The world’s most charming sub-genre of dance music is on a steady incline. A recent flurry of international adverts featuring electro-swing has propelled it into the subconscious of a worldwide audience, despite most people having absolutely no idea what it is.
Electro-swing predominately comes in two forms: a swing record (typically from the 1920s/30s) is remixed and blended with house/electro music; or, an original swing track is produced with nods to electronic music styles. You might also find electro-swing hidden within another sub-genre coined ‘vintage remix’. This gives producers the license to essentially remix something ‘vintage’ with any form of electronic music.
The electro-swing community is growing and welcoming new producers all the time. Below are 10 production tips to help fine-tune those electro-swing projects, or to help kick-start your first track.
1. Swing those drums
If you want to give your electro-swing track some life, you may want to hold back on the quantize button. Try nudging your hi-hats slightly out of time, or add a clap that sits lazily over a kick drum. Percussion hits set at 16-note swing can instantly transform your house beat and give it some swinging vibes. Finally, syncopation is your best friend in electro-swing, so make sure you have plenty of offbeat action. (Try ‘Jazz EZX’ by Toontrack for some swing drum samples.)
2. Mix in your sample
Electro-swing can be a hard genre to mix, especially when trying to make those old samples sit nicely with your 21st century beats. Make sure you use a high-pass filter to allow room for your ‘modern’ instruments to punch through. A rule of thumb: reduce at 100hz to make room for your kick, and reduce at 200Hz for your snare. Finally, add some side chain compression (kick as trigger) to your sample to help it sit cleanly in your mix. (Try a spectrum analyser to help find those problem frequencies – Blue Cat’s ‘Freq Analyst’ is a great free plug-in.)
3. Wet to dry
Electro-swing can be arranged like a dance track; a breakdown section followed by a drop. To create maximum impact, add plenty of reverb to your sample or vocals during the breakdown, and then automate to dry for when the drop kicks in. This change in texture can also be used to help add variation to a repeated sample or phrase. (Try using Wave’s ‘TrueVerb’.)
If your track is lacking movement or depth, try adding some offbeat sounds. A few chords played syncopated on an organ or synthesiser can sometimes work nicely in a mix. If you’re using an old sample, try taking a short note (vocal parts work best) and looping it on the offbeat. This is meant to be subtle, so make sure you make good use of panning and reverb to help it sit out of the forefront of the mix.
5. Make it authentic
Let your electro-swing track transport your audience straight back to the 1920s with some old sayings or TV samples. If you search on Youtube for ‘adverts 1920s’ you’ll be sure to find plenty of material to cut up and use in your tracks. Even just a couple of words can make your electro-swing track sound more interesting and give it some authenticity.
6. Keep out of the loop
Although dance music is very repetitive at times, this doesn’t mean you can loop 32 bars of your sample and drums and you’re done. It also doesn’t require loads of your time to make it interesting: gradually build your section by adding bits of percussion or chopped up samples over the top to keep the listener engaged. Also, try working backwards: take out instruments at the start of the section to allow it to develop.
If you’re looking to escape the samples, and wish to compose some original swing music with an electro twist, you’ll most likely need to locate some musicians (even if you are extremely gifted). Swing music is incredibly complex and the musicians who play it have often spent years perfecting their instrument. Try using your local university, Gumtree or SoundCloud to find some musicians to play on your track. Make sure to draw up contracts with any musicians you use to avoid complications down the line.
8. Bass lines
If you’re using a sample, it’s best to filter out those lower frequencies to make room for a synth bass. The bass line needs to avoid clashing with a) the kick and b) the sample. To avoid the kick, use side chain compression and choose a sound that doesn’t clash. To create harmony between your bass and the sample, make sure they have their own space in the mix. Try to use a whole octave range when composing your bass lines and don’t be afraid to make them melodic and interesting. (If you’re after an analogue bass sound on a budget, try the Moog ‘Minitaur’.)
9. Watch out for that Hz
You need longer than a paragraph to explain the history behind the standard pitch for middle A conspiracy; however, this is not the place for it. What you do need to know is this: anything pre-1939 (as a rule of thumb) will have its middle A tuned to 435Hz, not 440Hz (standard tuning). How does this affect your tracks? Any instruments you add underneath your sample will be out of tune by 5Hz, and it really does make a difference. All you need to do is either pitch shift your sample to match your other instruments or vice versa.
Electro-swing gives us some of the happiest music on the planet. People love the infectious melodies and nostalgic feel, but it’s really important to keep the audience on their toes. Make your drops interesting and never under-estimate the element of surprise in music. Dance music works best when you lead the listener into a false sense of security, before giving them something unique sounding. This doesn’t always have to be a dirty bass drop; it can be achieved in many other different ways.
Remember, the most important tip is that there are no rules when making electro-swing, just like any other genre. These are just guidelines to help get you started, or to add some extra production ideas to your arsenal. Take what you need, create lots of music and make people happy.
Written by Jamie Berry on behalf of live music agency Bands For Hire