So you want to produce a banger? We give you 3 arrangement and sound design tips to create the energy you need for a massive-sounding drop no matter the genre; electronic, dance, trap, house, and more.
By Charles Hoffman, Black Ghost Audio
Most of the impact of an EDM drop comes from its clever arrangement and excellent sound design. Spending your time tweaking devices like EQs and compressors isn’t going to turn your song into a banger. If you’re looking to see exponential growth and rapid results, it’s more important to tackle problematic songs at a fundamental level.
Whether you’re writing downtempo, dubstep, drum and bass, electro, hardstyle, house music, techno or trap, you’ll be able to create MASSIVE sounding drops using the production techniques described in this guide.
1. Use Contrast
For something to sound huge, it needs some sort of contrasting element to demonstrate its scale. One of the most natural ways to make a super-aggressive drop sound extremely powerful is by adding blank space to your arrangement. It’s all too often that I see artists craft a fantastic drop and then unintentionally muddle it with over-production.
For an object in an image to be perceived as large, the best thing to do is place a relatively small object beside it; this helps put the large object into perspective. In music, four common ways of creating contrast include affecting volume, mix density, sound design and rhythm.
It’s common practice for mastering engineers to slightly reduce the level of a track by a couple of decibels (dB) throughout the intro, breakdown, and buildup so that in comparison, the drop sounds louder and more powerful. I’ve seen some people do this with a utility, pre-limiter, but when you think about it, this doesn’t actually make the track louder. You end up driving the limiter harder, which may be a desirable effect, but this isn’t what we’re going for here.
I typically choose to use a utility post-limiter so that I’m able to apply 1-2 dB of gain reduction where necessary. This ensures an actual increase in volume at the drop and provides the intended effect. Alternatively, you could just automate the output ceiling level of a limiter like the L3 Multimaximizer.
Another great juxtaposition technique involves removing small sections of your drop to create space. When you briefly remove elements from your mix, attention is drawn to them when they’re added back in. Dubstep artists often use this to pivot brilliant sound design around their snare drum. In YKES track “Paper,” a whole lot is riding on the snare, in the sense that it dictates massive changes in the arrangement of his song. It almost acts like an on/off switch that controls the main screeching synth; the concept of give and take is noticeably present here.
Instead of creating space, you may be able to benefit from contrasting sound design. The following remix of Miguel’s track “Sky Walker ft. Travis Scott,” by Paperwings and BLSZRD, demonstrates a clean push and pull between good and evil. Paperwings has clearly added their touch to the track with beautiful supersaws, whereas BLSZRD lends ominous dark synth playing to the arrangement.
Varying rhythms can create interesting effects as well. Flipping a drumbeat into half time, partway through a drop can make for a nice variation. Even just adding swing or a subtle change to a hi-hat pattern may be enough to ensure you’re able to hold the listeners' interest.
You can also create rhythm with Waves MetaFilter or Kaleidoscopes using the Tremolo. At pivotal points in your music, you may choose to add more drastic contrast; with some different options now at your disposal, it’s up to you to decide how you go about this.
2. Control the Chaos
There’s no doubt that EDM can contain some very complex arrangements. Throughout 8 bars, there may be any number of different sounds (synths, percussion, vocals, etc.), but what you’ll find is that at any given point in time, there’s rarely more than a handful of sounds playing at once.
A huge-sounding drop can often be more effective with just a few carefully placed track elements. Your song may include drums, multiple synths, some kind of counterpoint for the lead synths, and a background pad or riser. As you begin to squeeze more elements into your song, you may start to notice that it begins to sound cluttered.
Tha Trickaz and Creaky jackals have a song together called “Dopeness” that sounds, at surface level, like a very dense arrangement. To some degree, it’s quite intricate, but if you pay attention, there’s only ever really percussion, one main synth, and a single vocal sample playing at any given point in time.
When producers that are just starting out try to use a complex arrangement like this, they sometimes miss the mark in attempting to playback multiple synths or multiple samples at once. There are ways to make this work (as we’ll discuss in the next section), but having 3-4 synths playing different melodies at the same time usually doesn’t pan out so well.
An effective way to brainstorm any sort of creative work is to get all your ideas out at once and then refine them later on. If you count on the fact that you’ll go through an editing process at some point, it’s not as intimidating coming up with your original ideas. Instead of being afraid to add too many elements to your songs, try pushing your tracks to their breaking point, and then strip sounds away. Rendering to audio and cutting out unnecessary sounds is a good way to go about this.
3. Layer Sounds
Layering sounds is a great way to fill out your frequency spectrum and create rich, full EDM drops. To layer sounds effectively, you first need to listen to where you have space in your mix and then start designing sounds to fill the space appropriately. Let’s walk through an example of how you could go about creating more exciting supersaws by using this layering technique.
You can create a basic supersaw by loading up a saw wave into oscillator 1 of the synth of your choice. By turning up the number of voices for oscillator 1 and detuning them, you’ll end up with a rich, wide supersaw. There are all sorts of fun things you can do with automating the cutoff frequency of low pass filters, but I tend to apply this type of processing once I’m done building up the meat of my supersaws. Enabling multiple voices in a synth like Codex is as simple as engaging the Unison button.
To get a general sense of how my supersaws are going to sound, I usually start with laying down a basic chord progression. In the following example, I have a simple i-VI-iv-v chord progression.
I can make this chord progression less jarring by transposing specific notes from each chord. In the following example, I’ve transposed all the highlighted notes down an octave. What I’ve done here is invert these chords. Chord inversions are performed frequently by piano players so that they don’t have to move their hands all over the piano. Not only is this new arrangement easier to play, but it confines these chords to a smaller frequency range within your mix.
- Example 2 – Inverted Chords
As it stands, this chord progression sounds alright, but it’s not as epic as you may have hoped for; by creating chord stacks, you can fix this issue. A chord stack is simply multiple chords stacked on top of each other. In this case, I’ve duplicated my originals twice and stacked one set of duplicates above the original and the other set of duplicates below the original.
For this to play back properly, you’ll want to increase the polyphony count within the synth you’re using. If there are 9 notes playing at once, you’ll want to set the polyphony count to at least 9. The voice count is multiplied by the polyphony count to yield the total number of voices playing at once. For example, if your voice count were set to 16 and you were playing 9 notes at once, with your polyphony set to 9, a total of 144 voices would play back at once. This can also be quite taxing on your CPU; before moving on, you may want to bounce your chord progression to audio.
- Example 3 – Stacked Chords
This is the point at which many people stop with their supersaws. They already sound pretty good and are more than usable at this point. However, I’d like to provide you with a way to take this sound above and beyond conventional use. On top of layering chords, you can layer completely different sounds together and tighten up the results using a gate and some gentle buss compression.
In the following audio example, I’ve used a Rhodes emulation to take over the low end and an ethereal arp to take over the top end. The mids are still being played by the same basic supersaw patch that’s already been created. You’ll notice that the subtle variation between each layer adds a very organic feel to these chords and moves away from the sterile sound of the previous audio example.
- Example 4 – Layered Chords
When you start to layer lots of different sounds together, your songs can lose the perception of loudness. A busy mix will rarely sound as in-your-face as a sparse mix, but loudness isn’t the only thing that contributes to the massive impact of a song. In some cases, the emotional impact a song has can be created through an abundance of space.
In “Between II Worlds” by Nero, you’ll hear how the lead synth is almost drowning in reverb, yet the space that’s been created is enormous. This reverb effect can be easily replicated with a plugin like H-Reverb or the IR1 Convolution Reverb.
Lots of people making Future Bass struggle with quiet songs due to the fact that layering sounds doesn’t necessarily do great things for loudness potential. Thanks to streaming services normalizing audio levels, there’s not much to worry about here. Focus on the quality of your mix, and avoid jumping on the loudness wars bandwagon.
Layering sounds isn’t just limited to the creation of supersaws. The same concept applies to any type of music that you write. Maybe you want a distorted sub; try layering a distorted synth on top of the sub instead of messing around with the sub itself. Want a crazy dubstep growl? Layer in a lion roaring with the bass growl you’ve already made. Using an EQ like the H-EQ Hybrid Equalizer can really help to mesh these sounds together. There’s really no limit to the types of creative sounds that layering can provide.
By making use of extreme contrast, controlling complex compositions and layering sounds effectively, you’ll be well on your way to creating MASSIVE EDM drops. Simplifying your approach to writing drops and looking at them on a more fundamental level is going to have a drastic effect on your production process. Avoid spending too much time tweaking little things, and focus on essential song components like the arrangement and sound design.
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