Bob Bullock made hit records for Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, and George Strait. But when he came to Nashville from L.A., where he had done the rock and jazz thing, he learned the cardinal rule of genre-shifting: “Learning to record different types of music is all about understanding and respecting the genre,” he states. What he’s learned about making country records since then makes for a concise primer on exactly how the hell to do so.
Preproduction: At heart, country records are live performances, and assembling the group of musicians best suited for a particular project is “not unlike casting a movie,” says Bullock. “What you’re doing in essence is taking a singer and a song and trying to create an identity for them, a context for them. That context is the musicians.”
There’s no trick to this — you need to know the nuances of particular players. “Most of the session players in Nashville are very versatile, but you listen to the records they play on (fortunately, country records are fairly scrupulous about crediting musicians) and you get a sense as to how they lean, toward pop or toward stone country or bluegrass,” he says. “I’m constantly taking mental notes on drummers and guitar players. I’d much rather call a player who intuitively knows the style I’m looking for than have to try to explain it to someone who’s just as good a musician but doesn’t have that same feel.”
Basic Tracks: A hallmark of country records is that they need to get done quickly. This is partly a function of economics — having six or seven musicians sitting there at a time at union scale or more costs over $1,000 an hour — and partly the inherent nature of the music, in which ensemble playing of mainly acoustical instruments makes for a sound that’s highly organic, intimate and immediate.
Country sessions typically start the morning of the day the musicians are scheduled, to allow time to set up as many as 30 microphones for a basic track date. (Bullock will “cast” the studio in much the same way as he does the musicians, looking for smaller, funkier places for blues-tinged projects, and larger, slicker studios for pop-oriented ones.) He’ll be in at 9 a.m. to place microphones, with the drummer arriving around noon to help get drum sounds, and the rest of the musicians scheduled for 2 p.m. Presenting the song “cold” to the musicians helps. “You don’t want to overthink country,” he says.
Seasoned session players expect the engineer to have the entire setup ready for them at downbeat. But you will also rely on the musicians to create their own sounds more often than not. Many guitarists will typically bring two or three amp heads. “So I’ll have already set up two or three microphones — usually a Royer 122, a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser 421 — so they can put the amps down and check them quickly in succession,” says Bullock.
On the drums, if the track is stone country, Bullock will go for a darker sound, with an AKG D-112 on the kick, 421s on the toms, a 122 on overheads and just one SM57 on the top of the snare. A pop-oriented country track will get a second SM57 on the bottom of the snare and a 421 in the kick along with a Yamaha Subkick to catch more low end. “Tighter miking gives you more of that old ‘70s studio sound,” he explains. “If you want a more contemporary sound with bigger drums, you add some room mics.”
There are default settings for most instruments — country is less about creating distinctive sounds than it is capturing the familiar ones faithfully. Bullock will have a pair of AKG 451 microphones set up in an X-Y pattern for acoustic guitars; the bass almost always goes solely direct; the fiddle has a Neumann tube U-67 through a Daking mic-pre waiting for it.
In placing mics, the country music engineer is also positioning the musicians as though they were playing a live show. “They have to be able to see each other, to give each other cues,” Bullock says. “In the control room, I’m tracking them with the thought that what we hear today will be pretty much what everyone will hear when the record’s mixed.”
On a country session, the guitarist sits next to the amp — it’s not usually placed in a separate iso booth. “Some leakage is simply part of the sound. I have a lot of tricks I can use to increase the separation, like phase cancellation or low baffles that don’t interfere with sight lines. But as long as they’re playing in a tight group, there’s no delay between the instruments. Drums leaking into the piano is only a problem if they’re 30 feet apart.”
Overdubs: It’s critical to keep the sessions moving, almost following the progression of a live show. Thus, overdubs and fixes get done quickly and usually on a break in between songs (a break for everyone but the engineer, that is), so that the sound of the overdubbed instrument is perfectly matched to the rest of the track. “If we want to add a B-3 to the track or double the acoustic guitar, we’ll do it right then, in the heat of the moment,” says Bullock. “In pop music, the challenge is all about creating an illusion; in country, you’re capturing reality. It’s not that you don’t know how to do the big audio tricks, but rather that that’s not what the audience is expecting. They don’t want to be distracted from the vocal or the lyrics. In rock, they expect the big guitar in their face. The challenge in any genre is to achieve what the audience expects in an entertaining and musical way. That’s not stifling creativity — that is creativity.”
Vocals: Country is all about the voice and the lyrics. So are the sessions, so don’t treat the pilot vocal as a scratch track — it’s likely to be a keeper. “The musicians look to be inspired by the phrasing and the emotions of the lead vocal,” says Bullock. “Never think of the pilot vocal as a scratch track — think of it as the first pass of the final vocal.”
Comping vocals is standard operating procedure because there’s lot of them, from the basics on forward. Bullock recommends using a microphone/mic-pre combination and sticking with it throughout the project because vocals will pass through several studios.
Make comps of comps as you go along. Pro Tools and Nuendo, which Bullock uses, make this easier to manage by creating playlists of vocals that can be assembled automatically.
Mixing: If you’ve been following the Nashville rules, you’ve got most of your record already together by the time you’re ready to mix. The sounds were created on the basic track and the pan positions still reflect a live stage. The vocal will ride louder on top of the track than in rock or pop to emphasize the lyrics. Country music is story-telling, and the mix is a lyrical narrative supported by the track and gilded by the interspersed licks (which never step on a lyric). “The essence of a good country mix is that there is a three-dimensional image of every instrument — clear and well-defined — and never overprocessed,” says Bullock. “Keep the emphasis on realness and you can’t go wrong.”