We can all appreciate a nice, clean, natural recording with all its flaws adding a human touch to the overall tone of the song. There is a time and place for every kind of production, and sometimes you just need to make everything bigger than everything else without worrying about realism too much.
Producers like Chris Lord-Alge, Mutt Lange and Joey Sturgis, for example, are famously known for creating sounds that do not always sound natural or even human at all, but it all serves the purpose of entertainment. It's just like watching an action or a sci-fi movie - knowing that what you see is not real doesn't really take away the excitement, as you are immersed in the awesomeness of the moment.
Here are a couple of things you can do to augment the reality of your own productions.
The first thing that any listener will identify the song by is the vocal production, because we as humans are naturally tuned to the sound of our voices.
Vocal production is the one thing that even the least musical person in the world can enjoy and feel, even without any technical or musical understanding of what's going on, so it's a great place to start.
Layering vocals has been a popular way to accentuate certain parts or phrases of the performance.
Rappers use doubling or tripling to “hype” certain words to give them extra aggressiveness, pop and rock vocalists double their tracks to give the vocals a certain “thicker tone” and help them cut through the mix and metal vocalists do it for all of the reasons mentioned before and also to compete with all of the loud, distorted instruments banging away in complete chaos.
Vocal layering does not have to stop at double-tracking.
You can triple-track the vocals and spread the doubles out in the stereo field to make the singer sound huge. A trick that Mutt Lange is known for is actually layering airy whispers on top of long, sustained notes to give the vocals that 80's-90's glam rock sound (Def Leppard is an excellent example).
Getting huge backing vocals has never been easier than now - even if the singer can't sing multi-part harmonies, you can always use pitch correction software to modify the existing parts to create new harmony layers and make everything richer.
Layering the vocals and backing vocals with synth parts played in unison can be a nice way to create extra depth and tension.
Overdubbing parts with vocal lines an octave higher or lower can also be useful when a little more size is required.
This approach is made popular by Joey Sturgis, who uses it to create very effortless sounding guitar and bass parts that would not be possible to play that cleanly if performed in whole takes.
This approach is rather slow, but it leaves you with the best possible version of the performance that overcomes all the physical and mechanical aspects of playing the instruments.
Riff building is based on playing the riff as a whole and then assessing each note individually and replacing the weaker hits with better ones that are tracked separately on a click track.
Once you've tracked a good hit, you cut and paste it into the riff.
After replacing all the hits you want, your riff will sound flawless, without any extra noises, tuning issues, unnecessary pauses or finger noises. It has to be said, that this works when tracking DI guitars and reamping them later once takes are comped.
There is also an even more extreme approach to producing guitars called the “Mutt Lange method” - it basically means recording each note of each chord onto a separate track, tuning the notes to perfection, then recombining them to get the most pitch-perfect and ideal sounding chord you can imagine.
This also allows you to define how loud each note of the chord should be.
If you're after an unbelievably tight performance, this is the way to go. Be sure that the artist's budgets are large enough to accommodate the extra time needed to track this way.
Sometimes a great sounding bass guitar is just not enough to make the mix explode out of the speakers. A great way to make the bass super huge and solid is to add a layer of programmed low-end.
This, of course, takes extra time, but layering a sine wave to the bass performance can make the low end of a real bass guitar seem as solid as if it was a synth, while keeping it natural in the top end with the natural string clank.
Sometimes, depending on the part, you can even get away with layering the synth bass an octave lower than the real bass.
Be sure to check the phase relationship between the real bass and the sub track to ensure that you are not making things weird. These tricks sound obvious and terrible if not executed correctly.
Drum samples can be used in many different ways to make the drums sound larger than life.
You can make the drummer sound like he's hitting way harder by replacing or layering the real drums with samples.
If you need extra room sounds, you can trigger just those to augment the real drums and make the snare sound like it's recorded in a huge hangar, for example. Room samples sound way more natural than just feeding the dry drums into a reverb unit.
Sometimes you'll need to replace the drums with obviously fake sounding single-shot samples to make a certain effect.
A lot of rock productions feature fake-sounding drums that are squashed and crushed beyond what microphone tracks could be - this creates a certain vibe that's almost superhero or comic like.
Kane and Kevin Churko are famous for making these kind of drum sounds and they sound awesome for the productions they do.
Just like in the movies, you can add special effects to your productions to make certain parts transition better or hit harder.
Layering explosions, hits, bangs and drops can really emphasize the beginning of parts that need that extra emotional impact. Risers, sweeps and reverse swells can help you bring the energy up in preparation for those explosions.
When layering these effects, go by your gut instincts - listen through the song once and try to feel out where they should go. Don't go too far, as too much of a good thing can lead to a cheesy and annoying production.
These are just some of the things you can do to bring a little of that “movie magic” into your tracks. Sure, they take up more time, but the results will be much more “epic”, if that's what the project needs.