This applies to both recording and playing live, so I included sections on dynamics in two of my books - How To Make Your Band Sound Great and The Music Producer's Handbook. Here's an excerpt that explains how to play dynamically.
If you learn only one thing from this book and DVD it’s that playing with dynamics is the greatest key to making your band sound great. It’s an improvement that both you (the band) and your audience will notice immediately, and will automatically separate you from about 90% of other bands on the planet.
So what are dynamics? Simply, it means playing quietly or with less intensity in certain places in a song, and louder or with more intensity in other places. Most bands are oblivious to dynamics and play at one volume throughout the entire song, song after song, set after set. This gets boring and tedious for the audience very quickly.Playing with dynamics means playing with less intensity in certain places in a song, and louder or with more intensity in other places. Most bands are oblivious to dynamics and play at one volume throughout the entire song (or all the songs, for that matter), which can get boring for the listener very quickly.
Generally speaking, here’s how you do it.
• When the song begins, the band plays fairly loudly, about 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.
• When the vocal or lead instrument (if the group is instrumental) comes in at the verse, the band drops down to about 4 or 5.
• When the chorus comes in, the volume level comes back up to a 7 or 8.
• When the 2nd verse begins, the band drops down to a 5 or 6 level (notice it’s a little louder than the first verse, but not as loud as the chorus).
• When the 2nd chorus begins, the band comes back up to a 7 or 8.
• When the bridge, or whatever section is the peak of the song, the band comes all the way up to 9 or 10.
• The band drops down to 7 or 8 for the outro of the song.
• If the song has a breakdown, the level might come down as low as a 1 or 2.While the level of intensity (and as a result, volume level) may change from the numbers indicated above for each song and depending on what finally feels the best, that’s basically how it’s done. If the band plays the song dynamically, the song breathes volume-wise. Going from loud to quiet or quiet to loud is called “tension and release” and it’s a basic quality of all art forms (in painting it would be dark to light colors, photography it would be light to shadows, etc.). Tension and release keeps things interesting.
The Secret To Dynamics
When you play loudly, play as loudly as you can.
When you play softly, play as softly as you can.
There are a few byproducts from playing dynamically too. The vocals can be heard easier because there’s more space and fewer loud instruments to fight against (easier on the singer’s throat as well). Songs become more fun to play because there’s true interaction with the other players to make it work, and as a result, the band automatically gets tighter.
For a really great example of dynamics, listen to Smells Like Team Spirit by Nirvana where the verses are at about a 5, the pre-chorus at 7 and the chorus just roar at 10.
How to learn to play dynamically
Most bands learn to play dynamically naturally without thinking if just one player is dynamics-aware and the others follow (it helps if that one aware person is the drummer). Usually if a band is together for a long enough time and plays enough gigs, dynamics will magically seep into its playing after the band begins to get some self-awareness of just what it takes to get a crowd going. You can’t spend years of waiting for these things to happen by themselves though, you’re making a record. So just use the following method:
• When the band is going over a song, treat the dynamics as an integral part of the song (because they are) and spend as much time learning them the same way that you would with the chord changes and groove. As shown above, map out each section of the song on a loudness scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the loudest.
• Now the next step is the most important - make sure that each band member agrees on how loud or quiet each dynamic number is. In other words, be sure that the drummer’s 8 level is the same as the rhythm guitar player’s, and the 2 level of the bass player is the same as the lead guitarist. After that’s commonly agreed upon, rehearse the dynamics of a song until they’re second nature, then watch the audience take notice.
Don’t Confuse Volume Level With Intensity
A common complaint from a band that’s being taught dynamics is, “The song just doesn’t drive when we play the verse (or any other section) quietly.” That’s because it’s easy to confuse volume level with intensity.
Most bands tend to get sloppier the softer or less intense they play. They begin to play the individual beats at slightly different levels and even have slight tempo variations between beats. As a result, playing softly sounds wimpy. Another thing that happens is that the band is so used to playing at one (usually loud) level, that anything compared to that level sounds so different that it’s perceived as less exciting. The same thing happens when you drive your car at 80 MPH for a long time. When you bring it back to 65, it feels like it’s going slow even though it’s still going pretty darn fast. And finally, the internal dynamics of each individual player usually go out the window. Instead of playing crisp yet quiet with the same attack and releases (covered later in the chapter) as at the higher volume level, the attack and releases get relaxed so the playing becomes less precise.
So the real trick is learning to actually play with the same intensity at lower levels. Make sure the tempo is even, the groove stays the same as at the higher volume, and the attacks and releases are crisp and you should sound powerful at any volume level.
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