Creating more realistic incidental effects is one of the most important things I’ve learnt over this period of writing music full time… and when I say ‘incidental effects’ I’m referring to background effects which enhance depth, or create additional emotion or tension in music. In electronic dance music these are also often referred to as swells, drops, sweeps etc… and at a fundamental level can be implemented using faded-in white noise (for a swell) and a crash cymbal (for a drop).
These kind of sounds are interesting because the listener doesn’t usually explicitly notice them, but will notice the absence of them, or notice them in a bad way if they’re inappropriately used, or sound unnatural. Having appropriate, smooth, and natural sounding incidentals is a key factor to making your music sound like it’s professionally produced rather than sounding like it was produced in a bedroom.
At a basic level you’ll usually want your incidental sounds to sound relatively natural, and using EQ automation to fade incidentals in and out goes a long way to achieving this. In the physical world, sounds that are further away from us are perceived as having a rolloff of low and particularly high frequencies, as compared to the same sound emanating from a closer position. If we take the aforementioned white noise swell and crash drop as an example… a basic sequencing of this would fade in the white noise (using volume automation), and let the crash hit and fade out naturally at the peak point. The following clip gives an example of this over a rough loop idea…
This sounds OK, but also somewhat obvious… i.e. the listener will be subconsciously aware of the white noise right from the point where it starts. Because these types of effects have been used so much, and for so long in electronic dance styles, used as above, you run the risk of it sounding predictable and uninteresting to the listener (something along the lines of ‘ah, there’s the white noise, so I guess a peak point is coming!’). By using an automated low pass or high shelving filter along with volume to fade the white noise in, it sounds more like the natural physical world, and also kind of ‘sneaks up’ on the listener… i.e. comes in much less obviously and hence the listener doesn’t overtly notice the sound so much, but is still drawn into the effect. Using an upward swept high shelf filter on the white noise (plus a little downward sweep on the crash) sounds like this. ..
To me it’s a subtle, but also significant difference difference, and a first step towards getting more realistic incidentals, and an overall more professional sound. Increased realism could then be achieved with panning, and additionally automating your reverb sends, to have more reverb when the sound is ‘further away’.
As mentioned I’ve picked up many small techniques for improving incidentals during this year, so this will be the first of several posts on the subject.