A common problem that music producers face, especially when first starting out, is monotony. The loops we make sound great but the arrangement sounds repetitive and boring. The solution to this is creative editing! Creative editing can help you take your track from an extended loop to a moving, breathing entity that excites the senses and has a profound impact on listeners.
In this article we are going to take a look at some creative editing techniques that can breathe life into your music and allow you to release it out into the world with confidence.
What is Creative Editing?
When we are editing music in a digital audio workstation (DAW), it is very tempting to keep everything lined up with the grid. However, this tends to make the arrangement sound dull and predictable. A good analogy here is architecture. Good architecture is rarely a bunch of squares placed in a linear fashion on top of and next to each other. It usually incorporates different shapes that are arranged in a way that is novel and pleasing to the human eye.
Good music has a similar underlying concept. A bunch of eight bar phrases playing one after the other sounds bland and uninteresting. The best music has variations in everything from the lengths of the phrases to the variations in the melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and more! If you want to achieve this kind of greatness with your music, creative editing is the way to go!
Creative editing is a way to edit music while taking artistic liberties with the placement (or removal) of clips or notes on the timeline. It also involves the use of automation to create a sense of movement across whole phrases of a tune. For example, many beginner producers wonder why their drops sound less energetic than the buildup that leads into it. Very often, it is because of a drop in the volume level from the buildup to the drop. A simple volume automation on the master is usually enough to fix this.
Understanding these two key concepts will enable you to approach your productions with a more creative mindset, thus helping you produce upbeat and interesting music!
1. Avoid the 8 Bar, 16 Bar trap
While arranging a song in a DAW, it is very easy to allow yourself to be “guided” by the grid lines on the arrangement window. But what happens is that your song becomes a very predictable sequence of eight or sixteen bar phrases. While the music within the phrases might sound amazing, this predictability can take the bite out of it as the song goes on.
Try to change the lengths of some of the phrases to twelve bars or twenty bars and you might notice a listener perk up just from that unexpected change. You can even try making a quick buildup phrase of four or six bars for increased intensity, particularly during an epic drop.
Of course, you will have to be careful not to cut off your chord progression too early, so this technique might be appropriate for phrasing that contains a four bar chord progression. In case you do have an eight bar progression, you could experiment with allowing the chords to continue after the change at the twelfth bar. This could also add an element of surprise to your arrangement.
2. Include Short Bridges to Offset Your Arrangement
A common way to move from one phrase to the next is to replace the last one or two bars of the first phrase with a fill to indicate that the next phrase is about to begin. This is usually very effective, but another way to go about this transition is to let the phrase finish and place the fill after it.
This means that the second phrase will now start one or two bars after the first phrase ends to make room for the fill. This may sound jarring at first, and will look strange on your arrangement window, because the whole arrangement is now offset one or two bars to the right. But when done right, it adds an element of delightful confusion to the listener’s experience.
This technique does not affect the pulse of the track. What it does is it challenges the listener’s expectations, introducing a little discomfort and compelling them to recalibrate their senses to the “new” arrangement.
3. Make Variations of Everything
This is more of a songwriting tip in that it revolves around your melodies, harmonies and rhythms. If you have the same tune repeating with varying intensities across your arrangement, it will obviously sound boring. A good way to deal with this is to add small variations to the music in every subsequent phrase.
One way you can do this is to add fills at the end of each phrase using one or all of the sections (melody, harmony and drums/ percussion). Drum fills are the most effective and popular way of achieving this but can easily be overdone. In some phrases, you could remove the drums entirely for the last bar and create a fill using the melody or the chords.
You could also make variations to the entire sections of subsequent phrases. Good examples of this are double timing the hats (or even the entire beat), taking the melody up or down an octave and turning the chords into an arpeggio.
A kind of “wildcard” version of this technique is to write a section that is completely different from the rest of the track. Although this is more in the realm of songwriting than editing, when done correctly, it is one of the most effective ways to blow the listener’s mind! If it seems too far out there, remember that you will be using the same instruments in the new section, so it will still be connected to the overall tune.
4. Tension and Release
This is another tip that is somewhat concerned with the songwriting aspect of production but it involves the aesthetics of each phrase in your song. It basically works by building tension throughout the phrase and then releasing it at the end. The most common way to achieve this is with your melody.
An ascending melody generally gives the listener the feeling of a kind of rising tension. A sudden descent back to the root note for example gives a feeling of release. This is one of the most powerful songwriting techniques and is used on almost every piece of music that has been made ever.
Tension and release can also be applied to drums but in a slightly different way. Say you have a nice and groovy drum beat chugging along, driving the rhythm of your song. Taking the drums away for the last bar, before the melody drops back down, will greatly enhance the release when the drums come back in for the next phrase!
5. Call and Response
Similar to the previous tip, call and response is another great way to create a sense of movement in your song. Instead of having your melody be played by one instrument, divide it into two halves and have another instrument play the second half. This gives the listener the feeling that the instruments are “talking” to each other.
You can even have a call and response between different sections of your instruments. Your melody could perform the call out while your harmony or rhythm could provide the response. This, and other combinations, can inject a lot of power into your music.
6. Use Delays in Milliseconds Instead of Hertz
For most of us, it is our first instinct to use a delay that is synced with the beat. But this becomes predictable very quickly. Even the 3/16 beat, although it is a departure from the pulse of the song, is still snapped to every 3/16 note on the grid. Using a time delay (in milliseconds and seconds) helps to add an element of unpredictability to the delayed elements of your song.
Of course, you still have to be calculating in your use of a time delay. You probably don’t want your delays to be all over the place (unless you’re making some seriously experimental music). There is a formula to calculate beat divisions in milliseconds, which you can use to calibrate your time delay and maybe offset it a little bit.
Time in ms = (60,000/tempo) x note value
So if you want to know the duration of a quarter note at 100 beats per minute,
Time in ms = (60,000/100) x ¼ = 150 ms
Another advantage of this technique is that you can automate your delay time smoothly, something that is not possible when the delay is synced to the beat.
7. Extract Grooves from Live Recordings
If you are making your music using the MIDI tools in your DAW, it is very easy to sound robotic due to the notes being automatically snapped to the grid. You could turn the grid off but you will end up wasting more time trying to make sure your song doesn’t sound too out of sync.
A better way to go about humanizing your track is to extract a groove out of a performance. This could be an acoustic drum loop, an instrumental melody or harmony loop or even a song you like (that was recorded on instruments). Once you have extracted the groove, you can apply it to all or some of the MIDI clips in your arrangement to inject some human vibes into your song.
You can also create your own grooves in MIDI clips and apply those to your project. This is useful if you are going for a quintuplet or septuplet swing feel, which would be very tedious to draw in every time you want to create a MIDI clip.
8. Layer the Hook
Layering is one of the most powerful techniques in music production. It is the process of having several instruments play the same part in order to make it sound huge or epic. This works on everything, including drums, but is most effective on the hook. If the hook is what makes people remember the song, then making it sound as big as possible is only going to drive the point home harder!
In electronic music, it is as simple as copying the MIDI clip to a bunch of other channels (one below the other in the arrangement window) and designing different sounds or using different presets on each channel. Doing this adds an intensity to the sound that is very hard to achieve through mixing.
In recorded music such as rock music, it requires the performer to play the same part several times so they can be mixed together. This is most effective on vocals in making a singer’s voice sound full. It doesn’t even have to be a harmony – even if the singer sings the part exactly the same way each time, there are still going to be lots of minor variations that will contribute to the chorus effect while mixing.
9. Use Metric Modulation Instead of Tempo Changes
Tempo changes, although not too popular in most popular styles of music, are still used quite a bit. But are you sure it is as random as it sounds? It may be that some of the tempo changes that we have heard in popular music are actually achieved through metric modulation.
Metric modulation is the “changing of the meter”. What this means is that if you are writing a song in 4/4, and you have your snares placed on every second and fourth beat, you can change the meter by moving the snares to every other quarter triplet. So while your project tempo stays the same, the pulse of the song has now changed, giving the illusion of a tempo change! This technique is also good for discovering some interesting polyrhythms that might occur between the two meters.
10. Introduce a Key Change
A key change is another great way to change the energy of your song. A very popular use of this technique that has been employed by artists for decades is to lift the key of the song up by two semitones. This creates a strong sense of being uplifted in the listener’s perception.
Like this key changes can be used to change the mood of a song in an instant. Lowering the key will usually create a sense of gloom or moodiness in the listener’s ears. This technique can be combined with tempo changes to combine different effects. For example, a drop in key combined with a faster beat might sound foreboding but upbeat at the same time, offering a sense of duality to the listener.
11. Learn to Listen With a Critical Ear
All of the above techniques can be mastered through critical listening. Go through all your favourite music with a fine toothed comb and analyse the arrangements while paying close attention to the finer details of the songs. Be aware of how these techniques make you feel as a listener so that you can apply them with precision. As you practise critical listening, you will develop an internal guide that will help to sharpen your creative instinct.
It is also good practice to apply this to your own music. As you make more music, you should listen to past projects to see what worked and what didn’t. As a matter of fact, when you are well into your career, you will find that some of your best past releases don’t sound that good to you anymore. This is completely natural and is a result of your evolution as a music producer. You should still listen to them to learn as much as you can to continue evolving!
12. Avoid Spending Too Much Time on a Particular Part
While it is necessary to put in the time and effort in order to make great music, there is such a thing as overdoing it. If after a few attempts, a certain part is just not working in the context of the track, get rid of it and move on. Most experienced producers will attest to the fact that most of what has gone into a project has been deleted to make way for the final track.
Where you decide to put an idea to rest is up to you, and you will develop an instinct for this over time. Experience is the only way to know when you’ve done enough and it’s time to move on. With more and more experience, you will find that you’ll be spending less and less time agonizing over these finer details.