Build your best tracks ever with this huge com­pen­dium of ad­vice for spin­ning ba­sic loops out into com­plex, evolv­ing pieces of mu­sic

Future Music - - ALBUM REVIEWS -

We all love lay­ing down beats, de­sign­ing synth sounds, find­ing a killer vo­cal sam­ple and mix­ing an idea to per­fec­tion; but ul­ti­mately, it’s a track’s ar­range­ment – what hap­pens where – that makes a song con­nect with the lis­tener.

For some pro­duc­ers, the act of lay­ing out ini­tial mu­si­cal ideas into a co­her­ent 5-odd min­utes is a process that comes easy. For most of us, though, this vi­tal stage of the mu­sic-mak­ing process is some­thing of a stum­bling block. Throw­ing com­bi­na­tions of ideas into an eight-bar loop is fun, cre­ative and in­spir­ing – but turn­ing those rough ideas into some­thing that captures the lis­tener’s imag­i­na­tion and res­onates with them on an emo­tional level isn’t al­ways quite as easy or fun. While some tracks fall to­gether with ease, oth­ers de­mand blood, sweat and tears.

As the ar­range­ment process can be a strug­gle, we’ve put to­gether the de­fin­i­tive guide for the cre­ative mu­si­cian, to help trans­form your rough sketches and half-fin­ished projects into full-length mas­ter­pieces. As well as gen­eral ad­vice for all types of gen­res, we’ll look at a few spe­cific tech­niques you can use for ex­tend­ing out loops, struc­tur­ing tracks and keep­ing the lis­tener en­gaged.

Be­fore we ex­am­ine a few con­crete strate­gies for gen­er­at­ing ar­range­ment in­spi­ra­tion, let’s ad­dress the com­mon prob­lems pro­duc­ers stum­ble upon when flesh­ing out a track on the ar­range page.

Elec­tronic mu­sic is cycli­cal by na­ture, so it makes sense to cre­ate the core groove of a track (beats, bass, synths, vo­cals etc) within a sin­gle eight- or 16-bar loop – the idea be­ing that th­ese build­ing blocks can then be du­pli­cated and fleshed out over the course of 4-8 min­utes to form a fully-fledged track. This work­flow sounds sim­ple on pa­per, of course, but the ac­tual act of turn­ing loop into song is one of the most dif­fi­cult for a pro­ducer to mas­ter. A short sketch of a po­ten­tial song can po­ten­tially fall into place within a few min­utes, but no mat­ter how hard you try, th­ese parts just might not fit to­gether when laid out over a longer pe­riod. Rather than plug­ging away and ac­tu­ally fin­ish­ing your idea, it’s much eas­ier to close the pro­ject and start some­thing new. Or, on the other hand, you be­come con­vinced that pil­ing up more and more el­e­ments into the loop will im­prove it. Yep, it’s the dreaded case of

loo­pi­tis – the true curse of to­day’s elec­tronic mu­si­cian.

If you’re a solo pro­ducer cre­at­ing loop-based elec­tronic mu­sic, you’re al­ready on the back foot when com­pared to a ‘tra­di­tional’ rock band. A bunch of mu­si­cians that reg­u­larly jam to­gether will bounce ideas off each other and (usu­ally) write mu­sic in a verse-bridge-cho­rus struc­ture right from the off­set; but a sin­gle stu­dio bof­fin cre­at­ing ev­ery­thing from scratch has to con­jure up ev­ery piece of in­spi­ra­tion in iso­la­tion. This is why col­lab­o­ra­tion is such an im­por­tant part of mak­ing mu­sic: work with other like-minded pro­duc­ers, hire in free­lance mu­si­cians and work closely with vo­cal­ists. Of­ten, just sim­ply hav­ing some­one else in the stu­dio will en­cour­age you to turn your repet­i­tive 16-bar loop into an ebbing, flow­ing piece of mu­sic.

If your rea­son for pro­duc­ing mu­sic is to ac­tu­ally fin­ish tracks, then this neg­a­tive track-start­ing cy­cle needs to be bro­ken im­me­di­ately – it’s time to bust out of the loop once and for all!

Un­for­tu­nately, there’s no quick fix to cure loo­pi­tis, in the same way that you won’t be­come a fit­ness ex­pert af­ter one gym ses­sion. Be­com­ing a pro at ar­rang­ing tracks re­quires old-fash­ioned de­ter­mi­na­tion and ef­fort. Do you find your­self ha­bit­u­ally start­ing great track ideas with­out ever ac­tu­ally fin­ish­ing them? If so, you prob­a­bly have enough ex­pe­ri­ence gen­er­at­ing cool ideas, but you now need to re­train your­self to be­come an ex­pert at ar­rang­ing those ideas into some­thing worth­while.

Solid strate­gies

Of course, it helps to be aware of the unique predica­ments that face a pro­ducer of dance mu­sic. Un­like the afore­men­tioned rock band, who have pre­de­ter­mined in­stru­ments and a

tried-and-tested struc­ture to stick to, elec­tronic mu­sic’s ex­per­i­men­tal na­ture can force its creator to feel com­pletely lost in a com­plex world of sound de­sign, sam­pling, syn­the­sis, mix­ing tech­niques, hard­ware vs soft­ware, tu­to­ri­als, and a whole host of other dis­trac­tions.

To over­come th­ese ob­sta­cles, then, it’s im­por­tant to com­pletely block out ex­tra­ne­ous fac­tors and fo­cus on the goal at hand – lay­ing out your un­fin­ished idea into a full-blown song. No mat­ter how much of a mu­sic pro­duc­tion geek you are, re­frain from ob­sess­ing over de­tails that sim­ply don’t mat­ter – af­ter all, the end lis­tener doesn’t care whether your drums have been sourced from a hard­ware drum ma­chine or a sam­ple li­brary!

There are sev­eral tried-and-tested (and per­haps some­what clichéd) for­mu­las to help you keep on the right path: limit your sonic pal­ette to a few trusty synths and sam­ple packs you know well, to pre­vent you from get­ting dis­tracted; keep your ap­proach fresh by di­vid­ing your stu­dio time into freeform sound cre­ation ses­sions and ded­i­cated ses­sions for ar­range­ment. Also try to study the ar­range­ments of your favourite tracks for in­spi­ra­tion.

When ar­rang­ing, there’s one par­tic­u­lar strat­egy that works above all oth­ers: al­ways keep the ar­range­ment in mind, right from the sec­ond you be­gin a track idea! For ex­am­ple, imag­ine lay­ing down a synth riff at the loop cre­ation stage, then com­mit­ting that loop to au­dio be­fore you even think about ar­rang­ing the track – it’ll then be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to al­ter the synth’s tim­bre through­out dif­fer­ent sec­tions of the pro­duc­tion, as the sin­gle synth riff is baked into an au­dio file. In this sce­nario, the bet­ter ap­proach would be to mess around with the synth’s pa­ram­e­ters at the early stages (eg, amp re­lease, fil­ter cut­off, de­tune amount, etc) to help spark ideas for how the part can be de­vel­oped over the course of the track. The same goes with all the el­e­ments you drop into a pro­ject at the ini­tial idea­gath­er­ing stage: ask your­self how ev­ery el­e­ment can be used to keep the track pro­gress­ing and chang­ing through­out. High-pass-fil­ter­ing your kick will cre­ate a pseudo ‘break­down’, for ex­am­ple; or re­peat­ing the clap over 16th-notes at the end of ev­ery eight bars will give the lis­tener a rush­ing sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion for the next sec­tion.

One neg­a­tive side ef­fect of plug­ging away at a cycli­cal sec­tion of a track, as op­posed to step­ping back and look­ing at the over­all ‘big pic­ture’, is that you’ll be tempted to throw more and more sounds into the pro­ject, in the hope that a greater num­ber of el­e­ments will im­prove things – you’ve been lis­ten­ing to it on loop for hours, af­ter all! Of course, the in­verse is ac­tu­ally true, as the most well-pro­duced records are gen­er­ally quite min­i­mal and sparse. Less is more, af­ter all!

With this in mind, one of the most im­por­tant tools for great ar­range­ments – es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that most elec­tronic mu­sic is es­sen­tially repet­i­tive loops over­laid in dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions – is the act of mov­ing and chang­ing pa­ram­e­ter set­tings over time via au­to­ma­tion. While a track may only con­sist of a few key parts, it’s the way they change and al­ter through­out the course of 5-or-so min­utes that gives a track real per­son­al­ity and char­ac­ter. As a gen­eral rule of thumb, your core mu­si­cal mo­tif (say, a synth riff or chopped-up vo­cal loop) can start off the track with a low-pass fil­ter ap­plied, to muf­fle its midrange fre­quen­cies; then, to build in­ten­sity and sig­nify pro­gres­sion, you can au­to­mate the fil­ter’s cut­off slowly open, with the fil­ter fi­nally reach­ing its fully-open point when the track reaches its pin­na­cle. Com­bine this with the ear­lier-men­tioned kick fil­ter­ing and clap re­peat­ing, and you’re al­ready have a sim­ple, ef­fec­tive ar­range­ment!

All in the mind

An­other rea­son why pro­duc­ers get stuck in a loop can be at­trib­uted to bore­dom. When lis­ten­ing to an ini­tial track sketch over and over on re­peat, our ears even­tu­ally tire of the idea, and we lose any sense of im­par­tial­ity, caus­ing us to save the pro­ject and move onto some­thing new. This prob­lem is com­pounded by the fact that all DAWs al­low you to save a pro­ject at any stage – back in the days of all-hard­ware stu­dios, you had to get your cur­rent song fin­ished in or­der to free up your mix­ing board and out­board gear for the next ses­sion! Soft­ware re­call has com­pletely elim­i­nated this ur­gency, giv­ing us free­dom to flit between any num­ber of projects at once.

The so­lu­tion? Don’t lis­ten to your un­fin­ished idea on re­peat! Only hit your DAW’s play but­ton when you ac­tu­ally need to work on a cer­tain el­e­ment, and be aware of your ‘bore­dom thresh­old’ while you work – once your ears are sick of that killer bass loop, it’ll be in­fin­itely harder to fin­ish the track. A good ap­proach is to imag­ine you are work­ing in an old-school stu­dio, and your cur­rent sketch needs ar­rang­ing enough to ce­ment its over­all mu­si­cal di­rec­tion. If needed, sched­ule self-im­posed dead­lines to get your cur­rent cre­ation past the fin­ish line!

There are sev­eral tried-and-tested for­mu­las to help you keep on the right path

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