Let’s talk workflow and arrangement.
It can be pretty overwhelming trying to understand how an artist like KSHMR or NGHTMRE composes a track.
There must be so many layers, so many tricks they know that you don’t, so much complexity.
The reality? It’s quite simple.
In this post, you will learn the strategies these artists use to compose their tracks, from the idea stage to completion.
Specifically, you will learn:
- How these artists begin your tracks
- How they progress an initial idea or loop
- The order in which they arrange all their elements together
You can listen to the full episode below.
[smart_track_player url=”https://soundcloud.com/soundacademyhq/episode-4″ ]
BONUS: Want more tips? Learn how the biggest trap producers layer and process their 808s.
1. Flume’s workflow and arrangement strategies
Flume did a masterclass not too long ago where he discussed his workflow and approach to writing tracks in Ableton.
He said he will typically start with writing his chords and melodies, and when he does this he finds creating the drums afterwards is quite simple.
As long as he focuses on making great melodies and chord progressions first, everything sort of falls into place for him.
He typically starts with a 16 or 32 bar loop to really get down the main idea of the track.
From there he will progress the track as far as he can, or in this case, get a vocalist to sing on the track to add a more human element.
He also discussed his track, “Holding On”, which he did the exact same way.
He first just created some really awesome chords.
From there, he found himself flipping through vocal samples and found a vocal loop he thought sounded interesting, placed it on top of his chords, and just found that it sounded great.
Why does this strategy work for Flume?
This approach really makes sense in Flume’s case because of how melodic his music is.
If you think back to your favorites tracks of his, you’re going to remember the melody and the chords. The musical elements.
Those musical elements are at the heart of his productions, so it would only make sense for him to begin with those.
He wants those melodies to be what catches your attention and makes you want to listen to the song.
For that reason, all other elements in his track exist solely to support those melodies.
Focus on what’s important
When thinking about your own productions, what is the main element?
If you make dubstep, it might be your basses and sound design.
Are you creating massive future bass tracks like Illenium?
Then its going to be your melodies and chords.
Take this thinking into the studio and make sure you’re clear on what the most important element is in your song and what you want to get stuck in your listener’s head.
Workflow strategies from Flume’s recent album
Flume also did a series of short interviews with Spotify recently where he broke down his workflow on his most recent album.
He will first begin with creating textures and soundscapes, avoiding the creation of any melodies.
He even downloaded movie FX soundtracks and produced really alien-like soundscapes, and then spread those soundscapes through every track in the album.
This is one thing he said helped make his album sound so cohesive.
Although it may be an unconventional strategy, the best and most innovative production techniques usually are.
The making of “Never Be Like You”
When discussing the workflow behind his chart-topping record “Never Be Like You”, he talked a little bit about his collaborative process.
Flume said in this case, he and Kai did all their communication online, sending little tidbits of the track back and forth for quite some time.
He said that this is his favorite way to collaborate, as it gives each person room to be creative.
A minimal production setup optimizes Flume’s workflow
When it comes to his production setup, he mentioned the motto “less is more” is an approach he takes when getting in the studio.
He used to have tons of gear, plugins, effects and all sorts of stuff, but he just found himself getting bogged down by all the tools he had available.
Flume was just scratching the surface on a bunch of tools, without really going deep or learning anything properly.
It even stifled his workflow, and prevented him from getting a lot of work done.
Since then, he’s really cut down on everything and now uses a really simple setup.
The tools he uses today are far fewer, but he knows them inside and out.
He knows what they’re capable of and how to leverage them to his advantage.
Flume’s advice for new producers
He recommended producers who are starting out as a producer use only one synthesizer.
You should learn how it works, understand how to make sounds with it.
If you’re able to master that one plugin, he said, you can make any sound you want to hear.
You can hear a sound on the radio, think to yourself “I know how to make that!” and that, in Flume’s words, is power.
An efficient workflow leads to success
One last thing Flume mentioned is that typically his best tracks come together the fastest.
This is a concept echoed by every producer I’ve ever met or heard from in the industry.
The faster you’re turn the sounds in your head into a track in your DAW, the more creative you’ll be able to be.
When you don’t get stifled and caught up in the technical challenges when making a track, like getting that bass just right, or getting that snare to sound perfect, the easier you’ll be able to express your creativity.
This is why understanding the tools you have available to you and making sure you streamline as many processes as possible is essential.
2. Workflow tricks and melody creation with Seven Lions
Seven Lions recently broke down his track “A Way To Say Goodbye” and gave us all a peak into his workflow.
One thing he does to streamline his songwriting is use a template in FL Studio.
He will have a basic structure in place when he opens his tracks, and will already have all of his routing taken care of so he can focus on the important stuff.
Melodies come first
As a producer of very melody-driven tracks, he too likes to start out by getting all his chord progressions and melodies written first.
One he has a melody in place he’s happy with, he will try that melody out on a bunch of synths.
After he finds a good, solid main melody layer he likes, he will begin layering from there.
He will EQ each additional layer accordingly to ensure that it serves its purpose in helping complement his main sound.
How you should approach layering
Once you choose your main sound, you should be asking yourself certain questions when approaching layering:
- What is that main layer missing?
- What frequencies is it lacking?
- How could it be improved?
Please never layer for the sake of layering.
We’ve all done it from time to time, but that is simply the wrong approach.
The best way to approach layering and creating that thick wall of sound like Seven Lions and Illenium do is to first choose a main sound.
From there, you use higher-frequency and low-frequency sounds to fill in any areas where your main layer is lacking.
Why Seven Lions prefers audio over MIDI
An additional workflow tip he mentioned is that as he’s producing, right after he creates a sound, he will immediately bounce it to audio.
This not only consolidates his idea and puts a stake in the ground for him to progress from, but it also gives it complete control over his audio clips.
He mentioned that during the build of this track specifically, he wanted to be able to control and manage the reverb on his snare tails.
Once he finished the first drop of this song, he actual bounced everything to audio and converted them to stems, and simply copied and pasted it later in the track where the second drop would go.
From here he will continue adding layers as he goes through his track actively listening and asking himself, “does this need any more layers to sound fuller or more interesting?”
Don’t let organization stifle your workflow
Seven Lions also commented on the fact that this specific project of his looked pretty disorganized.
He explained that during the songwriting phase when he’s being creative, he doesn’t concern himself too much with the technicalities like organizing his tracks and mixing.
He doesn’t like to be have anything slow him down when he’s writing, as it stifles his creativity and in his opinion, simply isn’t necessary at that stage.
3. How KSHMR uses his arrangement to tell a story
During a Masterclass he held in Delhi this year, KSHMR imparted tons of knowledge on his audience when it comes to songwriting and arrangement.
One of the most important things he said producers need to remember when songwriting is that your music must tell a story.
There must be emotion, it must have meaning to you as you’re making it.
Even if your listeners don’t hear it that by, by making it that way you will create music with conviction.
The most important part of your song structure
One challenge KSHMR said he’s sees a lot of producer running into is song structure. More specifically, creating contrast in their songs.
What he means is that its very important for you to make certain sections of the song feel bigger than others.
You want one section to feel like the intro.
You want it to feel more “naked”, and as if things haven’t evolved quite yet.
It’s still interesting, but you make it clear to the listener that there is more to come.
In the further sections, you want things to evolve, change, seem bigger, and there are many ways to do this.
How you can create contrast in your songs
One of KSHMR’s favorite ways to create contrast is with harmonic tempo, or how fast the chords change.
You can also alter the harmonic scope, or the range of emotion in the chords and the number of chords you’re introducing.
To demonstrate this, he discussed how he used this strategy on his hit song “Secrets” with Tiesto.
If you’re familiar with the song, try and imagine it in your head right now.
It starts with a slow, simple, melancholy walk down, then turns into fast and uplifting track in the break.
In this section he started on a new chord and began moving in a new direction: up.
This then continued with a big uplifting section with Am, D, and Em, then following that a new chord: Am.
That new Am was used to introduce a new emotional element.
Why contrast matters
In the beginning of your tracks, give your listeners a small preview of what is to come.
Use something simple yet catchy.
Don’t bust out your craziest tricks in the first 30 seconds.
Set the baseline that you will then pick your listeners up from during the build and drop.
In these sections is where you want to unleash your favorite strategies, your huge chords, your disgusting dubstep bass.
By ensuring this contrast in your track, it becomes more clear to the listener where they are in your song and what you have in store for them.
View your arrangement as a canvas
Another amazing concept introduced to KSHMR during is masterclass is viewing songwriting as having a canvas, and wanting to paint a big mountain on that canvas.
We are all constrained to the same size canvas.
We can’t make it any bigger, we all have access to pretty much the same paint and brushes, so what differentiates the Picasso’s of the music world from your 6-year old cousin in art class?
Well, anyone can draw a mountain on a canvas.
We all know what a mountain looks like, and want to draw it to make it looks as big as possible.
The question is, how do we make our mountains look as big as possible?
We draw all the little details around it.
We draw the little person at the base of the mountain, all the clouds up above the mountain, the trees and shrubs going up the mountain.
We draw the little baby mountain off to the side.
In our songs, we must draw in this baby mountains during different sections of the song, so that when the big mountain comes, its very apparent that this is a massive mountain because they’ve been looking at all this tiny shit up until this point.
4. How Martin Garrix writes songs and creates melodies
Martin Garrix just held a Masterclass at the Amsterdam Dance Event 2017.
The first question he was asked by producers there was how he starts his tracks.
Garrix, who creates extremely melodic tracks, said he always starts with the melody and chords.
Sometimes it won’t even start on his computer.
He might just be playing a guitar and get inspired, he might be working with a songwriter.
How Martin approaches layering
As soon as he finds a little bit of inspiration, he will start layering melodies and chord progressions and progress his tracks from there.
The melodies and chords are the most important to him, and he commented that no matter how talented of a producer you are, if your song doesn’t sound good musically, it won’t be a good song.
Garrix said that when writing a song, the first 2-3 hours are always the most important for him.
This is his opportunity to translate the idea in his head into FL Studio.
During this time when he’s getting the initial idea of the track down, he likes to work very quickly.
He avoids getting bogged down on surgical EQing and processing a sound just perfectly.
He postpones anything that isn’t critical for him getting the main idea of the track down.
He said that during the first few hours, he would prefer to be able to hear his melody played by six different sounds in Sylenth, rather than spend that whole time working on just one sound.
He avoids over-processing sounds
As he’s goes through creating a track, one interesting thing he mentioned is that he doesn’t like to process or modify sounds too much.
Instead, he will just add a new sound to fill in whatever is missing in his mind.
Lots of the time you won’t even hear a layer, and for him it could be something so small just adding a bit of sound, but when you take a step back it really does make a difference.
We’ve talked about this before, but being very intentional with knowing what you want and need to have in your track is key.
Its so easy for producers to just keep throwing shit in because they think they’re supposed to be “layering”, but in no time you will have a fucked up track beyond repair.
Everything you add in your mix must have a defined purpose, otherwise its just taking up space and taking attention away from the elements that really matter.
How to stay focused when producing
One last workflow tip Garrix gave was that when he is in the studio, he completely disconnects.
He turns off his internet on his computer, sets his phone aside and ensures that he can focus solely on his music when he’s producing.
He recognizes how many distractions there are for him, and it can be so easy to divert your focus and waste your time when you should be making tracks.
5. Avicii’s melodic workflow secrets
Now we all know about Avicii – he’s an amazing producer and knows how to write hit songs.
When breaking down his track “Dancing In My Head,” he discussed exactly how he typically starts tracks.
To begin, he will create his entire melody and chord structure using a piano.
In this case, he used a specific piano preset from Sylenth (a plugin he’s a big fan of).
He will continue building upon his initial melody, even sometimes manually adding arp notes in, until he’s completely satisfied with it.
Once he’s happy with the melodic structure of his loop and chord progression, he will begin to pull out certain notes from that MIDI clip and add them to new sounds to layer in.
In this specific case, he selected all of the top notes in his melody and copied them over to a new MIDI clip.
From here, he began flipping through Sylenth presets until he found a lead sound that he thought would fit well.
He then did the same thing when he pulled out his bass notes and assigned them to new sounds, and once again with his remaining sounds until he was happy with the mix.
Use loops to your advantage
When actually arranging the track, he likes to play with loops and layer them to create an initial drum beat.
He says this is something that just enables him to continue progressing the track, and he will typically come back and change the loops later.
Avicii then begins completing the arrangement by placing his MIDI clips throughout the track on the appropriate sounds.
Once he has his MIDI in place, he then adds in some of his favorite effects throughout the track.
Putting all of these pieces in place really gives him a holistic overview of his track and what it needs going forward.
Use your favorite samples to optimize your workflow
One thing to note here is that when adding his effects, Avicii was able to pick and choose the right uplifters and downlifters in less than a minute.
He has saved his favorite effects and other sounds in a place where he can quickly and easily access them.
This is an extremely useful strategy for streamlining your workflow when going through the creative phase in a track.
You should be saving your favorite white noise samples, favorite downlifters, favorite impacts and everything in between.
That way, you won’t get held up sorting through thousands of samples and end up forgetting the idea of your song that you began with.
Avicii said he likes to completely finish the arrangement and layout of his tracks as quickly as possible before worrying about too many technical details.
Once the track is completely in place, that’s when he will go in and fill out the details, perform the surgical EQing and everything else required to get that clean, polished sound.
6. NGHTMRE’s strategic approach to workflow and arrangement
Now NGHTMRE was also kind enough to share how he approaches writing tracks.
The strategy he uses is something he learned from producer Jaytech during a seminar of his.
NGHTMRE believes strongly that your approach will affect your outcome when making music, so his approach separates the production process into 5 steps:
- Add character
- Sonic treatment
- Auditing, mixing & A/B comparison
He first discussed the Clarify step, which in his words is the most important.
In order to have a meaningful track, all parts must have a purpose.
Really understanding the theme of your track, and possibly even linking that theme to specific words or pieces of information can help you arrive at your music destination sooner.
He also said that its important to avoid listening too much to other tracks and this point or copying melodies, but simply referencing for mixing and arrangement is perfectly acceptable.
You should have a plan of attack when creating you track, as well as an understanding of what the driving force will be behind the track.
Very similar to what Flume discussed, you must be clear on what is going to make you track special.
What’s going to catch the listener’s attention?
If you think about a 4-person rock band, the guitarist is never really playing a solo while the singer is singing.
During a guitar solo, the drummer is never going wild on his drum set.
It is always clear exactly what the listener should be paying attention to, and it is no different in electronic music.
One you have a clear understanding of your driving force, all other element should serve to simply complement that driving force.
Now at this point, you shouldn’t be able to remove any elements from your track without creating a noticeable difference.
If you remove a sound a can’t tell, you need to remove it.
Its just taking up room and not allowing your more important elements to shine like they should.
For NGHTMRE, his synths or bass are almost always the focus in his tracks, depending on the section of the track.
During his drop, he wants his synths in the front of the mix, allowing listeners’ ears to gravitate toward them.
He always wants to ensure that if he were to take away that key element, he can still rock out to the foundation of his track.
He wants to always be able to rock out to his drums and bass alone, and by doing this, he ensures that when he does have those leads over top, it sounds massive.
When starting out, he will layout his bass, synths and lead melodies all in a single MIDI clip using a piano instrument.
By doing this, he ensures that everything will be musically coherent and sound good together.
Now this is what I discussed in the beginning of the episode. Have you noticed that almost every producer so far does this?
One tip NGHTMRE gave to help producers clarify their sounds is to figure out where it would fit if the project was stemmed out.
By this he means if the project was bounced to just five or six audio tracks, where would each sound sit?
The stem categories NGHTMRE uses consist of his kicks, other drums, lead melody or vocal, drop synths, breakdown pads and accent melodies, and lastly, effects.
Building off this, he typically won’t even organize his tracks till the very end.
By this point, when he’s going through each channel and sound, he sometimes discovers certain sounds he doesn’t even need.
By viewing your track in a structured way like this, you can be very clear on exactly what is needed and where each element should fit.
The next step NGHTMRE discussed was Simplify.
He discussed the fact that even if your track is musical genius, if its not presented in a simple way, your listeners will likely miss the point.
If you haven’t learned by now, often times the simplest tracks are the best. Now this isn’t always the case.
Porter Robinson’s songs wouldn’t be what they are with all of the complexities, but those complexities are not necessary to make a great song.
NGHTMRE discussed there is good complex and bad complex.
Examples of good complex would be chord progressions or layering synth lines.
Examples of bad complex would be multiple patterns or rhythms playing at one time.
Good complex leaves no question to what the listener should be focusing on, whereas bad complex leaves the listener confused about what to pay attention to as different elements are fighting and competing for space in the mix.
The Simplify step is going to be where the arrangement takes place.
NGHTMRE recommends organizing your song into 8-bar and 16-bar sections.
Typically, these sections will include the intro, main hook/breakdown, build up, drop, post-drop, breakdown 2/bridge, build up 2, drop 2, and outro.
More often, these sections would be called intro, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro.
Now NGHTMRE’s tracks will usually end up being around three or four minutes long, never much longer than that.
Especially because the majority of the music he creates is meant to be played out at shows, it would never need to be any longer than that.
Next NGHTMRE describes the “add character” step by discussing the techniques he typically uses in his own songs.
These include using a vocoder on his bass and vocals, pitching his leads up or down an octave over the course of 2 or 4 bars, layering his snares, freezing/flattening and removing reverb tails, creating melodic vocal chops, and even adding crowd noise and claps.
I want to dive a bit deeper into a couple of these as they are really fascinating concepts and things that we teach frequently to our students.
First let’s talk about the snare layering. When producing music like NGHTMRE, snares often times will consist of three layers.
One layer will be a toned reverb sitting a little bit in the background. Another layer will be a big snare that is adding all of the character.
Lastly, in the very front, there will be a snare in there for additional punch.
Additionally, freezing and flattening to remove reverb tails is a technique I hear in nearly every NGHTMRE song.
This is an awesome technique to create a very unnatural effect.
He will have these huge sounds in his mix with tons of reverb, and by chopping off the tail, it immediately captures your attention and you tune in to the new sound filling that space.
This converts everything in that track to audio which gives you complete control over your sounds.
You can then snip pieces out, remove tails, resample and reverse sounds and anything else you can imagine.
He made it a point to touch on the fact that its important to not force effects on your sounds.
Instead, you need to listen for what it actually needs.
Don’t just put a compressor on it because you think you should put a compressor on it.
Experimenting with new effects and techniques is an essential part of learning music production, but don’t assume that because you saw your favorite artist use three saturators on his bass group that you should do the same.
Sonic treatment & Mixing
When you get into the final stages of sonic treatment and mixing, there are a few strategies NGHTMRE discussed.
One of the most important ones is using volume to your advantage.
Volume control is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal as a producer, and it is so often overlooked.
That kick might not really need that compressor, you probably can just turn it down a dB or two.
Is your lead cutting through the mix a little bit much?
Instead of going crazy with a surgical EQ, try just turning the volume down a bit.
7. How Oliver Heldens turns an idea into a song
Now lastly we’re talking about Oliver Heldens, who held a Masterclass in Amsterdam very recently and gave us a look into how he goes about creating his tracks.
He went through previewing quite a few works-in-progress and commented on each of them that they weren’t completely mixed or mastered yet, and that they still needed a few of the minor details.
He discussed that when being creative and composing, like most producers, he does everything he can to avoid getting bogged down by the technical details.
Oliver even mentioned that most of the major producers he works with aren’t even that technically knowledgeable, but they can write good music.
This is an important point to touch on because what really makes a great song usually isn’t all the surgical EQing and automations, but rather the main music element.
Those smaller details just serve to enhance the original, creative, music idea.
The creative workflow stage
When getting that initial creative idea down, he focuses on working quickly and choosing the right samples.
In one example he previewed, he was working with just a KSHMR kick drum and a bass he found in Sylenth.
From there, he did some simple tweaks to make them work well together, and that enabled him to progress to the next steps in his production.
He mentioned that there are just so many great samples today, so by choosing the right sounds early on, you create a solid foundation for the rest of your track to be built upon.