How to make dance music – 5 production techniques

Dance music comes in many forms and my case, I set myself the task of producing an electro – pop dance song, with the reference track: Bad Romance – Lady Gaga. To find out more about the ‘electro – pop’ genre, please click on the following link:

Genre analysis – Electro pop

To listen to the reference track for this project, please click on the following link:

Bad Romance – Lady Gaga

The purpose of this exercise was to create a soundtrack for a video called Fact Of Fiction?. This was a collaborative, multi-media project which relied on syncing various video segments from news and marketing sources. The result can be viewed by clicking on the following link:

Collaborative, mixed media project – Fact Or Fiction?

The DAW of choice for creating the midi sequence is Ableton. I was able to find a good array of house music samples that sounded like they were created in the 1980s which, ws a comment made by a music critic about the sound design for the track. It obviously doesn’t sound like the track was produced in the 1980s, far from it. This element of Bad Romance’s sound design, is something that is a particular trait of the electro pop genre. The dissonant electronic sounds that are normally chosen for an electro pop song usually have a ‘dissonant’ quality about them and sound like they created in the 1980s.

Production technique 1 – Layering kick drum samples

This process involves choosing 3 kick drum samples based on their different sonic characteristics. These are listed in order of their various or possible uses below:

  • Sample number one – The character sample
  • Sample number two –  The sub-bass sample
  • Sample number three – The transient sample.

Each sample is chosen for it’s ability to enhance a certain aspect of the primary or ‘character sample’. (Snoman, 2014; p 207)

Once the various samples are chosen, each one is placed on it’s own separate track within a DAW and some very careful editing takes place to ensure that the transient of each waveform lines up as close as possible to each other in order to address any issues that may arise from phasing which can drastically alter the timbre of the kick drum sound. The whole process can be very time consuming but once the waveforms are exactly aligned, there can be a significant increase in the:

  • gain
  • presence
  • attack
  • body

The next stage in this process is balancing the kick drum samples so that they all gel together to form a coherent  sound. There are number of things that can be done to achieve this goal. The gain staging of each kick drum sample can be adjusted to favour certain elements of each one, EQ can also be applied such as a low or high pass filter. The EQ would be placed on each track or the three tracks can be bused together EQ used at this stage will be rarely additive and usually subtractive in over to avoid clipping of individual signals. (Snoman, 2014;p 208)

Another method for getting all three kick drum samples to work well together is to bus all three samples together and place a compressor on the bus with the following settings:

  • fast attack
  • high ratio
  • low threshold

These settings are designed to modify the complete timbre of the kick drum sound. Alternatively, a compressor can be placed on each individual track in order to fine tune the sound of each kick drum sample. (Snoman, 2014;p 208)

Once the gain, EQ and the compression has been applied to the individual three kick drum samples, the samples would be recorded onto one track within the DAW via internal layback, in my case I would choose pro tools, and then exported as a mono .wav file which is then re-imported back into pro tools. Pitch shifting can then be applied to ’round off’ any fundamental frequencies that might be created as a result of using three different samples in order to tune the kick drum sample to the track. (Snoman, 2014; p 209).

Production technique number 2 – Parallel compression

This type of compression technique is referred to New York compression, because it is a technique that is favoured by New York hip hop producers who want to create a thicker, more defined rhythm track. This technique is also representative of upward compression. This differs from standard compression which limits transients and increases low level signals. Upward compression relies on blending a raw, uncompressed drum track with a compressed track so that the transients are unaffected yet, the low level frequencies that wouldn’t normally be clearly audible, are now enhanced.

The process suggested by Snoman, is to send all of the rhythm components to a single group track that can be controlled with one fader. This group track is then sent via a bus send to a compressor. A small amount of the group track is sent via bus to the compressor and the raw drum tracks and compressed group track are then mixed back together on the mixing console. The suggested compression settings are:

  • ratio – 3:1
  • fast attack
  • auto release (or set around 200ms)
  • threshold lowered until 5 to 8dB of gain reduction is achieved.(Snoman, 2014; p231)

Another variation on this is to

Production technique number 3 – Serial Compression

Serial compression is, as the name suggests, a compression technique that utilises compressors connected in series i.e. the output of one compressor is then sent into the input of another compressor. This can be utilised to create deliberate mid – range distortion that can be controlled by the second compressor. This technique is designed to produce a distorted effect for various genres of dance music, most commonly associated with Techno and Tech House

The process

  1. The first compressor is set to a high ratio and low threshold with a fast attack and release.
  2. The output gain of the first compressor is raised until mid-range frequencies become distorted. This creates a specific sound for the drums which is specific to the two genres of dance music mentioned above.
  3. The distorted signal is then sent into the second compressor which is used to control the level of distortion to prevent clipping at the master fader

This technique can create a very lively mix that is also polished and allows for extended listening. (Snoman, 2014; p231)

Production technique number 4 – Snare processing using samples and synthesis

The same process can be applied to the snare that was applied to the kick drum sample but with a few variations due to the fact that snare drum samples are far more individual than kick drum samples and can be far more complex in character. In order to save time and create a more harmonious blending of the three samples, the third sample is usually synthesised.

The creation of a snare requires two oscillators which involves a triangle wave for the first and either white or pink noise is used for the second. The decision to use either pink or white noise is a choice for the producer and will usually involve decisions made in respect to genre or whatever is appropriate for the needs of the song.

The timbre of the initial snare strike, the low to low – mid frequencies should be removed with:

  • a high pass filter: This can be used to create a house or trance style of snare.
  • a band pass filter: This can be used to create a ‘crisp’ sounding snare. The is good for tech-house and techno projects
  • a notch filter: This can be used to create a clean snare sound which is  good for ‘break beats’

 

Production technique number 5 – Creating a bass sound: oscillators, filters and modulation

Process

  1. Program the bass line and loop that with the kick drum to determine if any frequencies are interfering with the kick and vice versa.
  2. Use the amplifiers within the oscillators to start immediately and use the decay as a release setting
  3. Set the envelope of the filter to the shortest possible time to maintain the integrity of the bass note’s transient.
  4. Enhance the attack of the bass note by pitching down a percussive sample such as a woodblock and layering it to create a ‘pluck’ bass.
  5. Reduce the length of the drum sample to less than 30ms so that it is difficult to perceive the percussive element that is being used to create the ‘pluck bass’ sound.
  6. Utilise ‘micro-tonal’ or rhythmical modulation to counteract any psycho-acoustic issues regarding monotonic bass lines, and maintain the prominence of the bass line in the mix.

The use of these five techniques will ensure that ‘groove’ in the mix won’t be lost due the production values not being appropriate for the genre.

Bibliography

Snoman, R. (2014). Dance Music Manual: Tools, toys and techniques. 3rd ed. London: Focal Press

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