Music is all about moments. Put on a favourite track and you’re swept along on a wave of pulsing, cresting energy. One minute the beat is simmering down to give you a breather (literally, if you’re on the dancefloor), and the next it’s winding back up, tightening like a coil spring. As it gradually swells in size and power, all that tension has to be released somehow, and you can just tell that something big is on the way. Are you ready for it? You know it’s coming, right? Nearly there… Building up to it… Just a little more… And… BOOM!
Yep, we’re talking about the drop, the modern dance track’s equivalent to the chorus. The bass finally hits like a ton of bricks, the beat pulls no punches, and the main riffs and lead elements are fully turned loose. A well crafted, hard-hitting drop gives the satisfying rush that music lovers crave, keeping them coming back for ‘just one more listen’.
Here, we'll show you eight can't-fail drop 'shapes' that you can easily work into your own tracks.
For much more advice on crafting perfect drops, pick up the May edition of Computer Music.
1. The head nodder
Breakdowns don’t always need a massive build-up to the drop. It’s important to give the listener a break, but it can be just as important to keep the momentum flowing throughout the entire track - Richie Hawtin uses this to great effect in his classic record Minus Orange (bit.ly/RHminusorange). This type of build is the subtlest of them all, but can be extremely effective when used correctly. Start by thinking about where the intensity in the track is coming from – what’s pushing it forward? Typically, the real driving forces are the kick, bass and hi-hats. If you want to indicate a change without disrupting flow, process these with filters, keeping their rhythmic pulse but pulling back the power. Sometimes a very gradual roll-back from the percussion during a breakdown will make a drop spring to life in a subtle way.
2. The roll-out
Build, then build, then build some more - a tried and tested method of creating tension ready to be released at the drop. This is typically put into action with snare builds, which double in time every one or two bars; or with huge sweeps and noise builds that increase in pitch and power over the breakdown.
The classic approach is to have a snare (typically a 909) playing on every beat for two bars, then eighth-notes for another two bars, then 16th-notes, before finally hitting 32nd-notes for a frenzied climax into the drop. Couple it with a synth and noise riser for extra effect. Check out Len Faki’s Death by House (bit.ly/LFdeathbyhouse) to hear some powerful synth rises leading into the drop. Keep building, and once your ramp-up is complete, hit the audience hard with a full-on dramatic entrance – no messing about!
3. The build ’n’ gap
You know those excruciatingly long pauses when a competition winner is announced on television or radio? We all know that something big is coming, but the pause increases the tension. Music is no different - if we increase the tension during the build-up, then cut it all off a bar or two before the drop, you can be pretty sure that you have 100% audience attention for the duration of that gap.
A typical build-up section removes the bass from the track, so you feel the impact when it kicks back in. With this method, you’re free to have a bit of bass in your build-up, as the gap is the ultimate removal. You don’t even have to use complete silence: long reverb tails, trailing delays, or filtered sweeps are a great way of keeping things moving forward. Check out Psycatron’s She Is Music to hear it in action.
4. The overshooter
As we’re all used to formulaic build-ups and drops, we expect everything to kick in on the usual beat 1 of the bar. But what if the track kicks back in on beat 2 or 3 instead?
A great example of this can be heard in Peter Horrevorts’ Bloody Hands - after the build-up in the middle of the track, it drops back in; but instead of placing the power on the first beat, it hits hard on the second beat. It’s extremely effective, and stands out as a key point of interest in the record.
In its simplest form, leaving a gap of absolute silence on beat 1 can leave an entire dancefloor wondering whether the record has been silenced. Alternatively, throw in a vocal sample, percussion sound, drum roll, bass squelch or reversed kick to help the unexpected edit flow more smoothly.
5. The time extender
As always, playing with people’s expectations is a great way of grabbing attention. So what if you go through a build-up but the drop never happens? A great way to squeeze out more tension and anticipation before bringing those beats back is to insert an extra one, two or even four bars after the build-up!
This kind of pause can be found in genres such as trance, where epic melodic breakdowns and powerful riffs constantly intensify towards the drop. By bolting on an extra gap of silence, the intense melodies and build-up elements can fade away, giving the dancefloor a little breathing room before your beats-and-bass barrage finally slams back in.
Be careful, though - tack on too many additional sections throughout the track, and DJs may avoid mixing the record in with more predictably-arranged tracks.
6. The alien swell
When building towards a drop, you’ll want to draw on various production tricks to ramp up the perceived intensity. One great way to build momentum is to automate trippy reverb or delay effects over certain breakdown elements (or even the master channel) to the point of chaos, to ‘wash out’ the build-up and signify that something huge is about to happen. Then, just before the imminent point of impact, you can completely switch off all the effects to starkly slam back into the contrastingly dry drop. As we’re not used to hearing huge ambience vanish in such an unrealistic way, this trick is particularly effective for generating an attention-grabbing sense of claustrophobia. Have a listen to Dubfire’s Roadkill and hear how the build-up ambience sucks in right at the drop… guaranteed dancefloor damage!
7. The A-to-B
The build-up doesn’t necessarily have to be a reduction and restatement of the main groove. Instead, take a more ‘poppy’ approach and join two sections together, just like a typical verse/chorus arrangement. Kink’s remix of Marc Romboy & Blake Baxter’s Muzik essentially moves between an A and B section in this way. Other tracks feature a similar approach, where the drop section has a completely contrasting vibe to the build-up. Typically, this takes the form of an extremely melodic build-up, which then slams into a muscular, monotonous beat-and-bass combo. Lead your audience into the different sections and tie things together by either revealing elements separately, or via bridging sections to smooth the transitions - remember, contrast is great, but you don’t want things to feel disjointed.
8. The anti-drop
Sometimes you might create a build-up which is simply massive, all guns blazing. If you’ve already turned everything up to 11, where do you go from there? Although it’s the climactic moment, a killer drop doesn’t have to be the fullest moment of the track - by starting smaller at the drop, you create some headroom and give yourself the remainder of the track to ramp things back up again towards a big ending. See which sounds are really keeping the beat pulsing, and let the drop kick in with only those parts at first.
Drum ’n’ bass records use this technique to pull things back after an intense frenzy during the build-up - listen to the reintroduction of the beats in Camo & Krooked’s Climax, which make it feel like the track has dropped… but really, the good stuff is yet to come!