Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dance Music: Turning A Riff Into A Melody

A little while ago I picked up the new issue of Future Music, which included an interview with Dave Spoon, and MP4s (which I watched on TV via my Xbox) where Spoon explains how he made his house hit "At Night," which took him from an unknown to a UK top 40 hit in under a year.

Spoon produced the track entirely in Propellerhead Reason. I loved this - I've used Reason for pretty much everything I've done with Ruby and MIDI ever, not just this year with Archaeopteryx, but my first experiments as well. I sold a small hardware studio around 2000 and switched over entirely to Reason and a few other software bits and bobs. It's fantastic, but a lot of people think of it as a toy. There's some truth to the perception, but it's really what you make of it. There are a lot of people making hit records with Reason; Dave Spoon's just one example. Others include Massive Attack, Eminem, and London Elektricity.

In the Future Music interview, Dave Spoon says that having come up the ranks so quick, he's getting demos from producers all over the place, and that he thinks dance music producers think too much about getting a clean sound, and not enough about hooks and arrangements.

Around the same time, I found this track, "Disc Go" by Syncopix. He looks way too serious, but don't hold that against him. He probably can't help it, he's German.

It's the synth hook that does it. The rest of the track, it's cool, but for me it's all about the hook. I'd go so far as to say that everything else in the six minutes of music hangs on that hook. I'd go further than that, even.

This track features on a Knowledge magazine showcase mix of several up-and-coming labels, many of them based in Germany. The mix is good, but because it showcases a region rather than a particular style, it wanders a bit. For me this one track, coming on at track number 4 in the mix, makes the entire first twenty or thirty minutes of the mix work. The hook doesn't just carry everything else in the track; it carries everything else in several other tracks as well.

Around the same time I started a thing where I'm tweeting a new beat every day on Twitter. I noticed a trend, that a lot of my music works well in terms of texture and rhythm but totally fails on hooks. So I started to focus on hooks. I noticed results right away; not only did I like the beats better, but more people on Twitter did too, and later when I started playing with sample CDs and harmonic mixing, I found I was already beginning to think in terms of hooks automatically.

So I came up with a riff about a month ago. In the past that would have been the end of it, but with this attention on hooks, I've been revisiting it and working to develop it into something that could carry a track. The result is trancier than I usually like to sound, but it works so far. It started with a phrase. I realized I'd need more than just that phrase, so I added some variations. When I figured out where the variations were going, in terms of the chords, finding the missing link was easy. One thing I like about this process; the initial phrase is a hook on which all the other hooks hang.

The rhythm on the last mp3 is way off because of some technical difficulties; I fried my beloved drum machine with the wrong voltage adapter, so it's impossible to use it as a metronome any more. But it's easy to see how the hook's evolving. For perspective, here it is as a melodic line with no bass or drums.

Also, again, this isn't about the style or the sound; most tracks I buy sound a lot harder than this. This is deliberate practice - turning a hook into a melody for the sake of honing the skill. I'm not exactly taking over the world here, but I'm enjoying the process and seeing results.