New York house hero Satoshi Tomiie continues his dance music production tutorial series, with another insightful and educational lesson. This time the boss of SAW Recordings, who has produced electronic music since the late 1980’s, covers drum loops, percussion and melody.
Why do you always start writing your tracks with a kick drum and a bassline?
I get inspiration from a bassline and a good kick. I can’t just come up with hooks like a singer/songwriter. I usually start my tracks there, and then see how it goes.
Maybe it’s because I’m a DJ, but that’s how I produced from day one.
So what comes next?
Now comes the fun part! Actually, all of it is fun for me, but this is the part when your track really comes together.
After I’m happy with my bass and kick drums, next comes the other drum elements. Usually that will be some kind of hi hat, clap, and snare. I don’t go too crazy programming the drums at this stage as I think it’s important to leave some room to play later on.
Once I’ve got a basic drum arrangement looping, that’s when I’ll begin to add in percussion hits, and sometimes, percussion patterns.
By working this way, the idea is to try and build a basic groove with the drums and bass first, and then start slowly building your track up on top. If you have good foundation with the bass and kick drums, building a track up is usually fun and it will flow well. If you don’t have the right basic foundation, you will have a problem building up a track, and you’ll have to go back and rebuild the foundation again from scratch.
What do you do after you have a basic drum, percussion and bass loop going?
After the drums, bass and percussion, comes the keyboard parts and synths. It’s difficult to give advice about hooks or melodies as not all dance tracks have hooks or melodies and a lot of tracks today are more like drum tools – effective without being musical.
The hook is also probably the most difficult part of a track to write, but if you want melody in your dance track, it’s best to start programming it early on, around the same time that you’re building the kick drums and bass. Otherwise later you will find that there isn’t enough room for it to do its work.
Also, sometimes you just don’t need a melody. Dance music is designed to move people, and often you can be just as effective on a dancefloor by using really tight beats and a killer bassline. Sometimes a hook sounds too much.
What sort of synths do you use to write melody?
When I write melodies, I tend to use a different synth sound every time as I don’t like to repeat what I’ve done before. Inspiration can be limited for me if I use the same synths over and over. Some producers like to have their synths set up like a band – they always use the same synths and settings for every song – but unfortunately I can’t work like that. If I could, I could probably write my tracks 20 times faster!
I use the same kind of synths that I mentioned in my bass tutorial. I also sometimes use samples, like for instance piano samples – I’ve got some awesome ones of an actual electric piano. I also have a real Fender Rhodes electric piano but it’s quite bulky and takes up a lot of space in my studio so I don’t use it that often.
A lot of dance music producers aren’t classically trained musicians, but most will know that keys are important. What can you tell us about them?
In terms of keys, I like using flats as I think they sound better for dance music than sharps. My favourite keys are ones like C Minor, F Minor, G Minor, and B Flat Minor.
A lot of people have asked me in the past about tuning – how to tune your drums to a key, and I always tell them that it isn’t that crucial. If you strike a metal object, generally it doesn’t have a melodic pitch, at least not so much of a melodic pitch as to be recognisably melodic. Percussion for the most part has a pitch that is so unclear that you can get away with it on any key.
Of course, you have to use your ears – if something sounds like a key clash, you might have to pitch it up or down to make it fit better into the main key of a track. Sometimes the ambient noise of a drum loop will have a pitch, so that’s when you might have to pitch your drum loop up or down to make it fit better.
Also, sometimes it’s actually good to have something out of key too, like for instance, if you want to draw attention to a particular percussion hit.