Dynamics (music) Explained: Band Context

Continuing from my previous tutorial on dynamics, in the context of your instrument, this my attempt at explaining dynamics in a band’s context.  This will help you sound good in a band setting as, you will not only understand where to fit in (and where not to), but also by how much.  

Let’s take “My Way” by Frank Sinatra as an example. I managed to find a video of Sinatra on YouTube, to may make my task a little easier.  So, before continuing, give it a good listen, from the beginning, to at least until the end of the first chorus.

Start by identifying the dynamics of the lead instrument, in this case, vocals.  The vocals seem to start of somewhere around mezzo-piano in the [A] part.  However, in the [B] part – the chorus, the vocals would gradually get louder and louder (upto fortissimo), almost by the line.

Now, apply the following guidelines and see at which dynamic level your instrument would be playing during each part of the song.

Dynamics Guidelines for a Live Band

  1. Let the lead instrument (such as vocals or a solo) lead the dynamics of the band.
  2. If the lead instrument starts to play louder, the band should get louder accordingly.
  3. If the lead instruments starts to go softer, the band should get softer.

Care should be taken to maintain a good relative balance when following the guidelines in the points 2 and 3 above.

Please note that these  guidelines apply to passages (a couple of measures or bars) and is not to be confused with accents or stabs.

As an example, a guitarist may play a dynamic solo, accenting and attenuating certain notes but, that does not mean the band should follow the dynamic of every note.  The band should rather follow the dynamics of the passage.

The Balancing Act: Musicians’ Job First

Contrary to the popular misbelief, a well balanced performance starts with the musician; and not the sound engineer.  It is a process of a sort of auditory calibration, between what’s heard at the musician position in relation to other instruments, with what’s played by the musician.

The mastery of this correlation comes with practice, practice and practice; so much so that competent musicians learn do this intuitively.  The result? They would perform well, in good balance, with or without monitors!

Next comes a good band balance.  This requires:

  • A well arranged piece (both harmonically and dynamically)
  • Competent individual dynamics: Taking good reference levels and adhering to the correct dynamic level, during a passage
  • Being able to listen to the band as a whole, rather than only to what ones playing, and adapting to the changes in dynamics, musically.
  • And finally, putting in an effort to play in balance:  Being open for dialogue among band members and constructive critiques.

Dynamics and Balance

So how is dynamics related to the sound level, in achieving a good balance?

In an (acoustic) unamplified setting such as a brass band or an orchestra, instruments would have to be added in numbers to achieve the desired sound level, to counteract the limitations of the instruments’ dynamic range, in relation to the piece.  In this case, changing the number of the instruments will also affect the tonality of the sound as a whole.

In an (electric) amplified setting however, amplification may be used to counteract limitations in the dynamic range of the instrument.  For example, if a band has an acoustic guitar that is played along loud rock drums, the acoustic guitar would have to be amplified to match the levels of the drums.

Coda

If you’ve been with me all along, Wow!… and thank you.  We must be in the same business.  Hope you this was helpful.  Please don’t forget to leave a comment.

  • Ikram

    Hi Fayid, good that you have raised this issue. Dynamics is not something well understood by most musicians in the popular scene. Not in the context that you have explained. I have met and worked with several musicians who mix up the terms dynamics and timbre. Anyways, few comments:
    • Going through the video, the dynamic range of the lead instrument (vocal) is very much narrowed down by the heavy compression. Further, when the full orchestra begins to play, ducking is applied as well to keep the vocals up front. The tonality of the instruments are left weaker compared with the vocals. It is for such reasons (conventional recording studio techniques) that popular musicians are often left confused. Because what they want to achieve in terms of sound was first in a vinyl, then a cassette, then a CD, and now in an iPod (worse than anything earlier). Unfortunately, we don’t really have good-sounding live shows and venues.
    • The size of an orchestra does matter in terms of the overall volume. However, I don’t really think it is counteracting the dynamic range of the instruments. But yes the more unison(s) are added, ‘chorus’ will be obvious.
    • Interesting topic would like to go for an in-depth exploration over a coffee table.. hehe.

    • “Dynamics is not something well understood by most musicians in the popular scene”… well said.

      The video: I don’t think I could find an uncompressed and stream-able [audiophile] video on youtube. I know it is compressed, but I think this suffices to explain the point here. I hope to do one on Dynamics in the Sound Context soon.

      Size [of the Orchestra] vs. Volume: You’re right. That’s the point. Thanks for a more appropriate description.

      Coffee?… hmm.. you buying? Hehe… Yes, let’s explore… and thanks for the critical comments.

  • logically and clearly explained. thx for the article!

  • Faya

    For me ‘monitoring’ is one issue in presenting good dynamics when performing live esp. in a bigger venue. I think it would be a insightful with your experience both as a musician and as a FOH engineer if you could give your thoughts regarding this issue.

    For me I always try to play with a balanced stage sound preferably with only the instrument amplifiers and using stage monitors to reinforce the instruments that are not using amplification (I’m treating vocals as an instrument too).

    I also try to ‘visualise’ (if there’s such thing) or anticipate how the reinforced audio would sound like. Its really helpful in venues where the stage sound might be all boomy because of the kick back from the FOH woofers or because of the deficiencies of the stage acoustics.

    And you got to have faith in the FOH and the monitor engineer 😉

    • For me ‘monitoring’ is one issue in presenting good dynamics when performing live esp. in a bigger venue. I think it would be a insightful with your experience both as a musician and as a FOH engineer if you could give your thoughts regarding this issue.

      Your comments seem to be inspiring more articles and I think I should devote an article to monitoring.

      For now, and to answer your question briefly, I think that, most of the time, the main problem is due to contradicting listening philosophies on a shared stage. You mentioned how you listen. If that does not tally with the rest of the band or other bands on the same stage, there would be room for inconsistencies.

      Monitor mixes are an individual affair. A lot goes into the preferences of the performer. It would be very helpful to establish a dialogue, to study and understand different listening philosophies and more importantly to ascertain what works individually and why.

      From time to time, technical riders of international bands get forwarded to me and one thing that strikes is me, is the request for an exclusive desk (mixer). Given the resource limitations here the in the Maldives, this is something that’s not very often possible, when many bands cramp the few opportunities they have.

      The other alternative would be to go digital for both FOH and monitor desks, to aide with recall ability, given the short transition times. That said, some of the riders specifically request the desk to analog and not digital under any circumstance: individual preferences.

  • Faya

    Monitoring deserves a separate article 🙂

    I’d strayed out of topic previously by writing too much about monitoring here. Just wanted to highlighting the fact that for me ‘accurate’ monitoring plays an important role in presenting dynamics (or any other aspect of a live performance for that matter).

  • Sappy

    simple well said.