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Mix Blog Studio: The Good Kind of Drama

Injecting some storytelling drama into a song can take place anywhere along the way, from songwriting through the mix, and Mike Levine considers it important no matter when.

Drama is an essential part of music production. No, I’m not talking about things like the drummer and bass player punching each other out in the control room, or the lead singer being AWOL for the vocal session, or the argument over whose name goes first in the songwriting credits. My subject this week is the drama in the recording, not the drama surrounding it.

I’m talking about the importance of creating songs that have a dramatic arc to them to help keep the listeners’ interest. Even with a great song and excellent musicianship, the recording won’t be as compelling if the arrangement is too static.

The importance of dramatic arrangements was brought home to me some years ago when, as part of researching an article I was writing, I analyzed a bunch of pop songs and saw how their arrangements evolved from beginning to end. It was an incredibly informative exercise (one that I highly recommend, by the way).

Read more Mic Blog Studio: A Place for Everything.

I noticed that there was some variation from one section to the next in virtually every song, and the vocal arrangements and the instrumentation usually built as the song progressed. You rarely had two sections in a row that were identical, arrangement-wise.

Sometimes the changes were obvious, such as the addition of background vocals or the drummer switching from a sidestick to the snare. But other times, they were subtle, like bringing in a low-mixed shaker or tambourine part, or adding a couple of chord substitutions.

You have a lot of options for adding drama. In addition to how you bring in (and out) the instruments and vocal parts, the song structure itself offers built-in variation. Transitions from verse to chorus, verse to pre-chorus, chorus to verse, or chorus to bridge provide contrast with their melodic, harmonic and dynamic differences. The lyrics can also offer a dramatic aspect, particularly if they’re telling a story or keeping the listeners in suspense.

Despite having all that we have to work with, sometimes a song gets to the mixing stage and sounds too similar throughout. If that happens, you still have some options to augment the drama in the mix.

One tried-and-true technique is to mute some parts and create a breakdown—most likely at a chorus late in the song. Or you can use automation to add dynamic interest by subtly bringing up the level of some instruments as if the players were digging in more as the song progressed. You can also vary the reverb or other effects in different song sections.

Back when I had less experience writing, arranging and recording music, I didn’t prioritize the dramatic aspects enough, but now I’m a firm believer. When I get to the rough-mix stage of a song, I’ll usually take a step back and analyze the recording to make sure it’s got sufficient variation and builds in some way. If not, I’ll do what I can to add more interest during the mix.

There’s no shortage of tools for creating drama in our music. The trick is to keep the concept in mind at all times during the production process.