You know the feeling when you listen to a well-produced electronic track: Everything about it seems to burst with energy, each of the elements twist and wrap organically around each another, giving the impression that the whole track is one big living and evolving ‘thing’.
But when you’re getting into producing electronic – that is, loop or grid-based music – it can be really difficult figuring out how to inject your own tracks with this sort of excitement and life-like energy. It seems on the surface like it’s just a matter of flicking from one repeated/looped section to another: but when you try lining up the blocks of programmed drums and synths in your DAW, the result just doesn’t have the kind of energy and sense of drama that you hoped for. Fortunately, there are loads of tricks for sustaining interest in loop-based music, disguising and blurring the various grids that you use to build your tracks on, and making them feel like living, breathing creations with a power all their own. None of these tips are very difficult to implement on their own: but try using as many of them as possible together, and you’ll find your finished tracks positively pulse with a new sense of urgent, organic dynamism. By the way all the tips and tricks on this list are in a sense examples of the 10 Principles Every Producer Must Know To Achieve The Pro Sound.
1. Non-Sync Delay & Reverb
Try turning off tempo-sync on your delay effects, and experimenting with longer reverb pre-delay times. Programming your spatial effects manually can introduce very subtle timing ‘discrepancies’ that are surprisingly effective for loosening up the groove and giving a subtly human feel to your electronic/programmed tracks.
2. Drop In Groovy Percussion Loops To Loosen Up The Main Beat
A classic trick, but it works. Percussion loops with a nice bit of organic shuffle laid behind your main kick and snare pattern can instantly transform an otherwise heavily quantized groove. I find that trying out many different percussion loops and perhaps taking the sounds of one loop, chopping them up and matching them to the pattern and placement of another loop, can also quickly spark lots of ideas developing a lively and more original rhythm track as I write.
3. Sample Grooves And Patterns From Your Favourite Tracks
Take your favourite drum loops and grooves and use them as templates for your own patterns. You can either do this using the features of your DAW – for example the Groove Quantize functions in Cubase – or you can simply line up your own MIDI (or audio) hits manually against the waveform of the loop on a neighbouring track in your DAW, and add in your own velocity information if necessary. This takes a bit of practice to sense where the real ‘beginning’ of some hits actually are (especially sounds with slower attacks like shakers), but once you’ve done it a few times and shuffled things backwards or forwards to taste you’ll find it pretty straightforward.
4. Program sampled instrument parts as if you were playing the real thing
Real instruments and players have physical limitations that it can be helpful to remember, in order either to give your programmed samples more realism, or simply so you don’t make your compositions too dense. To take a simple example, a drummer only has two hands (and two feet): so when he’s striking a crash cymbal at the beginning of a new phrase, he probably won’t also be striking the hihat, tom or other percussion at the same time. Incorporating little things like this can make a surprising difference to the natural ‘flow’ of programmed parts, even in electronic genres where strict realism isn’t always an issue.
5. Use Round-Robin Samples
In your sampler you can usually set a small pool of different samples to be selected from randomly every time the same, single note is triggered. These ‘round robin’ sample sets help you get around the problem of every single snare hit, for example, being exactly the same every time – even small differences (almost imperceptible when listened to in isolation) between the samples can have a profound effect on the final result, especially if you’re attempting to program dynamic fills and drum rolls.
6. Keep It Real: Don’t Just Loop Short Programmed Sections, Make Variations
While percussion parts in electronic music are almost always looped, that doesn’t mean you have to use the same short loops throughout the whole track. Don’t simply record a one- or two-bar part and then repeat it throughout the entire track: Even if you want to have the same drum pattern all the way through, try recording it several times and mix up the different versions. Each version you create will have slightly different dynamics and timing variations, and the variety will help to reproduce the more ‘alive’ feel of a real drum track with some subtle dynamic changes.
7. Make Drum And Percussion Sounds Interact
Mute/choke groups are usually for programming realistic drum or percussion parts: for example, ‘choking’ (i.e. stopping) an open hi-hat if the closed hat is played immediately after. However, you can also use this feature for some more unnatural but similarly dynamic interaction between your electronic drums and percussion. It’s a bit like sidechain compression, helping to gel the different elements together – the more the parts of your arrangement interact, the more alive and involving it will appear to your listeners.
8. Construct Melodies Using Counterpoint
Listen to your favourite tracks, from any genre, and you might be surprised how simple any single part is. Usually the magic happens because of the interplay between parts and instruments. The sum of all the different parts interacting creates whole new musical phrases. This is counterpoint. Try keeping your individual synth or drum parts simple, and instead of making complex melodies with a single instrument, consider how breaking it up and voicing different elements of the musical phrase over several instruments or sounds makes it sound more fluid, engaging and… yes, alive.
9. Rhythmic Syncopation – Push And Pull The Beat And The Bass
Maybe syncopation can be considered as something like counterpoint for drums and percussion. Always think carefully about the interplay between your rhythmic elements – in dance music this is doubly important, as an interesting and dynamic groove is everything. With 4/4 club beats the interest is usually created by highlighting various divisions of the bar around the heavy, constant and metronomic kick and snare. To get some bounce and life into your dance beats, program percussion hits to syncopate – contrast – with the main, straight-ahead rhythm. These off-beat hits can be further enhanced by shuffling them manually forwards or backwards in small increments (see Groove Quantizing above). This is also a major secret to the ‘driving’ rhythm underpinning all electronic dance music – try pushing or pulling either the drums or the bass ahead or behind each other and you’ll create an immediate sense of delicious tension and ‘emergency’.
10. Get solo players to play over synthesized parts for surprising realism
A trick often used by film and orchestral composers on a budget is to use sample libraries for the large orchestral parts, but to have session musicians (or themselves) play a live solo instrument over the top. This can be very effective in convincing listeners that the entire thing is a real performance. Of course, we can apply the same methods to programming synth and electronic parts too: adding a layer of live ‘performance’ – a synth phrase or a manually automated filter, for example – to a section of fairly rigidly programmed synths and pads can liven the entire sequence up massively.
11. Tease The Listener – With-Holding Elements To Build Anticipation
Build a Compelling Structure and Arrangement: Making A Track Is Like Telling A Story You need to begin and develop a track with just enough excitement to grab your listeners attention, but not so much that you leave yourself with nowhere to build to as the track progresses. Remember you have the rest of the track over which to space out the stunning moments, effects and hooks, so don’t pile it all up in the first section. Gradually opening filters on synth parts over a 4-, 8- or 16-bar phrase is a great way of teasingly introducing new sections. I sometimes think of my hooks, effects and really impressive parts of a track as currency: I want to spend them wisely, and only at the points in the track when I’ll have maximum bang for my buck – that is, maximum impact on the listener.
12. Learn The Psycho-Acoustic Effects Of Different Frequencies
There is an interesting relationship between the perceived level of excitement in a track at a given moment, and how many/which sections of the frequency spectrum are being filled. Consider what happens on a dancefloor when the bass and drums are dropped out, leaving just a soaring lead synth: people stop dancing and instinctively put their hands in the air. They just know it’s a breakdown. Conversely, if you strip everything back to just a driving bassline and simple drum pattern, dancers will tend to hook into the groove and concentrate on their footwork. Mix up your arrangements by emphasizing – and just as significantly, dropping out or de-emphasizing – different parts of the frequency spectrum in different sections.
13. Master Loud/Quiet Dynamics
There doesn’t have to be any relation between the level at which an element is played back in your mix compared with how loud the original sound was recorded. This simple aspect of recording and mixing opens up all kinds of sound design possibilities that can add excitement to your tracks. For example, you could record someone really screaming out a chorus at the top of their voice, and then mix it quite low and distant-sounding in the context of the complete mix. It will still sound like it’s being belted out, but because it’s much quieter in relation to the other elements, you’ve created a lot more depth and interest in your mix. Similarly, if you record a whisper and turn it up really loud, it will still sound like a whisper – just a very intense one, giving the impression of great intimacy between the music and the listener. Of course this technique can be applied to any instrument or effect, not just vocals, and it’s almost guaranteed to increase a feeling of straining tension or great atmosphere within the track – listen to any Massive Attack album for some great examples.
14. Listen, Listen, Listen: Analyse & Deconstruct Your Favourite Tracks
This is one tip I come back to time and again. There’s absolutely no substitute for experience, so be sure to analyse the arrangements of all your favourite tracks. Listen to what other producers have done and try to figure out why it works (or why it doesn’t work, as the case may be…). The more you listen, the better you’ll get at picking out the oh-so-important minor details. You can get into massive depth here: bring an mp3 of the track into your DAW, chop or add markers at the beginnings of each new section; note which elements appear in which section, and eventually you can build a picture of how the producers arrange window would have looked. If you’re really anal about it like me, you can actually make dummy parts, colour-coded, each on their own channel, to represent each part that you hear in your analysis track. I have found this massively helpful for really tearing apart the components of my favourite tracks and seeing what makes them tick. In fact it is like taking apart a precision clock, seeing how all the cogs and gears fit together.
15. Cross-Pollenation: Listen Beyond Your Own Genre
Look much further than your own chosen genre for inspiration. The best Pro Sound Producers are Musicologists – they don’t distinguish between good and bad styles or genres, only good and bad music. Also, if you’re writing songs rather than club/dance tracks, study the structures used in electronic and loop-based music for some habit-breaking inspiration. And vice versa: if you’re used to making very grid-based music, listen to classical music and rock or pop for the structural idiosyncrasies that impart them with real human interest and excitement – for example, I noticed that it’s surprising how many odd bars or extra beats you can incorporate into what sounds like very grid-like system music, after noticing how in rock and metal they often make unexpected stops, starts and pauses for extra excitement and anticipation. Keep listeners on their toes, surprise them, and they’ll remain engaged. There’s A Lot To Be Learned From Classical Music. It’s hard to specify any one thing that you’ll pick up from listening to and studying classical music, but if you use a lot of samples of real instruments in your work (and even if you don’t), listening to the work of a wide range of composers will provide plenty of ideas with regard to new textures and instrumental combinations. I remember Aphex Twin talking in an interview about getting inspiration from the ‘evil bass’ parts created by 20th Century classical composer Gyorgy Ligeti.
16. If A Part’s Not Working, Don’t Agonise – Just Bin It & Move On
This is much more difficult to do than it sounds. Keep your momentum going and don’t be afraid to slash away at your own work until only the gems remain. The knock-on affect of being ruthless and moving quickly as you work is that your parts retain a freshness that it’s quite easy to loose if you try and make things too perfect. Make sure every sound and part is pulling it’s weight in the track – remember, Less Is More.
17. Set The Perfect Tempo (or Tempos)
Many electronic music genres have pretty specific tempo ranges in which they usually work best: House between 125-128bpm, Dubstep around 140 bpm, Drum & Bass at 170 or 180 bpm. If you’re making music that fits into a dance music genre, it makes sense to be aware of what the typical tempos are of the current tracks in that style that DJs would be mixing your tracks with. On the other hand, other genres are far less tempo-sensitive, and it becomes more about finding the particular pace that just feels right with your groove and instrumentation. Once you’ve got a basic arrangement figured out, it can pay to just take a few minutes experimenting with the BPM: make changes of a few BPM slower and faster, and sometimes you’ll find the track just magically gels much better (even if you’ve thrown your samples out of tempo sync – you can manually fix this afterwards). The other thing to mention about tempo is that it’s becoming more and more acceptable/exciting to change tempo during a track: either making subtle increases during a buildup (something like imitating a real drummer naturally speeding up going into a chorus) , or going all the way and making genre-hopping tempo-changes like DJ Fresh on Louder.
18. Plot Out The Structural Elements – Start The Arrangement With The End In Mind For An Organic, Uncluttered Buildup
Usually the most important sections of any song or track are the intro and the chorus (in dance or other electronic music, the breakdown/main riff reprise takes the place of a ‘chorus’). The intro sets the mood and direction of the song, while the chorus/main drop is the section that really gets under the listeners skin and becomes, in their minds, the heart and essence of the track. With this in mind, it makes sense to start by working on the busiest, fullest part of the track – the returning main riff. From there, you can work backwards, knowing where you’re building up to – this way you’ll feel comfortable about stripping out most of the elements for the intro and buildup sections. I find if I start at the intro, I generally add more elements than are actually necessary, afraid that it isn’t exciting enough: but this then means that in order to make the track progressively more exciting and hold the listeners attention, you have to pile on so many more elements that by the final climactic section it’s a weighed-down mess of mud and clutter. So, by starting with the final/busiest section – the signature section really – you can be confident that however sparse the other sections are, it’s alright because you’re simply building towards the goods-delivering part later. Many problems that people have at the mixing stage, trying to get things flowing, are not really mixing issues at all: they’re space-related, arrangement issues. Listen to your favourite club tracks with this in mind, and you might be surprised to discover, when you really analyse it, how little is going on musically most of the time. This is the art of building anticipation. Another benefit of this method is it trains you to work with a smaller number of parts for most sections, which forces you to make those parts more interesting and alive rather than just resorting to adding another instrument or part to make things more exciting.
19. Introduce a New Twist On The Existing Chords
Try laying a new set of chords underneath a part that’s already been repeated several times with its original chords. The effect is unsettling, adding tension and twisting the tune to show new aspects of itself, and once more helps to maintain listener interest. Keep your audience on their toes – don’t feed them the same parts and accompanying chord pregressions every time. Try switching chords and riffs half way through.
20. Mix It Up: Use Sections Of Noise And Dissonance
After a certain number of repetitions, even the most catchy of choruses can begin to feel stale. When you feel you’ve reached this point in a track, try moving as far away as possible from the established harmonic/melodic content of the song, into a dissonant section. This creates a feeling of instability, which makes for an exciting change, and also sets up for the welcome feeling that ‘stability has been restored’ when the hook/riff comes back in.
21. Powerful Melodies Always Incorporate Tension & Release On A Micro Level
Another tip for listener satisfaction: observe the rules of tension and release when working on melodies, because these two opposites provide a lot of the power of a melody. Melodies that proceed upwards usually create tension, while a feeling of release is engendered when the tune ‘descends’ from the tension point.
22. Use Creative Compression And Dynamics Processing
Emphasise the groove dynamics with compression: Rhythmic Compression On A Drum Loop 1. Turn the ratio and threshold controls up until the signal is heavily compressed, with a large amount of gain reduction indicated on the meters. 2. The pumping or breathing effect is dependent on the attack and release controls. Set the attack to the fastest position and release to the slowest. Now move the release control through its range to its fastest position and note how the sound changes. You’ll hear rhythmic compression effects at fast release settings. 3. Now, with the release control on a fast setting, move the attack control for slower attack times and note how the sound changes. The relationship between the two controls will give many sound variations, and it should be possible to get the compression effectively turning on and off in time with the track. 4.Once you have got a sound that you like, use the Output or Make-Up gain knob to set the output level to match the next piece of equipment.
23. Execute A Blinding Breakdown
The most satisfying breakdowns strip the track back to the very barest essentials. A breakdown is all about anticipation: you are toying with the listener, so removing key elements like kick drums, basslines and hats or other percussion is a simply way of making listeners/dancers itch for the return of the complete, driving groove. Also use silence to enable the listener to ‘take a breath’. For example, when coming out of a breakdown, try muting all the parts apart from a snare hit on the downbeat just before everything comes back. Leave the reverbs engaged though, so you get a nice bit of ambience hanging over the space. On a technical tip, leaving a gap of silence also lets the compressors and limiters in a typical club sound-system reset themselves and lets the speaker cones retract, resulting in a drop with much more impact as the compressor kicks in fresh.
24. A Key Change
Key changes are not just a choreography cue for boybands to get off their stools for the final chorus of a ballad. Why do key changes work? Because they can lift a song at that difficult ‘two-thirds of the way through’ stage, where the listener’s interest might be beginning to waver, and can make the same riffs and patterns suddenly feel fresh, new and that much more emotive all over again. The usual key change is to move up a tone, so if your track is in the key of A, try shifting all the melodic parts up to B for the climax section.
25. The Power Of Vocals
Never underestimate the simple power of vocals, or even vocal samples and snippets, to liven and loosen up an electronic track. Even short vocal samples can lend a surprising amount of humanization to a track.
26. Use Unusual Instruments
If you’re bored of the same old sounds in your songs, try something a bit more unusual or bizarre. Of course you can even sample things that aren’t instruments at all; anything that makes a noise can be sampled, pitched (if necessary) in your sampler and used as the basis for a new custom ‘what is that cool sound?’ instrument.
27. Use Pad Sounds
Pad sounds are generally soft, sustained background sounds that don’t grab your attention but rather are used to add mood or a bit of depth to an arrangement. If your song is sounding a bit thin and lacking depth, and you can’t quite put your finger on why, adding pad sounds could be the solution. To use pad sounds effectively, you also have to take on board the principle of sometimes making some sounds worse, EQing or processing them quite harshly in order for them to fulfill their function within the context of the whole mix. This doesn’t mean that your pads have to be always boring, however: you can use a tempo-pulsing sound or program basic filter sweeps to provide movement and interest without distracting from the main parts.
28. Change The Register Of Synth Or Pad Parts In Different Sections To Build Intensity
Related to the key change concept. The register of a part is how high up it’s played – for example, a piano part played in a high register would be played high up (i.e. to the right) on the keyboard. If every part in your track is in the same register, it’ll probably sound either dull or too dense. Try spreading parts about a bit and changing registers for particular parts as the track develops. String and synth arrangements will sound more varied and lively if you use the different registers wisely. For example, strings backing a hook section could begin in their lower registers and move up, to end in their highest: the effect is of ‘lifting’ the section and increasing its impact towards a powerful climactic moment.
29. Use Counter-Melodies For Pads & Synths
Another way to give your string and pad arrangements more realism and integrity is to create string counter-melodies which work on their own, in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm, rather than just echoing the tracks main chord progressions.
30. Be aware of listener expectations: when to indulge them, when to defy them
When arranging, It’s sometimes best to do the obvious and kick in with the big chorus at the end – it’s what people will expect and probably what they’ll want to hear. Equally, though, defying expectations and going somewhere that isn’t immediately obvious can be a really effective move. Rules are there to be broken. It’s good to have some tried-and-tested arrangement tricks, but some great club tracks throw all the rules out of the window, so be prepared to experiment.
31. Repeat Your Hook On Different Instruments
If you’ve created a good riff or clever part, making sure to use it at least two or three times will help create a feeling of continuity. However, if you want a track that doesn’t become boring, repetition has to be balanced with novel ideas. When you listen back to your arrangement you should be asking yourself whether something new happens often enough to stimulate new interest, and also whether the best bits of the track are repeated sufficiently often for them to become lodged in the mind of the listener. Use a hook in more than one way. It’s a classic arranging technique to have the main vocal melody played by instruments too, and this works equally well in instrumental/electronic music, for example by switching the same riff to a new synth voicing or patch for a new section: the change will usually be just as effective as if you were playing a new musical motif.
32. Let Loose: Record Performances, Embrace Accidents And The Unexpected
Anything random should be encouraged, at least initially. When you’re working with real people, you can’t be too much of a control freak if you want to get anything done, so try to adopt the same attitude with your studio tools. Try to encourage the unexpected. 75% of what happens might be unusable, but the remaining quarter may well inspire you. Try setting up a synth track to record all of your adjustments to the sound, effects and automation data as you play it back for several minutes. Treat it like a completely free jam session. Really go crazy with it, make it a spontaneous performance, with the kinds of extreme changes or settings you wouldn’t normally consider when deep in a ‘serious’ writing or mixing session. Then bounce down the file, and scrub back through it, picking out any nice accidents or sections that spark new ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of, that can be developed further. Experiment: don’t be disheartened if 80% of what you come up with is rubbish; the remaining 20% will invariably have been worth it…
33. Learn The Typical Dance Arrangement Forms & Layered Structure
…Partly so you can then subvert it, defy expectations and make a track with an organic structure of it’s own. I.e. learn the rules, understand how and why they work, so you’ll know when you can effectively break them. Even the most organic-sounding dance music is built in blocks., so think in 8-, 16- and 32-bar sections to begin with. But where many people fall down is in keeping these building blocks too rigid, for example keeping the exact same instruments for 16 bars and then abruptly changing everything for the next 16. To make block-based music hypnotic rather than boring, you also have to arrange by building up sounds in layers, and then either gradually stripping them away again in reverse order, or in the case of a breakdown, abruptly dropping most of them out to reveal the single layer containing the tracks lead hook. Part of why this works so well is because it allows you to balance between the constantly repeating drums and bass for that hypnotic quality, whilst layering stuff on top brings a simultaneous sense of progression and development to the track.
34. Risers, Drops and Reverse FX for Anticipation
The first three quarters of a track generally consists of ‘build-ups’ (with intermittent breaks) and dance tracks are all about what might come next. You can increase the sense of anticipation with the use of rising or falling sound FX, reverse cymbals and automated delay or reverb effects. Builds, Drops, Crashes & Risers For buildups and drops the classic approach is to sample or play some white noise from a synth for the length you want, and then automate a filter sweep (usually either a low-pass or notch filter) to give you either a rushing up or ‘decompressing down’ sound effect. You can also used a tuned synth note and automate the pitch to bend up or down: pitchbends of any kind are a great way of bringing some sense of organic, sliding ‘imperfection’ to otherwise too-perfectly tuned synths and FX. Reverse Cymbals & FX There’s something about reverse sounds that can create ambience and anticipation like nothing else. Reverse crash cymbals are a classic choice at the climax of a buildup for ‘sliding’ into a huge drop (just listen to any Hollywood movie trailer or progressive house/trance track for proof of this). However, there’s more to reverse sounds than the obvious buildup climaxes; if you’re making any style of electronic or club music, try incorporating subtle reversed percussion hits in amongst the main beats in your groove. For example, placing a reverse sound so that it ends just as the main snare starts creates an instant “slipped” groove effect. Somehow the reverse sounds sprinkled into a standard groove create an artificial push or pull that sounds quite similar to shuffling hits with a groove quantise – but with the added benefit that your main hits are still rock-solid on the tempo grid.
35. Remix Your Mix Stems
When mixing it’s a good idea to buss or group like instruments together for additional processing and overall control. However, a useful trick is to bounce down these ‘stems’ and bring them back into the mix project, where you can apply further processing and experiment with extra filtering, effects and edits really quickly and easily on large portions of the track. Filtering a whole mix or groups of elements in a track (such as the drums or synths) is a great way of building interest and anticipation. Removing the entire low end with a high-pass filter just before a new section generally works well, as does opening up a low-pass filter during a breakdown to build extra excitement for the drop. Of course you can do anything to your stems: chop, change, pitch, stretch and reverse whole sections if you want. Doing this with just a few stem tracks is much quicker and easier than trying to program such variations on each part individually, meaning you can make swift and organic adjustments by feel and intuition rather than with your more logical technicians hat on.
36. Finishing Touches And Details
Once your track is ‘finished’, go back through it, taking bits out here and there. Try muting synth lines, dropping drums out at the end of bars for extra impact or emphasis. You may very well find your track benefits from such 11th hour editing – sections that seemed quite stripped down at the arranging phase may have become quite busy by the time they’re properly mixed, compressed and processed with effects, so going back over each section and fairly randomly muting different parts can remind you of the ‘Less Is More’ Pro Sound principle one last time before mixdown! You can achieve this with mute automation or simply by chopping bits out of your audio and MIDI parts in the Arrange window. This a great moment to experiment with your track, injecting that extra level of movement, energy and detail, and bringing that ‘how did they do that?’ layer of apparent complexity to your programming.
37. Use Fills
4 straight bars of a 4/4 rhythm without any variations really does suck! To maintain interest and the sense of development within a relatively sparse and hypnotic club track, drop in drum fills, subtle synth flourishes and other spot FX at least every 4th bar.
38. Programming Great Drum Beats – Use Velocity and Modulation For Dynamics
Bear in mind that the force with which real drums are struck is never absolutely consistent. To a certain extent, there will be random variation in the velocity of each hit, but there will also be more predictable variations. In pop and rock drumming, for instance, the first beat of the bar is often emphasised, while reggae rhythms are characterised by a heavier third beat. There are also physical limitations on how hard you can strike a drum: beats played in quick succession will tend to be quiet, since you can’t raise the sticks as high, or get so much travel with the bass drum pedal, between hits. Also, don’t ignore dynamics within the song. In dance music, the drums are often compressed to the point where they are totally even in volume throughout, and any dynamic changes are effected by simply dropping out parts of the rhythm. Real drummers, however, use crescendos and other dynamic effects to add feel to a track; often, for instance, they will build up the volume going into a chorus. For the best overall effect, use a combination of heavily compressed core hits and more dynamic percussion hits and patterns.
39. Actually play your rhythm parts rather than always programming them
It’s one thing to have the feel of a pattern in your mind: however, it’s much harder to analyse the slight timing variations that produce that feel. The best way to capture ‘feel’, therefore, is to play the parts into your sequencer, from a keyboard or other controller, in real time. Start with the two most important – usually the kick and snare – in a single pass. Playing the drums well is, like most instruments, difficult and takes some expertise, but it’s not too hard to bash out a basic rhythm with two fingers on MIDI pads or a keyboard, and doing so makes it much easier to capture the elusive ‘feel’ of a real drum part. And of course the beauty of sequencing is that you can correct any mistakes afterwards. If you’re not sure what sort of feel your drum part should have, or you can’t seem to get it right by just recording to a click track, remember that you don’t have to record the drums first. If your song centres around a particular piano or bass riff, for instance, you could try recording that into your sequencer first and add the drums later. Being able to hear the important instrumental parts is very useful for deciding what kind of rhythm will or won’t work. If you do need to edit the patterns you’ve entered, avoid snap to grid or similar functions. It’s all too easy to end up not only correcting mistakes, but also the timing variations that are responsible for the ‘feel’ of the part. Though editing can be used to remedy mistakes or really sloppy timing, there’s little point in painstakingly bashing out your rhythms in real time if you’re then going to quantise away all the variations. If you must quantise, leave a fairly wide margin so that only really late or early beats are corrected. Bear in mind that a lot of real drummers and grooves actually depend on consistent deviations from theoretically accurate timing. Sometimes this is quite obvious, as in the case of heavy syncopation or ‘swing’, which imposes a triplet feel on a four-beat rhythm, but it can be much more subtle. For instance, playing slightly ahead of the beat, particularly on the first and third beats of a four-beat bar, is a common device used to add urgency to a rhythm. In other genres like the blues, by contrast, drummers sometimes deliberately delay the ‘off’ beats to create a laid-back feel.
40. Special Effect Reverb: Use Sparingly And With Variety
Bear in mind that the impact of any special effect diminishes with familiarity, so it may be counterproductive to leave it in the mix for too long: it can be much more effective and lively to punch such an effect in and out at key moments in the arrangement or for certain sections. Leading on from this, it’s worth also giving some dynamic changes and variations to what are often left as static effect sends like reverb and delay. These don’t have to be set at an optimum level and just left – effects can also be ‘played’ and respond to what’s going on at each moment of the track, almost like musical parts in their own right. Experiment with automating reverb decay and pre-delay times, and delay feedback amounts to add punctuation or variation at certain points in the track. This is something people like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer were doing back in the 1950s (always worth checking out if you don’t know about Musique Concrete), when they didn’t have a lot else to play with.
41. Fake Ambience Mics
Synth and drum machine sounds are usually made using samples of each instrument in isolation. Recording a real drumkit is a different matter, however; overhead or room mics are always used (usually in conjunction with close mics on individual drums) to pick up not only cymbals and toms, but the sound of the whole kit, along with a certain amount of room ambience. Programmed drum parts in their raw state can sound sterile and disjointed by comparison, because they lack this element. You can get around this by setting up a fake ‘room mic’ reverb channel, with all of the drum parts routed to a particularly spacious reverb. Bring this group up underneath the main drums and loops for more ambience – it won’t generally detract from the ‘electronic’-ness and power of the drums, but will just put them in a ‘real’ place, that can glue them with the rest of the track.
42. Have a Reverb Strategy
When you have the right combination of reverbs on the parts of your mix, it adds a whole other level of natural depth, power and focus. This is generally achieved with cumulative small amounts of several reverbs applied to different instruments and parts, so it’s important to understand and consider whether your overall use of reverb will give you the level of ‘liveness’ or atmosphere that you’re after. Experiment with different depths and styles of reverb until you find something that sounds right. Also check out The Ultimate Guide to Reverb in the ebook store.
43. Make sure you have a great musical foundation to build on, before getting carried away with FX and sound design
Don’t focus too much at first on how the record’s going to sound, production-wise, at the end of the day. Many people have a rather rigid vision in their head and struggle with the initial sounds, when it might be better to just get the parts down and make sure the song is working musically first: let sound design, effects and mixing come later. Then, once you know it works, you can dress it up in any fashion you like. It can help here to have a basic track template setup in your DAW, with a set of tried-and-tested synth patches and drum sounds already loaded and ready to go. This way you’re not going to get distracted with finding the right sounds, but you will be able to get the melodies and musical elements sounding good as soon as you come up with them. Using these familiar sounds, you can quickly build up the bare bones of an arrangement and test your ideas, and then as the grooves and chord progressions begin to emerge, you gradually replace the original sounds with new, stronger or more finetuned and appropriate versions.
44. Try Different Approaches To Writing And Arranging
If you are producing music on a computer for long periods of time, it’s easy to begin to feel stagnated and loose creativity. Changing your working method is one way to approach music from a slightly different angle. This break from monotony usually results in flashes of inspiration, and of course the development of new tricks and techniques. Here are some ideas: The Loop Method With 8-16 bars looped in your DAW, write a melody or drum pattern, and then add other instruments based on this core part one at a time as you play back the looped section. Once you have built up enough elements that it feels like the climax of a track, copy and paste the enitre loop over the length of a track and start muting parts to create variations in the arrangement. The Sample Method Gather a small selection of samples – either your own recordings or from various sample collections – and build a complete track using just those samples. You’ll find the restriction of using only those sound sources refreshing and challenging, and usually you come up with cool stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise have created given limitless options. The Piano Method Try writing a complete electronic or club-style track using just a piano sound. Once you have a really good chord progression and melody that sound great even on piano, only then is it time to switch out the piano channels for synths, drums and other instruments. It’s often tempting to write sub-par music and then spend ages making it better with additional effects, programming and processing. Forcing yourself to start with a sure musical footing for a track means that the effects don’t end up taking over, and the results are more likely to have been worth the effort. The Live Jam Method Start with a couple of basic drum and bass loops, copied and sequenced enough times that they’ll play continuously for at least a couple of minutes without looping. Find a synth patch or other instrument you like, set the DAW to record and simply play spontaneously over this backing track until you stumble onto a melody or chord sequence you like. When you’ve made a recorded pass or two, go back over the recording and pick out any bits that seem to have some potential: from here you can either repeat the whole process but this time focusing on developing the potential part, or you can begin layering up another sound on top in the same way. Try and stay away from extra processing or effects at first, as the general idea is to concentrate solely on playing and improvisation, rather than already thinking about mixing or programming: this keeps the music kinetic and flowing, and you can often come up with some quite different ideas from how your more considered approaches might sound. The ‘Author’ Method Most professional authors and other writers make a point of writing a certain number of words a day. You can do the same with your music writing, arranging, production and mixing. This is more difficult than it sounds, but if you can stick with it, it’s great for your self-discipline muscle, not to mention your creativity. The Immersion Music Method: Twenty Songs In One Day See how many new tracks you can start from scratch and complete in a single day. This does wonders for unblocking your creative juices and really forcing you to lose those perfectionist tendencies that keep you from finishing so many good ideas.
45. Five Parts Or Less At Any One Time: Less Is More
If you listen to a lot of good arrangements in any style, it soon becomes apparent that most of them don’t contain huge numbers of parts. Five elements at one time – counting the drums as one – is generally the most you’ll hear and this rule seems to extend across style boundaries. Laying on more and more parts may be a waste of time, as there’s only so much the brain can follow before the sound turns into a mush and the impact of the individual parts is lost. However, having said that…
46. Layering & Doubling Parts For Added Interest, Punch And Character
Five parts doesn’t necessarily mean only five instruments, as lead and drum sounds in particular can be given additional punch, character and sonic variation by being made up of several carefully chosen individual elements, that while all occupying their own frequency range, each contribute to a composite that is perceived in the end as a single musical part. In the same way that you might add a flute to an oboe part in a orchestral composition because it lends delicacy, lightness and accent to the deeper warmth of the oboe, so you might combine a deep sine or square wave bass synth with a higher pitched distorted saw synth for extra mid-range bite and definition. Done correctly, the two layers come across as being one huge, aggressive bassline.
47. Quick Tips For Convincing Orchestral Parts
Writing simple but convincing MIDI orchestral parts is often a case of just thinking it through logically, and needn’t be so complicated: think of sustaining instruments like strings and horn sections taking the role of synth pads, and melodic instruments like flutes, clarinets and trumpets each having a timbre and function in the way that different synth patches evoke different moods and ‘colours’. To understand what kind of articulations and dynamics are appropriate for each instrument, listen to reference tracks – film soundtracks are a good place to start, as theyoften have very sparse sections and can be more easily picked apart than very dense Classical orchestrations. Don’t overdo it If you’re looking to make the most convincing, realistic orchestral sounds possible, take time to consider the ensemble size for the piece you’re composing. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of ‘bigger is better’, but smaller, more intimate instrument groups often achieve more powerful results. Explore the different articulation and modulation options Similarly, orchestral instruments don’t spend their whole time playing smooth, legato phrases. There’s a world of articulation possibilities there, with spiky, shimmery, marked, dynamically shifting and bendy notes used just as frequently as good old ‘sustain’. Try out the staccato, tremolo, marcato, crescendo and portamento articulations (to give names to these options) to get a handle on your options. Creating depth: strategise arranging ensemble instruments Don’t just let your samples arrange themselves in the mix; think it through. If you’re using a single string section patch, set it up four times, copy the part to four MIDI channels and thin each one out, so that one instrument group resides on each channel, before panning them individually. Think about the spatial depth you’re after, too, and set up appropriate reverbs to create it.
48. Guide The Listeners Attention From Sound To Sound
While it’s always good to give a lead vocal or instrument space in the mix, don’t forget that you can punctuate the gaps in these parts with flourishes and effects from other instruments and parts. Remember that at every moment of the track the listener wants to be given a focal point to guide them through the different sections: it’s your job to pass their attention from one sound to the next, and the better and more fluidly you can do this the more alive and exciting your tracks will appear.
49. Use Different Chord Inversions For Instant Depth & Sophistication
When writing and arranging chord progressions, instead of using the same chord shape and simply moving it up and down the keyboard, unchanged in shape, try using different inversions. If the chords you play are (C) (F) (G), rather than playing the notes in the order C E G / F A C / G B D, where the fifth note of the chord stays in the same position, try playing C E G / C F A / B D G. It can be surprising how much more interesting simple progressions can become with some simple chord shape-shifting. You can incorporate the main bass part in this too, getting maximum harmonic value out of your bassline by using notes from within the chord other than the usual root note.
50. Music Theory For Non-Musicians: Learn A Bit Of Music Theory
Even a small amount of music theory knowledge can go a very long way in improving the arrangements and voicings of your electronic projects. It’s not dull or scientific, and learning music theory will mean you’ll find it easier to analyse what is and what isn’t working in your arrangement. One of the great things about knowing some theory is that you can fall back on technique to get things flowing when pure inspiration is running dry – so your productivity will improve along with your understanding. See the 17 Music Books That Could Change Your Life for suggestions on the best music theory resources. Have you got any tricks or techniques for injecting that extra organic energy into your tracks? As ever, please leave your thoughts and comments below.