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The Magic’s in the Transitions

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So you have just created an awesome bass line, jumping lead, and pounding drum groove that gel perfectly together but something is missing. When everything hits something just seems wrong or out of place. Were you using the wrong synth patch? Perhaps the wrong kick sample? Maybe the musical material from the verse and chorus do not make sense together. Or maybe you just transitioned wrong.

In this tutorial we are going to cover all things about creating smooth musical transitions. While it is important to have quality musical material in your tracks, you still need to transition between them well or everything may seem rushed or jumbled. If your verse just jumps into the chorus with no rhyme or reason then the chorus will usually seem really out of place and the same could be said for the reverse.

So if you are ready to make the different sections of your song gel together then this is the tutorial for you. So the next question is why haven't you transitioned into the tutorial yet?

The Elements of Transition

Before we can really understand and effectively use the different kinds of transitions we need to first grasp what different the different transitional elements available are to us as musicians. There are of course infinite possible transitional elements but not all of them are obvious to the listener and if they are not obvious in some sense then they did not do their job as a transition. For our purposes in this tutorial we will be using dynamics, frequency, and rhythm.

In this tutorial I will explain everything in context of a generic electronic dance track however conceptually you should be able to apply any of these concepts to any other genre you find yourself working in.

So without further adieu let’s look at what makes a transition transition!

The Elements of Transition: Dynamics

The most obvious method of musical transition is always the use of dynamics. The human ear is very perceptive to changes in volume we and can easily use this to help us create distinct sections in our tracks.

Traditionally you will find crescendos and decrescendos in musical works that go from soft to loud and loud to soft depending on the context and this is all well and good. However you can also use the complete absent of any noise or sound as a transition and use sudden loud bursts of volume as a transition too.

Here are some more tips on using dynamics for your transitions...

  • For a build up into a large chorus use a sudden drop in volume and build it back up into the new section.
  • In the case of a break down gradually but obviously bring down the volume of various instruments till everything is almost gone except for a few instruments.
  • Another option for a build up is to build up the volume and at the last minute drop the volume for a few seconds before the chorus or other section kicks in.
  • The opposite of the above tip would be to break everything down and then at the last second either build everything back up quickly or just dive right into the loud section without a build up.

For your listening pleasure here are a few examples to examine. Each of these examples will be four bars and show a different kind of transition.

First let’s have a listen to the example without any transitions...


And here are some dynamics transitions...

The Elements of Transition: Frequency

The second element we can use for our musical transitions is the use of frequency; particularly frequency density and motion. The human hearing rage goes from 20 Hz all the way up to about 20 kHz (depending on how loud you listen to your music!) which gives us plenty large frequency range to work with in order to create out transitions.

As I mentioned earlier, it is the use of frequency density and motion that will really help to give our transitions with this element. The idea here is that by either adding or removing frequency ranges we can create a transitional motion in different frequency ranges.

With that in mind, let’s look at some tactics to employ this technique...

  • If you are using a low passed pad sound try and open up the filter over a few bars to add some harmonic density and motion.
  • In the case of sections where you already have a high frequency density use either a sudden low or high pass filter and then remove it over the course of the transition.
  • If you do not have a high frequency density try adding the same musical material up or down an octave or two or even three over the course of the transition to create a transition.

Here are a few examples for your study...


And here are some frequency transitions...

The Elements of Transition: Rhythm

Our final element for musical transitions is the use of rhythm; in particular the use of rhythmic density and complexity. Generally speaking, by creating a more rhythmically dense and complex set of bars we can generate the transition effect without changing the dynamics or frequency spectrum of musical content.

Most often this technique works great with drum patterns but can easily be used if you have a lot of different synth and bass lines as well. In addition, you will usually see this technique is paired with the dynamic transitions but for now let's just take a look at the rhythmic technique on its own...

  • If your current musical content is rhythmically simple, try adding either a delay effect or use 16th note syncopation to add some rhythmic complexity over the course of the transition.
  • Be careful with highly dense rhythms and highly complex rhythms being used at the same time as it can be very hard to create a transition when you have already maxed out the musical content. In addition, having both high density and complexity will create a musical context that can be too much for some listeners.
  • If you already have a high level of either density or complexity try and suddenly drop off all the rhythms down to their most basic parts and then build it back up for the transition.

Here are a few examples for your study...


And here are some rhythmic transitions...

The Transitional Curves

Now that we have covered what elements are available to us, we can now discuss more ways to combine and use these elements in our transitions and create new transitional curves. But what exactly do I mean by transitional curves?

The idea here is to approach the intensity of our transitions, whether dealing with dynamics, frequency, or rhythm, like a curve on a graph that either ramps up or down depending on the type of transition; with time on the x axis and intensity on the y axis. By thinking about our transitions as graphical curves we can visually represent our transitions and more effectively choose the appropriate transition for our music.

The Transitional Curves: Linear

These types of curves are by far the most basic transitional curves available to us and were the basis of the previous sections examples. With a linear curve the intensity ramps evenly over the length of the transition; either up or down. The intensity ramp could affect dynamic volume, frequency density, rhythmic complexity, or any combination thereof.

Since we have already seen this ramp in the previous sections let’s listen to a few examples where we combine the rhythm, frequency, and dynamics...


And here are some linear transitions...

The Transitional Curves: Exponential

When you are looking for a more sudden change in your transitions then this is for you. The idea behind the exponential curve is that there is very little change for the first roughly three quarters of the transition and then all of a sudden the change ramps up full force at the very end. Or if you prefer you can start out with a sudden drop in intensity and then slowly fade the rest of the transition down using the exponential curve in reverse. Here are some uses for this type of transitional filter...

  • For a sudden transition that appears out of nowhere use this curve either on the dynamics or on opening a filtered sound.
  • When coming out of a chorus you can use this filter in reverse to suddenly suck out all of the intensity and sharply place you in a new section.
  • If you want to use this curve for rhythms try using it on a very quick and fast snare build to create some lift.


And here are the exponential transitions...

The Transitional Curves: Log

This next curve is essentially the inverse of the exponential curve in that we start out with a massive build up and then slowly add a little bit more over the rest of the transition. While it technically is not a natural log curve, it is close enough to be considered a log curve for our purposes.

The idea here is to give a sudden build to our transitions that appears seemingly out of nowhere. If you use the reverse of the log curve you then will get a sudden drop off in intensity at the end as opposed to the beginning.

Here are some good uses for using this transitional curve...

  • If you want a sudden shift out of a quite or broke down section into a big chorus section that lasts for a few bars for hitting the actual chorus then this is the curve for you.
  • For coming out of the big chorus section you could use the inverse of this curve to maintain the intensity for as a long as possible before everything is brought down.
  • If you are fond of pad sounds for transitions then this curve can work really well on the filters on a pad for a quick opening on the filters.

Here are a few examples for your study...


And here are the log transitions...

The Transitional Curves: Terraced

This final curve is actually not a curve at all but a step like build up or break down know as terracing. The idea here is that we increase the intensity in larger steps as opposed to smooth curves and that this ends up resembling a step or terrace.

What this creates is a sense of motion that ends up being rhythmic in nature even if we are not using this curve on the rhythmic element. You can of course create different step lengths but traditionally in the electronic genre or some other rhythmic genre the terraces are about a bar long.

With that in mind let’s have a look at some good uses for this curve...

  • If you want to incrementally build up your rhythm then try and use this terracing curve on a snare build so that you start with 8th notes, move then to 16th notes, then to 32nd notes, and finally end with 64th notes.
  • When you need some rhythmic motion to your frequency ranges try and use this curve on the filter so that it opens up more and more every bar.
  • Finally for adding some rhythmic motion to your builds try using the terracing on the dynamics and consistently get louder with every step. Unfortunately this technique does not often work well in reverse but you may want to try it anyways in case it does in your situation.

Here are a few examples for your study...


And here are the terraced transitions...


So what have we learned? That by using dynamics, frequency density, and rhythmic density and complexity we can create smooth or sharp transitions usable for most any type of music, particularly in the electronic genres. Obviously you will need to carter the transition to your style but the concepts remain the same.

Try and combine the various transitional curves on the different elements to create different transitions. Maybe use the terracing on the drum rhythms with a linear curve on a frequency filter all the while using the exponential curve for the dynamics on an effect. The options are practically endless!

Until next time, happy transitioning!

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