EDM Production Series
How to incorporate your sounds into creating a song
It’s 6PM. You’ve just gotten home from work, turned your PC on and loaded up your DAW. You start building a groovy 8 bar loop with your ableton drum-kit and synth presets. Something is missing however and you just can’t put your finger on it. You start loading in different samples, deleting entire midi sections and replacing them with other sounds but nothing seems to be meshing together! You end up procrastinating and before you know it you have an unfinished project that sits in the your EDM Production folder and is never touched again.
If this sounds like you then read below.
List of things that you will need:
- DAW - I prefer Ableton but any DAW will work.
- Drum Kit - Build your kit with high quality samples
- Synth Presets - Preferably ones that you’ve made
- Melodies - This includes chords, leads, bassline, etc
Please keep in mind that this is just one way of doing this. You are able to create anything in whatever fashion that you wish. This is just the way I like to do it and will hopefully give you inspiration for completing your next song!
I really enjoy building the track from beginning to end. This is something that I’ve developed that allows me to create a track that flows nicely section to section.
Create an intro sequence that utilizes about 16 bars. In the first 8 bars you’ll either want to have a drum beat or a breakdown. The choice is entirely up to you but for this example we will be utilizing a breakdown intro.
Start with a type of pad or string to create atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be overly complex (or it can be, you’re the artist here) just something that creates some foreshadowing for the rest of your track. Layer this with your melody that slowly fades in on the first 8 bars utilizing a hi-pass filter. You can also put in sounds to give the listener a better understanding of where your track is residing. Do you want them on the moon or in the confines of your mind? Choose sounds that will reflect the theme that you are going for and apply them into your intro for more ear candy. (Light blue are leads, dark blue / purple is the pad in the picture below)
In the next 8 bars throw down a simple drum line with your main kick. Make sure to use a clap or a snare for this section that isn’t as intense as the one in your drop (we’ll get to that later). You can also layer in simple hi-hats and/or percussion (orchestra drums pictured below) to emphasize the melody and drum groove here. Crashes and rides are also fun to use in these sections as well.
The build is your most integral part of the flow from intro to drop. This will dictate whether or not your track flows nicely so pay attention! Builds can last anywhere from 8 bars to 16 bars, while I’ve heard them go for longer I’m personally not a fan of long build-ups and boring drops so we’ll be utilizing the 8 bar for this example.
Take your kick drum and duplicate it a number of times to apply emphasis on the intensity of the build. You’ll obviously want to keep this on time and in the rhythm of your chosen BPM and time signature so for most electronic music keep it mathematically correct.
If you remember from our intro sequence we had a pad and some leads. Duplicate those items over to this section. What we will want to do is cut and paste them in a similar fashion that resembles how the kick drum build was created but a bit lengthier as we want the kick to be our driving force behind the wheel that is the build. Chopping up the lead sections like this will cooperatively build tension with the kick drum.
You’re probably looking at the Pad and wondering why I haven’t chopped it up. I’ve kept it flat because I am automating the pitch bend to go up 12 semitones to the end of the 8 bars. You’ll see that it only extends to 7 bars but the automation is for 8 bars as it’ll make it mathematically correct and sound on par with the other sounds. It looks like this with the pitch automated:
Feel free to also add in any other desired FX such as risers or other elements to accentuate the build. I will go over this in more detail with another article as FX creation and their uses can be a detailed process.
Believe it or not the drum fill or sounds to bring you from the build to the drop is still part of the build and within the constraints of our 8 bar build. This pre-drop will happen from bar 7-8 in the build.
Make sure you use the main snare that you’ve chosen for your drop (as well as any other toms or percussion elements) and also don’t forget a pre-drop vocal! You can either use a vocal or a drum hit. I prefer the vocal! You’ll want to strategically place them in a manner where it pulls us into the drop as the build stops at 7 bars and then allows for the track to “breathe” then hits us with the fill and slams into the drop. I like to leave ¼ of the pre-drop silent then one snare on 2/4 and then another ¾. I then apply some crazy fill that starts on 3/4 with the toms and then finish it off with the vocal phrase. Just keep in mind to do something that fits the overall theme with the track. If you have a light future bass tune and you come in guns-blazing with bullet and gun cocking sounds for your fill then chances are it might not fit within the context of the entire track.
THE DROP (first 16 bars):
This is the utmost exciting part of your track. If you nail this section correctly the crowd will forever be in your favour and you will witness tranquility for a moment...
Okay, it might not be exactly like that but you will feel a sense of accomplishment when you see the crowd busting a groove when your drop hits.
I realize that the drop section can take many hours to complete with the sound design, fills, leads, drum line, etc but I’m going to assume that you already have those parts built separately.
Make a section for your drop that last’s 32 bars. You’ll be writing in 8 bar sections.
Your drum-line is going to consist of whatever genre you are working in. For this example I have created a dubstep beat at 150 BPM. I’m a fan of when the kick has a bit of a break-beat instead of it hitting ever bar. Keep it interesting and break-up the kick from it’s usual groove. The snare drum can keep up with it’s usual thing to keep the groove going but utilize it every 8 bars as a fill (layer toms / percussion to accentuate the fill section as well) to give the drum-line an extra nuance of fidelity (i.e. bring in the tension for the next 8 bars of the drop over the course of 32 bars.)
You’re also going to want to layer this kick + snare combo with some hi-hats and crashes. This is going to be up to you but I usually will throw on a loop overtop to get started then apply my own sequence of hi-hats, crashes, and rides as I create the drums in this section.
Bass synths and sample selection:
These are going to be the life blood of your drop. The drums will help carry these synths over the drop section so it’s very important to choose good sounds that complement each other and go in sync with the drum groove. To create a groove, I like to do a “catch & release” style of movement. By this I mean you create one synth that catches the listener and then immediately follow up with another synth that pushes them away. This is characterized by having a growl and then a high pitched screech that has momentum which is carried by the force of the kick and snare. It’s easy to explain but hard to master. A good example of this would be from my latest track titled “Blast Em”. Listen to the first drop and you’ll get a better understanding of what I’m explaining here.
Many people will tell you that using samples is a shitty way to produce (excuse my french but this is important). I say do not listen to them and do your own thing as long as you're taking that pre-made content and adjusting to make something original out of it. Ableton has many features for messing with sample based audio so utilize it’s many effects like distortion, flanger, and phasers (not limited to these as they are just examples) to make your sample unique. Keep in mind that if you have a sample, someone else out there has it too.
Adding air to your drop:
Depending on your song you may find that you are missing “air” in your drop. This is easily remedied by duplicating your main lead over-top of the drop and increasing the semitone notation of it by 12. This may seem harsh if it’s too high up there on the notation. If it is then keep it the same. It has to fill the upper frequency space and not conflict with all your other elements. Put some reverb on it and put it in the background. It should be on the same volume as your hi-hats and crashes, maybe even a bit less. You can also try putting an arpeggiator with a high semitone and throwing on some reverb plus putting it in the background. If both of those fail you may have a phenomenal mix already and won't even need to do this.
Feel free to copy and paste the pre-drop section at bar 15-16. Might want to change up the vocal and fill or keep it the same, it’s up to you!
THE DROP (second 16 bars):
By now you should have a super sick 16 bar loop. You can definitely take all of those elements and duplicate them over the have a full 32 bars of your drop if you’re lazy. We’re not lazy so what we should be doing is adding in modulation and filtering. This will make it sound a bit different then the previous 16 bars. We don’t want to add too much nor add too little. Just the right amount of sauce to keep the listener engaged and enthralled at your production skills. You could try hi-pass filtering down all the bass synths from bar 16-32 so it gets rid of the high frequency content over time and slowly fade in (or filter) the melody + a build synth + FX to create tension for when the next breakdown occurs.
You may find that you hit a lull at this point. This is perfectly normal as most producers (including myself, probably just me though) get stuck on what to do next.
A really simple fix for this is to copy / duplicate over the entire intro and build sequence. You are going to have to make a brash decision here to either keep it entirely the same or add in some new elements that keeps the listener engaged. I love adding in an arpeggiator that follows a one or two note formation that follows the root note of the melody and throwing it in the back of the entire mix volume. Just enough to hear it nicely. Then I’ll apply either another layer for the lead to accentuate it’s tonality and / or add another element like guitars or plucks. This can be a difficult thing to envision but you must take it into account if you want to keep your track interesting! You can even change-up the drum beat here and double time it or once again, keep it the same. It’s entirely up to you!
The build here can relatively stay the same except you’ll be chopping up the extra elements that you have added to generate tension cooperatively with the kick drum and percussion elements. Take the exact same structure as shown previously and apply the same cuts to your new elements. You may also decide to take another approach and consolidate the audio (or merge midi clips if using a synth) and apply pitch modulation going upwards to increase the tension with the build-up to pre-drop fill. Remember to use filter automation and reverb here to add to the tension. An excellent plug-in for this is Bass Kleph’s Easy Wash Out. It’s absolutely free and you can get it here: http://www.basskleph.com/blog/2016/2/8/easy-wash-out-free-ableton-plugin
This one is something you’ll want to keep the same as the previous. You could try and change-up the vocal and fill but I like to keep it the same so the track has that element of Symmetry.
THE DROP no. 2:
Welcome to the second instalment of your song. This section should carry the most weight and energy of your track. You’ll want to make this as explosive as possible while still retaining the professional mixdown that you are capable of doing. You can copy over everything from the first drop except what you’ll want to do here is rearrange some of the notation and also apply pitch bending if you haven’t already. You may want to keep some of the elements the same in the “Catch & Release” formula or you may want to write an entirely new drop. If you write an entirely new drop make sure to utilize some or all of the same sounds so you keep the track symmetrical in sound design and mixing quality. You can also try double-timing the drums by adding in a breakbeat section for the first 16 bars and then go back to half-time on the next 16 bars (for house music this isn’t necessary unless you are genre-bending). Be sure to keep this section insanely fun and riveting so you make the DJ play the entire track (or just this section alone).
One of the easiest things to write in your track. Or the hardest depending on how you look at it. You can add in your drums plus the melody here for an extra 16 bars so the DJ has something to mix out with. Or just the melody here for 8 bars. You can evolve the melody by adding in a piano and / or plucks and even bring back that pad in again. This section should carry the weight of the melody and then simplify it so that the listener knows the that song is coming to a close and also makes it easy for the DJ to mix into the next track. Sometimes you can even just add an impact with your desired FX directly after the drop and it is sufficient but other times that may not be the best case. Like I said, this can be either really hard or really easy. The choice is once again yours to make here just like the rest of the track.
There was a few things left out here like where and when to add FX. This is something I do last as you’ll want to strategically place these sounds at intervals where the song structure allows. Use these in mathematically correct instances (1,2,4,8,16 bars). Apply them as layers to your builds with uplifters or use them to glue sections together (drop to breakdown). The FX will help to create ups and downs in your track so use them accordingly to where the tension builds and breaks away. Also use these sparingly as they can quickly make your mix muddy if you have too many elements going on at once. I like to keep a rule of thumb where there are 7 maximum elements going on (kick, snare, hi hats + crash, bass, FX, melody, white noise / dirt).
(What your song may resemble after it’s complete)
Producing a song from it’s beginning to end can be a daunting endeavor. With enough practice and using reference tracks you’ll be able to make amazing music! I have provided you with my personal tips to get started on the structure for your next hit so get working and happy producing!
I am able to produce more detail oriented articles pertaining to the different sections in the song structure (i.e. intro, breakdown, drop, build-ups, FX, etc) so that you may get a better understanding of the production process as a whole. If this is something that you’d enjoy please drop me a line at email@example.com as well as any comments and suggestions. Thank you!