How to make retro sound new

Illustration: Simone Noronha

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

Major hits ranging 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 a retro vibe, you’ll notice that they almost always use sounds that could be considered “timeless.” There’s not a strong definition for a timeless sound, but you just know it when you hear it.

Take electric guitars, for example. Electric guitar is heard on 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.  To be fair, not just any electric guitar has a timeless sound to it. It’s important to get a great tone (whether clean or distorted) that has the right feel for the track.

If you can identify and achieve a timeless sound and use it in your production, it can help bring the entire track into focus, even if the rest of it 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 and bringing it into focus. By having this element in the track, it helps bridge the listener’s ear and helps them feel familiar with it.

2. Add modern production flairs

Remember Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass?” The track does a great job at feeling super retro while still maintaining a fresh, modern 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 unexpected trappy flourishes from the hi hats give “That’s What I Like” just the right amount of modern flair on top of 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. Great vocal production

Regardless of the 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. This is a crucial element to remember when producing a song with this feel.

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 in the mainstream.

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

July 27, 2018

PALA 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.