Don’t you hate it when you decide to check out a new song, only to end up getting bored and hitting the skip button after the first minute or so?
Producers! This is Songwriting 101...
If people won’t even bother to listen through to the end of your productions, you're not gonna make it very far in the music business!
But don’t go out and hire an expensive, “A-class” songwriter just yet... Instead, simply read through the pro tips we’ve listed below:
1 - CREATE SOME CONTRAST!
Nobody wants to listen to a static, lifeless song which feels exactly the same from beginning to end… That being the case, it’s extremely important for you to know how to create enough variation in your material to keep the audience engaged and entertained at all times!
Here are a few simple ways of injecting some interest & contrast into the different sections of a track:
A - Dynamic Contrast
In order for certain elements within a track to appear big and powerful, other things need to take a step back, appearing smaller by comparison.
- If every instrument in your mix is heavily compressed and upfront at all times, there won’t be any room left for the important moments (such as choruses and solos) that should pop out and feel impressive.
- The solution: Don’t go “all-out” too early on! Make sure that you’re saving some space for things to grow bigger exponentially throughout the duration of the track.
BONUS DYNAMICS TIP: At the end of your mix, try automating your master fader up/down by 0.1 - 1dB increments on a per-section basis in order to give the song an even greater sense of dynamic rise-and-fall!
Remember: IF EVERYTHING IS BIG, NOTHING IS BIG!
B - Ambient Contrast
The ambient environments in which your sounds are placed can drastically change the emotional impact they have on a listener, so why not manipulate them to your advantage?
- Sounds which are placed in a smaller acoustic space (such as a room or studio) feel more intimate and chilled-out, as if the musician was sitting directly in front of you in a small pub or live-lounge setting.
- Sounds which are placed in a large, highly-reverberant space (such as an arena, church or concert hall) feel more impressive and exciting, as if you were watching a major act performing on stage at a big stadium gig.
- By changing the type, length & amount of reverb we’re using in each section of a song, we can effectively take our listeners on an immersive, “story-like” listening experience, in which they’re able to imagine themselves transitioning through the various acoustic spaces that the band/artist are being artificially placed in.
VIDEO: Daft Punk’s “Game Of Love” is a perfect example of an immersive mix which truly makes the listener feel like they’re in the same acoustic space as the band.
C - Tonal Contrast
The amount of high and low-frequency information within a sound can really change its perceived “presence” within a mix.
- Our ears have fairly short-term memory. If they’re presented with a sound which initially seems a bit “Lo-Fi”, they’ll soon adapt to its shortcomings and begin to accept it as the norm.
- If after getting used to said “Lo-Fi” sound, the missing high & lows are then re-introduced, our ears will realise what was previously lacking, and instantly perceive the new sound as being “better”.
P.S. This is why telephone and radio effects are often used in the intro sections of metalcore tracks - In order to make the section which comes next sound comparatively HUGE!
- Legendary pop mixer Serban Ghenea (Katy Perry, The Weeknd, Taylor Swift) has been known to utilise this psychoacoustic effect in his mixes by automating a subtle band-pass filter on his master buss, exponentially improving the sonic fidelity/impact of a song as it progresses.
Disclaimer: It’s important not to overdo this kind of effect, as it isn’t meant to be obviously-audible, but rather something which is subtly “felt” from section-to-section.
2 - KEEP UP THE MOMENTUM!
Forcing your listeners to sit through the exact same drum pattern every time a particular section of a song repeats is a surefire way of making them lose interest in it…
On that note, Here’s how to “Keep Up The Rhythmic Momentum” in your tracks:
A - Start Out Simple
When coming up with drum parts, you don’t want to be filling up every 16th/32nd note gap with proggy snare ghost notes or flashy tom fills in the very first verse of a song. You won’t have any space left to embellish and expand on the pattern the next time it comes around again in verse 2!
AUDIO FILE: Here’s a quick, exaggerated drum programming example I whipped up in order to demonstrate how you can start out with a sparse, simple beat and progressively build it into something much more complicated and interesting.
B - Add In Some Percussion
As cheesy as they may seem, simple percussive instruments such as tambourines and shakers are actually incredible tools for blending in some extra groove and rhythmic momentum into certain sections of a track - even in heavy metal!
VIDEO 1: Ehave you ever realized there are shakers in Metallica’s “Sad But True”? It’s a fairly slow-tempo song, so the 16th note pattern really helps move everything along and prevent it from feeling too sluggish!
VIDEO 2: Killswitch Engage’s “Hate By Design” is another great example of percussion being used to great effect in heavy music. Just listen to how LOUD and AWESOME those tambourines are in the choruses!
C - Layer It Up
A lot of the drum sounds we perceive as being “huge” in modern music are actually the result of several electronic loops and one-shot samples being layered on top of the natural drums for extra impact.
Continuing with our approach of starting out simple and periodically building on our rhythm section: Blending in complimentary “fake” drum samples under the most important parts of a song (such as the final chorus, drop or breakdown) is a great way of pushing things “one step further” than what is achievable through only using “real” drums.
VIDEO: The production work on Skillet’s awesome #1 radio hit “Feel Invincible” is a prime example of how adding electronic drum samples to a real kit can result in a “larger-than-life” drum sound. (Notice how the drums seem to get even bigger when the final chorus hits!)
Companies like That Sound, Vengeance & Splice Sounds have some great electronic drum sample packs offered at really reasonable prices. My personal favourites are the “Mammoth”, “Cinematic Pop” and “Future” packs by That Sound.
NOTE: It’s important to remember that this technique is fairly genre-dependent - you probably don’t wanna go adding electronic claps or 808’s to a death metal song (lest you incur the wrath of the “true metal” purists out there…)!
3 - TREAT THE SONG AS A WHOLE!
When mixing, we often like to loop a particular section of the track and work on it in isolation for hours on end. The problem is, more often than not, the drastic changes we’re making don’t actually fit within the context of the rest of the song....
To that end, Here are a few tips towards avoiding a disjointed mix:
A - Take Regular Breaks & Listen as a Whole
When people listen to music, they usually just hit the play button and listen through the whole song from start to end in 3-4 minutes. They’re never gonna loop a single section and listen to it over-and-over-again on repeat… SO WHY WOULD YOU MIX IT THAT WAY?!?
- I can tell you from personal experience that the best way to pinpoint any major problem in a mix is to take a break, come back to it a few hours later with fresh ears, and listen all the way through without stopping or tweaking anything!
- This kind of “real-world” listening experience puts you in the shoes of an average-consumer, and is great at revealing important song/mix continuity issues that you’ve most likely been unaware of, or grown falsely accustomed-to while working in isolated sections.
B - Don’t Spend Too Much Time Soloed
On a similar note, it really doesn’t matter if a particular instrument in your song sounds great on its own either; the average consumer is never gonna hear it in solo anyway!
- This job is called “mix”-ing for a reason... The entire purpose of the process is to take the individual elements which have been given to us, and get them to play nicely with each other when mixed together into a single stereo track.
- Based on this simple description, if you’re spending ages trying to get each instrument to sound great in solo, you’ve probably missed the point of mixing entirely…
Remember: IN MIXING, CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING!
4 - A PALATE CLEANSER BEFORE THE MAIN COURSE? (THE BRIDGE)
Modern music is often built around a variation of the following song structure:
Intro > Verse > Pre-chorus > Chorus > Verse 2 >
Pre chorus 2 > Chorus 2 > Bridge > Chorus 3
The problem is, even with a song which has been written and arranged to perfection, your average listener will be hoping to hear something a little different by the time the second chorus draws to an end.
This is where having an awesome bridge comes in really handy:
- The bridge is your chance to refresh the listener’s attention in an interesting & creative way, and to set them up for the final blow (aka The Last Chorus).
- A great way of achieving this goal is to introduce some different instruments and textures to whatever’s already been heard in the previous sections of the song; possibly even presenting them in a different ambient space altogether.
VIDEO: The bridge section in Asking Alexandria’s “Run Free” (Around the 2:15 mark) is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
Here’s a quick overview of why the transitions from Breakdown > Bridge > Outro in “Run Free” work so well:
If you’ve been paying attention so far, you’ll have noticed that the 3 tips I mentioned earlier-on in the “Create Some Contrast” section of this article have ALL been applied in the “Run Free” Bridge to great effect.
A – Dynamic Contrast: The sudden drop from “hard & heavy” to “soft & laid back”
B – Ambient Contrast: The instruments in the breakdown being quite dry and in-your-face, while the entire bridge is soaked in reverb & comparatively much further back in the mix
C - Tonal Contrast: The instruments & vocals go from being full-spectrum in the breakdown, to having a Lo-Fi telephone effect in the bridge, then back to normal in the outro
Overall: The shift from a super-heavy breakdown into a dynamic, atmospheric, lo-fi string arrangement really catches the listener off-guard, and helps re-establish their full attention before transitioning into the soaring, powerful, anthemic outro section.
5 - A FINAL ACE UP YOUR SLEEVE! (THE LAST CHORUS)
Congratulations! Assuming you’ve followed all of our advice so far, your listener has already made it through most of the song and had a few moments to refresh their ears during your awesome bridge. But don’t celebrate just yet… Now it’s time for your grand finale!
If you’re looking for your song to go-out with with a real bang, you can’t just have your final chorus be an exact copy of the previous one. It needs to be bigger and better in every way possible so that the listener has no option but to hit the replay button after every listen!
Here are a few tried-and-tested examples of the “Finishing Moves” you can use for a perfect “Final Chorus K.O”:
A - Additional Background Vocals, Adlibs & Vocal Runs
VIDEO: The higher-pitched background vocals, adlibs and vocal runs which only appear in the last chorus of Ariana Grande’s “Into You” really help push the already-great chorus section to a whole new level, resulting in a truly captivating ending to the song. (Around the 3:18 mark)
B – Key Changes
VIDEO: When done properly, key changes can be legendary. Case in point: Bon Jovi’s 1986 mega-anthem “Livin’ On A Prayer”. (Around the 3:20 mark)
C - Additional Instrumental Layers & Harmonies
VIDEO: The entire final chorus/outro portion of Linkin Park’s “Numb” sounds significantly bigger than the previous choruses due to the additional string layers being added, and the synth motif from the intro being reintroduced. (Around the 2:21 mark)
“KEEP IT INTERESTING” - FINAL CONCLUSION
Understandably, the amount of info we’ve touched on in this article may seem a bit overwhelming if you’re new to producing. But don’t be discouraged! Once you begin to get the hang of it, you’ll realize that a lot of this stuff is just common sense and basic human psychology.
All this being said, it’s important to keep in mind that music isn’t math… If the core idea isn’t good to begin with, you’re probably gonna have a hard time making it work, regardless of how much effort you put into the arrangement and song structuring!
Remember: If the song is great, everything else will just fall into place!