This month, we asked our panel of top pop and electronica producers how to create lead sounds that stand out. Got a question for our experts? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Weave around the chord and try to create tension—don’t just use root notes and octaves. Make an arpeggio: Program in the melody first, and then start messing around with automation. You could change the decay times, mess with the filters and envelopes, and record the entire process.
A great way to get new and surprising sounds is to start with simple sounds and use heavily layered parallel effect processing to turn them into complex ones. I might take a sine wave and feed it into an [Ableton] Effect Rack with four chains, each containing effects such as Live’s Grain Delay and Frequency Shifter to provide various degrees of pitch and time shifting. Then I’ll filter each layer differently to give it more movement and texture. It’s amazing what you can come up with when you get away from thinking in terms of synthesis and do some sound design exclusively with effects.
Obviously it has to be the right sound for the track. The lead must gel and lift you up as soon as you hear it. A great way to get the right sound is to loop the notes you want and just flick through the presets on the keyboard or plug-in until you think that’s the one. There is no harm in layering sounds if you’re unsure of which one to use. Sometimes I’ll layer maybe five different lead sounds, go away for a little break, then come back to see if they sound as good as they did before.
(Dragonette | dragonette.com)
I look for a sonic range that’s less occupied, or crowded, by other elements of the track, and then try to make a sound that can take over that space. It could be a frequency range, or a stylistic thing—for example, something really synth-y that rides over an otherwise more traditional sounding track, or something legato over otherwise punchy sounds.
It’d be a mistake to say that there must be a lead sound in every track you make. Limiting yourself to the basic elements like “bass line, lead, string, pads, etc.” can make your music sound like everybody else’s. My advice here would be to try not to write a lead. Try to write a sound that defies categorization. To reiterate my point: Try not to write a bass line. Instead, write a sound that falls in the same frequency range as a bass tone, but isn’t. Lead sounds in dance music, like bass sounds, tend to follow fads—pretty much every electro-house track released between 2007 and 2008 had some big saw lead with a s***load of portamento on it. Consider all of the different possibilities to fill that frequency range: You could use little bits of a disco or funk sample (legitimately of course!), a synth sound that has melodic tone but doesn’t play a melody (use it almost like a percussion instrument), a vocal tweaked out and chopped to create a strange morphed tone, the possibilities are endless. One of the benefits of being a dance artist is that you don’t have to conform to the standards and requirements of pop music.