How to produce atmospheric, grooving progressive house tracks that keep listeners fully engaged for 5, 6, 7 minutes and beyond.
SEPTEMBER 20TH , 2020
Progressive house is unique in that you have to absorb a lot of the genre and get into a relaxed state before you can even begin producing. Yes, all genres require that you get a feel for things, but it’s even more important here--because if you get too hyped or keep adding in new elements, you’ll all but kill the song’s flow.
Dubstep, drum & bass, and other heavier genres of EDM involve large buildups and huge changes in intensity between the verses and the drop. Not so with progressive house; you may be imagining festival sounds right now, but this is a bit different than your conventional EDM track.
So before doing anything, open up your DAW to a basic template with any synths, instruments and effects you normally use. Eliminate all possible obstacles between your head and the computer so you don’t lose any momentum. Now internalize a 124-ish bpm tempo by pulling up a progressive house playlist and skipping around to several different songs (you’ll know you’re successful when you’re gently bobbing up and down at this tempo even after you’ve stopped listening to any music). Now start creating music--don’t hesitate, or you’ll lose the feel!
Getting the feel just right
Your focus should be 110% on creating slow, subtle changes, and on being absolutely certain that you initiate them at the exact right time. The listener should feel as if they’re in a trance, and your number one job is to remove anything that could be the slightest bit jarring. Each musical thought should flow seamlessly out of the previous one until the song reaches a gentle conclusion.
Add in a couple synth pads and plucked sounds with an implied rhythm. You can choose to lay down the beat first, but it’s often helpful to write a basic chord progression first to anchor the song in a specific tonality (this can change later; focus more on speed than perfection). If you’re not sure where to start, create a dotted eighth note rhythm and add some delay--even without any percussion, you have your core rhythm in place.
Do not start with a kick drum. The beat needs to carry itself without one, otherwise everything will feel hollow and you won’t know why. Keep this going for a while (at least 16 measures, but shoot for 32), and only add in the kick once the intro is completely finished. Now your kick will fill out the song nicely.
If you had the kick in there from the beginning, the song would have had nowhere to go; the changes in a progressive house song are too minimal. A good general rule: split up your song into as many layers as possible and add them in gradually. This might feel like cheating, because such an approach is underwhelming in virtually any other genre. But that’s exactly what you want in progressive trance--slow, methodical growth with careful structure and none of the unpredictability of more aggressive genres.
When in doubt, the snare or clap triggers on beats 2 and 4 (and virtually nowhere else). Alternate open and closed hi hats in a 16th note pattern that feels pleasing to you, as long as not every 16th note contains a hi hat. The gaps are what keep the beat interesting, and besides: if you have a hi hat trigger on every possible note, you limit the beat’s room for growth. In the chorus, switch more of the hi hat triggers to be open rather than closed; this naturally raises the beat’s intensity with very little work on your part.
Shingo Nakamura’s The Four follows a similar structure, and is a fantastic example of a gradual progressive house intro:
Nailing the structure
By no means do you need to follow this section verbatim--but this is a good template to follow when inspiration isn’t flowing easily.
We briefly touched on this above, but in case it’s not obvious: your intro should be very light, even carefree. No percussion.
Continue the basic chord pattern for 16 measures. Then add in light percussion (no kick) and bass.
After another 16 measures, add in the kick. Lead into this moment with a white noise riser and a slowly rising high pass filter on the percussion, which will give the kick slightly more oomph when it finally comes in; even then, be careful, as it’s easy to overdo the kick.
After another 16 measures, add in some more auxiliary percussion (congas, additional cymbals, etc.)--but once again, don’t go overboard. It’s very easy to build up too quickly, and even harder to tell when you’ve done so.
* If you’ve been producing for more than half an hour straight, consider taking a 5 minute break and going for a walk (at the very least, leave your production room) so you can regain a bit of your objectivity. You’ll be amazed by the increased clarity with which you look at your mix--in very little time, your ears begin to fool you.
Crafting the perfect melody and harmony
We won’t typically make hard recommendations for major vs. minor...but when you’re not sure which direction to go in progressive house, always default to minor. It will be much, much easier to keep your creative flow going and create harmonic melodies.
When you write in a major key, it’s much easier to wander into the ‘pop’ realm, which is the exact opposite of what you want in progressive house. Melodies in this genre turn into motifs: minimal and quite short, and you shouldn’t be afraid to repeat them frequently. When you aren’t obligated to create major-key melodies, you’ll likely find that you can produce with greater flexibility.
Progressive house is deceptive in that it requires a deeper knowledge of music theory than you may initially suspect. If you need to brush up on your theory, here’s an excellent crash course from Music Theory Academy.
Getting beats down faster with Beatmaker HYPE
If you’d like a tool specifically constructed for making progressive house beats, check out Beatmaker HYPE. Every preset is designed specifically to give you just the right intensity--neither too much nor too little--and contains a special Riser control to create high pass filter sweeps combined with reverb and delay for your buildups. Not only does this save you time (progressive house has a lot of buildups), but all the effect settings are streamlined so you don’t need to create complex chains or mess with a ton of different settings.
"HYPE is a great tool for creating grooves in an instant; I often use it to get inspired and to layout the groove for a production."
Regardless of how you create your progressive house beats, remember that step 1 never changes: you have to have a strong feel for the genre before writing a single note. The moment you break your flow, the entire track will fall apart. But once you have the rhythm down, it’s easy to keep things going as long as at least one instrument is always providing some movement.
Listen as much as you write, make sure you’re only referencing mixes you love, and in a short time you’ll make tremendous progress. Happy producing!