Here is a collection of tips and tricks to produce current popular genres (Hip-Hop, House and Electro in particular) found freely on the Internet, and presented into the pattern form.
The pattern form
This means each trick or set of related tricks is given an expressive name along with a short description of its intent. Full description of each pattern is left out, as it would represent a rewriting of many sources (I have no time for that), but links to the full source material are given at the bottom in the references section.
Of course this is only useful if you already know what it is about, and should be considered more as a reminder.
Arranging a tune
At the top level of a tune structure, we deal with the arrangement.
- Anticipation and Surprise: create anticipation and surprise: Build-ups (Snare Rolls, Reverse Crash, Filter Opening, Synth Fx, Accelerating LFO, Pitch Glide), Breakdowns (drop parts, close filter)
- Playing The Studio: allow for spontaneous action in the studio, e-g. Dub-Style (mixer, reverb send, effect send, use of feedback)
- Round Trip Creation (e-g. beat first, lyrics, then back to beat to optimize with the vocals)
- Question-Answer: Q/A relationship to sustain a tension: Q (lyrics) – A (riff); see also Da Capo, Ternary Form
- Useful and insightful definitions:
- Vibe: inspiration for a tune, the focus throughout the song (vocal, sound, chord progression…); can be found before or after a beat is created
- Character: anything that is highly distinctive (sounds, voice, filter effects, fills, sweeps…)
- Energy: drums, bass, and riffs (arp, synth, guitar…) driving the tune
Make It Believable
Sometime we want to achieve realism, sometime we do not want to, but there is always a need to be realistic in some way, even in a virtual musical world.
- Layer, Layer, Layer: no simple sound, layer similar sounds to make them richer and more complex
- Ambiance: Preserve or re-create ambiance (Overhead miking, Parallel Compression…)
- Altered Background: sounds in the back should have some reverb and high frequencies attenuated
- Possible for a Performer: the performer could possibly do that (or not if we want artificial feeling)
- Tone Matching (compatible sounds, physically or for the genre)
Groove and Feel
Getting a strong groove is key to a good tune.
- First Beat Straight and Loudest
- Primary Beats Louder (than secondary beats)
- Swing: play offbeats late, from straight to triplet feel
- Silence Matters: make sure there is silence between hits (use Gating, Side Chain Compressor, Manual Edit in the DAW, Adjust Decay)
- Dragging or Rushing: make other beats late or early
- Evolving Dynamics (through velocity, modulation, filter or sample start modulation)
- Layer Beats: Backbeat, Polyrhythm, Ghost Notes
- Sync to Tempo: Sync everything (arpeggiator, effects, lfos) to tempo or to some multiple of the tempo (via MIDI or manually)
- Notes Duration Matter: the funky bass, it’s in the notes duration
For more character, a tune needs unique and special sounds
- Happy Accident: make sure happy accident can still happen, and Record Everything
- Unlimited Combinations: Combine Everything to Everything (Compressor, Filter, Effects, Automation, Instruments…)
- Extreme Processing: Pitch Shift, Reverse, Audible Looping, Glitch, Overdrive
- Uncommon Devices: Circuit Bending, Domestic things that make sounds, exotic spaces to record in
- Hybridate Audio Features: (Extract-Promote): extract sample part then loop it as the oscillator in a synth, extract convolution profile then apply it to another sound, extract FFT spectrum or RMS envelope to apply it to another sound etc.
Keep it Simple (The Enough Repetition Rule)
- Four Hooks Maximum: do not confuse the listener with too many distinct things
- Reuse With Variation: it is OK to use again and again the same hook provided it is slightly changed to make it less obvious and boring
- Attractive or Complementary: some tracks must attract attention, other tracks must not compete for attention
- KISS: Keep it simple (but no simpler): stick to simple melodies, riffs and chords progressions
Keep It Interesting (The Enough Variation Rule)
- Alternate Sounds (Alternate Claps, Samples switched by velocity etc.)
- Modulations (Sample Start Modulation, Automation of whatever)
- Effects, Triggered Effects (via automation)
- Widen Stereo: Hard Pan, Haas Effect (Hard Pan With 15-60ms Delay), Stereo Modulation Effect (Chorus etc.)
We’ll fix that in the mix.
- The Drum and Bass Backbone: Get them right and solid first
- Exclusive Frequencies: boost one, cut the other by the same amount on the same frequency
- Exclusive Timing: if possible, if one plays, the other should be silent; variations involve using Side Chain Compressor or Gating
- Tune Drums: tune low-end drums and percussion sounds to the root tonic note to avoid very low frequency beats
- Sound Substitution: if it cannot sound good, change the sounds
- Frequency Separation: reduce clutter with sounds frequencies not overlapping too much
- The usual traps: Phase & Mono (phase issues result in Comb filter effects or phase cancellation; clubs are more or less mono)
- Create Space (aka Multidimensional Mix): Left, Right, Foreground and Background: Stereo Placement, Damp Highs, Delay + Pan
- Less is More, know when to cut something
- Mixing Order Priorities: e-g. for Hip-Hop: D&B first, Vocals, then other tracks
- Mixing Panning Priorities: most important tracks centered, the rest panned around
- Sub Mixes: drums, leads & vocals, the rest, or drums, bass, the rest
- Mix down several mixes: Main Mix, Raised Vocals Mix (lead and back vocals +1dB), Lowered Vocals Mix, TV Live Mix (no lead vocals), Instrumental Mix (for promotion)
- Mixing for the genre and the goal: More extreme for clubs, more “tone-down” for radio…
- Side Chain Compressor: consider using a separate track to trigger the side chain for more control
- Automate level on basses that play too many notes with a different level
- Widening stereo for drums: add background kick with reverb and less highs, add stereo claps
- Tips to enhance background vocal:
- Add Silk: hipass filter >900Hz
- Add Sheen: boost 11-12KHz 1-4dB
- Heavier effects than lead vocals: subtle ping pong stereo delays, hall reverb, plate reverb, and choruses
- Multiple Takes: double, triple, stacking harmonies: For example, pan low vocal/harmony tracks hard left & right. Next, pan medium vocal/harmony tracks 75% left & 75% right. Lastly, pan high vocal/harmony tracks 40% left & 40% right.
- Compressor: (too many resources on that one…, typical gain reduction: 10-15dB)
- EQ: (too many resources as well), Cut or Boost?