Masterclass: Create EDM Build-Ups

Tensions rise and fall as you move from one section of a track to the next
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Tensions rise and fall as you move from one section of a track to the next
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Tensions rise and fall as you move from one section of a track to the next

“SSSHHHWIIISSSHHH…” “OOOOHHHWOOOHHHM…” “Ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka-tick-tick-ticktick- t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t…” If you know what we’re talking about already, you might be a club kid, past or present. Dance music has long relied on tension-mounting build-ups followed by ecstatic breakdowns to mark the passing of one part of a track to another. Using repeating drums and samples along with slowly sweeping synths and noise effects, a good build-up is like the setup to a good joke: Even if you know the punch line—or the song’s beat drop—is coming, when it’s done well, it works every time.

Although there are some conventions to making such build-ups, there’s no right or wrong way to do them. The purpose is just to create tension and release between sections of a track, in order to keep people listening, energized, and anticipating the big breakdown that›s coming.

Sure, you could find some samples on the Internet that serve the purpose, but like Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx says in this issue, there’s something about doing the process yourself that imprints your own personality into it. We’ll use a little bit of both methods here. So keep in mind throughout the following instructions and suggestions that the only requirement is that they sound good to your ear. Listen to our advice and then make your own build-ups blast off!

Pitch-Build Effect Build-ups usually vary between 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 bars, but of course can be any length you please. For this article, we’re going with an 8-bar buildup before the final breakdown of a remixed song.

Fig. 1. Cut up your vocal or other sample(s) like shown, and then consolidate them into one clip. The centerpiece of the build-up will be a repeated, delayed, and pitched sample that’s a distinctive element from the song. In this case, and often with vocal tracks, it will be a bit of the vocal that carries over from the song before the build-up. However, you can use any sample—or multiple samples on multiple tracks—from your song, but it should be different and recognizable from what has come before. Follow these steps:
• Start with a 2-beat sample and duplicate (Command-D) it four times. Take the last instance of it, cut it in half, and duplicate that one four more times. Cut the last instance in half again, and this time, duplicate it seven times. You should then have 4 bars of repeating samples in 16 pieces.
• Select all those pieces and consolidate them into one clip by right-clicking and selecting Consolidate (Figure 1) or hitting Command-J.
• Create a Return track in Ableton Live by going to Create > Insert Return Track or hitting Option-Command-T.
• Add a Simple Delay from the Audio Effects folder in the Browser to that Return track with the settings turned all the way up for Feedback (95%) and Wet/Dry (100%).
• Engage the Link button so that the left-channel delay settings apply to both the left and right channels.
• Select a delay time for the left channel (L). The numbers represent the amount of delay time in 16th notes, so I find that a setting of 2 (eighth note), 3 (dotted eighth) or 4 (quarter note) works best, although the timing of the particular tracks you’re effecting will help determine the best setting.
• In the mixer section of any track you want to effect, right-click on the Send amount that corresponds to the Simple Delay Return track, and select Show Automation.
• In the timeline, draw in automation to send the full amount of signal to the Simple Delay.

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Fig. 2. The consolidated vocal clip with 12 semitones of Transposition Modulation in it Now you have a nice, long delay of the repeated vocal or other sample. Let’s also pitch up the vocal over time to build more tension. There are two ways to do that, so you can choose which method you like best.
• First, double-click on the audio clip to open the Clip View editor. Make sure to click the E button to show the Envelope Box, and there, in the Clip menu, choose Show All Envelopes. Then in the second menu, choose the Transposition Modulation envelope, which gives you an automation curve over the waveform.
• Play around with automation to pitch up or down a certain amount of semitones. One effective way to do is to let the audio play unpitched for a bit, and then pitch it up 12 semitones (one octave) over the remainder of the clip. (See Figure 2.)

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You can also pitch the audio up or down using the Simple Delay in the Return track.
• Right-click on the title bar of the Simple Delay and choose Repitch. Then right-click on the Beat Offset Percentage field of the effect and choose Show Automation in New Lane. Now in the timeline Return track, you can draw an automation curve for the Beat Offset Percentage, and Simple Delay will repitch the audio as it plays. Try a curve going from 0 to ±33.3% for extreme pitching up or down.

You can certainly use both methods of pitching the audio at the same time. It can be pretty trippy to use one method to pitch the audio up and the other method to pitch it down, so the delayed signal goes up while the original signal goes down, or vice versa. “Trippy” isn’t always the effect you want with a build-up, but it’s worth giving it a go to see how you like it.

Fig. 3. The vocal clip and its automation curves for Reverb Dry/Wet, Simple Delay Beat Offset, and Auto Filter LFO Amount, including two Bezier curves With the vocal sample repeated, delayed and pitched, you may feel like it’s finished, but let’s add a little more flavor to the end of the sample as well before it cuts off. A little reverb and a little filtering would be nice. You could add these effects in separate Return tracks or on the individual audio tracks, but because we already have the vocal sample automated to send to the Simple Delay Return track, let’s drop them in the same Return track.
• Put a Reverb ahead of the delay and an Auto Filter behind the delay. In the timeline, add an automation curve for Reverb Dry/Wet, and set it to increase as the sample nears the end.
• The Auto Filter is largely up to you, but try using a lowpass filter that’s almost completely open and with a high LFO rate. (You can quantize to the beat or not.) Then add an automation curve for LFO Amount in the timeline and also set it to increase toward the end of the sample.
• To make automation curve into a Bezier curve for more drastic sweeps, click and drag them while holding Option. (See Figure 3.)

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Fig. 4. Three effects grouped into an Effect Rack with the three key parameters mapped to the Macro 1 knob Using individual automation curves as above helps easily translate this concept to other DAWs, but in Ableton Live, you may want to simplify this process for future use by creating an Effect Rack with one or more Macro controls out of the devices on this Return track.
• Shift-click on each device to select them, and then right-click and select Group (or use Command-G). This creates an Effect Rack.
• Click the Effect Rack’s Show/Hide Macro Controls button. You can now right-click on each of the parameters used and assign them to Macro 1. Click on Macro 1 and rename (Command-R) it something like “Build-up.”
• Click on the disk icon button (located above the Macros) to save the Effect Rack. It will appear in your User Library of the Browser, and you can rename it and use it again later. (See Figure 4.)

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Fig. 5. The build-up with the long-tail elements in place, both at the beginning and the end Long-Tail Elements The looped sample we have so far could almost be enough for some transitions, but let’s add some “long-tail” sounds to the beginning and ending of the build-up for impact. For this example, we’ll use three: a deep sub-bass kick, a long crash, and a clap. For each sound, we want a powerful, instant attack, and as long of a release as possible. If you don’t already have good examples of these in your sample library, you can find them online. (See “Sample Resources,”.) However, it’s relatively straightforward (and satisfying) to make them yourself.
• Start with a clap sound you like; a standard 808 clap is always good. Drag it into a new or unused audio track at the beginning of your breakdown. We want a big, long reverb tail on the clap, so add the Reverb effect to the track and either find a good preset (I used Live’s Large Space Chorus) or build one yourself.
• To add a little extra power, place a compressor after the reverb. I used Live’s Glue Compressor with the Mastering—Add Sustain preset and turned the Makeup gain up to 10 dB.
• If you wish, Group this effect chain and save it in your library as an Effect Rack, because you may use it again.
• When you’re happy with the way it sounds, solo the clap track. Now create new audio track, record-arm it, and set its input as the output of the clap track. Start recording, and stop when the tail of the clap is finished. You should now have an audio file of the clap that you can rename and drag into your User Library, under Samples, to reuse as you like.
• Duplicate the clap and drag it to just before the beginning of the build up. In Live, double-click the copied clap to bring up the Clip View, and then in the Sample box, click on “Rev” to reverse the sample. You now should have the reversed reverb tail leading into the build-up, with the normal clap sounding at the beginning of the build-up. (See Figure 5.)
• Place a copy of this reverse/forward clap at the end of the build-up, as well.
• Repeat that whole process for the longest cymbal crash you can get and for a deep subbass kick, like an 808 kick. However, on the kick, consider using less (or no) reverb and a compressor like the Glue Compressor, Bass— Low Extender preset.

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The raw kick and crash samples may work without additional processing, but I recommend going big and making new samples out of them with reverb and compression added as with the clap. When you’re finishing placing all three long-tail elements, you might what to apply some kind of rhythmic gate to them, or sidechain them to the kick drum so that their audio is ducked when the kick plays.

Fig. 6. The percussion loop with its effects and effect on/off automation lanesFinishing Touches: Drum Loop Some transitional build-ups won’t have any drums or percussion, but it’s pretty common for them to have some kind of percussion running, just not throughout the entire build-up. Usually the drums will either begin at the start of the build-up and then cut out, or drop out at the beginning and come back part way through. Drums are often handled the way we handled our vocal sample, by looping a part in shorter and shorter slices until it becomes a rapid-fire roll.

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However, in this case the vocal sample is the showcase, so we bring in a mellow percussion loop that’s used elsewhere in the track and drop it halfway through the delayed vocal sample, indicating that the transition is building to a resolution. To add interest and heft to the percussion loop during the build-up, I added the Semisubtle preset of the Beat Repeat audio effect, a dotted-eighth-note Simple Delay, and the Loud- Kneeless Compressor setting. Use automation curves to turn those effects off after the build-up. (See Figure 6.)

Finishing Touches: Noise Riser You can scarcely hear a club hit these days without “riser” sounds. These are usually long, mounting white noise or synth sounds that steadily rise in pitch over time, open with a filter, gain intensity, or all of the above. Creating these sounds with synths and effects could be a lesson on its own, but since we’ve already gotten our hands dirty creating our own sounds, let’s take the Internet route for this element.

Fig. 7. A convenient MIDI noise riser polishes off the build-up. I found AfroDJMac’s “Noises, Risers, Swooshes, Fallers” Instrument Rack (see “Sample Resources”), and it had plenty of eligible candidates for the final rising-noise element of this build-up before the music kicked back in. We just dropped the instrument onto a MIDI track, picked a noise riser sound, and recorded it smack dab in the middle of the build-up, 8 bars before the breakdown. It was quite a lovely shortcut at the end of the process. (See Figure 7.)

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Whether you re-create a similar build-up, simplify the process, or one-up what we did, transitions and build-ups like the ones outlined here can make any loop-based style of music sound less repetitive and mount tension just before a key part of the track. You’ll know you have it mastered by the amount of dance floor freak-outs you witness.

Sample Resources

• Ableton Certified Trainer AfroDJMac has created more than 100 free Live Packs for you to download, apparently just because he’s a nice guy. They’re full of excellent samples, effects, and instruments of all kinds. I used his Live Rack #14 for this article. He also sells some of his fancier Live creations in his online shop, so don’t be stingy!

• Looperman hosts more than 60,000 royalty-free loops, samples, and vocal tracks, made by and for resourceful musicians like you. You’ll find plenty of stuff suitable for EDM build-ups, as well as any other musical need. Feel free to post your own creations for the good of all.