The Science Behind Tracky Music

I will always remember that day in 1989 when I went to the local record shop after school to see if they had received some rare techno records that had just been released. There were about 5 of us in town who were eager to get our hands on them, and it was a race to who would grab them first. This might sound surreal to you if you’re younger, but those were the days when each record you bought was precious. You’d often even buy the ones you were unsure of in case you liked it later… or because you didn’t want other DJs to have it. Funny, eh? We were at the opposite edge from our current times with music accessibility.

vinyl records, store, shoppingSo that day, I was listening to records in the “Techno – Fresh Arrivals” section of the shop. There were these 3 odd-looking ones (I still have them) with no information on them but colours. The green one had the same loop playing all the way through, from beginning to end. There were basically no variations, from what I could tell. “This is really weird!” I thought. I didn’t get the purpose of it. Then I listened to the second record — same concept, different colour. Last record, same thing. Puzzled, something inside of me pushed me to buy them. There was something about those records I just couldn’t pass up.

That was the first time I bought tracky records. 1989

I got to a friend’s place and we started to mix them, and suddenly it all started to make sense. The music was always changing, but very subtly. The records were mind-boggling, and I fell in love with them. We discovered we didn’t need songs — we had the tools to build our own stories. It was exhilarating.

dj, tattoos, tweak, tracky, techno, musicTracky music was a revelation. It taught us that no music is boring if correctly used, and that techno is not necessarily made to be listened to as is, but used as raw material.

See, the thing about tracky records is that they’re used with others in order to create something completely new. Have you ever heard of 1 + 1 = 3?  One record, mixed with another, makes 3 different layers (the 3rd layer is created by combining the other 2).

Making tracky music poses some challenges and the number one is, how to not be boring with simplistic elements.

There are some basic rules for making tracky music, but the great news is that breaking them is where the fun really starts.

  1. Organized for DJs. The more organized your track is, the easier it will be to mix. This is why it’s important to place redundant elements in multiples of 4. Very useful.
  2. Micro vs macro repetition. Start by the smallest loop possible, and then expand it. You can start by the smallest, simplest kick-hats-snare combo, for example, and then start adding a sound looped on a longer scale to make the small loop feel scaleable. The careful addition, spread over time, will allow the listener to process it and make the repetition feel more palatable. But it’s not about making music for listening, it’s about making music as raw material for someone else.
  3. Subtle variations. Try making automations that last over 1 minute or longer. This will create the subtle impression that something is going on, but since the changes are happening so slowly, it will be super hard to pinpoint exactly what. Some things you can automate: EQ gain, filtering, panning, volume gain, effect wet/dry.
  4. Arrangement surprises. Mix a number of predictable arrangements with more destabilizing ones. For instance, you can throw a clap in every 3 bars so the listener will come to expect it, and then later remove one clap to throw them off, before finally bringing it back in.
  5. Develop your vocabulary. This is a huge topic in itself. For now though, you need to know that 1 bar of tracky music may have its own vocabulary, and that it’s important to be consistent about it. So every 32 bars, for example, you could insert a little silence to accentuate the transition. If you mute something, you are muting a part of a sentence. This will be explored in greater detail in a future post…


Here are some great artists whose tracks you can use as references: Mountain People, Gez Varley, Barac, Mike Ink.


SEE ALSO : Self-Imposed Rules For Arrangements

Spending Long Hours in the Studio

Every now and then I’ll see people boasting in some online producers’ forum about how they spent 5 to 8 hours in the studio working on a song. The same thing sometimes goes for when I’m with fellow Ableton users, who will claim they have spent 3 days on a song. It’s a common perception that the longer you work on a song, the better it must be. Yet from my own experience and reflections, I believe it’s actually the opposite.

crazy in studioIf you’re unconvinced, consider this: how does the producer’s experience level impact on studio time? Might it differ depending on the music genre? Does it change if gear is involved? You see, the amount of time you spend in studio can depend on many factors, and these are just a few of them.

Just think of the long list of artists who wrote their hits in very little time, from “Hotel California” to tunes from Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler or Samim. The minimal movement in contemporary music is another important example of this. By “minimal” music, I’m not referring to minimal techno but to music by the likes of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. The common denominator among these many artists and genres is the understanding that songs are built around one core idea, which is then fully supported throughout. That central concept or component is what people will hum or sing to their friends. It’s what people remember.

So that’s the ideal. But here are where the problems start:

  • You’re not focused on the idea itself. It should speak for itself, you don’t need 4 different layers to do it.
  • You’re distracted by non-essential supportive elements. Because unless you’re a producer, no one really cares if your kick is analog or not.
  • Your ears are tired. Ears get tired after a while and it will become impossible to mix properly. Give them a rest.
  • Your brain is tired. If you’ve played your tune over and over again, you’ve almost certainly lost the plot. To regain a firm grip on your initial idea, you need to take a break and refresh your perspective.
  • You’re forgetting the track’s lifespan. If your track is short, the idea is played for only a moment, and that will be enough. It’s not worth weeks of your time.

spending too long working on a track can ruin even the best ideasThe crucial thing to remember is that the longer you expose yourself to the track you’re working on, the more you’ll lose your sense of what you’re making. You see, humans have evolved with an amazing skill called adaptability, which has helped our species to survive over hundreds of thousands of years, often in the face of impossible odds. This innate trait has an impact on us in the studio. For example, if you listen to something that you mildly like for a long time, you will eventually learn to either love or hate it — and then either want to alter it (to expand its longevity) or delete it completely (because you get fed up). Either way, even if your initial idea is awesome, being overexposed to it might completely ruin it.

So how to solve this?

There are many things you can do, but the main thing I recommend is to simply limit your time in studio. (Though of course, if you’re in the studio jamming away and having fun, it can still be cool to go for long hours.) Here are some other things I suggest:

  • Try my Non Linear Production Technique. To sum it up, don’t work on one project for a long time. Try to work on multiple at once — say 10 at a time — and then rotate between them, spending up to an hour max on each.
  • Swap computer for gear and vice versa. Move from one to another to get a flow.
  • Give yourself some moments of silence to relax your ears.
  • Learn to spot the distractions vs. the essential parts. Do you need to buy a new synth to finish a track? Probably not. Learn to ask yourself these questions: is there something I have already that would do the trick? Is this new idea that popped into my head worthwhile, or is it a distraction? Is there a utility to it, is am I getting carried away?

One of the most important things is to reserve a moment in your calendar for music production. Prioritize it, and learn to respect that moment and not move it. Some professional musicians dedicate one day a week to production and use a routine that is super important to the creative process.

SEE ALSO : When Do You Know A Track Is Finished?