Ten years. That’s how long I’ve been writing the Dance column for Keyboard. It has enabled so much for me—from meeting heroes,
to receiving letters thanking me for my insights, to compiling dozens of columns for my book, The Remixer’s Bible (published by Hal Leonard), that I’m
truly humbled by the opportunities this column has afforded. In honor of this occasion, I’ve assembled a grab bag of ten timeless synth and
production techniques every dance producer should know. Enjoy, and scroll to the bottom of the page for audio examples!
1. Know Thy Roland Drum Machines
In ’80s pop, the sampled sounds of the LinnDrum, Oberheim DMX, and E-mu Drumulator
reigned supreme, but in electronica of all types, the crown is Roland’s. Here are the modern genres
associated with each—these are just guidelines and there’s tons of room to quibble over details.
· CR-78: Retro synth pop, IDM (intelligent dance music), clever techno.
· TR-808: Hip-hop, retro synth pop, techno, and tech-house.
· TR-909: Rave classics, ’90s house, techno, and tech-house.
· TR-606: Techno, tech-house, and IDM.
· TR-707: Retro synth pop.
2. Roland TB-303 Acid Leads
In addition to forming the basis for the entire acid-house genre and a massive chunk of ’90s rave material,
Roland’s TB-303 Bass Line rose from being a failed attempt at a bass guitar synth to bona fide legend status—
right up there with the Minimoog. It also inspired Propellerhead ReBirth, which opened the floodgates to a
deluge of dance-oriented soft synths.
3. The Nintendo Square
Probably the simplest sound ever, this patch always seems to revive itself and remain
relevant, regardless of the genre. I’ve dubbed it “the Nintendo square” because of
the thousands of video games that relied on its sound. Here’s how it’s done.
Using just one oscillator of a virtual or real analog synth, select the square waveform. Open a lowpass filter to maximum, then set the volume
envelope to immediate attack, full sustain, and immediate release. For extra street cred, add a touch of bit-crushing to the results.
4. That Trance Sound
It’s amazing that a sound can define a genre with minimal adaptation for over a decade. Even if
you have only a passing familiarity with trance, you’ve heard that machine-gunning “dee-dee-dee,
dee-dee-dee” riff. This sound evolved out of Roland’s “supersaw” waveform, but it’s easy to create
using more standard means.
Start with two or more sawtooth oscillators, then detune them all in equal amounts—in opposite directions to maintain overall tuning. From
there, lower the filter cutoff and add some filter envelope modulation with short decay and no sustain. As your riff plays, simultaneously open
up the filter and increase the amp envelope’s release time. Slather on some chorus and dotted eighth-note delay for added atmosphere.
5. Sine Wave Bass
Whether it’s hip-hop, techno, or house, a sine wave bass is the macho equivalent of
the little black dress—essential and eternally in style. For everything from 808-style
kicks to booty-shaking bass, the simplest waveform is often the best.
Start with a single oscillator. Set the wave to sine (or triangle if that’s all you have,
but it’s not as pure). Open the lowpass filter to max; if using a triangle wave, close it down a bit to more closely emulate a sine. Lay down a simple
drum groove and start playing a bass line. See? For added funk, add some LFO or pitchbend swoops.
6. Rhodes Comping Chords
Based on jazz and disco, the enduring sound of deep house has remained largely unchanged for nearly three decades. Two key instruments form
its basis. One is the Roland MKS-20 digital piano that anchored countless tracks; the other is the Rhodes electric piano. The sound of record
labels like Om and Naked often pivoted on the lush sensuality of a great chord progression punctuated by perfectly placed Rhodes stabs. Chorus
and delay are the effects of choice here, but to wow your friends with that Steely Dan vibe, try a phaser.
7. White Noise Whooshes
These are a tried-and-true way to add drama
to build-ups and breakdowns. In my July ’09
Dance column, I gave specific techniques for
creating massive noise whooshes. Here’s a
quick summary of the process.
Start by using a noise generator with no additional pitched oscillators in the mix. Then, create an eight-bar event that plays a single note.
The initial result should be an irritating noise blast. From there, use automation to slowly raise the cutoff of the synth’s lowpass filter over the
course of those eight measures. Adjust resonance to taste—a little goes a long way. Delay and reverb are great ways to thicken the results, and a
highpass filter at the end of the chain will tame unwanted lows and chunky lower mids.
8. Sidechain Compression
I’m often asked how to blend kick and bass so that the two don’t
compete with each other in the mix. Here’s the 30-second answer.
If your DAW includes a compressor with a sidechain function,
apply it to any bass tracks in your mix. Once the compressors are
in place, switch on the sidechain function and assign your kick
drum track as its source. Every time the kick hits, the bass will duck
in volume slightly. Depending on your genre, you’ll need to adjust
the compressors’ threshold, ratio, and envelopes to taste.
Don’t stop at bass, either. Any time you want to reinforce the four-on-the-floor vibe of a track, pads, top loops, drones, and white noise
whooshes can all benefit from being ducked by the kick drum.
9. The Eighth-Note Saw Comp
Whether you thank Deadmau5 or blame him, the eighth-note pad/comp is now a staple
of EDM vocabulary. Start with a slightly detuned (or chorused) sawtooth pad, then
lower the filter cutoff and use filter envelope modulation to create a moderately percussive,
piano-style envelope. Next, play a simple repeating eighth-note chord progression.
Using automation, focus on increasing the following parameters simultaneously:
filter envelope amount, filter cutoff, and volume envelope and release. Any subtractive
soft synth will do, but for true Deadmau5 authenticity, try FXpansion Strobe (shown)
from DCAM Synth Squad.
10. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies
It’s not a synth. Or a DAW. Or a beatbox. But it does come as a website, desktop widget, or even a very expensive deck of cards on eBay, and its
usefulness is astonishing. Originally printed in 1975 by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, each card gives a tip as to how to bust creative block. The
strategies range from “Only one element of each kind” to “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” to “Just carry on.” To some, these may seem
obvious, or abstract, but when you’re banging your head against a remix that’s due tomorrow morning, they’re worth their weight in rare vinyl.