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Dancehall music has become one of the most surprisingly influential movements in pop, so more people than ever want to learn how to mix dancehall music, or produce their own. Some of the biggest American producers, including Major Lazer members Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire, have spoken of their love for dancehall and the way it has influenced them. Jamaican Sean Paul had a few international hits in the mid 00s, including the smash “Temperature.” More recently. Rhianna and Drake have had hits recently with dancehall-influenced tracks. Rhianna with “Work” and Drake with “One Dance” and “Controlla.”
What is Dancehall
What exactly is dancehall? Dancehall is a genre of Jamaican pop music that has developed from the 1970s until the present. Jamaica is famous for punching above its weight in terms of musical influence and innovation. This island nation may have a population below three million, less than 1% of the US. Yet beginning in the 1960s, its cultural contributions have included ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall. The collective influence cannot be overstated. Bob Marley is an international icon to this day. Ska has had three waves of popularity worldwide. Dub, a spacey electronic development of reggae, was influential in early EDM. Believe it or not, dubstep is a further development of dub, and therefore has its roots in reggae, although the two genres sound like they belong in different universes.
And finally, dancehall. Dancehall music developed with the development of synthesizers and samplers in the 1980s. It used the rhythms and musical ideas of reggae, but instead of being played by a band, it was produced on keyboards and drum machines. The sound was therefore more minimal. “(Under Me) Sleng Teng” is a very influential recording. Released in 1985, this was one of the very first entirely-electronic productions in the genre. The synths sound adorably primitive today, but the message was clear: great dance music can be produced electronically by a single producer.
Dancehall music was performed by DJs on club sound systems, no band required. Therefore, it was the music enjoyed by Jamaica’s working classes, many of whom could not even afford a radio at home. The music was written to be blasted, to be danced to, to be felt. It has always been a sensation-based, hedonistic genre, comparable to pop and EDM music. It is music for partying.
So how do you mix dancehall music? Read on for some tips!
Trust Your Senses
This may seem like a very obvious and basic tip, but mixing music is a rabbit-hole, and it can be easy to lose sight. At the end of the day, this music has to “feel good.” One of my favorite quotes related to this concept: “mix with your ears, not with your eyes.” You can find yourself in a loop, playing back the song, watching meters and numbers, making adjustments.
Another way to say this: Don’t get too technical about the mixing. I have personally spoken to many engineers who have studied the technical side of mixing, and they “know” a lot. But when I listen to their mixes, I find them flat and un-moving, despite the fact that they are probably “technically” perfect.
So make sure to ask yourself really basic questions about the way the music feels while you are mixing it. “Is this cool?” “Does this make me feel like dancing?” “Does this feel good or harsh when it’s played loud?” Only delve into the technical side when the answer is no. But don’t miss the forest for the trees. Most people who listen to your music don’t really know or care what frequencies you boosted in the EQ, or what your compression release times are. The only thing they care about is whether the music is fun to party to.
This is a related tip. Dancehall is a well-established genre, so you should not set out to rewrite the book. It’s mostly mixed the same, because it works. We have collectively figured out formulas to mix music that feels good to dance to. Dance music across the world is mixed with many of the same principles at this point, and it’s not a coincidence.
So as you mix, make use of reference mixes. Find a few of your favorite dancehall tunes- newer is usually better, as mixing and production have only gotten better as time has gone on. Compare your mix to the professional ones. Dancehall music is usually experienced as a playlist or set performed by a DJ. So the songs should all sound natural as they flow from one to the next.
Now that we have discussed some of the mindsets a person needs to be successful with this, on to the actual technical process of mixing. Gain-staging is the technical term for setting the volumes of all of your tracks. It should always come first, before you touch EQ or compression.
First, get your basic volumes right. Vocals, kick, snare, percussion, bass, synths and keys. In dancehall and other dance-related genres, the drums and percussion are the most important tracks. Bass, vocals, and sound effects like sweeps are also very important. Any other tracks, like guitar, keys, synths, tend to be farther in the back than you might realize.
After your basic volumes are set, use volume automation whenever its necessary. Perhaps a synth part plays a melody at one point, but is part of the rhythm at another point. It should be much louder when it’s a melody.
I recommend keeping all of your gain low at first. This gives you lots of room to work with. You can always temporarily raise the master volume while listening back.
Balance Bass Frequencies
This is one of the most important technical aspects of mixing music, especially in dance, pop, and EDM. It should not be surprising to you that bass frequencies are crucial in these genres. They create the feeling, the power, the movement in the music. You can think of bass frequencies as a beast that must be tamed. As powerful as they are, they can be destructive if not handled correctly. The two issues they can create are: to eat up your headroom, and to create muddy, unclear-feeling mixes.
Headroom refers to the space you have to make your mix louder. Mixes cannot be made louder infinitely. There are limits before your music becomes distorted or starts clipping. Bass frequencies require the most power, and therefore they can disproportionately eat the headroom if not handled properly.
Basically, you need to make sure the different tracks in the bass frequencies (40-200 Hz) have their own space. Typically, kick and bass tracks both use this frequency range. It’s important to use EQ to give each its own space. Cut the 40-100 range in one track, and cut the 100-200 range in the other track. I typically give the kick the lowest frequencies, and the bass the higher frequencies in this range. But you can try both in each mix, and just choose whatever feels best.
Another option is to not use EQ at all for bass frequencies. Use side-chain compression instead. This is a powerful tool, and taming bass frequencies is one of its most important uses. Since the bass usually has more sustain than the kick (that is, the sound holds for longer) I typically side-chain the bass to duck every time the kick plays. Make sure to play with your threshold and release times to create the right feeling. If you use the effect too strongly, your mix will feel like it is “pumping.” This is occasionally done intentionally, often in EDM. But usually a more subtle effect is better.
Use EQ Cuts to Give Each Track Space
This is a similar concept to the previous tip. Dancehall music has clearly-defined frequency ranges, and each range plays its own role. The drums and percussion should probably not be cut at all, except for the kick, as mentioned earlier. Vocals can have their highest frequencies, from 10-20k, lowered a bit, so they don’t compete with the percussion. The 10-20k range is mostly for percussion and sound effects in dancehall music. Any rhythm section instruments (guitar, keys, synth, brass, etc) can have their low frequencies cut (anything below 250-500) as well as their highest frequencies (10k-20k.) With this EQ, each instrument is given its own frequency range to work in.
Use EQ Boosts and Cuts to Create the Right Feeling
This tip is related to first couple of tips- mix by feeling, and use references. Do a google search for “EQ cheat sheet” and you will find a few graphs that relate the different ranges of the frequency spectrum with different feelings, such as “boomy” “boxy” “presence” and “air.” This was a huge benefit for me personally, and really helped me keep my technical knowledge in touch with the actual experience of music. By learning these charts, you can start to translate feelings into frequencies and vice-versa.
So, listen to your mix, and listen to a reference. If you notice your percussion does not sound “airy” enough compared to your reference, boost the highest frequencies. If you notice your rhythm section sounds too muddy, cut some of the 600-1000Hz frequencies. Do this to give all of your tracks the right “tone” to work together. And sometimes the tone of a track can change at certain parts. Like the earlier example of a synth that’s a lead part in one section, and a rhythm part in another section. You might want to boost the 2k range when it’s a lead instrument, to give it more presence.
Use Compression Heavily on Vocals and Acoustic Tracks
This tip goes for Dancehall, and related genres of music that are produced with a party or dance setting in mind. Vocals, and any other acoustically-recorded tracks (acoustic guitar, hand percussion, etc) should be highly compressed in this genre. The musicality of dance music comes from the overall arrangement and melodies, and from the movement of the bass frequencies. You don’t need dynamic, expressive individual tracks, as that dynamic expression will just get lost in the mix. You’d be surprised how much compression is applied to vocals and other acoustic tracks in this genre. Be mindful of breaths and other possibly-unwanted mouth sounds, and if necessary, use a noise gate, volume automation, EQ, or dynamic EQ to tame these.
Use the Fletcher-Munson Curve
This is one of those tips that can separate an amateur mix from a pro-sounding one. The human ear is more sensitive to some frequency ranges than others. Since dancehall music is meant to be listened to at loud volumes, it should not feel shrill or tiring. Try listening to your mix loud and see if it feels kind of harsh or fatiguing. Compare it to a reference track at the same volume.
If your track feels kind of harsh, put a spectrum analyzer on your master bus and see if you have too much in the 1000-3000 Hz range. As you can see from the graph, the human ear is more sensitive to this range. I recommend cutting these frequencies in individual tracks, rather than just cutting the master, but use trial and error to see what feels best. It’s better to cut this range in background tracks; if you cut this range too much in foreground tracks like drums or vocals, your mix can start to sound dull. Find the balance.
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for experience. Imagine trying to explain to someone how to ride a bike. It might help, but they are never going to learn until they get on the bike and try it for themselves. Don’t give up, and keep trying. You’ll improve with each mix. And don’t be afraid to try out professional mixing services. They can be surprisingly inexpensive, and it can be a great way to compare your mix to a professional’s, and to learn by example.
What Are You Listening On
Remember that when you make music, you can only make music that’s as good as your speakers or headphones. You could have issues if you are monitoring on low-quality equipment, or equipment that “colors” your sound. Read here for my personal list of recommendations of headphones and monitor speakers for fresh producers.
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.