HomeBlogsbillhare's blogDynamics - Just a Little Will Do Ya

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What your group does live and what it can do on a CD are very different things.  One thing I come across quite often is groups wanting such huge dynamics just because they do it that way live, but recorded audio in different environments is a very different beast!

The main point is this - an album has to sound good in many different situations - in a car (competing with engine and wind noise), compressed to an mp3 on an iPod or computer speakers, as a traditional CD in a nice stereo, on a surround system where the bass is crossed over to its own subwoofer, through a boombox on the beach, over the radio, in compilations against other songs, and I can go on forever. One size will not fit all, but instead there is an average. Take a listen on a big hit song and pay attention to what you think are the “dynamics” – you’ll see that for the most part this is done with density of sound rather than volume . This is so that the song sounds stronger on average and that people don't have to constantly reach for their volume knob as dynamics go above and below the threshold of any ambient noise around them (in a car for example.) For this reason, all pop/rock/R&B songs (even mellow ballads) are compressed and these differences are made up for in attitude, timbre changes, etc. (Classical/choral recordings use much less compression for a more natural dynamic, but those are only listenable in optimal situations as the softer parts would dip below the noise threshold of the above places, where classical music is not listened to as much as pop).

There is a big difference in what happens live and the way they will be perceived on albums - live you can do dynamics all over the place because any ambient noise is known and the music is created around the ambience of the moment, plus the audience is there specifically to focus on you so the volume knob issue doesn't matter. If you were to put that exact same performance on CD and listen to it in the car you wouldn't want to play it more than once because you'd be so frustrated from turning the volume up and down constantly.

This also holds true WITHIN a mix - if the lead vocals are being overly dynamic but the backgrounds don't follow, the overall picture doesn't make sense - yes, we can turn the backgrounds up or down a bit, but still their tonality will most likely not fit - such as where we are stuck with a bright "ahhh" syllable but the lead vocalist is nearly whispering, which would call for a dark "ooh" instead.

It's great to RECORD with dynamics, for all the tonal changes it will bring, but in the MIX, the distance in volume between highest to lowest has to be greatly reduced.  The timbral/emtional artifacts from singing dynamically will remain, but don't try to maintain (or worse, enhance) the volume differences - this will only make the album harder to listen to in many circumstances.

I originally wrote this missive to a group who was doing a certain Kelly Clarkson song, and wanted the verses turned WAAY down and the choruses louder and louder, with the last chorus being the loudest, “just like on the original” (or so they thought in their heads).  I explained that that would make the rest of the song sound way softer than the rest of the album, or when played in shuffle mode on an iPod, etc, and that it was NOT “just like on the original!”  Kelly’s voice is actually LOUDER on the verses than on the choruses, it’s just that the sound gets denser by adding more instruments.  Listen to this clip to hear what actually happens, keeping an ear to lead vocal level as well as overall level. (in case the previous link doesn't work, it's at http://www.billhare.tv/casa/clarksonexample.mp3) The first 18 seconds of the clip is from early in the song, then the next part is from the end - supposedly the "soft" and "loud" parts, but see what happens when you compare them right next to each other - and are actually thinking about it in this way.  That's part of the problem as well - you are listening to your song like no one else will - analyzing too closely - you didn't do that with Kelly Clarkson before because you just *assumed* that the dynamics were really happening...

Now this may be an “Apples and Oranges” sort of situation because yes, there is actually something at the choruses making them appear grander and more imposing, but my point is that it’s generally not taken care of with volume alone.  Beef up your recording arrangements by making things thicker, not louder, at these points of the songs, and the result will be better all around.  This is the secret that has been found by those groups winning all the awards, and now you know it too! 


great info!

Great information.  I was never sure whether dynamics should be done in the recording process or not.  Thanks for this tidbit Bill!  This will go a long way in our next album's creation.

Shane Fuhrman, M.S. Doctoral Student in Applied Psychology UGA Accidentals- '06-'10 fuhrmsa2@gmail.com fuhrmsa2@uga.edu

To be clear...

I want to make sure I was understood correctly here - dynamics should definitely "be done" in recording, but there are a lot of different types of dynamics - it's not all about volume.  Tonal dynamics, like the natural intensity differences between an "oooh", "ohhhh" and "aaaaah".  Emotional dynamics, taking the listener though moods, like hope and despair during the same song.  Dynamics of space and density, etc.  Basically, make sure the song breathes and travels.

Bill Hare Some dude who records and mixes people who can't play instruments. http://www.dyz.com

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