Dynamic Range For The Musician

By • April 16, 2009

One of the most overlooked weapons in our dramatic arsenal for effective music-making is the concept of dynamic range. Once a term almost uniquely in the lexicon of recording engineers and audiophiles, as a concept it nonetheless holds riches for musicians, too. At its most geekly, it is defined as the ratio of the specified maximum signal level capability of a system or component to its noise level; usually expressed in decibels. Every advance in recording technology has pushed the envelope to some degree in this area, with the benefit of more realism and audible excitation in the playback of recorded sound. But to the music-maker, a parallel concept applies.

As composers, arrangers, orchestrators, players, conductors, booth supervisors, etc., we take for granted the importance of variety in instrumental color, style, tempo, interpretation, etc., and yet often overlook the power of maximizing the real or perceived spread between our loudest moments and our quietest (right down to the judicious use of dead silence.) The result is a score, performance, or recording that just doesn’t excite the ear or the psyche as dramatically as it might.

When you intently listen to a first-rate actor (or even your best friend telling you something important,) notice the dynamic range of the vocal sounds. Unless the speaker has some infirmity, notice the wealth of contrasts, particularly in dynamics, especially so when there is something important in the speech. Though essentially contrived, your music should nevertheless maximize its drama through the same enhanced dynamic range.

Of course, this whole discussion may seem moot for those who must knuckle under to a higher production power. Currently, the popular recording industry demands product which is composed, performed, compressed, limited, and otherwise processed to “sound” louder (and more consistently so throughout) than its competition. And it’s no secret that some contemporary film professionals have come to confuse drama simply with decibels. Lots of them. In these situations, it may be an uphill battle to profit from this attention to dynamic range, but it should always be in the back of your mind. It’s simply too good a device to waste.

Generally, musicians should heed that all drama in life is the result of contrasts. Turmoil and stress become meaningless without repose. Imagine pleasure without the contrast of nothingness (or pain.) Consider war without peace. Ultimately, life itself would lose meaning without death. For musicians, loud becomes dull without quiet, and vice-versa. And the wider your execution of the two, the richer and more exciting to the ear your music becomes.

Plus, in addition to the extremes, your music is also enriched by the number of shades of the dynamic range. Composers, arrangers, and orchestrators, do you set up long sections of essentially similar volume, texture and color, or do you constantly vary them, and not just with the dynamic markings or volume slider? Remember, shades of loud and soft are perceptions as well as physical sensations, so think beyond six simple gradations from pianissimo to fortissimo. Moving a mezzo-forte ostinato from horns to trombones may be a color change without a dynamic one, something which may be enhanced perhaps by the light addition of a snare drum. The same number of players in unison can be perceived differently than when they are in octaves or voiced chordally. Elements like that.

Booth supervisors, do you constantly keep one ear open for the ensemble’s maximum execution of the dynamics as written? If they slip into volume mediocrity, take responsibility and be their conscience by assertive but diplomatic reminders.

Conductors, you have perhaps the most immediate and ready control over the dynamic range of a performance, one that is often squandered. How much tired sameness have you experienced as a listener from ensembles where the true distance from pianissimo to fortissimo was measured in inches and perhaps feet, but not yards, let alone miles? The less rehearsal time you have, the earlier and more forcefully you have to establish your ensemble’s dynamic range, both by example (with a cue or section which really demonstrates the principle) and with the ongoing size and choreography of your gestures. If they are generally the same, almost invariably so will be your ensemble’s dynamics. Despite universal anecdotal claims by players to the contrary, it’s a rare ensemble that does its best work in spite of its conductor, so go ahead and give them the leadership, or at least the reinforcement, to really bring out the spread.

Certainly dynamic range (in all its aspects) is not the paramount device available in bringing your music to life, but it arguably can be the most overlooked or anemically implemented. Just make sure that it’s on your preflight mental checklist, heed the extremes (and the diversity in between,) and really squeeze maximum impact from your music.


By Chris Alpiar on April 16th, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Hi Ron,

Thank you for the excellent article! Your wisdom is filled with truth on the subject and a great reminder for us all. I think, however, that the main problem we are faced with today, as most of us are forced to work with digital mockups for an alarmingly growing rate of finished product for our work, and that these orchestral samples just cannot reproduce the spectrum of dynamics that is truly available. And of course therein lies one of the more poignant arguments for convincing directors and producers to go the extra mile and use a live orchestra. Anyhow, just wanted to thank you for your writing, your work is quite excellent

By Jesse on April 25th, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Can you personally call every one of my clients to explain this? 😉 I’ll pay you.

By gay glen on May 1st, 2009 at 7:10 am

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