by Evan James

The sound of now: Exploring the sonic trends of this year’s GRAMMYs

We take a closer look at the defining sounds of the past year – and how you can
recreate them for yourself.

After months of COVID-related delays, the 63rd GRAMMY Awards are finally set to take place this Sunday. Record of the Year is traditionally a hit-driven category, but 2020 hit different – and this is clearly reflected in the year’s nominees: from the twee nostalgia of Say So and the carefree assertiveness of Don’t Start Now, to the funereal desperation of everything i wanted and the antagonistic bombast of Savage, this year’s sounds truly run the sonic and emotional gamut.

Scroll through for a brief breakdown of each tasty track, along with our top tips for sculpting their most striking sounds at home.

Black Parade’s bass-heavy backbone

Beyonce makes her first of two appearances in this category with a jaw-dropping 24 GRAMMY wins behind her and seven other nominations this year. The praise might seem excessive, but the hype is real. On this track, Bey delivers a distinctly dynamic vocal performance with soulful syncopation, trunk-rumbling sub-bass, and cascading brass. Released on Juneteenth and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, “Black Parade” also emphatically delivers on its title, serving as a bold condemnation of racism and a joyful celebration of black history, culture, activism, and pride.

To mimic that stirring ceremonial groove, we laid down a heavily distorted sub kick on MASCHINE and sprinkled it with percolating percussion and layers of shakers – all of which were done with MASCHINE’s internal drums and effects. Just don’t forget the crystals and nag champa incense.

The classic guitar tones of Colors

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? Black Pumas went from delivering packages for Amazon and playing in Black Sabbath cover bands to performing at President Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day Primetime Special. Their signature blend of retro funk and psychedelic soul has earned them three nominations this year, thanks in part to their savvy for synthesizing diverse, genre-bending backgrounds into a uniquely cinematic sound.

One of the most striking instrumental sounds in this track is that gritty lead guitar, played by producer Adrian Quesada. Tone’s all in the fingers, but you can get close with GUITAR RIG 6’s Tweed Delight amp and its matching cabinet – just hit it nice and hard with a neck humbucker, and dial in a little treble boost as needed. You might also want to borrow one of the track’s 70s-inflected mixing techniques – give the vocal plenty of space in the center of the track by hard-panning mono guitars and keys way out to the left or right.

Rockstar’s picked acoustic

In spite of its triumphant title, “Rockstar” is a deceptively poignant song. Packed to the gills with heart-rending confessions of physical and emotional violence, this track finds DaBaby at his most introspective. Add his incendiary BET Awards video honoring “all the lives lost to racism and police brutality,” and you have a true powderkeg of a track that tackles systemic racism, familial strife, and the haunting spectre of PTSD in just three spine-chilling minutes.

To replicate those mournful six string sounds, we started with guitar chords and arpeggios from Session Guitarist: Picked Acoustic. Then we rounded them out with RAUM reverb, whose huge granular textures and dense reverb tails lend a sorrowful ambiance to those abstract echoes.

The funk foundations of Say So

She might have made her bones with online makeup tutorials – but after clinching an MTV Best New Artist award, two American Music Awards, and three GRAMMY nominations, it’s clear that this high school dropout’s talent goes far beyond skin deep. Exhibit A: This steamy, disco-heavy earworm, whose funkified vibe inspired a viral dance video of its own on TikTok.

Beneath its modern bubble gum pop production, “Say So” owes a lot to its funky forebears, and particularly 70s classics like Chic’s “Good Times” – which makes our NEO BOOGIE Expansion ideally suited for this sound. Packed with driving percussion and space age future funk, the drums, bassline, and guitar riff were all lifted from our era-defining expansion.

The felted piano chords of Everything I Wanted

Billie returns from last year’s GRAMMY sweep with a song whose layered, swelling vocals and minimalist production leave this hauntingly downcast requiem dangling somewhere between banger and ballad status. Inspired by a dream where she jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and nobody cared, this deeply confessional track is both an ode to hopelessness and a poignant plea for togetherness and support. The result is powerful, urgent, and elegiac; but will it be enough to turn her nightmare into a dream come true? Stay tuned.

Sonically, “everything i wanted” rests on producer Finneas’s use of a heavily sidechained melodic piano that builds a bridge between modern production techniques and classic, analog sounds. For this track, we used the felt-dampened setting on Nils Frahm’s meticulously sampled concert grand, NOIRE, and sidechained it on every quarter note.

Don’t Start Now’s KONTAKT bass guitar

Living well is the best revenge, and this track just might prove it. At once a celebration of post-breakup independence and a brutal skewering of an insecure ex, Dua Lipa’s deeply cathartic anthem leans heavily on Filter House tracks from the late 90s to early 2000s – like Alan Braxe and Fred Falke’s “Intro” and Daft Punk’s “Around the World”. With one foot firmly in the past, and another in the world to come, it perfectly embodies the future nostalgia this album was named after. As a side note, whoever this song is about should probably stay off the dance floor for the next few years.

While its lively and articulate tone suggests a bonafide four string performance, producer Ian Kirkpatrick actually built the track’s iconic bassline via MIDI with our SCARBEE MM-BASS – with a little help from RAZOR for the sub! So if you’re looking for a quick way to cop that creamy 70s flatwound sound, load the MM-BASS into KONTAKT and dial in some DRIVER dirt to taste.

Circle’s hard-hitting live drums

Post Malone is back with another danceably melancholic masterpiece soaked in swirling percussion and somber guitars. The vocals are classic Posty: raspy, wistful, and catchy as hell; but this time the achingly introspective lyrics are hung over a perpetually bouncing bassline, punchy drums, and a ferociously infectious hook that all but demands singalong status.

To nail that dancey, pop-rock drum sound, look no further than the LSD drum kit from Butch Vig Drums. Recorded by the pioneering producer at United Recording’s iconic studio A in Hollywood, this bespoke selection of analogue and digital preamps, stompboxes, and compressors will give you everything you need for hard-hitting hybrid drums.

Savage’s 90s-flavored synth stabs

Queen Bey might have two nominations in this category, but Megan Thee Stallion is the only artist on this list to also make TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020. Squeeze these two Houston super divas into the same track and you get “Savage”: a mind-boggling synthesis of queenly charisma that oozes rap braggadocio over a bewilderingly classic UK garage house beat for a sound that’s equal parts classy, bougie, and ratchet.

A prominently unconventional element in this track is the 90s house chord stab made famous by Todd Terry and effectively trademarked by house legend Kerri Chandler. To siphon this sound, open MASSIVE and load the CATZE preset. Then, set a CHORUS for FX1 and SMALL REVERB for FX2, turn off INSERT 1 and INSERT 2, set OSC 2 to CICA, and tweak to taste.

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