Recently I had my first chance to produce a country album, for independent artist Bo Billy. This came about when Bo asked to record some of my songs for an upcoming CD. As it turned out, he liked the sound of my demos enough to ask me to produce for him as well. And I liked his work enough to want to do it. But the challenge for both of us was to use a very tight budget to create something that sounded competitive with $100,000-plus major-label productions.
Meeting that challenge is easier in Nashville than in most places. I've written or produced all kinds of music in Toronto, the San Francisco Bay Area, and occasionally Los Angeles. But it was only a few years ago that I took a trip to Nashville and made the discovery that has been made by so many outsiders before me: Music City has more great musicians and recording engineers per square mile than any city in North America. Furthermore, Nashvilleans violate the old rule that you can only have two out of three: They somehow manage to be fast, cheap, and great. In Nashville it's common to get a finished take of a five- or six-instrument bed track in half an hour or 45 minutes! How? The whole band plays together, and everyone gets it right in one or two takes.
Working in Nashville meant that if Bo and I were prepared, we'd be able to record and mix an entire album in a little over a week. And we did.
The songs included some by professional country songwriters, a couple of Bo's originals, and a cover of the 1989 hit "When I See You Smile," written by Diane Warren and originally recorded by Bad English. This last was one that Bo particularly wanted to do. He's a fan of big '80s pop ballads, and as it happens, so is his audience: The center of the country music demographic is 35-year-olds (the majority female) who probably listened to rock and pop in their youth.
Non-fans might be surprised at the technical sophistication of a musical style that after all calls itself "country." In fact, while country is stylistically conservative, Nashville has always been quick to use cutting edge technology in the service of fidelity or productivity, if not necessarily radical sonic experimentation.
Digital technology was adopted early and enthusiastically, if not always successfully. To my ears, the clumsy use of drum machines on a lot of '80s country records makes otherwise good songs and performances almost unlistenable. Happier experiments have involved the early use of digital multitrack tape recorders, Sonic Solutions mastering stations, and more recently digital audio workstations, or DAWs: iZ Technology RADAR (popular for its sound and for its tape-machine-like interface), Digidesign Pro Tools, and, emerging as a local favorite, Steinberg Nuendo. Many Nashville engineers swear by the sound of their Nuendo systems, saying that Nuendo is especially musical-sounding, though other manufacturers claim at least equal quality.
All current high-end DAWs approach the fidelity of excellent analog tape recorders, with lower noise and distortion. But the major benefits of working with a DAW are flexibility and speed. Since digital recording and editing can be non-destructive, fixes and changes are always possible, even if they are probably indulged in less often than in other styles. And the use of plug-ins means specialized compression, EQ, or effects can be inserted at will on any track.
One plug-in, though, may be emerging as '00s version of the drum machine in Nashville: Antares Auto-Tune, which can nudge an out-of-tune vocal back onto the correct pitch. The over-use of AutoTune has been blamed for polishing the soul out of many recent recordings, and for allowing some mediocre singers to sound better than they are. And for a town that places so much value on musicianship, that's not in tune at all.
To begin planning the production approach for "When I See You Smile," I bought a copy of the Bad English version from the online RealPlayer Music Store. Here's a reminder of what the song sounds like:
As you can hear, it's very '80s--orchestral in size, with prominent synths, lots of reverb, and huge drums. The question for me was how to make it sound fresh, make it sound like country, and not make it so different that we'd lose fans of the original. The approach I ended up choosing involved stretching each style towards the other and twisting them together a bit: Replace the rock synths and orchestral sounds with the instruments (and voices) of a country band, and use those country sounds to play parts that would normally be outside of country's conventions. In particular:
If we did it right, I thought we could come up with a sound that was both huge and organic.
I decided to work at Sonic Eden studio (then called Landshark), owned by engineer John Albani. John started the studio as a demo facility, and that's how I had used it many times. But I'd been so happy with the sound, and with John's excellent ears, that I wanted to try it for an album project. It happened that John was a good choice for this particular song for another reason, too: In the '80s, he was lead guitarist and a songwriter for Canadian metal queen Lee Aaron. (Coincidentally, I was then lead guitarist and songwriter with the Canadian new wave pop band Aceboy, though we didn't run into each other at the time.)
The day of the bed-track session for this song, I spent only a few minutes discussing the arrangement with the band. This is also typical of Nashville. It's important to have a vision of what you want, but it's usually a mistake to over-direct musicians of this caliber. If you come in with all your parts already written, you'll miss out on what the players can come up with on the spur of the moment--and what an experienced Nashville studio musician can do on the spur of the moment is reliably awesome. I did have a few key parts predetermined, though. One was the riff that opens the original version of the song, played in that case on keyboards:
We briefly experimented with other ideas, but it was clear to me that this riff was a hook, one that would carry a nostalgic charge for fans of the original. And I thought hearing it played by electric and acoustic guitar would bring new life to it. Here's the electric track, played by session ace Danny Parks:
A word about Danny Parks. He came to Nashville as a fiddle player, and still plays that instrument as well as mandolin, but has found most of his work as a guitarist. Among the artists he's played and recorded with are George Jones, Mel Tillis, Brooks & Dunn, Dickie Betts, Toby Keith, Sammy Kershaw, Darryl Singletary, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, and Ween. See the sidebar "Danny Parks' Guitar Rig" for a breakdown of the equipment he uses on a session like ours.
For a low- to medium-budget session like ours, Danny says he brings the following:
"For acoustics, I tend to carry two or three into a lower-budget date, my stand-bys being a 1941 Gibson Banner (J45), a Collings mahogany dreadnought, a Parsons mandolin, and occasionally a 12-string or gut-string. On electric, I carry in five guitars--a Telecaster, a Stratocaster, a Les Paul, a Hofner Verithin hollow-body, and a Gretsch Brian Setzer model."
"These days I've been using a Line 6 Vetta modeling amp through an Egnator 2-12 Cab and a Rivera 4-12. But on smaller/lower-budget dates, I run that head direct. I also have a Rivera S-120 and a Fender Tonemaster head in the mix. But generally I use the Vetta."
Let's look at what Danny did on guitar for the rest of the song.
We recorded lead and rhythm electric parts, using two tracks for each to allow for stereo guitar sounds. A total of two parts and four tracks for electric guitar is not many. Often on a rock project there will be tens of tracks of guitar overdubs, either to build up a big sound or to provide options that can be compiled into a master performance at mix time. In country music, though, it would usually sound like overkill to build a "wall of guitars" (or a wall of anything else).
Normally the stylistic reference is a sound that might plausibly be generated by a really good live band. Also, it's the usual practice in Nashville to commit to parts as you record, rather than create a lot of alternatives to be sorted through later. On Danny's tracks, as with most others, we just punched in wherever we wanted to change something, recording over the previous take. Since we were using Steinberg Nuendo PC-based recording software, we could always undo and go back to a previous take, but once we were happy with the new one, the old one was discarded.
In the verse, Danny carried on with the echoing part he used for the intro. In the pre-chorus, known as the "channel" in Nashville, he used the same sound to play intervals outlining the chord changes, and ended on high harmonics (created by lightly touching the strings with the fretting hand). Then, in an overdub, he used his volume pedal to provide a violin-like second part, before switching to fills during the pre-chorus:
This being Nashville, the chords Danny was following were written in the Nashville Number System. See "Playing by Number" for an explanation of how the Number System works.
In the Nashville Number System, chords are represented by their number in the key. For example, in the key of G, the first chord is G, the second chord is A minor, the third is B minor, the fourth is C, etc. A number chart would show G written as 1, A minor as 2m, B minor as 3m, and C as 4. Charts are written this way because it makes it quicker to change key, since you don't have to rewrite everyone's charts. If we had wanted to change to A for example, we would have just told the players and they would now have interpreted 1 as A, 2m as B minor, and so on.The Nashville Number System for chord charts makes it easy to change keys. Vertical lines are measure boundaries.
In listening to Danny play the channel chords as intervals, you hear the arrangement-oriented thinking of a pro studio musician. When beginning guitarists see a set of chord changes, they do what seems to be the obvious thing: They strum the chords. But here, Danny was thinking about the other instruments he was playing with, in particular, I would guess, the keyboards, which were also covering the chords. Danny's approach created more space and provided more rhythmic interest.
In the chorus, Danny made a dramatic change in his sound and playing style, laying into power chords to support the operatic leap in intensity characteristic of an '80s pop ballad. In order to make the stereo sound bigger, Danny used a different tone for each of the two tracks dedicated to rhythm guitar. Here's the sound that would be sent to the left channel when we mixed:
And here's the sound for the right channel:
About three-quarters of the way through the song, the intensity builds to its highest peak with the guitar solo. My advice to Danny here was a simple "Go for it." He gave us a series of wailing rock workouts over a period of about 15 minutes, and we chose our favorite take:
On acoustic guitar we had Mark Matejka, a former member of the Charlie Daniels Band who is currently signed to Dreamworks as the lead guitarist of Hot Apple Pie. Electric guitars often get more attention, since they make so much more noise, but great acoustic playing is every bit as valuable.
Have a listen to Mark playing the intro and verse riff, and notice the excellent tone, even rhythm, and controlled dynamics (loudness vs. softness). Note that on your right channel you'll hear Mark playing what's known as a "high-string" part. In Nashville high-string guitar tuning, the third through sixth strings are tuned an octave higher than standard tuning. (Guitars tuned this way should have much lighter than normal strings, for example gauges .012, .016, .010, .014, .020, and .030 for a medium set, all of them plain except for the heaviest one.)
Having people who can come in cold, play like that, and give you a keeper on the first or second take is bliss.
Mark played similar parts in the verses. In the choruses and solo, he did a rhythmic strum, which when mixed with power chords would make the overall guitar sound bigger than it would have been with electric guitars alone:
On bass guitar we had Pat Lassiter, another studio and road veteran who has worked with Charlie Daniels, Tracy Lawrence, Michelle Wright, and others. Nashville bass players are seldom called on to be flashy. What they are, though, is solid and tasteful. An example on this session was the way Pat came out of the chorus into the second verse. He went up an octave for the end of the chorus, leaving it hanging in the air so that there'd be a satisfying sense of return when he dropped back into the low register for the beginning of the verse. One of the strings on Pat's bass was buzzing a bit that day, but it happened to work fine in the mix:
I realized after we were done recording all the basic band tracks for all the songs that Pat had made only one mistake--and that was when one of his strings happened to break in the middle of a take! Now that I think of it, maybe that was the one that was buzzing!
There's just one keyboard track in this arrangement, dedicated to piano--as I said, I wanted to build a big sound without resorting to synths. The piano was played by Gene Rabbai, who has played with Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Griffin (of Bread), and Vince Gill.
These days Gene gets most of his sounds from his laptop, controlled by a MIDI master keyboard. For this session he used the Bardstown sampled piano software. In the intro, while Danny and Mark were playing their guitar versions of the original keyboard riff, Gene played a simple chordal figure on a quarter-note rhythm. Note again the rhythmic and dynamic control:
Gene continued that quarter-note feel throughout the song, evoking the gospel-derived rock ballad sound defined by the Beatles and Elton John. In the choruses, he hit the keys harder, and also introduced little ripples of arpeggiation here and there to increase the rhythmic motion:
In the second verse, Gene kept the energy higher than in the first, a common tactic for bringing new interest to the repetition of a section:
It's a natural segue from keyboards to vocals, because on this song we deployed background vocalist Kim Parent like a keyboard. Kim, a recording artist in her own right, has backed up Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina, Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, Phil Vassar, and many others. We had her sing a standard harmony part, but in the choruses I also asked her to pretend she was a synth. Using four tracks, we recorded her singing sustained "Aahs," and built chords of the type that an '80s rock keyboardist might have played. Here's an example. Note how stark the unprocessed vocal sounds without reverb:
By stacking electric and acoustic guitars, piano, and Kim's voice, we were building up the choruses in the way I'd hoped--grandiose like 80's rock, but organic like country. I knew the capper would come when we added steel guitar.
On steel we had Tony Paoletta, a long-time performer on the Grand Ole Opry with Jeannie Seely, as well as with other artists including Patty Loveless, the Judds, and the Dixie Chicks. As I mentioned, I think of steel as functioning something like a string section, although the crying sound is also one of the most distinctive features of country. The thing I most wanted to hear from Tony was a big upward glissando leading into the choruses:
I just loved the effect of that sound when we mixed it with everything else. I think now that I may have been influenced by memories of Yes, believe it or not. They sometimes featured a swooping steel guitar in the hands of Steve Howe (also a country fan, by the way, heavily influenced by legendary picker Chet Atkins).
Underneath all of this we had Bobo Benefild on drums. (So far, Bo Billy and Bobo have resisted the urge to form a duo.) Bobo plays with Colt Prather, and has also worked with Trace Adkins, Chris Cagle, B.B. King, and Doc Severinson. Bobo keeps great time, gets great sound, and can hit the drums hard like a rock player, which was certainly in order here. Here's a sample of Bobo entering at the first chorus. Note how the accuracy of his timing makes for a good feel, especially during fills. It's hard not to rush or drag during a fill; good drummers stay in the pocket. Note also the sound of the drum kit flat with no EQ or effects--you'll hear quite a difference in the final mix.
"My typical recording setup is much like my live set," Bobo explains. "I have a Pork Pie endorsement contract, so any time I can play my Pies I will. I use an 18''x 22'' kick drum, 13'' snare, 10'' tom, 12'' tom, and a 16'' tom. For cymbals I use all Sabian AA hand hammered (I also have a deal with Sabian). All the heads are Remo coated Emperors."
"It is important to make sure that, when tracking, all the songs sound and feel different. I mean, if you bought a record and all the songs were the same, why buy the whole album? Each song tells a different story and it's my job to help the listener get to a place where each story is standing on its own."
With all those instruments covered, let's now talk about the lead vocal, the reason why we all were there. Bo Billy recorded most of his vocals on his own. He has a good studio at his house in White Bear Lake, MN, and since he was comfortable working there, he recorded most of his vocals ahead of time, working to guide tracks. He used a good Neumann mic, without EQ or other processing so that we would have flexibility while mixing.
One of the main things that attracted me to this project was Bo's unique singing style, which mixes rough-edged, authentic country with a lot of soul, which he picked up from gospel music he heard while growing up in Florida as well as through his lifelong admiration of Elvis. One of my favorite moments in his performance of this song comes towards the end, when he mixes country grit with a soulful falsetto.
And now the penultimate step, the mix (penultimate because after the mix you're still not quite done). The mix is itself a performance, featuring hundreds of decisions about each sound--decisions involving relative volume, tone, compression (control of volume differences over time, used to keep sounds in their "place" in the mix and also as an effect), pan (left-right) position, delay, reverberation, and more.
I think mixing works best when I focus on aesthetic decisions and trust the engineer to cover the technical end. So I (or, in this case, Bo, who also had production input) might say something like, "How about a little less woof on the snare" and John the engineer would translate that into an effective equalization setting, without a lot of tech talk having to go back and forth. Ultimately the music is supposed to affect your feelings, so I try to talk in terms of feelings while I work. Plus it really bugs engineers when producers try to out-geek them.
Once we had a mix we liked, we sent it along with the others to be mastered by John Mayfield at Mayfield Mastering. Mastering is the final tweak that makes a record sound finished. Working with the stereo mix, and using very high end equipment, the mastering engineer makes (hopefully) small but surprisingly important adjustments, mostly to equalization, compression, and overall volume. These days mastering engineers are often asked to use extreme compression and limiting so that average level is as high as possible. This is because there's a volume "arms race" under way on the radio. None of us wanted that sound, which drains the life out of a mix, and instead John Mayfield gave us back what we had given him, but better, with more clarity, definition, and punch, which is the kind of work he is happy to do.
And here is how it sounded, at least within the fidelity limits of MP3. We can only play you 30 seconds here, but I certainly encourage you to get the whole thing for just 99 cents at iTunes!
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