Blog: The Edge of Dance Music
The following blog documents the developement of Gabriele Ciotola’s Bachelor project titled ‘The Edge of Dance Music’ with the support of Catalyst Berlin and tutor Benjamin Bacon.
This blog is part of my Bachelor project at Catalyst Berlin, titled The Edge of Dance Music. The core idea of this project is to explore different degrees of experimentation in underground dance music in order to find uncharted or unexplored grounds, and question their relationship with movement and personal engagement. Through this process I hope to develop my artistic practices, and be stimulated to find new inspiration as a music producer and composer. I aim to give myself the luxury of not thinking too much about the end result, and let myself be carried away by the process and the research, which is something that in dance music I feel doesn’t happen too often: the functionality that is associated with this kind of music and the mainstream success that the industry has had in the last decade keeps pushing artists and producers forward to the next release and the next mix, often repeating and over-using the elements that made dance music in the first place, elements that could really use some innovation and new variety.
Personally, as a musician, I feel that for the past 8 years, I’ve been simply following what my taste and my influences were giving me. I’ve been producing the things that I somehow considered interesting or cool, which anyone would actually consider completely normal. At some point last year though, I realized that if i want to really say something with my music, I have to stop copying and putting to good use the experience I accumulated up to this point. To do so, I need to slow down and really take the time to find my niche. What I know is that, as anyone could probably tell, I’m in love with dance music, its sound, its scene, its social dynamics and culture. Dance music is one of the few arts in which the relationship between the performer and the public is so tight and vital to the art itself. The only thing I can think of, that can compare to it, is maybe stand-up comedy. So here I go, trying to understand all of this, and hopefully make some interesting music in the process.
Most of my project consists in producing music. As straightforward as it sounds this is in fact what I will be doing. Most of the development and interesting twists and turns will happen in the decisions I make before and while producing. This might seem a bit cerebral, but I can’t stress enough how important the mindset and the thoughts that go into a track or a sketch are for me. As producers we talk a lot about gear, synths, secret techniques, but sometimes we forget to pay attention to the source of everything, to our ideas, and creative decisions. We often just put on the autopilot and make music as it comes, which to me (and I’m sure not to everyone) also means falling into habits, cliches and ultimately mediocrity.
I plan on selecting 10 different tracks from all my writing sessions. They will probably not be full length tracks, just because what I’m trying to achieve is not really getting a track ready for release and being played by DJ’s, but more finding new recipes and tastes, through a range that goes from my comfort zone to what’s unthinkable to me. I want to hear new formulas, new sound associations, new rhythms and a love for detail. Some will work, some will not, but it will feel like going somewhere and actually paying attention to the journey.
In order to do put together these 10 tracks I’ve decided to come up with a concept for each of them. That concept can be extremely limiting, or just a hint, but it will help me find new ways of thinking about my process, and also avoid staring at a blank space grumbling: “innovate dance music… new dance music… come on think…’’ which wouldn’t be ideal. It’s also important to try one hint or limitation at a time, in order to properly be able to hear it in the result, and better understand it. This is to lay the foundation for further experimentation in the future.
The challenge that interests me most, is trying to create engaging music while making it different and, to a degree, experimental. My idea of art, in some sense, is exactly that: being able to be unique, outstanding, unexpected, while still managing to make something engaging, beautiful and at times universal, that doesn’t need explanation to communicate something.
To widen my knowledge and understanding of the music i will be making, and to get external feedback on the ideas and techniques I’ll be using, I have the opportunity to do a workshop with my class, in which not only I will discuss my ideas and projects with people who have dealt with the topic in their own practice, but will also try to put to practice with them some of the concepts and production ideas that I want to use in this project.
Dance music right now is in a very difficult situation due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, and it will probably stay so for a while. Another reason why this project is significant for me, is that this seems like the perfect time to take a break from the relentless stream of releases, mixes and new names, and try to see an alternative, that may be too extreme for most people, but might add something, or might show me a bit of a spark to see new life and hope in the genre. For more than a year I’ve been making dance music, while nobody on the planet is dancing. In some way, this is my response to that, or my defense to it.
For this piece, my decision was to mainly use feedback as a sound-design tool. This is something that I’ve been fascinated with since Catalyst tutors Charlie Baldwin and Chris Jarman taught us how to use it and showed us the potential of it. I’ve always found their music to be very unique, so this was a great place to start. Of course it was liberating to not worry too much about this or that genre, and just spend hours creating feedback loops, modifying them and picking the best moments for the track.
How feedback-based sound design works in Ableton is quite simple. I created a send channel that is wired to be sent to itself, and with an audio device that creates feedback such as a delay, I’m able to process to infinity any sound I decide to send to that channel. Together with the delay I’m then able to add any kind of effect and automation I like, which gives me different and ever-changing results. After a few hours of trying new things and recording, finding ways to actually use what I obtained took some patience and time. As previously said, the compelling challenge for me, is to try and still make it work as a dance music piece, while discovering new ground for myself as a composer.
The rhythmic section was made using the same delay I used in the feedback track, this time on a drum break, accompanied by a heavily processed 909 kick. I wanted to avoid a straight 4 on 4 kick, simply because it is so deeply associated with House and Techno, and I find that there’s so many other possibilities that are definitely worth trying, especially in this scope.
I also have a big fascination with distortion, that shows up in most of the tracks I produced for this project. I find it to be sort of a new frontier for sound, and in this track there’s no exception. Feedback itself is already a form of distortion, and I wanted to match the rhythmic elements to it, hence the saturation and overdrive on the drums.
In the result I feel a strong groove and I believe it could definitely work as a dance music track. The sound design turned out to work out nicely with the mood I was going for, and was an eye opener for my development as a producer. It’s definitely something I will keep doing.
This is a track where I had a very specific rule, and had to work around it to make the piece work. As a lot of people can probably already tell, this one does not follow a 4/4 time signature, but rather a 3/4, which for a dance music track is almost heresy.
When I tried to create a ‘normal’ sounding drum beat, the impression you would get from it was that the beat would constantly get interrupted. With dance music we’re so used to the 4 beats that it’s just very hard to listen to something different and not see it as just an experiment. The best way for me to get this to work was using a drum loop that would push the beat forward and blur the lines between the beginning and the end of the bar. I managed to edit together a drum break complicated enough to be hard to follow. The goal was that at that point, the listener would stop trying to guess where the bar and the loop were starting and just take the groove as it comes.
The bass-line was quite hard to put together because usually, like the drums, that’s the one that a listener uses to follow the bars and try to predict what’s going to happen. Keeping it simple was my best option. At first glance it almost seems like it’s just a polyrhythmic track, but after a while it settles in, that it’s not moving in respect to the drum loop. To give final confirmation that we are listening in fact to a 3/4 dance track: the chords. They clearly evolve together with everything else and last 6 beats each. My idea is that when they come in, the listener’s mind has just accepted that this is the beat we’re following, and hopefully also got used to it.
During my workshop a couple of the people I submitted this track to, found the groove to be working very well, and of course, I was glad to hear that. I think the ‘house’ aesthetic in this one is a little too strong, but I’m very glad that it became something danceable and solid. I’m not sure that’s something I’ll be trying again, but playing with time signatures and rhythm is definitely something I want to do, and this was a good start.
This one is a little weird, and because of that, it was also one of the most interesting to make. Dance music is of course dominated by drums and beats, so the idea I had for this one, was to try and create something without these things. As much as it may seem like a non-sense idea, it pushed me to investigate sound-design in ways I never had.
The big challenge of course was how to create a pulse without having drums. No snare, no hats, no toms, and of course no kick. My answer to that, was creating a synth sound with a short attack and decay to create some sort of impact. The idea was of course to avoid re-creating the drum sounds we’re used to, otherwise this would have turned into a year-1 sound design exercise. Once I had that, the idea that stimulated me the most, was to not really explicitly give out the pulsation, but to imply it. To basically count on the listeners to have known enough music that they understand where the pulse would go based on how the sound moves around it: the main ‘’wavy’’ sound of the track sounds like a synth that would easily go with a techno track, but of course the kick is missing. Its effectiveness though was very hard to test, as I myself wrote it that way, and it was too clear to me what it wanted to achieve. During the workshop, it seemed that only a few people actually experienced the thing I was hoping to provoke. Still, this idea that a listener, and a dancer, can in fact imagine things that are not explicit in a track but that are in a way suggested, is fascinating to me.
To achieve this wavy sound in the main lead, I used Xfer’s Serum, which gave me the possibility to easily wire envelopes and LFO’s to get the sound to change shape during the track, while still keeping a clear rhythm. The bass that enters in the main part is an attempt to suggest, after a good amount of time, for whoever hasn’t gotten it yet, where the beat lays, and of course to add some low-end energy that the track desperately needs without the drums.
This piece was made using mostly field-recordings. A bit by accident it also became rhythmically interesting, simply because I wanted the texture of the field recordings to have space to play, so I made a very wide and minimalistic drum pattern that leaves many beats free for the recordings to create the groove.
The main sounds I used are recordings made by me of a jackhammer, the echo of a Berlin U-Bahn leaving the station, a vending machine, the railing of my balcony, a 3D printer and the Bell Tower of my hometown in Switzerland. Most of these recordings have been heavily processed. Pitched down, cut, edited, distorted and put through reverbs and delays. One of the most useful techniques I used was using one of Ableton’s warping algorithms called ‘Beats’ and set it to focus on a specified time division such as 1/16 or 1/32. What that creates is a constant percussive sound, that’s made of the texture or the field recording. That means that a long evolving field recording can easily become a weird hi-hat pattern or my jackhammer sample can end up sounding like a distorted snare break.
The sounds that were not coming from the field recordings were put there to support the groove created. The rhythm I chose to use reminds me a bit of some weird dubstep track, and the bass hit sounds like it’s straight from a Jungle tune.
Weirdly enough, this was the track that during the workshop was most appreciated. I think the fact that the main sounds clearly do not come from a synthesizer and are so weird and fluid, is definitely pleasing to the ear. Even though the rhythm is not tight and obvious, the conversation with the bass makes it work nicely, and the tension and release created by them results engaging. In this case, less is more. A good sound source, put in the right context can do a lot more work than a thousand things that might not have the space to breath. That is in fact the biggest thing I gathered from this one.
This is the first track in which I decided to really explore a tempo that has very little to do with most of the dance music I’ve been listening to in the past years. Also, opposed to the previous one, I wanted to explore synth based sound design properly. I decided to use a recording of a Eurorack modular jam made by me in a separate session to gather sounds and inspiration.
The tempo is very fast. Although the track is in fact in 4/4, the main drum pattern doesn’t really articulate a clear beat, but after a while, longer patterns become clear and everything comes easier to follow. I avoided using a strong and punchy kick, to get the drums to flow better and let the ambiguity of the rhythm push the listener into a dreamy pulsation.
This is also the first track in which I started using glitches and high-pitched one-time events. Although they may seem like a simple embellishment, they do a lot of heavy lifting in keeping the loop interesting and non-repetitive. Finally the pads are from a Juno synth I had the chance of recording from a good friend in Berlin. They ground the track, make it more soothing, and once again, dreamy. I find that the contrast between the digital drums and glitches, and the Juno, brings out both their qualities. It was a good friend, British producer R.O.S.H. who once told me that contrast is key. Well here it definitely shows.
Although I feel like this track might not have completely succeeded as a danceable track. It does bring an interesting Drum&Bass spice, while being soothing and engaging to listen to. This is one of the pieces that I most enjoy listening back to, simply because it makes me proud. This kind of sound exploration I know wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for this project, and I am so glad that I got that chance.
This is the distortion track. A lot of music I listen to and enjoy makes great use of distortion, not only for sound design but also in the mixing process. I have a big taste for music that sounds raw, untamed and almost too loud. In the past couple of years I’ve learned that these impressions are definitely not by accident, but rather by design of the producers. In this track I wanted to try some of the techniques I particularly like in the music I listen to. I also decided to use a voice, which is something that has always come very hard for me, and try and explore what combination of distortion and other processing I can use to make it sound unique, powerful and raw like I want it.
The break I decided to use was already quite loud and saturated, but after editing it to my liking, I ran it through a tape distortion and one of the best multi-distortion tools I’ve found lately which is a plug-in called Thermal by Output. For the kind of effect that I’m going for the only bass that should blast through the speakers should be the bass of the break. So I made it loud and powerful through EQ’ing, and side-chaining many of the other elements to it.
The most interesting part of the track in my opinion was the voice. Apart from a few genres where vocals are very functional, I’ve mostly found them to be a little cheesy and out of place in genres like Techno. At the same time though, the right vocal at the right time can liven up a Dj-set or a performance, and is definitely something that has a place and a time to shine. The vocal I decided to use was a catch-phrase taken from an EDM’ish sample pack. It was an interesting challenge for me to try and turn it into something that would fit a heavy track like this one.
Most of the work was editing. I actually decided to use a beat-repeater instrument as I wanted it to randomly repeat and stutter during the course of the track. I’m interested in letting machines do the work and simply setting the values and standards that I want. More often than not it has given me inspiration and results that I’m sure i wouldn’t have been able to produce directly myself. In addition to the beat repeater I also used a granulator to add some layers underneath, and then got to the distortion. To my surprise the thing that sounded the best was a sort of guitar amp that got it to sound loud and crunchy exactly the way i wanted. Again, the contrast of the bass heavy drums, and the loud and high-pitched vocals is the thing that I believe makes the track work.
This is a track that for its structure and aesthetic isn’t extremely out of the ordinary and it is clearly very danceable. That said, the process that went into producing it was out of my comfort zone and pushed me to make decisions that I wouldn’t have otherwise taken. I believe that the voice sample has obtained a very unique sound, it has gone, from a simple catch-phrase before the EDM drop, to the full blown protagonist of the track.
For this track, my idea was to finally face my slight distaste for slower tempos in dance music such as 100-110 bpm. As much as I know that there’s a lot of music being made in that range, as a producer I’ve always stayed away from it as I personally didn’t really like the aesthetic, and as a club-goer myself, always had a hard time actually enjoying it. This is why, to continue the tradition of doing things I wouldn’t normally do as a producer, I set the tempo for this one to 110 and tried to make it work with my own aesthetic, and of course, as always, tried to see how far I could depart from the genre without losing momentum or sense.
It took quite a while to get the rhythm in place. Different sessions and a lot of deleting and re-making was involved. I knew that to fit my aesthetic, it would have to include some sort of real drum sounds, and the groove would need a lot of attention, especially in such a slow tempo, which if it isn’t pushed in the right direction can quickly become static.
I started experimenting with different rhythms, using the groove function in Ableton. It let me import grooves I particularly liked from other loops or tracks and apply them to my drum patterns. I found out that I could actually make different combinations of grooves, applied at multiple degrees in different parts of the drum kit, which was exactly what I needed to get the percussion to feel alive and interesting. It was quite interesting to see sounds that would usually fit into a fast breakbeat sort of track, being used and working in this scope. It wasn’t something I had already heard somewhere, so I got to work with the synths and bass to see where they would bring me.
Most of the down-tempo music I know, has a sort of tribal exotic aesthetic, and there’s a reason for that. I think the slowness of the tempo implies a laidback, trance-like feeling. To avoid departing too much from that, and also to avoid creating a double tempo idea that would just defeat the purpose of the whole track, I wrote the bass to hit right after the kick and to go through a delay that keeps it going forward. Through the same delay went the different drum effects and synths so that everything felt like it was moving together.
The final touch was the leads coming in once every bar, and finally the pads, once again to blend everything together, and properly nail the trance-like feeling I was trying to achieve.
Listening back to this track, I’m surprised by how well it turned out. It sounds great on speaker, and does achieve a good danceability, while not being obvious or trivial. Slower tempos have actually been explored quite a lot in electronic music, but rarely, I believe, in a powerful and properly dance aesthetic. Slow tempos can have a lot of depth and power, but from what I’ve gathered, they have been used way too much just to get a chiller, more mellow version of techno. New techniques and ideas need to be developed, and this track might be one good start for me to do so.
This is a track that I absolutely loved making. The idea behind it was to take as much time as needed to focus on the tiniest details, to make it feel like an ever-evolving piece, while still being, as always, dance music. The idea came because most of the time, dance music is made of loops. There’s a problem though when those loops seem to work a bit too well: in my personal experience, we as producers easily fall into the habit of using an element that works, so many times that it loses its quality and uniqueness. It’s counter-productive to keep feeding the listener a nice moment of a track only because it is in fact nice. It’s the result of laziness and ego.
So, in order to face that problem for myself, in this track I took the time to manually edit one-time little details, sound-design moments, rhythmical syncopations and glitches that I feel could actually make the track better. I also had to be careful not to clutter the track too much: details are great, but the message has to come across, it cannot sound like me juggling balls while riding a unicycle on a wire just to showcase my abilities. The track, as always in this project, has got to still work.
To create the backbone of the track, I used my Korg Minilogue for the bass stabs, a synth that I had left a bit un-loved for a while. For all the glitches and weird sounds I dug into my library and created everything I could from scratch. I used very fast LFO’s, weird warping settings, Serum, and of course some of my old Dubstep sample packs and field recordings. I organized everything into two drum-racks to have the possibility to quickly play and modify any sound with ease and process them both individually or all together. The reese bass was made using a Kontakt plug-in called Bass-synth, which lets me create any kind of bass using multiple layers of synths and samples. In this case, I made sure the sub hit hard in the beginning, and then had a field recording of a fabric coming in a bit later, to create a washing effect. Finally, the break was extremely hard to get to sound proper and had to go through a crazy amount of processing to sound clean but not too bright. In order it went through EQ, drum buss, a glue compressor, tape saturation, dynamic eq, a transient designer, another compressor and two reverbs, one plate and one room.
I usually try to not process things too much as I end up either giving up or obtaining something that I’m very unsure of. Using the same philosophy of detail though, I went through each phase with calm and patience, and really took the time to get it just right. As much as this may seem obvious for a producer, it is something that I struggled with a lot, because I always felt the pressure to have a constant output of music and at some point started skipping minor stages of production to get to the end-line quicker.
Once the main groove was set, I then started working on the effects and details. I really took the time to zoom in into a specific moment and create a weird automation on the reverb, or panning. I took away this or that element at the right time, made this or that more distorted for a brief second just to add something to the groove. One of the biggest challenges in this case was to avoid losing the bigger picture of the track. It happened multiple times that I made something very intense and weird but that it wouldn’t fit with the rest of the track.
Ultimately, I personally love this one, It really shows that time and patience can give great results. Granted that sometimes the best ideas come from a 10 minute session, it does feel good to not be rushed and not have the pressure to have a eureka moment every time I’m in the studio.
The track turned out to be very interesting, groovy, and thanks to the drum-break, I would say very danceable.
During these years studying at an electronic music production course, I felt like I knew a lot of this or that but rarely put it into practice. Listening to this track actually makes me feel like I’ve achieved something, and makes me more confident in my abilities.
In this one I only had one small goal, which was to use harmonic context to change the mood and vibe of a track. That is why I ended up making a fairly straightforward raw electro track, to then run through a harmonic landscape that wouldn’t really be expected in a piece like that.
In order to produce such electro track I made use of one of my favorite synths, called Digitone by Elektron. The workflow of this machine lets me create chance and condition based sequences that keep everything moving and interesting even in a very minimalistic track like this one. I also took the chance of using the wonderful sound of the Digitone’s FM engine to get sounds so low that they degrade and loose punchiness, but in the process acquire a texture that I particularly enjoy, especially in this kind of music. It’s like a sort of distortion, obtained simply because the synth is so low pitched that it doesn’t have time to properly play and just creates a noise-like sound together with a suggestion of the sound that it could be.
The drums fit perfectly with the bass-line and the different percussive sounds I made with the Digitone. They are distorted to the right degree and perfectly fit the aesthetic I was going for. It was very convenient to first build the synth sequence, and then the drums, to make sure I used the spaces left by the synth, to let them play loud and clear.
In this case the pads are the niche of the track. I wanted them to enter all of a sudden to create the contrast with the previous part. It’s interesting to me because when they enter, I believe no-one would really expect them, and because of that it feels like a new door has been opened, or a new dimension to the track. Also, the harmonies I wrote aren’t really what anyone would expect in the beginning. The chords change from an almost dissonant sound to the chord that would naturally fit the track. By doing so, the pads don’t just feel like an addition to fill the track, but play a central role in re-setting the mood and bringing the track somewhere new.
Of course, I don’t think there’s much debate whether a track like this is danceable or not. What I tried to point out in this case, is that not only the rhythm can be vital to dancing and feeling a track, but the mood that the track suggests can also be extremely important and can make a difference between a simple drum beat and a track to get lost into.
This track was for me the perfect conclusion to this project. I decided I had enough confidence and mindset to put together something that would be strongly and undoubtedly a dance track, but would stop being part of a specific genre and just be whatever came to my inspiration. The hint I took for this one was to avoid having a constant and ever present kick, and just let the sound-design and drum programming talk by itself and create the groove.
The tempo of the track is 150 as once again I wanted to stay away from the 120-130 range that I’m so very used to. For the glitches and details I took inspiration from Track 8, and in the same way, I kept gathering ideas and hints from the previously produced tracks for the synths, mixing, distortion and structure.
The drums are put together with a very strong and present drum break that I edited and warped, combined with a drum rack full of percussive synth sounds and glitches that keep the track interesting and evolving. The synths are many and of different sources and styles. For this kind of tempo I think focusing on the 16th notes is what keeps everything going forward, so a lot of the basses, leads and pads have either an LFO or a vibrato that keeps it in tempo with the 16th grid. Again the ‘beats’ warping technique came very useful, and so did the distortion by Thermal I used on many other occasions before.
This is supposed to be a feel-good track, to be alive and engaging without thinking too much, but under the hood i believe there’s a lot of work and attention. While track 8 might have been a bit too intense, this feels almost like the evolution of it, a way of making something articulate and complicated work on different levels. I do feel a strong drum&bass vibe coming out of it, but I’m glad I didn’t fall into the cliches of the genre and tried to stay true to the aesthetic that I’ve developed during this project.
Overall this project has brought me an incredible amount of personal and artistic development. Although my idea in the beginning was to be a bit more scientific and precise, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to approach it was to make it my own. The concept and ideas that I’ve tried to explore are not necessarily relevant and valid for everyone: this is my take on it, and I’ve used it to challenge my artistic practice and find new grounds for me and for my music. In the past years I haven’t really been much of an experimenter, and this was my chance to change that and see where I can go reach within dance music.
I like to entertain the idea that any electronic dance music producer could have their own version of this project in which they approach the themes that are most relevant to them. During the workshop that I did with my class, I asked them to personally rank what the three most important elements in dance music are for them, and then produce a track or a sketch without using those specific elements. The results and the discussions that came out of that experiment were outstanding, and really taught me how important it is to reflect around dance music and its production, just like we would think about other forms of art. We are indeed talking about music that has a specific function, but maybe it should just be considered as an art of its own, and maybe that way we could expand on it and not get stuck just with what seems to work, because eventually it will fall for something new.
in this situation, it’s also extremely hard to have a proper relationship with a crowd, or test the way people react and dance to certain music, because of course gatherings and social events are cut to a minimum, so it only makes sense to me, to take the time to really get to the bottom of certain questions I’ve been asking myself about the genre, in the hope that someday soon I’ll be able to put it into practice and test it out.
Dance music will definitely make a comeback, people are eager to again feel and interpret music with their bodies both individually and collectively, and this project has given me new hope and drive to find out where we can go with it and maybe even a glimpse of its future.