Dynamic Range Basics

When we think of dynamics in music, we refer to the variations in loudness of a musical composition. Composers use terms known as dynamic markings to differentiate between quiet and loud passages. Performers naturally strive to take the listener through an emotional journey through the use of these loudness differences.

Think about a song with a quiet intro, the verse starts to build as it unfolds a story, and then it hits the chorus a bit louder… As the song progresses you notice that the intensity increases and decreases. These differences between the loudest and quietest portions of a song are what we refer to as dynamic range.

As mixing engineers, we have the choice of highlighting these emotions by increasing or decreasing the dynamic range through the use of various techniques and tools. We’ve got to be very careful approaching this dynamic range manipulation since we really don’t want to remove all the emotion from a mix.

Consider the Song’s Natural Dynamics and Loudness:

It is important to consider the material at hand. As we know, the dynamic range of a symphony for example, is considerably different than that of a dance track! Therefore, we try to keep things in context.

Listen to a song and try to identify the loudness differences between each section of a song. If you are the mixing engineer, think about how you could enhance these differences. For example, using automation to make the verses quieter, choruses louder… Making the bridge section intensity different than everything else in the song. Simulating crescendos or decrescendos during transitions from section to section. Ask yourself if it would be necessary to ride the main fader (2mix fader, or master fader) or just some of the individual elements such as the lead vocal, or a guitar part, etc.?

How to Use Dynamic Range to Benefit Your Mix:

A common example of dynamic range manipulation is riding a vocal track. Because sometimes a vocalist may fall below or above the accompaniment volume, we may find it necessary to ride the volume fader to keep it in focus.

Another way of manipulating dynamic range is through the use of tools such as compressors, limiters, etc. The idea with this kind of manipulation is to control and/or reshape transients and (in the end) have more control over the sound’s impact at a micro level. A discussion on the use of compression or limiting or any other device for controlling dynamic range deserves its own attention and will be discussed separately.

It is extremely important to ensure this manipulation is not obvious to the listener (regardless of the technique used). Most times, if a performance is solid and conveys the message as intended, subtle changes should be enough.

How have you used dynamic range to help add emotion to a song? Let us know in the comments below! Until next time…happy mixing!

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