It’s easy for chords to sound generic.
Take pads, for example. It’s easy to slip into using the same preset, the same progression, the same voicing, etc.
This article should help give you an idea of how to make your chords less generic, more full, and something that stands on their own in a mix. A really good example of a producer who does chord composition and production really well is Maya Jane Coles. The chords on her last album, Comfort, are absolutely gorgeous.
Sidenote: if you’re not that well-versed with theory and how chords work, check out “Music Theory: The TL;DR version”.
Full and Lush
The first mistake I hear a lot of is chords whose notes are all from the same synth. That’s the quickest way to a cookie-cutter sound, and it’s a quick fix.
There are two ways to fix this. First, use different synths for different notes of the chord. For example, in a triad, you could use a harsh synth for the 5th, a moderately soft synth for the 3rd, and an even softer synth for the root. Here’s the difference:
The second way to do this is to spread voices over the stereo image (as in, the left/center/right sound spread). For example, in a triad, the root could be centered, while the 3rd is on the right, and the 5th is on the left. Like this:
And, even better, you can combine the two above possibilities: use different synths spread across the stereo image. This results in much more “full” and unique-sounding chords. I use this trick as much as I can. Here’s an example of it in an intro from the song “Soon is Never Now Enough” off my last album:
It’s important to note that what notes you choose to make harsher/softer and what notes you choose to make center or left/right depends on what you’re going for. Harsher notes tend to cut through while softer notes hang back in the mix. Centered notes tend to be more front-and-center than left/right panned notes. Just something to experiment with.
Blurred Harmonies: Chords Across Time
When most producers think of chords, they think of clearly distinct chords that come one after another. But you can blur that distinctions for some interesting results.
First, you can mix your chords in such a way that their tonality isn’t exactly clear. For example, you can pan a 1, 3, and 5 triad partially to the left, and a 3, 5, and 7 triad partially to the right. On the right, this would be a iii chord, but on the left it would be a I chord. Yet, in center it would be a Im7 chord. Here’s an example:
Another way to blend chords is to mix certain notes of your chord in or out (for example, by volume automation or an EQ sweep). So you could move from a iii chord (notes: 3, 5, 7) to a Ima7 chord (notes: 1, 3, 5, 7) by fading in the 1. Like this:
Or, for another example, start with a iii chord (notes 3, 5, 7) and fade out the 3 while fading in a 2 to make a V chord (notes 5, 7, 2). Like this:
See how it blurs between two chords? How it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts?
There’s also how you “treat” notes once they’ve already been played. For example, using portamento can produce some fun results (portamento = when a note slides to another). Here’s an idea: take two chords with similar voicings, but only one note is different. Let’s take a iii chord (notes 3, 5, and 7) and a V chord (notes 5, 7, and 2). Now slide/portamento the 3 note of the first chord down to a 2 of the seconds, while holding the other notes constant. Sounds like this:
This article is an in-depth look at the framework from the guide “Composition and Production” on the overlap between theory and mixing, so check that guide out if you found this article insightful.
To hear examples of how these kinds of ideas play into production, check out my latest album, “Some How, Some Way.”
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