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Music

The Art of Fades, Sequencing and Spacing an Album

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In this tutorial, I'll show you how to arrange and create a better transition from one song to the next by looking at:

  • placing the songs in an appropriate order 
  • the use of silence between each song
  • applying fades to the head or tail of a song

The fades, sequencing and spacing of an album are often carried out at the final stage of the creative process. An understanding of this process can push a good album into a great one. 

Sequencing

It's better to decide on the song order before the songs are mastered. This can help with consistency, ensuring the songs sit side by side sonically and dynamically. 

In addition, a fresh perspective on the sequence could prove helpful. 

The Opener

The opening track sets the tone for the album. It doesn't have to be a single or song predicted to be the album's biggest hit, but it should be a song that clearly indicates the genre. 

Seven Nation Army and Smells Like Teen Spirit were both hits and perfect tone setters.   


The Body of the Album

The body of the album should have peaks and valleys, taking the listener to different places.  

Some artists arrange the songs into three or four song sets, the end of each set often being a quieter and slower song. Arranging an album into sets can be less overwhelming, resulting in a better album sequence.     

The Closer 

Ending an album doesn't have to be like ending a live set, with the big hit often at the end. It should however, like a concert, leave the listener wanting more.  

The last song is often slower, longer and for the most part textually thinner. The Tourist by Radiohead suits these elements perfectly. 

There are occasions where these factors are met, and in addition, the album's biggest hit is placed at the end of the record. Hurt by Nine Inch Nails is an excellent example of this.  


Lyrics 

There are times where lyrics dictate an album sequence. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was a concept album with the character committing suicide in the song Rock 'n' Roll Suicide

Wisely, it was placed at the end of the album. 

Odd One Out

There are occasions where the difficult decision of leaving a song off an album has to be made for the album to work stylistically. 

The song, however, doesn't have to go to waste. It could be used as a B-side to a single, saved for the next album, or added as a bonus track for a special release.     

Trial and Error

Sometimes it is better not over-intellectualise the process and simply use trial and error by shuffling the songs around. 

Try playing the last 30 seconds of a song and the first few seconds of the next, taking time to critically listen to how they sit side by side with each other in terms of tempo, key, theme, and sonic character. 

Spacing 

The silence between each song should be approached artistically. A set time for every transition should not be used. 

Some Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) have a default of two seconds. It is best to deselect this. 

The length of the silence depends on what has been and what is next. Use the 30-second rule discussed to help with the decision. 

Fast Followed by Slow

A fast song followed by a slow song often requires a longer length of silence between the songs. 

This helps to distance the relationship between the two songs, helping to make the song sound slower rather than dragging.  

Slow Followed by Fast

A slow song followed by a fast song often requires a short length of silence. This often helps create a greater impact. 

Genre

The genre may be a factor in the choice of length of silence. A classical album often works best with longer lengths of silence than, for example, a punk album.

Release Type

If you're spacing for vinyl or tape, artefacts like tape hiss or vinyl crackle can make the space feel shorter than listening digitally. 

Environment

A listener could hear a song finish earlier than another listener due to the difference in the type of environment in which they are listening. 

With that in mind, silence after a slow fade-out is often best kept short because a person listening in a car, for example, will often hear the song finish sooner than somebody listening tentatively in a quiet room.  

Fades

Fades can be described as an increase or decrease in volume.  

Fades are used for one of two reasons:

  • to smooth the audio
  • to avoid audio glitches 

They are often created at the very start or end of the audio. 

Two elements make a fade: 

  • Duration—the duration of the increase or decrease in volume 
  • Curve type—the variability of the rate that the volume increases or decreases over the course of a fade

Below are the four common curve types displayed as fade-ins. 

Linear

Linear fade curve
Linear fade curve

Logarithmic

Logarithmic fade curve
Logarithmic fade curve

Exponential

Exponential fade curve
Exponential fade curve

S-Curve 

S-curve fade
S-curve fade

Advice for each curve type:  

  • Linear is often the default curve in a DAW. Some DAWs automatically add an extremely short linear curve to the beginning of the audio. This is to prevent a click at the very start of the audio, which is a result of no silence at the very start of the track.
  • Logarithmic is the most natural sounding of the four types.
  • Exponential is good for suppressing reverb during fade-outs and helpful in creating a sudden impact during fade-ins.
  • S-curves are a combination of two types of curve—exponential to the midpoint and logarithmic thereafter.

The duration of the fade is more subjective. An average duration is two to five seconds. Alternatively, try being experimental. The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys by Traffic has a fade-in duration of 1m 22s. 

Fades can be applied during the mixing or mastering stage. Advantages during the mixing stage include: 

  • Reducing the time needed during mastering, which could result in a lesser expense.
  • Allowing for more creative use of fades. For example, you can fade in/out individual instruments at their own rate. This can make for a more interesting fade as opposed to all instruments boosting or attenuating in sync.

Advantages during the mastering stage: 

  • Helping to create a more suitable transition from one song to the next as you can hear how songs sit side by side.
  • Allowing for more creative use of sequencing. For example, cross-fades between two songs.

Cross-Fades 

The purpose of a cross-fade is to make a seamless transition. 

You may use them for one of two reasons:

  • transitioning from one song to another
  • making two timbres sound like one

Cross-fades can use any of the four curve types.  

An example using two linear curves:

An example using two linear curves
An example using two linear curves

For song transition, cross-fades work best when the end of the music is textually thin. For example, a drone or sustained note bleeding into the preceding song. 

Listen to the album Francis the Mute by Mars Volta which has a cross-fade on every song. 

Final Thought

Share your ideas on the sequencing, fades and silence in your album. Involve the mastering engineer in the decisions you make. Get thoughts from family and friends. 

A lot of hard work, time and money are often invested into producing an album. Putting the album together is the final creative step. Time and thought should be allocated to it. After all, it would be such a shame to slip up so close to the finishing line. 

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