For this blog post, I will be looking at the characteristics of, and production techniques used in progressive house music. Specifically, I will be analysing the mainstream, “EDM” progressive house. Some of the characteristics of progressive house include melodies, simplicity, a DJ friendly structure, use of effects processing and instrumentation. To help illustrate my analysis, I will be referring to Matisse & Sadko’s remix of “Beating Of My Heart” by M-3ox feat. Heidrun.
Progressive house is based on the melody of the synthesizer lead and its repetition. The tempo averages around 125-130BPM, with 128BPM being the most common. The drum beat is simple; a 4/4 kick drum is used to keep the track in time, claps are placed on every second beat (sometimes on every beat) and closed hi-hats are often placed between the kick and clap (rhythmic patterns vary). To keep the beat interesting, producers can incorporate reverse hi-hats, reverbed claps and percussion loops. Furthermore, the chord progression is also simple and is often repeated throughout the song. As the genre is mostly aimed at festivals, effects such as saturators, mix buss compressors, multiband compressors and especially limiters are used on the master buss to maximise the song’s perceived loudness without clipping or overcompression.
The structure of progressive house is usually as follows: intro, breakdown, drop, breakdown, drop, outro, with builds transitioning between the sections. The intro and the outro sections allow DJs to transition between songs (this genre is mostly aimed at music festivals) and therefore there is often little going on in these sections. As the intro progresses, new instruments (such as bass, risers, arpeggios and drums) are introduced and build transitions the song into the breakdown. The breakdown section is where the chord progression and bassline is introduced. Sweeping synths known as “pads” create a calm and lush atmosphere. Sometimes vocals appear in this section to avoid making the breakdown sound empty. Afterwards, another build leads into the drop and this build hypes up the audience. White noise “wooshes”, risers and snare drum rolls are often used in this section as well as filters (often hi-pass). The drop section is the main part of the song and is driven by the sub bass, the bassline and the lead. White noise crashes are typically used to begin the drop. After another breakdown and a drop, the song moves to the outro stage where the momentum gradually fades out.
Ultimately, the main part of this genre is the melody played by the synthesizer lead. The lead usually consists of multiple (usually 3-5) synthesizer leads layered together, each filling out parts of the stereo field and frequency spectrum. The lead is often accompanied by a bassline which fills out the low-mid frequencies. White noise also accompanies the lead to give it clarity and cut through the mix. To give the lead a wide and full sound, the individual leads are panned slightly either side. In addition, hall reverbs with a high size and stereo spread are also used to give it a lush feel. Finally, delays with different times given to the left and right channels are used. The resulting lead is panned slightly to avoid clashing with the kick and sub bass.
Another important aspect is the kick drum. Kick drums are usually hard and punchy so that they cut through the mix. To make sure that the kick drum is clear, a high percussive sound (like a clap or closed hi-hat) known as a “top kick” is layered on top of it to fill the high frequencies. Moreover, a sub bass is used to add “boom” to the kick drum and drive the song. An interesting technique used to emphasise the kick drum is sidechain compression. The lead and the bassline (as well as other “loud” instruments) are sidechain compressed to the kick drum and therefore duck in volume every time the kick drum plays.
In Matisse & Sadko’s remix of “Beating of My Heart”, the lead is the focus while the bass and sub bass back it up. Female vocals are used in the breakdown and have reverb and delay on them to give them a “spacious” feel. Also in the breakdown, a distorted synthesizer bass is acting as a rhythmic guitar. Since there is no kick drum, this maintains the rhythm of the song. Throughout the song, the chord progression does not change (except for during the intro and outro).
In the build section, there are two risers both panned either side; one supersaw riser, and a pitched LFO riser in the build. White noise and a high-pass filter is used to excite the audience and the song enters the drop stage. Claps are used not only to keep the rhythm, but also to make the audience clap along with the song and audience engagement is crucial with this genre. The claps get faster and faster over the course of build, acting as a snare drum roll. The build ends with the reverb tail of the white noise, a small pitched sound and a quick clap.
In the drop, the lead drives the song with the sub bass and the bass. The lead sounds “full” and lush, and sidechain compression ensures that it does not drown out the kick or the basses. Sidechain compression also gives the song a pumping rhythm which is suitable for dance-floors. White noise is subtly used to fill the high end of the spectrum, this makes the track sound crisp and clear. At the end of the drop, the kick disappears at the last four bars and therefore a nice transition into the breakdown is achieved.
A downlifter (a kick drum pitched downwards), a white noise crash and the lead’s reverb tail start the second breakdown. This breakdown is longer than the first and can be divided into two parts. The first part is atmospheric focusing on vocal chops and harmonies, a high and aetheral electric piano, and pads. There is even a build utilising a high-pass filter, white noise and claps which smoothen the transition to the second part. The second part is more of a build which is led by the main vocals as the lead slowly becomes brighter through the use of a low pass filter.
The intro and outro are similar but the energy increases in the intro and decreases in the outro. The main thing is that the kick drum is present which allows DJs to change the song in these sections. To allow the mixing to be seamless, the kick drum is noticeably “weaker” (most likely due to the removal of low frequencies). Plucks and vocal chops are used to avoid these sections sounding empty. The kick drum is stronger in the outro, most likely to gradually drop the energy of the song as the next song is mixed in.
The characteristics and production techniques used in this song demonstrate why progressive house is enjoyed by not only festival-goers, but also those who appreciate the mainstream side of electronic dance music. Through an uplifting atmospheric vibe and a positive energy, progressive house music can please those who like a balance between the emotional and the exciting.