Is your song sounding overloaded and disjointed? You may have too many production elements. Give more breathing space to fewer instruments – learn 4 minimalist tips to get more music from less tracks.
By Will Vance, Hyperbits
Getting more from fewer elements is the gold standard in music. It's how Prince could consistently top the charts with sparse arrangements and how the most impactful moments in dance music often consist of just the bass and kick.
So, why is this end so hard to achieve? Why is minimalism the mark of the adept and abundance is often the sign of amateurism?
Professional producers have attuned ears and brains to pick up the subtle nuances in sound, texture, time and space. It’s something we teach students of the Hyperbits Masterclass all the time; to identify these subtleties, you can start thinking about capitalizing on them.
By the end of the article, you'll have a solid understanding of how you can start doing the same.
Getting More For Less…
Let’s jump into 4 different methods you can use to get more out of minimal arrangements through clever use of spatial effects, movement, FX and atmospheres from compositional elements.
Many of these examples are designed for you to follow along, so head over to the Hyperbits Masterclass Freebie Page, snag your copy of the Hyperbits Sample Pack Vol.2 and work with the same samples used across these tips.
1. Use Spatial Effects to Fill in Space
Soft echoes and light applications of delay plugins are most commonly used to place a sound in a specific space, similar to reverb. But heavier use of delays can work to fill the space in-between the sounds without having to add an entirely new layer or instrument to the mix.
Using delays for this purpose requires far more intentionality than producers who rely on presets often assume. These delays need as much attention, processing and overall TLC as a lead vocal would require. Let’s jump into ways you can use saturation, rhythm, and compression to take your delays to the next level instead of relying on new compositional elements to fill that same space.
a. Coloring Your Delays for Added Interest
Delays have a tendency to drift into the background of a mix, but saturating your delays can be an incredible way to force them forward in the mix and help draw in your listener without detracting focus from the dry signal.
- Example 1a – Synth (dry)
- Example 1b – Synth (H-Delay)
Already you can begin to see the power that delays introduce through subtle textures from analog-emulated components, the delay adding cascading movement that fills in the gaps between the rifts.
Using delays can sound good, but on-grid delays quickly grow stale. That is exactly why analog delays work so well – the subtle modulation makes the space appear dense and intriguing.
H-Delay's modulation panel adds space and movement while not being so dramatic as to draw too much of the listener's attention. Another added benefit of analog modeling is the ability to drive the input, adding texture that helps the single sound carry the track further on its own.
Let’s take that same loop from above, and compare it to a loop with an exaggerated amount of pitch modulation...
- Example 1c – Synth (heavy modulation)
b. Using Delay to Accentuate the Rhythm
A common pitfall I see newer producers make is assuming calmer sections come from lower sonic density. In a sense, this can be effective, but it still leaves the troughs feeling empty and lackluster when compared to the track's energetic peaks.
But finding clever ways to use sonic material already at your disposal to fill that same space in interesting ways can lead to a far more cohesive sound. Here's how it's done:
Step 1 – Pick out a staccato-like instrument in your mix. Single hits or short phrases work best here. In this example, we'll use a construction kit from the Hyperbits Sample pack Vol. 2.
- Example 2a – Staccato Lead Synth (dry)
Step 2 – Run the audio through your delay (here, we used Manny Marroquin delay.) Make sure the delay is tempo-synced and dialed into the beat. The delay here adds a rhythmic spacey vibe.
- Example 2b – Staccato Lead Synth (spacey delay)
Step 3 – Print the delayed signal to the audio while adjusting a few parameters on the delay. Do this for about five minutes, recording everything that you do.
Step 4 – Once the audio is printed, comb around what you recorded, looking for a rhythmic delayed loop that has interesting movement and texture.
Step 5 – Cut this short clip of audio and loop it throughout the calmer sections of your song.
- Example 2c – Spliced synth
c. Using Sidechain for More Dynamic Delays
Sidechaining your delays to the pre-effect signal is an incredible way to add life and movement to the overall sound without having to worry about subsequent effects like reverb or delay, also affecting the duration of the compressor’s ducking effect.
This results in call-and-response-like atmospheres, allowing for crystal clear leads while the delays fill the space in between. It’s a simple concept that is overlooked by many newer producers, which necessitates its inclusion below.
The Renaissance Compressor offers fluid compression for this, allowing the reverb or delayed signal to breathe transparently without any obvious pumping or ducking.
Let’s use another few samples from the Hyperbits Sample Pack Vol 2.
- Example 3a (no sidechain)
- Example 3b (sidechain compression engaged)
2. Movement Brings More Life to Fewer Layers
When a sound lacks life, it becomes fatiguing to the listener after just one or two repetitions. But this can be solved by changing the sonic quality, rhythm and general characteristics of the sound over time.
With even a small amount of this movement or modulation, a single sound can maintain interest over longer stretches of time without the need for additional layers. Effects like phasers are common for achieving this, so instead, let’s look at some less conventional ways that both slap-back delays and analogue plugins can bring movement to sounds.
a. Enhancing Your Rhythms With Delays
Adding multiple delays to any mix can get messy quickly. But if slap-back delays have been a popular means for harmonizing, thickening, and modulating instruments like vocals and guitars, the same principles can be applied to your percussion.
The CLA EchoSphere is a powerful tool for this effect. Listen to how much more complex the second audio example below appears. The first is rigid, stale and un-dynamic, while the second propels the track forward.
- Example 4a – No slapback
- Example 4b – Slapback effect engaged
b. Using Analog Emulation to Modulate Tone and Texture
Analog emulation offers input-dependent variables and drifting coloration in the sound as the “circuitry of hardware” warms and cools. Varying the input of instruments being fed into analog saturators or compressors adds movement and varying textures, achieving a dynamic tone while maintaining headroom both in the mix and arrangement.
Step 1 – Find a source signal that may lack life or movement.
Step 2 – Load up an analog emulator and begin applying the effect. The below example features a simple processing chain of the lead synth through the J37 Tape and then into the CLA-2A compressor.
Step 3 - Start affecting the input gain of the synth being fed into the chain. MIDI velocity is your best friend here, becoming more powerful after mapping things like volume and filter cutoff to this parameter. Listen to how the analog emulators will respond differently to the quieter low-velocity notes compared to the grizzled and intense high-velocity notes.
- Example 5b (analog signal path)
This gives the output signal subtle shifts in coloration and texture depending on what is being fed into the analog plugins, which in turn, is dependent on the velocity of the MIDI file and results in far more movement than the stale original version.
3. Create Your Own FX and Avoid Stock Samples
Transitional effects bring energy and add fluidity between sections, and often sample library FX can do a decent job in these situations. But this is a slippery slope, as adding too many stock sample FX can remove the cohesion throughout the composition and make the entire track feel amateur.
As such, it’s almost always better to find elements inherent in the mix and repurpose these into transitional FX. Here are a few ways that you can start doing that.
a. Using Gated Noise for Unique Transitional Effects
Try utilizing simple white noise signal generators and a triggered gate to achieve a dialed-in effect that borrows the rhythm already established in the track.
Step 1 - Take a simple white noise generator (such as the eMo Signal Generator).
Step 2 - Apply a Gate, like Waves C1, to the white noise signal and set its sidechain input signal to be whichever element carries the most rhythmic energy in the section.
Step 3 - Adjust the threshold of the gate so that the white noise turns into a minute hit of noise that mirrors the rhythmic movement of the input signal.
Step 4 - Decrease the threshold and increase the release of the gate as the build begins to increase or decrease in tension.
- Example 6a - dry
- Example 6b – Gated noise FX
b. Creating Risers from a Single Parameter
I used to hate it when I would accidentally bump the Size parameter on my reverbs, creating a screech in pitch as the reverb made a forced jump into its new space. But recently, I began to see the power of this simple "glitch."
Not all plugins adjust the pitch when automating the Size parameter in real-time. But slowly automating this one parameter can create subtle riser effects that share the same texture and space as the source material instead of using stock FX.
Listen to this trick live in action by comparing the generic transition in example 7a to the one in example 7b.
- Example 7a – dry
- Example 7b – pitch riser effect
c. A Better Way of Reversing Reverbs
The reverse reverb trick is a great way to create sweeps and swells in your compositions, but few take full advantage of it. Let’s unpack some ways to elevate this classic hack to get the most out of these small transitional FX.
Step 1 - Find an element in the composition that you want to use as source material. The most likely suspects are going to be vocals, lead instruments or brighter harmonies.
This sample lacks movement and will seem out of place if introduced in its current form.
Step 2 - Make a second copy of the source material, and trim the duplicate down so that only the first sibilance, transient or hit is audible.
Step 3 - Use the right tools for this job, and we talk about this often in the Hyperbits Masterclass. For this trick, plate reverbs like the Abbey Road Reverb Plates bring presence and shine to help this reverse effect cut through the mix.
- Example 8b – Plate reverb
Step 4 - Resample the audio of your initial hit through the reverb set to 100% Wet. Do this multiple times, tweaking the parameters on the reverb plugin as you do.
Step 5 - Reverse the audio clips of the reverb tails so that they swell instead of decay. This will be the basis for your reverse reverb trick.
- Example 8c – Reverse reverb
Step 6 - I always tend to pan different takes of my reverse recordings hard left and right to create a sense of massive width, similar to double-tracking a guitar. This keeps the FX to the side while allowing the key source material (lead vocals or guitars) front and center in the mix.
- Example 8d – Double-tracked reverse reverb
4. Create Atmospheres, Sound beds and Beyond
When you’re in the production zone, it's tempting to want to fill every inch of sonic space in a mix. This may be because you assume you have headroom to spare. But in reality, you don’t.
Here are my favorite ways to create ambient sound beds that add context and space from elements inherent to the composition.
a. Using Reverb to Create Atmospheres
The most obvious way to add texture and space to a mix would be through reverb. Tasteful amounts of sonic dust buried low in the track can be an ideal sonic sound-bed to fill in the space and add cohesion to any composition.
Find a short section to splice into a loop. This adds texture, movement and drive to the bedrock of the track. Do this process a few times and crossfade between the ambient loops as the track develops.
b. Creating Sound beds From Wavetable Synths
Loading short clips into wavetable or granular synths like Codex Wavetable Synth can be great for generating sound beds. Resample material through the synth, fiddling with parameters on the granular synths, and then spend time splicing the audio to get the ambiances you want.
They often sound crazy on their own (like example 9a below), but the end result (example 9b) is full of interesting movements and textures.
c. Using Tuning Plugins to Extract Artifacts
Forcing audio into scale degrees it doesn't belong to through tuning plugins like Waves Tune Real-Time can allow you to extract interesting and unobtainable artifacts. This generates tones the listener is familiar with but stands on its own after further processing.
Use source material that is not a lead element. Using this trick on lead elements like vocals or guitars results in textures that the lead absorbs instead of resting atop. So, look for secondary mix elements, like harmonies or rhythmic bits, so as to not pull the listener's attention away from the lead element.
Being able to get more from less production elements all comes down to really extracting every detail from your mix. The concept reminds me of a book I recommend to students of the Hyperbits Masterclass, called ‘Atomic Habits,’ which argues that improving every element of your routine a tiny amount will have compounding effects on your daily life.
So, take the time and extract that extra 5-10% of the details hiding in each of your channels, and your compositions will be exponentially better for it.
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