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Dance Music Sequencing Techniques

Article from Sound On Sound, June 1993


Sequencers, with their metronomic precision and easy interfacing to MIDI gear, are ideal tools for dance music. Craig Anderton offers helpful hints and tips to follow for more creative dance tracks.

Dance music has taken many forms, from the smooth disco beat of the 70s to the jagged, intense sound of techno. Sequencers, with their metronomic precision and easy interfacing to MIDI gear, are ideal tools for dance music — whether you're putting together a collage of samples or sequencing a tight rhythm track.

However, some sequencer techniques are better suited to dance music than others, and that's what this article is all about. We'll look at rhythm tracks first, then at ways to manipulate samples within the sequencer.

SUBTRACTIVE SEQUENCING



Lately, I've been getting away from using sampled loops as the basic elements for dance tunes, and generating the parts by playing actual instruments into a sequencer (maybe it's old fashioned, but it's fun to do your own playing!). Yet the usual 'painting' metaphor for sequencing — that you start with a blank canvas, then add parts until the piece is complete — is the complete opposite of a mixer's job with dance music, which is to take lots of elements and mix them in and out artistically to form a finished piece.

Fortunately, there's a way to simulate 'the mixing experience' with a sequencer through a process we'll refer to as subtractive sequencing. With this approach, the sequencing metaphor becomes more like sculpting than painting.

Begin the process by recording, for example, eight sequenced measures. Pack these with tracks — I often end up with 20 to 30 tracks of drum sounds, percussion, bass, pads, rhythmic figures, melodic fragments, and so on. The most important point is that the percussion and bass parts by themselves should hit a strong, solid, dance-inducing groove. Don't continue until you've achieved that goal.

Take those eight measures and copy them until you have about four or five minutes' worth of music. The result should be an extremely dense pile of data filling up your RAM.

CUT AND HACK



Now comes the subtractive part. Our sequence so far is like a dense block of wood, so the time has come to start carving away at the tracks until a tune takes shape.

For example, start off by cutting out everything in the first few measures except the pads. Then cut out everything except pads and percussion (leaving in the drums) for the next couple of measures. Now delete the pads and bring in the bass to establish a drums and bass groove. Next, serve up some rhythmic bloops and bleeps to accent the rhythm. When things get too repetitive, take out everything except for the kick drum and reintroduce the pads.

I'd recommend being pretty brutal with your cutting; it seems that less is indeed more when it comes to dance tunes. Save your sequence often under different filenames (eg. Killergroove_1, Killergroove_2, Killergroove_3, etc) so that if you get too aggressive in your cutting, you can retrieve any good bits you might have lost along the way.

Figure 1: a typical techno tune structure, as displayed in Cubase's Arrange window; it used to be solid black, but note the gaps in the music where material has been cut away.


The screen dump in Figure 1 shows a typical techno tune structure, as displayed in Cubase's Arrange window; it used to be solid black, but note the gaps in the music where material has been cut away (incidentally, after doing this screen dump, the sequence got whittled down even further).

WHY NOT MIX INSTEAD?



Considering that most software sequencers have 'virtual moving faders' for doing MIDI volume mixes, it may seem more logical to simply mix all this material rather than get involved in lots of surgically-precise cutting. However, cutting offers two big advantages: it takes up less memory; but more importantly, if you keep all that data and add lots of MIDI Controller 7 (Volume) fader motion on top of it, the MIDI data stream can become so dense that the timing integrity of your sequence starts to suffer — and that's bad news for any dance track. Cutting instead of mixing prevents this.

TIME TO ADD LEADS



After getting a really strong rhythm track together, it's time to think about what you're going to put over those tracks. Dance music often doesn't have 'leads' in the traditional sense of screaming guitars and vocals; usually, they are sampled sounds or vocal snippets whose source can be anything from political speeches to old movies to really great vocalists. Finding appropriate samples is only one task, though; the other is laying them into the tune's rhythmic bed.

'Found sound' samples seldom have inflections that match the music's rhythms, which can be distracting. Some musicians attack this problem at the sampler itself, by breaking phrases down into individual samples and triggering different words from different keys at the desired rhythms. However, there are a lot of sequencer tricks that can produce similar effects with much less effort...

Let's consider a real-world example. A friend recently turned me on to a '50s sci-fi movie, Invisible Invaders, which had lots of great samples. The premise is that earth's invaders can only be destroyed with sound waves. One sample, 'Sound is the answer', became the song's title. Other samples were: 'I asked you a question', 'The answer is in sound', 'The device must have used sonic rays', 'If you think sound is the answer', 'Sound vibrations', and 'Only two theories seem to make any sense'. Some of these phrases are fairly long, and at 135 BPM I wanted to have the words line up with the rhythms as much as possible, as well as mutate the samples into other things. Here are some tricks that worked for me.

TRUNCATING SAMPLES BY SEQUENCE EDITING

This is easy: just shorten the note's duration. For example, I wanted to follow 'The device must have used sonic rays' with 'The device must have used sound vibrations'. Rather than cut and paste in the sampler, I simply shortened the note for the first sample so that it ended after '...must have used', then added a note for the 'sound vibrations' sample immediately after to create the composite sentence.

Truncating to extremely short times gives nifty percussive effects that can sound primitive and guttural. Generally, I map a bunch of samples across the keyboard as a multisample so that each sample covers at least a musical fifth, making different pitches available. Playing several notes at the desired rhythm, and setting their durations to 30-50 milliseconds, gives the desired effect. This works best with sounds that have fairly abrupt beginnings; a word such as 'whether' has an attack time that lasts longer than 30-50ms, and doesn't get up to speed before the note has ended.

As one example, I wanted a series of 8th-note 'ohs'. Triggering the 'only two theories seem to make any sense' sample with a note just long enough to play the 'o' from 'only...', did the job.

Figure 2: Setting sample start times by editing your sequence. Put a Controller 7 = 127 (ie. maximum volume) message where you want the phrase to start in the sequence, and a Controller 7 = 0 message somewhere before that. Jog the note start time so that the Controller 7 = 127 message occurs right before the section of the phrase you want to hear.


SETTING SAMPLE START TIME WITH SEQUENCE EDITING

What if you want to play back the last part of a sample rather than the beginning? This is a little trickier. Put a Controller 7 = 127 (ie. maximum volume) message where you want the phrase to start in the sequence, and a Controller 7 = 0 message somewhere before that. Jog the note start time so that the Controller 7=127 message occurs right before the section of the phrase you want to hear (see Figure 2).

Note that in a multisampled keyboard setup, this will affect any other samples that are sounding at the same time. If this is a problem, set up the different samples multi-timbrally.

It seems that many samples work best if they're nudged forward in the track so that they start just a bit ahead of the beat. This is probably because some sounds take a while to develop (such as the 'w' sounds mentioned earlier). Another factor might be that the ear processes data on a 'first come, first served' basis. Placing the sample before the beat gives it more importance than the sounds that follow it right on the beat.

Although you can shift each note manually, that can be a hassle. Most sequencers have track shifting functions that let you change the note position ahead of or behind the beat by a particular number of clocks; this is the ticket to faster results.

SAMPLE DOUBLING

If a sample covers a range of the keyboard rather than just one key, you can play two samples at the same time for truly groovacious effects. For example, take a note that triggers a sample, copy the note, and transpose it down a half-step. The lower-pitched sample takes longer to play, so move it slightly ahead of the higher-pitched sample.

Depending on the start times of the two notes, you'll hear echo, flanging, and/or chorusing effects. If they start and end with about the same amount of delay, you'll hear a way cool flanging effect in the middle.

CHANGING SAMPLE TIMING WITH PITCH BEND

If a sample works perfectly in a tune but you need to shorten or lengthen a single word, no problem — apply pitch bend to just one portion of the phrase. Bend the pitch down to lengthen, bend up to shorten. This can also add some fun, goofy effects if taken to extremes.

Figure 3 shows this technique applied to several notes. The first note rises in pitch (thus shortening the sample), whereas the fourth and fifth notes are bent downward to lengthen the sample. Pitch bend applied to the rightmost note shortens the beginning, lengthens the middle for emphasis, and shortens the end.

Combining all these tricks lets you lay samples into the track that sound as if they were cut specifically for your tune. The effect is uncanny.

Figure 3: Changing sample timing with Pitch Bend. The screen dump shows this technique applied to several notes. The first note rises in pitch (thus shortening the sample), whereas the fourth and fifth notes are bent downward to lengthen the sample. Pitch bend applied to the rightmost note shortens the beginning, lengthens the middle for emphasis, and shortens the end.


FINISHING TOUCHES



After getting your samples together, you'll probably want to go back and hack away more of the sequence to accommodate the samples. The first time an important sample motif appears, try taking out everything (except possibly leaving in the kick drum) to give the sample extra emphasis. During parts where the piece is really grooving along and contains all the percussion and drum parts, try removing just the percussion for a few measures while the sample appears.

By the way, I've found that I often tend to get carried away with all the wonderful editing options that sequencers offer, and in the process end up with a sequence that sounds impressive, but doesn't flow. This is when I go back and get even more ruthless, erasing parts that are clever but don't contribute to the tune, and taking groups of parts that work well and repeating them with minor variations.

Keep editing until you create a varied, yet repetitive, piece. Sometimes you may want to replace sections of a track with a new part to keep things interesting, or overdub a part to create additional interest. In any event, give some of these techniques a try for your own dance music and see what happens. You might not just make better music, you might have more fun doing it!

Based in sunny California, Craig Anderton is the author of several books on musical electronics, including Power Sequencing With Master Tracks Pro/Pro 4 (available from SOS Bookshop (Contact Details)). His samples and patches have been used in products from Emu, Ensoniq, Northstar, OMI, Peavey, Prosonus, and Yamaha.


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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
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Sound On Sound - Jun 1993

Topic:

Sequencing


Feature by Craig Anderton

Previous article in this issue:

> Lucky 7

Next article in this issue:

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