There are always new muscians taking their first steps into the realm of electronic dance music production and this covers the basic concepts which may initially appear confusing for someone starting out.
The all important digital audio workstation
Producers working with dance music will usually be using a computer (PC or MAC), MIDI keyboard, sound card/MIDI interface and some software synthesizers/drum machines which work inside what is known as a ‘digital audio work station’ or DAW for short. The sound card is very important, these can be PCI, FireWire or USB2.0. They will have a number of inputs and outputs that can record and play back sounds. They also usually have a MIDI interface, the MIDI interface accepts the trigger signals from the MIDI keyboard and allows them to be recorded and reproduced. (Note that MIDI signals are not audio files only an instruction to ‘play a note’)
The DAW is also often known as a sequencer because it has the possibility to play a metronome and record in the beats that you play on the MIDI keyboard. You can of course play musical notes as well and record them in time with the drums. This is generally how a modern dance music track is produced, recorded track by track, element by element. It is played and sequenced and not a live event.
A DAW is very powerful and allows the music to be sequenced in a time line. A drum pattern can be played in via the MIDI keyboard and synthesizers added to play the melodies and bass line. This all builds up into an exciting mix of sound that can end up getting people dancing. There are different types of DAW available, some are based on loops, where others work with samples so you can build up drum patterns yourself. Popular loop based DAW’s are Ableton live and Fruity Loops and 2 very famous sequencers are Logic and Cubase, the industry leaders.
When choosing your sequencer it is best to go to a music technology store and get a demonstration from the shop staff. Buying a sequencer is a big choice to make and it is best if you can get a little ‘hands on’ experience before investing.
Bass, the fundammental sound of dance music.
Dance music arguably originated in the mid to late eighties with the styles known and electro and house music since then we have so many genres of dance music, from house music, trance music, acid house, dubstep, techno, trip hop, down tempo, break beat, drum and bass and crosses between the styles.
One thing dance music has in common is bass. Bass is a very important aspect of the musical style and huge bass lines and pounding kick drums can be created using powerful analog and digital synthesizers which can shake the walls of the club. Such music is reproduced on very large sound systems with arrays of sub woofers of up to 18 inches in size for some truly seismic bass production.
Mixing dance music tracks successfully
This is all very well but as a dance music producer you need to ensure that you are capable of producing a track at home that will cut it across a lot of different sound systems, including the large ones installed in clubs. Monitoring your productions is very important and most producers will use what is known as a set of ‘near field studio monitors’ These monitors are used because they are meant to provide an accurate and flat frequency response. This allows the producer to hear the details and tone in order to make equalization decisions that make the music sound good across many systems.
Balancing the low frequency content of a dance music track can be a challenge in a room which has not been acoustically treated. A room without acoustic treatment tends to produce an inaccurate frequency response. This can be corrected by adding absorption in to the room. The type of absorber that works at bass frequencies are known as ‘bass traps’. Bass traps absorb the sound waves as they enter and cause friction and hinder the reflection of the sound back into the room. This has the effect of allowing the producer to hear only the sound from the speakers unhindered by the reflections that cause the inaccurate sound field.
So acoustics are important when producing dance music and many producers starting out will wonder why they cannot get their mix downs to sound as good as those produced in a professional mixing studio. The acoustics and monitors play a big part in achieving a mix down which will sound good on a big and small sound system.
Hopefully this gives you the basics of how to get into home music production and whilst it is very exciting it can be quite a lot to learn and take in all at once, but with some passion and experimentation it won’t be long before you are producing high quality dance music tracks.