A 16 bar loop does not make a killer track. A hook on its own is nothing. You might have an amazing idea – but what good is it if you never finish it? Let’s take a leaf out of the pro producer playbook, and take your music production to the next level.
In this post, we’ll talk about dance music production specifically – but these music production tips could easily apply to anyone who makes music. First, let’s talk about the biggest challenge when you’re in a creative rut: coming up with ideas, and seeing them through.
Coming up with ideas
A lot of this comes down to having confidence in your imagination. Actually, the whole music-making process is highly dependent on having the confidence, comfort, resources, time and space to express yourself creatively.
But for those of us who are already in the thick of it, a creative block happens. And all too often. When musical drought strikes, the best solution for most people is to relax.
When your brain has space, and the pressure on your mind gets taken away, you work better. It’s hard to get into that state when you have deadlines, but it works if you allow it to.
You need time and space, and exposure to inspiration. Not necessarily listening to other artists like you – maybe you need to branch out of your genre, or listen to film scores. Or maybe you need to switch your mind’s ear off, and not listen to anything. Read a book instead. Or watch TV, or a movie, or play video games, or hang with friends – whatever it is that you vibe with.
Actually, your friends (creative or otherwise) can really pull you out of a creative funk, without even trying.
When you’re calm, content and relaxed, you’ll make music naturally – if you are that way inclined.
When you feel the push to make something, it can come from your mind’s ear: an idea from within that you hear in your brain, and want to make real. If you have the urge to create, but no ideas, then it’s time to play with sound.
Sound discovery – overcoming option paralysis
Some of us only get inspired when we sit behind a keyboard, a computer, a guitar or a turntable. The sounds coming out of your speakers or amp (or your own mouth) can inspire you to make something with them.
Other times, we’ll launch our DAW, pull up a VST instrument and try to get the sound in our head.
Or we just get lost playing around.
We can swim around for hours in the sea of presets, and get burned out in the process of tweaking and adjusting to get things sounding “just right”. Menus, effects, samples – there are far too many to audition everything, even in the most bare-bones DAWs.
Option paralysis is the biggest creativity killer in the world. It turns even the most hardened EDM producers from inspired to bored. Worst of all? It saps away hours. Sometimes, this princess is important for discovering new sounds – but there’s a better way.
Pros are pros because they finish their music. They don’t get lost in the murky business of sound discovery for long. They commit to sounds early on, either because they’re inspired by them, or they subscribe to the old mantra of “if sounds good, it is good”.
Use live instruments and found sounds – record with your phone, make a sample, chop it up.
Lean into the weirdness. Accentuate the weirdness. If it sounds rough, make it sound rougher, until it’s a new thing.
Committing to unique sounds is what separates the pros from the wannabes. Don’t rely on your plugin library to inspire you. Rely on yourself, and use sounds you’ve made yourself.
Want a killer clap for your beat? Go to a stairwell – in a multi storey car park, or a block of flats – and record yourself clapping on your phone. Catch the reverb tail. Record a few takes. Get these samples into your DAW or drum machine, layer them up – and you’ve got a clap that ZERO other beatmakers in the world have access too.
But don’t stop there. Do this with anything and everything in your vocabulary of sounds.
Never rely on your instruments alone, virtual or otherwise.
Building the correct arrangement
Pro producers build a track like a story. A beginning, a middle, an end – that’s the rough premise, right?
Dance music requires energy and excitement, but you can’t just magically expect excitement to appear. You need anticipation, tension, release. You need extremes, and subtle shades in between.
Use space and silence to your advantage.
You don’t need to have everything going all at once for it to be big. In fact, if everything is “always on”, this can shrink the sound. Your ears get bored, and can;t tell what’s big anymore, because there’s nothing small to compare it to.
An old (but gold) example of waiting to unleash the bigness is Daft Punk’s Digital Love, one of the legendary duo’s biggest and best hits.
You’re emotionally built up by the melody and the vamp. Then the vocal starts. The beat comes in, and it’s vintage-sounding; no extreme high or low end, and you’re feeling the groove.
And suddenly… It’s like a veil is lifted from the music.
The kick pounds. Everything becomes crystal-clear. And if you weren’t dancing yet, you certainly are now.
Knowing how to create both emotional impact and sonic impact are vital ingredients. They require space and time, not density. Pros know this, and they build tracks lightly.
Kind of like a pro chef makes a few ingredients taste incredible, a pro producer uses a few sounds to make a track sound massive. If you have to sprinkle more ingredients over everything to make it sound halfway good, then maybe you need to go back a few steps.
Use only what you need to tell the emotional story of your track. Do you need two lead lines running together? Two basses? Are you indulging yourself – or the song?
Questions, questions… and there are plenty more!
Who’s the star of the story – kick or bass?
This one is specific to mixing modern EDM, but it has roots in classic RnB, rock, and Motown records.
Who wins the low end fight between the kick and the bass?
Pro producers know that this is almost always a compromise area, and give one instrument dominance in certain low frequencies. Here’s the thing: you cannot erase troublesome frequencies from either without making stuff sound weird.
You have to balance it all out.
Luckily, your instruments will usually be telling you what they need. There will be a clear emphasis in a certain frequency band that you can accentuate to your advantage.
But, if both your kick and bass live in, say, the 80Hz area – you’ll have to give one of them dominance. Usually, the kick wins this fight in EDM, because it’s an omnipresent necessity; the heartbeat of a track.
Tonal basses can be perceived in the midrange as sounding full and round, without encroaching on the kick. Listen to 70s recordings if you need proof – the bass is honky, almost nasal; but it sits perfectly with even the puffiest of kick drums.
Be aware that you shouldn’t be trying to eliminate frequency crossover for the sake of separation – it will sound really odd if you notch core frequencies out altogether. Try to get them working together instead, crossing over where they need to.
It’s almost always a compromise.
Some pros will use sidechain compression on the bass, triggered from kick hits – the technique that makes that “thud/womp” sound of the kick seemingly sucking the bass track away. Others will go the 808-style route, using a kick that produces a bass note, too. Both of these techniques eliminate the frequency clashing problem.
But they don’t always work for all styles – and are kind of cheesy sounding in the wrong context. If sidechaining and 808s are not your sound, then spend some time practising with kick and bass, and finding a feel for when one needs to be the lead character in the story, leaving the other as the supporting actor.
Want more production tips? Let us know – and we’ll keep bringing you more guides!
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