STEP 1: CONCEPT AND INSPIRATION
Often the hardest part of creating a track is finding inspiration, which can come from listening to a favorite artist or a cool new sample; before you know it, you can have the majority of a track in front of you. The really hard work begins when your creativity simply refuses to flow.
To avoid falling into creative ruts, have a concept or style for your track in mind as a guideline before you begin the construction process. You can even decide what style of arrangement to try beforehand. This is a less spontaneous style of writing music, but you'll still be able to lay down some valid ideas when taking this route.
Once things are starting to work, you can change concepts as you go and create new parts on the fly, but there's no doubt that a certain amount of thought and planning can work wonders for even the worst case of writer's block.
Remember to keep all your ideas well organized; naming your project folder and files clearly will give you quick access to older tracks. A project that may seem lacking today could turn out to be just the thing you're looking for in a month's time.
STEP 2: SOURCING AND PREPARING SOUNDS
Another way to prepare before actually starting to write is to gather and inspect any sounds or samples you wish to use. Again, this is quite a controlled way of going about things, but in some situations it can really pay off.
For instance, in a really vocal-heavy mix, spending a little time doing some preproduction can help avoid work when you are in full creative flow. Some simple de-essing, filtering and gating can make your workflow much more enjoyable as you progress through the project and improve your overall sound as well. Trimming and filtering drum samples, for example, also can be extremely effective and lead to a more defined drum sound.
Such preparation succeeds as a workflow tool and can greatly reduce your CPU overhead if it leads to less processing during mixing. That then lets you focus your resources on running more virtual instruments and effects buses.
STEP 3: THE DRUM TRACK
With most types of electronic music, the drum track is all-important. Not only is it usually the most predominant feature in the mix, but it also supplies attitude and pace to your arrangements.
Knowing how critical drums are to the overall quality of the track, it's really worth spending some time here. Don't rush things, and try to shy away from preconstructed loops for the main body of the rhythm section. You'll achieve a much more original and diverse sound by taking the time to program your own beats.
Split each percussion sound onto its own channel and switch back and forth between processing each individual sound and the entire pattern in the mix. You can then group or bus all of the percussion tracks together to give you more control over the whole drum level.
Try using techniques such as parallel compression, multiband processing and transient design on your drum group to attain more punch and clarity. Whether you're using drum machines, samplers or raw audio to create drum tracks, taking this approach should lead to a better mix.
STEP 4: BASS AND LOW-END MANAGEMENT
Once you're happy your drum track, it's time to look at the rest of the rhythm section and add your bass parts. Bass is often the hardest instrument to perfect in electronic music, but if you've spent a good amount of time building an interesting drum track, you ought to be more inspired when it comes to playing instrumental parts.
Unless you're recording a real bass, you can program bass lines in a MIDI piano roll editor or play it on a MIDI keyboard. A good compromise between the two is to play a basic pattern using a keyboard and fine-tune in your MIDI editor. This way the basis of your pattern should have a human feel, with obvious mistakes quantized and extra notes added for interest.
With a pattern in place, you can concentrate on your bass sound and its placement in the mix. Layering two or three parts or sounds can be an excellent way of fattening up the part; using sounds you don't usually associate with bass can create interesting effects when married with more traditional synth-bass patches. You can then feed these layers into one group in your DAW so you can process them as one to add some “glue.”
It's extremely important that any parts containing low frequencies are managed correctly, so the mix remains coherent. Correct bass management will also make mixing and mastering easier. Tools such as multiband compression, highpass filtering and sidechaining can not only make sure your low-end dynamics behave, but they also enable your drum track to cut through the new bottom-heavy parts.
STEP 5: STRINGS AND PADS
The order in which you create your remaining instrument parts is in no way set in stone, and different methods work for different people, but there is a certain amount of common sense in creating pad or string parts before anything else. Pad sounds will generally be more audible over a simple mix of bass, and any chord progressions will also sound clearer.
If you take this route, you can be safe in the knowledge that any further instrumentation you add will remain in key with your chosen progression, and the piece will generally sound more natural as it unfolds. There is always a risk that if you build the track in reverse order, things may not gel as well.
Remember to filter any low-end frequencies from any pad or string sounds you use to stop them from clashing with the drum and bass parts. Also, sidechaining your strings — using the kick drum as a key input — will help keep your transients clear and defined.
STEP 6: LEADS, TOP LINES, VOCALS
Possibly the most important parts are what you could call “top-line” instruments. These include leads, stabs, arpeggios and other melodic instruments containing higher frequencies that often represent the main melodic hook. Vocals can also constitute your top line and be handled similarly to other instruments in this group.
It's important to keep these parts well separated in your mix and let them ride comfortably above everything else you have so far. These parts are often the element that make or break a tune and represent the key element the listener relates to, so it's important to make them clear and present.
Again, ensure that no low frequencies from the top-line tracks interfere with your drum and bass tracks. However, if you're using real instruments or vocals, try not to cut them with a harsh EQ curve or extreme filter that will color your sound and make it unnatural.
Light use of compression and EQ can help bring out the natural harmonics in these sounds and give them more emphasis in the mix, while reverb and delay can put these sounds in their own space, creating even more separation from other instruments.
STEP 7: EFFECTS AND FILLS
To add energy and interest to your track, crashes, special effects and fills are key. Rather than using standard crash samples, try layering reverb or delay tails with noise-based synth effects. Layering sounds in that way will give you a much more individual sound than using more standardized elements.
Make the effort to program drum fills, either using sounds from your existing drum parts or new sounds imported especially for the job. Once you have programmed a fill, don't stop at one; make variations, so you can alternate them between different patterns. That will keep your arrangement varied and prevent repetition.
STEP 8: ARRANGEMENT AND AUTOMATION
At this point you should be close to having all the instruments and musical elements you need to construct an arrangement. Arranging is an in-depth subject that could be a step-by-step guide of its own, but at its most basic level, a successful club track should be DJ-friendly with a drum intro and outro. There should also be a good flow of energy, with areas that build anticipation, leading into higher energy sections. As long as you strike a good balance, the listener should be happy.
As you build these different sections of the track, you will constantly adjust many different parameters within the mix, from plug-in settings to mixer levels and pan controls. To make sure all the parameters are in the right place at the right time, you will want to use automation. If you start writing large amounts of automation data into a certain track, you can always bounce the audio down to make your changes permanent. Of course if you do that, be sure that you have a foolproof backup of your original, untreated audio files.
STEP 9: MIXDOWN SESSION
A lot of people tend to mix their project as they go, but it can be a good idea to spend some time dedicated solely to mixing the track. Let your ears have plenty of rest, and make sure you are 100-percent happy with your arrangement and instrumentation. That way you will only have to concentrate on the relative balance of parts and their individual sound. It's also good to bounce down any virtual instruments and plug-in heavy tracks at this point to free up precious CPU for the mixing process.
One problem that may arise is that many of your channels may have a lot of automation data on them, which isn't a problem until the automation data happens to use the mixer's level controls. Then every time you adjust those controls, they snap back to their automated value. A good way around that is to create multiple groups for similar parts (such as drums, bass, pads, leads, vocals, effects, etc.). That way you have control over their levels and can apply any extra processing you need, and any automation on individual tracks remains intact.
At this point, try to make your master level 0 dB (aka unity gain) and have your mix operating with around 3 to 5 dB of headroom. The loudest part of your track shouldn't be clipping at all. Remember, you're not mastering at this stage, so aim to get the best balance of all the instruments in the mix without trying to make everything sound huge; then you'll get better results from your final mastering phase.
STEP 10: MASTERING AND TRANSLATION
When you're happy with your mix, you're ready to master. If you plan to do your own mastering, you really need to do some research; there is a vast amount of information on the subject. Unfortunately, it is highly possible that you can do more damage than good if you attempt a DIY mastering job with next to no knowledge. However, with a little work and the right tools, the job can be done at home to a passable standard. All-in-one mastering plug-ins such as iZotope Ozone can go some way in helping you grasp the concept of mastering.
If you feel a bit out of your league here, your other option is to send the job to a professional engineer. In that case, be sure to deliver your mix in the right format and resolution. You want to hand things over in the highest bit rate possible; 24-bit is ideal, but only if your DAW session was produced at 24-bit, as well. Make sure there are no processors on your master output, no dithering taking place and that you have preserved headroom for the engineer to work with. If you follow those guidelines, you should get back a huge improvement over your final mixdown.