Add Life to Your Mixes with Enhanced Dynamics
DISTORTION IS A BEAUTIFUL thing. Who doesn’t love those fabulously crunchy and saturated sounds? But when you go for distorted guitar tones (or other overdriven sounds), you also bring a tradeoff into the mix, because distortion flattens out dynamic range, and dynamics are crucial to a piece of music’s emotional impact.
Automation to the rescue! Many musicians use automation to change levels in different sections, but you can also use automation to restore dynamics for everything from crescendos/decrescendos that change over time to phrases or even individual chords. Another great use for automation is to increase the level of power-chord attacks so they make a statement, and then slip back into a sustained sound with a little less level.
I was first turned on to this technique back in my session musician days, when I was watching the mix engineer for the song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” He had his eyes closed, his hands on the faders (eight, if I recall correctly), and he was constantly moving them rhythmically. The effect was subtle. It wasn’t anything that stood out so much that it was clearly noticeable, but when he wasn’t doing it, you noticed something was missing.
Fig. 1—The four colored portions of the waveform indicate four different automation methods that enhance a distorted guitar part’s dynamics.
As to how to create these changes, hands-on controllers with physical faders are ideal. You can also use a mouse to do one track at a time—although I find mousing around somewhat less satisfying and precise. Either way, you can always edit the automation curve manually to accomplish exactly the changes you want.
Let’s see this technique in action (see Fig. 1). I’ve colored parts of the waveform to make the following explanations clearer, and I’ve stretched the waveform height so the changes would be more obvious. (The automation moves are usually only a few dB.) The top track is the lead vocal, which matters because a lot of the changes to the guitar relate to the vocal. The snare is below that, and the guitar is at the bottom. The green line in the lower track is the guitar’s volume automation curve.
In the red section, the automation is simply changing with the rhythm to add some rhythmic emphasis. Most of the peaks correlate with backbeat snare hits, so the guitar emphasizes the same beat as the snare.
In the yellow section, the guitar comes way up to fill in the space where the vocal isn’t happening. This really makes the guitar figure stand out, and it propels the song back into where the vocal continues.
The blue section adds yet another element. The vocal in this section is pretty percussive, so increasing the level of the guitar attacks creates a fast decay. In this case, the attack underscores the vocal’s percussiveness at the beginning of crucial words.
Finally, during the orange section, the guitar crescendos upward to the end of the song. Moving faders is an excellent way to magnify and celebrate dynamic interest in a track. And, remember, faders were never meant to be “set-and-forget.” Get creative with the automation and push those dynamics. You’ll definitely hear a difference!
Craig Anderton has played on or produced more than 20 major label releases, mastered hundreds of tracks, and written dozens of books. Check out some of his latest music at youtube.com/thecraiganderton.