How To Use Contrast in Your Mix Like A Pro

Contrast is a pretty well accepted idea in art - everyone loves to drone on about light and shade, the sweet versus the savoury - but how does that affect music? In particular, dance and electronic music? We all know about how classical uses legato and allegro to speed up and slow down, but in general DJ's don't want to be playing too many tracks that jump around in tempo. So how can an aspiring producer get in on the act? If you want a few ideas that can help your compositions and arrangements in dance music from techno to dubstep, read on...

In architecture there is a concept that if you want a large space to look even more huge, have people walk into it through a small entrance hall - then the size of it will have even more impact. This basically sums up the idea of 'contrast' as used to emphasise and accentuate part of a track, and it's one that dubstep producers have perfected over the last couple of years. Listen to tracks by many of the big names of late and you'll hear the same formula - a beautiful melodic intro which gives way into a furiously heavy drop. It certainly works in terms of giving the drop plenty of impact, although it's not exactly an original idea by now. But you can use a similar idea elsewhere in a track; for instance giving things a twist by leaving a major element out until the track is well-developed, or by changing the atmosphere - for instance bringing in a load of reverbed effects to give a feeling of space.

Conversely, a heavy bass track which then utilises melodic pads will sound so much the sweeter. So if your tune is lacking the interest to sustain it fully, consider switching it up entirely - going from a heavier section to a more melodic section will lift the vibe, and then when you go back into main drop it will be with renewed vigour, as the listener won't be so tired of the same sound.

This also gives a handy idea for arranging a track - that of alternating between two different sections. This could be a mellower section and a heavy section, vocals and no vocals, or tuneful and then percussive. It's essentially a variation on a verse and chorus structure, so it's well proven, and it takes you away from the frequently tricky issue of how to keep a simple idea interesting over a 5-minute track. Try it with sections of roughly 16 bars - if you do it well, each time you cross over to the other groove it will feel like the track gets a lift.

Arrangements are only one area where you can apply the idea of contrast, however. You can also use it to inform the way you write melodies and tracks, by using what is known as 'call and response'. This is normally a melodic technique in which a simple melody will be played for a bar or so, before being 'answered' by another melody, for perhaps another bar. There will be something to distinguish the two - for instance, the first melody maybe low down the octaves and the second may be higher, or the first could be in a major scale and the second in a minor.

But in electronic music we can go a lot further than that - have a gentle piano melody answered by a crunching drum fill, a warm analogue patch complementing a hard digital riff, a bassline in which a relatively high-pitched, simple sub is then demolished by a deep rumble. There are plenty of examples to check - Redlight often answers his big and bashy basslines with a tinkling percussive sound, and Busta Rhymes 'Touch It' is a classic example of how alternating two contrasting ideas for 4 bars at a time can carry a whole track. J-Majik's legendary jungle track 'Your Sound' threw caution to the wind as it featured a drum beat which was two bars of kicks, followed by two bars of snares. It sounds like it shouldn't work - but by switching the feel of the groove every two bars, the track had an energy and originality that cemented its place as one of the greats.


We could go on - when you think about it, there's no end to the things you can vary in this way. Busy arrangements switching into sparse, pleasant synth harmonies contrasting with nastily dissonant ones, distorted or reverbed sounds giving way to the dry original signal; with modern DAWs you can change pretty much everything. Light and shade, call and response and so on are really the building blocks of writing music, and if you can get a handle on it you can really add a lot to your arsenal of compositional techniques. So next time you're stuck with a tune, give some thought to how you can introduce some contrast. It can really be the makings of a track!

Related Articles

  • 10 Ways To Make Your Drums Hit Home

    10 Ways To Make Your Drums Hit Home

    Are you frustrated that your drums don't kick people in the stomach and punch them in the face? I know I was when I started out, but over the years I've picked up some useful tricks to make your

    Read More 2
  • How To Make The Perfect Breakdown - Part Two

    How To Make The Perfect Breakdown - Part Two

    Last week, we looked at the world of breakdowns in electronic music. What's the point of them, why do you need them, and what you should be trying to do with a breakdown anyway? We also offered up pl

    Read More 2
  • How To Compose Modern Movie Soundtracks

    How To Compose Modern Movie Soundtracks

    Music has always been an intrinsic part of the film experience. Sweeping scores that would seem completely over the top for a pop song have pride of place in films.   But how is a modern movie sou

    Read More 2
  • How To Improve Your Home Studio

    How To Improve Your Home Studio

    Are you always on the lookout for ways to improve your studio, but not so frequently in possession of the cash in order to do so? Then here are a few suggestions for tweaks you can make to your mus

    Read More 2
  • How To Use Converters, Pre-Amps and More

    How To Use Converters, Pre-Amps and More

    The range of ways you can upgrade and expand your studio set-up goes far beyond just getting a new synth or more powerful computer. Look at the top-end studios, and they'll have pre-amps, AD/DA conver

    Read More 2
  • How To Get Your Beats Jumpin' Like Jack

    How To Get Your Beats Jumpin' Like Jack

     One mixing and production technique that will be present on the vast majority of records you own, especially those recorded in bigger studios with professional engineers, is that of buss compression

    Read More 2
  • How To Use Auto-Tune Like An F1 Pro

    How To Use Auto-Tune Like An F1 Pro

    Auto-tune has been around for a while now, and has been a useful tool in many producers' arsenals since the 1990s. But thanks to people like Cher, and latterly T-Pain, it's been getting a reputation

    Read More 2
  • How To Get Louder With Dynamics

    How To Get Louder With Dynamics

    The field of loudness and dynamics processing in music production is an area of vigorous debate. Everyone loves to weigh in on the famous Loudness War, and on production forums the relative merits of

    Read More 2
  • Which Are The Best Mastering Plugins?

    Which Are The Best Mastering Plugins?

    There's a whole host of plug-ins that are tailor-made for mastering these days, and you see a lot of debate around who uses what, and why. Which ones are the best? Multi-band compression or no? Should

    Read More 2
  • 5 Tips On Making Dubstep Wobble Bass

    5 Tips On Making Dubstep Wobble Bass

    So you've exhausted the conventional simple start of "generic wave into modulated filter cut-off" as the extent of your dubstep wobble and are looking for something a bit more interesting to make yo

    Read More 2