Let’s be real for a minute: some things are much harder to work with than others. We’ve all seen the comparison of pop musicians playing three chords to 100,000 people and jazz musicians playing 100,000 chords to 3 people and there’s a bit of truth in the joke. Based on that analogy alone, there’s some merit to the argument that more complex isn’t always more popular. Similarly, working hard isn’t always going to be about having more technical proficiency.
Regardless of your personal tastes in music, I hope you’ll keep an open mind and stick with me here. The genres I want to talk about today have value in being some of the most difficult to work with while having a huge mainstream appeal. We won’t get into any kind of subgenre nonsense that’s difficult because you’ve never heard of it.
We’re sticking with genres that are difficult to record, difficult to mix, or difficult to produce, but 100% worth the effort if you can figure out the right formula.
Okay, I’m a little biased on this one…
For many engineers and producers, metal requires the most technical aptitude to achieve the perfect mix. A great metal song is loud, fast, and most of the time, locked to the grid.
These levels of accuracy and attention to detail aren’t as common for some other genres that pride themselves on the swing and groove that drive their tracks. Other genres that DO demand this type of dedication often aren’t doing it anywhere near the beats per minute you’ll find in a metal song.
Metal engineers and producers need to be experts at editing. Tasks like time alignment & sample replacement are often pre-requisites for a consistent sound before the song even reaches the mix session.
When you DO reach the mix session, you’ve got extended instruments galore to work with. Bass guitars often reach higher into the mid-range as producers try to achieve a clanky bass tone. Extended range guitars reach down into bass guitar territory as their lower frequencies make them sound heavier. Even the kick drum breaks some common rules, as the “click” of the kick becomes the best way for it to cut through the mix.
I could go on for days about why metal is so different from other genres, but I think that’s why those that work with it love it so much. Your mind is working at 100 miles per hour as you keep track of all of the elements of a dense mix, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you need a reason for why this genre is on the list, just go watch a clip of someone recording an orchestra for a big film soundtrack. They’re rarely recorded individually in small studios; orchestras get the big studio treatment where any concept of keeping things low budget goes right out the window.
Orchestras can have hundreds of musicians all playing together in a single room. The recording process can be a nightmare to deal with as instruments mask each other during the recording process. It usually takes dozens of microphones combined with the right placement and techniques to get a great sounding orchestra.
Coupling the complexity of the recording process with the industry’s trend away from these “everyone-in-a-room” approaches to recording, orchestral and film audio engineers are becoming a rare breed of highly sought-after professionals.
Last on our list is the most mainstream genre of the bunch. Country music, especially in its modern form, is known for being one of the simplest from a production and arrangement standpoint. Many of the lyrical themes and chord progressions are commonly used in most radio-friendly genres. Where country differs though is in their acute attention to detail on live, acoustic instrumentation.
As country becomes more and more influenced by rock and pop, the acoustic elements don’t fade away. Things like acoustic guitars, mandolins, and banjos are commonly heard in Top 40 country songs, and recording/mixing them is an art form in itself.
Modern country engineers know that it’s about capturing the unique characteristic of the instrument in the recording sessions, and mixing them in a way that enhances those characteristics alongside the rest of the tracks. Tools like Bus Glue Billy Decker take these enhancements and put them into easy-to-control plugins, but having the capability to apply it is only half the battle. You need to know when to use them and how much to use.
The same attention caries over into other instruments like drums and electric guitars. Country is still the most common genre to use live, acoustic drums and the shimmery cleans and edge-of-breakup overdrives are enough to make you understand why the artistic liberties that a studio affords have not been lost in this genre. Just like the acoustics though, it’s all about accentuating their best features.
Getting It Right At The Source
So much of what goes into making a genre “difficult” to record or mix is subjective. I’ve been working with metal for decades at this point and I have an easier time working with it than any pop, country, or hip-hop track. It’s a niche that I was passionate about and I stuck with it.
There are other engineers that only ever work with orchestral music and can give you the perfect setup for any orchestral recording session faster than anyone else.
If you’re looking for the shortcuts to great sounding productions, make sure you check out all that our JST VIP program has to offer. Members get exclusive access to guides, boot camps & plugins, as well as mix critiques from industry mixers like Billy Decker and myself.