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!

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