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PRODUCTION MENTORING FROM A DANCE MUSIC INDUSTRY VETERAN
How to Make Dance Music that Stands Out
Top Ten Ideas for Making Original Music That Rises Above

From what I see out there, there are many budding producers who want to sound like everyone else. Maybe they see this as the key to success. What I see this as, is a key to sounding like a bad facsimile of the original song, which was a hit. But how do you do something different and stand out? I'm about to impart some ideas.

1. BORING VS EXCITING JOURNEYS

If you know what's coming on a track's journey there's no point in going to the destination. Playing it safe in your arrangement means you are a train driver rather than a taxi driver, on a Friday night, picking up all the drunk party people and true characters. Steering a track in an odd direction, to the seedier part of town, starts to make it an adventure for the listener. Strange rhythms, odd sounds, unexpected chord progressions, unconventional arrangement structures are all tools to make a memorable track.
2. EXPERIMENT WITH GENRES

Your favourite genre gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling and a familiar cuddle. And the rules of any genre are pretty easy to follow. But it also helps to throw in the unexpected. Someone once thought to put classical strings into Hip Hop. Add ethereal female indie vocals into your electro track. Steel drums into your techno track. Even a country and western lick into a EDM track. Or use a Gregorian chant on your Future Bass track. Realise you can do absolutely whatever you want with music. Mix it up. See what comes out the other end.
3. MAKE IT GO WRONG

Smash the rules. Create chaos. Destroy basic presets right down to the bone. Turn a brass sound into an unearthly, terrifying hook! Strip a piano note into a percussive part. Throw things it into a delay unit, fuck around, then bounce only the wet signal. Use plugins for things they're not meant for. Make rhythms with distortion. Use reverb and a noise gate to make a new sound at 100% wet. Throw a stack of random plugins onto a track just to see what it does. Have a session of anarchy. Some new sound will bubble up.
4. PULL THE RUG FROM UNDER THE LISTENER

You're writing the movie script, and if you feel a particular scene is drifting or beginning to lose the audience, what can you do? Have someone burst in with a gun! Try and emulate that thought process when it comes to arranging your track. A track should be like a good thriller with lots of plot twists. Every track should always have at least one unexpected part.
5. INFUSE ORGANIC ELEMENTS

It's easy to be trapped in the mindset of drums / VST instruments / sampler. But adding non-instrumental organic samples and sounds from external sources (e.g. freesound.org) adds that human touch. If you can get a live musician, singer or field recordings to add to your track even better! I remember using a live double-bass on one of my early electro tracks and it gave it such a loose to the groove and ever since I've always tried to find a similar aspect to add to my own music.
6. GOOD MUSIC IS A GLASS HALF-FULL

Quincy Jones says, in his Netflix doc, "The magic starts to happen on a track when you take out 30% of the sound." Or as Miles Davis once said, "It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play." Try this, take one of your finished favourite tracks and start stripping out notes, or sounds in sections. You'll be surprised by the results. As producers, it's easy to want lots of thing happening at once in your track. But less is more.
7. MELODY MATTERS

Sometime a melody is unexplainably good, even to the person who wrote it. Your uplifting yet dull chord progression isn't a song. It's a formula. This is an overlooked important aspect of producing. I'm still on my quest to find the perfect melody chord combo, and the search itself is a great way to start off a studio session. No drums. No building breakdowns or build-ups. Just you and a piano or a rhodes organ sound. Have melodies sessions. Where it's all you work on and save them off as separate files with a folder of your melodies, that you can go back to and check to see if they have hook potential. It's how the Beatles came up with so many great tunes, all they had was a guitar or piano to mess around with before they got in the studio. So they'd come up with the killer hooks first. You can too if you tune out the noise of all the gadgets on your DAW.
8. NO SPECIAL SAUCE ... NO MEAL

Being patient enough with a track until you find that one special element that clicks with the rest, but also makes it so much more than the sum of it parts. Don't find it and you don't have a track. This could be a single three note hook. Or the way your drums just sound different to everything else. Or an original sounding sample. Or even just an odd sound. Think of the 'dolphin' sound on Skrillex, Diplo, Beiber collaboration. It's what made the track. They spent a long time looking for it. All good tracks have that special something.
9. EXPERIMENT RESULT CONCLUSION

Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is a form of madness. You need a new set of experiments. What worked before may not resonate the same way again. Music production should be 80% playful experimentation, and 20% actual work once you've found your killer sound, structure or melody. It's the only way happy accidents ever happen: doing it differently every time.
10. LEARN TO SPOT THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL

It's not always easy to spot what really clicks when you're in the midst of a fun session. Export all your experiments as wav files, leave them to sit there for a few weeks, and then listen to them in the background whilst you do something else. If something jumps out you'll know it jumps out for listeners. Also listening to lots of different music, of all genres, and trying to isolate what's the special sauce in those tracks will help you understand what other artists do. Not just I like the bass sound or the lead is great, but what's the thing that makes it different from everything else and makes the song work. Keep a notebook of these.
Funk D'Void is a DJ and producer veteran with over 30 years experience. He has released records on Soma Quality Recordings, Outpost Recordings, ON IT Recordings, and Lost & Found. And has DJed around the world over the last thirty years. He now lives in Barcelona, where he plays table tennis and is here to out the next generation of talent.

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