This is a guest post by Zac Citron of www.zenchamusic.com. Zac has a new eBook out about arranging electronic music. I’ve read it and it’s very good. Check it out.
In my recently released eBook, “Electronic Music Arrangement: How to Arrange Electronic Music,” I discuss a concept that I’ve labeled the “Trinity” of music arrangement — Energy, Tension, and Emotion.
The Trinity is important because behind all the chords, harmonies, melodies, sweeps, bass-lines, and roaring synths we make, we find these three things as a driving force. In fact, everything that goes into constructing a song is basically a vessel to communicate the Trinity.
Energy, the second part of the Trinity, is the lifeblood of your song. It’s the pacing, the speed, the intensity, and the pulse. And just as blood is always flowing, so should the energy in your music.
That might sound like a simple statement — that energy is always flowing — but it’s actually one of the most relieving things you can take hold of when it comes to arrangement.
For instance, when writing a track, if you know that you want your energy to be lower in the next section, your decisions are pretty simple — reduce the energy through whatever method makes the most sense given your track.
When you boil it down, your goal as a music producer while writing and arranging a track is to sculpt an entire three to eight minute energy flow. Using this perspective can seriously assist in helping you figure out where to go next in your track, or even what comes before.
In my video, How to Escape the 8 Bar Loop, I talk about using the same instruments with a different flavor. But one layer above that — the core of my decisions and the reason I made the decisions for my second section — are because of the flow of Energy.
Moreover, there is no better example of Energy flow than in “I Remember” by Deadmau5 and Kaskade. This song is as naked of an energy flow as you can get. They have a very simple set up — a couple synths, some basic percussion elements, and a vocalist. The same chords play throughout the entire ten minute track.
Why is it such a powerful track if it’s so simple? Energy. Ninety percent of this track is the shifting of energy. Not only that, but almost all of the energy shifting is simply the cut-off filter on synths being opened and closed.
But it’s so well sculpted — so intentionally and expertly crafted — that it’s interesting for ten freaking minutes. Hell, I’ve listened to this track on repeat many times over, so they’ve effectively held my interest for hours at a time.
That’s the power of Energy. That’s the power of creating a flowing river that your listeners can groove down, losing themselves and enjoying the ride, not even caring how long it is.
So now that we’ve acknowledged how incredibly important and fundamental Energy is in writing tracks, how do we go about creating, shifting, and sculpting an incredible flow?
The How – Parts, Parameters, and Performance
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.
But first, let’s clear up the distinction between 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. Earlier in the article, 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.
Here 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
Increasing and decreasing Energy through Performance
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 of this:
There’s one more thing I want to talk about — and that’s transitions.
Transitions are a tool for manipulating tension and energy. Their main goal is to make sure that energy remains fluid between sections (or the opposite, even).
Transitions are basically energy hacks — cheat codes that you can use to drastically increase or decrease energy levels over a very short period of time.
Furthermore, they allow us to direct the attention and expectations of our listeners. For example, when someone hears a reverse cymbal swelling in volume, they expect a change to occur momentarily.
There are two kinds of transitions — micro-sections and transitional elements.
Micro-sections are short phrases, rarely more than four bars, that ease two sections together.
Transitional elements are things you place at the end of/beginning of sections in order to more easily shift between the two.
The most obvious example of transitional elements is cymbals. Reverse cymbals are a very popular tactic in electronic music. Crash cymbals on the first hit of a new section are also very common — because it’s very effective.
Noise sweeps are also a popular tactic — either by opening up the cut-off filter or simply increasing and decreasing the volume over time.
Everything that can be shifted can be used as a transitional element (remember that list above?) — but it has to be done over a much shorter period of time (usually less than a bar) and it has to noticeable enough to make a difference.
For instance, you can drastically open or close the filter cut-off on your main synth over a bar to indicate a gain or reduction in energy, respectively.
Here’s a quick video demonstrating these concepts
Thanks for reading/watching. I know this was long so I appreciate it if you made it this far :^) and I hope you get something out of it!
If you enjoyed this article, click here to check out my ebook “Electronic Music Arrangement: How to Arrange Electronic Music.”