Electronic music production has become a widespread phenomenon in recent years, with the rising popularity of EDM (Electronic Dance Music) across the globe. Electronic music spans a wide variety of genres — EDM, Hip-Hop, R&B, Lo-Fi, and so many more.
While it may seem like the music of the future, electronic music production has been around for a long time, the first electronic instrument, the theremin, is just over 100 years old! Since then, these unique and unnatural electronic music sounds have captivated musicians and music listeners alike.
Electronic music production involves creating and manipulating sound using electronic instruments and/or computer software, with the goal of creating a song that connects powerfully with a broad audience. The listener may be in earbuds or at a massive festival with lasers and lights, but good music will always be in demand!
This blog will explore the steps involved in electronic music production — from the first idea to the final release. We will also discuss potential career opportunities available in this exciting field.
Step 1: Inspiration
The first step in electronic music production is to find inspiration and begin to imagine the track’s overall sound and structure. This involves identifying the track’s genre, tempo, and mood of the track and deciding on the types of sounds and instruments used. This stage requires creativity and vision, as it lays the foundation for the entire production process.
Many producers rely heavily on found sounds to spark their creativity. This may be a sample that can be looped or as simple as a unique bass drum sound that the whole song can build around. Services like Splice allow the electronic music producer to quickly audition potentially thousands of sounds before finding that spark.
Sometimes that initial inspiration is a melody that randomly pops into their head. Maybe a catchy little lyric or phrase will provide a starting point that’s intriguing enough to chase down in the production. Since modern cell phones can record sounds — even full songs — these ideas can be captured instantly with this “Memo Demo.”
Step 2: Sound Design and Sampling
Once the overall concept of the track has been established, the next step is designing the sounds that will make up the track. This can involve creating custom sounds using synthesizers and other electronic instruments and sampling existing sounds from other sources. This stage requires technical skill and creativity, which involves shaping and manipulating sound to achieve the desired effect.
Sometimes the sound design process can be very intentional and focused — with the producer chasing a particular sound or texture they have imagined. This requires great skill, sometimes in a very specialized plugin or synthesizer.
Learning how to operate the tools at hand or even figure out which tools will be needed can be difficult. It requires patience and, in a worst-case scenario, even reading the dreaded manual! Fortunately, tons of resources are available to make this easier — from YouTube demos to video tutorials created by the manufacturers.
Many times, however, the most interesting sounds might be purely accidental! While experimenting and learning tools, the producer might find themselves creating wild and weird sounds that inspire a whole new vision for the song. These “happy accidents” have been the start of many iconic songs.
Step 3: Composition and Arrangement
After finding or designing unique instrument sounds, the producer must compose and arrange the song. Music composition is writing the core song elements of rhythm, harmony, melody, and lyrics. This is the songwriter’s creative property and can be copyrighted — even if the song is never recorded. The arrangement and composition stage requires a good sense of rhythm and musical structure and a keen ear for melody and harmony.
Some producers may have the musical ability to play a piano, guitar, or drums, but others may not play anything but a keyboard and mouse. Skrillex is famous for not using any sort of keyboard or MIDI controller. Some producers are even faster at creating tracks with just a mouse than with more traditional methods. Since the creation process of electronic music is usually a single person working at their own pace, any creation method is valid!
Unlike traditional methods, electronic music is often written in small segments of 4 or 8 bars. These snippets are then looped to create larger sections or even entire songs. This loop-based writing style is much more efficient within the DAW (digital audio workstation) since something basic, like a drum pattern, wouldn’t need to be recorded for the entire song length.
In contrast, most songs throughout history were written first and then played by a group of musicians, either live or on a recording. It’s only since the advent of MIDI sequencers — like the TR-808 — in the 1980s that music has been built with this unique framework.
With loop-based writing, section changes are often simply made by adding or subtracting from a core beat. This can get stale and too repetitive, so most electronic music pays a lot of attention to making smooth and interesting transitions to help build dynamics and contrast into the music. In many cases, the producer is automating effects, EQ, volume, panning, and whatever else so that the track feels like a live performance and “breathes.”
After finding a great core, the producer will need the song to go on a journey. Designing the broad structure and layout of the song is known as arranging. While a typical song has boundaries and song structure elements like intro > verse > Chorus > re-intro > verse 2…an electronic music track might have none of those elements.
That doesn’t mean the song must be simple. In fact, it’s usually far more interesting if there are emotional, textural, and tonal swings called “Dynamics.” Many songs have a “plot arc” from the introduction of each musical character to some sort of eventual musical climax and conclusion.
Drama and tension can be built into the song for a bigger payoff and release at the climactic final hook (or wherever).
Step 4: Mixing and Mastering
Once the composition is complete, the next step is to mix and master the track. Mixing involves balancing the levels and frequencies of each sound in the song to create a cohesive and balanced blend. Mastering involves processing the final mix to ensure it sounds good and powerful on various playback systems. This stage requires technical expertise and a good ear for sound quality and may or may not be done by the producer.
Mixing EDM and other types of electronic music is a much different process than mixing a bluegrass song. While listeners in more traditional genres will have some familiarity with the sounds — everybody knows roughly what a guitar is supposed to sound like — electronic music is often not attempting to sound like anything in particular.
In fact, it may be actively avoiding any sort of familiarity! This can be freeing and frustrating, especially if the mixer is mixing for somebody else and doesn’t have the same vision as the original producer. It can also be incredibly freeing, considering that ANY type of processing is fair game. Subtlety is no longer important when making panning, EQ, effects, or compression decisions on a wild EDM track!
Mastering will be the final step in the creation process. The goal of mastering is to ensure every listener hears the song in its most powerful form. This is a tricky task since some listeners will hear it off their phone speakers, playing virtually no bass frequencies. Other listeners might hear it at a venue with dozens of subwoofers and massive speaker setups.
Ultimately, the mastering engineer will be playing “sonic whack-a-mole” and trying to eliminate any lingering distractions from the track. The mastering engineer will balance the frequencies and the volume changes throughout the song.
Lastly, the song needs to be LOUD. By using tools that alter the volume, the mastering engineer can make the average volume of the track much higher — hopefully not messing up the producer and mixer’s original vision.
Step 5: Distribution and Promotion
Finally, once the track is complete, the last step is distributing and promoting it. This involves uploading the track to online platforms such as Spotify, SoundCloud, and YouTube and promoting it through social media and other channels. This stage requires marketing and promotional skills and an understanding of the online music industry.
Fortunately, it has never been easier to make music available online. Several excellent distribution services, such as CDBaby, Distrokid, and Tunecore, can get a song or album uploaded anywhere people listen to music online.
More independent artists than ever are releasing music this way, so it is going to be necessary for the music to be marketed and promoted to the masses. Something will need to make it stand out from the crowd! Great music helps, but it must usually be paired with great visuals, videos, influencers, or something wild to get people to pay attention.
Modern promotion is often done through social media since it has a nearly unlimited reach but will require some effort. That may look like a combination of sponsored ads, viral videos featuring the music, or even behind-the-scenes content.
Electronic music production is a fascinating and dynamic field that requires a unique blend of technical skill and creativity — and it’s not going anywhere! The process involves several jobs, from inspiration to distribution and promotion, with each stage requiring a different set of skills and expertise.
There are many potential career opportunities in and around electronic music production — from music producers and sound designers to DJs and music business professionals. With the nearly limitless potential for growth in electronic music and the low cost of entry, there has never been a better time to explore the world of electronic music production and pursue a career in this exciting industry.
If you are interested in a career in the music industry, Dark Horse Institute’s music programs: Composition and Songwriting, Audio Engineering, or Music Business, are a great way to take things to the next level!