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.
The 808 Kick
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
|The Xfer Records LFO Tool includes a brilliant array of filtering options.
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.