The first steps I take to create a song vary from time to time. Firstly, I tend to make a solid pattern with drum elements only (kick, snare, hi-hats, etc…), before adding the bass – which is the backbone of any good electronic mix. This is a usual starting point for myself and others but it is not the only way one could start working. A lot of people find inspiration by starting with chords. For example, sometimes I will turn on the TV and hear an interesting harmony (or a melody that I can use to create a harmony). When I start with chords inspired by everyday life events like these, it usually results in unusual melodies that somehow always sound better than melodies I would have made if I had started with drums and bass – plus there are other benefits too.
In most cases, the sound of the piano and its strong intonation allow us to accurately mock up the harmonies and melodies we hear internally. They also allow us to focus on the foundation of a good song – the notes and rhythm – before thinking about the sound design or FX stages.
I have to say that for me chords and harmonies in music are what support beams of a building are in the construction business. Starting a song with a solid chord progression provides a stable foundation for it much like the way strategically placing support beams in a structure determines what will happen with the rest of the building. It narrows down the options for scales and melodies that will work. This way, we can decide those quickly and stay organized when we move on to more time-consuming things like transitions and melodies. The notes you chose for your melody should respect and follow the chords. They should conform to the mode/scale of the harmony the way that furniture and stairwells respect the support beams of a building.
Now that we have the progression in-tact, the next step will follow a more conventional practice… making the bass second! By establishing the harmony first, we have in a sense established the bass line. It will work as nothing more than a doubling of the lowest notes of the chord progression but you may not even need that much (less is often MORE in many situations). If your chord progression has inverted chords, the bass may need to play the root of the chord instead of the lowest note. Regardless, you will have narrowed down your options to some degree – allowing you to focus more confidently on other areas.
Once you have established a bass line, you may be inspired to do some sound design. In my case, I will select some warm bass patches from various preset banks (to get the underlying composition of the song down) and modify or rewrite them later. In the same way that establishing the harmony lays a foundation for melody and bass, using boilerplate sounds creates the foundation for more advanced design and mixing techniques.
I usually have two or more layers in my bass sounds – one is a deep warm sub and the other is positioned in the mid-frequency range. The sub provides power and feeling while the mid-range layer creates the more obvious aspects like grit and brightness. Mixing and tuning the two layers effectively will help you achieve a bigger and wider presence in the stereo image. Remember to use a highpass filter on the mid-range layer – set the cutoff frequency at a position that allows the desired and fundamental character of it to pass while preventing it from interfering with the sublayer (maybe somewhere around 150 Hz). Crossfading between sine and saw waveforms also can’t hurt!
Remember, organization and process are key… especially when you have to find a client’s project from 10 years ago to recall what you did! Overall, I like my projects to be neat and clear. So, for this multi-layered bass, a group track is essential. Staying organized also allows you to navigate the project in a timely manner which is critical. It keeps the creative flow on-point and avoids distraction.
As you can see in the picture above, I like to have a rhythm group made up of many layers. In addition to the usual elements (kick, snare, and hi-hat), there is percussion, other snare and hi-hat layers, and some fills here and there. In my opinion, the key to a solid drum mix is to first mix all of the rhythmic elements using only volume and panning. Equalizing, phase shifting and colouring with effects should be done later and only if they are necessary.
Adding an overall compressor on the group track is a good move at this point. It tightens and polishes the groove; and in this case, it adds some harmonic distortion which makes those high frequencies more pleasant to the ear.
Arranging this type of music is not rocket science but it requires some experimentation here and there. Some unexpected behaviour may spice up your creativity and lead you to something fresh and unusual. I always start with the intro. It is about a minute long and leads to a first break before the drop. I immediately introduce the kick drum in the first second of the arrangement followed by some basic rhythm elements. This is important in order to be DJ friendly.
Through the first minute I gradually introduce more and more elements and fill the sound image with rhythms, FX, and single chord stabs. In the end, I introduce that piano chord progression I made in the first steps of the production. When the first break comes, the mix is slimmed down to just piano chords and an accompanying string pad that sweeps in with an automated highcut filter. Before the drop, try adding a long snare fill that comes from a smooth fade in and white noise – this is always a good choice.