Written by Kristof  “Hennings Project” Halmi

What’s the difference between production of deep/soulful house music and other electronic music genres? What skills and equipments do you need to create quality stuff? How to start? I’m trying to answer these questions, but in this article don’t expect concrete techniques and methods. Please note: this is my own approach to the production procedure, of course there are several ways to start.

Approach

Firstly, we have to clarify, that writing good deep/soulful house is almost impossible without having musical knowledge. That may sounds unreal for many people, but unfortunately, you won’t be able to write great keys, vocals, or even a bassline without knowing, for example what a g major is. Basically, you will need to know jazz, because most of the soulful music (like a lot of other genres) are based on jazz, but I think, that’s not surprising. In this music, themes, harmonies, chord progressions are all based on jazz. If you want to start your producer career, it’s a very great choice, if you find a piano-teacher, tell him, that you want to learn jazz piano and take some lessons. After this, believe me, your approach to the whole music will be very different, than without musical knowledge. If you already play piano, or any other instrument, it’s very advantageous for you. And here comes the difference between production of deep/soulful and other electronic music. You won’t need any musical knowledge to write a progressive house, a techno or a minimal track. However, the knowledge of technique is very important when producing these styles.

OK, but what to do, if you don’t want to spend time on learning jazz? Of course, you can start producing as well, but with some „handicaps”. There are really a lot of producers in this scene as well, who don’t have any musical experience, but give out quality stuff. How do they do this? The answer is, that they are working with session musicians. In this case, the producer’s goal is to collect musicians like piano player, bass guitarist, saxophonist, vocalist, etc, and tell them his ideas. Definitely, without knowing musical language, it’s also very hard to explain your ideas to the musicians. Thatswhy I’m not preferring this way. Of course, if you have already learned piano and you are able to compose your whole music, collecting session musicians will also be important, because you can’t play each instrument you may need in your music, but explaining what melody you want, will be definitely easier.

Vocals are very important elements in soulful house music. As I see, the most difficult thing during the production process is to write great vocals. A lot of people have the skills to do this very easily. But for those, whose mother tongue is not english, lyric-writing is relatively difficult. Thatswhy many producers (not only „foreigners”) tell the vocalist to write the lyrics and melodies. I don’t really prefer this method, I like to write everything in my music myself. Thatswhy is musical knowledge important for producers, you only give a sheet music for the vocalist, and he/she will know, what to sing.

Technique

After talking about the importance of musical knowledge, let’s see, what technique you will need to begin.
The whole process of creating a song (recording, sequencing, mixing, mastering) is done nowadays with DAWs. (Digital Audio Workstation) There are a couple of DAWs to choose from depending on the system you are working on. There are different software for PC and Mac. I prefer Mac, the best software are running only on it (like ProTools, Logic Pro, Digital Performer). But now I’m not explaining further the advantages of Mac, maybe in an other article.
For very beginners, I recommend to buy Reason. It’s very good for understanding, how synths work, how sequencing is done, effecting and so on. Try every parameter of the synths, add equalizers(EQ-s) and compressors, try all the effects to understand them.

Reason

After it, forget Reason. It’s very restricted and not applicable for writing serious music due to it’s bad sound quality. Under restricted I mean, that there is no possibility in Reason for using additional plugins unlike in the well-known DAWs where you add as much plugins to your project as you want.. So in the further steps I recommend to buy Cubase SX (for PC users) or Logic Pro, Digital Performer (for Mac users). These are professional DAWs, with the possibility of adding plugins.

Logic Pro

Why are plugins important? Like in Reason, in these software you also get some built-in plugins (synths, EQs, compressors, effects), but these are rarely high-quality. So you need to buy additional plugins. First of all some native synths. Before you get involved, please don’t forget one thing: most of the software-synths have a terrible sound and there’s no software which can reach the sound quality of the big analogue gears like the Moog synths or Andromeda A6, Clavia synths. And not only in the case of synths. There’s no software EQ, which can compare to an analogue EQ for example. I’m not talking about buying a $4000 outboard synth in the beginning, but you have to know, that for serious releases, and professional music, software sound is insufficient. I’m not writing further about digital vs. analogue, it’s a very extensive theme, so maybe in an other article.
Now I try to recommend some software plugins, which have a relatively affordable sound. My favourites are the Spectrasonics synths. These are sound banks, that means, that not the plugin itself generates the sound. The samples are recorded from great analogue synths like Minimoog, Oberheim, Access Virus, etc. The Spectrasonics Atmosphere is good for pads, lead synths. But you should listen to it yourself at http://www.spectrasonics.net For bass, the Spectrasonics Trilogy is the best choice. It’s also a sample-based synth, with a lot of presets, and a massive quality. For drums I recommend the Spectrasonics Stylus Remix.

Spectrasonics Atmosphere

And there’s an other instrument, which is one of the most importants for deep/soulful producers: thats the rhodes. Now I would say, don’t write rhodes without having a Fender Rhodes Mark 2, but of course that’s quite unreal for a lot of people. There’s no software rhodes which can reproduce the sound of this all-time classic. Thats the point with piano as well. However, I recommend some rhodes and piano banks, because these two instruments are „must-haves” in deep or soulful house. For rhodes, try Native Instruments Elektrik Piano, or the Scarbee Rhodes bank. For piano: EastWest Boesendorfer 290, or the Ivory soundbanks. But again, don’t forget: there’s no sound bank which replaces an original instrument.
But before all, you will need to hear, what you are doing, so you have to buy a monitoring system. It’s no use in buying a very expensive studio monitor into your home studio like Genelec or Dynaudio, becuase your room has to be acoustically fixed, in a bad acoustic room you won’t hear the proper frequencies (especially the in the lower range), even not on high-end monitors. There are very good low-budget solutions. The best in it’s price category is the E-MU PM5 active studio monitor, only for $250 With this one, you will hear clearly, what you are doing, the best for home-environment use, but it’s sound is not sufficient to do the final mixing due to acoustic problems as well, as mentioned before.
As for headphones, I recommend AKG-K271, or Sennheiser HD600.

Finalizing your music

When you finished your music, there’s a great chance, that it will sound terrible. The final sound depends on many things: the recording quality of the instruments you may used, the recording quality of the vocals, the quality of the native synths in the music, the EQs, compressors, reverbs etc. you used. Thatswhy the track has to be mixed and mastered. Many people don’t know, what the difference is between mixing and mastering. Mixing is a process done with the tracks of the song. Mastering is done with the whole track, and it must be after mixing. Mixing is a separate discipline, it needs a very serious knowledge to manipulate with tracks to reach a good final sound. It includes arranging of sounds, equalizing, compressing, panning, using effects. For example in dance music, it’s very important, that the kickdrum and the bass should sound good together, or when panning, you can’t go extremely wide with what you consider important elements, because of the venues where the song is being played, if you pan a pretty important element on the left side, half of the dance floor’s not hearing it. But these were only two techniques of thousands, what mixing engineeers do. So you have to decide, whether you want to be a musician, or a sound engineer. And we didn’t even talk about equipments so far, which are needed for a good mix. You won’t be able to do a good mix at home with native gears and bad monitoring system. So what I recommend: after having finished your music, give it to a sound engineer, let him do the mixing and mastering and the recording as well on high-end $10000 no-compromise gears (like SSL, AMS-Neve, Manley, Apogee, Neumann etc.), don’t try to do it at home. (For instance, Dennis Ferrer used the classic Neumann U47 and Neve 1064 as recording chain in his new hit, I Can’t Go Under. Does this track sound brilliant? I think yes. Check it out here.
SSL

I know, these are very hard advices, but a lot of producers in our scene as well (even the biggest) don’t really care about the sound of their music. But I think, soulful could be more popular, if each ’n every music sounded like an r’n’b track. Have you ever heard an r’n’b track sounding bad? Me not too much. But there are a couple of soulful/deep house tracks sounding terrible.

At the end, check out the videos of a very great r’n’b producer, Ryan Leslie. He does it really professional.

Ryan Leslie TV