by Evan James

The sound of this year’s GRAMMYs

We dissect the sonic trends of this year’s Record of the Year nominees – and detail some
award-winning tricks you can put to use in your own productions.

This weekend, music’s elite will descend on downtown Los Angeles in hopes of walking away with a gilded gramophone of their own. Of course, the room will be filled with the usual famous faces and recording industry insiders, but this year’s nominees show that you don’t need to be part of the club to receive recognition for your work. Take YoungKio, for example. The 20 year old from Amsterdam could hardly have guessed that a beat he uploaded to SoundCloud would later spend 19 weeks on the Hot 100, yet “Old Town Road” is now up for the most coveted award in the business: Record of the Year.

So in anticipation of Sunday’s awards, we’ve broken down some of the most interesting sonic trends from “Old Town Road” and the other Record of the Year nominees. Scroll on down to get our thoughts on each track, hear some zeitgeisty soundalikes courtesy of product expert Brian Kullas, and pick up a few quick tips for incorporating the hottest sounds of today into your own productions. Because who knows – maybe we’ll be picking apart your production techniques in next year’s round-up.

Old Town Road’s gliding 808s

While pitch-bent sub bass is nothing new to trap heads, Lil Nas X’s country crossover “Old Town Road” certainly makes the most of this staple technique. The 808 does most of the heavy lifting here, allowing both Billy Ray Cyrus and that Nine Inch Nails sample all the space they need to shine.

To borrow from YoungKio’s stable of trap tricks, try this: Load up a simple sine wave in MASSIVE X, give the amp an appropriately short attack and medium decay, assign a separate envelope to pitch-dropping duties in the oscillator section, then finish up your patch with some glide and a touch of feedback. Download our patch here if you need a solid starting point for your own explorations.

Hey, Ma’s vocal chops

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has one of the most recognizable falsettos in the biz – and the lush, melancholic vibe of “Hey Ma” owes a great deal to the delicate balance between those trademark organic-sounding vocals and their digitally-processed counterparts.

You may not sing like Justin, but if you own a microphone – or even a smartphone – you too can duet with your digital self. To warp your own vocal snippets into something resembling Vernon’s ad libs, just sling a few syllables into FORM, drench the result in reverb (handily baked into the synth’s Effects tab), and play them on your keyboard. Try dialling up the Glide amount to really nail those Bon Iver vibes.

7 Ring’s prominent plucks

Pluck sounds, with their sharp attack and quick decay, have a natural tendency to stick out in all but the busiest of mixes. And in the case of Ariana Grande’s relatively sparse “7 Rings” arrangement, the entire backbone of the track is constructed from carefully layered sampled and synthetic plucks. With relatively few other ingredients – swathes of reverb, a standard-issue 808 bass, and a rare rapped verse from Grande – you’ve got everything you need to debut at number one.

To roll your own bi-timbral plucks with a single plug-in, try KONTAKT multi-racks. Start with the pizzicato articulation of your favorite string library, add a synthetic pluck (ANALOG DREAMS is a good source for these), then tweak the levels until you’re happy. Adjusting this balance on the fly is a great way to keep things feeling fresh – the sounds used on “7 Rings” rarely stay static for more than a few bars.

Bad Guy’s snaps and claps

2019 was all about weird textures – think atmosphere, gristle, coarseness, and crunch. And none of this year’s nominees do it better than Billie Eilish, whose producer/brother Finneas O’Connell layered snaps, clicks, and claps to bring a little extra something to her gritty-but-upbeat chart-topper, “bad guy.”

To add some of that same edge to your own beats, try combining a few of KINETIC TOYS’ unusual percussive sounds into more complex layered hits. For the sample below, we layered marbles, fireworks, wood blocks, snaps, and claps. Is the end result more interesting than your standard drum-machine clap? Duh.

Sunflower’s verbed-out vocals

Post Malone’s anthemic “Sunflower” gets a big lift from Swae Lee’s hook-heavy vocals, and producer Louis Bell’s generous splashes of reverb – both of which are given plenty of room to breathe within the track’s sparse instrumentation.

Sadly, no amount of pitch correction can hide the fact that you’ll need some serious pipes to hit the heights of either of the two vocal performances on this track. But no matter your starting point, it’s often possible to elevate your topline (and mask any inconsistencies) with a generous helping of reverb. For the fastest route to serious sustain and a cosmic sense of depth, check out the Airy mode in our latest reverb plug-in, RAUM.

Truth Hurt’s piano pulse

Sonically, there’s a lot going on with Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” – from the ubiquitous 808 holding down the low end to the densely layered vocal harmonies and synth parts. But it’s producer Ricky Reed’s boldly plodding piano chords that hold it all together and give the track its infectious bounce.

For a unique-sounding upright with a ton of processing options, make sure to check out UNA CORDA. To get close to Lizzo’s piano sound, look for the 20s Radio Set or Dirty Rhodes setting under Style in the FX section. Or, for some more commanding keys with extensive sound-sculpting tools of their own, sit down with NOIRE – our meticulously sampled repro of Nils Frahm’s concert grand.

Hard Place’s acoustic affection

From the opening string squeaks on H.E.R.’s “Hard Place,” Darkchild’s acoustic guitar production lends the track a raw organic feel that perfectly complements its vocal sincerity.

No guitar chops? No problem. H.E.R. and her producers called on at least a couple of top session pros for I Used To Know Her, but you can approximate the album’s vibe from the comfort of your bedroom studio. PICKED ACOUSTIC makes it easy to bathe your productions in warm, human guitar sounds – just play in some chords on the keyboard, or punch them into your piano roll. For the clip below, we’ve used the Fast Strum pattern and set the tempo to ½ under the Playback tab.

Talk’s sentimental synths

The treatment of drums and vocals on Khalid’s “Talk” may feel thoroughly modern, but UK production duo Disclosure keep this R&B crossover hit firmly in nostalgic territory with a palette of warm, retro synth colors.

To add some vintage flavor to your own tracks, check out our very own SUPER 8 – a modern take on vintage polysynths that makes it easy to dial up the nostalgia and roll back the years. For a warm, Disclosure-style sound that’s perfect for laying down chords, try using the Polymoon preset as a starting point. Tweak the filter to add a little pluck, and adjust the oscillator section to dial in exactly the sound you’re after.

And before you go…

Of course, no article about this year’s GRAMMYs would be complete without a mention of their host – or the virtual piano that bears her name. Now’s the perfect time to take a closer look at ALICIA’S KEYS and tap into the soulful sound that’s netted her multiple GRAMMY wins.

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