Dave Stewart's Music Seminar (Part 7)
Part 7: Tuned percussion. Dave investigates the enormous creative potential of sampled sounds within music, and offers his rendition of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'.
One of the great things about sampling is the way it can transform an unpitched sound into a tuned one. For example, a wood block or dropped metal weight may not seem to have any definite pitch, but once it has been sampled and played back at different pitches, the dominant note of the sampled sound becomes much more apparent. In this way, anyone with a sampler can turn a purely percussive sound into a melodic one — an exciting idea if, like me, you hunger for new sonic possibilities (see Figure 1).
So, what are we going to do with this novel concept? Construct chords to be played by military bass drum samples? Re-orchestrate the opening measures of 'The Rite of Spring' for performance by whoopee cushions? Er... no. But you could try something like the following extracts from my arrangement of Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'.
Already, I can hear a hundred throats cry "Why did you choose that song?" My usual, weary answer to such questions is that I was attracted to the chords of the song, but 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' has none to speak of — just an occasional and rather haphazard change from A major to D major which even the band on Dylan's recording seem unable to follow. No, the reason in this case would have to be the great lyrics.
Space does not permit me to write them all out, but thanks to the publishers anyway. The bass line I devised for the song's intro is shown in Figure 2. For the sequencer-oriented, the swing feel is achieved by quantising to 16th note triplets, or 24th notes.
The musically perceptive amongst you will be wondering, or indeed complaining, about the odd choice of notes — hey dude, this surely cannot be the sequencer groove! Sounds more like the dance of the Troll queens from some obscure Scandinavian ballet. Perhaps so, but it sounds good, maybe because the sound for this bass line was not the usual fruity analogue synth with burping filter resonance, nor the occasionally favoured 16-bit multisample of a Fender Precision bass thumb slap. In this case the bass line is played by a combination of severely detuned woodblock and low conga samples.
The rather good Korg M1 keyboard has a factory drum kit/percussion program where the top of the uppermost octave is devoted to a drastically detuned (three octaves or so) woodblock. Somewhere lower down on the keyboard amidst handclaps, Simmons toms and crash cymbals, lurks a sound which was once a conga drum but has now been pitch-shifted downwards into something bigger. The bass line was created by alternating between the two keyboard zones to produce a kind of tuned percussion melody. Initially, I was concentrating purely on the rhythm, but after a while I realised I was unconsciously picking out a melody. (Do I always compose while unconscious? Folks, it's the only way!) By adding some of the M1's other drum and percussion samples, plus a generous dose of the instrument's excellent distortion and phasing effects, I wrote an arrangement for the intro of the song, shown in Figure 3.
As the sound of the rhythm pattern in bars 3-6 was so cacophonous and unusual, I decided to use it for most of the song, but about half-way through the inevitable need for a change overpowered me and I constructed a new rhythm feel. To reinforce the change in direction, I also introduced some of my beloved sustained chords, and later, in a remixed version of the song, added congas, cowbell and agogo bell patterns. The full arrangement of verse 3 of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', where all the elements in the backing track fight for the listener's attention, is shown in Figure 4. By all means try this with your sequencers (I won't sue, although I can't speak for Bob) but remember, it's swing feel — this stuff will not sound right in straight 16s. Goodbye till next month.
First published in 'Keyboard' magazine, Japan.
All music © Budding Music 1990.
'Subterranean Homesick Blues' Is trom the CD The Big Idea by Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin, available via mail order trom Broken Records, to whom any correspondence to Dave and Barbara should be directed.
Broken Records, (Contact Details).
Feature by Dave Stewart
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