If your tracks sound flat and lifeless, try being a little less heavy-handed with the limiter, says Chris Lyth
This month we are going to look at dynamics, density and contrast: three terms that are often used when talking about music production, but for a beginner can appear to be somewhat of an abstract concept. So grab thyself a bowl of Golden Grahams and a caffeinated beverage, and let’s attempt to untangle these terms and consider how they can be applied in a tangible sense to our own music.
Dynamic range is a major component of any piece of music’s sonic identity. Put simply, it's the difference between the loudest and quietest part of a sound. In club music, where the kick and bass are the driving force, dynamics are everything: without dynamics all accents are flat, weight and punch are lost and the colour and separation of the different parts within a track are practically squashed into non-existence.
Limiters are a useful tool that producers used to use to catch the odd peak that was just a little loud. These days, thougt, they are used constantly across the track in an attempt to sound loud. This has the effect of pushing the kick up into the mix, meaning that when it comes back in after a break, it doesn’t hit nearly as hard as it should. If you're standing near a powerful soundsystem and a 909 kick belts back in, that should be a visceral and powerful moment. Yet often this is not the case: the kick feels shapeless and diffused and struggles to be defined in a swampy wall of sound.
Limiters used constantly across the masters will bring up the level of quieter parts in your track, making everything loud. However if everything is loud, nothing is loud! It feels artistically that everything is flattened, restrained and nothing is aloud to stand out.
So how do we bring the punch, definition and dynamics back to our mixes?
1. Leave mastering to the professionals
Never use a limiter on your master bus – leave this for the mastering engineer! They have much better equipment in terms of monitoring and dynamic processors.
All of the problems that have been talked about above are a result of trying to push a mix to sound loud. Mastering engineers frequently complain that many of the mixes they receive are virtually unrecoverable, due to the amount of limiting on the master bus. If you want a punchy powerful mix, heavy limiting is not the way. It’s always worth sacrificing a few dB in volume for a better mix – remember, DJs and listeners do have volume controls!
2. Midrange is key
If you want your track to sound naturally loud, a mix that is more forward in the midrange will always be perceived by the human ear to be louder and more detailed. So if this is the case, make sure your track has a strong midrange presence. A track that is heavy in low frequencies and muggy in the higher frequencies will always struggle to to sound loud, especially on a smaller speaker system.
3. Red is dead
Make sure that you have plenty of headroom on all of your individual channels and plug-ins. By all means use compression on single tracks or in parallel, as it’s a great way to add tone, feel and excitement. But be sure to maintain a solid gain structure across your mix. Keep your individual channels below -12db.
4. Saturate to accumulate
Use some saturation if you want to add grit and edge to your tracks. This can help to give the impression of loudness, just not in a squeezed, compressed way.
5. Dynamic punctuation
Use volume automation on your channels to punctuate particular parts in your arrangement. For example in a break, slowly lower your master fader by - 2db, then bring it back up to zero when the beat comes back in. This creates the illusion of something being louder than it was before.
6. Volume as a dramatic device
Use the interplay between silence and noise to your advantage. A single sound, for example a piano chord or a vocal, mixed over a full track will not grab the listeners attention as much as if it was mixed very loud with just silence around it.
Density refers to how many elements you have in your mix and is used across electronic music’s genres in various different ways.
In techno, arpeggiated synth riffs and 16 hats often combine to create a thick and exciting wall of sound. Conversely, dub techno tracks are often very sparse: here, density is created by bathing many elements in a cavernous reverb and delays, with very little filtering of the low end. Often noise will be amplified to fill out the spectrum, which adds further weight, pressure and texture.
It’s worth considering the relative density in your productions. Ask questions such as, how will this density be achieved and over what period of time? If you start your track with a very dense arrangement, it will be difficult to keep a listener engaged throughout the duration of the track.
1. Length and volume
Using short sounds like hi-hats in a quick sequence will very likely create a high density part. Similarly, using a long sustained part (such as a pad) will also create a similar amount of density if mixed at the same level as the hi-hats.
2. Envelope for drama
Try using your synth envelopes over the duration of your arrangement to create different arcs of tension.
For example, opening up the release envelope of a short, stabby chord that has been previously sitting in the background of your mix may fill out a wide frequency range once it's fully open, and build great intensity over time. Perhaps it could then be shortened to drop into the background, freeing up space for another part to fill.
3. Peak density
Consider the relative levels at which individual parts are mixed. For example, a long 808 kick with a heavy reverb, a hi-hat and an ambient field recording: if all of these elements were mixed loudly, so that the master bus was hitting 0db, you would have a full, big- sounding track with little room for anything else. This is because it has reached peak density. Conversely a tighter dry kick, a hi-hat and the field recording mixed in very low would allow ample room for other instruments to fill the space previously occupied.
The principle of contrast is one of the golden rules for creation. Contrast is essential in any work involving repetition, as it acts as a vehicle for change and allows a shift in focus before we again become immersed in repetition. Too much repetition becomes dull, too much change becomes disorienting. These are all things to bear in mind when contemplating contrast in your arrangement.
A breakdown is the simplest example of contrast. The majority of the rhythm section drops out, intensity is built up and the kick and other elements come back in sharply – often with considerable fanfare, and to great acclaim from the dancers out on the floor. Dut there are many other ways to create contrast.
1. Change the length of your main phrase
Your main phrase could be short and staccato, or long and jazzy. Catch attention by switching to a section where your long, jazzy phrase suddenly starts to loop over just one bar. This creates a sense that things have sped up and are more urgent. Similarly, if your phrase is short and staccato, breaking out in to a more elaborate phrase that repeats over a longer bar length would help bring colour and contrast to the arrangement.
2. Create contrast using pitch
Work your arrangement to reach its crescendo around the point where the highest note occurs. Seventy percent of your track could be using notes in a lower register, but a switch to using notes in a higher octave will create a powerful shift in emotion, tension and contrast.
3. Change the timbre
Timbre relates to the character, colour and texture of a sound. Essentiall, it refers to anything that’s not pitch, loudness or duration, and it helps us to judge if we are listening to a guitar or a piano. Unsurprisingly, a change in timbre even to something as simple as a snare or a hi-hat can be very effective over time in a linear arrangement.
4. Silence and noise
Silence can be very effective, either on its own or used with other techniques mentioned in this article. For example, try dropping to silence for one bar before coming back in and changing the timbre of your main line from a 303 to a Moog, plus a ride cymbal added for further density.
Something that works very well in electronic music is the juxtaposition of different textures. For example, very clean and pristine chords with a dirty processed sounding vocal layered over it, or a very warm dense reverberant backdrop with sharp glitchy crackles laid over it.
All of these principles offer us different ways to create drama, relief, separation and excitement within our music. No-one should tell you how to write music, and it’s much more about what you personally are aiming to achieve here, rather than what is right or wrong. Music is your own outlet for experimenting and expression, and your own intuition and personal tastes are ultimately what make your music your own.