The following is my approach to producing dance music. It’s formulaic, systematic, methodical, and (hopefully) efficient. I’ve called this post the “living” manual because I plan to update and improve the document over time.
Some inspiration for my approach:
It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
It can be a daunting task to create something new every time you start a track. My system overcomes this by working incrementally, snowballing inspiration.
What’s the ROI of not giving a fuck? Speed. Speed is the game.
Think of each track as one out of thousands that you’re going to produce. So, just execute against a vision and move on. This caters to what I call the Growth Law: your rate of growth is proportionate to your rate of output.
Never let your creativity be limited by your skill.
Or limited by your knowledge. And a related quotation:
The people with the longest careers in the music industry learn how to do it on purpose.
These last two quotations are the answers to the question: should I learn music theory? Here’s Pusher’s take on this:
“I spent YEARS — like over a decade — trying to wrap my head around theory. Do you know why? Because knowledge is power, yo. Read up on Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, they both understood that what you know is what gets you to the answers first. In that context, if you DO NOT know theory, you are voluntarily giving ME an advantage over YOU. Theory is the keys to the kingdom. Chords, scales, modes, progressions, intervals, counterpoint, etc… these are the tools to understand the language of music.
“I studied Jazz piano for years, which relies heavily on improvisation. To improvise you need to develop a WORKING KNOWLEDGE of music theory so that you can make things up on the fly. They call it ‘composing in real time’. That is what gave me the tools to compose the music that I do. It’s not simple, it’s complex and constantly changing. Imagine trying to build a house without a hammer or a drill or nails or wood or stone or brick or whatever. You might be able to build a reasonable shelter out of mud and sticks or whatever, it might even get you famous! But if you want to have a long career and to really do something cool that changes the musical landscape in some way, the more you develop your knowledge (tools) the more advanced you can make your music (house). I would recommend the Mark Levine Jazz Piano Book and Jazz Theory Book…. You can sign up for theory lessons with a jazz musician who lives somewhere near you and spend some money on that because it will be worth it. Make sure you can get some good answers before you pay for the month though. Don’t be afraid to learn a little guitar or piano or saxophone or whatever.”
Find a reference track: a track that you admire that could be played along side your music in a DJ set. Then find a tops or perc loop that fits the groove and sound of the reference track. Find a kick and clap that goes well with this loop. Listen for any rhythmical motif in the loop that catches your ear. You may need to shorten the loop if it’s a shorter motif. Or if you hear a response to something in the loop, extend the loop and chop it up to make the response. Spread these elements over 8 bars.
At this point, you can either find loops and sounds that support the motif, or you can start working on a bass line. Pay attention to how the bass line is functioning in the reference track. Also pay attention to how the bass line and the motif interact. When writing a bass line, mimic the function and interaction with the motif, but write a unique and catchy line. There’s no method here; just experimentation and jamming. When looking for sounds to support the motif, I like to surf through loops and drag them into the arrangement window if they work. Then I delete ones that don’t work and chop up ones that do. This is the basic groove.
Next, listen for the mid-range interest points of the reference track. It could be a vocal, a chord progression, a lead, etc. Find your counterparts to the reference track. If they have a chord progression, write your own and find a sound that suits your groove and sound. If they have a vocal, record or sample your own and process it, again, in a way that suits your groove and sound. Again, this is about experimentation.
I like to keep working on this 8-bar loop until it can serve as the main drop of the track. Then I loop around a section the reference track that includes the main break and the first 8 bars of the drop. I listen to how the main break builds back up to the drop, and I mimic that function and arrangement using my existing elements. I work on this loop over and over until the transition from the main break to the drop sounds right. This is what an EDM song is: a break and a drop. If that sounds right, then you’re basically done.
The final production step is mimicking the structure of the reference track. This sounds easy, but it actually takes the most amount of time; you’ll often have to deviate and improvise in order to make your track flow smoothly from one section to another.
Then it’s mixing and mastering, but that’s easy. Over time I hope the above gets fleshed out more and I hope to supplement each step and idea with a video. Also, for the mixing section, I’m going to distinguish between the technical and creative sides. Ultimately, this manual is simply a comprehensive description of my workflow; so, I want to give additional tips for improving workflow, like saving processing chains and sampling your own music.
(I hope to work these concepts into the manual)
Focal Point — if you want to hypnotize, you have to have something that the mind can latch onto. For my music, this is the rhythmical motif. Reference: Lexa Hill ‘The Blues Man’
Over The Bar (OTB)
Light Switch Melody
Imitate, Internalize, Innovate
Intro: establish vibe, introduce the motif, narration and plugs, preview primary hook (vocal, musical, rhythmical)
Vibe shift between sections
Wow factors: lyrical impact accentuators (LIA); examples: pen click in Blank Space, chorus impact accentuators (CIA); payoff within a payoff; e.g.: Sugar by Maroon 5; abrupt energetic shift; e.g.: Uptown Funk, Can’t Feel My Face, Bad Blood; repeat call and response; e.g.: Shake It Off, Love Me Harder, Lips Are Moving, Time Of Our Lives, Uptown Funk, Earned It;