Nashville is still a place of legend when it comes to music. Although overall sales of the city's flagship genre, country music, have dipped somewhat from their mid-'90s peak (when Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood ruled pop charts as well as country listings), Nashville still has a recording legacy matched by few cities in the world.
Several things set recording sessions in Nashville apart from other cities. First and most obviously, most country music basic sessions are done ensemble, with drums, bass, guitars, keyboards and other instruments all playing together. Strangely — and not a little sadly — this approach to record-making is no longer the norm anymore, when most pop sessions start with drum loops and are padded out with MIDI instrumentation.
Secondly, Nashville remains true to acoustic instruments — and that includes the studio itself. The city has dozens of studios which are as desirable for their acoustic properties and room sounds as they are for their technology. As music recording in cities like New York and London continues to migrate into people's homes and private studios, due as much to the cost of real estate as to technological tastes, 'Music City' remains a redoubt of large tracking rooms that can hold entire bands.
This collaborative culture has other less obvious implications for record making. For starters, it probably contributes greatly to the high level of accomplishment amongst Nashville musicians. It's one thing to get a great solo on your own in the privacy of a home studio, since no-one can tell if you took all night and 500 punches to get it; in Nashville, your chops are out in the open on every session, with five or six other musicians watching your every move. It's an ego thing. Besides, when someone is paying double scale to half a dozen players and more than $2000 a day for the studio and engineer, it greatly behoves you to get your part right on the first pass.
Another factor that comes from ensemble playing is enhanced creativity. Studio design in Nashville has always emphasised clear sight lines in the tracking rooms. Eye contact is critical in the middle of a take, and some of the 'A' list of musicians for which Nashville has become so renowned have gotten to the point that non-verbal communication is a complex language of its own. A subtle nod or raised eyebrow at the right time can put a perfectly orchestrated fill or break into a song that wasn't on the chart, but which the moment and the song just seemed to call for. Nashville musicians don't get the arrangement credit that they deserve, but in the last city on earth where it's still possible to play on three sessions a day, no one has time to get too annoyed.
This same culture also has its effect on recording and mixing engineers. The 'aliveness' of the process has made them as creative as the musicians — their chops are just as much on display. When magic starts happening with a group of inspired musicians, the engineer had better be ready to catch it flawlessly. I talked to five of Nashville's best board jockeys, and they shared a few of the tricks of their trade.
Like many of this generation's crop of Nashville studio rats, Bob Bullock came to town from Los Angeles, where he was a fixture on many rock and pop records, going back to the early '70s with work for Crazy Horse, Neil Young's first backing band. In Nashville today, he is known best for his work on both Shania Twain records produced and co-written with her hubby, the reclusive genius Mutt Lange. This includes the global hits 'Man! I Feel Like A Woman!' and 'You're Still The One', and Bullock has also done records for country artists including Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, George Jones and the late Waylon Jennings. It says something about Nashville that Lange, a South African native who lives in Switzerland and who guards his privacy more assiduously than Greta Garbo did, will trek to Nashville to assure that his country records sound authentic. "Mutt's quite brilliant as a producer, and when he came to Nashville to make Shania's records, he let us do what we do best," says Bullock. "He wanted those Nashville elements on the record."
Acoustic guitars are a staple of the country idiom, and perhaps the best illustration of how country records are different from pop recordings. "In pop, you're usually creating an illusion," says Bullock. "In country, you're trying to capture reality. You're going for more organic, earthy sounds." To achieve that on acoustic guitars, Bullock likes to use two microphones, preferably a matched pair. Favourites include the AKG 451 or 460 and the Audio Technica 4033 for single miking. "Microphones with larger diaphragms can be set back a bit further from the guitar," he explains, "and work well for a natural guitar sound. But I also like to set a pair of AKG 451s in an XY pattern about four to six inches from the sound box and neck. This does a couple of things: it lets me get the sound of the low and high strings with more definition, which also means I use less EQ, and it gives me a good combination of room and guitar resonance. Secondly, I can bring them up on the console the same way I would a piano, with the lower frequencies on the left and the higher ones on the right, which creates a fuller, but still very natural sound." Interestingly, for 12-string guitars, he prefers to use just one microphone, usually an AKG C414. "A 12-string is putting out a lot of information, which is better controllable through a single microphone," he explains.
Bullock generally uses a signal path of microphone, preamp (he likes the API 312), outboard EQ (just a little bit of air on an Avalon 737SP is preferred), then to tape or hard disk. He'll use the console if it's a Neve; otherwise, he stays outboard. But in country, the choice of the instrument is just as critical as the microphone. A big Gibson J200 gives you a very full, rich sound, which is great for padding the track, he says. Taylor guitars offer a sharper, edgier sound, which are good for licks and solos. Lots of modern acoustic guitars have integral pickup systems, and Bullock has no problem incorporating them into pop tracks, although they're rarely used in country.
Higher-pitched instruments, such as country regulars the fiddle and mandolin, get a slightly different treatment. His favourite for these is a Neumann U47, set about 12 to 15 inches directly above the fiddle, again to capture some of the room sound. "You want the room, not the rosin," is how he puts it. The US version of the Shania track 'Come On Over' employs four fiddles playing together recorded in this manner, each with its own microphone, a sort of live layering effect creating a wall of sound typical of Mutt Lange. "It's like power chords in rock," he says. Mandolins can be brittle-sounding by nature, so Bullock will use the same U47 and set it back a foot or so, allowing some of the initial attack to dissipate in the air and bringing in more room sound to warm it up.
The pedal steel guitar, that quintessentially country instrument, is generally taken with a split signal — one DI to the console and one from an amplifier. "The amp is really mostly used to blend some of the room sound into the track," says Bullock. "Steel guitars are unique in that they each have a particular sound that seems to remain intact through a [direct injection] into the console. One neat trick is to record them to two tracks (one for the DI and one for the amp), then spread them slightly in stereo; again, a fuller but still natural sound."
Brian Tankersley made country history as the genre's first high-profile remixer. His work on 1995's Boot Scootin' Boogie for award-winning duo Brooks & Dunn helped stimulate a brief but intense spate of country dance clubs — a 'barnyard Ministry', if you will. He was also the hand behind the remixes on Lonestar's chart-topping 'Amazed' from 2001, a record which he literally retracked from scratch except for the time code and a few vocal parts. (Remixing isn't commonplace in country music, by any means, but it's distinct from re-versioning, which is done all the time in order to please country radio, in which program directors competing with pop stations playing different versions of the same record can dictate whether a record keeps the pedal steel or if it is chucked out.)
In the case of 'Amazed', Tankersley, who co-produced the remix with producer Dann Huff, decided that a modulation near the end would give it more 'oomph' at the edges of country programming tastes. It was also an idea that Nick Stewart, A&R for BMG based in London, thought would work well for the single's UK release. It was a key modulation, though, that was never on the original recording. "Nick wanted more of a rock record for the European market," says Tankersley. "It's different than grabbing a Madonna record or a Shania record and rebuilding it from time code and vocals. The big difference for country remixes is that the remix will also involved live musicians."
And many of the same rules apply, including starting with top-tier players. After checking with Lonestar lead singer Richie McDonald to make sure the modulation was in his vocal range — he sang it over the phone to a temp track — Tankersley started with a piano track, then built the remix from there, part by part — not typically the Nashville way, but done with the Nashville touch. "It was already a number-one country single," he says. "We already knew it was a hit song, so if we didn't make a hit pop record with it, we knew we were screwing up."
Once a basic piano track was cut, Tankersley went to Sound Kitchen, in the Nashville suburb of Cool Springs, to record 'huge' drums in the studio's largest tracking room. Played by session veteran Paul Leim, Tankersley cut them through Neve 1073 outboard mic preamps. The snare was tight-miked with a Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD441s were placed on the top of the toms and an AKG C414 on the bottom skins, an AKG D112 was used in the kick drum, Audio Technica 4033 condenser microphones were used for overhead stereo, as Tankersley likes the brightness they bring to drums (again, room sounds usually play a large part in country recordings), and a pair of Neumann U49s were set up about 20 feet away from the kit to get wider stereo perspective.
"I used an even balance of close and far ambient microphone pairs," Tankersley explains. "I used mainly the tight mics for the dynamics of the main sound, but the room mics are critical in supporting that sound. You simply can't duplicate this kind of drum sound in a box, and Nashville is one of the last places you'll hear these kinds of live drum sounds on a daily basis anymore." There were no samples used on the tracks, either; Tankersley says he's not opposed to triggering external drum sounds, but, in another illustration of the Nashville mind-set, he says, "If I'm paying big money to a guy to play big drums in a big room, I'm not going to undercut that by adding in samples."
Even in replacing tracks for a remix, most of the retracking was done ensemble, with drums, bass electric guitar and another piano part played together. (There was not, however, any acoustic guitar on the remix — unusual for Nashville, but not for the markets this remix was intended for.) The piano was recorded using a pair of AKG C414 microphones placed about midway along the string length, with the right-hand one (upper frequencies) placed close to the hammers to emphasise the top end. They were sent through API mic preamps and API graphic EQs, on which Tankersley says he boosted at around 10 kHz. "It's not so much attack that you get doing that as air around the high end," he explains. "On a lot of the classic British rock recordings they also put the high end way up there. I'm a big fan of 'air' on the piano. The attack comes from the close placement of the microphone. You'll get a little bit of rattle and damper noise placing the mics that close to the hammers, but it's worth it because the trade-off is great tonality and a sound that has a bit of fire to it."
The final mix of the 'Amazed' remix also tells a lot about a Nashville record — even one intended for rock airplay in the UK. Country radio is the largest single music format in the US, and is notorious for its propensity to compress the broadcast signal. Tankersley's approach is to take mix compression one channel at a time, as opposed to compressing the entire mix buss. "I like to do it on individual channels, especially on the vocals, on a busy record with such full bandwidth," he says. "If you do it right, it significantly reduces the amount of riding you do on the vocals and gives a much more consistent level compared to the track." He prefers to make the attack slow , letting the first 20 to 30 milliseconds through, before a high compression ratio kicks in. "That also puts a nice edge on consonants and listening intelligibility gets enhanced, but it doesn't change the energy level of the vocal performance. And you get ninety-nine percent of the vocal level without riding the faders. I've learned that if I find I have to yank the [vocal] faders around in a mix, then I've screwed up somewhere."
"It's all about the vocals in Nashville," says Justin Niebank, who has engineered hits for Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Keith Urban and Marty Stuart, among many others. "It's not as much about interesting recording techniques as it is about keeping the vocal as the focus of the track."
One technique Niebank uses to mix vocals is to feed the lead vocal into three separate channels. One channel is pristine, the second has compression added to it, often with an Urei 1176 or an Empirical Labs Distressor — though he's also partial to occasional use of a Dbx compressor — the third with other effects. The first is the main vocal for most of the song, but he'll use the second if the vocal gets whispery and the third if it needs beefing up at points. But it's rare that vocals get any extreme processing, EQ or otherwise. Instead, Niebank likes to use the vocal as the trigger for effects on other instruments. "It seems silly, when someone is singing a heartfelt lyric, to put electronic effects on it," he says. "But I sometimes split the vocal signal off to a pitch shifter or a Vocoder spread left and right, and then send a guitar through the effect, so that it's the instrument that plays the effect, but in such a way that it supports or offsets the vocal. It can give the vocal a neat harmonic twist without compromising the integrity of the vocal performance. It makes it contemporary and often more dramatic, but it still stays real." It also plays into another subtle but pervasive country idiom: the call and response that permeates bluegrass and blues music, from which country sprang. "Someone sings and an instrument replies," he says. "In country, you have to leave space around the vocal for that response to take place. But when you think about it, this approach works for any recording in which the lyric and the vocal delivery are the main focus points."
Spreading the lead vocal across several tracks is a variation on a long-time Nashville standard of vocal comping. In fact, several devices have been invented and homemade in Music City expressly for this purpose, some allowing as many as eight channels to be brought into the equivalent of a submixer, and muted and crossfaded, underscoring the primacy that the lyric and vocal have in country music. (However, Niebank and other engineers acknowledge that this bit of tradition is migrating over to Pro Tools systems.)
Nashville is a redoubt of vintage gear; even though the city went to digital media early on — one of the first Sony 3348 decks was used in Nashville, and many of the old professional digital 32-tracks are still found there — analogue outboard gear is ubiquitous. Niebank points out there's more than nostalgia behind this. "When youuse reverb and effects like that, you want to stay out of the way of the vocal," he says. "The vintage gear actually helps you achieve this goal because the older stuff doesn't have the same degree of frequency response as some of the newer high-end signal processors. Thus, the reverb doesn't cover the entire spectrum of the track. That's one of the things I like about the old Frank Sinatra recordings — the reverbs were darker-sounding, and they stayed out of the way of the edge of the vocals. I find that when I'm using newer signal processing for vocal effects, I have to roll some of the top end off them."
If there is one thing that characterises recording in Nashville for Niebank, it's the fact that much of the engineering tradition, as well as its insights and tricks, are passed along from generation to generation there. "When I used to work in Chicago, all the engineers were cautious about sharing a trick with other engineers," he recalls. "People were worried someone would cop their sound. But in Nashville, the heritage of the recording process gets handed down. I've hung around a lot with Brent Maher [producer for The Judds, Shelby Lynne, Kathy Mattea and Mickey Newbury] and he's always open about giving me ideas and insights. The engineering community here is very interested in sharing information with each other. I don't see that happen like that in other places."
The massive success of the Grammy-winning Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack has placed renewed emphasis on the predecessor genre of country music — bluegrass. In Nashville, the Dean of bluegrass is Bil VornDick, who has worked with all the greats, including Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas.
According to VornDick, while it has become de rigeur to use fewer microphones for bluegrass band recordings in recent years, as a sort of homage to the days when a few microphones were all bluegrass field recordists had access to, his traditional recording methodology has been to use stereo pairs on each instrument. "Double-miking adds a third dimension to each instrument," VornDick explains. "I try to get one microphone on the lower side and the higher side of each instrument. On the low side, I tend to place them where the [right] arm wraps around the instrument between the elbow and the shoulder, the other where the neck joins the body of the instrument." In general, the microphone pairs are placed eight to 12 inches away, set at 90-degree angles. VornDick's preferences are a Neumann U87 on the low end of a banjo, an Neumann KM84 on the high end, sometimes a AKG C414 if the banjo is dull-sounding; banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck gets an AKG C24 or a C12 on the low side, for a warmer sound. Mandolins get a pair of Neumann KM84s. For Dobros, VornDick likes a pair of AKG C12s, or Neumann U67s or U47s, placed in an XY configuration above the instrument.
Fiddles are the one exception to his paired-microphone approach. "They tend to cut through better than most [bluegrass] instruments," VornDick points out. He prefers to use an AKG C12 or Neumann U47, though violin master Mark O'Connor's instrument works best with an AKG C24 or a Neumann U249. If the instrument is particularly bright, or if the player is, as he put it, "a heavy breather", VornDick places the microphone behind the musician's left shoulder, gaining better rejection of unwanted sound.
Bluegrass does present engineers with some odd instruments: VornDick says hammer dulcimers respond nicely to KM84s, while the even rarer mandocello works well with Neumann U87s or AKG C414s in combination with AKG C451s or Neumann KM84s. Microphone choice is critical because avoiding EQ is basic to getting a bluegrass band to tape (yes, tape — if you're going to record bluegrass to hard disk, why bother getting out of bed?). VornDick uses high-pass filters and mic preamps instead to colour the sound: APIs on mandolins and guitars, Neves on Dobros. On banjos, he uses either Massenberg or Sontec preamps, "because of the slew rate — the slew rate on George's and Sontec's mic preamps is faster, and that lets the transients through better."
The Nashville engineering community shares more than ideas. In a genre in which fewer than a dozen top producers make over half the major-label releases each year, engineers working in country music will probably work with nearly all of them at some point in their careers, usually several a year. "Sheryl Crow can take three years to make an album; Tim McGraw has to do it in more like three months," says Steve Marcantonio, a New Jersey native who cut his engineering teeth at Manhattan's now-defunct Record Plant, but who, since coming to Nashville a decade ago, has been one of the town's hottest desk jockeys, doing records for Deana Carter, Restless Heart, Alabama, George Strait, Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood. His work with Nashville-New York shuttler Roseanne Cash and her husband Rodney Crowell, who produced Cash's cult classic King's Record Shop LP, brought Marcantonio to Nashville. Working with Nashville's top producers over more than a decade, his insights into that aspect of country record making have value well beyond twang tunes.
Nashville's producers rely heavily on their engineers. It's the only way they can make that many records. It's not unusual for a producer to assign most if not all overdubs, and even some tracking sessions to the engineer's supervision, allowing the producer — who more often than not in Nashville also runs a record label — to be off doing vocals or picking songs with another artist. "The producer is my boss, and that's how you have to look at it," Marcantonio explains. "If you have a great idea on a session, lean over and whisper it into his ear. If he wants to take credit for it, let him. That kind of attitude helps make your career a lot longer and more valuable. You do without the credit in the beginning, but you know you were the one who did it, and eventually, so will every one else in Nashville."
Working in such a tight environment means that, within a few years, an engineer will be able to anticipate what each producer wants out of a session, and their particular modes of operation. "Some producers will work the same way every time," Marcantonio says. "That's fine, because that's how they stay on schedule. If you can anticipate how they like to do things and make those sessions go faster and be more productive, that's going to help your engineering career. You also have to learn how to get things done quickly: on pop records, I've done sessions where I have an entire day just to get drum sounds; on a country record, sometimes I'm lucky if I have twenty minutes for them."
Speaking of drum sounds, Marcantonio, like a lot of Nashville engineers, likes to create a synthesis of pop and country conventions in getting tones. "I rely a lot on overheads," he says, noting that his role model even for country records is British production legend Glyn Johns. "He used four microphones for the entire drum kit: snare, kick and two overheads. I try to position a pair of Audio Technica 4033s over the kit to pick up the snare and kick as well as the cymbals and toms. I want the whole kit in them. And I'll start my mixes with those two microphones, adding in the tight-miked snare and kick and toms as I go along." Another Marcantonio trick for kick drums is to use two microphones: an AKG D112 or D12 or Electrovoice RE20 close in near the beater skin, and a Neumann U47 FET four to 10 inches away from the hole in the front skin.
Mostly, the differences between records made in Nashville and those made elsewhere are subtle, and most aren't noticeable until you're spent some time comparing records made in different places. But the differences are there, and they have contributed to making this town one of the most unique record-making centres on Earth. Now, if only the food were better...