02 Feb Dancefloor Composition and You
I’ve been producing electronic music almost daily now for about seven years and each tune I complete, I learn something new. I’m still using almost the exact same tools and plugins as I was a few years ago but the way I produce changes subtly with each project, as does my perception of the genres I’m involved in.
Recently (the last 6ish months) I’ve been thinking more and more about the difference between a “good” tune and a “bad” tune, specifically in drum and bass but also in the range of music I listen to regularly. Over the period of couple of years of listening to drum and bass, patterns seem to emerge and it’s becoming clearer to me now why certain tunes “work”, others don’t and some just obliterate a dancefloor, which is what I want to talk about here.
For the sake of this article, I will use the term “vibe” to describe what, generally, makes a track “good”, first in the context of drum and bass. To me, a great vibe is created in a track when all of it’s separate elements combine to create something which is more than the sum of their parts. Vibe is the feeling you get when a track sounds like it’s challenging you, creating a visual for you to examine and presenting an image of what it sounds like, presenting itself in an almost (in dancefloor drum and bass) intimidating way. When a track has a great vibe, it really comes to life. Here are some examples in DNB:
I think Micro Organism is self explanatory; the entire track is shaped around a single idea; whatever that idea is differs from person to person but every part of the track is dedicated toward creating that image and developing it.
Lifespan is similar but I think focuses more on creating a certain mood, or emotional response. The track is simple but uses some ideas such as repetition and carefully structured atmosphere to convey some kind of sense of being.
I think this idea is key all music for that matter but let’s look at DNB more closely.
The problem I face every time I produce a track is the task of glueing the different elements of the track (the drums, the basses, the other sounds) together in such a way, whilst creating them, to create something worth listening to that moves you. The idea that every aspect of one’s track must be flawless (to the extent that one can make it) is one I’ve had from the very beginning but the idea that not only must everything be perfect, all elements of your track need to serve a clear purpose and ideally, combine to create something really cool, something with a definite vibe. This is the hardest part of producing now. I know that if I simply spend a certain amount of hours producing a sound, it will be satisfactory eventually. Making the vibe is much harder.
So, how do we approach this? There are a range of methods, I guess. Some practical ones include:
- Use fewer elements, but make them good.This means making your snare the best damn snare you’ve ever heard. Cut out extraneous basses and synths if they’re just there because you spent 17 hours on them. Make the ones you have really good. The ear can only focus on and care about a couple of main elements at once and if you make them good, that’s all you need. Less is more.
- Make intros lead up properly to drops. This can be tough and is something I struggle with but remember that the purpose of an intro is to ready a listener for the “drop”, whatever that may be.
- Figure out what you’re trying to convey. Have you stumbled upon a whack rhythm in a bass that you were trying to make a pad out of? Run with it and build a track around it. Cool tracks almost always have a central “idea”, which usually takes form in some kind of rhythmic shape, which the rest of the track is built around. Also, dancefloor vs. non-dancefloor psychology in tracks is something you have to pay attention to. Just listen to Noisia’s relatively recent “Purpose” EP; the tunes are all great but they’re obviously all intended for dancefloor consumption and thus, get boring after a while (in my opinion…).
- Develop ideas. This builds on the first point. If you have a really good sound, develop it over time, add to it, but don’t over do it. Make every section of your song build upon the last and think of your tune as an organic entity.
These are just a few ideas. These ideas are obviously part of what constitutes being a musician so one could spend their life studying these things. The problem with producing is making the sounds at the same time as figuring out how to try to use them effectively.
There have been countless times where I have been in the very early stages of a project and made that breakthrough moment where my crappy, robotic loop has suddenly seemed to take on a life of itself and squandered it by over thinking and adding too many things into the mix. The temptation to over-produce is real, but often times, a track will be more effective with less. Ideally, in a dream world, production value is as high as you can make it without degrading the vibe or cohesion of the track.
I’m sure there’s more I could say on this topic but I’m not so sure it would make any sort of practical sense. Essentially, the point I want to try and get across is that, on a dancefloor, nobody cares or can even necessarily hear your painstaking detail in percussion; all that’s apparent in a loud club is the kick, snare and a couple of main basses/lead synths/vocals. If you’re making a dancefloor tune, make a tune for the dancefloor and figure out what that means. If you’re making something deeper, make something deeper and make it as beautiful and detailed as you can whilst still getting the idea of the track across.