Country music and its influence on the broader music continues to grow and change the way we listen to music. While some parts of it are very formulaic, it’s hard to deny that the genre is anything like it was ten, twenty, or even thirty-plus years ago.
One of the most impressive parts of any modern country mix is the vocals though, and that’s where we’re going to focus today. Country vocals have a unique crispness that makes them perfect for radio play and commercial use. Here are 5 things to look for in the biggest and best country vocal mixes.
1. Use Clip Gain/Volume Automation
Country vocals may have some of the largest, in-your-face vocal stacks in modern music and that’s largely due to the diligence country vocal producers put on a well-pronounced, clear vocal performance.
Vocals in country music are now more overproduced than ever to accomplish this goal, but if you’re sitting down with a session for the first time, you can side-step that mistake in your own work. Instead of compressing a vocal by default, try using clip gain and volume automation to smooth it out. The rest of your signal chain should come together much more easily if you do.
2. Tuning Errors
Another common way to keep country vocals sounding their best, no matter the environment they were recorded in, is tuning software such as Melodyne. Most producers and mixers should be familiar with at least one of these types of plugins, but where they often slip up is checking their tuned vocals while solo’d.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a tuning error on the radio where it’s blatantly obvious that the engineer missed something or went on autopilot. Regardless, listening to your tuned vocal in Solo should make any artifacts abundantly clear and save you a lot of reworks later.
3. Too Much Top-End
Mixing country vocals, just like most other genres, is about getting a clear vocal that cuts through everything else, and there are multiple ways to do that. For a lot of current country mixes, that process almost always includes a bit of EQ.
EQ can help add growl and grit to a deep-voiced country singer, almost all country vocals getting airplay today share one common sound – brilliance. They’re all very bright, crisp, and sharp thanks to incredibly expensive, vintage gear.
It can be tempting to replicate a similar sheen from budget mics but do so with a bit of caution: where expensive hardware can often take top-end boosts and make them silky, cheaper microphones may sound more brittle and even harsh when their top-end is boosted.
4. A Lack of Effects
While we’ve been focused on things that make your lead vocals pop out, it’s important to take a step back and make sure that the vocal still sounds like part of the mix.
One of the best ways to do that is to use time-based effects like reverb and delay to add some background to your vocal. By creating depth here, a vocal that might be slightly louder than the mix can sound right at home with the rest of the instrumentation.
Check out this great example from Justine Blazer:
Which brings us to the last item...
Many people have a strong preference for or against country music, but the one thing you really can’t deny the genre is the amount of variety it has. We often have ballads, anthems, and alternative songs all topping the charts at the same time. Today, it’s not uncommon to find a hip hop artist featured on one of them – something nobody would’ve imagined twenty-plus years ago.
And your vocals should take that overall variety as inspiration. Even the vocals within a single song should mix things up a bit to keep them interesting. I prefer a slightly wider vocal mix in my choruses, but others may get more focused. Adding a more pronounced vocal delay can also help take a bridge to a new place.
Experiment, because production is becoming more important than ever to the genre.