Preproduction: Enhancing expression

Music is expression.

It is a way of expressing ideas, aesthetics, and emotions. There are things that can be expressed through music that cannot be translated to any other medium (including written language).

When I speak with an artist about expressive range, I’m referring to the range of variance in a particular aspect of the sound. For example, the expressive range of the human voice can be thought of in terms of volume (soft to loud), pitch (low to high) and tone (smooth to harsh). And then there are also factors relating to articulation and melodic composition.

All instruments have some degree of expressive range. Some more than others. For electronic musicians, synths can have a huge expressive range. Even stock loops have an expressive range through the use of editing and effects processing.

The expressive range of each part of the song can be used very effectively when it supports the overall structure and contour of the song. For example, the chorus (or recapitulation) of a song might need to have high energy. As well as density to the mix by adding more parts, also look at the parts that are already there:

  • Drum parts can get more complex and syncopated
  • Basslines can become more sustained or more animated
  • Background rhythm parts can become more regular
  • Melodies can get higher
  • Harmonies can be thicker and fuller

Often an artist will bring in a demo recording using loops that are static (unchanging) throughout the whole song. Even if the loops sound great and perfectly capture the vibe of the song, they can make the whole thing a bit uninteresting to listen to. Verbatim repetition has an effect of flattening the contour of the song.

Exploring and enhancing the range of the song requires exploring and enhancing the range of each individual part in the song. It’s not enough to simply add more layers at the high points and remove layers at the low points. It’s easy to fall into this trap because it works. Really. Simply adding and removing layers is an effective way to shape the contour of the song. But there’s so much more that can be done. And the producer’s role is to dig deeper and go further than the artist, in order to better realise the potential of the music.


  1. As far as I can tell, the expressive range of a song is rarely addressed when creating and arranging. Digital recording has allowed artists to record their music with ease. The affordability and availability of gear is no longer an issue. However, it has also made most songs sound somewhat robotic. To understand how to record each track with an expressive range becomes a critical component of recording; but one that most do not spend time addressing. I think the industry needs to develop a pre-production spreadsheet that not only lays out the song structure (Lyrics, chords, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, etc..) but addresses the expressive range of the song. By forcing the artists to think about this will make their music more interesting.

    I have said it before and it is worth repeating again; your philosophical insight toward recording is extremely interesting. With the limited time I have to devote to learning recording, I consider your blog to be one of only 3 I allocate time toward.

    Thanks again for your continued support of the industry.

  2. Thanks Marc,

    It’s true that the ‘cost’ of entry (money, skill, commitment, creativity) for making music is the lowest it’s ever been. But limited expressive range is not just for people who make electronic music or use loops. It’s just as common for a singer/songwriter to strum her guitar using the same chords and rhythm throughout the whole song. Same for piano, same for bands.

    I think what happens is that songwriters and composers get caught up in *what the song is*, and don’t realise that *how to express it* is a separate (but related) issue.


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