I still stand by my focus on imagination, storytelling and all that in electronic music. It is by far the most missing element in today’s electronic music, and everyone else and their mothers seem to be discussing which compressor is the best. Yawn. Still, I figured I could share a few basic tricks that I’ve found to apply very much to most electronic music making.
Some people might not agree, or feel that things are missing. I’m fully self-taught, and I don’t think this is the most interesting part of making music, as my previous articles reveal. If you want to learn more about all this, I’ve heard good words about The Dance Music Manual. I haven’t read it myself, but I imagine it’s quite useful. And boring.
1. Cut the lows (and highs)
Yes, the Omnisphere pads sound amazing and juicy on their own, and it might seem counter-intuitive to apply highpass filtering to them. However, the bassy part of the sound spectrum doesn’t allow much. With the kick drum and bassline in place, there really isn’t much place for much else. Also, you’d be really surprised at how much low-end you can remove, and how good the results are.
Also, digital treble is enjoyed best in moderation. Most natural sound don’t have as high treble as all these electronic sounds have. Toning down the topmost treble a bit often works wonders.
This is all done with an equalizer, or a filter if you like. Equalizers (EQs) are more flexible, but filters have more movement options.
2. Without reverb (and some echo), there’s no sense of space
Too much or even too little is much better than nothing at all. Here’s a quick example I just made, of that typical obnoxious little electro house blop thingy half of all house tracks nowadays have: blop.mp3 – The amount of reverb and echo is very subtle, but its absence becomes very striking.
3. Don’t be afraid to pan
Panning is when you lower the sound on one of the channels, to make it sound like it’s taking place in the other one. Or just positioning it left or right. Like under point 1, it’s scary to do radical panning – I still get shaky when I’m listening to an individual sound and putting it all the way to the left or right. But the thing is – there’s not unlimited space in the dead center, and you are creating surroundings where the action takes place. Here are some tips on panning:
- The kick drum, bassline and bassy sounds in calmer sections mostly belong in the center. When bassy sounds are panned, it makes me disoriented, which can work great for scary/trippy effects. For general mixing though, they almost always sound best in the center.
- Bright sounds with little or no bass however often benefit from panning. They can be put pretty much anywhere, since the bass keeps the center foundation in place.
- When positioning sounds across the left and right channel to varying degrees, they take up less space, you can turn their volume down, and it will sound very good.
- In an image, you don’t put everything in the center. Things have different positions. Even small pan adjustments are good.
I still don’t pan nearly as much as I should, but I’m gradually overcoming my fear.
4. Distortion is great for softening sounds and making them more natural
In electronic music, sounds are generated mathematically, 100% perfectly. Hence the harsh sound of chiptunes. In real life, you won’t find such sounds. Distortion is often associated with the crushing sound of electric guitars, and angry scandinavians with make-up. However, I like to view it as a gentle “naturaliser” effect. By reducing bass and treble (1), distorting the sound (4), adding some space (2) and perhaps pan it a little bit (3), you will often end up with an immensly more pleasing sound, which now “belongs” in the environment of your tune.
And of course, throwing insane amounts of distortion on something is really really fun. Also, if you afterwards reduce the bass and treble (1), results often get really interesting.
5: Most sounds can be lowered
I can’t elaborate much on this one, but an observation I often make some time after finishing a tune, is how many things should have slightly lower volume, less bass, or less treble. It’s not often I think “I should have increased the volume of that sound”.
6: Kick should be louder than bassline
Otherwise, it just sounds very strange, I think.
7: Break the rules
Don’t listen to what anyone says, or what I say. In the end, your ears+mind need to decide what works and doesn’t for what you’re imagining. Many innovative sounds and tunes have originated from breaking the rules. The 303 machine from all those acid tracks was originally meant as a simple bassline replacement. Instead, it became a centerpiece in electronic music from the late ’80s and ’90s!
How I feel about writing this article
To be honest, I don’t like writing such articles. They generate too much discussion around the technical bits, which aren’t really that important. It’s a topic that fuels arguments and endless reiterations of varying personal preferences. It’s often as if painters would discuss which brushes are best, rather than what they wish to convey with their paintings. I beg you to please put your primary focus on dreaming, being a wizard, building something, telling a story, and visualising.