Improving intensity in music

Intensity in music can be a tricky balancing act. In our Facebook group, one member recently asked about how he could improve the intensity and excitement of his tracks. He makes electronic music, and feels that compared to some producers he likes, his music doesn’t match in terms of excitement. After asking him a few questions, I realized that the tracks he shared as examples he wanted to emulate were mostly songs with high levels of density, and perhaps not the levels of intensity I thought he was referring to. The term “intensity” is very different from one genre to another; in this post, I’ll try to cover some of the different ways we relate to intensity, and also some tricks and tips as to how to make your tracks more intense-feeling.


One of the main aspects of intensity is the loudness or volume of a song. Humans are often tricked into thinking that loudness directly correlates to the intensity of a song. Concerts at high volumes give music a physical sonic experience that people like. Artists often try to replicate the live experience through volume levels or even compression.

However, when making music, there are a lot of other things one needs to pay attention to in the process—loudness should be the very last thing to worry about. Volume/loudness levels can only be adjusted once your mix is proper and flawless. Some people play with mastering tools such as Izotope Ozone 9 as a mastering assistant to help push songs up to a higher level, but if you think loudness is the key to intensity, you might run into issues. Heavily boosting the loudness of a song ruins all the finer details that were worked on so much, via too much compression.

If you want to play with the perceived loudness experience, one thing you can do is make sure that your mid-range frequencies are mixed at sufficient levels, or even perhaps a bit louder than what you’d usually do. Humans will always hear something with a good mid presence as “louder”, even if the overall loudness is lower. A plugin like Intensity by Zynaptiq can really help bring intensity to a song, but can also do subtle wonders at lower levels.

Another thing you can do is play with saturation. This gives a gritty feel to your track’s sounds, adding textures, depth, and relative power as well. Harmonics by Softubes is often my go-to plugin when it comes to applying saturation to mids. It really brings out an organic brightness in sounds that almost always sounds good. Saturation also creates the impression that something is louder, but not in a compressed way.


Similar to loudness, is density: how many sounds you have in your mix at a given time that have very little difference in volume. You could have multiple percussive sounds, for example, and all of them equally loud. Doing this occupies a lot of room in your mix and makes sounds feel more like they’re at the forefront. The denser a mix, the less room there is for depth, but a dense mix can have a lot of immediate power.

For certain techno songs, density is often in the form of a wall of machine-gun type hi-hats which are always going. This creates excitement in the highs. In tribal music, density comes from percussive sounds, but in the mids, and in dubstep, it’s pretty much all about the low end (although dubstep tends to overcharge the full frequency spectrum).

An interesting genre that people often simply refer to as ambient, is drone music. Drone, in a loud venue, becomes a pure noise show so intense, it can give you very powerful body sensation. At MUTEK, I almost puked after a drone show.

If you want an alternative way to create density, other than simply using a lot of tracks, you can also play with the decay of your sounds. Longer hats, kicks, claps, and other percussive sounds will add intensity via density. If you have certain sonic limitations, decay can also be “created” with a gated reverb which will add a tail, but I’d encourage you to use a darker tone.

Background and noise floor

If you go to the most quiet place you can think of and record with a field recorder, you’ll still hear noise in your recordings at a very low level. In general, there’s always some sort of noise surrounding us. It can be the fan of your computer, a car passing by your apartment, people talking in the background in a quiet coffee shop. When you put your headphones on and make music, you might have the impression that your music feels empty and that usually comes from a lack of noise floor. In Dub Techno, songs are often washed in a sea of reverb, which creates a space that feels comforting. Using a long reverb can create a low level of noise that is naturally pleasant to the ear, but there are also other ways to create a noise floor:

  • In many minimal tracks, people will mix in field recordings. You can find a lot of field recordings for free online. They can be from anywhere, but you can event record noise from where you live and use that (some producers love to have a microphone in their studio to pick up noises of themselves as they work). You can also spend time creating your own invented field recordings using day to day sounds that you mix with a white noise and reverb, then lower the volume to -24db or lower.
  • Use hardware equipment and use a compressor to bring up the noise.
  • Take a synth and use a noise oscillator to create a floor. You can then add volume automation to it to give it life, like side-chain compression.

In the tracks the member of our group shared which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the noise floor was just as loud as the main sounds, which then created an impression that the song was really, really dense, loud, and busy.

Powerful low end

One thing people often do for intensity is create really powerful kicks or basses. They’ll have them mixed way louder than the rest of the track, but this often results in a muddy mix, as the details will then feel covered or too low. But in many genres, the importance of a solid kick is often directly related to the intensity of the song. A tip—the clap or snare, should also be equally intense, with a presence in the mids; this relationship will make the track feel very assertive and punchy.

Creating a powerful kick is not an easy task, but you can achieve better results with a combination of Neutron‘s transient shaper and multiband compressor. This will allow you to shape your kick so it’s fat and round. But even if you end up with the most powerful kick you can create, a mix can still feel like it’s lacking intensity unless the kick is properly mixed. Proper mixing of a kick’s low end can often be done by high-pass filtering or EQ’ing some parts of the bass so it doesn’t mask the kick. You can also use a tool like the Volume Shaper or Track Spacer to give clarity to the kick.

Exciting effects

Transitional effects, fills, and rises/falls are always a popular way to create excitement in your track. These are often effects you can use straight from presets and simply apply them on random sounds that are already in your project. I usually like to have two channels per percussive sound I use. Not only for layering, but sometimes the second channel of a percussion will have an effect that I’ll use once or twice. You can have dedicated channels that are effects only, and then drop sounds from your song into that channel. This can be done with a send/aux channel too, but I like to have a FX-channel on its own, as it’s more visually clear.

Popular effects that can help create intensity and excitement include delays, panning, reversing sounds, and reverb, but if you’re looking into something out of the ordinary, I suggest you look into unusual multi-effect plugins such as SphereQuad, Tantra, Fracture XT, Movement, and mRhythmizerMB.


A lot of people don’t seem to understand dynamics, and what they mean in music. Dynamics are often simply interpreted as compression, but if you really use dynamics in an exciting way, you need to think about it as the contrast or range between two levels. Imagine someone whispers something in your ear, and then, all of a sudden, starts talking really loudly; it will create a shock or surprise. Differences in sound are a good way to create surprise and intensity—the greater the difference between the two sounds, the louder or more intense the second sound will feel, or vice-versa. You could have section or certain sounds in your song that are quieter for a moment and then get louder. Dynamics don’t necessarily always refer to volume, however. For example, you can create a moment in a song in mono, and then go to full stereo mode—this difference is also surprising for the listener.

Finally, one thing to keep in mind about intensity in music: if you immediately give away everything your song is about in the first few seconds of a track, you’re mostly likely going to screw up the ability to create intensity, tension, and excitement in the entire work—it will be really hard to keep a listener interested for the entire duration of a song if he or she has already heard your “climax”.

SEE ALSO : Textures Sample Pack

How Long Does it Take to Make Professional Sounding Music?

For people who are just getting started with production and recording their own music, many wonder how much practice is involved before they can create professional sounding music that they are happy with. I often get asked questions like this:

I’ve been making music non-stop for 6 months. Why am I not happy with how it sounds yet?

In terms of life experience making music, 6 months is nothing. You’re basically a toddler in the world of music, but being a toddler is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience and has some advantages as well. In comparing yourself with people who have many more years of experience, it’s normal that it might feel like you’re still far behind. You’re not really being fair to yourself; you can’t expect to squeeze in so much knowledge in such a short time. Most people who make music for a long time usually have also worked in the company of other experienced artists, learned some valuable tips from their experiences, and many have also spent a lot of time at events or working with live sound. All these details are often overlooked by newcomers who often have the misconception that making professional sounding music is something that’s relatively easy to do. Making quality music takes a lot of time—it usually takes many years. However, the difficulty in being satisfied about what you do doesn’t decrease as you gain experience.

Each time I learn something new or that I understand that a type of detail is actually a mistake, I start hearing it everywhere in my past music and it drives me crazy. If you think that with over 20 years of production I might be more easily satisfied with what I make, then I have bad news for you—I still get frustrated, get writer’s block, and most of the time, I’m not entirely happy with how my songs sound. The difference between myself and someone new to making music is that in 20 years, I’ve learned something you’ll learn too: imperfection is a part of the process.

I met a DJ once who told me:

All quality producers I love are full of self-doubt, but the ones that sound like crap are so full of themselves.”

Not being satisfied with your own work also means you’re willing to learn. So, what are the options available for someone just starting out? Is it just a matter of time?

There are a lot of paths one can take, and unfortunately, sometimes friends or other music producers send new artists down the wrong one. Generally, people will advise others to take a direction that worked for them, but this might not necessarily work for anyone but themselves. I say this before I get into more detail about how long I think it takes for a new artist to make art he or she is satisfied with; the advice below is what has worked for me and what I have seen work for others.

Understanding a sound

If you’re not happy with your sound, you should first ask yourself what sound you’re after. There are a few things to really grasp to understant what’s “wrong” in how you perceive this sound.

Sound monitoring: What monitors are you using? Are you using KRKs? Genelecs? Yamahas? Some people have poor equipment and it’s a handicap in how you’ll “understand” your sound. The clearer and more reliable your tools, the easier it will be. Before buying anything else for your studio, monitoring should be where you invest the most of your budget. You can buy very expensive gear, but if you can’t hear it properly, you’ll always be on step behind.

People will recommend certain speakers or headphones, but monitoring is extremely personal—I encourage you to go to a store and spend a good amount of time comparing different brands and models. I swear, when you hear your favorite track on a specific system and it triggers goosebumps, you’ll know that system is for you. Prepare to invest in good speakers—there’s nothing professional about buying cheap monitors just to save a bit of cash.

A/B referencing: Cross-validating is one of the most important things to do when you make music, and though a lot of people seem to have reservations about it, this is how professionals and people who want meaningful results will work. This goes for not only audio, but in pretty much any craft; you need a model, a reference, and something to guide your vision, or to keep track of your progress. As you work, you need to constantly check what’s going on. You might hate it at first, but that’s how it’s done. In terms of audio, having good headphones and other output systems to cross-reference with is very beneficial.

There are many tools out there that can help make doing A/B checks easier and more pleasant. For instance, Reference is a great tool to see if your levels are right. Magic A/B is also great, but doesn’t have the precision of Reference. Levels is also another great tool to analyze the technical requirements of your song. But more importantly, I recommend a good FFT such as SPAN by Voxengo (free) or Izotope’s recently released Ozone 9, which is a good overall bundle of tools to have that can really help make a difference in what you do. Ozone comes with an “assistant” that listens to your music and can propose fixes, enhancements, and overall adjustments, while comparing your work to a preloaded reference track—it can be a big investment, but it will be a tool you’ll use every time you work on music.

Listening volume. The worst way to listen to music when you want to understand it is at high volume (eg. 85dB+). I try to keep my listening levels low so I can easily hear what’s wrong. You’ll be able to tell that the highs are too sharp or that the low end is too low at lower volumes (something that’s barely possible to do at high volume due to the Fletcher Munson Curve which says that after a certain volume level is reached, the human hear stops perceiving things in a neutral way). Make sure you keep the volume low and don’t touch the knob as you work. Take pauses every 20 minutes too—you’ll notice problems more easily.

Sound preparation and “mental jogging”. When you actually sit down to make music, you shouldn’t just start right away; you need to do some “mental jogging” first. Forget shortcuts like smoking spliffs or drinking beer. Just sit there and listen to music at around 65dB (I use my apple watch to monitor decibel levels). Listen to music for a good 30 minutes to an hour, then make music. Never touch the volume knob. Your ears need to adjust to the right levels of highs, mids, and lows. If you touch that master volume knob, you’ll screw up the exercise.


To get better at anything, you need to educate yourself. Perhaps you love to learn by yourself (like me), but I swear, it only takes one video or a bit of reading to feel like you’re improving, and you’ll feel silly you didn’t look for that information before. I’m personally always on the hunt for tutorials, even on matters that I know a lot about already, because I want to make sure I know as much as I can about each subject. You’ll often realize that a problem has many ways it can be solved, and it’s important to learn multiple different approaches to achieve a certain result. Why? Sometimes, a certain approach will reach its limits and another one might be a better fit. This also applies to plugins and gear. You might have 3 different compressors, but they all have their own persona and might work better than one another in different contexts.

However, I wouldn’t worry much about tools to start. It’s more important to create conditions where you can properly understand sound, develop healthy habits towards your work, and constantly allow for time and resources to dedicate towards self-improvement.

Tools come and go—what really makes a difference in going from an amateur to a professional is how you understand and use them. Understanding how audio engineering works and how you perceive sound is hugely important.

Good Quality Schools and Learning Hubs

Point Blank Online Music School. I only hear good things about Point Blank, and their tutorials on YouTube always are quality.

Noisegate. I’m currently testing it and got a few tips from there but it’s mostly for new comers.

Puremix. For advanced users and mostly oriented towards Protools. Even so, I’ve learned a lot from them.

Loopmasters. They sell classes and they’re very good; a favourable ratio of get-what-you-pay-for.

SEE ALSO : Make Music Faster: Some Organizational Tips

EQing Resonant Frequencies and Harsh Sounds

EQing resonant frequencies can be a very difficult task. Once in a while, I see ads in my Facebook feed that claim to reveal some “secret” EQ tips. Recently, I clicked on one just to see what they had to say, and was very disappointed to read stuff like “if your track sounds honky, you need to cut at 500hz…blah blah blah…”, as if a simple cut at a specific range would easily solve everyone’s EQ problems. The thing about EQ’ing music is that one simple solution cannot apply to every case—it’s more complex than that. Yes, there are things that you can do consistently that will make a difference, and yes, in some cases, cutting at a specific frequency can help, but there are other ways to EQ, too.

In this post, I will provide a very high-level outline of how to identify resonances and to fix them with surgical EQ’ing. If you’re an advanced audio nerd, I recommend you carry on with your online searches for EQ tips.

In past articles, I’ve referred to the benefits of shelving EQs in certain cases to fix tonal issues in a song. Using shelving EQs to correct tonal issues is one of the most misunderstood concepts in mixing and it is also, in some ways, probably the easiest to fix. Surgical EQ cuts are the exact opposite, as they are difficult to really explain—especially through a simple blog post—and can be a bit of an esoteric subject.

Training your ears to detect resonances

Ear training is the most important part of EQ’ing and it is also the most difficult to develop; it demands practice and guidance. I’d say roughly 90% of my clients’ projects have bizarre EQ correction(s). I often see multiple cuts, very sharp and very low. When I remove them, I hear no difference in my studio. Why? Probably because of how they hear things at home with their speakers/headphones. Bad referencing is counter-productive, as you might expect. It’s like wearing glasses with a stain on them; you’ll see it everywhere. Problems can also arise from the acoustics of the room which might overload certain frequencies, creating resonances that aren’t in the mix itself, but from the room, which results in people cutting valuable frequencies from their mixes and sounds.

I find it useful to mute a problematic sound and listen to an oscillator on its own, to train your ear to recognize that kind of frequency.

One trick I found useful in developing my understanding of resonances is the use of a keyboard and a simple oscillator (note: Ableton’s Operator will do). When I hear a resonances—which sound a bit like a delay with too much feedback—I would try to play the note on a keyboard with a sine oscillator to mimic what I hear. With the help of a FFT or a great EQ plugin like Fabfilter Pro-Q3, I can then “see” the frequency of my note and compare it to my sound. You want to play them roughly at the same level to see exactly where the resonance is in the spectrum.

Another way to identify a resonant frequency is to take your EQ, starting with a wide Q of about 1, and boost it by 5dB then scroll through the frequency spectrum. This will amplify what you hear in certain ranges and you might notice a resonance. Once you spot a sensitive area, leave your boost on that spot and slowly increase the Q to 2.5, then adjust the covered area to pinpoint where the resonance might be. Once you get to about 5 on your Q, then you can cut down on the problematic frequency, starting by cutting 3dB off. Toggle the bypass on the EQ to see how much of the frequency you removed.

Sometimes resonances are the sum of multiple incoming sounds that have similar frequencies that overload on top of one another. These are nasty because you might want to EQ one sound, but you can’t really pinpoint where the problem is coming from. It’s best to group similar channels and EQ them all together.

I usually tell people to group channels by “sound families” such as all metallic sounds, organic percussion, synths, etc. Grouping can be great for fixing issues, and also to place sounds into a specific spot in the bubble you’re creating in the mix (ex. fore front vs background).

Visually speaking, resonances are often difficult to see on the FFT. Sometimes people believe it’s a simple peak rising, but that might not actually be the case. This is why on the Pro-Q3 or Ableton’s EQ8, you can monitor what you’re altering. But before searching for a resonance, it’s important you hear it first. Otherwise, you’ll go hunting for problems that might not exist, which will create “holes” in your mix (a frequent problem I hear in mastering but luckily it’s easy to fix). If you’re checking for little peaks poking out only visually, sometimes those can actually be pleasant frequencies, but because of a poor listening environment, you might interpret them as bad ones.

My general tip on cutting frequencies is: never too sharp and always start with -4dB. Often you’ll hear resonances from 200hz to 800hz, mostly because a lot of melodic content and ideas have a fundamental note within that range, so some sounds might clash. Also, if you feel you need more than one EQ to fix a problem, just trash the thing you’re trying to fix. It might be garbage and if you need to really alter it that much, there’s something fundamentally wrong with it. Using too many EQ points might also result in phasing issues. Same thing goes for using more than one EQ plugin…it can be risky!

Optimizing your listening conditions and environment is a hugely important thing to do.

Detecting Harshness

Harshness or other difficult frequencies that aren’t resonances can be found at any level of the frequency spectrum. Most of the time, harshness-related issues are around 1-5khz. The human ear finds this range sensitive, and when there are too many sounds in it, it brings confusion, muddiness, and unpleasant feelings.

Harshness can also be a result of the sum of multiple sounds. It’s important to hear everything on its own—specifically similar groups of sounds—then mute them one by one to find out which ones are causing an issue. Once you find the problematic sound, I suggest you try the following corrective techniques:

  • Start by lowering the volume to see if that can help.
  • Try the EQ’ing cut method explained above to see if you can isolate a resonance or something annoying. Try cutting it by 3dB. Cutting along with the volume drop can sometimes be enough to fix a problem.
  • Try panning it to the opposite position. I often see that sounds that are crammed in a same location will clash.
  • Add subtle reverb. This trick can help smooth things out. I’d suggest a reverb at a 10% wet/dry.
  • A chorus effect can sometimes do wonders on certain sounds.
  • Controlling a transient can fix wonders. Instead of cutting with an EQ, just spot the problematic frequency and then use a multiband EQ like Melda’s mTransient to remove some of the attack of that band. Isolate the frequency. If you don’t have a transient shaper, you can create your own with a compressor that has a fast attack.
  • On higher-pitched sounds, a de-esser can really help. If you don’t have one, make sure to grab ERA4 De-esser as it’s affordable and super useful.

Harshness is easier to fix than resonant frequencies—it’s often simply the result of noisy sounds at wrong levels that need adjustments. With practice, your mixes will be clearer and smoother. Train your ears!

SEE ALSO : Creating Depth in Music