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Masterclass: Ten Essential Dance Sounds, Broken Down

June 29, 2014
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IN THE same way that rock’s sonic vocabulary includes Les Pauls, Stratocasters, Marshall stacks, and spring reverbs, dance music has evolved around essential synth sounds and production tricks that every producer should know—if only to use as starting points for developing a signature style.

Many of these sounds originated decades ago; others are more recent innovations that form the foundations of various subgenres. In this article, we dissect ten sounds that should be in every EDM producer’s arsenal.

Envelope settings for re-creating the 808 Kick in Reason’s Subtractor.
The 808 Kick

We’ll start with a quintessential dance element, whether you make bass music, house, or techno: the 808 kick.

Analog purists will insist that the only way to have a real 808 kick is either to own amazing 24-bit samples, or to have an original ($4,000) unit. Although you could certainly buy one of Roland’s hyper-real TR-8s, you can also synthesize your own 808 kick sound from scratch. This way, you’ll get 90 percent of the way toward the original character, plus the added ability to transpose it without changing its length.

Start with a soft synth and use only one oscillator, set to a sine wave. Propellerhead Reason’s Subtractor works well, as does Ableton’s Operator. Sine waves have no harmonics, so leave the filter off. Then set your amplifier envelope to an immediate attack, long decay, zero sustain, and a long-ish release. When you play the lowest notes on your keyboard, you should hear that trademark subsonic hum. Finally, to add some of the original’s click, add a pitch envelope to your sine oscillator with all parameters set to zero except the decay, which should be set near its absolute minimum value. Increase the amount of envelope modulation until you hear a transient on the attack.

Ableton’s Arpeggiator tool makes zippy videogame effects.
That Festival Sound

Ironically, the giant chord stab sound that dominates the current mainstage festival scene is a variation on the old chord stab sound that used to dominate the trance scene. The first synth to create this sound effectively, in 1996, was the Roland JP-8000. The JP-8000 introduced the SuperSaw waveform, which emulated seven sawtooth oscillators slightly detuned against each other for a massive effect. Most soft synths offer some form of this wave; Reason’s Thor is one of the most widely available.

To make this sound in Thor, you just need one instance of its multi-oscillator, with the sawtooth wave selected and the detune knob set to around 30 percent. From there, open up (or turn off ) the lowpass filter, then set the amp envelope attack to zero, sustain to maximum, and release to near minimum. Now sequence a series of big triads and seventh chords while simultaneously making heart hands for your invisible fans.

Reason’s Thor features an excellent multi-oscillator module for re-creating the SuperSaw.
Chiptune Lead

Whether you call it “that Nintendo sound” or the more hipster-friendly “chiptune,” the quintessential videogame bleep is just about the easiest sound in the world to make. Start by using a single square-wave oscillator, then open up (or turn off ) your lowpass filter, set up your amp envelope like a gate with maximum sustain, and bingo, you’re done.

Now, if you want to explore the wider range of classic arcade sounds, add a second squarewave oscillator (or suboscillator) and experiment with different octave settings. Pretty much every permutation will evoke a different videogame. Finally, if you have an arpeggiator that allows you to dial in intervals smaller than an octave (Ableton Live’s arpeggiator device is great for this), crank the rate up to 32nd notes and dial in a distance of +1 semitone and a range of 8 steps. Then fiddle from there.

To nail that deep house organ sound, pick up a copy of Korg’s Legacy M1 soft synth.
House Organ and Piano

Thanks to artists like Disclosure, the classic ’90s house sound is back in full force. In addition to the Roland TR-909 and 808 drum machines, two of the key ingredients for recreating this vibe are organ and piano. Though many vintage digital synths offer viable piano and organ samples, if you want that sound—that is, the exact presets that defined the genre—look no further than the Korg M1.

For the deep house organ sound used for either chord comping or that unmistakable B3 bass, fire up your trusty M1 (Korg offers a fantastic plug-in version for $50) and select preset 17, aka Organ 2. In the lower registers, it’s the ’90s bass sound used in classic tracks by CeCe Peniston and Crystal Waters. In the midrange, it’s best known for comping and jazzy riffs. The secret is backing off on the reverb, because we all know that reverb on bass is a no-no, right?

As for piano, preset 01—the aptly named Piano 16—delivers that bright, tacky sound that really cuts through a mix and was the definitive house piano sound from around 1988 onward. As with the organ, you’ll probably want to dial back on the hall reverb. If you want to go back to the beginning of house in the mid-’80s, the go-to synth for piano stabs was the Roland MKS-20 digital piano module.

Every two-oscillator synth can re-create the classic electro fifth. Just use sawtooths and tune one oscillator up seven semitones.
Electro Fifths

One of the staples of electro is the sound of two oscillators tuned a fifth apart (seven semitones). For authenticity, set both waveforms to either a pulse (not square) or better, a sawtooth. The filter should be a standard lowpass—preferably 24dB/octave, but 2-pole will do nicely as well. The cutoff frequency is variable, with lower amounts giving a pad-like sound that can be opened up for dramatic effect in your breakdowns. Or if you’re just going for a big-room vibe, leave it wide open.

The amp envelope settings are equally flexible; the only crucial setting is a fast attack. Once you’ve got this patch set up to your liking, add judicious amounts of time-based effects like reverb and synced delay. As with all effects, tread lightly, with modest wet amounts. You want this sound to be up-front and punchy, not an ambient mess.

Ableton’s Chord device makes light work of creating parallel minor-triad riffs.
Detroit Minor Triad

Another timeless ’90s sound comes from Detroit, in the form of the minor-triad techno stab. Though you can use pretty much any waveform as the basis for this sound, purists will prefer the character of a sawtooth. The secret sauce in this patch comes from medium-to-low cutoff settings on a lowpass filter with 50 percent or more envelope modulation on said cutoff. Then, adjust the filter envelope to have an instant attack and short decay. With these two items in place, the last detail is to create the triad.

The origins of this sound came from oldschool analog synths (like the Korg Polysix) that had a “chord memory” function allowing you to play parallel chords with one finger. Nowadays, you can do it by programming a minor triad into Ableton’s Chord device—or, if you have a three-oscillator synth, tune the first to the tonic, the second +3 semitones, and the third +7 semitones, e.g. a fifth. Now play a simple onenote riff in whatever key you like, preferably with a four-on-the-floor TR-909 kick. (If you’re lazy, just play the black keys; that technique does the Detroit thing flawlessly.)

Render your best designed whooshes as audio—and keep them handy for use in other tracks.
Whoosh

When it comes to transitional effects, there’s always room for a 909 crash cymbal for a timeless vibe, but the real star of almost every dance genre is the white-noise whoosh. The concept is simple: Set your synth’s waveform to white noise only and slowly open and close a lowpass or bandpass filter while you hold down a note with full sustain on the amp envelope. Adding resonance gives it a “windier” sound, while lower resonances have a more “ocean wave” character.

On its own, it’s a bit boring, so slather on a ton of reverb and/or stereo multitap delays. For added animation, add a touch of flanging or phasing. If the whoosh gets too big for your mix, try adding a touch of highpass filtering at the end of the chain to tame any muddiness in the lower frequencies. From there, it’s all about the automation of the cutoff in the context of your arrangement.

Reason’s Scream distortion is great for bit crushing.
Robot Vowels

The “talking” synth sound that dominated dubstep and electro for the past few years was primarily done with Native Instruments’ Massive soft synth, but an easy hack enables you to get this sound with almost any synth—as long as you have a bit crusher handy. Reason’s Scream distortion can pull it off in “digital” mode, and Ableton Live’s Redux device nails it, too.

The secret lies in knowing which type of sound to feed the bit crusher, and the answer is, a highly resonant lowpass filter sweep. To get started, create a single-oscillator sawtooth patch with a gate-style amp envelope like those I described in the festival and chiptune patches. From there, assign your filter cutoff to the mod wheel, so you can sweep it live (or with automation) and crank the resonance to around 75 percent. What you’ll hear at this point is a squelchy, retro ’70s filter sweep.

Once you’ve got that set up so that you can play riffs while controlling the cutoff with the wheel, add the bit crusher. Ignore the bit-depth tools and experiment on the down-sampling parameter(s). At medium-to-high levels of down sampling, the combination of aliasing and filter modulation yields that trademark robot vowel sound.

The secret to perfecting the classic eighth-note pad comp is to use a sawtooth LFO on a lowpass filter.

Eighth-Note Saw Comp

A certain famous producer (who wears a mouse helmet while performing) once created a pad sound that has become a staple for moody, progressive tracks. The patch has a distinct eighth-note comping feel that many producers have mistaken for playing repetitive chords, but that’s not how his original sound was achieved. The trick is to use an LFO for the repetitions, while holding down sustained legato chords.

Start by creating a standard two-oscillator sawtooth patch, but detune each oscillator slightly in opposite directions (+/- 5 cents is a good place to start) to keep the overall result in tune. From there, lower the cutoff of your lowpass filter, with no resonance, until the sound has a soft, warm character—usually around 20 percent. Next, apply a tempo-synced downward sawtooth LFO, set to eighth-notes, to the filter cutoff and raise the modulation amount until you hear that trademark pulsing effect on your chords. Alternately, if you’re working in Ableton, place the Auto-Filter device after your pad synth and use these settings to replicate this effect perfectly.

To add dramatic flair to this patch, raise the cutoff frequency as you play your chord progression. As the filter cutoff exceeds the amount of LFO modulation, the pulsing will give way to a massive bright character that’s perfect for setting up a breakdown in your track.

The Xfer Records LFO Tool includes a brilliant array of filtering options.

Sidechaining Without a Compressor

The final trick in this collection isn’t a synth patch; it’s a technique that serves two very important purposes: keeping your kick drum prominent in four-on-the-floor tracks and/or adding a subtle throb to sustained synth and vocal elements. Most producers use a compressor sidechained to the kick drum to achieve this effect, since this configuration lets the kick control the dynamics of a given set of parts. But there’s an alternative method that delivers more intuitive control, with the ability to add rhythmic finesse.

Set up an auto-pan effect so that it works in mono, functioning as a tempo-synced quarternote tremolo. In Live, you can do this by setting the auto-pan’s sine wave phase to 0 degrees and changing the offset to around 90 degrees. This will give you a perfect “bounce” on the eighth notes between the kicks. Tinkering slightly with the offset value will allow you to shift the throb forward and backward against your track, letting you fine-tune the groove.

If you really want to dive into this alternative to sidechaining, pick up XferRecords’ amazing LFO Tool ($50). In addition to creating super-detailed volume modulation, this wonder plug-in offers a huge assortment of great sounding filter modes and the ability to apply a crossover that lets you process only highs or lows of a track.

Between his work as an artist/producer and sound designer for companies like Korg and Ableton, Francis Prève has been hanging out at the intersection of electronic music and production tech for nearly 20 years.

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