Steve Corrao #2: Mastering Country Music
Posted on: Thursday 8th of November 2018
Country music has been on a wild ride since it emerged in the 1920’s. Regardless of if you think ‘country’ should be traditional or a hybrid of old and new, country music has, and will always, be about “the story” being told. That’s the common thread throughout this genre.
When we approach a country song, we need to always think about the midrange. More specifically, we need to think about the vocals, banjos, guitars, and the tangibility of the bass and kick. For country’s first 50 years, the recordings were – how to put this? – not great. They were often bright and midrange-driven because the instruments all fell very much into that frequency range. The vocalist were normally singing higher and the tones were often described as “pokey” or “bright”. String instruments have a way of being extremely dynamic and normally fall into a spot where our ears are most sensitive, between 1,000Hz and 5,000Hz. This is where country lives and dies!
In country music, If the lyrics aren’t tangible, the song is dead and the listener doesn’t connect. If the electric guitars don’t feel larger than life, the song loses energy. If the punch of the kick drum is not glued into the midrange, then the song feels boring. If the attack of the banjo plucking isn’t there, then the song lacks percussive rhythm. All these things fall into the midrange of the mix. If we know that country music is about telling stories, then we have to have the vocals glued in and all the instruments have to be its direct support. This should dictate how we master it.
Let’s start with compression. We need that midrange to be locked in and one of the best ways to do that is from compression. For country, we should look at compressors that bring punch, midrange glue, and clarity. The low end is important, but we should first address the midrange. A VCA compressor is a great place to start. The SSL G-Series compressor or the API 2500 are both classics when it comes to country. Both these compressors are known for gluing in the midrange as well as creating open space for the other instruments to live. Try a 2:1 or 4:1 ratio with these. Set the attack time to slow to allow for those percussive instruments to live and then dial in the release time until it feels musical with the kick drum. Doing this will glue in the punch of the kick drum and also put those vocals upfront so everyone can clearly hear the lyrics.
After VCA Compression, you may notice that a little bit of the low end is missing. This is not uncommon as VCA compressors can do a great job at making the midrange and high end frequencies pop at the cost of losing some low-end. One solution is to use a sidechain filter so the low-end is not impacted by the compressor, but this can often get complicated quickly and feel unnatural. Instead, a couple of broad moves from a Pultec “Passive” type EQ and your low-end will be super smooth, as well as more dense. The Pultec EQP1A is a classic here: it’s tube driven, so when we use it for low-end, we can expect it to thicken things up as well as bring out even more tangibility of the low-end because of good ol’ harmonic distortion, which will help the bass and lower registered instruments compete with the more midrange instruments in a tasteful way. If we do a simple boost of 1 or 2 dB at the 30Hz range with a broad bandwidth, the low-end will come alive again. It’s really that simple.
One final tip that we can take advantage of in country is Mid/Side-Processing to bring energy and fullness to the master. So many iconic country songs are known for their screaming electric guitars. Often these fall into the side areas of the stereo field. With a simple Mid/Side EQ or Mid/Side Limiter we can boost the side just slightly to bring up those guitars to make them really feel larger than life. Brainworx makes a simple MId/Side stereo widener and with a 0.5 dB to 1dB boost, the master will fly out of the speakers. Make sure not to over do it, as it will make the mix feel unbalanced, but almost every country song can benefit from a litte side boost after compression to bring back any panned instruments that might be getting attenuated too much from the initial VCA compressor. See brainworx bx_XL image for an example of Mid/Side Processing.
Conclusion: If you apply these simple techniques, you can be assured that the story in your country song will be heard and felt – be it about your horse, your tractor or the bar you’re sat in. Yee-ha!
Sage Audio is a mastering studio in Nashville, Tennessee – specialising in custom analogue mastering for local and online clients throughout the world.