Essentials when making tracks for the Dancefloor

When it comes to writing electronic music for clubs,  it’s often a good idea to have a few things in mind before you tackle that track.

Who is this track for?

What DJ’s would I want playing this track?

What should I use as a reference to keep me on track?

Although plagarism is most likely going to make you look like a sad imitator, not knowing the proper structure and elements that make a track in a certain style work can also make you look pretty amateur.

Templates

For me, it’s not about plagarism or theft (unless you consider any type of sampling to be theft), it’s about understanding the template before you randomly bang out a few loops and expect a dancefloor hit to result. It’s like knowing which colors compliment eachother on canvas to get a certain result. As much as we would like to take credit for being the sole influence of every great piece of work we’ve done, every style of music has a template. Breaking rules can be pretty important in expanding a sound and pushing boundaries but push too far and you’re either in another subgenre of music or your song gives the impression that it has somehow missed the mark. This can be that either  too much is going on, not enough is going on, or that the structure leaves you feeling bored or overstimulated.

In business they say that if you want to be successful, you should model someone who is already successful in your field. I think the same goes for music.

For me, I’d be a bit like a train without a track without some sort of template. I usually don’t have a template when I am jamming ideas, but once I get into arrangement and mixing mode, I definitely have a reference, format or template in mind.

Usually I let templates assist me when it comes to figuring out the elements I need for a complete track. Without having something to reference, I can easily fill the song with too much in one area and not enough in another area. So I may listen to a track for guidance, even if it’s one of my own completed songs. I’ll map out the elements something like this:

*Kick

*Drums

*percussion

*crash

*drone

*Bass

*pads

*lead or hook

*cut up bits

*”build up” sounds

*fx

This, of course, is a very basic list off the top of my head, but it’s good enough for this example. With these I take a loose mental note of the basic frequency ranges of each part. This can expose holes in my frequency spectrum and lead me to know if I need to play that pad an octave higher or lower etc.

It’s important to not try to fill up all the frequencies at all times. Without some gaps, it’ll be difficult to build excitement. It’s important to know how few elements the track can run on and stay sonically interesting. Leaving a hole in the high frequencies, for example, can make room for those high hats that come in on the offbeat at certain peak points in the track.

Given these elements above, I would make sure that each part in my song either fell directly into one of these categories or was playing a neccesary support role to one of these elements. A bass for example might need 3 elements working together to get the right sound. Typically each layer will consist of a different frequency range where when put together make one rich, dynamic sound.

If you are playing 3 different parts in the same bass frequency, you’re most likely going to want to either cut something, or re-EQ one of the parts so they don’t interfere with eachother. Interference causes a lack of clarity and the overall impact is likely to suffer.

DJ mixes vs songs

When it comes to building a template of sounds, I prefer to listen to a Live DJ mix instead of individual songs from a DJ I would like playing my track. The reason for this is manyfold.

For one, you are able to find common themes and patterns in the overall sound of the mix instead of taking direct influence from one artist alone. You are also able to hear the elements of the songs that are being highlighted in the mix and which are not being used.

It may turn out that a DJ needs to re-edit or layer a track for it to work on the dancefloor. If you are able to listen to a 4+ hour mix, you can really get an idea how the DJ builds his set in a live situation instead of the snapshot that is given on a commercial DJ mix CD.

This also gives you the ability to know whether your style is best suited for the early, mid or late portion of a set. Where individual tracks come in handy is when looking for inspiration in the arrangement of your song.


I recently took this approach with a track of mine. I produce with a partner under the name Innerstate (not to be confused by the trance artists under the same name). We hadn’t made a new track as partners in several years and although we both are more skilled at making music now than we were in the past, it definitely took us a bit to find our feet.

Ask a DJ

A DJ that has been (and continues to be) a big supporter of our tracks was coming to LA which is pretty close to us and we didn’t want to show up empty handed this time. This put a fire under our asses but also put us in a bit of a rush as we only had 3 days to complete an unfinished track idea.

To make a long story short, we missed the boat on the 1st version of we delivered. I wouldn’t say it was crap but it certainly wasn’t up to the standard people have grown to expect from us. It was also missing the elements that this particular DJ was drawn to, elements that had become a trademark for us.

Our first reaction was to be a bit defensive of the new direction we had taken but we soon realized that sometimes it’s important to hear from a fan or your work to keep you on track.

We took some time to listen to actual live mixes from him which surprisingly had some of our tracks in them. It was nice to know they still worked with current DJ sets on top notch sound systems. This brought back to mind what the name “Innerstate” was all about for us. We realized that not only did we have the wrong elements, the EQ’ing was too “in your face” for this style of music.

We went into a bit of panic and feeling like we failed, but once that passed, we went about to find our own way of expressing the right elements and getting rid of the ones that weren’t working.

I’m happy to say that version 2 of our track was massively improved, and we learned a whole lot from the whole process. Everyone we shared it with gave it great feedback. There will likely be a few more minor tweaks but it’s pretty normal for any producer to have their songs “road tested” before they settle on a final mix. If you have a friend that DJ’s in well established clubs around the world, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor by listening to what they have to say. This of course, is assuming s/he plays the kind of music you make.

I wrote this blog to expose some of my own weaknesses in hopes that you won’t give up when you have struggles. Almost everytime I write a new track, I feel like a beginner all over again. I wonder exactly how I managed to get that sound in my last track and if I can pull off something as interesting or more interesting than that in my new track.

Writing music for the public can be pretty scary. Putting something out into the world is your way of saying “I think this is good and I’m gambling my reputation on it”. Don’t let that scare you off though, every artist is going through the same thing, so you’re in very good company.

Happy music making,

Jason

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