Coming into my second year of audio studies and really diving into the relm of Electronic Music Production I have found and been able to follow many steps and techniques into building music through a DAW, recognising electronic sounds and being able to extend my skills through these techniques.
As an audio engineer that found it very daunting and scary at the beginning I have decided to break down the stages and techniques I followed throughout my beginning stages of Electronic Music Production. As I have adapted to this particular workflow it has allowed me to maintain a professional approach to producing quality content and to achieve deadlines.
The order of operation I run by within producing Electronic Music:
1. Learning the DAW
2. Understanding Basic Music Theory
3. Structure and Arrangement
4. Mixing and Effects
Learning the DAW:
Jumping into any music production the best approach is to pick and learn a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). A DAW is system designed to record, edit and mix digital audio. There are two main types of digital audio workstations, standalone and software based. Standalone systems look like a mixer with an LCD screen however software DAW’s are the main focus especially for beginners creating Electronic Music (theDAWstudio, 2017).
There are many software DAW’s that cater to all different needs so it all comes down to personal preferences when it comes to making that decision. Thinking about space of the program, cost, and future techniques you may want to incorporate into your use of DAW will assist you in selecting the correct DAW. For example, live electronic performance can only be utilised through limited DAW’s and some DAW’s are more expensive than others. Once a DAW is chosen there are several tutorials available for particular DAW’s based from beginners level to advanced that can assist in helping you feel comfortable within the DAW before jumping into any production.
Check out this article by Music Radar that discusses the top 20 DAW’s!
Cymatics.FM have a large range of Ableton tutorials available on their Youtube Channel! This is the first video to their 4 parts series.
MusicTechHelpGuy also has a large range of Logic Pro X tutorials available on their Youtube Channel. Here is the first instalment of their Logic Pro X beginner tutorials!
Understanding Basic Music Theory:
Music can be seen as a “langauge”. Music theory is who this particular language can be read and to be able to understand it will benefit the way you create electronic music productions. When I first chose to learn the basics of music theory I thought they were rules I had to follow. However, they are more so a set of descriptions, especially within electronic music production.
Music theory does not exist to create boundaries for what music can and cannot sound like, it exists to describe the music the people have made and try and describe why something sound good, or bad, or happy, scary, haunting, bouncy, etc. So it’s less of a GPS, and more of a map (EDMProd, 2017).
The basic music theory that helped me throughout my beginning stages of electronic music production included the understanding of scales, both major and minor and the use of harmonic triads.
“Scale” comes from a Latin word which means ladder. A scale is the tonal basis of music. It is a set of tones from which you can build melodies and harmonies (Earmaster, 2017). Tones on a scale are ordered by pitch and are sequenced in small intervals of tones and semi tones. To identify a specific scale, you need to know its unique sequence of intervals. Scales based on the diatonic scale will always consist of 5 tones and 2 semi-tones. Therefore, recognising these scales can be simplified by identifying the position of their two semitones. (Earmaster, 2017).
The major scale starts with the C note and goes following a defined sequence of intervals until the return to the C note again. This sequence of distance was, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone… repeating the cycle (SimplifyingTheory, 2017).
Tutorial by Kennis Russell. A lesson on the major scale.
The minor scale is very similar, however the difference comes down to the third note. The third is what gives major-sounding scales and chords their brighter, cheerier sound, and what gives minor scales and chords their darker, sadder sound (Pouska, 2017).
Both scales contain the 3rd note however as stated above the difference between the third note is what defines either a major or minor scale
A simple, short tutorial by musictheoryguy. Check out his Youtube Channel for the 3 part series!
When placing chords or lead sounds in my production I chose to place them using a triad. A triad is a chord that consists of three notes built on successive intervals of a third (Pen, 1992). The first note in a triad is the root the tone, the next is the third and then the fifth. The third and fifth note are referred to these particular notes either being a third or a fifth note because they are that many notes away from the root note.
Many of my own personal productions stemmed from the use of triads to get a clean sounding melody. I place a preferred melody using this technique into a simple grand piano and then once the desired sound is achieved I begin to play around with lead sounds to create the electronic melody depending on the genre and style of the music.
Structure and Arrangement:
The most vital part to any production is the structure and arrangement of the track. This of course ultimately depends on the genre of music you want to make but the same set of directions still apply to making any track.
The first step you want to take is the choice of genre and BPM. While house music sits between 126-130BPM, trap music sits between 70-80BPM. Having this choice of genre and BPM clear will be able to set you up on the right track before going into the creative side of producing.
Song structure is usually divided up into section: intro, breakdown, buildup, drop and outro. Most of the time the build up and drop are repeated twice in a song to maintain the length and attention. These sections of a song are broken up into bars usually between 8-32 bars. Intro is usually 32 bars long, breakdown may be 32 bars as well (including build-up which is usually 8 or 16 bars) and drop could be something like 16-32 bars. Of course, the length of the sections varies, but majority of EDM songs follows pretty much the same formula (Suhonen, 2017).
By having the track broken down into bars it is easier to start filling the track in with preferred elements. I personally begin with percussion starting from a basic kick drum adding snares, claps or hihats after every 8 bars. Once I’m happy with the percussion I generally tend to move to the bass line and melodies. This is a very basic approach to creating a song but the most effective way to understanding the workflow.
The idea in this method is that you’re like a painter who sketches his/her paintings. Only you’re working with audio and sketching a song instead of painting (Suhonen, 2017).
Check out this awesome link with video tutorials: http://howtomakeelectronicmusic.com/tutorial-from-an-idea-to-a-song
Check out this video by Point Blank Music School for a decent amount of info on structure and arrangement!
After several production sessions we now have a full EDM track. The final steps into perfecting the track before mastering is the mix down and effects. The goal of mixing is to bring out the best in your multi-track recording by adjusting levels, panning, and time-based effects (chorus, reverb, EQ). The aim is to sculpt your arrangement to make sense of all your tracks in relation to each other (LANDR, 2017).
Beginning with levels I personally find it easier to lower all faders and bring them up one at a time to achieve the best placement for all sounds. This personally sets as stepping stones for all elements of the track and to make it easier for the producer to place them accordingly in the mix.
For 50 effective tips for improving a mix down check out this article by EDMPROD: http://edmprod.com/50-tips-mixdowns/
After getting the elements placed in the mix I begin to look for specific elements that could benefit from different effects. The most common effects used include panning and time based effects such as chorus, reverb and delay.
Panning is the spread of a monaural signal in a stereo or multi-channel sound field – it is critical to the makeup of the stereo image (Teach Me Audio, 2017). Panning can be used to place a particular instrument either in the left, right or centre of the track. Panning is used to allow space throughout the mix and to not have all elements meeting at the same place. If I wasn’t to pan any tracks of mine in a production the mix would sound quite muddy and full on.
Here is Stefan Guy with a quick panning tutorial using Logic Pro X.
A chorus (or ensemble) is a modulation effect used to create a richer, thicker sound and add subtle movement (TestTone, 2017). This effect exaggerated the slight variations it causes to the pitch and timing of the track. The final sound outcome is achieved with the short delay times that mix together the edited audio and original audio. This effect also adds movement through the modulation of the delay time with a low-frequency oscillator. As the LFO cycles the delay time up and down, the delayed audio shifts up and down in pitch by a little bit (TestTone, 2017).
Another tutorial using Logic Pro X by Terry Guide giving us some quick info on the chorus plug in.
Reverb is an an electronically produced echo effect in recorded music. Short for “reverberation.” Reverberation is a sound that echoes. Reverb is an electronic reproduction of an echo (Ledger Note, 2017).
When I first started experimenting with reverb I was ver y confused on how it was different to an echo. When I think of the word “Echo” I think of standing in a cave and yelling my name, hearing it repeat itself due to the long delay inbetween repetitions. However, reverb is thousands upon thousands of repetitions occurring so fast that you hear it more as a smear of sound based on the original (Ledger Note, 2017).
For more info on how to use reverse and what reverb could work best for you visit this link!: https://ledgernote.com/columns/mixing-mastering/mixing-with-reverb/
A favourite reverb of mine used in Logic Pro X the Space Designer Reverb. Tutorial by MusicTechHelpGuy
Equalization, or EQ for short, means boosting or reducing (attenuating) the levels of different frequencies in a signal (Audio Equalization, 2017). The most basic type of EQ is usually the stock EQ in your DAW where you can either minimise or maximise the high or low ends of a particular track.
When I use EQ I use it mostly to correct sounds that may sound unnatural or sounds that are interfering with others. As an example, if my kick drum was too bassy and was interfering with the bass of the track I was lower the low ends on the spectrum to allow room for both the kick drum and bass to play at the same time without the bass frequencies clashing and sounding muddy.
Check out this short tutorial by PCLIV RECORDS through the basic EQ of Logic Pro X
While mixing and mastering might sound similar they are two seperate building block that share equal importance to finalising any production. As discussed above, mixing is the step where us as the producer mix levels and apply effects where needed to help enhance and clean up the track before the final stage of mastering.
Mastering is the final step of audio post-production. The purpose of mastering is to balance sonic elements of a stereo mix and optimize playback across all systems and media formats. Traditionally, mastering is done using tools like equalization, compression, limiting and stereo enhancement (LANDR, 2017).
Without an overload of information LANDR is a professional audio mastering website which allows users to master their own tracks for a fraction of the cost. For more information on LANDR and the above processes visit their page: https://www.landr.com/en
In conclusion, as an aspiring electronic music producer I find these production techniques useful to me to ensure that the content I produce is of quality and at a professional standard! Throughout this research I hope to help many aspiring producers make their first steps to producing quality content as well.
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Pouska, A. (2017). The Difference between Major and Minor | Bass Scales | StudyBass. StudyBass. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from https://www.studybass.com/lessons/bass-scales/the-difference-between-major-and-minor/
Suhonen, P. (2017). Tutorial: From An Idea To A Song. How To Make Electronic Music. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from http://howtomakeelectronicmusic.com/tutorial-from-an-idea-to-a-song
What is a DAW? | theDAWstudio.com. (2017). Thedawstudio.com. Retrieved 2 July 2017, from http://www.thedawstudio.com/what-is-a-daw/
What is a Chorus Effect?. (2017). TestTone. Retrieved 4 July 2017, from http://testtone.com/fundamentals/what-chorus-effect
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