I don’t believe I have ever heard a classical piece where dynamics were not a central point of the construction of the work. Dynamics are critical to the emotional impact that any style of music delivers to its listeners. The difference between loud and soft is perception, and because of this fact, sound can only appear to be loud when there are other elements that are quieter before or after the loud section. This is just like visual art, where the use of shadow and light makes all the difference in one’s perception of the piece.
Let’s take Nirvana’s signature sound to illustrate this point in music. Kurt Cobain often said they stole their style of “soft/loud” from the Pixies. When you hear most Nirvana songs, the formula is soft introductions and verses, and then the band goes to “11” on the choruses. There are many prime examples of this technique. Take the Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven.” The first half of the song is melodic and soft, and the second half blows the roof off.
Another dynamic tactic is illustrated by Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You,” where an instrumental breakdown occurs before the final chorus. That breakdown makes the power of the hook stand out a whole lot more than if the final chorus came in the same way as the previous two. Perhaps her producer knows that listeners really do have the attention span of a gnat, and that you have to keep things fresh all the way through a song— even if that song is only three minutes long.
I recently had a production project where the first song was very strong and loud, and the introduction to the second song was a giant guitar riff, but coming on the heels of the first song, the riff didn’t quite have enough power. I did not want to compromise the first song by lowering the apparent level, and there was no way to raise the level of the guitar riff on the second song without the rest of instruments in the song sounding too small. I decided to take the lead and background vocals on the second song’s chorus, throw a ton of strange effects on them, and make an interesting sound collage. Then, I mixed the collage at a very low level, and tacked it onto the front of the song before the guitar riff. So now, the first track plays loud and proud, and the beginning of track two is this wild soundscape that relates to the song, but is very abstract. By mixing this new section very low, it gave the punch to the guitar riff that we wanted all along, and it also produced a much more interesting intro.
THE CULT OF LOUD
In the world of mastering, there is a lot of noise these days about how “loud” is winning the war over dynamics. The controversy over Metallica’s Death Magnetic, and its ear-fatiguing lack of dynamic range caused quite a ruckus with fans and music-industry professionals. People complained the sound was so compressed and pumped up that it became loud for loud’s sake, and that there was little to no music left in the music. Where is the tension and release when it’s all tension? To use the shadow/light analogy, the sound they put out was 100 percent light and zero percent shadows, and nobody wants to stare at the color white for too long. I thought the group’s decision to present the sound as a ‘flat line’ with nothing softer or louder than anything else was a desperate move to prove they were strong (which I am not denying), but I thought they chose the wrong way to show it. The real proof came in the form of the band’s tracks for Guitar Hero. The mastering for the popular video game was completely different than the band’s official release, and the audio quality was heads above the CD. It sounded great! Dynamics—what a concept.
MAKING MOVIES FOR THE EARS
As a musician, you have the power to manipulate a listener’s experience with the use of dynamics. Don’t be shy to use that power, because people do burn out on constant loudness. I mean, why not go all the way, and play every song in the same key and in the same tempo? How about playing just one chord in a song with a melody of one note? You get the idea.
Creative use of dynamics can have a dramatic effect on your productions. Think about how movies use this effect. Let’s take a thriller as an example. Scenes are often built very quietly, and when the big event happens, it’s as loud as hell. As a viewer, your senses are picking up on these dynamic shifts, and they provide the big payoff for any climactic scenes. I encourage you to experiment with dynamic range as much as possible, and see where it takes your music. After all, songs should be mini movies.