I am always trying to keep up with musical trends, even with genres that I do not often listen to. Lately I have been listening to a lot of new country and have been really surprised where the genre is going. In the 1990s county music started losing a lot of the character that we normally associate with country music and started absorbing a lot of the sounds and production styles of 1980s hair metal. The guitars were cleaner and there was slide guitar, but country really started to sound like 80s metal in many ways (I attribute this to all the 80s rockers that got displaced by grunge and decided to “get back to their roots” and moved to Nashville.)
What is now happening in country music has come as a bit of surprise to me. Country music is going straight up manufactured pop. This really struck me when I was listening to the new Keith Urban album, Ripcord. “Your Body” from the new Keith Urban album is as manufactured pop as anything on the last Justin Bieber album. The song “Life Is Worth Living” from the last Justin Bieber album is more country than anything on the last Keith Urban album.
Of course, we all saw Taylor Swift make the shift to great commercial success and I thought maybe Keith Urban was a single example of someone following that trend until I spent a day driving around in my car listening to country radio. It is a real trend. Thomas Rhett’s big hit, “T-shirt” came on the radio and I could not get over the fact that if you just changed out the vocalist it would fit seamlessly on a Katy Perry album. Even the new country songs that still have a bit of the rock production style of country from the last 20 years tend to be very quantized, drum sampled and auto-tuned. As much as any “pop” productions.
So why am I talking about this in a recording advice blog? Certainly not to make a joke (some of the music is really good). It is to try and help you with one of biggest mistakes that lesser experienced producers and mixers can make. We think about genres of music whether it is salsa or heavy metal or country and we often have ideas in our head of what that should sound like and work from that idea. Of course, there is nothing morally wrong with that, but for those looking to work in contemporary production it is a really good idea to continually study what is happening in contemporary music. Looking at current trends can give you a reference for your own work. Even if you want to do something completely different, at least you know that you are doing so intentionally.
When we start to look at changes in production styles, study every aspect like a scientist. What is the most prominent instrument? Do the drums sound real or fake? Are the vocals wet or dry? Do the performances feel organic or locked to a grid? Does the voice naturally bend in and out of intonation or is is ruler flat? How dense is the arrangement? Are there stylistic rhymthic patters?
One of the most common problems I see (hear) in many DIY projects is the dreaded “It sounds dated.” Of course creatively, artists can do whatever they like, but for people looking to compete commercially for a record deal, club gigs, film placement, etc., productions that do not reflect the current trends in production can have a lot more trouble getting attention. You should study current trends like a scientist so you can make the best possible decisions for your own work (if if your decision is to completely buck the trends)
-Ronan Chris Murphy