One key feature of electronic dance music is build-ups. They certainly exist in other genres of music (outside dance music), but in EDM, the use of build-ups is highly important to the track’s structure.
Dance music relies on three main elements: tension, energy, and groove. What do build-ups create?
In this post, I’ll share everything you need to know about crafting the perfect build-up. From tools to tutorials, things to keep in mind, best learning practices, and more. There’s also a free checklist (PDF) you can take with you near the end of the post.
Why are Build-Ups Important?
Build-ups are absolutely essential to electronic dance music. Whether it’s a simplistic and subtle low-pass filter opening on a pad sound; or a fully-fledged, sonically splendid, snare and riser-filled build-up – the truth remains. Build-ups are the number one way to create tension and excitement in music.
But other than adding tension, why are build-ups so important?
They make the drop seem bigger
Drop, chorus, climax – whatever you want to call it. A well-made drop coupled with a carefully crafted build-up makes for a dance-floor killer.
If your build-up is too weak, then it will draw away from the impact of your drop. Conversely, if your build-up is too strong and over-powering, it too will draw away from the impact of your drop.
But why? Why does the listener perceive the drop as bigger and better when it’s preceded by a great build-up?
It’s all to do with tension and release. I write about this in my eBook, but the general gist of it is that build-ups stretch the listener. They stretch the listener to a point where there’s only one thing that can satisfy the emotional need cultivated by tension. A resolution, an answer to the question.
Have you ever eaten a beautifully cooked meal after a long bout of hunger? That’s what it’s like. A 3-course meal tastes great almost all the time, but it tastes incredible when you’re starving. The drop is exactly the same, yet it’s perceived as better due to what takes place before it.
Reason #1 why build-ups are important: they make the drop seem bigger and better.
They impact the listener emotionally
Yes, even the so-called “emotionless” genres of EDM do garner an emotional response from people. You don’t need to make music like Burial or MitiS to impact someone.
Build-ups invoke excitement. If there’s an area where you’re supposed to be depressed and bored during a song, the build-up is not it (unless it’s really badly made of course).
Excitement and happiness go hand in hand. Ask any club owner if he’d prefer to have his club filled with unhappy people or happy people, I guarantee you it will be the latter. People who have an emotional response to your music are also more likely to remember it (marketing tip #341).
Reason #2 why build-ups are important: they impact the listener emotionally.
They drive the song forward
Without tension and energy, your song won’t flow as well. In fact, it won’t flow at all. Micro-tension (crash cymbals, removing kicks at the end of 8 bars, etc.) drives the song along, keeping the listener interested. But a build-up? That’s the big mover.
Build-ups raise the energy level of a song to new heights and provide grounds for following parts to flow off them nicely.
Reason #3 why build-ups are important: they drive the song forward.
Related reading: The Difference Between Macro and Micro Tension in EDM Production
Learning How to Craft the Perfect Build-up
Now that you know why build-ups are so important, you’re probably hungry for some practical advice. And you should be. It’s important to know the implications behind elements of production, but without putting them into practice – they’re useless!
Tools of the Trade
There are a number of tools and tricks you can use when crafting a build-up. While the ones mentioned in this post are universally used, some of them are more suited to specific genres.
Note: by no means are these the only tools that you should use, they’re simply the most common.
Besides being pesky and annoying to use at times, automation is the number one tool you have at your disposal when crafting build-ups. Without automation, transitions will sound blocky and fragmented, tension will be static and unexciting, and your music will lack professionalism.
A novel would be required to cover all the ways that automation can be used in build-ups, so I’ll respect your time and only cover a few ways that it can be used.
The act of removing frequencies from a sound creates tension, regardless of what frequencies you’re removing (bringing down a low-pass filter does create tension too). Here are a few ways that filters can be automated during build-ups:
- Cutoff: automating filter cutoffs on synths is a great way to add tension.
- High-passing your master channel: contrary to popular belief, automation can be used on the master channel. Bringing up a high-pass removes the low-frequencies and causes your drop to have more impact.
- Low-passing certain sounds works great in build-ups.
- Resonance is a great way to add a harsher element to your filter automation. Push it hard or use it subtly to add tone.
If there’s one quick fix for everything in the world of music production, it’s reverb. Snare roll end too abruptly? Reverb. Pitch riser sound awkward? Drown it in reverb.
Do you want to know what’s even better than reverb itself? That’s right, automating reverb. Here are a few uses for it in build-ups:
- To “wash-out” sounds: automating the dry/wet on sounds like risers, leads, and snare rolls can help create a more smooth transition between build-up and drop.
- Increase decay: automating the decay length of a reverb on particular sounds can be a great tool for adding tension in a build-up.
- De-harsh: reverb can also be used to soak certain sounds and remove harsh characteristics. I often use a tonne of reverb on risers in order to remove harshness and place them in the background. This can be automated too (if some sounds come across as harsh at certain points).
There’s nothing that screams BUILD-UP more than a sound rising in pitch.
Automating pitch can be done in a subtle manner, or an obvious manner. Here are a few things you can apply pitch automation to:
- Vocals – loop a section of an acapella or grab a vocal sample and automate the pitch.
- Risers – self-explanatory? They rise… in pitch.
- Snare rolls – automating the pitch of a snare sample is a common technique used by many producers to add tension in a build-up.
- Reverb tails – bounce down a reverb tail from a sound to audio and then automate its pitch.
Snare rolls can sound huge or small, they can be short or long, obvious or subtle, rhythmically complex or simple. As with anything, there’s a lot of choice.
The most simple way to create a snare roll is by doubling up the speed and shortening the length. For example, in the videos above I had a snare roll that started off with 4 bars of a snare hitting every beat, then it doubled to eighth notes, and so on. Here’s a visual representation of a compounding (almost) 8-bar snare roll.
Of course, your snare roll doesn’t have to compound like this, but it’s a good way to notify the listener that something’s about to happen.
Quick tip: you can use fills within rolls to add a little extra tension and interest to your compounding snare rolls. Here’s an example:
You don’t just have to plug in a straight, generic rhythm. Here are three different patterns you can use yourself and build upon.
Alternative Rhythm #1
Alternative Rhythm #2
Alternative Rhythm #3
There are endless possibilities when it comes to programming snare rolls. Try experimenting with these and changing a few notes here and there.
A quick note on kick rolls
The same principles apply to kick rolls as they do to snare rolls. However, you’ve got to be wary of phase issues that can arise in the low-end when kicks are slamming constantly (eighth or sixteenth notes consecutively). It pays to automate a high-pass filter on your kick as the rhythm speeds up (high-passing a kick naturally reduces its sustain so your build-up will sound less messy as a result).
Here’s a classic example of a kick and snare roll (skip to 3:15)
Subtle, but effective.
In the world of music production, there’s always more than one way to do something. And while the results may differ, it pays to experiment with as many ways as possible.
One thing I like to do instead of duplicating and shortening MIDI notes, is to use a delay. Watch the below video for further explanation.
Risers aren’t essential in build-ups, but they are common and worth covering in this post.
I used to HATE risers. Before I knew a thing about synthesis, I either
A) didn’t use a riser at all
B) spent way too much time foraging through sample packs for one
Designing basic risers
If you want to use risers, but don’t want to waste time trying to “find” one, then don’t worry. They’re incredibly easy to create.
As shown in the video above, risers don’t just have to be long, single notes. You can incorporate rhythm into them as well. Why not try a few of the alternative snare roll patterns?
If you’re looking to create a complex build-up, then layering risers can work wonders. Try layering a more rhythmic riser with a long, single note riser.
Tips for using and designing risers
- Don’t go too high in pitch. Doing so can hurt the listener’s ears.
- Put them in either the foreground or background of your build-up by using reverb and volume levelling.
- Layer them with filtered white noise risers to fill in the high-end of your build-up.
- Automate low-pass and high-pass filters to add even more tension and clean up the mix.
- Stereo-widen your risers.
- Make a self-modulating riser.
One of the most important tools you have at your disposal as a producer is silence.
Too often we focus on what we can add to the arrangement, what we can add to the build-up, but often, true impact comes from silence. It’s the reason why so many modern EDM tracks have half a bar or bar of silence before the drop.
I don’t mean complete and utter silence, but rather a break of sorts. Often producers will add a vocal sample in place of the silence for memorability (Animals by Martin Garrix as a cliché example). Besides, having a bar of absolutely zero volume often sounds awkward, which is why it helps to have a reverb tail of some sort from your riser, snare roll, or lead.
In short, don’t neglect the power of rests and silence.
An easy way to add musical tension
I’m not going to into great detail on musical tension, because it’s another post in itself. But I will give you a quick tip that you can use in your own build-ups.
If you have a chord progression before your build-up – take the last chord and repeat it right up until the drop.
For example: I have a simple I – IV – V chord progression. I take the last chord and keep it going while risers and snare rolls accompany it. When the drop comes, I go right back to the start of the chord progression, back to the tonic.
This is called a cadence. The listener is on edge because the V chord naturally leads into the I chord. By making this the centre of the build-up, you’re adding musical tension.
It’s all good and well to have risers, snare rolls, musical tension, looped vocals. They make for a fantastic build-up, but there are certain considerations you need to keep in mind from a sonic perspective.
The first one is the use of low frequencies. Low frequency elements such as hall/reverb kicks and explosions can be used to create tension, but an over-abundance will detract from the impact of your drop. The drop should be the point in your song that has the maximum amount of energy possible, and it’s a given that low frequencies under the 100Hz mark provide a lot of that energy.
This leads back to the use of high-pass filtering, as explained earlier in the post. By removing such frequencies, you’re creating this gap in the frequency spectrum, a gap that the listener wants filled again.
The second is overall volume. Your build-up shouldn’t be perceived as louder than your drop. If it does appear louder, then your drop is going to have less impact, it’s as simple as that. I recommend fixing the problem by adjusting individual elements, but a quick fix is to bring the overall volume level down a few dB gradually during the breakdown and have it set back at 100% right when the drop hits.
The final consideration is the mix of all your build-up elements. Build-ups can get quite messy, there’s often a lot going on, but that’s no excuse to disregard the mix and muddy everything up. Frequency ranges still apply, volume levels still apply. Use 10 different snare rolls and 18 different risers and you’re going to have a bad time!
I’ll first start by pointing out that there’s no rule for length in general when it comes to electronic music. You can have a 16-bar chorus, I mean, you can even have a 4-bar chorus – but what needs to be realized is that certain lengths work better than others in certain cases.
A 4-bar build-up may work great in a 3 minute long pop track, but it may be too abrupt and disappointing in a 7 minute long trance track.
One question I always ask myself when working on arrangement is, “Does this part do what it’s supposed to do?”
In regards to a build-up, it’s supposed to add enough tension to make the drop have impact. I’ll know if the build-up is too long because I’ll get bored. I’ll also know if it’s too short when the drop comes in too abruptly and lacks energy.
With this all said, an 8-bar build-up is usually fail safe, and you can make it work in almost any style of music. This is a good point to start from if you’re really unsure of how long to make your build-up.
Respecting the Genre
It’s important that you respect the genre of music your creating. A massive big room build-up with huge distorted risers, weighted snares, and explosions is probably not going to sound spectacular when used in a deep house track, just as a mellow 7th chord being sustained isn’t going to fit perfectly into a rhythmic festival track. It comes down to common sense for the most part, but it’s important you respect the style of music you’re making and not just make a generic “EDM” build-up for each genre.
If all else fails, use your ears and common sense.
The Start and End
The transitions into and out of your build-up are incredibly important. The listener should be aware that the build-up is happening, and they should know when it’s about to end.
Transitioning from the build-up to chorus/drop can be difficult, but it’s the most important part of your track. It’s the pinnacle of your song, and if it’s not strong or smooth enough, the rest of your track will suffer.
As for transitioning into a build-up, there are many ways to do it. I personally like to make the start of my build-up have impact, so I’ll stick a few crash cymbals there, a hall kick, and so on. You can also make it more subtle, maybe bring down the cutoff on a pluck sound playing your chord progression and then start looping the last chord at the start of the next phrase. Mastering these transitions is something you learn and pick up from analysing other music.
It’s easy to fall into that trap of thinking that you need to add more. Thinking that your build-up is just too simple, even if it sounds good.
Avoid this trap.
Some of my favorite songs have incredibly simple build-ups that fit the rest of the song perfectly. The build-up in “Zara” by Arty is a simple supersaw pad playing one chord with a rising filter along with some background percussion and a few FX.
How to Practice and Learn More
Articles like these are helpful (I hope), and can be good to spark up inspiration and offer tips and techniques, but the real learning happens over time with practice.
I’m going to share with you a fact. Some of you will already know what it is, and some of you won’t like it, but I’ll share it anyway…
The only way you’re going to get better at making build-ups is by making them.
And yes, while tips and tutorials can help, you have to put the ideas into practice. So that’s what I’m going to help you do. Here are 3 tips you can use to improve your skill and make the most out of your production sessions.
1. Remake Build-ups
I bet you saw that one coming, huh?
Some of the top producers I know remake tracks on a regular basis. Just as a writer will read books from others, and a fighter will learn from other fighters before him, producers do the same. Studying professional tracks is the quickest way to develop your skill in certain areas. Want to get better at making drums? Remake drums from one of your favorite tracks. Want to get better at melody creation? Download MIDI files from your favorite tracks and analyze them.
Start with simple tracks, copy out the basic structure, and simply remake them. They don’t have to be 100% accurate, as in, you don’t have to use the exact same snare sample or crash cymbal – you’re simply using it as a tool to help yourself get into the artist’s mind, work out why and how they did what they did.
2. Starting with the Drop
If you work in a linear fashion, intro to outro, and you find build-ups difficult to work on, then consider a different approach.
Starting from the chorus, or drop, and working backwards is a great way to promote creativity and focus on the flow between the two sections of your track. Try it out.
You could even try working on the build-up first. It’s a little unorthodox, but if it works – it works.
If there’s one thing that’s generally accepted among us humans, it’s that we learn from our mistakes.
To improve, I recommend self-reviewing your work. After putting some of the tips and techniques in this article to good use and creating a song, you’ll want to check back a week or two later and critically listen.
This form of self-review not only keeps us humble (which is important if you want to cultivate the best mindset for learning), but it gives us direction and a few pointers on what we need to improve on. Listen to your music a short time after producing it, say 1-2 weeks, and answer the following 2 questions:
- What did I do well here?
- What could I have done better?
Simple and straightforward. It sounds cheesy and stupid, but I can assure you it’s not. Being self-critical in this manner while retaining a positive attitude allows you to figure out where you went wrong and avoid making the same mistake next time.
Note: in addition to self-review, I highly recommend looking for feedback from peers who are more advanced producers. They’ll often point out things that you won’t hear.
Resource: Build-up Checklist
It’s easy to get near the end of your track and just tell yourself that you’re done with it, but the real learning begins when you have to push through those problems you know that exist, but take work to fix. I’ve made a simple checklist that you can refer to when crafting your build-ups.
Build-ups can be confusing, we all know that. But with a simple understanding of their purpose, how to create individual elements, and what to look out for – you’ll have a lot less trouble with them.
Be creative, be critical, and do your best.
Want to learn more about the role of tension and energy in electronic dance music? Pick up my eBook for $14.99.