the first recording in town that simultaneously triggered drum samples with live drums,” Ainlay recalls. “But I haven't pulled out my sample rack in the last four years to do any of that. You've got these great drummers playing, and you lose the inflections of what they're doing by putting in samples. It's still done sometimes, but there are techniques we've all learned to make live drums have the same kind of impact.”
One such technique is to engage two or more ratio buttons simultaneously on a Urei 1176LN FET compressor to create a pronounced point on the attack of a kick- or snare-drum track. The output of the compressor is then gated and mixed in with the original dry track at the mixer. “If I am going to do a squeeze like that,” Ainlay says, “I definitely would mult the compressed track, bring it up on another channel, and gate it so I don't have all the background noise.”
If any generalization can be made about country as compared with rock productions, it's in how the bottom end is mixed. “With rock records,” Ainlay says, “that whole bottom area can be muddy with mic bleed and ambience from the room and actually contribute to the sonics. Country music, though, has always been well defined on the bottom end. We go for a really percussive, full, and punchy low end. In the past five years, starting with Shania Twain and Mutt Lange, her producer, it has gone away from that a bit. But I think it will be back.”
Regarding kick-drum sounds on country records, Ainlay says, “We probably put a bit more snap in the bass drum, really [cutting] the EQ at 400 Hz and putting more 4 kHz stuff in there.”
Sibyl in the studio
If one instrument tends toward multiple personalities in country-music sessions, it's the acoustic guitar. “Open tunings might be played along with the regular tuning,” Ainlay notes. “There are also capo'd tunings, or you can play up in a higher register on the acoustic. There's also a high-strung acoustic, which rather than using round-wounds uses single strings from the fourth string on up. Different tunings can also be used with the high-strung that puts that 12-string sound in there.”
Ainlay explains that the high-strung guitar is usually overdubbed on top of the original acoustic-guitar track. “On a double pass, you can slightly varispeed the guitar so you get a wider-sounding thing.
“I don't think there are any production techniques done in rock that aren't done in country,” Ainlay says. “They're just maybe not as blatantly obvious in country. Synthesizers are used often, but probably with more organic rather than synthetic sounds. Keyboard sounds are in about everything you hear in country music these days. MIDI pads with acoustic piano are used a lot. Hammond B-3, the real thing, gets used on a lot of songs. We also see a lot of Wurlitzer still being used, but maybe not as much Rhodes. But Moog-style bass sounds and 808 drums — all that stuff, layered with real sounds — gets into country records these days.”
But just because synthesizers have invaded country music doesn't mean the tracks are sequenced. “It's usually a more performance-oriented rather than sequencer-driven track,” Ainlay says. “However, most tracks are played to a click.”
Ainlay says that the majority of country sessions start by simultaneously recording “a pretty full rhythm section consisting of bass, drums, a couple of guitars, fiddle, steel, and at least one keyboard, if not two. Generally, most songs are cut within three or four takes.”
Although some country artists take their own bands into the studio, backing bands of top-notch session players are more commonly used. Background vocals, strings, and pads are regularly overdubbed.
Living in harmony
When a production calls for maintaining the singer's personality and vocal nuance, as is typically the case in country music, Ainlay tries not to use too many effects on the lead vocal. “There's usually a little plus/minus harmonization stuck on the lead vocal to spread it out and make it sound warmer,” he explains. “But mostly that's a subtle thing to try and widen the vocal.”
Ainlay always uses a stereo compressor across the mixer's stereo bus. “If I leave it to somebody else to deal with,” he says, “how am I going to know that what I did is going to work when it gets compressed? I'd like to have a hand in that. Usually, I start with the compressor out [bypassed] and try to get balances that work without a mix-bus compressor. Then I'll switch the compressor on and rework things to get that ultimate groove before I turn on the automation.”
Since 1972 master engineer Bob Clearmountain has worked his magic on more than 200 albums and singles. The three-time Grammy Award nominee and ten-time TEC Award winner is best known for his winning mixes for pop and rock luminaries such as Bryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, INXS, Crowded House, David Bowie, and Shawn Colvin.
Center of attention
“With pop records in particular, everything revolves around the voice,” Clearmountain says. “It's by far the most important aspect, and it sets the tone for the mix.”
Clearmountain prefers to mix on Yamaha NS-10Ms (which have an inherently high bass cutoff), and he makes no bones about his preference for mixing on small monitors. “I'm better at judging bass, bass drum, and vocal levels on my little Apple-powered computer speakers,” he says. “I don't own any big monitors. The biggest ones I've got are the KRK Exposé 7s. I've actually had more problems trying to judge bottom end on big soffit-mounted control-room speakers.”
In discussing how drum sounds change every few years, Clearmountain says: “People used to go for the big snare-drum sound, but that's really out of favor nowadays. Now it's more of a small papery sound that people like. That's a big thing for pop records. But I tend to think that stuff is not so important to the mix. What's critical is the vocal and getting the bottom end in the right perspective.”
Clearly the bottom
“I don't have a huge preference,” Clearmountain says, “but I like to do everything — record and mix — digitally; especially now, with the new Apogee gear, digital sounds amazing. To me, analog is unpredictable; it does that funny thing to the bottom end. You work really hard on the bottom to get it exactly right, and then you play it back on your analog tape, and it's like, ‘Oh, what happened there?’ The storage medium is making decisions about what the bottom end should sound like.
“If I'm having trouble with the mix because it's sounding cloudy and muddy on the bottom end,” says Clearmountain, “I'll turn the bass drum and bass off to determine what else might be booming away. You might not realize that there are some frequencies in there that aren't really musically necessary to your mix. With piano or guitar, you're mainly looking for the mids and top end to cut through — the low-end stuff is just getting in the way. So you clear some of that out with some filtering, and then when you solo it, you think, ‘Man, now my piano or acoustic-guitar sound is too thin.’ But when you let go of your solo button, all of a sudden the bass sounds so much better, and you're not really missing that stuff from the other instruments. Now the mix sounds louder, clearer, and fuller. Of course, you can't EQ the other instruments too drastically, or you'll lose the warmth of the mix.”
Clearmountain points out that what works in one section of a mix might not work elsewhere: “On a mix where there is just a piano and vocal intro, for instance, I'll bring the piano up on two sets of faders. One fader will be for the intro, for which you have the piano sounding nice and full. But once the drums and bass and the rest of the band kick in, I'll go to the fader with the filtered piano sound. You don't notice when that change occurs, because all of the other instruments are taking up that space in the bottom end.”
Question of balance
“In order to determine if a mix is working or not, I always try to picture it visually,” says Clearmountain. “All of the instruments and everything else in the mix have to relate to each other on some level. Either there's a huge contrast on a track to make it sound more striking, or the tracks sound like they're in a comparable space but with a slightly different perspective. But to go through and say, ‘This sounds kinda nice on the voice, and this other thing sounds nice on the background vocals, and this other thing sounds nice on the snare drum’ — with that approach you just end up with all these separate things going on, and they don't necessarily relate to each other.”
Clearmountain also spoke about how beginning engineers often make the mistake of adding reverb to everything in an attempt to make the mix sound big. “You get size from contrast,” he says. “To make something sound big, there's got to be something in there that sounds small.”
To further beef up his mixes, Clearmountain regularly places a stereo compressor across the mix bus. He always listens postcompressor and post-A/D converter throughout the mixdown process to take into account the contributions of that gear to the overall sound.
Clearmountain is quick to hit the mute switch on any track that doesn't contribute meaningfully to a mix — unless, of course, the producer or artist insists that it be left in. “Wind chimes get the cut switch,” he says. “There's no room in records for that. It's just noise. Scratching should get the same treatment, as far as I'm concerned. It just sounds silly on rock records, like they're trying to be hip and cool and sound just like a rap record. It's as if a decree came down from the label: ‘We should sell some more records. Let's put a scratching noise on there.’ But that's not rock 'n' roll.
“I've gotten to like loops, which I hated for years and years,” says Clearmountain. “They'll probably go out of style soon, now that I like them. Like anything else, they're very useful as long as they don't distract from the song.”
Known by many as the godfather of hip-hop, Al Eaton played on the first Northern California hip-hop record in 1981. Highly versatile, Eaton often writes, arranges, records, mixes, and produces records from start to finish. His credits include Gold and Platinum hits with hip-hop artists Master P, Too Short, Silkk the Shocker, Mia X, and Mr. Serv-On as well as numerous productions and remixes for Arrested Development, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, Zhané, and others.
East meets west
Our conversation got under way with a discussion of hip-hop's jazz-tinged East Coast roots as differentiated from rap's West Coast origins and funk influences. Eaton says that the distinctions between rap and hip-hop have mostly faded, making labels more confusing than helpful. Yet subtle differences between East and West Coast styles persist.
“East Coast rappers are usually more into rhyming skills and wordplay, whereas West Coast rappers are more into the story,” Eaton says. One thing common to rap and hip-hop is an up-front mix of vocals and drums. “Kick and snare are always slapping you in the face, and everything is usually really, really dry,” says Eaton. “On a lot of hip-hop and rap records, the vocal has absolutely no effects. It'll be right up in your face.”
One reason for that is that many records are geared toward being played in big clubs. “Usually, the bigger clubs already have a lot of ambience,” Eaton explains, “so you really don't need to do anything to the track. The drier the record is, the more impact it has when played in the club.”
Breaking new ground
Although the ubiquitous Roland TR-808 kick is a standby in urban music, Eaton has tried to steer clear of using it in his most recent productions. Instead, he often experiments with substituting synth sounds. “In some cases, I'll use a string patch played on the low end,” he says, “and then I'll do some tonal stuff to it so you don't recognize it as a string line.” He may or may not change the envelope of the string sound, depending on the song.
Eaton often favors dropping audio samples into Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer over using a performance approach for laying down drum tracks. “I'll import drum sounds and place them within the quantization grid so that they're playing the drum pattern I want,” he explains. Eaton accomplishes that by first importing the audio samples into the Soundbites window and then dragging the sound bites (consisting of single sounds) into the Graphic Editor window. “You can use the Groove Quantize feature to give it swing or whatever,” he says.
The drums and bass have a well-defined relationship in urban-music productions. “In a lot of rap songs now, the rhythm of the kick drum and bass line are pretty much the same, and they kind of follow and meld into each other to sound like one instrument,” Eaton says. “Nine times out of ten, the snare is going to be on beats two and four.”
Sweetener-track instruments commonly used in modern rap and hip-hop productions include cabasa, shaker, strings, and the “worm,” a high sine-wave-like sound, typically from a mono synth, playing a portamento-inflected melody line.
Eaton doesn't hesitate to use stereo compression to give a mix an aggressive edge. “The big thing now in urban records is loudness,” he says. “A lot of it is not about tone per se. It's about having the loudest record you can possibly have. I don't want to fall into that, but if you want to compete, then you kinda gotta go there.”
Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording, located outside the beautiful resort town of Sisters at the base of the Oregon Cascades.