UPDATE – Disclaimer / Rant: When I say “EDM” in this post, I mean in the “old-school” way of – what, a whole couple of years ago ? Back when EDM was a broad term meaning pretty much any kind of dance music – trance, techno, dubstep, house, electro, electronica (whatever that is) etc etc etc.
Since posting this yesterday I’ve taken all kinds of criticism from people either offended that I’m lumping their favourite underground sub-genre of dance in with ‘trashy, commercial, mainstream pap’ – or sniggering because I they think I don’t know what EDM really means or that I can’t really like dance music if I think those songs are EDM.
Well, I have news for the critics – it doesn’t matter.
The comments in this post apply equally to any genre of dance, regardless of your opinion of it’s artistic merit, or whether it was released after 2012 or not.
Is the current “mainstream pop” version of EDM typically far more crushed than the all-time classics ? Yes. Does that mean it “needs” to sound that way ? No. Don’t believe me ? Watch this – then read on.
Now, where was I ? Oh yes…
I hear it all the time:
“EDM doesn’t need dynamic range, it sounds better crushed to death”
Want proof ? Click here
Or take a listen to this playlist:
Everything in it has great dynamics, measuring at least PSR 8 in Dynameter – and it includes some of the biggest EDM tunes of all time!
OK, it’s true that lots of the latest releases are much more squashed than many of the classics in my playlist.
But they don’t sound better as a result!
In fact, listening in Spotify, TIDAL or YouTube, where the playback loudness is managed, the more dynamic songs will sound better.
So far so familiar, I’ve been saying stuff like this for years. And happily, people are listening – but now, I’m getting asked a new question:
OK, I want more dynamics in my music – but my stuff has nothing to begin with! What do I do?
And this can be a real problem.
If your raw materials – samples, virtual synth patches, sound libraries – have all been EQ-ed, squashed and packed before they get anywhere near your DAW, it will automatically mean that you stuff doesn’t have much dynamic contrast to begin with, especially if you prefer to write using a computer keyboard or mouse-and-grid, rather than a midi controller.
So what do you do ?
Here are some suggestions:
1 – Add velocity and expression information
Imagine you’re playing the part live – and work to give that illusion in the parts.
So for example, don’t program a hi-hat part where all the velocities are the same – add a paradiddle or clave emphasis. Or just randomise the velocities a little.
Hum the part to yourself, listen to where you naturally place the emphasis, and emulate it using MIDI velocity and volume information.
If your synth parts have modulation, don’t leave the changes to chance – play them in live using a pitch-bend wheel or other midi controller, following the intensity of the music.
2 – Use automation to add dynamic structure to your mix
Create high and low points by hand, to emulate the effect of real musicians.
Don’t just rely on adding or removing parts – build up to the big sections, bring it down for the quiet stuff.
Lots of samples and synths are velocity-dependent, so use those contrasts. You can even over-emphasise this effect, and then gently compress afterwards to even out the levels if necessary.
3 – Overdub a live percussion instrument
You don’t even need to own a “real” instrument – mess around with a shaker made from a plastic tube full of rice, thump a cardboard box, play the spoons…
If your timing is poor, you can always sample, edit and quantise afterwards if necessary, but keep as much of the original variation and feel as you can.
And if it doesn’t sound electronic enough for your genre – process the hell out of it ! Provided you don’t compress or limit it, the live dynamics will make it through and contribute to the sound.
4 – Play an acoustic guitar
This may not work for pure electronica, but you’d be amazed how many really heavy arrangements actually have an acoustic riff buried deep in the mix somewhere.
You get free dynamics, real harmonic content, human feel and energy – all from a single part.
5 – Sing
The human voice is one of the most dynamic instruments we have – add it to EDM !
This doesn’t have to mean melodies, tunes or lyrics, or even actual singing – speech works, too.
It doesn’t even have to sound like a voice, necessarily – vocal samples can be chopped up, processed, reversed, whatever.
The flexibility and variety of performed vocals can add interest and excitement to almost any mix, especially if you’re predominantly using artificial sounds.
6 – Plan for dynamics
The problem with adding a compressor to a part, even when mixing a live band, is that everything else will sound inconsistent by comparison. Before you know it you have compression everywhere, and a flat, monotonous mix.
This is even more true in EDM, where the chances are you’re starting out with a sound that already uses lots of compression “out of the box”. And that means it can take real discipline to avoid the temptation to compress everything to match, and maintain your focus on dynamics instead – but it’s well worth the effort.
Ideally you need to start right from the beginning of the writing process, using strategies like the ones here to breathe dynamic life into every aspect of the mix.
So all I need to do is add dynamics my EDM will automatically sound better ?
You still need beats, and hooks, and great sounds and effects and all the other stuff that goes to make great electronica – and dynamics won’t help with any of those.
But because many of these ideas involve live performance, you can also get “hidden extras” as well as dynamics – subtleties of timing, texture and timbre – plus the occasional happy accident, which might even lead you in an entirely new direction.
If your tune already sounds great and just happens to have a low PSR measurement – don’t worry ! It’s just a number, and this is music we’re writing. But if you feel like there’s a certain ‘something’ missing from your sound, and you haven’t tried any of the techniques above yet – give them a go.
Music works in four dimensions: pitch, rhythm, timbre and… dynamics. And EDM benefits from exploiting all four of these – just like any other genre.
If you’d like see the dynamics of your own music in realtime, and ensure you get competitive playback loudness online, you might like to take a look at my Dynameter plugin – for more information, click here.
Image by PMillera4 cc