Instant Hip (Part 2)
Key Ingredients For A Happening Dance Track
An insight into the sounds and structures that make up a successful dance record, by Edgar G. Roover.
In dance music, production is all-important. Cult remixer Edgar G. Roover examines the sounds and arrangements that make up a successful dance record.
No matter what type of music he's working on, the record producer has to consider both the musical arrangement and the way in which the various musical sounds fit together in the mix. Musical arrangement can be divided into three distinct areas: the order in which the various musical sections are presented (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, middle eight and so on), the musical lines and rhythms which make up each part and the sounds chosen to play these lines.
Though a dance single doesn't have to conform to the same rigid verse, chorus, middle-eight, solo construction as the more conventional pop song, it still has to attract the interest of the listener very quickly, and once the intro is over, it usually pays to get to the first chorus or hook pretty quickly. That isn't to say that the verse doesn't need to be catchy, though — ideally it too should contain a hook of some sort, which can be created by the clever use of melody, by repetition or simply by the distinctive vocal character of the singer. In the dance genre, the hook of the track is as likely to come from an interesting sample or a happening bassline as from the more traditional vocal melody hook. And, of course, there's sex — orgasmic oohs and suchlike! Dramatic sampled snatches from radio broadcasts can act as attention grabbers, and don't be afraid of using something that sounds childish or musically immature — the majority of singles buyers are not noted for their appreciation of the finer points of musical construction. If something sticks in their mind, they're more likely to want to buy it — whatever it is!
Dance songs tend to have a very informal structure and there may be little, if any, differentiation between the verse and chorus. Even so, most successful dance records combine an underlying rhythm with a series of musical hooks which make the result more compelling and help it stand out from the competition. The rhythm can be given a recognisable identity by the use of non-standard hi-hat figures, or a selection of alternative percussion sounds added over the usual bass/snare/hi-hat back beat. The musical tempo of most dance records is generally (but not invariably), constant, quite predictable and lies within fairly rigidly defined limits, usually around 120bpm, though with the advent of rave music, tempos have gradually crept upwards. But on top of the straight four-to-the-bar rhythm, it is possible to bring in quite complex rhythmic patterns to make the beat appear busier and more exciting. Tension can be sustained in a long mix by dropping out the drum track either completely or in part for short sections and relying on the bass or piano part to carry the rhythm until the drums come back in. These sections are ideal for introducing sampled sound effects or acappellas (unaccompanied vocal passages).
At the heart of every dance orientated pop song is the rhythm section, which might take the form of traditional drums and bass, but is more likely to be entirely synthesized using drum machines, samplers and keyboard synthesizers. The composer must make the bass instrument and the underlying drum rhythm work together to establish and assert the rhythm of the piece — definite rhythmic styles and rules exist for specific musical forms, and those that apply to dance music should become evident after a little critical listening to a selection of well-produced dance records.
Though sample CDs are used extensively in conjunction with a sampler to provide access to a ready-made set of sounds, it is worthwhile either creating your own sounds or modifying existing sounds through the use of EQ, effects and layering. Dance music employs very bass-heavy kick drum sounds, often synthesized, to create a relentless and powerful feel. It is also possible to trigger a kick drum sound from a drum machine at the same time as a low pitched burst of sound from a synthesizer, which can create a suitably synthetic effect. Additionally, the Simmons electronic bass drum sound is often emulated on modern drum machines, and makes an ideal basis for a dance rhythm track.
If your mixer has a four-band equaliser with sweep mids, this can be used to change existing sounds by a surprising degree. The old trick of radically boosting the bass control while applying low mid cut at around 220Hz adds a lot of weight to the sound, while the upper mid can be tuned to between 4 and 6kHz to bring out the attack of the drum sound if it needs more 'cut'. If you don't have the necessary equipment or don't want to go to the trouble of creating your own drum sounds, most modern drum machines have suitable 'off-the-peg' kick drum sounds which will work fine with no need for further processing.
Dance snares tend to be light and bright, and take a back seat to the bass drum, which provides the main driving rhythm. These snare parts often play simple rhythmic figures rather than just beating out two to the bar and again, serious dance music composers tend to sample drum sounds from other records, which are then further treated with effects or layered with other drum sounds. The bright, aggressive techno snare is used extensively on dance records, and most modern drum machines have something suitable in their repertoire. If there is no techno sound available on your drum machine and you don't have access to a sampler, it is possible to modify a standard snare sound by radically boosting the EQ somewhere between 500Hz and 3kHz (depending on the sound you're after), and then adding a short, bright reverb or a gated reverb effect. Deliberately overdriving the reverb unit and the mixer channel can also help create a really convincing techno snare.
Analogue drum machine hi-hat sounds are currently popular for dance music and either come from the older Roland TR 606, 808 and 909 drum machines or from samples of these machines. Check out some of the newer Roland drum machines too, as Roland have recognised the popularity of these older sounds and have responded by including some of them on their recent models. Conventional drum machine hi-hats can be used at a pinch, but tend to need radical EQ to make them sound thinner.
Analogue bass synth sounds are favoured by dance music composers because of their crude, powerful sound. Popular analogue synths include the legendary MiniMoog, various Oberheim models, Sequential Circuits' Pro One and Roland's SH101 and TB303 Bassline. Some of these synths can still be found quite easily and cheaply on the second-hand market, sometimes for as little as £120 or so. However, you can use samples of the real thing or make do with digital sounds that have been edited to sound as much as possible like their analogue counterparts. Sounds with fast attacks and fast releases sound powerful without filling up the all-important musical spaces, while a thicker sound can be achieved by using two voices playing the same note but slightly detuned. Fast analogue filter sweeps can help make the bass sounds more percussive, and dance songs are invariably sequenced and quantised to keep the timing rigidly accurate. Musically, dance basslines are usually quite simple and very repetitive to gain the maximum, mesmeric impact.
The classic House sound includes a cheap, electronic piano, usually chopping out simple two- or three-chord punctuations to reinforce the underlying rhythm. Most keyboards make a bad stab at an acoustic piano, and while these sounds are unsuitable for most music that actually needs an accurate piano sound, they are ideal for dance. Even inexpensive home keyboards can produce great dance sounds, and if you can find one that has some really nasty drum sounds too, you're in business. Detuning two voices or adding chorus to create a honkytonk effect can help.
Making dance music can be as complex or as easy as you like. At its simplest, a home keyboard with an inbuilt beat box can provide the whole backing, whereas professionals might rely on banks of samplers, sophisticated MIDI sequencers and fully-equipped recording studios. Much of the successful club material was made using home recording equipment plus fairly modest instruments — and the great thing is that you don't have to have the latest instruments to get the best sound. In fact the older the gear, the better in some cases!
A brief article of this nature can do little more than fire your enthusiasm, but then enthusiasm is the main ingredient of good dance music. The key is to try things out for yourself and experiment with whatever equipment you can get your hands on. If you have a drum machine and a basic keyboard, you can make a start. Next month we'll be providing a few sample drum rhythms, bass lines and piano parts for you to try out.
Feature by Edgar G. Roover