Learn How to Arrange a Great EDM Track with the Disco Fries
By Nick Ditri of The Disco Fries • July 18, 2014
A memorable melody, unique sound and identifiable groove are intrinsic to all great songs. From Louis Armstrong's never-before-heard raspy vocal take on "What a Wonderful World" to Pink Floyd's clever use of 7/8 time on the record "Money," Dr. Dre's sample-happy Chronic album, which cemented G-Funk as a hip-hop sub-genre, and more recently Martin Garrix’s "Animals," a largely lyric-less track that went to #1 on Beatport before haunting top 40 radio worldwide...who ever said pop music was watered down? Yes, these songs all fall into very specific genres. But above all, they became massive, crossover popular records by way of precision composition, happy accidents, or more likely a bit of both. All of these and countless others push the boundaries of our currently trending soundscape, but it's all within reason, never straying too far from what's familiar and comfortable for the average person to listen to.
Why did "Wake Me Up" by Avicii become one of the biggest records of the past decade? It's essentially a Hank Williams record with a deeper kick and little extra pizazz with that lead synth in the hook. If Hank had access to a Moog, the world would've been a different place. Ultimately, though, what does this all have to do with EDM songwriting, and making music for everyone from teenage kids to adults in their forties to wave flags, frolic and rave at massive festivals throughout the world to? For us, the Disco Fries, there's been a fairly simple idea that's tied it all together. Take something familiar, keep the core of it intact, and screw up the rest. This goes for sound sets, melodies and everything in between. With that said, there is a constant and supreme being which shalt always be touched with caution – the arrangement.
In electronic dance music – and we’re speaking specifically about the kind that has pop appeal, not the deep house Ibiza vibe – we're working mostly in sets of four or eight bar chunks and keeping the total arrangement under five minutes. This typically includes at least 16 bars of drums at the top and end, for beat matching the track in and out of DJ sets. Obviously when it comes to a radio edit, having a full track that's under five minutes rather than a nine-minute sonic journey makes editing the core of the song down a heck of a lot easier.
For example, in our new single "The Light," we kept our first verse short and to the point. With a 16-bar verse and an eight-bar build, you’re into the 16-bar chorus within the first minute of the song. Similar to the arrangement of Calvin Harris’s single "Sweet Nothing," we’re back into a 16-bar verse followed by a 16-bar breakdown and build up to the final hook. Since we all unfortunately now live in a world where the bridge on a record has been either totally eliminated or made into some sort of mangled eight-bar, post-second-hook breakdown, we decided to keep the record concise and do without a bridge.
If writing bridges is not your strong suit and you feel the record is more to the point without one, act accordingly. For those of you who are confident in your songwriting, we urge you to at least try to work in a set of new chord changes for the bridge section before dismantling the section altogether. Most of the strongest pop records in history, including almost every record that Max Martin has touched, have had amazing bridges. Again…not a must, but if you can pull it off, we’ll personally buy you a steak.
Back to that whole idea of a memorable melody and unique sound…like including a Funkadelic-esque guitar lick or the Lyn Collins "Think (About It)" drum groove, but tweaking it a bit so it's modernistic yet traditional at its core. How about taking a one second vocal chop, playing a melody with it, layering it using a synth such as u-he’s Diva, and programming it during the chorus or drop of your track to resonate like the synths on Van Halen’s "Jump?" Now I'm really curious how that would sound. Most importantly, take your track the distance with a melody that you can't get out of your head for the next three weeks.
Remember - you’re not writing a novel here. Your song is conveying a message to people who largely have little to no attention span, so you have a very short window to make an impression. This isn't a pass to use your entire toolbox and go balls-to-the-wall with beat breaks and gunshot sound effects. Keep it simple and use your trickery sparingly throughout the track so it stands out as something special.
As a result of applying these songwriting philosophies, doors have opened in the production space that we could have never imagined. In 2013, Tiësto approached us to work on his new album A Town Called Paradise. We were lucky enough to co-produce his single "Wasted" featuring Matthew Koma, as well as co-write and produce the song "Shimmer" featuring Christian Burns. Now, with our own EP in production, we’ve been in the studio working on new tracks with Nick Hexum of 311, Breathe Carolina, and a slew of other incredible top liners and vocalists.
Honing your prowess as a strong songwriter at events such as ASCAP’s "I Create Music" EXPO, while advancing your skills as a sound designer through online tutorials such as FutureMusic, will prove fruitful in the EDM space and beyond as it has for us.
Above all, remember that the brilliance of pop records is their simplicity. And that will never go out of style.
The Disco Fries are an American production duo, consisting of Nick Ditri and Danny Boselovic. Their single "The Light" was released on July 14th, 2014.
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