How to create engaging arrangements that last 7+ minutes long and bring your listeners along for the ride
SEPTEMBER 15TH, 2023
If you love the idea of gradually building up sets, commanding broad ebbs and flows of drama and energy, and prefer something more chill than many of the hard core EDM sets that appear to be the norm ... Chances are, you’ll love progressive house! Producing this genre is quite the meditative process, with section arcs lasting many times longer than you’ll encounter with most other songs.
With progressive house, it pays to be patient — don’t rush the pacing, because that’s where the magic lies. Now let’s get into the details of what the genre entails and how to create your own tracks!
Setting up the beat
This is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult aspect of progressive house: building the drum beat. Tons of tracks in this genre go with a simple 4-to-the-floor beat, but the issue becomes: How do you make that interesting over the course of 7 minutes? Firstly, you need to ensure your kick drum is worthy of being listened to for that long! Sample selection is the first major order of business across every sound, but the kick drum reigns supreme. Typically you’ll want to sidechain compress most elements of the mix to your kick to glue everything together and add a taste of movement throughout the entire arrangement.
That said, something in your drum beat should change in each section; add a clap on beats 2 and 4, place some hi hats into the mix, add splash cymbals on the off beats (especially if you want to add a nice 90s touch), add layers to the snare / clap, etc. Whatever you choose, keep it to one major addition or subtraction. For progressive house, anything more is often too jarring — though of course, let your ears be the final judge. The drums can drop out completely at times, and you can even remove the kick completely while the groove is going; taking away this anchor for a time will lend more depth to the structure of the song overall.
You can also add tonal shaping to your drums over time through filtering, reverb, or (more rarely) light distortion. Consider where things are at, where they were, and where you want them to go, then process and arrange accordingly!
Instrumentation and arrangement
There are several choices you can’t go wrong with when building the arrangement: reverb-y piano, plucked synth chords or arpeggios (saw, square, etc.), washed-out vocals and synth lines, backing strings, and generally anything else that relaxes the energy and creates space and movement. Shingo Nakamura’s song Come Closer is a perfect example of literally all of the above in the same arrangement — notice how there are natural ebbs and flows, with each instrument coming in and out rather than staying static in the mix:
The palette of sounds is entirely up to you; there’s no right or wrong! You can go for a dreamy, spacious arrangement to create a space for listeners to relax into ... or you could opt for drier instruments with a tight, focused arrangement to pull listeners in close rather than allowing them to drift along. Your control of space and depth is key here, and while this takes some time to develop, it’s well worth the effort to create the exact vibe you’re looking for every single time.
Mastering the track’s energy
The “progressive” aspect of progressive house is all about carefully manipulating the energy of the song over time; mastering this is challenging, because you’ll likely be tempted to rush the changes ... but letting things breathe is essential to the job. Above all else, be gradual! Let’s look into some simple ways to control the energy of a track.
Arrangement: Before reaching for effects, effect as much change as you can with composition alone. Add or subtract elements from your drums, chord layers, or acoustic instruments; increase or reduce complexity in the drums, arps, or chord hits; feature a new lead instrument or cut out the melody entirely for a brief time (taking care not to make things boring); or try any other modifications to the arrangement that make sense to you. Take care not to add or subtract too much at once, as this can take listeners out of the experience.
Filtering: It’s easy to become too dependent on quick-fix solutions like filtering entire instruments (or in some cases, the entire mix); but with progressive house, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A level of predictability can actually be a good thing, because nothing ruins a progressive mix like jarring moments. Lower the frequency of band and low pass filters gradually to reduce energy, and raise it to increase the energy. Save high pass filters for transitions, with an upward sweep to remove the “floor” of the mix and have the kick and bass hit harder once you drop the filter (Beatmaker HYPE is a great tool for this).
Transitions: This can be as simple as low or band pass filtered white noise with some delay and reverb, gradually opening up over the course of many measures leading into the next section and then gradually fading out. Many progressive house tracks still do this successfully — though you can be more creative, of course! For example, you could run your entire drum groove through an aux track and use Finisher BOOST to transform it into an evolving soundscape that’s unique to your track. Faster and more unique than diving through a sample folder and layering different sounds!
There’s plenty more to say on the topic of progressive house, but this guide should be plenty to get you started with making your own tracks. The most important thing to remember is that what’s in the actual arrangement is less important than your ability to manipulate the energy and motion of the track and keep things interesting for long stretches of time. If you can do that, you’ll have little trouble creating progressive house tracks your fans love and that serve you well in live sets!
About the Author
Harry Lodes is a copywriter, marketing consultant and content writer for audio and ecommerce brands. He lives in the Philadelphia area, releasing Eastern/Western hybrid EDM under the artist name KAIRI hearkening back to his roots in Berklee College of Music.