On Creating Contrast

By: Tony Williamette

Date: 5/25/22

When I’m helping an artist build a song, I’m constantly thinking about contrast. I’m thinking about it as an engineer (mics, preamps), as a producer, and as a listener.

We can talk about contrast in a few different ways: as tones, as energy, and as emotion. Below I’ve detailed some of my favorite ways to both leverage and create contrast.

Something that is always on my mind: If everything is big, nothing is big. If everything is small, nothing is small. It’s the disparity between two elements that provides distinction and creates contrast.

The same can be said for a lot of mix elements. If everything is wide, nothing is wide - we can end up with “big mono,” leaving us with a less effective stereo image.

If everything is wet, nothing is wet.

If everything is saturated, nothing is saturated.

You get it.

Creating Contrast While Tracking

Use a dark microphone on a bright source.

Ribbon microphones are your friend here. They help round off cymbals, they help thicken up thin and harsh electric guitars, and they can even give some character to a lackluster, cheap acoustic guitar. Some dark dynamic microphones like the Beyerdynamic M 201 TG can help in a similar way. It’s so easy to follow orthodoxy and use small diaphragm condensers as overheads. This may work for some drummers, on some drum sets, on some songs, but use your ears and try new things.

Use a bright microphone on a dark source.

Sometimes you require the inverse of the above. You may need to breathe life into an instrument/voice. Occasionally a brighter mic can help you capture extra detail and desirable overtones. If a drummer is using darker cymbals, I might reach for a condenser microphone. When the sound coming out of a guitar amplifier is a bit too wooly or muddled, I might opt for the brighter Sennheiser MD 421 or a condenser microphone.

Change the sound for background vocals

When I’m using the same microphone for a lead vocal and a double or harmonies, I’ll change things up. This might be flipping from cardioid to omnidirectional to capture more room. This may mean having the vocalist take a few steps back to change the tone. Sometimes I just change the microphone and preamp to get a different sound altogether.

Use a “slower” or darker preamp on a bright or harsh source.

If started using a bright microphone and an API preamp on every tambourine I track, I wouldn’t have any 15K left in my ears. I’ll often couple a thin or harsh instrument with something that can add more heft - a tube preamp or a Neve-ish preamp usually do the trick.

Creating Contrast While Mixing

Use a very sparse arrangement, then drop in a wall of instruments.

We all know how this sounds, whether we regularly look at it in waveforms or not. Break a song down, build it up (or not) and create a drop that explodes tenfold.

Use high-pass or low-pass filters to create distinction.

I use this stuff all the time, maybe too often. A great example is vocals on a hip hop bridge or breakdown - giving them the underwater feel. Sometimes I’ll thin out a solo intro guitar track to a song, bringing it in at full bandwidth when the rest of the band enters. This can create a big punch for the listener.

Add saturation to a very clean vocal part.

This is used very commonly in hip hop. You might have a very clean, tuned, bright vocal part and adding saturation can make it feel even brighter, cutting through the mix like razorblades. The is especially effective during very clean and sparse parts of a song, or where the beat is darker.

Use a mixture of dry and wet sounds.

This can be applied a million ways, but vocals are a simple way to start. Sometimes the mix calls for dryish vocals on the verse and big, spaced-out vocals on the chorus. Then the bridge might break down to bone-dry, intimate vocals. All of this helps create different spaces and assists in the separation of elements in the mix.

Extreme Panning

One of my favorite moves is having one guitar panned hard left or right for the guitar intro, then have everything explode into a big, wide sound when the whole band comes in. This can also be done by having a section of the song 100% mono for a few bars. The same tricks can be used for reverbs and delays - pushing them to one side or the other for distinction in a mix.

Retain dynamics in a song.

With all of the cool compression, limiting, and saturation plugins these days, it’s easy to smash things into an unrecognizable mess. I have to remind myself to retain dynamics. I’ll do this with both volume and instrument arrangement, depending on the song.

At the end of every mix, I automate the master fader. Starting with the last chorus of big outro, keeping that at “0db” on the master fader. I then work backwards, turning each previous chorus down a few decibels, the verses down a bit further, and usually the breakdown/bridge sections down quite a bit. This varies with each song, but helps me take a step back and figure out what the song is trying to do. This process helps retain overall song dynamics and create excitement when a new section of the songs comes in, finally exploding to the loudest (usually) final chorus.

I’ll wrap this up by stating one thing: dynamics are sort of the ultimate form of contrast. Keeping an eye on dynamics throughout the entire production process will naturally steer you toward the contrast you need.

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