Luke Combs' anthemic songs have crossed over from the country world to top mainstream charts. We talk to the production team behind his massive hit singles.
In 2015, country singer Luke Combs was barely making ends meet. Then he recorded a six-song EP with producer Scott Moffatt, and the song 'Hurricane' became his breakthrough hit, going four times platinum in the US. Four more major hit songs, including the megahit 'Beautiful Crazy' helped steer Comb's first album, This One's For You, released in June 2017, to a record-breaking 50 weeks at the top of the US country album charts. His second album, What You See Is What You Get, went one better, topping Billboard's regular album chart as well as charts in Canada and Australia, and even did well in the UK.
Luke Combs has a way with social media, but other than that, his success appears to be mostly down to a great voice and great songs — with important contributions from Scott Moffatt and Nashville star mixer Jim Cooley. From his mix room at Black River Entertainment on Nashville's Music Row, Cooley says: "The songs are great, and people love his voice. The tone of his voice is incredible. People just love hearing him sing. It is real, it is authentic, it is him. You know he is genuine. There's nothing fake about him, and that is important for an artist. Plus, I think the production is brilliant, and we really went for an aggressive, punchy sound that complements the vocal. We just wanted the music to slap you in the face and hit you over the head. You could say it's like '90s music on steroids!"
In the tradition of '90s country stars like Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Brooks and Dunn, Combs' music is all about big guitars, big choruses, and what sounds like live band playing, with the occasional tasteful addition of samples and synths. Yet, says Moffatt, "Luke and I never talked about the '90s, though I guess it's a reference for both of us. I was raised in the '90s, and I grew up listening to stuff like Aphex Twin, Radiohead and Outkast. That left an impact on me. You draw on the evolution of music, including today's music, but sticking with the foundation that made you also is important. The main thing continues to be hooks, melody, melodic sensibility, stuff like that. These are the things that we are drawn to. And everything else kind of follows. All the musicians who were in the room when we recorded Luke's tracks are also basically from the '90s, so that is kind of what you get. Plus Jim [Cooley] was really pushing things, insofar far as compression and the largeness of the tracks is concerned!"
The productions do indeed sound huge, with the immediacy and hard-hitting impact of today's music, and plenty of low end. "I love big bass!" says Cooley, "and they put that all over country music now as well. For a long time, people were complaining that country music sounded pretty thin, but I now often mix country songs with just synth bass, or a mixture of synth and real bass. The kicks and bass go pretty low now. I try to mix bass as loud as I can get away with. People sometimes ask me to turn it down, because in country music they like their vocals loud, and too much bass can cover up the vocal. I work a lot with a producer Mickey Jack Cones [Linkin Park, Trace Adkins, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nicholes] and he also likes that big bottom end. The bottom end hitting in the choruses is what makes them sound huge."
Apart from one track, Scott Moffatt has been sole producer for both This One's For You and What You See Is What You Get. However, he doesn't see production as his main career, instead describing himself as "a songwriter, musician and artist". Born in Canada in 1983, Moffatt came to prominence in the '90s with his three brothers as the Moffatts. The band still regularly get together, and are most popular in Asia. Because of his reputation there, Moffatt has produced Thailand's number-one band, Slot Machine, as well as several other Asian bands. While Moffatt likes to work on his solo career, he nonetheless regularly gets drawn into producing, as happened with Combs.
"Some time in 2015 I was helping out a guy called Pat Cooper," recalls Moffatt, "a wonderful singer, and we were tracking his vocals at a studio in Nashville called Gold Cassette, which is run by an engineer friend of mine, Alex Gilson. Luke swung by, because he was friends with several people in that group, and he liked how I was dialoguing with Pat and getting performances out of him. So he asked me to help him track six of his demos, which we did at Direct Image Studios, with Alex engineering."
A few months later Moffatt and Combs recorded more songs, at Gold Cassette, Direct Image Recording, Blackbird Studios and Southern Ground studios, all in Nashville. (The YouTube video of 'Beautiful Crazy' shows one of these sessions.) Many of these songs appeared on This One's For You. Its successor, What You See Is What You Get, was recorded in the same studios plus Sound Stage Studios, over a longer period of time, with sessions taking place in March 2018 and again in February 2019, again with Gilson engineering.
"Luke brings in the song demos, usually acoustic guitar/vocal, but sometimes with a full production," explains Moffatt. "He's the one who chooses what songs are recorded, and end up on the album. He is the decision-maker. I then do pre-production of many of the songs, on my own, in my studio. I'll sit with the song and think about where I think it should go, and develop some ideas for it, and play and record these. I sometimes remove sections of a song, or rearrange the structure, or change the vocal melodies a bit, but in general my production work was about arrangements and getting good performances. At the end of the day, when you play songs on just an acoustic guitar, they start sounding similar, and in today's day and age the production has become as much an identifiable feature as the song itself.
"I choose the musicians, and when we arrive in the studio, we all listen to the demo, if there is one. It's nice to give everybody a blueprint, something tangible to work off. After that I like to give the band a first attempt at playing the song without me saying anything, because I don't want to hinder their creative process. The musicians are in the room because they are the best, so I let them do what they do best. Then we take it from there. If the song needs overhauling, it's what we do. Or it can become a combination of my ideas and their ideas; or something that's very similar to the demo. It's always a different process.
"In fact, the first thing we do after listening to the demo is to find the right tempo and the right key for Luke to sing in. In the case of 'Beer Never Broke My Heart', while we were looking for the right tempo and key the musicians were working out their parts, and the moment we found the tempo and key, the first main pass we did was most of the final result. The moment Luke gave us that vocal performance and hit all the notes properly, the song came together. We did two passes of that song, with the band playing live in the studio and Luke singing at the same time, in an iso booth, and we used his lead vocal of the first pass. I think we only overdubbed maybe one or two vocal lines.
"Most of what's on the albums is tracked live off the studio floor. For the song 'Every Little Bit Helps', I pretty much used one pass as the foundation of the song. I then edited it, and drew from other passes in only a few places. We did two passes for the lead vocal of that song. I always get plenty of usable material out of Luke's first takes, which he does at the same time as the band. It's really straight-ahead, and as close to the old way of doing things as possible. The band is in the main studio space, and Luke, the acoustic guitar, and the grand piano, if we have one, are all in separate booths.
"We always record Luke with a Shure SM7B, going into a Neve, probably a 1073. If there's compression, we don't print it. The SM7B is a nice mic to use because it doesn't pick up many background noises, so if you're tracking in an apartment or another place where you can't control the sound, it's great. But mostly, it just sounds really good on Luke's voice. We tried other mics, and because I love the Neumann U87 we tried that, but we always came back to the SM7B. Because I get Luke's vocals off the floor, the SM7B increases the separation from any bleed that may happen. 'Beer Never Broke My Heart' has a great electric guitar sound, which is all due to Sol Philcox–Littlefield's incredible tone, coming from his amps. We used a Shure SM57 and Royer 121 on his amps, and blended these. Most mics we used to record the band went through the API Legacy board that we used most of the time."
"It's my job to get great arrangements and great performances," says Moffatt, "but even the greatest performance sometimes needs honing. We live in a different time now, where you have the choice of leaving things as they are, but you can also go in and adjust live performances in all sorts of detailed ways. That's the wonderful thing about the technology of today. The performances of these guys were incredible, but that didn't mean that I didn't do a lot of editing afterwards. And editing can be great too: one does not take away from the other."
We always record Luke with a Shure SM7B, going into a Neve, probably a 1073.
"After they cut the songs," comments Cooley, "Scott lives with the tracks for quite a while, and does the editing and overdubs his parts and puts everything together. Scott is really meticulous. He spends quite a lot of time getting everything dialled in."
"I spent a month purely on 'Beer Never Broke My Heart' editing it, and adding guitars and vocals," admits Moffatt. "The reason it took so long is that I did not edit to a grid. The tracks are cut to a click track, but these guys are phenomenal musicians, and will sometimes push or pull things within the beat. They'll sit on top of the click, or just behind, and that makes a humongous difference to the groove and feel. So when editing I would sometimes follow the drummer's feel, sometimes the guitarist's feel, and so on. For the song 'Does To Me' I had to speed up every verse by about 3bpm. I don't like using time-stretching, because it doesn't give me the results I want. Instead it was a matter of moving the drums by hand, to make them feel as if they were pushing, and then moving everything else as necessary. I did not want to sacrifice groove for convenience. For the first album I mainly edited on the grid, but you grow over time and your toolset expands, so I did a lot of editing off the grid for this new album, which made editing much more difficult and time-consuming."
Moffatt does all his editing and overdubbing at his Nashville studio called Two Acres, where he has, he explains, "An iMac Pro running Pro Tools and Ableton, UA Apollo 6X audio interface, Shure SM7B, SM57 and SM58 mics, API 550 and BAE Audio 1073MPL, and Auratone, KRK Rokit 6 and Yamaha HS8 monitors. I like dynamic mics, I don't know why! I use the mono Auratone for editing, which I do in Pro Tools. But when I add drums or synths I often do this in Ableton and will then bring that to Pro Tools. Synths I use include Native Instruments Massive and Absynth, and I like the Arturia synths. I use Ableton when I do concerts as a solo artist, which is how I got familiar with the program. I also really like the sound of the Linn Drum, and only have good samples of that inside Ableton."