Finding the right sounds for your music
I was asked recently in an email:
“How do you know which sounds to use that will compliment the other sounds in your song?”.
I thought this was a very good question, as I’ve struggled with this very same issue in the past & I’m sure many of you may have been challenged by this as well.
There seems to be 2 schools of thought when making music:
1. The rule followers
2. The rule breakers
I always liked to identify with #2, and it gave me loads of freedom as a guitarist in new wave, goth & indie rock bands. I thought this approach would translate well with electronic music as well, but it didn’t & I couldn’t figure out why.
Why did every idea seem to fit so well together with the more traditional band format (Guitar, Bass, Drums, Vox & Synth), while my early electronic music projects struggled?
Then it finally clicked
The songs I made with a standard live instrument set up used pretty much the same instruments, putting out slight variations of the same sound. Each instrument, regardless of what was played, essentially stayed in it’s own frequency range, leaving room for the other instruments.
Although drums can be pretty complex, frequency-wise, each drum sound tends to take up a small frequency & is not constant. Plus the sounds have a pretty sharp attack that helps it cut through a mix. As long as each musician knows when to back off their instrument a little, to make room for other parts at times, the song has a pretty good chance of gelling together nicely with a professional mix.
Let’s take a basic look at Frequencies for a rock band. These will be pretty general, just to make my point. Although each instrument can have a wider frequency range, I’m going to point out some of the frequencies that are prominent. If you want to argue these, please don’t. I’m talking in generalizations here:
Kick Drum 50-100hz with a snap around 1khz-3khz
Bass Guitar – 120-500hz
Snare – 600hz-3khz
Guitar – 650hz-8khz
Vocals – 500-7khz
Hihats – 8khz-20khz
So, if we take a look at these frequencies, we can see that although the vocals & guitars overlap in frequency, Everything generally has it’s space to breathe & be heard. Once a band has dialed in their sound, they can usually hit that frequency pocket fairly easily.
Not so much with electronic music
Although electronic music does have certain standards that need attention paid to, the new producer doesn’t naturally have these instincts. Since there are literally millions of sounds to choose from, the new producer typically stops on any sound that sounds great on it’s own & makes a riff, then another sound & then another, not keeping in mind that each sound has a frequency range and that there is not room for multiple sounds in the same frequency playing at the same time.
Another issue is that people’s ears tend to perk up at a specific frequency (usually mids to upper mids) while other frequencies sound dull. If you solo any instrument, you’ll tend to think it sounds better when you boost the mids. The problem is that when played with other parts that have all been boosted in the mids, you’re going to have a mess. You are also going to have wide gaps of frequencies that aren’t being properly filled up, making a very thin sounding mix.
The better approach
Think of each sound in your electronic composition as filling a space in the frequency range, like a rock band might. Sure you have different sounds representing each frequency range, but as long as you keep aware of what job each sound is playing in the overall frequency spectrum, you won’t be overloading one frequency, while neglecting another.
More means less
When it comes to electronic music (hell, any music for that matter, but I digress), there are far fewer rules about how many instruments is the right amount for a complete song. Just understand that the more sounds you have, the thinner the frequency range each sound should be taking up. If you find that 2 sounds are masking eachother because they are fighting for the same frequency, try pitching one of the sounds up or down an octave to see if it fits better in that range.
Remember, if you want a ginormous saw wave bass with a huge frequency range, you better strip down what else you put in this composition or you’ll just end up with a bunch of mud & the bass will suffer.
If you absolutely think 2 sounds in the same frequency both need to stay in your song, you can do a couple of things.
First, pan each part to a different place in the stereo field. This can often solve simple issues without too much fuss, but it certainly isn’t a “fix all”.
Second, sweep the frequency range with an EQ until you find the frequency the makes the sound most clear. This is done by boosting a fairly narrow frequency band and running it through the full spectrum of frequencies. When you find that perfect frequency, lower the gain to around +1-2db, then reduce the other instrument’s EQ in the same frequency by 2-6 db (or lower if it doesn’t negative affect the overall sound when these parts are played together.
The right sounds
Now that we understand how frequency plays a huge role in your productions, let’s get into which sounds are right for your style of music. I said earlier in this post that I considered myself more of a rule breaker than a rule follower, but as I dive into certain electronic niches, I find I am more satisfied with my results when I understand the genre I’m writing inside and out. If your goal is simply to be avante garde & undefinable, this may not apply to you, yet I still think you’ll be able to take something away from it.
For me, this has meant not only listening to relevant songs on Beatport & Soundcloud, but also going to clubs that are known for that style of music & taking note of what sounds & rhythms move you, what tones create tension, what tones give that release. Which sounds & rhythms keep occurring throughout the night to great effect and which get old quickly. This works best when you stick to one genre at a time until you’ve really internalized it.
I like to use descriptive words to sounds & patterns I like. I like to use words that describe more of the purpose of the sound instead of being too literal. This way, when I pull out my notes when writing, I still have some flexibility of how I can fill that purpose in my own songs. Sometimes I even record parts on my iphone to reference later, especially if there is a familiar tone or rhythm that is a kind of blueprint for the style of music I am wanting to make.
Make your own rules:
Once I have found what I like within the frame of what works in a certain genre, I start to make my own list of “rules” to follow in order to keep me focused & on track. This especially helps if you are the type of person who likes a bit of everything & tends to go on unfocused tangents.
I might use descriptions like this to describe some of the sounds I am enjoying lately:
A constant drone for atmosphere & tension
Sharp overdriven percussion that hits the ears in a pleasing frequency
Sub bass that is more felt than heard
Fat dirty kick that sits perfect with the bass & drives the song
Dirty Clap on the 2’s & 4’s
Hypnotic hihat shuffle that isn’t too complex – add and subtract reverb to add tension
Simple Stab rhythm that is percussive & plays 1-3 notes tops
Filters & swishes for movement, but nothing too over the top
Classic snare fills & patterns, stick with that familiar & nastalgic vibe
Filtering the bass in and out to create breaks
Incidental fx sounds & reverse sounds to keep interest
With this list, I have made some of my own songwriting rules to make sure I am using the right sounds & rhythms when I make this type of track. Even with these rules, it still leaves things open wide for experimentation. Also, once you know the rules, you can break them more successfully.
In the same way that you can make a million different songs with the same drum beat or chord structure, I think that even when it comes to following rules, there are endless ways to explore that style of music.
I’m sure your “rules” will vary quite widely form mine. That’s of course perfectly ok. I encourage you to develop your sound from your own preferences, not mine or anybody else’s.
Save your presets
Each sound you make is going to take you some time to get right, even after you know what you want. That’s just part of any type of creating. So when you do nail that sound, don’t forget to save presets that you can use later. It’s so much easier to tweak the right sound a bit than it is to start from scratch every time you make a new song. Soon you’ll have a template of “go to” sounds to get your started easily. That’s where the fun really starts!
Create with confidence
Remember that at the end of the day, you will get closer and closer to your sound with practice. Don’t spend too much time preparing to write music. Get to it asap & be confident that you are improving every time you sit down to create. Just aim to get 1% closer to your goals each day & you’ll find yourself improving by leaps & bounds.
Happy music making friends,