1. All white
White noise is a tech-house and techno staple; whether it’s used for sweeps in builds and breakdowns, or as pumping ambience in the depths of the mix, it’s a versatile source of atmospherics. An effective pulsing noise loop is achieved using a sustained note on a synth driving a white noise generator side-chained against the kick. Add in a high-pass filter and increase the resonance slightly to sharpen the sound.
Get creative by burying noise loops, found-sound beds and dusty layers deep in the mix – it’s a great way to add an almost subconscious level of depth and detail that gently glues groups of sounds (or the full mix) together. Try adding a gate effect and automating the wet value to create tense builds or simply make the mix breathe with life. Automating the white noise filter cutoff value can be used for obvious effects in builds or to introduce subtle change over time.
2. The dark with the light
Techno in its earliest guise was a raw, industrial-inspired genre; introducing some grit and dirt to a production is a surefire way to get the classic techno aesthetic. When it comes to the drums, try keeping some of the key beat elements (snare, hats, claps, kick for example) clean and polished while applying a healthy dose of distortion, extreme filtering and general filth to percussive hits for a sonically interesting contrast. Play around with combinations of clean and dirty elements until you find something that feels right. When applying overdrive or distortion aim for warmer sounds – tape saturated overdrive, or distortion provided by amp and speaker emulators for example – for a more organic sound.
3. Creative stabs
Vocal snippets, synth stabs and FX impacts are three sources that can be used to create killer techno stabs that penetrate the mix: just get busy with the sample editor to find the part of the sound that works best. Use filters, EQs, reverbs and delays to shape interesting sampler-ready stabs. Experiment with delay times: it’s all too easy to dial in a crotchet or triplet: pushing the value slightly off the tempo grid can bring an uneasy, wonky groove to the mix that can work particularly well during breakdowns.
4. Carve out space
Techno is a genre that demands hard work from every sound, and to enable each element in the arrangement to work, each should have its own sonic space. The problem is that inevitably, many sounds – particularly in the rhythm section – will share common frequencies, making it hard to avoid phase drifting or the doubling of frequencies (and the subsequent clouding of the mix).
One remedy is volume ducking. The most well-known incarnation of this technique is side-chain compression, but there are other options that open other creative avenues. You might try using an LFO or envelope generator to automate the volume instead, for example. Another option is filter automation, which allows you to carve out the frequencies of your choice at any given time.
5. Rhythmical decay
Keep percussion interesting by adjusting the ADSR decay value in select samples throughout the track. If you’re using a virtual drum machine plug-in simply automate the decay value over time to keep the ear engaged.
A common trick is to automate the decay of a closed hi-hat to ‘open out’ a synthetic hi-hat to raise tension as the track approaches a build.
6. On the bus
Before getting down to the business of writing your track, take some time to optimise the project by creating mix buses for groups of elements. A suggested starting point for a techno track would be to send all drum elements to one bus (either with or without the kick), the bassline and kick to another, melodics to a third, and any vocals or FX to their own respective buses.
This allows you to treat complimentary elements with the same inserts before sending them to the master channel, effectively ‘gluing’ them together in preparation for the final mixdown. Not only does this save time when tweaking levels, it also saves on valuable CPU as you avoid overloading your arrangement with multiple inserts on each channel.
Try routing a send from the bus to a second ‘parallel’ bus and then add a compressor to squash all life from this parallel track. Mix this parallel compression track into the mix low to add bulk and weight.
If you’re looking for inspirational sounds for your techno production head to SM’s techno genre page.