Music Production Lessons: Top 5 Elements in a Tech House Track
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
by Reiss Armstrong
Define “Tech House”.
The best of techno and house music crafted together to make a new sub-genre. Invented in the 90s and really beginning to surge in the 2000s, this sub-genre takes the groove and melody from house music to combine it with the steely percussion and gritty basslines usually associated with techno. Coming to fruition through the likes of Joris Voorn and Carl Cox, tech house is now one of the most popular styles of electronic music around. The modern resurgence has been clear, with the likes of FISHER, Solardo, Patrick Topping and Michael Bibi becoming household names. Record labels such as Dirtybird, Toolroom and SOLA have had some of the biggest releases that have pushed this style further into the spotlight in recent times.
There is a clear and distinct difference in the sound of tech house when compared to your typical house music and typical techno style. Take techno for example; the tempo is generally faster, with far bigger, booming kick sounds, while the percussion is more minimal with the focus being predominantly on the low end. Then take house music. This takes usually a more melodic approach with instruments like a piano being a common feature. There is often a vocalist on house records too, and it definitely can have an 80s influence in how it sounds. Compare this to the tech house style and you will definitely hear the differences. The groove element of a tech house track is without a doubt a stand out feature. The percussion in a tech house track is more of a focus than that of house and techno. This is a very general statement as it is not always the case, but we will now discuss exactly what 5 key elements make a tech house track.
Big Bassline Hook
The bassline in any tech house track is one of the most prominent elements. When in a nightclub, that big bassline keeps the dancefloor moving. So you want that hook to be catchy and grooving from start to finish. Keeping the range of notes in bassline close is key. You don’t want your bassline to be really spaced apart in terms of notes on the piano roll. Keeping it from root note up to as high as the 5th of the key in that one octave is usually going to keep it sounding deep. A good tip here would be to study the basslines of tracks that you like; try and see if you can play them, and see how little they actually move around the keyboard.
You also have to think about the sound. The sample. The plug-in. There’s no strict way to do this. But using something like Ableton’s Operator instrument and playing about with that can create some really good tech house basslines. Sine wave bass shapes are effective sounds, and often a sine wave and triangle wave layer work well together. You don’t want polyphony in your bassline, so make sure you set the voices to one. Ensuring there is only one voice playing keeps your bassline stays clean.
If you can get that low end of your bass to fit nicely with the kick drum, using side-chaining if necessary, then your bass will sound good. Using processing such as saturation is going to warm up the bass. Getting that warm and full bass sound is a definite must in a tech house track. Keeping your bass in mono will also make a difference, which is important as subwoofers and sound systems in clubs generally produce sound in mono. Also, there could be potential phase problems if the bass isn’t in mono, so this will help to eliminate those. The bassline has a lot of energy and would take up a lot of space in the mix otherwise.
You’re in the queue waiting to enter. Everyone knows the sound. The anticipation of entering the club and hearing that muffled kick drum outside. The importance of having that powerful, punchy kick drum cannot be understated. Not just so you can hear the kick outside the club, but so that it punches you in the face inside the club too.
The sample or instrument you choose for the kick must be clean and have a powerful low end. Tech house kicks are naturally powerful. Soft kicks are usually not always the best choice on their own. It is possible to layer kicks on top of each other, and sometimes choosing two kick drums is a good choice. One would provide the powerful low end with the other creating a good punch above it. Ensuring that these two kicks are in key with your tracks helps it sit better in the mix.
Processing here is important too. Keeping your kick in mono, just like your bass, is vital. EQing the kick drum to create a nice punch at the front of the sample is necessary. Usually, this is around 1kHz but will vary depending on the sample. Cutting below 40Hz will clean it up too. Then you may wish to use something like multiband processing to boost certain parts of your kick too.
Percussion (Clap, Open Hat / Ride)
A crisp, loud clap and the open hi-hat are two key percussion elements in tech house. Let’s focus on the clap first. The volume of the claps should be balanced against your kick drum. The clap shouldn’t overpower the other elements, but it has to be prominent. You want both to really punch through in your track. Again, the samples here are important. The stock 707, 808, and 909 clap samples are definitely a good starting place and are classic sounds used throughout house music. These can be layered together with other clap samples to good effect. Ensuring your claps have a nice reverb and are placed in the correct place in the stereo image in your track is essential.
Next, we’ll talk about an open hi-hat sound. There’s no tech house track complete without it. The iconic off-beat open hi-hat sound is an essential feature. Getting that real open hi-hat sound really helps here. Sometimes getting actual authentic hi-hat sounds can really transform the track. These can be readily found in sample packs. Play about with the release on the sample to change the length of it. A little reverb on it will make it wider, then ensure it’s in the correct place within the mix. Even using a little bit of overdrive/distortion will brighten up your hats and make them sound crisper in the mix. It will sometimes even sound like a ride cymbal and open hi-hat layer that is going on in the track. The tail on a ride cymbal layered with that open hi-hat sits well in this genre.
So much music nowadays is produced on laptops and computers. It can sound fairly robotic unless you use swing. The swing and shuffle rhythms are used throughout tech house tunes. This gives the track a more realistic and human feel to it as if it were the artist actually playing the drums. This swing is useful when using MIDI to write in your elements. Setting the swing to 16-15 or 16-45 usually feels about right for the tech house style, but there are other ways to do it. For example, you want your hi-hat rhythm to be swung. You want the hi-hats on the off beat to be exact, but there’s no harm throwing in a swung hi-hat at the end of every two to four bars. This can be done simply by drawing in the hi-hat in your MIDI clip and playing about with where it is in the grid to achieve different swing feels.
The other instrument where this can be done effectively is with your kick drum. Yes, you need it to be pounding that four to the floor feel throughout the track. Have you ever tried creating a swing feel with your kick drum? This could be used as a drum fill and is a really effective way to change up things in your track. Even using a drum tom to create a rolling groove under your kick drum is another idea. It creates a similar effect just to keep the feel of the swing and groove there throughout the tune. Anything to keep that groove and take away the robotic programming feel will fit into the track.
This is another important feature to take your tracks away from that robotic and repetitive feel. Once the bassline hook and melody has been established in the track, it’s key to just keep the track alive by using drum fills. As mentioned before, use the kick drum to switch things up. It would be best to use this at the start of an 8 bar phrase. Doubling up the kick drum on the first beat of the 8 bar phrase, for example, is a common one.
Other ways this can be done could simply be like changing the rhythm of the calp, using delay on the drums or even using
crash cymbals at the end of an 8 bar phrase.
There are sample drum fills that could be used, but that means the drum fill doesn’t use sounds that are already in your track. Look to create your own drum fills using the sounds that are already there to ensure that everything sounds coherent. Playing around with the MIDI rhythms written in your loops is necessary to keep the track grooving. Listening to other tech house tracks will certainly give you inspiration for the kind of fills typical to the genre.
Will you be implementing any of these tips in your next productions? Which genre(s) would you like to see us cover next in our Top 5 Elements series? Let us know on social media!