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9 Tips for Producing and Mixing House Music
Jump to these tips:
- Get a solid static mix first
- Let the kick win the low end war
- Use sound design as an instrument
- Think of the DJs
- Use sidechain compression to make room
- Get club-ready bass with layers
- Emulate live musicians
- Use compression to exaggerate attack or sustain
- Tighten or expand drums with Transient Shaper
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House music is one of the largest and most popular genres of electronic music. And, just like any other genre, it comes with its own unique set of challenges when it comes to music production and mixing. That's why we're covering nine tips for mixing and producing house music to help you level up your house music production skills.
Whether you produce progressive house, glitch house, tech house, or any of the many other subgenres under the “house” umbrella, the tips in this article are universal for the genre. Let’s dive in!
Many of the tips we’re covering today can be done with iZotope Neutron, an intuitive mixing plug-in, as well as KOMPLETE 13 by Native Instruments.
This article references a previous version of Neutron. Learn about Neutron 4 and its powerful features including Assistant View, Target Library, Unmask, and more by clicking here.
1. Get a solid, static mix first
It's easy to think that mixing house music (or any electronic genre) is about using as many plug-ins as possible. Little mix tricks and sweetening should be done after you get the mix to a balanced state using only level, panning, and a bit of EQ.
In the world of electronic music, where tradition is not as important as in, say, rock, it's easy to get lost tweaking sounds until a song is overcooked. I find that once my mixing decisions start to change the direction of the music—instead of improving it—it’s time to wrap things up.
To simplify the mixing process, I like using Visual Mixer because it allows me to control the panning, volume, and width of each instrument in my mix all within the same intuitive interface. From one window, I can quickly see where all my instruments are in the stereo field and make adjustments as needed.
Using Visual Mixer prevents me from going down the mixing rabbit hole, tweaking one single instrument for hours until I lose all perspective of what sounds good. It allows me to get a good static mix in place in a very short amount of time.
2. Let the kick win the low end war
Across every genre of EDM, the battle for the low end provides a consistent mixing dilemma. Which should take priority, the kick or the bass? Although not always the case when producing house music, it’s common practice to let the kick win more often than not.
The kick drum is the heart of house music. It holds down the groove and signifies the genre. The bass, on the other hand, is there to provide energy. Putting the bass in a higher register (starting at say, 100 Hz) allows you to get a more percussive, funky, or aggressive sound. But, when mixing house music, keeping the kick as the main focus of your low end will make sure your track slaps in the way people expect from a good house banger.
That being said, there are always exceptions to every rule. So, if your track sounds better with the bass reigning over the low end, don’t switch it up just to follow the guidelines of the genre. Just keep in mind that both parts should be filling their own roles—not competing with each other for attention.
The earlier you define these roles, the better. But no matter which you decide to let win the low end war, you’ll always want to make sure the kick and bass have their own, unique space in the frequency spectrum.
It’s usually not a problem if the kick and bass rub shoulders a little bit, but if their frequencies overlap too much, you’ll get a bloated, muddy sound. To get a nice, clean balance between these two instruments, you’ll want to pay extra attention to frequency masking.
Neutron (also included in Music Production Suite) comes with a nifty feature that allows you to see where any two instruments in your mix are competing with each other on the frequency spectrum. This is especially useful to see exactly where your bass and kick are butting heads a bit too much.
For example, take a listen to this bass line I created with Super 8 (a modern take on a vintage polysynth from Native Instruments) layered with a four-on-the-floor kick loop, before and after unmasking with Neutron:
The before is kind of muddy, right? To clean up the mud, I used Neutron’s masking feature to identify where my kick and bass were overlapping too much and then used this information to make a couple EQ cuts to my bass (pictured above) so that the kick has room to boom.
You’ll notice the low end remains full, but just some quick EQ tweaks brought more clarity to both instruments. You can drop the guesswork and make more intelligent mixing decisions by using the unmasking feature in Neutron.
Deciding which instrument gets to dominate the low end will allow you to bring more punch and clarity to the low end as a whole. If you have a hard time deciding which should take the lead, always opt for letting the kick win when mixing house music.
3. Use sound design as an instrument
In many styles of house music, the main motif is a repeated synth chord. As you listen to these kinds of tracks you may wonder, how did the artist keep this simple pattern so captivating for seven minutes?
Much of the intrigue of most house music comes down to sound design. After all, many of the people who got into this genre early on and defined its sound were not so much musicians, but those looking to experiment with synthesizers and sampling technology.
The world has come a long way in the past few decades, and now there are more creative sound design tools on the market than ever before. Newer synthesizer plug-ins like MASSIVE X allow you to design, manipulate, and modulate sounds with ease. Although pulling up a new synth plug-in can often be overwhelming at first, it really pays to learn a bit about how synths work so you can quickly craft unique sonic textures for your house music productions.
After you’ve got the hang of basic sound design, try taking it a step further by adding some mix automation to spice things up and produce a more lively sound experience. Automating things like filter cutoffs, stereo width, and saturation can really bring a whole new level of depth to even the most boring of sounds. Get some more ideas of how to use automation in Neutron to breathe more life into your mixes.
House is one of the oldest genres of EDM, and sometimes it can seem like everything’s been done before. But, one surefire way to create house music that stands out is to keep your sound design game fresh.
4. Think of the DJs
When producing house music, it’s important to think of the DJs who will play it. If the track is busy from start to end and lacks a distinct rhythm, even the most seasoned DJs will struggle to blend it with another song. If you’re looking to produce house music that gets played at clubs and festivals, you want to make it as easy as possible for DJs to mix in your tunes.
For this reason, many house tracks open—and close—with stripped-down drums and gradually add layers of instruments, then slowly reduce the number of elements to return to where it all began. Midway through, there might be a rhythmic breakdown for DJs to use as an exit.
On digital paper, this may all seem a little formulaic, but you have to remember that all genres have a structure and listeners expect things to unfold in a somewhat predictable way. It's up to you to find the moves that make your music differ just enough. But, keeping the dancefloor in mind will help you create house music that DJs want to play.
5. Use sidechain compression to make room
Sidechain compression is most often used to turn down the level of instruments every time the kick is played. This trick is popular when mixing house music—and for good reason. It creates a sonically pleasing “pumping” sound by ducking the synths and bass in a way that helps drive the track forward, making extra room for that kick to really punch through. In my upcoming track “French,” I employed this technique quite heavily during the drop. Check it out:
"French" by Arthur Kody
To achieve this vibe, I simply used the Compressor module included in Neutron on my main synth riff and sidechained it to my kick track. In Neutron’s new Oscilloscope view, it’s super easy to set up this effect because it lets you visualize exactly what’s happening to your audio, so you can quickly dial in the right amount of “pump” for your track.
Sidechain compression is one of the staples of house music production. Many times over, this trick has helped me transform a struggling, flat kick into a powerful smack in the chest (in a pleasant, musical kind of way, of course). If you’re new to this technique, check out the video below to learn exactly how to set up sidechain compression in Neutron.
6. Get club-ready bass with layers
Most novice producers, when first diving into house music production, typically stick to using just one bass instrument to cover the low end. But, if you’re trying to mix a big, bold bass sound, one track might not be enough. In order to beef up your low end, it may be helpful to add a quieter synth that doubles your bassline pattern further up the spectrum. By filling up the low-mid range (between 150-500 Hz), you’ll get a bass that sounds warmer and richer.
For thick basses, I personally like to use the infamous synthesizer by Native Instruments, MASSIVE. In this software synth, you have the option of layering up to three unique oscillators together to build a rich and textured bass sound.
In MASSIVE, if you increase the pitch of one (or two) of the oscillators by an octave, you’ll get a fuller bass worthy of any club sound system. Plus, having a bit more energy in the low-mids will also help your bass cut through on laptop, phone, and Bluetooth speakers. Hear it in action in the audio examples below.
7. Emulate live musicians
Oddly enough, a lot of time mixing house music is spent making electronic sounds appear more organic, as if a live musician had played them. Now you won’t fool anyone into thinking your widened, EDM bass was played on a guitar—that’s not really the point—but you can give it a feel that lets people know an actual person was behind it. Here are a few tips:
On a synth or bass part, automate the pitch of notes to bend (subtly) in the direction of the next one. This will give the ear something to follow while also adding a bit more of an organic quality.
Break up the monotony of recurring samples like snares by layering some of the hits with a complimentary sound. You can also play with the volume and tuning of each recurring sample ever so slightly to create the feeling of a live drummer.
Rather than quantizing all your samples and MIDI notes so that they fall perfectly in time, try sliding them around a little to give more push and pull where needed. Moving notes and percussive elements slightly forward will create a driving feel, whereas moving them backward will give you a more laid back vibe.
Automate parameters in your synthesizers to create some subtle variation throughout the song. In the audio example below, I used SUPER 8 (another software synth from Native Instruments) to create a bouncy riff and then automated the cutoff filter frequency. Before I added the automation, everything felt too precise, uniform, and definitely not organic. But, within a few clicks, I was able to breathe some life into it. Give it a listen.
You would think it would be pleasing to the ear to have every note in perfect time and pitch. But, adding slight imperfections and differences throughout a track actually helps give the song more of a human feel. So, if you want to create house music that resonates with listeners, infuse your instruments with a little extra personality.
8. Use compression to exaggerate attack or sustain
When mixing house music, I regularly use compression to shape the attack and sustain of sounds—particularly drums. When we think about kick drums, a lot of focus is put on the transient and how well it cuts through the mix. But what happens if the kick cuts through and there’s no heaviness to it? You might be able to hear it but you can’t feel it.
With a fast attack and release time, you can reduce the transient of the kick and emphasize the sustain, allowing the low end to ring out a little longer for a weightier feel. If your tracks seem too soft or pillowy, this trick will give them some stomp. Conversely, setting a slower attack and matching your release time to the duration of the kick's tail will add more punch.
For mixing house kicks, I typically like to use parallel compression in either Neutron or SUPERCHARGER GT, depending on the vibe I’m going for. Neutron’s Compressor module is great if you’re looking for more of a transparent compression. Plus since it has multiband compression capabilities, it’s perfect for processing house kicks that have a lot of high end “air” to them.
If I’m looking for more of an “in-your-face” kick sound, I’ll run my kicks through SUPERCHARGER GT to get the white-hot sound of tube compression. This ends up working well for subgenres like bass house and fidget house because they tend to require a little more grit than other subgenres under the house umbrella.
9. Tighten or expand drums with Transient Shaper
Compression isn’t the only tool we have to shape drum transients. The Transient Shaper module that comes with Neutron can be very useful for mixing house percussive elements.
If you have a drum loop that needs some livening, push up the attack slider until you get a sharper quality. Turning up the sustain will bring out the room and eventually splatter the sound, giving you a sort of overblown effect.
On drums that feel too big, or where the room is overwhelming, try decreasing the sustain. This trims the drums and removes the room, making for a tighter sound. Here’s a before-and-after example using Neutron’s Transient Shaper module to tighten up an entire drum loop:
Start producing and mixing house music
House music is a genre with many subcategories. Whether the tracks you make are soulful, atmospheric, or minimalistic, I think these tips will serve you well. Go ahead and give them a try in your own house music productions! You can access Neutron, Visual Mixer, and even more music production plug-ins all in iZotope’s Music Production Suite, and check out KOMPLETE 13 by Native Instruments to get the perfect sounds and synths for house music.