Tag Archive for: experience

Creating Depth in Music

I don’t know many people who took theatre in school, or aspired to become an actor or comedian. For me, having a background in theatre has shaped my vision of music, performance, and storytelling. In Québec, we have a “theatre sport” called Improvisation, where teams meet in a rink to create stories and characters, out of the blue. After practicing this for 20 years or so, it’s shaped how I perceive songs and sets. There are so many parallels to music in theatre: how a story develops, the use of a main character, supporting roles, etc., all of which can be applied to the use of sounds in a track.

A story is never great without quality supporting roles. Support adds depth to any story, and richness to the main character. Think of all the evil nemeses James Bond has faced—the more colorful they were, the more memorable the story, and the same goes for songs.

You might have a strong idea for your song, but if it has a good supporting idea or two, then you’ll end up with a song that keeps you engaged until the end.

I’ve been really into minimalist music lately; I like music that has a solid core idea that evolves. I was reading a really nice post on Reddit about Dub Techno where one of the main criterion discussed was the importance of simplicity. Simplicity doesn’t make something dull or dumb—in music it can be a reduction of all unnecessary elements, in dub techno resulting in a conversation between the deep bass and the pads and other layers.

If you’re immersed in electronic music, you’re generally used hearing multiple layers and often multiple conversations between sounds. Percussion layers will be often related to themselves, but the main idea is usually supported by a second layer. I often hear this in some indie rock songs too, especially ones that have some electronic elements in them. The way the human ear works, is that we will always hear the main component of a song as the centre of attention, but attention will shift back-and-forth between different layers. The advantage of having depth in music is that it encourages repeat listening. For a listener to replay a song and hear something new is exciting; some songs will grow on them even though they may have felt overwhelming during the first listen.

How can you create secondary ideas and “supporting roles”?

There are multiple ways to do to add depth to your songs.

Negative Space

The most important part when you program or write a melody, is to leave some empty space in it, which I call “negative spacing.” This space is where your secondary ideas can appear, supporting or replying to the main idea. I usually start by writing a complex melody, and then will remove some notes that I will use elsewhere, either in a second synth, bass, or percussive elements. Here are some suggestions as to what you can do with the MIDI notes you remove from the first draft of your melody:

  • Use the same MIDI notes from your melody, but apply them to multiple synths or other sounds to create variations and multiple layers that all work together.
  • Use the MIDI tool chords and arpeggios to build evolving ideas that come from the same root.
  • Look into some MIDI-generating Max for Live patches that can give you alternative ideas. I’ve had some fun with patches like Magenta, but also with the VST Riffer or Random Riff Generator which are really interesting.

The “Fruit of the Tree” Exercise

This is an exercise that is a bit time-consuming that I have a love/hate relationship with. You spend time playing the main idea through intense sound altering plugins. So, if your main idea is a melody, imagine you send it through granular synthesis, pitch-shifting, a harmonizer, random amplitude modulation, etc.—you’ll end up with a bunch of messed up material that can be shaped into a secondary idea while still being related to your original idea. The idea is to transform what you have into something slightly different. There are multiple plugins you can look into for achieving this:

  • Vocoders, mTransform, mHarmonizer, mMorph: These all work by merging an incoming signal and with a second signal. So, let’s say you have your main idea or melody—you can feed it into something completely different, such as a voice, some forest sounds, textures, or percussion, and you’ll obtain pretty original results.
  • Shaperbox 2 is the ultimate toolbox to completely transform your sound by slicing, gating, and filtering it, with the help of LFOs. This is pretty much my go-to to create alternative tools quickly. One thing I like to do a lot, is to run two side-by-side on different channels, and then use them to create movement that answers one another. For instance, one will duck while the other plays. You can also use side-chaining in the newest version, which can create lovely reactivity, if you use it along with the filter to shape the tone by an incoming sound. This allows you to do low-pass gating, for instance, which isn’t really in Ableton’s basic tools.

Background Sounds

The lack of background sounds, or noise-floor, always leaves people with the impression that there’s something missing in a track. This can be resolved with a reverb at low volume that leaves a nice overall roundness if you keep it pretty dark in its tone. Low reverb creates an impression that a song is also doubled, or wide. Another good way to make background sounds is to load up a bunch of sounds that can be played multiple times in different sections of your song, at very low volume. I was checking out this producer who does EDM/festival music, and he would use sounds of people cheering at a very low volume in moments where the chorus of the song would hit, to create more density and excitement. However, at a high volume, this approach can conversely create a “wall of noise”, so it should be crafted carefully.

If you simply drop a background sound into a project, such as forest sounds, you’re missing out on one of the most enjoyable activities in making music, which is to create your own live sounds. A forest has a bunch of—what seems like—random sounds. You can alter this, and say have a basic 5-second background of noise-floor and then decide when the bird chirping comes in via automation and perhaps have them sync to the tempo. This creates a bit of a groove too. A good exercise is to try to create sounds that emulate nature as you’ll have a bit more control over the sounds (and you’ll learn more about sound design in the process).

Ghost Notes

Ghost notes are mostly discussed as they relate to percussion, but they can be used, as a technique, with anything. A common example of ghost notes is their use in hi-hats, as a bunch of in-between hats at a very low volume to fill up space, which stretches the groove and but avoids too much negative space. Aside from using this technique on the low end—where sounds need a lot of space and room to breathe—make sure everything doesn’t sound mushy. The use of a delay in 16th or 32th notes can be a good way to create ghost notes.

A tap delay, where you can program where the delays fall, is also super fun in terms of creating ghost notes, as you can use one to make complex poly-rhythms. However, I suggest cutting some part of the high-end from the delays to avoid clashing with the main transients, and make sure the volume is very low. Using a AUX/Send bus for delays can be quite useful.

SEE ALSO : Improving intensity in music

Our First Music Retreat

The idea for a music retreat came from a discussion I was having with my friend Fred about the need to just flee the city with some fellow music producers to spend a weekend making music. I mean, being in the country, being with friends, and then be able to make music seems like a recipe for something very special, right? Well, since returning from our retreat, I can only say it was beyond all my expectations; I believe it might even be something worth repeating on a regular basis.

When I first posted about my intentions to organize a music retreat on Facebook, I was mind-blown by the reaction and enthusiasm it generated. I think the excitement about a retreat comes from a need to be with others who share the same passion, but also to be in a context where we can connect about it.

We ended up having 13 people signing (note: we even had people from France who wanted to come but we didn’t posted the dates soon enough for them to prepare) and we found a beautiful manor outside of Montreal with the views of fields and hills as the place for the retreat. The setting was perfect. Fred organized two separate studios and we had plenty of room to be with our laptops to get in our bubble.

I had planned to do some workshops but after talking and deciding on the plan for the weekend, we didn’t really want to follow any structure. This first experience would determine our needs and how to deal with anything happening.

What came out was pure magic!

Imagine being in a room where everyone is making music, has gear and is focused on working on their own music, where you can show others what you’re working on to get feedback, to get answers to questions you have regarding technical issues, to observe everyone’s workflow and use of plugins…it really felt like a need was being met by everyone present: being part of a community, and getting instant validation and experience being in a creative environment.

We traded Soundcloud and Facebook for real human contact. Hanging out in clubs to find like-minds felt awkward; being around people who share the same interests, and working at the same time as others really responded to a common need we all shared: connecting physically.

No matter how the internet is developing and the tools it offers, there’s nothing like physical closeness. Even myself, I felt overwhelmed with the desire to make sounds and also to comment on other’s or to answer questions people would share out loud. It’s pretty common for music producers to meet in bars and clubs but you can’t really talk because the context is loud and not appropriate, plus you can’t really share your tech set up or how you work. It seems like a retreat is creates a proper space to co-create and see everyone’s game get upgraded. I am under the impression that this could be the best way to shape the sound of a community all together.

As we’re preparing to already organize more retreats, we are also planning to gather music producers in cafes, on a Saturday afternoon. I think that is also something we would love to explore, elsewhere in the world as well.

How I used the Music retreat for my creative flow

I wanted to do exactly what I do with my days in the city but to really concentrate it in a short period of time to see what would come out. My usual routine is to take my sound generators such as synths and then jam. I did that intensively until Saturday afternoon, but then I had a mental crash. It usually happens at some point but it was pretty interesting to see it happen like that. But the cool part was to be around people, talking and exchanging about anything coming. I wasn’t home on Netflix waiting for my energy to come back.

Later, I realized there were some ways I could have improved our productivity on the retreat. Below are some ideas I’m noting down for next time, as well as to give you some suggestions in case you plan to embark on a music retreat yourself:

  • Make samples as a team. Since everyone has a different background and inspirations, we could analyze some songs to try to replicate certain sounds.
  • Try to finish one song where everyone is involved. Each participant could use one instrument, and one person collect them all to put them into arrangements.
  • Use multiple people to do complex field recordings, strange sounds and atmosphere.
  • Make convolution images of different spaces, such as using microphones to sample the different rooms of the place we were.
  • Do the relay method of music making, meaning “try to do as much as you can on this track then pass it on to the next person.”
  • Try to do a cadavre exquis, music related.

If you have suggestions for us to try at the next retreat, let us know as we’re already planning another one!