4. Carve Space for Your Kick and Bass
As with all genres of music, you’re going to have to wage that old war between the kick drum and the bass. Here’s how Andrew said you should go about doing so in electronic music.
“Your kick drum is somewhere in the pocket of where that sine bass is, so either you use an EQ, or you can use a sidechain compressor.”
Here he’s talking about the practice of sidechaining a compressor’s input to another signal. In this case, you’d select the kick to be the input of the sine-bass’s compressor. Thus, “every time the kick hits, the sine wave gets ducked a little bit, so it’s not fighting.”
5. Try This Counterintuitive Approach to Snare
Moving on to another important part of our drum sound—the snare—Andrew offered a piece of advice that I found interesting, and, as noted above, counterintuitive.
“Once I find the snare that I like,” he said, “I usually will find the resonant frequency and boost it a little bit. Usually, I’ll sweep till I find the nastiest frequency—sweeping at 12 dB or something ridiculous, so you really hear it—and then I’ll back it off so it sits appropriately in the mix. That’s only if it’s not cutting through though.”
“But you’re looking for the nasty resonance here?” I asked.
“I am looking for the nasty, yes.”
“Not to cut it,” I went on, “but to emphasize it?”
I found this counterintuitive because when I hear a nasty snare resonance, my instinct is to cut it; certainly that’s what I do with acoustic snare drums. Andrew, however, has a different perspective when it comes to electronic music: “That’s the character of the snare, the character of the sound—and you want that to cut through. That’s what’s going to help. The other way to do it is to find other sounds that are competing in the same frequency range and cut them a little bit, make a pocket.”
6. Automate Your Ambiance
As is the case with many elements in EDM, ambiance can become a sort of game—not a tool for emphasizing the space around a given instrument, but a method of playing with the listener’s expectations.
For instance, in dubstep productions, it’s not uncommon for producers, as Andrew put it, to “automate a lot of effects on the snares.” He suggested that if you’re crafting a four-bar loop, you could “add a little bit of reverb, but on the second hit, increase [the reverb] a little bit, and on the fourth hit, bring in a sixteenth note delay.” That way, a cumulative effect takes place, and the reverb “rings out as it spins around. You’re trying to create this loop that isn’t too repetitive. You want to make it interesting.”
This tip, of course, can be employed on a variety of instruments; shakers, synths, tablas, congas—it’s all up for grabs.
7. Sidechain a Sound to a “Ghost”
When I listen to EDM, I find its most impressive aspect to be a particular push/pull between elements. This dynamic movement feels saturated to almost uncomfortable levels; it’s right on the edge of ear-fatiguing, but not quite painful. It’s what I would call “pleasantly masochistic.”
Yes, it’s tough to put into words. Flying Lotus provides readily-understood examples of this effect in action, though he operates more in the genre of experimental hip-hop than EDM.
I was keen to know how this effect could be achieved in the mix, and in response, Andrew pointed to a technique I hadn’t thought about in years. It involves sidechain compression.
“Typically, in house and techno,” said Andrew, “you have the quarter-note kick—the four on the floor. With that, if you set up a sidechain with the kick as the input, that’s where you get that reverse bass—that sucking sound.”
This is the typical way of using sidechain compression in faster genres of electronic music, and you hear it all the time. However, to really home in on that strange, saturated, overblown, and swinging feel, Andrew suggested a more creative approach.
“I’ve worked with a few guys that actually set up a sidechain compressor and trigger it off a drum that you’re not hearing, and they put that on their bassline.”
That’s right: one way to achieve this push/pull is to set up an element—a drum of some sort, playing at a musically appropriate interval—and to mute its output. Still, the signal feeds the sidechain of a bass’s compressor, and the result is an esoteric, dynamic movement.
Though this can be seen as a production trick, it’s regularly utilized by mix engineers too. One notable engineer told me on background that he regularly sidechains instruments to “ghosts,” as he put it. He also volunteered that he’ll duplicate a kick, put a delay on it, mute its output, and sidechain instruments to that muted, delayed kick. In this manner, the loping nature of the element sucking up and down in volume is emphasized in an off-kilter way.
8. Let Your Mix Fuel Your Production
After we talked about mix tips, a conversation surrounding dungeon-style bass spurned a more general talk about composition and production techniques, starting with this nugget:
“What some producers will do,” Andrew told me, “is put up a reese bass, and they’ll set up a four-bar loop of a solid tone. Then they’ll buss the bass-line out using aux sends. Each of those busses will have a different frequency spectrum. They’ll break it out into three busses—so it’ll be your highs, your mids, and your lows. Each of [those busses] will have an EQ, but then they’ll add some sort of auto-filter, and distortion, and chorus to each line. Each buss has a different setting, so they’re all moving at different times. They just let it play, and they record it.”
I found this fascinating: producers will just sit back and let this bass tone record for long periods of time, and, “because the LFO is set for these super long, weird, evolving things, the basses play off each other, and you get these really unique sounds,” as Andrew put it.
After the bass-line has been recorded to a track, Andrew has seen producers “go through and edit them. They’ll pick out the chunks they like the best, and drop them in strategically in their mix. The kick and snare and the percussion and the bassline, that’s sort of the meat and potatoes, but the hook of the song is this weird dungeon-style bassline that’s always evolving and kind of shifts in and out.”
“Are you saying that people use their own mix—while they’re mixing—to compose their song?” I asked. “They compose while they mix and mix while they compose?”
9. Wear Different Hats
This thread led to the broader discussion of how to pace yourself as a producer, with Andrew offering opinions that could get you out of a creative rut, should you find yourself stuck.
“Some guys say that you should have sound design days, which are different from music writing,” Andrew said. “You go into your studio with the express idea that you’re gonna make sounds—you’re going to sit in front of your synthesizer or your soft-synthesizer, and you’re gonna make patches. Custom patches, cool basslines. Spend three hours making twenty different patches, not with the idea of making music, but just making cool sounds.”
Then, “on another day, you come in and you’re wearing a different hat. You use the sounds you’ve created to write a song—and that’s a different mindset.”
However, the opposite approach is also valid. “Other guys will just build it as they go, which can be cool too.” Here Andrew gave the example of Ill Gates, who plays to large audiences around the world. “He’s called The Finisher because he often gets called to finish people’s tracks. He can bang out a track in three or four hours—a solid, really good track. But he’s had to work at that.” However you operate, the ultimate key is to keep yourself from getting stuck.
“It is about getting it done,” Andrew said emphatically. “The biggest pitfall is to get locked into this, ‘I’m gonna create a drum loop’ and ‘I’m gonna make this bass loop’ mindset, but where do you go from there? It’s great that you got this loop, but now what? You need to train yourself to know when something is good enough, and to not get hung up on the right kick drum. You need to finish the track. This is why some people wear different hats.”
10. Have Fun with the Drop
Of course, no conversation surrounding electronic music would be complete without discussion of the drop—that payoff in the tune, which often encapsulates the build-up as well as the breakdown. Here Andrew had a few solid production tips.
“This is used a lot in house music,” he began. “Say the music is pumping, and it’s getting more and more energetic, and you’re building up to that point where everything is going to drop out. As it’s building, drop in a pad sound with a really heavy compressor on it, with the compressor keyed by the [overall] mix buss or the drum buss, so it’s just squashing the s**t out of it. You can’t really hear it, It’s so low. But as soon as you hit the breakdown, the drums stop—and because that’s what’s been controlling the compressor, the pad sucks up, and it’s really dramatic. If you get the release right, and if you time it right, you get this auto-fade sound that’s really cool.”
As for other production tips, Andrew says, “don’t be afraid to throw curve balls. You’re leading up and leading up, and you think it’s going to drop on the downbeat, but it doesn’t have to happen on the downbeat. You can give it an extra beat just to f**k with people. That’s fun.”
Another idea—which, again, seems counterintuitive for dance music—is to mess with the tempo. “With most DJ tracks, you want to have a constant BPM because you want the DJ to be able to follow it, but if you’re playing your own tracks, and you’re producing, don’t be afraid to goose the tempo at certain points. I’m not saying go extreme, but two or three beats per minute can really dramatically change the feel of the song. The beginning of the song may be two or three beats slower than when it comes back in, and it hits a little bit harder and a little bit faster.”
As for mix tips on the drop, Andrew says, “it’s kind of on a case by case basis—is this working for this track or not?” However, he notes that from a sound design point of view, you should “look for stingers—like radio effects, stingers you hear on the radio, swooshes or sweeps. You can make them using synths.”
He gave an interesting way to build what’s called a “riser”—a crescendo of noise that swirls up and up in frequency in anticipation of the drop.
“Whatever synth you’re using, put an arpeggiator on it—it doesn’t have to be complex—and draw in pitch information, slowly bringing the pitch up an octave or two octaves, so for each round it’s getting higher and higher.”
11. Tips for Stereo Buss Processing and Loudness Targets
At the end of our conversation, I told Andrew that a lot of iZotope readers are going to want to master their own stuff, most likely with Ozone.
“Do you have good guidelines for that?” I asked.
“I would caution against over-compression,” he said. “Don’t use too much on the stereo buss, because a lot of times you’re just squeezing the life out of the track, which is unfortunate.”
So, as with other genres, over-compression is to be avoided. Don’t think you can get away with squashing the signal to high-heaven just because it’s EDM, in other words. Andrew actually indicated that many producers are using compression less and less these days, and are favoring processes such as expansion.
Next we moved on to loudness, with me asking, “What’s a good loudness target?”
“For me, I’m still using RMS levels of -10. I find that’s a good balance radio-ready loudness, what people would consider commercially viable, but you’re still maintaining a lot of the dynamics.”
“What about if you’re mastering with the idea that it’s going to be played at a club—say, your club?” I asked.
“Well, for any sound system—especially club systems where you have extreme low frequencies and bass—I prefer to have those frequencies there. I run into tracks where producers are missing the whole lower octave. They roll off at 40 Hz, and our system is set up to play down to 27 Hz. Then I have the vibrating dance floor that plays down to 5 Hz. So why stop there? Why are you chopping off the low end of your music? “Some people think that information is lost, and it eats up valuable headroom, but I disagree with that.”
“Interesting,” I replied. “So how would you advise handling high-end, if you’re mastering for the club?”
“Try rolling off on the highs,” said Andrew. “Maybe 12 kHz with a 6 dB slope—I prefer that in my room. I usually do that myself. If I don’t, it creates interference, it creates distortion. It’s just painful. So I’ll put on a shelf EQ at 12 kHz or 18 kHz and shave it off. Be careful with your high-end: just because it sounds great on your studio monitors to hear 20 kHz, in a club, more often than not, that’s going to get taken out.”
“That seems like the opposite of what you’d think to do in conventional mastering,” I said. “You’re saying keep that 30 Hz and below information emphasized and mitigate some of the highs you’d normally polish on a pop track. That’s very counterintuitive.”
It might be counterintuitive, but Andrew sees it as common practice in his environs. “I see a lot of music where the producer has already rolled that off—from 18 kHz, there’s nothing there. It makes my job easier.”
12. Make a Separate Master for SoundCloud
Mastering for the club is one thing, but mastering for the premiere sharing-space of EDM is another matter entirely. After talking about how the loudness wars have somewhat abated, I remarked to Andrew that “one of the only places where the loudness wars are still going on is SoundCloud. And that’s where all the electronic music debuts before it goes to some curated Spotify playlist. Not only do they not have any loudness normalization, but they’re also playing 128 bit-rate mp3s! So what’s your game-plan for that?”
“Honestly,” he replied, “I would get Ozone or some kind of plug-in that has the emulations of the different platforms you’ll be using and make different mixes. There’s no cure-all. There’s no one mix that’s going to fit all of that. Make the track sound as good as possible uncompressed, and then go back and do several different mixes.”
The idea here is to deliver a different master for SoundCloud than you would for iTunes. This would differ, also, from what you might play at one of your own sets in the club. If you monitor the master occasionally through Ozone’s codec emulator (set to 128 kbps) and you find you’re getting a good sound, that’ll help you achieve a good mix for SoundCloud.