In my previous post on creating templates, I discussed pre-determining the structure of your track by analysing the material of other artists, and marking these out in the arrangement for your own use.
It’s key to remember that the whole point of templates is to eliminate repetition wherever possible, so that you can be as effective and efficient as possible and leave your mind free to be creative. So what about instrumentation?
In almost every interview or tutorial with top artists I hear the same story over and over again: their best tracks were the easiest and fastest ones to write. This makes total sense, as when you’re truly in the creative flow you should be thinking very little.
Achieving a ‘flow state’ is essential (if the concept of flow is new to you, I recommend looking into it as it’s important to have an awareness) in both increasing your productivity and your ability to be creative. In order to accomplish this, you need to remove as many obstacles as possible.
Templates are one of the best possible ways to start.
When setting up a project template, the next step after mapping the track structure is to set up your instrumentation. Everything from this point will be built upon the type of instrumentation you use. What are the most commonly used instruments in each of your productions?
It’s a really useful exercise to look back on your previous tracks and evaluate the best features – what works most effectively? What can you borrow from previous instrumentation and tweak for future productions?
Although we like to think that we’re super creative and we produce a completely fresh idea each time, I would bet significant money that there are some go-to instruments that you reach for in most of your projects – I certainly do! We’re creatures of habit and we gravitate towards particular sounds, it’s perfectly natural.
Selecting banks of consistent instrumentation is also key in defining your unique sound – remember it’s important not to think of this as repetitive. On the contrary, it should be seen as development and refinement of your sound.
There is yet to be an artist who has a smash hit with the first track they create – it takes time to hone and develop a sound and it all starts with the instruments.
Most of the time, unless I have a specific atmosphere that I’m going for, I prefer to start my tracks from the ground up with drums. Being a drummer I’m also pretty biased, as my sense of rhythm is stronger than my melodic persuasion.
As an aside, I almost never pay attention to the lyrics of a song – for as long as I can remember, it’s always been groove first, then anything else is a bonus. Think about the last party or club night that you went to – more often than not it’s the groove, the drums and bass, that draws people to the dance floor.
Create an instrument track
If you’re using Logic and you aren’t using a pre-outlined track (as discussed in my first post on templates here), open up a new project and, if you have the default preferences, Logic will prompt you to select the type of track you’d like to create automatically.
If not, hit the ‘+’ button at the top-left of the Arrange and, if you’re not using Logic, simply add a new instrument in your DAW of choice.
Let’s start with the kick drum, which is arguably the most important element in most genres of music, let alone EDM. My recommendation would be to choose a software instrument as this is the most flexible.
My weapon of choice, particularly for dance or electronic-oriented tracks, is Sonic Academy’s ‘Kick’ instrument – the first version is branded with Nicky Romero but if you’re not into him don’t let that put you off. It’s a solid drum synth and sampler, allowing you to generate sounds from scratch or sample external audio.
You may have your own preferred sampler, such as Ultrabeat, or you may have built your own set of samples using Logic’s EXS24 sampler instrument (I’ve written more on this here) – go with your favourite and most frequently used kick drum tool.
Lay down the beat
With your tempo and structure already set up (shown in my previous post), you may want to add a kick rhythm that’s ready to go for any production.
For example, if you predominantly produce house music, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be using a four-on-the-floor kick beat at some point during a track. If this is the case, why not write this in now? The MIDI data will be ready and waiting to be looped, chopped, edited, rearranged or deleted entirely depending on what you need in your latest track.
Once you’ve recorded this in, I recommend editing the MIDI notes so that they are consistent. For a full guide on this, check out my post on MIDI manipulation.
Within your instrument, it’s a good idea to create some go-to presets. There’s no harm in scanning through the existing presets and tweaking them to suit your own taste.
For example, none of the preset sounds in the Kick plugin are perfect for my tracks, but some of them are darn close. I often alter the pitch, length and clicks so that they sit better within my music.
You’ve probably already done this in a number of your tracks, in which case why not save these as your own presets so that you can recall them at any time? Major time saver. You can then develop these even more, further honing your instrumentation and sound.
Alternatively, you can also export these sounds to audio to pull these into a traditional sampler, such as UltraBeat or the EXS24 in Logic.
What about audio samples?
If you normally drag in audio samples directly into the Arrange to build your drums, I suggest you start building your own sampler instruments to speed up the writing process.
Having talked with a number of producers over the years, we all have a handful of sounds that we come back to again and again and, as mentioned, the whole point of this process is to eliminate repetition and free our creativity.
So why bother dragging in the same samples over and over, and applying the same processing over and over? Add up all those minutes in each production and that’s a lot of time over the years.
If you haven’t already, check out my recent post on creating your own sampler instrument quickly and easily with Logic’s very own EXS24 sampler – you’ll thank me later.
Logic’s channel strip feature takes presets to the next level as, not only can you save a particular instrument, you can also save any plugins, processing or effects that you add to the channel for later use.
For example, your kick sound may benefit from some added compression and EQ which you can add directly on the channel in the mixer. Add whatever plugins you like and then select ‘Settings > Save as channel strip’ and boom, you now have this whole channel whenever you need it.
If you’re not using Logic, it’s highly likely that your DAW has a channel preset feature too.
Build the groove
Once your kick track is down and the samples are playing, it’s a good idea to begin adding some other staple drum sounds. These don’t have to be the sounds you’ll use for every track, we’re just setting up the instruments in advance so that we can quickly select the best samples when we’re writing.
Add another software instrument and, this time, create a snare sampler. For example, you could initiate an EXS24 (or your preferred sampler) and add all of your favourite snare sounds (you can use the same techniques described above and in one of my previous articles).
Once again, write or play in the MIDI data i.e. a snare on beats 2 and 4 of the bar – this way you can simply play a loop and switch the sounds as needed.
Remember, with samplers, you can always change the sound later, but this way you only need to write the MIDI data once. You can now rinse and repeat this process for claps, hi-hats, shakers and so on.
Now that you’ve prepared your drums, you can move on to more instrumentation to speed up the writing process even further.
In part 2 I’ll be looking at preparing bass, synth sounds and FX instruments.
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