This is something I’ve wanted to write about for about a week. There are a lot of people who think you need to smother a song with tons of layers and individual instruments. A lot of the time, this leads to your music becoming crowded and having less impact. At least until you gain the skills to effortlessly combine a rock band, full orchestra, and synth elements all in one song. I am just now getting to the point where I would attempt this after making music for over 12 years. I had a specific example that I wanted to display, though the change between both versions of the song is almost completely unnoticeable.
This is a song, entitled “Anthem”, that Iced Earth released back in 2011 on the album ‘Dystopia’. There is a bonus track of a “Strings Mix” version of this song on the same album. When I initially listened to this song, I thought that it was quite strong, somewhat raw and a fist-pumping straight forward song. Band-oriented — you’ll hear guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. This is a perfectly legitimate and acceptable formation to record with. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. If you are recording music on your own at home or in a studio, like many of us do, write what you want to write. If that means no synth elements, no orchestration — hey, even no vocals — that’s perfectly fine. Continue reading —
I personally think that someone should master the basics of their specific genre before trying to get “fancy” with it. If you are going to make rock or metal, or even punk, start with the basics. Get your guitars, bass, and drums, and make learn what you need to do, and how to properly execute it, before moving on. Vocals are a tricky area in any given genre — if you are learning to sing or scream for that matter, prepare to be told by every other person that you are terrible. People can pick up guitar or bass in a month or two and be pretty decent considering, but learning to sing will take a lot longer. And in the end, you might get it, and you might not. But that is a bit of a tangent there and not the focus of this article.
Getting back to the topic of Anthem (String Mix), I am going to embed it below for you to check. Sadly the quality on these Youtube embeds is not ideal, however I believe you can find this entire album on Spotify. You might hear the inclusion of a string pad throughout sections of the song. It’s a very small addition to the song as a whole, and it’s not even a particularly well performed part — they are simply held out, extended chords. Yet the effect they have on changing the tone of the song is unquestionable. It makes the music seem slightly more full, less raw.. gives it more sorrowful tone with the minor chords. I don’t know why they chose to make this a “bonus track” instead of simply releasing the song with the string pad instead of without it. But that is what I want you to be considering as you read this article.
Ignore the annoying “Check out my band!” self-promotion on there. As a side-note, people who do this — we do not check out your bands. We hate your bands. Your bands are terrible. :-)
On the topic of metal, you can have your sound be as stripped down or as full as YOU want, if you know how to mix the additional elements in. I would have loved to hear Anthem with the full band, large orchestra, and maybe even a large choir. You could have someone playing the triangle, or the slide whistle, or 10-man panel of people playing the kazoo during the chorus. As long as you know how to mix it properly, if it is what you want to do in your song, that’s all that matters. There will always be people who are not yet able to comprehend a huge ensemble of music. I’ve seen people refer to death metal drumming as “hitting random notes” and growlers as “having no talent whatsoever”. There are a lot of misconceptions you’ll have to work through regardless of what you choose to do. Don’t listen to people who you know to be invariably false, but if they mention something that you know to be true or an area you need to improve in, you should definitely work towards that goal.
If you think your song sounds too sparse, or you aren’t expressing the emotional aspect you are going for, try adding a synth or string pad. Use expressive chords, major or minor, or something more unique — it’s up to you. Even jazz chords can be pretty sweet. There are definitely some genres that work well with less, like blues, but has anyone ever added an orchestra to a blues song? There are some things that are simply too interesting to avoid, in my opinion. I’ve recorded an electronica song with a parked wobble bass, chiptune elements, live saxophone, and a full choir. It sounds unlike any song I have ever heard on the radio or really in general. And in the end, it’s still a pretty small mix concerning the amount of layers. Essentially, what I am ultimately trying to say is that it’s fine to make a song as huge or as small as you wish, if you know what you’re doing. Something as small as a string pad can drastically change how people view your song.
Sometimes, less is more.