Production Techniques: Transitions
One of the most overlooked techniques in music production is the transitions used between sections of the song. Well-executed transitions serve several purposes: they create tension and release, help the song grow (like a story or movie), and keep the momentum so that sudden changes don’t catch the listener off-guard. All of these are important in keeping the listener engaged and creating a cohesive record.
There are a few major transition points in a song: the intro into the first verse or hook, the verses into the hooks, the hooks into the verses, and going into the outro. When composing music (or making a beat), it’s important to have a structure in mind and create some type of tension that is released when the next part comes in. If you’re an artist performing over top of an instrumental, you want to compliment this tension and release with both your voice/delivery and how they are mixed.
There are a couple of go-to methods in which I personally facilitate these transitions that instill a feeling of suspense to the listener that is supplemented by the following part either growing the suspense and excitement or by creating a feeling of closure.
If you are the composer or producer of the instrumental, you can write a phrase that’s slightly different than the rest of that section. This change should create tension or release it (depending on how your transitioning and what you’re transitioning into). Additionally, adding an instrument/sound OR removing an instrumental/sound is a simple, effective way to do this. When the listener hears sounds being stripped away, or sounds being added, it creates a sensation that “something is about to happen” - which is the tension/suspense that I keep talking about.
There are obvious examples of this in Dcasso’s “On Go” - I made the beat with Dcasso, as he wrote the song, so the transitions were easy to make since I knew what he was wanting to do.
When working on “Society’s Woes” with JVTree, I incorporated this method in a somewhat subtle way, by stripping away certain percussive elements (like hi hats, and auxiliary percussion in the background).
If you’re not the composer/beat-maker (maybe you’re the engineer, maybe you’re the artist), you can still make composition changes to the instrumental using stutters, beat drops, tape stops, or tape ins. You could even grab a different section of the song to replace the current section where you want to create a transition.
For example, in Zachery Le’on’s “MidWestCoast”, we put a filter over the second half of the first verse, then dropped the beat right before the hook comes in.
A more subtle way to create smooth transitions is by using automation to fill the space or create ear candy that carries the momentum from one part to the next. If you start to fade out an instrument or a vocal part, then the listener is going to notice (whether consciously or subconsciously) and create the suspense we’re looking to add.
“Down Before” by Dcasso is a good example of using automation to fill space, using ear candy, and building suspense and tension from one part to the next.
The most frequent technique I use to create smooth transitions is by automating the delay at the end of a verse into a hook. By sending a bit more of the vocal into my delay on the last few words of a verse, the delay stands out a bit more and allows the verse to move cleanly into a hook.
A good example of this would be “Money Rolls” by Scottie Rollins, where I automate the delay send at end of his hook. Also, the bridge into the verse at 3:03.
For composers/producers/beat-makers/engineers, another method to try when you want an instrument to move out of the way while transitioning into another part is by automating both the volume AND reverb. If you fade out the volume while automating your reverb send to increase while the volume goes down, that instrument slowly moves backwards in the mix, putting it out of the way. This is very useful when you don’t want an instrument/voice to be drowned out, but you want to move it out of the way.
Additionally, you can try automating ANY type of effect to develop tension to facilitate your transition.
One of the most difficult transitions to execute is the “non-transition” - what I mean by this is a sudden change. Whether you introduce a wall of sound, you completely switch things up, or you have a “moment of silence”. If done right, a sudden transition can work well as a “transition”.
There are a few things to keep in mind when making a sudden change. First of all, it has to be “expected” - I don’t necessarily mean predictable, though. I mean that it has to be anticipated. A sudden change out of nowhere is extremely to make successful. If the production/mix leading up to this sudden change creates suspense and if the timing is right…then you have a chance. Additionally, it still has to FIT THE SONG. Beat switch-ups are somewhat common in hip-hop/rap and a lot of progressive/experimental rock genres will incorporate sudden changes even if they don’t fit the song, but there’s still something that makes it feel right - it has to serve a purpose, be timed just right, and the mix has to allow it to happen cleanly. Lastly, you have to be able to transition back (if you’re going to). You may be making a sudden change in the song and have no intention on going back, but if you do plan on going back to a previous verse or hook part, you must have a plan on how you’re going to transition back.
In Zakk Riffle”S “Out of This World” - there’s a sudden change at 2:19 that slows down the momentum of the track, but slowly builds back up and although it never goes back to the original beat, it feels very much cohesive to the rest of the track. This change and how Zakk works it, really gives the track closure and ends on a release of tension.
A basic example of this would be at the 2:12 mark of wolfi’s “misleading” where you expect the hook to come back in, but there’s a short break for a soft-spoken sentence, then the hook comes right in. It’s an unexpected sudden change, but it doesn’t take you out of the song:
Overall, you want the record to move like a story or a movie. You want the “scenes” to move into other in a way that feels intentional and cohesive. You want your “jump-cuts” to have an impact and not catch you off guard in a negative way. You want the story to grow, the same way you want the song to grow. You want the record to MOVE smoothly. Each part flowing into the next part so that you can enjoy the ride. These are just a few examples of how I create transitions, but there are many more!
I hope you can try these techniques out and have some success in creating music that’s as enjoyable to listen to as it is to make!