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Chances are, you’re reading this as somebody who’s completely new to music production or needs some guidance.
If so, I understand exactly how you feel. Even after reading this short article, you’re most likely still feeling overwhelmed, confused, and lost.
Luckily, that can change. One choice is to come up with a systematic strategy for how you’re going to discover production.
How to begin to compose techno music
Here are some tips you can use to begin composing a dope techno hit.
You need to learn your DAW and/or hardware instruments. If you are new to this you are most likely just going to want to use a DAW. I would recommend Reason, Logic or Abelton (although there are plenty of other good options.
You can watch random YouTube tutorials—and they may help you—however, there is something to be said by just getting experience. Start by making a song even if you know it will never see the light of day.
Make it a commitment that you will compose at least one song (or at least one idea) per day.
Compare your tracks to other tracks that you admire. When you’re starting out don’t be afraid to take direct ideas from another song.
Use Tap Tempo to isolate the tempo of a song you admire and copy the rhythm. Then spend time searching for (or generating sounds in the case of hardware) sounds to mimic the beat.
EQ and filtering are essential for creating an initial tone, from which everything will follow. You can spend HOURS just crafting a great bass drum sound. Once you have the bass drum though, it is all about fitting the rest around it.
In techno, the tone is everything. Rhythmically, the music tends to be very simple. Melodically as well. The essence of great techno lies in creating awe-inspiring soundscapes.
Crafting your tone
808 drums are an excellent place to start to get great sounds for bass snare and hi-hat.
Distortion, compression, Vintage EQ, and modulation effects are all great starting points for achieving a consistent tone.
Background sounds (utilizing low volume sounds with heavy filters or reverbs) can instantly add ambiance to your track. When these sounds disappear you’ll immediately see that these tracks sound emptier.
Really work on the kick drum as it is the basis of your track.
Program the kick drum with its primary frequency below around 50Hz. This will ensure that it does not interfere with the bass synth.
The kick will be a close and punchy noise with a percentage of reverb. The reverb will allow you to make the tail of the kick long or short. You can EQ-out the lower end and add a long reverb for a larger, cinematic-type noise.
For cinematic background noises, reverb and delay are essential tools for creating interesting and dynamic backgrounds in your mix. You can turn sounds that are quite normal into a spacey collage of colors and shapes.
Stack different samples. You can stack two or three different kicks on top of each other (and adjust their respective properties with EQ and filters etc.).
Clap sounds are normally placed on the 2 and 4 of the beat—or not at all. I would caution even putting in a clap or snare drum until a base has been established. The kick drum doing ‘four on the floor’ (kick on every beat in a measure of four) is usually very powerful in itself for a techno track.
A more intricate reverb method involves rendering a mainly wet, long reverb as audio. You can then modify it artistically as you would any other sample.
Generally speaking, the greater the gain, the lower the distortion’s output needs to be as it ends up being less vibrant and more noise-like.
A single noise can be provided sonic variation with time to add interest, which can be as simple as a minor, fine pitch modification. You can use the cents controller to lower or raise the pitch. It is difficult to observe initially but can be heard when removed and is an excellent tool for crafting tone.
Getting the rhythm and structure
Once you have your base rhythm of a kick you are going to want to add some extra rhythm or noises and give the song a structure.
Decorative rhythm noises are normally small components in a mix, however, in techno, they are frequently dealt with like a lead instrument. These noises can be generated by hardware synths or software synths and often can sound like short bursts of white noise.
A 16th note hi-hat pattern could also be utilized to glue the drums together. The hi-hat patterns can be modulated by EQ or pitch, experiment with it until it fits well in the mix.
Don’t be afraid to keep it simple! You need to discover the sweet spot in the mix for all your auxiliary percussion—hi-hats etc., however maybe they aren’t even necessary or need to be at a very low volume.
Techno songs don’t usually have a typical Verse Chorus Verse like a regular pop song. They tend to be more cinematic and are structured in a more orchestral way.
You can think of the structure of your song in movements. Or even simpler—in an arc. An arc means that we have an intro, build-up, climax, and outro.
When you’ve created a sequence you enjoy with, experiment with creating a build-up using ever more intense and contrasting tones. Let your musical ideas go wild and take the listener on a journey.
The mixing process should be part of the composition process so don’t wait until the end to put filters and EQs on things.
Experiment and listen
The best producers will tell you that they are voraciously experimental—meaning that they try new things all the time. They create things and let their ears guide them. They are also not afraid to discard an idea that just isn’t working.
Listen to composers and the choices they make. Take notes on them. Compare your tracks to theirs.
Above all use your ears and try to take the listener on a hypnotic journey, as all great techno does.
Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.
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