Amazing proggy chords and stabs can be made by simply stacking a few saw oscillators together, detuning them slightly and running the lot through a low pass filter. Check if your synth has a unison mode or if you can add two or more voices for each oscillator to give the tone more bite. One trick for added thickness is to double the root note of the chord with the same note two octaves lower and one or two octaves higher.
‘Progression’ is obviously key in progressive house, so spend some time building up the arrangement with just the right amount of tension. A tried and tested structure involves 64 or so bars of build with relatively few elements and plenty of repetition until the first break kicks in. This break is intended to be euphoric and uplifting. Here is where you introduce your big melodic elements – chords, lead riff or both.
Lots of progressive tracks contain synth lines that play harmonically in perfect fourth or fifth intervals. You can arrange this easily in your favourite synth / plug-in by creating a sound with two oscillators, with the second oscillator tuned five (perfect fourth) or seven (perfect fifth) semitones up.
VIVA LA IMPERFECTION
Progressive beats are usually not much more than kick, hat and snare. To inject some movement, try nudging your percussion so that some hits are slightly out of time. This works especially well if you have doubled your snare with a clap. Move your clap hits ever so slightly so that they are triggered a little ahead or behind the main snare drum. Adding simple human touches can be the difference between a stagnant or exciting groove.
CUT THE LOWS
When your melodic elements finally kick in, your track may sound fairly busy, with lots of elements – including lead synth, pads, harmonics and more – all playing at the same time, so it‘s good practice to make sure you high pass everything that doesn’t need a heavy low-end. A good technique is to sweep upward with a gentle high pass filter starting with the lowest of frequencies until you hear it affecting the body of the sound. When you can hear the sound changing noticeably it’s time to back off a bit and leave it there.
SQUEEZE THE MIX BUS
It is now common practice among dance music producers to mix through a compressor to make the elements of a track gel better together. When you start mixing, slap a compressor on the master channel first and let it stand until the final mix is done. A good starting point for setting up the mix bus compressor is a ratio of 4:1 with 10ms attack and a fast release. Adjust the threshold until you see 2-3db but not much more gain reduction on the meter.
DOUBLE THE BASS
For a solid low-end with maximum impact, progressive tracks sometimes feature two basslines. One is a melodic bassline that occupies the higher regions of the frequency spectrum. The second is a sub bass filling the lower end. This sub is intended to really mark the groove, along with the kick drum and other percussion. Most of the the time, it is a simple one-note affair that is triggered off beat to avoid clashing with the kick. Different placements of the sub note will yield different grooves.
LAYER THE KICK
To get a massive bass drum, layer your kick with a low sine wave and tune the sine to the key of the track. Remember to use a high pass eq on your original kick so that the low end doesn’t become too overbearing.
If you’re struggling with a killer melody but have some great chords, copy the chords to another track and arpeggiate them. Play with the way the notes are triggered, adjust note lengths and so on. Sometimes you’ll get lucky!