►Let’s talk Dynamics!

Did you ever wonder why some electronic music (or even some acoustic music) sounds so terribly “uninterestingly equal” along the whole track?  No emotion at all? No surprises? That’s because it’s lacking dynamics.

It’s a fundamental part of interpretation in all kind of music, already for several centuries, and yet in many a track (except for classical music) that’s produced today, it gets completely forgotten.

One culprit is the phenomenon of excessive compression, that first appeared towards the end of the 90’s and was (fortunately) at least partially eliminated over the course of the last few years. It happened to all kind of music, just listen carefully to some tracks from the 70’s or 80’s , compare to a similar genre but from mainstream music from the mid-nineties and you’ll get what I mean.

The reason was simple: everybody wanted to get his mix as loud as possible, so that it would “outstand” the others, so they started to use more and more compression, and if you add that to the compression that’s already natural to find on every radio station (to allow easy listening at low volumes or in noisy environments), a total loss of dynamics was the result, at some times even a kind of permanent soft-clipping.

But at least this seemed to have been noticed by conscious listeners and received enough criticism to have been slowly abandoned over the last few years, at least when talking about quality productions.

Still there’s another reason: the heavy usage of electronic means to produce music, especially the computer. Theoretically, most good music production environments on whatever computer system do support dynamics (even MIDI, in form of the velocity parameter). BUT: many people out there just DON’T use it at all.

And that’s terrible, and any real musician who has a minimum of musicality and feeling will recognize that.

So, let’s talk about how to do it. The’re obviously several ways, and a miriad of programs out there (from the big, well known to the small, almost unknown), so I won’t go into details. But I’ll try to give some ideas.

Sequencers (based on MIDI): use the velocity parameter that is available for every note. Your program might have useful functions to automate, or at least  facilitate (crescendos, etc) this.

Trackers: they normally have some parameter that is called volume or similar and works like the velocity parameter in midi, just use it. Some of the better programs even support humanizing this parameter, that’s a good idea to use AFTER having set basic dynamic references, to get it to sound less “square”.

Multi-track DAWs (like ProTools, Logic, Ardour, etc.): if you use a tracker or sequencer, allied to sampling or soft-synths to compose your music and then a DAW (digital audio workstation) to put the parts and tracks together for easier cutting/mixing, then you have three options here: or you do all the dynamics in your tracker/sequencer, or you do it all in the DAW using gain automation or envelopes, or – and in my humble opinion that’s the best solution – you opt for BOTH.

Why’s that? Because you prepare the base of your dynamics while composing already – easier to understand and work with – and later on, while mixing and adjusting all the details in your DAW, you increase the effect or adjust it, just as your ears and musical instinct demands.

Regarding adjusting the dynamics in a DAW, I’d like to give you some ideas here:

  • use the envelope of your track waveform directly to adjust the dynamics. This has a huge disadvantage, though: you can only do this when you finished the mixing, because you’ll be unable to easily correct the base volume of that track. So it’s bad, because you might change your mind about that, especially after doing the dynamics…
  • use gain automation on the affected track. This solution has exactly the same problem: you won’t be able to change the base volume in the mix, unless you manually redo all the points. Still it might be a good solution if you’re sure you will maintain the volume or do a mix later on in a different program or after bouncing it back to disk, because it’s the easiest and quickest way.
  • add a new stereo bus and feed your track’s output to it, and then do gain automation on the bus, not on your  track. This is, in my opinion, the perfect solution, because you adjust your track’s volume to whatever you want, for mixing, and the bus you start out with 0dB, drawing whatever gain automation you want, allowing you to continue changing the reference volume of that track easily in your mixer panel after it.

So, as you see, the last solution I presented, allows for adjusting whatever dynamics you want, and still you’ll be able to change the mix afterwards so it get’s exactly as you like. All this without any bouncing or exporting or whatever.

This can be used for panning automation aswell, by the way.

Ah, and very important: apply your compression AFTER doing the work with dynamics, but DON’T exaggerate! Don’t be another LOUDNESS-FREAK! Because if you do, all the work was for nothing (remember: compression is “anti-dynamics”).

So, I hope I have given you some ideas to facilitate the employ of dynamics or even got you to try it out, if you never used it before.

Regarding “total newcomers” in the area of dynamics: how to do it, how to feel where the music should have more or less volume, how to pass from one to the other (crescendos and decrescendos or subito (sudden change))?

I suggest you listen to classical music. Generally it’s where you find the most dynamics and you can most easily understand the reasons. Get a score to look at while listening, that’s best.

Still I will mention a few common situations to get you started:

  • Dynamics often follow the melody’s line, I mean, if notes are getting progressively higher (like in a scale, for example), volume might also increase progressively in a certain amount. If instead they are going down, volume might reduce progressively (decrescendo).
  • Usually dynamics go down towards the end of a musical phrase, UNLESS it’s a point of TENSION, then it might go in exactly the opposite way.
  • Talking about tension, normally the volume is reduced when a chord or melody note has the function of “resting”, I mean, after that preceding situation of tension, the resolution usually will have less volume.
  • Dynamics might follow tempo changes, if they exist in a composition. But note it’s only an option, and sometimes it might even sound bad. Again, it has to do with tension (increasing speed might create this sensation, so you might want to increase volume aswell).

That’s all for now, but I might get back to this some time. Oh, and spread out the word so to improve quality of music in general, start talking dynamics, too! 😉

2 thoughts on “►Let’s talk Dynamics!

  1. Para mim, a melhor maneira de fazer dinâmicas não é tanto pensar nessas regras todas mas sim fazer-se aquilo que se sente que a música nos diz. Por isso muitas vezes não toco duas vezes a mesma música com a mesma dinâmica. O que hoje sinto como piano ou diminuendo, se for necessário sinto amanhã como forte ou acentuado ou crescendo. É um mundo muito particular, muito íntimo, pessoal, intransmissível. Daí a sua dificuldade, a sua beleza e a sua importância para qualquer músico.

    • Sim, sem dúvida que também funciona por ai. O problema é que por vezes não é fácil sentir isso sem primeiro olhar com mais atenção aos pormenores da música. E há algumas músicas que não se consegue sentir isso de forma intuitiva, é preciso decidir de forma consciente, baseado em factos, como se irá fazer. E também não podemos esquecer que é preciso anos de experiência para poder sentir isso sem pensar primeiro, e o que escrevi em cima era também destinado àquelas pessoas que possam ainda não ter essa experiência. Mas sim, é evidente que também é algo muito pessoal…

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