Image:Guillaume Morellec

How to remove elements for maximum impact

Good writers know what descriptions to leave out, allowing you to fill in the gaps with your mind. Good graphic designers know how to restrict their color palettes to express their vision without using the entire rainbow. Good industrial designers create simplicity through less features and lines. Powerful, evocative art depends on careful curation and navigation through a labyrinth of choices. These choices create their signature style. This style is based on the gathering of existing ideas and how they string them together – but what about components they remove? An artist builds their work in broad strokes – then strips, sculpts, and refines their creation until nothing can be taken away. It’s like playing Jenga – what blocks can you remove without destroying the integrity of the structure? In art – what can be removed without losing impact?

These days in modern music we are drowning in choices and complexity. In music there have never been more plug-ins, instruments, and DAWs to choose from. These offer endless temptations to dabble, tinker, and layer sounds until we are left with a redundant mush of sounds lacking any vision, clarity or impact. Or even worse – we procrastinate and leave decisions for later, as computers become more powerful and keep us from committing to our ideas. Let’s examine some ways to use subtraction to improve your music process with the workflow, composition, editing, arrangement, and mixdown of your song.


Kill the clutter:

First you must remove the non-essentials. Sell, store, or donate your gear that you don’t use. Remove anything messy or distracting from sight. Remove unused apps, plugins or sample libraries (or move them to a special folder), fix any authorization and update issues, and organize your presets. It’s best to do this all in one day – call it maintenance Mondays. Clean up your desktop, cloud accounts, and external drives.. Just ask yourself – “What can be removed?” You’ll feel much lighter after doing this. Less clutter, less decisions, more creative output. Create special templates with your favorite instruments and processing chains to speed up the process. Be careful with inactive plugins – they can often be adding delay that isn’t compensated! When in doubt, just remove the entire plugin. It’s all about automating those left brain tasks so you can spend more time being creative. Tighten up your workflow and your ideas will come more easily. Make sure to read “The Art of Tidying Up.” for more tips on this for other parts of your life.


Scale and note reduction:

Choose a simple scale you are comfortable with (I’m still amazed how many scales are offered and probably never used), and use scale restriction to make the creative process easier. This is great for tracking vocals (try Auto Tune Live), creating melodies with real time MIDI FX (see Ableton scale FX), and getting an overall sense of the “chord” of your song. By eliminating the wrong notes, the process becomes faster. When you know the 7 notes in your scale, or at least the fundamental – it’s easy to see where the kick and snare will fit (hint: use fifths!). The balance of the mix rests upon a good distribution of frequency pockets tucked into the key of your song. It’s best to make good choices as you compose, but later on – what other notes can be removed? Try using ghost notes to add rhythmic interest. The groove of your song depends on these gaps, so try to avoid filling every hole in your song. Another common technique is “call and response” – have your leads perform a “question and answer” routine, taking turns with each other.

Chord sequencing and folding:

For chords, try keeping it simple and only using three or four chords. You can make it interesting by modulating the chords with a bass note a 5th below the root note, and another octave layer. Adding too many chords can overcomplicate the song and take away anticipation. For example: in a bridge, trying moving the 2nd chord in the main sequence to the first chord, rather than using new chords or shifting to another key, or “fold” the chords in a verse to one of two chords to create tension.


Editing is all about removal. Remove the bad vocal takes, crop waveforms to the zero threshold, and manually remove ticks, pops, and noise (room, mouth, and headphone noise). I’ll typically remove the breathes from the background vocals, and leave them in for the lead – bringing the breathe and sibilance down with volume automation. These tiny elements add up and steal bandwidth from your master bus, and become bigger issues as you stack dozens of vocal layers. Use limiters to remove peaks on individual tracks, busses, and the master to keep your levels from fluctuating wildly.


Punching holes and creative muting:

This is where things become fun. “Arrangement is the mix down” is one of my favorite quotes, and it’s really true. Punch holes in layers of your song to create dramatic drop outs (try a 1 bar vocal solo), or where the beat normally comes in on the “one” of the drop. Use the “Rule of Three” to keep only three distinct simultaneous phrases during a specific section. Ex: section A: beat, bass, lead – section B: beat, chord, vocal. Experiment with muting busses or tracks, hitting the mute button or keyboard macro in time with the music to “audition” the effect without doing any editing. Use silence for dramatic impact. Small silent sections before the drop and before breakdowns can add incredible unexpected crowd reactions. You can insert silence, or simply mute tracks. I recommend bouncing your soft synths so you can visually see the waveforms and chop or “massage” any tails. It’ll also be easier to chop the waveforms to allow different instruments to “take turns.” Also try breaking up legatos and block piano chords to open up space and create rhythmic interest.

Subtraction through Filters:

Once you’ve established the general arrangement of your song, use highpass, bandpass, or lowpass filters to automate frequencies and add drama to the builds. These are great for helping gel layers together into one cohesive whole, and keep the focus on lead vocals or instruments. Adele’s “Hello” boldly uses lowpass filtered drums for the entire song.

Reducing length:

As streaming becomes the dominant form of music distribution, it’s important to think about the length of your songs. Can you make your arrangement shorter, without losing impact? Extended mixes in the dance world these days have turned into radio edits (4min extended mixes!). People are consuming music in different ways, and DJs are performing songs with shorter transitions – do you really need those long intros and outros? Will people want to listen to your song multiple times? It’s really important to have tight, crisp arrangements of your songs – especially when playing them in the room for record labels.


Remove frequencies:

Less layers = more space in your mix. The more redundant layers you add, the smaller it will sound if all parts are playing at once. This can be fixed by spreading out the chord voicings to different layers, breaking up layers as mentioned earlier. For example: have each instrument occupy a different octave, or weave them together so that two different synth presets combine to form a chord. Make sure that each element is contributing and moving the song forward. If you mute it and don’t miss it, delete it. Also try removing frequencies with EQ before adding them – just make sure to compensate the gain for the volume drop. Band-pass EQ is often overlooked but very useful. Frequency removal is great for taming rogue peaks, removing clashing content, and eliminating rumble and low end buildup especially on the master for 20 Hz and below. Try a steep 48dB hipass filter and see how it impacts your master bus processing.


The age-old question I always get is “how do you know when a song is done?” This answer: “A song is finished when you can no longer remove anything else.” So after you’ve built up your song and filled all the frequencies – ask yourself, what can I remove? what layers aren’t contributing to the song? and what can I take away to add more clarity? I think you’ll be surprised at how simplicity creates power, when you use subtraction in your workflow, composition, arrangement, and mixing.

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