In an earlier post, I wrote about how mastering isn't a process. It's definitely worth noting that a mastering engineer has to approach each song differently in order to make it sound its best. That said, of course there are some systematic things a mastering engineer should pay attention to. Some of which many readers may not already know. Two biggies are micro-dynamics and macro-dynamics.
Why Dynamics Matter
If you're not caught up on the lingo, dynamics simply refers to the volume variation within a song. Dynamics are a good thing, in that skillful use of loud and soft adds interest and emotion to music. An experienced pianist will play certain sections of music with more force or more grace than others in order to wring extra emotion out of the music. Likewise, a skilled engineer or producer can keep one section of a song quieter in order to emphasize the impact of another section of the song.
But poor dynamics can also be a problem. When a vocalist isn't in complete control of his or her singing volume, using a compressor can help reign in the dynamics to keep things sounding even and expected. And while a good drummer knows how to perform at a consistent volume level without playing accidentally exaggerated or accidentally soft drum hits, if you've ever heard music with a drummer that struggled with his dynamics, you'll understand how distracting it can sound. So we want to maintain dynamics within music, but we want controlled, intentional dynamics; not sloppy, erratic dynamics.
Dynamics are a big part of what makes a song sound good. Just to list a few reasons:
- A good song has dynamics, in that loudness comes and goes in a way that emphasizes the emotion and the story of a song.
- A good song has contained dynamics, in that too much dynamic range in the performance of any one instrument or all instruments makes things sound sloppy.
- A strong rhythm gets its movement and strength through the use of dynamics. This is the part that makes you want to move.
- A great arrangement makes a great song when it brings you from moments of peace to moments of emotion. Without quiet, there can be no loud.
And as the title and introduction of this blog post suggest, we're going to be looking deeper into two of these forms today, the two that can really help shape the master of a song.
Simply put, micro-dynamics are the volume changes within a small portion of the song. Think of it as the loud and soft moments in a single measure of music. A good mix always emphasizes the groove music has, especially in the chorus or the drop. And a good mastering engineer aims to make sure that the song just sings, even within a small moment of the song, because the dynamics are just right.
What are the elements of good micro-dynamics?
- The drums have slam and power. They shouldn't be over-compressed. And when compressing drums, it's critical to use a slow attack in order to maintain the proper snap of the drums through the mix.
- The rhythm of the song seems to pulse. This has a lot to do with the volume balance between the instruments in the mix, in that steady-state instruments like pads are mixed low, while percussive instruments like drums are mixed loud.
- Compression feels rhythmic, too. When compression is set just so, with a slow attack and slow release, the drums poke through, the mix ducks, and then the mix rises up in volume before the next drum hit, when it all happens again. When the compressor is set just so, the mix pulses and moves with the rhythm of the drums.
How can a mastering engineer improve the micro-dynamics of a song?
- If the micro-dynamics are out of control, the mastering engineer can use compression to get the instruments to gel together more smoothly, and to avoid excessive volume variation.
- If the micro-dynamics of the song are too squashed from the mix, the mastering engineer can use expansion to bring out volume variation within a measure.
- If the transients of the drums aren't getting enough attention, the mastering engineer can compress with a slower attack.
- If the transients of the drums are too excessive, the mastering engineer can tame them by using a compressor with very fast attack and release times.
- A mastering engineer can bring out the groove and shape of each measure by balancing a compressor just right, to have the level of the mix subtly bounce and sway around the rhythm of the drums.
While micro-dynamics focus on the little details of a moment in the song, macro-dynamics take in the larger picture of volume over the whole of the song. How much power does the chorus have compared to the verse? What can be done with volume to control the emotion of the song? These are also things that are subtle to the listener, but make a song just sound better when intentionally controlled.
What are the elements of good macro-dynamics?
- The chorus or drop feels surprisingly powerful when it begins.
- The verses save power for the choruses without sounding weak in their own right.
- The emotion and tension of the song varies by section.
- The emotion and tension of the song matches the emotion and tension of the lyrics and instrumentation and arrangement of the song.
How can a mastering engineer improve the macro-dynamics of a song?
- The mastering engineer can create a near-final bounce of the song with all of the previous steps of mastering accounted for, and then use simple volume automation to adjust the loudness by song section.
- To make the choruses feel more powerful, the engineer can duck the volume of the verses a little in order to make the chorus arrive with surprise and weight.
- To make each new song section feel as if it arrives with interest, the engineer can start a verse fairly loud, then use a long, soft fade to gradually lower the volume of the verse before the chorus. If done right, the loss of volume sounds imperceptible, yet provides more room for the power of the chorus.
- Automation adjustments are valuable changes that can really make a song sing, but subtlety is the name of the game. The audience shouldn't be able to notice reductions in volume, but can still appreciate the power of the chorus when it arrives.
It's easy to overlook aspects of the song like this. Especially if you're limiting your music far more than it needs to be. But proper use of macro- and micro-dynamics really do help a song speak in a stronger voice. They may seem subtle, but that's what we're looking for: not one magic gimmick to somehow make music have more sparkle, but meaningful aspects of a song to tune into while engineering, and valuable ways to add polish to an otherwise strong song.
If focusing on the dynamics has helped your engineering, or if you feel I've left out a part of handling the dynamics, please write in the comments below. I love reading your replies.