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Song-ending Fadeouts: Do Them Right

2:35 pm Home Recording

When music is played live, each song must have some kind of ending, whether it be a strike-and-hold final chord, a snappy “cha-cha-cha,” or one of those crazy all-out noisefests with everybody in the band going nuts on their instruments for awhile and then suddenly stopping, to tumultuous applause (and possibly some jeering).

With the advent of recording, the need to definitively end each and every song was eliminated. Now, if you couldn’t come up with a proper ending you could just vamp along to some simple chords from the song for 20 or 30 seconds at the end and then gradually fade the level down to zero during the vamp when the song is mastered. Needless to say, this production technique became very popular, and remains so today.

Whether you do your fadeouts “by hand” or use an automatic fadeout function built into your DAW or software, there are certain guidelines you should follow to make sure that the fade sounds natural and that it provides a suitable, if somewhat inconclusive, ending for your song. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

1. Use the right curve.

Whether your fade is manual or automatic, you should consider the shape of the fadeout curve you are going to apply. This boils down to how fast you are going to move the fader downwards (or have the computer do it) as the fadeout progresses. Is the fade going to start slow and get faster? Or should it start fast and get slower? And, what difference does it make?

My Korg D16XD recorder has three fadeout curves designated as Type A, Type B, and Type C. (You tell it what section of the track to fade and which curve to apply, and it does the fade automatically.) The shapes of these curves are like this:

home recording tips graphic A
Fadeout Curve Type A
home recording tips graphic B
Fadeout Curve Type B
home recording tips graphic C
Fadeout Curve Type C

In my work, I always use the Type A fadeout curve. This curve starts out by fading fairly fast, which I like because it signals the listener that there is in fact going to be a fade! As the fadeout progresses, the “automatic fader” goes down more and more slowly, giving the fade a “long tail.” This is important because so much of today’s listening is done in headphones. A sudden dropoff in level, even at the very end when you think the sound is almost gone anyway, will be easily noticeable and is a disconcerting way to end the song.

The Type C curve, which starts fading slowly and then speeds up the fade right to the end, is never the right one for a song-ending fade. The effect is of a rather sudden, precipitous dropoff, not at all like the fades we are used to in “real” songs. The Type B curve is sort of a hybrid of the other two.

2. Use the right length.

Ah, the “right length.” Not too long, not too short. This is completely subjective, especially on the “too long” side. (Is the fade on Hey Jude “too long”? That’s the longest one I can think of.) I would say that it is worse to have the fade be too short (the precipitousness problem) than to have it be somewhat on the long side, especially if the music is sounding good at that point.

A fade that’s too short makes the song sound rough and unfinished, while one that’s too long risks boring the listener, definitely not what you want right at the end!

3. Start the fade at the right time.

Again, the “right” time is subjective and has a lot to do with your overall concept of the song. This decision becomes more difficult when the vampout consists of a wailing guitar solo or other melodic part, as opposed to going out on just a backing pattern. I find that it is more common for a fade to start too late than for it to start too early. The natural temptation, alas, is towards “more” rather than “less.”

In particular, if there is a supercool part well into the vampout solo, the temptation is to hold off on starting the fade until after the nifty bit has finished. The problem is that the listener may have “given up” on the song by that point, especially if there has already been 16 bars of similar soloing before the cool part. (Remember, the song is already technically “over.”)

The only thing I can suggest here is that you time the fade so that the supercool bit is the very last thing that the listener hears before the song dies out altogether. This implies that there was even cooler stuff after that!

4. Try selective fading.

OK, here’s the neatest tip of all. Even if you knew about all that other stuff you still might not have tried this. Normally a fade is accomplished using a “Master” fader, or perhaps an adjacent pair of Master faders for the left and right sides. But what if you did the fade by actually turning down the eight (or 16, or whatever) basic tracks of the song individually, using the channel faders?

Fading the tracks separately means that you can do fadeout tricks like fading the instruments faster than the vocals so by the end of the fade there are only vocals left (or vice versa). You could fade everything but one guitar, leaving it at full volume, then fade it separately after everything else is gone. There are lots of possibilities! Of course, if you have a great many tracks to fade, and only two hands, you might want to take advantage of group busses and/or automation if you have these features in your mixing setup. Or get a helper!

Here’s a quick example. In my song Not Enough Face (produced by my music partner Jack Burgess), the instruments fade out at different rates, eventually leaving just the rhythm guitar and after that, just the rain sound!

(Please enable popups for this site if the mp3 player does not appear, or just click the mp3 link to listen.)

Not Enough Face (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: vocal, keyboard bass, percussion
Jack Burgess: guitars

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