The other day I was
doing some work on Facebook while listening to my iTunes library on shuffle. Most of my music is dance music, which is a given, but not all of it is good dance music.
I say this because one of my first ever tracks came on. As it started playing I felt this sense of nostalgia followed by shameful laughter. It sounded absolutely horrible.
But there was one thing that really caught my ear while listening to the track. It lacked spice.
What do I mean by spice?
The fine details of a song. What keeps the listener interested? What’s unique about your track compared to others in the same genre?
In this article I share 5 techniques that you can use (regardless of skill level) to add spice to your music. So, place the slab of meat on the board and let’s get seasoning!
1. Use Real World Sounds
Adding real world sounds is a great way to give that unique, tangible element to your music. It adds style and vibe. It makes the track memorable.
Where to find real world sounds
You’re probably wondering what I mean by “real world sounds”. Real world sounds can be a recording of waves at a beach, a vocal belted out by your friend, or that crusty old guitar you own recorded through a $20 USB mic.
Of course, not all of us live near a beach, can sing (or know someone who sings), and have a guitar and budget USB microphone. Fortunately there are many websites that offer sample packs which contain real world sounds. Here are some of my favorites from Loopmasters and ModeAudio:
- Organic Percussion
- Nu Cumbia
- Ultimate Guitars 2
- Woodland Field Recordings
- Urban Middle East Field Recordings
Practical example: I’m working on a progressive house track that has a summer-like vibe. I decide to add a field recording of sidechained ocean waves at a low volume. The sound acts as an atmospheric element filling in the spectrum while adding an authentic touch.
Tips for using real world sounds
- Keep field recordings and atmospheric elements at low volumes. They’re accompanying elements not main elements.
- Record sounds yourself.
- Process and add effects to real world sounds. Sidechain compression, delays, and reverbs work wonders.
- Sample real world sounds from other music, movies, or videos.
- Try to emulate real world sounds with synthesizers (wind from white noise for example)
- Don’t go overboard.
2. Automate Everything
If there’s one tip you should remember from this post, it’s that you should automate wherever possible.
Automation combined over a number of tracks makes for a fluid, energetic, and interesting song.
What can you automate?
But seriously, while pretty much everything can benefit from automation, it’s difficult to know where to start. Here’s what I like to automate:
- ADSR – Whether it’s on a synth or a sample, automating the ADSR is a great way to add tension to your track and create variation in an individual element. Example: automating release and cutoff at the same time on a pluck sound.
- Reverb – This is probably my favorite. You can automate reverb on literally anything. I like to automate decay times and dry/wet. Example: automating the dry/wet of a long decaying reverb on a clap sample during the intro/build-up.
- Filters – Filters, as you probably already know, are incredibly fun to automate. Use high-pass filters during build-ups, and low-pass filters when you want to bring down the energy. Example: Automating a low-pass filter on the drum bus when transitioning into a breakdown.
- Distortion – Not many people automate distortion, which is unfortunate because it sounds fricken awesome. You can use distortion during build-ups, as a tool to add micro-tension, and a lot more. Example: Quickly pull up the dry/wet of a distortion module on the synths bus during the end of every 8 bars.
- Volume – Volume automation is a great way to add dynamics to your track while keeping things interesting. Instead of bringing in a new element straight away, why not have it slowly creep in? Example: Hi-hat rises slowly in volume during the intro.
- EQ – EQ is another thing you can automate to add spice as well as clean up a mix. Example: automating an EQ to kill the high-end during a section where there’s bass, but in the breakdown let the warm low-end through.
Tips for automation
- Make sure it fits the mix. In other words, your automation shouldn’t JUMP out at people and seem out of place.
- Freeze/render out when possible. The best way to become enemies with your CPU is to add a load of automation. Render down to conserve processing power.
- Ableton Live user? Take advantage of macros. Route multiple parameters to one knob for easy automation.
- Do it after mixing. After getting a decent mix, I like to go through each track and ask myself if any automation could be added.
- Have a combination of short and long automation. For example; a filter being automated over 32 bars, and distortion being automated on/off on one single beat.
3. Incorporate Incidentals
Incidental definition: accompanying but not a major part of something.
I first learnt about incidentals when watching Jaytech’s Elite Session on Pyramind (highly recommended). He talks about adding incidentals in the form of FX and melodies. Two nuggets of advice that stood out were to don’t think, just do and that incidental melodies in particular should be subtle but important. In general, incidentals take the form of
- Motifs (rhythmic and melodic)
- Vocal snippets
An important thing to note is that incidentals are mostly used as background elements. You can use them as foreground elements, but you have to keep balance in mind. If you set the spotlight on an accompanying element then your main elements get pushed back.
Example: I feel like adding some melodic content during the intro. At the end of bar 16 I create a short little clip with three notes. I apply reverb to place it more in the background. This only appears in the intro and outro once.
Tips for adding incidentals
- Avoid awkward sounds. You want incidentals to be in-line with the rest of your track’s style.
- Keep them to a minimum. Incidentals are used to accompany main ideas, not steal the stage.
- Use them at the beginning or end of phrases.
Incidentals can also act as tension, specifically…
4. Sprinkle Micro-tension
Micro-tension is the use of small FX and changes to add overall tension to a track. It’s different from your big, main build-up before the chorus.
So what could micro-tension include?
- Removal of elements
- Short FX, noise, crash cymbals
- Variation melodically and rhythmically
Example: My intro is 32 bars. I want to signal to the listener that the energy is building up starting bar 17, so I remove the last kick on bar 16 and add a crash cymbal on the first beat of bar 17.
Tips for adding micro-tension
- Keep it consistent. There’s nothing wrong with having the same crash cymbal hit every 16 bars.
- An increase in tension doesn’t always equate to an increase in energy. By removing elements (vocals, synths) you can bring down the energy while adding tension.
- Use out of the ordinary sounds.
- Use sharp and quick automation. E.g. dry/wet on reverb or distortion.
5. Add Variation
Electronic dance music relies on repetition, but repetition without variation is boring. There’s a fine balance between the two, as too much variation will ruin the groove and vibe of a track, and too little will cause it to become boring.
A general rule of thumb is to add, remove, or change something every 8 bars. 16 at a stretch. It doesn’t have to be obvious, but it should be heard.
When I use the word variation, I’m meaning chord changes, MIDI edits, a slightly different bassline. The list goes on. A good genre to study is dubstep. Dubstep drops/choruses generally have an A and B section, with the B section a little bit different. Notice the difference between the 0:36 – 1:21 section and the 1:21 – 1:43 section.
Tips for adding variation
- Use both subtle and obvious variation. If you’re trying to signal the start of a new section, then MAKE IT CLEAR.
- Use chord changes.
- Repeat the same melody or progression with a different sound.
- Use triplets in a particular section.
- Vary the energy. Add/remove elements to increase or decrease energy.
Wrapping it up
Adding spice to your music is fun. These are only 5 simple things you can do to add it. Experiment, put in some time, and see what works for you. If you’ve got any questions then do comment below and I’ll get back to you.
What do you use to add spice to your music?
Read next: 30 Ways to Find Inspiration for Your Music