Say you have a melody. Maybe you thought it up in the shower, maybe you stole it from somewhere, maybe you found it in a box in the attic. Perhaps it’s the melody of a song you came up with.
In any case, you have a melody. This is a good start. But you need more than a melody.
In general, you’ll also want the following things, to various extents:
Drumline: To support the track and to give a sense of time
Bassline: To support the melody, or perhaps this is what’s carrying the melody.
Background: To make your track seem more complete, less empty; also adds depth.
Punctuation: Temporally isolated sounds for catching/diverting attention at crucial moments.
A lot of electronic music is built upon a percussive rhythm, usually consisting of a kick/bass drum, a snare or clap, and some hi-hats or cymbals. Percussion rhythms are usually divided into four-to-the-floor and breakbeat, but you can alternate between the two if you like, and the terminology certainly isn’t so fixed for non-4/4 time signatures.
This is the standard founding rhythm for House, Trance, Techno and most Hardcore. Its defining feature is a kick/bass drum hit every beat, and in general percussive emphasis lands on the beat. Snares commonly, but not always, occur on the 2nd and 4th beat of the bar, and the hi-hats are arranged so that they mainly occupy the space between beats. This rhythm is easy to build upon, but gets boring quickly.
See also: Four to the Floor
The various ___step and ___breaks styles use breakbeats, which, unlike four-to-the-floor, does not have a kick/bass drum hit every beat, and the percussive emphasis often lands between beats. This is classically called syncopation. In breakbeats, the snare/clap plays a more prominent role since it often occurs without a simultaneous kick. Breakbeats range from a simple variant on the four-to-the-floor with some of the kicks moved or removed, to very complicated rhythms with many kick and snare hits appearing in a single bar. Breakbeat rhythms often extend beyond a single bar before looping.
It’s less simple to build melodies and basslines upon breakbeats than four-to-the-floor rhythms, but breakbeats tend to go for longer before getting boring.
See also: Breakbeat
At the far end of the breakbeat idea is breakcore, wherein the notion of a repeating rhythm has been discarded altogether and percussive emphasis becomes irregular and unpredictable. While often more attention-grabbing than either simple four-to-the-floor or breakbeat rhythms, breakcore is very difficult to make and very difficult to build upon.
There are two main ways to use a bassline: as a dominant feature of the track, or as a background support.
2.1 Bass as a Dominant Feature
In certain styles of music, such as electro-house, dubstep, or some kinds of drum and bass, the bassline is the main attraction, so you want to make sure it stands out.
Because of the way that harmonics work, it’s harder to make good-sounding chords with bass notes, and so one usually doesn’t rely on the bassline to carry a complex melodic structure. As a result, composition with regards to the bassline usually focuses on rhythm. But remember that your percussion is also providing a rhythm for the track, so if you don’t want your bassline to get lost in your percussion then you’ll need to create a new rhythm for the bassline. Ideally, your bassline rhythm and your percussive rhythm should complement each other, doing different but related things. Don’t make it too simple or the listener will get bored, but don’t make it so complicated that the relationship is lost.
2.2 Bass as a Supporting Feature
If your bass is not supposed to drag the listener’s attention to itself, then you’ll want to make it quieter and less intrusive. This does not mean that you can be lazy about it; the support of the track is just as important as the hooks and the melodies. If you’re working with a four-to-the-floor percussion rhythm, it’s easy to just put a bass note on the off-beats, so that you alternate kick-bass-kick-bass etc. This is easy but can get boring. Beats can be easily divided into sets of four sixteenth-notes, and each of those provides a place to put a short bass note. Hence you can make interesting bass rhythms while still avoiding the kicks. The bassline will stand out a bit more, but it won’t be dull if the listener’s attention happens to wander across it.
Even after making a melody, a drumline and a bassline, your track will probably still sound fairly sparse compared to the music you listen to. This is because you’re missing the background elements, tiny, thin, barely audible sounds that make your track feel fuller and control the overall tone. Background elements can provide room for variation even when the melody, bassline and percussion are locked into a loop.
Things in the background don’t need to have full, developed melodies, nor do they need to be present at all times. Just snippets here and there will be enough to let the listener know that there are things going on and provide an ambiance and atmosphere for the things happening in the foreground.
Background pads are often lush and complex, using a lot of LFOs and varying quickly parameters. Usually they vaguely follow the melody but the notes often last half or whole bars, allowing for textural development.
Similarly, you can use sounds with lots of reverb and decay like they were pads, since the echoes draw out the length of the sound.
3.2 Staccato Melodies
Basically the opposite of pads, short rapid notes don’t allow for textural development but do provide more room for secondary and tertiary melodies. Again you don’t want them to wander too far from the main melody or else they’ll stand out too much, but because the notes are short, often sixteenths or even shorter, they fill space without holding the attention.
3.3 Percussive background
In addition to whatever your kick and snare are doing, you could also have a soft shaker or hi-hat rhythm going, again very softly, to fill the space in the percussion just as the pads and staccato melodies fill up the melodic and textural space.
So far, everything has been fairly uniform, fairly even in terms of things happening. Your melody is going all the time, your bassline is doing stuff all the time, your drums are doing things all the time, etc. But you don’t want absolutely everything to be uniform, or else your loop will sound flat no matter how cool each piece sounds. You need things to pop out every once in a while. These can be percussive elements that you didn’t use before, like a rimshot on an offbeat, or a trill from an instrument that isn’t used for anything else. You can also use samples, like vocal snippets from movies or speeches, or sounds culled from real life, or short bits from other pieces of music.
Be careful, though; you don’t want to break up any momentum that you have going, so punctuation should be both subtle and regular, say, once every two bars, and only slightly more prominent than your background material. Try to keep the bits short or else they’ll start becoming the focus rather than simple nuances.
5 Quantization and Swing
If you’re creating melodies and rhythms by playing a MIDI keyboard or even plopping down notes in a piano roll, it’s easy to miss your timing. Humans are generally mediocre at keeping steady rhythms without prompts. But we are very good at noticing when you screw up. If your rhythm doesn’t match the beat, the listener will notice and think it sloppy.
The trick here is to quantize; you tell the program to only allow you to put down notes exactly on beat, or on half beats, or quarter beats, or however closely you want to quantize, and whenever you put down a note, either via midi controller or directly into a piano roll, the program will drag each note to the nearest beat/half-beat/etc. This will prevent you from sounding sloppy and lazy.
For genres such as house or breaks, however, you often don’t want your music to sound too mechanical, too precise. The common way around this is to use swing, where the exact placement, volume and accent of your rhythmic elements are varied slightly from uniform. Instead of a hi-hat every sixteenth note, you might make every other hi-hat just a little bit late and a little bit quieter, or you might make your snares just a little bit early or late.
You need to balance the timing so that it doesn’t sound like a metronome, but doesn’t sound like a mess. For swing, the variations should be just barely noticeable, so that the listener can’t say for certain that the timing isn’t exactly on beat. You can do this either by setting the quantization timing to be really precise (maybe 1/32 notes) and then adjusting everything by hand, or you could play it live without quantization, but if you choose the latter, again be careful that your timing isn’t completely all over the place.