House music has been fuelling dance floors and sweaty warehouses across the world for almost 40 years now. It might have gained a stronger following amongst the general public in some countries more than others, but very few areas of the planet have been left completely untouched, and it’s techniques have fuelled countless other sub-genres thanks to the cross pollination of classic house sounds, equipment and studio techniques.
Below you’ll find a list of 15 tips that will help you to improve your house productions – they cover editing, processing, creative mixing, use of effects and mastering.
Most dance music producers today create and mix their tracks with a compressor or limiter attenuating between 2 – 3 dBs on the master output. This helps glue separate elements together and gives a better impression of how the track will sound once it is finished and has been mastered properly. It’s important to remember to remove these effects before sending the stereo mix to a mastering engineer so he has plenty of headroom to master the track professionally.
INSERT VS RETURN
A good way to achieve a more old school vibe is to use just one reverb on a bus or return track rather than inserting a different one onto each. Channel. This creates a more cohesive sound reminiscent of early house tracks when there were far less effects units available to the average producer and hardware was being used to resample the sounds with the effects printed onto them.
Always be sure to EQ as much bass off your individual parts as possible without affecting the sound of them within the context of the full mix. Sometimes a sound may feel like it’s too thin or unnatural on its own. however, once it’s in the mix with the rest of the track playing it may be okay to scoop out a bit more of the low end than usual. This creates a lot more space for your all important bass line and kick drum. Keeping the overall groove clean, tidy and punchy. This will pay off as you incorporate more and more parts into your mix. The best technique is to scoop the low end out with the track solo’d then un-solo the channel to listen to the mix in context and make further adjustments.
When multiple similar elements hit at exactly the same time (claps and snares for example) try nudging one of them slightly forward or back using a channel delay to give a more exciting or laid back feel to the groove. This also allows both of the the transients to cut through the mix and be heard more clearly. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to keep your different percussive parts on separate channels.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE
It’s tempting to keep your beats looping over just one or two bars, but you should aim to generate variations over longer periods. – be that two, four, or eight bars. Ideally you want to create a bunch of variations that you can swap in and out of the arrangement as you please. The variations can be short fills, removed notes, reversed effects or just about anything else that reinforces the sense of pushing the groove back to the start of the perceived loop. These ever changing hits also keep the listener interested and aware that the track is continually developing.
THE WAR OF THE LOW END
Use EQ and envelope controls to stop your kick and bass clashing, as these are the two main elements of any house track. A very effective technique is to use EQ to make space in your bass line for the frequencies of your kick drum. It’s also important to keep the decay and release of the kick short enough to not disrupt your bass. Another method for reducing a clashing low end is side-chain compression
While your DAW makes it very easy to place audio samples directly into your arrangement, Samplers offer much more control over audio such as the ADSR envelopes, tuning and modulation. With this in mind most samplers are now catering for much larger sample files rather than very short one shot samples as well as the ability to instantly slice the sample over the keyboard such as in Ableton’s simpler device.
THE ART OF GLIDE
house bass lines rely heavily on slide and groove. So one of the most important and useful controls in this respect on any synth or sampler is the glide function. You’ll usually set this to generate a slight slide from note to note. But a lot of fun can be had modulating it in real time too. A good starting point is 50-70ms. Be sure to make sure your bass line is set to monophonic mode as well and try overlapping some notes and hear the difference.
THE POWER OF MONO
Try to keep heavy elements in mono. – or at least make sure the lower frequencies of such sounds are set to mono if you have a stereo tool that facilitates it. This keeps those elements punchy, particularly on a mono club system. The kick drum and snare and often the clap should be kept in mono to drive the beat and should also be kept in the centre of a mix along with the vocals. Hi-hats and other high frequency sounds on the other hand, often fit better in a mix when they have some stereo spread applied.
Experiment with mixing two copies of the same sound. Or very similar sounds panned left and right with slightly different processing applied to each. This can give real interest to a sound, particularly a real drum sample such as a clap or even a whole bongo riff, recreating the effect of a real acoustic space or even a completely synthetic one!
Combining sampled real instruments sounds (bass, drums or synth patches) can create much richer sonic combinations than either alone. For maximum control you can then re-sample them together and shape the envelope and dynamics of the combined sound. Blending them to make one harmonically richer sound.
A compressor can be placed on the bass line and enabled in side chain mode. This now means it can be set to compress the bass line whenever the kick hits. This allows the kick to punch through the mix. Attack and release settings can be adjusted to taste, however it’s recommended to have a fast attack to ensure that the kicks transient can punch though the mix. Be aware that side-chain compression can cause audio pops and clicks that can be removed by adjusting the attack & release times as well as reducing the threshold or placing a low pass filter after the device.
Reverse reverb can be used to create pumping tail or atmospheric effects on a variety of sounds from drums to vocals. A variation of this is to record the reverb from a sound. Then reverse it and place it on another channel underneath the original sound. This can then have additional processing applied. Once this is lined up in front of the original sound it can really help to add an eerie edge to the track as well as pull the listener into the next section of the track. Sometimes the original vocal can be removed completely for more of an atmospheric vocal swirl effect.
VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
House music had always toyed with completely instrumental tracks – indeed some of the all time anthems and most recognisable house tracks have had no vocals – but it’s far easier to remember a track if there’s even just a single spoken word in there somewhere. This is due to our brains latching onto the sound of the human voice and homing in on it subconsciously whilst listening to a track. So unless your very confident in the individuality and memorability of your vocal free arrangement and mix, we suggest you get some vocals in there!
THE GROOVE OF ALL GROOVES
House tracks are renowned for their strong grooves and repetitive bass lines. If you want your tracks to have this same sort of intense groove pulling the track along, you will have to understand the concept of swing. Swing is delaying or speeding up the timing of certain notes in a track. Usually every 2nd note in a 16th note drum pattern. This is what injects the track with its unique feel and helps it to feel less robotic. Also try adjusting the velocities of each note so that they fluctuate up and down to replicate the different strikes of a real drummer as he hits his drums.