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Using a Reference Track When Producing EDM

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:ShortLanguages:

Electronic Dance Music, on its surface, may sound simple enough to produce. This mindset is what started my musical career; “How hard can it be?” I thought, “It’s a bunch of loops after all.” But if you’ve ever actually tried your hand at producing EDM, you will know, as I now do, just how wrong that mindset is. In this tutorial I will show you a tip I used when starting out, and honestly still use from time to time now; using a reference track in your DAW when producing.


Why Use A Reference Track

Using a song that you like as a reference track can help you not lose sight of your original idea.

The concept of using a reference track when producing is just the same as using a reference picture when drawing. The goal shouldn’t be to copy the song, but to use it as a guide for the flow, progression, build-up and release, and overall energy of a track.

If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in this so called “loop land”, where you have a few bars of song idea but you don’t know how to proceed, having a track to reference quickly and easily inside of your host DAW can help you figure out how to build up to, and out of, your current musical idea and proceed to create a full-fledged production.

Using a song that you like as a reference track can also help you to not get lost in the production process or lose sight of your original musical idea you had in mind for your own production.

Being stuck in <em>Loop Land</em> can be frustrating and discouraging; when you have a great loop but don't know how to proceed
Being stuck in Loop Land can be frustrating and discouraging; when you have a great loop but don't know how to proceed.

Tips For Using a Reference Track

1. Picking a Good Reference Track

When picking a song to use as a reference track, try to pick a track that has the same genre stye and energy that you are shooting for in your own production. If you want to produce a dance club anthem, pick the same style of track to reference and not something on the other side of the genre spectrum.

It's also a good idea to use a track that is in the same key signature as the signature you're wanting to produce in. If not, you may be thrown off and distracted by the clashing tonal characteristics of the reference song, and your production when you are A/B referencing; A/B meaning when you are switching between one sound source and another sound source, or sound source A and sound source B.

Tip: If you have a song you want to use as your reference track but don't know the song's key signature, Beatport is a great website that focuses on electronic dance music and has an extensive library of songs. Chances are you can find the song there and get the key signature as well as the BPM information of the song.

2. Setting Up The Reference Track

For the purposes of this tutorial, I’m going to be using a song that I produced, for the sake of copyright and demonstration, but the process is the same for whichever track you choose to use. It helps if you can find a high-quality version of the song, just so you don’t get distracted by the quality of the audio.

I can't stress enough that, again, the goal is to focus not on the quality or even the sounds, but the progression and the flow of the production. When Those sounds are added, when they are taken away, and so on.

Adding a reference track to your project can help guide you when you get stuck
Adding a reference track to your project can help guide you when you get stuck.

What I like to do is drag the song into the arrangement window, then position it at the top of the sequencer. If you don’t know the tempo of the song and can't find it online, you can use a BPM detector insert plug-in to detect it. I’ll detect the tempo of the reference track.

You can time adjust the track if you like, or make your project tempo the same. What I then like to do is align the reference track to the tempo grid of my project to have the fill track to reference, or if I just need a specific area of the track to reference I'll cut that part out and align it to where it need it in my project.

Using the reference track, you can begin to flesh out your project
Using the reference track, you can begin to flesh out your project.

3. Referencing Your Track

Now you start producing. If you feel you’ve become stuck, or are needing a reference as to how to proceed in the production, you can use the reference track to see how the producer of that track used various sound elements to add interest, tension, a build up or release, and so on.

For example, here once I have everything mixed in, I can use the reference track to start to consider how I’m going to build up into the breakdown. I can hear the bass kick drops out and goes into a breakdown, then swings back into a build up, so I can maybe think about skipping the second breakdown and throw it immediately back into another build up.

Adding project markers of a reference song is a great way to flesh out how you can keep your own production moving forward
Adding project markers of a reference song is a great way to flesh out how you can keep your own production moving forward.

Another way to use a reference track is to listen to the track and make project markers. You can then use these markers as a guide to help keep your production interesting and progressing forward.

Something as simple as dropping out a shaker or high hat can add variation, even if its not a drastic change. The main purpose is to keep you thinking about variation in your elements. This is especially helpful for the drums and percussion of you production.


Conclusion

Using a reference track when producing is a great way to give yourself a helping hand when you’re still discovering your own unique sound in EDM.

In this tutorial I have shown you how to use a reference track when producing electronic dance music by placing a track that you like in your sequencer, and using it as a guide for mixing your various elements.

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