Slice Everything

After a few years of pausing teaching 1-2-1 beginner’s classes, I took a few lately to get back in touch with how it feels when you start making music. One of the reasons I wasn’t taking beginners was that it became redundant to me, and I preferred taking intermediate to advanced producers instead because of the challenge and because, at that level, different problems require some creative approach. Beginners require guidance, help with navigation, workflow, and debunking myths about music making and basic concepts. At the same time, I now realize that I take the challenge differently; I aim to teach them the most with as little as possible.


One approach I take is to see their progression with levels, like video games or Dungeons and Dragons (if you know me, I’m a big D&D fan, playing weekly). In this post, I’ll approach one technique people are constantly overlooking, and whatever level you are, it is undoubtedly something to apply: Slicing.


Sampling, Resampling and Hip Hop


At a beginner’s level, people are looking to familiarize themselves with the tools and navigation of Ableton Live (or DAW). I always insist that if you focus on hardware, you go back to a DAW, as there are a lot of concepts to learn first, and using a computer is far simpler than learning gear. Part of that navigation includes using clips, loops, and simple sounds and building songs with those to understand how arrangements work and simple theory.


At that level, you can’t yet aspire to sound like what you hope for, nor does someone who plays the piano for the first time practice scales. If you want to make songs, you need to practice making songs out of whatever you find. But sampling, resampling and remixing can go a long way. Some producers make a career out of those techniques.


Everyone wants to make songs but no one want to learn how to make them. They all want to skip the practice because they think they have it all figured out.


Hip-hop is a good example. The philosophy and basis of production include sampling old records or any music whatsoever and arranging them, often on an MPC. The logic comes down to “grab and juggle, rearrange to taste.”

Creatively, it is the ideal ground-breaking approach: You take what you love and then arrange it in your way.


I’ve been following this artist, Jon Makes Beats, who applies this efficiently. He often samples records, usually quite corny (apparently many of them were bought at a Salvation Army for a few bucks), rearranges them, adds beats (often from rearranged loops), plays some notes on top, and then booms (usually presets, which he says he’s okay with)—all that is recorded in one shot. To me, this feels like perfect, successful studio time.


Watch all his videos, and it’s impossible not to get inspired by the simplicity of his approach. But also, he has some good, down-to-earth tips that are aligned with mine.


The central concept is simple: once you have your samples, you have the material to tell your story in another way. I’ll share some points and ideas for you to try.


Numerous notable artists have made amazing things with samples, but two who come to mind are the Beastie Boys and Daft Punk. In the Apple TV documentary, The Beastie Boys share how one of their early hit songs relied on three samples as the basis; the rest was a drum machine and their rapping. On the other hand, Daft Punk layered multiple little samples from various records to achieve a song. Those 2 are good opposite examples, but both did so much with taken ideas used creatively.



Creating your own Slicing preset

I wasn’t super happy with the sampling presets in Ableton Live, so I created my own. When I slice a loop, I want, by default, access to a specific macro mapped to what I usually use.


First, if you’re unfamiliar with slicing, you can do so by taking any loop you have, and then, when you right-click, a menu will appear. From there, you pick “Slice to Midi Track.”



Then, you’ll be prompted on what preset to use for the slicing.


You’ll then get a drum rack with each sample (slice) assigned to the rack’s pads. A Midi clip will also be generated with a note pointing to a specific slice. If you play the clip, you’ll hear your original clip, but now you can rearrange the clip so the notes come in a different order. You can also pick one sample.



They’re all OK for vanilla slicing, but the rack’s macros feel underwhelming. Making your preset is so easy and fun that I’ll explain how I made mine so you can do your own.

Create your slicing preset

First, open an empty MIDI channel.

Second, place a Drum Rack and add a Simpler on the C1 pad.



Third, you can map some parameters of the Simpler to the Macro-knobs of the Drum Rack. This means that when you slice your clip, each slice will have its own Simpler, but a simple mapped knob will control all of the same parameters. This has pros and cons. On the positive side, this means that you can, for instance, maintain the length of all the slices, making them short or long. But if some clips are intended to be short while others are long, that can be tricky.

Some of my knobs are controlling these parameters: Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, Volume on the lower right side. Then, the Filter’s Frequency and Resonance. Make sure that you uncheck the Loop and Snap options.




The last step is to save this new preset in the right folder so it can be used in the slicing option.

You drop the drum rack in the User Folder, under Defaults, in the folder “Slicing.” You can then rename it whatever you want, like mine below, “My Basic Slicer.”



If you slice a clip to midi, your new preset will appear in the list.


You’re now set to go!

Now, let’s do a few little experiments.


Slice the Ugly Into Beauty


Sometimes, you might have bizarre and ugly recordings of a synth or perhaps a dissonant effect. I’m particularly interested in those because you can get some unusual melodies or percussion once you slice them. I find there is something poetic in transforming something you’d automatically discard and finding a new, unexpected life.

One issue might be that it might not have transients to be detected, so you might want to slice it into forced regions. I’d encourage you to try different settings, but it could be 1/4 or 1/8, depending on your desired size. Ensure the sample you’re slicing isn’t too long; otherwise, you’ll end up with too many slices, which won’t be interesting to work with.



From there, you can see what slices came out, modify the length, and discover new patterns.

TIP: You can try a sequencer before the drum rack to generate sequences without the MIDI clip. Some fun sequencers exist, such as Rozzer and Snake.


Slicing Melodies

This technique comes from Hip-Hop. They usually slice a melody into more extended regions and then, by playing a MIDI instrument, play the song with a different articulation or change the order of the notes. But you can also take a more abstract approach, have shorter notes, play them randomly, and see if it makes sense.

To do this, people would select a region size that is 1/2 or 1 bar long. But if you’re into Micro-House music, you’d go for tiny regions.

TIP 1: Get a MIDI controller to experiment with playing the regions.

TIP 2: Use the internal LFOs of the Sampler to add some life to your sequence.



Swapping Sounds

In Ableton Live 12 (if you have it), the drum rack has a new option that allows you to swap all sounds for a new selection of similar ones. This can be a rabbit hole because you’ll start with a few sounds, and then you’ll end up discovering plenty of alternatives. You can lock some sounds you like and then dice roll the other out.

To do this, you’ll first need to go into the sample list and consolidate the slices; otherwise, they won’t be detected as single slices.



TIP: Whatever slicing you do, if you use transient mode, mainly for anything percussive, you’ll have a midi DNA of where each transient falls on the grid. You can also use one slicer’s midi and pass it to another. This means that the rhythm of one slicing pattern can trigger the order of another. This leads to rearranged sequences and a fun, unsteady swing.


Third-Party Samplers


It’s also fun to explore third-party VSTs beyond Ableton. There are quite a few out there, but I’ll share my favourites. Not that you won’t be able to create a slicing preset with those. The slicing presets can only be made with the native sampler/simpler from Ableton.


Life / XO

This plugin is XO’s little perfect companion. If you don’t know about XO, it’s probably one of the best drum machines and samplers. XO excels at creating percussive sequences, giving you variations with sounds and patterns. It also visually organizes your collection of samples by category and family, allowing you to find similar samples quickly. Life takes this to another level where you can resample your samples internally and then create new sequences out of them but with many variations options. It also has this option as an app on your smartphone to record sounds anywhere and then link them to your DAW. It is awe-inspiring.

TIP: Use both with automation to really bring your sequences to life.

TIP2: These are essentials if you have the budget.


Serato Sample

For DJs to play their sets digitally, Serato has been around for a while. It started with a Vynil encoder where they could beat-match music from their computer. This evolved in 20 years, and now digital mixing is a standard for many. DJing for hip-hop artists who do DMC scratching competitions is an art, and Serato developed a sampler version for artists who want to explore sampling parts in production. This plugin is highly rated because it offers simplicity and easy workflow.




The guys at AudioModern have a series of excellent studio tools I use regularly. Loopmix is quite fun as it’s designed to be used with loops. The idea is to use multiple loops (ideally, it works better with percussion), and then it will slice them to recreate new sequences, blending the different sources. It’s pretty impressive what you can do with this live but also in the studio if you want to recycle the loops you have.


Dawesome Novum

I’m not too familiar with this one, as I only saw demos, but from what I understand, it decomposes the samples into layers. Instead of slicing them in time, it does it on a spectrum layer. This means you can decompose your sample into layers. It’s on my wishlist, and I’m resisting trying the demo because I know I’ll buy it in a glimpse. This is the kind of tool you’ll want if you love drones, textures, moods and anything ethereal sounding.


I look forward to hearing what you’ll do with this technique. Please share your experiments.



Photo by MW on Unsplash




Using Imperfection As a Leverage

The last few weeks have been quite exciting for me. This year so far has brought me a lot of joy when it comes to music. After being at the service of my clients on a full-time schedule for the last nine years, I realized that bringing the spotlight on myself was essential for my creativity and sanity. Moreover, after teaching and explaining concepts for that long, it was time for me to dive into my needs and apply them.


But what ignited much passion recently was that I was invited to play a DJ set, which at first was a bit unsettling, but it turned out to be a positive thing as I dove into digital mixing. I haven’t DJ a set since 2011 and didn’t have fun either. As someone who feels like himself when playing live, DJin feels like a limited version of my creative self. But using Pioneer’s Rekordbox and a controller, I realized that things have changed a lot since and that it’s pretty exciting.


I’m fortunate to have a label (Archipel), and many friends, which made my music collection quite rich, so playing that music felt like rediscovering two things: layering music and creative storytelling.

Most importantly, it reminded me that if you make music for DJs, you will benefit from DJing yourself to know what works or not with your art.


I made a few realizations while improvising music, which I’ll share in this post.


Tracks vs Songs


One of the first things that come to mind when mixing music is that if the music is too full or too arranged, it is hard to layer it over other music. One term we use in music production is “stripped-down music” for tracks that are generally more repetitive and, on first look, feel a bit underwhelming. If you’re into layering music, those songs are a DJ’s best friend. This comes as eye-opening as I am into tightly executed arrangements, and now, when I mix, I tend to search for those mellow songs to mix in just for the texture it brings.

Some songs that I love listening to become a nightmare to mix because they’re overly busy, and relying on the EQ to attenuate some frequency range brings down way too much from that song.


Clients who are worried their music is boring don’t realize that it might actually be a good thing because a song that is slightly repetitive and not so exciting can actually be an excellent tool for a DJ.


When minimal was at its peak in the early 2000s, I remember journalist Philip Sherburne describing minimal techno as “music that feels unfinished but released anyway,” he wasn’t wrong. It was primarily because leading DJs would layer all kinds of songs simultaneously as a performance. Richie Hawtin was the leader of this, as Algorithm, Mike Shannon… I’d say it is an art to find the right balance, and in this interview, Hawtin explained that for his Concept:96, he was focusing on working with elements essential to the song, discarding anything else.

Many people forget that DJ tracks aren’t necessarily made to be listened to independently. You may if you want, but it might be slightly underwhelming. If it is, it’s perhaps done right, which is mind-boggling for many producers who often stress that people might get bored.


I’m blantantly going to point out EDM as the main actor for making overly arranged music, creating a standard that contaminated other genres. If EDM brought people on board to the electronic scene, it also confused the new people that it is the way music should be made.


The strength of music that is filled with risers, swooshes, reverse, effects, drops, and breaks is that you’ll have a crowd that is paying attention, and it will also remove intervention for the DJ to do… or maybe they will induce more action, creating a wall of noise. I don’t despise this genre, but it is not what I want from music. I’m more interested in a hypnotic effect, subtle transitions and a mysterious music excursion.


Back to unfinished songs, I’m not even observing that music that is not so well mixed can also engage in mixing as their imperfection can be blended into a song. I mainly refer to songs with weird filtering or sloppy low-end. Of course, on their own, it’s a bit rough, but as a third deck song, as a way to complement what’s happening, it adds a layer of frequencies that can be a nice colour. Well-mixed songs can carry a set, but there is room for imperfectly mixed songs to be added, as long as you don’t leave them on their playing.


Negative Space In Arrangements


This brings me to negative space, or “holes.” These are voluntary spaces, silences, and blanks you leave in your patterns or longer phrases. The beauty of these silences comes to life when mixing another song, where some aspects of song B reply to elements of song A. When you think this way, this opens up a whole range of options:


  • Negative space in percussion patterns: Instead of having a full line of an element playing, you could mute half or a quarter of the bar to have space for other percussion.
  • Space in section: You can see your melodies and patterns by sections where they can play for 1 to 4 bars, then go mute. You can also alternate melodies every X bar instead of having them play throughout the song (a common mistake I see in arrangements).
  • Less transition, more spontaneous elements: You don’t need to have sounds at every transition. Have it less, and instead, use decorative elements here and there. When mixing with another song, these elements might converse with another song.
  • Reduce your checklist: Sometimes I feel like a song has a checklist of all the elements it needs to be “full,” so why not leave some out? You could leave out the claps, arp, bass, or something you usually put in de facto. Most other songs have those elements, so leaving an “essential out” is a soft way to create tension.
  • One-note melodies: We often trick ourselves into thinking melodies need multiple notes to be fun, but using one note can go a long way. It can also be layered with another song with 1-2 notes, creating a new melody. Harmony happens when multiple notes are combined, so having a track with one note complements other songs. One-note sequences are quite helpful in the intro or outro of a song.


Breakdowns, Drops, Effect


Now, let’s discuss things I don’t like about mixing. The first one I need to mention is something I’ve been saying for a long time: breaks.

I don’t understand why each song has a breakdown. Especially long ones. Having a moment with less energy can be fun and offer a different flavour to how the song is built, but you don’t always need a long pause in your music. It has become too easy just always to have breakdowns, as when there is then a drop, people react. There are other ways to do that, and each song has a long break, which gets tiring. As I said in past posts in this blog, it’s the DJ’s job to know when the best moment to drop the energy is, and if you do it for them, it can get irritating.


I found myself using hot cues to skip breaks, and in some cases, I’m now creating edits of the songs where I remove them. Once removed, it feels even like it shouldn’t be there.


Once again, in EDM, one of the main ideas of a breakdown is that once the drop happens, it should propose a new twist (ex., change of percussion pattern or introduction of a new sound). I like that in some way, but not in every song. This is something to be considered for repetitive music, which is in the last third of a song, to add something new and complementary.

This also goes for effects, swooshes, and risers, which are all over the top and unnecessary. Again, I removed some of them in songs I’d want to play.

I’m starting to like “empty-sounding songs,” pretty straightforward ones. Is that a return to my 90’s roots? Perhaps yes.


Arrangement Techniques


There are multiple ways to write arrangements for DJs who, like me, are into layers and long mixing sequences. You can search my blog with the arrangement topic to find a bunch, but I’ll share the ones I’m currently using. Yes, at the moment, I’m lost in a rabbit hole of making DJ-tools songs for my pleasure and enjoying it quite a bit.


1. Find a track you like as a reference, play it in the background of your arrangement, and build your song to fit over it. I recommend isolating the last 2-3 minutes of the reference and then developing your intro over it. This is particularly useful if you struggle with how to start a song.


2. Decorate your track using the reference song and place your “events” at moments where it complements it. For instance, you could add a few notes to answer the ones of the arrangement or place a vocal at another point. These are fun for a DJ to use because as the song goes, they can loop part of your track and layer it over the song that is playing. Sometimes, for longer tracks, where the DJ is waiting for the last part to mix in a new one, there are a few minutes to kill, so if you provide something playful, the DJ can be creative and do subtle mixing or crossfader tricks.


3. Add Bonus content. When your song is done playing, add a few seconds of silence and then the effects, risers, or whatever you want. That way, you can load the track twice, and the second one can be used to decorate the first one.


4. Test your music. Rekordbox is free to download and useful for testing. Load up your references and newly done tracks, then layer them to see how it goes. You can also do that in Ableton or your DAW. Adjust. I don’t think the first version you will do will be the best.


5. Live Jam. This one is where you can have a lot of fun and be less intellectual. Have your reference play, and then gather a bunch of loops you can jam with. The idea is to jam those loops over the reference. See this as if you were the DJ but with more control. Another way to approach this would be that you’re collaborating. Mute the reference and listen to what you have. It might feel a bit weird on its own, but you’ll have a layer to work around as you can build your core song around your playful jam. You don’t have to keep it all. You can trim the best parts.


Leave your comments below if you have other suggestions and ideas. I’d love to read them.


Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash