Use automation to make the chorus louder
Lyrics by Greg Long
Apply these automation-based approaches to take it to the next level
Today, for the recording musician, there are a seemingly endless number of hats to wear. Composer, lyricist, producer, sound engineer, mixing engineer, mastering engineer, and all this before the song is finished!
Once things go into publishing mode, the list grows: marketer, graphic designer, social media expert, publicist. In all of these roles, some are more important than others. For me, the song remains the focus. Maybe Metallica and the Beatles agree and that explains their black and white covers announcing their most touted releases. I can just hear the marketing and design teams at the time issuing a collective shout of “nooooo!”
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There is one thing, however, that we cannot just “telephone”… the fall! This chorus for the ages that music fans covet. The brain-melting synth screeching with halftime beats. Many techniques are used to mark and prepare the fall. From EDM risers, snare rolls and bass bombs to scratches, drum fills and reverse cymbals.
In this article, we’ll look at a few automation-based approaches that take what comes next to the next level.
Before you begin, one of the main considerations to make is the dynamics of your mix, and furthermore, understand what makes us perceive something as loud. When we talk about dynamics, we often hear it vaguely referred to as, “Keep it dynamic.” Do not compress too much. Compress harder. Do not use clippers. Use a trimmer. Confusing to say the least.
One thing that rarely seems to enter the conversation is a discussion of what exactly makes us perceive one sound to be louder than another. Our perception of loudness is linked to two phenomena: instantaneous loudness, or peak level, and sustained loudness, aka RMS – Root Mean Squared. RMS may sound complicated, but it is simply a level average over a longer time of 300ms, rather than an instantaneous peak. Think, a clap or a snare versus a sustained synth pad or a distorted guitar. For an in-depth discussion, check out this article. TLDR: To make a drop/chorus hit louder, an increase in RMS will be perceived as stronger and an equal increase in peak level.
To illustrate this, automate the master fader to raise the volume when the drop occurs. Sure, the drop gets stronger, but in doing so, it introduces an unwanted side effect. By moving the master fader to jump 3dB, the RMS level remains unchanged, and the comparative level of the pour section will be lower. Far from ideal.
So, let’s explore three techniques that will make your drop stronger than the classic Foo Fighters, “Everlong.”
Let’s go to the DAW and get started. First, install a compressor on the master bus. Free MJUC Jr is a great option for this technique. Set a slow attack (20ms-50ms) and moderate release (100ms). If, like the MJUC Jr, your compressor has an automatic release setting, turn it on. We are not looking for aggressive compression. Just a little “glue”, so to speak. Adjust the ratio parameter, if present, to 2:1 and the threshold so that the compressor just embraces the loudest transients in the track, with no more than 2dB gain reduction.
Next, install a trim plugin before the compressor. The simpler, the better. All we want to do is control the overall volume of the mix as it feeds the compressor. Select the volume parameter on the trim/utility and automate it to increase the overall mix, pre-compressor, between 3dB and 6dB. With the compressor ratio set to 2:1 this will only result in a 1dB to 2dB increase in peak gain, but will increase the RMS to give a satisfying boost to the perceived level. Assuming other additional elements are introduced at this same point in the mix, the effect might be sufficient.
Depending on your arrangement, you can increase the volume instantly, over a beat, two beats, or a whole bar. As with all things audio, experiment. Make sure you automate the Trim plugin gain to increase the gain of the audio in the compressor. If you automate the master channel volume, depending on your DAW, this may change the volume after the compressor. Not what we are looking for. For example, this will result in an increase in peak volume and no change in overall volume, or RMS. Again, not what we were looking for.
On the drums now
Sampled, programmed, looped or real, the technique also works very well on drums. You need to make sure your drums are routed to a subgroup so that it can be treated as a single audio group. It’s relatively simple in a modern DAW. (A quick Google search like “configuring subgroup routing in [insert name of DAW]”, should help).
Now install the trim plugin and after that the compressor. The ratio can be set higher at 4:1 and the same time constants should work well: attack 20ms – 50ms, release 100ms. Set the compressor threshold so it compresses no more than 2dB on the loudest peaks, then automate the drums to push the subgroup into the compressor. Somewhere between 3dB and 8dB will do, depending on how hard you want to hit the drop.
With the compressor set to a 4:1 ratio, an 8dB increase in volume will only increase the peak output by 2dB. Depending on how busy the drum track is and the volume characteristics of the individual drum hits, the RMS will increase dramatically providing the desired hit, for the drop.
Using the equalizer
The final technique is to use EQ, rather than volume, to make the drop louder. This time we apply the technique to the instruments in the track that provide the harmony or chords. Typically these will be guitars in a rock track, piano and keys in a funk, pop or jazz setting, and synths/pads in EDM. (Don’t consider this an exhaustive list and be sure to experiment on horns, strings, and even bass guitar as well.)
Again, route all the tracks you want to use to a single subgroup. Listen to the chorus/drop and set a volume level that suits you. Remember, we’re looking for maximum impact, so a “healthy dose” is key. Insert an EQ plug-in that has both a high pass filter and a low pass filter (HFP and LPF) and set the filter slope to 6 dB per octave as a starting point. (Experiment with different slopes after setting up automation.)
Go back a bit to the previous section. Set the low pass filter to a point where the top end of the band loses some of its brilliance. Somewhere between 8kHz and 5kHz should do the trick. Don’t go crazy. The point is to throw in some shadow to create contrast rather than a specific AM radio effect. Bypass the plugin to hear what the filter is doing and tweak it to your liking. Next, set the HPF somewhere between 100Hz and 150Hz so that the body of the band is reduced a bit.
Now, using automation, bypass the EQ plugin for the chorus/drop and the effect should give the section more weight and shine than everyone expects. The automation can be set to completely bypass the plugin or slide the HPF down to 20Hz and the LFP down to 20kHz. This can take place over a one-beat, two-beat, or one-measure period. The shorter the delay, the more dramatic the effect.
Experiment with the settings of all techniques. All three will result in a tasty increase in RMS while minimizing increases in peak level. Combine two, or all three, and you’ll find your choruses hit harder than a dose of Nirvana’s “Lithium.”
Find the most explosive choruses here.