65: Dynamics Pt 1: What are “Dynamics” and Why Do We Care?

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It’s sexy. It’s mysterious. It’s the subject of a million nerdy blog posts. It’s compression!

Compression is probably the subject of the most “Top 10 Tricks” videos on the internet (unverified, wild-ass claim) but to really understand and get something out of all of these videos, we first need to understand the concept of “dynamics”.

In this episode, the guys lay down the foundation of knowledge on dynamics that will make future discussions on the various processors and tools possible.

You will learn:

  • What “dynamics” are
  • What the difference is between “macro-dynamics” and “micro-dynamics”
  • Why and when we may care about macro and micro dynamics in the context of a music production
  • Different ways we can control dynamics
  • The different processors in our arsenal that allow for dynamics control
  • Why a compressor is a remarkable simple concept with remarkably deep applications and how to understand what a compressor does.
  • When to reach for a dynamics processor

    Dynamics Processors

    If you’ve spent any time at all researching audio production you’ve undoubtedly run into terms like “compressor”, “limiter”, “expander”, etc.,

    For some reason audiophiles salivate over these terms and countless forum arguments and videos already exist touting the benefits of specific brands or types.

    Why is it that these processors, more so than others, captivate discussion on music production?

    On this week’s episode we talk about the category that all of these tools fall into: Dynamics Processing.

    You know us. We like to start at the basics and build a good foundation of understanding core principles. Once you have this solid foundation, you can navigate comfortably through shopping for gear and getting the most out of other tutorials.

    What are Dynamics?

    Dynamics can seem like a tricky term to wrap your head around. It’s one that producers and educators throw around a lot and it took me a long time to understand that this is actually a simple concept at its core – which can then be a bit trickier to learn to hear.

    Dynamics is simply referring to the relative loudness difference between the louder parts of a track and the quieter parts of a track. It’s really as simple of a definition as that.

    Still confused? Don’t worry! By the end of the end of this article (and episode!) you will be a pro.

    Let’s break this down further into two types of dynamics – only one of which will be our focus today.

    Macro Dynamics

    Macro dynamics can be though of the dynamic range across the span of a track or a song. To explain this visually, we would zoom out in our DAW when looking at macro-dynamics.

    Pull up a song in your DAW so that you can view the waveform. Visually, you can probably see that some parts of the song are going to be louder than others. The choruses might have a wide, sausage-looking waveform, while the intro might have a spikier, quieter looking waveform. This observation we just made is a description of the macro-dynamics. In other words, we’ve observed that the choruses in the songs are louder than the intro. This can be good or bad – a discussion for another time.

    Another example is a vocal track. Maybe the singer is really screaming in the chorus but whispering in the verse. That would be an example of a vocal performance with a lot of macro-dynamics.

    In other words, for macro-dynamics we are zoomed out and looking at at our song or performance as a whole so that we can compare the relative loudness between song sections.

    Micro Dynamics

    For micro dynamics, we are repeating the exercises above but this time we are zooming way in our waveform. Instead of wanting to look at the verse and the chorus to compare the loudness of the two, we want to zoom in so that we can see something like a kick drum hit and compare that moment to a moment in between kick drum hits.

    In other words, how much louder is our track when the kick drum hits than in between kick drum hits is an example of a type of question that we could ask when considering micro-dynamics.

    So, a very dynamic signal will have a lot of amplitude changes.

    Of course there’s much more to it than this!

    In this episode, our focus is on micro-dynamics.

    Why do we care about micro dynamics?

    To start, why do we even care about micro-dynamics? What do they do to our music?

    These are always the questions we want to be able to answer before reaching for a tool. Here are some musical terms that relate to micro dynamics

    • Punchiness
    • Sustain
    • Attack
    • Pumping

    The terms above are just some of the things we can control by shaping the micro-dynamics of a signal.

    For example, “punchiness”. To get more punchiness out of something like a kick drum, we can increase the dynamics of the hits. Let’s think about what this means.

    Pretend you’re punching a punching bag. If you can only punch it from six inches away, you will be able to get some amount of power and you will hear some “thud” on impact. Now pretend you could punch that punching bag with your first starting 24 inches away from the punching bag. Now you have way more momentum and power hitting the bag and you will get a more satisfying “thud”.

    Your fast having more distance to travel to the bag is analogous to the kick drum have a higher dynamic range. More dynamic range means the kick drum can make more of an impact coming out of the speaker.

    On the other hand, let’s take a term like “sustain”. Pretend you pick a guitar string and then let it ring out. The note will have a large initial attack as the pick leaves the string. The ringing will then slowly decay over time – eventually becoming to quiet to be heard over everything else going on the song. In this example, the dynamic range is the difference between our initial spike and the quietest part of that sustain until we can no longer hear it. What if we could reduce the dynamic range by bringing the quiet parts of the sustain up to be closer to the pick attack? Then, our note would ring longer and louder after we plucked it. This is a great example of how reducing dynamic range can be a useful tone sculpting tool.

    How can we control dynamics?

    Now that we understand some examples of WHY we may want to control dynamic, let’s think about HOW we can do this.

    There really aren’t that many options:

    1. We can INCREASE dynamics range by
      1. Taking the loud parts of our signal and making them even louder
      2. Taking the quiet parts of our signal and making them even quieter
    2. We can DECREASE dynamic range by
      1. Taking the loud parts of our signal and making them quieter
      2. Taking the quiet parts of our signal and making them louder

    Sounds simple, right? If you think about it, each of these options can be done manually if we had our hand on a volume fader and could move that fader up and down quickly and accurately.

    We could move the fader down very quickly as soon as a kick drum hit to increase the dynamic range and then move it quickly back to its original position in time for the next kick drum hit.

    Or, for the sustain example, we could move the fader up slowly as our ringing note decays to increase the sustain and then move the fader back down to its original position before the next note is played.

    As it turns out, that is literally what every dynamics processor is designed to do: adjust volume quickly and accurately according to the parameters we give it.

    The Different Dynamics Processor

    As we said, dynamics processors all fall into one of two categories: they either increase dynamic range or decrease dynamic range.

    Processors that increase dynamic range:

    • Expanders
    • Gates
    • Duckers
    • Transient designers

    Processors that decrease dynamic range:

    • Compressors
    • Limiters
    • Transient designers

    Here’s some even better news. The truth is that there are really only two types of dynamics processors and each of the ones we mentioned above are really one of these two:

    1. Compressors
    2. Expanders

    The settings are what determine what fancy name we give it.

    On a future episode, we’ll dive deeper into these dynamics processors and how to use them effectively.

Thanks listening and for reading!

Vadim

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