Alright, here’s the final part of Satoshie Tomiie’s How To Write Dance Music -tutorial series. In this final part, Japan’s most successful DJ explains how he uses vocals in dance music tracks, and how he builds his arrangements. He also talks about the tools and software that he uses for his productions.
(Remember to check the earlier parts of this tutorial series)
Some of your most famous tracks had vocals, but you’ve also released a lot of instrumental club music. When should a producer use vocals?
For any dance music producer, working with a vocalist is “next level shit”. There are many ways to work with vocals. When I work with a vocalist, I tend to provide the basic rhythm and melody of a song so they have something to build on. However it’s important not to overdo the production beforehand, so as to leave enough space for the songwriter to come up with ideas.
In dance music, the songwriter and the vocalist are one and the same person most of the time. My 2001 track ‘Love In Traffic’ was written by the vocalist Kelli Ali and myself, and after I had built the basic track, I sent it to her, and she came up with the idea for the song and the vocals. Then we worked together to finish it.
At the beginning, I give vocalists a basic direction, but leave them with a lot of room to add their ideas. And then only after we have agreed on the main idea and have recorded their vocals, will I go in and add chords, melodies, harmonies and extra beats. Sometimes I will re-compose a track after a vocal has been done, almost like a remix, because I get inspired.
There would be no point finishing the instrumental part of a track before the vocals, as then the vocalist would have little chance of coming up with an idea that you had not already imagined. Having said that, there have been times when I’ve created an instrumental track and I’ve felt the missing ingredient was a vocal, so these rules are flexible.
When do you start arranging a track?
After making a satisfactory groove, I move on to the arrangement. Right now I use Ableton Live to arrange my songs, and then at the end I will move on to Pro Tools to mix down.
Before you move onto arranging a track, how many bars is your master loop generally?
My loop structure tends to change for each track. I mostly use eight bar loops, but sometimes I will write a hook that’s three bars or six bars long. It depends on the track really.
Why do you use Ableton Live for arranging?
Ableton Live is super easy to do arrangements and it’s actually pretty fun because it takes no effort to make one part longer or shorter. To just an idea and a feeling for a track down it is very easy.
When do you start layering in effects?
At this point, I don’t tend to go too crazy for general effects but there will be some tracks that must have an effect, as it’s integral to the track’s progression. I try to get the right compressor for tracks, and the right EQ for everything, and then when I get to a point where I’m happy with the arrangement, I will bounce every track separately to audio.
You use compressor and EQ on everything?
Yes. Most of the tracks have their own EQ and compression. Having the right compression and EQ will make your track sound well mixed and create better separation between the tracks.
That’s a really important note to make – dance music is generally loud, and it doesn’t have a need for that much dynamic range, compared to say, classical music. You need to use compression and EQ on everything to make it loud.
Over the years all recorded music has been getting louder and louder and louder. Back in the day, CDs were actually a lot quieter. Now everything is super loud. It’s like a competition. One way to achieve that desired loudness, is to use compression in the right way.
Treated sound sounds better, when you make small differences to every track. A small difference times by 30 tracks, can mean a big overall change.
After arranging in Ableton, you move onto Pro Tools. Why is that?
The mixing on Ableton Live is still not the best, and I’ve used Pro Tools for so many years so I’m really used to its software plug ins. Pro Tools was developed initially as an imitation of a recording console, and it’s controlled by a physical controller, so I’m really familar and comfortable with all of its concepts. The Pro Tools console is like a real studio.
What other controllers do you use in the studio?
Controller wise, I use the Avid / Euphonix MC Control, which controls all of the applications on my Mac. I like my control room to be like an aeroplane cockpit, with lots of gadgets!
I also use a virtual controller on the iPad for Pro Tools and Ableton, which I use as a sub controller. The app is called V-Control for Pro Tools, and TouchAble for Ableton. Using these apps feels a bit more like you’re playing live, kind of like DJing.
How do you finish a track?
Sometimes occasionally, rarely, I might not be happy with a kick. So right at the end, after everything has been arranged, I might look for a replacement.
Finally, when I get a playable version I will start road-testing the track in clubs, to get the balance and the EQ levels right. I’m fortunate to be able to road test my new music in clubs every weekend.
What comes next?
When I’m really happy with a track, then I’ll bounce it down and make a production master. My production master is not a maximised output, as you have to leave some headroom for the mastering engineer to do their work.
It doesn’t make sense to give the mastering guy a maximised copy. The first thing he would do, is “un-maximise” it, as there’s not much that he could do with that. But a clean “un-maximised” track with the right levels is what they need. Usually I give them a track which doesn’t need too much EQ, and has just the right amount of compression and level adjustment, so they can just tweak it here and there. Then finally, the track is mastered and finished!
Well I think we’ve covered most of the basics in this series. Thanks Satoshi for sharing your tips and insights into how to make electronic music!
Great! I hope beginners of electronic music find this series interesting and useful. It has been fun to reflect on how I work.
That’s it everyone! Thanks to Satoshi Tomiie for sharing his thoughts on electronic music production and Terry Church for providing me this interview! Remember to check out the earlier parts of this tutorial series.