Dynamics and Intensity in Metal

How to use dynamic elements in music that tends to stay at one uniform volume.

Ultimate Guitar
Hey guys, Kevin Goetz here again with another free lesson. I've heard quite a few people complain about metal's lack of "dynamics" in the traditional sense of the word, because modern mastering tends to entail smashing a mix's volume peaks into oblivion so we can sneak out just a tiny bit more overall volume, because apparently everyone wants the loudest damn album ever made. But metal can still be written in a way that FEELS dynamic, even if we can't rely on changing volume levels to convey this sense. Instead, it has to be done through increasing or decreasing the level of intensity in our arrangements. In quick summary, more intensity means higher pitches, faster tempos, more notes, and denser arrangement, while less intensity means lower pitches, slower tempos, fewer notes, and sparser arrangements. In terms of individual instrumentation tricks, look at tremolo picking, blast beats, double kick runs, and heavy usage of cymbals to increase intensity. For a much more in-depth analysis of this concept, take a look at this video I've prepared that dives much further into the idea, and provides audio examples so you can hear the rising and falling intensity for yourself.
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15 comments sorted by best / new / date

    My Last Words
    A simple but good example in my opinion would be Black Sabbath. Tony Iommi would actually deliberately lard their records with acoustic passages and whole songs. He figured the heavy parts would be even heavier if they were preceded by light, mellow sections. Think I read that in his book, not too sure.
    Definitely! Any time the electric guitars drop out and softer, more dynamic instruments come in, it creates a beautiful contrast. Another good example is found in symphonic metal, where they let the strings and pads take over and the guitars just kind of stop.
    Are you talking about Opeth?
    My Last Words
    Opeth does this alot as well. One of my favorite examples is the outro to Dirge For November: The heavy riffing just stops and is replaced by one of my favorite acoustic parts. The exact opposite here would be Face of Melinda, somewhere in the middle of the song. Opeth <3
    Yeah, I absolutely love Dirge for November. Opeth's a fantastic example of this stuff. Another good example of changing intensity without changing instruments would actually be Scar Symmetry's Holographic Universe. The instruments stay the same, but the arrangement changes alongside the transitions from clean singing to harsh vocals.
    Isis does this a ton, too. In Fiction and Carry are the first that come to mind for me.
    Jahan Honma
    Hmmm. I like you. I like you a lot. Good job on your lesson. I personally still am thinking about trying to add volume changes in metal but this is a good substitute for people for whom that is out of the question. Thank you.
    =) Glad you enjoyed it. You can pull off legitimate volume changes, but if you go that route, make sure your mastering engineer knows that when you send the music off to get mastered. Otherwise, you run the risk of all your dynamics just getting smashed by a limiter.
    Also not all instruments playing at the same time sounds more dynamic. I mean, you could sometimes have just bass and drums playing. And sometimes just guitar playing. Many times in songs all instruments play all the time that gives a big sound. But I think the "big sounding" parts will sound even bigger if not every part sounds as big. By using dynamics you can make the most awesome parts sound even more awesome.
    Good example of dynamics in a metal tune without drop in intensity, check out 1:16, the break of playing a full minor chord on clean can really add a sense of depth and emotion to a song whilst still keeping pace ;
    I don't really get the point where "dynamics in the traditional sense of the word" is out of the question... I like metal, but if everything is as loud as everything else, I find even the best of songs rather uninteresting. The reason why there aren't many volume changes in metal is first and foremost that nobody seems to use volume changes in metal.
    That's mainly due to audio engineering. The drums are perhaps the most dynamic instrument by themselves, guitarists can mimic it using a volume pedal I suppose, as could the bassist, but your vocalist's volume would actually need to be ridden quite hard in the PA by your house engineer. If you go in saying "Yeah, our songs rely on dynamic volume, don't compress us too much," he's gonna HATE you. That makes his job a living hell, even if your bassist is good enough to ride a pedal to match the drum's dynamics, which is rare.
    I'm an engineer myself, I know it's though, but it's not impossible. Mainly what you're saying is that sound engineers hate bands that have electric instruments and want dynamics, still outside of metal it's very much possible to do this, one example being Pink Floyd.