It’s funny how my next lesson should be derived from watching a Japanese drama.
We’re all aware of the special effects used in movies, obviously. But there’s another type of effect: A bunch of environmental happenings that accentuate the situation. They’re not spectacular, but they thicken up the energy. Bright light coming from behind a beautiful girl seems to make her even prettier. Stuff lighting on fire in the background, as a wretched person lashes out at someone. Or someone making a wish, when all of a sudden there’s fireworks lighting up the skies. These special effects are a mere representation of what is happening to the characters at that time.
It’s interesting how this reminds me of an article I once read. It was about a woman who was in the process of moving into a new house with her husband. Upon deciding where to live, she and her husband noticed an old typewriter, and she told him: “Oh look, this must mean I will be writing a lot of articles in the near future.” Seeing a plane as they entered the garden she translated this to “We’ll go on a lot of holidays too.” The article continued with her saying that life’s little details can be percieved as little omens, much like they accentuate the atmosphere in novels. I have come to experience this myself sometimes, so I must say I agree. But I digress…
These special effects, these little omens, what can I learn from them? It’s really simple. Soundeffects are little omens too! They represent what the song is heading to, so all you need to know is what your song is about. Love? Happiness? Hate? Sadness? An Opinion? Maybe something that happened to you, or something you believe in. Whatever it is, by using soundeffects to accentuate this, you will amplify the message without words.
It is important to know where your song is heading, as it will affect the soundeffects in turn. I happened to see a resemblence in the way soundeffects are being used, and the ADSR concept. That’s what I used as my guideline to understand soundeffects a little better.
So what happens when you skip sound effects? The results may differ, but usually it ends up sounding very stiff and simplistic. Daft Punk is a great example. Their songs consist mostly of instruments dropping in and out of the song, but somehow it works!Sound effects are there to help music:
- Attack, to create tension and move onto an energetic part. A technique to amplify the energy of the transition is to take one synth, and lowpas it downwards while you bring up the pitch. Among other techniques belong the reversed crash, vocals with sustained notes, etc.
- Sustain, to repeat parts of the song. Specificly the chorus of a song needs to be repeated over and over, but sometimes you’re dealing with unchanging melodies. A subtle change is what you’ll want in both cases.
- When applying this to the chorus, layering the chorus melody with a variation of it played by different instruments/vocals should suffice. Adding chords works pretty good aswel.
- In case of an unchanging melody, your best bet is to get experimental with the effects/samples. Bring them to the listener’s attention.
- Decay, to prepare us for the ending of a sequence. Effects like these may appear all over the song, indicating that a transition is going to be made. Sometimes these effects are quite lengthy. These effects often go unnoticed, and that’s why I think they are the most subtle effects around.
- Release, to rid of energy and move to a calmer part. Soundeffects of this kind are played imediately after an energetic part, such as the chorus. The melody would stop playing, and gives way to these effects.
- Sometimes they’re short and make for quick transitions. A soft “explosion” in this case.
- But some of them take time to build off, like the short guitar riff that comes right after the chorus here.
I’m generalizing the effectiveness of these methods. Some genres don’t use these effects, and other genres use them excessively. I’m listing them as I see fit.
You can surprise the audiance by using an energetic transition, but suddenly move to a calm part instead. You can do the same with a calm transition, and let it play into an energetic transition. Anything is fine actually. There are so many ways to enhance transitions in songs, that it’s not so much something you can learn. Surely, you need to know your equipment well. But how you go about using it is all about sense of direction.
Version 1.0 here. I may go and edit this later on.
I decided to make a list of effects and while I was doing that, I started putting everything in cathegories. I ended up with 3 cathegories. The first one being “Gradual Adjustments,” then “Extreme Modification” and last on the list is “Control Tools.” As I was working this out, I noticed one cathegorie doesn’t really belong here: Control tools.
Automated frequency control isn’t an effect. Frequency adjustment is an effect, yes. But once it is automated, it is being controlled by a tool: Automation. The same goes for Frequency modulation. It is used much in the same way as you would use a midicontroler.
There’s one big thing I learned here. Effects are controlled. I’m thinking of using Kaoss Pads and Midi Controllers more often from now on.
Just today, it was bothering me again; transitions in my songs usually sound like crap. So I decided to look for the few songs that contain satisfying transitions, and tried to remember how I composed them. Turns out there’s 2 of such songs, and both of them started as an experimental project which I used to mess around with soundeffects. I composed more stuff from there, and even managed to use these soundeffects like instruments in both occasions. Both songs introduce new soundeffects as the song progresses, without sounding weird. Which is strange, as I usually mess up trying to create new soundeffects. Then again, I noticed the soundeffects in these older songs sound very simple. It’s not the kind of sound I would go for nowadays.
I took a different cathegory of songs to judge next. The 4 songs I picked to examine are all interesting to listen to, even though they keep playing the same chords over and over. I want to find out how I kept these songs interesting. This particular cathegory had a few rules: While these projects started out as experiments, they can’t be soundeffect-experiments. From the looks of it, I was mostly working with luck, curiousity and really crappy samples. That’s just not going to cut it as your ways in music production become more profesional. Still I must say, you may never know what’s going to work and what is not going to work, especially when it comes to sound effects. Besides, oftentimes unexpected results end up to be really cool. But a sense of direction is a really important fundamental.
Then again, I’m picky when it comes to soundeffects nowadays. It’s pretty simple to create a generic sound effect, but it’s not always well placed and doesn’t really sound that personal either. I’m aiming for my soundeffects to be special, but that is not an easy thing to aim for. It takes a lot of insight to realize what type of soundeffects you want your song to be accompanied by, and what you need to do in order to create those sounds. Most of the time it’ll be impossible to create the exact thing you are trying to go for. It is especially hard to determine whether the effect adds the right amount of energy to your song, so it doesn’t lose the original feel. All of these things together make it incredibly hard for me to create soundeffects, unless I start my songs with them. Nonetheless, I am determined to make it work. And I just realized, a lot of people make due with generic soundeffects. Isn’t that kind of lazy…?
Creating a song isn’t so hard, to finish a song is though. Once done composing, you’re bound to find flaws that are not caused by a bad mix. Rather, they become evident once you’ve mixed everything well: The composition starts to feel flawed.
You’ll feel things are missing mainly at intro’s, outro’s, transitions and repeating motives. They feel stiff; they don’t flow. But since you’ve got the basics down, what could possibly be wrong? You’ll probably blame the mix at first, but after a bit of tweaking you’re bound to find out there’s nothing actually wrong with it. You’ll try adding effects for a more organic feel, but it’s not enough. Next you’ll wonder if anything could be wrong with the order in which you’ve composed your song. Sometimes that’s the case, but usually it’s not the only thing. Start comparing your song with a released song in the same genre, and you’ll find out what’s wrong.
Undoubtably you’ll notice how inferior your song sounds compared to a profesionally mixed song. You can’t blame the mix though, as this particular song has been mastered, and yours hasn’t gone through the final step process yet. Pay attention to the way a composition flows so much better than yours, and you’ll discover it is accompanied by several tricks in music that sound so natural, you didn’t spot them before.
While most of the work is done by instruments. Vocals, samples, and soundeffects smooth out your otherwise harsh composition. I’ll go figure out the details on that.