Once I have a nice outline and vision for my song, I get the rest of my elements in order before I start creating variations, intros, outros, and buildups. It might seem to go against the flow, but I prefer this order because now I kind of know if I am going to shoot for a big intro or need massive buildups.
Feel free to come back to this step from time to time as well. I almost never make an intro without having to go back and add another element that I felt was missing. It is all about the constant adjustments as you go.
Pads are typically wide sounds that swell with time and typically play simple melodies. Sometimes they are layered to your leads and bass, other times they play on their own to fill out the lower intensity parts of your song. When done right, your pads can give the song an emotional foundation or they can be used to create mood. Many times, I will preview parts of higher intensity as a prelude of what is to come.
Select or create a couple pads for use with your song. See how well they play with your existing elements. If you are running out of frequency space for the pad, then instead, look at your lead layers. One of them may serve the role of a pad when played on its own.
- How well does your pad play simple versions of your melodies?
- Does it sound really good all by itself?
- How about sliding notes, how do they sound?
This is the time to get a decent idea of what you want. Also, consider how you can use the pads for intros, outros and buildups. They will come in handy later.
Soundscapes are a bit different in my opinion. I think they are a great way of painting texture onto the background of intros and buildups. They have the freedom to be a bit more chaotic and are not stuck to specific melodies. They typically have multiple automated parts on their phase, filters, pitch and other parameters. Some soundscapes can even be used as your main focus for the verse.
These can get really tricky depending on how you use them in your song. If the soundscape has too much weight in a certain frequency range, it can immediately add unpleasant characteristics that you may not realize at first. This is because of their shifting nature and you will have to listen for these negative effects when playing the soundscape with the rest of your song.
Do to this, I usually tend to reserve soundscapes for their own sections. Buildups and bridges benefit, as do early verses when not all the elements are playing. You can even create multiple versions of the soundscape, one for main use, and others custom tailored to blend with your other elements.
These are optional as long as your song has a wide enough range of frequencies covered, but they can add a nice extra element to liven up parts that are less interesting.
Most electronic music uses a lot of sound effects thanks to the unlimited potential of synthesis. Some of the most common categories are risers, lifters, downers, impacts, hits, etc. I won’t get into much detail about all the different types, but keep in mind how they are used.
For risers and other similar effects, you are usually taking an instrument and bending the pitch up in such a way that it creates growing excitement. This is common in buildups or transitions that lead into a section of the song that has more energy.
On the other side, downers, impacts, and other effects release the energy. They are generally either taking an instrument and bending the pitch down or they are subtle one shot hits that are drenched in delay or reverb. They are effective at the end of a song section to signal a transition or even for the actual ending of the song.
There are a ton of other sound effects as well. Some are great for adding variety and excitement. In some genres, sound effects are the main instruments and can be the central point of focus for the song. However you choose to use them, consider their placement, purpose, and how often they are used.
Lastly, there is an entire section below about sound effects that belong to the use of noise.
Some may say ambience is the same as pads, but I draw my own distinction. To me, ambience serves a different purpose and is much wider across the frequency range.
A lot of my favorite ambience comes from live recordings. Examples can include; crowds of people at a market or industrial machines hard at work.
Unlike pads, ambience has no real melodic or harmonic context. It is the combination of various sounds to create a space. It is like the dust that floats across the room when the sun shines through the window. Only difference is, it serves a much greater purpose. It helps fill out the gaps and the empty parts of a song very well.
They are not usually very noticeable during verses and chorus parts, but ambience can be helpful here too. Many songs will use ambience during the intro to give some life to the initial start of the song. Or it can be injected into the buildup before the intensity starts to rise. It helps to glue your parts together while adding interest.
Drones are less common for me, but are worth mentioning. These are typically a constant sound with a slight alteration over time that… drones… on and on.
They can be vital to some songs because they establish a constant. They are also generally in the lower frequency range, sometimes replacing the bass or other low end content during a buildup or verse.
Another interesting part drones can play is when you are working on a section that needs to be very systematic sounding. Some forms of techno and trance used drones pretty often for this purpose.
I also tend to consider a drone when running an LFO or other modulation to it. However, this can be argued as altering it into a soundscape, unless the LFO or other effect is consistent and not really changing much over time.
Where to begin?
When I was first starting off and heard about using noise in music, I honestly thought the whole idea was silly. I was very wrong. When used correctly, noise is absolutely amazing.
Noise in its raw form is like static, covering all the frequencies. It is terrible to listen to and is annoying. However, the application of noise in a musical context is really important.
The trick is usually to select a specific range of noise frequencies. Think of wind and the ocean waves. They are the sounds of energy. Filtering is critical and the movement of those filters more so. Most modern electronic music has noise applied to instruments, as ambience and as sweeping/swooshing effects.
Noise also comes in various forms, such as white, pink, brown, metallic and so on. Learning how to manipulate noise can lead to some pretty cool results, especially if you have any interest in making your own effects. Also, layering just a bit of noise to some of your instruments can create excitement as you add energy to their sound. This requires careful use and filtering, because too much noise sounds like…. Well, just noise.