This is a great question that reveals my tendency to make everything somewhat in your face. But there are definitely times when the beat of the music should be softened. This can work for an entire track, or even sections of a track to produce dynamic movement across the track. Hit the read moar button to learn three techniques to soften your beats or check out Electronic Music Production to learn all you ever wanted.
To soften your beats, one obvious solution is the inverse of the suggestion made in Strengthening Your Beats, simply turn up your drums as you are writing the rest of your track. The natural effect of this will be for you to write musical phrases that avoid the beat because of the drum's predominance.
Once you've written the rest of the elements within the track, turn your drums back down to their reasonable levels, and you should hear that the beat has been de-emphasized, the pulse will be weaker. This can be helpful in writing background tracks, tracks that the listener doesn't have to consciously pay attention to. This type of music can slip into the background and set a mood. But be careful, if you want to hold the listener's attention, it may be difficult once the pulse falls below a certain threshold.
Assuming you have already written your song and you feel your beat is a little too strong, there are three simple techniques to soften your beat. Before applying these techniques, you must first determine what is making the beat so strong. More often than not it will be the drums hammering away on the beat. But if you've been dutifully following my suggestions, you will likely have other musical elements strengthening your beat. For the examples below, we'll consider that it is the drums that are providing the foundation of your strong pulse, but whatever it is that is beefing your beat up, apply these techniques to those elements and you should have a softer pulse.
Decrease the level! It is obvious, but in the great big world of music production, the single most powerful attribute of a sound is its volume. The only trick here is to make sure you only turn down hits that occur on the beat. Pulse is created by the dynamic between loud and quiet; what we want to do here is decrease the dynamic range between the pulse occurring on the beat and the sounds in the off beat (sounds after the 1 but before the 2, after the 2 but before the 3, etc.).
|Here the peaks are quite high on the quarter note beats, emphasizing the pulse for a very strong beat.|
|Here the level of hits on the quarter notes have been decreased, while the level of all other sounds off the beat have been increased, de-emphasizing the pulse, ultimately producing a softer beat.|
EQ! Another technique to soften your beat is to remove high frequencies from hits occurring on the beat. As sounds travel through the air, high frequencies are naturally attenuated. Because of this phenomenom, the brain perceives dulled sounds to be further away. If you remove high frequencies from hits occurring on the beat, the pulse will sound more distant, and therefore softer.
Transient Shaper! Get out that handy transient shaper, and soften the attack of elements landing on the beat. A transient shaper is a dynamics processor somewhat like a compressor or a limiter, but it functions in a slightly different, but significant way. Compressors and limiters are triggered when the level of the incoming sound exceeds a certain predetermined threshold. Transient shapers, on the other hand, are triggered by the rate of change between a quiet and a loud point of the sound. That means that the transient shaper is listening for the attack portion of sounds only, it doesn't really care about the raw amplitude of the sound like a compressor does. Therefore, you can turn down just the attack of hits that are occurring on the beat, the effect of which is to soften the pulse.
4! 4! There were only supposed to be 3? Well if you take anything away from this article, please take this: small changes to various attributes of a sound or the mix will likely produce better results than making one big change. So in this case, it might be helpful to drop the volume of hits landing on the beat a bit, pull out some of their high frequencies, and then soften the transients a touch. All of these slight adjustments together will help you to soften your beat in a natural, almost spookly transparent way.