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Electronic Dance Music | How to Make Electronic Dance Music

Electronic Dance Music | How to Make Electronic Dance Music | Act Natural… by Steve Powell


I personally feel that you can break electronic dance music (EDM) down into three things when learning how to make dance music; structure, sound and soul. The soul you put in is a mixture of so many things like groove, expression, the spirit of a track, it’s emotion, subtle timings and a million more extras. At the end of the day however, soul is a fairly unexplainable term. It’s just there, you feel it, love it and that’s about… it. Musical structure (as an analytical term) is a massive subject and is itself a part of the soul of music whether it’s the way that a breakdown happens in a house track or the tiny fill a drummer plays just to vary the beat. Sometimes the devil is in the details, sometimes it’s in the master plan, and hopefully both. For this article however I’m going to talk about sound, particularly in electronic dance music

Electronic dance music (EDM), against what some people think about it’s ‘mechanical soullnessness’ really did grow out of spirit and love for the music. Detroit techno, Chicago house, early rave and hip-hop were all born, not out of machines, but people wanting to express themselves and make music. The fact the styles developed as they did was far more out of the faults, limits and idiosyncrasies of electronic equipment than anything else, but develop they did. However, digital sound has always been a little lacking (far more lacking at the beginning), compared to analogue, and analogue even loses out in terms of detail and richness to real world acoustic sound (any analogue-heads out there shouting and waving sticks can argue with me at a later date). However, synths produce sounds which cannot be made in the acoustic world which is their real strength; they are sonically unique. This exploration of other-worldly digital sound does have a price tag though; it can’t quite stand up against acoustic sound in terms of richness, depth or quality. If you have ever played with or done live sound engineering with a combination of acoustic and digital sound sources you will know how difficult it can be to keep the dynamics of the digital sound in line with the acoustic instruments. Simply enough, acoustic instruments will always have more punch and clarity than the sound produced by a computer. So if you can’t beat them, join them. Here’s a few ideas of how we can take this and use it to our advantage.

If you were to make electronic dance music (EDM) such as house out of natural sounds like thumps, squeaks and crashed from the real world, it would be pretty quickly put under the heading of ‘avant-garde’ house more than anything else. That’s not to say house never has acoustic sounds in it, they frequently do, especially the piano (or an emulated version of) but in general they are made out of synthesised sounds and electronic drum kits. Why? Because that’s part of the brand, and you can only push the sounds so far before it becomes re-branded. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be done, I’m all for more experimental styles, but it might not be what you want if you’re trying to make a dance-floor house record. The trick here is to take what you want from acoustic sounds to support other bits of your track. An example for you…

One of my favourite types of kick drum is that hollow, knocking type that seems almost dead but still has richness. The material most often associated with that timbre is wood, so simply enough we try to get that sonic imprint into the track by layering it into the drum. For this exercise you need a microphone, a microphone cable and an interface. I’m guessing you already have an interface which hopefully has a mic input. To begin you really don’t need an expensive microphone, try the classic Shure SM58 to start with. It’s solid, doesn’t require phantom power, has decent sound and survives pretty much anything from being dropped in a puddle to being whirled around some young punk vocalists head. Not that I suggest you attempt these things. Find something wooden and heavy such as a table top, bed post or door. Experiment by whacking it with a number of different objects and recording the results (basic recording guides can be found anywhere on the net). Then, in your audio editor or DAW, try putting the recordings together with kickdrum samples, making sure the hit point exactly coincides (zoom down to sample level for this). Try compression, EQ and level changes to change the way the two blend together. Tuning one of the samples to balance better with the other can really help, just use whatever pitch changing plug-in you have to hand (remember that the more extreme the tune, the more it degrades audio quality so be slight if possible). Also, change the envelope with which each sample plays so that you have the initial hit of the wood with the tail of the kick drum. Trying all of these techniques can help you come up with a unique sound which can help compliment or oppose other elements in the track, or simply give a different edge to it. In this case it can give a tribal feel to some of the drums, very effective with toms, congas, bongos and shakers.

Another line of attach from the natural world can come in the line of more sustained sounds. Instruments such as the double bass can do wonders for improving the richness and solidness of bass-lines, but having a double bass to hand is not always possible, so a good sample pack can help out with that one. There are however plenty of sounds to record free and conveniently. Try dragging something across a surface: pencil across paper, a jam jar lid down wallpaper or the squeak of a fingertip across wet glass. Record it, drag it into the DAW and mess with it. There’s a huge world of sounds to be used, looped, layered, reversed, distorted or FX’ed to death, and whilst they may not immediately appear to be completely typical to the genre that you make, real gems can be found which make your music stand out from the rest and be truly unique. One other interesting tip is convolution. Convolution reverbs such as space designer in Logic uses recordings of real world spaces to create virtual ambiences for sounds to be artificially ‘played’ in. These recordings known as ‘impulse responses’, are recordings of starting guns or popped balloons in good or interesting sounding spaces. However, there is nothing to stop you dropping in any sample you like as an impulse response to impart some sonic character.

The moral of the story is to try new things. Making interesting sounds can be as easy as recording yourself scream and messing around with it in your computer, and it can be easier to do than learning how to use a new synth.

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Dave Garnish runs the boutique music production school Garnish School of Sound, with sound engineering courses for all levels

Article URL: Electronic Dance Music

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