Little Things That Make the Song Big, Part 2


Part 1 of Little Things That Make the Song Big laid out some important considerations about song structure, section lengths, choice of instrumentation, and how they change the impact of songs. In Part 2, the focus will be on instrument- and pitch-specific alterations, tempo, groove, and mixing tips. Moving forward, always remind yourself that these elements form a somewhat fragile musical ecosystem. Though identifiable as being unique and separate, each element is also intrinsically affected by the others.

Near the end of this article’s first part, I wrote about choosing instruments for the various sections of a song and allowing yourself to include instrumentation beyond what could be played in a live performance. Doing so unleashes the splendors of diverse sounds and increases creative possibilities, but also builds a hurdle—density. With more and more sounds occurring at the same time, you raise the risk of losing each sound’s audibility. For example, listen to a string quartet (two violins, one viola, one cello) then compare it to an entire orchestra; it will be more difficult to hear each of the quartet elements when they are mixed with a full orchestra. However, using the orchestra, you can achieve sonic and emotional movement not possible with just a string quartet. It’s a trade-off; do you want a select few instruments to be heard with clarity and power, or would you rather create a large sound consisting of many layers?

Take a listen to “Polly Come Home,” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Notice that the lineup of instruments is minimal and remains consistent from section to section of the song. The instruments sound big while the energy of the song is kept subdued. Now check out “Hoppipolla,” by Sigur Ros. Before the end of the first minute, you’ll experience two pianos, drums, multiple vocals, and elements of an orchestra. Though it pares down in a couple of places, the number of instruments stays mostly the same while the intensity of their performances gradually builds in emotion, until the end. Finally, put on your pop pants and digest Taylor Swift’s “All You Had to Do Was Stay.” You’ll find very minimal instrumentation in the verses and a robust flair of sounds during the choruses. Rather than focusing on the individual instrument tones or an overall sonic force, the priority was on energy differences—tame, controlled verses and outpouring, sing-along-style choruses. The simple act of muting tracks can yield significant gains; mute some elements in the verses or reserve certain sounds for a final chorus. Not every instrument in the song needs to play throughout its entirety.

When many instruments are playing simultaneously, avoiding the creation of a massive mushy ball of musical goo is quite the challenge. A great trick for achieving easier intelligibility and better overall frequency balance is to utilize different pitch registers on various instruments. Understand that the fundamental pitch played on an instrument determines the frequencies it generates. Lower pitches yield lower frequencies, while higher pitches yield higher frequencies. So, imagine a song featuring bass, electric guitars, piano, horns, and strings, all playing in their middle octaves. This quickly turns into an overabundance of tones in a common frequency zone. If the bass and piano were intentionally played in lower octaves, electric guitars and horns in the middle octaves, and strings in higher territory, better distribution and separation of sounds could be obtained.

Even after every note is decided, the tempo with which each instrument is played can either glue the parts together and steer the pulse of the song or sabotage it at every bar and beat. By moderately raising or lowering the tempo of the performance, the tune can take on drastically different vibes. A great example of this is in two versions of Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me.” First, listen to the version from their self-titled album. Then, put your ears on the Top Gear version (track 1 from “The Complete BBC Sessions”). The difference in tempo is obvious; a six to eight BPM contrast makes for quite a shock! Though you will likely have a preference, each version communicates a uniquely cool feel.

Musicians can further modify the vibe of the song through the variation in their groove—whether they rush the beat to increase tension, drag behind it to keep things relaxed, or play on top of it to maintain precision. It requires talented artists to execute such minute movements in timing properly, which need to be consistent in their variation. What would happen if the drummer rushes ahead of the beat, but the bassist drags behind it? Chaos, I tell you! Instead of being locked together and uniformly contributing to a similar groove, they would smear the intended beat.

A prime example of the power each musician holds is in the song “Introducing Palace Players,” by Mew. Drop in at 54 seconds and you’ll hear the main guitar riff kick in. Along with it, the kick drum and hi-hat are played with a solid, straight feel. At about 1:16, the guitar riff continues, kick and snare are played straight, but the hi-hat oscillates between dragging and rushing in each bar. Near the 2:18 mark, the kick and snare continue with a straight feel and the hi-hat evens out. It’s the changes on the lowly hi-hat that do the deed! So, if that much can be accomplished though one cymbal, imagine what can be done with all the instruments at your disposal.

Following the completion of all recording, the mixing engineer has an important role in building up the song. Always keeping the musical goal in mind, he or she uses their tools to serve it. Some of the most basic parameters of mixing consoles and DAWs deliver unexpectedly effective results. Commonly, artists want certain song sections to seem “bigger” than others. An uncomplicated solution to that problem is automating levels to be slightly higher in the “bigger” sections and slightly lower in the “smaller” sections. To further enhance the size of certain sections, try automating pan knobs—no, not with fits of sporadic attack. For stereo sounds or double-tracked instruments, favor narrow pan positions in the smaller sections of the song, then alternate to wider, more extreme panning for the larger sections. Also, varying effects such as reverb and delay between parts of a song can exaggerate differences apparent to the listener. “Force of Nature,” by Break Science, is a clear example of showcasing different instrument sounds, panning, effects, and volumes between sections to strengthen the power of the choruses. Gallant’s “Talking to Myself” is another song featuring narrow verses and wide choruses. Check it out!

Like painting with a full palette of colors, brushes, and materials, finessing your music intertwines many factors, all coordinating with each other to create what we hope is your intended vision. There’s much to keep track of, so don’t hesitate to make a basic checklist for the goal, structure, length, instrumentation, tempo, groove, section-specific changes, and more. Since trial and error are crucial to achieving success, go experiment!

Click here if you missed Part 1 of this article.