How to Get the "Nashville Sound" in Your Home Studio

When rock 'n' roll exploded in 1950s America, country music took a hit in popularity and radio play. Listeners were split—youngsters preferred the newfound edge of rock to the dated sounds of honky tonk, while many older audiences were having none of it and preferred the tamer sounds of their big-band crooners.

Recognizing that country music desperately needed to stay relevant, the industrious Nashville labels sought a more radio-friendly sound to appeal to the masses. Ground zero for this paradigm shift was RCA Records' Studio B (as it became known, after the larger Studio A was built). There, producer Chet Atkins, audio engineer Bill Porter, and arranger/producer Anita Kerr—with her Anita Kerr Singers in tow—and the "A Team" of studio musicians like Hank Garland, Velma Williams Smith, Floyd Cramer, and Hargus "Pigs" Robbins polished their new approach. They dialed back the twang, added lush arrangements, and—along with like-minded studio's like Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut—gave rise to the Nashville Sound.

Chet Atkins and engineer Bill Porter

From the late '50s on, Nashville churned out hundreds of country pop (or pop country) hits for the likes of Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, and many, many more. And a big part in the appeal of this new sound lay in the Studio B team's ability to present artists like Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and Roy Orbison as pop balladeers.

While recorded under producer Fred Foster instead of Atkins, Orbison's "Only the Lonely" from 1960 was typical of this approach. It featured Anita Kerr and her quartet, the core A Team band, and Porter's brilliant engineering.

Studio B, while custom-built for RCA and state-of-the-art in many ways, still had plenty of issues and quickly hacked fixes. The frequency build-ups in parts of the room were so bad that Porter hung cheap fiberglass panels from the ceiling and marked the best, deadest spots on the floor with Xs. So if your home recording environment is less-than-ideal, don't be discouraged—just learn the particularities of your room and do what you can to mitigate problems.

For "Only the Lonely," Orbison wanted to forefront the quiet background vocals of Jim Nelson along with the Kerr singers, so Foster and Porter had everyone else play as quietly as possible. Still getting too much bleed into Orbison's mic, Porter piled blankets on a coat rack behind him. The resultant sound became Orbison's trademark.

The Nashville Sound became one of the defining aesthetics of the era, influencing monumental releases far away from Nashville like Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and attracting a new generation of rockers, like Bob Dylan, to Nashville. (Dylan recorded four albums, from Blonde on Blonde to Self Portrait, with members of the A Team.)

Roy Orbison - "Only the Lonely" (Mono Mix)

Today, while a whole new variant of country pop dominates the country charts, there are still artists taking elements of the Nashville Sound and making them their own, as heard in recent records from Sturgill Simpson, Daniel Romano, First Aid Kit, Spiritualized, and Lana Del Rey (whose Ultraviolence was produced by Dan Auerbach at his Nashville studio).

But musicians looking for some of the old Nashville magic don't need an army of session players, a world-class room, or a staggering production budget. Below, we're going to look at how you can craft the Nashville Sound in your home studio.

Making Arrangements

Floyd Cramer - "Last Date"

Before diving into retro equipment and studio techniques, a little disclaimer is necessary. One of the biggest factors in the Nashville Sound isn't some secret recording technique or the signature sound of a legendary mixing desk. Rather, a combination of strong songwriting, effective arrangement, and tasteful orchestration played a large part in crafting the sound.

Analyzing some Nashville classics will reveal some common elements you can use in your compositions. The songs ranged from up-tempo numbers like Don Gibson's "Oh, Lonesome Me" to true slow-burners, but many tunes were medium-slow ballads, almost always in 4/4 or 3/4 time with a waltzy feel. Chord progressions were simple but powerful, with satisfying turnarounds to resolve them. Flowing, legato vocal melodies were often echoed by lead instruments.

In addition to country staples like acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and upright bass, the Nashville Sound was defined by lush string sections, choir-like background vocals, and silky horns. Every instrument served a specific role, leaving space for the other elements to shine through and helping the song become more than the sum of its parts. And of course, everything revolved around the lead vocal. Which brings us to...

Velvety Vocals

Jim Reeves - "He'll Have to Go"

Unlike the rough-around-the-edges yodelers of traditional country, practitioners of the Nashville Sound were often highly trained vocalists with as much in common with Sinatra as The Singing Brakeman. Their delivery was measured and confident, every syllable was crisp, and their vibrato was impeccable. Before you step in front of the microphone, run through your song a few times focusing on pitch and breath. When recording, take your time and enunciate.

Whether or not you decide to truly croon, a high-quality signal chain like the ones used in Studio B can help bring out the depth and dynamic range of your voice. It all starts with the microphone.

Jim Reeves in RCA Studio B

Porter helped bring out more of the lead vocal by using tube-powered condenser mics like the Telefunken U 47 and Neumann M49 instead of the RCA 44BX ribbon mics that were so popular for vocalists in previous eras.

The high-frequency information that such condensers can provide brings out the air of the vocals. Especially when sitting on top of more muted background singers and instruments, it can center the lead in a powerful way. While those specific models are very expensive these days, you can find more affordable models inspired by the originals like the Bock iFet and the Neumann TLM 49. (About the cheapest tube-powered condenser you can find is the Avantone Audio CV-12.)

You can also try an exciter plugin like the Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter or the AudioThing Valve Exciter to add some higher harmonic content to whatever vocal mic you have on hand. Then, you can boost the higher frequencies further with your DAW's EQ as well.

As can be seen in photos from Studio B, RCA 44 ribbon mics—which taper off higher frequencies and have an upper range of 15kHz—were still used for background vocals, as well as strings and other instruments. While still fairly expensive, there are clones of those vintage units, including the Cloud 44-A and the AEA R44CE. For ribbon-mic-style background vocals without a ribbon mic, try using whatever vocal mic you already own, but use an EQ to mimic the frequency response of a vintage ribbon: Add a bit of a bump to the low-mids and roll-off the highs.

To reinforce the lead vocal with big choir sounds, you could gather three to six people around a single mic if you have enough friends or bandmates. Close harmonies are great if you can craft them, but unison vocals could make their own impact. If you're doing it all yourself, you can simply layer overdubs until the part sounds full enough. Try harmonizing with yourself and singing each part with a slightly different inflection to make it sound a little more like an actual choir. Or, you can use plugins like Celemony Melodyne or iZotope Nectar 3 to form dense harmonies from a single vocal take with your mouse or MIDI controller.

Recording gear like RCA's custom-made console at Studio B, along with its analog preamps, EQs, and compressors, is likely prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of home studios. If your budget's tight, tube channel strips like the ART Voice Channel offer an all-in-one solution that will make any mic come alive with analog character. A great tube-powered desktop mic pre is the Universal Audio Solo/610.

Golden-Age Guitar Sounds

Chet Atkins - "Winter Wonderland"

The acoustic guitar is a major staple of country music, but in this particular style it's not so much the star of the show as a supporting character. Typically, it sticks to a simple quarter- or eighth-note strumming pattern, emphasizing rhythm over melody. When the song demands a thick guitar sound, double-track with a twelve-string or a "Nashville-tuned" guitar (replace the four lowest strings with thin 12-string gauges and tune an octave higher) for a natural chorus effect.

Chet Atkins and Hank Garland (seated) at an Everly Brothers session

With a producer like Chet Atkins, electric guitars could play a dominant or strong supporting role in the arrangement of song, either as dreamy, tremolo-drenched chords and melodic lines or as punctuating lines behind a vocal or piano melody. Pictures from recording sessions often show Atkins with some variant of the Gretsch Country Gentleman or similar semi-hollowbody archtops—with their humbucking Filter'Tron pickups.

While vintage Gretsches are affordable compared to vintage Fenders and Gibsons from the same era, you can also find all manner of after-market Filter'Tron pickups for your existing guitar—with some companies even outfitting Strat pickguards with Filter'Trons loaded in.

For an authentic tone, plug into a clean tube amp with a little reverb or tremolo and record with a dynamic or ribbon mic a foot or so from the speaker cone. Atkins often used vintage Gibson amps like the GA-77. For classic spring reverb and tremolo sounds in a pedal, check out the EHX Oceans 11 or the Source Audio True Spring Reverb.

Electric and upright bass are equally at home in country music, but the latter is the more authentic choice for a '50s Nashville sound. Quite the opposite of rockabilly's frantic plucking, country bass usually plods along following the root, third, and fifth of the chords. To approximate the sound of a standup bass, throw some flatwound strings on an electric and pluck close to the middle for a mellower tone. Record the acoustic sound of your playing and blend it with the amp signal for the finishing touch.

Orchestral Ornamentation

Skeeter Davis - "The End of the World"

Lush string and horn sections illuminated countless Nashville hits, but if you're reading this article, chances are you don't have room to mic up an entire string section. Luckily, sampled instruments have advanced to the point of being nearly indistinguishable from real performances (with proper programming). Software companies like EastWest and Best Service make fantastic plugins that put the sound of real ensembles at your fingertips.

Best Service
The Orchestra
Buy Now on Reverb

Best Service
Chris Hein Ensemble Strings
Buy Now on Reverb

While you don't need a degree from Juilliard to add a compelling arrangement to your song, there is a bit of a learning curve to using virtual strings and horns. You'll need to switch between different articulations like legato, staccato, and pizzicato to create a convincing part, and avoid writing parts outside the range of real instruments. Applying a tiny bit of randomization to the timing and velocity will give the part a more organic sound.

Plugins are also great for replicating other instruments that you may not have access to, like pianos, organs, vibraphones, chimes, and harps. If writing parts isn't your strong suit, certain plugins let you mix and match pre-recorded phrases in the key of your song for effortless results.

Posh Production

Patsy Cline (with The Jordanaires) - "I Love You So Much It Hurts"

A well-crafted arrangement played by skilled musicians should practically mix itself, but using certain old-school techniques can give your mix an era-appropriate sound. First, try mixing in mono. Many classic Nashville recordings were made before stereo became a common format, so mono is key if you're going for authenticity. Even if your mix ends up in stereo, starting with no panning at all will force you to perfect the levels and phase relationships in your track first.

When it comes to effects, stick with the historical classics. In the '50s, engineers were limited to tape delays, echo chambers, and plate- or spring-based reverb devices for adding space and depth to vocals and instruments. Porter loved using the EMT 140 plate reverb (which he kept chilled with air conditioning for a tighter tone).

Buy Now on Reverb

Little Plate Reverb
Buy Now on Reverb

Fortunately, plugins like Soundtoys EchoBoy, Softube Spring Reverb, and Soundtoys Little Plate do a fine job recreating these timeless effects in the box. But if you don't have the budget for new toys or simply prefer analog sounds, there are some cool DIY options available as well. For example, an ordinary basement or garage can become a makeshift echo chamber with a spare PA speaker and a room mic, and with a little technical know-how it's possible to make your own tape delay with an old reel-to-reel machine.

Convolution reverb is another helpful tool, which allows you to use the acoustic characteristics of real spaces in a mix. All sorts of spaces have been sampled—impulse responses are available for churches, parking garages, famous studios, and even real echo chambers. Sending a little of everything in your mix to a convolution reverb (post fader, to preserve levels and panning) will put everything in the same virtual space, making it sound closer to the elaborate live sessions of yore.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.