Mixing Epic Songs
by Alec Plowman
Why Less is Sometimes More
Digital Audio Workstations are amazing tools.
Long gone are the days where a composer is limited to a certain number of tracks. And, thanks to the availability and quality of plugins, the possibilities for creativity are near endless.
Feel like that middle-eight needs a bed of synths? You got it. Want to add a symphony orchestra to that final chorus? No problem.
These days, bedroom producers can create something that was only attainable with a massive recording budget and spec’d out studio 30 years ago.
In principle, that’s awesome. But in practice, there are problems with having infinite resources at your disposal.
Specifically, it’s the temptation to use all of them. All the time.
When composing an epic track, it’s alluring to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. You want it to sound big after all, for the track to grow in intensity as it progresses. So you layer in those sythns, those symphony parts and those sound effects, harmonized vocals, choral sections and sweeping strings.
Then you play it back and, contrary to what you were expecting, it doesn’t sound big; it sounds bloated.
The moments that were supposed to hit you right in the feels are lost amidst swathes of plugins.
There’s no room to breathe.
A “big” track doesn’t come from having over 80 active tracks open in your DAW.
That’s a common misconception.
What makes a track big is the effective use of dynamics.
You make the important moments feel important because you position them next to something that emphasizes their relevance.
In rock music, the “quiet verse, LOUD CHORUS” model has been used to death now, but there’s a reason people come back to it. It’s dynamic interplay in its most basic form. You pare back the verses to make the choruses hit harder.
And you want the chorus to hit hard because that’s where the hook is.
That’s the section that’ll be earworming through your listener’s head for days to come.
Bear in mind, of course, that your chorus doesn’t necessarily have to be louder to make an impact; check out Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” for a masterful inversion of the verse/chorus formula. The point is that it has to be dynamically distinct from what came before it to capture the listener’s attention.
Of course, using this “less is more” approach is easier said than done. It takes a lot of trial and error to get it right, as well as training your ear. But, for my money, here are three strategies that lead to more dynamic productions:
1) Work out where your big moments are
Get analytical and work out where your hooks are hiding. Then ask yourself whether your production choices are enhancing, or burying those hooks.
2) Make “before” and “after” comparisons
When you add a new element into your production, listen to that section both with and without that element. Then listen to it again, but in the context of the whole song. Ask yourself what, if anything, it’s actually adding and don’t be afraid to cull it if it isn’t needed.
3) Watch your waveforms
If all else fails, bounce your track and look at the waveform. This visual map of the song will give you an idea of where your song is louder and where your song is quieter. If those peaks and troughs don’t tally with where your hooks are supposed to be, then you need to go through your track again with a fine tooth comb.
Like I said, this stuff isn’t easy. An innate understanding of dynamics is what separates the great producers from the merely good ones. But, approach your composition with this principle in mind and you will start to see results, and create more impacting music in the process.