Country music has been steadily changing for nearly three decades now, perhaps even longer. Ask anyone who listens to a country music, and you’ll often find divides by decade similar to how rock fans had a change in taste throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s & 90s. Unlike the crazy sub-genre splits we’re used to seeing though, country music seems to have held its name regardless of the changes in production styles.
For years, country music had its core sound that EVERYONE knows as country music. There were some western sounding bands and some “rebel” country acts that took on a bit of a more aggressive persona, but for the most part, country was always about honest songwriting, live instruments and twangy instruments and voices.
Today, country has blown up into THE best selling genres, thanks in no small part to their crossover production work. I’m not even exaggerating – for the past few years, country music has been able to move more units than rock & pop combined.
Country producers do a great job borrowing themes and elements from other genres, bringing something to the table that is new and interesting to their existing listener base, as well as intriguing and familiar enough to listeners that are giving country music a try for the first time.
There’s plenty of controversy around the things that country borrows from other genres, but one thing is for sure: these elements are key to the enormous success country music is experiencing right now.
Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks
While it’s not the newest technique on the block, parallel compression has found a way to bring power and presence to country music in a way that’s never been done before. Other genres might use this effect for a push-pull vibe on their track, but country producers and mixers use it in a much more subtle way.
Taking the basic concept of parallel compression, the mixer heavily compresses a sound, usually drums. In hip-hop, this creates a sort of broken up, even distorted sound. That heavily compressed signal is then mixed in with an uncompressed (or at least a less heavily compressed) version of the same track. The dynamics of one cut through while the heavy compression provides a wild and full sound.
Hip-hop producers have used this trick for years to add a filled out, exciting sound, especially when there’s little to no other instrumentation. Entire sub-genres like New Jack Swing were created in the 90s with parallel compression driving the sound of their drums. Go listen to almost any late-90s hip-hop track and you’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about.
For country mixers, they don’t need the fully compressed sound to fill out their kit necessarily; they just want to use it for that clarity and punch that pushes their drums through the mix. Just like we want in rock and metal, they want their kick and snare to cut through. Using plugins like Bus Glue Billy Decker, you can get a subtle, parallel effect right inside the plugin, using the mix knob to find a balance between the compressed and uncompressed signal.
Electronic Percussion In Country Music
If you’re starting to see the trend, percussion is a huge part of what’s worked for years with hip-hop and everyone else wants in. Sampling is as commonplace to pop and country right now as it is anywhere else in the music industry, and some “country traditionalists” aren’t happy about it.
Call it what you want, but you cannot deny what modern country is doing is working. The genre has introduced electronic percussion and drum loops on more than half of its top songs in the past 5 – 10 years. These loops range from simple sweeteners like we find in pop music to entire melodies that have been written to the looped/sampled track. There’s something intrinsically catchy about a good drum loop and an acoustic guitar riff, and these artists are taking full advantage of that.
Setting The Trend
With any of these production techniques, they’re sure to run their course and settle down eventually, but as producers & mixers, we need to pay attention to these trends and learn how they can be used in our songs. Having familiarity with the production techniques and tools being used in the studio by these chart-toppers is important if you hope to achieve the same level of success with your work.
Most importantly, these techniques need to be applied to clean and balanced mixes to fit seamlessly into your productions. Without that, the whole thing will come off as forced and gimmicky.
Want to know if your mix makes the cut? Let me take a listen and give you my honest feedback from one producer to another.