Creating effective song transitions is an integral ingredient in the art of music production. It's essential to create a sense of tension and release in any form of music in order for it to connect with the listener. Transitional cues signal upcoming changes to your audience and increase the impact that your music has, so it's a good idea to have a few transitional tricks up your sleeve!
In this article, Will Darling of EDMtips explores the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle!) art of song transitions. Over to Will...
Regardless of genre, songs are compiled of different, distinct sections, woven together to tell a story. These different sections will usually include an intro, verses, choruses, perhaps a middle eight, and an outro. In dance music you might call the bridge and chorus a ‘break’ and a ‘drop’, but the concept still applies.
When we write or produce music, the difficulty often lies in tying these different sections smoothly together into a cohesive whole. To do this, we use ‘musical transitions’, which could be defined as passages, phrases or segues from one part of a song to the next. They basically inform the listener that a change is coming, and introduce them intuitively to the next part of the song or track.
Tips for effective song transitions
In this article, I’ve put together 10 top tips and ideas for creating smooth transitions in your tracks. There are many different ways to get from A to B (and depending on your chosen genre some will be more appropriate than others), but making music is all about experimenting and having fun, so feel free to mix and match!
1. Drum Fills and Rolls
This is one of the most common ways of leading into the next section of a song, regardless of genre. It can often work well if the drum sounds used are slightly differing in energy or rhythm from the main drums to create contrast. You might use a short fill – like an extra snare or a couple of toms – for a quick hint at an upcoming change, or something more obvious like the oft-used 16th-note snare roll in dance music build-ups. Here are two examples of each being used:
If you play the drums live, of course it’s simply a matter of practise. If using a sampler in your DAW, there are a couple of tips: If you are creating a short fill or intro, try using different samples from your main snares, panning them differently and perhaps using effects on these to make them distinctive.
If you are creating a long, rolling snare build up, try assigning the velocity to the drum volume (and perhaps a slight low-pass filter), and simply draw in a velocity curve that builds towards the point of transition.
2. Reversed Sounds
Reversed cymbals work well – especially if they’re leading into a forward cymbal crash at the beginning of the next bar. You can have your reversed cymbal crescendo at exactly the point the next bar comes in, or leave a short space beforehand (perhaps 1/4th) to create more impact.
This is used in almost all genres of music. A reversed, low piano note can also create a tension-filled build into the next section.
3. Reversed Reverb
This is a more advanced version of the reverse sound technique, and involves a ghost-like reverb leading into a new bar, which works especially well with vocals. The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” is a classic example of this.
To achieve this effect, reverse the vocal (or main instrument) of the song section you’re leading into, then apply a reverb with a long decay time. Once this has been done, solo that track and bounce the output, then load the result back into your DAW and reverse it again. Then, simply place it leading into the original vocal and crop it as required.
Step 1: Select the beginning syllable or phrase of the vocal.
Step 2: Copy it and reverse it, then add a long-decay reverb (the length of time you want it to take to come in). Bounce down the wet signal on its own.
Step 3: Bring the bounced signal back into your arrangement, crop everything except the reverb tail, then reverse it and place it before your main vocal.
4. Selective Muting
This is very simple, and can have a great impact if used correctly. It involves muting particular tracks just before the new section of the song. For instance, you might take out the drums and just have the vocal playing before before bringing everything back in again on the new bar.
5. The Wash-Out
This is definitely a technique used more in electronic dance music than any other genre, although it certainly can be used elsewhere. This effect heralds the oncoming change in a song, whilst simultaneously reducing the audio energy so the impact of the next section is greater. It makes use of spatial effects rather than compositional alterations.
Load up a delay unit, a reverb, a compressor and a high-pass EQ in a chain. The idea is to gradually alter the wet/dry balance of the first three units, whilst raising the cut-off frequency of the high-pass EQ, gently filtering out the lower frequencies.
When the next section of the song comes in, you can either reset all of the values to bring back the energy, or, if you’ve set it up on an aux channel, let it decay over time (as in the example below). Tweak the delay feedback, reverb decay and compressor settings as required.
Note: If you have the ability to assign parameters to a macro-knob (as in Ableton Live), this can be a quick and easy way to create the wash-out effect just by using one knob. You can apply this effect either to the master channel, or to individual tracks (or busses) as required.
6. Pitch Risers
Raising (or indeed, lowering) the pitch of certain elements (like drums, pads, bass, etc.) leading into the next section of a song is usually quite noticeable and drastic, but can really add tension and anticipation if used correctly. This can work well on snare build-ups before a big change, as well as synth risers.
If you’re using synthesisers or drum machines, the pitch-bend controls are what you would use, programming in automation over the course of a few bars.
If you are using recorded sounds (such as guitars or vocals), you could consider cropping a section that would sound good looped, then loading that into a sampler and using the pitch-bend control.
7. White Noise Sweeps
A staple in dance and pop music. They work because of the extra energy they can bring to a mix. White noise is basically a signal combining all frequencies together at equal amounts, hence it’s high energy.
A white noise sweep involves filtering out the lower frequencies, using a high-pass filter, over a period of time leading into the next part of a song. It’s often used in conjunction with another transition technique (as is the case with a snare roll in the below example):
Load a synthesiser and choose a white noise oscillator. Then, add a high-pass EQ after it in the effects chain. You can now sweep through the cut-off frequency of the EQ, creating a ‘whooshing’ effect.
You might alternatively try using a band-pass EQ for a slightly different result. Conversely, this can also be used sweeping DOWN the frequencies at the beginning of a new section (like a break).
8. Phase / Flange Sweeps
This is another effect-based transition rather than compositional, but works well in most genres of popular music (probably not so well in classical or bluegrass!). Equally powerful with guitars and vocals as it is on drums and synths, it also works well when combined with reversed sounds (see tip 2).
The trick is timing the phase or flange sweep to peak just as the new section of the track comes in (or just before).
Add a flanger or phaser with an LFO sweep in the effects chain after your source sound. Dial the wet/dry knob to 0 (so you can’t hear the effect at all), then slowly bring it in towards the end of that song section.
Slower LFO cycles tend to work best for this. To get the cycle to peak just at the exact point you want every time, you can sample it a few times, then re-import the effected signal you prefer. If you have a phaser or flanger that allows you to re-trigger its LFO, this won’t be necessary, but most don’t.
This is completely genre-independent, and a classic way of introducing a new section of a song. It’s basically a fancy way of saying there are a few notes of an element played before the ‘main event’. For example, if a singer is about to come in for the first verse, she or he might sing a few notes at the end of the intro to let the listener know what is coming before the verse begins.
Similarly, this works just as well with instruments, and quite often the other elements will be muted out, too, in order to further highlight the transition.
Sometimes, the desired impact is achieved simply by having no transition at all! In the example below, the producer (pop legend Max Martin) suddenly switches to the second verse from the end of the chorus with no introduction whatsoever:
Over to you
And there you have it! 10 ideas for musical transitions you can try out today in your own music. I recommend combining more than one of these ideas, and experimenting on where best to use them for each track; just remember to adjust levels accordingly and make sure that every element is there for a reason. If it’s not adding to the track, it’s detracting!
Let Luke and I know if you have any transition techniques that you use, and if you have any questions, let us know in the comments section. Cheers! Will