Tag Archive for: arrangements

Creating a music sketch

In this post, I’d like to explain how making a music sketch can help you to stay on track when creating a song or track, much like how a painter creates an initial sketch of his/her subject. I’ve explained in previous posts that the traditional way of making music goes something like this:

  1. Record and assemble sounds to work from.
  2. Find your motif.
  3. Make and edit the arrangements.
  4. Mix.

Here we’re talking about a way of making music that was popularized in the 1960s and is still used frequently today. But what happens when you have the ability to do everything yourself, and from your computer alone? Can you successfully tackle all of these tasks simultaneously?

When I do workshops, process and workflow are generally questionable topics to address because everyone has different point of view and way of working. However, to me it always comes down to one thing—how productive and satisfied an artist is with his or her finished work. Satisfaction is pretty much the only thing that matters, but I often see people struggle with their workflow, mostly because they keep juggling between different stages of music-making and get lost in the process (sometimes even losing their original idea altogether). For example, an artist might start working with an initial idea, but then get lost in sound design, which then leads them to working on mixing, and then sooner or later the original idea doesn’t feel right anymore. For some people, perhaps its better to do things one at a time; the old before-the-personal-computer way still works. But what if breaking your workflow into distinct stages still doesn’t work? Is there another alternative approach?

In working with different artists and making music myself, I’ve come to a different approach: creating a music sketch—a take on the classic stage-based process I just mentioned. Recently, this approach has been giving me a lot of good results—I’d like to discuss it so you can try it yourself.

Sketching your songs and designs

I completed many drawing classes in college because I was studying art. If you observe a teacher or professional painter working, you’ll see that when they create a realistic painting of a subject, they’ll use a pencil first and sketch it out, doodling lines within a wire-frame to get an idea of where things are. Sketching is a good way to keep perspective in mind, and to get an idea of framing and composition. The same sketching process can be used in music-making.

When I have an idea, I like to sketch out a “ghost arrangement”. Sometimes I even sketch out some sound design. The trap a lot of people fall into when making a song—particularly in electronic music—is to strive to create a perfect loop right from the start. Some people get lost in the process easily which is, honestly, really not important. People work on a “perfect loop” endlessly in the early stages of making a song because when you are just starting a song, the loop will have no context and it will be much more difficult to create something satisfying. By quickly giving your loop a context through a sketch-type process by arranging or giving the project a bit more direction, you’ll hear what’s wrong or missing.

I’m of the belief that having something half-done as you’re working can be acceptable instead of constantly striving for perfection. I think this way because I know I’ll revisit a song many times, tweaking it a little more each time.

Sketching a song can be done by understanding at the beginning of the process that you’ll work through stages of music-making more quickly and roughly, knowing you’ll fix things later on. This is more in line with how life actually goes: we live our lives knowing some problems will get solved over time, and that there are many things we don’t know at a particular moment in time. In making music, some people become crazy control freaks, wanting to own every single detail, leading them down rabbit hole of perfectionist stagnation, in my opinion.

Creating a sketch in a project is simple. Since I work with a lot of sound design, I usually pick something that strikes a chord in me…awakens an emotion somehow. Since this will be my main idea, next I’ll try to decide how it will be use as a phrase in my song. In order to get that structured, I need to know how the main percussion will go, so I’ll drop-in a favourite kick (usually a plain 808) and a snare/clap. These two simple, percussive sounds are intentionally generic because I will swap them out during the mixing process. You want just a kick in there to have an idea of the rhythm, and the snare clarifies the swing/groove.

Why are the basic kick and snare swapped out later?

I swap out the snare and kick later because I find that I need my whole song to be really clear before I can decide on the exact tone of a kick. A kick can dramatically change the whole perspective of a song, depending on how it’s made. Same thing goes for a snare—it’s rare I’ll change the actual timing of the samples, but the sound itself pretty much always changes down the line.

For the rest of the percussion, I’ll sketch out a groove with random sounds that may or may not change later on, but I use sounds I know are not the core of my song.

With bass, I usually work the same way; I have notes that support the main idea but the design/tone of the bass itself has room to be tweaked later.

As for arrangements, when creating a music sketch I will make a general structure as to what goes where, when some sounds should start playing or end, and will have the conclusion roughly established.

Design and tweak

Tweaking is where magic happens—this is where, in fact, a lot of people usually start their music-writing process. Tweaking and designing is a phase where you clarify your main idea by creating context. I usually work around the middle part of the song; the heart of the idea, then work on the main idea’s sound design. I layer the main idea with details, add movement and velocity changes.

  • Layering can be done by duplicating the channel a few times and EQing the sub-channels differently. Group them and add a few empty channels where you can add more sounds at lower volume.
  • Movement can imply changes in the length of the sound’s duration (I recommend Gatekeeper for quick ideas), panning (PanShaper 2 is great), frequency filtering, and volume changes (Check mVibratoMB for great volume modulation). The other option is to add effects such as chorus, flanger, phaser, that modulate with a speed adjustment. Some really great modulators would be the mFlangerMB (because you can pick which frequency range to affect—I use this for high pitched sounds), chorus (mChorusMB) to open the mids, and phasers (Phasor Snapin) for short length sounds. Another precious tool is the LFO by XFER—basically you want the plugin to have a wet/dry option and keep it at a pretty low wet signal.
  • Groove/swing. This is something I usually do later—I find that adjusting it in the last stretch of sketching provides the best results. The compression might need to be tweaked a bit, but in general the groove becomes much easier to fix once everything is in place.
  • Manual automation. Engineers will tell you that the best compression is done by hand, and compressors are there for fast tweaks that you can’t do. Same for automation, I find that to be able to make your transition and movement using a MIDI controller is a really nice finishing touch that is perfect in this stage.

Basically, the rule of finalizing design is that whatever was there as a sketch has to be tweaked, one sound/channel at a time. Don’t leave anything unattended—this can manifest from a fear of “messing things up”.

When tweaking specific sounds from the original sketch, you should either swap out the original sound completely, or layer it somehow to polish it. I always recommend layering before swapping. I find that fat, thick samples are always the combination of 3 sounds, which make it sound rich. When I work on mixing or arrangements for my clients and I see the clap being a single, simple layer, I have to work on it much more using compression, sometimes doubling the sample itself, which in the end, gives it a new presence. Doubling a sound—or even tripling it—gives you a lot more options. For example, if you modulate the gain of only one of the doubles, you not only make the sound thicker but also give it movement and variation.

All this said, I would recommend making sure your arrangements are solid before spending a lot of time in design. Once you start designing, if your arrangements have a certain structure, you’ll be able to design your song and sounds specifically according to each section (eg. intro, middle, chorus, outro) which gives your song even more personality. Sound design completed after a good sketch can be very impactful when the conditions are right.

Try sketching your own song and let me know how it goes!

SEE ALSO : Creating Timeless Music

Live recording with the Ableton session view

Many people who sit in from of a computer to make music find this style of music work counter-productive or “too nerdy”, and will always prefer using gear, instruments, and live sounds to create music. If you’re finding your workflow too rigid when working in the arrangements view of a DAW and feel like your usual song structures are “too square”, it’s good to remind yourself that there are other ways to make music.

If you feel limited in your current production style, finding a better way might come from exploring alternatives.

This is partly why modular synth music feels free—tweaking a machine you can’t entirely control with often unexpected results. Similarly, in DJ’ing, the DJ is the master of when a song starts, stops, and how to control certain outputs. One of the best ways to see where you yourself stands is to understand what brings you excitement when you make music. I often hear stories of people struggling with an inner voice telling them how music should be made The Right WayTM and they’ll sit in front of their DAW hoping something happens, but what comes out feels weak, boring and not worthy of any energy. These individuals have been misled in what is believed to be The Right WayTM (though for some the DAW approach works).

The last thing you want to do if you’re bored of DAW-based production is to jump straight in the modular world, especially if you don’t know much about it. Even though you may have read a lot about modular, you might get started with it and not really enjoy it either, which is a waste of time and money.

Explore low-cost alternatives

My view and approach to finding a new way to produce your music is through low-cost gear or instruments, and a drive to explore less predictable music-making methods. When it comes to knowing how to make music, I always insist that what you should master first is the knowledge of your personal tools and how to get the best of them. It takes time and patience, but this approach starts you on a road to success with controllable results instead of facing a long list of failures resulting from never truly being an expert at any tool you use.

Using live audio recordings in Ableton Live (and other DAWs)

It’s easy to forget that you can totally turn your production methods with Ableton Live (or any DAW, for that matter) upside-down without spending a dime. One of the most powerful aspects of DAWs—though sometimes under-utilized in electronic music—are their ability to process live recordings. “Real”, original audio recordings feel more organic than pre-made samples or boring MIDI blocks. So, how can you go about working with live recordings in an effective way?

Gather your loops for source material to jam with

Pre-made loops

There’s a lot of bad-mouthing out there regarding the use of pre-made loops. If you use them “as-is”, you risk having the same loops as other people’s songs, and perhaps be accused of not being original. However, don’t write-off pre-made loops completely—there are many advantages to using them.

  • Search for quality loops. If you hunt for loops, chances are you’ll find some that sound great, and perhaps some will also have at least one sound that you might be interested in. It’s important that you train your ear to what good quality sounds are, and that you are able to see how they are sequenced and processed.
  • Slice the loops into smaller pieces. Once you have a loop, right click to use the option of Slice to MIDI. Once sliced, you can trigger the sounds you want to keep and reprogram them.
  • Drop the slices in a sampler. Using the sampler, you can also isolate one part of the loop, and by playing a note, you can control its pitch—another way to recycle sounds from pre-made loops.
  • Use envelopes. In the clip itself, you can draw automation for gain/volume, and have part of the loop playing while silencing other parts. You can also automate pitch if you want. The fun part in using envelopes is to create automation that isn’t linked to the length to the clip itself—a good way to create strange results or polyrhythms.
  • Adjust the length. You can make tiny loops out of long ones, and you can create strange rhythms by having the loop points a bit “off”.

Recording your own loops

If you are one of those people who doesn’t like tweaking things on a screen, of course you can always record organic sounds yourself, and create source material from those recordings instead of using pre-made loops created by someone else. Once you have recordings saved, you can always tweak them in a similar fashion to the methods we just discussed.

How many sounds or samples should you create for your song?

Collecting and creating quality sounds from pre-made loops takes a fair bit of time and research. You need to do part of the sound design yourself in order have decent material to make your song. As an example, below I’ve created a list of what I believe to be “the bare minimum” to create in terms of loops and slices before to have a productive jam. Keep in mind that this is for mostly electronic music, but it could also apply to other genres:

  • A 2-bar loop minimum of kick or low end sounds that mark the tempo.
  • A 2-4 bar loop of low end material. This can be bass, filtered low synths, toms, etc.
  • 3-5 loops of rhythmic elements to be used as percussive material. For percussive sounds, I strongly encourage you to have at least A/B structure, as in 1 bar of sequence and then a variation in the second. The AAAB pattern is also a great way to keep ears interested.
  • 1 main idea—as long as you like—which will be your hook. Often this can be a short phrase, a melody, or something one can sing. Main ideas work well if they can evolve and develop.
  • 2 sub-ideas to support the main idea. This can be through call-and-response with the main idea, or something in the background. These ideas are secondary to provide support, not to stand out.

I know this seems like a grocery list, and it feels perhaps still very far from the main topic of this post, but keep in mind that if you’re not so found of doing all this, you can also get pre-made loops to practice programming sequences with PUSH.

The power of the session view and recording yourself jamming

Ableton’s session view

Often misunderstood and misused, Ableton’s session view is a very powerful panel that allows you to jam, play, improvise and explore.

Start by building scenes, starting with the main idea from your song. Imagine your song and how it might sound right in the middle of it, when everything is playing together. I know it can be a bit confusing to imagine, but this helps you generate ideas. The second row of the session view could, for example, be the same clips as the first arranged differently. Following that, perhaps you add more new ideas, and so on. Just make sure that row X with, lets say kicks, only has kicks—one sound per column. Basically, you want 10 lines of material to jam with; then once you have this, you jam.

Now that you’re ready, hit the record button and record yourself jamming. Don’t aim for perfection, don’t aim to make a song at all, just jam and eventually you’ll end up with great moments you can use.

TIP: Change the global quantization to 1 bar or less and experiment with how it goes.

When you press the record button while in the session view, everything will be tracked and recorded on the arrangement view. Afterwards, you can slice out the best parts of your jam, and then arrange them in a way that makes the song interesting, while avoiding feeling too “on the grid”. You might even end up with material for multiple songs. I strongly encourage you to read about the creative process I use to start and finish tracks, but working out of jams is very pleasing. I often use jams myself when I have a lot of loops and aren’t sure how to use them in a song.

SEE ALSO : Integrating a modular setup with your DAW

How to maintain consistency in the quality of your productions

The most consistent musicians have reached a comfortable flow and they finish tracks that they’re satisfied with fairly quickly. But how do they ensure that each of their tracks are maintaining the same level of quality as their first well-received works, as they complete more and more of them?

Making a lot of songs/tracks and actually finishing them is, to me, one of the most essential purposes of making music. Stalling on a particular idea or song builds up doubts, and eventually you’ll grow to hate it. If you finish up a track quickly—as opposed to more slowly—you capture an idea you liked at a precise moment in time and make the most out of it, then move on to the next idea.

FACT: you will always learn something new when you finish a song that you can apply to the next one.

The faster you become at completing tracks, the more you become articulate in your self-expression; if you dig a really good idea, you’ll know what to do pretty quickly to make the best out of it.

Many well-known and consistent artists make multiple songs (yes, songs!) in one day. Marc Houle, Ricardo Villalobos, and Prince to name a few, have expressed that they like to sit, jam, record, edit a bit, and then move on. Ricardo’s long songs are actually long sessions that haven’t been edited. “It’s more important to simply record something each time you hit the studio rather than make a perfect song“, I’ve heard him say.

How do you maintain consistency in your work when you’re creating a ton of tracks?

My personal mentality that I like to have is to not get too attached to the music I make, nor about its potential or future. With this mentality in mind, you can embrace imperfection, have more relaxed sessions, and have more fun. But yes, there are also some technical points you can keep in mind to avoid letting your work slowly degrade in terms of quality while trying to maintain a regular quantity of completing tracks:

  • Stay away from trends or gimmicks. Trends can be hard to spot when they’re first evolving, but usually there are signs. When many people use the same samples over and over, which can often define a style, you know that’s a road probably too often taken—in going there yourself, you might get lost in the sea of similar sounding songs. To me, production trends are about some samples, effects, and arrangements that become a norm. I’ll always remember a long time ago when I was into hard techno, I was at the record store listening to a pile of 30 records and every record had the exact same structure to the point where you could predict when the kick muted, the hats came in, and so on. Sounding like existing trends is not a good way to stand out as a memorable, original musician; timeless music is often “odd” when it’s first released, but something catchy about it makes it work.
  • Use scales. You don’t always have to be using an established scale when writing, but it will help your music age a bit better. Off-scale or highly dissonant music not only sounds a bit weird or off-putting to the average listener, but by working with established tonal scales people can reference your music decades later. When I think of high-quality music, the musicality in terms of scales is always top notch. If it’s purely experimental and still high-quality, it’s usually based on a concept that makes it relevant.
  • Cross validate with references. I can never stress this enough—your references, loaded in a playlist alongside your music, should feel right.
  • Have a friend as quality filter. A reliable friend is one that will tell you when things aren’t working. I personally like to have 5 people to send my music to in order to get reliable feedback. Sometimes I feel more excited sending them my music than submitting it to a label. You should have 5 responsive people that want to listen to your stuff; proper feedback is a great feeling when done right.
  • Keep your renderings/bounces at -6dB, 24bits. This is in case you want to release them in the future, but also because music with headroom is universally more well-received. Back when the trend was to have very loud mixes, your music was irrecoverable later on if you lost the original mix. Loudness has also aged terribly since this trend went out-of-style.
  • Use quality samples and quality tools. What makes a great mix is the use of great samples. Working with a harsh sample means you have to use more effort to make it sound better, but the end results could still bad, or even worse.
  • Simplicity ages best. Humans tend to remember simpler ideas. Complex intentions and complicated, draining music isn’t always the best in the long-run. I’m not saying “don’t do it” if you’re into it, but maybe to tone things down a bit if you’re interested in the longevity of your work. I’m in love with this quote by Da Vinci: “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
  • Make sure your mixing is high-quality, and use quality effects. If you can make sure your song is properly mixed, it will certainly age much more gracefully. Otherwise, you might regret some decisions you made in your mix as it ages. Cheap effects and presets don’t age very well because others might also use them heavily. Further down the road, your originality might feel lacking as a result, and plus nothing ages worse than a gimmicky sounding effect (ex. think of cheesy effects used on audio in the 80s.)

The effects of your work habits on maintaining consistent quality in your work

There are things you can do to make sure all your tracks end up with a level of quality you are happy with and will continue to be happy with as they age. I believe that working on multiple tracks at once is a great way to maintain perspective on your quality levels. Personally, I also like to export half-completed tracks and listen to them later, or import them into the next track I’m working on to give myself better perspective(s). Sometimes, I encourage clients to bring in all the tracks they’ve made in the last few months so we can toggle between them easily and make comparisons—this task might reveal a lot to you regarding the patterns and trends you use the most.

Using MIDI controllers in the studio

People often say that MIDI controllers are mostly for performing live, but they can also be your studio’s most useful tool. My advice to people who want to invest in gear—especially those who aren’t happy working only on a computer and dream of having tons of synths (modular and such)—is to start with investing in a controller first.

There are multiple ways to use MIDI controllers; let me share some of my favourite techniques with you and give you advice to easily replicate them.

Controllers for performing in studio

One trend I’ve been seeing in the last few months is producers sharing how they perform their songs in-studio as a way to demonstrate all the possibilities found within a single loop. This is not new—many people like to take moments from live recordings and edit them into a song, but it’s becoming clear that after years and years of music that has been edited to have every single damn detail fixed, artists are realizing that this clinical approach to producing makes a track cold, soulless, robotic, and not organic sounding and in the end. If you’re still touching up details at version 76 of your song, this means you’ve probably heard it about 200 times—no one will ever listen to your track that many times. My advice is to leave some mistakes in the track, and let it have a raw side to it. Moodymann’s music, for example, is praised and in-demand because his super raw approach makes electronic feel very organic and real. Performing your music in studio to create this type of feeling is pretty simple; it’s super fun and it inspires new ideas too.

For in-studio jams, I recommend the Novation LaunchXL which has a combination of knobs and sliders, plus it’s a control surface; depending on where you are on the screen, it can adapt itself. For instance, with the “devices” button pressed, you can control the effects on a specific channel and switch the knobs to control the on-screen parameters.

When I make a new song using a MIDI controller, I’ll start by using a good loop. Then I’ll use my controller to quickly play on the different mixes I can create with that loop. Sometimes, for example, I want to try the main idea at different volumes (75%/50%/25%), or at different filter levels. Some sounds feel completely different and sound better when you filter them at 75%. Generally, I put on these effects on each of my loops: a 3-band EQ, filter, delay, utility (gain), and an LFO.

Next, I’ll record myself playing with the loop for a good 20 minutes so that I have very long stems of each loop. Then when it comes to arranging, I’ll pick out the best parts.

TIP: I sometimes like to freeze stem tracks to remove all effects and have raw material I can’t totally go back and fix endlessly.

Controllers for sound design

I find that the fun part of sound design involving human gestures comes from replicating oscillations a LFO can’t really do. It’s one thing to assign a parameter to a LFO for movement, but if you do it manually, there’s nothing quite like it—but the best part is to combine the best of both automated and human-created movements.

I use a programmed LFO for super fast modulation that I can’t do physically with my fingers, and then adjust it to the song’s rhythm or melody—just mild adjustments usually. For instance, you could have super fast modulation for a resonance parameter with an LFO or with Live’s version 10.1’s curves design, then with your controller, control the frequency parameter to give it a more organic feel.

Recently, I’ve been really enjoying a complementary modular ensemble for Live called Signal by Isotonik; it allows you to build your own signal flow to go a bit beyond the usual modules that you’ll get in Max for Live. Where I find Signal to be a huge win is when it’s paired with PUSH, which is by far the best controller you can get for sound design. PUSH gives you quick access to the different parameters of your tools, and if you make macros it becomes even more organized.

Controllers for arrangements

Using MIDI controllers in arrangements is, to me, where the most fun can come from; using them can completely change the idea of a song.

For instance, if your song has a 3-note motif that has the same velocity across the board, I love to modulate the volume of the 3 notes into different levels. When we speak, all the words we use in a sentence have different levels and tones. For example, if you say to someone “don’t touch that!”, depending on the intonation of any particular word, it can change the emphasis of what you’re saying. “DON’T touch that!” would be very different from “don’t touch THAT!” This same philosophy can apply to a 3-note melody; each note is a word and you can decide on which ones to emphasize and how a certain emphasis fits in your song’s main phrase or motif.

If you assign a knob or fader on your controller to the volume of the melody, you can also control the amplitude of each note. You can do this for the entire song, or you can copy the best takes and apply their movement to the entire song. I find that there will be a slight difference in modulation depending on if you use a knob or fader; each seem to have a different curve—when I play with each, they turn out differently (but perhaps that’s just me). Explore and see for yourself!

TIP: Using motorized faders can be a a huge game changer. Check out the Behringer X-Touch Compact.

Another aspect of controllers that people don’t often consider are foot pedals. If you’re the type who taps your foot while making music, you could perhaps take advantage of your twitching by applying that to a specific parameter. Check the Yamaha FC4A. Use it with PUSH and then you have a strong arsenal of options.

SEE ALSO : Equipment Needed to Make Music – Gear vs. Experience vs. Monitoring

Workflow Suggestions for Music Collaborations

One of the most underestimated approaches to electronic music is collaboration. It seems to me that because of electronic music’s DIY approach people believe they need to do absolutely everything themselves. However, almost every time I’ve collaborated with others I hear them say “wow, I can’t believe I haven’t done that before!” Many of us want to collaborate, but actually organizing a in-person session can be a challenge. In thinking about collaboration and after some powerful collaboration sessions of my own, I noted what aspects of our workflow helped to create a better outcome. I find that there are some do’s and don’ts in collaborating, so I’ve decided to share them with you in this post.

Have a plan

I know this sounds obvious, but the majority of people who collaborate don’t really have a plan and will just sit and make music. While this works to some degree, you’re really missing out on upping the level of fun that comes out of planning ahead. I’m not talking about big, rigid plans, but more so just to have an idea of what you want to accomplish in a session. Deciding you’ll jam can be plan in-itself, deciding to work on an existing track could be another, or working on an idea you’ve already discussed could be a more precise plan.

Personally, I like to have roles decided for each person before the session. For example, I might work on sound design while my partner might be thinking about arrangements. When I work with a musician, I usually already have in mind that this person does something I don’t do, or does it better that I can. The most logical way to work is to have each participant take a role in which they do what they do best.

If you expect yourself to get the most of sound design, mixing, beat sequencing, editing, etc., all at once, you’re probably going to end up a “Jack of all trades, master of nothing”. Working with someone else is a way to learn new things and to improve.

A good collaborative session creates a total sense of flow; things unfold naturally and almost effortlessly. With that in mind, having a plan gives the brain a framework that determines the task(s) you need to complete. One of the rules of working in a state of flow is to do something you know you do well, but to create a tiny bit of challenge within it.

Say “yes” to any suggestions

This is a rule that I really insist on, though it might sound odd at first. Even though sometimes an idea seems silly, you should say yes to it because you’ll never know where it will lead you unless you try it. I’ve been in a session where I’ve constantly had the impression that I was doing something wrong because we weren’t following the “direction” of the track I had in my head. But what if veering off my mental path leads us to something new and refreshing? What if my partner – based on a suggestion that made have seemed wrong at first – accidentally discovered a sound we had no idea would fit in there?

This is why I find that the “yes” approach is an absolute win.

Saying yes to everything often just flows more naturally than saying no. However, if the “yes” approach doesn’t work easily, don’t force it; it’s much better to put an idea aside and return to it another day if it’s not working.

Trust your intuition; listen to your inner dialogue

When you work with someone else, you have another person who’s also hearing what you’re hearing, and will interact with the same sounds and try new things. This new perspective disconnects you from your work slightly and gives you a bit of distance. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that your inner dialogue may go something like “oh I want a horn over that! Oh, lets bring in claps!” That inner voice is your intuition, your culture, and your mood, throwing out ideas; sharing these ideas with one another can help create new experiments and layers in your work.

Combining this collaborative intuition with a “yes” attitude will greatly speed up the process of completing a track. Two people coming up with ideas for the same project often work faster and better than one.

Take a lot of breaks

It’s easy to get excited when you’re working on music with another person, and when you do, some ideas might feel like they’re the “best new thing”, but these same ideas could actually be pretty bad. You need time away from them to give yourself perspective; take breaks. I recommend pausing every 10 minutes. Even pausing for a minute or two to talk or to stand up and stretch will make a difference in your perceptions of your new ideas.

Centralize your resources

In collaborating, when you reach the point of putting together your arrangements, I would say that it’s important to have only one computer as the main control station for your work. Ideally you’d want an external hard-drive that you can share between computers easily; this way you can use everyone’s plugins to work on your sounds. One of the most useful things about teaming up with someone else is that you get access to their resources, skills, materials, and experience. Make sure to get the most out of collaborating by knowing what resources you can all drawn upon, and then select a few things you want to focus your attention on. It’s easy to get distracted or to think you need something more, but I can tell you that you can do a lot with whatever tools you have at that moment. Working with someone else can also open your eyes to tools you perhaps didn’t fully understand, were not using properly, or not using to their full potential.

Online collaboration is different

Working with someone through the internet is a completely different business that working together in-person. It means that you won’t work at the same time and some people also work more slowly or more quickly than yourself. I’ve tried collaborating with many people online and it doesn’t always work. It takes more than just the will of both participants to make it work, it demands some cohesion and flexibility. All my previous points about collaborating in-person also apply to collaborating online. Assigning roles and having a plan really helps. I also find that sharing projects that aren’t working for me with another person will sometimes give them a new life.

If you’re a follower of this blog, you’ll often read that one of the most important things about production that I stress is to let go of your tracks; this is something very essential in collaborating. I usually try to shut-off the inner voice that tells me that my song is the “next hit” because thinking this way usually never works. No one controls “hits”, and being aware of that is a good start. That said, when you work with someone online, since this person is not in the room with you and he/she might work on the track while you’re busy with something else, I find works best to be relaxed about the outcome. This means that if I have a bad first impression with what I’m hearing from the person I’m working with, I usually wait a good 24h before providing any feedback.

What if you really don’t like what your partner is making?

Not liking your partner’s work is probably the biggest risk in collaborating. If things are turning out this way in your collaboration, perhaps you didn’t use a reference track inside the project, or didn’t set up a proper mood board. A good way to avoid problems in collaboration is to make sure that you and your partner are on the same page mentally and musically before doing anything. If you both use the same reference track, for example, it will greatly help to avoid disasters. If you don’t like a reference track someone has suggested, I recommend proposing one you love until everyone agrees. If you and your partner(s) never agree, don’t push it; maybe work with someone else.

The key to successful collaborations is to keep it simple, work with good vibes only, and to have fun.

SEE ALSO : Synth Basics

The rule of thirds in arrangements and mixing

One of my favorite aspects of music making is to use proportional ratios regularly. While this seems perhaps counter-productive when compared with the artistic side of producing music, I use it to eliminate a bunch of technical roadblocks that emerge in the process of decision making. Because making decisions can sometimes end up in roadblocks, you can use this technique as a general rule that you always refer to whenever you have to.

Let me explain how this rule of thirds can give you wings.

The first time I familiarized myself with this concept was when I used the iPhone grid to take pictures. I had read that a tip to take better pictures was to use that grid to “place” your content. To compose your photos according to the rule of thirds, you must imagine your photo divided into nine equal parts using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. For example, the square in the middle should have the subject of your picture, so it’s perfectly centered, it is also recommended to have something like a detail where the lines cross.

When I practiced this, I immediately saw a parallel with musical arrangements. For instance, any song will have three distinct sections when it comes to the story line (intro, main section, outro). Where each section meets, there must be a pivot, an element of transition. When I work, I always start by dividing the song into equal thirds, then, I’ll divide again so I have nine sections total. Starting with arrangements, they have equal parts, but this will then change as I dive in details of arrangements; some of the “lines” of the grid will be moved around.

TIP: Use markers in Ableton and give names to each section.

What you want in arrangements, is a good balance between expected and unexpected elements.

Using the rule of thirds helps achieve this balance: while you center the main idea of your song right in the middle of your timeline, you can have an overview of where the listener will sort of expect something to happen. Then you can play with that. Either you give the listener something where they expect it, or move it slightly to create a surprise.

The rule of thirds can also help in a few other aspect of your work:

  • Tonal balance: We covered this topic recently and this means splitting your song’s frequency range in three areas (low, mid, high). You can use a shelving EQ to help you with this or you could re-route your sounds into three busses that are per-band. This will allow you to control the tone using the mixer of your DAW. In this case, by simply splitting in 3 bands, you minimize the work of deciding which tone to take.
  • Sound design: We’ve discussed sound design before but I’d like to pinpoint how you can apply the rule here. For instance, think of how a kick is made. There will be the mid punch of the kick, supported by a bit (or a lot) of sub, then a transient on top. Most of my percussion are layered with three sounds. One will occupy most of the space, another will add add body, and the last one will be adding transients or texture. I also find that shuffling with three sounds often makes it difficult to get bored of a sound. The rule of thirds – where you have sound variations – pretty much always works for me. The question to ask is, is there a balance or is there a dominant?
  • Mixing: When I do a mixdown, I always have multiple categories for my sounds. Part of this is that – since I really don’t want all my sounds to be front forward – I’ll have some that are intentionally low, others in the middle, and the loudest one are the ones that are meant to be right in front of me. It’s very soothing for the ear to have these three areas of sound levels because it help creates dynamic range and creates an acoustic feeling of tangible spacing; putting some sounds in the back will give support to the ones who need to be heard. Just like sound design, if you always keep in mind that you’re layering in thirds, this can give your mixes a lot of depth.
  • 1, 2, PUNCH!  This is a technique that I’ve learned in my theater classes, consisting of creating expectations to then mess with the expectations. Basically, you want to introduce a fun sound, and in the pattern introduce it again later, but at the exact same place, then the listener will expect it to come a third time. This is where you can surprise them by either not playing the sound or by bringing something different. Simple, but very effective.
  • AUX/Sends. This might sound a bit much, but I limit myself to not use more than 3 aux/sends. I find that an overflow of effects will make your song messy and unnecessary busy. One of my starting templates has only three sends by default: reverb, delay, compression (or another sound modulation effect such as chorus).
  • Stereo spectrum. I like to see the placement of my sounds in a grid of 3 x 3 zones. It will go as: right, middle, left then, low middle and high. Some of the main sounds will have to be right in the middle (ex. clap, melody), some in the low-middle (ex, bass) and then some elements that are decorative, around. A healthy mix is sort of shaped like a tree: middle low should be strong with bass/kick, then middle left-right and middle-middle are strong too, then some content in the middle-high, with a little presence in the high left-right. You want to be very careful with the zones of low left or right as this could create phasing issues. You want your low end to be in mono, therefore, centered.

There are other examples, but these are the main ones that come to me!

Basic tips for writing melodies

In our Facebook group, I was asked to share some tips about writing melodies and how to approach this process while arranging. In electronic music, many artists are self-taught and the concept of music from a melodic and harmonic perspective is often built over intuitive understandings and reading online tutorials, which is helpful, but perhaps lacking guidance for making techno or ambient music. Here are a some simple but useful tips for writing melodies that you can do using Ableton:

Find the root key

Each song has a root key. If you look on Beatport for instance, it will indicate the root key so DJs who mix in key will be able to know what they’re dealing with.

A track in G minor on Beatport.

DJ’ing in key is something I love to do once I have a bunch of really interesting sounds I want to bring into a song. Basically, if you follow my non-linear production technique, you’ll work on sound design for a while and when things get shaped into a pattern, you might want to introduce some melodic elements which will help everything come together. This is often where self-taught producers start to experience problems because their song feels like it’s all over the place and lacks an overall direction.

With writing melodies, where should you start?

First, you should decide on the root key. For instance, let’s say you choose C on your keyboard; I would leave that note playing through the entire song at first and then work around it. This means that the fundamental note of your song will be in C, as well as your bass and the other elements you’ll develop around it.

Tip: Use the Fixed grid of 8 bars to make it easier to make longer notes.

Scales, chords

I’m not going to dive into music theory so perhaps you want to do a bit of reading on the subject of scales if you’re not familiar with them, but after picking up your root key, I strongly suggest you use scales and/or chords to decide on how to develop your melodies. Using scales in Ableton will limit the notes you play to the ones that are included in the scaling – this really helps to make sure your melodies don’t sound “off” while building the overall emotion of your song.

Once you get comfortable with scales, you can have them change throughout the song to change emotion and give modal color to the melodies.

As for chords, it’s the same sort of thing. Fore example, if you pick a minor chord (three notes played simultaneously) with a root of C, you’ll immediately have a choice of a three notes to include in your melody. If you keep the song in that key/chord, you don’t have to play all three notes at once to have the chord itself.

How can I determine the notes of a chord or scale?

Insert the scale tool to Ableton or any equivalent plugin (note: there are many alternatives online if you google it). Then you can reference the notes that are from the chord by inserting phantom notes from your sequence, then you can play hit play. The beauty of using Ableton Scales is that if you place a note that is outside of the chord triad, the plugin will re-align it to where it should be, keeping you from sounding off.

The 1 octave, 1 bar motif technique

This method no secret to anyone, but still a truly personal way to write a melody. I usually create a three-note motif to start with, make sure it’s only using one octave, and not longer than one bar. Honestly, I can listen to this motif for a long time and – for myself – just while listening to it new ideas will emerge, pretty much automatically.

What I like about Ableton’s MIDI tools is how easy it makes it to build evolving ideas. The “Duplicate loop” tool makes it easy to create evolving patterns.

My initial loop will be duplicated and in the second bar, I’ll add new notes that came into my mind.

…and so on until your motif evolves to have your chorus, verse, etc. Basic melody writing isn’t really much more than that.

I usually like to copy the motif to a lower octave later on to generate a bass line.

TIP: Try flipping or reversing a pattern for fun results.

ADSR, Velocity and groove

Now that your melodic sequence is built, it will be important to give it life by adding a groove template on it. This will be valuable to make the melody less mechanical and more human-like. I usually like to add other plugins:

  • Note length: play with the lengths from shorter to longer; sometimes having variations like this is also a great way to do transitions from section-to-section.
  • Velocity: complementary to the groove template, this really allows for random velocity to kick in which can create elements of surprise. Make sure to freeze/flatten your sequence so you don’t have different versions every time!
  • ADSR: Don’t forget to modulate your melody using variation in the envelop such as the attack through the release. This is a nice variation to the note length and can give a feeling the melody plays backwards.
  • Arpeggiators: useful to generate some extra ideas to the existing motif. Try it with the diverse random options.
  • Melodic Steps: quite a power horse tool to generate ideas. Try it and see how it evolves.

Let me know of your own techniques for writing melodies and perhaps I can add more ideas here!

Alternative music arranging techniques

Music arranging techniques are a topic I’ve been asked about most in the last few weeks. For many people, this is the part of music-making that causes issues. And rightfully so; arranging is all about storytelling. In past posts, I’ve said that even though your sound and production might be awesome, if you have nothing to say or if you can’t express your ideas properly, the song will feel shallow and will be quickly forgotten.

In this post, I will explain a few things you can do to create exciting, original arrangements – mainly tips on how to work on transitions, which is one of the most important parts of electronic music.

The “perspective” method

One of the most important aspects of arranging are something I’ve explained in past posts, which I call “perspectives”. A quick summary of what I mean by perspectives: split your song in sections using the Markers in Ableton (or your DAW). I usually put a marker at the end of the song, then one in the middle, then others so the song has four similar sections of the same length. Basically, you need an intro, an outro, and the middle part of your song, which is now split in two.

These marker points are critical moments where you could lose the listener’s attention. They are critical pivots for where you want something to happen to keep the flow going and to roll into the next section of the song. Each section should have a surprise and some development or an element to relieve the tension. These points are also moments where the tension can rise or be released; with a proper transitional approach, this can be done easily.

TIP: Find your main idea and try to see if you can create two different developments of it as well as add supporting sounds/melodies. Try to distribute your melodic content across all the sections so the song feels like it evolves.

The jamming method

Recently, I was trying to explain to my son movies are made. He thought a movie was shot as-is, continuously, and didn’t understand the editing aspect of the process. A lot of people think the same way about songs; they’ll grab material and spread it across the song linearly.

I like the idea that making a song is like a movie, or a bit like how songs were recorded in the 70s/80s. You need many, many, takes and jams to find all the possible ideas for your motif. Here are some methods to jam withing your project to help it evolve further:

Jam the clips of your project in the session view of Ableton Live and record the results after the original song structure so you have alternative ideas on how your song could evolve next to your original idea. Many artists jam the clips, then add effects and such while recording for a good 30 minutes to see what comes out. You might be heading down a totally new arrangement path after this way jamming once or twice.

Stop making the song in a linear fashion from start-to-finish and try to chop up your sections and move them around within the timeline. Writing a song is not like writing a story; in the era of DAWs you always have the option to chop out a section and move it to other points in your arrangement. Personally, I like to jam for about an hour so I can really capture the best moments, but this also means I have to chop out a lot of crap out afterwards.

Use re-sampling on a loop. This is my favorite technique in sound design and arranging which is about taking every single loop I have in my project and passing it through a lot of effects, while recording in a channel that re-samples the master. You’ll end up with long files filled with many alterations of your sounds.

  • Add 100% wet reverb to create intense, transitional, swoosh moments.
  • Use LFOs from Max for live to add movement and life to certain parameters.
  • Map your effects to a controller and record yourself physically turning knobs – you can fine tune the automation later.

Use new material in the transitional, focal points of the song. This is a powerful way of re-inserting your recordings into your arrangements and will ignite creativity; your song will get a huge dose of vitality and movement from doing this. This technique can provide you with a lot of ideas for making original transitions, but also spice up your arrangements in sections that fall flat.

Other types of transitions you can try which rely on this technique include:

  • Programing alternative patterns using a controller like PUSH.
  • Slicing certain MIDI sequences and then rearranging them.
  • Punching in and out of certain channels in real time and recording yourself. All your gestures, and work can be recorded by engaging the recording button in the upper part of the window.

Most importantly though, use references! Try to analyze your favorite songs and see how they are arranged in terms of transitions, and then try to replicate them. Music arranging is not rocket science; you’ll learn by copying and eventually by practicing, you will develop your own tricks.

Basic Song Arrangements Tips

Given the quantity of hours of mixing I do regularly, I work on lot of projects from a wide variety of clients. I also have to do a lot of “cleaning up” before I get to work on the actual mixing of a song. I wanted to share with you basic song arrangement tips that you can do which will speed up song construction and help make it sound better in the end.

Cleaning a project for clarity

“Cleaning” is something many people overlook, but it will help you better understand what’s happening in a song. I strongly encourage people to work on multiple projects at once with my non-linear production technique; a clean project will help you understand where you left off on your last session.

Here are some tips for a cleaner, clearer project:

  • Name your channels/samples something simple. For example, rename that loop “rolling_AD252” to “percussion”. Keep things simple and clear as well as have your own vocabulary.
  • Color each channel based on content. For instance, red for kick, brown for bass, blue for melody, etc. On Live v10, you can then apply that color to the clips.
  • Create a comprehensive timeline in your arrangement. This is where 90% fail! The first sounds in your song should be moved way up to the front and top, and as sounds come in, they should be dropped in below. Since the arranger moves from left to right, you will sounds appear in order of appearance, just like how they make it for movies.
  • Drop markers to see the key points. Markers on the timeline help you see how things are repeating in a logical matter as well as for you to see where to drop in your transitions.
  • Consolidate blocks of sounds, change color if there are changes. Consolidate all the little blocks so you can duplicate them easily and see your arrangements more clearly.
  • Arrangements aren’t mixing. Don’t add all your effects and compression yet, focus on the timeline of things, then you can easily group and do your mixing if everything has been labeled and colored properly.

Before consolidation

Clips consolidated

And duplicated

Think Balance

When you make a song, you have to think of a few key points to keep people interested:

  • Keep things moving to avoid redundancy.
  • Have logical development.
  • Bring in some surprises.
  • Have solid transitions.

All this can be seen visually if your project is clean and clear. Here’s how:

The image above is a good clean start. You can see these blocks are pretty straight-forward and repetitive. Usually when I hear a song like that, I will automatically visualize the blocks coming in and out; I call that type of arrangement “blocky.” There’s not much happening, nothing is too exciting, and the balancing of “blocky” songs is extremely rigid, dull.

However, having a “blocky” song can easily be fixed.

  • A sound can be appreciated agan if you “reset” it. You can “reset” a sound by turning it off, removing it, then bringing it back at a key point. This is a good way for the listener to appreciate different combinations of sounds all together. If you leave all your clips playing all the time, you can’t appreciate if X plays with Y alone. This is why I find that a song with 3 hats and or 3 percussion tracks gives you a really broad range of combinations, but you’ll need to be creative to have them all explored in a song. That can be done by occasionally muting certain sounds.
  • Transitions, transitions, transitions. Did I say this enough? You can make nice transitions with en effect, a silence, a flam (rolling, repeating sounds), a swap of sound(s), a volume automation, etc. Explore!
  • Automation, fade-ins. If your sounds all come in at once, try having some fade-ins from time to time.
  • Create variations. If the sounds were programmed in a specific way in a section, have them varied in the following section.
  • Varied patterns length. If you have multiple patterns that are one bar long, try having some that are 2 bars long, others 4, some half a bar. The richness of the combinations where sounds shuffle over time will be exciting to listen to.
  • Don’t drop all of your musical assets right at the start. Try to keep new sounds appearing per sections.

This last image shows what a project like with some holes added, which will add a lot more dynamism and surprise to your song. Take your time! You can trust the listener by letting things go and let things evolve. If you’re not into ever-evolving songs and more into stripped-down, tracky arrangements, its pretty much the same thing: take your time to get things come in and use automation.

I hope this helps!

Storytelling through arrangements and song arrangement techniques

When it comes to mixing and mastering, my work involves to listening to many, many songs. Some are great, while others need more love, but from the numerous songs I hear daily I can pinpoint one important thing that makes a song stand out the most: arrangements. I believe your arrangements and your song arrangement techniques are what really show your maturity as an artist.

Your track can have amazing sounds, a crazy good kick, and a really lovely mix, but if you have nothing to say, your song will not be memorable. Although, paradoxically, some songs are also memorable because they have no arrangements at all; no arrangements can also be a form of storytelling.

In this post, I’ll approach arrangements in two ways: the “technical” and “total”; a philosophical point of view. While so many people have different opinions about arrangements, there’s one thing that I feel is important to highlight: to invite you to step outside of the box of anything “commercial” sounding; so many articles at the moment are pointing out how every song sounds the same. I’ll also explain why.

Keep in mind: there is no magic wand recipe or solution for arrangements.

So fundamentally, how can we explain storytelling in electronic music? There are two critical points to keep in mind:

  1. Arrangements start with a simple idea that evolves. The clearer the idea, the more it becomes understandable from the listener. The catchier it is, the most memorable it is. Catchiness comes from being able to make something that people can have an emotional connection with. It is also known that, if we examine at the last 50 years of pop music, there are always songs trends through time. What makes a song “a hit” is usually when someone understand the current trend (which is “in demand”) and adds their own, personal twist to give it a “same old but different” feeling.
  2. Technical arrangements aim at creating music for DJs. One of the most exciting thing about making music for DJs is about being able to architect music that creates a structure that will find a logical place to move into another song, or to create a new song (as in 1+1=3, track 1, track 2 and the mix of both).

These two types of arrangements are different but can also be combined. They have different goals. The reason I find it important to relate this is, as a listener, you don’t listen to them in the same way. The first type, is what makes a track be a song. In terms of vocabulary, a track is music more oriented for DJs, that you can layer while a song is more about music that can be listened on its own and have its own story. Too often, I find that people who listen to tracks will go “something’s missing” but in theory, if that music is made to be layered, it’s because it has space for another song to be layered over it. I like to say that the track is part of a story that will be created by others and it’s important to let go of adding more and more layers. If you leave no space, how can another DJ use it?

So let’s talk about arrangements for tracks and what is useful to do/use.

  • Use a motif: For anything, always use a motif which can be a few notes or a loop. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. If for instance, your motif is a simple two note melody repeating (note: Batman’s powerful motif was just two simple notes too!), then keep in mind that those two notes are simply the core, then add variants or supporting notes; ideas.
  • Define your logic and stick to it: Usually the first 1/3 of your song will define the logic of the rest of your song. For instance, if you mute the kick after 4 bars, keep that logic for the entire song. So, whatever you define in terms of muting,  or adding, stick to it until the end of the song.
  • Divide your song in thirds (1st third is the intro, 2nd is core, 3rd is the outro): Keep in mind that each section has a purpose and demands balance. It should have a surprise, some coherence, a punch and a transition.
  • Leave space: Miles Davis loved the silence between notes and often said they were what would give the true meaning of any phrase. If you find your entire hook for the middle part of your song, make sure you have variants of that idea, with holes/silence.

The importance of defining your own language in your music is important to create your own persona. We all know music is a form of communication and therefore, certain codes can be used in order to create phrases in your music. Everyone has a different view, but I’d like to share my personal lexicon. But let’s consider this: techno is 4/4 music which means a “round” is basically 4 bars long; this is also where DJs try to mix in/out. Each of your songs based on this premise will have better coherence if you keep to a similar logic, and the music will be understood faster by DJs.

  • A phrase is basically a bar long (4 beats). A paragraph is 4 or 8 bars long.
  • Making sounds repeat, is a period (“.”). You usually want to do it at the end of a bar if you are doing a long phrase, but you can also have a period to underline a sound that needs to express something. Rolling sounds help move on to the other bar as it creates energy.
  • Muting the kick or multiple sounds at once is a comma (“,”), it can also mark the end of portion and prepare for another. Muting creates a mini tension and creates anticipation.

Now, these are the basics we can play with.

  • You can slice your entire song structure to clearly see all of your 4 bars in distinctive blocks. This crucial action really helps see the outline of your song and see the organization.
  • I usually go sound by sound (channel by channel) and decide that some sounds will have a change at some point, let’s say X number of bars. For example: hi-hats have a tiny change (a period) every 4 bars, toms will have one every 2 and claps, every bars. Then you slice all the bars in shorter one to be able to edit in details.
  • Add decoration if needed in the same logic. If you started muting and creating space here and there, those areas can be good spaces to insert effects; little, subtle blurbs of sounds.
  • Be very aware of where your song has its main elements, and if it is respecting the logic you have set in the first third of your song.

A song that has balance and repeating events will never feel empty, boring, or pointless because people will consciously (or not) understand the language behind it.

Now look at how it repeats and also, I will try to keep sequences of blocks repeating. For instance, if I have 4 blocks repeating and then there’s a 2 bar silence, I will repeat that through the song.

This is a good example of what I call arrangement logic. You decide of how things happen then follow through.

TIP: Always vary how sound come in and out. You have 2 choices: the sound starts playing or fades-in. Try to have variation between the sounds and how to come in and out later on as well.

The most important part – and I’ll finish with this – is to keep in mind that you should always have a surprise for the listener, and if you surprise him/her, he/she will want to listen to your song again; so be audacious and sometimes, unpredictable. I love the 1-2 punch method: do something, repeat it so the listener goes “ah yes!” then when the listener expects it again, punch him/her with something he/she didn’t see coming.

I hope this helps!

Music production techniques: Non-Linear Production

It’s been a while since I promised a post about one of a number of music production techniques I use: non linear music production. The very first album I did using this technique and really sticking to rules of it was Intra; and then I recently went deep in to produce multiple EPs in the same vein of non linear production, which were made between end of December 2017 until March 2018. While Intra was an album of 23 songs made over nine months, my last experiment produced 19 tracks over 3 months. I think I’m getting better at it, mostly because it’s becoming clearer in my mind.

Out of the 19 recent tracks, I kept 8 for this album – which you can hear above – I named Returning Home; a statement about home being a state of mind and not necessary a physical place. I’ve been making techno/dance music since 1998, and after diving into more electronic soundscapes, experiments, and ambient music, it just felt good to return to my roots. A funny thing also – I tried working with some other labels to find it a new spot as I wanted to keep my label Archipel for more down-tempo stuff, but I kept getting refusals or complicated compromises. I’m too stubborn to change things and since this album was made based on a very solid concept, I didn’t want to go back and change what felt good.

But back to the non linear production technique. I’ll cover how the process went, from the beginning of where I started from scratch until the end.

I know some people who are like, “but I don’t need a technique as I just do music.” Sure, that is not for you then. But this technique can bring benefit if you’re looking to expand your production. It surely contributed to make me more prolific through time.

Non-linear music production – A concept

This concept (which has been around for decades according to some research I did), encourages the producer to explore working on multiple songs at once, in a non-linear way.

This means that:

  1. You aren’t working on a song’s beginning first to bring it to its end, before starting a new one.
  2. Each track is approached individually for its needs but you also work globally. Keep in mind that what you did in the previous track should differ on the next.
  3. The technique is about repeating the same phases/rounds until you get a solid core. Then there’s the finalization to get ready for mixing.

It’s called “non-linear” because you constantly circle up in a series of rounds, on multiple tracks, all at once.

Note: A non-written rule also implies that working on a track should be done in short periods such as 20-30 min at a time on a song, then stop, save and move on. Why? Because it keeps you fresh.

For many people I explained this to at first, it felt unsettling and confusing. There’s some kind of embedded belief in people that when you go make music, you should find your idea, absolutely stick to it, and build it into a song; beginning at start and bringing it to an end. I usually see people’s projects having a few blocks right at the beginning of the track and then they get lost.

The number one thing I hear all the time: “I can make a great loop but don’t know what next.”

I’ve written a post in the past about this. However the non-linear technique is really aimed at making the loop issue something of the past, because it’s all about transforming small ideas into bigger concepts.

But where does it start? How do you begin?

Before diving into producing, let me explain the rounds of the non-linear music production technique, as this is what it’s all about:

  1. Content creation, generating ideas.
  2. Filtering ideas into a concept.
  3. Building a core loop.
  4. Template structure.
  5. Arrangements.

When you decide to create your project, the first thing you should do is decide on your project type. Is it an EP (3-4 songs) or LP (5-10 tracks)? Perhaps you just want to make a bunch of tracks; I personally believe that we should never make just one track at a time. If you have no precise project, invent one, such as “I’ll make 5 tracks for fun and want them to be mainly techno.” Once this has been decided, you’re ready for content creation. I usually spend a considerable amount of time in content creation and idea generation.

You can also start from unfinished tracks that you want to apply the idea to. The idea is to work on multiple projects in parallel. I usually it works best if you have at least five on the go, but there’s no limit of course. To newcomers, start small though to see if working this way works for you. The technique is about to bring your track from a simple idea to a finalized but unmixed, song. The mixing is not part of this. I find the mix down works better if you don’t do early, it but perhaps it can. Don’t hesitate to build a reference folder where you put songs that inspire you.

Content creation, generating ideas

From all the years of listening to music, running labels, doing mastering and DJing, I’ve come up with a theory: a solid song is – in general – a single, solid idea, supported with two others. The main idea can be a loop, a motif or even a sound. I remember Hans Zimmer describing a motif by saying it has to have an emotional impact on you, that it reappears in your mind later on. He was saying that the Batman motif he did was a simple two notes, but very powerful. You’ll play them and you’ll automatically think of Batman. The two other ideas are necessary because a song usually needs a development and a “surprise.” That said, in this production technique, you need to create fresh ideas. Lots of them.

I made a very long post about how to come up with new ideas but I’ll sum how I did mine:

  • Recycling older ideas: I have countless samples that I’ve used or never touched. I like to process them into new sounds.
  • Recording radio or other spaces with a microphone: When I’m in a creative mood, I’ll spend a lot of time recording sounds around me from that period of my life. I’ll leave the recorder somewhere for an hour to see what comes up.
  • Try demos: I love getting demos and try to see what I can come up with it by sampling them. Some have limited time or others are in days. It forces you to resample the hell out of the work and get something. Sometimes I end up buying it of course.
  • Pure sound design: Layering sounds from different takes is a great way to generate rich sounds. I do this a lot but its time consuming.
  • Jamming with the sounds: When I have plenty, I’ll generally put the sounds in a sampler and jam them with a midi controller or PUSH. I’ll record everything I do into a project.

A project that has many ideas will be recorded with the date of the day for the jam. It might turn out that I have a few hours of material which means there’s hypothetically 3-4 ideas in there.

The definition of done (DoD) of this phase is when you have a project with 3-4 ideas ready to go. I usually do one session per track needed for the project.

Filtering ideas into a concept

This phase is one that you need to do outside of jamming. Why? Because when you jam, you’re in your creative state (right brain) and have tons of ideas but your judgement is off. You can’t be a judge then. You need to feel free and explore without boundaries. This second phase is about going into a more analytical side where you will be curating your crop.

  1. Go through all recordings you’ve made and loop part of it. The question is, can you listen to a loop and feel inspired? If yes, you have something to hold on to.
  2. Use different size loops like 1, 2, 4 bars. Compile different ideas.
  3. Use the session view to make scenes of loops you like.
  4. Try to see if certain loops, once layered, make unexpected motifs.
  5. (optional) Add a kick & hihat to give you an idea of the groove and adjust the timing of the loop.

The definition of done (DoD) of this phase is when you have a few scenes in your session view that feel solid.

*Note that you may go back to create more ideas (Round 1) to complement what you have. You may also create a pool for all ideas of all sessions and then make ideas from that. No rules here, only possibilities.

Building a core loop

At this point, you should have X number of projects (based on your project definition you decided on at the beginning, i.e. EP, LP, whatever), each with material that has been organized into 2-3 ideas. Now comes the moment to put it all together.

The loop you’ll build here is the middle part of your song so it should have all the bells and whistles.

  1. Add a foundation. The fundamental part of your song is the low end and the bass. From the main idea, add a bass that either supports or responds to the idea. Adjust it so it’s in key.
  2. Add percussion. Complementary to the bass, you may add kick, percussion, or anything complementary of what will create the groove. I usually start right away to decide what groove template I’ll use on this core part.
  3. Add melodic touches if needed. Decide how long your melody will be and how it progresses (if it does).
  4. Create a background and space if desired. This is usually the reverb and textures. However, this can also come later on.

The definition of done (DoD) of this phase is that you have a main loop that you can place in the arrangement window, right in the heart of your song (which means you need to know roughly how long it has to be). A good loop is one that is centered around your motif where if you solo that part, it would be what someone would talk about to describe your song.

In the process of working through the core loop, you might need to go back to create more content or you may import some from other sessions.

Template structure

Now that you have the core part of the song, it’s easier to build out the remaining structure. In the arrangement view, create three sections: a beginning, middle and end. You will now lay out your structure to have an idea of what you can do with your core idea.

  1. Copy the elements from beginning to end  that will be present the whole time through the track.
  2. Work backwards by deconstructing the timeline of what comes in first and so, until you get to the middle part.
  3. Do the same process until the end. You may repeat some elements.

The definition of done (DoD) of this phase requires that you have a temporary structure from beginning to end. It might take you a while, I encourage you to do sprints of 30 minutes at a time. The problem with working too long on this phase is that you lose perspective regarding the strength of your song. I usually want some sort of structure to come out of this phase, but I may go back and forth with the other phases until I am happy with it.

Arrangements

This is the final phase. You might need to come back to it as everyone has different needs that will arise in this process. Arranging – in simple terms – is creating the story-line of your song, but also between songs for your project! How do your tracks relate to each other? I have songs that have brothers and sisters, while some are from a completely different family.

After working on the arrangement of song, the last thing I do is export what I’ve done so far. When I switch to another track, I import the last session in the arrangement to see what I did and compare. I adjust the arrangements so all my tracks don’t have the same structure; beginning, breaks, and punches. I adjust them so they can be fun for DJs to mix too.

Arranging is a massive topic that I will detail in a future post and is involved in most music production techniques – but this explanation is a full conceptualization of how I work. Hopefully it helps you somehow too!

 

SEE ALSO :   Non-Linear Music Production 

Adding life to sounds: movement in electronic music

Creating movement in electronic music

One of the most misunderstood concepts in electronic music is movement. By movement, I am referring to the way that each sound constantly evolves throughout a song. I was once talking with someone who is very into modular synthesizers and he was saying that he cannot stand recorded sounds such as samples because according to him, those sounds are “dead”. With modular synths a sound can be repeated for minutes and it will never be exactly the same because the hardware components constantly give the sound slight variations. A recorded sound is frozen just like a picture. Since we don’t all have the luxury to own a modular synth, let me explain how we can use software tools to make sounds feel “alive” and develop some movement in our own electronic music.

First, let us agree that movement in electronic music is about having some elements that are in “motion”. There are a variety of different ways to create that feeling:

1. Changes in volume (amplitude)

Volume change in percussion are often associated with groove and swing. Both can alter the volume of the sounds. That said, you can apply a groove template not only to percussion, but also to melodies and basslines. If that’s not enough you can also use the midi effect velocity which can not only alter the velocity of each note, but in Ableton Live it also has a randomizer which can be used to create a humanizing factor. Another way to add dynamics is to use a tremolo effect on a sound and keep it either synchronized, or not. The tremolo effect also affects the volume, and is another way of creating custom made grooves. I also personally like to create very subtle arrangement changes on the volume envelope or gain which keeps the sound always moving.

In general, using LFOs – such as what is offered in Max patches – can be used to modulate anything, and they will automatically create movement. For each LFO, I often use another LFO to modulate its speed so that you can get a true feeling of non-redundancy.

Tip: Combine the use of LFOs and manual edits and then copy sequences until the end of the song. I suggest you try stepping out of 4/4 and regular blocks structure to step out of a “template feel.”

2. Filter

Another great way to create movement is to have the sound always changing its tone. Using a filter in parallel mode is a very efficient way to create colours. The important part is to make sure that both the frequency and resonance are constantly in motion by using either LFOs or envelopes. By being in parallel the sound always appears to be the same but will have some added body to it because of the filter. What many people don’t know is there are different types of filters, so you can try different types of filters into different send channels and then your song will feel like its moving. While filters are great for subtle changes, you can also do the same trick with an equalizer but still in parallel. Adding an envelop on the filter so it detects incoming signal and change the the frequency is also a very nice way to keep things organic sounding.

Tip: Try comparing how a Moog filter can differ from any regular ones.

3. Textures

Background textures or noise is another great way to emulate analog gear. There are many ways to do that, but the one that I recommend is to get a microphone for your iPhone and then record a part of say, your next visit at the coffee shop or restaurant, or even in your house where we don’t realize that there is still a very low level of noise. Adding that recording at low volume to your song automatically adds a layer of every evolving sound. if you want, you can also convert certain noise into a groove pattern which creates a form of randomization on your sounds. Some high quality effects such as saturation used on certain sounds will add a form of texture that prevents your samples from sounding stale.

Tip: FM modulation on a filter or oscillation can create gritty textures.

4. Stereo and Panning

For this point there are different effects that play with the stereo image and – while you should be cautious – it’s good to have at least one or two sounds that have these kinds of effects. Some of these types of effects include of phaser, chorus, flanger, delay, reverb and auto-pan. They can all give the sounds movement if the modulation is unsynchronized and if the wet/dry is constantly being slightly modified.

Tip: Just be careful of what effects you use as overusing can create phasing issues.

5. Timing

A sound’s position in a pattern can change slightly throughout a song to create feelings of movement; a point people often overlook. This effect is easier to create if you convert all of your audio clips to midi. In midi mode you can use humanizer plugins to constantly modify the timing of each note. You can also do that manually if you are a little bit more into detail editing but in the end a humanizer can do the same while also creating some unexpected ideas that could be good. Another trick is to use a stutter effect in parallel mode to throw a few curve balls into the timing of a sound every now and then.

Tip: turn off the the grid locking in the arrangement section to intentionally be imprecise.

 

SEE ALSO :   Dynamic Sound Layering and Design 

Checklist to see if my song is finished

Lately I’ve been working on a live set, and I realized that I have a personal checklist I use to see if I covered everything to help me decide if a particular song is finished; from little details to bigger things, sometimes it’s easy to overlook important factors. Just like with traveling, you want to make sure everything is ready before stepping out of your project.

This checklist outlined in this article is what I personally use before shifting to the mixing phase. In a past article, I explained the importance of exporting the stems out of your project once the production is done. This frees up CPU usage, lightens up your projct, gives you the option to backup or collaborate, or possibly to do some mixing into another DAW to get different textures. But mostly it’s a way to tell yourself “Ok, time to move on.”

Do you need to cross-check everything in this list to declare your song finished? No, not at all. Below is just a cheat sheet to help you have a better idea of everything that could potentially be covered (and I’m sure I’m missing one or two things here).

Below are what I believe to be the major categories of the “song is finished” checklist in terms of production (mixing is another phase altogether that comes afterwards):

  1. The Hook

The hook is where everything begins and ends, so ask yourself these simple questions to get started:

  • What is the main hook of your song? Remember, the hook is what someone would sing or recall to someone else to explain what the song is about. Your song might not have a main hook, which is okay, but a hook is one of the most important factors to help make a song memorable and timeless.
  • What elements supports the hook? A good hook is often not enough. Supporting it with complementary sounds or little blurbs of secondary melody is very helpful.
  • Are you aiming at a pop structure or more of a repeating mantra? There is also a grey area which combines both of these structures. But whatever your pick is, it helps to have a clear answer to this question in your head.

2. Sound design

Sound design is actually the most important section to me and this is usually where I spend the most time. I have sub-categories here that I will cover.

  • What is the direction and purpose of this song? Is it mainly for DJs or at-home or headphone listening? Vinyl or Spotify? Chill, dancefloor or experimental? This is something that can sometimes be good to keep in mind until the very end.
  • What song or artist would be a similar reference to your track? A reference track can be added in the project itself in a channel. See my past post on how to use a reference track.
  • What is the ratio of organic vs synthetic elements? This is something I sort of think about in the beginning but I am usually also open to revising at the end.
  • What is the main key for my song? This is not always essential, especially if you make atonal music. But it’s a good idea to be aware of a general tuning of bass, kick and melodies.
  • Kick drum: Is the kick in tune with the melody? Is it side-chained with other conflicting sounds? I recommend trying to have a different kick from whatever previous track you were working on. The kick is the last sound to be designed as it is there to support and complement the entire project.
  • Snare/clap: Often equally important to the kick, I usually alternate between more of a clap sound vs. a traditional snare and I also try to have multiple layers. In electronic music, the percussion sound that will go on the 2nd and 4th beat should vary otherwise it sounds a bit monotonous. I personally to try to offer different sound options here for when I play my songs live or DJ them.
  • Bass: Is it in key? Is it side-chained?
  • Melody: This one is a bit difficult but as explained in my non-linear production technique, I like to go back and forth with the track to see if the melody has an impact; if it feels good over time. Finding melody is hard enough, but to make a melody that stands the test of time is an art in itself.
  • Atmosphere: Is there a background to this track? What is in the background vs foreground? I like to use busses for creating atmosphere.
  • Recording: Have I used field recordings for this to add another layer of atmosphere or sound?
  • Textures: Are the textures clear and audible? Or is the song meant to be more subtle?
  • What’s the ratio of repeating sounds vs ever-changing? Some people like to always have the same clap through out the song while in Hip Hop for example, producers often like movement and change. Is this a rule you want to follow? If so, on what sounds?

3. Groove

My “groove” section is a bit less detailed, but is very important, especially if the song is more percussive and dancefloor-oriented.

  • Is the groove borrowed from a song or from a groove template? Or is it custom?
  • What is the time signature? Is it global or different for different parts?
  • Is there a global groove applied or is this song using multiple grooves depending on the part?
  • Export all percussion loops to MIDI to tweak the groove.
  • What is repetitive and what not? Find the healthy balance of sounds being repeated through the song and others that change over 1-2-3-4 bars.
  • Is there sidechain between channels to create subtle or obvious pumping? This can make a difference.
  • What are the sounds that are modulated? This is one of the most important thing to do if you want your song to have a more organic feel rather than synthetic. It’s one thing to select all organic samples but the way you program them will be critical for a general feel. In general, the human ear is very sensitive to movement, even if the music is played in the background; you’ll be surprised of what people notice, and what they don’t.

4. FX/Sends

Using sends is crucial for giving the track a unified feel. One of the most common mistake I see from new producers is to use multiple reverb effects everywhere in the project instead of mainly using one as a send. I usually use multiple sends to create elaborated and sophisticated 3D effects for percussion and melodies. One of the most important point I always remind myself is to use them with care, towards the end of the production phase.

  • Is this song more dry or wet in terms of effects? How much room have you left for reverb?
  • What type of reverb do I want for this track? long or short?
  • What is going to have a 3D effect? What makes the song 3D is the amount of sounds you put right up front vs the ones you put in the background. A healthy combination of both will have a better effect.
  • Use one delay for the project! Which time signature does it have?

5. Structure/Arrangements

I previously referred to song structure as Lego building blocks in a previous post. Blocks are often constructed in the same way; this is why using a reference track can help break out storytelling ideas. I always recommend dropping Markers in the arrangements this way: One at the beginning, one at the end, and one in the middle. Markers will give you perspective, help you see if your general storytelling is balanced, and help you determine if things are properly organized.

From the middle marker, I would drop one additional marker between the very beginning and the middle markers, and then do the same thing in the second half. Your song should have four distinct sections. Sections one and four are intro and outro; the middle part is where your song develops and mostly exists.

  • Does your song have intro/outro? Does the action start immediately or slowly develop?
  • How much space have you left for the DJ to mix the track, if you’re making DJ-friendly music?
  • Are your melodic elements evolving properly through each section?
  • Does your song have at least one anchor point of interest per section? All the sections of your track should be interesting.
  • Does the song have any surprises about two-thirds through its duration ? I always recommend considering this to make your song even more interesting.

These sections cover the main points that I usually think about when determining if a song is finished or not. If I don’t like the answers I come up with to some of these questions, I usually go back and work on the track even more!

 

SEE ALSO : Is My Song Good? 

Playing Electronic Music Live – How to Prepare Your Live Set (Part 2)

After deciding the direction your live set will take, we will now discuss how to prepare a live electronic set in terms of how we approach each individual song, or moments as I call them. This article is the follow up to Playing Electronic Music Live – How to Prepare Your Live Set (Part 1)

Before continuing, make sure you have read the article linked above; after which you should have a better idea the style you’d like to play live. Since most electronic musicians are software users, we’ll start with that approach which is easier and allows for playing both at home for fun or in a club. A common mistake I often see from new artists who want to perform live is to make things too ambitious and overly complicated; the preparations become too demanding and actually playing the set loses its fun.

First idea in preparing your set: turn your tracks, finished or not, into moments to be played live.

In a previous post, I said that making many loops is something that eventually pays off. When you want to play live, it’s always best to have a lot of options on hand that you can trim, to see what works together and then turn these perhaps unfinished loops into new songs.

For years, I always had a main project file for playing live in which I would test drive any new ideas I would worked on done over a given period of time. This live set was like a laboratory for experimentation; it was where new ideas would sprout, where loops became completed tracks, and where some sounds were replaced or remixed into another track. In other words, I recommend turning your unused arrangement loops into a scene in Live, play them, and record the output. Rinse, repeat.

But where and how do I start? 

For example, let’s take this simple arrangement and see what we can make out of it. Let’s say you have a track in the works or done, partially set up in an arrangement view (Note: Any DAW, in arrangement, not just Ableton); firstly, you’ll need to know how the track is structured.

Figure 1 – Arrangement view with markers

 

Do you want to play the track like your arranged it or do you want to have the parts so you can improvised with the different section?

As you can see in the above screenshot, I have inserted markers in my arrangement which represent the main changes between sections; everything is mostly organized in blocks. You’ll need to slice out these blocks to trigger them, and also what will become important is how you decide to play them. If some parts are heavily chopped, I would recommend that you either turn that section into an entire block, or if you want to jam those sounds you could add them to a Drum Rack. It depends if you want to do some jamming in your set or not. The point here is to have a better view of how your blocks exist so that when you are in the session view, the parts are easy to see.

1st TO DO:

  • Stretch the little blocks that repeat to create bigger blocks that cover the area where they should be repeating (note: make sure the clip is in loop mode) .
  • Use cmd+j to consolidate chopped blocks into bigger block. If some blocks have changes in them, consolidate them as is.
  • Use colors to clarify where the blocks have changes. Say a block is repeating until a given time but then changes pitch; you could change the color of the one where the pitch is changed to symbolize this change.

Figure 2 – Consolidated vs. Unconsolidated blocks

In Figure 2, the left section has been consolidated, and the right side hasn’t. You can the Duplicate left section to the right after consolidating this way.

This may appear time consuming, but it’s not that much extra work and it will pay off once you move everything to session view.

When you’re finished here, you need to bring the new blocks into the session view.

If you have groups, I’d suggest to ungroup them. The reason is that it is not only inconvenient to use groups in session view, but there are chances that your groups differ from one song to another, and in the end it might be more confusing than helpful. If you have grouped FX, I’d suggest you export the entire channel as a stem and decide later how to use it in a live context. You could perhaps decide to use FX during the live and so, not to bounce the channel. It’s hard for me to tell you what to do here.

2nd TO DO:

  • Grab all clips using cmd+a, click to grab, press Tab and then drop them in the session view.

    cmd+a, click to grab, press Tab and then drop them in the session view

  • You might have a really large amount of clips. After moving things to session view you’ll see that some “scenes” are made up of the same clips. You’ll need to delete all scenes that are the same; you don’t need them. In the end, you might go from 60 possible scenes, to about 5 (!). In live situation, you want everything in front of you, and the simpler things are, the faster you’ll be able to get in the zone. You can also go from Scene A to B, to C to D in any order, which gives you the option to remix your music on the fly.
  • Some people might have a huge number of channels grouped in 5-8 groups. Groups make things difficult to play live as they add a lot of complexity. I’d suggest you perhaps export the track’s stems for the groups and then chop them in sections as I explained above. This might also eventually invite you to reconsider how you use channels – I often feel like people use too many. I never use a single channel for a one hit that happens once in a song. I’ll have a reserved channel where I drop all the one-hit sounds. This can be a game changer for you if you use many as smaller projects are easier to understand and you’ll feel more focused (and use less CPU!)

 

Regarding the number of channels to use, you’ll need to do tests on your own set up before deciding how to do this. In the previous post on this topic, I was advised to be careful with the number of channels/tracks you use. Ideally you want to deal with a max of 12. To trim down the number of channels you are using in the event that you are already using more, you’ll need to mix down a few that are similar or combine channels that don’t have much going on. For example, I’d have a channel that would be a longer loop that would combine all FX and random hits. Playing it as a longer loop as opposed to a shorter one creates more of a live feel that isn’t as “loopy”.

Rehearse your session by hitting certain clips or triggering a scene to see what happens. Once you have removed the redundant scenes and trimmed down the number of channels, you’ll start having a first real glance of what your song looks like in terms of playing it live.

Of course, you’ll deal with the existential question of if you want to play the track “as is” or have a special version just for a live context.

Personally, I think it’s a bit boring to not offer something different in a live set, Two ways you can change things up are through pacing and jamming. jamming will be touched on more in part 3 as it is a very important part of preparation and can also be something that can also forever change your approach regarding how you make music.

Pacing will be the last part of the preparation of your live set. I will cover most of the preparation phase of pacing below, and the following blog post will be more concerned with how to play your live set.

I think my best live sets were good mostly because they had a core to work around that had some preparation, but also had a lot of room to improvise, dependent on how the actual event turned out. These sets were versatile; I could open an evening with them or play peak time, mostly because of how flexible they were. These sets were more or less made up of the same songs but the variations would be so easy to perform on the fly that I could really just follow what felt good to me in that moment in time. I’ve never really understood the point of having an overly prepared set. I’ve tried the prepared approach before and it just made the whole experience boring, because there would be no risk-taking; it also felt out of sync with whoever was listening. For example, imagine that your track has been built to have a drop, breakdown at one precise point and a moment of tension after, but if the dance floor is just starting to warm up when you drop, you might lose people’s attention or it might feel out of place.

A well prepared set has moments for building tension, others to release, variations, and material to raise the intensity if needed, without it being a fixed bunch of parts that aren’t easily movable. Each songs need an intro and outro so that you can move from one song to another in a very flowing way, just like a DJ would do.

Last TO DO (3):

  • Try to decide on the first scene of your songs. They shouldn’t be too busy but usually, you want a solid groove plus some teasers of the melody to come. Establishing the groove is always important to get people’s–what I call–dancefloor trust. That trust usually comes from kick-low end that is clear and precise, which people can relate to, no matter what happens in other parts of the frequency spectrum.
  • Your intro should have openness and space. If you have a melody, try muting a part of it. This will allow the possibility of mixing a part of the melody of another song with the current song; they will be “talking to each other” by echoing. This happens when the first few notes of a melody are answering the last few notes of another melody. DJs love that in a song and by playing live, you’ll see why; you’ll discover “dialogs” between your tracks which could even teach you the good and bad of your track’s arrangements.
  • Define the hook. The main hook of your song will follow the intro. It doesn’t mean you’ll drop the hook right away, as you can build towards there.
  • Set two variations of the hook with some complementary percussion. If you listen to a DJ set, especially techno or loop based music, you’ll see that it’s mainly a loop with variations. Try to have variations in your percussion, melody or bass. That way you can toggle between the hook and this part. I really really encourage you to listen to DJ sets to get ideas.
  • Create one tension-making moment. This can be a breakdown or a moment where something happens. I always loved to define this moment to be a scene where effects and atmosphere to create something exciting.
  • Release the tension. This scene is basically what would be played after the breakdown or tension-making moment and it’s usually the hook with some more intensity and or variations. This scene should be the most important one.
  • Outro. This is similar to the intro but it should be slightly different.

In the next post, we’ll go into more detail about the actual clips and how to create the perfect little “laboratory” for you to jam with. I’ll propose some ways to jam that will open doors to finally playing live and having all the fun that comes with it.

SEE ALSO : Playing Electronic Music Live – How to Prepare Your Live Set (Part 3)  

My tracks always have the same song structure

(Cover Photo by Luca Bravo)

One of the common things I often see and also struggle with myself is that sometimes I feel like my songs are always arranged in the same way; my song structure is often the same. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with following a regular song structure, often I feel like I need to have more arrangement variations in my work and new ways to present my music.

ableton live, ableton, structure, arrangements

So, what’s wrong with repeating song structures you already know work?

There are secret ways to consistently get great results with certain arrangements that, for the most part, will always “work”. When I used to DJ hard techno or drum and bass in the late 90s, eventually I became really bored of all the tracks had the exact same structure. Yes, it was extremely easy to mix the tracks together once you understood the “tricks” but at the same time, it was also underwhelming for listeners and DJs with a creative minds who preferred more challenging music and mixing.

It’s important not to fall into repetitive habits and patterns; you might find new arrangement tricks while exploring and experimenting with new song structures.

Before jumping into slice mode to get your arrangements upgraded, let’s outline a few rules that will be very useful to consider before we actually begin editing:

  1. Export a wav file of the last track worked on (any project!), finished or unfinished. Especially if you’re working using my method of Parallel Music Production; this technique will be very useful. Start a new habit of not only saving your project at the end of your session, but also bouncing a wav file of what you have.
  2. Import your file into the current project you’re about to work on. By importing, I’m referring to the arrangement section where you can drop in an empty, dedicated channel.
  3. Use markers for the arrangements as for where there are key points, changes, transition. With these references, you can see if your current project has similar points as your previous wav file, and then you might want to change it up if they are similar.
  4. See if the two projects can be easily mixed by a DJ. This is a good test to see if your track has too much going on, or if things will be fun to mix. I’ve said countless times before that if your music is fun to mix, DJs will carry a copy of your track for all their sets.

Slice your song structure

With your new habits in place, now go into slicing mode and get things started. As I’ve discussed before in a previous article, How to Turn a Loop Into a Song, you’ll need to decide the bpm and length of your track as starting point and build from there. I invite you to refer to the post if you need the full tutorial on that topic.

So let’s say you finally have a structure made up that you’re happy with. Here are the main key points I often use to avoid redundancy:

  1. Find the main sections of your song, and slice off the beginning and the end. A “section” of a song is a part that is different than others for its content. In pop music, we refer to these sections as bridges, breakdowns, choruses, etc. In electronic music, these types of sections might be a bit more subtle or non-traditional, but they’re still there.
  2. With your sections isolated, determine if your perspectives are balanced. By “perspective”, I mean this just like it is used in photography; see if your track has balanced ratio.
  3. Insert empty slices in middle of the parts as well as some random points in the song. Check some “winks” that you might be able to make from the reference track you originally imported. “Winks” are when one song might “talk or reply” another if mixed properly.
  4. Move around your sliced blocks/sections. Try wild swaps and mess with perspective. Be creative. In contrast to the often useful “use your ears not your eyes” advice, in this case I highly suggest working on your structure visually alone without any sound at all so you’re not biased or held back in your arranging experimentation. If you’re new to the idea, make sure you make a backup copy first of your project. Personally, I spend quite some time to make something visually appealing with my blocks even before listening.
  5. Intentionally leave mistakes. Did you move something slightly off the grid? Did you paste a section at the wrong place? Try leaving in it the structure until next time you come back to it.

Try messing with your song structure; let me know how it goes!

SEE ALSO :   Lego Blocks as Song Structures 

Self-Imposed Rules For Arrangements

When you’re up against the wall, pushing forward to break through and get things down can be taxing. It’s a mental game of will and strength against creative effort. What you need to know is this – waiting around for that very brief moment of inspiration and creativity will always lose out to dedicated, and consistent hard work. Does it have to be this hard all the time? Is there a way I can out-smart more difficult and time-consuming tasks? I’ll be the voice you can hear saying yes you can. And it’s easier than you think.

Over the years as a working producer, I’ve never stopped learning from others and finding ways to improve my skills and technique across all areas of music production. One thing I’ll share with you that I wish I’d picked up early is this – creating self-imposed rules for arrangements. Rules? What? I’ll explain.

For many producers, the stage where you arrange your tracks seems to be something you don’t look forward to. I get that, I’ve been there. I’m always hearing that the vibe and soul of your track seem to change in a less exciting way once you sit down and begin laying it out. You’ve told me often that when you get to that block in the road, the party’s over. Listen, don’t stop the music just yet.

I’m successful and prolific as an artist because I get the hard jobs in my day done. I don’t hide from the tasks that I used to avoid doing. I get right to it and start with some of the toughest work first. I beat through them in a way that isn’t painful or tedious anymore. Using rules isn’t like flying on auto-pilot, but a lot of the tough decisions are pre-decided for me.

 

This might sound too easy, or pure brilliance, yet people all over the world use this process to offload the hard mental work of making decisions to get to the finish line faster. If you want to achieve more consistent and impressive results, read on.

(you know this is a key focus throughout my blog, finding ways to maximize your creativity and efficiency, by organising our workflow to spend less time on the mundane and challenging, and more time on the rewarding and exciting parts of our work)

Let’s talk about imposing internal rules on yourself. My definition of rules would go as: Using certain techniques to create an engaging song structure. And remember – rules can be broken later, but you’ll find it so  much more helpful to get started quickly and make fast progress as opposed to starting slowly from zero.)

It’s given that there are many reasons why a listener might be engaged with your song – the quality of the mix, a great loop, the catchiness of the hook, etc.. Most people will admit to being drawn to a song (or having a song stuck in their heads) by the storytelling structure of the arrangement. Creating a tight and well-sequenced arrangement is one area where many people struggle to achieve properly. Their songs lack correlation, which is to say, the combination of repetition vs change. This is one area of songwriting where rules can help tremendously by pre-defining how each sound can be used.

Here are some examples of rules that I would use:

  1. Direction: is this project for the club, for headphones, for a cinema project? Knowing this will dictate every choice that follows.
  2. Sections definition: this is a critical one, which I’ll define as -a part of the track where one idea is used in a certain way, and you’ll go from one section to another, hearing a clear and noticeable difference.) Depending on the genre some arrangements are tight, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, etc… Many arrangements stick to a repeating formula, which in this case is a good thing because we listen along and quickly know what to expect. It’s here where you can add and create variations to the sounds which can elevate the intensity in a mighty way for the listener.
  3. The sequence of percussion. Is this sequence the same over 8 or 16 bars? As before you want to create a stable pattern that repeats itself and can sustain the other elements of your track. The benefit to using repeating structures is that only a small change is needed to introduce a big change, which will grab the listener’s ears right away, and create anticipation for the next part. Hats or claps are often used to create this variation.
  4. Block sequence and colour: If there’s variation in the same channel for one sound, I highly recommend changing the block colours to indicate that difference. It’s fun and efficient to place your blocks in a visual pattern,”blue-red-blue-red-blue-orange.
  5. Superimposed blocks: This is the natural follow up to the previous rule. Imagine you have 2 channels, each their own colour sequences, your visual pattern can be created from combining both channels. This is quite useful when you want two different sounds to call/answer one another. You’ll see them one on top of another, as a pair.
  6. Blocks size: I like to make a sequence for my kicks and then grab them to consolidate (+j). That will create a larger block that I’ll duplicate until the end. Now, I can demand that those kick drum blocks won’t change at all, allowing me to focus my energy on creating variations for my shorter percussion blocks. Imposing block sizes is one of the most liberating ways to speed up the arrangement process!
  7. Live Blocks vs static: You’ll find that every track I have will include individual elements that are an audio recording of some live manipulation. For me, those blocks are ‘Live’ while the ones that have no manipulation to be ‘sleepy’. You can decide to have a certain ratio of live ones vs sleepy.
  8. Perspective ratio: Perhaps my favourite. While a ratio in third is the usual (ex. intro, middle, end), you can also have more but each ratio should be the same length more or less. How many sections fit in a moment is really up to you.
  9. Surprises %: Simple right? How many surprises will you give the listener? Too many will lessen impact while too few might not engage the listener enough and they’ll find your track boring.
  10. Silences: Super important element. Silences in music can give great power to the notes played. You’ll need at least a tiny moment where you’ll give air to your mix by adding silences to a part. Think creatively about how to want to create space in your sequence.

 

As you can see, the rules you can create and apply to your track can be anything you wish. The best part about using rules in your workflow is that you’ll greatly speed things up by off-loading much of the mental guess work to a process that’s already been pre-decided. This all means more fun in the studio, more music finished, which is a win-win from every angle.

SEE ALSO :    The Science Behind Tracky Music 

How to filter your best ideas

I’m always looking for ways to improve upon what I do, and how I can better serve my clients. I’m not taking any breaks on becoming better and better every day. I read a lot and especially enjoy reading words from entrepreneurs to learn from, and help build upon the success of others. When I come across an article that brings up an ‘a-ha’ moment, I want to share it. One of these moments came from one article I read about how to turn a great idea into a business. Across many different fields, music, tech, etc.. one pattern in runs true throughout all of them – sometimes the best ideas come to you in ways you can’t always predict.

Another thing which is true, to generate ideas you start by brainstorming.

In the musical world, I would translate this as jamming. With nowhere particular direction in mind, you begin by tweaking and trying everything. Make sounds, press buttons, turn knobs, listen to the effect of this and that, try new techniques for the first time. In a past article, I’d invited you to use Youtube to find out something new or use a new synth demo and record the outcome.

Jamming freely. It’s known that Prince would spend time in his studio every day making a ton of noise simply to try new things, try new jams, and record these experiments which resulted in a vault of music no one would hear, except him. I’d encourage you to do add this to your daily routine, either very early in the morning or at the end of the afternoon.

Going back to the article that ignited my ‘a-ha- moment, the process of idea generation should involve the following two steps:

  1. Creative session.
  2. Analytical period.

The article states that the brain has a very difficult time creating and analyzing at the same time. In the moment of creation and discovery, our brains use a lot of energy to focus on active listening. In this messy and uncontrolled environment, our brains are set in one direction, we’re in the zone. The missing piece of the puzzle for me was reading that our brains have a very difficult time when asked to create and analyze at the same time. It won’t work both ways.

This is why it’s recommended to separate the two tasks, create freely one day, then analyze the material on the next. This would also explain why we often listen to what we did from our first session and find it mostly garbage. The key word here is – mostly.

It would also confirm my theory that spending too much time in the studio is counter-productive because without a change of perspective you don’t have enough distance objectively evaluate your efforts.

Over time I’ve nearly burnt myself out explaining this process to others who struggle with the process. I’ve also learned it’s sometimes best to let those learn by themselves, at their own pace. This confirms the idea that the creative process is very much a personal one, and that no two people will learn or develop at the same rate.

Session 1: Jam, have fun, explore, fail, win, repeat.
Session 2: review everything that was recorded and isolate the potential ideas that stand out, and are more usable.
Session 3: Go through isolated ideas. Work around one.
Alternate.

In other words, try to alternate between creative flow and analysis, self-criticism and more technical work.

Your brain can only do one at a time and more so, why go analytical when you are creative and why be creative when it is time to be self-critical. The main thing you’ll refer to as your analytical part is to listen to what feels good to you.

Build. Learn. Repeat. Build. Learn. Repeat.

As a child, going out to restaurants with my parents would normally involve using pencils and paper to draw pictures and doddle while we waited for our food. (this was waaaayy before smartphones became commonplace) For me, a blank piece of paper is a license to get messy. Everything is possible, and I always found it easy to get started. Our favorite game was one where one would draw a weird, unrecognizable doddle, and pass the paper on to the other.

The second player would have the challenging task of turning that mess of lines, shapes, and circles into something recognizable like a car, or a bird, or anything that required a bit of time and imagination. Until this day I’ve always thought this exercise was one of the most creative tasks I ever did.

So, here’s another way to approach this: take something totally random, even something you truly don’t want to work with whatsoever and try to make something usable out of it. Make a loop, make a playable sound, take something terrible and push yourself to find something in it that you can do something with. I did a full EP once, a while back where I’d force myself to work with sounds and recordings that made no sense whatsoever. It turns out it’s a good exercise but also very useful as you don’t depend on only good material to be effective with what you have.

SEE ALSO :  The Modular Trap