Dynamics In Music: A Quick Guide For Producers & Musicians

Picture showing various hardware-compressors

What To Expect?

If you are wondering what dynamics in music are and how to use them for your songs, this is your article to read!

In the first part, I will give you an overview of what dynamics are in sheet music, how you could use them to make your tracks more exciting.

In the second part, I will go into detail, about how to use dynamics in music production and how you can manipulate them to help your songs stand out – Have fun!

Table Of Contents

  1. What Are Dynamics in Music?
    1. Dynamics In Music Notation
  2. Why Are Dynamics Important in Music?
  3. How To Use Dynamics in Music
  4. What Are Dynamics in Music Production?
  5. How To Use Dynamics in Music Production
    1. Compressors & Limiters
    2. Expanders & Gating Effects
  6. Conclusion

What Are Dynamics in Music Theory?

In a lot of pieces in music, you will recognize that some parts of the song are played louder and some are played softer. This variation in loudness is called “Dynamics”.

In sheet music, it is indicated by a specific musical notation like forte (= louder) or piano (= softer). Like I have mentioned in a previous article, dynamics can help you to add some excitement to your music arrangement and make your songs more interesting to the ear of the listener.

Dynamics In Music Notation

In music notation, dynamics are described by different Italian words that indicate individual loudness-levels. The following list that is sorted from the softest to the loudest level gives you a detailed overview of these terms:

  • ppp = pianississimo which means “very, very soft
  • pp = pianissimo which means “very soft
  • p = piano which means “soft
  • mp = mezzo-piano which means “somewhat soft
  • mf = mezzo-forte which means “somewhat loud
  • f = forte which means “loud
  • ff = fortissimo which means “very loud
  • fff = fortississimo which means “very, very loud

Another thing that is important to understand when talking about dynamics in music notation are the symbols that indicate dynamic changes:

Crescendo

Indicates that the volume is gradually increasing.

Decrescendo

Indicates that the volume is gradually decreasing.

Diminuendo

Is essentially a synonym for decrescendo.

Why Are Dynamics Important In Music ?

Imagine a song that constantly repeats the same pattern… Pretty boring, right? If we want to please the ears of our listeners, we have to make our songs interesting.

That’s why we need to create changes in our songs that amaze our audience. Using dynamic-changes is a great way to add some excitement to our songs and fill them with emotions.

Music-Dynamics basically help you to create an intimate connection between your song and listener.

How To Use Dynamics in Music

After we know, why we should include some dynamic changes in our songs, let’s have a look at how we could probably use them to add some excitement to our tracks.

Here are a few tips on how you could use dynamics to add some excitement to your songs:

  1. Build tension by increasing volume.

    Build tension by gradually increasing the volume of certain instruments. In a DAW, you could do this either by using automation clips or by varying the velocity of your MIDI notes.

  2. Build tension by decreasing the volume.

    While you can add tension by increasing the volume, the same goes for decreasing it. An example could be to play a particular instrument relatively loud in the chorus and then decrease its volume in the bridge that comes right after it

  3. Add excitement with velocity.

    When having different melodies or chord-progressions in your songs, make sure to add some variations in your velocity. By experimenting with different velocity-levels of certain parts of your song, you can easily add some cool variations.

  4. Add excitement by adding instruments.

    Adding instruments in some parts of your songs can increase their volume and create some dynamic-changes.

  5. Add excitement by removing instruments.

    Removing instruments is exactly the opposite of adding them. Simply remove some instruments in certain parts of your song. These passages will automatically become quieter and add some dynamic-excitement to your song.

  6. Add dynamic-changes to your effects.

    When using send-tracks in a DAW, you will always have the possibility to automate the volume of an effect that affects certain instruments. By gradually increasing the volume of a reverb effect, for example, you can create some interesting changes in your song.

What Are Dynamics in Music Production?

Like we have learned before, dynamics in music are always related to loudness. With the rise of modern recording-techniques, we as music producers got a tool, that gives us the ability to control the dynamic range of certain instruments: It’s called a compressor.

A compressor usually can control the difference between the softest and the loudest level of an audio signal. There are plenty of different compressor-types that vary in the way they treat a signal. Some examples are limiters or maximizers.

When having a look at the soundwaves of different songs, you will notice that they look pretty different often depending on their genre.

Comparing the sound files of a song in classical and in hip hop music makes this pretty clear.: The classical one has more loudness-variations. This visual representation shows a phenomenon in music that we as producers call “dynamic range”.

The Dynamic Range Of A Song In Classical Music

The classic song is much quieter than the hip hop song.

By using different changes in loudness, the composer tries to create some kind of excitement throughout the whole production.

The Dynamic Range Of A Hip Hop-Song

The hip hop song is definitely louder and doesn’t have as many changes in loudness as the classical one.

Because this song has less dynamic changes, you can still see some variations if you have a closer look.

How To Use Dynamics in Music Production

Understanding dynamic range is pretty easy, right? But what will this knowledge help us when it comes to producing a track? The answer is (as always): it depends on your song and our specific taste.

Like with every audio- processor or instrument we have for music-production, plugins that manipulate the dynamic range of a song or instrument are just tools that we need to use creatively in order to produce a piece of beautiful art.

Because there are lots of different advanced tools, that allow us to manipulate the dynamic range of a recording, I will give you a short overview of the most basic tools, that allow us to do some audio-magic by manipulating the dynamic range.

Compressors & Limiters

Compressors and Limiters are different pulgins but basically function the same way. What they do is that they lower the volume from the loudest peak of an audio signal to the lowest.

By lowering the peaks and cranking up the volume, you are able to reduce the dynamic range of the signal. Here is an example of how a compressor affects a simple drum break:

Raw Drums

The raw signal has a much brighter dynamic range than the compressed one.

By having a look at the waveform, you can clearly see, that the kick and the snare are much louder than the HiHat and percussion sounds.

Compressed Drums

The compressed signal has a much smaller dynamic range than the raw one.

The loudness-levels of the waveform are “closer together” which makes the break sound a bit squashed.

Compressing and audio signal can be very useful in a lot of situations and is probably one of the most used techniques in music production.

Describing how compressors and limiters work in detail is pretty complex, I will cover these topics in a more detailed article. But one thing that is pretty simple to explain, ist the difference between a compressor and a limiter.

Compressor vs. Limiter: What’s The Difference?

Compressors manipulate the dynamic range of an audio signal by measuring the loudness of it and turning the volume down by the amount you want it to be reduced.

They help you to control dynamics by controlling those levels. You usually do this by tweaking the threshold, ratio, and gain parameter of your compressor.

Producers use compression in a variety of situations to improve their mixes. To give you some examples, here are some typical situations where you would normally use a compressor in music production:

  1. In recording, compressors can be used to reduce the dynamic range of an instrument or vocal to prevent it from clipping.
  2. Using compressors on certain instruments like drums can help to add some punch.
  3. Using compressors in a certain way can also help to control where instruments sit in a mix.
  4. Using compressors on a group of different instruments can help to glue them together and make your mix sound more even.
  5. Compressors can help to create some space between instruments that have similar frequency-spectrum.

Limiters are basically compressors. Typically, limiters are used to prevent an incoming audio signal to cross a certain loudness-level.

They work with a much higher threshold. In theory, a plugin or hardware device usually is a limiter, if its ratio starts at a value from about 10:1.

Another thing that sets them apart from compressors, is the fact that they usually have a much faster attack and release time.

Like it is with compression, limiting can also be used in a variety of different mixing situations. Here are a few examples of how you could use a limiter in your future productions:

  1. You should always have a limiter on your master bus to prevent your boxes from clipping, that’ll help you to prevent your boxes to get damaged by super-loud sounds that could occur in your mix.
  2. Limiters are usually used in the mastering stage of a music-production. They are mainly used to make a mix louder and control the dynamic range of a song. I would recommend you to not touch the limiter after you are completely satisfied with your mix, because the mixing-stage is usually the part where the song-magic happens.

That’s it! An advice lots of professional producers will give you is the fact that you can achieve much better results with compressors in a mix and only use limiters in the mastering stage of a mix.

You could probably use them as compressors, but that doesn’t work the other way around. This is because compressors usually do not have a high enough ratio.

To make this topic even clearer to you, I also added a short video of proaudioexp, that explains the difference between compressors and limiters pretty well:

Expanders & Gating-Effects

Another type of compression, that can be very useful in different mixing-situations are Expanders & Gating-Effects.

Expanders are the opposite of compressors. While compressors reduce loudness-levels when an audio signal gets above a certain threshold, expanders just affect the signal that is below the threshold.

Here is a short video of Academy AV that visualizes this topic pretty well:

Why would you want to do this?

Sometimes we want to excess quiet sounds in signal that we don’t want to totally eliminate, but just want to make it a little bit quieter.

Here is a shortlist of some situations where you would typically use an expander-plugin:

  1. When you have drums with a weird sustain, you could use an expander to tighten these drums up a little bit.
  2. When using an expander on a signal that seems to have too much reverb on it, you could use it to eliminate the reverb.
  3. Using transient shapers, which are some special kind of expanders, can help you to make certain sounds sound shorter.
  4. When using an expander with side-chain compression, you can create a subtle side-changing effect that sounds more natural than just compressing the whole signal.
  5. If a recording contains some unwanted noise, you could use the expander to reduce it.

Gating effects work the same way as expanders. The only difference between those two is, that a gate will “remove” a signal until a certain threshold is met, while an expander will reduce the volume depending on the selected threshold.

Pretty simple, right? You could use gates the exact same way as expanders.

As always, the best way to learn how to use these effects is to try them out in different mixing-situations and get used to them. I hope, that this article gave you a better understanding of this topic!

Conclusion

Dynamics play a very important role in music as well as in music production. By playing around with different loudness-levels in your tracks, you can create some kind of excitement that pleases the ear of the listener.

In music production, you can control the dynamic range of different sounds and instruments using effects like compressors, limiters, and gating effects. These can be used in various mixing-situations. Hope that this article was helpful for you!

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