How To Make Electronic 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?

Satoshi Tomiie: 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?

Satoshi Tomiie:  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 a 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?

Satoshi Tomiie:  After the drums, bass and percussion come 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 the melody?

Satoshi Tomiie:  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?

Satoshi Tomiie: In terms of keys, I like using flats as I think they sound better for dance music than sharps. My favorite 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 recognizably 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!


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  1. evan leitschuh on

    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.

    • lawlocoptor on

      “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.

      • 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.

  2. 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 isn’t in tune with the other elements, including snares (snares often have a tonal body, especially synthesized snares), the frequencies can “beat,” or phase, drop out, and it can make the beat inconsistent, fluttery, less tight. I’ve been taught to use a spectrum analyzer to determine the tuning of kicks and snares (and other low-pitched tonal drums like toms, congas), then to pitch them up or down to be in tune with the song; ideally the root or fifth, but any note in the key signature will work. A lot of times a kick sample was patched with an LFO to down-pitch it over the course of its attack, so these can’t even really be tuned. Sometimes snares completely lack a body, it’s just the “whoosh” and crack, those don’t need tuning. And if you have to repitch a drum more than 5-6 half-steps, it starts to sound “tubby”, so at that point it’s best to get a different sample, or if you use Ableton, you can filter the sample with a 24db cut below ~150Hz and use the Corpus effect as a parallel insert or send to construct the appropriate tonal sub bass component of the kick (covered in a Dubspot tutorial searchable on youtube).

    That’s just how I’ve learned to do it. Try it out for yourself on some uncooperative beats, see if it helps. Tuning the drums can sometimes be that magical fix to make a back beat really pop.

  3. 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…

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