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Tropical House Tutorial

In the following video Sundog is used to create three different tropical house song parts in seven minutes. The tutorial focuses on chords, bass lines, and melodies.
Some thoughts on sound design
This tutorial concentrates on chords and melodies, because there are already quite a few tutorials available on YouTube that will tell you more about tropical house sound design, mixing, and instrument choices.
Here are some key concepts:
  • Pianos and pluck sounds are commonly used to build a nice background atmosphere. They usually play just chords, no melodies.
  • Guitars are also good for background chords.
  • Snips and claps are essential. You can get a nice pack for free at 99sounds.
  • Tambourines will create a tropical feeling instantly.
  • So do bongos and other percussion instruments.
  • Sidechain compression is very common, especially for the background pianos / plucks, and the bass.
  • Many tracks use a high amount of reverb for snips, claps, and lead instruments. Reverb + sidechain compression are typical as well.
  • Saxophones, flutes, and plucks are common lead instruments. Convincing saxophone melodies can be a challenge, pluck melodies are easier to do.
Sundog Scale Studio
Sundog is used in this video to create the different chords and melodies.
You can download it here: http://feelyoursound.com/sundog/ (Windows, macOS)
A quickstart tutorial is available at http://feelyoursound.com/sundog-quickstart/ (7 minutes and you will know everything you need)
BPM and swing
Most tropical house tracks will play in the range of 100 to 120 BPM. While quite a few producers don't use swing at all, a little bit of groove can't hurt either.
Using the major scale
Most EDM styles prefer to use the minor scale. Tropical house is different here: Many tracks will use the major scale to create a more happy, upbeat sound. It doesn't matter which root note you use (e.g. C, E, or B), so if you work with a vocalist or a saxophone player you may first want to find out what works best for her and then stick to that.
Chords
The most interesting chords for this genre can be found among the commonly used triads of the major scale. Four note chords are nice as well, but most of the time they may sound too jazzy. To get a fuller sound I recommend to take the root note of the triad and add it one octave below as well. This way the chords sounds fuller while maintaining their characteristic mood. Example: A C4-E4-G4 triad will become C3-C4-E4-G4 then.
The main chords of the major scale - I, ii, iii, IV etc (Sundog: The yellow buttons) - are quite nice, but I highly recommend to take a look at inverted chords as well (Sundog: Dark brown buttons). While the main chords consist of notes that lie close together, the inverted chords have a more "open" sound, because the notes cover a wider range.
Cmaj, Amin/C
In the example above the two chords share the first and the second note. The second chord will sound brighter / more open. In many cases this type of triad will fit better to the genre.
Melodic rhythms
A quite common concept in tropical house songs is the idea to take some 16 step rhythmic patterns that are applied to piano chords, plucks, and bass lines then. This way the chord progression provides for some variety while the rhythm keeps everybody dancing.
Of course it is possible to use any rhythm that you like here. But there are two simple tricks that will give you good results instantly:
1) Make sure that you don't put too much weight on the beat. 2) Don't use too many different gap distances between the notes. Take a look at this example:
16 step melodic rhythm
Only the positions 01 and 13 are directly on the beat. The yellow circles mark gaps between the notes that all have the same size. This way your listeners won't get confused by chaotic rhythm changes, but the rhythm won't feel too simple either.
Melodies
OK. To be honest: I have been overly simplistic in my tutorial video ;). It is absolutely OK to use the chord notes for your melodies as well, but it might be an even better idea to use all the notes that the scale provides here. This will make sure that the lead instrument can stand out from the background instruments and sound more interesting.
It is very common for tropical house melodies to do some larger jumps from one octave to the other. This will build up a "happy" feeling instantly. A second trick: Keep your notes close together, because faster melodies will also sound more happy than slower ones. And finally it is a good idea to put the notes not directly on the beat, but also on the other sixteenth positions between them. This way your melodies will have more groove. But don't overdo it: If your melodies fall apart, you might want to use some solid on- and off-beat notes to calm down things a bit.
Downloads
You can download the final Sundog file and the MIDI files of the three song parts here:
tropical_house.zip
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