The Ultimate Guide to EDM Sound Design
How to break down your favorite sounds, bend them to your will, and create new ones that leave your audience begging for more.
There are innumerable aspects to discuss when it comes to sound design, so we’ll have to abbreviate this quite a bit! Think of this article as a quick start guide; we’ve recommended some additional reading if you want to dive deeper, but let’s start by helping you make the most of the plugins you already have.
Dissect and destroy
If you have the time, try to completely recreate your favorite sounds from scratch; if you’re feeling ambitious and want to gain expertise in sound design much faster, recreate every detail of a whole chorus or drop. Even if you have no idea where to begin, give it a try! If you can’t emulate the original sound precisely, this still requires you to think differently and takes you outside your comfort zone. If you haven’t done many of these before, get ready–you’re about to learn a lot about your favorite synths.
Make sure you’ve read the synth’s manual first. The more you know about your tech, the more mileage you’ll get out of it. If there are filter, wavetable, distortion, etc. options you haven’t explored, tweak and push them on a variety of presets until you have a pretty good idea of how they shape your sound. And speaking of presets, dissect every one you can get your hands on, and you know your favorites inside and out. If you want more to dissect, sites like Cymatics often have free preset packs for Serum, Massive, and others.
How to build sounds for EDM
Alright, into the nitty gritty. Most sounds you design will likely fall into wavetable (Serum, Massive), subtractive (Ableton’s Operator), FM (Sytrus, FM8), or additive (Razor, Harmor). There are plenty of others, as described in this excellent article from Pro Audio Files, but the ones above should be enough to get you started.
If you’re getting into heavier bass design like in dubstep or riddim, Xfer Records’ Serum is almost a necessity. With a lot of hard work and digital audio knowledge you can get away with additive and FM, but wavetable synthesis is the most efficient way to create growls and hyper-mechanical sounds. That said, there are many audio effect types shared between synths, making the list in the next section easily transferable to any plugin you choose.
Creative effects for sound design
Beyond the standard high- and low-pass filters, there are several more nuanced ones that you should understand:
- Comb: the original audio signal is fed back onto itself at a slight delay, creating a hollow, pitched resonance; great for mechanical sounds.
- Bandpass: high- and low-pass filters are simultaneously applied; when the filter frequency is modulated, you get a vowel-like, organic sound.
- Bandreject: cuts out a specific frequency range, resulting in high-res, clean electrical sounds.
- Allpass: on a technical level, this is a frequency-corrected filter–meaning that you won’t hear changes in the frequency spectrum; instead, you’ll hear a ‘smearing’ or displacement that varies somewhat unpredictably, depending on the frequency you settle on. Feel free to play with this, and don’t be too concerned if its impact on your sound design isn’t obvious at first.
Don’t forget about distortion–ideally, you’ll use it in every sound design synth patch you create. Its placement in your signal chain is just as important as what type of distortion you use. When creating highly advanced sounds, your effect chains will grow in length significantly; but the more effects you add, the more tweaking you’ll need to get everything to sound just right. Take the time to assess the role each effect plays, push it hard, and dial it back to where it feels right. This process is laborious at first, but grows far easier as time goes on.
How to nail rhythm in sound design
Of course there’s a lot of variety in EDM–that goes without saying. But what’s not as obvious is what accounts for the technical differences between them.
Very often, the only differentiating factor is rhythm. As an example: if you’re familiar with both dubstep and complextro, pay attention to where the kick and snare fall. In dubstep, the kick is almost invariably on beats 1 and 3, and the snare on beats 2 and 4. In complextro and drum & bass, the same is mostly true–but the tempo is faster, and there’s typically much more auxiliary percussion going on. In some cases, drum & bass is actually double-timed dubstep (it feels like the kick hits on every beat, and the snare on the ‘and’ of every beat.
Experiment with this–by changing the speed or complexity of the song, you can completely change genres without even touching your sound design. If you create multiple similar bass sounds and interchange them frequently, they’ll sound ‘glitchy’ and add a lot of depth as long as you don’t overdo it. This is more time-consuming, but tastefully adding variety will make your tracks much more interesting.
The best effects for sound design
This will vary heavily based on your needs, but always remember the core types of effects you have to work with: delay, reverb, compression, flanging, and distortion (for a refresh, read our article on how to use audio effects). If you see a producer using specialized (and expensive) effects, don’t be discouraged–you can often get close to the same sound without the exact same plugins. There’s a time and place for the fancy, niche plugins, but try getting 95% of the way there with what you already have.
Having a good multi-effect at your disposal can make the production process much faster, since it removes a lot of the decision-making process around how much of each effect to add, what frequency, depth, etc., by combining a variety of effects into one. ujam’s VOODOO does this quite nicely: if you’re still learning the ropes of audio effects or have your production process down to a science and want to greatly cut down on the amount of time you spend on routine effect adjustments, give Voodoo a try. It’s especially useful if your sounds still feel a bit harsh and you want to take the edge off; its gentle flanging, delay, and saturation are perfect for the job.
Designing drum sounds
If you have your heart set on creating drum samples from scratch, that’s great! But if you’d rather shortcut that part, there are of course a plethora of samples and loops available. The disadvantage with them is that you have limited options for shaping them, short of possibly layering multiple snares into a new sound.
Using a Beatmaker is an excellent alternative to conventional sample packs because every loop can be modified at will, replacing and adding individual notes. If you’re writing dubstep or complextro, try out VICE. VICE fits well here because of the impact and depth of the kick and snare; if you’re creating drum & bass, you’ll want to use VOID instead as it’s tailored specifically to DnB. Take care in selecting your drum sounds, because they ground the entire song; if they don’t fit, your sound design will feel weak, even if labored over every detail. Use your kick and snare to beat your sounds into submission (and add in a lot of sidechain compression for good measure), and your audience will scream for mercy. Well, that’s not always the ideal response…but at the very least, choosing and processing your drum sounds just right can elevate a simple track to expert status with little more than a standard 4-to-the-floor beat.
Bringing it all together
This article is merely a primer to EDM sound design, but you’re now equipped with the basic principles to guide your self-study (and a few plugin recommendations to boot). Remember to experiment, imitate, differentiate, and practice until you develop your own process. Then iterate and challenge yourself even more–because all growth comes from a playful desire to improve and discover more about excellent sound design. If you’re not sure where to start, do the very first thing in this article: attempt to recreate your favorite sounds–if you have the time and want to learn everything you can, try precisely recreating an entire section from a song you love, only by ear. Even just doing this only once will set you apart from 99% of producers and start you on the path to your own unique style.
After all, once you understand the principles that work for other producers, you can simply steal them from yourself and significantly upgrade your production process!