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How Rihanna, Bruno Mars, and Meghan Trainor Make Retro Sound New

By PALA

This article originally appeared on the Splice blog.

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Hit songs don’t always have to follow the mainstream sounds of the era in which they were released.

Major hits ranging from Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” to Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” have a signature retro color. How do producers manage to make these songs sound fresh while also giving them a “retro” feel at the same time? Here are three tips on how to make retro sound new.

1. Use timeless sounds.

If you listen to records that carry that retro vibe well, you’ll notice that they almost always use sounds that could be considered “timeless.” There isn’t a strong definition for what makes a timeless sound, you just know it when you hear it.

Take electric guitars, for example. An electric guitar can be heard on almost everything from the Beach Boys to Michael Jackson to Katy Perry — it’s tough to find a genre of modern music where it doesn’t sound good and somehow magically fits in. To be fair though, not all electric guitar sounds are timeless. It’s important to get a great tone (whether clean or distorted) and to try to match the right feel of the track.

If you can identify and achieve a timeless sound and mix it into your production, it can help bring the entire track into focus, even if the rest of your sound is quite unique and out of left field. Take Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain,” for example.

With a big, pillowy kick drum and nearly full orchestra at the core of the track, it isn’t exactly what you’d expect to hear on the radio today. But listen carefully and you’ll hear a modern-sounding clean electric guitar carrying the track, bringing it all into focus. By having this element in the track, it provides a bridge for the listener’s ear and helps both the retro and modern elements feel connected and familiar.

2. Add modern production flairs.

Remember Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass?” The track does a great job of feeling super retro while still maintaining a fresh, new feel. So how was this achieved?

The producer gave the track a modern feel by adding small “record brake” effects at various points throughout the song and ultra-quantizing the drums and instruments, even with the unique instrumentation that features an upright jazz bass.

Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” is another track that does a fantastic job of this (check out this Hits Decoded article for a more in-depth look into what makes the track tick). The unexpectedly trappy flourishes from the hi-hats give this beat just the right amount of modern flair on top of all the ’70s funk synths and basses.

When producing a retro-sounding track, look for interesting ways to add a touch of something modern in order to make it familiar and give it a fresh sound.

3. Feature great, modern vocal production.

Regardless of your track’s style, there’s one thing that holds true — great vocal production is a must. Particularly on a retro-sounding hit, the vocal production needs to be flawless and modern. So what are some attributes of a great modern vocal production?

  1. A great performance: even if it means comping it together in your DAW.
  2. An even sound in the mix: usually achieved by just the right amount of compression and volume automation to make it sit perfectly with the other instruments.
  3. Balance across the frequency spectrum, without one frequency range sticking out too much: keep it natural sounding for the most part.
  4. Smooth edits: nobody wants to hear the cuts and splices. Rather, it should sound like a single performance.

Great vocal production is very important in making a hit song, no matter what the track sounds like. But it’s especially important if the track is unique and not squarely within the mainstream sound of a given time.

Have you produced a track with a retro feel? What tips and tricks did you use to give it a modern sound?

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PALA is a pop songwriter and producer with over a decade of experience. He has worked with many of the top organizations in music including the GRAMMY Foundation. His current project, PALA Sound Studio, features a brand new song every Friday. Many of his tracks start as collaborations on Splice – splice his projects and follow him here.

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