Dance music relies on rhythm, contrast and… tension. If your listener is just hearing the same thing again and again, they can quickly drift off, so any good EDM producer wants to keep things interesting and keep the tension building. The break is a great opportunity to build tension, since it gives your listener a chance to catch their breath before you shift things up a gear with the build-up and smack them with the inevitable drop. Here, Guestblogger and DJ/producer Rutger Steenbergen offers up seven tips for building up to the ultimate drop.
Break, Build-Up & Drop
- The break is basically the middle bit of a track. Here, the beat will often drop out, giving the listener a chance to catch their breath.
- The break usually ends with a build up, where the track builds and builds to reach a euphoric climax.
- Then the beat comes back in – or it drops, like a bomb from above, so that hopefully, the crowd goes nuts.
#1. Keep Your Break in the Groove
When you’re dealing with EDM, you’re dealing with hard beats, pulsing bass lines and catchy melodies. When the break hits, it creates space and a moment of rest so you can start building the tension up all over again. In the break, everything literally breaks back down to the melodic elements. The trick here is not to lose the rhythm, otherwise you run the risk of your track dying off. If you’re working on a track and notice that your carefully built momentum falls away as soon as it hits the break, then take a look at where the tempo and intensity of the track is coming from and keep those elements subtly moving through the break. This will make sure that your listeners stick with the groove. What also often works, is adding a kick with a short decay to the break. Letting some percussion loops run quietly in the background can also work pretty well. Stick them through a filter and pull the volume down before having a play around with some effects. Doing this will keep the beat going through the break but prevent it from taking on the lead role.
With a quiet clap on the beat, ‘Cutting Shapes’ by Don Diablo builds up slowly again:
#2. Beef Up your Build-Up
This one’s a classic trick and it’s still effective every time. It also works really well with snare rolls. Program a snare drum sample on the beat and make an 8 beat loop. Copy and paste your loop next to the first and add extra snare hits falling on each half-beat (so at the halfway point between each count). Copy and paste the second loop then add another snare hit on every quarter beat. Make sure your three loops are lined up on the timeline, hit play and what you get in return is the iconic snare roll you’ve heard in plenty of classic tracks. Using volume automation, you can fade the roll in and even tweak the velocity of individual snare hits to up the dynamics. From there, you can experiment with the pitch, panning, effects and so on. You can make your build-up even heavier by adding risers, sirens, uplifters and other extra treats. You can easily get hold of some sample packs for these, but it’s always way nicer to make them yourself with a VST instrument or a hardware-based synthesizer. Just automate a load of buttons, create your own sounds and mould your own signature sound. Tip: Every now and then it’s worth putting an hour aside for making your own risers, uplifters and special effects. Create 8, 16 or even 32 beat loops and save them as audio to start building your own custom sample packs, so you have a little bag of tricks that you can dip into at any time.
‘Opus’ by Eric Prydz has a mighty build-up:
#3. Build-Up with a Short Pause
By sticking a short pause at the end of your build-up, you can make the drop fall even harder. Here’s how it works: use the tips in part 2 to create a tension-filled build-up – but don’t let the beat drop just yet! Instead, add a short pause of maybe 4 or 8 counts before letting it drop, so that, when it does drop, it drops extra-hard. This tip works really well when you subtly filter out the bass during the break using a high-pass filter or an EQ plugin on the Master bus. The moment the beat drops, bring all the frequencies back in and blow their heads off. Another smart little trick is to push the volume down a little bit during the break. For example, you could automate the volume on the Master bus, bringing it down to maybe -3dB during the break. As soon as the track kicks in again, let it jump back up to 0dB. The drop won’t just sound louder, it actually is. Now, one final tip: if the pause you’ve added is just a bit too long and your listener is in danger of losing the rhythm, you can kind of announce the coming drop with something like a drum fill or reverse crash, and make it really clear that something big is about to happen.
In my own track, ‘Serein’ I delayed the drop by 8 counts and announced it with a drum fill:
#4. Drop the Kick on Counts 2 or 3
Within EDM, competition is fierce, so any producer needs to find a way to stand out. To do that, you need to abandon the well trodden paths and seek out something new. The break is definitely an opportunity for this. Everyone fully expects the beat to drop on the first count at the end of the break, but… it doesn’t have to. Instead, you could decide to reintroduce the kick on the second or third count. You could start with a count of absolute silence and completely shift the emphasis. This cheekily misleads your audience and makes sure that the drop hits at maximum force. Mixing tip: After a hefty build-up, you’ll often hear effects like delay and reverb trailing off. You can easily mute effect trails with automation to make sure that the sound on the first count is completely dry. This will increase the contrast and therefore the impact. You could also render the complete track or individual stems as WAVs and then edit the audio files. This is often a quick job and opens up the opportunity to get more creative. For instance, you could make four audio stems: the beat, the bass, synths, and the vocals, then place the four stems in a new, empty project, one on top of the other. Using a plugin like ShaperBox, you can create some nice transitions in the synth track. Another nice trick: stick the vocal stem through a delay effect and add some effect automation, or cut some one bar loops out of the bass line and reserve them. Cutting and pasting audio is fun, creative and takes up very little of your precious time.
In ‘No Money’, Galantis often places the emphasis on the second count before really underlining it with a crash sample:
#5. Automise the Effects
With a break and build-up, the main goal is to build tension. You can do this by adding sounds, but also by playing with effects. For example, you could automise a reverb on the synth bus, or experiment with some mind-bending phaser plugin automation on a snare or clap. This way, you can easily build a wall of sound and really surprise your listeners. Then – drop the beat ‘dry’. In other words: push the volume automation of any effects all the way down to mute. This immediately creates some contrast by pushing the vibe of your track from big and wide to very small and intense. From there, you can start rebuilding the track. This same trick is used a lot in guitar-based music, especially on the vocals. By suddenly turning the reverb off during the break, you get this unexpected effect where the vocals feel really intense and close-by. This often happens just before the chorus. In the same way, you can play with the stereo panning within EDM tracks. Make the lead sound mono during the break and then split it back into stereo as soon as you hit the drop. You can do this with something like the free TrackControl plugin from DMG Audio. This makes the part feel much bigger, giving it more impact.
‘Roadkill’ from Dubfire has a stunner of a build-up and drop. The reverb sound gets heavier and heavier before exploding with a super-dry beat and bass on the drop. Party!
#6. Play with the Pitch of the Bass
Any good EDM or dance track has a lot of thought for the listener behind it. If you use exactly the same pitch during the break, then your track might feel boring and literally one-note. You can avoid this by playing with the pitch of, say, the bass. If your track is in D, then program the bass down to Bb for 8 or 16 bars of the break so that, when the track drops again in D, it suddenly sounds fresh – like something different. You can definitely experiment with this strategy. For example: if the main chords of your track are C, F and G, then write the break in C and let the track drop on the F chord. This makes things sound a bit different and yet familiar at the same time. A more poppy approach is also an option. Try doing something like playing the ‘verse’ during the break and then build-up to the ‘chorus’. What you do precisely doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that your track keeps sounding fresh.
My track ‘Kalon’ is in A. Before the drop, the bass plays an F note for 16 bars to create some contrast and variation:
#7. Tease the Public with an Anti-Drop
Most of the time, an EDM track goes nuts as soon as the drop hits. But that’s not written in the law of EDM, so it can also be played with. You could just tease your audience a little bit with an anti-drop. With an anti-drop, you build up to climax before dropping everything right down, making everything extra-dry and minimal, usually with nothing more than a kick and bass line. When it works, it can really tighten up the intensity of the track, and from there, you can build up again.
In ‘Shotgun’ by Yellow Claw, the drop falls at 2:15 with a simple kick, snare and siren sound. It’s super-minimal but crazy effective:
EDM Stands or Falls on the Ultimate Drop
Watch any Tomorrowland set on YouTube and you’ll see hands in the air – it’s essential. What’s also essential in EDM is the magic build-up and drop, but there’s more to a good drop than just a snare roll. You need to push up the intensity with nutty effects, driving synths and an irresistible climax. As such, it’s something that’s worth taking your time over. I only hope that the tips included in this blog have helped and that your next tracks properly light up the floor.
Rutger Steenbergen is a producer, online marketeer and copywriter. As De Facto, he writes and performs meledic techno.