The Advanced Guide to Tension and Energy in Electronic Music

Sometimes, I feel that bedroom producers focus too much on the minor aspects of electronic music production and not enough on fundamental musical concepts that have aided musicians for centuries.

I was one of those bedroom producers. Most of us are when we start out.

We want to learn how to make complex bass sounds or massive build-ups. We want to make something cool that’ll impress our peers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with learning how to make a Tchami bass or craft a spine-tingling build-up, but they aren’t fundamentals.

What are the fundamentals?

One fundamental would be music theory, another would be basic synthesis (which is more necessary than you think, even if you don’t use presets).

But this article isn’t about fundamentals as a whole – that would require a book to be written. This article is about two key musical concepts that are intrinsically linked together: tension and energy. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal of information–at least on the internet–about these two fundamentals, especially for the modern producer. Even as I was doing research to supplement this article, I found myself scraping the barrel trying to find something that wasn’t overly simplistic or a PhD-level thesis.

The lack of information surrounding tension and energy is one of the reasons I decided to write this post – to provide a holistic understanding of both concepts, including, but not limited to: what they are, how they interact with each other, and how to think about them in relation to music production.

Naturally, expounding such a topic requires a fair amount of… well… words. This article is not something you can read quickly while sitting on the toilet, so if that’s what you’re doing right now, bookmark it and set aside time to read it later.

Here’s an overview of what the post covers:

  • A high-level and low-level explanation of tension
  • Viewing tension as pull/push
  • What causes tension
  • How to add tension to your track during composition and arrangement
  • An explanation of energy
  • Types of energy
  • The value of an energy map
  • Energy dynamics: how to create an engaging arrangement

Who’s it for?

As much as I’d like this post to be for producers of all skill levels, it’s simply impossible to accommodate for everyone.

You certainly don’t need any prior knowledge to read through this article, but there are sections that require a basic understanding of music theory, arrangement and structure, or both.

Note: If you feel like you could brush up on music theory before reading this, grab a free copy of Reginald Young’s Music Theory: The TL;DR Version.

It’s worth noting that this post goes beyond the basics. You don’t need to take such a methodical approach to tension and energy to make good music, nor do you need to understand, on paper, what constitutes energy. However, it can be argued that a deep, theoretical understanding of tension and energy leads to an improved use of it in practice.

That said, given the scope and size of this article, it’s bound to contain value for everyone, even if you’re a complete newbie.

Why learn about tension and energy?

I know what you’re thinking.

Why on earth should I spend my time reading about tension and energy? Surely it’s something that comes naturally. Is this even worth studying?

What many people don’t realize is that tension and energy are, in some respects, the two most fundamental musical concepts.

Take, for instance, a standard I – IV – V – I chord progression. The dominant chord (V) induces a strong sense of tension which begs for resolution. That resolution happens when the I chord plays again. Tension exists in something as granular as a simple chord progression (it actually exists in melody as well, which you could argue is even more granular, but we’ll get to that later in the post).

Everything comes back to tension and release, to overall energy, to the emotional response that the artist wants to provoke.

For electronic dance music producers, the concepts of tension and energy should be given more attention than usual. Dance music relies so heavily on tension and energy that it would be a sin not to give them any thought in the production process. If there’s a lack of tension, listeners won’t feel excited; if there’s a lack of energy, they won’t dance.

So, why learn about tension and energy? The answer is simple – it will help you better understand music, and in turn, help you make better music.

What is Tension?

If you search Google for the definition of tension, you’ll see that it’s bluntly defined as the act of stretching or straining.

While this definition doesn’t refer to music, it does make sense. As a producer, your goal is to stretch or strain the listener.

Go a little deeper and search for the term tension in music, and according to Wikipedia you’ll find that…

Tension is the perceived need for relaxation or release created by a listener’s expectations.

Adding tension in any given song builds excitement, anticipation, and the perceived need for release.

Put dramatically, it’s the act of stretching the listener to the point where they crave what’s about to happen next – the release. Well-crafted tension carefully teases the listener, grabbing hold of their emotions and manipulating them to its will.

A byproduct of this, of course, is that well thought-out tension keeps people listening to your song. Pop music is a good example of this: the perfect combination of tension, energy, and release that keeps the listener fully engaged for the length of the song. Everyone wants to hear resolution after being subjected to tension, and they’ll keep listening until they do.

A high-level view: macro-tension

I like to split tension into two categories: macro and micro. Another way to view tension is from a birds-eye or high-level perspective and a detailed, low-level one.

Macro-tension is a term that isn’t officially defined in the music world, at least as far as I know. I simply came up with the micro and macro perspectives to differentiate between what I view as two different layers of tension, and also because I like to apply the micro and macro prefixes to anything possible (it’s just a habit).

But what is macro-tension?

In some respects, it’s what most people immediately think of when confronted with the word tension.

Macro-tension is, as would be expected, tension on a large scale. It’s the big build-ups, the transition between one part of your arrangement to another, the drawn-out fade toward a low energy breakdown.

Typically, macro-tension will be used to transition into a drop, chorus, breakdown, bridge, or outro. It often includes:

  • Risers (white noise, pitched risers, etc.)
  • Snare rolls/builds
  • Automated filtering and other effects
  • Melodic and harmonic tension
  • Change in volume
  • Removal and/or addition of new instruments and sounds

It’s hard to define this high-level view of tension, partly because it’s often subtle, and also because it’s never clear-cut.

For example, in the following screenshot, the riser doesn’t come in until bar 16. One person might argue that the tension starts to build then, another person might argue that it starts well before that due to the addition of new drum sounds.title

subtletensionstart

Because the use of macro-tension varies so widely, and can’t be clearly defined, we’ll look at it in relative layers.

tensionlayers

Expanding on the previous example, I’ve added another instrument. We can see that there are three main levels or layers of macro-tension:

  • Layer one: The first layer, which we’ll call the ‘base’ layer is the more subtle, evolving layer. It’s less obvious. In this case, layer one includes the addition of new drum sounds.
  • Layer two: The second layer, which we’ll call–no… we’re not going to define new terms for everything. The second layer is shorter than the base layer and more obvious. In this case, it includes to the 16-bar riser.
  • Layer three: The third layer is the most obvious or dramatic. It’s the layer that adds the most tension and builds energy. In this case, it includes the snare roll.

Because each song is different, these layers need to be defined relative to each other. Layer one doesn’t and shouldn’t always refer to adding new drum sounds and layer three shouldn’t always refer to a snare roll, but layer three should be more obvious and generally shorter than layer one.

Analysis #1 –  Oliver Smith – Evermore (Wrechiski remix) [intro]

Let’s look at the intro of Wrechiski’s remix of Oliver Smith’s “Evermore” as an example.

wrechiski

The song starts off with a high-passed kick and some subtle atmospheric sounds. After the first 8 bars, some groovy percussion is introduced before a shaker comes in, contributing to the tension. This is layer 1.

The second layer features a rhythmic stab sound which reflects the rhythm of the bassline that’s soon to be introduced (and the snare roll pattern). The kick drum comes in full here along with an arp sound.

The third and final layer is fairly typical, featuring a snare roll, riser, and fill at the end to transition nicely into the drop.

wrechiskichart

Analysis of macro-tension in MAKJ – Springen [build]

This build up isn’t unique, in fact, it’s fairly typical, which makes it an excellent track to analyze.

makj

The first layer of macro-tension includes the catchy riff which can be heard through the build-up (up to bar 16 where layer 3 is introduced). Some noise sweeps and subtle pitch risers help it transition into the next layer of tension.

Layer two introduces a snare roll and pluck riser.

Finally, layer three builds even more tension by repeating one note of the riff and speeding up the snare roll. Two vocal samples add to the tension.

You may notice that it gets tricky here with the layers. Technically, layer three isn’t really adding anything other than the vocal samples, it’s only changing content from the existing two layers. However, the change is quite significant which is why I’ve added the third layer.

makjchart

A low-level view: micro-tension

Unlike macro-tension, micro-tension is something few producers talk about. This may be because understanding micro-tension and learning how to use it effectively (even if one doesn’t categorize it as ‘micro-tension’) is something that comes naturally, over time, by listening to and making a lot of music.

What is micro-tension?

It’s the small differences: short fills, a one-bar break, the removal of a kick drum at the end of an 8-bar phrase, the crash cymbal at the start of a new phrase.

Its purpose is to create constant tension, keep the track moving forward, and force the listener to stay interested and engaged.

Listing all types of micro-tension would be impossible as there are simply too many. Micro-tension doesn’t just include your typical crash cymbal impact, a short drum fill, or a funky vocal stab, it also includes tension in chord progressions and melodies.

It needs to be considered both in the composition stage and arrangement stage.

Analysis of micro-tension in BT – Skylarking

At 11 minutes, Skylarking is a long track, so I won’t detail every instance of micro-tension but rather the most obvious appearances.

1:03: A noise sweep introduces the main underlying theme/melody in the track.

1:34: Another sweep quickly builds tension, introducing the pluck. Macro-tension starts here.

2:52: A rising-in-pitch sweep sound keeps up the already existing energy.

2:58: A short riser + a verbed out clap keep the track interesting. A perfect example of micro-tension and pull/push (more on that in a moment)

3:03: Musical tension is used to create a sense of transition and expectation, but BT brings it back down to the original progression.

3:20: A kick is removed.

3:33: Musical tension is yet again employed, but returns to the original groove.

5:10: A glitch effect is used to create interest and introduce a new instrument (lower pluck)

6:20: The filter on the main pluck is opened up.

6:57: A splattering of extra kicks lead into another big build.

8:00: Reverse crash + normal crash (happens throughout the track but worth noting at this point)

9:29: Musical tension is once again used.

Note: Skylarking is also a great track to study for macro-tension, if you’re looking for a challenge.

Analysis of micro-tension in Axwell – Center of the Universe (Remode)

Axwell is truly a master of tension and energy, and this track says it all.

0:24: A pad/string sound fades in and releases with a white noise crash.

1:12: A pad builds to introduce extra percussion in the next phrase

1:25: Very subtle riser in background + quick motif introduces new element (funky arp/flute sound)

2:10: Sweep + pad sound helps transition into next phrase

3:40: Motif from earlier in the arrangement plays again, introducing the funky arp/flute sound

4:10: Panned-right piano helps transition into next phrase

From here on out, the use of micro-tension is the same. Keep in mind that it’s often hard to separate micro-tension from macro-tension, especially when analyzing a track like this. If you’re studying the track yourself, pay attention to what’s happening on both the high-level (macro) and low-level (micro) and how they interact.

The pull/push method

A sensible way to look at tension, both macro and micro, is pulling and pushing.

Pull/push, tension/release, call/response, question/answer. You get the idea.

I’ll use a scenario to explain…

You’ve just finished putting together the intro and first drop section of your track. Your intro is 32 bars, and naturally, your drop hits on bar 33. Your intro builds nicely into the drop, but there’s something ‘off’ about your 32-bar intro.

As you approach bar 16, halfway through your intro, you notice that the energy drops off a bit. It sounds slightly boring and repetitive. You need to add a little micro-tension to keep things flowing nicely.

So, you add a 2-bar white noise riser. This is your pull – it’s pulling towards something. Having added this, you take another listen through, but it still doesn’t sound quite right. As bar 17 hits, you realize there’s nothing to carry it on – the white noise riser finishes abruptly and awkwardly.

To resolve this and complete the ‘pull/push,’ you add a roomy clap with a long-decaying reverb on the beat before bar 17. The long reverb tail smooths the transition between bar 16 and bar 17 and acts as the push to the pull from the riser.

Both elements in this scenario create tension. If you removed the riser, you’d still have micro-tension from the clap. However, the clap functions more like a ‘release’ – its job is to keep the energy consistent and the listener engaged. Both the riser and the clap work in tandem.

Does pull/push apply to macro-tension?

Of course. You could view a build-up as the pull and the drop as the push, for instance.

However, any slip-ups or imbalances will be far more obvious on a macro scale. Let’s take our example from before with the white noise riser and verbed-out clap. If the white noise riser is slightly too loud it will have some bearing on how the listener reacts to it. The pull will overpower the push.

On such a small scale, something like that is rarely noticeable unless it’s more than slightly louder. However, on a macro level, this kind of imbalance will completely destroy the song. If the build-up is slightly stronger or has more energy than the drop, then the drop will have far less impact.

So, while pull and push can and should be applied to the arrangement as a whole, it needs to be carefully looked at. Does the pull match the push? Is one overpowering the other? [note]By match, I’m not saying the pull and push need to be equal. In fact, it can sometimes pay to have less pull and more push (it creates more impact), or, if you’re not building to the main chorus, more pull than push to defy the listener’s expectations. You should always avoid having the main build-up overpower the main chorus.[/note]

What causes tension?

I’ve explained what tension is, the differences between macro and micro-tension, and why it’s a good idea to view the use of tension as pushing and pulling.

I haven’t, however, elaborated on what causes tension.

Aside from glaringly obvious and specific causes (snare rolls, white noise sweeps, etc.), there are a few key things that contribute to tension.

Change in pitch

It’s no surprise that a change in pitch contributes to tension. We often think of it on a high-level with macro-tension, using pitched risers during buildups, for example. But a change in pitch can contribute to tension on a much lower-level within the boundaries of pure composition.

In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin talks about how the melody in Over the Rainbow causes a sense of anticipation or tension.

The melody, in the classic track, starts with an abnormally large leap to an octave above. Because this is a rare occurrence in music, the listener expects the melody to come “back home” or at least decrease in pitch. The initial leap causes tension.

Here’s how Levitin explains it:

“If the melody makes a big leap, theorists describe a tendency for the melody to ‘want’ to return to the jumping-off point; this is another way to say that our brains expect that the leap was only temporary, and tones that follow need to bring us closer to our starting point, or harmonic ‘home.’”

What’s interesting is that an increase in pitch change, or significance of pitch change, doesn’t necessarily contribute to more tension. A riser that travels 24 semitones doesn’t necessarily build more tension than one traveling 12 semitones.[note] Source: A Parametric, Temporal Model of Musical Tension by Morwaread Farbood, Music Perception volume 29, issue 4, PP. 387–428.[/note]

Change in overall frequency balance

A note on loudness:

Many people think that a change in volume or loudness contributes to tension. It probably does, but it’s not significant. In fact, a study performed by Morwaread M. Farbood of MIT showed that out of 645 total responses, 65% concluded that a change in loudness did not correspond to a change in tension.

That said, loudness and volume should still be taking into consideration when building tension and especially when managing energy levels. The classic master volume automation trick where one lowers the volume by 5–10% and then slams it back up as the drop hits is still incredibly effective in that the listener perceives the drop as ‘bigger’ and ‘louder.’ However, this contributes to energy and not tension.

Another thing that contributes to tension is a change in overall frequency balance. This isn’t surprising when you think about one of the applications of a highpass or lowpass filter.

When you automate a highpass, what are you typically trying to achieve?

Tension, of course.

By removing low frequencies, you’re communicating to the listener that something new is about to happen. We all crave bass – low frequencies – and when the bass is removed, we expect it to come back in.

Tension can also be caused by removing high frequencies. Rarely will a low-pass filter be used to build into a higher energy section, but it’s often used to transition into a lower energy part. For example, let’s say you want to transition into a breakdown. Your breakdown begins with a low-passed pad. You could sharply transition into this, or you could start removing high frequencies 8–16 bars before to create a more smooth transition. This will add tension, but not in a way that builds energy. An increase in tension != an increase in energy.

Harmony

We’ll be looking at harmonic tension in detail in the practical section, but for now, know that harmony can contribute significantly to tension.

As I mentioned earlier on in the post, a standard chord progression contains tension itself. In the case of a I – IV – V – I chord progression, the V chord builds anticipation for the I chord that’s coming next.

There are many ways to build tension through harmony. Dissonant chords or intervals work well in certain styles of music, as do deceptive cadences. Additionally, you can structure harmony and melody in a certain way to build more tension.

Change in rhythm

A less common, but still effective way to build tension is to change the rhythm of a particular instrument or your track as a whole.

You could, for example, add a half-bar of triplets to a synth sound at the end of a phrase:

Or, you could have your snare roll pattern change to a polyrhythm halfway through:

But really, breaking up the rhythmic flow in general is a great way to build tension. You can do it with something as simple as a kick drum:

Putting it into practice

 

By now, you should know have a fair idea of what tension is (both on a micro and macro level) and also what causes it.

In this section of the post, we’re going to look at how you can practically add tension to your music.

We’ll first look at how to add tension in the composition stage. Keep in mind that this article is not about composition so I won’t be explaining compositional concepts and techniques beyond their immediate relation to tension.

After that, we’ll look at how to add tension in the arrangement stage. We’ll first cover macro-tension and then move to micro-tension.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a degree of crossover between the two. For example, you might want to add a deceptive cadence somewhere in your arrangement to add tension, but you don’t come up with it during the composition stage. Obviously, writing a deceptive cadence is a compositional task, but you’re doing it in the arrangement workflow. It’s best not to view these two stages as completely separate – you’ll just confuse yourself.

Composition stage

Adding tension during the compositional stage is tricky. On one hand, it’s something that should consciously be considered, but on the other, it can impede on creativity if overthought.

What do I mean?

Let’s take the act of writing a melody. Most of us, including myself, write melodies in a natural manner. We don’t necessarily think about the intervals between each note, how and why a certain interval is creating a feeling of anticipation, and so forth. We just keep writing and editing until it sounds good to us.

Now, if you were to analyze every single note you put down without letting the melody “write itself,” then it becomes a much more mechanical, tedious process which rarely leads to a good result.

Knowing how to add tension in the composition stage is important, though, especially if and when you want to invoke a strong feeling of anticipation or even frustration. Without knowing how to compose a chord progression or melody that invokes such a feeling, you’ll find yourself stuck or, at the very least, you’ll waste a lot of time trying to work it out.

Tension in chord progressions

Every chord progression creates tension. This tension is usually quickly released, and it’s something that we don’t typically consider to be ‘tension’ because it’s such a fundamental part of music.

It’s hard to fully understand how this works without studying tonic and dominant harmony, but I’ll give a short primer.

A chord progression typically revolves around the tonic which is the root chord of the scale (e.g., in the scale of C Major, it’d be the C Major chord). Other chords in the progression will depart from this tonic chord, but almost always return to the tonic once complete (with some exceptions, more on that in a moment).

The tonic chord is the most important chord. The second most important chord is the dominant. The dominant chord has a strong pull towards the tonic, and as such, it builds a lot of tension.

Here’s what Michael Hewitt says about the matter in his book Harmony for Computer Musicians:

“… the dominant tends to act in support of the position of the tonic triad as the tonal center. In this context the dominant chord is persuading the ear that the tonic is the tonal center of the music.”

This means a few things if you want to add more tension to your track. First, the longer it takes for you to get to the dominant and therefore the tonic, the more tension you build (generally). Second, we can use the dominant to our advantage in order to build more tension (e.g., stay on it for longer)

One popular example of leveraging the dominant, which is more of an arrangement tactic than compositonal one, is when a producer transitions into a one-note or one-chord build-up, but repeats the dominant instead of the tonic. This offers a sense of unease and tension, and gives a sense of resolution when the drop hits.

Here’s an example:

The deceptive cadence

As you already know, most chord progressions feature the dominant -> tonic, which is known as an authentic cadence. This contains tension in itself, but the release is never unexpected.

One neat trick is to use a deceptive cadence. Let’s say we’re in the key of A minor and we’re using a standard I – IV – V – I chord progression.

We’d have:

Am Dm Em Am

Instead of going from the Em to Am, we could travel to a less common chord, for example, the VI chord (Fmaj), and then either repeat the chord progression or travel to another chord, effectively extending the progression:

Am Dm Em Fmaj

Pedal tones

Using pedal tones, or ‘pedal points’ is another great way to add tension to chord progressions.

Using pedal tones in chord progressions involves holding a certain note (typically the bass note) while the chords change around it. This can add a great amount of tension as the bass note may not even exist in the progression, which can add some dissonance, stress, and tension.

Here’s an example:

pedal tone

The dominant seventh chord

Back in the day, like, way back in the day before EDM even existed, people thought that the only “true” chords were triads.

But then they got bored and decided to be a little more welcoming of other chords. The dominant seventh chord was born.

The dominant seventh chord has been used extensively throughout history in all types of music. Why has it been used so much? Because, as Michael Hewitt puts it, the dominant seventh “has been consistently exploited for the tremendous pulling power that it exerts toward the tonic triad.”

Using the dominant seventh chord in a progression contributes a significant amount of tension that can’t be achieved with your typical dominant triad. There are reasons for this which I won’t delve into, simply because this is not a guide to music theory, but, in short, it’s due to the dissonant interval that exists between the root note and seventh note.

Here’s a before and after:

Before (I – IV – V – I)

After (I – IV – V7 – I)

Suspension

Using suspension is a quick and dirty way to add some dissonance and tension to your chord progression. It involves suspending a note that belongs to the previous chord over the next chord. The amount of dissonance will depend on what that next chord is.

Here’s an example of suspension (look at the highlighted notes):

Suspension

Melodic tension

There are a number of ways to create melodic tension. We’ll look at three in particular:

  1. Weak notes
  2. Melodic motion
  3. Variation

Weak notes

“Weak” notes is probably the incorrect term for what I’m about to explain, so if you’re a music theorist who’s reading this, I ask that you give me grace.

You can create a nice, simple sounding melody by using only the notes contained in the supporting harmony. For example, here’s a melody that only uses notes contained in each supporting harmony:

strongnotes

It’s not bad, but it could have some more tension. To add tension, we can add weak notes, or notes that aren’t included in the harmony (underlying chord).

Now, depending on where you add these weak notes (and what they are), you’re either going to get a whole lot of dissonance, or minor dissonance.

Adding a weak note that doesn’t play in unison with the chord will not be as dissonant as it would be if it were played in unison.

Compare the two examples below (harmony from above with a different rhythm).

In unison

unison

Not in unison

nounison

 

Weak notes can also be used to add interest to a basic existing melody. Let’s take the melody from earlier and fill it in with some weak notes:

weaknotes

Melodic motion

A great way to add tension to your melody is to have it make a wide leap. I used the example of Somewhere Over the Rainbow earlier, which contains a full octave leap at the start of the melody.

Typically, a leap bigger than a fifth will induce a lot of tension, especially if the interval is dissonant.

Variation

Variation is straightforward and you should already know how to use it. Let’s say you have a melody that plays over a 4-bar chord progression. You can extend this melody to 8 bars and change the second half to add tension.

The listener expects to hear the same melody repeat itself, but by changing a few notes (you don’t have to do anything significant) you deny the listener’s expectations and grasp their attention.

Here’s an example using the melody from earlier:

variation1

This doesn’t need to be elaborate. In fact, you can build a lot of tension simply by moving a single note:

variation2

Arrangement stage

Adding tension during the arrangement stage is a hell of a job, which means it’s also a hell of a job to write about. This section may contain some redundancy, stuff you already know, and methods that may seem a bit “over-the-top.”

Take what you will.

To start with, we’ll look at how to map out tension from a high-level perspective and why it’s important to do so.

Following that, we’ll delve into some methods that you can use to add tension in your arrangement, starting with macro-tension and moving to micro-tension.

Build-ups I: You don’t need to go big

When you hear the word “build-up,” what comes to mind?

For most people, it’s snare rolls, risers, reverb, filtering, and a load of other big things.

Dramatic build-ups have their place and they should be used in music where they fit. However, you don’t always need to go big –  you can still build a lot of tension without the use of these elements and effects.

Arty’s Zara comes to mind. Listen to the build-up from 2:28 and take note of how minimal it is:

Note: sometimes, minimal/subtle build-ups are actually better to use as they can give the drop more impact.

Build-ups II: Transitioning into a build-up

As a new producer, transitioning to different sections in a track can be difficult. One of the more difficult transitions is from the breakdown/main idea into the build-up.

Before I detail two approaches, I want you to know that the best way to learn this type of stuff–especially how to craft transitions–is to listen to other music. You need to analyse professionally produced tracks and work out how the artist transitions into the build-up. A blog post can only help so much.

Technique #1 – The Hold

This technique is suited to more mellow music and typically works best with a chord-progression as the main idea.

It’s very easy to do, and requires little more than a few tweaks and MIDI edits.

#1. Work out how long your build-up is, and create a MIDI clip to fit

Let’s say we’ve got a basic chord progression playing and we want to transition into an 8-bar build-up (using the hold technique). We take the last chord before resolution and extend it for the 8 bars (or less if you want some silence before the drop/chorus).

extendchord

#2. Adjust synth parameters if needed

You can’t hold a sound that decays quickly. If you have a smooth progressive house pluck, for instance, it’s probably not going to hold for 8 bars even when the filter is open. Adjust the release so it lasts your desired length.

#3. Tweak as needed

Your transition and build-up might not sound incredibly smooth, so play around with filters, reverb, volume, and other effects to polish it.

In my case, I’ve decided to use a lowpass filter and some reverb to smooth the transition.

Note: You don’t necessarily need to use the dominant/last chord as the hold chord, you can use the tonic instead if you want to add less tension.

Technique #2 – The pre-build

It can sometimes be a good idea to build into your build-up. This can be especially useful if your build-up doesn’t include your main idea (chord progression or melody).

There are multiple different ways to do this, you could:

  • Add a short white noise riser before the build-up
  • Fade out your main instrument
  • Include a reverse effect that leads into the main build-up (reverse reverb on the snare, for example).
  • Use a subtle pre-build snare roll
  • Add an impact effect (i.e, Pryda snare) right before the build-up

Build-ups III: The 3 parts to a generic EDM build-up

In my opinion, there are three basic parts to a generic build-up:

  1. Snare roll(s)
  2. Risers
  3. Filtering & other effects

You don’t need any of these to create tension, but I guarantee that if you listen to anything that sits inside the realm of EDM, you’ll hear them quite often.

Snare rolls

Snare rolls can be simple, complicated, diverse, layered, automated, pitched, filtered–there are many different approaches, so I urge you to experiment and exercise creativity.

There’s no right way to create a snare roll, but it’s important to keep in mind a few things:

  • Where is your snare roll going to sit in the mix?
  • Is it a foreground or background element? How subtle should it be?
  • How long is it going to be? 4 bars, 8 bars?
  • It pays to leave one bar free at the end of your snare roll. You can build straight into the drop, but it’s often nice to have some silence before impact.
  • Try using more interesting patterns. You could have a polyrhythmic snare roll, for example.
  • Automate the pitch on your snare sample as the pattern progresses for extra tension (you can automate other parameters as well such as decay).
  • Layer your snare roll with a more subtle snare drum that plays 16th notes. This will fill-in your build-up and add more tension.

Risers

There are many different ways to create risers, or “sweeps.” In my mind, the three most popular types of risers/sweeps are:

Sustained pitch riser: This is typically one long note that rises in pitch (usually an octave or two). It’s often a saw wave or square wave, and it’s usually sidechained to sound like it’s “pumping.”

Rhythmic riser: You’ll hear this often in more common styles of EDM. Typically, it’s a saw or square pluck sound that plays a particular rhythm and rises in pitch.

White noise sweep: I call this a sweep instead of a riser because it doesn’t technically rise in pitch. A white noise sweep will generally be a white noise wave or sample that features a lowpass filter being opened.

Tips, tricks, and things to keep in mind:

  • Like snare rolls, you need to work out where the riser is going to sit in your mix. Is it a foreground element? Is it subtle?
  • Risers don’t need to go up 12 or 24 semitones. They don’t need to go up by exactly an octave. As we know, an increase in pitch difference doesn’t necessarily lead to more perceived tension. Try experimenting with risers that only travel 5 semitones (or even 1 semitone if you’re feeling adventurous).
  • Layering a sustained riser with a rhythmic riser works incredibly well, try it out.
  • It’s easy for sustained risers to sound harsh and abrasive. Try drenching your riser in reverb, especially if it’s more of a background element.

Filtering and other effects

Snare rolls and risers add a great amount of tension, but they don’t always lead to a smooth transition.

By using certain effects like filters, delays, and reverbs, you can not only add extra tension, you can also smooth out the transition between two sections of an arrangement.

Highpass filtering

Highpass filtering is used extensively in all genres of music to add tension. As we looked at earlier, changing the frequency makeup of a song adds tension, especially if it involves removing low frequencies.

When you progressively remove low frequencies in a build-up, you’re signalling to the listener that the low-end is going to come back in shortly. It’s similar to a chord progression where certain chords signal to the listener that the tonic chord is about to return.

I like to highpass my master channel as well as some individual elements. For example, I might add a highpass on my master that starts at 30Hz and travels up to 175Hz. [note]you don’t need to go that high to add tension. Besides, many DJs will often use the filter on their mixer during build-ups, so it’s worth leaving some room for them to do that and add more tension if they need to), and I might add a more extreme highpass on my snare roll that travels from 30Hz to 300Hz.[/note]

The trick with filtering is to start off subtle. It’s easy to go overboard and highpass too quickly or strongly, which leads to an energy drop-off and actually reduces tension. Start subtle and increase if you feel it’s necessary.

Reverb

Reverb is one of my favorite tools for adding tension, mainly because there are so many different ways to use it.

One common use is on risers and snare rolls to add tension and smooth the transition between the build-up and drop (or whatever section follows). You might use a long-decaying reverb and automate the dry/wet so that during the last 2 bars of your snare roll it starts to become washed out.

A less common trick is to use a reverb on your master channel (yes, despite common advice, it’s absolutely okay to use effects on your master channel), and automate both the dry/wet and the size parameter as your build progresses. By pulling the size of the reverb down, you get a unique pitch-rise effect that adds even more tension to your build.

 

Adding macro-tension – an example

Adding macro-tension effectively requires experimentation. There are many, many ways to add tension during an intro or a build-up, and it would be unwise of me to cover them all.

In this section, I’ll take a generic approach to macro-tension using a hypothetical arrangement.

Intro – bars 1–32

The first 16 bars of the intro will feature just one layer of macro-tension: addition of drum sounds. For example, I might bring in a clap on bar 8, then filter in a hi-hat starting at bar 12.

At bar 16, I’ll bring in the next layer of macro-tension, this time through the use of a white noise sweep and pitched riser. This will be subtle to start with.

Bar 24 marks the third and final layer of macro-tension which provides the most impact. A snare roll is introduced, the kick is removed, and a rhythmic riser comes in at full volume.

The 8-bar build-up that I’ve made here can be replicated and used in different areas of the track where I need to add a similar amount of tension. I could, of course, create a separate build-up for each major “tension-building” moment, but that would be ineffective.

Verse – bars 32–64

The verse follows a similar tension structure to the intro. I don’t want to add any tension in the first 8 bars, because that’d detract from the impact and energy of the drop. However, like the intro, the first layer of macro-tension will be the addition of drum sounds.

At bar 16, I add in a new instrument. This increases the energy while clearly communicating to the listener that the section is progressing towards something. I won’t add the subtle white noise sweep or riser here.

At bar 56, I’ll use the same build-up I used in the intro, except this time I’ll highpass the snare and keep the kick playing underneath. This keeps the low-end and still builds a significant amount of tension, albeit it not as much as the intro. It’s not necessary to build a huge amount of tension here as I’m transitioning into the breakdown.

Breakdown – bars 64 – 96

In the breakdown I’ll introduce my main idea, which will be simple 3-chord progression (I – IV – V – I). I know I’ve used this chord progression for almost every single example in this article, but that’s because it’s simple.

Build-up – bars 96–104

I copy and paste the build-up I used in my intro and use it again here. However, this time there’s a chord (the V chord from the prior progression) repeating itself alongside the build-up. I have one bar of silence before the main chorus hits.

Chorus – bars 104 – 136

The chorus follows the same tension structure as the verse. No differences.

Outro – bars 136–168

No major use of macro-tension.

Ways to add micro-tension

Like macro-tension, there are generic/common ways to incorporate micro-tension into your track, and more unique ways.

We’re going to look at both.

I’m first going to detail several common ways you can add micro-tension to your track. Many of these will seem simple and obvious, and that’s because they are. If you’re a beginner, you may gain value from them, if you’re more experienced, you may want to quickly scan over and move to the following section where we look at more unique ways to add micro-tension.

Three common ways to add micro-tension

There are many ways to add micro-tension, some of them more common than others. I’ve listed a few examples that I consider to be both common and genre-agnostic, meaning you can use them in almost any genre of dance music.

1. Reverse crash + standard crash

I told you these were gonna be simple.

The reverse crash + standard crash is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Where it originates from, I don’t know, but it’s old.

It simply involves taking a crash cymbal, duplicating it, reversing the copied version and placing it in front of the existing crash cymbal to create a “pull” effect. You’ll often hear something like this every 8, 16, or 32 bars.

Tips and tricks:

  • It’s a good idea to lower the volume of the reverse cymbal to give the standard crash more impact
  • Try adding delay and reverb to the cymbal before bouncing it down and reversing it. This can make for some interesting tension-building effects.
  • Have the reverse crash cymbal end slightly before the standard crash hits. This adds to the impact of the standard crash.

2. Kick removal

Listen to any odd dance track and you’ll hear this technique.

One quick and dirty way to add micro-tension is to remove one kick or more from the end of a phrase. For example, you have your 4/4 kick playing, and then at the end of your 8-bar phrase, you remove two kicks from the last bar which create suspense and provide grounds for a new instrument or sound to come in at the start of the next phrase.

You can also use a ghost kick to lead into the next phrase (you’ll often hear this in UMEK style tech house):

Finally, using irregular rhythms is a great way to add even more suspense and throw the listener off:

Tips and tricks:

  • If you want to add more subtle tension, try highpassing the kick instead of completely removing it
  • Generally, the more kicks you remove, the greater the tension
  • Removing the sidechain trigger can also contribute to tension if it causes your main instruments to stop pumping. This may result in increased loudness which may be undesirable, but you can work around that by automating volume.

3. Fills

Short fills are a pristine example of micro-tension. They’re not as common as kick removal and crash cymbals, and if you pull them off well, people will be impressed with your production chops.

Note: when I mean short fills, I mean no longer than a bar.

Fills can be complicated or simple depending on your goals and style of music. They should also fit the style of music you’re making. A hard-hitting dubstep tom fill won’t work well in a smooth progressive house song, just like a reggae roto-tom fill won’t work well in a banging uplifting trance song (well, it might, prove me wrong).

I’m not going to teach you how to make different fills, as that’d be an article in itself, but I’ll give you some ideas.

Short simple fills

The easiest and most common way to incorporate fills into your arrangement to add micro-tension is to use a short snare roll. You can make these fairly easily by yourself, but they’re also fairly common in sample packs.

Here’s an example of a short snare fill in the Aurosonic remix of See the Sunlight by Matt Darey (listen from 1:58)

You can also use extremely short snare rolls, literally two hits, to add micro-tension.

Obviously you don’t need to use a snare drum. Try experimenting with different sounds like congas, toms, or even ride cymbals.

Complex fills

Complex fills are a different beast altogether, and if you’re making them yourself, be prepared to spend a fair bit of time doing so.

In my mind, a complex fill is created best through experimentation. If you’re a drummer, or you’ve been producing a while, you probably know what sounds work best together, and if you’re using a lifelike drum VST/sequencer then it’s much easier. Otherwise, if you’re using a standard DAW sampler and adding in one-hits, it can be a much lengthier process.

Experiment with panning, velocity levels, ADSR on individual hits, and so forth.

Making complex fills is fun. I’d do it for a living if I could.

Sample fills

If you’ve got more important things to do than spend hours creating drum fills, then you can sample them from elsewhere.

Obviously there are copyright concerns if you’re sampling from existing songs. I’d advise against doing that unless you plan to clear the sample or process it/change it significantly so it can’t be recognized.

However, you don’t really need to sample from existing songs. There are plenty of sample packs out there that contain a selection of fills. You’ve just gotta dig for them.

There are, of course, more common ways to add micro-tension, but I’d consider these three to be the most common.

But who wants to be generic? Let’s look at some more unique ways to add micro-tension in your arrangement.

Unique ways to add micro-tension

Because there’s an endless possiblity of different sound combinations, it’s impossible to detail all types of micro-tension. There is an infinite amount of ways to add micro-tension (and even macro-tension for that matter) in a track.

That said, I do have 6 techniques in particular that I’ll share. Hopefully some of them spark a new idea or technique in your head, but regardless, they’re a good starting point.

1. Reverse reverb

Sam, the reverse reverb trick isn’t unique! I hear it all the time!

Sure, the reverse reverb trick isn’t unique, but it’s used less commonly than fills, the reverse crash cymbal trick, or kick removal.

This technique can be used on almost anything from basslines and drum sounds to synth leads and vocals. It’s super simple to do, and leaves plenty of room for experimentation. Here’s an example of it being used to introduce a pluck sound:

I’m not going to delve deep into the technical side of things, because you should be able to work that out yourself (especially if you’ve read your DAW’s manual. If you haven’t, do that now before reading further).

Essentially, it involves adding reverb to a sound, typically just one note or instance of the sound. If you want to reverse reverb into a chord progression, you’d apply reverb to the first chord “hit,” bounce it down, and then reverse it.

Tips and tricks:

  • Experiment with long and short reverbs and see how the tension differs between the two
  • Try cutting up the bounced reverb in a rhythmic fashion to add interest and complexity
  • Bounce down a delayed version of the hit and play it in unison with the reverb for an interesting effect
  • Leave a gap between the reverse reverb and the sound to give it more impact (a la reverse crash trick)

2. Teasing an idea

An effective way to add both micro-tension and macro-tension is to tease an idea–typically the main idea–earlier on in your track.

Omnia’s Infina is the perfect example. You can hear the main melody teased in the intro.

There are multiple ways to do this, you could:

  • Play snippets of your main idea throughout the intro
  • Process it heavily so it lies in the background and is more subtle
  • Use it at the start/end of phrases briefly. E.g., have the last bar of an 8-bar chord progression (which is your main idea) play at the end of a phrase. This teases the main idea whilst aiding the transition.

3. Glitch

Depending on what genre of music you’re making, glitch effects can be a great way to add micro-tension.

You’ll often hear glitch effects in high BPM tech trance between phrases. It could be anything from a time-stretched kick drum to a glitchy, random vocal chop pattern.

I’m not going to detail any particular ways to add glitch, because, again, that would require its own article, but here are some ideas:

  • Bounce elements down to audio and time-stretch them
  • Use short, fast patterns to create abrasive glitch effects (try plotting 16 kick drum notes in one beat to see what I mean).
  • Use glitch samples: retro game machine sounds, electronic sounds, etc.
  • Employ effects such as phasers, flangers, and bitcrushers to glitch things up
  • Use a dedicated glitch plugin like dBlue Glitch 2
  • Use stutter/gate effects during transitions

4. The solo kick

I first came across the solo kick technique after hearing Porter Robinson’s Vandalism. If you listen around 3:30, you’ll hear that at the start of the phrase he drops all instruments apart from just the kick, and then brings everything back in a beat later. This adds an immense amount of energy following the micro-tension.

5. Use unexpected chords

You can add micro-tension on a compositional level by changing up the last one or two chords of a progression.

For example, you might have a I – IV – V chord progression, and to add some micro-tension after a few phrases you change the dominant chord to a dominant seventh. The listener won’t expect it, and it’ll add some tension as a result.

You can, of course, go beyond that and change the chord completely. Experiment.

6. Stealing from other genres

If you really want to be different, you can steal ideas from other genres and use them to build micro-tension. One common example in modern electro-influenced trance and progressive house is using a 1-bar dubstep wobble at the end of a phrase.

Here’s an example of a future house bass being used in a different genre to add some micro-tension:

Common problems and questions

We’ve looked at what tension is, both from a high and low-level perspective. We also took a look at how you can add tension in the compositional stage as well as the arrangement stage, both on a macro and micro level.

Before we conclude this section on tension, I want to address some common problems, and then share several tips and tricks that might come in handy.

I’ve added micro-tension, but my song still sounds simple/boring.

First and foremost, it’s important that you don’t mistake simple for boring. The best dance music is intrinsically simple. It has to be in order to make people dance.

However, if your production really is boring, it’s probably not a result of micro-tension, but rather your level of interest and variation in the arrangement.

For example, if you have a relatively straightforward, generic chord progression that repeats itself over and over, then your track will be boring. You need to litter it with other instruments and create variation so that an 8-bar phrase does not repeat itself exactly. It’s less of a tension problem and more of a compositonal/arrangement problem.

Should I have a crash cymbal every 8 bars?

This is a surprisingly common problem. I used to always wonder if it was wrong to add a crash cymbal every 8 bars.

The short answer is that it really doesn’t matter. If you want to keep your song moving forward then it’s a good idea to have a crash cymbal every 8 bars. If you’re worried about people calling you out on using one so often (and they won’t, I guarantee it), then simply use more than one crash cymbal and vary them.

It’s worth noting that if you do have a crash cymbal play every 8 bars, the crash cymbal will have less energetic impact because it’s being heard more often. One workaround for this is to use a strong/long crash cymbal that hits at the start of every major phrase (say, 16/32 bars), and a minor/shorter crash cymbal that hits every 8 bars or so.

How long should my build up be?

There’s no definitive answer to a question like this. Your build-up should be as long as it needs to be.

I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s the truth. There’s no objective reason for choosing a 16-bar build-up over an 8-bar build-up, and a longer build-up doesn’t necessarily result in increased tension (though often does, simply because it stretches the listener for longer).

Some people argue that it should depend on the length of your song. If your song is 4 minutes long as 128BPM, then it’s a bad idea to have a 32 bar build-up, or if your song is 8 minutes long, then using an 8-bar build-up is too short. This simply isn’t true as there are numerous songs out there that are 6–8 minutes long with 8-bar build-ups that work incredibly well.

To answer the question, I don’t know. You need to experiment with different lengths, get feedback on them, and see what people like the most. At the end of the day, it’s the content of your build-up that matters the most. People won’t care about the length of your build-up if it’s poorly crafted.

PART 2 – ENERGY

What is Energy

It’s tough to provide a clear definition for energy in electronic music. Part of the reason for this is that:

A) it’s often used interchangeably with “tension”
B) it refers to a range of different things

What must be understood is that energy exists by default in music. Some people will argue that energy can’t exist without tension, but this isn’t quite true. If you have a kick drum playing a 4/4 pattern without any surrounding elements, there’s still energy there despite there being little to no tension.

With that being said–energy is often built through tension. A build-up has more energy than an intro, for instance. However, as mentioned above, energy can exist separately from tension. The best example of this is during the drop or chorus of a track where there’s a “release” from the tension.

Energy is a combination of different things: the quality of the mixdown and how “loud” the track is, style of composition, tempo, rhythm, and more. Good use of energy causes listeners to get off the couch and dance (or attempt to dance, if you’re like me).

Types of Energy

Energy can be split up into different categories like tension is (micro/macro). I like to see those categories as:

  • Total/overall
  • Rhythmic
  • Sonic

Let’s look at these one-by-one.

Total/overall energy

Total or “overall” energy refers to, well, the total energy your production has. Different songs have different energy levels, as do genres. For instance, a chilled-out lounge track will objectively have less energy than a 150BPM hardstyle track.

Total energy should be brought into consideration when producing. Do you want your track to be played at peak time in the club, or do you want it to be a laidback opening track?

There is no true objective measure for energy beyond the blatantly obvious (hardstyle vs lounge). One person may feel a certain track has more energy than another in the same genre, and another person might think the opposite.

Rhythmic energy

While total energy can be seen on a macro-scale as an all encompassing measure for a full track, rhythmic energy is smaller and more specific.

Rhythmic energy, often referred to as “groove,” is what makes people dance. I

Most rhythmic energy will come from the kick and bassline, but it can also come from other instruments that play a strong rhythmic pattern. The percussive drop sound in Hardwell’s remix of Man With The Red Face contributes a lot to rhythmic energy, even though it’s not a bassline.

As stupid as it sounds, there’s a simple way to test for rhythmic energy in your track. I like to call it the “head bob” test. While listening to your track, can you easily bob your head? Does it feel natural? If it doesn’t, you’ll need to take a look at how you’ve created your groove and where it’s lacking.

Sonic energy

Most people assume that if they’ve composed and arranged their track well then the energy will be great, but this isn’t always true.

You can have a great rhythm, a killer melody, and a perfected arrangement, but if it lacks polish and sonic quality, then there’ll be less energy.

Let’s say, for example, you write a track for a club setting. The ideas are great–your bassline is groovy and your main lead melody works perfectly. However, the kick and the bass clash slightly and the main lead is far too loud.

You might be able to listen to this and state that it has high energy, given that it has a solid arrangement, rhythm, and melody–but the mix isn’t quite there. It won’t stand up to other tracks when played in a mix, and what may seem like minor blemishes can end up ruining the whole track when played on a real system.

I’m often reminded of how important sonic energy is when I hear a track that has a little too much high end (often caused by a liberal use of white noise). It’s bearable when listening on headphones, but if I hear it on a club system, it hurts my ears. I don’t care how good the bassline is. I don’t care about how much tension is in your arrangement. The harsh high-end puts me off completely and negates any attempt at using energy to invoke a response.

Long story short? Make sure your mixdown is quality. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be acceptable if you want to deliver the right amount of energy.

Energy Dynamics: How to make an engaging track

Just like the overall energy in a track varies from another track, the energy levels in a track vary throughout the arrangement.

An arrangement needs to have contrast in order to keep the listener interested and fulfill their expectations. While there are no rules in music, it’s rarely a good idea to keep the same energy level throughout a full arrangement: first because it’s incredibly difficult to do without boring the listener, and second because it’s boring to make.

A drop won’t have as much impact if it wasn’t preceded by a quiet, low-energy section just like a quiet, low-energy section won’t feel as calming and mellow if it’s not preceded by a relatively high-energy section. And this is exactly why energy dynamics is so important.

Learning energy dynamics with the 1–9 method

If you’re a new producer–or if you haven’t given energy much conscious thought and struggle with it in your productions–then you need to spend some time getting acquainted with the idea of energy dynamics before trying to implement it in your track.

Why?

Yes, there’s no substitute for practice–trying it out in your own tracks–but you can optimise your practice by learning a little bit beforehand.

You can get familiar with the differing levels of energy in a song by… well, listening to a lot of music. However, by using the 1–9 method, you can build a stronger understanding of energy dynamics and how to adjust energy levels in your own track.

What is the 1–9 method?

The 1–9 method is nothing new. It’s a simple way of analyzing music for the purpose of learning.

The method is as follows:

  1. Find a track in the style of music you produce (or any style)
  2. Drag it into your DAW and split it up into its respectable sections (intro, verse, chorus, etc.)
  3. Give each section a number between 1–9 – 9 being the highest amount of energy and 1 being the lowest.

Let’s use the Parker & Hanson – Gravity (Jason Ross remix) as an example.

I’ve split the track up by each major section and also each section where something significant happens (more percussion introduced, new instrument, etc.)

Next, I’ve renamed each section with a number between 1–9.

Note: a good way to do this is to start with the highest energy section and give it a 9, then find the lowest energy section and give it a 1, and then work everything out from there.

onetonine

Finally, I’ll rinse and repeat, then compare my findings with other tracks I’ve analyzed.

This method forces you to really think about the level of energy in each section.

Staying on track with an energy map

Until you acquire a completely sub-conscious mastery of energy, it’s a good idea to map out the energy in your productions as early on as possible.

Doing this helps you stay on track when composing, arranging, and mixing. If you’ve decided that a certain section needs to have X amount of energy, and it’s not quite there, then you know you need to add something.

I like to use something I call The Energy Map. It’s something I’ve talked a fair bit about before, but it’s worth reiterating.

An energy map is a visual representation of the energy levels in your track. So, for a typical dance music arrangement, you might have something like this:

While we can create an energy map around an existing song, it’s a good idea to do it in advance – before you create your arrangement, for the reason mentioned above.

The easiest way to do this is to create a blank automation clip in your DAW, like so:

energymap

Note: in Live, if you automate the transposition function on a sampler, you’ll get a grid-bound automation clip which can make it easier to draw an energy map.

You should have a basic idea of how you want your energy levels to change over the course of your arrangement, but know that your energy map doesn’t need to be set in stone. As you arrange, you’ll find that certain sections need to be moved or changed, and your energy map should be adjusted accordingly.

How to “hack” energy levels when producing

You might be reading this without the faintest clue of how to create an energy map. You don’t know which sections should have high-energy, how much energy your intro should have, and so forth.

Fortunately, there’s a easy trick that bypasses this completely. You steal an energy map from elsewhere.

It’s simple:

  1. Find a track that has a similar sound and overall level of energy to the one you want to make
  2. Drag it into your DAW and draw an energy map alongside it
  3. Delete the track, keep the energy map, and use it as a basis for your original arrangement.

Contrast and Consistency

There’s a fine balance between a constrast in energy levels, and consistent energy levels that keep the track moving.

Amateur producers tend to opt for less contrast, because they’re anxious about lowering the energy too much. Overly consistent energy levels lead to a bland and boring track, and due to the lack of contrast, the overall energy is lowered.

However, putting too much emphasis on contrast is also a bad idea. If your track is somewhat mellow and you introduce an abnormally high-energy section, the listener will be confused and feel uncomfortable. Likewise, if you have a heavy club banger, and there’s a section with low-energy and little tension that lasts slightly too long, the listener will become bored.

Keep in mind the balance between contrast and consistency.

Common problems & things to keep in mind

So, we’ve just had a brief look at what energy is, and how you can take a more deliberate approach to manipulating it in your arrangement.

Before we conclude, I’d like to address a few common problems and touch on some things that are worth keeping in mind when looking at energy.

You don’t need to go overboard

Many producers fall into the trap of thinking that they need several instruments or elements in order to have a high-energy section. This is evidently not true if you look at tracks like EPIC by Sandro Silva & Quintino, which features a mere two instruments (a kick and sample) during the drop, or the infamous Animals by Martin Garrix.

Sometimes, more energy comes from less.

Starting with the drop

If you have trouble creating a high-energy section in your track, it might be because you’re working in a linear fashion (starting with the intro and working from left-to-right).

Consider starting your track by making the highest-energy section – the drop. It’s much easier to work your way down to lower energy sections after creating the climax.

You don’t need to make a banger

DJs need low-energy tracks. If you want to make a high-energy track that destroys the dancefloor – great! But if inspiration hits, and it calls for a lower-energy/more mellow track, don’t force a hard-hitting drop into it.

Avoiding the energy drop-off

It’s tempting to have everything come in at your drop – all instruments, layers, percussion – but doing this can lead to an energy drop-off 8–16 bars later.

Try holding back. Introduce the core instruments when your drop hits, and then 8 bars later introduce a new sound – even if it’s just a hi-hat or clap – to keep the energy high.

Conclusion

You got to the end?

Good on you. That was a long read.

I hope you’ve learned something, and I hope you’ve taken notes. Remember that learning about tension and energy is only useful if you put it into practice, so make sure you implement some of the ideas shared in this article during your next production session.

Finally, if you found this article helpful, I’d really appreciate it if you could share it among your friends or on social media.

Have any questions or comments? Leave them below.

About the Author

Sam Matla

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