Although it may not be entirely obvious if you’re not listening carefully, music production has changed immensely from the early days of 16 and 24 track recording until now (hits made before multitrack recording were even more different by virtue of the limited tracks available). Here are some observations on how the production of today differs from what was done in the 60s and 70s.
1. Hits today are “less organic.” With so many songs built around beats, loops, sequenced tracks and virtual instruments, the intensity from section to section in a hit is changed by adding or subtracting an instrument or vocal, instead of a live player just playing more dynamically. This has changed the feel of the current hits, for better or worse.
2. Hits today are quantized or “put on the grid” in a digital audio workstation app. Back in the days of tape, performances generally weren’t perfect (Steely Dan aside). The track space was limited, and if a player played the part nearly perfect except for one flub, many times you couldn’t take the chance that the next performance would be played as well, and you might record over a better take. That meant that you lived with the mistakes, but that also helped the songs sound more human or organic. In other words, in those days there was no such thing as “undo.”
3. Effects layering is more sophisticated today. Back in the early days of hit making, the only effects that most studios had were reverb and delay, and usually only one of each. Today we have a huge array of effects available, and even the most basic native plugin is far more variable than any of the original effects used way back when. Plus, effects today can be easily automated so they can appear or morph for only a single word or beat, which make the hits of today sound more “slick.”
4. Most songs have an ending. Before the turn of the century, most hits ended with a fade. Not so today. According to one study, hard endings play better in the digital world, where a fade is more likely to make the listener skip on to the next song.
While there’s still a lot of music production that remains the same as it ever was, there’s a lot that’s different too. The next time you listen to a song, keep these observations in mind. It will make you think differently about what you’re hearing.
For a detailed look at the production of hit songs, check out my Deconstructed Hits series of books.