Go step-by-step on how to make house music. From programming drums and bass to writing melodies and adding effects, this is your ultimate guide to house music production.
It was the demise of disco in the late 1970s that led to the formation of the house music genre, pioneered by seminal DJs such as Larry Levan, Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles who began to formulate a new, post-disco experience blending disco classics with rock, pop, soul, funk and rap music. With its warm, emotive, and sophisticated take on disco, Chicago house was born during the mid-late ‘80s, and throughout this period, DJs were highly influenced by the affordability of mass-produced electronic instruments enabling them to try their hand at music production.
If you’re reading this, you may too be interested in learning how to make your own house music. By following this guide, we hope to provide you with some basic tips, no matter what DAW or studio tools you use.
Step one — use a reference track
Every beginner has to start somewhere, so if you want to learn how to make house music, it’s a good idea to start with a reference track. Reference tracks are used by producers at all stages of their careers as a method to ensure that their mixes compare to those that are commercially successful. They’re not designed to stifle your creativity or force you into a particular direction, but to help you attune your ears to how a track is progressing or find out whether it will translate well on different playback systems.
Put simply, there’s so much to learn from analyzing how your favorite house producers make their music. Mimicking their techniques will not only give you a solid understanding of some of the fundamentals of music production, but provide invaluable insight into how to create and structure a track. The first stop is to simply pick the final version of a track that you think’s amazing or want to emulate and drop it into your preferred DAW. Once the track is level-matched with your own, you can begin to examine how your attempts to make music compare.
When it comes to recording sounds, whether sample or instrument-based, the use of an audio interface will allow you to connect a range of equipment while offering a higher level of audio quality than your onboard computer soundcard can manage. Look no further than Komplete Audio Interfaces, which offer a range of tools for high-definition recording with ultra-low latency and flexible connectivity.
Step two — the drum pattern
As with most genres of electronic dance music, drums are a staple element of house music, carrying the beat, rhythm and energy of the track. House music drum patterns are traditionally based on two main components, the drum rhythm and track tempo. Operating within the 120-130 BPM tempo range, house music typically utilizes a 4/4 beat structure with a heavy kick drum and a clap on the two and the four beat. It’s the kick/clap drum pattern that gives house music its unique rhythm; indeed, kick, snares and claps define the rhythmic core of most drum tracks. On top of these, you can incorporate additional percussive sounds such as hi-hats, snares, toms and rides.
When thinking about how to make a house beat, there are certain electronic music tools that have become staples of the house music sound. In 1983, Roland’s TR-909 Rhythm Composer was the foundation for many a house music drum pattern, particularly when producers discovered it had the ability to add a sound every 1/16 note over a 1 bar pattern. Even in modern house production, where thousands of drum samples are available at the click of a mouse, many of them resemble or are based on those original 909 sounds and patterns. Employing those classic sounds will immediately add credibility to your house music productions.
Most producers nowadays learn how to make a house beat by using a computer and a software drum sampler like Battery 4, but you may also want to consider Revolution — a Native Instruments Kontakt 6 drum machine plug-in that promises to faithfully capture and reproduce 14 of the greatest classic drum machines.
Step three — adding bass
Basslines and rhythm are synonymous with house music and can contribute to the groove of the track just as much as the drums. When you think of iconic house tracks like Donna Summer’s I Feel Love or Alan Braxe & Fred Falke’s Intro, it’s clear that house music is capable of boasting some of the best basslines in dance music history.
There are many ways to implement bass into your track — you can use a simple ‘on the beat’ bassline or add syncopated basslines that move up and down the scales to provide a heightened sense of rhythmic emphasis. Generally speaking, you’ll want to ensure that the kick and the bass leave space for each other. This can be partly achieved by learning production techniques such as sidechaining, which allows the bass to duck out when the kick comes to the fore.
Once you’ve decided how much prominence you want to give to your basslines, you can decide upon your choice of bass sounds. Native Instruments synths like Monark and Massive already allow you to choose or create a wide range of mono bass tones. Alternatively, MASCHINE features a built-in virtual instrument called Bass Synth, which acts as a great starting point for beginners.
Step four — chords, melodies & vocals
While drums and bass are considered the most crucial elements of a house music track, chords, melodies, and vocals will give it soul and character. This is where sampling is likely to play a major role in your production process. Whether you want to learn how to make a deep house, progressive house or tech house track, you’ll soon realize the importance of sampling and how it plays a pivotal role in track creation.
In the early days of house, chords were usually sampled from other forms of music, notably soul, funk and jazz records, using snippets of vocals, piano stabs or synth leads for the track’s main hook. Bear in mind, however, that you’ll need to use high-quality samples, so you can achieve the best possible sound quality when the time comes to mix your track.
House music producers have a history of using sample packs full of groovy synths and vocals. By using these samples, you can come up with your own melodies or combine them with your preferred instruments to structure your tracks. Loaded with synth presets, drum kits, one-shots, samples and loops, Native Instruments’ Expansions offers a great techno/house sample pack that can be used in any DAW.
Step five — adding effects
Effects are a crucial aspect to any house track, especially as their arrangements are often lauded for their sense of simplicity. This leaves room for effects to have a noticeable impact when used effectively. House music in particular is known for its use of riser (or sweep) effects, which basically represent a sound that rises in pitch over time. This effect enables the music to continuously increase in energy, adding a sense of intensity and drama to the sound.
Other effects include the downlifter, which signifies the end of tension being built in a track, or crash/impact effects that are represented by a one-shot sound indicating a change or addition in energy. You will often hear this effect coming in prior to the start of a ‘drop’ on a house track, where momentum is built before an impact effect provokes a drastic change in the beat and rhythm.
Of course, there are many other types of creative effects that can be used to add texture or movement to your track. If you want to add character to your sounds, Native Instruments’ Crush Pack Effects Series comprises three expansive plugins: Dirt, Bite and Freak. Together, they’ll provide you with enough tonal destruction to transform any signal.
Step six — the arrangement
You may already know how to make a house music track, but be unsure about how to approach the arrangement. House music has been around for over 40 years, during which many subgenres have been born, each possessing their own sense of uniqueness. Whether you want to learn how to make a deep house, progressive house or tech house track, you might first want to decide how you will approach the aesthetic arrangement. Think about the big picture and then decide how you want your track to be arranged section by section. Once you have a vision and structure in place, you can start getting more creative.
There are no set rules of course, but generally speaking house music has a rigid feel that can be relaxed when it comes to certain aspects of the arrangement. The most interesting tracks both fit the template, yet break the rules at the same time. The basic song flow for a house track could look something like this: intro – verse 1 – build 1 – drop 1 – break – verse 2 – build 2 – drop 2 – outro.
In terms of track length, you can opt for the typical three-to-four minute ‘pop song’ structure or be more ambitious and take the listener on a journey more in common with the progressive house genre. This thoughtful style of music is credited for leading house away from the mainstream by combining its typical four-on-the-floor rhythmic patterns with relatively lengthy, repetitive buildups and vocals.
Another important element to consider is whether you want your track to be suitable for playing in a DJ or club environment. If that’s the case, you need to decide whether to include a track intro or outro, as this is likely to restrict where your track is played. For tracks that are designed to be streaming-friendly, it’s probably best not to have an intro/outro, or you can simply edit your master track and create multiple versions to be played in a number of different environments.
Step seven — mixing & mastering
Whether your goal is to have your track played at a big club or festival and/or available as a physical or digital release, mixing and mastering is a crucial step towards achieving this. To help, you may want to invest in a pair of high quality studio monitors or headphones. Producers, typically, build their house tracks using monitors that deliver a flat sound. If you can get the bass, drums and all of the other elements sounding perfect in that environment, there’s a good chance they’ll also sound great on speakers at a club or festival.
You’ll want to achieve as clean a mix as possible. This means the kick and basslines should not clash and the track shouldn’t be so loud that it starts clipping. The best way to achieve that is to balance the volume using individual faders, so you have control over every element. Monitoring your track volume is crucial because it’s difficult trying to rescue a poorly balanced mix using production techniques such as EQ and compression later on in the process.
Once your mix is well-balanced, you can EQ elements of the mix to perfection and use compression to even out the audio, especially if your sounds derive from a variety of audio sources. Unless you’re highly skilled, it’s always best to leave space for a mastering engineer to weave their magic. They won’t thank you for giving them too much work to do trying to rectify any mistakes you’ve made during the mixing process!
Step eight — get some feedback
Once your track is complete, it’s always a good idea to have someone that you trust listen to it and provide some honest feedback. You’ll be amazed at how simply playing your track to another person is all you need in order to heighten your senses and analyze it objectively. If you want to excel in music production, you always need to be open to constructive criticism. Not only will it allow you to refine your music, but it will improve your skills as a producer too.