How To Write Dance Music Part 3: Drum Loops, Percussion and Melody


How To Write Dance Music Part 3 Drum Loops, Percussion and Melody

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.

Part 1 and Part 2 of Satoshi Tomiie tutorial series covered kick drums and bass.

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.

That’s it. Remember to check out the earlier parts of this tutorial series and look out for the final part!


About Author

Petri Suhonen is an electronic music hobbyist. He has been producing music with computers over a decade on such styles as trance, downtempo, ambient & experimental electronic using FL Studio.

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8 Comments on "How To Write Dance Music Part 3: Drum Loops, Percussion and Melody"

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evan leitschuh
evan leitschuh
4 years 7 months ago

i like this article its good info for beginners that are just starting out. it helped me a little but i’ve been doing this for about 5 months but still really good info from someone that does it as a living.

3 years 10 months ago

“I like using flats as I think they sound better for dance music than sharps”


this guy is supposed to be a musician? all flats are sharps also. it just depends on weather you’re approaching the pitch from above or below it…. lawl.

3 years 8 months ago

He’s talking about a KEY/SCALE here. Not just individual notes. Flat scales going up and down sound different than going up and down a Sharp scale.

4 years 5 months ago
Pertaining to the tuning of drums, for higher pitched atonal percussion sounds, tuning isn’t that important, especially because the higher frequencies are less likely to overlap and clash or “beat” (from physics), and even if they do, it won’t be very noticeable. These are hi-hats, claps, and other percussion. However, with kick drums, snares, toms, low congas, and basslines (which are often percussive, some people even use toms as basslines), the lower frequencies are more likely to clash due them being much closer on a linear scale – they all occupy frequencies below ~250 Hz. So if the kick drum… Read more »
4 years 4 months ago

In the first part of the tutorial, it said that hi hat and snare sounds should be added after making the kick drum. Now in part 3, it is saying that those drum sounds should be added after creating the bass…

10 months 18 days ago

Great information guys. You really helped me a lot