When introducing Dusky's XLR8R podcast last year, we commented on how it, along with the pair's own music, is "clean, well mannered, and, most importantly, effective." Being effective is what the UK duo of Alfie Granger-Howell and Nick Harriman does so well, which helps explain how the pair has become one of the most in-demand electronic acts around. Releases for Aus, Anjunadeep, and Dogmatik, not to mention the just released 'Love Taking Over' EP on the duo's own 17 Steps imprint, have seen Dusky striking a key balance between club functionality and hooky pop inclinations. In hopes of learning a few of the pair's production secrets, we invited Dusky to put together the latest edition of our 'Artist Tips' series, and the duo complied by breaking down the process of building punchy tools that leave space for character.
Pay attention to the construction of melodic and rhythmic patterns and contours.
The vast majority of dance music contains at least some melodic movement, be it in a bassline, synth line, within chordal movements—the list goes on. And by definition, all dance music bar none includes rhythmic patterns in various different forms. While we don't tend to stop to consciously analyze these patterns (we tend to "feel" it instead), it can be useful to take a moment to think about their construction and how they might be improved. A successful and interesting rhythmic pattern has a combination of symmetry and asymmetry, or predictability and unpredictability. On top of that, swing and pushing and pulling of timing can be used to loosen or tighten a groove. All melodic contours contain rhythmic patterns too, but additional considerations to the rhythmic elements can also be made when approaching the melodic shape. Like a good photograph, a similar balance of symmetry and asymmetry applies here through contrasting elements like ascending and descending movement, or stepwise and skipwise motion.
Focus on the kick and bass relationship.
The interplay between the bass and kick is particularly important in dance music, especially "four to the floor" genres like house and techno. As such, it's worth spending a lot of time and experimentation on the bottom end to get it sounding right. The kick and bass are crucial to the underpinning of a track's groove, and if they don't punch through properly when listening in a studio, they're certain to sound weak and flabby on a club soundsystem. We tend to hold back from EQing the bottom end of a kick. Instead, finding the correct frequency kick sound or sample to complement your bass will save hours of messing about with EQ. The aim is to have everything sounding solid and smooth, with the transients coming though and without an unpleasant clashing of lower frequencies. Side-chain compression of the bass relative to the kick can work wonders in helping the kick and bass to gel together. Another trick is to use the bass ports on your speakers to feel if the kick is punching through the bass. The kick should feel like a quick punch of air, not a massive gust of wind that obliterates the bass tones. As a rule of thumb, anything below around 250 Hz should be in mono.
Give your ears a break.
When you're first starting to produce, it can be amazing how different something sounds upon listening after a break, be it a coffee break or when opening a project after a month away from it. Time gives you plenty of perspective on all elements of a track, from its technical elements to the overall aesthetic. Given time, your subconscious sometimes processes decisions without your awareness, so solutions to tricky corners within a piece may offer themselves up without effort once your mind has had some time to consider the problem. Hearing fatigue is a huge consideration, too—our ears start to hear details with less accuracy after time spent constantly working on something, so it's important to take a break. Listening to unrelated music briefly within a studio session can be a useful tool to reset your ears a little, or a quick ‘A/B' with a similar sounding, well-produced track can be useful to identify mix or balance issues.
Dynamic processing: sound sculpting vs. mixing
It's important to acknowledge the difference between these two approaches when you are processing sounds. Are you sculpting the sound? In other words, are you using effects to distort the sound or alter it in an extreme way so as to transform it from what it once was? If so, we see that as sculpting. In this case, we throw caution to the wind and completely disregard how the sound will work in a mix. This helps to avoid stifling your creativity. If you want to put 10 phasers and five delays on one track, just do it and see what happens. Don't be worried about how it might work later in the mix. This is how some really interesting and unique sounds can occur. On the other hand, if you are using processing in a mixing sense, to try to get your sound to sit correctly with the other elements of your track, your approach should be much more exacting and precise. Be conscious of what other frequencies are already occupied, and use the tools at your disposal to fill the gaps as well as clearing out the middle of the mix for your bass and kick (and vocal, if it's a vocal track). A word of warning—use meters and visualizers to help you, but don't rely on them; they can become a distraction. It's more important to trust your ears.
Utilizing effects and dynamic processing by way of sends to bus channels is the way forward. Once you understand the concept and learn to balance the levels appropriately, it will add depth and subtlety to your mixes that can't be achieved with a channel insert. The only way to get good at this is to practice, but here are a couple of key parallel processing techniques we use to get you started.
Reverbs: This works for any instrument, including bass (not putting reverb on bass is a myth). Send the signal to a bus with a reverb insert set fully wet, match the pre-delay time to your tempo, use parametric EQ on the reverb to get rid of any unnecessary frequencies (normally 1000 Hz – 4000 Hz and a low cut), side-chain it with compression if you want it to "pump," then set the level.
Compression: Works especially well on drums if you want to add subtle "punch." As before, send your drum signals to a bus, add compression with a high ratio, fast knee, very slow attack, and very short release. Then bring down the threshold until you start lose a bit of volume. Add an EQ with a bit of low cut, boost around 100 Hz, and a high frequency shelf with a low Q setting around 12000 Hz. Set the level to add the necessary required punch.