Electronic music can often sound a little sterile, if you’re not careful. Luckily, our resident studio hound Chris Lyth is here to share some tricks on creating a more engaging listen
One of the hardest things to achieve in electronic music is a convincing sense that the music is alive and in motion. Many tracks have a great idea, but are let down by a feeling of flatness that is difficult to explain. Conversely, much of the music that inspires us feels effortlessly alive and vibrant in a way that is also difficult to articulate.
The concept we are looking at, in a word, is movement.
Acoustic music, by its very nature, has many of the attributes that we will be talking about built-in. Think of an acoustic snare drum: every time it’s struck the timing, volume and timbre will all be subtly different. Now compare this to a sampled 909 snare, programmed without fuss in a sequencer, and the static essence of electronic music is revealed, with each and every hit sounding identical to the last.
So, here are some ideas to help you bring life and movement into your tracks. Note that although we've listed them separately, many of these ideas will also work well in tandem with each other, such as a filter or velocity being modulated by an LFO.
1. Amplitude and velocity
In the same way that we used an acoustic snare as an example, think of an acoustic piano. If you play the note softly, it’s quiet and has a soft tone. Now strike it very hard and not only does the volume increase, the tone changes considerably. Velocity sensitivity is universal in acoustic music, and is generally implemented in some form on most synths, drum machines and samplers. So it makes sense to have plenty of changes in your MIDI velocity, as if all your sequence data is set to max then any variation in volume and tone will be eliminated.
In more percussive music, velocity works brilliantly at breathing 'feel' into a groove. Experiment with varying degrees of subtlety on a 1/16th hi-hat part and you will hear how radically the shape of the entire drum program is altered. You can use amplitude and velocity in both long and short arcs of your timeline. For example you may have a two-bar keyboard loop that has velocity changes written in, but when it gets to the breakdown the velocity gradually rises to a crescendo changing the volume and tone. FM synthesis is particularly expressive when reacting to velocity. Try programming in a bassline and drawing in random velocities to give you an idea.
When programming drums and percussion, timing as well as velocity is very important. A human drummer will naturally swing in their own way, whereas a drum machine will play solidly on the beat unless instructed otherwise. Pulling the snare or clap forward a few milliseconds to pull the groove slightly forward is always a good place to start. You can then go along your timeline and subtlly shift your drums back and forward off the grid. Pushing it back will make it more laidback, pulling it forward will make it more insistent. Anything that you are attempting to give an organic feel to should be treated in the same way.
A technique that helps greatly with both timing and variation is to play the part by hand into your sequencer over the length of your entire track, say six to eight minutes. Even if you are playing a simplr three-note, one-bar loop, this long track will have a great deal of human timing, velocity and note length variation. Try playing without quantise to start with, then if you do find it’s required use a very soft setting (say around 20%), so your natural playing rhythm is still there, but just a touch tighter.
LFOs are fantastic tools for adding motion to static parts, not to mention coming up with things we wouldn’t have thought of.
What are LFOs? Well firstly, LFOs don’t actually make a sound – they move a sound around. Dependent on your synth or sampler, an LFO can be set up to automatically alter a given parameter over a specified amount of time. A classic example is setting the LFO to modulate a cut-off filter of a resonant synth line. This will automatically move the filter up and down at the speed and depth you select, but LFOs can do much more than filter sweeps. They can control the volume, pan, pitch, length of a note or even modulate the start point of a long sample so that it jumps around, creating a glitchy textured rhythm. They can even be set up to modulate FX parameters like reverb time and delay feedback.
Most plug-in LFOs have a setting called LFO Sync that will lock them to the tempo of your track. This can be great for some things, but your modulations will be more predictable and structured-sounding as a result, which may or may not suit. So don’t be afraid to unlock from the grid! There’s also no current legislation to suggest that you can only use one LFO per track, so play around with multiples to really get your sounds zipping around. Used with varying degrees of depth and creativity, they will take much of the pain out of writing in automation for every single part.
LFOs are amazing tools, but they are not sentient (which comes as a relief in a way!), meaning they will not know when a change is required. Sometimes the human touch really can’t be captured any other way than writing in live automation, which undoubtedly adds personality and that little indefinable, special something. Automation allows you to make long, evolving or quick-moving changes, and is limited only by your imagination. You may just want to quickly raise the level of a snare for a roll to make it pop out of the mix, or you may want to inject intensity and drama by using an Aux send to add a massive reverb to a vocal in a breakdown.
5. Depth and space
While we have been looking mostly at events occurring across the timeline, there’s a great amount that can be done in the third dimension. By this I’m talking about creating depth and space within your mix. In previous articles I’ve spoken about giving a mix a wide stereo image and creating a front-to-back depth. In very simple terms, brighter, drier sounds appear to be nearer, while duller sounds with large reverb added are further away. Manipulating these techniques dynamically can add massive amounts of movement and completely change the feel of a part.
A practical example could be a pad sound that has been filtered down and bathed in reverb. This will sit at the very back of the mix; then at a certain point in the track, the filter will gradually open up, and at the same time the size of the delay will be automated to being much shorter. This will give the auditory illusion that the sound has come from the back of the mix to the front. This is a very cut-and-dried example and obviously it can be played with on any sound in a less dramatic way (or an even more dramatic way if required), but it’s another powerful means of adding motion to your music.
As always with any bank of ideas, it’s your job as an artist to decide if they are appropriate for the task at hand. Some music will require rapid and near-constant changes with micro edits and parameter automation every bar, other styles – such as dub techno or ambient music – may evolve over a much slower contour. There are many ways to evolve your musical material over time and dramatic tension can be created in a variety of ways… so have fun playing around with these techniques until next time!
Words: Chris Lyth