In the unofficial part “zero” of this energy series, we opened up a discussion about an important but overlooked part of music production — Energy in your tracks. In that article, we talked about how to shift energy between sections, via transitions (I recommend starting there).
Then, in part one, we discussed Energy’s role in arrangement and why it’s important. Read that to understand why the tactics below are useful.
In this article, we’ll get into the grit of increasing and decreasing energy in your tracks with practical examples you can use in your tracks immediately.
Increasing and decreasing Energy in your track is highly dependent on a lot of things — the genre you’re in, the type of song, the parts in your song, the overall arrangement (Long Form vs. Pop Form), etc.
Here we’ll focus on a couple common ways that energy is increased or decreased — Parts, Parameters, and Performance.
We’ll also go over Energy flow and the difference between chunked changes and over-time flow.
In my eBook, “Electronic Music Arrangement: How to Arrange Electronic Music” I go over the other two parts of the trinity (Energy, Tension, and Emotion) as well as how energy is applied in Long Form tracks and Pop Form tracks. If you don’t want to miss out on the full information load-out, grab that book here.
Chunked Changes vs. Over-Time changes
Before we go into the practical techniques, note that there are two ways to go about shifting energy — Chunked Changes and Over-Time changes.
Chunked Changes are single moments where you significantly add or remove energy. These almost universally collide with new sections and are pretty much always preceded by a transition.
Over-Time changes are changes that you really don’t even notice occur, because they happen over the course of, say, sixteen bars. This type of change isn’t about any particular moment, but rather it’s focused on the journey. And this can be something that occurs throughout an entire track, or throughout sections, or even just through a bar.
It’s the combination of many subtle variations over time that lead to huge changes in story. It makes the listener wonder “how did we get here?” without providing a direct answer.
Rarely do you find a song which abandons one of these. Songs will use chunked changes to emphasize moments, and over-time changes to make sure the journey is fluid. Consider both when writing.
Increasing and Decreasing Energy Through Parts
Parts are sounds, instruments, vocals, or any new feature of a song, rather than an existing component.
A prime example of adding new parts to increase energy is when you “drop the bass.” All of a sudden, the bass and the kick drum and the percussion is added to rile up a dance floor — make them explode with energy.
The universal tactic that most people use is to introduce or add percussive elements or remove percussive elements.
A hi-hat on upbeats can dramatically open up the sound of a track.
You ever notice how many tracks begin without drums? This is because adding drums is by far the easiest method to give an energy boost.
Filling in the percussion section further, with rides, shakers, and other hits can add a further layer of intensity.
Removing or adding the snare in and out can shift the energy up or down pretty significantly.
Basically, look at percussion as a very simple and straightforward way to shift your energy
Note that you shouldn’t just add a thousand new parts to increase energy. It’s often a smarter strategy to find one to three things that you can introduce. It’s all about tastefully doing things, with enough finesse to get it where you want. Too much is mud and will weigh down your track.
Increasing and Decreasing Energy Through Parameters
This is where I have the most fun. Parameter adjustment is how electronic music shines because we have so much control over the settings of our synths, samplers, audio, and effects we are using.
Parameters are your settings. It’s the cut-off filter on your synth, the high-pass on your kick drum, or the level of distortion on your vocals. It’s literally every knob you can turn or wheel you can spin in your DAW.
My favorite, and probably the most pervasive parameter adjustment is raising or lowering the cut-off filter on synths. Last week, I mentioned “I Remember” by Deadmau5 and Kaskade — and well, energy is primarily shifted in that song through the cut-off filter.
Another popular one is to high-pass kick drums, and then completely remove it on a fresh phrase. I do this for the introduction of my Chrono Trigger remix — listen to the first minute to get the gist.
Hear that kick drop in at :30?
One thing “I Remember” and my Chrono Trigger remix do is they make the parameter adjustment over a long period of time. It could be anywhere from sixteen to sixty-four bars for the cut-off to reach its apex.
I mention this because it’s okay to make these adjustments as a chunked change as well — I.E. Immediately opening up the cut-off 70% on the chorus, rather than slowly bringing it to that point. Or some combination of brining it up and then snapping it even higher — remember, chunked changes and over-time changes can and should exist together.
In my eBook I’ve written a list of parameters that are commonly used for energy changes. I feel it’s really helpful to know where you can begin exploring this so I’m going to share that list with you here:
- Filter cutoff on synths
- Amp Envelope Decay on synths
- Amp envelope attack on synths
- Filter Envelope decay on synths
- Filter envelope attack on synths
- Filter overdrive
- Filter resonance
- Phase Modulation on synths
- Frequency Modulation on synths
- Pulse-width on synths
- Feedback on delay units
- Overdrive on delay units
- LFO rates on any unit
- Distortion parameters on any unit
- Chorus Feedback
- Chorus Delay
- Chorus Wet/dry
- Unison wet/dry
- Unison detune
- Reverb decay
- Reverb wet amount
- Reverb damp
- EQ high or low pass
Performance is the performance of the parts in your song. Imagine a bunch of laid back guitarists, strumming chords behind the beat, real lazy like, playing solos with barely any notes in them. That’s a “low-energy” performance.
Now imagine a bassist who’s hammering away at notes, slapping and playing an intensely rhythmic solo while a guitar player in the back is strumming power-chords like he’s trying to break his wrist. That’s a “high-energy” performance.
Here’s a video that will demonstrate all we’ve gone over today:
Thanks for reading/watching. If you enjoyed this article, click here to check out my ebook Electronic Music Arrangement: How to Arrange Electronic Music which explores the other parts of the Trinity beyond Energy (Tension and Emotion) as well as a lot more about arrangement.
Remember to drink tea and floss! I’ll see you soon,