Music production has drastically evolved over the past few decades. Almost everybody can hear the difference between a song released in the 80s and a song released recently. This change is heavily influenced by the increasing role of technology. Advanced digital software and cutting-edge hardware are constantly pushing the boundaries of modern music. Some of the techniques being currently used in making something sound "modern" are:
Filling up the frequency spectrum:
Modern music employs the use of diverse sound textures to fill up the frequency spectrum. Every element in a production has a role to play and fills a certain part of the frequency spectrum. For example, Sub bass could fill up 30-60 Hz, bass could fill up 60Hz-200 Hz, etc. This gives a sense of fullness.
Filling the spectrum is done artistically with musical aesthetics kept in mind. Different genres exploit this idea in different ways. For example, many EDM genres such as house, dubstep, etc. are known for their huge drums and bass. They are usually spread across all the bass frequencies, from 30 Hz to around 400 Hz or more, and often overlap in the sub bass and bass frequencies. So to create space for each other, sidechain compression is used on the bass in such a way that the bass goes down in amplitude whenever the kick plays. This creates a “ducking” effect. The amount of sidechain compression can be to taste.
Most hip hop and trap music use 808 bass and drums for the rhythm section. In this genre, the sub bass frequencies are usually occupied mostly by the bass The kick is usually prominent around 80-100 Hz. Since most 808 and 909 kick and bass samples are very sub-heavy and don’t contain a lot of mids, distortion can be applied to the kick to add some weight and make it stand out. The kick and the bass are made to blend by cutting off overlapping frequencies and compressing them properly.
The idea of minimal layering makes a piece sound simplistic yet interesting. Creating catchy riffs with modern sound textures creates a sense of the groove and helps in keeping the listeners engaged. The production is elegant and does not sound like a clutter of elements. In this approach voice layering sometimes becomes important to get the fullness. Also, even though there are only a few key elements, each one of them is made prominent with the use of different audio effects. Reverb and delay are used intelligently to create a sense of space. This makes the production sound big and full.
Close Miking For more Intimate Sound:
Close miking techniques can help take advantage of the ‘proximity effect’ when recording with condenser microphones. This implies that as the singer moves closer to the microphone, the low frequency response increases, which is perceived as a recording containing more bass.
Although close miking is not always used, it has definitely become more common in recordings.
The arrangement of the song should be kept in mind before doing any close miking recording. It is important to make sure that the bass from the vocalist does not interfere with the bass elements of the song. The right use of EQ and compression can make the vocals sound intimate as well as blend them with the rest of the song.
Carving out some of the mids:
The mixing technique of emphasizing the low and high frequencies makes the production sound more ‘expensive’. Carving out the mids loses the feeling of warmth in the music and gives it a more aggressive new age feel.
Since our ears are more sensitive towards mid frequencies compared to lows and highs, cutting them out would make the track sound pretty smooth and not too harsh even at louder playback levels. This is one of the reasons why dance music tracks sound good in clubs and live events. Of course its not a good idea to overdo this, since carving out too much of the mids creates a hole in the sound and very soon the track appears to have lost its body.
Crisp High end:
The high end boost is typically done with EQ and saturation. The frequencies that give that sheen are around 8KHZ and up. However, some elements may need special treatment to make sure they can tolerate the high end boost. For example vocals may need to go through a de-esser to avoid them from being too sibilant. To make sure the top end doesn’t become too harsh, frequencies between 1KHz and 4KHz can be attenuated.
To make the vocals fit in with the song, the rest of the elements also receive similar treatment in the high frequencies. A simple shelf EQ above 8k adds a lot of brilliance. This usually applies to high percussive elements like hihats, but it can even be used on guitars, synthesizers, etc. In this way, all the elements start blending together better and makes the mix sound homogeneous.
Controlled amounts of the right kind of Distortion makes any element sound bigger and fatter, Distortion can be used in many ways - bitcrushers, overdrive - but it is important to find the right settings and frequencies to distort. Adding Distortion to non-vocal elements in the track (synths, guitars) lets the vocal layers take more Distortion without making them stand out.
24-bit Bitcrushers on vocals add an edge to them without making it sound too obvious. Tube and tape saturation on guitars, keys and synthesizers make them sound warmer. Distortion on drums makes them sound bigger, and coupled with the right Reverb, they can be made to sound huge in the mix.
Use of autotune:
Almost every singer uses some or the other form of vocal tuning. Vocal tuning can either be done in a transparent way or an obvious way to highlight the effect.
Manual tuning is a tedious process but gives great results if you're looking for transparency. When done with a singer/instrument that isn't to far from the desired notes, the effect is not heard but everything sounds in tune and also sounds slightly metallic.
Autotune is a matter of setting a few knobs to get the autotune to start working. However, this generates more artifacts and leads to a more robotic sound. When overdone done to highlight the effect it sounds pretty robotic, un-natural and metallic.
In modern productions it is common to use a combination of both manual tuning as well as Autotune.
Use of DSP:
With computers, processors and audio interfaces getting more and more powerful over the years, the use of digital signal processing has increased significantly. Although analog gear has its strengths, many plug-ins give a degree of control that is not always possible with analog gear. With various MIDI and audio effect plug-ins in the market there is scope for advanced signal processing to a very high degree. It is possible to take a source sound and process it to an extent where the source can not be identifiable. This level of control opens up new opportunities for creative ideas.
Depth in synthesis of new sounds:
Hardware synthesizers initially were only capable of simple operations such as generating a simple waveform, changing the harmonics with a filter and adding an envelope on the sound. The current digital synthesizers are far superior to the old hardware synthesisers in terms of their degree of controlling parameters. These plugins offer many more waveforms to start with, more LFO and arpeggio options and more filters and matrix sections. It is possible to produce an entire track using just one synthesizer. With better in-built saturation and distortion and other effects, these plugins are well equipped to give you the sound you are looking for without having to process it a lot separately.
Reverb to fill up space:
Reverb has the characteristic of giving a sense of space to the song. When using a minimalistic
approach, reverb fills the space and makes the production sound much bigger than what it would be without it. The song can sound very different just by changing the kind of reverb and its parameters. Using a high quality reverb is important for adding depth and polish to the song. Convolution reverbs are known for their rich sound and they also sound natural since they add the characteristics of the space in which they were recorded. Digital reverbs are however becoming a more popular option since they offer an amazing degree of control. There are digital reverbs which model real spaces and also digital reverbs which are algorithmic.
Reverb sounds best when it is not too obvious to the listener. This is done by adjusting the decay time to fit the mood of the song, the pre-delay time to make the words sound crisp and a filter on the reverb that blends it behind the lead vocals. Many engineers also like to De-Ess the reverb or EQ and compress it to make it more consistent. Sometimes, adding a reverb on the Delay busses helps to blend the delay with the reverb and the lead vocals better.
Delays are copies of the source signal that repeat at fixed intervals of time. Although use of delays is not something new, they are an integral part of most musical productions. It is common to add effects on the delay bus to give the delayed phrases their own soundscape.
For example, adding a HPF on a delay bus going to the vocals would make the delayed vocals sound thinner than the lead vocals. Adding panning on the delay bus would make the delayed phrases sound like they have a ping-pong effect going from left to right. Adding a long tail reverb on the delay bus would make it push the effect to the back. Using reverb and delay and other audio effects in creative ways is much easier than before, since there is a lot of flexibility when working within the digital realm which has been improving at an exponential rate.
Compression is an important tool to make the vocals 'pop'. Modern productions make use of heavy compression done in stages to create a well rounded sound.
Compressors are also used to enhance or change a tonal character. In this scenario, the tone of what goes into the compressor is coloured by the way the compressor colours it. Hard compression enhances this 'colour' and plays a major role in beefing up the sound. This has become a standard practice since there is an expectation of un natural levels of consistency and perfection in songs.
Compression also helps in glueing elements together and achieving this kind of perfection. However, beware of over compression as that leads to nasty artifacts like pumping and distortion.
Automation of various parameters helps in creating a greater sense of contrast between different sections of a song. Automation is used in all the stages of the song, right from leveling the raw recorded vocals before compression, all the way to the final mastering stage. Electronic music relies heavily on automation of various parameters. For example, opening or closing the filters, pitch risers, LFO automation, and many more. With the help of automation, it is easier to make the arrangement sound better by making the flow from one section to another sound smooth.Automation has become a general practice in any modern production to create contrast between different sections of a song.
Sampling started off as chopping a sample of audio from an existing source and using it in a production. Originally done in hip hop, it is now common even in mainstream pop music. Modern digital samplers offer various modes and algorithms to analyze the dynamic nature of the sample and offer many choices to choose between. This has made it easy to modify the pitch of the sample without changing the timing.
For example, the vocal chop has become a very common sound in many productions. This is done by chopping the vocals, pitching it up or down, mapping it to different keys and then creating musical phrases and riffs with it.