Do you know the secret to huge-sounding choruses? It’s CONTRAST. Learn how to maximize it with these top 9 tricks, so your choruses can have real impact.
By Josh Bonanno
Whether at a music festival listening together with thousands or sitting alone with your headphones, there is an undeniable feeling of rush when a huge-sounding chorus jumps out of the speakers.
There’s a reason that every producer and mix engineer is always searching for ways to make their choruses feel larger, more impactful and demand more attention. Our ears are drawn to those moments, and our brains crave hearing more, which makes listeners come back.
What makes those moments feel huge? How can you make those moments happen in your productions and mixes? Let’s dive into the reasons behind that feeling and provide some practical ways for you to make your choruses feel similarly massive.
Contrast and Perspective
The science behind making something feel huge and attention-grabbing starts with the concept of perspective and contrast. For something to be perceived as large, we need a benchmark to understand how big it actually is. The best way to do that is to contrast it with something smaller, much like how a picture of a tree’s height can't be put into per-spective without a human standing next to it, the same is true for music and particular sections of a song. If your goal is for everything in the song to feel huge, then nothing will end up sounding impactful because you’ve lost all contrast.
So, what are some ways you can create contrast in your productions and mixes?
There are endless techniques, tips and tricks to create contrast in audio, and I am going to walk you through some of my favorites below. There are 3 major ways our ears perceive contrast that are valuable for you to keep in mind when producing and mixing.
Loudness, Tone and Width
Our ears use those three elements to inform our brain what it is we are listening to, where things are located and how we need to react. On a primal and biological level, that is how we navigate the world around us. These elements let us close our eyes and know that someone is talking, where they are standing and even how far away they are. For those reasons, our ears are always listening for change (i.e., contrast) in those areas. The intention here isn’t to give a science lesson, but knowing how our ears listen can help you create moments in songs that grab the audience’s attention and feel impactful.
It’s important to note that you can, at some point, create too much contrast. If your contrast is too harsh and bold, it will actually begin to distract the listener and put them off guard. Think of a photo with the contrast slider brought all the way up. The picture is no longer pleasing to look at. It's blown out and distracting and takes away from the overall composition. To use an audio example, if someone yells in a dead-silent room, the sharp contrast is sure to get everyone’s attention, but likely not in a good way. Keep this in mind when creating contrast in your productions. Our ears are sensitive to changes, so a little goes a long way.
The easiest and most obvious way to make something feel bigger is to turn it up. There’s a reason that yelling someone’s name gets their attention quicker than if you just speak at a normal volume. Our ears are sensitive to louder noises, and that gets our attention rather quickly.
1. Automate Volume Rides
A classic mixing trick when trying to get your chorus to jump out is to turn the chorus up 1 dB on your mix bus or final output stage. Simply automate your master fader up 1 or 2 dB. Surprisingly enough, that’s often all you need to get the job done. Below is an A/B comparison of a song with the chorus turned up 1 dB vs. without any change. While it’s subtle, it’s something that the ear perceives as being more impactful when the chorus comes in at 0.24.
2. Play Louder
What if you are a producer, and you don’t want to make a mixing move like turning your output louder at that point in the process? How can you use loudness to create contrast within the production itself?
I like to consider the parts of the instruments or the MIDI velocities and treat them like a real performance. When a band plays live on stage, it’s likely they’re going to hit harder and play louder when the chorus hits, simply out of excitement.
Do the same in your productions.
No plugins or tools are required; simply program your MIDI velocities to be louder in the choruses than what they are in the verses. Play your live instruments with more energy in those sections and build the perceived loudness of the chorus into the track as you produce.
Another way to build contrast into your songs and make your choruses pop is to make certain elements brighter tonally in the chorus. Like loudness, our ears are listening for tonal changes to inform us of how close or far away something is. We are always listening for a sound to either “grow” in tonal weight (more low end and high end) as it gets closer to us, or to “thin out” (less weight and body, less detailed top end) as it moves farther away.
3. Add High & Low Parts and Voicings
From an arrangement perspective, a great way to approach this is to save instruments or parts for the chorus that extend to the extreme highs and lows. This way, your chorus will feel like the fullest part of the song. For example, you can give the chorus an extra lift simply by adding an additional shaker or Tambourine playing subtly in the song. The added high end extends above the frequency content present in the verses and lifts the chorus a little. You could also layer an additional bass guitar or sub-frequency element during the chorus that will fill out the song more and give the chorus more density.
It can be helpful to think about this in the arrangement and performance of each part of the song. Simply playing a part an octave higher or lower, or voicing the chords differently, can create all sorts of dynamic shifts throughout the song, which helps to lift a chorus. One song I enjoy that does this technique nicely is “If The World Was Ending” by JP Saxe. You can hear how in the first chorus, the piano goes down an octave – filling out the chorus more and giving it an obvious impact in comparison to the verses.
4. Augment Extreme Lows & Highs with Harmonics
If you’re mixing a track and not adjusting the arrangement, you can use plugin processing to introduce extra frequency content into your production in the chorus sections. A harmonic saturation plugin like Abbey Road Saturator and its unique Compander function has the ability to add in additional high-frequency content through compression, expansion and harmonics, which will give serious life to chorus elements without having to adjust the arrangement.
Using this technique for low frequencies, you can utilize Waves R-Bass or Submarine to add contrast with the low end in your chorus. Putting either of those plugins on your kick or bass as it enters the chorus can add some artificially augmented low end that can create sonic contrast to the thinner verse. You can hear that in example 2 below at 0.14 when the chorus starts. The kick and bass get inflated and create a more powerful foundation for the song. It might be a bit heavy-handed for a song like this, but it’s a good representation of the effect it can have.
5. Automate EQ Moves
A final mix method to create tonal contrast in the chorus is by automating EQ moves. I find myself using the Renaissance EQ because of how quick and visual it is, but any plugin will work. The process is simple, find key elements in your track and change their timbre throughout the song to give subtle (or not so subtle) growth and change in tone. Something like a piano or guitar playing in the verse may be sitting perfectly, but a tiny boost of 1-2dB at 5khz when the chorus begins can provide a lift and shift in energy that helps the chorus to pop without completely changing the rest of the mix balance.
Again, it’s a subtle example, but you can hear in the audio below how a simple 2-3 dB boost in the 8khz area can lift the chorus as it transitions at 0.24.
The third point for creating contrast is in the width of the song. It's often felt that wider is better but keeping some things narrow is the key to making other things feel extra wide. The best way to approach width starts at the production level. Ensuring that the sections of the song that you want feeling smaller, like the verses, are narrower by design will give the chorus more room to grow.
6. Double Tracking
One common way you will see this done is by the introduction of a double and/or triple take of the performance itself, hard-panned left and right respectively, entering in the choruses. Whether that double and triple are introduced on the lead vocal line, or for the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, or all the above, it doesn’t matter as much as the concept and feeling of a mono source growing, becoming wider and surrounding the listener.
7. Aggressive Panning
A great example of using the stereo spectrum and contrasting width is in the popular AC/DC song “Highway to Hell.” You can hear how in the verse of the song, only a portion of the stereo spread is being used, and it isn’t until the chorus that we hear anything enter on the right side of the stereo image. This is a great example of the “less is more” approach and really makes the chorus feel huge without needing dozens of layers.
8. Movement & Modulation
A creative way to increase width and contrast in your choruses is utilizing modulation and movement from a plugin like Waves Kaleidoscopes. I have talked in depth about fun ways to use those modulation tools here, and all of those methods would work really well in this situation, especially example 2, where we talk about using a Flanger as a stereo width tool.
An example of that is below. By automating the chorus effect on Kaleidoscopes to start on the rhythm guitar tracks in the song’s chorus at 0.14, you feel the stereo spectrum open up and get wider, allowing the whole song to pop more.
Another technique to additional width is with an Auto-panner like Brauer Motion. Taking a stagnant, stationary element like a hi-hat or shaker loop and having it pan and move subtly (or not so subtly) during the chorus can not only bring more movement and energy, but also add the perception of more depth and width.
Listen to the Tambourine in the example below. The stagnant Tambourine serves a pur-pose, but with the auto panning added, it brings a whole new energy and lift to the section.
9. Automate Width
When mixing, there’s a simple way to create some contrasting width during the chorus, and that is by using the S1 Stereo Imager. Try inserting the S1 on your mix bus and automate for the chorus to slightly widen using the width slider. Sometimes that small move is all it needs for the chorus to open and feel larger. You can hear an example of this below. It is worth mentioning that added width does come with phase shifts and the possibility for things to get washy and murky sounding, but sometimes that is the fun of it. In any case, a little goes a long way, especially when using it on your overall mix.
Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules
There are countless ways to use the fundamental theories of contrast and perspective that we discussed to bring additional energy to your music and make your choruses feel huge. The techniques are endless when you start to view things through this lens.
Remember, bigger does not always equal better or more impactful. Sometimes you can even use contrast in reverse. Try creating a chorus where things drop out and get smaller. Sometimes the surprise of not giving the listener what they expected can be just as impactful. Try it out and see how it can make your choruses feel more interesting and attention-grabbing!
Josh Bonanno is a mix engineer, producer, and beer snob based in Nashville, TN. To hear his work and know more about what he does check out joshbonanno.com
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