On the surface, it seems like a lot of electronic music production is a matter of switching from one loop to another. But for anyone spending considerable time producing in a DAW, it becomes clear that there can be a myriad of little things happening at the same time for a single moment to sound good.
What appears to be a one kick is really five different samples layered together. The raw-sounding vocals in your song are held together by a patchwork of compression, reverb, and pitch-shifting. In electronic music, a lot of effort goes into making things sound like they just happened naturally, and this is especially true with EDM drops.
Whether you’re into subtle leftfield house or maximalist EDM, drops play a crucial role in keeping the energy up during a night out. After building to a high point of tension, the drop provides a huge payoff for clubbers eager to shake it, and it's up to you to determine how it all goes down.
For producers, the drop is a really fun thing to produce in the studio. But it can also be difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of drop outside of a club environment. Is it too basic? Too outrageous?
This article is here to clear up any confusion you may have. And while a drop for EDM is our main focus, below you’ll find nine practical tips for producing drops that inspire positive reactions across all manner of electronic music.
Note: this article focuses on the rhythm and bass section post build-up, although I touch on build-ups too.
1. Make sidechain your friend
Despite its prevalent use across the spectrum of electronic music, sidechain remains a point of confusion for many producers. Sidechain can do many things, but in a drop it is mostly there to compress and quiet the bass for a brief moment whenever the kick drum hits.
Low bass frequencies overlap with important kick drum frequencies around 20–100 Hz. This overlap causes frequency masking: you won’t be able to hear either instrument clearly and there will be a boomy, overblown low-end that wrecks your mix and dancers’ expectations. A clear kick and bass is integral to an effective drop.
I’ll go right ahead and make the claim that all effective drops (especially the more outrageous ones) employ sidechain compression to some degree. Dive into sidechain compression and low-end mixing tips to improve your drops immediately.
2. Pitch bend sub-bass
Getting to hear a well-mixed club record on a big soundsystem is a pleasure. Everything just sounds good: the snares crack, the kicks punch, and the grooves groove. To support it all is sub-bass.
Sub-bass is brought in at the start of a drop to maximize low-end impact. It usually plays the same notes as the main bassline (we’ll get to that next) but in a lower range.
Consider adding some pitch bends from note to note that push the song and listener forward. Listen below for a kick and sub-bass loop without any bends for the first four bars, then with bends for the last four.
3. Double (or triple) your bassline
Sub-bass is great for really low sounds, but that’s about it. In addition to being felt, basslines need to be heard. You may make music for the club, but many people will still listen to it from laptop speakers and earbuds. For a bassline to hit hard on any system, it needs some mid-range information.
Luckily, this can be achieved with ease. In your DAW, copy your sub-bass MIDI notes to a new track with a grittier mid-range synth. To get a clear sound you will probably have to bump the notes up a few octaves. This second layer adds presence to your bass in the frequencies that the sub just can’t reach. It also allows you to incorporate more bassline movement via accents, drastic pitch bends, and EQ while keeping the real bass intact.
If your bass doesn’t sound full enough with just two layers, it could benefit from a third, top-end only layer. Follow the same process of copying your MIDI notes over to a new track and high-pass the third layer at 2–3 kHz so it doesn’t conflict with the bottom two layers. Sidechain all bass layers to the kick drum.
Read our step-by-step tutorial to writing and layering electronic basslines here.
4. Focus on one lead sound
In addition to a strong sidechained bassline, your EDM drop should include one distinct sound in the front of the mix that listeners can latch onto.
In Tessela’s breakbeat stomper “Hackney Parrot,” he uses a chopped up vocal as the lead. The vocal is teased during the buildup, then dialed up to 11 once the bass drops. In Diplo and Nicky Da B’s raunchy bounce anthem “Express Yourself,” it's the wiggling high-pitch synth.
I actually like the bassline-led style of the drop I’m working on, so my “distinct sound” is limited to the vocals that appear at the end of each four bar section.
5. Layer your lead
Like the bassline, your lead needs additional layers to sound bigger. Many great leads you hear are actually two or three parts working together.
If your lead is a smooth, sine wave synth, layer it with a square wave and emphasize the high-end for sparkle. Explore processing options that make the second layer sound slightly different than the first, then pan both layers in opposite directions to widen your mix. Stack additional layers where you see fit.
Remember—frequency masking can happen with leads too. If your second layer has a lot of high-end information, roll off the top of your first layer.
In my drop, I doubled up the vocal and applied subtle reverb, delay, and bitcrushing.
6. Propel listeners with reverb swells
At the end of the first four bar loop of your drop, automate a reverb swell that propels listeners into the next section. Depending on the instruments you are using, the reverb swell input can be either your lead or second bass layer.
Think of a reverb swell like a miniature buildup within your drop. It produces a similar effect to that of a reversed crash, but sounds much more natural since the swell comes from an instrument within your song and not an outside sample.
To do this, add a reverb plug-in (I’m using Nectar 2) to your instrument of choice and ramp up the wet for a 1/4 or 1/2 note duration at the end of bar four. Return the wet back to 0 at the start of the fifth bar to cut off the reverb tail for dramatic effect.
Here’s what it sounds like in action. Note the addition of more drums here.
7. Reinforce your lead with drums
Use one-shot percussion samples to reinforce the rhythm of your lead in your drop.
Let’s bring back Tessela’s “Hackney Parrot” again. At the drop, while the vocal shouts “maybe we can take take take take...” a snare cracks with every repeat of the word “take.”
This combination greatly enhances the vocal and makes the drop more powerful. It also gives dancers clear instructions for what pattern to follow. If the snare cracked off-beat it would probably be too disorienting. Save adventurous rhythmic ideas for breakdowns.
I’m using a few claps to reinforce the repeated vocal sample in my drop.
8. Incorporate white noise
White noise has many uses in electronic music production, especially drops. You regularly hear sweeping white noise as the buildup leading to a drop, and right at the start of the drop itself as an energy booster.
In my drop, I’m using white noise as a hi-hat to enhance the housey shuffle of the drums and fill out the high end of the mix.
A lot of producers put their focus into making the drums and bass in a drop sound good and forget high end detail. It’s true, drums and bass need to be tight for a solid drop, but it is high frequencies that make drops (and by extension, mixes) sound lively.
In my drop, I trimmed a white noise sample short and sequenced it to match the rhythm of the main hi-hat. You will notice a rising and falling effect. This comes from Mobius Filter, a flanger-meets-phaser that produces never-ending sweeps on anything it’s applied to.
9. Rethink your buildup
This may seem obvious, but an effective drop hinges on the buildup that comes before it. The longer your buildup, the more over-the-top and unexpected your drop has to be. If you can provide the payoff for listeners, then go for it.
But in many cases, a simple, even unexpected whooshing sound or silence can be just as powerful. See how far you can push the definition of a buildup and drop.