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Dance Music Manual

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Dance Music Manual
Tools, Toys and Techniques
Second Edition

Rick Snoman

AMSTERDAM • BOSTON • HEIDELBERG • LONDON • NEW YORK • OXFORD
PARIS • SAN DIEGO • SAN FRANCISCO • SINGAPORE • SYDNEY • TOKYO
Focal Press is an imprint of Elsevier

Focal Press is an imprint of Elsevier
Linacre House, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8DP, UK
30 Corporate Drive, Suite 400, Burlington, MA 01803, USA
First published 2009
Copyright © 2009, Rick Snoman. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved
The right of Rick Snoman to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted
in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise without the prior written permission of the publisher
Permissions may be sought directly from Elsevier’s Science & Technology Rights
Department in Oxford, UK: phone (⫹44) (0) 1865 843830; fax (⫹44) (0) 1865
853333; email: permissions@elsevier.com. Alternatively you can submit your request
online by visiting the Elsevier website at http://elsevier.com/locate/permissions, and
selecting Obtaining permission to use Elsevier material
Notice
No responsibility is assumed by the publisher for any injury and/or damage to persons
or property as a matter of products liability, negligence or otherwise, or from any use or
operation of any methods, products, instructions or ideas contained in the material herein
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
snoman, Rick
The dance music manual : tools, toys and techniques. – 2nd ed.
1. Underground dance music 2. Sound recordings – Remixing
3. Electronic composition
I. Title
781.6'41554134
Library of Congress Control Number: 2008935934
ISBN: 978-0-2405-2107-7
For information on all Focal Press publications
visit our website at www.focalpress.com
Printed and bound in the USA
09 10 11 12 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This book is dedicated to my children: Neve and Logan.

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Contents

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ................................................................................................................. ix
PREFACE ............................................................................................................................................. xi
MUSICAL WORKS............................................................................................................................ xiii

PART 1

●

Technology and Theory

CHAPTER 1

The Science of Synthesis ..............................................3

CHAPTER 2

Compression, Processing and Effects .....................31

CHAPTER 3

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses .............. 57

CHAPTER 4

Programming Theory .................................................. 77

CHAPTER 5

Digital Audio ................................................................ 127

CHAPTER 6

Sampling and Sample Manipulation ...................... 135

CHAPTER 7

Recording Vocals.........................................................151

CHAPTER 8

Recording Real Instruments ....................................169

CHAPTER 9

Sequencers .................................................................. 179

CHAPTER 10 Music Theory ...............................................................201
PART 2

●

Dance Genres

CHAPTER 11 House ............................................................................ 231
CHAPTER 12 Trance ........................................................................... 251
CHAPTER 13 UK Garage .................................................................... 271
CHAPTER 14 Techno.......................................................................... 283
CHAPTER 15 Hip-Hop (Rap) ............................................................ 295
CHAPTER 16 Trip-Hop ....................................................................... 313

vii

viii

Contents

CHAPTER 17 Ambient/Chill Out...................................................... 329
CHAPTER 18 Drum ‘n’ Bass.............................................................. 347
PART 3

●

Mixing & Promotion

CHAPTER 19 Mixing ........................................................................... 363
CHAPTER 20 Mastering .................................................................... 399
CHAPTER 21 Publishing and Promotion ....................................... 425
CHAPTER 22 Remixing and Sample Clearance ...........................449
CHAPTER 23 A DJ’s Perspective .................................................... 467
Appendix A

Binary and Hex ..........................................................485

Appendix B

Decimal to Hexadecimal Conversion Table ..........491

Appendix C

General MIDI Instrument Patch Maps.................. 493

Appendix D

General MIDI CC List ................................................ 497

Appendix E

Sequencer Note Divisions .......................................499

Appendix F

Tempo Delay Time Chart ..........................................501

Appendix G

Musical Note to MIDI and Frequencies ............... 503

INDEX ................................................................................................................................................507

Acknowledgements

I would like to personally thank the following for their invaluable help, contributions and/or encouragement in writing this book:
Catharine Steers at Elsevier (for being so patient)
Colin and Janice Lewington
Darren Gash at the SAE Institute of London
Dave ‘Cannockwolf’ Byrne
DJ ‘Superstar’ Cristo
Mark Penicud
John Mitchell
Mick ‘Blackstormtrooper’ Byrne,
Helen and Gabby Byrne
Mike at the Whippin’ post
Richard James
Steve Marcus
Everyone on the Dance Music Production Forum
All music featured on the CD – ©Phiadra
(R. Snoman & J. Froggatt)
Vocals on Chill Out supplied by Tahlia Lewington
Vocals on Hip Hop supplied by MC Darkstar
Vocals on Trance and Garage supplied by Kate Lesing
Cover Design: Daryl Tebbut

ix

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Preface

If a book is worth reading then it’s worth buying …
Welcome to the Dance Music Manual – Second Edition. After the release of the
first edition way back in May 2004, I received numerous emails with suggestions for a second edition of the book and I’ve employed as many of them as
possible, as well as updating some of the information to reflect the continually
updated technology that is relevant to dance musicians. I’d like to personally
thank everyone who took the time to contact me with their suggestions.
As with the first edition, the purpose of the Dance Music Manual is to guide you
through the technology and techniques behind creating professional dance
and club-based music. While there have been numerous publications written
on this important subject, the majority have been written by authors who have
little or no experience of the scene nor the music, but simply rely on ‘educated
guesswork’. With this book, I hope to change the many misconceptions that
abound and offer a real-world insight into the techniques on how professional
dance music is written, produced and marketed.
I’ve been actively involved in the dance music scene since the late 1980s and,
to date, I’ve produced and released numerous white labels and remixes. I’ve
held seminars across the country on remixing and producing club-based dance
music, and authored numerous articles and reviews.
This book is a culmination of the knowledge I’ve attained over the years and
I believe it is the first publication of its kind to actively discuss the real-world
applications behind producing and remixing dance music for the twenty-first
century.
The Dance Music Manual has been organized so as to appeal to professionals
and novices alike, and to make it easier to digest it has been subdivided into
three parts.
The first part discusses the latest technology used in dance music production,
from the basics of synthesis and sampling to music theory, effects, compression, microphone techniques and the principles behind the all-important
sound design. If you’re new to the technology and theory behind much of
today’s dance music, then this is the place to start.
The second part covers the techniques for producing musical styles including,
among others, trance, drum ‘n’ bass, trip-hop, rap and house. This not only
discusses the general programming principles behind drum loops, basses and

xi

xii

Preface

leads for the genres, but also the programming and effects used to create the
sounds. If you already have a good understanding of sampling rates, bits, synthesis programming and music theory, then you can dip into these sections
and start practicing dance music straight away.
The third part is concerned with the ideology behind mixing, mastering, remixing, pressing and publication of your latest masterpiece. This includes the
theory and practical applications behind mixing and mastering, along with
a realistic look at how record companies work and behave; how to copyright
your material, press your own records and the costs involved.
At the end of the book you’ll also find a chapter in which an international DJ
has submitted his view on dance music and DJing in general.
Of course, I cannot stress enough that this book will not turn you into a superstar overnight and it would be presumptuous to suggest that it would even
guarantee you a successful dance record. Dance music has always evolved from
musicians pushing the technology further. Rather, it is my hope that it will give
you an insight into how the music is produced and from there it’s up to you to
push in a new direction.
Creativity can never be encapsulated in words, pictures or software and it’s our
individual creative instincts and twists on a theme that produces the dance
floor hits of tomorrow.
Experimentation always pays high dividends.
Finally, I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for buying The Dance
Music Manual. By purchasing this book, you are rewarding me for all the time
and effort I’ve put into producing it and that deserves some gratitude. I hope
that, by the end, you feel it was worth your investment.

Musical Works

“I would like to remind record companies that they have a cultural
responsibility to give the buying public great music. Milking a trend to
death is not contributing to culture and is ultimately not profitable.”
Dance music has always relied on sampling. From its first incarnation of mixing two records together on a pair of record decks to make a third mashup to
the evolution and consequent increased power of the sampler and audio workstation. It would be fair to say that without sampling, dance music would be a
very different beast and may not have even existed at all.
For legal reasons I cannot suggest that any artist choosing to read this book
dig through their record collections for musical ideas to sample, but now more
than ever, it has become a cornerstone of the production of dance-based music.
The importance of sampling should not be underestimated and when used creatively, it can open new boundaries and spawn entirely new genres of music.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Amen Break.
Back in 1969, a song was released by the Winston’s called Colour Him Father.
The B side to the record contained a track named Amen Brother. The middle
eight of this particular song contained a drum break just less than 6 s long
which was later named the ‘Amen Break’. It contained nothing more than a
drummer freelancing on his kit, but it became one of the largest factors in the
evolution of dance music.
When the first music samplers were released in the 1980s, the Amen Break was
used considerably. The first recorded use of this was by Shy FX ‘Original Nata’ in
1984 but this was soon followed by Third Bass with a track entitled ‘Words of
Wisdom’ and NWA with ‘Straight Out of Crompton’. Over the years, the Amen
Break became more and more widely used and appeared in tracks such as:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Mantronics: King of the Beats
2 Live Crew: Feel Alright Yall
4 Hero: Escape That
Amon Tobin: Nightlife
Aphex Twin: Boy/Girl Song
Atari Teenage Riot: Burn Berlin Burn
Brand Nubian: The Godz Must Be Crazy
Deee-Lite: Come on In, the Dreams are Fine
Dillinja: The Angels Fell
Eric B & Rakim: Casualties of War

xiii

xiv

Musical Works

■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Freestylers: Breaker beats
Funky Technicians: Airtight
Heavy D: MC Heavy D!
Heavy D: Let it Flow
Heavy D: Flexin’
Heavyweight: Oh Gosh
J. Majik: Arabian Nights
J. Majik: Your Sound
Lemon D: This is Los Angeles
Level Vibes: Beauty & the Beast
Lifer’s Group: Jack U. Back (So You Wanna Be a Gangsta)
Ltj Bukem: Music
Maestro Fresh Wes: Bring it On (Remix)
Movement Ex: KK Punani
Nice & Smooth: Dope Not Hype
Salt-N-Pepa: Desire
Scarface: Born Killer
Schoolly D: How a Black Man Feels
Goldie: Chico: Death of a Rock Star
Roni Size: Brown Paper Bag (Nobukazu Takemura Remix)
Oasis : Do Y’Know What I Mean
Frankie Bones: Janets Revenge

Perhaps more importantly, though, the evolution of both breakbeat and jungle –
alongside their many offshoots – are accredited to these 6 s of a drum break.
Indeed, an entire culture arose from a 1969 break as samplers became more
experimental and artists began cutting and rearranging the loop to produce
new rhythms.
If this break had suffered the same copyright laws that music does today it is
entirely possible that breakbeat, jungle, techstep, artcore, 2-step and drum ‘n’
bass – among many others – would never have come to light. It takes a large
audience to appreciate new material before it becomes publicized.
As record companies and artists continue to tighten the laws on copyright, our
musical palette is becoming more and more limited, and experimental music
born from utilizing past samples is being replaced with ‘popcorn’ music in
order to ensure that the monies returned are enough to cover the original fee
for using a sample.
Whereas scientists are free to build upon past work without having to pay their
peers and film directors are free to copy the past, disgracefully music no longer
exhibits that same flexibility. With the current copyright laws, musicians can no
longer appropriate from the past without a vast amount of paperwork, a good
solicitor, a large wallet and an understanding record company.
Record companies anxiously await the next ‘big thing’ and voice concerns
over the lack of new musical ideas and genres. Yet, in the same breath they

Musical Works

are – perhaps unintentionally – industriously locking down culture and placing countless limitations on our very creativity. The musical freedom that our
predecessors experienced and built upon has all but vanished.
Without the freedom to borrow and develop on the past, creativity is stifled
and with that our culture can only slow to a grinding pace. To quote Laurence
Leesig: ‘A society free to borrow and build upon the past is culturally richer than a
controlled one’.

xv

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Technology and Theory

PART 1

Technology and Theory

1

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The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

3

CHAPTER 1

The Science of Synthesis

’Today’s recording techniques would have been
regarded as science fiction forty years ago.’ …

Today’s dance- and club-based music relies just as heavily on the technology
as it does on the musicality; therefore, to be proficient at creating this genre of
music it is first necessary to fully comprehend the technology behind its creation.
Indeed, before we can even begin to look at how to produce the music, a thorough understanding of both the science and the technology behind the music
is paramount. You wouldn’t attempt to repair a car without some knowledge of
what you were tweaking, and the same applies for dance- and club-based music.
Therefore, we should start at the very beginning and where better to start than
the instrument that encapsulated the genre – the analogue synthesizer. Without
a doubt, the analogue synthesizers were responsible for the evolution of the
music, and whilst the early synthesizers are becoming increasingly difficult to
source today, nearly all synthesizers in production, whether hardware or software, follow the same path first laid down by their predecessors. However, to
make sense of the various knobs and buttons that adorn a typical synthesizer
and observe the effects that each has on a sound, we need to start by examining
some basic acoustic science.

ACOUSTIC SCIENCE
When any object vibrates, air molecules surrounding it begin to vibrate sympathetically in all directions creating a series of sound waves. These sound waves
then create vibrations in the ear drum that the brain perceives as sound.
The movement of sound waves is analogous to the way that waves spread when
a stone is thrown into a pool of water. The moment the stone hits the water,
the reaction is immediately visible as a series of small waves spread outwards
in every direction. This is almost identical to the way in which sound behaves,
with each wave of water being similar to the vibrations of air particles.

3

PART 1 Technology and Theory

Low frequency

High frequency

Time

Time

Amplitude

4

FIGURE 1.1
Difference between low
and high frequencies

For instance, when a tuning fork is struck, the forks first move towards one
another compressing the air molecules before moving in the opposite direction. In this movement from ‘compression’ to ‘rarefaction’ there is a moment
where there are less air molecules filling the space between the forks. When
this occurs, the surrounding air molecules crowd into this space and are then
compressed when the forks return on their next cycle. As the fork continues to
vibrate, the previously compressed air molecules are pushed further outwards
by the next cycle of the fork and a series of alternating compressions and rarefactions pass through the air.
The numbers of rarefactions and compressions, or ‘cycles’, that are completed
every second is referred to as the operating frequency and is measured in Hertz
(Hz). Any vibrating object that completes, say, 300 cycles/s has a frequency of
300 Hz while an object that completes 3000 cycles/s has a frequency of 3 kHz.
The frequency of a vibrating object determines its perceived pitch, with faster
frequencies producing sounds at a higher pitch than slower frequencies. From
this we can determine that the faster an object vibrates, or ‘oscillates’, the
shorter the cycle between compression and rarefaction. An example of this is
shown in Figure 1.1.
Any object that vibrates must repeatedly pass through the same position as it
moves back and forth through its cycle. Any particular point during this movement is referred to as the ‘phase’ of the cycle and is measured in degrees, similar to the measurement of a geometric circle. As shown in Figure 1.2, each cycle
starts at position zero, passes back through this position, known as the ‘zero
crossing’, and returns to zero.

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

1

3

2

Time

Consequently, if two objects vibrate at different speeds and the resulting waveforms are mixed together, both waveforms will start at the same zero point but
the higher frequency waveform will overtake the phase of the lower frequency.
Provided that these waveforms continue to oscillate, they will eventually catch
up with one other and then repeat the process all over again. This produces an
effect known as ‘beating’.
The speed at which waveforms ‘beat’ together depends on the difference in frequency between them. It’s important to note that if two waves have the same
frequency and are 180° out of phase with one another there, one waveform
reaches its peak while the second is at its trough, and no sound is produced.
This effect, where two waves cancel one another out and no sound is produced,
is known as ‘phase cancellation’ and is shown in Figure 1.3.
As long as waveforms are not 180° out of phase with one another, the interference
between the two can be used to create more complex waveforms than the simple
sine wave. In fact, every waveform is made up of a series of sine waves, each slightly
out of phase with one another. The more complex the waveform this produces,
the more complex the resulting sound. This is because as an increasing number of
waves are combined a greater number of harmonics are introduced. This can be
better understood by examining how an everyday piano produces its sound.
The strings in a piano are adjusted so that each oscillates at an exact frequency.
When a key is struck, a hammer strikes the corresponding string forcing it
to oscillate. This produces the fundamental pitch of the note and also, if the
vibrations from this string are the same as any of the other strings natural
vibration rates, sets these into motion too. These are called ‘sympathetic vibrations’ and are important to understand because most musical instruments are
based around this principle. The piano is tuned so that the strings that vibrate
sympathetically with the originally struck string create a series of waves that are
slightly out of phase with one another producing a complex sound.

FIGURE 1.2
The zero crossing in a
waveform

5

6

PART 1 Technology and Theory

Any frequencies that are an integer
multiple of the lowest frequency
(i.e. the fundamental) will be in
harmony with one another, a phenomenon that was first realized
by Pythagoras, from which he
derived the following three rules:
If a note’s frequency is
multiplied or divided
by two, the same note is
180⬚
created but in a different
octave.
If a note’s frequency is multiplied or divided by three, the strongest harmonic relation is created. This is the basis of the western musical scale.
If we look at the first rule, the ratio 2:3 is known as a perfect fifth and is
used as the basis of the scale.
If a note’s frequency is multiplied or divided by five, this also creates a
strong harmonic relation. Again, if we look at the first rule, the ratio 5:4
gives the same harmonic relation but this interval is known as the major
third.
■

FIGURE 1.3
Two waves out of
phase
■

■

A single sine wave produces a single tone known as the fundamental frequency,
which in effect determines the pitch of the note. When further sine waves that
are out of phase from the original are introduced, if they are integer multiples
of the fundamental frequency they are known as ‘harmonics’ and make the
sound appear more complex, otherwise if they are not integer multiples of the
fundamental they are called ‘partials’, which also contribute to the complexity
of the sound. Through the introduction and relationship of these harmonics
and partials an infinite number of sounds can be created.
As Figure 1.4 shows, the harmonic content or ‘timbre’ of a sound determines the
shape of the resulting waveform. It should be noted that the diagrams are simple representations, since the waveforms generated by an instrument are incredibly complex which makes it impossible to accurately reproduce it on paper.
In an attempt to overcome this, Joseph Fourier, a French scientist, discovered
that no matter how complex any sound is it could be broken down into its
frequency components and, using a given set of harmonics, it was possible to
reproduce it in a simple form.
To use his words, ‘Every periodic wave can be seen as the sum of sine waves
with certain lengths and amplitudes, the wave lengths of which have harmonic
relations’. This is based around the principle that the content of any sound is
determined by the relationship between the level of the fundamental frequency
and its harmonics and their evolution over a period of time. From this theory,
known as the Fourier theorem, the waveforms that are common to most synthesizers are derived.

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

FIGURE 1.4
How multiple sound
waves create
harmonics

7

8

PART 1 Technology and Theory

So far we’ve looked at how both the pitch and the timbre are determined.
The final characteristic to consider is volume. Changes in volume are caused
by the amount of air molecules an oscillating object displaces. The more air
an object displaces, the louder the perceived sound. This volume, also called
‘amplitude’, is measured by the degree of motion of the air molecules within
the sound waves, corresponding to the extent of rarefaction and compression
that accompanies a wave. The problem, however, is that many simple vibrating
objects produce a sound that is inaudible to the human ear because so little
air is displaced; therefore, for the sound wave to be heard most musical instruments must amplify the sound that’s created. To do this, acoustic instruments
use the principle of forced vibration that utilizes either a sounding board, as
in a piano or similar stringed instruments, or a hollow tube, as in the case of
wind instruments.
When a piano string is struck, its vibrations not only set other strings in motion
but also vibrate a board located underneath the strings. Because this sounding
board does not share the same frequency as the vibrating wires, the reaction is
not sympathetic and the board is forced to resonate. This resonance moves a
larger number of air particles than the original sound alone, in effect amplifying the sound. Similarly, when a tuning fork is struck and placed on a tabletop,
the table’s frequency is forced to match that of the tuning fork and the sound is
amplified.
Of course, neither of these methods of amplification offers any physical control
over the amplitude. If the level of amplification can be adjusted, then the ratio
between the original and the changed amplitude is called the ‘gain’.
It should be noted, however, that loudness itself is difficult to quantify because
it’s entirely subjective to the listener. Generally speaking, the human ear can
detect frequencies from as low as 20 Hz up to 20 kHz; however, this depends on
a number of factors. Indeed, whilst most of us are capable of hearing (or more
accurately feeling) frequencies as low as 20 Hz, the perception of higher frequencies changes with age. Most teenagers are capable of hearing frequencies
as high as 18 kHz while the middle-aged tend not to hear frequencies above
14 kHz. A person’s level of hearing may also have been damaged, for example,
by overexposure to loud noise or music. Whether it is possible for us to perceive sounds higher than 18 kHz with the presence of other sounds is a subject
of debate that has yet to be proven. However, it is important to remember that
sounds that are between 3 and 5 kHz appear perceivably louder than frequencies that are out of this range.

SUBTRACTIVE SYNTHESIZER
Having looked into the theory of sound, we can look at how this relates to a
synthesizer. Subtractive synthesizer is the basis of many forms of synthesizers

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

Amplifier
Oscillator

Output

Filter

Modifiers

and is commonly related to analogue synthesizer. It is achieved by combining
a number of sounds or ‘oscillators’ together to create a timbre that is very rich
in harmonics.
This rich sound can then be sculpted using a series of ‘modifiers’. The number
of modifiers available on a synthesizer is entirely dependent on the model, but
all synthesizers offer a way of filtering out certain harmonics and of shaping
the overall volume of the timbre.
The next part of this chapter looks at how a real analogue synthesizer operates,
although any synthesizer that emulates analogue synthesizer (i.e. digital signal
processing (DSP) analogue) will operate in essentially the same way, with the
only difference being that the original analogue synthesizer voltages do not
apply to their DSP equivalents.
An analogue synthesizer can be said to consist of three components
(Figure 1.5):
■
■
■

An oscillator to make the initial sound.
A filter to remove frequencies within the sound.
An amplifier to define the overall level of the sound.

Each of these components and their role in synthesizer are discussed in the sections below.

VOLTAGE-CONTROLLED OSCILLATOR (VCO)
When a key on a keyboard is pressed, a signal is sent to the oscillator to activate it, followed by a specific control voltage (CV) to determine the pitch. The
CV that is sent is unique to the key that is pressed, allowing the oscillator to
determine the pitch it should reproduce. For this approach to work correctly,

FIGURE 1.5
Layout of a basic
synthesizer

9

PART 1 Technology and Theory

the circuitry in the keyboard and the oscillator must be incredibly precise in
order to prevent the tuning from drifting, so the synthesizer must be serviced
regularly. In addition, changes in external temperature and fluctuations in the
power supply may also cause the oscillator’s tuning to drift.
This instability gives analogue synthesizers their charm and is the reason why
many purists will invest small fortunes in second-hand models rather than use
the latest DSP-based analogue emulations. Although, that said, if too much
detuning is present, it will be immediately evident and could become a major
problem! There is still an ongoing argument over whether it’s possible for DSP
oscillators to faithfully reproduce analogue-based synthesizers, but the argument in favour of DSP synthesizers is that they offer more waveforms and do
not drift too widely, and therefore prove more reliable in the long run.
In most early subtractive synthesizers the oscillator generated only three types
of waveforms: square, sawtooth and triangle waveforms. Today this number has
increased and many synthesizers now offer additional sine, noise, tri-saw, pulse
and numerous variable wave shapes as well.
Although these additional waveforms produce different sounds, they are all
based around the three basic wave shapes and are often introduced into synthesizers to prevent mixing of numerous basic waveforms together, a task that
would reduce the number of oscillators.
For example, a tri-saw wave is commonly a sample of three sawtooth waves
blended together to produce a sound that is rich in harmonics, with the
advantage that the whole sound is contained in one oscillator. Without
this waveform it would take three oscillators to recreate this sound, which
could be beyond the capabilities of the synthesizer. Even if the synthesizer
could utilize three oscillators to produce this one sound, the number of
available oscillators would be reduced. Subsequently, while there are numerous oscillator waves available, knowledge of only the following six types is
required.

The Sine Wave

Amplitude

10

FIGURE 1.6
A sine wave

Time

A sine wave is the simplest wave shape and
is based on the mathematical sine function
(Figure 1.6). A sine wave consists of the
fundamental frequency alone and does not
contain harmonics. This means that they
are not suitable for sole use in a subtractive sense, because if the fundamental is
removed no sound is produced (and there
are no harmonics upon which the modifiers could act). Consequently, the sine wave
is used independently to create sub-basses

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

or whistling timbres or is mixed with other waveforms to add extra body or
bottom end to a sound.

The Square Wave

Although pulse waves are often confused with
square waves, there is a significant difference
between the two (Figure 1.8). Unlike a square
wave, a pulse wave allows the width of the
high and low states to be adjusted, thereby
varying the harmonic content of the sound.
Today it is unusual to see both square and
pulse waves featured in a synthesizer. Rather
the square wave offers an additional control
allowing you to vary the width of the pulses.
The benefit of this is that reductions in the
width allow you to produce thin reed-like timbres along with the wide, hollow sounds created by a square wave.

FIGURE 1.7
A square wave

Time

FIGURE 1.8
A pulse wave

Time

FIGURE 1.9
A sawtooth wave

Amplitude

The Sawtooth Wave
A sawtooth wave produces even and odd harmonics in series and therefore produces a
bright sound that is an excellent starting point
for brassy, raspy sounds (Figure 1.9). It’s also
suitable for creating the gritty, bright sounds
needed for leads and raspy basses. Because of
its harmonic richness, it is often employed in
sounds that will be filter swept.

Time

Amplitude

The Pulse Wave

Amplitude

A square wave is the simplest waveform for an electrical circuit to generate
because it exists in only two states: high and low (Figure 1.7). This wave produces only odd harmonics resulting in a mellow, hollow sound. This makes it particularly
suitable for emulating wind instruments,
adding width to strings and pads, or for the
creation of deep, wide bass sounds.

The Triangle Wave
The triangle wave shape features two linear
slopes and is not as harmonically rich as a
sawtooth wave since it only contains odd

11

PART 1 Technology and Theory

Amplitude

harmonics (partials) (Figure 1.10). Ideally,
this type of waveform is mixed with a sine,
square or pulse wave to add a sparkling
or bright effect to a sound and is often
employed on pads to give them a glittery
feel.

The Noise Wave
FIGURE 1.10
A triangle wave

Time

Amplitude

12

FIGURE 1.11
A noise wave

Noise waveforms are unlike the other five
waveforms because they create a random
mixture of all frequencies rather than actual
tones (Figure 1.11). Noise waveforms can be
‘pink’ or ‘white’ depending on the energy of
the mixed frequencies they contain. White
noise contains equal amounts of energy at
every frequency and is comparable to radio
static, while pink noise contains equal
amounts of energy in every musical octave
and therefore we perceive it to produce a
heavier, deeper hiss.

Noise is useful for generating percussive
sounds and was commonly used in early
drum machines to create snares and handTime
claps. Although this remains its main use,
it can also be used for simulating wind or
sea effects, for producing breath effects in wind instrument timbres or for
producing the typical trance leads.

CREATING MORE COMPLEX WAVEFORMS
Whether oscillators are created by analogue or DSP circuitry, listening to individual oscillators in isolation can be a mind-numbing experience. To create
interesting sounds, a number of oscillators should be mixed together and used
with the available modulation options.
This is achieved by first mixing different oscillator waveforms together and then
detuning them all or just those that share the same waveforms so that they
are out of phase from one another, resulting in a beating effect. Detuning is
accomplished using the detune parameter on the synthesizer, usually by odd
rather than even numbers. This is because detuning by an even number introduces further harmonic content that may mirror the harmonics already provided by the oscillators, causing the already present harmonics to be summed
together.
It should be noted here that there is a limit to the level that oscillators can
be detuned from one another. As previously discussed, oscillators should be

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

detuned so that they beat, but if the speed of these beats is increased by any
more than 20 Hz the oscillators separate, resulting in two noticeably different
sounds. This can sometimes be used to good effect if the two oscillators are to
be mixed with a timbre from another synthesizer because the additional timbre can help to fuse the two separate oscillators. As a general rule of thumb, it
is unusual to detune an oscillator by more than an octave.
Additional frequencies can also be added into a signal using ring modulation
and sync controls. Oscillator sync, usually found within the oscillator section
of a synthesizer, allows a number of oscillators’ cycles to be synced to one
another. Usually all oscillators are synced to the first oscillators’ cycle; hence,
no matter where in the cycle any other oscillator is, when the first starts its cycle
again the others are forced to begin again too.
For example, if two oscillators are used, with both set to a sawtooth wave and
detuned by ⫺5 cents (one-hundredth of a tone), every time the first oscillator
restarts its cycle so too will the second, regardless of the position in its own
cycle. This tends to produce a timbre with no harmonics and can be ideal for
creating big, bold leads. Furthermore, if the first oscillator is unchanged and
pitch bend is applied to the second to speed up or slow its cycle, screaming
lead sounds typical of the Chemical Brothers are created as a consequence of
the second oscillator fighting against the syncing with the first.
After the signals have left the oscillators, they enter the mixer section where the
volume of each oscillator can be adjusted and features such as ring modulation
can be applied to introduce further harmonics. (The ring modulation feature
can sometimes be found within the oscillator section but is more commonly
located in the mixer section, directly after the oscillators). Ring modulation
works by providing a signal that is the sum and difference compound of two
signals (while also removing the original tones). Essentially, this means that
both signals from a two-oscillator synthesizer enter the ring modulator and
come out from the other end as one combined signal with no evidence of the
original timbre remaining.
As an example, if one oscillator produces a signal frequency of 440 Hz (A4 on a
keyboard) and the second produces a frequency of 660 Hz (E5 on a keyboard),
the frequency of the first oscillator is subtracted from the second.
660 Hz − 440 Hz = 220 Hz ( A3)
Then the first oscillator’s frequency is added to that of the second.
660 Hz + 440 Hz = 1100 Hz (C#6)
Based on this example, the difference of 220 Hz provides the fundamental frequency while the sum of the two signals, 1100 Hz, results in a fifth harmonic
overtone. When working with synthesizer, though, this calculation is rarely performed. This result is commonly achieved by ring modulating the oscillators

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

together at any frequency and then tuning the oscillator. Ring modulation is
typically used in the production of metallic-type effect (ring modulators were
used to create the Dalek voice from Dr Who) and bell-like sounds. If ring modulation is used to create actual pitched sounds, a large number of in-harmonic
overtones are introduced into the signal creating dissonant, unpitched results.
The option to add noise may also be included in the oscillator’s mix section to
introduce additional harmonics, making the signal leaving the oscillator/mix section full of frequencies that can then be shaped further using the options available.

VOLTAGE-CONTROLLED FILTERS
Following the oscillator’s mixer section are the filters for sculpting the previously created signal. In the synthesizer world, if the oscillator’s signal is
thought of as a piece of wood that is yet to be carved, the filters are the hammer and chisels that are used to shape it. Filters are used to chip away pieces of
the original signal until a rough image of the required sound remains.
This makes filters the most vital element of any subtractive synthesizer because if
the available filters are of poor quality, few sound sculpting options will be available and it will be impossible to create the sound you require. Indeed, the choice
of filters combined with the oscillator’s waveforms is often the reason why specific
synthesizers must be used to recreate certain ‘classic’ dance timbres.
The most common filter used in basic subtractive synthesizers is a low-pass filter. This is used to remove frequencies above a defined cut-off point. The effect
is progressive, meaning that more frequencies are removed from a sound, the
further the control is reduced, starting with the higher harmonics and gradually moving to the lowest. If this filter cut-off point is reduced far enough, all
harmonics above the fundamental can be removed, leaving just the fundamental frequency. While it may appear senseless to create a bright sound with oscillators only to remove them later with a filter, there are several reasons why you
may wish to do this.
■

■

Using a variable filter on a bright sound allows you to determine the
colour of the sound much more precisely than if you tried to create the
same effect using oscillators alone.
This method enables you to employ real-time movement of a sound.

This latter movement is an essential aspect of sound design because we naturally expect dynamic movement of sound throughout the length of the note.
Using our previous example of a piano string being struck, the initial sound
is very bright, becoming duller as it dies away. This effect can be simulated by
opening the filter as the note starts and then gradually sweeping the cut-off frequency down to create the effect of the note dying away.
Notably, when using this effect, frequencies that lie above the cut-off point are
not attenuated at right angles to the cut-off frequency; therefore, the rate at
which they die away will depend on the transition period. This is why different

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

Low pass

Legend
F

Fundamental
Excluded harmonics
Included harmonics

F (harmonics/frequency)

filters that essentially perform the same function can make beautiful sweeps,
whilst others can produce quite uneventful results (Figure 1.12).
When a cut-off point is designated, small quantities of the harmonics that lie
above this point are not removed completely and are instead attenuated by a
certain degree. The degree of attenuation is dependent on the transition band
of the filter being used. The gradient of this transition is important because it
defines the sound of any one particular filter. If the slope is steep, the filter is
said to be ‘sharp’ and if the slope is more gradual the filter is said to be ‘soft’.
To fully understand the action of this transition, some prior knowledge of the
electronics involved in analogue synthesizer is required.
When the first analogue synthesizers appeared in the 1960s, different voltages
were used to control both the oscillators and the filters. Any harmonics produced by the oscillators could be removed gradually by physically manipulating the electrical current. This was achieved using a resistor (to reduce the
voltage) and a capacitor (to store a voltage), a system that is often referred to
as a resistor–capacitor (RC) circuit. Because a single RC circuit produces a 6 dB
transition, the attenuation increases by 6 dB every time a frequency is doubled.
One RC element creates a 6 dB per octave 1-pole filter that is very similar to the
gentle slope created by a mixing desks EQ. Consequently, manufacturers soon
implemented additional RC elements into their designs to create 2-pole filters, which attenuated 12 dB per octave, and 4-pole filters, to provide 24 dB per
octave attenuation. Because 4-pole filters attenuate 24 dB per octave, making
substantial changes to the sound, they tend to sound more synthesized than
sounds created by a 2-pole filter; so it’s important to decide which transition
period is best suited to the sound. For example, if a 24 dB filter is used to sweep
a pad, it will result in strong attenuation throughout the sweep, while a 12 dB
will create a more natural flowing movement (Figure 1.13).
If there is more than one of these available, some synthesizers allow them to be
connected in series or parallel, which gives more control over the timbre from
the oscillators. This means that two 12 dB filters could be summed together to
produce a 24 dB transition, or one 24 dB filter could be used in isolation for
aggressive tonal adjustments with the following 12 dB filter used to perform a
real-time filter sweep.

FIGURE 1.12
Action of the low-pass
filter

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

Transition slopes

12dB
24dB

Legend
Non-filtered harmonics
Harmonics filtered at 12dB
&

Fundamental

24dB filter

Harmonics filtered at 24dB

12dB filter

Harmonics
Figure 1.13
The difference between 12 dB and 24 dB slopes

High pass

Legend
F

FIGURE 1.14
Action of a high-pass
filter

Fundamental
Excluded harmonics
Included harmonics

F (harmonics/frequency)

Although low-pass filters are the most commonly used type, there are numerous variations including high pass, band pass, and notch and comb. These
utilize the same transition periods as the low-pass filter but each has a widely
different effect on the sound (Figure 1.14).
A high-pass filter has the opposite effect to a low-pass filter, first removing the
low frequencies from the sound and gradually moving towards the highest.
This is less useful than the low-pass filter because it effectively removes the fundamental frequency of the sound, leaving only the fizzy harmonic overtones.
Because of this, high-pass filters are rarely used in the creation of instruments

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

Band select

Legend
F

Fundamental
Excluded harmonics
Included harmonics

F (harmonics/frequency)

and are predominantly used to create effervescent sound effects or bright timbres that can be laid over the top of another low-pass sound to increase the
harmonic content.
The typical euphoric trance leads are a good example of this, as they are often created from a tone with the fundamental overlaid with numerous other tones that
have been created using a high-pass filter. This prevents the timbre from becoming too muddy as a consequence of stacking together fundamental frequencies. In
both remixing and dance music, it’s commonplace to run a high-pass filter over an
entire mix to eliminate the lower frequencies, creating an effect similar to a transistor radio or a telephone. By reducing the cut-off control, gradually or immediately,
the track morphs from a thin sound to a fatter one, which can produce a dramatic
effect in the right context.
If high- and low-pass filters are connected in series, then it’s possible to create a band-pass, or band-select, filter. These permit a set of frequencies to pass
unaltered through the filter while the frequencies either side of the two filters
are attenuated. The frequencies that pass through unaltered are known as the
‘bandwidth’ or the ‘band pass’ of the filter, and clearly, if the low pass is set to
attenuate a range of frequencies that are above the current high-pass setting, no
frequencies will pass through and no sound is produced.
Band-pass filters, like high-pass filters, are often used to create timbres consisting of fizzy harmonics (Figure 1.15). They can also be used to determine
the frequency content of a waveform, as by sweeping through the frequencies
each individual harmonic can be heard. Because this type of filter frequently
removes the fundamental, it is often used as the basis of sound effects or lo-fi
and trip-hop timbres or to create very thin sounds that will form the basis of
sound effects.
Although band-pass filters can be used to thin a sound, they should not be
confused with band-reject filters, which can be used for a similar purpose.
Band-reject filters, often referred to as notch filters, attenuate a selected range
of frequencies effectively creating a notch in the sound – hence the name –
and usually leave the fundamental unaffected. This type of filter is handy for

FIGURE 1.15
Action of the bandpass filter

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

Notch

Legend
F Fundamental

FIGURE 1.16
Action of the notch
filter

Excluded harmonics
Included harmonics
F (harmonics/frequency)

Comb

Legend
F

FIGURE 1.17
Action of the comb
filter

Fundamental
Excluded harmonics
Included harmonics

F (harmonics/frequency)

scooping out frequencies, thinning out a sound while leaving the fundamental
intact, making them useful for creating timbres that contain a discernable pitch
but do not have a high level of harmonic content (Figure 1.16).
One final form of filter is the comb filter. With these, some of the samples
entering the filter are delayed in time and the output is then fed back into
the filter to be reprocessed to produce the results, effectively creating a comb
appearance, hence the name. Using this method, sounds can be tuned to
amplify or reduce specific harmonics based on the length of the delay and the
sample rate, making it useful for creating complex sounding timbres that cannot be accomplished any other way. Because of the way they operate, however,
it is rare to find these featured on a synthesizer and are usually available only
as a third-party effect.
As an example, if a 1 kHz signal is put through the filter with a 1 ms delay, the
signal will result in phase because 1 ms is coincident with the inputted signal,
equalling one. However, if a 500 Hz signal with a 1 ms delay were used instead,
it would be half of the period length and so would be shifted out of phase
by 180°, resulting in a zero. It’s this constructive and deconstructive period
that creates the continual bump then dip in harmonics, resulting in a comblike appearance when represented graphically, as in Figure 1.17. This method
applies to all frequencies, with integer multiples of 1 kHz producing ones and
odd multiples of 500 Hz (1.5, 2.5, 3.5 kHz etc.) producing zeros. The effect of

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

Resonance

F (harmonics/frequency)

FIGURE 1.18
The effect of resonance

using this filter can at best be described as highly resonant, and forms the basis
of flanger effects; therefore, its use is commonly limited to sound design rather
than the more basic sound sculpting.
One final element of sound manipulation in a synthesizer’s filter section is the
resonance control. Also referred to as peak, this refers to the amount of the
output of the filter that is fed back directly into the input, emphasizing any frequencies that are situated around the cut-off frequency. This has a similar effect
to employing a band-pass filter at the cut-off point, effectively creating a peak.
Although this also affects the filter’s transition period, it is more noticeable at
the actual cut-off frequency than anywhere else. Indeed, as you sweep through
the cut-off range the resonance follows the curve, continually peaking at the
cut-off point. In terms of the final sound, increasing the resonance makes the
filter sound more dramatic and is particularly effective when used in conjunction with low-pass filter sweeps (Figure 1.18).
On many analogue and DSP-analogue-modelled synthesizers, if the resonance
is turned up high enough it will feed back on itself. As more and more of the
signal is fed back, the signal is exaggerated until the filter breaks into selfoscillation. This produces a sine wave with a frequency equal to that of the set
cut-off point and is often a purer sine wave than that produced by the oscillators. Because of this, self-oscillating filters are commonly used to create deep,
powerful sub-basses that are particularly suited to the drum ‘n’ bass and rap
genres.
Notably, some filters may also feature a saturation parameter which essentially
overdrives the filters. If applied heavily, this can be used to create distortion
effects, but more often it’s used to thicken out timbres and add even more harmonics and partials to the signal to create rich sounding leads or basses.
The keyboard’s pitch can also be closely related to the action of the filters,
using a method known as pitch tracking, keyboard scaling or more frequently
‘key follow’. On many synthesizers the depth of this parameter is adjustable,

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

When key follow is set to negative

When key follow is set to positive

Low notes

F

1

2

3

4

Low notes

5

6

7

8

9

10

F

High notes

F

FIGURE 1.19
The effect of filter key
follow

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

5

6

7

8

9

10

High notes

5

6

7

8

9

10

Key follow difference
when set to negative

F

1

2

3

4

Key follow difference
when set to positive

allowing you to determine how much or how little the filter should follow
the pitch.
When this parameter is set to its neutral state (neither negative nor positive), as
a note is played on the keyboard the cut-off frequency tracks the pitch and each
note is subjected to the same level of filtering. If this is used on a low-pass filter, for example, the filter setting remains fixed, so as progressively higher notes
are played fewer and fewer harmonics will be present in the sound, making
the timbre of the higher notes mellower than that of the lower notes. If the key
follow parameter is set to positive, the higher notes will have a higher cut-off
frequency and the high notes will remain bright (Figure 1.19). If, on the other
hand, the key follow parameter is set to negative, the higher notes will lower
the cut-off frequency, making the high notes even mellower than when key follow is set to its neutral state. Key follow is useful for recreating real instruments
such as brass, where the higher notes are often mellower than the lower notes,
and is also useful on complex bass lines that jump over an octave, adding further variation to a rhythm.

VOLTAGE-CONTROLLED AMPLIFIER (VCA)
Once the filters have sculpted a sound, the signal then moves into the final stage
of synthesizer: the amplifier. When a key is pressed, rather than the volume

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

Decay

Release

Sustain

Amplitude

Attack

Time

Key on

Key off

rising immediately to its maximum and falling to zero when released, an ‘envelope generator’ is employed to emulate the nuances of real instruments.
Few, if any, acoustic instruments start and stop immediately. It takes a finite
amount of time for the sound to reach its amplitude and then decay away to
silence again; thus, the ‘envelope generator’ – a feature of all synthesizers – can
be used to shape the volume with respect to time. This allows you to control
whether a sound starts instantly the moment a key is pressed or builds up gradually and how the sound dies away (quickly or slowly) when the key is released.
These controls usually comprise four sections called attack, decay, sustain, and
release (ADSR), each of which determines the shaping that occurs at certain
points during the length of a note. An example of this is shown in Figure 1.20.
■

■

■

Attack: The attack control determines how the note starts from the point
when the key is pressed and the period of time it takes for the sound
to go from silence to full volume. If the period set is quite long, the
sound will ‘fade in’, as if you are slowly turning up a volume knob. If the
period set is short, the sound will start the instant a key is pressed. Most
instruments utilize a very short attack time.
Decay: Immediately after a note has begun it may initially decay in volume. For instance, a piano note starts with a very loud, percussive part
but then drops quickly to a lower volume while the note sustains as the
key is held down. The time the note takes to fade from the initial peak at
the attack stage to the sustain level is known as the ‘decay time’.
Sustain: The sustain period occurs after the initial attack and decay periods and determines the volume of the note while the key is held down.
This means that if the sustain level is set to maximum, any decay period

FIGURE 1.20
The ADSR envelope

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

Time

Attack

Decay

Release

Sustain

Amplitude

22

Time

Key on

Key off

FIGURE 1.21
The TADSR envelope

■

will be ineffective, because at the attack stage the volume is at maximum
and so there is no level to decay down to. Conversely, if the sustain
level were set to zero, the sound peaks following the attack period and
will fade to nothing even if you continue to hold down the key. In this
instance, the decay time determines how quickly the sound decays down
to silence.
Release: The release period is the time it takes for the sound to fade from
the sustain level to silence after the key has been released. If this is set to
zero, the sound will stop the instant the key is released, while if a high
value is set the note will continue to sound, fading away as the key is
released.

Although ADSR envelopes are the most common, there are some subtle variations such as attack–release (AR), time–attack–delay–sustain–release (TADSR),
and attack–delay–sustain–time–release (ADSTR). Because there are no decay or
sustain elements contained in most drum timbres, AR envelopes are often used
on drum synthesizers. They can also appear on more economical synthesizers
simply because the AR parameters are regarded as having the most significant
effect on a sound, making them a basic requirement. Both TADSR and ADSTR
envelopes are usually found on more expensive synthesizers. With the additional period, T (time), in TADSR, for instance, it is possible to set the amount
of time that passes before the attack stage is reached (Figure 1.21).
It’s also important to note that not all envelopes offer linear transitions,
meaning that the attack, decay and release stages will not necessarily consist

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

Attack

Decay

Release

Convex
(black line)

Sustain

Linear
(dotted line)
Concave
(grey line)
Time

FIGURE 1.22
Linear and exponential envelopes

entirely of a straight line as it is shown in Figure 1.22. On some synthesizers
these stages may be concave or convex, while other synthesizers may allow
you to state whether the envelope stages should be linear, concave, or convex.
The differences between the linear and the exponential envelopes are shown in
Figure 1.22.

MODIFIERS
Most synthesizers also offer additional tools for manipulating sound in the
form of modulation sources and destinations. Using these tools, the response
or movement of one parameter can be used to modify another totally independent parameter, hence the name ‘modifiers’.
The number of modifiers available, along with the destinations they can affect,
is entirely dependent on the synthesizer. Many synthesizers feature a number
of envelope generators that allow the action of other parameters alongside the
amplifier to be controlled.
For example, in many synthesizers, an envelope may be used to modify the filter’s action and by doing so you can make tonal changes to the note while it
plays. A typical example of this is the squelchy bass sound used in most dance
music. By having a zero attack, short decay and zero sustain level on the envelope generator, a sound that starts with the filter wide open before quickly
sweeping down to fully closed is produced. This movement is archetypal to
most forms of dance music but does not necessarily have to be produced by
envelopes. Instead, some synthesizers offer one-shot low-frequency oscillators (LFOs) which can be used in the envelope’s place. For instance, by using
a triangle waveform LFO to modulate the amp, there is a slow rise in volume
before a slowdrop again.

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

LOW-FREQUENCY OSCILLATOR
LFOs produce output frequencies in much the same way as VCOs. The difference is that a VCO produces an audible frequency (within the 20 Hz–20 kHz
range) while an LFO produces a signal with a relatively low frequency that is
inaudible to the human ear (in the range 1–10 Hz).
The waveforms an LFO can utilize depend entirely upon the synthesizer in
question, but they commonly employ sine, saw, triangle, square, and sample
and hold waveforms. The sample and hold waveform is usually constructed
with a randomly generated noise waveform that momentarily freezes every few
samples before beginning again.
LFOs should not be underestimated because they can be used to modulate
other parameters, known as ‘destination’, to introduce additional movement
into a sound. For instance, if an LFO is set to a relatively high frequency, say
5 Hz, to modulate the pitch of a VCO, the pitch of the oscillator will rise and
fall according to the speed and shape of the LFO waveform and an effect similar to that of vibrato is generated. If a sine wave is used for the LFO, then it will
essentially create an effect similar to that of a wailing police siren. Alternatively,
if this same LFO is used to modulate the filter cut-off, then the filter will open
and close at a speed determined by the LFO, while if it were used to modulate
an oscillator’s volume, it would rise and fall in volume recreating a tremolo
effect.
This means that an LFO must have an amount control (sometimes known as
depth) for varying how much the LFO’s waveform augments the destination,
a rate control to control the speed of the LFO’s waveform cycles, and a fade-in
control in some. The fade-in control adjusts how quickly the LFO begins to
affect the waveform after a key has been pressed. An example of this is shown
in Figure 1.23.
The LFO on more capable synthesizers may also have access to its own envelope. This gives control of the LFO’s performance over a specified time period,
allowing it not only to fade in after a key has been pressed but also to decay,
sustain, and fade away gradually. It is worth noting, however, that the destinations an LFO can modulate are entirely dependent on the synthesizer being
used. Some synthesizers may only allow LFOs to modulate the oscillator’s pitch
and the filter, while others may offer multiple destinations and more LFOs.
Obviously, the more LFOs and destinations that are available, the more creative
options you will have at your disposal.
If required, further modulation can be applied with an attached controller
keyboard or the synthesizer itself in the form of two modulation wheels. The
first, pitch bend, is hard-wired and provides a convenient method of applying a modulating CV to the oscillator(s). By pushing the wheel away from
you, you can bend the pitch (i.e. frequency) of the oscillator up. Similarly, you
can bend the pitch down by pulling the wheel towards you. This wheel is normally spring loaded to return to the centre position, where no bend is applied,

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

Sine wave LFO

LFO fade-in time

FIGURE 1.23
LFO fade-in

if you let go of it, and is commonly used in synthesizer solos to give additional
expression. The second wheel, modulation, is freely assignable and offers a
convenient method of controlling any on-board parameters, such as the level
of the LFO signal sent to the oscillator, filter or VCA or to control the filter cutoff directly. Again, whether this wheel is assignable will depend on the manufacturer of the synthesizer.
On some synthesizers the wheels are hard coded to only allow oscillator modulation (for a vibrato effect), while some others do not have a separate modulation wheel and instead the pitch bend lever can be pushed forward to produce
LFO modulation.

PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
While there are other forms of synthesis – which will be discussed later in this
chapter – most synthesizers used in the production of dance music are of an
analogue/subtractive nature; therefore, it is vital that the user grasps the concepts behind all the elements of subtractive synthesis and how they can work
together to produce a final timbre. With this in mind, it is sensible to experiment with a short example to aid in the understanding of the components.
Using the synthesizer of your choice, clear all the current settings so that you
start from nothing. On many synthesizers, this is known as ‘initializing a
patch’, so it may be a button labelled ‘init’, ‘init patch’ or similar.
Begin by pressing and holding C3 on your synthesizer, or alternatively controlling the synthesizer via MIDI programme in a continual note. If not, place
something heavy on C3. The whole purpose of this exercise is to hear how the

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

sound develops as you begin to modify the controls of the synthesizer, so the
note needs to play continually.
Select sawtooth waves for two oscillators; if there is a third oscillator that you
cannot turn off, choose a triangle for this third oscillator. Next, detune one
sawtooth from the other until the timbre begins to thicken. This is a tutorial
to grasp the concept of synthesis, so keep detuning until you hear the oscillators separate from one another and then move back until they become one
again and the timbre is thickened out. Generally speaking, detuning of 3 cents
should be ample but do not be afraid to experiment – this is a learning process.
If you are using a triangle wave, detune this against the two saws and listen to
the results. Once you have a timbre you feel you can work with, move onto the
next step.
Find the VCA envelope and start experimenting. You will need to release C3
and then press it again so you can hear the effect that the envelope is having
on the timbre. Experiment with these envelopes until you have a good grasp
on how they can adjust the shape of a timbre; once you’re happy you have an
understanding, apply a fast attack with a short decay, medium sustain and a
long release. As before, for this next step you will need to keep C3 depressed.
Find the filter section, and experiment with the filter settings. Start by using
a high-pass filter with the resonance set around midway and slowly turn the
filter cut-off control. Note how the filter sweeps through the sound, removing
the lower frequencies first, slowly progressing to the higher frequencies. Also
experiment with the resonance by rotating it to move upwards and downwards
and note how this affects the timbre. Do the same with the notch and band
pass etc. (if the synthesizer has these available) before finally moving to the
low pass. Set the low-pass filter quite low, along with a low-resonance setting –
you should now have a static buzzing timbre.
The timbre is quite monotonous, so use the filter envelope to inject some life
into the sound. This envelope works on exactly the same principles as the VCA,
with the exception that it will control the filter’s movement. Set the filter’s
envelope to a long attack and decay, but use a short release and no sustain and
set the filter envelope to maximum positive modulation. If the synthesizer has
a filter key follow, use this as it will track the pitch of the note being played and
adjust itself. Now try depressing C3 to hear how the filter envelope controls the
filter, essentially sweeping through the frequencies as the note plays.
Finally, to add some more excitement to the timbre, find the LFO section.
Generally, the LFO will have a rotary control to adjust the rate (speed), a selector switch to choose the LFO waveform, a depth control and a modulation destination. Choose a triangle wave for the LFO waveform, Hold down C3 on the
synthesizer’s keyboard, turn the LFO depth control up to maximum and set the
LFO destination to pitch. As before, hold down the C3 key and slowly rotate
the LFO rate (speed) to hear the results. If you have access to a second LFO,
try modulating the filter cut-off with a square wave LFO, set the LFO depth to
maximum and experiment with the LFO rate again.

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

If you would like to experiment more with synthesis to help get to grips with
the principles, jump to Chapter 4 for further information on programming specific synthesizer timbres. Note, however, that different synthesizers will produce
timbres differently and some are more suited to reproducing particular timbres
than others.

OTHER SYNTHESIS METHODS
Frequency Modulation (FM)
FM is a form of synthesizer developed in the early 1970s by Dr John Chowning
of Stanford University, then later developed further by Yamaha, leading to the
release of the now-legendary DX7 synthesizer: a popular source of bass sounds
for numerous dance musicians.
Unlike analogue, FM synthesizer produces sound by using operators, which
are very similar to oscillators in an analogue synthesizer but can only produce
simple sine waves. Sounds are generated by using the output of the first operator to modulate the pitch of the second, thereby introducing harmonics. Like
an analogue synthesizer, each FM voice requires a minimum of two oscillators in order to create a basic sound, but because FM only produces sine waves
the timbre produced from just one carrier and modulator isn’t very rich in
harmonics.
In order to remedy this, FM synthesizers provide many operators that can be
configured and connected in any number of ways. Many will not produce
musical results, so to simplify matters various algorithms are used. These algorithms are preset as combinations of modulator and carrier routings. For example, one algorithm may consist of a modulator modulating a carrier, which in
turn modulates another carrier, before modulating a modulator that modulates
a carrier to produce the overall timbre. The resulting sound can then be shaped
and modulated further using LFOs, filters and envelopes using the same subtractive methods as in any analogue synthesizer.
This means that it should also be possible to emulate FM synthesizer in an
analogue synthesizer with two oscillators, where the first oscillator acts as a
modulator and the second acts as a carrier. When the keyboard is played, both
oscillators produce their respective waveforms with the frequency dictated by
the particular notes that were pressed. If the first oscillator’s output is routed
into the modulation input of the second oscillator and further notes are played
on the keyboard, both oscillators play their respective notes but the pitch of the
second oscillator will change over time with the frequency of the first, essentially creating a basic FM synthesizer. Although this is, in effect, FM, it is usually called ‘cross modulation’ in analogue synthesizers.
Due to the nature of FM, many of the timbres created are quite metallic and
digital in character, particularly when compared to the warmth generated by the
drifting of analogue oscillators. Also due to the digital nature of FM synthesizer,

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

the facia generally contains few real-time controllers. Instead, numerous buttons adorn the front panel forcing you to navigate and adjust any parameters
through a small LCD display.
Notably, although both FM and analogue synthesizers were originally used to
reproduce realistic instruments, neither can fabricate truly realistic timbres. If
the goal of the synthesizer system is to recreate the sound of an existing instrument, this can generally be accomplished more accurately using digital samplebased techniques.

SAMPLES AND SYNTHESIS
Unlike analogue or FM, sample synthesizer utilizes samples in place of the
oscillators. These samples, rather than consisting of whole instrument sounds,
also contain samples of the various stages of a real instrument along with the
sounds produced by normal oscillators. For instance, a typical sample-based
synthesizer may contain five different samples of the attack stage of a piano,
along with a sample of the decay, sustain and release portions of the sound.
This means that it is possible to mix the attack of one sound with the release of
another to produce a complex timbre.
Commonly, up to four of these individual ‘tones’ can be mixed together to produce a timbre and each of these individual tones can have access to numerous modifiers including LFOs, filters and envelopes. This obviously opens up
a whole host of possibilities not only for emulating real instruments, but also
for creating complex sounds. This method of synthesis has become the de facto
standard for any synthesizer producing realistic instruments. By combining
both samples of real-world sounds with all the editing features and functionality of analogue synthesizers, they can offer a huge scope for creating both
realistic and synthesized sounds.

GRANULAR SYNTHESIS
One final form of synthesizer that has started to make an appearance with
the evolution of technology is granular synthesizer. It is rare to see a granular synthesizer employed in hardware synthesizers due to its complexity, but
software synthesizers are being developed for the public market that utilize it.
Essentially, it works by building up sounds from a series of short segments of
sounds called ‘grains’. This is best compared to the way that a film projector
operates, where a series of still images, each slightly different from the last, are
played sequentially at a rate of around 25 pictures per second, fooling the eyes
and brain into believing there is a smooth continual movement.
A granular synthesizer operates in the same manner with tiny fragments of
sound rather than still images. By joining a number of these grains together, an
overall tone is produced that develops over a period of time. To do this, each
grain must be less than 30 ms in length as, generally speaking, the human ear
is unable to determine a single sound if they are less than 30–50 ms apart. This

The Science of Synthesis CHAPTER 1

also means that a certain amount of control has to be offered over each grain.
In any one sound there can be anything from 200 to 1000 grains, which is the
main reason why this form of synthesizer appears mostly in the form of software. Typically, a granular synthesizer will offer most, but not necessarily all, of
the following five parameters:
■

■

■

■

■

Grain length: This can be used to alter the length of each individual
grain. As previously mentioned, the human ear can differentiate between
two grains if they are more than 30–50 ms apart, but many granular synthesizers usually go above this range, covering 20–100 ms. By setting this
length to a higher value, it’s possible to create a pulsing effect.
Density: This is the percentage of grains that are created by the synthesizer. Generally, it can be said that the more the grains created, the more
complex a sound will be, a factor that is also dependent on the grain
shape.
Grain shape: Commonly, this offers a number between 0 and 200 and
represents the curve of the envelopes. Grains are normally enveloped so
that they start and finish at zero amplitude, helping the individual grains
mix together coherently to produce the overall sound. By setting a longer envelope (a higher number) two individual grains will mix together,
which can create too many harmonics and often result in the sound
exhibiting lots of clicks as it fades from one grain to the other.
Grain pan: This is used to specify the location within the stereo image
where each grain is created. This is particularly useful for creating timbres that inhabit both speakers.
Spacing: This is used to alter the period of time between each grain.
If the time is set to a negative value, the preceding grain will continue
through the next created grain. This means that setting a positive value
inserts space between each grain; however, if this space is less than
30 ms, the gap will be inaudible.

The sound produced with granular synthesizer depends on the synthesizer in
question. Usually, the grains consist of single frequencies with specific waveforms or occasionally they are formed from segments of samples or noise that
have been filtered with a band-pass filter. Thus, the constant change of grains
can produce sounds that are both bright and incredibly complex, resulting in a
timbre that’s best described as glistening. After creating this sound by combing
the grains, the whole sound can be shaped by using envelopes, filters and LFOs.

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Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

31

CHAPTER 2

Compression, Processing
and Effects

’Compression plays a major part of my sound. I have
them patched across every output of the desk…’
Armand Van Helden

Armed with the basic understanding of synthesis, we can examine the various processors and effects that are available. This is because the deliberate abuse of these
processors and effects play a vital role in not only the sound design process but
also the requisite feel of the music, so it pays to understand what they are, how
they affect the audio and how a mixing desk can determine the outcome of the
effect. Consequently, this chapter concentrates on the behaviours of the different
processors and effects that are widely used in the design and production of dance
music, including reverb, chorus, phasers, flangers, delay, EQ, distortion, gates, limiters and, perhaps the most important of all, compressors.
Of all the effects and processors available, a compressor is possibly the most
vital tool to achieve that atypical sound heard on so many dance records, so a
thorough understanding of it is essential. Without compression, drums appear
wimpy in comparison to the chest thudding results heard in professionally
produced music, mixes can appear lacking in depth and basses, and vocals and
leads can lack any real presence. Despite its importance, however, the compressor is the least understood processor of them all.

COMPRESSION THEORY
The whole reason a compressor was originally introduced was to reduce the
dynamic range of a performance, which is particularly vital when working with
any form of music. Whenever you record any sound into a computer, sampler
or recording device, you should aim to capture the loudest signal possible so
that you can avoid artificially increasing the volume afterwards. This is because
if you record a source that’s too low in volume and then attempt to artificially
increase it later, not only will it increase the volume of the recorded source, it’ll
also increase any background noise.

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

To prevent this, you need to record a signal as loud as possible but the problem
is that vocals and ‘real’ instruments have a huge dynamic range. In other words,
the vocals, for example, can be quiet in one part and suddenly become loud
in the next (especially when moving from verse to chorus). Consequently, it’s
impossible to set a good average recording level with so much dynamic movement since if you set the recording level to capture the quiet sections, when
it becomes louder the recording will go into the red clip. Conversely, setting
the recorder so that the loud sections do not clip, any quieter sections will be
exposed to more background noise.
Of course, you could sit by the recording fader and increase or decrease the
recording levels depending on the section being recorded but this would mean
that you need lightening reflexes. Instead, it’s much easier to employ a compressor to control the levels automatically. By routing the source sound through
a compressor and then into the recorder, you can set a threshold on the compressor so that any sounds that exceed this are automatically pulled down in
volume, thus allowing you to record at a more substantial volume overall.
A compressor can also be used to control the dynamics of a sound while mixing.
For example, a dance track that uses a real bass guitar will have a fairly wide
dynamic range, even if it was compressed during the recording stage. This will
cause problems within a mix because if the volume is adjusted so that the loudest
parts fit well within the mix, the quieter parts may disappear behind other instrumentation. Conversely, if the fader is set so that quieter sections can be heard over
other instruments, the loud parts could be too prominent. Using compression
more heavily on this sound during the mixing stage, the dynamic range can be
restricted, allowing the sound to sit better overall within the final mix.
Although these are the key reasons why compressors were first introduced, it
has further, far-reaching applications for the dance musician and a compressor’s action has been abused to produce the typical dance sound.
Since the signals that exceed the threshold are reduced in gain, the parts that
do not exceed the threshold aren’t touched, so they remain at the same volume as they were before compression. In other words, the difference in volume
between the loudest and the quietest parts of the recording are reduced, which
means that any uncompressed signals will become louder relative to the compressed parts. This effectively boosts the average signal level, which in turn not
only allows you to push the volume up further but also makes it sound louder
(Figures 2.1 and 2.2).
Note that after reducing the dynamic range of audio it may be perceived to
be louder without actually increasing the gain. This is because we determine
the overall volume of music from the average volume (measured in root mean
square, RMS), not from the transient peaks created by kick drums.
Nevertheless, applying heavy compression to certain elements of a dance mix
can change the overall character of the timbre, often resulting in a warmer,
smoother and rounder tone, a sound typical of most dance tracks around today.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

FIGURE 2.1
A drum loop waveform
before compression

FIGURE 2.2
A drum loop waveform
after compression
(note how the volume
difference (dynamics)
between instruments
has changed)

While there are numerous publications stating the ‘typical’ compression settings to use, the truth is that there are no generic settings for any particular genre
of music and its use depends entirely on the timbres that have been used. For
instance, a kick drum sample from a record will require a different approach than
a kick drum constructed in a synthesizer, while if sampled from a CD, synthesizer
or film different approaches are required again. Therefore, rather than attempt

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

to dictate a set list of useless compression settings, you can achieve much better results by knowing exactly what effect each control will have on a sound and
how these are used to acquire the sounds typical of each genre.

Threshold
The first control on a compressor is the threshold which when touched upon
sets the signal level where the compressor will begin squashing the incoming
signal. These are commonly calibrated in dB and will work in direct relationship with a gain reduction meter to inform you of how much the compressor
is affecting the incoming signal. In a typical recording situation this control is
set so that the average signal level always lies just below the threshold, and if
any exuberant parts exceed it, the compressor will jump into action and the
gain will be reduced to prevent any clipping.

Ratio
The amount of gain reduction that takes place after a sound exceeds the threshold is set using a ratio control. Expressed in ratios, this control is used to set
the dynamic range the compressor affects, indicating the difference between
the signals entering the compressor that exceed the threshold to the levels that
come out of the other end.
For example, if the ratio is 4:1, every time the incoming signal exceeds the
threshold by 4 dB, the compressor will squash the signal so that there is only
a 1 dB increase at the output of the compressor. Similarly, if the ratio set is 6:1,
an increase at the compressor’s output of 1 dB will occur when the threshold is
exceeded by 6 dB and likewise for ratios of 8:1, 10:1 and so on. Subsequently,
the gain reduction ratio always remains constant no matter how much compression takes place. In most compressors these range from 1:1 up to 10:1 and
may, in some cases, also offer infinity:1.
From this we can determine that if a sound exceeds a predefined threshold, the
compressor will squash the signal by the amount set with the ratio control. The
problem with this approach, however, is that we gain a significant amount of
information about sounds from their initial attack stage, and if the compressor
jumps in instantaneously on an exceeded signal, it will squash the transients
which reduces its high frequency (HF) content.
For instance, if you are to set up a compressor to squash a snare drum, the
compressor will clamp down on the attack stage which in effect diminishes the
initial transients reducing it to a ‘thunk’. What’s more, this instantaneous action
will also appear when the sound drops below the threshold again as the compressor stops processing the audio. This can be especially evident when compressing low-frequency (LF) waveforms such as basses since compressors can
apply gain changes during a waveform’s period.
In other words, if a low-frequency waveform, such as a sustained bass note,
is squashed the compressor may treat the positive and negative states of

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

the waveform as different signals and continually activate and deactivate. The
result of this is an unpleasant distortion of the waveform. To prevent this from
occurring, compressors will feature attack and release parameters.

Attack/Release
Both these parameters behave in a manner similar to those on a synthesizer
but control how quickly the volume is pulled down and how long it takes to
rise back to its nominal level after the signal has fallen below the threshold.
In other words, the attack parameter defines how long the compressor takes to
reach maximum gain reduction while the release parameter determines how
long the compressor will wait after the signal has dropped below the threshold
before processing stops.
This raises the obvious question that if the attack is set so that it doesn’t clamp
down on the initial attack of the source sound, it could introduce distortion/
clipping before the compressor activates. While this is true, in practice very
short, sharp signals do not always overload an analogue recorder since these
usually have enough headroom to let small transients through without introducing any unwanted artefacts. This isn’t the case with digital recorders, though,
and any signals that are beyond the limit of digital can result in clipping,
so it’s quite usual to follow a compressor with a limiter or, if the compressor
features a knee mode, set it to use a soft knee.

Soft/Hard Knee
All compressors will utilize either soft or hard knee compression but some will
offer the option to switch between the two modes. These are not controllable
parameters but dictate the shape of the envelope’s curve, and hence the characteristic of how the compressor behaves when a signal approaches the threshold.
So far we’ve considered that when a signal exceeds the threshold the compressor
will begin to squash the signal. This immediate action is referred to as hard knee
compression. Soft knee, on the other hand, continually measures the incoming signal, and when it approaches 3–14 dB (dependant on the compressor)
towards the current threshold, the compressor starts to apply the gain reduction
gradually.
Generally this will initially start with a ratio of 1:1, and as the signal grows ever
closer to the threshold, it’s gradually increased until the threshold is exceeded,
whereby full gain reduction is applied. This allows the compressor’s action to
be less evident and is particularly suitable for use on acoustic guitars and wind
instruments where you don’t necessarily want the action to be evident.
It should be noted that the action of the knee is entirely dependent on the
compressor being used and some can be particularly long starting 12 dB
before the threshold while others may start 3 dB before. As a matter of interest,
6–9 dB soft knees are considered to offer the most natural compression for
instruments.

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

Peak/RMS
Not all compressors feature knees, so short transient peaks can sometimes
catch the compressor unaware and ‘sneak’ past unaffected. This is obviously
going to cause problems when recording digitally, so many compressors will
implement a switch for Peak or RMS modes. Compressors that do not feature these two modes will operate in RMS, which means that the compressor will detect and control signals that stay at an average level rather than the
short sharp transient peaks. As a result, no matter how fast the attack may be
set, there’s a chance that the transients will overshoot the threshold and not
be controlled. This is because by the time the compressor has figured out that
the sound has exceeded the threshold it’s too late – the peak’s been and gone
again. Therefore to control short transient sound such as drum loops, it’s often
prudent to engage the peak mode. With this the compressor becomes sensitive
to short sharp peaks and clamps down on them as soon as they come close
to the threshold, rather than after they exceed it. By doing so, the peak can be
controlled before it overshoots the threshold and creates a problem.
While this can be particularly useful when working with drum and percussion
sounds it can create havoc with most other timbres. Keep in mind that many
instruments can exhibit a particularly short, sharp initial attack stage, and if
the compressor perceives these as possible problems, it’ll jump down on them
before they overshoot. In doing so, the high-frequency elements of the attack
will be dulled which can make the instrument appear less defined, muddled or
lost within the mix. Therefore, for all instruments bar drums and percussion,
it’s advisable to stick with the RMS mode.

Make-Up Gain
The final control on a compressor is the make-up gain. If you’ve set the threshold, ratio, attack and release correctly, the compressor should compress effectively
and reduce the dynamics in a sound but this compression will also reduce the
overall gain by the amount set by the ratio control. Therefore, whenever compression takes place you can use the make-up gain to bring the signal back up
to its pre-compressed volume level.

Side Chaining
Alongside the physical input and output connections on hardware compressors, many also feature an additional pair of inputs known as side chains. By
inputting an audio signal into these, a sound’s envelope can be used to control
the action that the compressor has on the signal entering the normal inputs.
A good example of this is when a radio DJ begins talking over a record and the
volume of the record lowers so that their voice becomes audible, then when
they stop speaking the record returns to its original volume. This is accomplished by feeding the music through the compressor as normal but with the
microphone connected into the side chain. This supersedes the compressor’s
normal operation and uses the signal from the side chain rather than the

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

threshold as the trigger. Thus, the compressor is triggered when the microphone is spoken into, compressing (in effect lowering the volume of the
music) by the amount set with the ratio control. This technique should only
be viewed as an example to explain the process, though, and more commonly
side chaining is usually used to make space in a mix for the vocals.
In a typical mix, the lead sound will occupy the same frequencies as the human
voice, resulting in a cluttered mid-range if the two are to play together. This can
be avoided if the lead mix is fed into the main inputs of the compressor while
the vocal track is routed into the side chain. With the ratio set at an appropriate level (dependent on the tonal characteristics of the lead and vocals) the
lead track will dip when the vocals are present, allowing them to pull through
the mix.

Hold Control
Most compressors that feature a side chain are likely to also have an associated ‘hold’ control on the facia or employ an automated hold function. This is
employed because a side chain measures the envelope of the incoming signal,
and if both the release and attack are too fast, the compressor may respond
to the cycles of a low-frequency waveform rather than the actual envelope. As
touched upon previously, this can result in the peaks and dips of the waveform, activating and deactivating the compressor resulting in distortion. By
using a hold the compressor is forced to wait a finite amount of time (usually
40–60 ms on automated hold) before beginning the release phase, which is
longer than the period of a low-frequency waveform.

STANDARD COMPRESSION
Despite the amount of control offered by the average compressor, they are relatively simple to set up for recording audio. As a generalized starting point, it’s
advisable to set the ratio at 4:1 and lower the threshold so that the gain reduction meter reads between –8 and –10 dB on the loudest parts of the signal. After
this, the attack parameter should be set to the fastest speed possible and the
release set to approximately 500 ms. Using these as preliminary settings, they
can then adjusted further to suit any particular sound.
It’s advisable that compression is applied sparingly during the recording stage
because once applied it cannot be removed. Any exuberant parts of the performance should be prevented from forcing the recorder’s meters into the red
while also ensuring that the compressor is as transparent as possible. Solid-state
compressors are more transparent than their valve counterparts and so are better
suited for this purpose.
As a general rule of thumb, the higher the dynamic range of the instrument
being recorded the higher the ratio and the lower the threshold settings need
to be. These settings help to keep the varying dynamics under tighter control

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

and prevent too much fluctuation throughout the performance. Additionally,
if the choice between hard or soft knee is available, the structure of the timbre
should be taken into account. To retain a sharp, bright attack stage, hard knee
compression with an attack setting that allows the initial transient to sneak
through unmolested should be used, provided of course that the transient is
unlikely to bypass the compression. In these instances, and to capture a more
natural sound, soft knee compression should be used.
Finally, the release period should be set as short as possible but not so short
that the effect is noticeable when the compressor stops processing. After setting
the release at 500 ms, the time should be continually reduced until the processing is noticeable and then increased slowly until it isn’t.
Some compressors feature an automode for the release that uses a fast release
on transient hits and a slower time for smaller peaks, making this task easier.
The settings shown in Table 2.1 are naturally only starting points and too much
compression should be avoided during the recording stage, something that can
only be accomplished by setting both the ratio and the threshold control carefully. This involves setting the compressor to squash audio but ensuring that it
stops processing and that the gain reduction meter drops to 0 dB (i.e. no signal
is being compressed) during any silent passages.
As a more practical example, with a simple four to the floor kick running
through the compressor and the ratio and threshold controls set so that the
gain reduction reads –8 dB on each kick, it’s necessary to ensure that the gain
reduction meter returns to 0 dB during any silent periods. If it doesn’t, then the
loop is being overcompressed. If the gain reduction only drops to –2 dB during
Table 2.1

Compression Settings

Compression
Settings

Ratio

Attack
Release
Gain
Parameter Parameter Reduction
(ms)
(ms)
(dB)
Knee

Starting settings

5–10:1

1–10

40–100

–5 to –15

Hard

Drum loop

5–10:1

1–10

40–100

–5 to –15

Hard

Bass

4–12:1

1–10

20 or auto

–6 to –13

Hard

Leads

2–8:1

3–10

40 or auto

–8 to –10

Hard

Vocals

2–7:1

1–7

50 or auto

–3 to –10

Soft

Brass instruments

4–10:1

1–7

30 or auto

–8 to –13

Hard

Electric guitars

8–10:1

2–7

50 or auto

–5 to –12

Hard

Acoustic guitars

5–9:1

5–20

40 or auto

–5 to –12

Hard

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

the silence between kicks, then it makes sense that only 6 dB of gain reduction
is actually being applied. This means that every time the compressor activates
it has to jump from 0 to 8 dB, when in reality it only needs to jump in by 6 dB.
This additional 2 dB of gain will distort the transient that follows the silence,
making it necessary for the gain reduction to be adjusted accordingly.

PRACTICAL COMPRESSION
While it is generally worth avoiding any evident compression during the
recording stage, deliberately making the compressor’s action evident forms
a fundamental part of creating the typical sound of dance music. To better
describe this, we’ll use a drum loop to experiment upon. This is a typical dance
drum loop consisting of a kick, snare, closed and open hi-hats (Figure 2.3).

The data CD contains the drum loop.

It’s clear from looking/listening to the drum loop that the greatest energy –
that is the loudest part of the loop – is derived from the kick drum. With this
in mind, if a compressor is inserted across this particular drum loop and the
threshold is set just below the peak level of the loudest part, each consecutive
kick will activate the compressor.
If you have access to a wave editor, open the file in the wave editor and open
a compressor plug-in. If you work in hardware, set up the compressor across

FIGURE 2.3
The waveform of the
drum pattern

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

the drum loop as an insert (if you don’t understand insert effects yet, it is discussed in the next chapter; go there and return here when you understand the
principles).
Now, set the threshold just below the peak level of the kick drum. You can do
this by watching the gain reduction meter and ensuring it moves every time
a kick occurs. Set the ratio to 4:1, the attack time fast and then while playing back the loop, experiment with the release time. Note that as the release
is shortened, the loop begins to pump more dramatically. This is a result of
the compressor activating on the kick, then quickly releasing when the kick
drops below the threshold. The result is a rapid change in volume, producing a
pumping effect as the compressor activates and deactivates on each kick.

The data CD contains the drum loop compressed.

This is known as ‘gain pumping’ and, although frowned upon in some areas
of music, is deliberately used in dance and popular music to give a track a
more dynamic feel. The exact timing of the release will depend entirely on
the tempo of the drum loop and must be short enough for the compressor to
recover before the next kick. Similarly, the release must be long enough for this
effect to sound natural, so it’s best to keep the loop repeated over four bars and
experiment with the attack and release parameters until the required sound is
achieved.
If we expand on this principle further and add a bass line, pad and chords to
the previously compressed loop and compress it again in the same way (i.e.
with a short release), the entire mix will pump energetically. As the kick is still
controlling the compressor (and provided that the release isn’t too short or
long), every time a kick occurs the rest of the instruments will drop in volume,
which accentuates the overall rhythm of the piece.
Gain pumping is also useful when applied across the whole mix, even though
each element in the mix may already have been compressed in isolation. Gain
pumping across the whole mix is used to balance areas in the track where
instruments are dropped in and out. When fewer instruments play, the gain
of the mix will be perceived as lower than when all the instruments play
simultaneously. The overall level can be controlled by strapping a compressor
across the mixing desk’s main stereo bus (more on this in later chapters), to
make the mix pump with energy.
Gain pumping across the entire mix (‘mix pumping’) should be applied with
caution because if the mix is pumped too heavily it will sound strange. Setting
a 20–30 ms attack with a 250 ms release and a low threshold and ratio to
reduce the range by 2 dB or so should be sufficient to produce a mix that has
the ‘right’ feel.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

That said, there is a trend emerging where gain pumping is becoming an actual
part of the music, such as Eric Prydz’s Valerie, but this is applied in a different manner, using the compressor’s side chain. To accomplish this effect, you
require a mix and an individual kick loop that is in tempo with the mix.

The data CD contains parts required for this example.

If you don’t have any available, track 3 of the CD contains these parts. Place
the mix into one channel of a sequencer and drop the kick drum onto a second channel. Set up a compressor on the kick drum channel, use the kick
as a side chain and feed the mix into the main compressor’s inputs. Set the
ratio to 4:1, with a fast attack and release, and if the compressor features it,
set it to Peak (or turn RMS off). Begin playback of both channels and slowly
reduce the threshold; the entire mix will pump with every kick. This can be
used more creatively to create a gated pad effect.

The data CD contains an example of gain pumping.

This technique can also be used in hip-hop, rap, house and big beat to help create room in the mix. Since these often have particularly loud bass elements that
play consecutively with the kick, the different sounds can conflict, muddying the
bottom end of the mix. This can be prevented by feeding the kick drum separately
into the side-chain inputs of the compressor, with the ratio set to 3:1, with a fast
attack and medium release (depending on the sound). If the bass is fed into the
compressor’s main inputs, every time the kick occurs the bass will drop in volume, making space for the kick thereby preventing any conflicts.
Compression can also be used on individual sounds to change the tonal content of a sound. For example, by using heavy compression (a low threshold
and high ratio) on an isolated snare drum, the snare’s attack avoids compression but the decay is squashed which brings it up to the attack’s gain level.
This technique is often employed to create the snare ‘thwack’ typical of trance,
techno and house music styles. Similarly, if a deeper, duller, speaker-mashing,
kick drum ‘thud’ is required the compressor’s attack should be set as short
as possible so that it clamps down hard on the initial attack of the kick. This
eradicates much of the initial high frequency content, and as the volume is
increased with the compressor’s make-up control, a deeper and much more
substantial ‘thud’ is produced.
It is, however, important to note that the overall quality of compression depends
entirely on the type of compressor being used. Compressors are one of two types:
solid-state or valve. Solid-state compressors use digital circuitry throughout and

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will not tend to pump as heavily or sound as good as those that utilize valve
technology. Some valve compressors will be solid state in the most part, using
a valve only at the compressor’s make-up gain. Solid-state compressors are usually more transparent than their valve-based counterparts and are used during
the recording stages. Valve compressors are typically used after recording to add
warmth to drums, vocals and basses, an effect caused by small amounts of
second-order harmonic distortion that are introduced into the final gain
circuitry1 of the compressor. This distortion is a result of the random movement
of electrons which, in the case of valves, occurs at exactly twice the frequency of
the amplified signal. Despite the fact that this distortion only contributes 0.2%
to the amplified signal, the human ear (subjectively!) finds it appealing.
More importantly, the characteristic warmth of a valve compressor differs
according to the model of valve compressor that is used, as each will exhibit
different characteristics. These differences and the variations from compressor
to compressor are the reasons why many dance producers will spend a fortune
on the right compressor and why it isn’t uncommon for producers to own a
number of both valve and solid-state types.
Most dance producers agree that solid-state circuitry tends to react faster, producing a more defined, less forgiving sound, while valve compressors add
warmth that improves the overall timbre.
While it isn’t essential to know why these differences exist from model to
model, it’s worth knowing which compressor is most suited to a particular style
of work. Failing that, it also makes for excellent conversation (if you’re that way
inclined), so what follows is a quick rundown of the five most popular methods
of compression:
■
■
■
■
■

Variable MU
Field effect transistor (FET)
Optical
VCA
Computer-based digital

Variable MU
The first compressors ever to appear on the market were called variable MU
units. This type of compressor uses valves for the gain control circuitry and does
not have an adjustable ratio control. Instead of an adjustable control, the ratio
is increased in proportion to the amount of the incoming signal that exceeds
the threshold. In other words, the more the level overshoots the threshold the
more the ratio increases. While these compressors do offer attack and release
stages, they’re not particularly suited towards material with fast transients, even

1
John Ambrose Fleming originally developed the valve in 1904 but it was 2 years later
that Lee De Forest constructed the first Triode configuration. Edwin Howard Armstrong then
used this to create the first ever valve amplifier in 1912.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

with their fastest attack settings. Due to the valve design, the valves run out of
dynamic range relatively quickly, so it’s unusual to acquire more than 15–20 dB
of gain reduction before the compressor runs out of energy. Nevertheless, variable MU compressors are renowned for their distinctive, phat, lush character,
and can work magic on basses and pumping dance mixes. The most notorious
variable MU compressors are made by Manley and can cost in excess of £3500.

FET
FET compressors use a field effect transistor to vary the gain. These were the first
transistors to emulate the action of valves. They provide incredibly fast attack
and release stages making them an excellent choice for beefing up kick and snare
drums, electric guitars, vocals and synthesizer leads. While they suffer from a limited dynamic range, if they’re pushed hard they can pump very musically and are
perfectly suited for gain pumping a mix. The only major problem is getting your
hands on one. Original FETs are as rare as rocking horse manure, and consequently
second-hand models are incredibly expensive. Reproduction versions of the early
FETs, such as the UREI 1176LN Peak Limiter (approximately £1800) and the LA
Audio Classic II (approximately £2000), are a worthwhile alternative.

Optical
Optical (or ‘opto’) compressors use a light bulb that reacts to the incoming audio
by glowing brighter or dimmer depending on the incoming sound (seriously!).
A phototransistor tracks the level of illumination from the bulb and changes the
gain. Because the phototransistor must monitor the light bulb before it takes any
action, some latency is created in the compressor’s response, so the more heavily
the compression is applied the longer the envelope times tend to be. Consequently,
most optical compressors utilize soft knee compression. This creates a more natural attack and release but also means that the compressor is not quick enough to
catch many transients. Despite this, optical compressors are great for compressing
vocals, basses, electric guitars and drum loops, providing that a limiter follows the
compression. (Limiters will be explained later.)
There are plenty of opto compressors to choose from, including the ADL 1500
(approximately £2500), the UREI LA3 and UREI Teletronix LA-2A (approximately £2900 each), the Joe Meek C2 (approximately £250) and the Joe Meek
SC2.2 (approximately £500). Both Joe Meek units sound particularly smooth
and warm considering their relatively low prices, and for the typical gain pump
synonymous with dance then you could do worse than to pick up the SC2.2.
Notably, all Joe Meek’s compressors are green because after designing his first
unit he decided to spruce it up by colouring it with car aerosol paint and green
was the only colour he could find in the garage at the time.

VCA
VCA compressors offer the fastest envelope times and highest gain reduction
levels of any of the compressors covered so far. These are the compressors most

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likely to be found in a typical home studio. As with most things, the quality of a
VCA compressor varies wildly in relation to its price tag. Many of the models
aimed at the more budget conscientious musician reduce the high frequencies
when a high gain reduction is used, regardless of whether you’re clamping
down on the transients or not. When used on a full mix these also rarely produce the pumping energy that is typical of models that are more expensive.
Nevertheless, these types of compressor are suitable for use on any sound. The
most widely celebrated VCA compressor is the Empirical Labs Stereo Distressor
(approximately £2500), which is a digitally controlled analogue compressor
with VCA, solid-state and op amps. This allows switching between the different
methods of compression to suit the sound. Two versions of the Distressor are
available to date: the standard version and the British version. Of the two, the
British version produces a much more natural, warm tone (I’m not just being
patriotic) and is the preferred choice of many dance musicians.

Computer-Based Digital
Computer-based digital compressors are possibly the most precise compressors to use on a sound. Because these compressors are based in the software
domain, they can analyse the incoming audio before it actually reaches the
compressor, allowing them to predict and apply compression without the risk
of any transients sneaking past the compressor. This means that they do not
need to utilize a peak/RMS operation. These digital compressors can emulate
both solid-state, transparent compression and the more obvious, warm, valve
compression at the fraction of the price of a hardware unit. In fact, the Waves
RComp can be switched to emulate an optical compressor. Similarly, the PSP
Vintage Warmer and Sonalksis TBK3 can add an incredible amount of valve
warmth.
The look-ahead functions employed in computer-based compressors can be
emulated in hardware with some creative thought, which can be especially useful if the compressor has no peak function. Using a kick drum as an example,
make a copy of the kick drum track and then delay it in relation to the original by 50 ms. By then feeding the delayed drum track into the compressor’s
main inputs and the original drum track into the compressor’s side chain, the
original drum track activates the compressor just before the delayed version
goes through the main inputs, in effect creating a look-ahead compressor!
Ultimately, it is advisable not to get too carried away when compressing audio
as it can be easy to destroy the sound while still believing that it sounds better.
This is because louder sounds are invariably perceived as sounding better than
those that are quieter. If the make-up gain on the compressor is set at a higher
level than the inputted signal, even if the compressor was set up by your pet
cat, it will still sound better than the non-compressed version. The incoming
signal must be set at exactly the same level as the output of the compressor so
that when bypassing the compressor to check the results, the difference in volume doesn’t persuade you that it sounds better.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

FIGURE 2.4
A mix with excursion

Furthermore, while any sounds that are above the threshold will be reduced
in gain, those below it will be increased when the make-up gain is turned up.
While this has the advantage of boosting the average signal level, a compressor does not differentiate between music and unwanted noise. So 15 dB of
gain reduction will reduce the peak level to 15 dB while the sounds below this
remain the same. Using the make-up gain to bring this back up to its nominal level (i.e. 15 dB) any signals that were below the threshold will also be
increased by 15 dB, and if there is noise present in the recording, it may
become more noticeable.
Most important of all, dance music relies heavily on the energy of the overall
‘punch’ produced by the kick drum, which comes from the kick drum physically moving the loudspeaker’s cone in and out. The more the cone is physically moved, the greater the punch of the kick. This degree of movement is
directly related to the size of the kick’s peak in relation to the rest of the music’s
waveform. If the difference between the peak of the kick and the main body of
the music is reduced too much through heavy compression, it may increase
the average signal level but the kick will not have as much energy since the
dynamic range is restricted, meaning that all the music will move the cone by
the same amount. So, you should be cautious as to how much you compress
otherwise you may lose the excursion which results in a loud yet flat and unexciting track with no energetic punch from the kick (Figures 2.4 and 2.5).

LIMITERS
After compression is applied, it’s common practice to pass the audio through
a limiter, just in case any transient is not captured by the compressor. Limiters

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FIGURE 2.5
A mix with no excursion
(all the contents of the
mix are almost at equal
volume)

work along similar principles to compressors but rather than compress a signal by a ratio, they stop signals from ever exceeding the threshold in the first
place. This means that no matter how loud the inputted signal becomes, it will
be squashed down so that it never violates the current threshold setting. This
is referred to as ‘brick wall’ because no sounds can ever exceed the threshold.
Some limiters, however, allow a slight increase in level above the threshold in
an effort to maintain a more natural sound.
A widespread misconception is that if the compressor offers a ratio above 10:1
and is set to this it will act as a limiter but this isn’t necessarily always the case.
As we’ve seen, a compressor is designed to detect an average signal level (RMS)
rather than a peak signal, so even if the attack is set to its fastest response, there’s
a good chance that signal peaks will catch the compressor unaware. The circuitry within limiters, however, does not employ an attack control, and as soon
as the signal reaches the threshold, it is brought under control instantaneously.
Therefore, if recording a signal that contains plenty of peaks, a limiter placed
directly after the compressor will clamp down on any signals that creep past the
compressor and prevent clipping.
Most limiters are quite simple to use and only feature three controls: an input level,
a threshold and an output gain, but some may also feature a release parameter. The
input is used to set the overall signal level entering the limiter while the threshold
and output gain, like a compressor, are used to set the level where the limiter begins
attenuating the signal and controlling the output level. The release control is not
standard on all limiters, but if included, it’s straightforward and allows the time it
takes the limiter to return to its nominal state after limiting to be set. As with compression, however, this must be set cautiously, giving the limiter time to recover
before the next signal is received to avoid distorting the subsequent transients.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

FIGURE 2.6
Drum loop before
limiting

The main purpose of a limiter is to prevent transient signals from overshooting
the threshold. Although there is no need for an additional attack control, some
software plug-ins will make use of one. This is because they employ look-ahead
algorithms that constantly analyse the incoming signal. This allows the limiter to
begin the attack stage just before the peak signal occurs. In most cases, this attack
isn’t user definable and a soft or hard setting will be provided instead. Similar to
the knee setting on a compressor, a hard attack activates the limiter as soon as a
peak is close to overshooting. On the other hand, a soft attack has a smoother
curve with a 10 or 20 ms timing. This reduces the likelihood that any artefacts
are introduced into the processed audio by jumping in on the audio too quickly.
These software look-ahead limiters are sometimes referred to as ultramaximizers.
As discussed, the types of signals that require limiting are commonly those
with an initial sharp transient peak. As a result, limiters are generally used for
removing the ‘crack’ from snare drums, keeping the kick drum under control,
and are often used on a full track to produce a louder mix during the mastering
process. Like compressors, though, limiters must be used cautiously because
they work on the principle of reducing the dynamic range. That is, the harder
a sound is limited, the more dynamically restricted it becomes. Too much limiting can result in a loud but monotonous sounding signal or mix. On average,
approximately 3–6 dB is a reasonable amount of limiting, but the exact figure
depends entirely on the sound or mix. If the sound has already been quite
heavily compressed, it’s best to avoid boosting any more than 3 dB at the limiting stage, otherwise any dynamics deliberately left in during the compression
stage may be destroyed (Figures 2.6 and 2.7).

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FIGURE 2.7
Drum loop after limiting

NOISE GATES
Noise gates can be described as the opposite of compressors. This is because
while a compressor attenuates the level of any signal that exceeds the threshold, a gate can attenuate or remove any signals that are below the threshold.
The main purpose of this is to remove any low-level noise that may be present
during a silent passage. For instance, a typical effect of many commercial dance
tracks is to introduce absolute silence or perhaps a drum kick just before the
reprise so that when the track returns fully, the sudden change from almost
nothing into everything playing at once creates a massive impact. The problem with this approach, though, is that if there is some low-level noise in the
recording it will be evident when the track falls silent (i.e. noise between the
kicks), which not only sounds cheap but reduces the impact when the rest of
the instruments jump back in. In these instances, by employing a gate it can be
set so that whenever sounds fall below its threshold the gate activates and creates absolute silence. While in theory this sounds simple enough, in practice
it’s all a little more difficult.
Firstly, we need to consider that not all sounds stay at a constant volume
throughout their period. Indeed, some sounds can fluctuate wildly in volume,
which means that they may constantly jump above and below the threshold of
the gate. What’s more, if the sound was close to the gates threshold throughout,
with even a slight fluctuation in volume it’ll constantly leap above and below the
threshold resulting in an effect known as chattering. To prevent this, gates will
often feature an automated or user-definable hold time. Using this, the gate can
be forced to wait for a predetermined amount of time after the signal has fallen
below the threshold before it begins its release stage, thus avoiding the problem.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

The action of this hold function is sometimes confused with a similar gate process called hysteresis but the two processes, while accomplishing the same goal,
are very different. Whereas the hold function forces the gate to wait for a predefined amount of time before closing, hysteresis adjusts the threshold’s tolerance
independently for opening and closing the gate. For example, if the threshold was
set at, say, ⫺12 dB, the audio signal must breach this before the gate opens but
the signal must fall a few extra dB below ⫺12 dB before the gate closes again.
Consequently, while both hold and hysteresis accomplish the same goal in preventing any chatter, it is generally accepted that hysteresis sounds much more
natural than simply using a hold control.
A second problem develops when we consider that not all sounds will start and
stop abruptly. For instance, if you were gating a pad that gradually rose in volume, it would only be allowed through the gate after it exceeds the predefined
threshold. If this threshold happened to be set quite high, the pad would suddenly jump in rather than fade in gradually as it was supposed to. Similarly,
rather than fade away, it would be abruptly cut off as it fell below the threshold again. Of course, you could always lower the threshold, but that may allow
noise to creep in, so gates will also feature attack and release parameters. These
are similar in most respects to a compressor’s envelope in that they allow you
to determine the attack and release times of the gate’s action. Using these on
our example of a pad, by setting the release quite long as soon as the pad falls
below the threshold the gate will enter the release stage and gradually fade out
rather than cut them off abruptly. Likewise, by lengthening the attack on the
gate, the strings will fade in rather than jump in unexpectedly.
The third, and final, problem is that we may not always want to silence any
sounds that fall below the threshold. Suppose that you’ve recorded a rapper (or
any vocalist for that matter) to drop into the music. He or she will obviously
need to breathe between the verses, and if they’re about to scream something
out, they’ll need a large intake of breath before starting. This sharp intake of
breath will make its way onto the vocal recording, and while you don’t want it
to be too loud, at the same time you don’t want it totally removed either otherwise it’ll sound totally unnatural – the audience instinctively know that vocalists
have to breathe!
Consequently, we need a way of lowering the volume of any sounds that fall
below the threshold rather than totally attenuating them, so many gates (but
not all!) will feature a range control. Fundamentally, this is a volume control
that’s calibrated in decibels allowing you to define how much the signal is attenuated when it falls below the threshold. The more this is increased, the more the
signal will be reduced in gain until – set at its maximum setting – the gate will
silence the signal altogether. Using this range control on the imaginary rapper,
you could set it quite low so that the volume of the breaths is not too loud but
not too quiet either. By setting the threshold so that only the vocals breach it
and those below are reduced in volume by a small amount, it will sound much
more natural. Furthermore, by setting the gate’s attack to around 100 ms or so

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as he/she breathes, it will begin at the volume set by the range and then slowly
swell in to the vocal, which produces a much more natural effect.
For this application to work properly, the release time of the gate must be set
cautiously. If it’s set too long, the gate may remain open during the silence
between the vocals, which doesn’t allow a new attack stage to be triggered
when they begin to sing again. On the other hand, if it’s set too short it can
result in the ‘chattering’ effect described earlier. Consequently, it’s prudent to
use the shortest possible decay time possible, yet long enough to provide a
smooth sound. Generally, this is usually somewhere between 50 and 200 ms.
Employed creatively, the range control can also be used to modify the attack
transients of percussive instruments such as pianos, organs or lead sounds (not
on drums, though, these are far too short).
One final aspect of gates is that many will also feature a side-chain connection. In
this context they’re often referred to as ‘key’ inputs but nevertheless this connection behaves in a manner similar to a compressor’s side chain. Fundamentally,
they allow you to insert an audio signal in the key input which can then be used
to control the action of the gate, which in turn affects the audio travelling through
the noise gates normal inputs. This obviously has numerous creative uses but the
most common use is to programme a kick drum rhythm and feed the audio into
the key input. Any signals that are then fed through the gate’s normal inputs will
be gated every time a kick occurs. This action supersedes the gate’s threshold setting but the attack, release, range, hold or hysteresis controls are often still available allowing you to contour the reaction of the gate on the audio signal.
Another use of this key input is known as ‘ducking’ and many gates will feature
a push button allowing you to engage it. When this is activated, the gate’s process is reversed so that any signals that enter the key input will ‘duck’ the volume of the signal running through the gate. A typical use for this is to connect
a microphone into the key input so that every time you speak, the volume of
the original signal travelling through the gate is ducked in volume. Again, this
supersedes the threshold control, but all of the other parameters are still available allowing you to contour the action of the signal being ducked, although it
should be noted that the attack time turns into a release control and vice versa.
Also as a side note, some of the more expensive gates will feature a MIDI in port
that prevents you from inserting an audio signal into the key input; instead,
MIDI note on messages can be used to control the action of the gate.

TRANSIENT DESIGNERS
Transient designers are quite simple processors that generally feature only two
controls: an attack and a sustain parameter, both of which allow you to shape
the dynamic envelope of a sound. Fundamentally, this means that you can
alter the attack and sustain characteristics of a pre-recorded audio file the same
as you would when using a synthesizer. While this may initially not seem to be
too impressive, it has a multitude of practical uses.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

Since we determine a significant amount of information about a sound through
its attack stage, modifying this can change the appearance of any sound. For
example, if you have a sampled loop and the drum is too loud, by reducing its
attack (and lengthening the sustain so that the sound doesn’t vanish) it will
be moved further back into the mix. In a more creative application, if a groove
has been sampled from a record it allows you to modify the drum sounds into
something else.
Similarly if you’ve sampled or recorded vocals, pianos, strings or any instrument for that matter, the transient designer can be used to add or remove some
of the attack stage to make the sound more or less prominent while strings and
basses could have a longer sustain applied. Similarly, by reducing the sustain
parameter on the transient designer you could reduce the length of the notes.
Notably, noise gates can also be used to create the effect of a transient designer
and, like the previously discussed processors, these can be an invaluable tool
to a dance producer; we’ll be looking more closely at the uses of both in the
genre chapters.

REVERB
Reverberation (often shortened to reverb or just verb) is used to describe the
natural reflections we’ve come to expect from listening to sounds in different
environments. We already know that when something produces a sound, the
resulting changes in air pressure emanate out in all directions but only a proportion of this reaches our ears directly. The rest rebounds off nearby objects and
walls before reaching our ears; thus, it makes common sense that these reflected
waves would take longer to reach your ears than the direct sound itself.
This creates a series of discrete echoes that are all closely compacted together
and from this our brains can decipher a staggering amount of information
about the surroundings. This is because each time the sound is reflected from
a surface, that surface will absorb some of the sound’s energy, thereby reducing
the amplitude. However, each surface also has a distinct frequency response,
which means that different materials will absorb the sound’s energy at different
frequencies. For instance, stone walls will rebound high-frequency energy more
readily than soft furnishings which absorb it. If you were in a large hall it would
take longer for the reverberations to decay away than it would if you were in a
smaller room. In fact, the further away from a sound source you are, the more
reverberation there would be in comparison to the direct sound in reflective
spaces, until eventually, if the sound was far enough away and the conditions
were right you would hear a series of distinct echoes rather than reverb.
There should be little need to describe all the differing effects of reverb because
you’ll have experienced them all yourself. If you were blindfolded, you would
still be able to determine what type of room you’re in from the sonic reflections. In fact, reverb is such a natural occurrence that if it’s totally removed
(such as is an anechoic chamber) it can be unsettling almost to the point of

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nausea. Our eyes are informing the brain of the room’s dimensions, but the
ears are informing it of something completely different.
Ultimately, while compression is the most important processor, reverb is the
most important effect because samplers and synthesizers do not generate natural
reverberations until the resulting signals are exposed to air. So, in order to create some depth in a mix you often need to add it artificially. For example, the
kick may need to be at the front of a mix but any pads could sit in the background. Simply reducing the volume of the pads may make them disappear
into the mix, but by applying a light smear of reverb you could fool the brain
into believing that the sound is further away from the drums because of the
reverberation that’s surrounding it.
However, there’s much more to applying reverb than simply increasing the
amount that is applied to the sound. As we’ve seen, reverb behaves very differently depending on the furnishings and wall coverings, so all reverb units
will offer many more parameters and using it successfully depends on knowing
the effects all these will have on a sound. What follows is a list of the available
controls on a reverb unit, but it should be noted that in many cases all of these
will not be available – it depends on the quality of the unit itself.

Ratio (Sometimes Labelled as Mix)
The ratio controls the ratio of direct sound to the amount of reverberation
applied. If you increase the ratio to near maximum, there will be more reverb
than direct sound, while if you decrease it significantly, there will be more
direct sound than reverb. Using this, you can make sounds appear further away
or closer to you.

Pre-Delay Time
After a sound occurs, the time separation between the direct sound and the first
reflection to reach your ears is referred to as the pre-delay. This parameter on a
reverb unit allows you to specify the amount of time between the start of the
unaffected sound and the beginning of the first sonic reflection. In a practical
sense, by using a long pre-delay setting the attack of the instrument can pull
through before the subsequent reflections appear. This can be vital in preventing the reflections from washing over the transient of instruments, forcing them
towards the back of a mix or muddying the sound.

Early Reflections
Early reflections are used to control the sonic properties of the first few reflections we receive. Since sounds reflect off a multitude of surfaces, subtle differences are created between subsequent reflections reaching our ears. Due to the
complex nature of these first reflections, only the high-end processors feature
this type of control, which allows you to determine the type of surface the
sound has reflected from.

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

Diffusion
This parameter is associated with the early reflections and is a measure of how
far the early reflections are spread across the stereo image. The amount of stereo
width associated with the reflections depends on how far the sound source is.
If a sound is far away then much of the stereo width of the reverb will dissipate
but there will be more reverberation than if it was upfront. If the sound source
is quite close, however, then the reverberations will tend to be less spread and
more monophonic. This is worth keeping in mind since many artists wash a
sound in stereo reverb to push it into the background and then wonder why
the stereo image disappears and doesn’t sound quite ‘right’ in context with the
rest of the mix.

Density
Directly after the early reflections come the rest of the reflections. On a reverb
unit this is referred to as the density. Using this control it’s possible to vary the
number of reflections and how fast they should repeat. By increasing it, the
reflections will become denser giving the impression that the surface they have
reflected from is more complex.

Reverb Decay Time
This parameter is used to control the amount of time the reverb takes to decay
away. In large buildings the reflections will generally take longer to decay into
silence than in a smaller room. Thus, by increasing the decay time you can
effectively increase the size of the ‘room’. This parameter must be used cautiously, however, as if you use a large decay time on a motif the subsequent
reflections from previous notes may still be decaying when the next note starts.
If the motif is continually repeated, it will be subjected to more and more
reflections until it eventually turns into an incoherent mush of frequencies.
The amount of time it takes for a reverb to fade away (after the original sound
has stopped) is measured by how long it takes for the sound pressure level to
decay to one-millionth of its original value. Since one-millionth equates to a
60 dB reduction, reverb decay time is often referred to as RT60 time.

HF and LF Damping
The further reflections have to travel the less high frequency content they will
have since the surrounding air will absorb them. Additionally, soft furnishings
will also absorb higher frequencies, so by reducing the high frequency content
(and reducing the decay time) you can give the impression that the sound is
in a small enclosed area or has soft furnishings. Alternatively, by increasing
the decay time and removing smaller amounts of the high frequency content
you can make the sound source appear further away. Further, by increasing the
lower frequency damping you can emulate a large open space. For instance,
while singing in a large cavernous area there will be a low end rumble with the
reflections but not as much high-frequency energy.

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Despite the amount of controls a reverb unit may offer, it is also important
to note that units from different manufacturers will sound very different to
one another as each manufacturer will use different algorithms to simulate the
effect. Although it is quintessential to use a good reverb unit (such as a Lexicon
hardware unit or the TC Native Plug-ins included on the CD), it’s not uncommon to use two or three different models of reverb in one mix.

CHORUS
Chorus effects attempt to emulate the sound of two or more of the same instruments playing the same parts simultaneously. Since no two instrumentalists
could play exactly in time with one another, the result is a series of phase cancellations. This is analogous to two synthesizer waveforms slightly detuned and
playing simultaneously together; there will be a series of phase cancellations as
the two frequencies move in and out of phase with one another. A chorus unit
achieves this same effect by delaying the incoming audio signal slightly in time
while also dynamically changing the time delay and amplitude as the sound
continues.
To provide control over this modulation a typical chorus effect will offer three
parameters all of which can be directly related to the LFO parameters on a typical
synthesizer. The first allows you to select a modulation waveform that will be
used to modulate the pitch of the delayed signal, while the second and third
parameters allow you to set the modulation rate (referred to as the frequency)
and the depth of the chorus effect (often referred to as delay). However, it
should be noted that because the modulation rate stays at a constant depth,
rate and waveform it doesn’t produce the ‘authentic’ results you would experience with real instrumentalists. Nevertheless, it has become a useful effect in
its own right and can often be employed to make oscillators and timbre appear
thicker, wider and much more substantial.

PHASERS AND FLANGERS
Phasers and flangers are very similar effects with subtle differences in how they
are created, but work on a principle comparable to the chorus effect. Originally
phasing was produced by using two tape machines that played slightly out of
sync with one another. As you can probably imagine, this created an irregularity
between the two machines, which resulted in the phase relationship of the audio
being slightly different, in effect producing a hollow, phase-shifted sound.
This idea was developed further in the 1950s by Les Paul as he experimented by
applying pressure onto the ‘flange’ (i.e. the metal circle that the tape is wound
upon) of the second tape machine. This effectively slowed down the speed of
the second machine and produced a more delayed swirling effect due not only
to the phase differences but also to the speed. With digital effect units, both
these work by mixing the original incoming signal with a delayed version but
also by feeding some of the output back into the input. The only difference

Compression, Processing and Effects CHAPTER 2

between the two is that flangers use a time delay circuit to produce the effect
while a phaser uses a phase shift circuit.
Nevertheless, both use an LFO to modulate either the phase shifting of the
phaser or the time delay of the flanger. This creates a series of phase cancellations
since the original and delayed signals are out of phase with one another. The
resulting effect is that phasers produce a series of notches in the audio file that
are harmonically related (since they are related to the phase of the original
audio signal) while flangers have a constantly different frequency because they
use a time delay circuit. Consequently both flangers and phasers share the
same parameters. They both feature a rate parameter to control the speed of
the LFO effect along with a feedback control to set how deeply the LFO affects
the audio. Notably, some phasers will only use a sine wave as a modulation
source but most flangers will allow you to not only change the shape but also
control the number of delays used to process the original signal. Today, both
these effects have become a staple in the production of dance, especially House,
with the likes of Daft Punk using them on just about every record they’ve ever
produced.

DIGITAL DELAY
To the dance music producer, digital delay (often referred to as digital delay
line – DDL) is one of the most important effects to own as if used creatively it
can be one of the most versatile. The simplest units will allow you to delay the
incoming audio signal by a predetermined time which is commonly referred to
in milliseconds or sometimes in note values. The number of delays produced
by the unit is often referred to as the feedback, so by increasing the feedback
setting you can produce more than one repeat from a single sound. This works
by sending some of the delayed output back into the effects input so that it’s
delayed again, and again, and again and so forth. Obviously this means that if
the feedback is set to a very high value the level of the repeats end up collecting
together rather than gradually dying away until eventually you’ll end up with a
horrible howling sound.
While all delay units will work on this basic premise, the more advanced units
may permit you to delay the left and right channels individually and pan them
to the left and right of the stereo image. They may also allow you to pitch
shift the subsequent delays, employ filters to adjust the harmonic content of
the delays, distort or add reverb to the results and apply LFO modulation to
the filter. Of all these additional controls (most of which should require no
explanation) the modulation is perhaps the most creative application to have
on a delay unit as it allows you to modulate the filters cut-off or pitch, or both,
with an LFO. The number and type of waveforms on offer vary from unit to
unit but fundamentally most will feature at least a sine, square and triangle
wave. Similar to a synthesizer’s LFO parameters, they will feature rate and depth
controls allowing you to adjust how fast and by how much it should modulate
the filter cut-off or pitch parameters.

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One of the most common uses for a delay in dance music is not necessarily to
add a series of delays to an audio signal but to create an effect known as granular delay. As we touched upon in Chapter 3, we cannot perceive individual
sounds if they are less than 30 ms apart, which is the principle behind granular
synthesis. However, if a sound is sent to a delay unit and the delay time is set
to less than 30 ms and combined with a low feedback setting, the subsequent
delays collect together in a short period of time which we cannot perceive as a
delay. The resulting effect is that the delayed timbre appears much bigger, wider
and upfront. This technique is often employed on leads or, in some cases,
basses if the track is based around a powerful driving bass line.

EQ
At its most basic, EQ is a frequency-specific volume control tone control that
allows you to intensify or attenuate specific frequencies. For this, three controls
are required
■

■

■

A frequency control allowing you to home in on the frequency you want
to adjust.
A ‘Q’ control allowing you to determine how many frequencies either
side of the centre frequency you want to adjust.
A gain control to allow you to attenuate or intensify the selected frequencies.

Notably not all EQ units will offer this amount of control and some units will
have a fixed frequency or a fixed Q, meaning that you can only adjust the volume of the frequencies that are preset by the manufacturer. EQ plays a much
larger role in mixing than it does in sound design, so this has only been a
quick introduction and we’ll look much more deeply into its effects when we
cover mixing and mastering in later chapters.

DISTORTION
The final effect for this chapter, distortion, is pretty much self-explanatory; it
introduces an overdrive effect to any sounds that are fed through it. However,
while the basic premise is quite simple, it has many more uses than to simply
grunge up a clean audio signal. As touched upon in Chapter 3, a sine wave
does not contain any harmonics except for the fundamental frequency, and
therefore applying effects such as flangers, phasers or filters will have very little
influence. However, if distortion were applied to the sine wave it would introduce a series of harmonics into the signal giving the aforementioned effects
something more substantial to work with.

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

57

CHAPTER 3

Cables, Mixing Desks and
Effects Busses

’I don’t just use a (mixing) desk to mix sounds together
I use it as a creative tool…’
Juan Atkins

There is much more to understanding the various processors and effects used
within the creation of dance music; you also need to know how to access them
through a typical mixing desk to gain the correct results. While most producers today rely on a computer to handle the recording, effecting, processing and
mixing, there will nevertheless come a time when you have to employ external
units into your rig, whether synthesizers, processors, effects or even a sampler,
and therefore you’ll start by looking at the cables used to connect these to your
mixing desk, laptop or computer.
Any competent studio is only as capable as its weakest link, so if low-quality
cables are used to connect devices together, the cables will be susceptible to
introducing interference, which results in noise. This problem arises because any
cables that carry a current, no matter how small, produce their own voltage as
the current travels along them. The level of voltage that is produced by the cable
will depend on its resistance and the current passing through it, but this nevertheless results in a difference in voltage from one end of the cable to the other.
Because all studio equipment (unless it’s all contained inside a Digital Audio
Workstation) requires cables to carry the audio signal to and from the mixing desk,
the additional voltage introduced by the cables is then transmitted around the instruments from the mixing desk and through to earth. This produces a continual loop
resulting in an electromagnetic field that surrounds all the cables. This field introduces an electrical hum into the signal, an effect known as ‘ground hum’. The best
way to reduce this is by using professional-quality ‘balanced’ cables, although not all
equipment, particularly equipment intended for the home studio, uses this form of
cable. Home studio equipment tends to use ‘unbalanced’ cables and connectors.
The distinction between balanced and unbalanced cable is determined by the
termination connectors at each end. Cables terminated with mono jack or

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

Mono jack

Audio

Ground/earth

Stereo jack
Positive audio (⫹ve)
Negative audio (⫺ve)

Ground/earth

Male XLR

Positive audio (⫹ve)

Negative audio (⫺ve)

Ground/earth
Head on XLR view

FIGURE 3.1
Mono, stereo jack and XLR connectors

phono connectors are unbalanced, while stereo Tip–Ring–Sleeve (TRS) jack
connections or extra long run (XLR) connections will be found on balanced
cables. Examples of these are shown in Figure 3.1.
All unbalanced cables are made up of two internal wires contained within the
outer plastic or rubber core of the wire (known as the earth screen). One of
these internal wires carries the audio signal and is connected to the tip of the
connector while the other carries the ground signal and is connected directly to
the connector sleeve. The signal is therefore grounded at each end of the cable

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

helping to prevent any interference from the device itself, but is still susceptible
to electromagnetic interference as it is transmitted from one device to another.
Because of this, most professional studios use balanced cables with XLR or TRS
terminating connections, if the equipment they connect to supports it.

TRS connections do not necessarily mean that the cable is balanced as they can be
used to carry a stereo signal (left channel, right channel and earth) but in a studio environment they are more commonly used to transfer a mono signal.

Balanced cables contain three wires within the outer screen. In this configuration a single wire is still used as a ground but the other two wires carry the
audio signal, one of which is a phase-inverted version of the original. When
this is received by a device, the phase-inverted signal is put back into phase
with the original and the two are added together. As a result, any interference
introduced is cancelled out when the two signals are summed together. This
is similar to the way two oscillators that are in phase cancel each other out, as
described in here in this chapter. That’s the theory. In practice, although this
reduces the problem, phase cancellation rarely removes all of the interference.
Another favourable advantage of using balanced cables is that they also utilize
a more powerful signal level. Commonly referred to as a professional standard,
a balanced signal uses a signal level of ⫹4 dBu rather than the semi-professional signal level of ⫺10 dBV. The reasons for this are more the subject matter
of electrical engineering than music, and although it’s not necessarily important to understand this, a short explanation is given in the text box. If you’re
not interested you can skip this box because all you really need to know is that
⫹4 dBu signals have a hotter, louder signal than ⫺10 dBV signals and are generally preferred as the signal is over 11 dB hotter, so the chance of capturing a
poor signal is reduced.
Before light-emitting diode (LED) and liquid crystal display (LCD) displays
appeared on musical gear, audio engineers used volume unit (VU) meters to
measure audio signals. These were featured on any hardware that could receive
an input. This meant that every VU meter had to give the same reading for the
same signal level no matter who manufactured the device. If this were not the
case, different equipment within the same studio would have different signal
levels. Consequently, engineers decided that if 1 milliwatt (mW) was travelling
through the circuitry then the VU meter should read 0 dB. Hence, 0 dB VU was
referred to as 0 dBm (with m standing for milliwatt).
Today’s audio engineering societies are no longer concerned with using a reference level of milliwatt because the power levels today are much higher, so the
level of 0 dBm is now obsolete and we use voltage levels instead. To convert
this into an equivalent voltage level, the impedance has to be specified, which

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in this case is 600 Ohms. For those with some prior electrical knowledge it can
be calculated as follows:
P ⫽ V2/R
0.001 W ⫽ V2/600 W
V2 ⫽ 0.001 W ⫻ 600 W
V ⫽ 0.001 W ⫻ 600 W
For the layman, the sum of this equation equals 0.775 Volts and that’s all you
need to know.
The value of 0.775 is now used as the reference voltage and is referred to in
dBu rather than dBm. Although it was originally referred to as dBv it was often
confused with the reference level of dBV (notice the upper case V), so the suffix
u is used in its place. This is only the reference level, though, and all professional equipment will output a level that is ⫹4 dB, which is where we derive
the ⫹4 dBu standard. Consequently, on professional equipment, the zero level
on the meters actually signifies that it is receiving a ⫹4 dBu signal.
However, some hardware engineers agreed that it would be simpler to use
1 Volt as the reference instead, which is where the dBV standard originates.
Unlike professional equipment, which uses the ⫹4 dBu output level, unbalanced equipment outputs at 0.316 Volts, equivalent to ⫺10 dBV. Therefore, on
semi-professional equipment the zero level on the meters signifies that they are
receiving a ⫺10 dBV signal. If the professional and semi-professional signals
are compared, the professional voltage of 0.775 V is considerably higher than
the 0.316 Volts generated by consumer equipment. When converted to decibel
this results in an 11.8 dB difference between the two.
Despite the difference in the levels of the two signals, in many cases it is still
possible to connect a balanced signal to an unbalanced sampler/soundcard/
mixer with the immediate benefit that the signal that is captured is 11.8 dB
hotter. Although this usually results in the unbalanced recorder’s levels jumping off the scale, whether the signal is actually distorting should be based on
whether this distortion is audible. Most recorders employ a safety buffer by setting the clipping meters below the maximum signal level. This is, of course, a
one-way connection from a balanced signal to an unbalanced piece of hardware, and it isn’t a good idea to work with an unbalanced signal connecting to
a balanced recorder because you’ll end up with a poor input signal level and
any attempts to boost the signal further could introduce noise.
Within the typical home studio environment, it is most likely that the equipment will be of the unbalanced type; therefore, the use of unbalanced connections is unavoidable. If this is the case, it’s prudent to take some precautions
that will prevent the introduction of unwanted electromagnetic interference
but this can be incredibly difficult.

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

While the simplest solution would be to disconnect the earth from the power
supply, in effect breaking the ground loop, this should be avoided at all costs.
Keep in mind that the whole point of an earth system is to pass the current
directly to ground rather than you if there’s a fault. Human beings make
remarkably good earth terminals and as electricity will always take the quickest
route it can find to reach earth, it can be an incredibly painful (and sometimes
deadly) experience to present yourself as a short cut.
A less suicidal technique is to remove the earth connection from one end of
audio cable. This breaks the loop, but it has the disadvantage that it can make
the cable more susceptible to radio frequency (RF) interference. In other words,
the cable would be capable of receiving signals from passing police cars, taxis,
mobile phones and any nearby citizens’ band radios. While this could be useful if you want to base your music around Scanners previous work, it’s something you’ll want to avoid.
Although in a majority of cases hum will be caused by the electromagnetic
field, it can also be the result of a number of other factors combined. To begin
with it’s worthwhile ensuring that the mains and audio cables are wrapped
separately from one another and kept as far away from each other as possible.
Mains cables create a higher electromagnetic field due to their large current,
and if they are bound together with cables carrying an audio signal, serious
hum can be introduced.
Transformers also generate high electromagnetic fields that cause interference,
and although you may not think that you have any in the studio, both amplifiers and mixing desks use them. Consequently, amplifiers should be kept at a
good distance from other equipment, especially sensitive equipment such as
microphone pre-amps. If the amplifiers are rack-mounted, there should be a
minimum space of 4-Rack Units between the amplifier and any other devices.
This same principle also applies to rack-mounted mixing desks, which should
ideally be placed in a rack of their own or kept on a desk. If the rack that is
used is constructed from metal and metal screws hold the mixing desk in place;
the result is the same as if the instruments were grounding from another source
and yet more hum is introduced. Preferably, plastic washers and screw housings should be used, as these isolate the unit from the rack.
If, after all these possible sources have been eliminated, hum is still present,
the only viable way of removing or further reducing it is to connect devices
together digitally, or invest in a professional mains suppressor. This should be
sourced from a professional studio supplier rather than from the local electrical hardware or car superstore, as suppressors sold for use within a studio are
specifically manufactured for this purpose, whereas a typical mains suppressor
is designed to suppress only the small amounts of hum that are typically associated with normal household equipment.
Digital connections can be used as an alternative to analogue cables if the
sampler/soundcard/mixer allows it. This has the immediate benefit that no
noise will be introduced into the signal with the additional benefit that this

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connection can also be used by the beat-slicing software to transmit loops
to and from an external hardware sampler. Sampler-to-software connectivity is usually accomplished via a direct SCSI interface, so there is little need
to be concerned about the digital standards, but on occasion it may be preferable to transmit the results through true digital interfaces such as Alesis digital audio tape (ADAT), Tascam digital interface (T-DIF), Sony/Philips digital
interface (S/PDIF) or Audio Engineering Society/European Broadcasting Union
(AES–EBU).
The problem is that digital interfacing is more complex than analogue interfacing because the transmitted audio data must be decoded properly. This means
that the bit rate, sample rate, sample start and end points, and the left and right
channels must be coded in such a way that the receiving device can make sense
of it all. The problem with this is that digital interfaces appear in various forms,
including (among many others) Yamaha’s Y formats, Sony’s SDIF, Sony and
Phillips S/PDIF and the AES–EBU standard, none of which are cross-compatible.
In an effort to avoid these interconnection problems, the American Audio
Engineering Society (AAES) combined with the EBU and devised a standard
connection format imaginatively labelled the AES–EBU standard. This requires
a three-pin XLR connection, similar to the balanced analogue equivalent,
although the connection is specific to the digital.
Like ‘balanced’ analogue connections AES–EBU is expensive to implement,
so Sony and Philips developed a less expensive ‘unbalanced’ standard known
as S/PDIF. This uses either a pair of phono connectors or an optical TOS-link
interface (Toshiba Optical Source). Most recent samplers and soundcards use
a TOS-link or phono connection to transmit digital information to and from
other devices.
The great thing about standards is that there are plenty of them…
With compatible interfaces between two devices, both the receiving and the
transmitting device must be clocked together so that they are fully synchronized. This ensures that they can communicate with one another. If the devices
are not synchronized, the receiving device will not know when to expect an
incoming signal, producing ‘jitter’. The resulting effect this has on audio is difficult to describe but rather than fill up the book’s accompanying CD with the
ensuing ear-piercing noises, it’s probably best explained as an annoying highfrequency racket mixed with an unstable stereo image. To avoid this, most professional studios use an external clock generator to synchronize multiple digital
units together correctly. This is similar in most respects to a typical multi-MIDI
interface, bar the fact that it generates and sends out word clock (often abbreviated to WCLK but still pronounced word clock) messages simultaneously to all
devices to keep them clocked together.
The WCLK message works by sending a one-bit signal down the digital cable,
resulting in a square wave that is received in all the attached devices. When
the signal is decompiled by the receiving device, the peaks and troughs of the

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

square wave denote the left and right channels while the width between each
pulse of the wave determines the clock rate.
These stand-alone WCLK generators can be expensive, so within a home studio
set-up the digital mixing desk or soundcard usually generates the WCLK message, with the devices daisy-chained together to receive the signal. For instance,
if the soundcard is used to generate the clock rate, the WCLK message could be
sent to an effects device, through this into a microphone pre-amplifier, and so
forth before the signal returns back into the soundcard, creating a loop. The
principle is similar to the way that numerous MIDI devices are daisy-chained
together, as discussed in Chapter 1. As with daisy-chained MIDI devices,
though, the signal weakens as it passes through each device; therefore, if the
signal is to pass through more than four devices, it’s prudent to use a WCLK
amplifier to keep the signal powerful enough to prevent any jitter.
Provided that the clock rate is correctly transmitted and received, another
important factor to consider is the sample rate. When recording, both the
transmitting and the receiving devices must be locked to the same sample rate,
otherwise the recorder may refuse to go into record mode. Also, unless you are
recording the final master, any Serial Copyright Management System (SCMS)
features should be disabled.
SCMS was implemented onto all consumer digital connections to reduce the
possibility of music piracy. This allows only one digital copy to be made from
the original. It does this by inserting a ‘copyright flag’ into the first couple of
bytes that are transmitted to the recording device. If the recorder recognizes
this flag it will disable the device’s record functions. This is obviously going to
cause serious problems if you need to edit a second-generation copy because
unless the recorder allows you to disable SCMS, you will not be allowed to
record the results digitally. Thus, if you plan to transfer and edit data digitally,
it is vital to ensure that you can disable the SCMS system.
If you own a digital audio tape (DAT) machine that does not allow you to disable
the SCMS protection system then it’s possible to get hold of SCMS strippers which
remove the first few flags of the signal, in effect disabling the SCMS system.

MIXING DESK STRUCTURE
While some mixing desks appear relatively straightforward some professional
desks, such as the Neve Capricorn or the SSL, look more ominous. However,
whatever the level of complexity all types of hardware- and software-based mixing desks operate according to the same principles. With a basic understanding
of the various features and how the channels, busses, subgroups, EQ and aux
send and returns are configured, you can get the best out of your equipment,
no matter how large or small the desk is.
The fundamental application of any mixing desk is to take a series of inputs
from external instruments and provide an interface that allows you to adjust

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the tonal characteristics of each perspective instrument. These signals are then
culminated together in the desk and fed into the loudspeaker monitors and/
or recorder to produce the finished mix. As simple as this premise may be,
though, simply looking at a desk reveals that there’s actually a lot more going
on and to better understand this we need to break the desk down to each individual input channel.
Typically, a mixing desk can offer anywhere from two input channels to over a
hundred, depending on its price. Each of these channels (referred to by engineers as a ‘strip’) is designed to accept either a mono or stereo signal from
one musical source and provide some tonal editing features for that one strip.
Clearly, this means that if you have five external hardware instruments, each
with a mono output, you would need a desk with an absolute minimum
total of five ‘strips’ so that you could input each into a separate channel of the
desk. For reasons we’ll touch upon, you should always aim to have as many
channels strips in a mixer as you can afford, no matter how few instruments
you may own.
Generally speaking, the physical inputs for each channel are located at the rear
of the desk and will consist of a 1/4⬙ jack or XLR connection, or both. This latter configuration doesn’t mean that two inputs can be directed into the same
channel strip simultaneously; rather it allows you to choose whether that particular channel accepts a signal from a jack or an XLR connector. Most desks
will have the capacity to accept a signal of any level, whether it’s mic-level
(⫺60 dBu) or line level (⫺10 dBV or ⫹4 dBu) and whether the cables are
balanced or unbalanced.
Some of the older mixing desks may describe these inputs as being Low-Z or
Hi-Z but all this is describing is the input impedance of that particular channel.
If Hi-Z is used then the impedance is higher to accept unbalanced line-level
signals, while if Low-Z is used the impedance is lower to accept balanced ones.
As all mixing desks operate at line level to keep the signal to noise ratio at a minimum, once a signal enters the desk it is first directed to the pre-amplifier stage
to bring the incoming signal up to operating level of the desk. Although this preamp stage isn’t particularly necessary with line-level signals as most desks use this
as their nominal operating level, it is required to bring the relatively low levels
generated by most microphones to a more respectable level for mixing. This preamp will have an associated rotary gain control on the facia of the desk (often
called pots – an acronym for potentiometer) labelled ‘trim’ or ‘gain’. As its name
would suggest, this allows you to adjust the volume of the signal entering the
channels input by increasing the amount of amplification at the pre-amp.
To reduce the possibility of the mixer introducing noise into the channel you
should ensure that the signal entering the mixer is as high as possible rather
than input a low-level signal and boost it at pre-amp stage of the mixer. Keep
in mind that a good signal entering the mixer before the pre-amp is more likely
to remain noise-free as it passes through the rest of the mixer.

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

Some mixers may also offer a ‘pad’ switch at the input stage, which is used to
attenuate the incoming signal before it reaches the pre-amplifier. The amount of
attenuation applied is commonly fixed at 12 or 24 dB and is used to prevent any
hot signals entering the inputs from overdriving the desk. A typical example of
this may be where the mixer operates at the ‘semi-professional’ ⫺10 dBV and one
of the instruments connected to it outputs at the ‘professional’ ⫹4dBu. As we’ve
previously touched upon, this would mean that the input level at the desk would
be 11.8 dB higher than the desk’s intended operational level. Obviously this will
result in distortion, but by activating the pad switch, the incoming signal could
be attenuated by 24 dB and the volume could then be made back up to unity
gain with the trim pot on that particular channel.

The term Unity Gain means that one or all of the mixer channels volume faders are set
at 0 dB, the loudest signal possible before you begin to move into the mixers headroom
and possible distortion.

On top of this, some high-end mixers may also offer a phantom power switch,
a ground lift switch and/or a phase reverse switch, the functions of which are
described below:
■

■

■

Phantom power is used to supply capacitor microphones with the voltage they require to operate. This also means that the mixer has to use
its own amplifier to increase its signal level, and generally speaking, the
amp circuits in mixers will not be as good as those found in stand-alone
microphone pre-amplifiers.
A ground lift switch will only be featured on mixers that accept balanced
XLR connections, and when this is activated, it disables pin number one
on the connector from the mixer’s ground circuitry. Again, as touched
upon this will eliminate any ground hum or extraneous noises.
Phase reverse – sometimes marked by a small circle with a diagonal line
through it – switches the polarity of the incoming signal, which can
have a multitude of uses. Typically, they’re included on mixing desks to
prevent any recordings taken simultaneously with a number of microphones from interfering with one another, since the sound of one
microphone can weaken the sound from a second microphone that’s
positioned further away. Subsequently, phase-reverse switches are only
usually found next to XLR microphone inputs since it’s easy to implement on these – the switch simply swaps over the two signal pins.

Following this input section, the signal is commonly routed through a mute
switch (allowing you to instantly mute the channel) and into the insert buss.1
1

Busses refer to the various signal paths within a mixer that the inputted audio can travel
through.

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These allow you to insert processors such as compressors or noise gates to clean
up or bring a signal under control before it’s routed into the EQ. On a mixing desk these are the most important aspect as they allow you to modify the
tonal content of a sound for creative applications or, more commonly, so that
the timbre fits into a mix better. As a result, when looking for a mixing desk it’s
worthwhile seeing how well equipped the EQ section is as this will give a good
impression of how useful the desk will be to you. Most cheap consumer mixers will only offer a high and low EQ section, which can be used to increase or
reduce the gain at a predetermined frequency. More expensive desks will offer
sweepable EQs that allow you to select and boost any frequency you choose and
offer filters so that you can remove all the frequencies above or below a certain
frequency. This section may also offer a pre- or post-EQ button that allows you
to re-route the signal path to bypass the EQ section (pre-EQ) and move directly
to the pre-fader buss, or move through the EQ section (post-EQ) and then into
the pre-fader buss. Obviously, this allows you to bypass the EQ section once in a
while to determine the effect that any EQ adjustments have had on a sound.
The pre-fader buss allows you to bypass the channel’s volume fader and route
the signal at its nominal volume to the auxiliary buss or go through the faders
and then to the auxiliary buss. Fundamentally, an aux buss is a way of routing
the channel’s signal to physical outputs usually labelled as ‘aux outs’ located at
the rear of the desk. The purpose behind this is to send the channel’s signal out
to an external effect and then return the results back into the desk (we’ll look
more closely at aux and insert effects in a moment). The number of aux busses
featured on a desk varies widely from 1 to over 20, and not all desks will give
the option of pre- or post-fader aux sends and may be hardwired to pre-fader.
This means that you would have no control over the level that’s sent to the aux
buss via the channel fader; instead the aux send control would be used to control the level.
After this aux buss section, the signal is passed through onto the volume control for the channel. These can sometimes appear in the form of rotary controllers on cheaper desks but generally they use faders with a 60 or 100 mm
throw.2 Although these shouldn’t particularly require any real explanation, it’s
astounding how many users believe that they are used to increase the amplification of a particular channel. This isn’t the case at all, since if you look at any
desk the faders are marked 0 dB close to the top of their throw instead of at the
bottom. This means that you’re not amplifying the incoming signal by increasing the fader’s position; rather you’re allowing more of the original signal travel
through the fader’s circuitry that increases the gain on that channel.
After the faders, the resulting signal then travels through the panning buss
(allowing you to pan the signal left and right) and into a subgroup buss. The
number of subgroup busses depends entirely on the price and model of mixer
but essentially these allow you to group a number of fader positions together
2

‘Throw’ refers to the two extremes of a fader’s movement from minimum to maximum.

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

and control them all with just one fader control. A typical application of this is
if the kick, snare, claps, hi-hats and cymbals each have a channel of their own in
the mixer. By then setting each individual element to its respective volume and
required EQ (in effect mixing down the drum loop so that it sounds right) all
Input

Pad

Pre-amp

Gain

Mute
Insert effects

EQ

Bypass EQ

Aux bus

Post-fader aux
Channel
fader

Pan

Subgroup

Master fader

FIGURE 3.2
The typical structure of a mixing desk

Effects

Aux return

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of these levels can be routed to a single group track whereby moving just one
subgroup fader, the volume of the entire drum sub-mix can be adjusted to suit
the rest of the mix.
Finally, these subgroup channels, if used, along with the rest of the ‘free’
faders, are combined together into the main stereo mix bus, which passes to the
main mix fader, allowing you to adjust the overall level of the mix. It’s at this
stage that things can become more complicated since the direction and options
available to this stereo buss are entirely dependent on the mixer in question.
In the majority of smaller, less expensive mixers the buss will simply pass
through a pan control and then out to the mixer’s physical outputs. Semiprofessional desks may pass through the pan control and an EQ before sending
the mix out to the main physical outputs. Professional desks may go through
panning, EQ and then split the buss into any number of other stereo busses,
allowing you to send the mix to not only the speakers but also the headphones,
another pair of monitors (situated in the recording room) and a recording
device.
Ultimately, the more EQ and routing options a desk has to offer, the more creative you can become. But, at the same time, the more features on offer, the
more expensive it will be. Naturally, most of these concerns are circumvented
with audio sequencers as they generally offer everything a professional desk does
with the only limitation being the number of physical connections dictated by
the soundcard you have fitted. Nevertheless, this doesn’t deter many from relying entirely on sequencers as any external instruments can always be recorded as
audio and placed on their own track and have software effects applied.

ROUTING EFFECTS AND PROCESSORS
Understanding the internal buss structure of a typical mixing desk (hardware or
software) is only part of the puzzle because when it comes to actually processing signals, the insert/aux buss system they are transferred through will often
dictate the overall results. Any ‘external’ signal processing can be divided into
two groups: processors and effects. The difference between these two is relatively simple but important to recognize.
All effects will utilize a wet/dry control (wet is the affected signal and dry is
the unaffected signal) that allows you to configure how much of the original
signal remains unaffected and how much is affected. A typical example of
this would be for reverb whereby you don’t necessarily want to run the entire
audio through the effect otherwise it could appear swamped in decays; instead
you would want to affect the signal by a small amount only. For instance, you
may keep 75% of the original signal and apply just 25% of the reverb effect.
Conversely, all processors, such as compressors, noise gates and limiters, are
designed to work with 100% of the signal and thus have no wet/dry parameter.
This is simply because in many instances there would be little point trying to
control the dynamics of just some of the signal because the rest of it would

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

still retain its dynamic range. Nevertheless, due to the different nature of these
two processes, a mixing desk uses two different buss systems to access them: an
insert buss for processors and an auxiliary buss for effects. The difference and
reasons behind using these two busses will become clear as we look at both.

AUXILIARY BUSS
Nearly all mixers will feature the aux buss after the EQ rather than before since it’s
considered that effects are applied at the final stages of a mix to add the final ‘polish’. At this point, a percentage of the signal can be routed through the aux bus and
to a series of aux outs located at the back of the mixer. Each aux out is connected to
an effects unit and the signal is then returned into the desk. With the aux potentiometer on the channel strip set at zero, the audio signal ignores the bus and moves
directly onto the fader. However, by gradually increasing the aux pot you can control how much of the signal is split and routed to the aux buss and onto the effect.
The more this is increased the more audio signal will be directed to the aux buss.
The aux return (the effected signal) is then returned to a separate channel on the
mixing desk, which can then be mixed with the original channel.
As you can see from the above diagram, two separate audio leads are required.
One has to carry the signal from the mixer and into the effects while the other
has to return the effect back into the desk. Additionally, the effected signal
cannot be returned into the original channel since there will still be some dry
audio at the fader; instead they are usually returned into specific aux returns.
These signals are then bussed through the mixer into additional mixer ‘subgroup’ channels. These are most commonly a group of volume faders or pots
(one for each return), which permit you to balance the volume of the effected
signal with the original dry channel.
Note that when accessing effects from a mixing desk, the mix control on the
effects unit should generally be set to 100% wet since you can control the
amount of wet/dry signal with the mixing desk itself.
While retuning the effected signal to its predefined aux channel return may
seem sensible, very few artists will actually bother using the aux returns at all,
Inputs
Aux out
Effects unit
Aux return

FIGURE 3.3
An aux send configuration

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instead preferring to return the signal to a normal free mixing channel. This
opens up a whole new realm of possibilities since the returning effect has
access to the channels pre-amp, an insert, EQ, pan and volume. For example,
a returned reverb effect could be pushed into distortion by increasing the
mixers’ pre-amp, or the EQ could be used as a low- and high-frequency filter if
the effects unit doesn’t feature them.
Another benefit of using aux sends is that each channel on the mixer will have
access to the same auxiliary busses, meaning that signals from other channels could also be sent down the same auxiliary buss to the effects unit. This
approach can be especially useful when using computer-based audio sequencers since opening multiple instances of the same effect can use up a proportionate amount of the CPU. Instead, you can simply open up one effect and
send each channel to the same effect, which also saves time spent in setting
a number of effects units up, all of which share the same parameters. What’s
more, in a hardware situation, as only a portion of the signal is being sent
to the effect, there is less noise and signal degradation, and as the effects is
returned to a separate channel, you have total control over the wet and dry levels through the mixer.
One final aspect of aux busses is that they can sometimes be configured to
operate the aux bus either pre- or post-fader. Of the two, pre-fader is possibly
the least used since the signal is split into two before it reaches the fader. This
means that if you were to reduce the fader you would not reduce the gain of
the signal being bussed to the effect, so with every fader adjustment you would
also need to readjust the aux pot to suit. This can have its uses as it allows
you to reduce the volume of the dry signal while leaving the wet at a constant
volume, but generally post-fader is much more useful while mixing. Using
post-fader, reducing the channel’s fader will also systematically reduce the auxiliary send too, saving the need to continually adjust the aux buss send level
whenever you change the volume.

INSERT BUSS
Unlike aux busses, insert busses are positioned just before the EQ and are
designed for use with processors rather than with effects. This is because processors require the entire signal and there is no point in applying compression or gating to only part of a signal! Typically, a processor takes the output
of a microphone pre-amp and feeds it directly into a compressor to prevent any
clipping. The resulting compressed signal would then be connected into the mixing desk’s channel so that the signal flows out of the microphone pre-amp into
the compressor and then finally into the desk for mixing. This, however, is a rather
convoluted way of working because to compress the output of a synthesizer, for
example, requires that you scrabble around at the back of the rack and rewire all
the necessary connections. In addition, if the output from the synthesizer was particularly low there is no way of increasing its gain into the compressor.

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

Inputs
Insert out and return

Processor

FIGURE 3.4
An insert configuration

This can be avoided if the mixing desk features insert points, which commonly appear directly after the pre-amp stage. Consequently, the mixer’s
pre-amp stage can be used to increase the signal level from the synthesizer
before it’s passed on to the insert bus. This is then passed into the external
compressor where the signal is squashed before being returned to the same
mixing channel.
On occasion compressors may be accessed through the aux send bus rather
than the insert bus. With this configuration, you can increase the overall level
of the signal by mixing the compressed with the uncompressed signal. This can
help to preserve the transients of the signal.
This is accomplished using only one physical connection – an insert cable – on
the mixing desk. Fundamentally, this is an ordinary audio cable with a T ⫹ S
(Tip–Sleeve) jack at one end and a R ⫹ S (Ring–Sleeve) jack at the other. The
tip is used to transmit the signal from the desk’s channel to the compressor
and is returned back into the same mixing channel through the ring connection of the same cable. Most mixers return this processed signal before the EQ
and volume bus, allowing shaping of the overall signal after processing.
Tonal shaping after processing won’t necessarily create any problems if the processor happens to be a noise gate, but if it’s a compressor, it raises the issue that
if the EQ were raised after compression, the signal would be increased past the
level of the previously controlled dynamics. To understand the issue, we first
need to consider what would happen if the compressor was returned after the
EQ section.
To begin with, the EQ section would be used to correct the tone of the incoming signal on that particular channel before it was sent to the compressor. This
compressor would then be adjusted so that it controls the dynamics of the
timbre and the subsequent EQ before the signal is returned to the desk. Due
to the nature of compression, however, the tonal content of the sound will be
modified, so it would need to be EQ’d again. This subsequent EQ will reintroduce the peaks that were previously controlled by the compressor, so the compressor must be adjusted again. This would alter the tonal content, so it would

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need EQ’ing yet again, and so on. Thus, an ever-increasing circle of EQ, compression, EQ, compression must continue until the signal is overcompressed
or pushing beyond unity gain, distorting the desk. By inserting the compressor
before the EQ section, this continual circle can be avoided.
With the compressor positioned before the EQ, the issue of destroying the
previously controlled dynamics when boosting the EQ is still raised, but this
shouldn’t be the case provided the EQ is correctly used. As touched upon in
earlier chapters, it’s in our nature to perceive louder sounds to be infinitely
better than quieter, even if the louder sound is tonally worse than the quieter
one. Thus, when working with EQ it’s necessary to reduce the channel’s fader
while boosting any frequencies so that they remain at the same volume as the
un-EQ’d version. Used in this way, when bypassing the modified EQ to compare it with the unmodified version, a difference in volume cannot cloud your
judgement. As a result, the signal level of the modified EQ is the same as the
unmodified version, so the dynamics from the compressor remain the same.
This approach maintains a more natural sound, so it is worth experimenting
by placing the EQ before the compressor. For example, using this configuration
the EQ could be used to create a frequency-selective compressor. In this set-up,
the loudest frequencies control the compressor’s action. By boosting quieter
frequencies so that they instead breach the compressor’s threshold it’s possible
to change the dynamic action of a drum loop or motif. In fact, it’s important
to note that the order of any processing or effects, if they’re inserted, can have a
dramatic influence on the overall sound.
From a theoretical mixing point of view, effects should not be chained together
in series. This is because although it is perfectly feasible to route reverb, delay,
chorus, flangers and phasers into a mix as inserts, chaining effects in this way
can introduce a number of problems. If an effect is used as an insert, 100%
of the signal will be directed into the external effects unit, and because many
units are introduced with low levels of noise while also degrading the signal’s
overall quality, both of the effected signal and the noise will be returned into
the desk. What’s more, the control over the relationship between dry audio and
wet effects would be from the effects interface and, in many instances, greater
control will be required.
Many effects use a single control to adjust the balance between dry and wet
levels, so as the wet level is increased, the dry level decreases proportionally.
Equally, increasing the dry level proportionally decreases the wet level. While
this may not initially appear problematic, if you decided to thicken out a trance
lead with delay or reverb but wanted to keep the same amount of dry level in
the mix that you already have, it isn’t going to be possible. As soon as the wetness factor is increased the dry level will decrease proportionally which may
result in a more wet than dry sound. This can cause the transients of each hit
to be washed over by the subsequent delays or reverb tail from the preceding
notes, reducing the impact of the sound.

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

Nevertheless, by using effects as inserts and chaining them together in series it’s
possible to create new effects because both dry and wet results from each preceding effect would be transformed by the ones that follow them. This opens
up a whole world of experimental and creative opportunity that could easily
digest the rest of this book, so rather than list all of the possible combinations
(as if I could) we’ll examine the reasoning behind why, theoretically at least,
some processors and effects should precede others.

Gate > Compressor > EQ > Effects
Normally, to maintain a ‘natural’ sound a gate should always appear first in the
line of any processor or effects since they’re used to remove unwanted noise
from the signal before it’s compressed, EQ’d or effected. While it is perfectly
feasible to place the compressor before the gate as it would make little difference to the actual sound it’s unwise to do so. This is because the compressor
reduces the dynamic range of signal and, as a gate works by monitoring the
dynamic range and removing artefacts below a certain volume, placing compression first, the gate would be more difficult to set up and may remove some
of the signal you wish to keep. For reasons we’ve already touched upon, the EQ
should then appear after compression and the effects should follow the EQ section as they’re usually the last aspect in the mixing chain.

Gate > Compressor > Effects > EQ
Again the beginning aspects of this arrangement will keep the signal natural
but by placing the EQ after the effects it can be used to sculpt the tonal qualities produced by the effect. For example, if the effect following the compression is distortion, the compressor will even out the signal level making the
distortion effect more noticeable on the decays of notes. Additionally, since
distortion will introduce more harmonics into the signal, some of which can
be unpleasant, it can be carefully sculpted with the EQ unit to produce a more
controlled pleasing result.

Gate > Compressor > EQ > Effects > Effects
The beginning of this signal chain will produce the most natural results but the
order of the effects afterwards will determine the outcome. For instance, if you
were to place reverb before distortion, the reverb tails will be treated to distortion,
but if it were placed afterwards, the effect would not be as strong since the reverbs
tail would not be treated. Similarly, if delay were placed after distortion, the subsequent delays would be of the distorted signal, while if the delay came first, the
distortion would be applied to the delays producing a different sound altogether. If
flanger were added to this set-up, things become even more complicated since this
effect is essentially a modulated comb filter. By placing it after distortion the flanger
would comb filter the distorted signal producing a rather spectacular phased effect,
yet if it were placed before, the effect would vary the intensity of the distortion.
To go further, if the flanger were placed after distortion but before reverb, the
flange effect would contain some distorted frequencies but the reverbs tail

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would wash over the flanger, diluting the effect but producing a reverb that
modulates as if it were controlled with an LFO. The possibilities here are, as
they say, endless, and it’s worth experimenting by placing the effects in a different order to create new effects.

Gate > Effects > EQ > Effects > Compressor
While the aforementioned method of placing one effect after the other can be
useful, the subsequent results can be quite heavy-handed, but by placing an EQ
after the first series of effects, the tonal content can be modified so that there
isn’t an uncontrolled mess of frequencies entering the second series of effects,
muddying the effect further. Additionally, by placing a compressor at the end
of the arrangement, any peaking frequencies introduced by a flanger, following
distortion or similar arrangement, can be brought back under control with the
compressor sat at the end of the line.

Compressor > EQ > Effects > Gate
We’ve already discussed the effects of placing a compressor before the gate
and EQ, but using this configuration, the compressor could be used to control the dynamics of sounds before they were EQ’d and subsequently affected.
However, by placing the gate after the effects would mean that the effected signals could be treated to a gate effect. Although there is a long list of possible
uses for this if you use a little imagination, possibly the most common technique is to apply reverb to a drum kick or trance/techno/house lead and then
use the following gate to remove the reverb’s tail. This has the effect of thickening out the sound without turning the result into a washed-over mush.

Gate > Effects > Compressor > EQ
Although it is generally accepted that the compressor should come before
effects, placing it directly after can have its uses. For instance, if a filter effect
has been used to boost some frequencies and this has been followed by chorus or flanger, there may be clipping so that the compressor can be used to
bring these under control before they’re shaped tonally with the EQ. Notably,
though, placing compression after distortion will have little effect since distortion effects tend to reduce the dynamic range anyway.
Above all, though, keep in mind that setting effects in an order that would not theoretically produce great results most probably will in practice. Indeed, it’s the artists who are willing to experiment and often produce the most memorable effects
on records, and with many of today’s audio sequencers offering a multitude of free
effects, experimentation is cheap but the results may be priceless.

AUTOMATION
A final yet vital aspect of mixing desks appears in the form of mix automation.
We’ve already touched upon the importance of movement within programmed

Cables, Mixing Desks and Effects Busses CHAPTER 3

sounds, but it’s also important to manipulate a timbre constantly throughout the music. Techno would be nowhere if it were not possible to program a
mixer or effects unit to gradually change parameters during the course of the
track. With a mixer that features automation, these parameter changes can be
recorded as data (usually MIDI) into a sequencer which when played back to
the mixer forces it to either jump or gradually move to the new settings.
Originally mix automation was carried out by three or four engineers sat by
the faders/effects and adjusting the relevant parameters when they received a
nod from the producer. This included riding the desk’s volume faders throughout the mix to counter any volume inconsistencies. As a result any parameter changes had to be performed perfectly in one pass since the outputs of
the desk are connected directly into a recording device. If you made a mistake,
then you had to do it all again, and again, and again until it was right. In fact,
this approach was the only option available when dance music first began to
develop and all tracks of that time will have the filters or parameters tweaked
live while recording direct to tape. This type of approach is almost impossible
today, however, since the development of dance music has embraced the latest
forms of mixer automation so much so that it isn’t unusual to have five or six
parameters changing at once, or for the mixer and effects units to jump to a
whole new range of settings for different parts of the track.
Mix automation is only featured on high-end mixing desks due to the additional circuitry involved, and the more parameters that can be automated
the more expensive the desk will generally be. Nevertheless, mix automation
appears in two forms: VCA and motorized. Each of these perform the same
functions but in a slightly different way. Whereas motorized automation
utilizes motors on each fader so that they physically move to the new positions, VCA faders remain in the same position while the relative parameters
change. This is accomplished by the faders generating MIDI information rather
than audio. This is then transferred to the desk’s computer which adjusts the
volume. While this does mean that you have to look at a computer screen for
the ‘real’ position of the faders, it’s often preferred by many professional studios since motorized faders can be quite noisy when they move.
Alongside automating the volume, most desks will also permit you to automate
the muting of each channel. This can be particularly useful when tracks are not
currently playing in the arrangement, since muting the channel will remove the
possibility of hiss on the mixer’s channel. On top of this, some of the considerably expensive desks also allow you to automate the send and return system
and store snapshots (or ‘scenes’) of mixes. Essentially, these are a capture of
the current fader, EQ and mute settings which can be recalled at any time by
sending the respective data to the desk. Despite the fact that these features are
fairly essential to mixing, they are only available on expensive desks and it is
not possible to automate any effects parameters. For this type of automation,
software sequencers offer much better potential.

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Most audio capable MIDI sequencers will offer mix automation, but unlike
hardware, this is not limited to just the volume, muting and send/return system.
It’s usually possible to also automate panning, EQ along with all the parameters on virtual studio technology (VST) instruments and plug-in effects or
processors. These can usually be identified by an R (Read automation) and W
(Write automation) appearing somewhere on the plug-in’s interface. By activating the Write button and commencing playback any movements of the plug-in
or mixing desk will be recorded, which can then be played back by activating
the Read button. What’s more, many sequencers also offer the opportunity
to finely edit any recorded automation data with an editor. This can be
invaluable to the dance musician since you can finely control volume or filter
sweeps easily.

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

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CHAPTER 4

Programming Theory

’It’s ridiculous to think that you’re music will sound
better if you go out and buy the latest keyboard.
People tend to crave more equipment when they don’t
know what they want from their music…’
A Guy Called Gerald

Armed with an understanding of basic synthesis, effects and routing of sounds
through a mixing desk we can look more closely at sound design using all the
elements previously discussed.
Sound design is one of the most vital elements of creating dance music since
the sounds will more often than not determine the overall genre of music.
However, although it would be fair to say that quite a few timbres are gleaned
from other records or sample CDs, there are numerous advantages to programming your own sounds.
Not only do you have much more control over the parameters when compared
to samples, there are no key-range/pitch-shifting restrictions and no copyright
issues. What’s more, you’ll get a lot more synthesizer for your money than if
you simply stick with the presets, and you’ll also open up a whole new host of
avenues that you would otherwise have missed.
To many, the general approach to writing music is to get the general arrangement/idea of the piece down in MIDI form and then begin programming the
sounds to suit the arrangement. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a complete
song before you begin programming but it is helpful if most of the final elements of the mix are present. This is because when it comes to creating the
timbres it’s preferable to have an idea of the various MIDI files that will be playing together so that you can determine each file’s overall frequency content.
Keep in mind that the sounds of any instrument/programmed timbres will
occupy a specific part of the frequency range. If you programme each individually without any thought to the other instruments that will be playing

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⫺12 dB

⫺24 dB

⫺36 dB

44 Hz

86 Hz

170 Hz

340 Hz

670 Hz

1.3 kHz

2.6 kHz

5.1 kHz

10.1 kHz

20 kHz

FIGURE 4.1
As the above spectral analysis reveals, the groove and motif take up specific frequencies while leaving others free for
new instruments

alongside it, you can wind up programming a host of complex timbre’s that
sound great on their own but when placed in the mix they all conflict with one
another creating a cluttered mix. With the MIDI down from the start you can
prioritize the instruments depending on the genre of music.
Knowing which frequencies are free after creating the most important parts
is down to experience but to help you on the way it’s often worth employing
a spectral analyser. These are available in software or hardware form and display the relative volume of each frequency band of every sound that is played
through them. Thus, playing the groove and lead motif into the analyser will
give you an idea of the frequencies that are free (Figure 4.1).
In some cases, once these fundamental elements are created you may find that there
is too much going on in the frequency range so that you can remove the superfluous
parts or place them elsewhere in the arrangement. Alternatively, you could EQ the
less important parts to thin them out so that they fit in with the main programmed
elements. Although they may then sound peculiar on their own, it doesn’t particularly matter so long as they sound right in the context of the mix and they’re not
played in isolation during the arrangement. If they are, then it’s prudent to either
use two different versions of the timbre, one for playing in isolation and one for
playing with the rest of the mix, or more simply leave the timbre out when the
other instruments are playing. Indeed, the main key to producing a good track/mix
is to play back sections of the arrangement and programme the sounds so that they
all fit together agreeably, and it isn’t unusual at this stage to modify the arrangement to accomplish this. By doing so, when it comes to mixing you’re not continually fighting with the EQ to make everything fit together appropriately. If it sounds
right at the end of the programming stage, not only the mixing will be much easier
but the entire mix will sound more professional due to less cluttering. As a result, it
shouldn’t need explaining that after you’ve programmed each timbre you should
leave it playing back while you work on the next in line, progressively programming
the less important instruments until they are all complete.

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

TIMBRE EFFECTS
One of the main instigators of creating a cluttered mix or sounds that are too powerful is a synthesizers/samplers effects algorithm. All synthesizers and many sample
patches are designed to sound great in isolation to coax you into parting with
money, but when these are all combined into the final mix, the effects tails,
delays, chorus etc. will all combine together to produce a muddy result. Much
of the impact of dance music comes from noticeable spaces within the mix
and a great house motif, for instance, is often created sparingly by keeping
the lengths of the samples short so that there are gaps between the hits. This
adds a dynamic edge because there are sudden shifts from silence to sound.
If, however, there are effects such as delay or reverb applied to the sound from
the source, the gaps in between the notes are smeared over which considerably
lessens the overall impact. Consequently, before even beginning to programme
you should create a user bank of sounds by either copying the presets you like
into the user bank or creating your own and turning any and all effects off.
Naturally, some timbres will benefit heavily from effects, but if this is heavily effected to make it wider and more in your face, it’s prudent to refrain from
using effects on any other instruments. A lead soaked in reverb/delay/chorus etc.
will have a huge impact if the rest of the instruments are dry, whereas if all the
instruments are soaked in effects, the impact will be significantly lessened. A good
mix/arrangement works in contrast – you can have too much of a good thing and
it’s better to leave the audience gasping for more than gasping for breath. Also, if
many of the instruments are left dry, and if when it comes to mixing you feel that
they need some effecting, you can always introduce the effects at the mixing desk.
Of course, this approach may not always be suitable since the effects signature
may actually contribute heavily toward the timbre. If this is the case, then you’ll
need to consider your approach carefully. For example, if reverb is contributing to the sound’s colour, ask yourself whether the subsequent tails are really
necessary as these will often reduce the impact. If they’re not required then
it’s prudent to run the timbre through a noise gate which is set to remove the
reverb tail. This way the colour of the sound is not affected but the successive
tails are removed which also prevents it from being moved to the back of the
mix. Similarly, if delay is making the timbre sound great with the programmed
motif, try emulating the delay by ghosting the notes in MIDI and using velocity.
This can often reduce the additional harmonics that are introduced through the
delay running over the next note, and as many delay algorithms are in stereo, it
allows you to keep the effect in mono (more on this in a moment). Naturally,
if this overrun is contributing to the sound’s overall colour then you will have
no option to leave it in but you may need to reconsider other sounds that are
accompanying the part to prevent the overall mix from becoming cluttered.
Another facet of synthesizers and samplers that may result in problems is
through the use of stereo. Most tone modules, keyboards, VST instruments
and samplers will greatly exaggerate the stereo spread to make the individual
sounds appear more impressive. These are created in one of the two ways,

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either through the use of effects or layering two different timbres together that
are spread to the left and right speakers. Again, this makes them sound great in
isolation but when placed into a mix they can overpower it quickly, resulting
in a wall of incomprehensible sound. To avoid this, you should always look
towards programming sounds in mono unless it is a particularly important part
of the music and requires the width (such as a lead instrument). Even then,
the bass kick drum and snare, while forming an essential part of the music,
should be in mono as these will most commonly sit dead centre of the mix so
that the energy is shared by both speakers. Naturally, if you’re using a sampled
drum loop then they will most probably be in stereo but this shouldn’t be the
cause of any great concern. Provided that the source of the sample (whether
it’s a record or sample CD) has been programmed and mixed competently,
the instruments will have been positioned efficiently with the kick located in
the centre and perhaps the hi-hats and other percussive instruments spread
thoughtfully across the image. This will, however, often dictate the positioning
and frequencies of other elements in the mix.

PROGRAMMING THEORY
Fundamentally, there are two ways to programme synthesizers. You can use
careful analysis to reconstruct the sound you have in mind or alternatively you
can simply tweak the parameters of a preset patch to see what you come up
with. It’s important to keep in mind that both these options are viable ways of
working and despite the upturned noses from some musicians at the thought
of using presets, a proportion of professional dance musicians do use them.
The Chemical Brothers have used unaltered presets from the Roland JP8080
and JV1080; David Morales has used presets from the JV2080, the Korg Z-1,
E-mu Orbit and Planet Phat; Paul Oakenfold has used presets from the
Novation SuperNova, E-mu Orbit and the Xtreme lead; and Sasha, Andy Gray,
Matt Darey and well, just about every trance musician on the planet has used
presets from the Access Virus. At the end of the day, if the preset fits into your
music then you should feel free to use it.
When it comes to synth programming, it’s generally recommended that those
with no or little prior experience begin by using simple editing procedures on
the presets so that you can become accustomed to not only the effects each
has on a sound, but also the character of the synth you’re using. Despite the
manufacturer’s bumf that their synth is capable of producing any sound,
they each exhibit a different character and you have to accept that there will
be some sounds that cannot be constructed unless you have the correct synth.
Alternatively, those with a little more experience can begin stripping all the
modulation away and building on the foundation of the oscillators.
Remember that a proportionate amount of instruments within a dance mix
share many similarities. For example, a bass sound is just that – a bass sound.
As we’ll cover a little later, many specific instruments are programmed roughly
in the same manner, using the same oscillators, and it’s the actual synthesizer
used, along with just the modulation from the envelope generators (EGs),

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

LFOs and filters that produces the different tones. Thus, it can often be easier to
simply strip all the modulation away from the preset patch so you’re left with
just the oscillators and then build on this foundation.

CUSTOMIZING SOUNDS
Unless you’ve decided to build the entire track around a preset or have a fortunate coincidence, presets will benefit from some editing. From earlier chapters,
the effects that each controller will impart on a sound should be quite clear but
for those new to editing presets it can be difficult knowing the best place to start.
First and foremost, the motif/pad/drums etc. should be playing into the synthesizer or sampler in its entirety. A common mistake is to just keep banging away at
middle C on a controller keyboard to audition the sounds. While this may give
you an idea of the timbre, remember that velocity and pitch can often change
the timbre in weird and wonderful ways and you could miss a great motif and
sound combination if you were constantly hitting just one key. What’s more, the
controls for the EGs, LFOs, filters and effects (if employed) will adjust not only
the sound but the general mood of the motif. For example, a motif constructed
of 1/16th notes will sound very different when the amplifier’s release is altered. If
it’s shortened, the motif will become more ‘stabby’, while if it’s lengthened it will
flow together more. Alternatively, if you lengthen the amplifier’s attack, the timing of the notes may appear to shift which could add more drive to the track.
Also consider that the LFOs will restart their cycle as you audition each patch,
but if they’re not set to restart at key press, they will sound entirely different
on a motif than a single-key strike. Plus, if filter key follow is being used, the
filter’s action will also change depending on the pitch of the note. Perhaps
most important of all, though, both your hands are free to experiment with the
controls, allowing you to adjust two parameters simultaneously such as filter
and resonance or amp attack and release.
Once you’ve come across the timbre that shares some similarities as the tonality
as you require for the mix, most users tend to go for the filter/resonance combination. However, it’s generally best to start by tweaking the amplifier envelope
to shape the overall volume of the sound before you begin editing the colour of
the timbre. This is because the amp EG will have a significant effect on the MIDI
motif and the shape of the sound over time so it’s beneficial to get this ‘right’
before you begin adjusting the timbre. We’ve already covered the implications the
amp EG has on a sound but here we can look at it in a more practical context.
The initial transient of a note is by far the most important aspect of any sound.
The first few moments of the attack stage provide the listener with a huge
amount of information and can make the difference between a timbre sounding clear-cut, defined and up-front or more atmospheric and sat in the background. This is because we perceive timbres with an immediate attack to be
louder than those with a slower attack and short stabby sounds to be louder
than those with a quick attack but long release. Thus, if a timbre seems too
sloppy when played back from MIDI reducing the attack and/or release stage

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will make it appear much more defined. That said, a common mistake is to
shorten the attack and release stage of every instrument to make all the instruments appear distinct but this should be avoided.
Dance music relies heavily on contrast and not all timbres should start and/or
stop immediately. You need to think in terms of not only tone but also time.
By using a fast attack and release on some instruments, employing a fast attack
and slow release on others and using a slow attack and fast release on other
will create a mix that gels together more than if all the sounds used the same
envelope settings.
Naturally, what amp EG settings to use on each instrument will depend entirely
on the mix in question but very roughly speaking, trance, big beat and techno
often benefit from the basses, kicks, snares and percussion having a fast attack
and release stage with the rest of the instruments sharing a mix of slow attack/
fast release and a fast attack/slow release. This latter setting is particularly
important in attaining the ‘hand in the air’ trance leads.
Conversely, house, drum ‘n’ bass, lo-fi and chill out/ambient benefit from
longer release settings on the basses almost to the point that the notes are all
connected together. Sounds that sit on top of this then often employ a short
attack and release to add contrast. Examples of this behaviour can be heard
in the latest stem of house releases that utilize the funky guitar riffs. The bass
(and often a phased pad sat in the background using a quick attack and slow
release) almost flow together while the funk guitars and vocals that sit on top
are kept short and stabby.
This leaves the decay and sustain of the amp EG. Sustain can be viewed as the
body of the sound after the initial pluck of the timbre has ended, while the decay
controls the amount of ‘pluck’. By decreasing the decay the pluck will become
stabby and prominent and increasing it will create a more drawn-out pluck.
What’s more, by adjusting the shape of the decay stage from the usual linear fashion to a convex or concave structure the sound can take on a more ‘thwacking’
sucking feel or a more rounded transient, respectively. Indeed, a popular sound
design technique is to use a lengthy decay (and attack) and reduce the release
and sustain parameters to zero. This creates the initial transient of the sound,
which is then mixed with a different timbre with only the release and sustain.
Once the overall shape of the riff has been modified to add contrast to the
music, the filter envelopes and filter cut-off/resonance can be used to modify
the tonal content of the timbre. As the filter’s envelope will react to the current
filter settings, it’s beneficial to adjust these first. Most timbres in synthesizers
will utilize a low-pass filter with a 12 dB transition as these produce the most
musically useful results; however, it is worthwhile experimenting with the other
filter types on offer such as band-pass and high-pass. For instance, by keeping
the timbre on a low-pass filter but double tracking the MIDI to another synthesizer and using a high-pass or band-pass to remove the low-frequency elements you’re left with just the fizzy overtones. This can then be mixed with the

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

original timbre to produce a sound that’s much richer in harmonic content. If
this is then sampled, the sampler’s filters can be used to craft the sound further.
Also, keep in mind that the filter’s transition will have a large effect on the timbre. As mentioned most synthesizers will utilize a 12 dB transition but a 24 dB
transition used on some timbres of the mix will help to introduce some contrast as the slope is much sharper. A typical use for this is if two filter sweeps
are occurring simultaneously, by setting one to 12 dB and the other to 24 dB
the difference in the harmonic movement can produce tonally interesting result
and add some contrast to the music. Alternatively, by double tracking an MIDI
file and using a 12 and 24 dB on the same timbre the two transitions will interact creating a more complex tone that warps and shifts in harmonic content.
With the tone correct, you can move onto the filter’s EG. These work on the
same principle as the amp’s EG but rather than control volume, they control
the filter’s action over time. This is why it’s important to modify the amp’s
envelope before any other parameters since if the amp’s attack is set at its
fastest and the filter’s attack is set quite long the timbre may reach the amp’s
release portion before the filter has fully been introduced.
While mentioning the attack and decay of the amplifier envelope we touched
upon the pluck being determined by the decay rate but the filter’s attack and
decay also play a part in this. If the attack is set to zero, the filter will act upon
the sound on key press, but if it’s set slightly longer than the attack on the amp
EG, the filter will sweep into the note creating a quack at the beginning of the
note. Similarly, as the decay setting determines how quickly the filter falls to its
sustaining rate, by shortening this you can introduce a harder/faster plucking
character to the note. Alternatively, with longer progressive pad sounds, if the
filter’s attack is set so that it’s the same length as the amp EGs attack and decay
rates, the sound will sweep in to the sustain stage whereby the decay and sustain of the filter begin creating harmonic movement in the sustain.
However, keep in mind that while any form of sonic movement in a sound
makes it much more interesting, it’s the initial transient that’s the most important as it provides the listener with a huge amount of information about the
timbre. Thus, before tweaking the release and sustain parameters, concentrate
on getting the transient of the sound right first.
Of course, the filter’s envelope doesn’t always provide the best results and the
synthesizer’s modulation matrix can often produce better results. For instance
by using a sawtooth LFO set to modulate the filter’s cut-off the harmonic content will rise sharply but fall slowly and the speed at which all this takes place
will be governed by the LFO’s rate. In fact, the LFO is one of the most underrated yet important aspect of any synthesizer as it introduces movement within
a timbre which is the real key behind producing great results.
Static sounds will bore the ear very quickly and make even the most complex
motifs appear tedious, so it’s practical to experiment by changing the LFOs
waveforms and its destinations within the patch. Notably, if an LFO is used,

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remember that its rate is a vial aspect. As the tempo of dance is of paramount
importance it’s sensible to sync the timing of any modulation to the tempo.
Without this not only can an arrangement become messy but in many tracks
the LFO speeds up with the tempo and this can only be accomplished by syncing the LFO to the sequencer’s clock.

PROGRAMMING BASICS
While customizing presets to fit into a mix can be rewarding it’s only useful if
the synth happens to have a timbre similar to that you’re looking for, and if
not, you’re have to programme from the ground up. Before going any further,
though, there are a few things that should be made clear.
Firstly, while you may listen to a record and wonder how they programmed
that sound or groove it’s important to note that the artist may not have actually programmed them and they may be straight off a sample CD, or in some
instances another record. If you want to know how Stardust created the groove
on ‘Music Sounds Better with You’, how David Morales programmed ‘Needin’
You’ or Phats and Small managed to produce ‘Turn Around’, you should first
listen to the original music they sampled to produce them. In many cases it
will become extremely clear how they managed to inject such a good groove or
sound – they sampled from previous hits or funk records.
What follows is a list of the most popular sounds and grooves that have actually been derived from other records. It’s by no means exhaustive as to catalogue them all would require approximately 30 pages but instead it covers the
most popular and well-established grooves.

Dance Artist

Title of Track

Original Artist

Original Title of Track

Stardust

Music Sounds Better
With you

Chaka Khan

Fate

Armand Van Helden

You Don’t Know Me

Carrie Lucas

Dance With You

David Morales

Needin’ You

Rare Pleasure

Let Me Down Easy
My First Mistake

The Chi-lites
Daft Punk

Digital Love

George Duke

I Love You More

Phats and Small

Turn Around

Tony Lee
Change

Reach Up
The Glow Of Love

Cassius

1999

Donna Summer

If It Hurts Just A Little

The Bucketheads

The Bomb

Chicago

Street Player

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

Dance Artist

Title of Track

Original Artist

Original Title of Track

DJ Angel

Funk Music

Salsoul
Orchestra

Blueboy

Remember Me

Marlena Shaw

Take Some Time Out For
Love
Woman of the Ghetto

Full Intention

Everybody Loves the
Sunshine

Roy Ayers

Everybody Loves the
Sunshine

Todd Terry

Keep on Jumpin

Lisa Marie Ex
Musique

Keep on Jumpin
Keep on Jumpin

Byron Stingly

Come On Get Up
Everybody

Sylvester

Dance (Disco Heat)

Soulsearcher

I Can’t Get Enough

Gary’s Gang

Let’s Lovedance Tonight

GU

I Need GU

Sylvester

I Need You

Peppermint Jam
Allstars

Check it Out

MFSB

TSOP (The Sound of
Philadelphia)

Nuyorican Soul

Runaway

Salsoul
Orchestra

Runaway

The Bucketheads

I Wanna Know

Atmosfear

Motivation

Michael Lange

Brothers and Sisters

Bob James

Westchester Lady

Basement Jaxx

Red Alert

Locksmith

Far Beyond

Deaf ‘n’ Dumb Crew

Tonite

Michael
Jackson

Off the Wall

Moodyman

I Can’t Kick this Feeling
When it Hits

Chic

I Want Your Love

Cassius

Feeling for You

Gwen McCrae

All This Love I’m Givin

Spiller

Batucada

Sergio Mendes

Batucada

Eddie Amadour

House Music

Exodus

Together Forever

DJ Modjo

Lady, Hear Me Tonight

Chic

Soup for One

Spiller

Groovejet

Carol Williams

Love Is You

Prodigy

Out Of Space

Max Romeo
And the
Upsetters

Chase The Devil

Moby

Natural Blues

Vera Hall

Troubled So Hard

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Dance Artist

Title of Track

Original Artist

Original Title of Track

FatBoy Slim

Praise You

Camille
Yarbrough

Take Yo Praise

Dee-Lite

Groove Is In The Heart

Herbie Hancock

Bring Down The Birds

Massive Attack

Be Thankful

William
De-Vaughn

Be Thankful For What
You’ve Got

Massive Attack

Safe From Harm

Billy Cobham

Stratus

Eminem

My Name is

Labbi Siffre

I Got The

De La Soul

3 Is the Magic Number

Bob Dorough

The Magic Number

The Notorious BIG

Mo Money Mo Problems

Diana Ross

I’m Coming Out

A Tribe Called Quest

Bonita Applebum

Carly Simon

Why

De La Soul

Say No Go

Hall & Oats

I Can’t Go For That
Buddy X

Neneh Cherry
Groove Armada

At The River

Patti Page

Old Cape Cod

Dream Warriors

My Definition Of A
Bombastic Jazz Style

Quincy Jones

Soul Bossa Nova

Gang-Star

Love Slick

Young Hot
Unlimited

Ain’t There Something
Money Can’t Buy

Secondly, there is no ‘quick fix’ to creating great timbres. It comes from practical experience and plenty of experimentation with not only the synthesizer
parameters but also effects and processors. The world’s leading sound designers and dance artists didn’t simply read a book and begin designing fantastic
sounds a day later; they learnt the basics and then spent months and, in many
cases, years learning from practical experience and taking the time to study
what each synthesizer, effect, processor and sampler can and cannot accomplish. Thus, if you want to programme great timbres, patience and experimentation is the real key. You need to set aside time from writing music and begin
to learn exactly what your chosen synthesizer is capable of and how to manipulate it further using effects or processors.
Finally, and most important of all there is no such thing as a ‘hit’ sound. While
some genres of music are created from using a particular type of sound and it
can be fun emulating the timbres from other popular tracks, using them will not
instantly make your own music an instant hit. Instead it will often make it look
like an imitation of a great record and will be subsequently judged alongside
it rather than on its own merits. Despite the promise of many books offering

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

the secret advice to writing hit sounds or music, there is no secret formula;
there are no special synthesizers, no hit making effects and no magic timbres.
What’s more, copying a timbre exactly from a previous hit dance track isn’t
going to make your music any better as dance floor tastes change very quickly.
As a case in point, the ‘pizz’ timbre was bypassed by every dance musician on
the planet as an unworthy sound until Faithless soaked the Roland JD-990’s
‘pizz’ in reverb and used it for their massive club hit ‘Insomnia’. Following this,
a host of ‘pizz’ saturated tracks appeared on the scene and it became so popular that it now appears on just about every dance-based module around. But as
tastes have changed, the timbre has now almost vanished into obscurity and is
skipped past by most musicians.
Keep in mind that Joe Public, your potential listening audience, is fickle, insensitive and short of attention span, and while some timbres may be doing the
rounds today, next week/month they could be completely different. As a result,
the following is not devoted to how to programme a precise timbre from a specific track as it would most likely date the book before I’ve even completed this
chapter. Instead, it will concentrate on building the basic sounds that are synonymous with dance music and as such will create a number of related ‘presets’
that you can then manipulate further and experiment with.
Creativity may be tiring and difficult at times but the rewards are certainly
worth it…

PROGRAMMING TIMBRES
As previously touched upon, despite the claims from the synthesizer’s manufacturer just one synthesizer is not capable of producing every type of sound
suited toward every particular genre. In fact, in many instances you will have
to accept that it is only possible to create some timbres on certain instruments
no matter how good at programming you may be. Just as you wouldn’t expect
different models of speakers/monitors to sound exactly alike the same is true
of synthesis.
Although the oscillators, filters and modulation are all based on the same principles, they will all sound very different. This is why some synthesizers are said to
have certain character and many older analogue keyboards demand such a high
price on the second-hand market. Musicians are willing to pay for the particular
sound characteristics of a synthesizer. As a result, although you may follow the
sound design guidelines in this chapter to the letter there is no guarantee that
they will produce exactly the same sound. Consequently, before you even begin
programming your own timbres, the first step to understanding programming is
to learn your chosen synthesizers inside out.
Indeed, it’s absolutely crucial that you set time aside to experiment to learn
the character of the synthesizer’s oscillators by mixing a sine with a square, a
square with a saw, a sine and a saw, a triangle and a saw, a sine and a triangle

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and so forth, and noting the results it has on the overall timbre. This is the
only way you’ll be able to progress toward creating your own sounds short of
manipulating presets.
You have to know the characteristics of the synthesizers you use and how to
exploit its idiosyncrasies to create sounds. All professional artists have purchased one synthesizer and learnt it inside out before purchasing another. This
is obviously more difficult today with the multitude of virtual instruments
appearing for ridiculously low prices but despite how tempting it may be to
own every synthesizer on the market you need to limit yourself to a few choice
favourites. You’ll never have the chance to programme timbres if you have to
learn the characteristics of 50 different virtual instruments.
Gerald’s advice at the beginning of this chapter is a very wise counsel indeed
and you have to accept that there are no shortcuts to creating great dance
music, short of ripping from sample CDs.

PROGRAMMING PADS
Although pads are not usually the most important timbre in dance music, we’ll
look at these first. This is simply because an understanding of how they’re created will help increase your knowledge of how the various processes of LFO
and envelopes can all work together to produce evolving, interesting sounds.
Of course, there are no predetermined pads to use within dance music production and therefore there are no definitive methods to create them. But, while
it’s impossible to suggest ways of creating a pad to suit a particular style of
music, there are, as ever, some guidelines that you can follow.
Firstly, pads in dance music are employed to provide one of the following three
things:
■

■
■

To supply or enhance the atmosphere in the music – especially the case
with chill out/ambient music.
To fill a ‘hole’ in the mix between the groove of the music and lead or vocals.
To be used as a lead itself.

Depending on which of these functions the pad is to provide will also determine how it should be programmed. Although many of the sounds in dance will
utilize an immediate attack stage on the amp and filter’s EG so that the sound
starts immediately, it is only really necessary to use them on pads if the sound
is providing the lead of the track. As discussed, we determine timbres that start
abruptly to be perceivably louder than those that do not but more interestingly
we also tend to perceive sounds with a slow attack stage to be ‘less important’
to the mix, even though in reality this may not be the case at all. As a consequence, when pad sounds are used as ‘backing’ instruments, they should not
start abruptly but filter in or start slowly, while if they’re used as leads, the attack
stage should be quite abrupt as this not only helps it cut through the mix but
also gives the impression that it’s an important aspect of the music.

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

A popular, if somewhat cliché and overused, technique to demonstrate this
is the gated pad. Possibly the best example of this in use (which incidentally
doesn’t sound cliché) is from Sasha’s club hit Xpander which to many clubbers
is still viewed as one of the greatest trance tracks of all time. A single evolving, shifting pad is played as one long progressive note throughout the track
and a noise gate is employed to rhythmically cut the pad. When the noise
gate releases and lets the sound back through, a plucked lead is dropped in to
accentuate the return of the pad. The gated pad effect can be constructed in one
of the following three ways:
■

■

■

A series of MIDI notes are sent to a (MIDI compatible) gate to determine
where the pad should cut off. The length of the ‘gate’ is determined by
the length of the MIDI note.
A short percussive sound is inserted into the key input of the gate, so at
every kick the gate is activated. The length of the gate is determined by
the hold and release parameters on the gate.
A series of CC11 (expression) commands are sent to the synthesizer creating the pad which successively closes and opens the expression to produce a gated sound. The first CC11 command is set at zero to turn the
pad off, while this is followed a few ticks later by another CC11 command set to 127 to switch it back on again. The length of the gate is controlled by the distance between the CC11 off and on commands in the
sequence.

Naturally, for this to work in a musical context the pad must evolve throughout
because if this technique was used on a sustaining sound with no movement
you may as well just retrigger the timbre for its attack stage whenever required
rather than gate it. In fact, it’s this movement that’s the real secret behind creating a good pad. If the timbre remains static throughout without any timbral
variations then the ear soon becomes bored and switches off. This is the main
reason why analogue synths are often recommended for the creation of pads
since the random fluctuations of the oscillators pitch and timbre provide an
extra sense of movement that when augmented with LFOs and/or envelopes
produces a sound that has constant movement that you can’t help but be
attracted too. There are various ways you can employ this movement ranging
from LFOs to using envelopes to gradually increase or decrease the harmonic
content while it plays. To better explain this, we’ll look at the methodology
behind how the envelopes are used to create the beginnings of a good pad.
By setting a fast attack and the decay quite long on an amplifier envelope we
can determine that the sound will take a finite amount of time to reach the
sustain portion. Provided that this sustain portion is set just below the amp’s
decay stage, it will decay slowly to sustain and then continually ‘loop’ until the
MIDI note is released whereby it’ll progress onto the release stage. This creates
the basic premise of any pad or string timbre – it continues on and on until
the key is released. Assuming that the pad has a rich harmonic structure, movement can be added by gradually increasing a low-pass filter’s cut-off while the

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pad is playing – there will be a gradual rise in the amount of harmonics contained within the pad.
If a positive filter envelope was employed to control the filter’s action and the
envelope amount was set to fully modulate the filter, by using a long attack,
short decay, low sustain and fast release, the filter’s action would be introduced
slowly before going through a fast decay stage and moving onto the sustain.
This would create an effect whereby the filter would slowly open through the
course of the amplifier’s attack, decay and sustain stage before the filter entered
a short decay stage during the ‘middle’ of the amp’s sustain stage. Conversely,
by using the same filter envelope settings but applied negative the envelope
is inverted creating an effect of sweeping downwards rather than upwards.
Nevertheless, the amp and filter envelopes working in different time scales
create a pad that evolves in harmonic content over a period of time. Notably,
this is a one-way configuration because if the function of these envelopes were
reversed (in that the filter begins immediately but the amplifier’s attack was set
long) the filter would have little effect since there would be nothing to filter
until the pad is introduced.
This leads onto the subject of producing timbres with a high harmonic content
and this is accomplished by mixing a series of oscillators together along with
detuning and modulating. The main principle here is to create a sound that
features plenty of harmonics for the filters to sweep, so this means that saw, triangle, noise and square waves produce the best results although on some occasions a sine wave can be used to add some bottom end presence if required. A
good starting point for any pad is to use two saw, triangle or pulse wave oscillators with one detuned from the other by ⫺3 or ⫺5 cents. This introduces a
slight phasing effect between the oscillators helping to widen the timbre and
make it more interesting to the ear. To further emphasize this detuning, a saw,
triangle, sine or noise waveform LFO set to gently and slowly modulate the
pitch or volume of one of the oscillators will produce a sound with a more
analogue feel while also preventing the basic timbre from appearing too static.
If the pad is being used as a lead or has to fill in a large ‘hole’ in the mix then
it’s worthwhile adding a third oscillator and detuning this by ⫹3 or ⫹5 to
make the timbre more substantial. The choice of waveform for the third oscillator depends on the waveform of the original two but in general it should be a
different waveform. For instance, if two saws are used to create the basic patch,
adding a third detuned triangle wave will introduce a sparkling effect to the
sound while replacing this triangle with a square wave would in effect make the
timbre exhibit a hollow character. These oscillators then, combined with the
previously discussed envelopes for both the filter and the amp, form the foundation of every pad sound, and from here, it’s up to the designer to change the
envelope settings, modulation routings and the waveform used for the LFOs to
create a pad sound to suit the track. What follows is a guide to how most of the
pads used in dance music are created but it is by no means the definitive list
and it’s always experimenting to produce different variations.

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

Rise and Fall Pad
To construct this pad, use two sawtooth oscillators with one waveform detuned
by 3 cents. Apply a fast attack, short decay, medium sustain and a long release
for the amp envelope and employ a low-pass filter with the cut-off and
resonance set quite low. This should result in a static buzzing timbre. From
this, set the filter’s envelope to a long attack and decay but use a short release
and no sustain and set the filter envelope to maximum positive modulation.
Finally use the filter’s key follow so that it tracks the pitch of the notes being
played. This results in the filter sweeping up through the pad before slowly settling down. If the pad is to continue playing during the sustain portion for a
long period of time then it’s also worth modulating the pitch of one of the
oscillators with a triangle LFO and modulating the filters cut-off or resonance
with a square wave LFO. Both these should be set to a medium depth and a
slow rate.

RESONANT PADS
Resonant pads can be created by mixing a triangle and square wave together and
detuning one of the oscillators from the other by 5 cents. Similar to the previous
pad, the amp’s attack should be set to zero with a short decay, medium sustain and long release, but set the filter’s envelope to a long attack, sustain and
release with a short decay. Using a low-pass filter set the cut-off quite low but set
the resonance to around 3/4 so that the timbre appears quite resonant. Finally,
modulate the pitch of the triangle oscillator with a sine wave LFO set to a slow
rate and a medium depth and use the filters key follow. The LFO modulation
creates a pad that exhibits the natural analogue ‘character’ while the filter tracks
the pitch and sweeps in through the attack and decay of the pad and then sustains itself through the amp’s sustain. Again, if the pad’s sustain is going to continue for a length of time it’s worthwhile employing a sine, pulse or triangle
wave LFO to modulate the filter’s cut-off to help maintain interest.

SWIRLING PADS
The swirling pad is typical of some of Daft Punk’s work and consists of two
sawtooth oscillators detuned from one another by 5 cents. A square LFO is
often applied to one of the saws to gently modulate the pitch while a third
oscillator set to a triangle wave is pitched approximately 6 semitones above
the two saws to add a ‘glistening’ tone to the sound. The amp envelope uses a
medium attack, sustain and release with a short decay while the filter envelope
uses a fast attack and release with a long decay and medium sustain. A lowpass filter is used to modify the tonal content and this is set to a low-cut with
the resonance set to midway. Finally, chorus and then phaser or flanger effects
are applied to the timbre to produce a swirling effect. It’s important that the
flanger or phaser is inserted after the chorus rather than before so that it modulates the chorus effect as well.

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THIN PADS
All of the pads we’ve covered so far are quite heavy, and in some instances, you
may need a lighter pad to sit in the background. For this, pulse oscillators are
possibly the best to use since they do not contain as many harmonics as saws
or triangles and you can use an LFO to modulate the pulse width to add some
interest to the timbre. These types of pads simply consist of one pulse oscillator that uses a medium attack, sustain and release with a fast decay on the
amp envelope. A low-pass or high-pass filter is used, depending on how deep
or bright you want the sound to appear and there is usually little need for a filter envelope since gently modulating the pulse width with a sine, sawtooth or
noise waveform produces all the movement required. If you decide that it does
need more movement, however, a very slow triangle LFO set to modulate the
filter cut-off or resonance set to a medium depth will usually produce enough
movement to maintain some interest but try not to get too carried away. The
purpose of this pad is to sit in the background and too much movement may
push it to the front of the mix resulting in all the instruments fighting for their
own place in the mix.

The data CD contains audio examples of these timbres being programmed.

PROGRAMMING DRUMS
The majority of drum timbres used in the creation of dance chiefly originated
from four machines that are now out of production – the Roland TR909, the
Roland TR808, the Simmons SDS-5 and the E-mu Drumulator. Consequently,
while these machines (or to use their proper term drum synthesizers) are
often seen as requisites for producing most genres of dance music they’re very
highly sought after and demand an absurd sum of money on the second-hand
market, if you can find them. Because of this, most musicians will use software or hardware emulations, and although, to the author’s knowledge, there
are no alternatives to the Simmons SDS-5 and the E-mu Drumulator, both
the TR machines are available from numerous software and hardware
manufacturers. Indeed, due to the importance of using these kits when producing dance, most keyboards and tone modules today will feature the
requisite TR808 and 909 kits and there are plenty of software plug-ins and standalone sequencers that offer them. The most prominent of these is
Propellerhead’s ReBirth which imitates both TR machines and a couple of
TB303s (more on these later), but Propellerhead’s Reason, Cakewalk’s Fruityloops and D-lusion’s Drum station all offer samples/synthesis of the original
machines too.

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

KICK DRUMS
In the majority of cases, the Roland TR909 kick drum is the most frequently
used kick in dance music but the way it is created and edited with the synth
parameters and effects can sometimes determine the genre of music it suits the
most. In the original machines this kick was created using a sine wave with
an EG used to control its pitch. To add more of a transient to this sine wave, a
pulse and a noise waveform were combined together and filtered to produce an
initial click. This was then combined with the sine wave to produce the typical
909 kick sound. Notably, due to the age of these machines, there was not a
huge amount of physical control over the timbre they created but by building
your own kick you can play with a larger number of parameters once the basic
elements are down. In fact, this applies to all drum sounds, not just the kick,
and is much better than sampling them from other records or sample CDs
since you can’t alter the really important parameters.
When constructing a kick in a synthesizer, the frequency of the sine wave will
determine how deep the kick becomes, and while anywhere between 30 and
100 Hz will produce a good kick, it does depend on how deep you want it
to be. A sine wave at 30–60 Hz can be used to create an incredibly deep bowel
moving thud typical of hip-hop, a frequency of 50–80 Hz can provide a starting block for lo-fi and a frequency of 70–100 Hz can form the beginning of a
typical club kick. An attack/decay EG can then be used to modulate the pitch of
the sine wave. These envelopes are most common on drum machines but are
also available on some synthesizers such as the Roland JP8080 and a number
of soft synthesizers. Similarly, this action can be recreated on any synthesizer
by dropping both sustain and release parameters to zero.
Naturally, the depth of the pitch modulation needs to be set to maximum so
that the effect of the pitch envelope can be heard and it should be set to a positive depth so that the pitch moves downwards and not upwards (as it would if
the pitch envelope were negative). Additionally, the attack parameter should be
set as fast as possible so that the pitch modulation begins the instant the key
is struck. If your synthesizer doesn’t have access to a pitch envelope, then the
same effect can be produced by pushing the resonance up to maximum so that
the filter begins to self-oscillate. The filter’s envelope will then act in a manner
similar to a pitch envelope, so the attack, sustain and release will need to be set
at zero and the decay can be used to control the kick’s decay.
Once this initial timbre is created it’s prudent to synthesize a clicking timbre
to place over the transient of the sine wave. This can help to give the kick more
presence and help it to pull through a mix. Possibly the best way to accomplish
this is to use a square wave pitched down and use a very fast amplifier attack
and decay setting to produce a short sharp click. The amount that this wave is
pitched down will depend entirely on the sound you want to produce, so it’s
sensible to layer it over the top of the sine wave and then pitch it up or down

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until the transient of the kick sounds right for the mix. This, however, is only to
acquire a basic kick sound, and it’s now open to tweaking with all the parameters you have at your disposal, which incidentally are many more than the
humble 909 or 808 have to offer.
Firstly, as we’ve already touched upon the transient where we attain most
of the information about a sound, adjusting the filter cut-off and resonance
of the square wave will dramatically change the entire character of the kick.
A high-resonance setting will produce a kick with a more analogue character,
while increasing the amplifier’s decay will produce a kick that sounds quite
‘boxy’. Increasing the filter’s cut-off will result in a more natural sounding
kick, while increasing the pulse width will create a more open, hollow timbre.
Additionally, the oscillator producing the sine wave, can also be affected with
the synthesis parameters on offer. Using the pitch and pitch envelope parameters you can adjust how the pitch reacts on the sine wave, but more importantly, you can determine how ‘boomy’ the kick is through the pitch decay.
In this context, this will set the time that it takes to drop from the maximum
pitch change to the sine wave’s normal pitch. Thus, by increasing this, the pitch
of the sine wave doesn’t fall as quickly, permitting the timbre to continue for
longer creating a ‘boomy’ feel. Similarly, decreasing it will shorten its length
making it appear snappier. More interestingly, though, if you can adjust the
properties of the envelope’s decay slope you can use it to produce kicks that are
fatter or have a smacking/slapping texture.
If the decay’s slope remains linear, the sound will die in a linear fashion producing the characteristic 909 kick sound. However, if a convex slope is used
in its place, as the pitch decays it will ‘bow’ the pitch at a number of frequencies, which results in a kick that’s more ‘rounded’ and much fatter. On
the other hand, if the slope is concave, the pitch will curve ‘inwards’ during
the decay period producing the sucking/smacking timbre similar to the E-mu
Drumulator. By increasing the length of the pitch decay further these effects
can be drawn out producing kicks that are suited towards all genres of dance.
It should be noted here, however, that not all synthesizers allow you to edit
the envelope’s slope in such a manner but some software samplers (such as
Steinberg’s HALion) will allow you to modify the slope of a sample. Thus, if
you were to sample a kick with a lengthy decay, you could then modulate the
various stages of the envelope.
Alternatively, if the synthesizer is quite substantial it may allow you to modulate not only the sine wave but certain aspects of the envelope with itself.
Fundamentally this means that the pitch envelope modulates not only the sine
wave but also its own parameters. Using this you can set the synthesizer’s modulation destination to affect the oscillator’s pitch and its own decay parameter
by a negative or positive amount, which results in the decay becoming convex
or concave, respectively. This effect is often referred to as ‘recursive’ modulation, but as mentioned, this is only possible on the more adept synthesizers.
Nevertheless, whether recursive modulation is available or not, the key, at this

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

stage, is to experiment with different variations of pitch decay, the filter section on the square wave and both oscillators. For instance, replacing the sine
wave with a square produces a ‘clunky’ sound, while replacing it with a triangle
produces a sound similar to the Simmons SDS-5.
While these methods will produce a kick that can be modified to suit all genres,
for hip-hop you can sometimes glean better results using a self-oscillating
filter and a noise gate. If you push the resonance up until it breaks into selfoscillation it will produce a pure sine wave. This is often purer than the oscillators themselves and you can use this to produce a deep tone that’s suitable for
use as a kick in the track (usually 40 Hz). If you then programme a 4/4 loop in
a MIDI sequencer and feed the results into a noise gate it can be used as an EG.
While playing the loop, lower the threshold so that only the peaks of the wave
are breaching, set the attack to zero and use the release to control the ‘kicks’
delay. This kick can be modified further by adjusting the hold time, as this will
allow more of the peak through before entering the release stage.
Once the basic kick element is down it will most likely benefit from some compression but the settings to use will depend on the genre of music. Typically,
house, techno and trance will benefit from the compressor using a fast attack
so that the transient is crushed by the compression. This produces the emblematic club kick while setting the compressor so that the attack misses the transient but grips the decay stage allowing it to be raised in gain to produce the
characteristic hip-hop, big beat or drum ‘n’ bass timbre.

SNARE DRUMS
The snare drum in most dance music is derived (somewhat unsurprisingly)
from the TR909, or, in the case of house, the E-mu Drumulator or the Roland
SDS-5. All these, however, were synthesized in much the same way by using a
triangle oscillator mixed in with pink or white noise that was treated to positive pitch movements. This can, of course, be emulated in any synthesizer by
selecting a triangle wave for the first oscillator and using either pink or white
noise for the second. The choice between whether to use pink or white noise
depends on the overall effect you wish to achieve but, by and large, pink noise
is used for house, lo-fi and ambient snares while white is used for drum ‘n’
bass, techno, garage, trance and big beat. This is simply because pink noise
contains more low-frequency content and energy than white and hence
produces a thicker, wider sounding timbre.
To produce the initial snare sound much of the low-frequency content will
need to be removed, so it’s sensible to employ a high-pass, band-pass filter
or notch filter depending on the type of sound you require. Notching out the
middle frequencies will create a clean snare sound that’s commonly used in
breakbeat while a band pass will add crispness to the timbre making it suitable
for techno. Alternatively, using a high-pass filter with a medium resonance setting will create the house ‘thunk’ timbre. As with the kick drum, snares need
to start immediately on key press and remain fairly short, so the amp’s EG will

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need setting to a zero attack, sustain and release while the decay can be used to
control the length of the snare itself. In some cases, if it’s possible in the synthesizer, it’s prudent to employ a different amp EG for both the noise and the
triangle wave. This way the triangle wave can be kept quite short and swift by
using a fast decay while the noise can be made to ring a little further by increasing its decay parameter. The more this is increased, the more atmospheric snare
will appear allowing you to move from the typical techno snare, through big
beat and trance before finally arriving at ambient. What’s more, this approach
may also allow you to use a convex envelope on the noise to produce a smacking timbre similar to the Nine Inch Nails (NIN) ‘Closer’ snare.
If two amp EGs are not available, small amounts of reverb can help to lengthen
the timbre, and if this is followed with a noise gate with a fast attack and short
hold time, the decay can be used to control the amount of ambience in the
loop. Even if artificial ambience isn’t required, employing a gate can be particularly important when programming house, drum ‘n’ bass and hip-hop loops as
the snare is often cut short in these genres to produce a more dynamic loop.
Additionally, for drum ‘n’ bass the snare can then be pitched further up the
keyboard to produce the characteristic bright ‘snap’.
This initial snare can be further modified using a pitch envelope to modulate
both oscillators and can be applied either positive or negative depending on
the genre of music. Most usually, small amounts of positive pitch modulation
are applied to force the pitch downwards as it plays but some house tracks will
employ a negative envelope to create a snare that exhibits a ‘sucking’ nature
resulting in a thwacking sound. If you decide to use this technique, however, it’s often worth removing the transient of the snare in a wave editor and
replacing it with one that uses positive pitch modulation.
The two combined then produce a sound that has a good solid strike but
decays upwards in pitch at the end of the hit. If this isn’t possible in the synthesizer/wave editor then a viable alternative is to sweep the pitch from low to
high with a sawtooth or sine LFO (provided that the saw starts low and moves
high) set to a fast rate or programme a series of control change (CC) messages
to sweep it from the sequencer. Once this is accomplished, small amounts of
compression set so that only the decay is squashed (i.e. slow attack) will help
to bring it up in volume so that it doesn’t disappear into the rest of the mix.

HI-HATS
Hi-hats can be synthesized in a number of ways depending on the type of
sound you require but in the ‘original’ drum machines they were created with
nothing more than filtered white noise. This can be accomplished in most synthesizers by selecting white noise as an oscillator and setting the filter envelope
to a fast attack, sustain and release with a medium-to-short decay. Finally, set
the filter to a high pass and use it roll off any frequencies that are too low to
create a high hat. The length of the decay parameter will determine whether
the hi-hat is open or closed (open hats have a longer decay period).

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

While this is the best way to produce a typical analogue hi-hat sound it can
sound rather cheap and nasty on some synthesizers, and even if it produces the
timbre, it can still appear quite dreary. As a result, a much better approach is to
use either ring or FM as this produces a hi-hat that sounds sparkling and animated, helping to add some energy to the music. Ring modulation is possibly
the easiest solution of the two simply consisting of modulating a high-pitched
triangle wave with a lower pitched triangle. FM consists of modulating a
square or sine wave with a high-pitched triangle oscillator. The result is a highfrequency noise waveform that can then be modified with a volume envelope
set to a zero attack, sustain and release with a short-to-medium decay. If FM
is used and the modulator source is modified with a pitch envelope and the
amount of FM is increased or reduced, the resulting waveform can take on
more interesting properties, so it’s worthwhile experimenting with both these
parameters (if available). Once this basic timbre is constructed, shortening the
decay creates a closed hi-hat while lengthening it will produce an open hat.
Similarly, it’s also worth experimenting by changing the decay slope to convex
or concave to produce fatter or thinner sounding hats.
Notably, unlike most percussive instruments, compression should not be used
on hi-hats as all but the best compressors will reduce the higher frequencies
even if the attack is set so that it skips by the attack stage. This obviously results
in a dull sounding top end of a mix, so any form of dynamic restriction should
be avoided on high-frequency sounds, which include shakers, cymbals, cowbells, claves and claps.

SHAKERS
Shakers are constructed in a fashion similar to the high hats. That is, they
are created from white noise with a short attack, sustain and release with a
medium decay on the amplifier and filter envelope. A high-pass filter is then
used to remove any low-end artefacts to produce a timbre consisting entirely
of higher frequencies. Once you have the basic ‘hi-hat’ timbre, the decay can be
lengthened to produce a longer sound, which is then treated to an LFO modulating the high-pass filter to produce some movement. The waveform, rate and
depth of the LFO depend entirely on the overall sound you want to produce,
but as a general starting point, a sine wave LFO with a fast rate and medium
depth produces the typical ‘shaker’ timbre. Again once this initial timbre has
been constructed, like all drum sounds, it’s worth experimenting by changing
the envelope’s attack and decay slope from linear to convex or concave.

CYMBALS
Again, cymbals are created in a fashion similar to hi-hats and shakers as they’re
constructed from noise, but rather than use the noise from an oscillator, it’s
commonly generated from ring or FM. Using two square waves played high on
the keyboard, detune them so that they’re approximately two octaves apart and

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set the amp’s EG to a fast attack with no release or sustain and a medium decay
(in fact similar to hi-hats and shakers). Once the tone is shaped, both need to
be fed into a ring or cross modulator to produce the typical analogue cymbal
noise timbre.
The attack of the cymbal is particularly important, so it may be worth synthesizing a transient to drop over the top or using a filter envelope to produce
more of an initial crash. The filter envelope is set to a fast attack, sustain and
release with a medium-to-short decay as this produces an initial ‘hit’ but you
can synthesize an additional transient using an oscillator that produces pink
noise with the same filter settings as previously mentioned. If ring modulation
is not available on the synthesizer, a similar sound can be created using FM.
This consists of modulating a high-pitched square wave with another, lower
pitched, square or a triangle wave. As with the FM used to create high hats,
by modifying the source with pitch modulation or increasing/decreasing the
amount of FM you can create a number of different crash cymbals.

CLAPS
Claps are perhaps the most difficult ‘percussive’ element to synthesize because
they consist of a large number of ‘snaps’ all played in a rapid, sometimes pitch
shifting, sequence. Although in the interests of theory we’ll look at how they’re
created, generally speaking you’re much better off recording yourself clapping
(remember to run the mic through a compressor first, though, as the transient
will often clip a recorder) and treating them to a chorus or harmonizing effect
or, simpler still, sampling some from a CD or record.
Generally, claps are created from white noise passed through a high-pass filter.
The filter and amp EGs (as should be obvious by now) are set to a fast attack
with no release or sustain and a decay set to suit the timbre you require –
midway is a good starting point. The filter cut-off, however, often benefits from
being augmented by a sawtooth LFO set to a very fast rate and maximum depth
to produce a ‘snapping’ type timbre. This produces the basic tone but you’ll also
need to use an arpeggiator to create the successive snaps to follow. For this, programme a series of staccato notes into an MIDI sequencer and use these to trigger the arpeggiator set to one octave or less so that it constantly repeats the same
notes in a fast succession. These can be pitched downwards, if required, using
a pitch envelope set to a positive depth on the oscillator but it must be set so
that it doesn’t retrigger on each individual note otherwise the timbre turns into
mushy pitch-shifted clutter. Although claps are difficult to synthesize it is often
worth the effort required, however, as adjusting the filter section and/or the decay
slopes of the amp and filter’s EG opens up a whole new realm of clap timbres.

COWBELLS
Fundamentally, cowbells are quite easy to synthesize and can be constructed in
a number of ways. You can use two square oscillators or a triangle and a square

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

depending on the sound you require. If you require a sound with more body
then it’s best to use two square waves, but if you prefer a brighter sound then a
square mixed with a triangle will produce better results.
For a cowbell with more body, set two oscillators to a square wave and detune
them so that the first square plays at CⲆ5 (554 Hz) while the other plays at GⲆ5
(830 Hz). Follow this by setting the amp envelope to a fast attack with no release
or sustain and a very short decay. This resulting tone is then fed into a band-pass
filter which can be used to shape the overall colour of the sound. Alternatively, if
you want to create a cowbell that exhibits a brighter colour to sit near the top of
a mix it’s preferable to use just one square wave mixed with a triangle wave. The
frequency of the square should be set around 550 Hz and the triangle should be
detuned so that it sits anywhere from half an octave to an octave from the square,
depending on the timbre you require. Both these are then ring modulated and
the result is fed through a high-pass filter allowing you to remove the lower frequencies introduced by the ring modulation. Once these basic timbres are created, the amp’s EG can be lengthened or shortened to suit the current rhythm.

CONGAS
Congas are constructed from two oscillators with a dash of FM to produce a
‘clunky’ timbre. These can be easily constructed in any synth (that features FM)
by setting the first oscillator to a sine wave and the second to any noise waveform. The sine wave amp’s EG is set to a very fast attack and decay with no
release or sustain to produce a click which is then used as FM for the noise
waveform. The noise waveforms amp EG needs to be set to a fast attack with
no release or sustain and the decay set to taste.
There is little need to use a filter on the resulting sound, but if it seems to have
too much bottom or top end then use a low-pass or high-pass filter to remove
the upper or lower frequencies consecutively. In fact, by employing a high-pass
filter and reducing it slowly you can create muted congas while adjusting the
noise amp’s decay slope to convex or concave can produce the typical slapped
congas that are sometimes used in-house.

TAMBOURINES
Tambourines, like claps, are difficult to synthesize as they essentially consist of
a number of hi-hats with a short decay each occurring one after the other in a
rapid succession which is passed through a band-pass filter. This means that
they can initially be constructed by using white noise, FM or ring modulation
in the same manner as high hats. Once this basic timbre is down, the tone is
augmented with a sawtooth LFO set to a fast rate and full depth. After this,
you’ll need to programme a series of staccato notes to trigger the synthesizer’s
arpeggiator to create a series of successive hits. The decay parameter of the
amp’s EG can then be used to manipulate the tambourines, character, while
the results are fed into a band-pass filter which can be used to shape the type of

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tambourine being used. Typically, wide band-pass settings will recreate a tambourine with a large tympanic membrane and thinner settings will recreate a
tambourine with a smaller membrane.

TOMS
Toms can be synthesized in one of the two ways depending on how deep and
wide you want the tom drum to appear. Typically, they’re synthesized by using
the same methods as producing a kick drum but utilize a higher pitch with a
longer decay on the amp’s EG and some white noise mixed in to produce
some ambience. The settings for the white noise oscillator generally remain the
same as the amp’s EG for the sine wave (zero attack, release and sustain with a
medium decay). Alternatively, they can be produced by creating a snare timbre
by mixing a triangle wave with a noise waveform but modulating the noise waveform with pitch so that it falls while the triangle wave continues unchanged.

PERCUSSION GUIDELINES
Although we’ve looked at the percussive instruments used throughout all dance
genres, if you decide to become more creative, or simply want to experiment
further with producing percussive hits there are some general guidelines that
you can follow.
The main oscillator usually always consists of a sine or triangle wave with its
pitch modulated by a positive pitch envelope. This creates the initial tone of
the timbre while the second oscillator is used to create either the subsequent
resonances of the skin after it’s been hit or alternatively the initial transient.
For the resonance, white or pink noise is commonly used, while to create the
transient, a square wave is often used. The amp and filter envelope of the first
oscillator is nearly always set to a zero attack, zero release and medium decay.
This is so that the sound starts immediately on key press (the drummer’s strike)
while the decay controls how ambient the surrounding room is. If the decay is
set quite long the sound will obviously take longer to decay away, producing
an effect similar to reverb on most instruments. That said, if the decay is set
too long on low-pitched percussive elements such as a kick it may result in a
‘whooping’ sound rather than a solid hit. If the second oscillator is being used
to create the subsequent resonance to the first oscillator then the amp and filter settings are the same as the first oscillator whereas if it’s being used to create the transient, the same attack, release and sustain settings are used but the
decay is generally much shorter.
For more creative applications, it’s worthwhile experimenting with the slope
of the amp and filter’s EG decay and occasionally attack. Also, by experimenting with frequency modulation and ring modulation it’s possible to create a
host of new drum timbres. For instance, if the second oscillator is producing
a noise waveform, this can be used to modulate the main oscillator to reduce
the overall tone of the sound. What’s more, by using the filters the sound can

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

be shaped to fit into the current loop. For example, using a high-pass filter you
can remove the ‘boom’ from a kick drum which, as a consequence, produces a
tighter and more punchy kick. The key is to experiment.

The data CD contains audio examples of these timbres being programmed.

PROGRAMMING BASS
Synthesizer basses are a difficult instrument to encapsulate in terms of programming as we have no real expectations of how they should sound and they always
sound different when placed into a mix anyway. As such, there are no definitive
ways to construct a bass as pretty much anything goes provided that it fits with
the music. Of course, as always, there are some guidelines that apply to all basses
and many genres also tend to use a similar bass timbre, so here we’ll concentrate
on how to construct these along with some of the basic guidelines.
Generally speaking, most synthesizer bass sounds are quite simple in design
as their main function is to supply some underpinning because it’s the lead/
vocals that provide the main focal point. As a result, they are not particularly
complex to programme and you can make some astounding bass timbres using
just one or two oscillators. Indeed, the big secret to producing great basses is
not from the oscillators but from the filters and a thoughtful implementation
of modulation to create some movement.
Whenever approaching a bass sound it’s wise to have the bass riff programmed
and playing back in your sequencer along with the kick drum and any precedence instruments. By doing so, it’s much easier to hear if the bass is interfering with the kick and other priority instruments while you manipulate the
parameters. For example, if the bass sound seems to disappear into the track
or has no definite starting point, making it appear ‘woolly’, then you’ll need to
work with both the amp and the filter envelopes to provide a more prominent
attack. Typically, the amplifier’s attack should be set to its shortest time so that
the note starts immediately on key press and the decay should be set so that
it acts as a release setting (sustain and release are rarely used in bass timbres).
This is also common with the filter’s envelope. Setting the filter’s attack stage
too long will result in the filter slowly fading in over the length of the note,
which can destroy the attack of the bass.
Notably, bass timbres also tend to have fairly complex attack, so if it needs a
more prominent attack it’s prudent to sometimes layer an initial pluck over the
transient. This pluck can be created by synthesis in the same manner as creating a pluck for a drum’s kick, but more commonly, percussion sounds such as
cowbells and wood blocks pitched down are used to add to the transient. If
this latter approach is used then it’s advisable to reduce the length of the drum

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sample to less than 30 ms. This is because, as we touched upon when discussing
Granular synthesis, we find it difficult to perceive individual sounds if they are
less than 30 ms in length. This can usually be accomplished by reducing the
amp’s decay (remember that drum samples have no sustain or release) with
the benefit that you can use amplitude envelopes to fade out the attack transient oscillator as you fade in the main body of the bass, helping to keep the
two sounds from getting in each other’s way. If this is not possible then simply
reducing the volume of the drum timbre until it merges with the bass timbre
may provide sufficient results.
Another important aspect of creating a good bass is sonic movement. No matter how energetic the bass riff may be in MIDI, if it’s playing a simple tone
with absolutely no movement our ears can get bored very quickly and we tend
to ‘turn off’ from the music. In fact, this lack of movement is one of the main
reasons why some grooves just don’t seem to groove at all. If it’s a boring timbre, the groove will appear just as monotonous. This movement can be implemented in a number of ways. Firstly, as touched upon in the genre chapters,
programming CC messages or using velocity commands can breathe life into
a bass provided, of course, that you programme the synthesizer to accept these
controllers. Secondly, it’s often worthwhile assigning the modulation wheel to
control the filter cut-off, resonance, LFO rate or pitch. This way, after programming a timbre you can move the wheel to introduce further sonic movement
and record these as CC data into the sequencer. And finally, you can employ
LFO modulation to the timbre itself to introduce pitch or filter movement.
If, on the other hand, you decide to use a real bass guitar then unless you’re
already experienced it isn’t recommended attempting to programme the timbre in a synthesizer or record one live. Unlike synthetic timbres we know
how a real bass guitar should sound. If these are constructed in a synthesizer
they often sound too synthetic while recording a bass guitar reasonably well
requires plenty of experience and the right equipment. Thus, if you feel that the
track would benefit from a real bass it is much easier to invest in a sample CD
or alternatively Spectrasonics Trilogy – a VST instrument that contains multisamples of a huge number of basses, real and synthetic.

DEEP HEAVY BASS
The heavy bass is typical of drum ‘n’ bass tracks (by artists such as Photek) and
is the simplest bass timbre to produce as it’s essentially a kick drum timbre
with the amplifier’s decay and release parameter lengthened. This means that
you’ll need to use a single oscillator set to a sine wave with its pitch positively
modulated by an attack decay envelope. On top of this it may also be worth
synthesizing a short stab to place over the transient of the sine wave. As with
the kick, the best way to accomplish this is to use a square wave pitched down
and use a very fast amplifier attack and decay with no release or sustain. Once
this initial timbre is laid down, you can increase the sine wave’s amp EG decay
and sustain until you have the sound you require.

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

SUB-BASS
Following on from the large bass, another alternative for drum ‘n’ bass is the
earth shaking, speaker melting sub-bass. Essentially, these are formed from a single sine wave with perhaps a small ‘clunk’ positioned at the transient to help it
pull through a mix. The best results come from a self-oscillating filter using any
oscillator, but if the filter will not resonate, a sine wave from any synth should
provide good results. Obviously, the amplifier’s attack stage should be set at zero
so that the sound begins the moment the key is depressed, but the decay setting
to use will depend entirely on the sound you require and the current bass motif
(a good starting point is to use a fairly short decay, with no sustain or release).
If the sine wave has been produced by an oscillator then the filter cut-off will
have no effect as there are no harmonics to remove, but if it’s been created with a
self-oscillating filter, reducing the filter’s cut-off will remove the high-end artefacts
that may be present. Also it’s prudent to set the filter’s key follow, if available, to
positive so that the further up the keyboard you play the more it will open. This
will help to add some movement to the sound. If a click is required at the beginning of the note then, as with the drums, a square wave with a fast amplifier
attack and decay and a high cut-off setting can be dropped onto the transient
of the sine wave. Alternatively setting the filter’s envelope to a zero attack, sustain and release along with a very quick decay and increasing the amount of the
filter’s EG until you have the transient can also provide great results.
This will produce the basic ‘preset’ tone typical of a deep sub-bass but is of
course open to tweaking the initial click with filter cut-off and resonance along
with modulating the sine wave to add some movement. For example, by modulating the sine wave’s pitch by 2 cents with an EG set to a slow attack, medium
decay and no sustain or release the note will bend slightly every time it’s played.
If there is no EG available, then a sine wave LFO with a slow rate and set to
restart at key press will produce much the same results. That said you will have
to adjust the rate by ear so that the tone pitches properly. As a variation of this
sliding bass, rather than modulate the pitch, and provided that the sine wave
has been created with a self-oscillating filter, it’s worthwhile sliding the filter.
This can be accomplished by setting the filter envelope to a fast attack with
no sustain or release and a halfway setting on the decay parameter. By then
increasing the positive depth of the envelope to filter you can control how
much the bass slides during playback.
On top of this, keep in mind that changing the attack, decay and release of the
amp or/and filter EG from linear to convex or concave will also create new variations. For example, by setting the decay to a concave slope will create a ‘plucking’ timbre while setting it to convex will produce one that’s more rounded.
Similarly, small amounts of controlled distortion or very light flanging can also
add movement. A more creative approach, though, is to use a vocal intonation programme with experimental settings. The more extreme these settings
are, the more the pitch will be adjusted, but with some experimentation it can
introduce interesting fluctuations.

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MOOG BASS
The Minimoog was one of the proprietary instruments in creating basses for
dance music and has been used in its various guises throughout big beat, trance,
hip-hop and house. Again this synthesizer is out of production and although
it’s unlikely that you’ll find one on the second-hand market as their highly
prized possessions, if you do they’ll demand an extraordinarily high price.
Nevertheless, this type of timbre can be constructed on most analogue-style
synthesizers (emulated or real) from either using a sine or triangle wave as the
initial oscillator depending on whether you want a clean rounded sound (sine)
or a more gritty timbre (triangle). On top of this, add a square wave and detune
it from the main oscillator by either ⫹ or ⫺3 and set the amplifier’s envelope
for both oscillators to its fastest attack, a medium decay, no sustain and no
release. The square wave helps to ‘thicken’ the sound and give it a more woody
character while the subsequent amplifier setting creates a timbre that starts on
key press. The decay setting acts as the release parameter for the timbre. The filter envelope to use will depend entirely on how you want the sound to appear,
but a good starting point is to set the low-pass filter cut-off to medium with a
low resonance and use a fast attack with a medium decay. By then lengthening the attack or shortening the decay of the filter’s envelope you can create a
timbre that ‘plucks’ or ‘growls’. Depending on the type of sound you require
it may also benefit from filter key follow, so the higher up the keyboard you
play the more the filter opens. If you decide not to employ this, however, it is
worth modulating the pitch of one, or both, of the oscillators with an LFO set
to a sine wave running at slow rate and make sure that this restarts with every
key press. This will create the basic Moog bass patch but it should be noted
that the original Moog synthesizer employed convex slopes on the envelopes,
so if you want to emulate it exactly you will have to curve the attack, decay and
release parameters.

TB303
1: Acid House Bass
The acid house bass was a popular choice during the late 1980s but has been
making something of a comeback in-house, techno, drum ‘n’ bass and chill
out/ambient. Fundamentally, it was first created using the Roland TB303 Bass
Synthesizer which, like the accompanying TR909 and TR808, is now out of
production and, as such, demands a huge price on the second-hand market.
Similar to the 909 and 808, however, there are software emulations available,
with the most notable being Propellerhead’s ReBirth which includes two along
with the TR808 and 909. As usual, though, this timbre can be recreated in any
analogue synthesizer (emulated or real) but it should be noted that due to the
parameters offered by the original synthesizer, there are thousands of permutations available. As a result, we’ll just concentrate on creating the two most
popular sounds and you can adjust the parameters of these basic patches to
suit your own music.

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

The acid house (‘donk’) bass can be created using either a square or sawtooth
oscillator depending on whether you want it to sound ‘raspy’ (saw) or more
‘woody’ and rounded (square). As with most bass timbres the sound should
start immediately on key press it requires the amp’s attack to be set to its fastest position but the decay can be set to suit the type of sound you require (as a
starting point try a medium decay and no sustain or release). Using a low-pass
filter set the cut-off quite low and then slowly increase the resonance so that it
sits just below self-oscillation. This will create a quite bright (‘donky’) sound
that can be further modelled using the filter’s envelope.
As with the amp settings, the filter envelope should be set so that it fits your
music, but as a general starting point, a zero attack, sustain and release with
a decay that’s slightly longer than the amp’s EG decay will produce the typical
house bass timbre. Filter key follow is often employed in these sounds to create movement but it’s also prudent to modulate the filter’s cut-off with velocity
so that the harder the key is struck the more it opens. Generally speaking, by
adopting this approach you’ll have to tune the subsequent harmonics into the
key of the song but this is not always necessary. In fact, many dance and drum
‘n’ bass artists have used this timbre but made it deliberately dissonant to the
music to make it more interesting.

2: Resonant Bass
The resonant bass is similar in some respects to the tone produced by the acid bass
but has a much more resonant character that almost squeals. This, however, is a little more difficult to accomplish on many synths as it relies heavily on the quality of
the filters and ideally these should be modelled around analogue. Start with a sawtooth oscillator and set the amplifier’s EG to zero attack and sustain with a medium
release and a fast decay. This sets the timbre to start immediately on key press and
then quickly jump from a short decay into the release portion, in effect, producing
a bass with a quick pluck. Follow this by setting the filter’s envelope to a zero attack
and sustain with a short release and a short decay (both shorter than the amp’s settings), and set the low-pass filter’s cut-off and resonance to halfway. These settings
on the filter envelope introduce resonance to the decay’s ‘pluck’ at the beginning
of the note. This creates the basic timbre but it’s worth employing positive filter key
follow so that the filter’s action follows the pitch helping to maintain some interest
in the timbre. On the subject of pitch, modulating the sawtooth using a positive
or negative envelope set over a 2 semitone range can help to further enhance the
sound. Typically, if you want the timbre to ‘bow’ and drop in pitch as it plays then
it’s best to use a positive envelope while if you want to create a timbre that exhibits
a ‘sucking’ motion with the pitch raising it’s best to use a negative envelope.

SWEEPING BASS (TYPICAL OF UK AND SPEED
GARAGE)
The sweeping bass is typical of UK garage and speed garage tracks and consists of
a tight yet deep bass that sweeps in pitch and/or frequencies. These are created

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with two oscillators, one set to a sine wave to add depth to the timbre while
the other is set to a sawtooth to introduce harmonics that can be swept with a
filter. These are commonly detuned from one another but the amount varies
depending on the type of timbre required. Hence, it’s worth experimenting by
first setting them apart by 3 cents and increasing this gradually until the sound
becomes as thick as you need for the track.
As with all bass sounds, they should start the moment the key is depressed so
the amp EG’s attack is set to zero along with sustain but the release and decay
should initially be set midway. The decay setting provides the ‘pluck’ while the
release can be modified to suit the motif being played from the sequencer. The
filter cut-off is set to a low-pass as you want to remove the higher harmonics from the signal (opposed to removing the lower frequencies first) and this,
along with the resonance, is adjusted so that they both sit approximately halfway between fully exposed and fully closed. Ideally, the filter should be controlled with a filter envelope using the same settings as the amp EG but to
increase the ‘pluck’ of the sound it’s beneficial to adjust the attack and decay
so that they’re slightly longer than the amplifier’s settings. Finally, positive filter key follow should be employed so that the filter will track the pitch of the
notes being played which helps to add more movement.
These settings will produce the basic timbre but it will benefit from pitch-shifting
and/or filter movements. The pitch shifting is accomplished, somewhat unsurprisingly, by modulating both oscillators with a pitch envelope set to a fast attack
and medium decay but, if possible, the pitch bend range should be limited to
2 semitones to prevent it from going too wild. If you decide to modulate the filter then it’s best to use an LFO with a sawtooth that ramps upwards so that the
filter opens, rather than decays, as the note plays. The depth of the LFO can be set
to maximum so that it’s applied fully to the waveform and the rate should be set
so that it sweeps the note quickly. What’s more, if the notes are being played in
succession it’s prudent to set the LFO to retrigger on key press, otherwise it will
only sweep properly on the first note and any successive notes will be treated
differently depending on where the LFO is in its current cycle.

TECHNO ‘KICK’ BASS
Although a bass is not always used in techno, if it is, it’s usually kept short and
sharp so as not to get in the way of the various rhythms. That said, as there are
few leads employed the bass is programmed so that it’s quite deep and powerful as (if they’re used) they play a major role in the music.
To create this type of bass requires four oscillators stacked together, all using
the same waveform. Typically sawtooth waveforms are used but square, triangle and sine waves can also work equally well so long as the oscillators used
are all of the same waveform. One waveform is kept at its original pitch while
the other three are detuned from this and each other as far as possible without sounding like individual timbres (i.e. less than 20 Hz). Obviously, the
sound needs to begin the moment the key is struck, so the resulting timbre

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

is sent to an amp EG with a zero attack along with a zero sustain and release
with a medium decay setting. Typically, a techno bass also exhibits a whump
at the decay stage, which can be introduced by modulating the pitch of all the
oscillators with an attack/decay envelope. Obviously this uses a fast attack so
that pitch begins at the start of the note but the decay setting should be set
just short of the decay used on the amp EG. Usually, the pitch modulation is
positive so that the ‘whump’ is created by moving the pitch downwards but
it’s worth experimenting by setting this to negative so that it sweeps upwards.
Additionally, if the synthesizer offers the option to adjust the slope of the envelopes, a convex decay is used, but experimentation is the real key with this type
of bass and, in some cases, a concave envelope may produce more acceptable
results. Filter key follow is rarely used as the bass tends to remain at one key
but if your motif moves up or down in the range, it’s prudent to use a positive
key follow to introduce some movement into the riff.

TRANCE ‘DIGITAL’ BASS
This bass is typical of those used in many trance tracks, and while it doesn’t
exhibit a particularly powerful bottom end, it does provide enough of a bass
element without being too rich in harmonics so that it interferes with the
characteristic trance lead. It requires two oscillators, both set to square waves
and detuned from each other by 3 cents to produce the basic tone. A low-pass
filter is used with the cut-off set so that it’s almost closed and the resonance
is pushed up so that it sits just below self-oscillation. The sound, as always,
needs to start immediately on key press, so the amp’s attack is set to zero along
with both the release and the sustain. The decay should be set about midway
between being fully exposed and fully closed. The filter envelope emulates
these amp settings using a zero attack, sustain and release but the decay should
be set so that it’s slightly shorter than the amp’s decay so that it produces a
resonant pluck. Finally, the filter key follow is applied so that the filter follows
the pitch across the bass motif. Once constructed, if the bass is too resonant it
can be condensed by reducing the filter’s decay to make the ‘pluck’ tighter, or
alternatively, you can lower the resonance and increase the filter’s cut-off.

‘POP’ BASS
The pop bass is commonly used in many popular music tracks, hence the
name, but it is also useful for some house and trance mixes where you need
some ‘bottom-end’ presence but at the same time don’t want it to take up too
much of the frequencies available in the mix. These are easily created in most
synthesizers by using a sawtooth and a triangle oscillator, with the triangle
transposed up by an octave from the sawtooth. The amp envelope is set to an
on/off status whereby the attack, decay and release are all set to zero with the
sustain set just below maximum. This means that the sound almost immediately jumps into the sustain portion, which produces a constant bass tone for
as long as the key is depressed (remember that the sustain portion controls

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the volume level of sustain and not its length!). To add a ‘pluck’ to the sound,
a low-pass filter is usually set very low to begin with while the resonance is
increased as high as possible without forcing the filter into self-oscillation. The
filter envelope is then set to a zero attack, release and sustain but the decay is
set quite long so that it encompasses the sustain portion of the amp’s EG, in
effect producing a resonant pluck to the bass. By then increasing the depth of
the filter envelope along with increasing the filter’s cut-off and resonance you
can control how resonant the bass becomes. Depending on the motif that this
bass plays it may also be worth employing some filter key-tracking so that the
filter follows the pitch of the bass.

GENERIC BASS GUIDELINES
Although here we’ve looked at the main properties that contribute towards the
creation of bass timbres and covered how to construct the most commonly
used basses throughout the dance genres, occasionally simply creating these
sounds will not always produce the right results. Indeed, much of the time you
find that the bass is too heavy without enough upper harmonics or that it’s too
light without the right amount of depth. In these cases it’s useful to use different sonic elements from different synthesizers to construct a patch – a process
known as layering. Essentially this means that you construct a bass patch in
one synthesizer and then create one in another (and possibly another and so
forth) and then layer them altogether to produce a single patch.
It’s important to understand here, though, that these additional layers should not
be sourced from the same synthesizer and the filter settings for each consecutive
layer should be different. The reason behind this is due to the fact that all synthesizers sound tonally different from one another, even if they use the same parameter settings. For instance, if an analogue (or analogue emulated) synthesizer is
used to create the initial patch, using an analogue emulation from another manufacturer to create another bass (or using a digital synthesizer) will create a timbre
with an entirely different character. If these are layered on top of one another and
the respective volumes from each are adjusted you can create a more substantial
bass timbre. Ideally, to prevent the subsequent mixed timbres from becoming
too overpowering in the mix it’s quite usual to also employ different filter types
on each synthesizer. For example, if the first synthesizer is producing the low-frequency energy but it lacks any top end, the second synthesizer should use a highpass filter. This allows you to remove the low-frequency elements from the second
synthesizer so that it’s less likely to interfere with the harmonics from the first.
This form of layering is often essential in producing a bass with the right amount
of character and is one of the reasons why many professional artists and studios
will have a number of synthesizers at their disposal.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s inadvisable to apply any stereowidening effects to bass timbres. This is because the bass should sit in the centre of the mix (for reasons we’ll touch upon in the mixing chapter) but it’s
sometimes worthwhile applying controlled distortion to them to increase the

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

harmonic content. As some basses are constructed from sine waves that contain no harmonics, they can become lost in the mix but by applying distortion,
the upper harmonics introduced can help the bass cut through the mix. This
distortion can then be accurately controlled using filters or EQ to mould the
bass to the timbre you require. What’s more, some effects such as flangers or
phasers require additional harmonics to make any noticeable difference to the
sound, something that can be accomplished by applying distortion before the
flanger or phaser. Of course, if these effects are applied it’s sensible to ensure
that they’re applied in mono, not stereo to prevent the bass becoming spread
across the stereo image.
Finally, as with the drum timbres if you have access to a synthesizer that allows
you to adjust the linearity of the envelope’s attack and decay stage you should
certainly experiment with this. In fact, a convex or concave decay on the filter
and/or amp is commonly used to produce bass timbres with a harder pluck
allowing it to pull through a mix better than a linear envelope.

The data CD contains audio examples of these timbres being programmed.

PROGRAMMING LEADS
Saying that basses were difficult to encapsulate is only the tip of the sound
design iceberg since trying to define what makes a good lead is impossible.
Every track will use a different lead sound ranging from Daft Punk’s distorted or
phased leads to the various plucks used by artists such as Paul Van Dyk through
to the hundreds of variations on the euphoric trance leads. Consequently, there
are no definitive methods to creating a lead timbre but it is important to take
plenty of time producing one that sounds right. The entire track rests on the
quality of the lead and it’s absolutely vital that this sounds precise. However,
while it’s impossible to suggest ways of creating new leads to suit any one particular track, there are some rough generalizations that can be applied.
Firstly, most lead instruments will utilize a fast attack on the amp and filter envelope
so that it starts immediately on key press with the filter introducing the harmonics
to help it to pull through a mix. The decay, sustain and release parameters, though,
will depend entirely on the type of lead and sound you want to accomplish.
For example, if the sound has a ‘pluck’ associated with it then the sustain
parameter, if used, will have to be set quite low on both amp and filter EGs so
that the decay parameter can drop down to it to create the pluck. Additionally,
the release parameter of the amp can be used to determine whether the notes
of the lead motif flow together, or are more staccato (keep in mind that staccato notes appear louder than those that are drawn out). If the release is set so
that the notes flow together it isn’t unusual to employ portamento on the synthesizer so that notes rise or fall into the successive ones.

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As the lead is the most prominent part of the track it’s usually sits in the
mid-range, and is often bursting with harmonics that occupy this area. The
best approach to accomplish this is to build a harmonically rich sound by
using sawtooth, square waves, triangle and noise waveforms stacked together
and make use of the unison feature (if the synthesizer has it available). This
is a form of stacking a number of the synthesizer’s voices together to produce
thicker and wider tones but it also reduces the polyphony available to the synthesizer, so you have to exercise caution as to the polyphony available to the
synthesizer. Once a harmonically rich voice is created it can then be thinned,
if required, with the filters or EQ and modulated with the envelopes and LFOs.
These latter modulation options play a vital role in producing leads as they
need some sonic movement to maintain interest.
Typically, these methods alone will not always provide a lead sound that is
rich or deep enough; it’s worth employing a number of methods to make it
‘bigger’ such as layering, doubling, splitting, hocketing or residual synthesis.
We’ve already looked at some of the principles behind layering when looking
at basses but with leads this can be stretched further as there is little need to
keep the lead under any real control – its whole purpose is to sit above every
other element in the mix! Alongside layering the sounds in other synthesizers,
it’s often worth using different amp and/or filter envelopes in each synthesizer.
For example, one timbre could utilize a fast attack but a slow release or decay
parameter, while the second layered sound could utilize a slow attack and a
fast decay or release. When the two are layered together, the harmonic interaction between the two sounds produces very complex timbres that can then be
mixed together in a desk and EQ’d or filtered externally to suit.
Doubling is similar to layering, but the two should not be confused as doubling
does not use any additional synthesizer but the one you’re using to programme
the sounds. This involves copying the MIDI information of the lead motif to
another track in the MIDI sequencer and transposing this up to produce a much
richer sound. Usually transposing this copy up by a fifth or an octave will produce musically harmonious results, but it is worth experimenting by transposing it further and examining the effects it has on the sound. A variation on this
theme is to make a copy of the original lead and then only transpose some notes
of the copy rather than all of them so that some notes are accented.
Hocketing consists of sending the successive notes from the same musical
phrase to different synthesizers or patches within the same module to give
the impression of a complex lead. Usually, you determine which synthesizer
receives the resulting note through velocity by setting one synthesizer or patch
to not accept velocity values below, say, 64 while the second synthesizer or
patch will only accept velocity values above 64. If this is not possible, then simply copying the MIDI file onto different tracks and deleting notes that should
not be sent to the synthesizer will produce the same results.
Splitting and residual synthesis are the most difficult to implement but often
produce the best results. Fundamentally, splitting is similar in some respects to

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

layering but rather than produce the same timbre on two different synthesizers,
a timbre is broken into its individual components which are then sent to different synthesizers. For example, you may have a sound that’s constructed from
a sine, sawtooth and triangle wave but rather than have one synthesizer do this,
the sine may come from one synthesizer, the triangle from another and the saw
from yet another. These are all modulated in different ways using the respective synthesis engines, but by listening carefully to the overall sound through
a mixing desk, the sound is constructed and manipulated through the synthesizer’s parameters and mixing desk as if it were from one synthesizer. Residual
synthesis, on the other hand, involves creating a sound in one synthesizer and
then using a band-pass or notch filter to remove some of the central harmonics
from the timbre. These are then replaced using a different synthesizer or synthesis engine and recombined at the mixer.
Finally, effects also play a large part in creating a lead timbre. The most typical
of these that are used on leads are reverb, delay, phasers, flangers, distortion
and chorus, but experimentation with different effects and even the order of
the effects can all produce great results.
As always the key to producing great leads, as with all other sounds, is through
experimentation and familiarization with effects and the synthesis engines you use.

EUPHORIC TRANCE LEAD
The euphoria trance lead is probably the most elusive lead to programme properly
but, in many cases, this is simply because it cannot be recreated on any synthesizer. To capture the sound properly requires an analogue synthesizer (emulated
or real) with oscillators that have the right character for the genre. This means that
you should use a synthesizer that employs methods to dynamically alter both the
tone and the pitch of the oscillators in a slightly different manner every time you
hit a key. This method, often referred to as phase initialization, produces the characteristics distinctive of any good analogue synthesizer. Most software or hardware
analogue emulations will, or should, employ this but the amount of initialization depends entirely on the synthesizer and for trance leads, the higher this is,
the better the results will be. As a side note, the most commonly used synthesizer
to create the trance lead is the access virus (in fact, nearly all professional trance
musicians will use the virus!) but the Novation SuperNova, Novation A station,
Novation K station or the Novation V station (the software VST Instrument of the
K station) can also produce the requisite timbres with a little extra work.
Alongside the ‘unreliable’ feature of analogue oscillators, the real secret behind
creating any good trance lead is through clever use of effects and noise, not
the bad type of noise, of course, but the noise produced by an oscillator in the
synthesizer. As we’ve already touched upon, noise produces a vast number of
harmonics, which is essential to creating the hands in the air vibe.
A basic trance lead timbre can be constructed with four oscillators. Two are
set to pulse and detuned to produce a wide hollow sound while the third is a

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sawtooth to add further harmonics, and the fourth is set to create noise to add
some ‘top end’ fizzy harmonics to the sound. The two pulse waves are detuned
from one another by detuning one to ⫺5 cents and the other to ⫹5 cents to produce a wide sound while the saw is detuned from these by a full octave to add
some bottom-end harmonics to the timbre. The final oscillator is left as it is
but can use either pink or white noise depending on how fizzy you want the
harmonics it produces to be. Generally, pink noise is the best choice since it
contains a huge range of harmonics from low to high while white noise is more
like radio static and tends to be a little too light and fizzy for trance leads.
Obviously the note needs to start as soon as the MIDI note is received so the
amp’s attack is set to zero but to create a small pluck use a medium decay with
a small sustain and a fairly short release. This release can be lengthened or
shortened further depending on the trance riff you’ve programmed. The filter
envelope can use the same settings as the amplifier, although in some cases it
may be worth shortening the decay to produce a better ‘plucking’ sound. This
envelope should be applied from ¾ to full as positive modulation to the filters
and the filter key follow should be on so that they track the pitch of the notes
being played. The filter itself is set to a low-pass with a high cut-off but a low
resonance to prevent the timbre from squealing and it should use a 4-pole filter rather than the usual 2-pole, so that the filter sweeps sharply, helping the
lead become more prominent and allowing it to cut through the mix.
To add some energy and interest to the timbre, it’s an idea to modulate the
pulse width of both pulse oscillators and, if at all possible, you should use two
LFOs so that each pulse can be modulated differently. The first LFO modulates
the pulse width of the first oscillator with a sine wave set to a slow-to-medium
rate and full depth, while the second modulates the pulse width of the
second oscillator. This, however, is set to a triangle wave with a faster rate than
the first LFO and at a full depth. The resulting effect is that both pulse waves
beat against each other creating a more interesting timbre. Finally, the timbre
will need to be washed in both reverb and delay to provide the required sound.
The reverb should be applied quite heavily as a send effect but with 50 ms of
pre-delay so that the transient pulls through undisturbed and the tail set quite
short to prevent it from washing over the successive notes. It’s also prudent
to set a noise gate to remove the subsequent reverb tail as this will produce
a heavier timbre which cuts through the mix and prevents it from becoming
pushed into the background (an effect known as Gate-Tailing). Decay should
also be applied but again this is best used as a send effect so that only a part of
the timbre is sent to the delay unit. The settings to use will depend on the type
of sound you require but the delays should be set to less than 30 ms to produce
the granular delay effect to make the timbre appear big in the mix.

PLUCKED LEADS
Plucked leads are often used in most genres of music from house through
trance but can be typified in most of Paul Van Dyk’s work. This is not to say

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

that they will all sound like Paul Van Dyk, however, as they can be constructed
in numerous ways depending on the type of sound you want to accomplish
and the genre of music you write. Thus, what follows are two of the most commonly used basic patches for plucked leads in dance which, as always, you
should manipulate further to suit your own music.

Plucked Lead 1
The first plucked lead consists of three oscillators, two of which are set to sawtooths to add plenty of harmonics and the third set to either a sine or triangle
wave to add some bottom-end weight. The choice between whether to use a
sine or triangle is up to you, but using a sine will add more bottom end and is
useful if the bass used in the track is rather thin while if the bass is quite heavy,
a triangle may be better as this will add less of a bottom end and introduce
more harmonics. The sawtooth waves are detuned from each other by 3 cents
(or further if you want a richer sound) and the third oscillator is transposed
down by an octave to introduce some bottom-end weight into the timbre.
Obviously, the amp’s attack is set to zero as is the sustain portion but both
decay and release are set to a medium depth depending on the amount of
pluck you require and the motif playing the timbre. A low-pass filter is used
to remove the higher harmonics of the sound and this should be set initially
at midway while the resonance should be set quite low. This is controlled with
a filter envelope set to a zero attack and sustain but the decay and release are
set just short of the amplifier’s decay and release settings so if you adjust the
amp’s decay and release, you’ll also need to reduce the filter’s decay and release.
Finally, it’s worthwhile applying some reverb to the timbre to help widen it a
little further but if you take this approach you’ll also have to employ a tailing
gate to prevent the lead from being pushed too far back into the mix.

Plucked Lead 2
The second plucked lead is a little easier to assemble and consists of just two
oscillators, a saw and a triangle. The saw wave is pitched down to produce a low
end while the triangle wave is pitched up to produce a slight glistening effect.
The amount that these are detuned by depends on the timbre you require so
you’ll need to experiment through detuning them by different amounts until
the frequencies sit into the mix you have so far. As a general starting point,
detune them from one another as far as you can without the sounding as two
different timbres and then reduce this tuning until the timbre fits to the music.
Due to the extremities of this detuning sync both oscillators together to prevent
the two from beating too much and then apply a positive pitch envelope to the
saw wave with a fast attack and medium decay so that it pitches up as it plays.
The sound needs to start on key press so set the attack to zero with no attack,
sustain or release and set the decay to halfway. This envelope is copied to the
filter envelope but set the decay to zero and increase the sustain parameter to
about halfway. Finally, using a low-pass filter set the cut-off to around threequarters open and set the resonance to about a quarter. This will produce the

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basic pluck timbre but it may be worth using the synthesizer’s unison feature
to thicken the sound out further depending on the mix. If this isn’t possible
granular delay can be used in its place to widen the timbre.

TB303 LEADS
Although we’ve already seen the use of a TB303 when looking at programming
basses, they are a versatile machine and are also equally at home creating lead
sounds by simply pitching the bass frequencies up by a few octaves. The most
not-able example of this was on Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness and this
same effect can be recreated on analogue (or analogue emulated) synthesizer.
Only one oscillator is required and this is a sawtooth due to the high number of
harmonics required for it to cut through a mix. The sound should start immediately on key press, so it requires the amp’s attack to be set to its fastest position
but the decay can be set to suit the type of sound you require (as a starting point
try a medium decay and no sustain or release). Using a low-pass filter set the cutoff quite low and the resonance so that it sits just below self-oscillation. The filter envelope is set to a fast attack with no sustain or release, but the decay needs
to be set so that it’s just short of the amp’s decay stage. Filter key follow is often
employed to create additional movement but it’s also prudent to modulate the
filter’s cut-off with velocity so that the harder the key is struck the more it opens.
Finally the timbre is run through a distortion unit and the results are filtered
with an external or plug-in filter to finally mould the sound. In some instances,
it may also be worth increasing the amplifier’s decay so that the notes overlap
each other and then switch on portamento so that they slur into each other
while the riff is played.

DISTORTED LEADS
There are literally hundreds of distorted leads but one of the most popular is the
distorted/phased lead used in many house tracks and, in particular, by Daft Punk
and Tomcraft. The basic patch is created using single sawtooth or if you need it
slightly thicker, two saws detuned from one another by 5 cents. The amp envelope
is set to a zero attack with a full sustain, a short release setting and the decay to
around a quarter. As always, the decay will have the most influence over the sound
so it’s worth experimenting with to produce the sound you need. The filter cut-off
should be set quite low, while the resonance should be pushed up pretty high to
produce overtones which can be distorted with effects in a moment. The filter’s
envelope will need adjusting so that it reacts with the sound, so set the attack, sustain and release to zero and the decay so that it’s slightly longer than the amp’s
decay setting. Ideally, the filter’s envelope should fully affect the sound so as a starting point set this so that it fully affects the filter and then experiment by reducing
the amount until the basic timbre you want appears.
Distortion and phaser are also applied to the sound, but as previously touched
upon, the distortion should come first so that the subsequent phaser also works

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

on the distortion. It is important, however, not to apply too much distortion
otherwise it’ll may overpower the mix and become difficult to mix. Preferably,
you should aim for a subtle but noticeable effect before finally applying a
phaser to the distorted signal. How much to apply will obviously depend on
the sound you require but exercise caution that you do not apply too much
otherwise the solidity of the timbre can be lost. In some cases it may also be
worth applying portamento with a slow rate to enable the sound to slew into
one another which, as a result, brings more attention to the phased effect.

THEREMINS
For those with no idea of what a theremin is, it consists of a vertical metal pole
approximately 12–24⬙ in height which responds to movements of your hands
and creates a warbling low-pitched whistle dependent on your hand’s position.
The sound was used heavily in the 1950s and 1960s sci-fi movies to provide a
‘scary’ atmosphere when the aliens appeared but has made many appearances
in lo-fi music. The most notable example of this use in music can be heard on
Portishead’s Mysteron.
These are incredibly simple to create and can be reproduced on any synthesizer
using a sawtooth wave with a low-pass filters cut-off parameter reduced until it
produces a soft constant tone. On some digital synthesizers you may need to raise
the resonance to produce the correct tone but most analogue synthesizers will produce the tone with no resonance at all. This is also the example of one lead where
the amplifier’s attack is not set at zero; instead this is set at halfway along with the
release while the sustain is set to full. Theremins are renowned for their random
variations in pitch, so you’ll need to emulate this by holding down a key (around
C3) and using the pitch wheel to introduce the variations from waving your hands
around. If the synthesizer has access to portamento then it’s also advisable to use
this to recreate the slow shifting from note to note.

HOOVERS
The hoover sound originally appeared on the Roland Juno synthesizers and has
been constantly used throughout all genres of dance music including techno,
house, acid house, breakbeat, drum ‘n’ bass and big beat. In fact, these still
remain one of the most popular sounds used in dance music today. Originally
in the Juno they were aptly named What the… but due to their dissonant tonal
qualities they were lovingly renamed ‘Hoover’ sounds by dance artists since
they tend to share the same sound as vacuum cleaners… Honestly…
The sound is best constructed in an analogue/DSP synthesizer as the tonal qualities
of the oscillators play a large role in creating the right sound. Two sawtooth oscillators are used to create the initial patch and these need to be detuned as far from
each other as possible but not so far that they become two individual timbres.
The sound starts immediately, so the amp’s attack is set at zero mixed with a
short decay and release and sustain set to just below full so that there is a small

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pluck evident from the decay stage. The filter should be a low-pass with a low
cut-off and a medium resonance setting which is modulated slightly with
the filter’s envelope. This latter envelope is set to a medium attack, decay
and release but no sustain, but you need to exercise caution as to how much
this envelope modulates the filter, since settings that are too high will result
in a timbre that’s nothing like a hoover. To add the typical dissonance feel
that hoovers often exhibit, the pitch of both oscillators will also need modulating using a pitch envelope set to a fast attack and a short decay. This, however, should be applied negative rather than positive so that the pitch bends
upwards into the note rather than downwards. Finally, depending on the
synthesizer recreating the timbre it may need some widening, which can be
accomplished by washing the sound in chorus or preferably stacking as many
voices as possible using a unison mode.

‘HOUSE’ PIANOS
The typical house piano was drawn directly from the Yamaha DX range of
synthesizers and is usually left unmodified (due to the complexity and painful experience that is programming with frequency modulation). In fact, if you
want to use the house piano, the best option is to either purchase an original Yamaha DX7 synthesizer or alternatively invest in Native Instruments FM-8
VST instrument. This is a software emulation of the FM synthesizers produced
by Yamaha which can also import the sounds from the original range of DX
synthesizers.
Acquiring the FM piano is difficult on most analogue synthesizers and often
impossible of most digital synthesizers (well apart from the DX range of
course!) because of the quirks of FM. Nevertheless, if you want to give this a go
it can be accomplished by using two oscillators set to sine waves with one of
the oscillators detuned so that it’s at a multiple of the second oscillator. These
are then frequency modulated to produce the general tone. The amp envelope
is then set to a fast attack, short decay and release and a medium sustain with
the filter key-tracking switched on. To produce the initial transient for the note
a third sine wave pitched high up on the keyboard and modulated by a one
shot LFO (i.e. the LFO acts as an envelope – fast attack, short decay, no sustain
or release) will produce the desired timbre. As a side note to this, if you want
to produce the infamous bell-like or metallic tones made famous by FM synthesizers, use two sine oscillators with one detuned so that its frequency is at a
non-related integer of the second and then use FM to produce the sound.

ORGANS
Organs are commonly used in the production of house and hip-hop, with
the most frequent choice being the Hammond B-4 drawbar organ. This general timbre, however, can be emulated in any subtractive synthesizer by using a
pulse and a sawtooth oscillator. As the sound starts on key press the amp uses a
zero attack with a full sustain and medium release (note that there is no decay

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

since the sustain parameter is at maximum). A low-pass filter is used to shape
the timbre with the cut-off set to zero and the resonance increased to about
halfway. A filter envelope is not employed since the sound should remain
unmodulated; but if you require a ‘click’ at the beginning of the note you can
turn the filter envelope to maximum but the attack, release and sustain parameters should remain at zero with a very, very short decay stage. Finally the filter
key follow should be set so that the filter tracks the current pitch which will
produce the typical organ timbre that can then be modified further.

GENERIC LEADS
So far, we’ve looked at some of the most popular timbres used for dance leads
but as previously touched upon, there are literally thousands of combinations available, so what follows is a brief overview of how to produce the basic
patches that can be used as the basic building blocks to further develop upon.
1. As a starting point to trance, techno, big beat and lo-fi leads, mix a sawtooth oscillator with a square wave and detune them by at least 3 to produce a wide timbre. The amp EG is set to a fast attack with no sustain
and a medium release with a short decay. The filter’s (usually a low-pass
to keep the body of the sound) cut-off is set low with a medium resonance setting with the envelope using a fast attack, medium decay, low
sustain and no release. The amount the filter envelope modulates the filters will determine much of the sound, so start by using a high value and
reduce it as necessary. Employ filter key follow so that the filter tracks the
pitch and then experiment with LFOs modulating the filters and pitch. If
the sound still appears thin at this stage, make use of the unison feature
or add another square or sawtooth to produce a thicker sound.
2. As a starting point for hip-hop (assuming that you don’t want to sample it) and chill-out a triangle wave mixed with a square or saw wave
detuned by 5 or 7 will produce the basic harmonic patch. Using a
low-pass filter, set the cut-off and resonance quite low and set the keytracking to full. For the amplifier envelope, use a fast attack with a
medium decay and release and a sustain set just below the decay parameter. For the filter envelope, it’s prudent to use an attack that’s slightly
longer than the amp’s attack stage, along with a medium decay, low sustain and a release just short of the amp. Sync both oscillators together
and use an LFO to add some vibrato to the filter and the oscillators.
3. As a starting point for UK garage, try starting with a square, sine and triangle wave each detuned from each other as much as possible without
them appearing as distinct individual timbres. From this, use a low-pass
filter with the cut-off set quite high and no resonance, and set the keytracking to full. Use a zero attack, long decay, medium sustain and no
release for both the filter and the amp envelopes and modulate the pitch
of the triangle wave with either positive or negative values.
4. The basic timbres that the vintage techno and house sounds were based
around can be easily created on any analogue/DSP synthesizer by detuning

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saws, triangles or square waves by a 3rd, 5th or 7th. The choice of which
of these oscillators to use obviously depends on the type of sound you
require but once elected they should be detuned by an odd amount. The
amplifier EG is generally set at a zero attack, sustain and release while the
decay is used to shape the overall sound. The filter envelope is normally
set to match the amp’s EG, although if you require a pluck in the sound,
the decay should be set slightly shorter than the amp’s decay. The filter is
always set at low-pass and a good starting point is to use a high resonance
with a cut-off set about midway. Key follow is employed so the filter tracks
the keyboards pitch and it’s quite common to employ a pitch envelope on
both oscillators so that they pitch either up or down while playing.

The data CD contains audio examples of these timbres being programmed.

PROGRAMMING SOUND EFFECTS
Sound effects can play a fundamental role in the production of dance music
as they have a multitude of uses from creating drops and adding to builds to
sitting in the background and enhancing the overall mix. Indeed, their importance in dance music production should not be underestimated since without
them a mix can sound dry, characterless or just plain insipid.
For creating sound effects in a synthesizer, the most important parameter on a
synthesizer is the LFO as this can be used to modulate various parameters of any
sound. For instance, simply modulating a sine wave’s pitch and filter cut-off with
an LFO set to S&H or noise waveform will produce strange burbling noises while
a sine wave LFO modulating the pitch can produce siren-type effects. There are no
limits and as such no real advice on how to create them as it comes from experimenting with different LFO waveforms modulating different parameters and oscillators. Generally, though, the waveform used by the LFO will contribute a great
deal to the sound effect you receive. Triangle waves are great for creating bubbly,
almost liquid sounds, while saws are suitable for zipping type noises. Square waveforms are good for short percussive snaps such as gunshots and random waves are
particularly useful for creating burbling, shifting textures. All of these used at different modulation depths and rates, modulating different oscillators and parameters
will create wildly differing effects.
Additionally, if you’re using wave editors you shouldn’t discount their uses in creating sound effects. Most wave editors today feature their own synthesis engines
that allow you to create and mix raw waveforms that can then be affected and
treated to any plug-in effects you may own. For example, Steinberg’s WaveLab
test signal generator is very similar to an additive synthesizer, allowing you to
create sounds containing up to 64 different layers of waveforms and treat each
individually to different frequency, tremolo and vibrato values. There’s little need
to use this many layers as this will often results in a sound that’s far too complex

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

to be used as a sound effect so you don’t have to worry about typing in 64 different values for each.
Normally, most sound effects can be acquired from using just two or three
waveforms and some thoughtful and creative thinking. The real solution to
creating effects is to experiment with all the options at your disposal and not
be afraid of making a mess. Even the most unsuitable noises can be tonally
shaped with EQ and filters to be more suitable.
To help you along in your experiments, what follows is a small list of some
of the most popular effects and how they’re created. Unfortunately, though,
there are no specific terms to describe sound effects so what follows is a rough
description of the sound they produce, but from what we’ve covered so far in
this chapter simply reading about how the effect is created should give you a
good idea of what they will sound like. And, of course, if you’re still not sure,
try creating them to see how they sound…

SIREN FX
The siren is possibly the easiest sound effect to recreate. Set one oscillator to
produce a sine wave and use an amp envelope with a fast attack, sustain and
release and a medium decay. Finally, use a triangle wave or sine wave LFO to
modulate the pitch of the oscillator at full depth. The faster the LFO rate is set,
the faster the siren will become.

WHOOPING FX
To create a ‘whooping effect’ use one oscillator set to a sine wave with a fast
attack, no sustain or release and a longish decay on the amp EG. Modulate
the pitch of this sine wave with a fast attack and long decay set to a positive
amount and then programme a series of staccato notes into a MIDI sequencer.
Use these to trigger an arpeggiator set to one octave or less so that it constantly
repeats the same notes in a fast succession to create a whoop, whoop, whoop
effect.

ZAP FX
To create a zapping effect turn the filter cut-off down to zero and increase the
resonance until it breaks into self-oscillation, creating a pure sine wave. Set
the amplifier’s attack to a fast attack, sustain and release and a medium decay,
and use these same settings on the filter envelope. Set this latter envelope to
fully modulate the filter and then use either a triangle or saw wave LFO set at a
medium speed and full depth to modulate the filter’s cut-off.

EXPLOSION FX
To create explosive type effects requires two oscillators. One oscillator should
be set to a saw wave while the other should be set to a triangle wave. Detune

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the triangle from the saw by ⫹3, ⫹5 or ⫹7 and set a low-pass filter to a high
cut-off and resonance (but not so high that the filter self oscillates). Set the
amp’s envelope to a medium attack, sustain and release but with a long decay
and copy these settings to the filter envelope but make the decay a little shorter
than the amp’s EG. Use a sawtooth LFO set to a negative amount and use this
to control the pitch of the oscillators along with the filter’s cut-off. Finally,
use FM from the saw onto the triangle and play low down on the keyboard to
produce the explosive effects. Notably, the quality of the results from this will
depend on the synthesizer being used. Most digital and a few analogue synthesizers don’t produce a good effect when FM is used so the effect will differ from
synthesizer to synthesizer.

ZIPPING FX
This effect is quite popular in all forms of dance and is created with two oscillators
and an LFO to modulate the filter frequency. Start by selecting a saw and triangle
as the two oscillator waveforms and detune one from the other by ⫹7. Use a fast
attack and release along with a medium-to-long decay and medium sustain on
the amp’s EG and using a low-pass filter, set the cut-off quite low but use a high
resonance. Finally, set a sawtooth LFO (using a saw waveform that moves from
nothing to maximum) at full depth to slowly modulate the filter’s cut-off and, if
possible use an envelope to modulate the LFOs speed so that it gradually speeds
up as the note plays. If this is not possible, you’ll have to increase the speed of the
LFO manually and record the results into a sampler or audio sequencer.

RISING SPEED/FILTER FX
Another popular effect is the rising filter, whereby its speed increases as it opens
further. For the oscillator you can use a saw, pulse or triangle wave but a selfoscillating filter provides the best results. Set both the amp and filter EG to a
fast decay and release but a long attack and high sustain. Use a triangle or sine
LFO set to a positive mild depth and very slow rate (about 1 Hz) to modulate
the filter’s cut-off. Finally use the filter’s envelope to also modulate the speed
of the LFO so that as the filter opens the LFO also speeds up. If the synthesizer
doesn’t allow you to use multiple destinations, you can increase the speed of
the LFO manually and record the results into a sampler or audio sequencer.

FALLING SPEED/FILTER FX
This is basically the opposite of the previously described effect so that rather
than the filter rising and simultaneously speeding up, it falls while simultaneously slowing down. Again, set both the amp and filter EG to a fast decay and
release with a long attack but don’t use any sustain. Use a triangle or sine LFO
set to a positive mild depth and fast rate to modulate the filter’s cut-off. Finally
use the filter’s envelope to also modulate the speed of the LFO so that as the
filter closes the LFO also slows down. If the synthesizer doesn’t allow you to

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

use multiple destinations, you can decrease the speed of the LFO manually and
record the results into a sampler or audio sequencer.

DALEK VOICE
The Dalek voice isn’t just for Dr Who fans as it can be used in place of a
vocoder to produce more metallic style voices that are suitable for use in any
dance genre. This can be accomplished by recording your voice into a sampler
or sequencer and feeding it, along with a low-frequency sine wave, into a ring
modulator. You can experiment with the results of this by changing or using
cyclic modulation on the pitch of the sine wave entering the ring modulator.

SWEEPS
Sweeps are generally best created using sawtooth oscillators as their high harmonic content gives the filter plenty to work with. Start by using two oscillators
both set to sawtooth waves and detune them as far as possible without them
becoming individual timbres and feed the results into a ring modulator. On the
amp’s envelope, use a fast attack, decay and release but set the sustain parameter to maximum and then use a slow saw or triangle wave LFO to modulate
the pitch of one of the oscillators and the filters. For the filters, a band-pass will
produce the best results set to a medium cut-off but a very high resonance (but
not so high that is self oscillates). Finally, use a second saw, sine or triangle
LFO to modulate the filter’s cut-off to produce the typical sweeping effect.

GHOSTLY NOISES
To create ghostly noises from a synthesizer use two oscillators both set to triangle
waves. Using a low-pass filter set the cut-off quite low but employ a high resonance
and set the filter to track the keyboards pitch (filter key follow). Adjust the amp’s
EG to a fast attack with a long decay, high sustain and medium release and set the
filter’s envelope to a fast attack, long decay but no sustain or release. Finally, using
an LFO sine wave very slowly (about 1 Hz) modulate the pitch of the oscillators
and play chords in the bass register to produce the timbres.

COMPUTER BURBLES
Computer burbling noises can be created in a number of ways but by far the
most popular method is to use two oscillators both set to triangle waves.
Detune one of these from the other by ⫹3 cents and then set the filter envelope to a medium attack with a long decay with a medium release and no sustain. Do the same for the amp’s EG but use a high sustain and set the filter’s
envelope to positively but mildly modulate a low-pass filter with a low cut-off
and a high resonance. Finally ensure that filter key-tracking is switched on and
modulate the pitch of one, or both, of the oscillators with a noise or sample
and hold waveform. This should initially be set quite fast will a full depth but
it’s worth experimenting with the depth and speed to produce different results.

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SWOOSH FX
To create the typical swoosh effect (often used behind a snare roll to help in creating a build-up) the synthesizer will need both filter and amp envelopes but also a
third envelope that can be used to modulate the filter as well. To begin with, switch
all the oscillators off, or reduce their volume to zero, and increase the resonance
so that the filter breaks into self-oscillation. Use a filter envelope with no decay,
a medium release and attack and a high sustain and set it to positively affect the
filter by a small amount and then use a second envelope with these same setting
to affect the filter again, but this time set it to negatively affect the filter by the same
amount as before. Set the amp’s EG to no attack or sustain but a small release time
and a long decay and use a saw or triangle wave LFO set to a medium speed and
depth to positively modulate the filter’s cut-off. This will create the basic ‘swoosh’
effect but if possible employ a second LFO set to a different waveform from the
previous one to negatively modulate the filter by the same amount.

The data CD contains audio examples of these timbres being programmed.

PROGRAMMING NEW TIMBRES
Of course, there will come a time when you want to construct the timbre that’s in
your head but for this it’s important to note that you need to be experienced in
identifying the various sounds produced by oscillators and the effects they have
when mixed together. Also you need to be able to identify the effect positive and
negative envelope can impart on a sound along with the effects produced by an
LFO augmenting parameters. If you have this knowledge then constructing sounds
isn’t particularly complicated and just requires some careful consideration.
Firstly, when you’re attempting to come up with sounds on your own, it’s
important to be able to conceptualize exactly what you want the instrument
to be. This means that you need to imagine the completed sound (and this is
much more difficult than you envisage!) and then take it apart in your mind by
asking a series of questions such as:
■
■
■
■
■

■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Does the timbre start immediately?
How does it evolve in volume over time?
Is the instrument synthetic, plucked, struck, blown or bowed?
What happens to its pitch when it’s sounded?
Are there any pitches besides the fundamental that stand out enough to
be important to the timbre?
Does it continue to ring after the notes have been sounded?
How bright is the sound?
How much bass presence does the sound have?
Does it sound hollow, rounded, gritty or bright and sparkly?
What happens to this brightness over time?
Is there any modulation present?
What does the modulation do to the sound?

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

The answer to all these should be written down on paper otherwise you can
easily loose track and wind up going in another direction altogether. As a more
practical example of how this form of sound design is accomplished, we’ll tear
a sound apart and reconstruct it.

The data CD contains audio examples of these timbres being programmed.

We need to begin by examining a sound and then break it down into its subsequent parts. For this we can use the following chart as a general guideline:

General Sound

Technical Term

Synthesizers
Parameter

Type of sound

Harmonic content

Oscillators waveforms

Brightness

Amplitude of
harmonics

Filter cut-off and
resonance

Timbre changes over time

Dynamic filtering

Filter’s envelope

Volume changes over
time

Dynamic amplitude

Amplifier envelope

Pitch

Frequency

Oscillators pitch

Sound has a cyclic
variation

LFO modulation

LFO waveform, depth
and rate

Tremolo (cyclic variation
in volume)

Amplitude
modulation

LFO augments the
amplifier

Vibrato (cyclic variation in
pitch)

Pitch modulation

LFO augments the
pitch

Sound is percussive

Transient

Fast attack and decay
on the amplifier

Sound starts immediately
or fades in

Attack time

Lengthen or shorten
the attack and decay
stages

Sound stops immediately
or fades out

Release time

Lengthen or shorten
the release on the
amplifier

Sound gradually grows
‘richer’ in harmonics

Filter automation

Programmed CC
messages or a slow
rate LFO augmenting
the filter cut-off

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A useful step when first starting out the process of recreating timbres is to try
and emulate the sounds properties with your voice and mouth and record the
results. As madcap as this probably sounds (and to those around you while
you try it), not only will you have a physical record of the sound but the movements of the mouth and tongue can often help you determine much about the
sound you’re trying to construct. The expansion and contraction of the mouth’s
muscles can often be related to the filter, while movement of the tongue can
often be related to the LFO augmenting a parameter.
For this example, the sound is similar to saying wwOOOwww (listen to the timbre
and replicate it with your voice and mouth and this will make a little more sense).
From this we can determine that there is some filter augmentation in the timbre
since it opens and closes and that when it does, it allows higher harmonics
through as it sweeps. This means that it’s using a low-pass filter but as there is no
evidence of the characteristics of using an LFO waveform to modulate the timbre
(for instance a saw waveform would be evident by opening slowly and closing
suddenly etc.) it must be the filter envelope that’s modulating the filter’s cut-off.
What’s more, it’s quite easy to determine that the filter envelope is being applied
positively rather than negatively otherwise it would sound entirely different.
Therefore, we’ve determined so far that
■
■

The filter is augmented with an envelope and that it’s positive.
The filter is a low-pass.

Next, listening to the sound’s overall timbre it’s obviously quite rich in harmonics all of which change with the movements of the filter, so there is no
sine wave present. Additionally the timbre doesn’t exhibit a particularly hollow character or the bright ‘fizzy’ harmonics related with noise, so it’s safe to
assume that there is no square or noise waveform present either. This (generally) leaves two waveform options: a saw or a triangle. Finally, as we can hear
the filter moving in and out at key press, and it most definitely has a pluck to
it, we can also determine that the amp envelope is using a fast attack with a
long decay, little sustain, if any and a short release.
Thus we have
■
■

■
■

The timbre consists of either a saw or triangle wave, or both.
The amplifier envelope utilizes a fast attack, a long decay, perhaps a
small sustain and a short release.
The filter is augmented with an envelope and that it’s positive.
The filter is a low-pass.

At this point, it’s worth inputting these parameters into a synthesizer and experimenting with the oscillators and envelopes to see how close to the timbre you
can get with the parameters you’ve theorized thus far. If you’re not pitch perfect
it may first be worth setting the synthesizers to a single sine oscillator with the
aforementioned envelope settings and finding the key that the riff is in first as
this will help things along no end. Further experimentation should also reveal

Programming Theory CHAPTER 4

that the sound consists of both a saw and a triangle wave that are detuned from
each other to make the timbre appear as wide as it does (the saw is transposed
down an octave from the triangle).
Now that we have the basic timbre and amplifier settings, we can listen back to
the sound again. The sound isn’t particularly resonant, so the resonance must
be set quite low. Also the filter is sweeping the harmonic content quite rapidly,
so the filter must be 24 dB rather than 12 dB. What’s more, listening to the way
that the filter’s envelope augments the filter’s cut-off we can determine that the
envelope is using a long attack and decay with a medium sustain and release.
The final result is that to recreate the timbre two oscillators are used: a sine
and a triangle wave with the saw wave transposed down by an octave. The amp
envelope uses a fast attack with a long decay, no sustain and a fast release while
the filter envelope has a longish attack and decay with a medium sustain and
release.

GENERAL PROGRAMMING TIPS
■

■

■

■

■

■

■

■

Never bang away at a single key on the keyboard while programming, it
will not give you the full impression of the patch. Always play the motif
to the synthesizer before any programming.
Ears become accustomed to sounds very quickly and an unchanging
sound can quickly become tedious and tiresome. Consequently, it’s prudent to introduce sonic variation into long timbres through the use of
envelopes or LFOs augmenting the pitch or filters.
Generally speaking the simpler the motif, the more movement the
sound should exhibit. So for basses and motifs that are quite simple
assign the velocity to the filter cut-off, so the harder the key is hit the
brighter the sound becomes.
Don’t underestimate the uses of keyboard tracking. When activated this
can breathe new life into motifs that move up or down the range as the
filter’s cut-off will change.
Although all synthesizer share the same parameters, they do not all
sound the same. Simply copying the patch from one synthesizer to
another can produce totally different results.
Although the noise oscillator can seem useless in a synthesizer when
compared to the saw, sine, triangle and square waves, it happens to be
one of the most important oscillators when producing timbres for dance
and is used for everything from trance leads to hi-hats.
To learn more about the character of the synthesizers you use, dial up a
patch you don’t like, strip it down to the oscillators and then rebuild it
using different modulation options.
If you have no idea of what sound you require, set every synthesizer
parameter to maximum and then begin lowering each parameter to
sculpt the sound into something you like.

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■

■

■

■

■

■

■

Many bass sounds may become lost in the mix due to the lack of a sharp
transient. In this instance, synthesize a click or use a woodblock timbre
or similar to enhance the transient.
The best sounds are created from just one or occasionally two oscillators
modulated with no more than three envelopes: the filter, the amplifier
and the pitch. Try not to overcomplicate matters by using all the oscillators and modulation options at your disposal.
Try layering two sounds together but use different amplifier and filter
settings on both. For example, using a slow attack but quick decay and
release on one timbre and a fast attack and slow decay and release on
another will hocket the sounds together to produce interesting textures.
Never underestimate the uses of an LFO. A triangle wave set to modulate
the filter cut-off on a sound can breathe new life into a dreary timbre.
Remember that we determine a huge amount of information about
a sound from the initial transient. Thus, if you replace the attack of a
timbre with the attack portion of another it can create interesting
timbres. For instance, try replacing the attack stage of a pad or string
with a guitar’s pluck.
For more interesting transients, layer two oscillators together and at the
beginning of the note use the pitch envelope to pitch the first oscillator up and the second one down (i.e. using positive and negative pitch
modulation).
For sounds that have a long release stage, set the filter’s envelope attack
longer than the attack and decay stage but set the release slightly shorter
than the amp’s release stage. After this, send the envelope fully to the filter so that as the sound dies away the filter begins to open.

In the end programming good timbres comes from a mix of experience, experimentation and serendipity. What’s more, all of the preceding examples are just
that – examples to start you on the path towards sound design and you should
be willing to push the envelope (pun intended) much further. Try adding an
extra oscillator, changing the filters to high pass or band select, adjust the amp
and/or filter envelopes and try changing the LFOs modulation source, destination and/or waveform. The more time you set aside to experiment, the more
you’ll begin to understand not only the characteristics of your synthesizer but
also the effects each controller can impart on a sound. This will ultimately be
time well spent as professionally programmed sounds will make the difference
between a great dance track and an average one.

Digital Audio CHAPTER 5

127

CHAPTER 5

Digital Audio

’Why go digital? I come from a breed of musical
technicians that couldn’t live without getting the
latest technology on the market…’
Anonymous

While programming synthesizers is obviously important, dance music relies
on more than just this; today, it also relies on working directly with audio.
Whether the audio is sampled from another record, from film, or from TV or
recorded directly from the real world, the capability to record the results accurately can make the difference between a hit track and a middle-of-the-road
demo track.
With digital audio now at the forefront of technology and being used by all
dance musicians, it is imperative that you know how to perform digital recording accurately and precisely. Therefore, before we look at introducing realworld audio into your mix, be it through samplers or recording real-world
instruments/vocals, it is imperative that you have a thorough understanding of
how to capture the audio as perfectly as possible.
Indeed, when recording anything directly into a sampler, computer soundcard
or any digital recording device, you will get the best results by combining highlevel recordings with good sample and bit rates.
With any digital recording system, sound has to be converted from an analogue
signal (i.e. the sound you hear) to a digital format that the device can work with.
Any digital recording device accomplishes this by measuring the waveform of the
incoming signal at specific intervals and converting these measurements into a
series of numbers based on the amplitude of the waveform. Each of these numbers is known as an ‘individual sample’ and the total number of samples that are
taken every second is called the ‘sample rate’ (Figure 5.1).
On this basis, the more the samples taken every second, the better the overall
quality of the recording. For instance, if a waveform is sampled 2000 times/s,

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PART 1 Technology and Theory

FIGURE 5.1
Frequency

FIGURE 5.2
Example of sample
rate measurements

Sample rate

it will produce more accurate results than if it were sampled 1000 times/s
(Figure 5.2).
While this may seem basic in principle, it becomes more complex when you
consider that the sampling rate must be higher than the frequency of the waveform being recorded in order to produce accurate results. If it isn’t, then the
analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) could miss anything from half to entire
cycles of the waveform, resulting in a side effect known as ‘aliasing’.
This is the result of a real-world audio signal not being ‘measured’ in the correct places. For instance, a high-frequency waveform could confuse the ADC
into believing it’s actually of a lower frequency, which would effectively introduce a series of spurious low-frequency spikes into the audio file.

Digital Audio CHAPTER 5

To avoid this problem, you must make sure the sampling rate is greater than
twice the frequency of the waveform: a principle called the Nyquist–Shannon
theorem. This states that to recreate any waveform accurately in digital form, at
least two different points of a waveform’s cycle must be sampled. Consequently,
as the highest range of the human ear is a frequency of approximately 20 kHz,
the sample rate should be just over double this range. This is the principle from
which CD quality is derived.
That is, the sample rate of a typical domestic audio CD is 44.1 kHz which is
derived from the calculation:
Human hearing limit ⫽ 20 000 Hz
20 000 Hz ⫻ 2 ⫽ 40 000 Hz ⫹ 4 100 Hz (to make the rate more than twice the
optimum frequency and compensate for the anti-alias filter slope).
Although this frequency response has become the de facto standard used for all
domestic audio CDs, there are higher sampling frequencies available consisting
of 48 000, 88 200, 96 000 and 192 000 Hz.
Though these sampling rates are far beyond the frequency response of CD,
it is quite usual to work at these higher rates while processing and editing.
Although there has been no solid evidence to support the theory, it is believed
that higher sample rates provide better spatial signal resolution and reduce
phase problems at the high-frequency end of the spectrum as the anti-alias filters can be made much more transparent due to gentle cut-off slopes. Thus, if
the ADC supports higher rates, theoretically, there is no harm in working at the
highest available rate. Notably, many engineers argue that because the signal
must be reduced to 44.1 kHz when the mix is put onto CD, the downward conversion may introduce errors, so working at higher sampling rates is pointless.
If you do decide to work at a higher sample rate, it may be worthwhile using a
rate of 88 200 kHz, as this simplifies the down-sampling process.

BIT RATES
In addition to the sample rate, the bit rate also determines the overall quality of
the results of recording audio into a digital device. To comprehend the importance
of this, we need to examine the binary language used by all computers.
All computers utilize the binary language, that consists of two values, 1 and
0. The computer can count up to a specific number depending on how many
bits are used. For example, if an 8-bit system is used, it is possible to count to a
maximum of 256 values (0–255), while in a 24-bit system the maximum value
is 16 777 215 (Table 5.1).
Relating this to a digital audio recording system, the number of bits determines
the number of analogue voltages that are used to measure the volume of a
waveform, in effect increasing the overall dynamic range.

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Table 5.1
8-Bit

Binary

Bit Rates
16-Bit

Binary

20-Bit

Binary

24-Bit

Binary

0

1

0

1

0

1

0

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

2

1

2

1

2

1

2

1

4

1

4

1

4

1

4

1

8

1

8

1

8

1

8

1

16

1

16

1

16

1

16

1

32

1

32

1

32

1

32

1

64

1

64

1

64

1

64

1

128

1

128

1

128

1

128

1

256

1

256

1

256

1

512

1

512

1

512

1

1024

1

1024

1

1024

1

2048

1

2048

1

2048

1

4096

1

4096

1

4096

1

8192

1

8192

1

8192

1

16384

1

16384

1

16384

1

32768

1

32768

1

32768

1

65536

1

65536

1

131072

1

131072

1

262144

1

262144

1

524288

1

524288

1

1048576

1

2097152

1

4194304

1

255

65 535

1 048 575

16 777 215

Bit depth

Digital Audio CHAPTER 5

FIGURE 5.3
Example of bit depth

In technical applications the dynamic range is the ratio between the residual noise
(known as the noise floor) created by all audio equipment and the maximum
allowable volume before a specific amount of distortion is introduced.1
In relation to music, the dynamic range is the difference between the quietest
and loudest parts. For instance, classical music utilizes a huge dynamic range
by suddenly moving from very low to very high volume, the cannons in the
1812 Overture being a prime example. Most dance and pop music, on the other
hand, has a deliberately limited dynamic range so that it remains permanently
up front and ‘in your face’. Essentially, this means that if a low bit rate is used
for a recording, only a small dynamic range will be achieved. The inevitable
result is that the ratio between the noise floor and the loudest part of the audio
will be small, so background noise will be more evident. When the bit rate is
increased, each additional bit introduces another analogue voltage, which adds
another 6 dB to the dynamic range.
For example, if only one bit is used to record a sound, the recorder will produce a square wave at the same frequency as the original signal and at fixed
amplitude. This is because only one voltage is used to measure the volume
throughout the sampling frequency. However, if an 8-bit system is used, the
signal’s dynamic range will be represented by 256 different analogue voltages
and a more accurate representation of the waveform will result. It’s clear, then,
that a 24-bit audio signal will have a higher dynamic range than a 16-bit signal
(the bit rate used by CDs) (Figure 5.3).
At the time of writing, although 24-bit is the highest resolution available to
samplers’ and soundcards’ ADCs, a proportionate amount of audio-capable
software utilizes internal 32- or 64-bit processing. The reasoning behind using
bit rates this high is that whenever any form of processing is applied to a
digitized audio signal, quantization noise is introduced. This is a result of the
hardware rounding up to the nearest measurement level. The less rounding up
the hardware has to do (i.e. the more bits used), the less noise is introduced.
1

According to the IEC 268 standard, the dynamic range of any professional audio
equipment is measured by the difference between the total noise floor and the equivalent
sound pressure level where a certain amount of total harmonic distortion (measured in
THD) appears.

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This is a cumulative effect, meaning that as more digital processing is applied,
more quantization noise is introduced, and quantization noise needs to be
kept to a minimum. In more practical terms, this means that while a CD may
only accept a 16-bit recording, if a 24-bit process is used throughout digital
mixing, editing and processing, when the final sound is dropped to 16-bit resolution for burning to CD the quantization noise will be less apparent.
The process of ‘dropping out’ bits from a recording to reduce the bit rate is
known as ‘dithering’. Understanding how this actually works is not vital; what
is important is that the best available dithering algorithms are used. Poor-quality algorithms will have a detrimental effect on the music as a whole, resulting
in clicks, hiss or noise. As a reference, Apogee is well known and respected for
producing excellent dithering algorithms.
It isn’t always necessary to work at such a high bit rate; some genres of dance
music benefit from using a much lower rate. For instance, 12-bit samples are
often used in hip-hop to obtain the typical hip-hop sound. This is because the
original artists used old samplers that could only sample at 12-bit resolution;
thus, to write music in this genre it’s quite usual to limit the maximum bit rate
in order to reproduce these timbres. Similarly, with trip-hop and lo-fi, the sample rate is often lowered to 22 or 11 kHz, as this reproduces the gritty timbres
that are characteristic of the genre.
Ultimately, no matter what sample or bit rate is used, it’s important that the
converters on the soundcard or digital recorder are of a good standard and that
the amplitude of the signal for recording is as loud as possible (but without
clipping the recorder). Although all digital editors allow the gain of a recorded
signal to be increased after recording, the signal should ideally be recorded
as loud as possible so as to avoid having to artificially increase a signal’s gain
using software algorithms. This is because all electrical circuitry, no matter how
good or expensive, will have some residual noise associated with it due to the
random movement of electrons. Of course, the better the overall design the less
random movement there will be, but there will always be some noise present
so the ratio between the signal and this noise should be as high as possible.
If not, when you artificially increase the gain after it has been recorded, it will
increase any residual noise by the same amount.
For instance, suppose a melodic riff is sampled from a record at a relatively
low level, then the gain is artificially increased to make the sound audible; the
noise floor will increase in direct proportion to the audio signal. This produces
a loud signal with a loud background noise. If, however, the signal is recorded
as loud as possible, the ratio between the noise floor and the signal is greatly
increased. There is a fine line between capturing a recording at optimum gain
and actually recording the signal too loud so that it clips the recorder’s inputs.
This isn’t necessarily a problem with analogue recorders as they don’t
immediately distort when the input level gets a little too high – they have
‘headroom’ in case the odd transient hit pushes it too hard – but digital

Digital Audio CHAPTER 5

recorders will ‘clip’ immediately. Unlike analogue distortion, which can often
be quite pleasant, digital distortion cuts off the top of the waveform, resulting
in an ear-piercing clicking sound. This type of distortion obviously should be
avoided, so you need to set a recording level that is not loud enough to cause
distortion, yet not low enough to introduce too much noise.
All recording software or hardware, including samplers, will display a level
metre informing you how loud the input signal is, to help you determine
the appropriate levels. Before beginning to record, it’s vital to set this up
correctly. This is accomplished by adjusting the gain of the source so that the signal overload peaks light on only the most powerful parts and then backing off
slightly so that they are just below the clipping level. This approach is suitable
only if there isn’t too much volume fluctuation throughout the entire recording,
though. If a sample is taken from a record, CD or electronic instrument there’s a
good chance that the volume will be constant, but if a live source, such as vocals
or bass guitars, are recorded there can be a huge difference in the dynamics. It’s
doubtful that any vocalist, no matter how well trained, will perform at a constant level; in the music itself it’s quite common for the vocals to be softer in the
verse sections than they are in the chorus sections.
If the recording level is set so that the loudest sections don’t clip the recorder, any
quieter section will have a smaller signal-to-noise ratio, while if the recording
levels are set so that the quieter sections are captured at a high level, any louder
parts will send the metres into the red. To prevent this, it’s necessary to use a
device that will reduce the dynamic range of the performance by automatically
reducing the gain on the loud parts, while leaving the quieter parts unaffected,
thus allowing the recording levels to be increased on the quietest parts.
This dynamic restriction is accomplished by strapping a compressor between
the signal source and the input of the sampler or recording device. When the
compressor is set to squash any signal from the source above a certain threshold, any peaks that could cause clipping in the recorder are reduced and the
recording can be made at a substantially higher volume.

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Sampling and Sample Manipulation CHAPTER 6

135

CHAPTER 6

Sampling and Sample
Manipulation

’Culture, like science and technology, grows by
accretion, each new creator building on the works of
those who came before. Over-protection stifles the
very creative forces it’s supposed to nurture.’
Alex Kozinski
(Chief Judge of the Federal Claims Court)

The introduction of samplers in the 1980s changed the face of music forever.
In fact, they have made such a significant impact on music that all commercially produced music today, not just dance music, has been at least part realized with the aid of one. This isn’t solely due to the numerous genre-specific
sample CDs that are available, although these do often play a role, but because
samplers are one of the most creative tools you can have at your disposal.
With some creative thought, a recording of a ping-pong ball being thrown at
a garage door can become a tom drum, hitting a rolled up newspaper against
a wall can make an excellent house drum kick and the hissing from a compressed air freshener can produce great hi-hats. As a way of making music, sampling can be quick, easy and an immensely creative resource.
At a very basic level a sampler is the digital equivalent of an analogue tape recorder,
but rather than recording the audio signal onto a magnetic tape, it is recorded digitally into random access memory (RAM) or directly onto a hard disk drive. After
a sound has been recorded, it can then be manipulated using a series of editing
parameters, very similar to those on synthesizers, and also played back at varying
pitches from any attached controller keyboard. The variations in pitch are created
by the sampler, artificially increasing or decreasing the original frequency of the
sampled sound according to the key that is pressed. To raise the pitch the frequency
is increased while the pitch is lowered as the frequency is decreased.
This principle is analogous to the way that analogue tape behaves, whereby the
speed that the tape is played alters the pitch. However, as with analogue tape,

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if the sample’s speed is increased or decreased by a significant amount it will
no longer sound anything like the original source. For instance, if a single-key
strike from a piano is sampled at C3 and is played back at this same pitch from
a controller keyboard, the sample will play back perfectly. If, however, this
same sample were played back at C4 the sampler would increase the frequency
of the original sound by 12 semitones (from 130.81 to 523.25 Hz) and the
result would sound more like two spoons knocking together than the original
recording.
These extreme pitch adjustments aren’t necessarily a bad thing – particularly
for a creative endeavour such as dance music – but to recreate a real instrument, sampling a single note doesn’t provide a realistic sounding instrument
throughout the octaves. Indeed, most samplers only reproduce an acceptable
instrument sound four or five keys from the original root key, so if an original
instrument is needed throughout the keyrange, samples should be taken every
few keys of the original source instrument. This is called ‘multi-sampling’ and
when the source is sampled at every couple of keys and the samples assigned to
the same keys in the sampler. For example, with a piano it is prudent to sample
the keys at C0, E0, G0 and B0, then C1, E1, G1, B1 and so forth until the entire
range has been sampled.
Naturally, recording a sound in this way would equate to over 16 samples and
the more samples that are taken, the more memory the sampler must have available. Because most hardware (and some software) samplers hold the sampled
sounds in their onboard RAM, the maximum sampling time is limited by the
amount of available memory. At full audio bandwidth (20 Hz–20 kHz) and a
44.1 kHz sampling rate, 1 min of mono recording will use approximately 5 megabytes (MB) of RAM. In the case of sampling a piano, this would equate to 80 MB
of memory, and you can double this if you wanted it in stereo! Consequently,
over the years samplers have adopted various techniques to make the most of the
available memory, the first of which is to loop the samples.
As the overall length of a sample determines the amount of RAM that is
required, reducing the sample’s length means more samples will fit into the
memory space. Because most sounds have a distinctive attack and decay period
but the sustain element remains consistent, the sustain portion can be continually looped for as long as the key is held, moving to the release part after the
key is released. This means that only a short burst of the sustain period must
be sampled, helping to conserve memory. Well, that’s the theory anyway. In
practice sustain looping can prove particularly difficult.
The difficulty arises from the fact that what appears to be a consistent sustain
period of a sound is, in most cases, rarely static due to slight yet continual
changes in the harmonic structure. If only a small segment of this harmonic
movement is looped, the results would sound unnatural. Conversely, if too
long a section is looped in an effort to capture the harmonic movements, the
decay or some of the release period may also be captured and again, when
looped, the final sound will still be unusual. In addition, any looping points

Sampling and Sample Manipulation CHAPTER 6

must start and end at the same phase and level during the waveform. If not, the
difference in phase or volume could result in an audible click as the waveform
reaches the end of its looped section and jumps back to the beginning.
Some samplers offer a work around to this latter problem and automatically
locate the nearest zero crossing to the position you choose. While this increases
the likelihood that a smoother crossover is achieved, if the waveform’s level is
different at the two loop points there will still be a glitch. These glitches can,
however, be avoided if the sampler has a cross-fading feature.
Cross-fading works by fading out the end of the looped section and overlapping
this fade-out with the start of the loop that’s fading in. This creates a smooth
crossover between the two looping points, reducing the possibility that glitches
are introduced. Although this goes some way to resolve the problems associated with looped samples, this is not necessarily the best solution because if
the start and end of the looped points are at different frequencies there will be
an apparent change in the overall timbre during the cross-fade. Unfortunately,
there is no quick fix for avoiding the pitfalls associated with successfully creating a looped segment, so success can only be accredited to patience, experimentation and experience.
Having said that, some samplers now utilize ‘sample streaming’, this eliminates
the need to squeeze all the samples into available RAM. Often referred to as
‘ROMplers’, samples are stored on a local hard disk and only the start of the sample is held in the RAM. By using a small buffer, the RAM begins playback after the
key is pressed and is constantly updated with the new data directly from the hard
disk, allowing samples of any length to be played back. With today’s disk drives
capable of storing up to and above 200 gigabytes (GB) of data, it’s possible to
store massive multi-samples. Indeed, it’s quite usual for ROMplers to use sample
sets made up of the source instrument sampled at every note, at different velocities, and with the foot pedals (if applicable) in different positions.
It’ll come as no surprise to learn that this form of key multi-sampling is incredibly time consuming to undertake yourself and without access to the right
equipment, impossible to accomplish accurately. Even most professional dance
artists do not have the experience or equipment required to successfully multisample real instruments. With this in mind, if real instruments are required it’s
much easier to buy a collection of well-recorded sounds on a sample CD than
to attempt to build them yourself.

SAMPLE CDS
Sample CDs are produced in several formats to suit different samplers and
essentially fall into four categories:
■
■
■
■

Audio CD,
Wave/Aiff CD (WAV),
CD-ROM and,
Sample-based instruments.

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FIGURE 6.1
East West’s Goliath
Instrument

Due to the popularity of using PCs and Macs for music, Wave CD formats are
generally the most popular format as these can be copied digitally from the
CD into a compatible software sampler where they can then be key mapped
and edited further. Sample-based instruments are beginning to take over from
the standard Wave style CDs. Although these cannot be directly compared to
a sampler, they are software instruments that contain a number of samples
already placed along the keyboard. For example, East West’s Goliath is a software instrument containing over 35 GB (Gigabytes!) of sampled instruments,
each instrument is held in a bank (similar to a sampler or other instrument)
and the instruments are pitched right across the keyboard meaning you do not
have to sample any instruments yourself (Figure 6.1).
Audio CDs can be played by any conventional CD player and can be recorded
into any sampler hardware or software. Alternatively, if a software sampler is
used, the audio can be ‘ripped’ into the computer and used directly with no
loss in audio quality and no need to constantly check the recording levels to
ensure that you have the best signal-to-noise ratio.
The disadvantage, however, is that after the sounds have been sampled, they
must be named, loops created if needed, cross-fades created and key ranges
defined. This can be incredibly time-consuming, taking anything from a few

Sampling and Sample Manipulation CHAPTER 6

hours to over a few days to set up a multi-sampled instrument, depending on
the sampler’s interface.
This is where sample CD-ROMs offer the advantage, though they are considerably more expensive than both Wave and audio CDs. Because the samples
are all stored on a CD in a data format the samples are already named, key
mapped and looped (if necessary) to suit the sampler. This means that it’s
not necessary to spend time arranging the samples across the keyboard, setting
up loops and so on. The data files are simply loaded into the sampler ready
for work.
While this has the obvious advantage of easing the sampling process, typically,
there are also some disadvantages. The data on the CD must be compatible
with the operating system used by the sampler. This isn’t so much of a problem
with the most established sampler manufacturers such as AKAI and E-MU since
these are cross-compatible with each other to a certain extent. For instance, the
AKAI S6000 sampler will import CDs that are designed for use with E-MU samplers (and vice versa), but keep in mind that there may be slight discrepancies
when using a format-specific CD across different samplers in this way.
Even though the basic operating systems of most samplers are quite similar,
each has slightly different parameters on offer. If these have been exploited
in the CD-ROM then they may not interpret well on a different sampler. The
most common consequence is a difference in the timbre, simply because of
different filter algorithms and settings employed by different samplers but in
more severe cases, the key-mapping may not come out quite as expected, the
sustain samples may not loop properly, or velocity modulation may not work
correctly.
Although sample CDs have some quite obvious advantages (and are quite
heavily used in all dance music genres), it’s important to understand the various clauses involved in their commercial use.
When a sample CD is purchased, the cost includes a licence to use the sounds
in your own projects. This licence does not include the copyright to the sounds
as these belong to the manufacturer. You are simply granted a licence to use
them. It’s important to understand the content of this licence because if a mistake is made and a commercial track using them is released, you could be in
for a heavy ride for copyright infringement.
Most sample CDs specifically mention the ‘musical context’ for their use, meaning that they can be used in musical productions without having to notify the
original artist or pay royalties but you cannot use them for library music or
other sample CDs. It is vitally important that you read all the terms, though,
since some sample CDs have quite unusual terms ranging from acknowledging the sample’s source on the documentation accompanying a commercial
releases, asking the copyright owner for permission or paying them a share of
the royalties from every sale! These latter clauses are rare but always check first.

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BASIC SAMPLING PRACTICES
Nearly all the sample CDs that are aimed at dance musicians consist of single
hits rather than multi-sampled instruments. This is because the bass and melodies in dance music are usually simple with very little movement throughout
the octave. Also, single hit samples of synthesized basses and leads, along with
most woodwind and brass instruments, can be successfully stretched over more
keys than string instruments such as pianos, violins, harps or guitars.
Nevertheless, before any of these are imported into a sampler, the ‘root’ key
must be set. This is the key that the sampler will use as a reference point for
stretching the subsequent notes up or down along the length of the keyboard.
For instance, bass samples are typically set up with the root key at C1, meaning that if this key is pressed the sample will play back at its original frequency.
This can then be stretched across the keyboard’s range as much as required. In
most hardware samples, the root key is set in the keyrange or keyzone page
along with the lowest and highest keys available for the sample. Using this
information the sampler automatically spreads the root note across the defined
range and the bass can be played within the specified range of notes. To gain
the best results from the subsequent pitch adjustments on each key, it is preferable that the sampler’s keyrange is set to 6 notes above and below the root.
This allows the sample to be played over the octave, if required, and will produce much more natural results than if the root note were stretched 12 semitones up or down. Even if you’re not planning to play the instrument over an
octave, it’s still prudent to set the keyrange to span an octave anyway, as this
makes more pitches available if they’re needed later.
When setting a keyzone for bass sounds, it may be possible to set the range
much lower than 6 semitones, as pitch is determined by the fundamental frequency and the lower this is the more difficult it is to perceive pitch. Thus, for
bass samples it may be possible to set the lowest key of the keyzone to 12 semitones (an octave) below the root without introducing any unwanted artefacts.
In fact, pretty much anything sounds good if it’s pitched down low enough.
Most competent samplers will also allow a number of keyzones to be set across
the keyboard. This makes it possible to have, say, a bass sample occupying F0
to F1 and a lead sample occupying F2 to F3. If set up is in this way then both
the bass and lead can be played simultaneously from an attached controller
keyboard. In taking this approach, it is worth checking that each keyzone can
access different parameters of the sampler’s modulation engine. If this is not
possible, settings applied to the bass will also apply to the lead. To avoid this
it’s prudent to allocate each keyzone to an individual MIDI channel. Because
the majority of samplers are multitimbral, it’s usually possible to set different
synthesis parameters on each MIDI channel.
After the samples are arranged into keyzones, you can set how the sampler will
behave depending on how hard the key is hit on a controller keyboard. This
uses ‘velocity modulation’, which is useful for recreating the movement within

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sounds. The immediate use for this is to set the velocity to react with a lowpass filter so that the harder the key is hit the more the filter opens. This can be
used to add expression to any riffs or melodies and prevent the static feel that
is often a consequence of using a series of sampled sounds.
‘Velocity cross-fading’ and ‘switching’ are also worth experimenting with, if
the sampler has these facilities. Switching involves taking two samples and
using velocity values to determine which one should play. The two samples are
imported into the same keyrange and hitting the key harder (or softer) changes
between the two samples. Velocity cross-fading uses this same principal but
morphs the two samples together creating a (hopefully) seamless blend rather
than an immediate switch between one and the other. Although velocity crossfading produces more convincing results it also reduces the polyphony of the
sampler as it has to play two samples together while it cross-fades between
them. Both these velocity-related parameters are typically used to emulate the
nuances of real-world instruments such as a piano where the harder a note is
struck the more the tonal content changes.

WORKING WITH LOOPS
Alongside single synthesizer hits, the majority of sample CDs also feature a
number of programmed or recorded drum loops to suit the genre of the CD.
These can be imported/recorded into a sampler and subsequently re-triggered
continually to create the effect of a constant drum track to play throughout the
length of the music. More interestingly, because samplers store the audio in
RAM (or on a hard drive) once a loop is recorded the sound will start over
from the beginning every time a key is pressed. Thus, if a key on a controller
keyboard is tapped continually the loop will start repeatedly, producing a stuttering effect. This technique can be used to create breakdowns in dance music.
Alternatively, the sampler can be set to ‘one-shot trigger mode’, so that a quick
tap on a controller keyboard plays the sample in its entirety even if the key
is released before the sample has finished playback. This is useful if you want
the original sample to play through to its normal conclusion while triggering
the same sample again to play over the top. This technique can be used to create complex drum loops and break beats; a few instances of the same loop are
playing simultaneously, each out of time and perhaps pitch with one another.
If either of these methods are used to trigger a drum loop or motif to play
throughout the length of the track, it is important to ensure that the sample is
not looped from within the sampler but is, instead, re-triggered every couple
of bars by the sequencer. Bear in mind that whenever a sample is triggered, the
only part that will be in sync with the rest of the music is the start of the sample. After this, you’re relying entirely on the sampler’s internal clock to keep in
time with the sequencer. This may not necessarily be an issue if the sampler can
be locked to a MIDI clock, but if this is not possible the two could drift apart.
For example, if a 2-bar drum loop is sampled and programmed to constantly
repeat for as long as a MIDI note-on is present, unless it has been looped with

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sample accuracy the timing will begin to drift as the track continues. While a
couple of milliseconds drift near the beginning of the track may be unnoticeable, over the length of a 5 or 6 min track the timing could drift out by a couple
of seconds.
This form of looping, however, shouldn’t be confused with the term ‘phrase
sampling’ as this consists of sampling a short musical phrase that is only used
a couple of times throughout a song. This method is commonly used in dance
music for sampling a short vocal phrase or hook that is then triggered occasionally to fit with the music. This phrase sampling technique can also be
developed further to test new musical ideas. By slicing your own song into a
series of 4-bar sections and assigning each loop to a particular key on the keyboard you can trigger the loops in different orders so you can determine the
order that works best. What’s more, if 4 bars of each individual track of the
mix (drums, bass, lead, etc.) are sampled, each one can be played back from
the keyboard, allowing you to quickly change the timing of each track in relation to the others. Many club records are constructed this way, but with the
sampler’s one-shot triggering deactivated so that either the entire track or the
groove of the record can be ‘stuttered’ to signify a break or build in the music.
So far, we’ve assumed that the phrase or loop that has been sampled is at the
same tempo and/or pitch as the rest of the mix but more often than not this
isn’t the case. Accordingly, all samplers provide pitch-shifting and time-stretching
functions so that the pitch and tempo of the phrase or loop can be adjusted to fit
with the music. Both these functions are pretty much self-explanatory: the pitchshift function changes the pitch of notes or an entire riff without changing the
tempo and time stretching adjusts the tempo without affecting the pitch.
These are, of course, both useful tools to have but it’s important to note that
the quality of the results is proportionate to how far they are pushed. While
most pitch-shifting algorithms remain musical when moving notes up or down
the range by a few semitones, if the pitch is shifted by more than 5 or 6 semitones the sound may begin to exhibit an unnatural quality. Similarly, while it
should be possible to adjust the tempo by 25 BPM without introducing any
digital artefacts, any adjustments above this may introduce noise or crunching
that will compromise the audio.
Due to the limitations of time stretching, it’s often more sensible to ‘comp’
parts together to increase or decrease their speed. This involves importing the
audio loop into the sequencer of choice and cutting each constituent hit to
create a number of single hits. These can then be spaced apart to fit appropriately with the tempo and small amounts of time stretching/compressing can
be applied to each hit to make the loop fit together again. This method of
comping is particularly important when working with vocals. By cutting them
into separate words and sometimes even syllables, it’s possible to correct small
nuances in timing which produces a better end result.
It can also be advantageous to sample some of your own synthesizer’s sounds,
although the reason for taking this approach may not be immediately obvious.

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For example, if you want to play a timbre polyphonically but the synthesizer
is monophonic (can only play one sound at any one time) or monotimbral
(can only play one type of sound at one time) and you want to use more than
one type of sound from the same synthesizer, the sampler will allow these possibilities. Multi-sampling the synthesizer at every key essentially recreates the
synthesizer in the sampler allowing for polyphonic or multitimbral operation.
In some instances the sampler may also even offer more synthesis parameters
than are available on the synthesizer enabling you to, say, synchronize the LFO
to the tempo, use numerous LFOs or access numerous different filter types.
There’s more to sampling a synthesizer than simply recording the timbre into
a sampler, though, and creating an acceptable multi-sampled (or even singlekeyed) instrument requires careful consideration. For starters, it’s prudent to
expose the filter (by setting the cut-off fully open and resonance fully closed so
that they have no effect on the timbre), deactivate any LFO modulation, and set
the amplifier envelope to its fastest attack and longest release. By doing so, a relatively static sound will be easier to sustain in a loop, and the envelope, filter and
LFO movements can be replicated using the sampler’s own synthesis engine.
While this approach is generally the best, there will undoubtedly be occasions
where it isn’t possible to remove the modulation (such as sampling from previous ‘hit’ records) in which case you’ll have to exercise care. Bear in mind that
any timbre that evolves over time will be difficult to map across a keyboard
because as the pitch is adjusted by playing over the keyboard, the modulation
rate will increase or decrease. This can be particularly apparent when an LFO
has been used to augment the timbre, because the timing may be slightly out
making any sustain looping impossible to achieve. Unfortunately, there is no
direct way of overcoming these limitations short of applying a series of effects
such as reverb or distortion in an attempt to mask some of the modulation.

CREATING PROFESSIONAL LOOPS FROM
SINGLE HITS
Many sample CDs not only contain drum loops but also single hits. Often
when you cannot find a loop appropriate for the music, you may prefer to use
the individual sampled hits to create your own loops. This, however, can be
more difficult than it sounds.
The big ‘secret’ behind getting a good, professional sounding loop is to keep the
length of the hits short to add a dynamic edge to the rhythm. Keep in mind that
long drum sounds cover the gaps between each of the drum hits and this lessens
the impact of the rhythm. Jumping from silence to sound then back again to
silence will have a much more dramatic impact than sounds occurring directly
one after the other. What’s more, long samples can also cause problems with
the bass line as a deep kick will tend to merge with the bass line resulting in a
muddy sounding bottom end, so it’s prudent to keep the kick drum snappy as
this will introduce space between the hits resulting in a more dynamic rhythm.

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Generally speaking, if the bass line is quite heavy, the drums are tighter and more
controlled whereas if the bass is quite bright and breezy the drums are more
‘sloppy’ with less space between hits (i.e. by increasing the decay).
This can be accomplished by reducing the decay of the less important percussion (such as toms, claves, tambourines, etc.) and then moving onto the more
important elements such as the kick, snare and hi-hats. It’s also worthwhile
sampling/bouncing down the loop and then run a noise gate across the loop.
By setting the threshold so that most of the percussive elements lie above it
and experimenting with the hold and decay times it’s possible to introduce
character to loops that were initially quite superficial. Heavier beats or rhythms
can also be made by applying light reverb over the loop as a whole and then
employing a noise gate to remove the reverbs tail. The gate can also be used as
a distortion tool for drums provided that it’s set up correctly.
If you play back a loop into a noise gate and set the attack, hold and release
parameters to zero the gate will open and close in quick succession often resulting in the gate following the individual cycles of the low-frequency kick. As a
result, the waveforms that fall below the threshold become a series of square
waves while the peaks remain unmolested, resulting in a distorted loop. The
amount of distortion can then be controlled by lowering or raising the threshold.
Compression can also be used to produce a crunchy distortion that is particularly
suited towards big beat, hip-hop and techno drum loops. For this, two compressors are used in serial with the drum loop fed into the first compressor set to a
high ratio and low threshold mixed with a fast attack and release. If the output
gain of this compressor is pushed high enough it results in distortion of the midrange which adds the typical vintage character of these genres. By feeding this output into a second compressor, the distortion can be controlled to prevent it from
clipping the inputs of the recording device (or the outputs of a wave editor).
Generally, an opto compressor, such as the Waves Renaissance Compressor
or the Sonalksis TBK3, produces the best results but it is worth experimenting
with other vintage-style compressors. It’s also worth noting that hip-hop, lo-fi
and big beat will also often use ‘crunchy’, dirty timbres which is best accomplished by lowering the bit rate to 12-bit or the sample rate to 22 kHz prior to
compression or distortion. This replicates the ‘feel’ of these rhythms as many
are commonly sampled from other records.
On that point, although I can’t condone lifting samples from previous records
because of the legal consequences, it would be incredibly naive to suggest that
some house and hip-hop artists, in particular, do not sample drum loops and
sometimes entire grooves from other vinyl records. In fact, in many instances
this sampling is absolutely paramount in attaining the ‘feel’ of the music.
Although there are plenty of sample CDs dedicated to both these genres, they
are generally best avoided as everyone will have access to the very same CDs.
The trick is to find old records that have preferably only been pressed in a
small amount due to their obscurity. Indeed, the more obscure the better as

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it’s unlikely that any other producers will have access to the same records and
if required, you’ll be able to get copyright permission much more easily. These
records can be sourced in the majority second-hand and charity shops but try
to ensure that the records are over 20 years old as it’s the character of the sound
that matters the most.
Once you have a good collection (over 100 records is often classed as an average
collection) you’ll need to listen to each for an exposed segment of the drums to
sample. Although you can sample these straight off the record and use them as it
is, it’s much better to be a little more creative and drop the loop into a sequencer
to comp the parts together. Once this is accomplished the rhythm can be shifted
around and the timing can be adjusted to produce new variations.
Of course, comping loops in this fashion can be incredibly time-consuming
and, in some instances, may not be possible if the loop is quite complex or
played live as it’s likely that hi-hats may occur partway through a snare or kick.
If you were to cut these and move them the rhythm may lose its cohesion and
sound dreadful so as an alternative it may be worthwhile layering other hits
over the top of the original loop or write a new pattern to sit over the original.
If you take this latter approach, however, you need to exercise caution as it’s
a fine line between a great loop and a poor one. The most common problem
experienced is that the loop becomes too complex and if this is the case it’s
prudent to place the loop in a wave editor or sequencer and reduce the volume
of the offending parts.

CREATIVE SAMPLING AND EFFECTS
The main key with sampling is to be creative. While many musicians simply
rely on the sampler to record a drum loop (which can be accomplished with
any sequencer) they are not using them to their full extent and experimentation is the real key to any sampler. Therefore, what follows are some general
ideas to get you started in experimental sampling.

Creative Sampling
Although cheap microphones are worth avoiding if you want to record good
vocals they do have other creative uses. Simply plugging one into a sampler and
striking the top of the mic with a newspaper or your hand can be used as the
starting point of kick drums. Additionally scratching the top of the microphone
can be used as the starting point to Guiro’s. You should also listen for sounds
in the real world to sample and contort – FSOL have made most of their music
using only samples of the real world. Todd Terry acquired snare samples by
bouncing a golf ball off a wall, and Mark Moore used an aerosol as an open
hi-hat sound. Hitting a plastic bin with a wet newspaper can be used as a thick
slurring kick drum, and scraping a key down the strings of a piano or guitar can
be used as the basis for whirring string effects (it worked for Dr Who’s TARDIS
anyway). Once sampled these sounds can be pitched up or down, or effected as
you see fit. Even subtle pitch changes can produce effective results. For example,

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pitching up an analogue snare by just a few semitones results in the snare used
on drum ‘n’ bass, while pitching it down gives you the snare typical of lo-fi.

Sample Reversing
This is probably the most immediate effect to try but while it’s incredibly simple to implement it can produce great results. The simplest use of this is to
sample a cymbal hit and then reverse it in the sampler (or wave editor) to produce a reverse cymbal that can be used to signify the introduction of a new
instrument. More creative options appear when you consider that reversing any
sound with a fast attack but long decay or release will create a sound with long
attack and an immediate release.
For example, a guitar pluck can be reversed and mixed with a lead that isn’t.
The two attack stages will meet if they’re placed together and these can be
cross-faded together. Alternatively, the attack of the guitar could be removed so
that the timbre begins with a reverse guitar which then moves into the sharp
attack phase of a lead sound or pad. On the other hand, if a timbre is recorded
in stereo, the left channel could be reversed while the right channels stays as is
to produce a mix of the two timbres. You could then sum these to mono and
apply EQ, filters or effects to shape the sound further.

Pitch Shifting
A popular method used by dance producers is to pitch-shift a vocal phrase, pad
or lead sound by a fifth as this can often create impressive harmonies. If pads
or leads are shifted further than this and mixed in with the original it can introduce a pleasant phasing effect. Despite the advice from some, however, this will
not work well on drum loops. Keep in mind that these form a crucial part of
the track and should be as dynamic as possible.

Time Stretching
Time stretching adjusts the length of a sample while also leaving the pitch
unchanged. It does this by cutting or adding samples at various intervals during
the course of the sample so that it reaches the desired length, while, to a certain
extent, smoothing out the side-effects of this process on the quality and timbre of
the sound. This is a complex, processor-intensive, process and is not usually suitable for extreme stretching. For instance, stretching a 67 BPM loop into 150 BPM
introduces unpleasant digital noise into sounds but this isn’t something that
you should always want to avoid. Continually stretching and shortening loops,
vocals, motifs or even single notes will introduce more and more digital noise
which is great for dirtying up sounds for use in hip-hop, lo-fi and big beat. If a
timbre is programmed on a synthesizer, sampled and stretched numerous times
the resulting noisy timbre can be sampled and used to play the motif.

Perceptual Encoding
Similarly, any perceptual encoding devices (such as minidisk) can be used to
compress and mangle loops further. Fundamentally, these work by analysing

Sampling and Sample Manipulation CHAPTER 6

the incoming data and removing anything that the device deems irrelevant. In
other words, data representing sounds that are considered to be inaudible in
the presence of the other elements are removed, which can sometimes be beneficial on loops.

Physical Flanging
Most flanger effects are designed to have a low noise floor which isn’t of much
use if you need a dirty flanging effect for use in some genres of dance. This can,
however, be created if you own an old analogue cassette recorder. If you record
the sound to cassette and applying a small amount of pressure on the drive
spool the sound will begin to flange in a dirty uncontrollable manner, this can
then be re-recorded into the sampler.

Gritty Sounds
Most dance musicians will not only use the latest samplers but also own a
couple of old samplers. Due to the low bit and sample rate quality of these
samples, any sounds that are recorded using them take on a gritty, dirty nature.
This same effect can be accomplished in most of today’s samplers and wave
editors by reducing the bit and sample rates of the audio. This type of effect is
especially used in hip-hop and lo-fi to create the gritty drum loops.

Transient Slicing
A popular technique for house tracks is to design a pad with a slow resonant
filter sweep and then sample the results. Once in a sampler, the slow attack
phase of the pad is cut-off so that the sound begins suddenly and sharply. As
the transient is the most important part of the timbre, this creates an interesting side-effect that can be particularly striking when placed in a mix.
In the end creative use of samplers comes from a mix of experience, experimentation and serendipity. What’s more, all of the preceding examples are just that –
examples to start you on the path towards creative sampling and you should
be willing to push the envelope much further. The more time you set aside to
experiment, the more you’ll learn and the better results you’ll achieve.

SAMPLES AND CLEARANCE
I couldn’t possibly end a chapter on sampling without mentioning copyright
law. Ever since dance music broke onto the scene, motifs, vocal hooks, drum
loops, basses and even entire sections of music from countless records have been
sampled, manipulated and otherwise mangled in the name of art. Hits by James
Brown, Chicago, Donna Summer, Chic, Chaka Khan, Sylvester, Lolita Holloway,
Locksmith and Michael Jackson along with innumerable others have come under
the dance musicians’ sample knife and been remodelled for the dance floor.
Although in the earlier years of dance artists managed to get away with releasing
records without clearing the samples, this was because it was a new trend and

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neither the original artists nor record companies were aware of a way that they
could prevent it. This changed in the early 1990s, when the sampling of original records proved it was more than just a passing fad. Today, companies know
exactly what to do if they hear that one of their artists’ hits has been sampled
and, in most cases, they come down particularly hard on those responsible.
In other words, before you begin sampling another artist’s motif, drum, vocals
or entire verse/chorus consider that by law you cannot sample anything from
anybody else and use it commercially without clearance.
To help clear up some of the myths that still circulate – about how small initial
pressings or samples under a certain length are not covered by law – I spoke
to John Mitchell, a music solicitor who has successfully cleared innumerable
samples for me and many other artists.
What is copyright?
’Copyright exists in numerous forms and if I were to explain the entire copyright law
it would probably use up most of your publication. To summarise, it belongs to the creator and is protected from the moment of conception, exists for the lifetime of the creator and another 70 years after their death. Once out of copyright, the work becomes
‘public domain’ and any new versions of that work can be copyrighted again.’
So it would be okay to sample Beethoven or another classical composer?
’In theory Yes, but most probably No. The question arises as to where did you sample
the recording from because it certainly wouldn’t have been from the original composer.
Although copyright belongs to the creator, the performance is also copyrighted. When
a company releases a compilation of classical records they will have been re-recorded
and the company will own the copyright to that particular performance. If you sample
it you’re breaching the performance copyright.’
What if you’ve transcribed it and recorded your own performance?
’This is a legal wrangle that is far too complex to discuss here as it depends on the
original composer and the piece of music. When the original copyright expires and it’s
re-recorded the subsequent company may own the copyright to both the performance
and the creation. My advice is to check first before you attempt to sample or transcribe
anything.’
So what can you get away with when sampling copyright music or speech?
’Nothing, there seems to be a rumour circulating that if the sample is less than 30 s in
length you don’t need any clearance but this simply isn’t true. If the sample is only a
second in length and its copyright protected you are breaking the law if you commercially release your music containing it.’
What if the sample were heavily disguised with effects and EQ?
’You do stand a better chance of getting way with it but that’s not to say you will.
Many artists spend a surmountable amount of time creating their sounds and
melodies and it isn’t too difficult to spot them if they’re used on other tracks. It really
isn’t worth the risk!’

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Does this same copyright law apply to sampling snippets of vocals from TV,
radio, DVD, etc.?
’Yes, sampling vocal snippets or music from films breaches a number of copyrights, including the script writer (the creator) and the actor who performed the words (the performer).’
Is there an organization that monitors all the releases?
’Not as far as I’m aware but I do know that the Mechanical Copyright Protection
Society employs a number of DJs who actively listen out for records containing illegal
samples. Plus, if the record becomes a big hit more people will hear it and the chances
are that someone will recognise it eventually.’
So what action can be taken if clearance hasn’t been obtained?
’It all depends on the artist and the record company who own the recording. If the
record is selling well then they may approach you and work a deal, but be forewarned
that the record company and artist will have the upper hand when negotiating monies.
Alternatively, they can take out an injunction to have all copies of the record destroyed.
They also have the right to sue the samplist.’
Does it make any difference how many pressings are being produced for
retail with the uncleared samples on them?
’This reminds me of another urban myth: if you produce and sell fewer than 5000
copies then there is no need to obtain sample clearance. This couldn’t be further from
the truth. If just one record were released commercially containing an illegal sample
the original artist has the legal rights to prevent any more pressings being released.’
What if the record were released to DJs only?
’It makes no difference. The recording is being aired to a public audience.’
Can you go to prison for illegal use of samples?
’It hasn’t happened yet but that’s not to say that it never will. At the moment, breaching copyright law is viewed as a civil, not criminal offence, but times change and I
would fully recommend acquiring the clearance before using any samples. You don’t
want to be the first exception to the rule.’
How much does it cost to get sample clearance?
’It depends on a number of factors. How well known the original artist is, the sampled
record’s previous chart history, how much of the sample you’ve used in your track and how
many pressings you’re planning to make. Some artists are all too willing to give sample
clearance because it earns them royalties while other will want ridiculous sums of money.’
How do you clear a sample?
’Due to the popularity of sampling from other records there are companies appearing every week who will work on your behalf to clear a sample. However, my personal advice would be to talk to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society. These
guys handle the licensing for the recording of musical works and started a Sample
Clearance Department in 1994. Although they will not personally handle the clearance itself – for that you need someone like myself – they can certainly put you in
touch with the artist or record company involved.’

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Recording Vocals CHAPTER 7

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CHAPTER 7

Recording Vocals

’I recorded one girl down the phone from America
straight to my Walkman and we used it on the album.
If we’d taken her into the studio it would have
sounded too clean…’
Mark Moore

Although originally vocals played a particularly small role in the dance music
scene, over the years the vocal content has grown significantly to the point that,
unless you can gain permission to use another artist’s vocal performance, you
need to be proficient at recording them.
This is much more difficult than it first appears and there’s certainly much
more to it than simply plugging in a microphone, pressing record and hoping
for the best. In fact, if you take this approach hope is about the closest you’ll
get because you certainly won’t record a good performance.
We’ve been exposed to the human voice since the day we were born so we
instinctively know how it’s supposed to sound. As a result, any poor recording
equipment or technique will be immediately noticeable and as the vocals can
form the centrepiece of a track, if they’re wrong, the rest of the track, no matter
how well produced, will appear just as bad.
To record vocals proficiently requires not only a good vocalist but a good
understanding of the effects the surrounding environment can have on a
recording, and more importantly, the technology used to record them. This
latter knowledge can be particularly significant since it would be easy to simply say which microphone you should use and where to place it; with a good
understanding of the equipment involved you can make an informed decision
yourself as to which microphone and positioning is best suited for the current
project.

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MICROPHONE TECHNOLOGY
Starting with the basics, a microphone simply converts sound into
an electrical current that is then transformed into an audio signal
at the end of the chain. As straightforward as this appears, though,
there are different ways of accomplishing it and the way sound is
captured determines the quality of the overall results. Of course,
all quality microphones will invariably produce a good sound, but
the tonal quality between each is very different, so it is important
to choose the right microphone for the vocalist and genre of music
you produce.
Despite the number of different microphones available, ultimately
for vocals, there are only two real choices: electromagnetic and electrostatic. Both of these use the principle of a moving diaphragm to
capture sound, but they use different methods for converting it into
an electrical signal and so provide entirely different tonality from
one another.
Possibly the most instantly recognizable of these is the electromagnetic which is also referred to as a dynamic microphone. They’re
always used in live situations and music TV programmes and are best
described as a small stick with a gauze ball sitting on top (Figure 7.1).
Dynamic microphones work under the principle of a moving
coil which is very similar to how a typical loudspeaker operates
(although loudspeakers operate in reverse). The microphones consist of a very thin plastic film, known as the diaphragm, which is
coupled to a coil of wire that’s suspended in a magnetic field. When
any sound strikes this diaphragm, it begins to vibrate sympathetically, which causes the coil to vibrate too. As this coil vibrates in
the magnetic field, it creates an alternating current which the microphone then outputs and is subsequently converted into sound.
FIGURE 7.1
A dynamic microphone

Generally speaking, this type of assembly is particularly hard wearing and is the reason why it’s so often used in live performances.
If you drop the microphone, there’s a good chance that it will still work. On
the downside, though, since the vibrations have to move a relatively heavy
coil assembly to produce the sound, they’re not very sensitive to changes in
air pressure and so are relatively slow to respond to transients. Consequently,
the higher frequencies are not captured reliably so sounds recorded using them
will often exhibit a ‘nasal’ quality. While this generally makes them unsuitable
for recording the delicate vocals that are required for trip-hop and trance, they
are perfectly suited towards rap as the ‘nasal’ sound provides more mid-range
frequencies helping the sound to remain up front and ‘in your face’, an effect
that can sometimes be vital for the genre.
It’s because of this nasal quality that many artists prefer to use electrostatic
(otherwise known as capacitor or condenser) microphones. These can be seen

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in use in all professional studios and are best described as ‘flat looking’ with angled gauze at either side. These are much more sensitive than electromagnetic microphones as the design doesn’t rely on
generating a signal by moving a coil in a magnetic field but is based
on capturing sound using a varying capacitance. This means that
the diaphragm can be much lighter and thus captures sound much
more accurately (Figure 7.2).
Typically in these microphones the diaphragm consists of a goldplated light Mylar plastic which is separated from a back plate by a
gap of a few microns. A small electrical charge is imposed onto the
back plate or the diaphragm or both (depending on the model)
which creates a capacitance charge between the two. When sound
strikes the diaphragm, the distance between the mylar plastic and the
back plate varies, which in turn creates a fluctuation in the capacitance
resulting in small changes in the electrical current. These changes in
the current produce the audio signal at the end of the chain. While
this means that less air pressure is required to create the signal (and
so produces a more accurate response), it is important to note that
different capacitor microphones will use differently sized diaphragms,
and this also has a direct effect on the frequency response.
A larger diaphragm will obviously have a heavier mass and therefore
will react relatively slowly to changes in air pressure when compared
to a smaller diaphragm. Indeed, due to the smaller overall mass of
these, they respond faster to changes in air pressure which results in
a sharper and more defined sound. From a theoretical point of view,
this would mean that to capture a perfect performance you would be
better using a small diaphragm microphone since it would produce
more accurate results, but in practice this isn’t always required. To better understand this, we need to examine the relationship between the
wavelength of a sound and the size of the diaphragm.
FIGURE 7.2

Typically, large diaphragm microphones will have a diameter of
A condenser
approximately 25 mm and if this is exposed to a wavelength of
microphone
equal size (10 kHz is circa 34 mm, wavelength of 344 ms), there is a
culmination of frequencies at this point. Effectively, this results in more directional sensitivity at higher frequencies. If we compare this reaction to a smaller
diaphragm microphone that has a 12 mm diameter, this build-up would occur
much higher in the frequency range (20 kHz is circa 17 mm, wavelength of
344 ms) and is therefore not noticeable to the human ear.
While this means that a larger diaphragm microphone doesn’t have a frequency
response as accurate or as flat as a smaller diaphragm, the subsequent colouration results in a rounder smoother timbre that pulls through a mix much more
readily. What’s more, a large diaphragm microphone will also have a lower
noise floor than a smaller diaphragm because it has a larger surface area to conduct so the electrons can distribute more readily.

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If you decide to use a condenser microphone rather than electromagnetic, an
electrical charge is required to provide the capacitance between the diaphragm
and back plate. This can be provided by batteries, phantom power or it may
even already have a charge retained in the diaphragm or back plate from the
manufacturer. In most instances, though, this charge is ⫹48 V D.C. phantom
power which is received through the microphone cable itself. The term phantom
power is used since you can’t ‘physically’ see where it receives its power from
and is commonly supplied from a mixing desk or a microphone pre-amplifier.
Whichever microphone you choose the signal produced is incredibly small
(⫺60 dBu), so it needs to be amplified to an appropriate volume for recording using a pre-amp. These are relatively simple in design and will perform just
two functions: supply the microphone with power, if required, and amplify the
incoming signal. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge range of pre-amps to choose
from and can range in price from £100 to £6000 and above, depending on the
design and parameters they have on offer.
If at all possible, though, you should aim for a pre-amp that uses valves in its design
as these add warmth to the signal that’s archetypal of all genres of dance, but if this
isn’t feasible (due to the higher price tag) then you can record using a solid-state
design and feed the results into a valve compressor or valve emulation plug-in.
In an ideal situation you should use a microphone pre-amp rather than a mixing desk because the circuitry in a pre-amp is specifically manufactured for the
purpose rather than an ‘added extra’ as it is in most mixing desks (which as
a consequence are prone to a much higher noise floor).

RECORDING PREPARATION
While it is important to have a good microphone and pre-amp combination
the most common problem doesn’t actually come from the equipment used
but from a poor vocal technique. Indeed, as long as the equipment isn’t truly
‘bargain basement’ and the microphone is placed thoughtfully, it’s perfectly
possible to attain respectable results. The only real secret to capturing a great
performance is to ensure that you have nothing but a great performance going
into the microphone. If you settle for anything less at this stage, no amount of
effects or editing you apply later are going to make it sound any better.
With this in mind perhaps the most obvious start is to ensure that the vocalist has attended at least six to eight singing lessons. Anyone can sing, but not
everyone can sing well! While very few vocalists will admit that they need any
form of voice training – their gift is natural of course – every professional vocalist on the circuit has attended lessons with a voice trainer or a singing teacher,
or both. Which lessons they should attend will depend on the vocalist, but
if they have trouble singing in the correct key, breathing properly or holding
notes, then they should see a voice trainer. If, however, they can sing fairly well
then they may benefit from attending lessons with a singing teacher as they’ll
teach them how to perform a song with depth, emotion and feeling.

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It’s doubtful that you’ll be able to find a teacher who specializes in house or
rap or any other dance-related genres (in fact, you may have difficulty finding
one who has actually ever heard of them) as most will specialize in classical
performances or musicals, but the genre is unimportant. Simply attending singing lessons will help the vocalist learn the techniques every professional vocalist will use and this can then be applied to any form of music.
Provided that the vocalist is capable of delivering a good performance (which
is much more difficult than it sounds), the location can also have a significant
effect on the quality of the end result. No one is going to perform well in a clinical environment with bright fluorescent lighting. Apart from the fact that fluorescent lighting is prone to introducing hum into a recording, it’s difficult for a
performer to concentrate in such a ‘scientific’ environment. Ask yourself if you
could perform your best sitting in a dentist’s chair. Instead, vocalists produce a
much more energetic and passionate performance if the room has a welcoming
feel, and this means using bulbs that give off a warm glow.
The temperature of the room is also important and ideally you should look
towards maintaining a temperature of around 22°C (approximately 72°F). Any
colder and the performer’s vocal chords may tense up.
If the environment is suitable, the next consideration is the foldback mix.
Essentially, this is the complete mix plus the vocalist’s microphone signal
returned to a pair of headphones for the performer to perform along to. It is
vital that this foldback mix is complete and not simply a ‘rough draft’, though,
since if you play an unfinished or badly mixed track back for them to perform
to, they may find it difficult to determine the pitch, the vocal tone they should
use or to move closer/further away from the microphone so that they can balance their voice with the current mix. If, on the other hand, the track has been
well mixed and engineered, the performer will not only find it much easier to
pitch but will also want to make an extra effort to match the quality of what’s
already down.
Usually, the foldback mix is fed from tape, minidisk, DAT or CD to headphones with the computer or dedicated hard disk recording the resulting
vocals, but whatever the configuration, the balance between the instruments
and the performer’s voice is critical. More often than not, a mix that is either
too loud or quiet in respect to the microphone’s output is responsible for poor
timing, dynamics and intonation, so you should spend plenty of time ensuring
that both mix and vocals are at the appropriate volume.
The headphones used to play the foldback mix should offer plenty of isolation to prevent any spill encroaching onto the vocal recording. Consequently,
open headphones are not suitable as they leak sound, but equally closed headphones aren’t suitable either. Even though these will not leak any sound, the
closed design surrounds the ears and creates a rise in bass frequencies. Because
of this, headphones with a semi-open design are the best, but you should also
ensure that they are tight enough on the head so that they don’t fall off!

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Some professional vocalists will not want to listen to the full mix and instead
prefer to listen to just the drum track with a single-pitched instrument sitting
on top as this can help them to keep better timing and intonation. Always take
the effort to check exactly what the vocalists want and no matter how difficult
some of their requests or suggestions may be, try to comply. If they are happy,
they’re more likely to produce a great performance, but if the vocalists don’t
ask for reverb on the foldback vocals, apply it anyway.
Reverb can play a key role in helping a singer to pitch correctly plus it also invariably makes them sound much better, which in turn, helps them to feel better
about their own voice. This only needs to be lightly applied and, typically, a
square room setting with a short tail of 5 ms is usually enough. Alongside this
reverb, some engineers also choose to compress the vocal track for the performer’s foldback, although whether this is a good idea or not is under constant
debate. From a personal point of view, I find that an uncompressed foldback mix
tends to persuade the vocalists to control their own dynamics which invariably
sounds much more natural than having a compressor do it.

RECORDING TECHNIQUES
Typically, for most genres of dance, with the possible exception of rap, the
preferred choice of microphone is a condenser with a large diaphragm, such
as the AKG C3000. This is generally accepted as giving the best overall warm
response that’s characteristic of most genres but any large diaphragm will suffice provided that the frequency response is not too flat. Note that some large
diaphragm models will deliberately employ peaks in the mid-range to make
vocals appear clearer but this can sometimes accentuate sibilance with some
female vocalists. Sibilance is the result of over emphasized ‘S’ sounds which
can create unwanted hissing in the vocal track.
Additionally, some mics may also roll off any frequencies below 170 Hz to prevent the microphone from picking up any rumble that may work its way up
the stand, but rolling off this high can sometimes result in the vocals appearing
too weak or ‘thin’ which can be difficult to widen later. It’s therefore preferable
to use a microphone that doesn’t roll off above 120–150 Hz and to use it in
conjunction with a quality pre-amp. Usually these microphones employ a filter
in the signal path allowing you to manually define the frequency to roll-off.
The positioning of the microphone depends entirely on the style of performance and the performer but generally it should be positioned away from any
walls, but not in the centre of a room. Any condenser microphone picks up
both the direct sound from the vocalist and the sound from the surrounding
ambience of the room. Thus, if the microphone is positioned in the centre of
the room or too close to a wall, the reflections can create phase cancellations
making the vocals appear thin, phased or too heavy. It should also be mounted
on a fixed stand and situated so that the bottom of the housing is in level with
the performer’s nose (with their back straight!). This will ensure a good posture
while also helping to avoid heavy plosive popping or breath noises.

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Plosive popping is perhaps the most common problem when recording vocals
and is a result of the high-velocity bursts of air that are created when we say
or sing words containing the letters P, B or T. These create short, sharp bursts
of air that force the microphone’s diaphragm to its extremes of movement,
which results in a popping sound. These can be incredibly difficult to remove
at a later stage so you need to remove the possibility of them appearing during
the recording by using a ‘pop shield’ positioned between the vocalist and mic.
These consist of a circular frame approximately 6–8⬙ in diameter that is covered
with a fine nylon mesh and are available as free standing units or with a short
gooseneck for attaching to the microphone stand. By placing these pop shields
approximately 5 cm (about 2⬙) from the microphone, any sudden blasts of air
are diffused, preventing them from reaching the diaphragm.
Although pop shields are available commercially, many artists make their own
from metal coat hangers or embroiders’ hoops and their girlfriend’s/wive’s
nylon stockings. Provided that the frame is large enough to act as a pop shield,
the nylon can be stretched over the ring which can then be held in position
next to the microphone with some stiff wire.
If you are experiencing constant plosive problems, it is better to attend a series
of lessons with a professional singing teacher. This will not only help in learning how to reduce the emphasis on plosive sounds but also contribute to preventing any sibilance. This latter effect can sometimes be removed by placing
a thin EQ cut somewhere between 5 and 7 kHz or by using a professional deesser. These are frequency-dependent compressors which operate at frequencies
between 2 and 16 kHz. Using these, it’s possible to boost the EQ on vocals to
make them appear brighter and the de-esser will jump in to prevent them from
becoming too harsh.
As for the distance between mouth and microphone, ideally it should be
placed approximately 20–30 cm (8–12⬙) away from the mouth of the vocalist.
At this distance, the voice tends to sound more natural, plus any small movements on the vocalist behalf will not create any serious changes in the recording level. Naturally, keeping this microphone to mouth distance can be difficult
to achieve, especially if the vocalist is used to performing in live conditions or
is a little over excited.
In these situations, vocalists tend to edge even closer to the microphone as they
continue the performance, and if they get too close, it will not only boost the
lower frequencies but also create deposits of condensation on the diaphragm,
which reduces its sensitivity. Since microphones are high-impedance devices,
using them in a cold room or having the vocalist stand too close to them can
introduce condensation onto the diaphragm. If this happens, the sensitivity of
the mic will fall sharply and crackles or pops can start to appear in the recording.
Subsequently, it’s prudent to ensure that any capacitor mics are at room temperature before they’re used, and it’s also worthwhile making sure that the
room isn’t too cold. If condensation does form on the capsule, the only solution is to put them in a warm place for a few hours.

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Obviously, prevention is always better than cure, so to prevent the vocalist from
getting too close to the mic it’s sensible to position a pop shield 10 cm (approximately 4⬙) away from the microphone. This is the preferred approach to placing the microphone above the singer’s mouth and angling the mic downwards.
While some engineers believe that this approach ensures a ‘fixed’ distance from
the mouth to the mic while also helping the vocalist straighten their back to
improve breathing and projection; if vocalists are forced to raise their chins,
the throat becomes tense which can severely affect the performance.
If, however, the genre demands a more up-front vocal sound that’s typical of
commercial pop (and trance, house), then it’s worthwhile reducing the pop
shield to mic distance to just 2⬙ and have the performer almost pressing their
lips to the shield while singing. You may have to reinforce the pop shield with
this approach by stretching another stocking over it but this close positioning
will take advantage of the proximity effect. This creates an artificial rise in the
bass frequencies which can make the vocals appear warmer, more up front and
in your face. Occasionally, this approach can also increase the chance of plosives, but if this happens, turning the microphone slightly off axis from the
performer can help to prevent them from occurring.
Once the mic has been set up and positioned correctly, it’s prudent to insert a
compressor between the pre-amp and recording device. Some pre-amps have
a built-in compressor dedicated for this function, but if not, you will need to
use an additional hardware unit to control the dynamics. The human voice
has an incredibly wide range of dynamics and these will need to be put under
some control to prevent any prominent parts clipping the recording.
Notably, some professional vocalists will use their own form of compression
by backing away from the microphone on louder sections and moving closer
in quieter parts, but nevertheless, even in these circumstances it is still prudent
to use a compressor just in case. A single uncontrolled clip can easily destroy
an otherwise great performance! This must be set carefully, however, as once
recorded you cannot undo the results later, so you should set the compressor
to squash only the very loudest parts of the signal.
Ideally, the compressor should be analogue and employ valves as the secondorder harmonic distortion they introduce is typical of the vocal sound of the
genres, but if this is not possible, then you can use a solid-state compressor and
compress them after recording with a valve emulation plug-in. A good starting
point for recording compression is to set a threshold of ⫺12 dB with a 3:1 ratio
and a fast attack and moderately fast release. Then, once the vocalist has started
to practice, reduce the threshold so that the reduction meters are only lit on the
strongest part of the performance.
These compression settings can also be applied to rap music, but generally
speaking, this genre benefits more from using a dynamic microphone such as
the Shure SM58, to capture the performance. Also, rather than mounting the
mic on a stand better results can occur if the vocalist holds the mic. This not

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only captures the slight nasal quality synonymous to most rap music but also
allows the rapper to move freely. Much of rap music relies on the different vocal
tones that are produced by the rapper changing their position from upright to
bowing down, in effect ‘compressing’ their abdomen to produce lower tones. If
this technique is used, though, ensure that the vocalists keep their hand clear
of the top of the microphone since obstructing this will severely change the
tonal character of the vocals. Also try to ensure that the microphone is not held
too far away from the mouth. Most dynamic microphones will roll off all frequencies below 150 Hz to prevent the proximity effect, but if the vocalist has it
too far away, then this can result in a severe reduction in bass frequencies. In
general, a dynamic microphone should be approximately 10–20 cm (approximately 4–8⬙) away from the mouth.
This is the usual distance that most vocalists will use naturally, but if you
have a loud foldback mix with a bass cut, they’ll tend to hold it closer to their
mouths to compensate for the lack in mix presence so it’s vital that the mix
is bass accurate before adding vocals. It’s also worth noting that, due to the
design, these mics have a diminished frequency response and can be quite easy
to overload if placed too close to the mouth. This can result in light distortion
in the higher mid-frequencies, so to prevent this it may be prudent to feed the
pre-amps output into an EQ unit and then feed the results into the side chain
of the compressor at the problematic frequencies.
With the equipment set-up to record, the vocalist/rapper will, or should, need
an hour to warm up their voice to peak performance. Most professional vocalists will have their own routine to warm up, and many prefer to do this in private, so it may be necessary to arrange some private space for them. If they are
inexperienced they may insist that they do not need to warm up, and in this
instance, you should charm them into it by asking them to sing a number of
popular songs that they enjoy while you ‘set up the recording levels…’
During this time, you should listen out for any signs that the performer has
poor intonation or is straining and if so, ask them to take a break and relax. If
they need a drink, fruit juices are better than water, tea or coffee as these can
dry the throat, but you should avoid any citrus drinks. From personal experience, two teaspoons of honey with one teaspoon of glycerine mixed with
a 100 ml of warm water provides excellent lubrication and helps to keep the
throat moist, but persuading the vocalist to drink it can be another matter altogether. Alternatively, Sprite (the soft drink) seems to help, but avoid letting
them drink too much as the sugar can settle at the back of the throat. Failing
that, sucking lozenges such as Lockets with Honey before the performance can
help with the lubrication.
Once the vocalists have warmed up, their voice should be at peak performance
and they should be able to achieve depth and fullness of sound. It’s at this
point that you want them to belt out the track with as much emotion as possible, from beginning to end. As difficult as it may be, you should avoid stopping
the vocalists at any mistakes apart from the most severe intonation problems

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and ask them to continue the song despite any mistakes as you’ll be recording
more takes later.
Unequivocally, there is no music today that is completed in just one pass and
even the most professional artists will make three or four passes, so keep things
light and friendly and do not put any pressure on the performer to get the take
right in one.
It’s also worthwhile ensuring that the vocalists know the lines off hand without
having to read them off a sheet of paper. Encourage them to learn the lines and
if they forget them, ask them to have fun and improvise. The occasional ‘lah’
or ‘ooh’ can help to enhance the performance and may actually sound better
than the original line, plus if they know the words, they are likely to sound
more energetic and lively than a droll reading. More importantly, though, lyric
sheets can have an adverse effect on the recording as the vocals will reflect from
the paper, which can create a slight phase in the recording. This has often been
responsible for numerous scratched heads as the engineer tries to figure out
why the vocals sound so strange.
In some situations the performer may insist they have lyric sheets to hand. If
this is the case, position the lyric sheets behind the microphone and slightly
off axis so that the possibility of phase problems is reduced.
Once this first performance has been recorded, listen back to the recording
and try to identify any problems such as very poor intonation, the inability to
hold high notes, uneasiness and tenseness, phasing effects or too much bass
presence. If the microphone has been placed correctly, there shouldn’t be any
phasing or bass problems, but if there are, then you’ll need to reconsider the
microphone’s placement. If there is too much bass presence, ask the performer
to move further away from the microphone, while if there are phasing problems, move the microphone closer, or further away from the wall.
Severe intonation problems, the inability to hold high notes, uneasiness or
tenseness, on the other hand, are a little more difficult to resolve as they reside
in the psychological state of the performer and no amount of equipment, no
matter how good, will turn a poor or uninspiring performance into a great
one. Instead, you’ll need to look at the monitoring environment and your own
communication skills.
Assuming that the vocalist can actually sing in tune, the most common reason
for poor intonation comes from the performer’s monitoring environment or
a poor overall mix. As previously touched upon, they will most probably monitor the mix through headphones and this can result in an increase in bass frequencies or difficulty in comprehending the psychological acoustic coupling.
If the headphones are tight fitting on the performer’s head, there will be an
increase in bass frequencies and it is difficult to perceive pitch in low-frequency
waveforms which can force the performer to loose intonation. This problem
can usually be identified by the vocalist ‘involuntarily’ moving further away
from the microphone and singing louder as this reduces the bass presence in

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their voice on the feedback mix. To prevent this, it’s worth placing a wide cut
of a few dB at 100–300 Hz (where the bass usually resides) or increasing the
volume of a higher pitched instrument that the vocalist can pitch to.
Psychological acoustic coupling is less of a problem with experienced performers but is a result of the singer’s vocal chords vibrating their ear drums along
with all the bones in the ear cavity – the reason why you sound different when
you listen to a recording of yourself. When you place a pair of headphones
on the vocalists, their ‘natural’ environment is upset, which can make it difficult for them to pitch correctly. In this instance, it’s worth muting the vocals
returned in the foldback mix to see if this makes a difference, but if not, it may
be worth muting one side of the headphone feed so that they can hear themselves naturally in one ear. Some of the higher priced mixing desks and headphone distribution amps offer a kill switch to terminate one of the headphones
stereo channels for this purpose, but if this option isn’t available, you’ll need to
purchase a single channel headphone, manufacture a mono converter or ask
the vocalist to move one of the phones to uncover their ear.
Of course, if the monitoring volume is quite high, this latter solution can result
in the foldback mix spilling out of the unused earpiece and working its way
onto the recording. However, as long as this isn’t ridiculously loud, a little overspill isn’t too much of a problem as it will be masked by the other instruments.
Indeed, even professional artists such as Moby, Britney Spears, Madonna and
Michael Jackson have overspill present on some of their individual vocal tracks
and it’s something you’ll undoubtedly have to deal with if you have the chance
to remix a professional artist.
Some vocalists simply can’t perform wearing headphones so you need a way
of playing the mix back without recording any spill. The best way to accomplish this it to place both monitors 90 cm apart and 90 cm from the rear of
the microphone. Following this, reverse the wires (i.e. the polarity) of the
left speaker and then feed both monitors with a mono signal. This will allow
the performer to hear the mix but the phase of the speakers will match at the
microphone, in effect, cancelling out the sound.
If the problem is an inability to hold high notes or a tense or uneasy voice,
then this is the result of a nervous performer not breathing deeply enough and
this can only be resolved through tact, plenty of encouragement and excellent communication skills. Vocalists feel more exposed than anyone else in
a studio so they constantly require plenty of positive support and plenty of
compliments after they’ve completed a take. This also means that eye contact
throughout is absolutely essential, but refrain from staring at the vocalist with
a blank expression – try to keep an encouraging smile on your face. This can
give a vocalist a massive confidence boost which will pull through into the
recording. More importantly, though, do not swamp the vocalist with techno
babble, or try to impress them by giving them a technical run through of what
you plan to do. If the vocalist has too many technical comments to think about
it can ruin the performance.

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EDITING VOCALS
Once you have the first ‘tonally’ correct, emotionally charged take recorded,
there will undoubtedly be a few mistakes throughout that will need repairing
or replacing. At this stage, before you send the vocalist home, you should ask
them to perform the ‘dodgy’ parts again. It isn’t advisable to ask them to perform the whole take again as it may exhaust their energy before they reach the
part that needs to be replaced, so it’s a better idea to punch in and out on the
parts that need it.
Essentially this means that you need to make it clear to the performer which
parts you want to re-record and these should be entire lines, not single words.
Also, the vocalist should perform the lines before and after the faulty part to
prevent a cold start and ensure that the same breathing pattern as the original
take is more or less maintained.
Above all, remember that very, very few vocalists today can perform a perfect take
in one go and it certainly isn’t unusual for a producer to record as many as eight
takes of different parts to later ‘comp’ (engineer speak for compiling not compressing) various takes together to produce the final, perfect, vocal track. This is
where you need to be willing to spend as much time as required to ensure that
the vocal track is the best it can be. In some cases, you may even have to recall
the vocalist to re-perform some lines and this can often result in a different tone
of voice, but it is better to have a slightly different vocal tone than have a poorly
sung line. Although ideally you should have ensured that you had enough
to work with originally, re-recording some vocal parts at a different time isn’t
unusual and even professional recording studios do this from time to time.
If problems do occur later and it isn’t possible to recall the vocalist, then
you’ll have no choice but to use a series of studio processors. This approach
should always be viewed as the very last option but can range from cross-fading
individual words together, using pitch correction software such as Antares
Auto-Tune, harmonizing, double tracking, applying chorus, flange or reverb
to thicken out thin vocals, time stretching some parts while time compressing
others to reconstructing the entire vocals word for word in an audio sequencer
or editor. This may all seem a little excessive but it is quite normal for a producer to spend days and even weeks editing a vocal track to achieve perfection.
If you are experiencing severe problems with intonation, you should look at
using a different vocalist and try not to rely too much on pitch correction software. While these are adept at correcting the odd out of tune words they do
not work as well when applied to an entire vocal line, phrase or chorus section.
Although many like to believe that ‘manufactured’ bands are incapable of holding a single note and rely entirely on pitch correction software, disappointingly,
they can actually sing quite well (if chosen for looks alone they’ll certainly have
attended a series of singing lessons!). Any ‘good’ singer will naturally bend
and modulate notes with vibrat and if a vocal line, phrase or chorus section is
particularly slow during the bend, the intonation unit can become confused

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and attempt to correct it. This can result in it bending the note when it doesn’t
require it, bend it in the wrong direction altogether or quickly jump to the next
note rather than keep the bend. All of these side-effects can produce a synthetic
unnatural sound that you would usually want to avoid, although of late the
‘fake’ pitching has come to the fore in music since it was used by Cher’s producer on ‘Believe’.1

VOCAL EFFECTS
When it comes to dance music, it isn’t extraordinary to apply various processing to the vocals to make them different. As previously touched upon, we’ve
all heard the human voice naturally since the day we were born so any effects
that make them different will inevitably attract attention – so long as the effect
isn’t cliché. In fact, with dance music it’s quite usual to treat vocals as any other
instrument and heavily EQ or affect them to make them prominent and hopefully grab attention. Naturally, there is no definitive method to affecting vocals
and it all depends on the overall effect you want to achieve. As Cher’s producer
has proved, experimentation is the real key to affecting the human voice and
you certainly shouldn’t be afraid of trying out new ideas to see what you can
come up with. Having said that, there are some vocal effects that are still in
wide use throughout the genres and knowing how to achieve these may help
aid you to further experimentation.

COMMERCIAL VOCALS
Possibly the first effect to achieve is the archetypal contemporary up-front
sound that’s typical of most commercial pop songs and of late, trance.
Although much of this is acquired at the recording stage by positioning the
vocalist closer to the microphone, effects can be used to help widen it across
the image and add some depth if it’s required. Stereo-widening effects are not
used for this as you’re working with a mono source to begin with and recording the vocals in stereo is not only difficult, requiring two microphones, but it
will rarely produce the right results. Instead a much better way is to employ a
very subtle chorus or flange as a send, not insert effect. By then setting the effect
rate as slow as possible you can send the vocals to the effect by the required
amount, thus keeping the stability of the vocals while also applying enough of
an effect to spread it across the stereo image. There are no universal settings for
this as it depends entirely on the vocals that have been recorded, but a good
starting point is 80% unaffected with a 20% effect.
An alternative method to this is to double track the vocals by copying them
onto a second track before applying a pitch-shift effect to both. This, obviously,
should be applied as an insert effect, otherwise you will experience a strange
phased effect, but by setting one channel to pitch up by 2–5 cents and the other
1

Cher’s ‘Believe’ track did not use an intonation programme but the Digitech Talk-Box to
acquire the effect.

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down by 2–5 cents it can produce a wide, thick up-front sound. Additionally, if
you move the second vocal track forward by a few ticks so that it occurs slightly
later than the original, this can help to thicken the overall sound.
Many engineers will also recommend applying reverb to a vocal track to help
thicken them in a mix but if it is not applied cautiously and sparingly it will
push them into the background producing a less defined, muddied sound.
Nevertheless, if you do feel the need to apply reverb to vocals, use it as a send
effect rather than insert as this will allow you to keep a majority of the vocal
track dry. Also, if reverb is being used on any other instruments within the mix,
use a reverb with a different tonal character for the vocals as this will help to
draw a listener’s attention to them.
The trick behind using any reverb is to set the effect so that it’s only noticeable when it’s removed, but keep the decay time short for a fast tempo sing
and lengthen it for those of a slower tempo. As a very general starting point,
try setting the reverb’s pre-delay to 1 ms, with a square room and 7 ms decay.
By then increasing the pre-delay you can separate the effect from the dry vocal
to enable the voice to stand out more.
The most widespread processing used to obtain the up-front sound is compression. If you really want that big, in your face, up-front vocal, then compression is the real key to acquiring it, but for this it is imperative that you use
compressors with the best sound possible. As every dance genre will use valve
compressors, this means you will need to use them too and whether hardware
or software emulations they should ideally exhibit 0.2% total harmonic distortion (THD) or more for a good sound. Notably, most musicians use more than
one compressor for this and will usually employ two or three. The first is commonly a solid-state compressor that’s used to smooth out the overall level with
a ratio of 4:1, a fast attack and release and threshold set so that the gain reduction meter reads 4 dB. The results of this are then fed into a valve compressor
and this is generally set with a ratio of 7:1, a fast attack and release along with
a threshold set so that the gain reduction meter reads 8 dB. Naturally, these
are general settings and should be adjusted depending on the vocals and the
microphone used to capture them. As we’ve touched upon in earlier chapters,
applying compression will reduce the higher frequency as it squashes down on
the transients of the attack, but if you find that the high-end detail becomes
lost, it can often be brought back up again using a sonic exciter or enhancer.

‘TELEPHONE’ VOCALS
The second effect that’s often used in the dance genre is the ‘telephone’ vocal,
called so because it sounds as though it’s being played through a restricted
bandwidth (i.e. a telephone or transistor radio). This effect is quite easy to
achieve by inserting (not sending) the vocals into a band-pass filter so that
frequencies above 5 kHz and below 1 kHz are removed from the signal. If you
don’t have access to a band-pass filter, the same effect can be acquired by first

Recording Vocals CHAPTER 7

inserting the vocals into a low-pass filter set to remove all frequencies above
5 kHz with the results of this inserted into a high-pass filter set to remove
all frequencies below 1 kHz. If you can adjust the poles on these filters then,
generally speaking, a 2-pole (12 dB) slope will produce the best results but
depending on the mix that the vocals are sitting in, it may be worth using a 4pole (24 dB) or, if possible, a single pole (6 dB) slope. Alternatively an EQ unit
can be used to achieve much the same results by cutting all frequencies below
1 kHz and above 5 kHz. Once you have this general effect, it can be expanded
upon by automating the filters (or EQ) to gradually sweep through the range to
add movement and interest.

PITCHED VOCALS
Another, more recent, effect to apply to vocals is the unnatural pitch-shifting that’s acquired by using an intonation unit to alter the pitch. How this is
accomplished depends entirely on the effects unit itself, but fundamentally
they all work on the principle that you can analyse the incoming signal and
then select the key signature that it should be in. By using this as an insert
effect so that it affects the entire vocal line and setting it to a key that’s at least
an octave out of the range of the original input, the processor will attempt to
correct the vocals to the selected scale and, as a side-effect, produce a strange
moving pitch very similar to the effect used on Cher’s ‘Believe’. On top of this,
it is also worth experimenting by running the vocals through the intonation
unit a number of times, each time using a different key setting before ‘comping’ the different results together.

VOCODERS
One final effect that’s particularly useful if the vocalist is incapable of singing in
key is the vocoder. Of all the vocal effects, these are not only the most instantly
recognizable but also the most susceptible to changes in fashion. The robotic
voices and talking synth effects they generate can be incredibly cliché unless
they’re used both carefully and creatively, but the way in which they operate
opens up a whole host of creative opportunities.
Fundamentally vocoders are simple in design and allow you to use one sound –
usually your voice (known as the modulator) – to control the tonal characteristics of a second sound (known as the carrier), which is usually a synthesizer’s
sustained timbre. However, as simple as this may initially appear actually producing musically useable results is a little more difficult since simply dialling
up a synth preset and talking, or singing, over it will more often than not produce unusable results. Indeed, to use a vocoder in a musically useful way, it’s
important to have a good understanding of exactly how they work and to do
this we need to begin by examining human speech.
A vocoder works on the principle that we can divide the human voice into
a number of distinct frequency bands. For instance, plosive sounds such as ‘P’

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or ‘B’ consist mostly of low frequencies, ‘S’ or ‘T’ sounds consist mostly of
high frequencies, vowels consist mostly of mid-range frequencies and so forth.
When a vocal signal enters the vocoder, a spectral analyser measures the signal’s properties and subsequently uses a number of filters to divide the signal
into a number of different frequency bands. Once divided, each frequency
band is sent to an envelope follower which produces a series of control voltages2 based on the frequency content and volume of the vocal part. This exactly
same principle is also used on the carrier signals and these are tuned to the
same frequency bands as the modulator’s input. However, rather than generate
a series of control voltages, they are connected to a series of voltage-controlled
amplifiers. Thus, as you speak into the microphone the subsequent frequencies
and volume act upon the carrier’s voltage-controlled amplifiers which either
attenuate or amplify the carrier signal, in effect, superimposing your voice onto
the instrument’s timbre. Consequently, since the vocoder analyses the spectral
content and not the pitch of the modulator it isn’t necessary to sing in tune as
it wouldn’t make any difference.
From this, we can also determine that the more the filters that are contained
in the vocoders bank, the more accurately it will be able to analyse and divide
the modulating signal, and if this happens to be a voice, it will be much more
comprehensible. Typically, a vocoder should have a minimum of six frequency
bands to make speech understandable but it’s important to note that the number of bands available isn’t the only factor when using a vocoder on vocals.
The intelligibility of natural speech is centred between 2.5 and 5 kHz, higher
or lower than this and we find it difficult to determine what’s being said. This
means that when using a vocoder, the carrier signal must be rich in harmonics
around these frequencies since if it’s any higher or lower then some frequencies
of speech may be missed altogether. To prevent this, it’s prudent to use a couple
of shelving filters to remove all frequencies below 2 kHz and above 5 kHz before
feeding them into the vocoder. Similarly, for best results the carrier signal’s sustain portion should remain fairly constant to help maintain some intelligibility.
For instance, if the sustain portion is subject to an LFO modulating the pitch or
filter the frequency content will be subject to a cyclic change which may push it
in and out of the boundaries of speech resulting in some words being comprehensible while others become unintelligible. Plus, it should also go without saying that if you plan on using your voice to act as a modulator it’s essential that
what you have to say, or sing, is intelligible in the first place. This means you
should ensure that all the words are pronounced coherently and clearly.
More importantly, vocal tracks will unquestionably change in amplitude throughout the phrases which will create huge differences in the control voltages generated by the vocoder. This results in the VCA levels that are imposed onto the
2
Control voltages (often shortened to CV) measure the signal at predetermined points
and convert each of these measurements into differing voltages to represent the volume and
frequency of the waveform.

Recording Vocals CHAPTER 7

carrier signal to follow this change in level, producing an uneven vocoded effect
which can distort the results. Subsequently, it’s an idea to compress the vocals
before they enter the vocoder and if the carrier wave uses an LFO to modulate the
volume, compress this too. The settings to use will depend entirely on the vocals
themselves and the impact you want them to have in the mix (bear in mind that
dynamics can affect the emotional impact), but as a very general starting point
set the ratio on both carrier and modulator to 3:1 with a fast attack and release,
and then reduce the threshold so that the quietest parts only just register on the
gain reduction meter. Additionally, remember that it isn’t just vocals that will trigger the vocoder and breath noises, rumble from the microphone stand and any
extraneous background noises will also trigger it. Thus, along with a compressor
you should also consider employing a noise gate to remove the possibility of any
superfluous noises being introduced.
With both carrier and modulator under control there’s a much better chance of
producing a musically useful effect, and the first stop for any vocoder is to recreate the robotic voice. To produce this effect, the vocoder needs to be used as
an insert effect, not send, as all of the vocal line should go through the vocoder.
Once this modulator is entering the vocoder you’ll need to programme a suitable carrier wave. Obviously, it’s the tone of this carrier wave that will produce
the overall effect and two sawtooth waves detuned from each other by ⫹ and
⫺4 with a short attack, decay and release but a very long sustain should provide the required timbre. If, however, this makes the vocals appear a little too
bright, sharp, thin or ‘edgy’ it may be worthwhile replacing one of the sawtooth
waves with a square or sine wave to add some bottom-end weight.
Though this effect is undoubtedly great fun for the first couple of minutes, after
the typical Luke, I am you’re father it can wear thin, and if used as it is in a dance
track, it will probably sound a little too cliché, so it’s worthwhile experimenting further. Unsurprisingly, much of the experimentation with a vocoder comes
from modulating the carrier wave in one way or another and the simplest place
to start is by adjusting the pitch in time with the vocals. This can be accomplished easily in any audio/MIDI sequencer by importing the vocal track and
programming a series of MIDI notes to play out to the carrier synth, in effect
creating a vocal melody. Similarly, an arpeggio sequence used as a carrier wave
can create a strange gated, pitch-shifting effect while an LFO modulating the
pitch can create an unusual cyclic pitch-shifted vocal effect. Filter cut-off and
resonance can also impart an interesting effect on vocals and in many sequencers, this can be automated so that it slowly opens during the verses, creating
a build-up to a chorus section. Also, note that the carrier does not necessarily have to be created with saw waves, and a sine wave played around C3 or
C4 can be used to recreate a more tonally natural vocal melody that will have
some peculiarity surrounding it.
Vocoders do not always have to be used on vocals and you can produce great
results by using them to impose one instrument onto another. For instance
using a drum loop as a modulator and a pad as the carrier the pad will create

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a gating effect between the kicks of the loop. Alternatively using the pad as a
modulator and the drums as the carrier wave the drum loops will turn into a
loop created by a pad!
Ultimately these have only been simple suggestions to point you in a more creative direction and you should be willing to try out any effects you can lay your
hands on to hear the effect it can have on a vocal. Bear in mind that due to the
very nature of dance music it’s always open to experimentation and it’s much
better to initiate a new trend than simply follow one set by another artist.

Recording Real Instruments CHAPTER 8

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CHAPTER 8

Recording Real Instruments

’In the late Sixties a record producer was a more
hands-on person. A record producer was also a skilled
music arranger or an engineer or both. ...’
Tony Visconte

Although many of the timbres within dance music are created with synthesis
and many of the real-world instruments are often sampled from a sample CD –
or more commonly, another record – if you have access to the appropriate
instruments, microphones, direct injection (DI) boxes and pre-amps, recording
your own instruments can be incredibly rewarding. Not only will they be guaranteed to fit with the tempo of your music, they’re also pretty much guaranteed
to be in the right key too.
Recording real-world instruments is not something that should be approached
lightly, however, since to gain the best results you need to not only have the
appropriate environment for the instrument you wish to record but also goodquality microphones, a good pre-amp and – depending on what you are
recording – a good amplifier and DI Box.
It must also be stressed that different engineers will use different techniques
to record any instrument, and the judgement on how to record the instrument
will depend on a large number of factors including the instrument’s character,
the room it’s recorded in, its tuning and, most important of all, the player’s
style. Therefore, what follows in this chapter should only be viewed as general
guidelines and you should adapt these to ensure you receive the best recording
possible.

RECORDING PREPARATION
The first priority to record any instrument should be the room’s acoustics. It is
not necessary to have a recording room with a totally flat frequency response
for a majority of real-world instruments; in fact, if you do record in a room

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such as this, you may find that the instrument is lacking in character. This is
because with any real instrument the sound you hear is a result of a number of
factors. For example, the sound of an acoustic guitar is not a result of only the
sound hole but from the entire guitar vibrating sympathetically along with the
reflected frequencies within the room. The same applies for brass instruments;
the sound does not come directly from the bell but from the bell’s vibrations
and the reflected frequencies of the room it is played in. Because of this, it is
vital that you choose a room that has the best acoustics for the instrument you
wish to record. While you can add reverb at mix-down for example, you cannot
remove it if it was captured at the recording stage!
From a general point of view, a typically decorated and carpeted room will
prove suitable for recording most real-world instruments. Garages, basements
and rooms with wooden floors should normally be avoided since these create
brighter reflections which can result in a recorded sound that lacks any bottom
end. However, that is not to say you shouldn’t try playing the instrument in
these rooms and listening to the results. In some instances, they may produce
the sound you’re after, particularly if you’re recording brass instruments.
The best way to know if a room is suitable for recording is to actually play the
instrument in that room. The principle to work with is that if it sounds good
to the performer, then it stands to reason that it will sound good to the microphone, provided of course, that you use a good-quality microphone.
For many instruments, either ribbon or large diaphragm capacitor microphones
are regarded as the best suited for the job. As touched upon in the previous
chapter, larger diaphragm microphones have a heavier mass which produces a
rounder, warmer timbre that is often suited for many instruments.
Ribbon microphones, although not as popular or widely used as large diaphragm microphones, are often used since these have a bidirectional polar
pattern in that they capture sound from both sides of the microphone. By
doing so, they cannot only capture the direct sound but also the ambience
of the room. Naturally, this can be accomplished by increasing the distance
from the instrument with a cardioids microphone, but for some engineers, the
sound of a ribbon microphone produces the best results.
Ribbon microphones work similar to a dynamic microphone; however, whereas
the diaphragm in a dynamic microphone is coupled to a coil of wire that’s suspended in a magnetic field, with a ribbon microphone there is an extremely
thin ‘ribbon’ of aluminium suspended at both ends which is vibrated by sound
pressure within a magnetic field. This means that the ribbon can vibrate from
both sides but not from its edges, allowing it to record from both sides of the
microphone and producing what’s known as a figure 8 pick-up pattern.
For this reason, ribbon microphones are considered the most natural sounding
microphones and perfect for capturing instruments, but they are also extremely
delicate. Blowing into a ribbon microphone can damage the thin aluminium
ribbon and even carelessly slamming down the lid of the microphone box

Recording Real Instruments CHAPTER 8

can create a surge of air that will damage the microphone’s ribbon.
Unfortunately, due to this delicate nature, ribbon microphones are
few and far between and those that are in production are expensive
(Figure 8.1).
It should also be noted that due to the low output of a typical ribbon microphone, you need a powerful and quiet pre-amp to bring
the gain up to an acceptable level (60 dB of amplification to bring it
up to 0 VU!). Therefore, if you plan on using a ribbon microphone,
you’ll need to ensure that you have a powerful and high quality preamp that has a very low noise floor.
As previously touched upon, when recording instruments, each
engineer will approach the project differently and this includes
the choice of microphones for the job at hand. Consequently, recommending microphones can be a minefield since whereas one
engineer may choose one particular microphone for a particular
instrument, a different engineer will have a totally different opinion. On top of this, the room’s frequencies and the player’s personal
style will also affect the choice.
Nevertheless, at the risk of leaving myself open, I would personally
recommend the Neumann KM184 capacitor microphone for some
instruments since it produces particularly pleasing results and rolls
off at 200 Hz keeping the instruments free of any low end rumble.
Alternatively, the B&K 4011, the Shure SM81 and the AKG C1000s
can all produce excellent results if set up correctly.
If I were to recommend ribbon microphones (and if you have a large wallet), FIGURE 8.1
Audio Engineering Associates produce some outstanding microphones such as An early ribbon
microphone
the R44 or alternatively Golden Age Companies R1 Active and Coles 4038. It is
doubtful that you will find a ribbon microphone for sale in the second-hand
market since they’re often snapped up by studios the moment they appear.

RECORDING ACOUSTIC GUITARS
Before recording an acoustic guitar, it’s often preferable to tune the guitar to
the Nashville System. This consists of using the octave strings from a 12-string
guitar, fitting them and tuning E and B to their regular pitch but tuning G, D,
A and (the lower) E an octave higher – as they would be on a 12-string guitar.
By doing this, the guitar produces an incredibly bright and ‘jingly’ timbre, replicating the typical pop music guitar sound. This also reduces a proportionate
amount of low-end boom which helps the instrument fit perfectly into a busy
dance mix.
Ideally, acoustic guitars should be recorded in stereo. While you can record
in mono and apply stereo effects afterwards, although the results are not as
impressive as recording in stereo. Obviously, this means that to record in stereo requires two microphones and you should use a paired set of microphones.

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In other words, they are paired to one another directly from the manufacturer and
sold as a pair. This ensures that they both have the same response which makes
it much easier at mix-down. If this isn’t possible, you should try to use two of the
same make and model of microphone to ensure you receive a consistent recording from the guitar. Of course, you should feel free to use different microphones
if that is all you have; experimentation may provide the best results for you.
The microphones should be placed with the first pointing towards the bridge of
the guitar and the second pointing towards where the fret meets the body of the
guitar. The distance of the microphones from one another and from the guitar
must be carefully considered, however, in order to reduce any phase cancellation.
Phase cancellation is a result of the sound waves from the guitar reaching the
two microphones at differing times. As discussed in Chapter 1, if the waveforms
are captured at different phases of its cycle by the microphones, when they are
combined at the mixing desk it can create phase cancellations between the
two waveforms. To avoid this, you should adopt the 3:1 rule. This means that
the spacing between each microphone should be three times the distance they
are from the guitar. For example, typically a microphone should be placed
approximately 300 mm away from an acoustic guitar; therefore, the microphones should be placed at least 900 mm apart.
Of course, if you don’t have access to two microphones you’ll be left with no
option but to record the guitar with one microphone. One of the most common mistakes when recording with just one microphone is to place it directed
entirely at the sound hole. The problem with this approach is that rather than
capturing the entire guitar’s sound, it only captures the lower end of the frequencies produced by the guitar.
A preferential approach is to place the microphone around 300 mm away from
the guitar aiming towards where the neck and body meet. This captures both
the sound emanating from the sound hole and the natural vibrations from the
guitar’s body.
This microphone position shouldn’t be considered de facto and you should
always experiment by moving the microphone further away since the room will
have an influence on the sound that you may want to capture. It is important,
however, that you monitor through headphones so you only hear what the
microphone is picking up and not frequencies from the room that the microphone may not be picking up.
Depending on the player’s individual style, you may record fret squeals as the
guitarist slides his fingers up and down the fret. While some engineers will
attempt to avoid capturing any fret noise whatsoever, I find it removes the realism of the guitar since fret squeal – in limited amounts – is a natural occurrence from playing the instrument and often enhances the sound of the guitar.
During recording, you should attempt to keep processing to a minimum since
it cannot be removed afterwards. This means compression should be kept to

Recording Real Instruments CHAPTER 8

a minimum and only used to prevent any louder transients from clipping the
recording device. A good starting point for compression is to use a 5:1 ratio,
with a 5 ms attack, a 40 ms release and a hard knee setting. Once set up, lower
the threshold so that the compressor only captures any hard transients that
may clip recording. The idea is to set the compressors threshold to ensure that
the guitar is not compressed whatsoever, and it only compresses when absolutely necessary. If it is not set up correctly, you may find that the compressor
pumps the recording which ruins the end result.

ELECTRIC GUITARS
Electric guitars require a slightly different approach to recording acoustic and
for many the best approach is to simply employ a DI box. A DI box is a device
with – most commonly – a jack connection that allows any electric instrument
with a high impedance (such as an electric guitar) to be connected directly into
it. The unit then converts this to a low-impedance signal (like a microphone’s
output) which can then be connected directly into the microphone input on
a mixing desk. More recently, however, DI boxes have started to appear that
feature a USB connection that directly connects the DI box into a computer,
allowing the user to record the instrument directly without having to connect
the DI box output into a mixing desk. Many of these ‘computer DI boxes’ also
feature amp simulations, allowing you to set a specific amp type which is then
applied to the instrument before it is recorded into the computer. One of the
most celebrated of these is the Line 6 POD, a DI box used by most professional
engineers and very highly recommended (Figure 8.2).

FIGURE 8.2
The Line 6 POD

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However, as good as the Line 6 POD does sound, there are still benefits of
using a microphone to record the guitar. In fact, you will find that in many
cases the best results come from using a DI box and a microphone set-up.
With the DI box set-up to record the guitar, also use a dynamic microphone to
record the sound directly from the amplifier cabinet.
The microphone placement needs to be considered carefully, so you should listen to the sound of the DI box and then determine what type of sound you
require from the amp cabinet. If the microphone is placed directly facing
the centre of the amp cabinet, it will capture more of the higher frequencies,
whereas if it is placed further to the side it will capture more of the lower end
of the spectrum.
As a starting point, try placing the microphone approximately 300 mm above
the cabinet pointing downwards towards the speaker and roughly 400 mm
away. Again, using this set-up, monitor the resulting sound through headphones or in a control room before recording and move the positioning
around until you gain the sound you require. By recording in this way, the DI
box records a clean guitar signal, while the real microphone records the ambience of the room, alongside the tonal effects of the amplification. The two signals can then be mixed to produce the timbre required at the mixing desk.
If you do not have access to a DI box, then you will have no choice but to set
a microphone up to record the amp cabinet. Since you are recording with only
a microphone and no DI box to back the timbre up, it is unadvisable to place
the microphone too close to the amplifier since it will tend to capture a significant amount of low-end rumble from the cabinet, rather place the microphone
on a stand and place it approximately 600 mm above the cabinet pointing
downwards towards the amp and roughly 600 mm away.
Using this set-up, monitor the resulting sound through headphones or in a
control room before recording and move the positioning around until you gain
the sound you require. As a general rule of thumb, if you place the microphone
close to the centre of the amp, you’ll receive more of the high end of the guitar, further to the side and you’ll receive the lower end energy, so experiment
before committing to a recording.
While the amp cabinet and DI box will tend to add their own type of compression, it’s prudent to still apply some during recording due to the playing
styles of electric guitarists; it should be applied heavier than on standard acoustic
guitars.
A good starting point for compression is to set the ratio at 10:1 with a 7 ms
attack, a 50 ms release and a hard knee setting. From here, reduce the threshold
so that it captures the transients and prevents clipping. Note that you shouldn’t
aim to crush the guitar with the compressor since more compression can be
applied at the mixing stage, but too much compression applied at the recording stage cannot be removed later.

Recording Real Instruments CHAPTER 8

BASS
Bass is perhaps one of the most difficult instruments to record faithfully, since
by its very nature it’s a bass instrument and as discussed in Chapter 1, bass has
a long waveform. While all frequencies will reflect off walls, due to the length of
a low-frequency waveform, if you are recording in a small room there will be a
culmination of low-end frequencies at the microphone, even if the microphone
is pointed directly at the amp cabinet. This results in more ambience and colouration being captured by the microphone which can result in a muddy sound.
On top of this, the bass is an absolutely vital element in a dance mix, it is part
of the groove that you dance too, so it has to be recorded perfectly.
The first step to recording a bass instrument is to ensure that the bassist can play
the instrument well and that it’s tuned correctly. A poorly tuned bass instrument
will result in a nightmare at the mixing stage. Also, while fret noise is acceptable on
an acoustic guitar it should be avoided on a bass guitar; while this can sometimes
be avoided by setting the string height from personal experience, the majority of
the cause is a result of an inexperienced thumb-slapping dickhead attempting to
show off his talents rather than concentrate on achieving a good take.
Similar to electric guitars, you can use DI box to record the bass but it is of
paramount importance that you use a good DI unit such as the Ridge Farm Gas
Cooker. However, while this type of DI box will result in a clean focused timbre,
do not underestimate the room ambience that can be captured by capturing
the sound through a microphone. Consequently, it is advisable when recording bass to use both a DI box and a microphone to capture the sound; both
can then be mixed together during the mixing stage to attain the best results.
Recording directly from a bass amp is difficult since you should have a fairly
dead room to record in. This is because both reflections and reverberations
from the room will be captured and, as discussed in earlier chapters, reverb
should be avoided on bass since it will severely affect the position of the bass
when it comes to mix-down. You need to ensure that you record in the biggest
room available to prevent the reflected waveforms returning to the microphone
and adding more bass end than you wish to capture.
Generally speaking, microphones with a good low-end response should be
used to record the amp cabinet; if pushed to recommend a microphone, the
Sennheiser E602 produces very good results but some engineers will use a microphone designed to record kick drums since they’re designed to capture the lower
end of the frequency range. Again, experimentation is the key and you should
experiment with as many different microphones that you have at your disposal.
The microphone placement is generally the same as electric guitars in that if
the microphone is placed directly facing the centre of the amp cabinet it will
capture more of the higher frequencies, whereas if it is placed further to the
side it will capture more of the lower end of the spectrum. As a starting point,
try placing the microphone approximately 600 mm above the cabinet, pointing
downwards towards the amp and roughly 400 mm away.

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Again, using this set-up, monitor the resulting sound through headphones or
in a control room before recording and move the positioning around until you
gain the sound you require.
Since a bass instrument is an incredibly dynamic instrument, compression is a
must. The settings to use on a compressor will depend entirely on the player,
since a player’s technique will vary widely from one to another. A good starting
point on compression is to set the ratio to 12:1, a 10 ms attack, 20 ms release
and a hard knee. Set the threshold to ⫺13 dB and then slowly increase it until
all the transients are captured. This should give a good recording with a limited
dynamic range that will fit into a dance mix.

BRASS
While bass is considered a difficult instrument to record, brass has to take the
award for being the most difficult. Firstly, with brass instruments the room’s
acoustics have a huge influence over the sound, and since they are blown
instruments, there is an astounding amount of pressure leaving the bell section which can easily destroy most microphones if they’re not carefully positioned. Also, brass is incredibly loud – often reaching a sound pressure level of
135–140 dB. On top of this, the sound of the instrument changes as the player
becomes tired and the instrument fills up with spit.
Generally, ribbon microphones are widely regarded as the best to record brass
instruments since they cannot only capture the instrument directly but also the
surrounding ambience. However, due to the fragile nature of the microphones,
a pop shield is an absolute must. In fact, regardless of the microphone you
choose to use, always employ a pop shield since the sheer velocity of the air
leaving the bell can easily pop the diaphragm.
It is also important to note that the sound of a brass instrument does not come
directly from the end of the bell; rather it is from the vibration of the bell itself.
Therefore, it is prudent to place the microphone approximately 2 m in front of
the instrument and around 400 mm above the bell’s position. This allows the
microphone to pick up the acoustics of the room which is where a majority of
the sound’s character will come from.
If the performer is mostly going to be performing lower notes, you can place
the microphone closer to the instrument but it is inadvisable to go closer
than 500 mm since you won’t capture much of the sound’s character. In some
instances you can place the microphone just above the performer’s shoulder since
if it sounds good to them, then it’ll probably sound good to the microphone.
Obviously, the room should be appropriate for the sound, so you should try
recording in a number of rooms to see which gives the best result. Tiled rooms
such as a kitchen or bathroom (provided the room is big enough for the performer to perform in) can provide plenty of character to the timbre, but be cautious since too much reverb captured in the recording stage cannot be removed
afterwards. Experimentation is the key here and will as always yield the best

Recording Real Instruments CHAPTER 8

results. I’ve achieved great results by having the performer (in this case a trumpet) play facing a window with a dynamic microphone positioned 1 m away
facing the window to record the reflections.
Before recording you should wear headphones to double check how the microphone is picking up the signal and not be afraid to move the performer’s and microphone’s positions around until you have the best signal you could possibly achieve.
While setting up for recording it is particularly important not to tire out the
performer; so it is inadvisable to have them continually recite a performance
until you have found the perfect positioning. Playing any brass (or woodwind)
instrument is particularly demanding on a performer, they’re taking sharp
intakes of breath and blowing hard continually. Try it yourself for 5 min and
you’ll understand.
With this in mind, once you have the correct positioning, get the most energetic
parts down first and as quickly as possible. The most demanding parts will be
the higher and hardest notes, so try to get all these down first and always listen
carefully to what is being played. Few performers like to admit when they’re
tired, so listen out for missed notes, lower volumes, missing attack stages on
the instrument and also keep an eye on the player. A player turning red, then
blue, followed by collapsing to the floor provides a good indication of just how
tired the player is becoming.
If you’re after recording a brass ensemble but only have one performer, do not
rely on chorus effects to reproduce an ensemble artificially since it very rarely
works well. Instead, ask the performer to play the part again and record as
many takes as possible. Once you have them all, you can layer them down on
different tracks of the sequencer to recreate an ensemble performance.
If you only have one recording and there is no chance of repeating the performance, you can copy the performance onto another sequencer track and
change the timing between the two tracks by a couple of ticks, but the result
will not be as impressive as multiple recordings.
As with most instruments, compression is absolutely vital on brass instruments
due to the sheer volume of the instruments. Start by setting the compressor to
a ratio of 10:1 with a 7 ms attack and a 30 ms release, and then set the threshold to ⫺15 dB with a hard knee setting. Ideally, the compressor should be set
so that it captures all the notes to keep the volume level throughout the recording. A fluctuating volume once recorded can be compressed further, but for
brass it’s generally a good idea to keep the volume steady throughout the performance while initially recording.

GENERAL TIPS
As with the rest of the book, these techniques are not set in stone and you
should develop and experiment on the principles discussed. The most important factor to bear in mind, however, is to remain patient.

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Since real instrumentalists are prone to nerves, emotion and exhaustion, you
must exhibit some patience; pressuring a performer will only result in a rushed
and poor performance.
What follows are some guidelines and general tips to receive the best possible
performance:
■

■

■

■

■

■

■
■

Use as many microphones you have at your disposal to record
instruments.
If possible, experiment with different pre-amps to see which gives the
best results for the instrument you are recording.
Record in as many rooms as possible and choose the room that gives the
best response.
Allow the performers to take regular breaks, even if they suggest that
they do not need one; ask them to take one anyway. Tired performers
will not give their best.
Always monitor the microphone’s response using headphones. This
ensures you are only hearing what the microphone is picking up.
If you have a portable system, try recording instruments in small halls,
etc., to see if it produces the results you need. Real reverb, in small
amounts, is much better than artificial on some instruments, especially
brass.
Be prepared to regularly punch in and out of recordings.
Do not expect to receive a perfect one-shot performance. It is not
unusual to ‘comp’ together a number of recordings to create a perfect
performance.

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

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CHAPTER 9

Sequencers

’Some great records are being made with today’s
technology and there are still great artists among us.
Likewise there are artists today who are so reliant
on modern technology; they wouldn’t have emerged
when recording was more organic.’
Unknown

With a thorough understanding of the technology behind producing dance
music, we now need to look at how it all ties together, and in nearly all instances
this is accomplished via a sequencer. The sequencer should be considered the
most important aspect of any dance musician’s studio. Whether hardware or
software, it ties together all the technology, and over recent years, the sequencer
has become the central hub of just about every studio in the world.
With the increased power in computers and the microchip, today’s sequencer
can work with both MIDI and audio, permitting the musician to not only programme synthesizer to play specific notes at specific times but also record and
edit audio and apply effects and processing – all in real time. Indeed, processing
power in computers has now reached the stage where it is entirely possible to create, edit, mix and master an entire piece of music entirely on a laptop (notebook)
computer. It should be noted that what follows is only a quick rundown of a
sequencer’s capabilities; to discuss every detail would take another book in itself.
Nearly all of today’s sequencers can be broken down into working with two
main elements; MIDI and audio. While MIDI is often seen as an outdated format, a basic understanding of its principles is still important, especially in the
current age of software synthesizers.
The main page in any sequencer is often referred to as the arrangement page.
This consists of a series of tracks that can be created and listed down the lefthand side. These tracks can consist of MIDI tracks, audio tracks or both. When
playback is initiated (usually by pressing the space bar, or clicking play on the

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FIGURE 9.1
The arrangement page
in Steinberg’s Nuendo
Sequencer

transport control), a timeline moves from left to right, playing back all the
tracks simultaneously in the arrangement page (Figure 9.1).
In this arrangement page, it is possible to cut the tracks into segments/blocks
using a scissor tool, and copy, repeat and move them around to produce an
arrangement. For instance, if you have a 4 bar drum loop, you could continually copy this 4 bar ‘block’ over and over so that it plays for the full length of
the arrangement. The same could be done with the bass and lead etc.
While you can organize all the individual parts in the arrange page, sequencers
offer separate windows for performing more detailed editing. For MIDI, these
commonly consist of a Piano Roll and CC editor. To further understand these,
how they work and how they can be utilized to produce a record, we need to
begin by examining the basics of MIDI.
In its most basic form a MIDI sequencer can be viewed as an advanced musical
conductor, sending instructions to any number of synthesizer informing them
which notes to play and when. Naturally, to achieve this, the synthesizer must
be connected to the sequencer and the synthesizer must also be able to understand the messages the sequencer transmits to them. This connection and intercommunication is accomplished using a format known as Musical Instrument
Digital Interface. Introduced in 1983, MIDI consists of a standardized set
of instructions that all MIDI compatible synthesizer understand and using a
simple 5-pin DIN plug allows them to connect to one another and a sequencer.

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

Program Select
Group - Pads
14 - Breeze
15 - Killer Waves
16 - True Blue
17 - The Sunami
18 - Ever lasting

MIDI OUT

MIDI IN

Windows has experienced a
serious error and needs to
shut down.
SHUT DOWN

MIDI IN

MIDI OUT

FIGURE 9.2
A simple MIDI set-up

In the early days of MIDI, a very simple set-up would consist of the MIDI OUT of
a sequencer connected to the MIDI IN of a MIDI compatible synthesizer via a suitable MIDI cable. Connected in this way, any instructions sent from the sequencer
would be received and performed by the synthesizer. The instructions sent by the
sequencer consist only of a simple set of instructions that the synthesizer performs and do not consist of the sound itself. For example, a typical MIDI instruction consists of pitch with a note-on message, followed by a note-off message, for
which the synthesizer would play a specific note and then stop (Figure 9.2).
Whereas this set-up may appear incredibly simple it does offer many benefits.
You could programme the sequencer note by note at your own pace and then
instruct the sequencer to play back the performance at any speed you desire.
Or you could instruct the sequencer to transmit instructions to numerous synthesizers for all of them to play different parts of the pre-programmed performance. To accomplish this, you need to understand the Piano Roll Editor.
Although different manufacturers of sequencers use different approaches to
perform specific tasks, nearly all have adopted the ‘piano roll’ interface that was
first introduced by Steinberg in their Cubase sequencer (Figure 9.3).
As you can see from Figure 9.2, down the left-hand side is a series of piano keys
denoting the pitch. The higher up towards the top the notes are, the higher the
pitch. To the right is the programming grid; when playback starts, any notes in this
field are played back from left to right at a speed determined by the tempo of the
piece. Drawing in notes is a simple as choosing the ‘Pencil’ tool from the sequencers toolbox, clicking in the programming grid and holding down the mouse button while you draw in the length of the note required. If numerous notes are
drawn in at the same position in time, the notes will be chorded as the synthesizer
plays back all the notes simultaneously. Once a series of notes have been drawn in,
they can be lengthened, shortened, deleted or moved to perfect the performance.
Note, however, that the piano roll editor is split into a series of grids. These
grid positions play an incredibly vital part of any music written on a sequencer,
including drum sequencers, so it is important to have a thorough understanding of why they are present.
The main purpose of any sequencer is to transmit the appropriate message –
such as a note-on message – to a sound-generating device at the specific times
defined by the user. However, no computer is capable of rendering events at just

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FIGURE 9.3
The piano roll editor in Steinberg’s Nuendo Sequencer

any time and they are limited by the clock rate of the software or hardware circuit performing the process. Every time this clock pulses, the computer can perform another operation; the maximum number of clock pulses, also called clock
‘ticks’, that can occur within a given time period is known as the ‘resolution’.
All MIDI sequencers specify this resolution in terms of pulses per quarter note
(PPQN), and the higher this value the more useful the sequencer will generally
be. As an example, if a sequencer has a PPQN of 4, each quarter note would
contain four pulses, while each 8th note would contain two pulses and each
16th note would contain one.
What does this mean? If you’re using a sequencer with a PPQN of 4, you couldn’t
draw in any notes that are less than a 16th because there isn’t a high enough
resolution to yield an integer number of clock pulses. Thus, not only would you
be unable to create notes smaller than a 16th, it would also be impossible for
any note timing to be adjusted to less than this either. This resolution is typical
of some of the early analogue drum machines that were used to create dance
rhythms and are responsible for the metronomic nature of the drum patterns.
While you could determine that you would only really need a PPQN of 16 to
write a dance drum loop, the elements that sit upon this basic rhythm need
a higher PPQN, otherwise the groove of the record will suffer because the
sequencer will have no option but to keep the notes on the pulse of the PPQN.
While on first impression, dance records may seem to remain very metronomic,

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

Table 9.1

Musical Notation and the Related Ticks

Traditional Notation

Length of the Note

Number of Ticks (Pulses)

Whole note

One bar

1920

Half note

Half bar

960

Quarter note

Quarter bar

480

Eighth note

Eighth bar

240

Sixteenth note

Sixteenth bar

120

Thirty-second note

Thirty-second bar

60

that is far from the case. Very small sonic nuances give a record its groove, and
if you can’t accomplish small sonic nuances, your record will have no groove!
In the early 1990s, Roland came to the conclusion that a PPQN of 96 would
be suitable for capturing most human nuances, while a PPQN of 192 would
be able to capture the most delicate human ‘feel’. Subsequently, most drum
sequencers today use this latter resolution, while software sequencers have
adopted a much higher PPQN of 480 and above. A sequencer that boasts a
PPQN of 480 would work as shown in Table 9.1.
Each of these clock ticks can be referenced to a grid position within the piano
roll editor (and indeed all of the sequencer), with the number of grids displayed on the screen determined by the quantize value. The quantize value will
directly affect whereabouts the notes can be positioned, alongside the length of
the note itself.
For instance, if the quantize value were set to 16, the grid would divide into
16th, and it would be impossible to place notes at smaller integers. The quantize value can obviously be used to affect rhythm, phrasing and embellishments, but its flexibility depends on the options offered by the sequencer.
Although quantizing features are helpful in creating the strict rhythms required
in house drum loops for example, overuse of these techniques can produce
anti-musical results. While there are some forms of music that, in theory at
least, benefit from strict timing of each note, in reality even the most stringent
forms of techno introduce subtle timing differences throughout to add interest
and tension. Indeed, the importance of subtle timing differences shouldn’t be
underestimated when creating music that grooves.
Quantizing also plays an important part if you’re more musically minded and prefer to actually play the instrument rather than programme it. Many MIDI instruments offer a MIDI OUT, and by connecting this to the MIDI IN of the sequencer,
two-way communication becomes available. Using this, it’s possible to play back
a performance on the synthesizer itself, at the same time using the sequencer to
record your performance. In many sequencers this is accomplished by creating a
MIDI track on the sequencer, pressing record and playing the instrument.

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MIDI OUT MIDI IN

Program Select
Group - Pads
14 - Breeze
15 - Killer Waves
16 - True Blue
17 - The Sunami
18 - Ever lasting

Windows has experienced a
serious error and needs to
shut down.
SHUT DOWN

MIDI IN MIDI OUT

MIDI THRU

FIGURE 9.4
A more elaborate MIDI
set-up

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MIDI THRU
1 a101 Trance Lead

All notes that are played are recorded direct onto the piano roll editor, whereby
they can then be edited within the sequencer. For instance, badly played notes
or poor timing can be corrected and then transmitted back to the synthesizer to
recreate a perfect performance. Remember, however, that the quantize value is
set too low, everything you record will be moved onto the next pulse and therefore you could end up losing the human feel you’re trying to inject!
For many music projects one synthesizer will rarely be enough and you may
wish to add samplers, drum machines and further sound-generating devices to
the sequencer. This can be accomplished in one of two ways, utilize an instruments THRU port or purchase a multi-MIDI interface.
In addition to the IN and OUT MIDI ports, some of the more substantial
synthesizer also features a THRU port. With this, information received at the
IN port of the synthesizer can be transmitted back out (i.e. repeated) at the
device’s THRU port to the IN connector of the next device. Connecting synthesizer in this manner is often referred to as a ‘daisy chain’ and allows much
more elaborate set-ups (Figure 9.4).
Using this method it is possible to connect, for example, a synthesizer, a drum
machine and a sampler and have all these instruments playing together to recreate a performance. There are, however, a few problems with daisy chaining a
number of synthesizers together.
Firstly, any message transmitted from a sequencer takes a finite amount of time
to travel down the MIDI cable to the synthesizer. While this is certainly not
noticeable on the first few synthesizers, if the information from the sequencer
is destined for the ninth synthesizer down the daisy chain, it has to travel
through the eight previous synthesizer first which can result in the information
arriving 8 ms late resulting in a delay, an effect otherwise known as latency.
While 8 ms may not appear to be too drastic on reflection, the human ear is
capable of detecting incredibly subtle rhythmic variations in music and even
slight timing inconsistencies can severely change the entire feel of the music.
Indeed, a timing difference of only 8 ms can destroy the strict rhythms that

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

are required in some dance music genres and becomes especially evident with
complex break beat or drum and bass loops.
The second problem arises when we consider how does each synthesizer know
which information is destined for it. Simply sending an instruction such as a
pitch and note-on/off message from the sequencer would result in every synthesizer in the chain playing that particular note. This latter problem can be
solved through the use of MIDI channels.
All of today’s sequencers can transmit MIDI information on different channels.
Much like the different channels on a television, MIDI signals can be transmitted to a synthesizer on a number of different MIDI channels. The foremost reason for this is because many synthesizers are multitimbral, in other words, they
can play back a number of individual instruments simultaneously. Typically,
most of today’s synthesizers are 16-part multitimbral but some of the more
recent are 32-part multitimbral. This allows the sequencer to transmit, say, a
piano part on channel 1 and a bass part on channel 2 and – provided the synthesizer was set up correctly – it would play back the piano part in a piano
sound and the bass part in a bass sound.
This channel information, however, can also be used to communicate with specific synthesizer within a daisy chain. By specifying in the synthesizer to ignore
(or pass through) channel 5, for example, any signal reaching that synthesizer
on channel 5 would be passed to the MIDI THRU port and into the next synthesizer in the chain.
While this does provide a solution for connecting numerous MIDI devices
together, it does come at the expense of losing a number of channels in each
device so that the information can pass through it. It also doesn’t solve the
problem of possible latency further down the daisy chain. The only solution to
circumvent these problems is to employ a multi-MIDI output device.
Multi-MIDI interfaces are most commonly external hardware interfaces connected to the sequencer, and offer a number of separate MIDI IN and OUT
ports. Using these you can use different MIDI outputs to feed each different
device rather than having to daisy chain them together. Notably, though, when
looking to purchase a multi-MIDI interface, you should ensure that it utilizes
multiple busses and does not operate on a single buss.
A single-buss interface will offer a number of MIDI outputs but they are all
connected to one MIDI buss. This means that the 16 channels will be divided
between the available outputs on the MIDI interface. In other words, these
basically act as a substitute for devices that do not feature a MIDI THRU port.
Conversely, a multi-buss MIDI interface will provide 16 MIDI channels per
MIDI output on the interface. Therefore, if a multi-buss interface offers four
MIDI OUT channels, you’ll have 64 MIDI channels to transmit over. Many of
these multi-buss interfaces also feature a number of MIDI inputs too, saving
you from having to change over cables if you want to record information from
different synthesizers (Figure 9.5).

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FIGURE 9.5
A multi-MIDI set-up

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

Of course, having multiple MIDI inputs begs the questions as to why would
you want to record into a sequencer from numerous synthesizer. After all,
if the sequencer only records simple data such as note-on/off and not the
actual sounds, and the MIDI data received from all synthesizer keyboards is
essentially the same, why not just one synthesizer as the main keyboard for
recording?
If MIDI was only capable of simple pitch, note-on and note-off messages,
anything performed via MIDI would sound incredibly dull and metronomic.
While some dance music protagonists will argue that there is no human element behind any electronic dance music – it all sounds as though a machine
has created them – this couldn’t be further from the truth. As already touched
upon, under close scrutiny you’ll find that even the most metronomic sounding techno is crammed full of tiny sonic nuances to prevent it from becoming
tedious. Indeed, this is the very reason why some songs appear to ooze energy
and soul while others seem motionless and drab.
To give any music energy, drive and that indefinable character it requires the
human element. Every ‘real’ musician will perform with expression by consciously or subconsciously using a series of different playing styles. For
instance, a pianist may hit some notes harder than others; a guitarist may slide
their fingers up their guitar’s fret board bending the sound, or may sustain
some notes while cutting others short. All of these playing nuances contribute
to the human element behind the music and without it music would sound
dull and lifeless.
Indeed, much of the energy and flow of any music can be attributed to slight
or aggressive development of the sounds throughout the length of an arrangement. While any ‘real’ musician playing the piece naturally injects this into
a performance, capturing this feel over MIDI requires you to be able to send
more than simple on/off messages through MIDI.
With MIDI, sonic nuances can be either programmed or recorded live using a
series of MIDI CC messages. As an example, when you play a note and move
the pitch bend wheel, the wheel sends a continual stream of messages to the
synthesizer’s engine, which in turn bends the pitch either upwards or downwards. This message consists of a number informing the synthesizer what
parameter is being adjusted, followed by another number informing it by how
much it is being adjusted. This stream of messages can also be transmitted to
the MIDI OUT and recorded into the sequencer as a series of MIDI control
change messages (abbreviated to CC).
Of course, unless you happen to have three hands – two to play the instrument
and one to move a controller on the facia of the instrument – it is much easier
to record a performance and then create another MIDI track to then record any
movements of the controller. While you can always record the movements onto
the same track as the MIDI notes, it is a better practice to record them on a different track since it allows you to mute the CC movements without having to
mute the MIDI notes too.

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Once recorded, these CC messages can be edited within the sequencer to
perfect the performance if required. This form of ‘automation’ can easily be
accomplished in most sequencers using the sequencers toolbox. You can draw
over the CC messages with a pencil, or straighten the movements into a gentle
slope using line tools. Generally speaking, all sequencers will offer a graphical
interface that permits you to do this.

CC MESSAGES
All synthesizer will (or should!) feature a pitch bend wheel but what if you
want to control an element of the synthesizer that has no real-time control on
its facia? There are two solutions to this. The first is to record pitch bend movements into a sequencer and then re-assign the pitch bend to control another
aspect of the synthesizer, or you could just draw in automation using the
sequencers toolbox.
Re-assigning CC controllers is dependent on the sequencer in question, but
most will offer a method of doing so, typically, in the form of a drop-down
box. You click on the drop-down box to choose a different CC number and the
recorded (or drawn) automation will automatically be re-assigned to the new
CC number.
However, it is important to note that not all synthesizers will understand the
same CC messages. For example, you may re-assign pitch bend to control panning but if the synthesizer does not understand the CC number for panning
it won’t do anything. Alternatively, the CC number that equates to panning
on one synthesizer may be set to control the resonance on another, so you
wouldn’t receive the desired effect.
In an effort to avoid this and encompass some kind of uniformity between different synthesizer, the general MIDI (GM) standard was developed. This is a
generalized list of requirements that any synthesizer must adhere to for it to
feature the GM symbol. Apart from determining what sounds are assigned to
which numbers and how percussion sounds should be mapped across a keyboard, it also deals with the type of MIDI messages that should be recognized.
In total, there are 128 possible CC messages on any MIDI capable device but
since sequencers all rely on computer chips in one form or another, 0 is classed
as a number; therefore, they are numbered from 0 to 127. In the GM standard,
many of these controllers are hard-wired to control particular functions on the
synthesizer, so provided that the CC number is encompassed by the GM standard, your guaranteed that it will control the correct parameter no matter what
synthesizer the messages are transmitted to, provided that the synthesizer is
GM compatible.

Appendix D Features the Full List of CC Messages
As touched upon previously, each of these controllers must have variable
parameters associated with it to permit you to set how much the specified

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

controller should be moved by. Indeed, every CC controller message must be
followed by a second variable that informs the receiving device how much
that particular CC controller is to be adjusted. Some CC controllers will offer
up to 128 variables (remember that’s 0–127), while others will feature only
two variables (0 or 1) – essentially on/off switches. It is also important to note
that some CC messages will have both positive and negative values. A typical
example of this is the pan controller, which takes the value 64 to indicate central position. Hence, when panning a sound, any values lower than this will
send the sound to the left of the spectrum while values greater than this will
send the sound to the right of the stereo spectrum.
While the GM standard is certainly useful in allowing synthesizer and sequencers to communicate effectively, it is not perfect since many synthesizer have
outgrown the original specification of MIDI and offer many more user-accessible parameters. Consequently, two major synthesizer manufacturers developed
their own MIDI standards that act as an extension to the GM standard. The first
is Roland’s GS system.
Contrary to popular belief, GS does not stand for general standard but is simply the name of the microprocessor used to power the engine (only Roland
seems to know what it stands for). Nevertheless, this protocol is compatible
with the GM standard while also adding variations to the original sound set,
access to two drum kits simultaneously and a collection of new CC messages.
The second is Yamaha’s XG system, which is also fully compatible with GM but
offers more advanced functions than both the GM and GS formats. This system
allows you to use three drum kits simultaneously, along with three simultaneous effects and is also partly compatible with the Roland’s GS system. This is
only partly compatible since Roland constantly updates the GS system with the
release of new synthesizer.
As if these formats were not enough, the developers of the GM standard
released the GM2 standard. This is yet again fully compatible with the original GM standard, but also adds a series of extensions to the original, including
MIDI tuning and even more controllers.
Nevertheless, even with these new specifications and additional controllers,
synthesizers are continually released which go beyond the standards set by the
manufacturers and there will be instances where you need to access or control
parameters that are not covered by these standards, therefore you will have to
use System Exclusive messages.

Universal System Exclusive Messages
System Exclusive (often abbreviated to SysEx) is overlooked by an incredible
amount of musicians since it can initially appear to be incredibly complicated.
After all, musicians rarely want to start working with hexadecimal numbers
they just want to make music.

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Regardless, it is an art well worth learning since it can be used to great effect on
every MIDI compatible unit. If you’ve programmed a synthesizer with your own
set of personalized sounds, you could dump them all to one easy-to-manage
file on the sequencer, allowing you to re-install then whenever required.
Alternatively it can be used to control or adjust parameters on a MIDI unit that
has very few or no controls on its facia. It can even be used to adjust CC’s that
are listed on the MIDI specification but are not recognized by the MIDI unit.
Furthermore, by inserting a string of SysEx messages at the beginning of a MIDI
arrangement, you could take your own MIDI file to a friend’s studio and, provided that they have the same synthesizer, the SysEx at the header of the file
would not only set the sounds for each channel but also reprogramme the synthesizer to all the sounds you used.
To understand SysEx first requires an understanding of hexadecimal, or at the
very least, how to count in hexadecimal. The normal way in which we count
is known as Base 10, based around the logic that we have 10 fingers, therefore
every time we count above 9, we have to move over one decimal point.
0…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…
Then we move over one decimal point and start again:
1 ⫻ 10 ⫹ 0…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…
Take the number 1650 as an example. We can break this down into the following calculation:
1 ⫻ 1000 ⫹ 6 ⫻ 100 ⫹ 5 ⫻ 10 ⫽ 1650
This could also be viewed as:
1000 100 10 0
1
6
5 0
With the number 1650 there are four decimal places; in other words, every decimal place in a number to the left of the decimal point is ten greater than the
previous one.
Hexadecimal works at Base 16, not Base 10, we cannot move over 1 decimal
place yet, so we need to continue by using letters in the place of 10, 11, 12, 13,
14 and 15. These are:
A ⫽ 10
B ⫽ 11
C ⫽ 12
D ⫽ 13
E ⫽ 14
F ⫽ 15

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

Therefore we count like this:
0…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…A…B…C…D…E…F
When we count to 16, we then move over one decimal place which would
equate to 10, in other words F has moved over a decimal place to 16. Following
this, 17 would equate to 11 (16 ⫹ 1), 18 would equate to 12 (16 ⫹ 2), 19
would equate to 13 (16 ⫹ 3) and so forth. When we reach 26, we then have to
start using our letters again which would equal 1A.
That’s 1 ⫻ F(16) ⫹ 1 ⫻ A(10) ⫽ 26 (in other words 16 ⫹ 10 ⫽ 26).
In a more practical situation, we’ll say that part way through an arrangement
you want to change the waveform of a LFO. This is obviously not covered in
the MIDI CC list but can be enabled using SysEx, usually listed in the final
pages of a synthesizer manual.
To programme a certain type of behaviour using SysEx messages, you need to
know what SysEx message to send to the synthesizer. SysEx messages typically
consist of a hexadecimal address, which pinpoints the function within the synthesizer that you want to adjust, along with a hexadecimal value, telling the
function how you want to adjust it.
Thus, by sending a SysEx message to the synthesizer reading 00 00 11 04
(derived in this case from the values shown in Table 9.2), the LFO rate would
be set to waveform number 4.
It’s all a little more difficult than this, however, because you can’t just send the
address and SysEx information. You also need to provide basic ‘identification
information’ about the synthesizer that you are transmitting the message to,
even if there is only one synthesizer in the entire set. If this additional information is not also sent, the message will simply be ignored. Thus, all synthesizers
require that the full SysEx message is either eight or nine strings long, combining all the elements described, to complete a message. A typical message is F0,
41H, 10H, 42H, 12H, 00 00 11H, 04H, 10H, F7. To better understand what this
means, the message can be divided up into nine distinct parts, as shown in
Table 9.3.
Looking at Figure 9.3, the SysEx message we want to send, comprising the
Address and the SysEx value, can be recognized in parts 6 (00 00 11) and 7
(04). The other seven parts of the message provide the required header and
synthesizer identification information.

Table 9.2

SysEx Message Structure

Address

Parameter

SysEx Value

Adjustable Amount

00 00 11

LFO waveform

00–04

0–4

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Table 9.3

Example SysEx Message

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

F0

41H

10H

42H

12H

00 00 11

7F

10H

F7

Parts 1, 2 and 9 are defined by the MIDI specification and are required in all
SysEx messages. The first part simply informs the synthesizer that a SysEx message is on its way and sends the value F0, while the last part, part 9, informs
the synthesizer that it is the end of the message with the value F7.
The second part of the message is specific to the manufacturer of the synthesizer.
Each manufacturer employs a unique number, which is quoted in the back of
the synthesizer’s manual. In this example, 41H is the identification tag used by
Roland synthesizers; thus, only a Roland synthesizer would prepare to receive
this particular message and any other manufacturer’s synthesizers will ignore it.
The third part of the message is used to identify a particular synthesizer even if
it is from the same manufacturer. This can be changed in the parameter pages
of the synthesizer in case another device in the set-up shares the same number,
so that you can send SysEx messages to the one that you want to control rather
than to all of them.
The fourth part of the message contains the manufacturer’s model identification code for that particular synthesizer to ensure that the message is received
and processed only by synthesizers with this particular model identifier (ID).
The fifth part can be one of two variables – 12H or 11H – used to specify whether
the message is sending (12H) or requesting (11H) information. If a synthesizer
receives a SysEx message it recognizes, it will look at this part to determine whether
it needs to change an internal setting or reply with its own SysEx message.
An 11H message is usually employed to dump the entire synthesizer’s patch
settings into a connected sequencer. By sending this, along with the appropriate follow-on messages and pressing record on a sequencer, it’s possible to save
any user-constructed patches. This is useful if the synthesizer has no user patch
memories of its own.
As already observed, sixth part contains the address of the function on which
the SysEx message is to act, which in this case is the LFO rate. Most synthesizer
manuals provide an address map of the various functions and the corresponding addresses to use.
The seventh part can serve two different functions. If the fifth part contains the
value 12H (indicating that the message is being sent), then part 7 will contain the data being sent, as shown in the example we’re using (where the SysEx
value 04 is sent to set the LFO rate). If the fifth part contains the value 11H,
indicating that information is being requested, the value of this part indicates
the number of bytes you want the synthesizer to return in its reply message.

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

Whether eighth part is included will depend on the type of synthesizer you use.
Some manufacturers employ this ‘extra’ byte as a checksum, which is used to
validate the message and to ensure that the receiving synthesizer does only what
the hexadecimal code asks it to. Although MIDI is a fairly stable platform, there
will be the odd occasion when notes stick and messages become corrupted during transmission. If this happens, it’s possible that the original message could
end up asking the synthesizer to do something entirely different, such as erasing all user presets. Errors like this are avoided with a checksum because if the
checksum and message do not match, the SysEx message will be ignored. This is
why you need to understand how to calculate and count in SysEx.
A checksum is calculated using the following formula, taking the SysEx message shown in Figure 9.3 as the basis for the calculation.
For example, convert the address and SysEx hex values from parts 6 and 7 of
the message to decimal values and add them together to give the value H.
Based on the values from Figure 9.3:
Part 6 _ 00 00 11 (hex) and converts to a decimal value of 17.
Part 7 _ 04 (hex) and converts to a decimal value 4. Therefore; H _ 4 _ 17 _ 22.
If the value of H is greater than 127, then we need to minus 128 (H _ 128)
from it to produce the value X. In this case H _ 22, which is less than 127, so X
is also 22.
H _ 22, which is less than 128; therefore X _ 22.
Finally, we convert the value X to hexadecimal to derive the checksum value for
the message. The decimal value 22 in hexadecimal is 16. Therefore, the checksum value is 16.
Although creating your own messages can be boring and time-consuming, it
does give you complete control over every aspect of a synthesizer, allowing you
access to parameters that would otherwise remain dormant.
It should, however, be noted that only one SysEx message can be transmitted
at any one time and additional messages cannot be received while the synthesizer is using that particular function. Furthermore, any synthesizer will pause
for a few microseconds while it receives and processes the command, so any
two messages must not be sent too close together so as to give the synthesizer
time to process the previous command. If a second message is transmitted
while the current command is being processed, the synthesizer may ‘lock up’
and refuse to respond and a ‘hardware boot’ (switch off then on again) must
be performed to reset it. Consequently, the timing between each SysEx message
should be considered when transmitting any messages.
These timing problems make SysEx pretty useless if you want to continually
increase or decrease a parameter while it is playing back. For instance, if you wanted
to emulate the archetypal dance music ‘filter sweep’ where the sound becomes
gradually brighter, you would need to send a continual stream of messages

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to the filter cut-off to steadily open it. As this is often considered to play an
important part of music, it is included in the list of CC messages (CC74 brightness), but if you wanted to progressively adjust the rate of an LFO during
playback this is not covered, so many manufacturers designate these types of
non-registered messages to non-registered parameter numbers (NRPN).
Most dance music relies heavily on cleverly programmed sounds as well as
samples. By accessing and controlling these ‘hidden’ elements of a synthesizer
from a MIDI arrangement using registered parameter numbers (RPN) and
USEM messages, it is possible to switch the functions of a synthesizer part way
through a performance or develop sounds that are not accessible through the
CC list over the length of the arrangement.

NRPN AND RPN CONTROLLERS
NRPN, or ‘Nerpins’, are similar to regular CC messages but can be set to control elements that are not available in the MIDI protocol or that need to be
finely controlled. Nerpins are similar to SysEx and are high-resolution controllers that address up to 16384 separate parameters on a synthesizer. They were
introduced into the MIDI format as a means of allowing access to a wider range
of parameters that are specific to any one particular synthesizer.
For instance, while the rate of an LFO is not accessible through CC messages,
the manufacturer could assign any NRPN number to select this function in the
synthesizer, which could then be followed by two other messages (Data Button
Increment and Data Button Decrement controllers) to adjust the parameters’
values.
This negates the need to use any SysEx messages and makes it possible to adjust
any parameter on a synthesizer, provided that the manufacturer has previously
assigned it. Unfortunately, very few synthesizers actually utilize NRPN controllers, so it is always worth checking the back of a manual to see if they are supported and, if so, what they can control.
It is important to note that if a manufacturer has assigned Nerpins you can only
access and adjust one at once. For instance, if you were using them to adjust the
LFO rate and then wanted to adjust, say, the amplifier’s attack, you would need
to redefine the current NRPN so that the Data Button Increment and Data Button
Decrement adjust this rather than the LFO rate. There may be over 16 000 NRPNs
but there are only three controllers to adjust their properties.
Fortunately, there are some settings that most manufacturers now define as a
standard, such as the Bend Range of the pitch wheel and the master tuning. It’s
for this reason that we also have a pair of controllers for these defined parameter numbers. These are referred to as RPN (generally called ‘RePins’). These
are universal to all MIDI devices but at the moment only six of them are actually used: Pitch Bend, Fine Tuning, Coarse Tuning, Tuning Programme Select,
Tuning Bank Select and Null. As the MIDI specification continues to evolve this
list will undoubtedly continue to grow and should eventually provide universal

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

access to the basic sound editing and effect processing parameters that are currently the non-standard domain of Nerpins.

AUDIO SEQUENCING
Sequencers have moved on from simple MIDI sequencing and now offer a variety of audio sequencing parameters. Similar to MIDI these allow you to record,
import and edit audio in much the same way. The audio can be displayed
graphically and edited with a mouse, and it is also possible to apply a number
of real-time effects to the audio such as delay, reverb and compression, negating the need to purchase additional hardware units to accomplish the same
job. Additionally, all the audio is mixed together using a virtual software mixer,
so there is little need to purchase a hardware alternative. All the audio can be
mixed and EQ’d inside the computer and the resulting stereo signal can be output from the soundcard directly into the loudspeakers.
This has the obvious advantage of being much cheaper than having to purchase the hardware equivalents but the disadvantage that working with audio
requires a lot more power than simply working with MIDI hardware. You’re
no longer simply sending small bytes of information to attached synthesizers
or samplers because you’re storing and manipulating audio on the computer
itself, and unless the computer is of a high enough spec, this may not be possible. While all PCs and Macs available today are capable of acting as a digital
audio workstation, there are a number of important factors that determine how
many audio tracks you can run at once and how well they will perform when a
number of effects are applied to the audio tracks.
Most of today’s software sequencers are more than capable of playing back
more than 200 audio tracks at a time but this does not necessarily mean they
can; it depends entirely on the access speed of the hard drive, the processor
speed and the amount of memory installed. All audio used by a sequencer is
stored on the hard drive and this is read directly from the drive on playback;
thus, the speed at which data can be read (or written while recording) forms a
fundamental part of how many audio tracks can be played simultaneously.
Typically most computers come equipped with a minimum of 100 GB hard
disk space available, and while this may seem plenty, in many cases this will
be used up incredibly quickly. If you want to record long digital audio tracks,
for example a live performance, then a typical CD quality stereo file will
require 10 MB/min, so a single 3 min track will need 30 MB of free hard disk
space, and as some music can consist of 10–15 tracks played simultaneously,
it would require 300–450 MB of free space. Add to this a number of samplebased instruments; these are virtual instruments containing samples and often
come with over 10 GB of samples that must also be stored on a hard drive and
100 GB drives can soon be filled!
An important consideration, if a PC is to be used as the sequencer, is the motherboard itself. For any audio applications a board that uses an Intel-based

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chipset will perform much more reliably than any other. All audio software
manufacturers test their equipment using Intel chipsets, but not as many will
test them on others and there have been innumerable reports from users of
AMD-based systems of incompatibilities between soundcards, SCSI adaptors
and USB devices (such as USB-based soundcards and multi-MIDI interfaces).
Indeed there have been some serious issues reported with PCI to USB host controller chips with non-Intel-based chipsets, such as problems that prevent any
attached USB devices from working at all.
Though Intel-based chipsets are more expensive, the reliability offered by them
is worth it in the long run, especially if you want to make music rather than
spend most of the time chasing incompatibility issues. Notably, many sequencers and other audio software packages are also specifically programmed to
utilize the SSE II instruction sets used on Pentium 4 processors and some companies will not offer product support if there are incompatibilities with their
software and non-Pentium-based systems. As the computer is the basis on
which the entire studio will be based, money should be no object.
The most important link in the chain, however, is the soundcard as this defines
the ultimate quality of the music you produce. Essentially, a soundcard performs two distinct functions; providing a basic MIDI interface and enabling
audio playback and recording. There is a huge variety of audio cards available, some manufactured specifically for audio work while others aimed more
towards computer gamers. However, although there are a number of factors to
bear in mind when looking for any suitable audio card, for music use the three
most important questions to ask are as follows.

HOW GOOD IS THE AUDIO QUALITY?
All audio cards will offer much the same audio quality provided that the audio
remains inside the computer (digitized audio simply consists of numbers) but
the quality of the audio being recorded from the soundcard’s inputs is entirely
dependent on the quality of the card’s analogue to digital converter. Cheaper
cards will have a poor signal-to-noise ratio resulting in an audible hiss on any
recordings taken using them and many of these cards also remove some of the
higher and lower frequencies of a sound. Also it is likely that they will use 16-bit
converters rather than 24-bit, so they cannot capture the dynamic range as well
(don’t panic we’ll be looking at all this in Chapter 4), That said, while 24-bit
soundcards offer superior recording quality when recording real instruments or
vocals, to record this high requires more memory and CPU power and, generally speaking, 16-bit soundcards can still achieve excellent results.

ARE THE SOUNDCARD’S DRIVERS ‘MULTI-CLIENT’?
As soon as any audio sequencer is opened it captures the audio cards inputs
and outputs to use within the programme. If the drivers on the card are not
multi-client, the sequencer will be the only programme that can access the

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

card’s connections, thus it is not possible for any further audio applications to
access the card while the sequencer is running. A number of companies may
promise that multi-client capabilities will be included in later driver updates
but this shouldn’t be taken literally, and if the card does not have them, you
should look for one that does. Keep in mind that many companies will promise updated drivers but instead release newer cards in their place. Visiting the
manufacturer’s website and checking the currently available drivers and their
frequency is probably the best way to discover whether they are willing to
update them to keep up with moving technology.

HOW MANY INPUTS AND OUTPUTS (I/O)
ARE ON OFFER?
All soundcards will offer a stereo input and output but this may not be enough
to suit your needs. In some situations you may wish to output each audio
channel of the sequencer to a different output so that you can mix down on
a hardware mixing desk. Additionally, if you have plans to record more than
one instrumentalist at a time then you’ll need an input for each performer.
Although you may not feel that you need more than one stereo input or output, it is wise to plan for the future.
Provided that you have a capable computer and a good soundcard, possibly
the largest benefit from using an audio sequencer is the opportunity to use a
series of plug-ins. These are small auxiliary programmes that add features to
the host programme, and for digital audio software, they can give you access to
additional effects such as EQ units, filters, vocoder’s and reverb algorithms.
Plug-ins for ‘home’ sequencing platforms usually appear in a number of formats, Audio Units, Universal Binary, Direct X and VST 2. Audio Units and
Universal Binary are Mac only interfaces for use on their OSX and later operating systems, while Direct X is a Windows only application and VST 2 is available for both platforms.
Nevertheless, AU, UB, Direct X and VST are essentially one and the same as
they allow access to real-time effects but whereas Direct X and AU can be
used in a wider range of sequencing programmes, VST 2 and UB is limited to
sequencers that support the standard. This limited support is advantageous,
however, as the programming is more integrated providing more stability while
also using less processor power.
More recently, Steinberg developed the Virtual Instrument 2 plug-in interface.
This works on a principle similar to the aforementioned plug-ins but allows
you to use software emulations of real-world instruments within any VST 2
compatible sequencers.
Additionally, software samplers have also started to appear, offering all the benefits of sampling but from within the sequencer, negating the need to use any
external MIDI devices whatsoever. More significantly, as their audio output can

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be directed to a number of channels in the audio sequencer’s mixer, the signal can be mixed with the other audio channels contained in the virtual mixer
while allowing you to EQ and apply any plug-in effects to their output.
To further explain the advantages of a software-based studio, Ronan Macdonald,
an accomplished musician and editor agreed to be interviewed.
Q: What are the benefits of a studio based entirely on software?
’The benefits of the software-only studio are many, and so compelling that the music
technology hardware industry is genuinely suffering for it (as, indeed, are recording
studios the world over), as more and more musicians get their home studios up to professional standards thanks to the power and price of software.’
’First, then, price. Music software, generally, is much more cost-efficient than hardware. For the price of a decent hard disk recorder, you can now buy a very powerful computer AND a MIDI/audio sequencer that leaves the hardware equivalent
standing.’
’Second, convenience and mobility. The advantage of having your entire studio running inside your Mac or PC is self-evident in terms of the space it takes up and the
lack of need for cables, racks and all the rest of it. And if that Mac or PC happens to
be a laptop, the freedom to take your entire studio wherever you want is nothing short
of a modern miracle.’
’Third, total recall. Generally, with a hardware-based studio, it’s only possible to work
on one mix at a time, since all mixer settings, patch bays and instrument and effects
settings have to be cleared for each new project. A totally software-based studio doesn’t
have this problem, as all settings are saved with the song, meaning you can work on as
many projects at once as your brain can handle.’
’Fourth, sheer power. Today’s computers are really, really powerful. It’s now possible
to run well over 60 tracks of plug-in-processed audio alongside numerous virtual
instruments in real time. Sequencers also make MIDI and audio editing highly userfriendly, very quick and very easy, and in terms of sound quality, since nothing need
ever leave the digital domain, low noise and crystal clarity can be taken for granted
with a software-only setup.’
Q: What are the advantages of using VST instruments over the hardware
alternative?
’Again, price is a major factor here. Hardware synth’s can cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds; soft synth’s very rarely cost more than £400 and usually a lot less.
These days it’s possible to buy some incredibly powerful virtual instruments on the net
for as little as £30 and that’s not to mention the countless free ones out there! On
top of that is the fact that you can run multiple instances of most virtual instruments
at the same time. As if having a totally realistic software Prophet-5 (a staple instrument in the creation of dance music) wasn’t cool enough, how about having eight
of them all running at once, and all for the price of just one?’

Sequencers CHAPTER 9

’When it comes to samplers in particular, hardware simply can’t compete with computer-based systems. Editing a big sample is infinitely easier on a computer monitor
than it is on a sampler’s LCD screen, and being able to store gigabytes of samples on a
computer hard drive makes maintaining and archiving a large sample library a mundane task rather than a constantly fraught one.’
Q: But do virtual instruments sound as good as hardware instruments?
’Absolutely. While early VST synth’s were limited in terms of quality by the speed of
computers a few years ago, these days there are no such problems. The latest generation of analogue emulations, such as GMedia’s Oddity and Arturia’s Moog Modular
V, have shown that we now have enough power at our disposal to be able to process
exceptionally realistic oscillator algorithms, leading to sound quality that simply can’t
be distinguished from ‘the real thing.’
Q: So you can play these in real time like any hardware instrument?
’While there is always a certain amount of latency involved in playing soft synth’s (the
delay between pressing a key and actually hearing the sound come out of the computer), with a high quality (which doesn’t necessarily mean expensive) soundcard,
this can be easily brought down to less than 10 ms, which is all but unnoticeable. And
once you’ve actually recorded the performance into the computer, there’s no latency at
all on playback.’
Q: What would you recommend as the basic requirements to those starting
out writing dance music on a computer?
’While as with everything in computing, the more money you spend, the more power
you’ll get, any off-the-shelf PC will be capable of running even the most demanding
of today’s music software. The soundcard is more of an issue than the PC itself, and
although perfectly good results can be had using any built-in sound system, it’s definitely better to get at least a Sound Blaster Live or Audigy, or – even better – a pro
solution such as M-Audio’s Audiophile 2496, which offers incredibly low latency and
stunning sound quality, and can be bought for around £150.’
’In terms of software, the budding dance music producer is spoilt for choice.
Propellerhead Software’s Reason offers a beautifully conceived and totally self-contained virtual studio for around £220, featuring synths, samplers and effects and
sounding simply awesome. Cakewalk’s Project5 (£249) takes a similarly dance-oriented approach but has the added benefit of being compatible with DirectX and VST
plug-ins. And for what qualifies as unarguably the cheapest way into computer-based
music production, Computer Music magazine features the CM Studio free on the cover
CD of every issue. This comprises a powerful sequencer (Computer Muzys), a virtual
analogue synth, a drum synth, a drum sample player, a sampler and a rack of effects.’

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Music Theory CHAPTER 10

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CHAPTER 10

Music Theory

’All you need is a feel for the music. There are people
that have been to college to study music and they
can’t make a simple rhythm track, let alone a hit
record…’
Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk

BASIC MUSIC THEORY
Having discussed the technology behind the creation, processing and recording of dance music, before we move onto creating different genres of music,
it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of some musical theory. While some
dance musicians have released records without any prior knowledge of music
theory whatsoever, at least some familiarity can help you to understand why
some different genres of dance may use a different time signature.
It’s important to note right from the start that this is a basic introduction to
musical theory aimed at those who have little or no musical knowledge.
Delving into the finer points of music theory is beyond the scope of this book,
so we’re only going to look at areas that are relevant to the dance musician.
This information will be developed upon as in the discussions of different
musical genres in later chapters, so if you feel lost with what follows it will all
come together by the end of the book.
We need to begin by first examining the building blocks of music, starting with
the musical scale.

THE MAJOR SCALE
The major scale consists of a specific pattern of pitches that are named after the
first seven letters of the alphabet. These always follow a specific sequence and
always begin and end on the same letter to create an octave. For example, the C
major scale always begins and ends with a C and the distance between the two

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Table 10.1

The C Major Scale

Vocal

‘Do’

‘Re’

‘Mi’

‘Fa’

‘So’

‘La’

‘Ti’

Key

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

Degree

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

Name

Tonic

Supertonic

Mediant

Subdominant

Dominant

Submediant

Subtonic

D

G

C

E

FIGURE 10.1
Layout of the keyboard

F

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

D

E

One octave

Cs is always one octave. For those who’ve endured Julie Andrews warbling in
the Sound of Music or attended singing lessons, we can relate this to Do – Re –
Mi – Fa – So – La – Ti – Do (the final Do being one octave higher than the previous). What’s more, each pitch in the octave is also given its own name and
number, the latter of which is referred to as a degree. These relationships are
shown in Table 10.1.
More important, though, is the distance between each of these notes, as most
of musical theory is based around understanding this relationship. To comprehend the space between notes in a scale we need to examine the layout of a
typical keyboard and the note placements (Figure 10.1).
Each key on the keyboard relates to the pitch of that particular key and is equal
to 1 semitone. Looking at the keyboard, we can see there are both white and
black keys. These black keys are called sharps, and in written notation they are
identified by the # symbol, so we can see that to the right of C is a raised black
note, and we call this C#. Likewise, the black note to the right of D is called
D# and so on (excluding the notes E and B as these do not have sharp notes
associated with them).

C

C#

D D#

E

F

F# G G#

A

A#

B

C

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

Because each note of a particular pitch is equal to a semitone, in music these can be
added together and classed as one tone. Because the note of C is followed by C#,
the two can be added together to produce one tone (1 semitone ⫹ 1 semitone ⫽
1 tone). Consequently, the notes C, D, F, G and A, which all have associated sharps,
are known as whole tones, while the keys E and B, which don’t have sharps, are
referred to as semitones. From this we could view the C Major scale as:

Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone

Semitone

C

D

E

F

Semitone

G

A

B

C

This pattern of tones and semitones is the pattern that defines a major scale. If,
rather than starting at C, we start at D through to the D an octave higher, this
arrangement changes to what’s known as Dorian mode spacing:

Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone

Although this may not seem significant on paper, it has an impact on the
sound because the key has changed; that is, D is now our root note. The best
way to understand this is to import, or programme, a melody into a sequencer
and then pitch it up by a tone. Although the melody remains the same, the
tonality will change because it’s now playing different pitches than before.
Semitone

D

E

F

Semitone

G

A

B

C

D

There’s much more to this than simply pitching melodies up and down in a
sequencer, however, because we need to take the sharps into account. For
instance, with D major there are two sharps (F and C). Looking back at the
keyboard layout shown in Figure 10.1, these correspond to the F and C.

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Semitone

D

E

F#

G

Semitone

A

B

C#

D

Say that you’ve written a melody in C and you pitch it up 5 semitones to F.
This essentially means that F becomes the root note and the pattern of tones
changes to the Lydian mode spacing:
Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone

Again, this looks fine on paper, but there’s a problem with simply pitching it
up to F because if the original riff in the key of C is simply pitched up to F, any
note that was originally an F would become an A# and any note that was originally an E would become an A. In other words, F has become A sharp. In this
event, the black keys are no longer referred to as sharps; instead they’re referred
to as flats, which are identified by a ‘b’, as in Bb.
Because the black keys on the keyboard can be either sharps (#) or flats (b),
depending on the key of the song or melody, they are sometimes referred to
as ‘enharmonic equivalents’. Of course, depending on where the scale is constructed the black keys will be sharp or flat, but they can never be a mixture of
the two.
Semitone

F

G

A

Semitone

Bb C

D

E

F

MINOR SCALES
Along with the major scale, there are three minor scales consisting of the ‘harmonic’ minor, ‘natural’ minor and the ‘melodic’ minor. These are based around
exactly the same principles as the major scale, with the only difference being
the order of the tones and semitones. As a result, each of these minor scales
has a unique pattern associated with it.
Semitone

C

D

E

F

Semitone

G

A

B

C

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Semitone

C

D

E

Semitone

F

G

A

B

C

The harmonic minor scale has semitones at the scale degrees of 2–3, 5–6 and
7–8. Thus they all follow the pattern:

Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Semitone – Semitone

Semitone

C

D

E

Semitone Semitone

F

G

A

B

C

The natural minor scale has semitones at the scale degrees of 2–3 and 5–6.
Thus they all follow the pattern:

Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone

The melodic minor has semitones at the scale degrees of 2–3 and 7–8 when
ascending, but reverts back to the natural minor when descending. Thus they
will all follow the pattern of:

Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone

Generally speaking, the harmonic minor scale is used to create basic minor
chord structures that are used to harmonize with riffs or melodies that are written using the melodic and natural minor scales. Every major key will have a
related minor and every minor will have a related major, but this doesn’t mean
that the closest relationship to the key of C major, for example, would be C
minor. Instead, the major and minor keys that have the most notes in common
with one another are most closely related.
For instance, the closest related minor to C major is A minor because it has the
most notes in common. As a guideline, you can define a minor from a major by
building it from the sixth degree of the scale; a major can be constructed from the

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Table 10.2

Modes

Key

Name

Mode

C

Tonic

Major (Ionian)

D

Supertonic

Dorian

E

Mediant

Phrygian

F

Subdominant

Lydian

G

Dominant

Mixolydian

A

Submediant

Minor (Aeolian)

B

Subtonic

Locrian

minor scale by building from the third degree of the minor scale. The structures
of major and minor scales are often referred to as modes. Rather than describing
a melody or song by its key, it’s usual to use its modal term (Table 10.2).
Modes are incredibly important to grasp because they will often determine the
emotion the music conveys. This isn’t due to some scientific reasoning but because
it’s our instinctive reaction to subconsciously reference everything we do, hear or
see with past events. Indeed, it’s impossible for us to listen to a piece of music
without subconsciously referencing it against every other piece we’ve ever heard.
This is why we may feel immediately attracted to or feel at ‘home’ with some
records but not with others. For instance, most dance music is written in the
major Ionian mode. If it were written in the minor Aeolian mode the mood
would seem much more serious.

CHORDS
There’s much more to music than understanding the various scales and modes
since no matter what key you play if only one note was played at a time it
would be rather boring to listen to. Indeed, it’s the interaction between numerous notes played simultaneously that provides music with its real interest.
More than one note played simultaneously is referred to as a harmony, and the
difference in the pitch between the two played notes is known as the ‘interval’.
Intervals can be anything from just one semitone to above an octave apart. It
should go without saying that the sonic quality of a sound varies and multiplies with each additional note that’s played.
Each different interval is given its own name. For example, harmonies that
utilize three or more notes are known as chords. The size of these intervals
influence the ‘feel’ of the chord being played and some intervals will create a
more pleasing sound than others. Intervals that produce a pleasing sound are
called consonant chords, while those less pleasing are called dissonant chords.

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

Table 10.3

Interval Relationships

Interval

Semitones Apart

Description

Unison

Same note

Strongly consonant

Minor second

One

Strongly dissonant

Major second

Two

Mildly dissonant

Minor third

Three

Strongly consonant

Major third

Four

Strongly consonant

Perfect fourth

Five

Consonant or dissonant

Tritone

Six

Mildly dissonant

Perfect fifth

Seven

Strongly consonant

Minor sixth

Eight

Mildly consonant

Major sixth

Nine

Consonant

Minor seventh

Ten

Mildly dissonant

Major seventh

Eleven

Dissonant

The combination of the two together can be used to create tension in music,
so each is of equal importance when you are writing a track. Indeed, creating
a track using nothing but consonant chords results in a track that sounds quite
insipid, while creating a track with only dissonant chords will make the music
sound unnatural. The two must be mixed together sympathetically to create the
right amount of tension and release. To help clarify this, Table 10.3 shows the
relationship between consonant and dissonant chords, and the interval names
over an octave.
Intervals of more than 12 semitones that span the octave have a somewhat different effect.
Nevertheless, to better understand how chords are constructed we need to
jump back to the beginning of the chapter and look at the layout of C major.
Using this chart we can look at the simplest chord structure – the triad. As the
name suggests, this consists of three notes and is constructed from the first,
third and fifth degree notes from the major scale that forms the root note of
the chord.
You can see from Figure 10.2 that the root note of the C major scale is C, which
corresponds to the first degree. To create the C major triad, the third and fifth
degree notes must be added, giving us the chord C–E–G (or first, third and fifth

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Pitch
Degree

C
1

D
2

E
3

F
4

G
5

A
6

B
7

FIGURE 10.2
Grid of the C major scale

degree). This major triad is the most basic and common form of chord and is
often referred to as ‘CMaj’.
As before, this chord template can be moved to any note of the scale; thus there
is a whole scale of chords available. For example, a chord from the root key of G
would consist of the notes G–B–D. Similarly a triad in the root key of F would
result in F–A–C. This also means that in a triad with a root key of D, E, A or B, the
third tone will always be a sharp.

C major

D major

F major

G major

In addition, there are three variations to the major triad chord: the ‘minor’,
‘diminished’ and ‘augmented’ triads. Each of these works on a similar principle
as the major triad, with the difference that for the minor and diminished triad,
the third tone is lowered by one semitone (Figure 10.3).

FIGURE 10.3
Variations to the major
triad

Minor

Diminished

Augmented

For instance, taking the major triad C–E–G from the root key of C and lowering
the third tone gives us the notes in the minor triad C–Eb–G. For a diminished
triad we do the same again, but this time both the third and fifth tone are lowered, resulting in C–Eb–Gb. Finally, to create an augmented triad we increase
the fifth note by a semitone, producing C–E–G#. These and other basic chord
groups are shown in Table 10.4.
So, to recap:
■

■

To create a major triad, take the first-, third- and fifth-degree notes of the
scale.
To create a minor triad, lower the third degree by a semitone.

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

Table 10.4

Basic Chord Groups

Chord/Root

Major

Minor

Diminished Augmented

C

C–E–G

C–Eb–G

C–Eb–Gb

C–E–G#

D

D–F#–A

D–F–A

D–F–Ab

D–F#–A#

E

E–G#–B

E–G–B

E–G–Bb

E–G#–C

F

F–A–C

F–Ab–C

F–Ab–B

F–A–C#

G

G–B–D

G–Bb–D

G–Bb–Db

G–B–D#

A

A–C#–E

A–C–E

A–C–Eb

A–C#–F

B

B–D#–F#

B–D–F#

B–D–F

B–D#–G

C# (enharmonic Db) C#–E# (F)–G# C#–E–G#

C#–E–G

C#–E# (F)–A

Db

Db–F–Ab

Db–E–Ab

Db–E–G

Db–F–A

Eb

Eb–G–Bb

Eb–Gb–Bb Eb–Gb–A

Eb–G–B

F# (enharmonic Gb)

F# A# C#

F#–A–C#

F#–A–C

F#–A#–D

Gb

Gb–Bb–Db

Gb–A–Db

Gb–A–C

Gb–Bb–D

Ab

Ab–C–Eb

Ab–B–Eb

Ab–B–D

Ab–C–E

Bb

Bb–D–F

Bb–Db–F

Bb–Db–E

Bb–D–F#

■

■

To create a diminished triad, lower the third and fifth degrees by a
semitone.
To create an augmented triad, raise the fifth degree by a semitone.

These examples in Table 10.4 show single chords. In a musical context, the
transition between these chords is what gives music its unique character and
sense of movement. To introduce this sense of movement, the centre note of
the chord (the third degree) is inverted or moved as the chords progress. This
means that while both the first and fifth degrees of the chord remain 7 semitones apart, the third often moves around to create intervals. For instance, moving the third degree up a semitone creates an interval known as a major third,
whereas if it were positioned or moved to 3 semitones above the root note, it
would become a minor third. Inversions are created in much the same way and
provide a great way for the chords to move from one to the next.
Inversions are created when one of the notes is moved by a melodically suitable degree. How this is achieved is largely down to experimentation. As an
example, if we are writing a tune using the chord of C, we can transpose the
first degree (C) up an octave so that the E becomes the root note, to create

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what’s called a ‘first inversion’. Next, we can transpose the E up an octave, leaving the G as the root. This creates a second inversion.

C maj

Second

First

This kind of progression is especially suitable for pads or strings that need to
smoothly change as the track progresses without capturing too much unwanted
attention. That said, any movement of any degree within the chord might be used
to create chord progressions, which, as mentioned, is down to experimentation.
Simple triad chords, such as those shown in Table 10.4, are only the beginning. The
next step up is to add another note, creating a four-note chord. The most commonly
used four-note chord sequences extend the major triad by introducing a seventh
degree note, which results in a 1–3–5–7 degree pattern (C–E–G–B in C major).

C

F

D

G

It is, however, uncommon for four-note chords to be employed in dance music
because major and minor sevenths are more synonymous with Jazz music. That
said, you should experiment with different chord progressions as the basis for
musical harmony. For those who still feel a little unsure about the construction
of chords, listed below are some popular chords:
C–Eb–G–A
C–Eb–G–D
C–Eb–G–Bb–F
C–Eb–G–Bb–D
C–Eb–G–Bb–D–F–A
C–Eb–G–B–D
C–Eb–F#–Bb–D
C–Eb–F#
C–Eb–F#–A–B
C–E–G#–B

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C–E–G–B
C–E–G#
C–F–G–Bb–C#–A
C–F–G
C–F–G–Bb–D
C–E–G–B–D
C–E–G–B–D–F#
C–E–F#–Bb
C–E–G#–Bb
C–E–G–Bb–C
C–E–F#–Bb–C#
C–E–G#–Bb–C#
C–E–G–Bb–D–F#
C–E–G–Bb–Eb–F#
C–E–G–Bb–C#–A
C–E–G–A
C–E–G–D
C–E–G–Bb–D
C–Eb–G–A–D
C–Eb–G–Bb
C–Eb–G–Bb–A
C–Eb–G–Bb–D–F
C–Eb–G–B
C–Eb–F#–Bb
C–Eb–F#–Bb–D–F
C–Eb–F#–A
C–E–F#–B
C–E–G–B–F#
C–E–G–B–A
C–F–G–Bb–C#
C–F–F#–B
C–F–G–Bb
C–F–G–Bb–D–A
C–E–G–B–D–A
C–E–G–B–D–F#–A
C–E–F#–Bb–D
C–E–G#–Bb–D
C–E–G–Bb–Eb
C–E–Ab–Bb–Eb
C–E–G–Bb–F#
C–E–G–Bb–C#–F#
C–E–F#–Bb–D–A
C–E–G–Bb–D–F#–A
C–E–G–D–A
C–E–G–Bb
C–E–G–Bb–D–A

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Once the basic chords are laid down, you can begin to construct a bass line
around them. This is not necessarily how all music is formed, but it is common practice to derive a chord structure from the bass or melody or vice versa,
and it’s useful to prioritize the instruments in the track in this way. Generally,
whichever instrument is laid down first depends on the genre of music.
While there are no absolute rules to how music is written – or at least aren’t any
as far as I know – it’s best to avoid getting too carried away programming complex
melodies when they don’t form an essential part of the music. Although music
works on the principle of contrast, having too many complicated melodies and
rhythms playing together will not necessarily produce a great track; you’ll probably
end up with a collection of instruments that all are fighting to be noticed.
For example, a typical hands in the air trance with big, melodic, synthetic leads
doesn’t require a complex bass melody because the lead is so intricate. The bass
in these tracks is kept very simple. Because of this, it makes sense to work on
the melodic lead first, to avoid putting too much rhythmical energy into the
bass. If you work on the bass first you may make it too melodic and harmonizing the lead to sit will be much more difficult. In our example, it may detract
from the trance lead rather than enhance it.
If, however, you construct the most prominent part of the track first – in this
case the melodic synthesizer motif – it’s likely that you’ll be more conservative
when it comes to the bass. If the chord structure is fashioned first, this problem
does not rear its ugly head because chord structures are relatively simple and
this simplicity will give you the basic ‘key’ from which you can derive both the
melody and bass to suit the genre of music you are writing.

FAMILIARITY
As already discussed, the subconscious reference we apply to everything we
hear is inevitable, so it pays to know the chord progressions that we are all
familiar with. Chord progressions that have never been used before tend to
alienate listeners. Arguably most clubbers want familiar sounds that they’ve
heard a thousand times before and are not interested in originality – an observation that will undoubtedly stir up some debate. Nevertheless, it’s true to say
that each genre – techno, trance, drum ‘n’ bass, chill out, hip-hop, and house –
is based around same theme. Indeed, whether we choose to accept it or not,
this is how they are categorized into sub genres. This is not to say that you
should attempt to copy other artists but it does raise a number of questions
about originality.
The subject of originality is a multifaceted and thorny issue and often a cause of
heated debate among musicians. Although the finer points of musical analysis
are beyond the scope of this book, we can reach some useful conclusions by
looking at it briefly. L. Bernstein and A. Marx are two people who have made
large discoveries in this area and are often viewed as the founders of musical analysis. They believed that if any musical piece is taken apart there will

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

be aspects of it that are similar to most other records. Whether this is because
musicians are often influenced by somebody else’s style is a subject for debate,
but while the similarities are not immediately obvious to the casual listener,
to the musician these similarities can be used to form the basis of musical
compositions.
We can very roughly summarize their discoveries by examining the musical scale.
As we’ve seen, there are 12 major and 12 minor keys, each of which consists
of eight notes. What’s more, there are three basic major and three basic minor
chords in each key. Thus, sitting at a keyboard and attempting to come up with
an original structure is unlikely. When you do eventually come up with a progression that you believe sounds ‘right’, it sounds this way because you’ve subconsciously recognized the structure from another record.
This is why chord structures can often trigger an emotional response in you. In
fact, in many cases you’ll find that most dance hits have used a series of very
familiar underlying chord progressions. While the decoration around these
progressions may be elaborate and different in many respects, the underlying
harmonic structure is very similar and seldom moves away from a basic threechord progression. Whether you wish to follow this train of thought is entirely
up to you, but there’s nothing wrong with forming the bass and melody
around a popular chord structure then removing the chords later on. In fact,
popular chord structures are often a good starting point if inspiration takes a
holiday and you’re left staring at a blank sequencer window.

MUSICAL RELATIONSHIP
It’s vital that the chords, bass and melody of any music style work together
and complement one another. Of these three elements, the most important
relationship is between the bass and the melody, so we’ll examine this first.
Generally, the bass and melody can work together in three possible ways:
parallel, oblique or contrary motion.
Parallel motion is when the bass line follows the same direction as the melody.
This means that when the melody rises in pitch the bass rises too, but it does
not follow it at an exact interval. If both the melody and bass rise by a third
degree, the resulting sound will be too synchronized and ‘programmed’ and
will lose all of its feeling. Rather, if the melody rises by a third and the bass
by a fifth or alternate thereof, the two instruments will sound like two voices
rather than one. Also, the bass should borrow some aspects from the progression of the melody but should not play the same riff.
When the melody and bass work together in oblique motion, either the melody or the bass moves up or down in pitch while the other instrument remains
where it is. When the music is driven by the melody, such as trance, the melody
moves while the bass remains constant. In genres such as house, where the bass
is often quite funky with plenty of movement, the melody remains constant
while the bass dances around it.

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The relationship known as contrary motion provides the most dynamic movement and occurs when the bass line moves in the opposite direction to the
melody: if the melody rises in pitch, the bass falls. Usually if the melody rises
by a third degree, the bass falls by a third.
This leads onto the complex subject of ‘harmonization’ – how the chord structure interacts with both the bass and melody. Despite the fact that dance tracks
don’t always use a chord progression or in some cases even a melody, the theory of how chords interlace with other instruments is beneficial on a number
of levels. For instance, if you have a bass and melody but the recording still
sounds drab, you could add harmonizing chords to see whether they help.
Adding these chords will also give you an idea of where to pitch the vocals.
From a theoretical point of view, the easiest way to construct a chord sequence
is to take the key of the bass and/or melody and build the chords around it.
For instance, if the key of the bass were in E, then the chords’ root could be
formed around E.
However, it is unwise to duplicate every change of pitch in the bass or melody
as the root for your chord sequence. While the chord sequence will undoubtedly work, the mix of consonant and dissonant sounds will be lost and the
resultant sound will be either manic or sterile. If the chord structure is to instil
emotion, the way in which the bass and melody interact with the harmony
must be more complex. Attention to this will quite often make the difference
between great work track and an average one.
Often, the best approach for developing a chord progression is one based
around any of the notes used in the bass. For instance, if the bass is in E, then
you shouldn’t be afraid of writing the chord in C major because this contains
an E anyway. Similarly, an A minor chord would work just as well because it is
the minor to the C major (come on, keep up at the back…).
For the chords to work, you need to ensure that they are closely related to the
key of the song, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that because a chord utilizes E
in its structure that it will work in harmony with the key of the song. For a harmony to really work, it must be inconspicuous, so it’s important that you use
the right chord. A prominent harmony will detract from the rest of the track
so they’re best kept simple and without frequent or quick changes. The best
harmony is one that is only noticeable when removed.
While the relationship between the bass and chord structures is fundamental
to creating music that gels properly, not every bass note or chord should occur
dead on the beat, every beat, or follow the other’s progression exactly. This kind
of sterile perfection is tedious to listen to and quickly bores potential listeners.
It’s a trap that can be easy to fall into and difficult to get out of, particularly
with software sequencers. To avoid this you must experiment by moving notes
around so that they occur moments before or after each other. This deliberately
inaccurate timing, often referred to as the ‘human element’, forms a crucial part
of most musical styles.

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

Indeed, it’s such a natural occurrence that our brains tune into this phenomenon, refusing anything that repeats itself perfectly without any variation.
Although you may not recognize exactly what the problem is, your brain
instinctively knows that a machine has created the performance. It could be
argued that the human element is missing from many forms of dance music,
but your brain assumes that the human element cannot be recreated electronically. Offsetting various notes deliberately or utilizing various quantize
functions in the sequencer writes the slight inaccuracies we expect into the
music, and it is these techniques that define the groove in the most well-known
dance records. Before we look at groove, however, we need to first understand
tempo and time signatures.

TEMPO AND TIME SIGNATURES
In all popular music the tempo is measured by counting the number of beats
that occur per minute (BPM). BPM measurements are also sometimes referred
to as ‘metronome mark’ and musicians along with some producers use these
as well as other musical terms to describe the general tempo of any given
genre of music. For instance the hip-hop genre is characterized by a slow, laidback beat, but individual tracks will use different tempos that can vary from
80 BPM through to 110 BPM. Thus, it’s usual that different musical styles are
described using general musical terms. Using musical terms, then, hip-hop
can be described as ‘andante’ or ‘moderato’, meaning at a walking pace or at
a moderate tempo. Similarly, the house or trance genres may be described as
‘allegro’, meaning quickly, while drum ‘n’ bass may be described as ‘prestissimo’,
meaning very fast.
Several of the most common musical terms are listed below.
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Largo – Slowly and broadly.
Larghetto – A little less slow than largo.
Adagio – Slowly.
Andante – At a walking pace.
Moderato – At a moderate tempo.
Allegretto – Not quite allegro.
Allegro – Quickly.
Presto – Fast.
Prestissimo – Very fast.

It is important to bear in mind that the actual number of beats per minute in
a piece of music marked presto, for example, will also depend on the music
itself. A track that is constructed of half notes can be played a lot more quickly
(in terms of BPM) than one that consists almost entirely of 16th notes, but it
can still be described using the same word. To make sense of this we need to
examine time signatures and different note lengths.

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Semitone

FIGURE 10.4
Typical musical staff

C

D

E

Semitone

F

G

A

B

C

Time signatures determine the rhythmic feel and ‘flow’ of the music, so an understanding of them is essential. To understand the principle of time signatures,
you first have to learn how to count. Of course, we all learnt how to do this in
primary school, but it’s not quite the same in music because of the way music
is transcribed onto a musical staff. So let’s begin by looking at a typical musical
staff (Figure 10.4).
Figure 10.4 shows the note of the C major scale on the musical staff. Written in
this way, each note’s pitch can be seen in relation to other notes according to
their vertical position, but more importantly, the symbol used to represent the
notes. In this case, the notes shown are quarter notes or crochets, which to the
musician is an important indication of their duration.
Whole Note – Semibreve
Half Note – Minim
Quarter Note – Crotchet
Eighth Note – Quaver
Sixteenth Note – Semi Quaver
Thirty-second Note – Demisemiquaver

Whole note
Is equivalent in timing to
2 half notes
Is equivalent in timing to
4 quarter notes
Is equivalent in timing to
8 eighth notes
Is equivalent in timing to
16 sixteenth notes
Is equivalent in timing to
32 32nd notes

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

Symbol Name

Common Name

Value in
Relation to a
Whole Note

Whole note

Semibreve

1

Half note

Minim

1/2

Quarter note

Crotchet

1/4

Eighth note

Quaver

1/8

Sixteenth note

Semiquaver

1/16

Thirty-second
note

Demisemiquaver

1/32

Equivalent in Timing to…

–

If notes were simply dropped onto a musical stave, as they were in Figure 10.3,
the musician would play them one after the other, but there would be no rhythm
to the piece. Each note would just be played in one long sequence. To avoid
this, music is broken down into a series of bars and each bar has an associated
rhythm. Generally, this rhythm remains the same throughout every bar of music,
but in some instances the rhythm can change during the course of a song.
Nevertheless, all music must have rhythm, even if it isn’t written down, because
all music is based around a series of repetitive rhythmic units (i.e. bars, sometimes known as measures) – it’s what gets your feet moving on the dance floor.
To grasp this, we need to be able to count like a musician. This can be accomplished by examining the ticking of an ordinary clock (provided that it isn’t a
digital, of course!). Every tick of the clock obviously corresponds to a number
from 1 to 60 s, but rather than count up to 60 we can just count up to four and
then start all over again from one. For instance:
One…two…three…four…one…two…three…four…one…two…three…four… and so forth

Now suppose we were to put an accent (i.e. say it louder) on every number one
of our count we would have:

ONE…two…three…four…ONE…two…three…four…ONE…two…three…four… and so
forth

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Next, rather than count up to four, count up to three instead while still placing
an accent on the number one.

ONE…two…three…ONE…two…three…ONE…two…three…ONE…two…three…etc.

You’ll notice there is a distinct change in the rhythm. Counting up to four produces a rather static rhythm (typical of most dance music), while counting up to
three produces a rhythm with a little more swing to it (typical of some chill out,
trip-hop and hip-hop tracks). This is the basic concept behind time signatures;
it allows the musician to determine what kind of rhythm the music employs.
Time signatures are placed at the beginning of a musical piece to inform the
musician of the general rhythm – how many and what kind of notes there are
per bar. They are written with one number on top of another and look like a
fraction, such as 1/4 or 1/2 used in mathematics.
In music, the number at the top of the time signature indicates the number of
‘beats’ per bar (do not confuse this with beats per minute!), and the bottom
number indicates which note sign represents the beat.
To explain this, let’s consider the time signature of 3/4 (pronounced ‘threefour’). The top number determines that there are three beats to the bar, while
the bottom number tells us the length of these beats. To determine the size of
these beats we can divide a whole note (1) by this bottom number (4) and as
we saw before

1 whole note ⫽ 2 half notes ⫽ 4 quarter notes ⫽ 8 eighth notes ⫽ 16 sixteenth notes

Therefore if we divide a whole note by four, we get:

whole note/4 ⫽ 4 quarter notes (i.e. 4 crotchets)

This gives us the beat size of one crotchet. From this we can determine that
each bar of music can accept no more than the sum of three crotchets. Of
course, this doesn’t limit us to using just three crotchets, it simply means that
no matter what notes we decide to use we cannot go above the total sum of
three crotchets.
This technique can be applied to other time signatures. If we work in the time
signature of 5/2 (five-two), we can tell from the top note that there are five
beats to the bar. As before, we work out the size of these beats by dividing a

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

whole note by the bottom number in the time signature, in this case two. This
gives us five minim’s (half notes) to the bar.
If applied to the time signature 6/8 (six-eight) 6 there are, eighth notes (quavers) in the bar. These, different time signatures, while appearing quite abstract
and meaningless on paper produce very different rhythmic results when played.
Although most dance music use 4/4 or 3/4, writing in different time signatures
can occasionally aid in the creation of grooves.

CREATING GROOVE
While it is possible to dissect and describe the principles behind how each
genre of music is generally programmed, defining what actually makes the
groove of one record better than another isn’t so straightforward. Indeed, creating a killer dance floor groove is something of a Holy Grail that all dance
music producers are continually searching for. Although finding it has often
been credited to a mix of skill, creativity and serendipity, there are some
general rules of thumb that often apply.
Injecting groove into a performance is something that any good musician does
naturally, but it can be roughly measured by two things: timing differences
and variations in the dynamics. A drummer, for instance, will constantly differ
how hard the kit is hit, resulting in a variation in volume throughout, while
also controlling the timing to within microseconds. This variation in volume
(referred to as dynamic variation) injects realism and emotion into a performance while the slight timing differences add to the groove of the piece.
By adjusting the timing and dynamics of each instrument, we can inject groove
into a recording. If a kick and hi-hat play on the beat or a division thereof,
moving the snare’s timing forward or backward will make a huge difference to
the feel. Similarly, programming parts to play slightly behind the beat creates a
bigger, more laid-back feel, while positioning them to play in front of the beat
creates a more intense, almost nervous feel. These are the principles behind
which swing and groove quantize in sequencers operate, both of which can be
used to affect rhythm, phrasing and embellishments.
Using swing quantize, the sequencing grid is moved away from regular slots
to alternating longer and shorter slots. This can be used to add an extra feel to
music, or, if applied heavily, can change a 4/4 track into a 3/4 track. Groove
quantize is a more recent development that allows you to import third-party
groove templates and then apply them to the current MIDI file. This differs
from all other forms of quantize because it redefines the grid lines over a series
of bars rather than just one bar, thereby recreating the feel of a real musical
performance. In many instances, groove templates also affect note lengths and
the overall dynamics of the current file, creating a more realistic performance.
In more adept sequencers, groove templates extracted from audio files can be
onto a MIDI file to recreate the feel of a particular performance.

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To get the best results from swing and groove quantizing features, they should
be used creatively. For instance, complex drum loops can be created from two
or three drum loops that each use different quantize settings. This approach
works equally well when creating complex bass lines (if the track is bass
driven), lead lines and motifs. It is important to note, however, that quantize
shouldn’t be relied on to instantly add a human feel, so creating a rigid bass
pattern in the hope that quantize will introduce some feel later isn’t a good
idea. Instead, you should try to programme the bass with plenty of feel from
the start: by physically moving notes by a few ticks and then experimenting
further with the quantize options to see if it adds anything extra.
In addition to groove, another important aspect of dance music is the drive,
which gives the effect of pushing the beat forward, as if the song is attempting to run faster than the tempo. This feeling of drive comes from the position of the bass and drums in relation to the rest of the record. For instance,
moving the drums and bass forward in time by just a couple of ticks gives the
impression that they are pushing the song forward, in effect, producing a mix
that appears as if it wants to go faster than it actually is. This feeling can be
further accentuated if any melodic elements, such as pianos, are programmed
to sit astride the beat rather than dead on it and different velocities are used to
accentuate parts of the rhythm.
This brings us onto the subject of dynamics and syncopation, both of which
play a vital role in capturing the requisite rhythm of dance. All musical forms are
based upon patterns of strong and weak working together. In classical music, it
is the constant variation in dynamics that produces emotion and rhythm from
these contrasts. In dance music, these dynamic variations are often accentuated
by the rhythmic elements. By convention, the first beat of the bar is the strongest.
Armies on the march provide a good example of this, with the 2/4 rhythm, Left–
Right–Left–Right–Left–Right. In this rhythm, there are two beats (Left and Right)
and the first beat is the strongest with the second beat being a little weaker. With
the typical dance music 4/4 kick drum (often referred to as ‘four to the floor’),
the first beat in the bar is usually the strongest (i.e. the greatest velocity) with
subsequent hits varying in dynamics (Table 10.5).
Syncopation also plays an important role in the rhythm of a track. This is
where the stress of the music falls off the beat rather than on it. All dance
music makes use of this, and it’s often a vital element that helps tie the whole
track together. While the four to the floor rhythm pounds out across the dance
floor, a series of much more elaborate rhythms interweave between the beats of
the main kick drum. For instance if we count in the same manner as we did for
the time signatures:

ONE…two…three…four…ONE…two…three…four…ONE…two…three…four… and so
forth

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

Table 10.5

Syncopation

No. of ‘Kicks’ Beat Pattern
in the Bar

Pattern Over 4 Bars

1

Strong

S–S–S–S

2

Strong–weak

SW–SW–SW–SW

3

Strong–medium–weak

SMW–SMW–SMW–SMW

4

Strong–weak–medium–weak

SWMW–SWMW–SWMW–
SWMW

Each number corresponds to the kick drum, but if we were to add ‘and’ into
the counting we get:

ONE and two and three and four…ONE and two and three and four…

Each and occurs on the off the beat, or, in musical terms, on the quaver of the
beat. A good example of this is found in trance music, where the bass notes
occur between the kicks rather than sat on the beat.
This emphasis can be added using velocity commands, which simulate or
re-create the effect of hitting some notes harder than others, thereby creating
different levels of brightness in the sound. These are commonly used with bass
notes. Using velocity commands you can keep the first note of the bar at the
highest velocity and then lower the velocity for each progressive note in the
bar and at the next bar, repeat this pattern again. It’s important to also consider here that the length of any bass notes can also have an effect on the perceived tempo of the track. Shorter, stabbed notes, such as sixteenths, will make
a record appear slightly more frantic than using notes that are longer.
While it is impossible to define a groove precisely, the best way to know
whether you’ve hit upon a good vibe is to try dancing to it. If you can, the
groove is working. If not, you’ll need to look at the bass and drums again
before moving any further. Keep in mind that the groove forms the backbone
of all dance records; therefore it’s imperative that the groove works during this
early stage. Don’t hope that adding additional melodic lines later will help it
along: if it sounds great at this point then further melodic elements will only
help improve. If you’re stuck for inspiration or are struggling to create a groove,
try downloading MIDI files of other great songs with a similar feel and incorporate and manipulate the ideas to create your own groove. This isn’t stealing
its research and every musician on the planet started this way!

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The only real ‘secret’ behind creating that killer groove is to never settle for second best, and many artists will freely admit to spending weeks making sure
that the track has a good vibe. This includes giving it a quick mix-down so
that it sounds exactly as you would envisage it when the track is completed. If
at this point, the vibe is still missing, go back and change the elements again
until it sounds exactly right. Take into consideration that the mixing desk, as
well as being a useful creative tool, only polishes the results of a mix and hence
sounds going into a mix must be precise in the first place.

CREATING MELODIES/MOTIFS
Although it’s true to say that melodies and motifs often take second place to
the general groove of the record, they still have an important role in dance
music. Notably, very few dance tracks employ long, elegant, melodic lines
(some trance being an exception) since these can deter from the rhythmic elements of the music. Consequently, most dance music use short motifs, as these
are simple yet powerful enough to drive the message home. Generally speaking
a good motif is a small, steady, melodious idea that provides listeners with an
immediate reference point in the track. For instance, the opening strings in the
Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony could be considered a motif, as can the first few
piano chords on Britney Spears Baby, Hit Me One More Time. As soon as you
hear them you can identify the track, and if programmed correctly they can be
extremely powerful tools.
Knowing what makes a good motif is central to the ability to write one, so
what are the principles behind their creation? Well, motifs follow similar rules
to the way that we ask and then answer a question. In a motif, the first musical phrase ‘asks’ the question and this is then ‘answered’ by the second phrase.
This is known as a ‘binary phrase’ and some of the best examples can be found
in nursery rhymes such as, ‘Baa baa black sheep’ asking the question, answered
by, ‘Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full’.
This is a simple and well-known motif, and it’s important to observe how
the two lines balance each other out. Musically the first line consists of
CCGGABCAG while the reply consists of FFEEDDC. Also, notice how the first
phrase rises but the second phrase falls, while maintaining the similarities
between the two phrases. This type of balance underlies the most memorable
motifs and is key to their creation. Whether a four to the floor remix of Baa baa
black sheep would go down well in a club is another question altogether, but
as a motif it contains the three key elements:
■
■
■

Simplicity
Rhythmic repetition
Some variation

The use of repetition in music is not exclusive to dance music. Most classical
music is based entirely around the repetition of small flourishes and motifs, so
much so, that many dance musicians listen to classical works and derive their

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

ideas from its form. In fact, the principle behind writing a memorable record is
to bombard the listener with the same phrases so that they become embedded
in the listener’s memory, although this must be accomplished in such a way
that the music doesn’t sound too repetitive. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes
made by musicians just starting out is to instil too many new ideas without
taking any notice of what has happened in the previous bars.
Repeating the phrases AB–AB–AB–AB can result in too much repetition, so
another way to create a motif is to create a third phrase, known as ‘ternary’ repetition. This is where you create a third answer and alternate between the three
in different ways, such as ABC–ABAC.
It’s also commonplace for musicians to introduce a fourth motif, resulting in
two ‘questions’ and two ‘answers’. This arrangement is called a ‘trio minuet’
formation and can take on various forms, such as ABA (minuet) CDC (trio)
ABA–CDC and so forth. Although not all dance musicians work this way, these
are generally accepted methods and two simple rules.

If the beginning of the motif rises, the second part will fall.
After moving in one direction, there is a step back in the opposite direction.

Having said that, it’s not uncommon for the inverse to be a true relationship
that can be used to musical effect. When any motif falls in scale it gives the
impression of pulling our emotion downwards, yet if it increases in scale it is
more uplifting. This is because there are higher frequencies when a note rises,
as is evident when the low-pass filter cut-off of a synthesizer is opened up to
allow more high-frequency content through. You can hear this in countless
dance records whereby the music becomes duller, as though it’s being played
in another room and then gradually the frequencies increase, creating a sense
of expansion as the sound builds. If you listen to most dance records, this form
of building, using filter cut-off movement, becomes apparent. When the track
is building up to a crescendo the filter opens, yet while the track drops away
the filter closes. Similarly, the rising key change introduced at the end of many
popular songs, builds the sound, giving the impression that the song is at full
impact, driving the message home.
Like everything else in music, understanding the theory behind good motifs
and actually creating one that captivates attention is an entirely different matter. As with creating grooves for the dance floor, great motifs are something of
a Holy Grail and coming up with them is going to be a mix of creativity and
luck. But as always there are some ideas that you can try out.
■

One is to record MIDI information from a synthesizer’s arpeggiator and
then edit this in a sequencer to produce some basic ideas.

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■

■

Another technique that can produce usable results is what’s often called,
the ‘two-fingered’ approach. This involves tapping out a riff using two
keys an octave apart on the keyboard. By alternating between these two
keys, keeping the lower key the same and continually moving higher
or lower in scale on the second key, you can develop the beginnings of
interesting rhythmic movements. If the rhythm is recorded as MIDI, it
can be edited further by lengthening notes to overlap each other or by
adding further notes in between the two octaves to construct motifs.
The third and most commonly used method is to continually loop the
bass and drums and experiment on the keyboard until you come up
with something that compliments the rhythm section. Once the first
bar(s) of the phrase – the ‘question’ – have been fashioned, they can be
pasted into the subsequent bar(s) and edited to create the ‘answer’.

Above all, it’s best to avoid getting carried away with any of these techniques.
It’s vital that they are kept simple. Many dance tracks use a single pitch of notes
played every eighth, sixteenth, or quarter, or are constructed to interweave with
the bass to produce a complex groove. Indeed, simple motifs have a much
more dramatic effect on the music than complex arpeggios, so it’s important
that they capture the listener’s interest.
Because the sound used for any motif should stand out, it’s important to consider the frequencies that are to be, or are used in the mix thus far. In many
dance tracks where three or four simple motifs play simultaneously, the combined frequencies can take up a proportionate amount of the available space
within the mix. To prevent clogging up the mix, motifs are usually worked with
as MIDI rather than transformed to audio, as this can be used with filter cut-off
to reduce the frequencies. This method also allows you to utilize a low-pass
filter cut-off and control the sound’s sonic content while the other motifs are
playing. When working with the optimum frequencies of a motif, you must
carefully choose its rhythmical pitch.
Any motif that uses notes above C4 will contain many higher frequencies and
few lower ones, so using a low-pass filter that is almost closed will reduce the
frequencies to nothing. Careful use of the filters will create the final result and
often you will need to compromise by cutting the frequencies of some motifs
while opening them up for others. Manipulating the frequencies in this way
creates the impression that the sounds are interweaving, which creates more
movement and the ‘energy’ that is characteristic of most club tracks.

CREATING PROGRESSION
Although dance music is heavily based on repetition, it retains interest building and releasing the groove. This is achieved by adding and removing sonic
elements throughout and by gratuitous use of filters. To fully understand how
a groove is built and released we need to look at sections of the whole track,
counting what has gone before, how the next event is prepared, what comes

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

after it and how it ends. For example, when you hear the typical dance snare
crescendo building, you automatically know that the main part of the groove
will follow. The longer this is reasonably postponed the bigger the impact is
expected to be. The best way to learn about this is to listen to and dissect popular dance tracks and then create a song map charting where the builds and
drops occur, essentially charting the emotion that it creates.
There are various methods of song mapping and each is as valid as the next,
but a large number of psychologists believe that we are naturally disposed to
think in pictorial form. It can often prove beneficial to draw the general idea
of the arrangement onto paper. How this is depicted is entirely up to the individual and can consist of simple lines to more complex drawings even involving colours to depict each instrument and the parts of the original recording.
Because club mixes can be quite long, often averaging around 6–8 min, these
types of maps can be a blessing. Paul Van Dyk and BT, for instance, are well
known for creating a song map before beginning to build any type of track.
A song map not only helps you to envisage the final product but it also helps
you plot out the track in terms of crucial builds and drops. The basic principle
behind using this strategy is that we can visually see where the different emotional states occur, helping you to envisage where the track will bring listeners
up on a ‘high’ 1 min and then drop them down again the next (Figure 10.5).
It’s evident from the song map shown in Figure 10.5 that the dance music differs from the usual musical structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge and
outro. Instead it derives its own set of rules based around mathematical repetition taken to extremes, usually broken into sections of 4 bars. This formal
structure may seem overtly technical for what is otherwise a creative art, but try
writing a 16-bar loop and introducing an instrument at bar 5, 13 or 15 and it
will no doubt sound erroneous.

Emotion level

We can also determine that the typical arrangement consists of an intro, first
body, drop, second body, second drop, reprise, main body and finally an outro.

0

16

32

48

64 72

88

104 116
Bar number

148

180 196 202

FIGURE 10.5
Example of a song map

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Each of these changes relates to the emotional states that, ideally, you need to
generate for the listeners. Using a map like that shown in Figure 10.5, we can
see how this might be transferred and used in an imaginary club track.

The Intro
BARS 1–16
This introduces the track and consists of nothing more than a 4/4 drum loop.
This is kept simple at the beginning of the track and continues unchanged for
the first 16 bars. This standard introduction gives the DJ playing the music a
4/4 beat with no other instrumentation so that he can mix it in with the previous track, keeping the beat going on from one record to the next to keep everyone up on the floor. ‘Dropping a beat’ will easily disorientate the clubbers who
are dancing; we all need a basis on which to keep time.

BARS 16–32
At this point, a new instrument is introduced. In order not to give the game
away too soon, a new percussive element comes in. This could consist of
another closed or open hi-hat pattern, snares or claps. This completes the drum
loop that will play throughout the rest of the mix.

First Body
BARS 32–48
After the initial 32 bars, the main groove is introduced. Now both the bass and
drums are playing together, laying the foundations of the groove. This plays
unaltered to allow the clubbers to become ‘comfortable’ with the general
groove of the record.

BAR 48–64
At bar 48, a motif is introduced. This interweaves with the bass and drums
using slow filter cut-off movements. Applying a low-pass filter to the motif
and slowly opening it introduces higher frequencies giving the effect that the
song is building up towards something special. Listen to any popular record
and you’ll notice this effect. As the song progresses more instruments are introduced, usually at the chorus stage, which ‘fills out’ the mixes frequency range
bringing the song towards a climax. It is these filter movements that are typically used to create tension and movement in all forms of dance music and
have formed the basis of the most well-respected dance records.

The Drop
BARS 64–72
At this point, all the percussive elements, bar the kick drum, have been dropped
from the mix while the motif continuously plays along. The filter is closed to
help give the impression that the song is dropping emotionally. However, by

Music Theory CHAPTER 10

the middle 4th bar, the drum rhythm picks up again, starting with the open
hi-hats followed by the snares, signifying that the track is about to come back.
As the rhythm picks up, motif’s filter opens up again and is followed by a short
snare roll, where the second body of the track is re-introduced.

The Second Body
BARS 72–88
At the final beat of the preceding bar’s drop section, a crash cymbal starts a
new passage of music and a new motif is introduced. The filter on both motifs
is now contorted, resulting in the motifs’ frequencies moving in and out of one
another, which creates a flowing movement that helps the track groove along.

BARS 88–104
Again, a crash cymbal, snare roll, skip or sound effect is employed to denote
the next 16 bars of the second body and some chorded strings are introduced.
Low-pass filter movements are employed on these strings to prevent them from
appearing too static. As before, these filter movements open giving the impression that the song is building up again, while in the final 4 bars of this section
a snare roll signifies that the song is building further.

The Drop
BARS 104–108
A sudden crash cymbal at the end of the preceding bar echoes across the mix
while the song drops to just the strings and the motif that was introduced in
the second body. Again the filter cut-off closes to denote a break to the 2nd bar
of this drop, whereby they begin to open again giving the impression that the
song is once again building.

The Reprise
BARS 108–116
At the end of the drop a snare roll is introduced, slowly gaining in volume
as the cut-off frequencies of both the motif and chords are opened further.
This snare roll lasts the entire length of the 8 bars with the snares becoming
progressively closer together (the snares being placed closer together as they
grow closer to the main body). The principle aim in this section is to build
emotion to a maximum, so that when the main body is reached the track is
at its apex. Ideally, this is a culmination of all the instruments that have previously been introduced throughout the mix and a new motif.

The Main Body
BARS 116–148
The main body is used to drive the message of the track home and is signified by all of the previous instruments playing together, creating a crescendo

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of emotion. The drums, bass, previous motifs and a new motif are introduced
filling up the entire frequency spectrum of the mix. Again filter cut-offs play a
role here to prevent boredom, and each instrument interacts with one another
by closing the filter of one motif while opening it on the other.

BAR 148–180
At this point, additional snares are introduced to add a skip to the rhythm, and
a few sweeping effects are introduced that pan across the mix.

The Outro
BAR 180–196
One of the motifs is dropped from the mix after a cymbal crash and the filters
on the other motifs and chords are beginning to close, bringing the track back
down in emotion. Finally all the motifs and chords are removed, leaving just
the drums and bass playing.

BAR 196–212
The bass is dropped from the mix, leaving the full drum rhythm playing solo for the
final 16 bars, allowing the DJ to mix in the next record. The track draws to a close.
Of course, this imaginary track is quite simple; in reality building a track is
much more complex. Nevertheless, this is a good example of typical dance
club structure. As with all music this is open to an individual’s interpretation,
but bear in mind that dance music is an exact science and the audience likes to
know what to expect. Building a snare crescendo and then dropping it back to
how it was before this crescendo would not be greeted with smiling faces.
Also in many cases the arrangement will be different depending on the genre of
music being written. While this type of arrangement may work for trance, it won’t
work too well for hip-hop and trip-hop, these require a more gentle approach.

PART
P
ART 2

Dance Genres
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House CHAPTER 11

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CHAPTER 11

House

’By 1981 they declared that Disco was dead and there
were no more up-tempo dance records. That’s when I
realised I had to start changing things to keep feeding
my dance floor. …’
… Frankie Knuckles

Although some house aficionados will refuse to admit it, the development of
house music has much of its success accredited to the rise and fall of disco. As
a result, to appreciate the history of house music, we need to look further back
than the 1980s and the development of the TR909 and TR808 drum machines;
we also need to examine the growth of disco during the 1970s. This is because
disco still forms a fundamental part of some of today’s house music and in
many instances older disco records have been scrupulously sampled to produce
the latest house tracks.
Pinning down an exact point in time where disco first appeared is difficult
since a majority of the elements that make disco appeared in earlier records.
Nonetheless, arguably it is said to have first originated in the early 1970s and
was derived from the funk music that was popular with black audiences at
that time. Some big name producers such as Nile Rodgers, Quincy Jones, Tom
Moulton, Giorgio Moroder and Vincent Montana began to move away from
recording the self-composed music and started to hire session musicians and
produce hits for artists whose only purpose was to supply vocals and become a
marketable commodity.
Donna Summer became one of the first disco-manufactured success stories
with the release of Love to Love You Baby in 1975 and is believed by many to
be the first disco record to hit and be accepted by the mainstream public. This
‘new’ form of music was still in its infancy, however, and it took the release of
the motion picture Saturday Night Fever in 1977 before it eventually became a
widespread phenomenon. Indeed, by the late 1970s, over 200 000 people were

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attending discotheques in the UK alone and disco records contributed to over
60% of the UK charts.
As with most genres of music that become popular, many artists and record
labels jumped on the wave of this new happening vibe and it was soon deluged with countless disco versions of original songs and other pointless and
poorly produced disco records as the genre became commercially bastardized.
As a result, disco fell victim to its own success in the late 1970s and early 1980s
with the campaign of ‘disco sucks’ growing ever more popular. In fact, in one
extreme incident Steve Vahl, a rock DJ who had been against disco from the
start, encouraged people to bring their disco collections to a baseball game on
the 12th July 1979 for a ritual burning. After the game, a huge bonfire was lit
and the fans were asked to throw all their disco vinyl onto the fire.
By 1981, disco was dead but not without first changing the entire face of club
culture, changing the balance of power between smaller and major labels and
preparing the way for a new wave of music. Out of these ashes rose the phoenix
that is house, but it had been a large underground movement before this and
contrary to the misconceptions that are spread around, it had actually been in
very early stages of evolution before disco hit the mainstream.
Although to many Frankie Knuckles is seen as the ‘godfather’ of house, it’s
true foundations lie well before and can be traced back to as early as 1970.
At this time, Francis Grosso, a resident DJ at a converted church known as the
Sanctuary was the first ever DJ to mix two early disco records together to produce a continual groove to keep the party goers on the dance floor. What’s
more, he is also believed to be the first DJ to mix one record over the top of
another, a technique that was to form the very basis of dance music culture.
Drawing inspiration from this new form of mixing, DJ Nicky Siano set up
a New York club known as The Gallery and hired Frankie Knuckles and Larry
Levan to prepare the club for the night by spiking the drinks with lysergic acid
diethylamide (LSD/acid/trips). In return he taught both all about the basics of
this new form of mixing records and soon after they moved on to become resident DJs in other clubs. Levan began residency at The Continental Baths while
Knuckles began at Better Days, to soon rejoin Levan at The Continental Baths
6 months down the line. The two worked together until 1977 when Levan left the
club to start his own and was asked to DJ at a new club named the Warehouse
in Chicago. Since Levan was now running his own club, he refused but recommended Knuckles who accepted the offer and promptly moved to Chicago.
Since this new club had no music policy, Knuckles was free to experiment and
show off the techniques he had been taught by Nicky Siano. Word quickly
spread about this new form of disco and The Warehouse quickly became the
place to be for the predominantly gay crowd. Since no ‘house’ records actually existed at this time, the term house did not refer to any particular music
but simply referred to the Warehouse and the style of continual mixing it had
adopted. In fact, at this time the word house was used to speak about music,

House CHAPTER 11

attitude and clothing. If a track was house, it was from a cool club and something that you would never hear on a commercial radio station, whereas if you
were house it meant you attended all the cool clubs, wore the ‘right’ clothing
and listened to ‘cool’ music.
By late 1982 and early 1983, the popularity of the Warehouse began to fall
rapidly as the owners began to double the admission price; as it became more
commercial, Knuckles decided to leave and start his own club known as the
Powerhouse. His devoted followers went with him, but in retaliation the
Warehouse was renamed the Music Box and the owners hired a new DJ named
Ron Hardy. Although Hardy wasn’t a doctor, he dabbled in numerous pharmaceuticals and in turn was addicted to most of them but was nevertheless a very
talented DJ. While Knuckles kept a fairly clean sound, Hardy pounded out an
eclectic mix of beats and grooves mixing euro disco, funk and soul to produce
an endless onslaught to keep the crowd up on the floor. Even to this day, Ron
Hardy is viewed by many as the greatest ever DJ.
Simultaneously, WBMX, a local radio station also broadcast late-night mixes
made by the Hot Mix Five. The team consisted of Ralphi Rossario, Kenny ‘Jammin’
Jason, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Mickey ‘Mixin’ Oliver and Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk.
These DJs played a non-stop mixture of British new romantic music ranging from
Depeche Mode to Yazoo and Gary Numan, along with the latest music from
Kraftwerk, Yello and George Clinton. In fact, so popular was the UK new romantic’s scene that a third of the American charts consisted of UK music.
However, it wasn’t just the music that the people tuned in for it was the mixing
styles of the five DJs. Using techniques that have never been heard of before,
they would simultaneously play two of the same records to produce phasing effects, perform scratches and back spins and generally produce a perfect
mix from a number of different records. Due to the show’s popularity it was
soon moved to a daytime slot and kids would skip school just to listen to the
latest mixes. In fact, it was so popular that Chicago’s only dance music store,
Imports Etc, began to put a notice board up on the window, documenting all
the records that had been played the previous day to prevent them from being
overwhelmed with enquiries.
Meanwhile, Frankie Knuckles was suffering from a lack of new material. The
‘disco sucks’ campaign had destroyed the industry and all the labels were no
longer producing disco. As a result, he had to turn to playing imports from
Italy (the only country left that was still producing disco) alongside more
dub-influenced music. More importantly, for the history of house, though,
he also turned to long-time friend Erasmo Rivieria, who was currently studying sound engineering, to help him create reworks of the earlier disco records
in an attempt to keep his set alive. Using reel-to-reel tape recorders, the duo
would record and cut up records, extending the intros and breakbeats and layering new sounds on top of them to create more complex mixes. This was soon
pushed further as he began to experiment by placing entirely new rhythms and
bass lines underneath familiar tracks. While this undeniably began to form the

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basis of house music, no one had yet released a true house record, and in the
end it was Jesse Saunders’ release of On and On in 1984 that landmarked the
first true house music record.
Although some aficionados may argue that artist Byron Walton (aka Jamie
Principle) produced the first house record with just a portastudio and a keyboard,
the track entitled ‘Your Love’ was only handed to Knuckles for him to play as part
of his set. Jesse Saunders, however, released the track commercially under his selffinanced label ‘Jes Say’ and distributed the track through Chicago’s Imports Etc.
The records were pressed, courtesy Musical Products, Chicago’s only pressing
plant owned and run by Larry Sherman. Taking an interest in this scene, he
investigated its influence over the crowds and soon decided to start the firstever house record label ‘Trax’. Simultaneously, however, another label ‘DJ
International’ was started by Rocky Jones and the following years involved a
battle between the two to release the best house music. Many of these consisted
of what are regarded as the most influential house records of all time including
Music is the Key, Move Your Body, Time to Jack, Get Funky, Jack Your Body, Runaway
Girl, Promised Land, Washing Machine, House Nation and Acid Trax.
By 1987 house was in full swing, while still borrowing heavily from 1970s
disco, the introduction of the Roland TB303 bass synthesizer along with the
TR909, TR808 and the Juno 106 had given house a harder edge as it became
disco made by ‘amateur’ producers. The basses and rhythms were no longer
live but recreated and sequenced on machines resulting in a host of 303-driven
tracks starting to appear.
One of these budding early producers was Larry Heard, who after producing a
track entitled Washing Machine released what was to become one of the most
poignant records in the history of house. Under the moniker of Mr Fingers he
released Can U Feel It, the first-ever house record that didn’t borrow its style
from earlier disco. Instead, it was influenced by soul, jazz and the techno that
was simultaneously evolving from Chicago. This introduced a whole idea to
the house music scene as artists began to look elsewhere for influences.
One of these was Todd Terry, a New Yorker and hip-hop DJ, who began to
apply the sampling principles of rap into house music. Using samples of previous records, he introduced a much more powerful percussive style to the genre
and released 3 Massive Dance Floor House Anthems, which pushed house music
in a whole new direction. His subsequent house releases brought him insurmountable respect from the UK underground scene and has duly been given
the title of Todd ‘The God’ Terry.
Over the years, house music mutated, multiplied and diversified into a whole
number of different subgenres, each with its own name its and production ethics. In fact, to date there are over 14 different subgenres of house consisting of
progressive house, hard house, deep house, dark house, acid house, Chicago
house, UK house, US house, euro house, French house, tech house, vocal
house, micro house and disco house…and I’ve probably missed some too.

House CHAPTER 11

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
The divergence of house music over the subsequent years has resulted in a
genre that has become hopelessly fragmented and as such cannot be easily
identified as featuring any one particular attribute. Indeed, it can be funky,
drawing its inspiration from disco of the 1970s; it can be relatively slow and
deep, drawing inspiration from techno; it can be vocal; it can be party-like or
it can simply be pumping. In fact, today the word house has become somewhat of a catch-all name for music that is dance (not pop!), yet doesn’t fit into
any other dance category. The good news with this is that you can pretty much
write what you want and as long as it has a dance vibe, it could appear somewhere under the house label. The bad news, however, is that it makes it near
impossible to analyse the genre in any exact musical sense and it is only possible to make some very rough generalizations.
Firstly, we can safely say that house music invariably uses a 4/4 time signature
and is produced either allegretto or allegro. In terms of physical tempo, this
can range from a somewhat slow (by today’s standards) 110 BPM to a more
substantial 140 BPM, but many of the latest tracks seem to stay around the
127 or more recently 137 ‘disco heaven’ BPM. This latter beats per minute is
referred to as such since this is equal to the average clubber’s heart rate while
dancing, but whether this actually makes the music more ‘exciting’ in a club
has yet to be proven.
Fundamentally, house is produced in one of the three ways: everything is
sampled and rearranged; only some elements are sampled and the rest is programmed; or the entire track is programmed in MIDI. The approach taken
depends entirely on what style of house is being written. For example, the disco
house produced by the likes of Modjo, Room 5 and Daft Punk relies heavily
on sampling significant parts from previous disco hits and dropping their own
vocals over the top (Daft Punk’s ‘Digital Love’ and Modjo’s ‘Lady’ being a prime
example). If you write this style of music, then this is much easier to analyse
since it’s based around the disco vibe. Generally, this means that it consists of
a four to the floor rhythm with a heavily syncopated bass line and the characteristic electric wah guitar. On the other hand, deep house uses much darker
timbres (deep bass lines mixed with atmospheric jazzy chords) that don’t particularly exhibit a happy vibe but are still danceable, while acid house relies
heavily on the squawking TB303. In fact, while all house music will employ a
four to the floor pattern, the instrumentation used will often determine its style.
Consequently, what follows is simply a guide to producing the basic elements
of all types of house, and since you know how your choice of genre already
sounds, it can be adapted to suit what you hear.

HOUSE RHYTHMS
When it comes to producing house rhythms, nearly all house producers will
not use software sequencers preferring the AKAI MPC or E-Mu SP1200 sampling drum machines. This is simply due to the solid timing that is requisite in

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FIGURE 11.1
The cornerstone of
house loops

house and can only be attained through using the internal hardware sequencers. Notably, of these the SP1200 has a maximum sampling rate of 12-bit but
this isn’t of any concern since it often imparts a harsher sound to the rhythms
which is sometimes required. In fact, after programming a house rhythm and
the subsequent timbres, it’s often worth reducing the bit rate to see if it hardens
up the beat for the subgenre of house you want to produce.
Generally, house relies heavily on the strict four to the floor rhythm with a kick
drum laid on every beat of the bar. Typically, this is augmented with a 16th
closed hi-hat pattern and an open hi-hat positioned on every 1/8th (the offbeat) for syncopation. Snares (or claps) are also often employed on the second
and fourth beat underneath the kick (Figure 11.1).
This, of course, is only the start to a house loop and is based around the disco
patterns from where it originated and congas, toms, bongos, tambourines and
shakers are often added to create more of a feel to the rhythm but this does
depend on the subgenre. Where these are placed is entirely up to your own
digression, but generally they are best played live from the sampler’s pads (or
an attached keyboard) and left unquantized to keep the feel of the loop live.
This helps in acquiring the sampled feel that’s often exhibited, since more
often than not the loop will have been sampled from previous records.
More importantly, though, house more than any other genre relies on plenty
of drive. This can be applied in a variety of ways but the most commonly used
technique is to employ a slight timing difference in the rhythm to create a push
in the beat. Typically, this involves keeping the kick sat firmly on all the beats
but moving the snares forward in time by tick or two. Then once the bass line
is laid down, its timing is matched to these snares using a sequencers match
quantize function. Alternatively, to provide a heavier sound, a clap is laid on
beats two and four (along with the snares) but these claps are then moved forward in time by a couple of ticks. This results in the claps transient starting just

House CHAPTER 11

FIGURE 11.2
Thickening out the
snares (note how the
claps are slightly ahead
of time)

before the snares which not only helps to thicken out the snares but also adds
drive to the rhythm (Figure 11.2).
On this same theme, dynamics also play a vital role in acquiring the rhythmic
push required in the genre. Usually, the kick drum will follow the strong–
weak–medium–weak syncopation while the closed hi-hats follow a less-defined
velocity pattern. The velocities of these will depend entirely on the feel you
want to acquire, but as a general starting point the main emphasis often lies on
the second and fourth 16th pulse of the bar as illustrated below:
Bar 16th Divisions
1

2

M

S W S M

Kick

3

4

5

Kick

6

7

8

9

S W S M
Kick

10 11 12

13

14

15

16

S

M

S

W

S

W

S

Kick

Of course, this is simply a convention and convention shouldn’t always play a
part of music, so you should feel free to experiment by placing the accents at
different divisions on the beat. By doing so, the rhythm of the piece can change
quite severely. If you take this approach, however, keep in mind that the open
hat sits on the third (offbeat) of the bar, so generally the closed hi-hat should
remain weak here to prevent frequency clashes between the two.
For house kicks, the Roland TR909 is the most frequently used drum machine
but the Simmons SDS-5, Roland CR and the E-Mu Drumulator are also used to
produce the timbres. To my knowledge, however, only the TR909 has ever been
emulated in software form; so unless you’re willing to synthesize your own
kick, sample another house record, use a sample CD or source and pay for one
of these archaic machines, you’ll have little option but to use a TR909.

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The house kick is commonly kept quite tight by employing a short decay combined with an immediate attack stage. This is to help keep the kick remain
dynamic but also prevents it from blurring and destroying the all-important interplay between kick and bass. Typically, a 90 Hz sine wave produces the best starting point for a house kick with a positive pitch EG set a fast attack and a quick
decay to modulate the oscillator. Although using a pitch envelope produces the
best results, if the synth doesn’t offer one then a self-oscillating filter will produce
the requisite sound and the decay can be controlled with the filter’s envelope.
In many cases, this kick will also be augmented with a square waveform to produce a heavier transient that can then be later crushed with a compressor. For
this, the square wave requires a fast attack and decay stage so that it simply produces a ‘click’, once this is layered over the original sine you can experiment by
pitching it up or down to produce the required timbre. With this basic timbre
laid down, it’s then worth experimenting with the decay parameters of the square
and sine. Generally, a concave decay will produce the typical ‘housey’ character,
but for a deeper or darker house vibe a convex decay may be more appropriate.
Production-wise it’s worthwhile experimenting with small controlled amounts
of distortion to give the kick a little more character in the loop, but this must
be applied cautiously. If it’s applied too heavily, much of the bottom-end
weight of the kick can be lost, resulting in a loop with little or no energy. Also,
house kicks rely very heavily on compression to produce the archetypal hardened sound. This should be applied now rather than when the rest of the loop
is in place since in the context of a typical house loop, this would mean that
the hi-hats, congas and toms are pumped with the compressor. This is generally avoided at this stage as the loop will be compressed along with the bass at
a later stage. Instead, it’s better to run just the 4/4 kick through the compressor
and experiment with the settings to produce a ‘hard’ sounding timbre.
Although the settings to use will depend on the sound you wish to achieve, a
good starting point is to use a low ratio combined with a high threshold and a
fast attack with a medium release. The attack will crush the initial transient of
the square producing a heavier ‘thump’, while experimenting with the release
can further change the character of the kick. If this is set quite long, the compressor will not have recovered by the time the next kick begins and this can
often add a pleasing distortion to the sound. Once the kick has been squashed,
as a final stage it’s often worthwhile using the PSP Vintage Warmer to add more
warmth to the overall timbre.
Unlike the kicks, in the majority of cases the house snare is not sourced from
the TR909 but the E-Mu Drumulator due to its warmer, rounded sound. Similar
to the kick, however, the decay on the snare is kept particularly short to keep
with the short, sharp dynamics of the loop. This characteristic sound can be
produced through using either a triangle or square wave mixed with some pink
noise or saturation (distortion of the oscillator), both modulated with an amp
envelope using a fast attack and decay. Typically, pink noise is preferred over
white as it produces a heavier snare, but if this proves to be too heavy for the

House CHAPTER 11

loop, then white noise may be a better option. Much of this noise will need
removing with a high-pass filter to produce the archetypal house snare but in
some cases a band-pass filter may be more preferable since this allows you to
modify the low and high content of the snare more accurately.
If at all possible, it’s worthwhile using a different envelope on the main oscillator and the noise since this will allow you to keep the body of the snare (i.e.
the main oscillator) quite short and sharp but allow you to lengthen the decay
of the noise waveform. By doing so, the snare can be modified so that it rings
out after each hit, producing a timbre that can be modified to suit all genres
of house. Additionally (and provided that the synth allows it), it also permits
you to individually adjust the decay’s shape of the noise waveform. Generally
speaking, the best results are from employing a concave decay but as always it’s
best experimenting. Some house snares will also benefit from some judicious
amounts of pitch bend applied to the timbre, but rather than applying this
positively, negative application will invariably produce results that are more
typical to house music as it often produces a sucking/smacking sound.
If you use this latter technique, it’s sometimes prudent to remove the transient
of the snare in a wave editor and replace it with one that uses positive pitch
modulation. When the two are recombined, it results in a timbre that has a
good solid strike but decays upwards in pitch at the end of the hit. If this isn’t
possible, then a viable alternative is to sweep the pitch from low to high with
a sawtooth or sine LFO (provided that the saw starts low and moves high) set
to a fast rate. After this, small amounts of compression so that only the decay is
squashed (i.e. slow attack) will help to bring it up in volume so that it doesn’t
disappear into the rest of the mix.
Notably, it’s only the timbre for the kick and snare that truly define the house
sound and while in the majority of cases the remaining percussive and auxiliary instruments such as the open and closed hi-hats, congas, cowbells, claps,
tambourines, shakers and toms are sourced from the TR808 or 909, almost any
MIDI module will carry sounds that can be used. Plus, many modules today
carry the ubiquitous TR808 and 909 percussion sound-sets as part of the collection anyway. Normally, none of these should be compressed as it can reduce
the high-frequency content, but having said that this is simply a convention
and you should always be willing to ‘break the rules’, so to speak.
With the drum loop complete, it’s worthwhile cycling it over a number of bars
and experimenting with the synthesis parameters available to each instrument
to create a rhythm that gels together. This includes lengthening or shortening
the decay parameters, pitching the instruments up or down and applying subtle
effects such as reverb. The basic principle here is to make the loop sound as good
as possible before moving onto the subsequent processing. If it doesn’t seem to
gel properly together or seems wrong, then a common problem is that too many
elements are playing at once. Keep in mind that although house prides itself on
funky rhythms, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a complex loop to achieve this
and sometimes simply removing one element can suddenly make the loop work.

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Once the loop is ‘working’ together, a common practice is to sample the loop
into audio and then run it through a compressor and noise gate. Whether
the gate or compressor comes first is a matter of individual taste but generally speaking the rhythm is compressed and then gated. As always, there are
no definitive settings to use when compressing as it depends entirely upon the
sound you’re after. Having said that, a good starting point is to set the ratio
quite high with a low threshold and use a fast attack with a medium release.
Finally, set the make-up gain so that the loop is at the same volume when the
compressor is bypassed and begin experimenting with the release settings.
Shorter settings will force the compressor to pump and as a result make the
kicks more prominent in the loop while longer settings will be less evident.
There is no universal answer for the ‘correct’ settings, so you’ll have to try out
numerous configurations until you reach the sound you need. Ideally, the best
compressors to use for this should be either valve or opto, as the second-order
harmonic distortion they introduce plays a large part in capturing the sound,
but if this is not possible, following the compressor with the PSP vintage
warmer should help things along nicely.
Following compression, it quite usual to feed the results into a noise gate and
use this to modify the loop further. One of the key elements of house loops
is that the sounds remain short and sharp, as this makes the entire loop feel
more dynamic since long sounds tend to mask the gaps between each hit
which lessens the impact as a whole. This also helps it to accentuate the often
funky bass rhythms that lie underneath as these tend to use quite long release
times to help ‘funk’ them up. As with compression, the settings to use on
a noise gate are up to your artistic interpretation, but as a start, set the threshold so that it’s just lower than the kicks and snare, use a fast attack with a
medium hold time and then experiment with the release setting. The faster this
is set, the more the sounds will be cut, so you’ll need to find a happy medium
where they do not cut off too soon but do not decay for too long either. If
vocals are to be employed in the mix, it’s prudent to set the threshold lower so
that the open hats are also gated slightly. In house these are often at a similar
frequency to the vocals, and if they’re left too long they can mix with the vocals
which results in both drums and vocals loosing their dynamic edge. Finally,
remember that house music is a popular genre to remix, so it’s sensible to keep
a note of all compression or effects settings along with the original MIDI files.
Most studios will create these ‘track’ sheets and it’s wise to do so too since
many remixers will expect a track sheet if they’re to remix the music.
Of course, it would be naive to say that all house beats are created through MIDI
and a proportionate amount of rhythms are acquired from sampling previous
house records. Indeed, these will have probably been sampled from other records,
which will have been sampled from previous house records, which will have been
sampled from other records, which will probably have been…well, you get the
picture. For obvious legal reasons I can’t condone this type of approach – it’s illegal – but that’s not to say that dance artists don’t do it and so in the interests of
theory it would only be fair to cover some of the techniques they use.

House CHAPTER 11

Almost every house record pressed to vinyl starts with just a drum loop, so
sourcing one isn’t particularly difficult, but the real skill comes from what you
do with it after it’s in the sampler. Fundamentally, it’s unwise to just sample
a loop and use it as it is. Even though there’s a very high chance that what
you’re sampling is already a sample of a sample of a sample of a sample
(which means that the original artists don’t have a leg to stand on for copyright
infringement), you might be unlucky and they may have actually written it in
MIDI. What’s more, it isn’t exactly artistically challenging; so after sampling a
loop it’s always worthwhile placing it into a sequencer and moving the parts
around a little to create your own variation.
Of course, this is the most simplistic approach and a number of artists will take
this a step further by first employing a transient designer to alter the transients
of the loop before placing it into a sample slicing programme. Using this technique, the loop does not have to be sourced from a house track as any drum
break can be manipulated to create the snappy sounds used in house.
Along with working with individual loops, many house producers also stack
up a series of drum loops to create heavier rhythms. Todd Terry and Armand
Van Helden are well known for dropping more powerful sounding kicks over
pre-sampled loops to add more of a heavy influence. If you take this approach,
however, you need to exercise care that the kick starts in just the right place,
otherwise you’ll experience a phasing effect. Possibly the best way to circumvent this is to cut the bar into four segments where the kick occurs and then
trigger it alongside the new kick at the beginning of each segment to produce
a continual loop that stays in time. This also permits you to swap the quarter
bars around to create variations.

BASS
After the drums, the bass is commonly laid down since many genres of house
rely a great deal on the groove created from the interaction between the two. As
this genre of music has its roots firmly embedded in disco, most house basses
tend to follow the atypical disco funk pattern, which can range from the rather
simplistic walking bass to more complex patterns produced by real bassists
improvising with the drum rhythms (Figure 11.3).
The above bass line is only a very simple example, but house basses do not
have to be particularly complex and in many instances you’ll find that even an
incredibly unsophisticated bass can have additional groove injected into it by
simply changing the duration and timing of some notes (Figure 11.4).
It’s important to note that the complexity of the bass often depends on the lead
instruments that are to lie over the top. Although some house music relies on
a particularly funky bass groove, the overlaying instruments are kept relatively
simple by comparison, whereas if the overlying elements are more complex
then the bass line should remain relatively simple. This is incredibly important
to comprehend since if both the bass and overlying instruments are playing

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FIGURE 11.3
Disco’s infamous
walking bass line

FIGURE 11.4
By changing the
duration and timing
of some notes, new
grooves can be created

complex grooves it can easily undermine the record, resulting in a miscellany
of melodies that are difficult to decipher. Thus, when producing house you
need to decide whether the centrepiece of the music is created by the bass or
the overlying elements. For instance, the piano in Laylo and Bushwacka’s ‘Love
Story’ produces the centrepiece of the music, while the bass acts as an underpinning and so is kept relatively simple. Conversely, tracks such as Kid Crème’s
‘Down and Under’, Stylophonic’s ‘Soul Reply’ and Supermen Lovers’ ‘Starlight’
use a more funky bass which is complimented with simple melodies playing
over the top (Figure 11.5).
Some house basses, particularly those used in acid or deep house will follow
a simpler pattern similar to techno. Refer to the chapter on techno for more
information.

House CHAPTER 11

FIGURE 11.5
The bass rhythm from
‘Starlight’ (notice how
the bass occurs before
the beat for additional
groove)

As with the rhythms, the timbre used for the basses in house can vary wildly
from one track to the next. On the one hand it can be from a real bass guitar,
while on the other it could consist of nothing more than a low-frequency sine
wave pulsing away in the background to anything in between. Like much of
house music, this makes it incredibly difficult to pin down any particular timbre, so what follows are a few synthesis tips to create the fundamental structure
of most house basses. After you have this, experimentation is the real key and
it’s worthwhile trying out new waveforms, envelope settings and modulation
options to create the bass you need.
The foundation of most synthetic house basses can be constructed with a sine
wave and sawtooth or pulse oscillator. The main waveform (the sine) provides
a deep body to the sound while the secondary oscillator can either provide
raspy (saw) or woody (square) overtones. If the sound is to be quite cutting
and evident in the mix then a saw is the best choice, while if you want to be
more rounded and simply lay down a groove for a lead to sit over then a square
is the better option. Listening carefully to the sound they produce together,
begin to detune the secondary oscillator against the first until the timbre exhibits the ‘fatness’ and harmonic content you want. Typically, this can be attained
by detuning ⫹5 or ⫹7 cents, but as always let your ears decide what’s best.
Nearly all bass timbres will start immediately on key press, so set the amps
attack to zero and then follow this with a fast decay, no sustain and a short
release. This produces a timbre that starts immediately and produces a small
pluck before entering the release stage. If the sound is too short for the melody
being played, increase the sustain and experiment with the release until it flows
together to produce the rhythm you require. If the bass sounds like it’s ‘running away’, try moving it a few ticks forward or back and play with the amps
attack stage. To add some movement and character to the sound, set the filter
cut-off to low pass and set both the filter cut-off and resonance to midway, and

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then adjust the envelope to a fast attack and decay with a short release and no
sustain. Normally, this envelope is applied positively but experiment with negative settings as this may produce the character you need. If possible, it’s also
worthwhile trying out convex and concave settings on the decay slope of the
filter envelope as this will severely affect the character of the sound, changing it
from one similar to a Moog through to a more digital nature and onto a timbre
similar to the TB303. In most house tracks, the filter follows the pitch (opens
as the pitch increases), so it’s prudent to use filter positive key follow too.
This creates the basic timbre, but it’s practical to begin experimenting with
LFOs, effects and layering. Typical uses of an LFO in this instance would be
to lightly modulate the pitch of the primary or secondary oscillator, the filter
cut-off or the pulse width if a pulse waveform is used. On the effects front, distortion is particularly effective and an often-used effect in house as is phasing/
flanging, but if you choose this latter option, you will have to exercise care.
In all dance mixes the bass should always sit in the centre of the stereo spectrum so that not only do both speakers share the energy but also any panning
applied during mixing is evident (this is covered in the chapter on ambient/
chill out). Consequently, if heavy flanging or phasing is applied then the bass
will be smeared across the stereo image and the mix may lack any bottom-end
cohesion. Of course, if the bass is too thin or doesn’t have enough body then
effects will not rescue it, so it may be sensible to layer it with another timbre
or in some cases five or six others first. Above all, bear in mind that we have
no expectations of how a synthesized bass should sound, so you shouldn’t be
afraid of stacking up as many sounds as you need to build the required sound.
EQ can always be used to remove harmonics from a bass that is too heavy, but
it cannot be used to introduce harmonics that are not already present.
Alongside the synthetic basses, many house tracks will employ a real bass. More
often than not, these are sampled from other records or are occasionally taken from
sample CDs, rather than programmed in MIDI. However, provided that you have
(a) plenty of patience, (b) a willingness to learn MIDI programming and (c) a good
tone or bass module (such as Spectrasonics Trilogy), it is possible to programme a
realistic bass that could fool most listeners. This not only prevents any problems
with clearing copyright but it also allows you to model the bass to your needs.
The key to programming any real instrument is to take note of how they’re
played and then emulate this action with MIDI and a series of CC commands. In
this case, most bass guitars use the first four strings of a normal guitar E–A–D–G,
which are tuned an octave lower, resulting in the E being close to three octaves
below middle C. Also they are monophonic, not polyphonic, so the only
time notes will actually overlap is when the resonance of the previous string
is still dying away as the next note is plucked. This effect can be emulated by
leaving the preceding note playing for a few ticks while the next note in the
sequence has started. The strings can either be plucked or struck and the two
techniques produce different results. If the string is plucked, the sound is much
brighter and has a longer resonance than if it were simply struck. To copy this,

House CHAPTER 11

the velocity will need to be mapped to the filter cut-off of the bass module
so that higher values open the filter more. Not all notes will be struck at the
same velocity, though, and if the bassist is playing a fast rhythm, the consecutive notes will commonly have less velocity since he has to move his hand and
pluck the next string quickly. Naturally, this is only a guideline and you should
edit each velocity value until it produces a realistic feel.
Depending on the ‘bassists’, they may also use a technique known as ‘hammer
on’ whereby they play a string and then hit a different pitch on the fret. This
results in the pitch changing without actually being accompanied with another
pluck of the string. To emulate this, you’ll need to make use of pitch bend, so
this will first need setting to a maximum bend limit of 2 semitones, since guitars
don’t ‘bend’ any further than this. Begin by programming 2 notes, for instance,
an E0 followed by an A0, and leave the E0 playing underneath the successive
A0 for around a hundred ticks. At the very beginning of the bass track, drop in
a pitch bend message to ensure that it’s set midway (i.e. no pitch bend), and
just before where the second note occurs, drop in another pitch bend message
to bend the tone up to A0. If this is programmed correctly, on play back you’ll
notice that as the E0 ends the pitch will bend upwards to A0, simulating the
effect. Although this could be left as it is, it’s sensible to drop in a CC11 message
(expression) directly after the pitch bend as this will reduce the overall volume of
the second note so that it doesn’t sound like it has been plucked. In addition to
this, it’s also worthwhile employing some fret noise and finger slides. Most good
tone modules will include fret noise that can be dropped in between the notes to
emulate the bassist’s fingers sliding along the fret board.
Whether you decide to use a real bass or a synthesized one, after it’s written, it’s an
idea to compress the previous drum loop against the bass. The principle here is to
pump the bass to produce the classic bottom-end groove of most house records –
they tend to pump like crazy. This is accomplished by feeding both bass and
drum loop (preferably with the hi-hats muted) into a compressor and then set
the threshold so that each kick registers approximately ⫺6 dB on the gain reduction metre. Use a ratio of around 9:1 with a fast attack and set the gain make-up
so that it’s at the same volume level when the compressor is bypassed. Finally, set
the release parameter to 200 ms and then experiment by increasing and reducing
this latter parameter. The shorter the release becomes, the more the kick will begin
to pump the bass, becoming progressively heavier the more that it’s shortened.
Unfortunately, the only guidelines for how short this should be set are to use your
ears and judgement but try not to get too excited. The design is to help the drums
and bass gel together into a cohesive whole and produce a rhythm that punches
along energetically. On the same note, it should not be compressed so heavily that
you loose the excursion of the kick – you have to reach a happy medium!

MELODIES AND MOTIFS
With the bottom-end groove working, the lead instruments can be dropped
over the top. As touched upon when discussing basses, the lead instruments’

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melody will depend entirely on the type of house being produced. Funky bass
lines will require less active melodies to sit over the top while less active basses
will require more melodic elements. Additionally, since these leads are often
sampled from other records, it’s naïve to suggest that they are programmed
with MIDI and therefore it’s impossible to offer any guidelines apart from to
listen to the latest house records to see where the current trend is.
This also means that there are no definitive sounds that characterize the genre
and as such practically everything should be seen as a fair game. In fact, a proportionate amount of house producers feel the same as many have sampled
heavily from previous records (particularly disco) to produce the sound. With
that said, there are some timbres that have always been popular in house
including the Hoover, plucked leads and pianos from the DX series of synthesizers. These have all already been discussed in detail in the chapter on sound
design, so here we’ll look at the general synthesis ideals.
Fundamentally, synthetic house leads will more often than not employ sawtooth, triangle and/or noise waveforms to produce a harmonically rich sound
that will cut through the mix and can be filtered if required. Depending on how
many are employed in the timbre, these can be detuned from one another to
produce more complex interesting sounds. If the timbre requires more of a body
to the sound, then adding a sine or pulse wave will help to widen the sound
and give it more presence. To keep the dynamic edge of the music, the amplifiers attack is predominantly set to zero so that it starts upon key press but the
decay, sustain and release settings will depend entirely on what type of sound
you require. Generally speaking, it’s unwise to use a long release setting since this
may blur the lead notes together and the music could lose its dynamic edge, but
it’s worth experimenting with the decay and sustain while the melody is playing
to the synth to see the effect it has on the rhythm. As lead sounds need to remain
interesting to the ear, it’s prudent to employ LFOs or a filter envelope to augment
the sound as it plays. A good starting point for the filter EG is to set the filter cutoff to low pass and set both the filter cut-off and resonance to midway, and then
adjust the envelope to a fast attack and decay with a short release and no sustain.
Once this is set, experiment by applying it to the filter by positive and negative
amounts. On top of this, LFOs set to modulate the pitch, filter cut-off, resonance
and/or pulse width can also be used to add interest. Once the basic timbre is
down, the key is, as always, to experiment.
For chords, the most common instrument used in-house is the Solina String
Machine which has made an appearance on hundreds of house records
including those by Daft Punk, Air, Joy Division, Josh Wink, STYX, New Order,
Tangerine Dream, Roger Sanchez, Supermen Lovers and nearly every disco
track ever released. Although this synth is now out of production, a similar
timbre can be created in any analogue-style synth. Begin by using three sawtooth waveforms and detune two from one of the oscillators by ⫾3. Apply a
small amount of vibrato using an LFO to these two detuned saws, and then
use an amplifier envelope with a medium attack and release and a full sustain

House CHAPTER 11

(there is no decay since sustain is set to full and it would have nothing to drop
down to). Now, experiment with the sawtooth that wasn’t detuned by pitching
it up as far as possible without it becoming an individual sound (i.e. less than
20 Hz), and if possible, use two filters – one set as a low pass to remove the
low-end frequencies from the two detuned saws and the other as a high pass to
remove some of the high-frequency content from the recently pitched saw.
Once this basic sound is created, it may be prudent to make it appear as though
it’s been sampled and subsequently affected. To do this, it’s worthwhile copying
the timbre to three sequencer tracks and removing all the bottom-end frequencies of the first track, all of the midrange from the second and everything but
the high frequencies on the third with a good EQ unit. Following this, insert a
flanger or phaser across the audio track that only has the high frequencies and
then mixing the three tracks together under it produces a timbre that sounds
appropriate for the track. Depending on the music so far, this may also involve
applying the flanger (or phaser) to the mid-range or the low-range track or perhaps even all of them. In this case, the basic principle is to have the effects sweep
the frequencies present in each track by differing amounts to construct a big textural timbre. Once complete, export these three files into a single audio file and
then place it into a sampler and create a chord structure to suit the music.
Even if this sound is not used, effects can play an important role in creating
interesting and evolving pads for the genre. Wide chorus effects, rotary speaker
simulations, flangers, phasers and reverb can all help to add a sense of movement to help fill out any holes in the mix. A noise gate can also be used creatively to model the sound. For instance, by setting a low threshold and using
an immediate attack and release, the pad will start and stop abruptly producing a ‘sampled’ effect that cannot be replicated through synthesis parameters.
What’s more, if you set the hold time to zero and adjust the threshold so that
it lies just above the volume of the timbre, the gate will ‘chatter’ which can
be used to interesting effect. Overall, compression is generally not required
on pads since they’ll already be compressed at the source, but if distortion or
heavy filtering or EQ is used then it may be prudent to follow them with a
compressor to prevent them from clipping the desk.
With all the parts programmed, we can begin to look at the arrangement. As
touched upon in the musical analysis, house is an incredibly diverse genre, so
there are no definite arrangement methods. Nevertheless, as much of house
relies on the sampling ethics introduced by Todd Terry, a usual approach is to
arrange the instruments in different configurations to produce a series of different loops. For instance, a loop could consist of just the drums, another of
the drums and bass mixed together, another consisting of the drum, bass and
leads and another made from just the leads. Each of these are then sampled (or
exported from an audio sequencer) and set to a specific key on a controller keyboard connected to the sampler. By then, hitting these keys at random you can
produce a basic arrangement plus if one-shot mode is disabled on the sampler
it’s possible to create the stuttered mix effect used on some house tracks.

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That said, as with all genres this is subject to change, so the best way to obtain a
good representation of how to arrange the track is to listen to what are considered
the classics and then copy them. This isn’t stealing; it’s research and nearly every
musician on the planet follows this same route. This can be accomplished using a
method known as ‘chicken scratching’. Armed with a piece of paper and a pen, listen
back to the track, and at every bar, place a single scratch mark on the paper. When
a new instrument is introduced or there is a change in the rhythmic element, place
a star below the scratch. Once you’ve finished listening back to the song, you can
refer to the paper to determine how many bars are used in the track and where
new instruments have been introduced. You can then follow this same arrangement and, if required, change it slightly so that it follows a progression to suit.

The data CD contains a full mix of a typical house track with narration on how it was
constructed.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, the purpose of this chapter has been to give some insight into the
production of house and, as ever, there is no one definitive way to produce the
genre. Indeed, the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is to
actively listen to the current market leaders and be creative with your processing, effects and synthesis. In fact, in many cases it’s this production that makes
one track better than the other, and if you want to write house you need to be
on the scene and listen to the most influential tracks. If you listen closely to
these, they will invariably reveal significant information about how they were
made. Keep in mind that the timbres are unimportant since this genre does not
necessarily rely on a particular sound; it’s more to do with feel and groove. With
this in mind, what follows is a short list of some of the artists that, at the time
of writing, are considered the most influential in this area:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Daft Punk
Room 5
The Supermen Lovers
Modjo
Stardust
Kid Crème
Stylophonic
Some of Moby’s work
Laylo And Bushwacka
Roger Sanchez

And of course, some disco artists who could be used as a source of inspiration are:
■
■

Alec Costandinos
Bohannon

House CHAPTER 11

■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Bootsy Collins
Cerrone
Chic
Deodato
Donna Summer
Eddie Kendricks
Evelyn King
France Joli
George McRae
Gino Soccio
Giorgio Moroder
Gregg Diamond
Gwen McRae
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
Heatwave
LaBelle
Larry Levan
Lime
Love Unlimited Orchestra
Meco Monardo
Patrick Adams
The Salsoul Orchestra
Shalamar
Sister Sledge
Slave
Sylvester
Sylvia
Tavares
Thelma Houston
Tom Moulton
Van McCoy
Vicki Sue Robinson
Vincent Montana Jr.

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Trance CHAPTER 12

251

CHAPTER 12

Trance

’The “soul” of the machines has always been a part of
our music. Trance belongs to repetition and everybody
is looking for trance in life… in sex, in the emotional,
in pleasure… So, the machines produce an absolutely
perfect trance…’
Ralf Hütter (Kraftwerk)

Trance is possibly one of the most ambiguous genres of dance music because it
appears in so many different forms and few can actually agree on exactly what
makes the music trance. However, it’s fairly safe to say that it can be roughly
generalized as the only form of dance music that’s constructed around glamorous melodies which are either incredibly vigorous, laid-back or pretty much
anywhere in between. In fact, it’s this ‘feel’ of the music that often determines
whether it’s Progressive, Goa, Psychedelic, Acid or Euphoric. Even then, some will
place euphoric trance with Progressive and others believe that Acid trance is
just another name for Goa. To make matters worse, some forms of trance are
given numerous titles by both DJs and clubbers. For example, euphoric trance
may be subdivided into Commercial or Underground, each of which is different
yet again. This obviously presents a dilemma when trying to encapsulate it for
the purpose of writing an example track since it becomes a Hobson’s choice.
Nevertheless, much of how the music is written can be determined by looking
at its history and one thing that is certain is that trance, in whichever form, has
its roots embedded in Germany. During the 1990s a joint project between
DJ Dag and Jam El Mar resulted in Dance2Trance and their first track labelled
“We came in Peace” is considered by many to be the first ever ‘club’ trance
music. Although by today’s standards it was particularly raw, consisting solely
of repetitive patterns (as Techno is today), it laid the basic foundations for the
genre with the sole purpose of putting clubbers into a trance-like state.
The ideas behind this were nothing new; tribal shamans had been doing the
same thing for many years, using natural hallucinogenic herbs and rhythms

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pounded out on log drums to induce the tribe’s people into trance-like states.
The only difference with Dance2Trance was that the pharmaceuticals were
man-made and the pounding rhythms were produced by machines rather than
skin stretched across a log. Indeed, to many trance aficionados (if there is such
a thing) the practice of placing clubbers into a trance state is believed to have
formed the basis of Goa and Psychedelic trance.
Although both these genres are still produced and played in clubs to this
day, the increased popularity of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine
(MDMA or ‘E’) among clubbers inevitably resulted in new forms of trance
being developed. Since this drug stimulates serotonin levels in the brain it’s
difficult, if not impossible, to place clubbers into states of trance with tribal
rhythms; instead, the melodies became more and more exotic slowly taking
precedence over every other element in the mix. The supposed purpose was
to no longer induce a trance-like state but emulate or stimulate the highs and
lows of MDMA. The basic principle is still the same today in that the chemicals, arguably, still played a role in inducing a state, albeit a euphoric one, and
the name euphoric trance was given to these tracks.
This form of music, employing long breakdowns and huge melodic reprises,
became the popularized style that still dominates many commercial clubs and
the music charts today. As a result, when the term trance is used to describe
this type of music most view it as the typical anthemic “hands in the air” music
that’s filled with big breakdowns and huge melodic leads. As this remains one
of the biggest and most popular genres of dance music to date, this form of
trance will be the focus of the chapter.

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
Possibly the best way to begin writing any dance music is to find the most popular tracks around at the moment and break them down to their basic elements.
Once this is accomplished we can examine the similarities between each track
and determine exactly what it is that differentiates it from other musical styles. In
fact, all music that can be placed into a genre-specific category will share similarities in terms of the arrangement, groove and sonic elements.
In the case of euphoric trance, it is viewed as being an anthemic form of music,
which essentially means that it has an up tempo, uplifting feel that’s very accessible to most clubbers. As a result, it can best be illustrated as consisting of a
relatively melodic synth and/or vocal hook line laid over a comparatively unsophisticated drum pattern and bass line. The drums usually feature long snare
rolls to signify the build-up to the reprise and breakdowns, alongside small
motifs and/or chord progressions that work around the main melody.
Consequently, all euphoric trance music will utilize a four-to-the-floor time signature to help clubbers keep time while ‘stimulated’ and be produced either
allegretto or allegro. In terms of physical tempo, this can range from a rather
contained 125 BPM and move towards the brain mashing upper limits of

Trance CHAPTER 12

150 BPM, but most tend to stay around 137–145 BPM mark. This, of course, isn’t
a demanding rule but it is important not to go too fast as it needs to remain
anthemic and the majority of the public can’t dance to an incredibly fast beat.

THE RHYTHM SECTION
The best place to start when programming any dance music is with the rhythm
section as this will define the overall pace of the record. With most trance this is
invariably kept quite simple and will almost always rely on a four-to-the-floor pattern. This means a kick drum is placed on every beat of the bar, along with snares
or claps laid on the second and fourth beat to add some expression to these two
beats. To complement this basic pattern closed hi-hats are commonly placed on
every 16th division, or variation of 16ths, while to introduce some syncopation
open hi-hats are often employed and placed on every 1/8th division of the bar.
Notably, any closed hi-hats that occur in this position should be removed to prevent any frequency clashes between the closed and the open hi-hat (Figure 12.1).
This, of course, is only a general guideline to the drum patterns used and is open
to your interpretation. For instance, occasionally a set of triplet closed hats may
sit at the end of every few bars to add some extra variation, or alternatively, the
snare/clap may be placed a 1/16th before the kick occurs on the last beat of
the fourth bar. Additionally, the kicks are sometimes used to add variation and
a double kick at the end of the fourth bar can be used to signify a change, for
example, when introducing a new instrument into the mix (Figure 12.2).
Although these techniques produce what is essentially an incredibly basic
loop, this is exactly what much of trance relies on. Indeed, bongos, congas and
most other percussive instruments are not commonly employed since a more
complex drum loop will not only reduce the room left for the lead melody
but may also take the attention away from it. On this same theme, despite

FIGURE 12.1
Typical trance drum
loop

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FIGURE 12.2
A variation on the
trance loop

mentioning ‘dynamics’ in a previous chapter, both the kick and the snare in
trance will often remain at the highest velocity rather than following the strong –
weak – medium – weak syncopation. Again this is simply because the drums
should pull very little attention away from the main melodic lead. The closed
hi-hats, however, often employ different velocities throughout the bar to add
some interest to the patterns. As a general rule of thumb, the main emphasis
is commonly on the first and fourth (remember that the open hat sits on the
third!) 16th division of the bar as illustrated below:
Bar 16th Divisions
1

2

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11 12

13

14

15 16

S

M W S

S

M W

S

S

M

W

S

M

W

Kick

3

Kick

Kick

S

S

Kick

Of course, this is simply convention and convention shouldn’t always play a
part in your music, so you should feel free to experiment by placing the accents
at different divisions on the beat. By doing so the rhythm of the piece can
change quite severely, so it is worth experimenting.

RHYTHM TIMBRES
Simply playing this rhythm through a GM module you can expect the results to
sound absolutely nothing like the pounding beats you hear in the clubs, so it’s
vital to use the right instruments to produce the sounds. Predictably, all of these
are usually derived from the Roland TR909 but the Waldorf Attack, Novation
Drum Station or a drum sampler and a series of 909 samples will perform the job
just as well. Alternatively, they can be programmed in any capable synthesizer.

Trance CHAPTER 12

The trance kicks tend to be kept quite tight rather than ‘boomy’ since this keeps
the entire rhythm section sounding fairly strong to produce the four-to-thefloor solidity. To reproduce this try using a 90 Hz sine wave and modulate it
with a positive pitch envelope with no attack and a medium release. If you have
access to the pitch envelopes shape then generally a concave release is more
typical than convex but that’s not to say convex doesn’t produce the results.
Finally, experiment with the decay setting as the faster the decay is set, the
tighter the rhythm will become but there is a limit as to how far you should go.
If the decay is set too short then the kick will become a ‘blip’, so you should
look towards making a kick that has enough body to pull out of the mix but
not so much that it begins to boom. Generally, this, as with most instruments,
is best left as MIDI triggering the drum synth rather than bounced down to
audio as soon as it sounds appropriate, as it allows you to further contort the
kick when the rest of the instrumentation is in place.
As discussed in earlier chapters, compression can also play a large role in getting the kick to sound ‘right’ and should be applied to the 4/4 kick loop, rather
than when the rest of the loop elements are in place. Although many engineers
apply compression after the loop is complete (and feel free to experiment),
keep in mind that the principle here is to ‘pump’ the drums, and if the loop
only has high-frequency elements sat off-beat – the compressor will pump
them. This can work musically with the more expensive compressors but most
budget units will destroy the high frequencies of the hats resulting in a duller
sounding loop. What’s more, as the kick and snare may occur on the same beat
a compressor with the required fast attack setting will capture the higher frequencies of the snare, dulling them too.
This can be avoided by applying compression just to the 4/4 kick loop. Although
there are no underlying elements for the compressor to pump, the attack is set
as fast as possible so that the transient is compressed and some of the high-frequency content is removed to produce a more substantial ‘thud’. The lower the
threshold and higher the ratio, the more this will be evident, but by increasing the
release parameter so that when the compressor is nearing the end of its release the
next kick starts, a good compressor will distort in a pleasing manner. Generally
speaking, most valve-based compressors will pump musically, but the most commonly used compressors for this are the Joe Meek SC 2.2, UREI LA 3 or the UREI
1176 LN due to the amount of second-order harmonic distortion they introduce.
If you don’t have access to a good valve compressor, then after compressing it with
a standard unit it’s certainly worth throwing the loop through the PSP Vintage
Warmer to recreate the requisite sound. In fact, even if it is put through a valve
compressor it’s often worth placing it through the vintage warmer anyway.
Once the kick is sounding ‘right’ the snares can be added and further modified
to suit. Notably, these are not always used in the production of trance and claps
are occasionally used in their place – it depends entirely on what your creative
instincts tell you. Nevertheless, whichever is used in the track they will, more
often than not, be sourced from the TR909 or a sample CD (or more commonly another record). They can, of course, also be created in a synthesizer but

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along with the triangle wave it’s worth employing a pink noise waveform rather
than white as it produces a thicker timbre. The pitch envelope is generally set
to positive modulation with a fast attack and a long decay but it’s also worthwhile creating a slurred effect by using negative modulation. This latter snare
can be used as part of a build-up to new instruments.
If a sample has been used and the decay cannot be made any longer, sending
them to a reverb unit set to a short pre-delay and tail will increase the decay.
This is also worth experimenting with even if the decay is long enough as it can
help ‘thicken’ the timbre. If this latter approach is taken, though, it’s prudent
to employ a noise gate to remove some of the reverb’s tail off. After this, much
of the low-frequency content will need removing to provide the basic snare
timbre, so it’s sensible to employ a high-pass filter to remove some of the low
end and then experiment with the concave and convex decay parameter (of the
amp envelope). Convex decays tend to be more popular in most trance tracks,
but concave may produce the results to suit what you have in mind.
As previously mentioned, compressors are often used on the snares to help create
the timbre, but rather than compress the transient it’s prudent to set the attack so
that it just misses and captures the decay stage instead. This will prevent the high
frequencies of the snare from being compromised, but by increasing the makeup gain, the decay stage is increased in volume, helping to produce the often
used and distinctive thwack style timbre. Similar to the kick, the lower the threshold and higher the ratio, the more this will be evident so experiment.
Finally, the closed and open hi-hat patterns will need some modifications to
suit the kick and snare. Yet again, these tend to be sourced from the TR909, a
sample CD or another record. However, it is sometimes prudent to programme
your own as these will play a large part in the rhythm of the record.
Ring modulation is possibly the easiest method for creating hi-hats and is easily accomplished by ring modulating a high-pitched triangle wave with a lower
pitched triangle. The result is a high-frequency noise type waveform that can
then be modified with an amplifier envelope set to a zero attack, sustain and
release with a short-to-medium decay. If there isn’t enough noise present, it can
be augmented with a white noise waveform using the same envelope. Once this
basic timbre is constructed, shortening the decay creates a closed hi-hat while
lengthening it will produce an open hat. Similarly, it’s also worth experimenting by changing the decay slope to convex or concave to produce fatter or thinner sounding hats.
As both these timbres depend on the high-frequency content to sit at the top
of the mix, compression should be avoided but adjusting the amplifier decay of
synthesized hi-hats can help to change the perceived speed of the track. If the
hi-hats are sampled then this can be accomplished by importing them into a
‘drum sampler’ such as Native Instruments Battery, or alternatively you can use a
transient designer such as SPL’s Transient Designer or the software alternative available in the Waves Transform Package. Using these to keep the decay quite short

Trance CHAPTER 12

they will decay rapidly which will make the rhythm appear faster. Conversely,
by increasing the decay, you can make the rhythm appear slower. Most trance
music tends to keep the closed hi-hats quite short, though, using a short decay
but the open hats often benefit from lengthening the decay. This can often help
the higher frequencies of the loop gel together more appropriately for the genre.
With the loop complete, it’s worthwhile looping it over a number of bars and
experimenting with the synthesis parameters or a transient designer to each instrument in the loop to create a loop that gels together. This includes lengthening or
shortening the decay parameters, pitching the instruments up or down and applying effects such as reverb (subtly!). Although at this stage it’s inadvisable to use compression to warm up the loop, noise gates can be particularly useful for creating
loops with a different rhythmic flow. By feeding the entire loop into the gate and
reducing the threshold so that the transients of all the instruments pull though,
shortening the release parameter on the gate will cut some instruments short.

BASS RHYTHM
With the drum groove laid down, most artists then move onto the bass rhythm.
This, in many trance records, commonly consists of simple 8th notes with very
little movement in pitch or in the timbre itself. The reason for this is to leave
more ‘room’ for other elements such as the inter-melodic lines and the chorded
reprise after the middle eight of the track. For this technique to work the bass
most usually sits off the beat rather than on it since they’re kept relatively short
and play a very simple pattern to help keep the focus on the melodic lead.
If they occurred on the beat the groove would sound similar to a march because
there would be no low-frequency energy (LFE) in between the kicks. As a result,
the rhythm would have a series of ‘holes’ in between each kick/bass hit.
Kick

….

Kick

….

Kick

….

Kick

….

Bass

….

Bass

….

Bass

….

Bass

….

To avoid this, the bass commonly sits an eighth after the kick resulting in:
Kick

Kick
…Bass

Kick
…Bass

Kick
…Bass

…Bass

What’s more, by adopting this technique there is a more substantial groove
to the music since the two LFE signals are in effect working as a very basic
Da Capo (binary phrase) throughout the track. That is, the first low-frequency
signal (the kick) is asking a question which is answered by the second low frequency (the bass).
Of course, this, like everything, is open to artistic interpretation, and while it
is generally recommended that the bass occurs after the kick, it isn’t necessary

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to place it an eighth after. Indeed, by experimenting through moving it subtly
around the off-beat, the groove can become more intense or relaxed. Also, it
isn’t compulsory to use notes that are an eighth in length. While these are commonly used to allow the timbre’s characteristics to be evident, smaller notes
can be used to great effect. Similarly, if the track is quite simple even with the
main melody, increasing the length of the notes to a quarter allows more of the
basses character to be evident which can be especially useful if the bass features
lengthy timbre augmentation with LFOs or envelopes.
Generally the bass, as with all the melodic elements of trance, works on a looped
eight-bar basis – that is the melodies, chords and so forth all loop around every
eight bars (usually with a cymbal crash or short snare roll at the end of the eighth
bar to denote the end of the musical passage). This helps to keep the repetition
that forms the basis of the music. Thus, the bass can be programmed over two
bars as a simple series of one pitch notes that can then be pasted to create the
other six bars. Working this way, you can select and pitch each consecutive two
bars of notes up and down to create some movement in the rhythm.
The technique of pitching an entire bar rather than any individual notes within
bars is very common since pitch-shifting constituent notes creates a much more
noticeable bass rhythm. This not only dissuades the focus from the main melody but also lays down a series of musical ground rules as to how the melody
can be written.
Keep in mind that if the bass features plenty of movement in a bar, for the
track to remain musical, the melody should harmonize with this progression.
However, by keeping the bass at one pitch throughout a bar and only moving
an entire bar up or down the only ground rules to the melody are to harmonize with the movements of the entire bar allowing for more experimentation
on the lead. Of course, this again is merely the conventional approach used
by most trance artists and the example track, and it’s certainly open to artistic
licence. For example, some tracks will keep the bass off-beat but not maintain
even spaces between each hit, thus creating a rhythmic drive to the bass. Tracks
of this nature, however, will usually employ less melodic leads (Figure 12.3).

BASS TIMBRE
For the bass timbre, analogue synthesizers (or DSP equivalents) are invariably
chosen over digital since the bass is exposed from the kick and the ‘distortion’
introduced by analogue produces a warmer tone to complement the kick.
Trance basses are sometimes sourced from sample CDs but many artists have
commented that they prefer to create their own in a synth. Generally speaking,
any analogue synth will produce a good analogue bass but many trance musicians often rely on the Novation Bass Station (VSTi), the Novation SuperNova,
Novation V-Station (VSTi) or the Access Virus to produce the timbres. Using any
of these, possibly the easiest solution for this timbre is to dial up a preset bass
in a synth and then contort the results to suit the tune. If, however, you wish

Trance CHAPTER 12

FIGURE 12.3
A typical trance bass
rhythm

to program your own a good starting point is to employ a pulse and sine (or
triangle) oscillator and detune them ⫹ or ⫺ 5 to produce the basic tone. In
general, a heavy transient pluck is not entirely necessary since it isn’t competing with the kick. Thus, the amp and filters attack and decay parameters can be
quite long and, in many instances, the decays actually act as the release parameters due to the relatively short duration of the notes.
When using the decay as a release parameter, the amplifier’s release can then
be used as a ‘fine tune’ parameter to help the bass sit comfortably in with the
drum loop. Additionally, by shortening the attack and decay parameter of
the filter envelope, set to modulate at a positive depth, more of a pluck can
be introduced into the sound so that the tone also complements the drum
rhythm. In fact, it’s essential to accomplish this rhythmic and tonal interaction
between the drum loop and the bass by playing around with both the amp and
the filters A/D EG before moving on. This is the underpinning of the entire
track, and if it’s weak, any instrumentation dropped on top will not rescue it.
By and large, most trance music doesn’t employ any velocity changes on the bass
rhythm as this is usually associated to control the filter cut-off, so the harder it’s
struck, the more the filter opens and the more of a pluck it exhibits. This type
of timbral variation is often avoided in order that the bass doesn’t demand too
much attention and rather simply ‘pulses’ along to lay down a solid foundation
for the lead and counter melodies. It is, of course, always prudent to experiment,
and it’s also worth editing the synth so that velocity controls other parameters.
On the subject of experimentation, delay, distortion and compression are often
used on basses. While most effects should be avoided since they tend to spread
the sound across the image (which destroys the stereo perspective) small

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amounts of controlled distortion can help to pull the bass out of the mix or
give it a much stronger presence. Similarly, a conservatively applied delay effect
can be used to create more complex sounding rhythms that will not place any
musical ‘restrictions’ on the lead. Any effects should be applied cautiously,
though, as the purpose of the bass is not to draw attention to itself but simply
underpin the more important elements.
Also, while it’s true to say that the sounds from any synthesizer are already
heavily compressed at the source, the principle behind a compressor here is
to control the results from any preceding effects and to be used as an ‘effect’
itself. Using the exactly same methods as compressing the kick, lengthening or
shortening the release parameter can introduce a different character to the bass.
More importantly, though, with both the drums and bass laid down, if they’re
both fed into a compressor (with the hi-hats muted), it can be set to activate on
each kick which results in it pumping the bass. Generally, the best compressors
to use for this should be either valve or opto due to the second-order harmonic
distortion they introduce, as this helps the mix to pump more musically. Again
this means using the Joe Meek SC 2.2, UREI LA 3 or the UREI 1176 LN, but if
you don’t have access to these, the Waves C1, C4 or Renaissance compressors
will do the trick or the PSP Vintage Warmer if you need more warmth.
Naturally, the amount of compression applied will depend upon the timbres
used, but as a general guideline, start by setting the ratio to 9:1, along with an
attack of 5 ms and a medium release of 200 or so milliseconds. Set the threshold control to 0 dB and then slowly decrease it until every kick registers on the
gain reduction meter by at least 3 dB. To avoid the volume anomaly (i.e. louder
invariably sounds better!), set the make-up gain so that the loop is at the same
volume as when the compressor is bypassed and then start experimenting with
the release settings. By shortening the release the kicks will begin to pump the
bass, which becomes progressively heavier the more that the release is shortened. Unfortunately, the only guidelines for how short this should be set are
to use your ears and judgment but try not to get too excited. The idea here is
to help the drums and bass gel together into a cohesive whole and produce a
rhythm that punches along energetically. On the same note, it should not be
compressed so heavily that you lose the excursion of the kick altogether!
Once these two elements are working together, it’s prudent to export the groove
as the four separate two-bar loops of audio and drop them into a sampler. This
allows you to trigger the groove from numerous points along the arrangement
and also permits you to experiment with different progressions by simply hitting
the appropriate key on the sampler. It’s also sensible to export the drum track
alone and keep a note of all compression or effects settings along with the original MIDI files to come back to later. Most studios will create these ‘track’ sheets,
and it’s wise to do so since many remixers will expect a track sheet if they’re to
remix the music. What’s more, having the groove as a cohesive whole and sat in
a sampler can often speed up the production process since you already have a
groove you’re happy with and therefore are less likely to be tempted to make more
‘tweaks’ when they aren’t required. In other words, the rest of the instruments

Trance CHAPTER 12

have to be programmed to fit the groove, rather than constantly tweaking all
instruments to make them all fit together. Not only this prevents you from
spending months constantly making unnecessary tweaks, but also most tracks
will start with just the groove!

TRANCE MELODIES
With the basic groove laid down a good approach is to programme the melody
before any further elements are programmed since this will often dictate the
direction of any other instrumental counter melodies.
Creating a melodic lead line for trance is possibly the most difficult part, as a
good lead is derived from not only the melody but also the timbre and both
of these have to be ‘accurate,’ so close scrutiny of the current scene and market leaders is absolutely essential in acquiring the right feel for the dance floor.
Unfortunately, in terms of MIDI programming, trance leads follow very few
‘rules,’ so how to programme one is entirely up to your own creative instincts.
That said, as ever there are some general guidelines that can be applied.
Firstly, in many cases the lead is constructed using a ‘chorded’ structure so that
the notes alternate between two notes. This creates the results of jumping from
the ‘key’ of the song to a higher note before returning to the main key again
(Figure 12.4).
Also, as the above diagram shows, this lead continues over eight bars before
being repeated again and each consecutive two bars of music will tend to rise
in pitch rather than fall. Indeed, this building up the scale plays a key role in
creating trance leads for the dance floor. By progressively moving up the scale

FIGURE 12.4
A trance melody

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throughout the bars and then setting the few final notes of the last bar higher
in scale than any of the preceding notes an uplifting feel results. Conversely, by
setting the final notes lower than that of the start of a bar the feeling is reversed,
resulting in a track that pulls the listener down.
To keep the relative speed and energy of trance, it’s better to keep the notes
short and stabby. This means using a mix of 32nd, 16th and/or 8th notes and
then using the decay and release envelope of the amplifier to lengthen and
contort the timbre if required. This gives much more control over the groove,
allowing you to immediately adjust the ‘feel’ of the music by simply adjusting
the amplifier’s release envelope rather than having to ‘kick’ MIDI notes around.
With these guidelines in mind, a lead can be constructed in any manner, but if
inspiration has left you, there are some techniques that can sometimes produce
good results. The first and possibly easiest method is to begin by fashioning a
chord structure from the previously programmed bass line. This can follow the
progression exactly, but generally it’s worthwhile experimenting with a mix of
parallel, oblique or contrary motions. For instance, in the example track the
bass played over eight bars and consisted of:
Bar 1

Bar 2

Bar 3

Bar 4

Bar 5

Bar 6

Bar 7

Bar 8

G

G

F

F

D#

D#

F

F

Thus, the key of the lead could follow this progression exactly in a parallel
motion which would produce musically ‘acceptable’ results, even though it
would be somewhat a little boring to the ear. However, by following the progression in a parallel motion for only the first, second and fourth bar and using
a contrary motion on the third, the interaction between the lead and the bass
exhibits a much better result:
Bar No

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Bass

G

G

F

F

D#

D#

F

F

Lead

G and
D

G and
D

F and
A

F and
A

G and
D

G and
D

F and
A

F and
A

Of course, it isn’t imperative that the third bar becomes contrary and any or
all bars could be contrary, or parallel, or oblique, provided that it sounds right
to you.
Once this basic chord is constructed to complement the bass, using a noise gate
or MIDI CC messages you can cut up each bar in a rhythmic manner. If using
CC messages, though, a much better approach is to write a complex rhythmic
hi-hat pattern and then use the sequencer to convert the hi-hats notes to CC11
messages rather than programme all the CC’s in by hand. This can often lead

Trance CHAPTER 12

to a robotic nature, whereas using a hi-hat pattern you’re much more likely to
produce a rhythmic flowing gate. Alternatively, you can use a side chain from
the hi-hats or kick drum to pump the chords. This gated effect, once suitable,
can be applied physically to the notes (i.e. cut them up to produce the effect)
so that not only does each note retrigger the synth but also it permits you to
offset the top notes of a chord against the lower ones to produce the alternating notes pattern that’s often used for the leads.
Alternatively, another frequently used method to create a trance melody is to
begin with a synthesizer’s arpeggiator, as this can help to get the general idea
down. With some trial and error it’s possible to find both arpeggiator pattern
and chord combination to produce some inspiration for a lead melody. Once
recorded as MIDI, this can be further attuned in a sequencer’s key editor.
Another technique that’s often referred to as the ‘two fingered’ approach can
produce useable results too. This involves tapping out a riff using just two keys
an octave apart on the keyboard. By alternating between these two keys keeping the lower key the same and continually moving higher in scale on the second key while playing the audio through a delay unit can produce interesting
rhythmic movements. If this is recorded as MIDI information, it can be edited
further by lengthening notes so that they overlap each other slightly or by adding further notes in between the two octaves to construct a melody that builds.

MELODIC TIMBRES
Just as the melody for the lead is important, so is the timbre, and it’s absolutely
vital that time is taken to programme a good one – the entire track will stand
or fall on its quality. As discussed in the chapter on sound design, the lead is
the most prominent part of a track and hence the main instrument that sits in
the mid-range/upper mid-range. Consequently, it should be rich in harmonics
that occupy this area and should also exhibit some fluctuations in the character to remain interesting. This can sometimes be accomplished through modulating the pitch with an LFO on a digital synth, but the phase initialization
from analogue synths, more often than not, will produce much better, richer
results. Consequently, the preferred synths by many artists are the Access Virus,
the Novation SuperNova, Novation A-Station or the Novation V-Station (VSTi).
We’ve already covered the basic principles behind creating a harmonically rich
lead, so rather than go into too much detail again here, what follows is a quick
overview:
■

■

Oscillators:
■
2 ⫻ pulse detuned by ⫺5 and ⫹4 cents
■
1 ⫻ sawtooth (try pitching this up or down an octave)
■
1 ⫻ pink noise
Amp and filter envelope:
■
Zero attack
■
Medium decay

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Small sustain
Short release
Filter
■
Low-pass 24 dB
Modulation
■
Sine wave LFO positively modulates pulse width of oscillator 1
■
Triangle wave LFO positively modulates pulse width of oscillator 2
■
Filter keyfollow to maximum
■
Filter cut-off modulated with velocity commands
■
■

■

■

This is naturally open to artistic licence, and once the basics of the lead are
down, it’s prudent to experiment by replacing oscillators, the LFO waveforms,
depths and envelope settings to create variations. If this technique does not
produce a lead that is rich enough, then it’s worth employing a number of
methods to make it ‘bigger’, such as layering, doubling, splitting, hocketing or
residual synthesis as discussed in the chapter on sound design.
Finally, the timbre will also benefit heavily from applying both reverb and
delay. The reverb is often applied quite heavily as a send effect but with 50 ms
of pre-delay so that the transient pulls through undisturbed and the tail set
quite short to prevent it from washing over the successive notes.
For the delay, this is best used as a send effect but the settings will depend on
the type of sound you require. Generally speaking, the delays should be set to
less than 30 ms to produce the granular delay effect to make the timbre appear
big in the mix, but, as always, experimentation with longer settings may produce the results you prefer.
If vocals are employed in the track then there may be little need for any effects as
the lead should sit under them. However, if you want to keep a wide harmonically
rich sound and vocals, it’s wise to employ a compressor on the lead timbre and
feed the vocals into a side chain so that the lead drops when the vocals are present.

MOTIFS AND CHORD PROGRESSIONS
With both main melody and the all essential groove down, the final stage is to
add motifs and any chord progressions. The latter progressions should require
little explanation as, if used, it’s simply a case of producing a chord structure
that harmonizes with the lead and the bass. Motifs, on the other hand, are a
little more complex and require more thought. These counter melodies are the
small ad-lib riffs best referred to as the icing used to finally decorate the musical cake and play an essential part of any dance music, adding much needed
variation to what otherwise would be a rather repetitive track. These are often
derived from the main melodic riff as not only do they often play a role in the
beginning part of the track before the main melodic lead is introduced but they
are also re-introduced after the reprise.
There are various techniques employed to create motifs, but one of the quickest
ways is to make a copy of the MIDI lead and ‘simplify’ it by removing notes to

Trance CHAPTER 12

FIGURE 12.5
The motif

create a much simpler pattern. Once created, this pattern can be offset from the
main lead to make the motif more noticeable, or alternatively, it can occur at the
same time as the lead but the attack and release of the timbre are lengthened. In
fact, this latter approach will often produce the best results since, as discussed,
dance music works on contrast and so far all the instruments have had a definite attack stage. By lengthening the attack and release, the motif will take on a
whole new rhythmic character which can quickly be changed by listening back
to the arrangement so far and adjusting the amplifier envelope’s parameters.
Above all, using any of these techniques it’s sensible to avoid getting too carried away and it’s vital that they are kept simple. Many dance tracks simply
use a single pitch of notes, playing every eight, sixteenth or quarter, or are constructed to interweave with the bass rather than the lead. This is because not
only do simple motifs have a much more dramatic effect on the music than
complex arpeggios, but you don’t want to detract too much from the main
melodic element (Figure 12.5).
It should also go without saying that the timbre used for any motif should be
different from the lead melody, and it’s at this point that you’ll need to consider the frequencies that are used in the mix thus far.
As touched upon, in many trance tracks the lead is harmonically rich, which
reduces the available frequencies for a motif, so it’s quite common to utilize a
low-pass filter cut-off to reduce the harmonic content while the lead is playing,
yet set this filter to open wider while there is no lead playing. Additionally, as
with all dance music, this filter is tweaked ‘live’ to create additional movement
and interest throughout the arrangement. This movement obviously has to
be restrictive while the lead is playing, otherwise the mix can quickly become

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swamped in frequencies and difficult to mix properly, but during the beginning
of the song, the filter can be opened wider to allow more frequencies through
to fill up any gaps in the mix.
More importantly, the rhythmical pitch of the motif will have to be carefully
chosen. A motif that is mostly written using notes above C4 will naturally contain higher frequencies and few lower ones, so using a low-pass filter that is
almost closed will reduce the frequencies to nothing. Therefore, the pitch of
this motif and the timbre must occupy the low to mid-range to fit with the bass
and the lead melody, assuming of course, that the lead melody contains higher
frequencies.
Indeed, with trance, it’s careful use of the filter that creates the final results, and
often you will need to compromise carefully by cutting some of the frequencies of the lead to leave room for the motif and vice versa. Having said that,
if the bass is quite simple, an often used technique is to programme a motif
that contains an equal amount of low frequencies as mid, and then use a filter
to cut higher frequencies to mix the motif in with the frequencies of the bass,
helping to enhance the low end groove, before proceeding to remove this low
end interaction by cutting the lower frequencies and leaving the higher ones in
as the track progresses. This creates the impression that all the sounds are interweaving with one another helping to create more movement and the typical
‘energy’ that appears in most club tracks.
One final, yet vital, element of trance before we come to the arrangement is the
programming of rolls. Although these may not initially appear to be particularly significant, dance music relies on tension and drama, which best implemented with well-programmed snare rolls. The quick snare rolls that interrupt
a groove along with the huge 4- or 8-bar snare roll that leads up to the main
reprise create a build-up of tension, followed by the ecstatic release when the
track returns so it’s vital that these are well designed. Typically, the snares are
the same as those used in the drum loop and are best programmed in step
time as this allows you to programme them precisely while also allowing you
to edit each note in terms of time, size and velocity. The most common snare
rolls used in this genre are programmed by dropping in MIDI notes every
1/16th followed by 32nd and then drawing in velocity that continually rises.
As a result the snares become progressively louder as the roll reaches its apex
(Figure 12.6).
Even though many trance tracks rely on this strictly programmed 16th/32nd
snare pattern these rolls form such an integral part of the emotion of the music
that it’s worth experimenting further to see what emotion it can convey. For
instance, rather than programming a strictly quantized pattern of notes, mixing 16th and 32nd notes together with velocity that does not always climb
upwards can produce interesting variations (Figure 12.7).
Along with the velocity, pitch bend can also help to add some extra anticipation by pitching the snares up as they reach the apex, or alternatively, a low-pass

Trance CHAPTER 12

FIGURE 12.6
A typical trance snare
roll

FIGURE 12.7
A more intense snare
roll

filter across the snares which opens as the roll progresses can also help creating
a building sensation (as used in the example track).
Snare rolls should not just be restricted to the main reprise either, as shorter
rolls can be used to denote a new passage of music or the introduction of a
new instrument. This commonly consists of placing two snares near the end
of the bar a 1/16th apart. The timbre of these two snares is usually different to
indicate a form of signing off the previous bar and introducing a new one. This
is best accomplished by pitching the second snare a semitone up from the first
while also placing the kick drum to play at the same time, in effect creating a
small kick/snare roll (Figure 12.8).

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FIGURE 12.8
Using a skip in the
rhythm to introduce
new instruments

Ultimately, these are only suggestions and you should be willing to spend as
much time on the snare rolls as every other instrument. The real key is to try
out variations at building and applying effects to the snares to create as much
tension as possible within the music.

THE ARRANGEMENT
With all the basic parts laid down you can begin to look at the arrangement.
Unlike most other genres of dance music, this doesn’t commonly rely on repeating phrases but generally follows a more musical structure. Possibly the best way to
accomplish this is to mute all the tracks bar the drums, begin playback, close your
eyes and listen. If you’ve listened to trance before (and if not it is strongly recommended that you do!) you’ll instinctively know when a new instrument should
be introduced. However, if you’re still stuck for where to go, listen to other trance
tracks and physically count the bars, making note of where new instruments are
introduced and then implement this same structure in your own music. While this
may seem like stealing, it isn’t. Many trance tracks follow the very same arrangement principles (and remember that arrangements cannot be copyrighted!).
Indeed, although it would seem unreasonable to say that all euro-trance tracks follow a set pattern and rather that you should use your own integrity to produce
the arrangement, trance, like most forms of dance music, is an exact science and
it is important that you don’t stray too far from what is considered the standard.
Staying with this principle, it tends to follow a particular blueprint that normally
consist of a combination of bass, drums and inter-melodic lines that culminate
into the main uplifting climax. More often than not, this final climax is a culmination of the first part of the track mixed with the main melodic reprise. Occasionally,
this main reprise is different thematically from the beginning section but the timbre used will have been present beforehand to retain some continuity throughout.

Trance CHAPTER 12

With this in mind it’s generally best to first plan the track using a song map.
Trance, like all dance music, deals mostly in emotional waves, consisting of
building and dropping the arrangement to generate an emotional state in the
audience. Mathematics play a part in this, created by collecting and introducing
sounds every 4, 8, 16, or 32 bars, depending on the individual elements used
within the track and the required length. This may sound overly mechanical
but it’s a natural progression that we have all come to expect from music. As an
example, try introducing a new element into an arrangement at the seventh bar
rather than the eighth and it’ll sound off beam.
Generally speaking most trance tracks will begin with just a basic drum loop
playing over the first 16 bars to allow the DJ to mix the record in. At the end of
the sixteenth bar, a new instrument is often introduced which could be signified by a cymbal crash, or short snare roll. This instrument is often another percussive element to complement the drum loop or the bass itself to generate the
groove. This is often left playing as is for the next sixteen or thirty-two bars to
allow the clubbers to become more comfortable with the groove of the record.
After these bars, the first motif tends to be introduced with another crash or
snare roll and this motif continues for the next 16 or 32 bars. Notably if this is
to play for a more prolonged period of time, it’s prudent to employ filter movements to prevent the track from becoming tedious.
After this, the first drop of the record commonly appears. This often consists of
dropping the percussive elements bar the kick drum and motif and may continue for 4 or sometimes even 8 bars. At the end of the final bar of this drop, a
crash or short snare roll is used again to signify the groove of the record returning along with another new element. In many instances, this new element is
the lead motif which has been sliced up and simplified. This is to give the audience a ‘taster’ of what is to come later in the record. How long this plays for
depends on the track itself but generally it can range from 16 to 32 bars with a
cymbal crash or small snare roll/double kick placed at the end of every fourth
bar to keep the interest. Occasionally, the lead riff may also be filtered with
a low-pass filter which is gradually opened at the final 4 bars of this section,
often complemented with a 4-bar snare roll and perhaps a pad or string section laid underneath.
A crash cymbal placed at the end of the final bar, treated to reverb and delay
so that it echoes across the track, is often implemented as the rest of the mix
drops leaving just the filtered down lead or the previously introduced pads.
These pads/leads continue for 4 to 8bars whereby a 4- or 8-bar snare roll is
built behind the instruments creating an emotional rise towards the reprise of
the track. This breakdown and build-up forms an essential part of trance and
has to be executed carefully, as the whole idea is to link one fast section to
another without losing the speed or feel of the track.
At the end of the snare roll, the same crash that was used to signify the start of the
breakdown is commonly used to echo across the introduction of the full track
and all of the previous instruments are playing together to create a crescendo

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of emotion. At this point, additional snares are often introduced to add a skip
to the rhythm and a few sweeping effects or an additional motif is introduced.
This often plays over 32 bars but sometimes 64 with a cymbal crash placed at
the end of every fourth bar. Finally a 2-bar snare roll often signifies the removal
of instruments such as the lead and melody as the track is slowly broken down
again to end with 16 bars of the drum loop.
Notably, trance relies heavily on drive and, if at this stage, it seems to meander
along, it’s prudent to inject some additional drive into the patterns. Typically
this can be accomplished by changing the position of some elements in relation to the rest of the rhythm. For instance, keeping the kicks sat firmly on the
first and third beats but moving the kicks (and snares) that occur on the second and fourth beats forward by a tick or two (so that they occur earlier in
time) will add more drive to the piece. Alternatively, moving the bass a tick or
two forward in the arrangement can add a feeling of drive.

The data CD contains a full mix of a typical Trance with narration on how it was
constructed.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, the purpose of this chapter has been to give some insight into
the production of trance and there is no one definitive way to produce the
genre. Indeed, the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is
to actively listen to the current market leaders and be creative with processing,
effects and synthesis. Phaser, flangers, chorus, delay, reverb, distortion, compression and noise gates are the most common processor and effects used, so
experiment by placing these in different orders to create the ‘sound’ you want.
While the arrangement and general premise of every trance track is very similar, it’s this production that differentiates it between all the others. With this in
mind, what follows is a short list of artists that, at the time of writing, are considered the most influential in this area:
■
■
■
■
■

Ferry Corsten
Redd Square
Binary Finery
Sasha
DJ Sammy

UK Garage CHAPTER 13

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CHAPTER 13

UK Garage

’When I first started to make Speed Garage, I didn’t
term it as Speed Garage. I’d been into drum and bass
for years. The scenario was, I’m not gonna try and
make drum and bass, I’m gonna take it and put it with
house and see what happens. That’s all it is, that’s the
birth of Speed Garage…’
Armand Van Helden

271
UK garage has its roots firmly set within the development of jungle music;
therefore, before we analyse this genre, we need to examine the roots and development of jungle.
Jungle was a complex infusion of breakbeat, reggae, dub, hardcore and artcore,
but in the majority, it is the complex rhythms which defined the genre. These
can be traced back to the 1970s and the evolution of breakbeat. Kool Herc, a
hip-hop DJ, began experimenting on turntables by playing only the exposed
drum loops (breaks) and continually alternating between two records, spinning
back one while the other played and vice versa. This created a continual loop of
purely drum rhythms, allowing the breakdancers to show off their skills. DJ’s
such as Grand Wizard Theodore and Afrika Bambaata began to copy this style,
adding their own twists by playing two copies of the same record but delaying
one against the other, resulting in more complex, asynchronous rhythms.
It was early 1988 and the combined evolution of the sampler and the rave
scene really sparked the breakbeat revolution. Acid house artists began to sample the breaks in records, cutting and chopping the beats together to produce
more complex breaks that were impossible for any real drummer to play naturally. As these breaks became more and more complex, a new genre evolved
known as hardcore. Shifting away from the standard 4/4 loops of typical acid
house, it featured lengthy complex breaks and harsh energetic sounds that were
just too ‘hardcore’ for the other ravers.

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Although initially scorned by the media and record companies as drug-induced
rubbish that wouldn’t last more than a few months, by 1992 the entire rave
scene was being absorbed in the commercial media machines. Riding on this
‘new wave for the kids’, record companies no longer viewed it as rubbish but
a cash cow and proceeded to dilute the market with a continuous flow of
watered-down rave music. Rave became commercialized and this was taking its
toll on the nightclubs.
In response to the commercialization, in 1992 two resident DJs – Fabio and
Grooverider – pushed the hardcore sound to a new level by increasing the
speed of the records from the usual 120 to 145 BPM. The influences of house
and techno were dropped and quickly replaced with ragga and dancehall,
resulting in mixes with fast complex beats and a deep bass. Although jungle
didn’t exist as a genre just yet, these faster rhythms mixed with deep basses
inspired artists to push the boundaries further and up the tempo to a more
staggering 160–180 BPM.
To some, the term ‘jungle’ was attributed to racism but the name was derived
from the 1920s. It was used on flyers to describe music produced by Duke
Ellington. This featured exotic fast drum rhythms and when Rebel MC sampled
an old dancehall track with the lyrics ‘Alla the Junglists’, ‘jungle’ became synonymous with music that had a fast beat and a deep, throbbing bass. This was
further augmented by pioneers of the genre such as Moose and Danny Jungle.
Jungle enjoyed a good 3–4 years of popularity, but as the beats and bass line
became darker and more minimal, and drum ‘n’ bass took over, the music lost
a majority of its appeal to the more mainstream UK audiences. Drum ‘n’ bass
and jungle were described as far too aggressive and clubbers wanted a happier
vibe to dance to.
This is where the history of garage becomes disjointed to many. Garage had
already existed before the jungle revolution but not in the US term of garage.
This was a term derived from Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, which incorporated
a broad range of musical styles. The earlier UK garage was a laid-back form of
house music with mellow beats and vocals. Often referred to as ‘Sunday music’
because it was music that wasn’t popular enough to be played to the mainstream on Friday and Saturday nights, it was an evolution of jungle that bought
garage to the masses.
To many, it was Armand Van Helden’s remix of Sugar Is Sweeter by CJ Bolland
in 1996 that started the garage phenomenon. By mixing house beats with the
slow dub/warping bass lines of jungle and time-stretched vocals, the genre was
soon labelled ‘speed garage’. This was further augmented with his next release of
Spin Spin Sugar by the Sneaker Pimps. Further artists such as RIP, Dreem Teem,
Booker and 187 Lockdown began to add their own unique styles to the music.
Todd Edwards, a producer from New Jersey, began to experiment further with the
garage sound. He started to strip down the verse and chorus and instead picked
out vocal phrases, choosing to play them like instruments and experimenting

UK Garage CHAPTER 13

with the latest sampling technology of the time to make them stand out above
the crowds. One such technique was pitch-shifting individual syllables, a style
that has become characteristic of the whole UK garage scene.
By 1997, the genre of speed garage began to diversify with the evolution of 2step garage. This broke down the 4/4 rhythms of speed garage by removing the
second and fourth bass kick from each bar, placing an open high-hat on the
upbeat and introducing syncopated bass lines, altogether giving the rhythms a
funkier feel. MJ Cole, The Artful Dodger, Ed Cas, Shanks and Bigfoot and the
Dreem Teem are all accredited with evolving this new genre, although for many
it was Baby Can I Get Your Number by Silo that pioneered and paved the way for
2-step garage.
In 2000, 2-step garage hit the mainstream charts with releases from Craig
David and Daniel Beddingfield. However, it wasn’t long before the record companies took their hold on this new genre and the charts were bombarded with
track after track of 2-step ‘pop’ garage for the masses. As those passionate about
the music – not the money – tried to distance themselves, breakstep garage was
born. This exhibited heavier break beats than before and deeper bass lines. This
was further evolved into dub-step, a much more minimalist approach to the
rhythms but still featuring heavy dub bass lines.

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
The most proficient way to approach writing garage is to find the most popular tracks around at the moment and break them down to their basic elements.
Once this is accomplished we can begin to examine the similarities between
each track and determine exactly what it is that differentiates it from other musical styles. In fact, all music that can be placed into a genre-specific category will
share similarities in terms of the arrangement, groove and sonic elements.
However, in the case of garage, the divergence of the genre over the subsequent
years has resulted in a genre that has become heavily fragmented and as such
cannot be easily identified as featuring any one particular attribute. It can feature house rhythms with slow pounding bass lines, it can incorporate more
funky rhythms or it can be extremely minimalist. Indeed, since garage takes
its influence from just about every other form of music it is near impossible to
analyse the genre in any exact musical sense. It is only possible to make some
very rough generalizations unless we select a specific genre to work with.
While garage is influenced by most other forms of music, its strongest roots lie
within its history: jungle, hip-hop, dancehall and R ‘n’ B. Generally the music
will use a 4/4 time signature, but sometimes with the more complex 2-step a 3/4
time signature is used. In terms of tempo, this can range from 94 to 145 BPM.
For the purpose of this chapter, we’ll examine what has been termed speed
garage (more recently reinvented and renamed ‘niche’), a genre featuring heavily
warped bass lines with straight 4/4 rhythms, a motif and time-stretched vocals.
Although we will be focusing on this genre of music, if you want to produce

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2-step, these techniques can be mixed with drum ‘n’ bass and hip-hop/rap,
which are discussed in detail in other chapters.

DRUM RHYTHMS
Much of niche garage relies on a 4/4 rhythm with a slight skip in the beats,
usually generated by the snares.
Generally, a kick drum is laid on every beat of the bar and is augmented with a
16th closed hi-hat pattern and an open hi-hat positioned on every 1/8th (the off
beat) for syncopation. Snares (or claps) are often employed on the second and
fourth beat underneath the kick but these are often skipped. This can be accomplished by laying a snare just before or after the second and fourth kick and also
dropping a snare in between beats 3 and 4. As always, experimentation is the
key so it is worth further experimentation by moving the snares around the beats
(not on the beat) until the rhythm displays a skipping beat (Figure 13.1).
This should only be viewed as the start. Both tambourines and shakers are
often added to create more of a feel to the rhythm but this does depend on
the subgenre. Where these are placed is entirely up to your own discretion, but
generally they are best played live and left unquantized to keep the feel of the
loop live.
More importantly, though, like house music, garage relies on plenty of drive.
This can be applied in a variety of ways. The most commonly used technique is
to employ a slight timing difference in the rhythm to create a push in the beat.
Typically, this involves keeping the kick sat firmly on all the beats but moving the snares forward in time by a tick or two. Then once the bass line is laid

FIGURE 13.1
The cornerstone of
niche loops

UK Garage CHAPTER 13

down, its timing is matched to these snares using a sequencers match quantize
function.
For garage kicks, samples are often used. These can be sampled from specific
garage sample CDs or, more often, other records. It is important to note that
the kick and snare should not be heavy enough to detract from the bass.
Generally, the kick is commonly kept quite tight by employing a short decay
combined with an immediate attack stage. This is to help keep the kick
dynamic but it also prevents it from blurring and destroying the all important
interplay between kick and bass. Typically, a 120 Hz sine wave produces the
best starting point for a garage kick with a positive pitch EG set, a fast attack
and a quick decay to modulate the oscillator.
Production-wise the kicks rely very heavily on compression to produce the
archetypal hardened sound. Although the settings to use will depend on the
sound you wish to achieve, a good starting point is to use a low ratio combined with a high threshold and a fast attack with a medium release. The attack
will crush the initial transient of the square producing a heavier ‘thump’, while
experimenting with the release can further change the character of the kick.
If this is set quite long, the compressor will not have recovered by the time
the next kick begins and this can often add a pleasing distortion to the sound.
Once the kick has been squashed, as a final stage it’s often worthwhile using
the PSP Vintage Warmer to add more warmth to the overall timbre.
The snares should be kept particularly snappy and pitched quite high, reminiscent of drum ‘n’ bass. To accomplish this, keep the decay on the snare
particularly short to keep with the short, sharp dynamics of the loop. This characteristic sound can be produced by using either a triangle or a square wave
mixed with some pink noise or saturation (distortion of the oscillator) both
modulated with an amp envelope using a fast attack and decay. White noise
should be used to keep the snare quite bright, but much of this noise will need
removing with a band-pass filter to allow you to remove the high and low content of the timbre to produce the effect you need.
If at all possible, it’s worthwhile using a different envelope on the main oscillator and the noise since this will allow you to keep the body of the snare
(i.e. the main oscillator) quite short and sharp but allow you to lengthen the decay
of the noise waveform. By doing this you can modify the snare so that
it rings out after each hit. It also permits you to individually adjust the
decay’s shape of the noise waveform. Generally speaking, the best results
are from employing a concave decay but as always it’s worth experimenting.
The snares may also benefit from some pitch bend applied to the timbre.
If you use this latter technique, it’s prudent to remove the transient of the snare
in a wave editor and replace it with one that uses positive pitch modulation.
When the two are recombined, the timbre will have a good solid strike but
decay upwards in pitch at the end of the hit. If this isn’t possible then a viable
alternative is to sweep the pitch from low to high with a sawtooth or sine LFO

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(provided that the saw starts low and moves high) set to a fast rate. After this,
small amounts of compression so that only the decay is squashed (i.e. slow
attack) will help to bring it up in volume so that it doesn’t disappear into the
rest of the mix. If you’re still finding it difficult to produce a snappy snare, a
transient designer can be used to alter the transients of the snare hits.
Notably, it’s only the timbre for the kick and snare that truly define the niche
sound. While in the majority of cases the remaining percussive and auxiliary
instruments such as the open and closed hi-hats, tambourines and shakers
are sourced from sample CDs or the TR808 or 909, almost any MIDI module
will carry sounds that can be used. Plus, many modules today carry the ubiquitous TR808 and 909 percussion sound sets as part of the collection anyway.
Normally, none of these should be compressed as thus can reduce the highfrequency content. But having said that, this is simply convention and you
should always be willing to ‘break the rules’, so to speak.
Of course, it would be naive to say that all beats are created through MIDI
and a proportionate amount of rhythms are acquired from sampling records
with a drum break. Indeed, these will have probably been sampled from other
records, which will have been sampled from previous records, which will have
been sampled from other records, so you should feel free to experiment with
your sampler and sequencer.
Along with working with individual loops, some producers have been known
to stack up a series of drum loops to create heavier rhythms. Armand Van
Helden is well known for dropping more powerful-sounding kicks over presampled loops to add more of a heavy influence.
If you mix a number of loops together to create a rhythm, EQ is an important tool. You can use it to reduce the frequency content of the kicks to prevent attaining a beat that is too heavy. Indeed, it’s preferable to just have one
kick playing, so the kick should be removed from all the other loops. Once
a few basic loops have been merged, effects and aggressive EQ cuts or boosts
are employed on each individual element of a sliced loop to create interesting
interacting timbres.

THE NICHE BASS
As previously mentioned, garage, particularly niche, relies heavily on the bass
rhythm and timbre so it is vital that these are correct for the genre. Typically
the rhythm of the bass is kept fairly simple and will often consist of nothing
more than a few 1/4 or 1/2 notes per bar that will tend to move very subtly in
pitch by no more than 3 or 5 semitones (Figure 13.2).
In the above example, the bass moves from C to A, but many of the notes are
kept quite long allowing full pitch bend of the notes. Note also how in the
above example some of the notes overlap the ones following those overlaps.
The portamento control on a synthesizer, creates a timbre that will rise during
its period and it’s this type of movement that is fundamental to the bass.

UK Garage CHAPTER 13

FIGURE 13.2
A typical niche bass
line

For the bass timbre, just about any synthesizer is fair game. Native Instruments
Massive has been used to its full extent in this genre, but any analogue synthesizer (or DSP equivalent) can be used so long as it contains enough frequencies to be swept with a filter. Indeed, the filter envelope is the key to producing
the warping bass timbre. Using two square waves, detune one from the other
by ⫹ or ⫺ 5 and set the amp envelope to a fast attack and short decay. Set the
filter envelope to a medium attack and full modulation. Finally, set the LFO to
modulate the cut-off frequency and experiment with all the settings until you
accomplish the sound you require.
Another typical timbre can be attained by combining two oscillators, one set
to a sine wave to add depth to the timbre while the other set to a sawtooth
to introduce harmonics that can be swept with a filter. These are commonly
detuned from one another; the amount varies depending on the type of timbre
required. Hence, it’s worth experimenting by first setting them apart by 3 cents
and increasing this gradually until the sound becomes as thick as you need for
the track.
Set the amp EG’s attack to zero along with sustain but set the release and decay
initially to midway. The decay setting provides the ‘pluck’ while the release can
be modified to suit the motif being played from the sequencer. The filter cutoff is set to a low pass, as you want to remove the higher harmonics from the
signal (as opposed to removing the lower frequencies first). This along with the
resonance are adjusted so that they both sit approximately halfway between
fully exposed and fully closed. Ideally, the filter should be controlled with a filter envelope using the same settings as the amp EG, but to increase the ‘pluck’
of the sound it’s beneficial to adjust the attack and decay so that they’re slightly

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longer than the amplifier’s settings. Finally, positive filter key follow should be
employed so that the filter will track the pitch of the notes being played, which
helps to add more movement.
Finally, you can pitch shift the timbre by modulating both oscillators with a
pitch envelope set to a fast attack and medium decay. If possible, the pitchbend range should be limited to 2 semitones to prevent it from going too wild.
If you decide to modulate the filter, then it’s best to use an LFO with a sawtooth that ramps upwards so that the filter opens, rather than decays, as the
note plays. The depth of the LFO can be set to maximum so that it’s applied
fully to the waveform, and the rate should be set so that it sweeps the note
quickly. What’s more, if the notes are being played in succession it’s prudent to
set the LFO to retrigger on key press. Otherwise it will only sweep properly on
the first note and any successive notes will be treated differently, depending on
where the LFO is in its current cycle.
This will not suit all niche music, though. Some artists ignore synths and construct their own basses from culminating samples together or pitching a sample
down the keyrange because just about anything sounds great when it’s pitched
down a couple of octaves into the bass register. The key is to experiment in
creating a low tone that has the energy to add some bottom-end weight to the
music but that at the same time does not demand too much attention.
Both distortion and compression are often used on niche basses. While most
effects should be avoided since they tend to spread the sound across the image
(which destroys the stereo perspective) small amounts of controlled distortion
can help to pull the bass out of the mix and often give it the much needed rawness. Similarly, compression after the distortion can be used to even out the
volume, keep the effect under control and bring the overall levels up. As a general guideline, start by setting the ratio to 4:1, along with an attack of 5 ms and
a medium release of 150 ms or so. Set the threshold control to 0 dB and then
slowly decrease it until the bass registers on the gain reduction meter by at couple of decibels. Finally, set the make-up gain so that the loop is at the same volume as when the compressor is bypassed and then start experimenting with the
attack and release settings until it produces the level and ‘sound’ you require.

MOTIFS
The motif in garage depends entirely on the type of garage being produced.
Pretty much anything should be considered fair game. Very generally speaking,
though, the lead is often the exact opposite of the bass. Whereas the bass is very
low and boomy, the lead riff is often incredibly bright and pitched high up the
range. 187 Lockdown’s Gunman used a sample of a watch from an old western
film to great effect. Indeed, many leads are often sampled from other records
or films and it would be naive to suggest that they are always programmed with
MIDI. Consequently, it’s impossible to offer any guidelines apart from ‘to listen
to the latest records to see where the current trend currently lies’.

UK Garage CHAPTER 13

This does, however, also mean that there are no definitive motif sounds that
can characterize the genre (bar the heavy bass line). That said, there are some
timbres that have always been popular, including bright pianos, angel bells and
fairy type timbres.
Triangle and noise waveforms can produce a harmonically rich, bright sound
that will cut through the mix. Depending on how many are employed in the
timbre, these can be detuned from one another to produce more complex,
interesting sounds. If the timbre requires more of a body to the sound then
adding a sine or pulse wave will help to widen the sound and give it more
presence. To keep the dynamic edge of the music, the amplifier’s attack is predominantly set to zero so that it starts upon key press, but the decay, sustain
and release settings will depend entirely on what type of sound you require.
Generally speaking, you should avoid long release settings since this may blur
the lead notes together and much of this music relies on sharp attacked timbres. Since the bass encapsulates the music, the lead should not detract from
it; therefore the motif should remain quite steady with little modulation,
but that’s not to say you shouldn’t experiment. If you want to add movement
to a timbre, you can employ LFOs or a filter envelope to augment the sound as
it plays.
If you need a starting point for a high motif, start with two oscillators; – one set
to a sine wave and the other set to a triangle wave, – with one of the oscillators
detuned so that it’s at a multiple of the second oscillator. The amp envelope is
then set to a fast attack, short decay and release and a medium sustain with the
filter key-tracking switched on. To produce the initial transient for the note, a
third sine wave pitched high up on the keyboard and modulated by a one-shot
LFO (i.e. the LFO acts as an envelope – fast attack, short decay, no sustain or
release) will produce the desired timbre.
Another technique is to use a pulse and a triangle oscillator. As the sound starts
on keypress, the amp uses a zero attack with a full sustain and medium release
(note that there is no decay since the sustain parameter is at maximum).
A low-pass filter is used to shape the timbre with the cut-off set to zero and the
resonance increased to about halfway. A filter envelope is not employed since
the sound should remain unmodulated. If you require a ‘click’ at the beginning of the note you can turn the filter envelope to maximum, but the attack,
release and sustain parameters should remain at zero with a very, very short
decay stage.

CHORDS
Generally, chords are not used within speed garage. Chord progressions are
usually employed to fill up any empty spaces in the mix, but in speed garage,
the space within the mix is as important as the bass. If you fill up the frequency
spectrum, the music doesn’t have as much impact as it would if there were
holes in the frequency range of the mix.

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Nonetheless, if you wish to employ chords in the music, they should act as
a harmony to the bass and lead. This means that they should fit in between
the rhythmic interplay of the instruments without actually drawing too much
attention. To accomplish this, they need to be very closely related to the key
of the track and not use a progression that is particularly dissonant. Generally,
this can be accomplished by forming a chord progression from any notes used
in the bass and experimenting with a progression that works. For instance, if
the bass is in E, then C major would produce a good harmony because this
contains an E (C–E–G). The real solution is to experiment with different chords
and progressions until you come up with something that works.
Since it is important not to completely fill the frequency range of the mix, the
chord timbre should be quite thin. If necessary it can be filled out later with
flangers or phasers. Pulse waves have less harmonic content than saws and triangles and do not have the ‘weight’ of a sine wave, so these are the best choice.
Generally only one pulse wave is required with the amp envelope set to a
medium attack, sustain and release but a fast decay. If this timbre is to sit in
the upper mid-range of the music then it’s best to use a 12 dB high-pass filter
to remove the bottom end of the pulse. Otherwise, use a low, pass to remove
the top end and then experiment with the resonance until it produces a general
static tone that suits the track.
Following this, set an LFO to positive modulation with a slow rate on the pulse
width of the oscillator and the filter to add some movement. Which waveform
to use for the LFO will depend on the track itself, but by first sculpting the
static tone to fit into the track you’ll have a much better idea of which wave to
use and how much it should modulate the parameters. If the timbre appears
too ‘statically modulated’ in that it still seems uninteresting, use a different
rate and waveform for the oscillator and filter so that the two beat against each
other. Alternatively, if the timbre still appears too thin even after applying
effects, add a second pulse detuned from the first by 3 cents with the same amp
envelope but use a different LFO waveform to modulate the pulse width.
Alternatively, try using three sawtooth waveforms and detune two from one of
the oscillators by ⫹ and ⫺3. Apply a small amount of vibrato using an LFO to
these two detuned saws. Then use an amplifier envelope with a medium attack
and release and a full sustain (there is no decay since sustain is set to full and it
would have nothing to drop down to). Experiment with the sawtooth that wasn’t
detuned by pitching it up as far as possible without letting it become an individual sound (i.e. less than 20 Hz). If possible use two filters – one set as a low pass to
remove the low-end frequencies from the two detuned saws and one set as a high
pass to remove some of the high-frequency content from the recently pitched saw.

SOUND EFFECTS
One final aspect is the addition of sound effects and sometimes vocals. Often
the vocals are nothing more than an MC speaking, but commercial vocals have

UK Garage CHAPTER 13

been used (Spin Spin Sugar remix). Vocals are rarely used as is, however, and
often benefit from time stretching in a sampler/audio workstation. No real
advice can be given here since it depends entirely on the vocals on how they
should be effected, but as always, listening to the current market leaders will
give you ideas on how the vocals are being effected in the current climate.
The sound effects also play a large role in the production of speed garage.
Indeed, they often help to define the genre (the gunshot and siren in 187
Lockdown’s Gunman play a large role). These effects can be sampled from movies, or sample CD’s or created in any competent synthesizer. What follows, therefore, is a quick rundown on how to create some of the most used sound effects.
The siren is possibly the easiest sound effect to recreate. Set one oscillator to
produce a sine wave and use an amp envelope with a fast attack, sustain and
release and a medium decay. Finally, use a triangle wave or sine wave LFO to
modulate the pitch of the oscillator at full depth. The faster the LFO rate is set,
the faster the siren will become.
Another popular effect is the gunshot. Just about every sound effects sample
CD has these, but if you don’t have one you can create your own in any analogue-style synthesizer with two oscillators. One oscillator should be set to a
saw wave while the other should be set to a triangle wave. Detune the triangle
from the saw by ⫹3, ⫹5 or ⫹7 and set a low-pass filter to a high cut-off and
resonance (but not so high that the filter self oscillates). Set the amp’s envelope
to a fast attack, sustain and release but with a medium decay and copy these
settings to the filter envelope. Make the decay a little shorter than the amp’s
EG. Finally, use a sawtooth LFO set to a negative amount and use this to control the pitch of the oscillators along with the filter’s cut-off.
Yet another effect commonly used is the rising effect. To recreate this use a sawtooth oscillator and set both the amp and filter EG to a fast decay and release
but a long attack and high sustain. Use a triangle or sine LFO set to a positive mild depth and very slow rate (about 1 Hz) to modulate the filter’s cut-off.
Finally, use the filter’s envelope to also modulate the speed of the LFO so that
as the filter opens the LFO speeds up. If the synthesizer doesn’t allow you to
use multiple destinations, you can increase the speed of the LFO manually and
record the results into a sampler or audio sequencer.

ARRANGEMENTS
With all the parts programmed we can begin to look at the arrangement. As
touched upon in the musical analysis, garage is an incredibly diverse genre so
there are no definite arrangement methods.
Nevertheless, as much of house relies on the sampling ethics of drum ‘n’ bass, a
usual approach is to arrange the instruments in different configurations to produce a series of different loops. For instance, one loop could consist of just the
drums, another of the drums and bass mixed together, another of the drum,
bass and leads, and another of just the leads. Each of these are then sampled

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(or exported from an audio sequencer) and set to a specific key on a controller
keyboard connected to the sampler. By then hitting these keys at random you
can produce a basic arrangement.
That said, as with all genres this is subject to change, so the best way to obtain
a good representation of how to arrange the track listen to what are considered
the classics and then copy them. This isn’t stealing – it’s research and nearly
every musician on the planet follows this same route. This can be accomplished
by using a method known as chicken scratching. Armed with a piece of paper
and a pen, listen to the track and for every bar place a single scratch mark on
the paper. When a new instrument is introduced or there is a change in the
rhythmic element, place a star below the scratch. Once you’ve finished listening, you can refer to the paper to determine how many bars are used in the
track and where new instruments have been introduced. You can then follow
this same arrangement and, if required, change it slightly so that it follows a
progression to suit.

The data CD contains a full mix of a typical Speed Garage track with narration on how it
was constructed.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, the purpose of this chapter has been to give some insight into the
production of UK garage, and as ever there is no one definitive way to produce
the genre. Indeed, the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is
to actively listen to the current market leaders and experiment wildly with all the
tools you have to hand. With this in mind, what follows is a short list of artists
who, at the time of writing, are considered the most influential in this area:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Armand Van Helden
Dreem Teem
RIP
187 Lockdown
Booker
Todd Edwards
MJ Cole
The Artful Dodger
Shanks and Bigfoot
Ed Case

Techno CHAPTER 14

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CHAPTER 14

Techno

’Techno is a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton
and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with only a
sequencer to keep them company…’
Derrick May

To the uninitiated, techno is used to describe any electronic dance music,
and although this was initially true, over the years it has evolved to become a
genre in its own right. Originally, the term techno was coined by Kraftwerk in
an effort to describe how they mixed electronic instruments and technology
together to produce ‘pop’ music. However, as the following years were riddled
by numerous artists taking the idea of technology on board to write their own
music, the true foundations of where techno, as we know it today, originated is
difficult to pinpoint accurately.
To some, the roots of this genre can be traced back to as early as 1981 with the
release of Shari Vari by A Number of Names, I Feel Love by Donna Summers
(and Giorgio Moroder) and Techno City by Cybotron. To others, it emerged in
the mid-1980s when the ‘Belleville Three’ collaborated together in Detroit.
These three high school friends – Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick
May – used to swap mix tapes with one another and religiously listen to the
Midnight Funk Generation on WJLB-FM. The show was hosted by DJ Charles
‘Electrifying Mojo’ Johnson and consisted of a 5 h mix of electronic music from
numerous artists including Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and George Clinton.
Inspired by this eclectic mix, they began to form their own music using cheap
second-hand synthesizers such as the Roland TR909, TR808 and TB303. The
music they produced was originally labelled as House and both May and
Saunderson freely admit to gaining some of their inspiration from the Chicago
clubs, particularly the Warehouse and Frankie Knuckles, and the house music
they played. In fact, Derrick May’s 1987 hit Strings of Life is still viewed by
many as house music, although to Derrick himself and many other aficionados
it was an early form of Detroit techno.

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This form of music was characterized by its mix of dark pounding rhythms
mixed with a soulful feel and a stripped down vibe. This latter stripped down
feel was a direct result of the limited technology available at the time. Since the
TB303, TR909 and TR808 were pretty much the only instruments obtainable to
those without a huge budget, most tracks were written with these alone which
were then recorded directly to two-track tape cassettes.
It wasn’t until late 1988, however, that techno became a genre in its own right
when Neil Rushton produced a compilation album labelled Techno – The New
Dance Sound of Detroit for Virgin records. Following this release, techno no longer described any form of electronic music but was used to describe minimalist,
almost mechanical house music. Similar to most genres of dance, this mutated
further as more artists embraced the ideas and formed their music around it.
By 1992 and the evolution of the new ‘rave generation’ techno bore almost no
relationship to the funky beats and rhythms of house music as it took on more
drug-influenced hypnotic tribal beats.
As technology evolved and MIDI instruments, samplers, sequencers and digital audio manipulation techniques became more accessible, techno began to
grow increasingly complex. While it still bore a resemblance to the stripped
down feel of Detroit techno consisting solely of rhythms and perhaps a bass,
the rhythmic interplay became much more complex. More and more rhythms
were laid atop one another and the entire studio became one instrument with
which to experiment.
Of course, Detroit techno still exists today but it has been vastly overshadowed
by the tribal beats of ‘pure’ techno developed by numerous artists including
Thomas Krome, Redhead Zync, Henrik B, Tobias, Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin and
Richie Hawtin. Each of these artists has injected their own style into the music
while keeping with some of the original style set by their contemporaries.

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
Techno can be viewed as dance music in its most primitive form since it’s chiefly
formed around the cohesion and adaptation of numerous drum rhythms.
Although synthetic sounds are also occasionally employed, they will, more
often than not, remain atonal as it’s the abundance of percussive elements that
remains the most vital aspect of the music. In fact, in most techno tracks additional synthetic instruments are not often used in the ‘musical’ form to create
bass lines or melodies; instead, the genre defines itself on a collection of carefully programmed and manipulated textures rather than melodic elements.
Fundamentally, this means that it’s produced with the DJ in mind and, in fact,
most techno is renowned for being ‘DJ friendly’ and is formed and written to
allow him (or her) to seamlessly mix all the different compositions together to
produce one whole continuous mix to last through the night. As such, techno will
generally utilize a four-to-the-floor time signature but it isn’t unusual to employ
numerous other drum rhythms written in different time signatures which are then

Techno CHAPTER 14

mixed, effected and edited to fit alongside the main 4/4 signature. Tempo-wise,
it can range from 130 to 150 BPM, and although some techno has moved above
this latter figure, it is in the minority rather than the majority.
Techno is also different from every other genre of music covered so far since
it does not rely on programming and mixing in the ‘conventional’ manner (if
there is such a thing). Rather, it’s based around using the entire studio as one
interconnected tool. While a sequencer (hardware or software) is still used as
the centrepiece, it’s commonly only used to trigger numerous drum rhythms
contained in the connected samplers and drum machines. Each of these
rhythms have been previously edited and manipulated with effects to produce
new variations which are then layered with others or dropped in and out of the
mix to produce the final arrangement.
These rhythms are layered on top of one another so that they all interact harmonically to produce interesting variations of the original patterns. As more
of these patterns are laid together, they create an often syncopated feel as the
rhythmic harmony becomes progressively more complex. The mixing desk is
then used to not mix the rhythms together in a conservative manner but as a
creative tool with EQ employed to enhance the interesting harmonic relationships created from this layering, or to prevent the cohesive whole from becoming too muddy or indistinct.
This method of working is analogous to subtractive synthesis, whereby you
build a harmonically rich sound and then employ filters to shape the results.
With techno, you construct a hectic, yet harmonically rich rhythm by layering
loops, and then proceed to deconstruct them with filters and EQ until you’re
left with some interesting harmonic interplay and rhythm. This produces
incredibly complex beats that could never be ‘programmed’ through MIDI or
played live and that also subtly move from one interesting rhythmic interaction
to another with some live (or automated) tweaking of EQ or additional effects.
The obvious place to start with any techno is to begin by shaping the loops
and, generally speaking, occasionally they may be programmed in MIDI but
are more often sourced from sample CDs or other records. These are then subsequently diced, sliced and manipulated with programs such as Wavesurgeon
to create rhythms that are very different from the original. However you decide
to create the loops, the individual rhythms begin quite simply, and the beginnings consist of nothing more than a kick drum, snare, closed and open hi-hats
along with an occasional cymbal crash employed every 4 or so bars to mark the
end of a musical segment (Figure 14.1).
Although this generally provides a good starting pattern, any further loops
should be programmed differently and/or use different timbres so that when
the rhythms are overlaid with one another a more complex sound and rhythm
evolves. To accomplish this, it’s often worth experimenting by programming
tribal rhythms to mix with the previous loop. How these are programmed is
entirely up to your own creativity, but a good starting point is to employ side

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FIGURE 14.1
The beginnings of a
techno loop

FIGURE 14.2
A tribal techno loop

sticks, splash cymbals, tom drums and more snares that can dance around the
main starting loop. An example of a typical tribal loop is shown in Figure 14.2.
Note that in the above example, very few of the instruments actually land on
the beat; rather they are all offset slightly. This helps them to combine more
freely with the initially created loop, creating thicker textures as the sounds
play slightly earlier or later than the first loop, thus preventing the loops from
becoming too metronomic. Also, note how this second loop does not contain

Techno CHAPTER 14

FIGURE 14.3
Another tribal techno
loop to mix with the
previous two

any kicks. This is simply because if each consecutive loop contained a series of
offbeat kicks, the rhythm would lose its four-to-the-floor feel, while if the kicks
were all laid on the beat of the bar, they would all amalgamate producing a
mix with a very heavy bottom end. The principle is to create a series of loops,
each of which focuses on a different timbre to carry the loop forward.
These two loops could be further augmented with another tribal loop, this
time much more complex than the last, containing a number of closely paired
instruments that all complement the previous two loops and create an even
more complex drum arrangement (Figure 14.3).
Yet again, note how none of the instruments land on the beat. This prevents
the rhythm from becoming too metronomic and allows these new timbres to
mix with the previous two loops to thicken out those timbres already present.
Additionally, it is also worthwhile experimenting by mixing loops with different time signatures together. For instance, two 4/4 loops mixed with two 3/4
loops can produce results that cannot be easily acquired any other way.
Once a number of MIDI files have been created in this manner, they can be
exported/imported as audio and sliced, diced and EQ’d to modify the sounds
further to create abstract timbres suitable for techno. Although for this example we’ve only discussed three loops, you should feel free to programme and
layer as many loops together as you feel are necessary to accomplish the overall
sound. This can range from using just three to layering over eight together and
then progressively reducing the content of each until you are left with harmonically rich and interesting sound. The layering of these should also not just be

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restricted to dropping them dead atop one another, and in many cases, moving
one of the two loops forward or back in time from the rest can be used to good
effect.
Once a few basic loops have been created, effects and aggressive EQ cuts or
boosts are employed on each individual element of a sliced loop to create interesting timbres. Although the premise of techno is to keep a 4/4 kick pumping
away in mix, other percussive elements are commonly heavily affected, processed and EQ’d to produce timbres that add to its tribal nature. Although any
effects can produce good results, of particular note the Sherman Filterbank is
almost a requisite for creating strange evolving timbres. That said, the effects
and processing applied are, of course, entirely open to artistic licence as the
end result is to create anything that sounds good but what follows is a list of
possibilities to start with:
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Use a transient designer to remove the transients of a snare or hi-hat and
then increase the sustain.
Reverse a sample, apply reverb with a long tail and then reverse the sample
so that it plays the correct way again (albeit with a reversed reverb effect).
Use a noise gate to shorten sounds in the loops.
Apply heavy compression to squash the transients of some sounds.
Apply heavy compression but only to the sustain (i.e. use a long attack).
With the aid of a spectral analyser, identify the frequencies that contribute to the body of a sound and reduce their volume while increasing the
volume of those surrounding them.
Merge two timbres (such as a snare and hi-hat) together and use EQ to
remodel the sound.
Pitch shift individual notes up and by extreme amounts.
Apply heavy chorus or flangers/phasers to singular hi-hats or snares.
Write a hi-hat pattern, export it as audio (if required), apply heavy delay
and then cut the resulting file up to produce a new pattern.
Apply heavy delay/chorus/flanging or phaser to an entire drum loop and
cut segments out to mix with the rest of the loops.
Constantly time stretch and compress audio to add some digital clutter
and then mix this with the other loops.

The main principle of applying all these processes is to generate timbres that
are tonally different from every other loop so that layered together they combine to create an interesting sound. Using mixing desks EQ and low-, high- or
band-pass filters, you can then amplify or filter this area and slowly evolve its
progression over the length of the mix with some automation. This live ‘tweaking’ forms a fundamental part of the music, so if the rhythms are contained in a
software audio sequencer, it’s of paramount importance to use an external controller so that you can modulate the various parameters in real time. Obviously,
the more parameters this controller offers, the more creative you can become,
so ideally, you should look towards a controller that has numerous options.
Novation’s ReMote 25 can be particularly useful since this offers a plethora of

Techno CHAPTER 14

real-time controllers consisting of knobs, faders, a touch pad and a yoke (a
control stick that can be used to control both pitch and modulation simultaneously). All of these can then be recorded as CC data in real time, permitting you
to edit the automation further if required.
Naturally, techno relies on compression to produce the harsh, heavy beats as
much as any other dance genre but its production ethics are slightly different. Whereas in much of dance you usually wish to refrain from pumping the
hi-hats or additional percussion by compressing the 4/4 kick singularly, it isn’t
uncommon in this genre to actually pump these percussive elements on some
of the individual loops to create new sounds. Additionally, the compressor is
often treated as an effect as well as a processor and it isn’t considered unusual
to access a valve compressor as a send ‘effect’. With the setting of a low threshold and high ratio, the returned signal can be added to the uncompressed signal, while experimenting with the attack and release will produce a series of
different timbres. If you do not have access to a valve compressor, then sending
the signal out to the PSP vintage warmer can often add more harmonics to the
signal similar to using a valve compressor.
Of course, once the beats are finally laid down, with all the frequency, EQ and
pitch interaction the loop will need compressing to prevent any potential clipping and, in techno, this is applied very heavily indeed. Generally, valve-based
compressors are used since these tend to pump musically. The most commonly
used compressors for this are the Joe Meek SC 2.2, UREI LA 3 or the UREI 1176
LN due to the amount of second-order harmonic distortion they introduce. If
you don’t have access to a good valve compressor, then after compressing it with
a standard unit it’s certainly worth throwing the loop through the PSP vintage
warmer to recreate the requisite sound. In fact, even if it is put through a valve
compressor it’s often worth placing it through the vintage warmer anyway. The
amount of compression to apply will, as always, depend heavily upon the timbres used, but as a general guideline, start by setting the ratio to 12:1, along
with an attack of 5 ms and a medium release of 200 ms or so. Set the threshold control to 0 dB and then slowly decrease it until both the kick and second
loudest elements of the loop (commonly the snare) register on the gain reduction meter by at least 5 dB. To avoid the volume anomaly (i.e. louder invariably
sounds better!), set the make-up gain so that the loop is at the same volume as
when the compressor is bypassed and then start experimenting with the release
settings. By shortening the release, the loop will become progressively heavier
the more that this is shortened. Unfortunately, the only guidelines for how
short this should be set are to use your ears and judgement but try not to get
too excited. Keep in mind that it should not be compressed so heavily that you
lose the excursion of the kick, otherwise the loop will lack any real punch.
As previously mentioned, techno commonly consists of drums alone but
some may also include a bass rhythm to help the music groove along. In these
instances, the bass is kept incredibly simple so as not to detract from the fundamental groove created by the drums. In other words, the bass commonly

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FIGURE 14.4
A typical techno bass
line

consists of noting more than a series of 1/16th, 1/8th or 1/4th notes (sometimes consisting of a mix between them all) with none or very little movement
in pitch (Figure 14.4).
In the above example, the bass remains atonal but movement is provided by
lengthening and shortening the bass notes, while the velocity controls the filter
cut-off allowing the groove to move in and out of the drum rhythms. Some
tracks may also employ some pitch movement in the bass, but if this is the case
then the timbre used is invariably mono and makes heavy use of portamento
so that that any overlapping notes slide into one another (Figure 14.5).
Note how in the above example a secondary note overlaps the first. This creates a timbre that rises and falls during its period and it’s this type of movement that is fundamental to a techno bass. Since the bass will generally only
consist of one bar that is continually looped over and over, it’s the harmonic
and timbral movement that plays a primary role in attaining the groove. This is
accomplished not only by using portamento but also by adjusting various synthesis and effects parameters as the bass plays alongside the drum track. The
basic belief here is to manipulate the frequencies contained in the bass so that
it augments the frequencies in the drum track. That is, it adds to the harmonic
relationship already created through manipulating the drums to create a cohesive whole that pulses along. The bass should still remain a separate element to
the drum track but, nevertheless, any frequency-dependent movement should
be to bring further interest to the harmonic interaction with the drums than to
bring attention to itself.
For the bass timbre, the TB303 is the most widely used instrument since this
is what was originally used by the techno originators; however, more lately,
any analogue synthesizers (or DSP equivalents) are used so long as they contain enough frequencies to be swept with a filter so that they interact with the
rhythms. If you want to stay with the roots of techno, though, the TB303 is

Techno CHAPTER 14

FIGURE 14.5
Using portamento on a
techno bass

the bass to use but this timbre can be created in almost any subtractive synthesizer. A good starting point is to employ both a saw and a square oscillator,
set the amplifiers EG to zero attack and sustain with a medium release and a
fast decay. Use a low-pass filter with both the resonance and cut-off set midway
and then adjust the filters envelope to a short attack, decay and sustain with no
release. Finally, as ever, experiment with all these settings until you obtain the
sound you require.
For those who are a little more adventurous, try combining four sawtooth
waves, or a couple of sawtooths and a sine wave to add some bottom end if
required. If a sine wave is used, detune this by an octave below the other oscillators and then proceed to detune each saw from one another by ⫾3, ⫾5 and
⫾7. The amp envelope for all the waveforms is commonly set to a fast attack
with a medium-to-long decay and no sustain or release. A filter envelope is not
commonly used as this adds harmonic movement through the period of the
sound that may conflict with the already programmed/manipulated rhythms,
and the oft preferred option is to keep it quite static and employ filter movement manually to suit the constantly changing frequencies in the rhythms.
That said, if a pitch envelope is available in the synth, it may be prudent to
positively or negatively modulate the pitch of the oscillators to add some small
amounts of movement. Once this basic timbre is laid down, it’s prudent to
experiment with the attack, decay and release of the amp’s EG to help the bass
sit comfortably in with the kick’s drum loop. In fact, it’s essential to accomplish
this rhythmic and tonal interaction between the drum loop and the bass before
moving on. Techno relies on a very sparse collection of ‘instruments’ and the
interaction attained here will form a majority of the record.
As the harmonic movement and interaction with the bass and rhythms provide
the basis for most techno, it’s also prudent to experiment by applying effects to

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the bass timbre to make it richer sounding. While most effects should be avoided
since they tend to spread the sound across the image (which destroys the stereo
perspective), small amounts of controlled distortion can help to pull the bass out
of the mix or give it a much stronger presence. Similarly, a conservatively applied
delay effect can be used to create more complex sounding rhythms.
One final aspect of techno is the addition of sound effects and occasionally
vocals. While the sound effects are generated by whatever means necessary,
from sampling and contorting anything with effects and EQ, the vocals very
rarely consist of anything more than a short sample. The verse and chorus
structure is most definitely avoided and, in many cases, only very small phrases
are used which are often gleaned from the old ‘speak and spell’ machines of
the early 1980s. This particular machine isn’t a requirement (with its increased
use in techno, the second-hand prices of these units have increased considerably) and the same effect can be obtained from most vocoders so long as the
carrier consists of a saw wave and the modulator is robotically spoken.
When it comes to the arrangement of techno, it’s important to understand that it
does not follow the typical dance structure. Instead, it relies totally on the adaptation and interrelationship between all the elements. This consists of dropping beats
in and out of the mix, along with the bass, vocals and sound effects (if used) but
it mostly centres on the real-time application of filters, effects and EQ. The plan
is not to create a track that builds to a crescendo or climax but rather stay on one
constant rhythmical level that warps from one rhythmically interesting collective to
another. Indeed, its careful use of filters and effects creates the final arrangement,
not the introduction of new melodic elements. The overall goal is to create the
impression that all the sounds are interweaving with one another at different stages
in the music. This helps to prevent monotony but also averts the building sensation often introduced by adding new melodic elements into the mix.

The data CD contains a full mix of a typical Techno track with narration on how it was
constructed.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, the purpose of this chapter has been to give some insight into the
production of techno and, as ever, there is no one definitive way to produce the
genre. Indeed, the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is to
actively listen to the current market leaders and experiment widely with the mixing desk, effects and processors. With this in mind, what follows is a short list of
artists that, at the time of writing, are considered the most influential in this area:
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Derrick May
Juan Atkins

Techno CHAPTER 14

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Kevin Saunderson
Eddie Fowlkes
Richie Hawtin (Plastikman)
Carl Craig
Kenny Larkin
Stacey Pullen
Jeff Mills Mike Banks
James Pennington
Robert Hood
Blake Baxter
Alan Oldham

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Hip-Hop (Rap) CHAPTER 15

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CHAPTER 15

Hip-Hop (Rap)

’Rap is like the polio vaccine. At first no one believed in
it. Then, once they knew it worked, everyone wanted
it…’
Grandmaster Flash

In recent years hip-hop has become a global phenomenon, so much so that
what was once frowned upon for seemingly glorifying drugs, guns and general
delinquency has now emerged as a multi-billion pound industry. However, it
should be noted that despite the record industry’s habit of pigeon-holing absolutely everything that features a rapper as hip-hop, this isn’t the case.
Hip-hop is a culture, not a form of music, and although it does encompass rap
it also embraces dancing, language and fashion. Consequently, producing rap
music has very little to do with programming some MIDI patterns and rapping
over the top. To better understand why this is, it’s vital to know a little about
the history and culture behind it all.
Hip-hop, as a culture, can be defined as consisting of four distinct elements:
DJ’ing, breaking, graffiti and MC’ing (emceeing). The roots of the DJ’ing element can be traced back to 1950s Jamaica where the ‘DJs’ began to experiment
with groove elements of records, resulting in the creation of reggae, ska and
the rocksteady beat. In 1968, this became even more experimental when King
Tubby created the first ever ‘dub’ record by dropping out all the vocals from the
acetate discs he was to press (often called ‘dub’ plates).
At the same time many Jamaicans were immigrating to the United States, taking
these new ideas with them to the ghettos of New York. One particular immigrant, Kool Herc, began to DJ at parties throughout the ghettos and used to
chant rhymes over the top of the instrumental breaks of the records he played.
As many of these breaks were short, in 1974 he decided to play two copies of
the same record on two decks and then use a mixer to switch between them,
in effect creating a longer break beat to rhyme over. Almost simultaneously, in
another ghetto Afrika Bambaataa founded Zulu Nation, consisting of a group

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of DJs, break dancers, MCs and graffiti artists, and offered an alternative to the
current street-gang culture, allowing the youth culture to express themselves in
various ways.
Inspired by these new DJ’ing tactics and culture, DJ Grandmaster Flash adopted
the style and contorted it into a continuous stream of break beats. This allowed
MCs to rhyme over the top of the beats to warm up the crowds, permitting
the DJ to concentrate on developing new techniques such as ‘beat juggling’,
‘scratching’, ‘cutting’ and ‘breakdown’. Not being a DJ myself, I can’t comment on what some of these techniques involve or who originally developed
them but, arguably, it was Grandmaster Flash who introduced this new complex form of DJ’ing to the mass market with the release of The Adventures of
Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel in 1981.
These continual break beats also gave rise to a new dance style known as breaking (AKA B-Boying), which consisted of a combination of fancy, complex footwork, spins and balancing on hands, heads or shoulders. Many of these moves
were inspired by the relentlessly released Kung Fu movies in the 1970s but
the inspiration could be drawn from anywhere, including their rivals during
‘battles’. This is where ‘crews’ would compete against one another to see who
was the better breaker, and in many instances a breaker had to face off against
a crew to be accepted into the clan.
This form of dancing was categorized and renamed by the media as ‘break
dancing’, but not all forms of dancing at this time were breaking. Two other
styles had developed – ‘locking’ and ‘popping’ – these involved waving arms
and sharp robotic movements which were not classed as part of the hip-hop
scene.
Alongside this new music grew another part of hip-hop culture, graffiti. Many
credit the explosion of graffiti to TAKI 183 and the publicity he received in the
New York Times after ‘tagging’ numerous trains in the subway.
The term ‘tag’ is used since graffiti refers to any unwelcome defacing of property
with spray paint or markers the true hip-hop was much more artistic. A tag is
essentially the writer’s signature expressed in an artful and creative way, consisting
of three areas; the ‘tag’, the ‘throw up’ and the ‘piece’. The tag is classed as the
simplest form of graffiti and consists of a signature in just one colour, written using a marker. As time moved on, spray cans were introduced and the tag
moved up a step to the throw up, which is made up of two colours, resulting in
more complex styles. The final style, a piece, is the most complex form of graffiti,
which people like Lee Quinones have made a living from selling to art galleries. On the streets, however, to be referred to as a piece it must consist of at least
three colours and preferably be ‘end-to-end’ art. As most graffiti was sprayed onto
subway trains, this latter term should be self explanatory. This type of graffiti is
an incredibly complex form of art which, although viewed by many as destructive, takes a lot of planning, people and an artistic flair (although for obvious reasons I cannot condone the defacing of any property).

Hip-Hop (Rap) CHAPTER 15

The last element of hip-hop is MC’ing. Although the media considers rap to
be the same as MC’ing, rap is only one element of it. Indeed, MC’ing encapsulates everything from simply talking over the beats to rapping or using
your voice as an instrument (human beat box). As touched upon, originally
MC’ing was used to entertain the crowds by accompanying the break beats
rather than taking the focus away from them. The original form was known
as call-and-response whereby the MC would typically shout out ‘Everybody in
the house say yeah’ to which the audience would respond with a resounding
‘Yeah’.
Although it would be easy to say that rap developed from this basic form of
MC’ing, to many it actually existed long before Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa
or Grandmaster Flash began to rhyme over the breaks. Indeed, it’s believed to
have originated in Jamaica, where stories were told in rhymes otherwise known
as ‘toasts’.
In 1974 these were developed into the very first forms of rapping where the
youth would put together boastful rhymes to sit over the top of break beats in
an effort to upstage the previous rapper. The first commercial pressing of rap
music was by the Fatback Band in 1979 with the title King Tim III, but it took
the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rappers Delight released later that same year to bring rapping to the attention of larger record labels as a viable and acceptable (in other
words lucrative) form of music.
Over the following years, rap acts such as N.W.A, Ice T and Public Enemy
brought rap to the forefront of music and demanded a bigger audience through
their often hotly debated rhymes that were seen as glamorizing violence, prostitution and guns.

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
Although technology has moved on since the early pioneers began to produce
breaks from various DJ techniques, the fundamental creation of rap still relies
heavily on the sound quality generated using these techniques.
For many the turntable techniques have been replaced with more recent developments such as samplers, hardware workstations and wave editors, but the
‘feel’ of the early techniques is still of paramount importance to producing rap.
As a result the break beats are not programmed through MIDI but are sampled
from previous obscure records and then contorted and manipulated in sample
slicing programmes such as WaveSurgeon to create new beats. This sampling is
fundamental to keeping with the original roots of hip-hop by introducing the
vintage ‘vinyl’ feel to the music that is not possible any other way. Similarly,
many of the instrumental riffs and motifs are also sampled from early records.
It is, however, possible to programme these through MIDI provided that you
use the right instruments.
Nevertheless, the preferred option is to sample from original vinyl. In many
cases sampling will produce all the sounds used in the genre, including basses

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and any ‘lead’ timbres. Indeed the general consensus between most professional hip-hop musicians is that if you have a good record collection, a good
record deck and a sampling workstation (such as the AKAI MPC) you can create hip-hop.
Generally speaking, sample CDs are avoided because everyone has access
to them and no matter how CDs are contorted they can often still be recognized, so obscure vinyl is the preferred choice. Of course, for legal reasons I
can’t condone stealing riffs, loops or entire segments from other records, but
many hip-hop artists agree that so long as the samples chosen are ambiguous
or manipulated enough, there is no need to clear them.
Having said that, Dr Dre (Andre Young), who’s considered by many as rap’s
current godfather, is well known to the American courts for his countless copyright infringements – he’s been sued over eight times in the last 3 years. In the
most publicized case, he asked for permission to use a sample from George
Lucas’ THX sonic boom and when permission was refused, used it anyway.
Consequently, he was sued for $10 million. London-based Minder Music also
successfully sued him for $1.5 million after he sampled a bass line from one of
their releases for his 2001 track ‘Let’s Get High’.
More recently a French Jazz musician started legal proceedings to sue Dr Dre
and Eminem for $10 million because (he claims) they used his music on Slim
Shady’s ‘Kill You’. As a result, Dr Dre has now apparently hired a musicologist to
advise him on whether he can sample music riffs without infringing copyright.
The purpose of this is not to disrespect or accuse Dr Dre or any other rap artist
of serial stealing but to simply offer food for thought before you consider that
samples may not need to be cleared at all. While the best approach is to create a track by whatever means you feel necessary, if the track feels right, you
should always attempt to clear the samples afterwards. This is a much easier
approach than asking permission first, being refused and loosing the chance to
write what potentially could have been a hit.
Generally, hip-hop can be described as using a slow, laid-back beat that can
vary from 80 BPM through to 110 BPM. As discussed most of the break beats
used are sampled from other records to create the right vibe, while any further
melodic instrumentation takes a back seat to the rapper. Consequently these
instruments play very simple melodies so as not to distract too much attention
from the rap. As a consequence, the drum rhythm is usually laid down first,
followed by the rap vocals; finally any further melodic instruments are added
to ‘sit’ around the rap.
To accomplish this, you will need to have a good record (sample) collection, most of which have preferably only been small releases pressed in small
amounts. Not only can these be picked up for relatively small outlay at any
charity/junk shop, but you’re more likely to find records that no one has ever
considered using before. No matter what the genre of music (unless it’s choir
or similar) they will all feature a break that can be sampled and manipulated

Hip-Hop (Rap) CHAPTER 15

into a hip-hop beat; even unlikely records such as Don Reeve’s Non-Stop Double
Hammond Goes Around the World features some good hip-hop basses if you listen closely enough. The trick is to use your instincts and develop an ear for the
right sounds. This can only be accomplished from being actively involved in
the hip-hop scene and gaining experience at listening out for the right sounds.

THE RHYTHMS
Primarily, there are two processes used to produce hip-hop rhythms. The first is
to use sampled hits from various records and then reconstruct a rhythm live by
assigning each pad of a workstation to a specific sample or, more commonly,
simply sample a loop or number of loops from records and edit them using
software such as WaveSurgeon. For the purpose of this chapter, we’ll look at
both methods, starting with sampling single hits.
Sampling individual hits is only recommended if you have access to a hardware drum sampler with pads, as creating the hip-hop vibe requires a ‘live’ feel.
Indeed, very few professional rappers will rely on a software sequencer to produce hip-hop but instead use a hardware sampler and sequencers since the timing must be incredibly accurate. Although most of these samplers will default at
16-bit 44.1 kHz, for hip-hop it’s recommended to sample the hits at 22 kHz and
12-bit. This reduces the range of the samples, giving them a grittier feel which
is often essential. Once sampled, each of the hits is assigned its own pad in the
sampler, allowing you to tap out a live rhythm, piece by piece.
Hip-hop rhythms are generally kept quite simple and often consist of nothing
more than a kick drum, snare, and closed and open hi-hats along with an occasional cymbal crash employed every 4 or so bars to mark the end of a musical
segment. The time signature can also play a fundamental role; hip-hop may use
either 4/4 or 3/4 depending on the amount of swing you need the drums to
exhibit. What is important, however, is that very few, or in some cases none of
the hits are quantized to the grid. The idea is to create the feel of a real drummer
and very few drummers play exactly to the beat. Additionally, the pattern very
rarely follows the typical kick/snare/kick/snare configuration used in most genres
of dance and often relies more on rhythmic interplay between a few kicks followed by a snare which is followed by another few kicks and a snare. On top of
this, a closed hi-hat pattern often follows a standard 16th pattern ticking away
in the background to keep some rhythmic drive and syncopation to the loop.
In the following example, the closed hi-hats are providing some offbeat syncopation while both the kick and the snare are occurring ahead of time to
increase the feel of a laid-back groove (Figure 15.1).
In the next example, more emphasis has been placed on rhythmic interaction
between the snares and the drum kick. The closed hi-hat pattern has also been
reduced and does not occur on the same beat as the open hi-hat to prevent any
frequency clashes between the two. More importantly, though, note how very
few of the elements actually occur on the beat (Figure 15.2).

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FIGURE 15.1
A typical laid-back
hip-hop rhythm

FIGURE 15.2
A more complex
rhythm

The real key to producing a hip-hop rhythm in this manner is to experiment
with the interplay between the kicks and snares and ensure that they are offset from the beat to introduce the laid-back nature of the music. After this has
been accomplished, the hi-hats are added to introduce some syncopation to
the final groove. Also, as the above examples reveal, hip-hop tends to be based
around the constant repetition of 2 bars of music, allowing for a binary phrase
to be applied in the bass or chorded lead if used/required. Following this it’s
sensible to create a drum rhythm that continues over 2 bars before repeating
again at the end.
Typically, in most music of this genre there are no variations in the rhythm, as
this tends to distract from the most important element of the track, but velocity

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plays a large role in the creation of the rhythm to keep the realism. The most
usual method to implement is the strong–weak–medium–weak syncopation on
the kick drums. The snares, too, are often subjected to different velocities, with
the first and final snares using the highest values and those in between using a
mixture of different values.
As touched upon, the common approach to producing this ‘live’ effect is to
play the sampler workstation pads live and record the subsequent MIDI data
for editing later. This is one of the reasons why many hip-hop artists will use
the AKAI MPC sampler workstations – the pads can respond to 16 different
velocity values depending on how hard they are hit. There is no need to create the entire loop in one run. Typically the drum’s kick is recorded first, then
played back from the unit while the snare rhythms are tapped in over the top.
This is then followed with the open hi-hat patterns, followed by the closed
patterns and any additional auxiliary percussion. This approach is preferred
to ‘stamping’ in notes in a MIDI sequencer, since the timing becomes far too
accurate and the MIDI delay between sequencer and sound source can result in
the groove being lost.
Of course, even with the rhythm programmed in the sampler, it’s highly probable that they will need some slight quantizing so that any further elements will
lock to it, but any strict quantizing should be avoided altogether. The principle
is to create a rhythm that has a loose feel but at the same time not so loose
that the instruments do not lock to its rhythm. Once this has the right flow,
the MPC’s various synthesis parameters are used to manipulate each drum
timbre to produce a rhythm that flows along. This can involve anything from
pitch-shifting individual snares to create more complex rhythms to tweaking
the decay parameters to either lengthen or reduce them to create sharper, more
distinct patterns or create slow-flowing patterns. Ultimately, experimentation is
the true nature here and close listening to the most popular current hip-hop
tracks will let you know whether you’re on the right track.
The second process to produce a hip-hop rhythm is to sample entire breaks from
records and then manipulate these so that they no longer sound like the original
and are more suited towards rap. This is often the preferred approach by many
artists as the principle is much closer to the music produced by its original forefathers. This must be applied cautiously, however, since many record companies
do not look lightly on sampling their artists’ material. Regardless, this doesn’t
seem to have discouraged many hip-hop artists; most will sample a loop and
then manipulate it with various synthesis parameters to make it totally unrecognizable. This is accomplished through sampling the loop and importing it into
an audio sequencer such as Ableton Live, Logic or Cubase.
Many programmers do not settle for simply moving parts around. In most
cases they will adapt the sounds further by using the mixing desk as a sound
design tool before sampling the results. Typical application of this is to EQ the
snares heavily to produce hi-hats or bright kicks. Similarly, transient designers such as SPL’s Transient Designer, the software plug-in included in the Waves

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FIGURE 15.3
Cutting up and
rearranging a rhythm

Transform bundle, can be used to edit the attack and sustain of audio envelopes. For instance by setting the attack parameters on these quite long you can
remove the initial attack of the hit to produce a different timbre, while shortening the sustain parameter can make snares appear much tighter, snappier and
controlled (Figure 15.3).
As an alternative to simply using and splicing one loop, it is often worth sampling three or four loops. Then they can each be lined up in an audio sequencer
and time-stretched so that each is playing at the correct tempo. Taking this latter approach, all the loops can be played simultaneously and elements from
each loop can be cut up and removed to produce a rhythm composed of constituent parts from each loop (Figure 15.4).
This can help you create complex polyrhythms, but it’s important to note that
for this to work each drum loop should be quite simple, since the more complex each is the more the combined rhythm will sound muddy and indistinct.
This can make it particularly difficult to create a good rhythm through slicing
and removing samples. Also, it isn’t absolutely necessary to ensure that all the
sampled loops occur at the same time. In many instances by moving one of
the loops forwards by a few ticks you can create a more laid-back feel, since the
snares will occur off the quantize values. Indeed, this technique is applied by
many hip-hop artists during sampling. Rather than sampling the beginning of

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FIGURE 15.4
Lining up a series of
loops and removing
elements to create a
basic rhythm

the drum track (i.e. from the first kick) they often sample the rhythm halfway
through and then loop this to create the complete drum loop.
With this technique, the kicks are obviously positioned in a different place
than in the original record, meaning that the sample may start on a snare or
even a hi-hat. To overcome this, it’s common practice to remove the original
kicks using sequencing software and then reprogramme a new kick loop to sit
over the original sample. Typically, this new kick is derived from the Roland
TR808 drum synthesizer, which is sampled at 12-bit 22 kHz to produce a gritty
timbre. If you don’t have access to this synth, then any synthesizer can produce
the requisite sounds using a 60 Hz sine wave positively modulated with a pitch
envelope set to a fast attack and short decay. Although you can synthesize an
additional transient to sit over this by using a square wave, generally, the hiphop kick remains quite ‘boomy’ without a prominent attack so, this isn’t particularly necessary but it is worth experimenting with.
Once the basic tone is present, lengthening the pitch decay will produce a timbre
with a heavier boom, but this can only be lengthened so far before it begins
to produce a sound that whoops. If this is the case, then changing the pitch
decays envelope from linear to exponential (convex) will help to make it boom
more. While these methods will produce a deep 808 kick, it may be worth
using a self-oscillating filter and a noise gate in its place. This particular technique has already been discussed in sound design, but to recap quickly begin

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by increasing the resonance until it breaks into self-oscillation and produces a
pure sine wave. After this, programme the kicks pattern to suit the current loop
and feed the resulting audio into a noise gate with the threshold set so that
only the peaks of the wave are breaching it. Finally, set the attack to zero, use
the release to control the ‘kicks’ delay and hold the time parameter to produce
a heavier sound.
Roughly speaking, hip-hop drums are not compressed nor are any effects
applied, as the purpose behind the genre is to keep the sound raw. Besides,
if the drums have been sampled from a record they will have already been
compressed and effects applied at the original recording, mixing and mastering stages. Naturally, this is only a generalization and if the loop appears quite
weak then compression may help to pull it up a little. Typically the compressors used for this are as transparent as possible so solid-state is often used, such
as the Alesis 3630 or the Waves C1.
As a starting point, try a ratio of 8:1 with a fast attack, short release and a
threshold set so that the kick registers on the reduction meter by 2 dB. To avoid
the volume anomaly, set the make-up gain so that the loop is at the same volume as it was when the compressor is bypassed and then start experimenting
with the release settings. When you shorten the release the kicks will begin to
pump the rest of the drum timbres more heavily, but you need to exercise caution as to how much this pumps. Keep in mind that the hi-hats and snares are
occurring in between the kicks, so that the snares and hi-hats will be pumped
against the kick, which will take way from the ‘raw’ flavour of the timbres used!
If after compression, the beats seem to exhibit a ‘digital’ nature then it may be
worth compressing them with a valve compressor such as the UREI 1176 LN or
alternatively the PSP Vintage Warmer can be used after the solid-state compression to give the sound warmth.
Above all, these are only suggestions – it’s up to your own creativity to produce
new variations of old loops through experimentation. One thing that is certain
is that although explaining the principles of creating hip-hop loops is simple,
accomplishing it proficiently is an art form. You have to listen to loops with
some awareness and be willing to sacrifice some elements to make the loop
work properly. Complex loops are not part of hip-hop, but it does take plenty
of time and effort to produce a loop that works properly. You have to have a
thorough understanding of the genre and how the loops work in the context of
other instruments; this can only be accomplished by digesting both the culture
and the music.

RAP VOCALS
With the drums laid down and presenting a groove, it’s usual to record the rapper next, since any other instrumentation will sit around their rhymes. As these
form the centrepiece of the record it’s of paramount importance that you have
a good rapper (anyone can rap but only a select few can actually rap well!).
Equally, it is also essential that the rapper have something to say that can be

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associated with the genre as a whole: simply rapping about how your car broke
down last week will rarely work well (unless you happen to be Eminem). This
is another reason why it’s vital that the rapper is actively involved in the whole
culture.
Customarily, the lyrics are drawn from lyricists rhyming about their skill, or
the skill of the crew they’re associated with, or they are simply ‘dissing’ (slang
for disrespecting) their rivals. This is a form of battle similar to breaking and is
essentially a way of competing with other rappers on the same circuit for prominence and respect. In fact, this form of competition is deeply embedded in the
history of rap and is still evident today, playing a fundamental role in hip-hop.
Alternatively, the message conveyed may have a more personal political stance,
rhyming about the current state of the ghetto, the nation, guns or violence and
drug usage. These are usually not to invoke shock value but rather a true story
from the rapper’s own experience and is the one of the key reasons why the
vocalist must be actively involved in the hip-hop scene. If not, it’s very doubtful that the words will have any real meaning for hip-hop aficionados and you
could find yourself laughed off the circuit (Ice T?).
Whatever the subject, rapping has become an incredibly complex lyrical delivery that bases itself around sophisticated rhythms that syncopate with the
drums. Although there are many different styles, ranging from almost being on
the verge of singing to more poetic ‘talking’, the delivery and the tone are everything. Any good rapper will be able to produce complex rhythms and wordplay
that complement the instrumentation while emphasizing the most important
words.
Another important aspect is quick thinking and the right delivery. Most professional rappers today are able to come up with rhymes on the spot, a talent
that they learned in the earlier years when they may be challenged on the street
and have to come up with a rhyme quickly. Of course, this latter talent isn’t an
absolute necessity, and while rappers such as Run DMC can come up with a
rhyme off the top of their heads in an instant, they certainly don’t walk on
stage and make it up on the spot. Indeed, these and other hip-hop artists often
take weeks to come up with an entire song’s worth of rapping since the sound
and wordplay must have the right style for the music.
Usually, the rap is recorded before the instrumentation is completely laid down
so that any additional instruments can also be laid down to emphasize the rap
itself. Of course, this is a purely conventional approach and convention doesn’t
always play a part in music, so it’s up to your own artistic interpretation.
The microphone typically used to record the vocals is the Shure SM58, as it
produces the nasal tone typical of the genre. It should be hand-held to allow
the rapper to move freely as this helps to keep the sound authentic – no rapper stands still while rhyming to a beat – and should be held approximately
10–20 cm (4–8⬘⬘) away from the mouth, depending on the vocalist. You need
to listen carefully to the sound produced and either increase or decrease this

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distance to capture the right sound. The vocal tone should be full and present –
if it seems deep and boomy ask the rapper to move the microphone further
away from the mouth while if it’s too bright ask him or her to hold it closer.
Compression is often required while recording the vocals to prevent any
clipping but this should be applied lightly. If heavy compression is used the
dynamics will be too heavily restricted, resulting in a rap that lacks any emotional stature. Generally speaking, a valve compressor, such as the UREI LA 3
or LN1176, are the preferred option, but the Joe Meek SC 2.2 can also be used
on vocals to add some warmth. Alternatively, a solid-state compressor followed
by the PSP Vintage Warmer can often add the requisite warmth after recording.
Whichever compressor you use, a good starting point is to set a threshold of
⫺12 dB with a 3:1 ratio and a fast attack and moderately fast release. Then,
once the vocalist has started to practice, reduce the threshold so that the reduction meters are only lit on the strongest part of the performance. Although the
resulting rap is best recorded directly into an audio editor or sampler, some artists will record the vocals to tape cassette before transferring this to the digital
editor. This technique helps to capture a ‘rough’ yet warmer tone that is typical
of many rap records.
Once recorded, the vocals are very rarely treated to any processing or effects as
the genre tends to move towards a raw sound rather than the ‘professional’ polished sound of most popular music. This means that, unlike with most vocals,
after recording compression is not applied unless it’s absolutely necessary and
effects such as reverb are applied very lightly, if at all. Additional compression
may be needed if the rapper has been slightly off axis from the mic while performing; in this instance very light settings are used to keep the vocals at a similar volume, which allows them to pull through the mix. Unfortunately, there
are no generic settings for this – the setting depends entirely on the vocals –
but as a very rough starting point, use a threshold setting so that you have ⫺5 dB
on the reduction meter, along with a ratio of 4:1 and a fast attack and moderately fast release (approx. 200 ms). Unless you’re after the very commercial
form of rap, the ratio should not be set any higher than this, and even then
you should avoid going over 6:1. So the vocals do not loose all of their emotion and ‘raw’ flavour. If they sound a little thin, then small amounts of reverb
may help, but similar to compression this should be kept to a minimum to
retain the feel of the music. In fact, reverb should be applied so lightly that its
application is only noticeable when it’s removed.
Many hip-hop tracks will also make use of double tracking the vocals to accentuate particular words or phrases. As these are always recorded in mono and
sit dead centre of the mix, by double tracking the important phrases you can
pan the original vocal and the double-tracked phrase left and right to fill the
stereo image and bring attention to particular parts. Many rap tracks will offset one side of the vocals by a few ticks so that they occur moments later than
the original, helping to thicken out the vocals and bring more attention to the
phrase. These usually lie at the end of a number of bars (similar to how much

Hip-Hop (Rap) CHAPTER 15

of dance uses a cymbal crash) but it’s up to your own artistic interpretation as
to where these accentuated phrases or words should sit. The best advice that
can be offered is to listen to the rapper and double track him (or her) wherever
they place their own accents with the music.

THE BASS RHYTHM
Although most old skool hip-hop tracks consisted of nothing more than
a break beat and a rapper, today’s producers often drop in bass lines to add
some bottom-end weight and help the track groove along. In the majority of
cases these are real bass guitars that have been sourced from another record
and are not normally cut up or edited in any way. In fact, quite a few of today’s
tracks have used bass lines (and in some cases the entire track they originally
belonged too) that are instantly recognizable. Generally, it is more prudent to
write your own, though, since there’s no chance of being caught for copyright
infringement – and it’s much easier to write the bass around a rapper than have
a rapper try to rhyme around the bass.
On the whole, most hip-hop basses are kept relatively simple as they merely
act as the underpinning of the track and do not form a fundamentally major
melodic element in themselves. This is to prevent the movements and groove
of the bass from drawing attention away from the rapper’s rhymes. As a result, a
bass line will often consist of nothing more than a few 1/8th or 1/4th notes per
bar that will tend to stay at one pitch or move very subtly in pitch by no more
than 3 or 5 semitones. As the rhyme at this stage is already down, the key of the
bass will most probably already be determined, and it’s simply a case of repeating the first bar of the rhyme and moving down the keyboard making notes of
the pitches that harmonize with the rapper. Once you have these, it’s just a case
of producing a groove that flows alongside and complements the rapper.
Notably, the bass groove very rarely occurs on the beat of each bar; it’s quite
usual for it to begin just a few ticks before or after the bar to offset it from the
rest of the record. This is done to emulate the nuances of a real bassist since
they very rarely play dead on the beat. What’s more, offsetting the bass grove
by eight or ten ticks, will make the drums appear to pull or push the record forward, helping to create a more flowing groove. This ‘vibe’ in between the bass
and drums is an essential part of rap, but whether you should set it before or
after the beat is entirely open to artistic license. After programming it’s worth
experimenting by moving it before and then after the beat to see which produces the best results (Figure 15.5).
For the bass timbre, real bass guitars are customarily preferred over synthetic
instruments not only to keep with the original feel of the music but also
because most real basses are recorded by miking up the bass cab, they tend
to be particularly noisy. Although some engineers will struggle to get these
sounding clean, within hip-hop this noise plays a fundamental role. While it
may sound awful soloed, in the context of a mix the bass often helps to pull
through and add the grit required. Recording live instruments is beyond the

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FIGURE 15.5
A typical bass rhythm

scope of this book as it requires a whole new set of production ethics that
would require another book to explain. So for those who do not want to sample from another record but want the ‘real’ bass sound in the music, here we’ll
look at how to programme a ‘realistic’ one through MIDI.
The key to programming any real instrument is to take note of how they’re
played and then emulate this action with MIDI and a series of CC commands.
In this case, most bass guitars use the first four strings of a normal guitar
E–A–D–G, but these are tuned an octave lower, resulting in the E being close to
three octaves below middle C. Also they are monophonic, not polyphonic, so
the only time notes will actually overlap is when the resonance of the previous
string is still dying away as the next note is plucked. This effect can be emulated
by leaving the preceding note playing for a few ticks while the next note in the
sequence has started.
The strings can also either be plucked or struck, and the two techniques produce different results. If the string is plucked, the sound is much brighter and
has a longer resonance than if it were simply struck. To copy this, the velocity
will need to be mapped to the filter cutoff of the bass module so that higher
values open the filter more. Not all notes will be struck at the same velocity,
though, and if the bassist is playing a fast rhythm, the consecutive notes will
commonly have less velocity since he has to move his hand and pluck the next
string quickly. Naturally, this is only a guideline, and you should edit each
velocity value until it produces a realistic feel.
Depending on the ‘bassist’, they may also use a technique known as ‘hammer
on’ whereby they play a string and then hit a different pitch on the fret. This
results in the pitch changing without actually being accompanied with another
pluck of the string. To emulate this, you’ll need to make use of pitch bend. First
set to a maximum bend limit of 2 semitones, since guitars don’t ‘bend’ any
further than this.

Hip-Hop (Rap) CHAPTER 15

Begin by programming 2 notes, for instance an E0 followed by an A0, and
leave the E0 playing underneath the successive A0 for around a hundred ticks.
At the very beginning of the bass track, drop in a pitch bend message to ensure
that it’s set midway (i.e. no pitch bend), and just before where the second note
occurs drop in another pitch bend message to bend the tone up to A0. If this
is programmed correctly, on play back you’ll notice that as the E0 ends, the
pitch will bend upwards to A0 simulating the effect. Although this could be
left as is, it’s sensible to drop in a CC11 message (expression) directly after the
pitch bend, as this will reduce the overall volume of the second note so that it
doesn’t sound like it has been plucked.
In addition to this, it’s also worthwhile employing some fret noise and finger
slides. Most good tone modules will include fret noise that can be dropped in
between the notes to emulate the bassist’s fingers sliding along the fret board.
The pitch bending is best emulated by first programming the notes to overlap
slightly and then recording movements of the pitch bend wheel live and editing them in the sequencer.
For those who break out in a sweat at the mere mention of in-depth MIDI editing, it isn’t always necessary to use a real bass. Some producers do use synthetic instruments, provided that they’re deep enough and have a good ‘body’.
Although the type of timbre obviously differs from producer to producer, the
general tone can be made in any synth by using both a triangle and a pulse
wave with the latter detuned from the triangle by ⫺3 cents.
Set the amplifier and filters envelope to a fast attack, medium decay, with a
short sustain and no release and use a 2-pole low-pass filter, with a low resonance setting. Finally, modulate the pulse width of the pulse with a sine, triangle or sawtooth LFO set to a slow rate and medium depth. This will produce
a basic timbre typical of the genre, but it’s worth experimenting with the filters
decay, the LFOs rate and depth, and the shape of the decay envelopes on both
the amp and the filter to mould the timbre to suit your music.
This will not suit all music, though, and some artists ignore synths and construct their own basses from culminating samples together or pitching a sample
down the keyrange because just about anything sounds great when it’s pitched
down a couple of octaves into the bass register. The key is to experiment in
creating a low tone that has the energy to add some bottom-end weight to the
music but at the same time does not demand too much attention.
On the subject of experimentation, distortion and compression are often used
on hip-hop basses. While most effects should be avoided since they tend to
spread the sound across the image (which destroys the stereo perspective),
small amounts of controlled distortion can help to pull the bass out of the mix
and often give it the much-needed rawness. Similarly, compression after the distortion can be used to even out the volume, keep the effect under control and
bring the overall levels up. As a general guideline, start by setting the ratio to
4:1, along with an attack of 5 ms and a medium release of 150 ms or so. Set the

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threshold control to 0 dB and then slowly decrease it until the bass registers on
the gain reduction meter by a couple of decibels. Finally, set the make-up gain
so that the loop is at the same volume as when the compressor is bypassed and
then start experimenting with the attack and release settings until it produces
the level and ‘sound’ you require. Unlike most other genres of dance music, rap
is one of the few that does not use a compressor to ‘pump’ the low frequencies,
so any compression applied should be applied lightly and you should generally
try to avoid pumping the low end.

CHORDS AND MOTIFS
Similar to the bass, old skool hip-hop did not employ any chords or leads, but
most tracks today will employ some sort of lead sound to sit behind the rapper.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, these are usually sampled from other records too,
but they can also be programmed in MIDI and then sampled and subsequently
reduced in bit and sample rate to add the necessary ‘grunge’.
As always there are no definitive rules as to what instruments should be
used as a lead, or indeed, how they should be programmed. But, as always,
there are some guidelines that will at least help keep you on the right path.
Fundamentally, hip-hop tends to stay with real instruments rather than go for
synthetic, and a proportionate amount of tracks will use Rhodes pianos, old
‘electric’ pianos, bells, orchestral strings or orchestral ‘pizzicatos’. As with the
bass, these are kept quite simple so as not to take the focus away from the rapper.
What’s more, they’re not quantized and are commonly recorded live to help
keep the instrumentation sounding real rather than as if were generated by a
machine. As a very rough generalization, these instruments – but particularly
the piano – tend to follow the da capo sequence with the first bar asking the
question and the second bar providing the answer. Typically, this ‘answer’ plays
the same melody as the question but rises in pitch by a few semitones (try
semitone shifts of 3, 5 or 7) (Figure 15.6).
If more than one ‘lead’ instrument is used in the track, only one of these follows the da capo sequence, and any other instruments tend to remain the same
throughout the bars (Figure 15.7).
Of particular note, even if the elements of the record are not sampled, they
should nevertheless sound as though they are. This means gratuitous use of
bit reduction, sample reduction along with sampling the vinyl crackle and hiss
from a record. This is the preferred approach to using a vinyl plug-in as these
rely on generating random noise or cycling a sample every few bars of music
which often doesn’t sound particularly realistic. However, by sampling vinyl
hiss from a record, you can place it into a wave editor and begin cutting up,
looping and creating a good 6 bars of hiss to sit in the background. If an audio
sequencer is being used, this crackle can be laid on an audio track, and each 6bar segment can be overlapped at different points throughout the arrangement
to create more realistic crackle.

Hip-Hop (Rap) CHAPTER 15

FIGURE 15.6
The piano rhythm using
the da capo

FIGURE 15.7
The pizz rhythm

ARRANGEMENTS
The arrangement of hip-hop differs from most other genres in this book in that
it doesn’t follow the dance builds or the verse and chorus structure. Instead,
the music generally repeats the same bars over and over throughout the track
and relies on the rappers to provide the movement of interest. In fact, if you
were to strip the rappers away from most rap tracks, the backing would quickly
become tedious to listen to since there are so few changes implemented. On
occasion, some tracks will ‘drop’ the beat close to the end of a bar while the
rapper rhymes. This not only accentuates the rapper but also creates a rush of
emotion as the track returns on the next bar. As ever, if you’re unsure about
how to produce a typical rap arrangement, listen to other similar tracks and

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physically count the bars, making note of where new instruments are introduced and then implement this same structure in your own music. This isn’t
stealing, it’s research and every musician on the planet does it. In fact you’ll
find that many rap tracks follow the very same arrangement principles (and
remember that arrangements cannot be copyrighted!).

The data CD contains a full mix of a typical Rap track with narration on how it was
constructed.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, the purpose of this chapter is to give some insight into the production of hip-hop, and there is no one definitive way to produce the genre.
Indeed, the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is to
actively listen to the current market leaders and be creative with processing,
effects and synthesis. Chorus, delay, reverb, distortion, compression and noise
gates are the most common processor effects used within rap music, so experiment by placing these in different orders to create the ‘sound’ you want. While
the arrangement and general premise of each track is similar, it’s this production that differentiates it between all the others. With this in mind, what
follows is a short list of some of the artists that, at the time of writing, are considered the most influential in this area:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Africa Bambaataa (often seen as the original godfather of hip-hop)
Eminem
Dr Dre
Public Enemy
Run DMC
El-P
LL Cool J
Cyprus Hill
Ice T

Trip-Hop CHAPTER 16

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CHAPTER 16

Trip-Hop

’Trip-hop is British hip-hop that lacks the lyrical skills
of the U.S. counterparts, but British kids have got the
musical side…’
James Lavelle (Mo’ Wax label)

Trip-hop is, in the context of dance music, a relatively new genre that evolved
out of Bristol in the early 1990s. During this time, American rap was the predominant musical style that was taking Europe by storm. Since this genre of
music requires a heavy involvement in the entire hip-hop scene (hip-hop is
actually a culture of which rap is only a part) British DJs and musicians contorted it further. The principle elements behind the construction of American
hip-hop were fully embraced, with the emphasis remaining on slow, laid-back
heavy beats mixed with the gratuitous sampling of old records, but the vocals
were left out. This resulted in a genre that was termed British hip-hop by the
media, but at this stage it lacked any real diversity, consisting mostly of slow
‘tripped out’ beats and bass lines mixed in with samples of old jazz records.
In 1991, the release of Bristol-based Massive Attack’s Blue Lines album marked
the first serious release of British hip-hop and also revealed its close connections with American hip-hop (the single One Love displaying a remarkably
similar feel to its relative). It wasn’t until 1994, however, that British hiphop was coined as ‘trip-hop’ by UK’s Mixmag magazine with the release of
Massive Attack’s second album entitled Protection alongside the appearance
of Portishead and Tricky. Portishead defined a new style of trip-hop music
labelled ‘lo-fi’ through a mixture of Beth Gibbon’s brooding vocals mixed
among samples of 1960s and 1970s jazz music which were, in the most, left
with a predominantly ‘raw’ feel.
In fact this raw approach to music was deliberately encompassed by Portishead
as they made an effort to record all their instruments into old analogue tape
recorders rather than straight to digital media. Tricky’s style was somewhat different again, branded by low-pitched singing and an overall cleaner sound but like

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Portishead and Massive Attack the style often exhibited a slow, almost depressing feel. Although these three acts did not necessarily aim to create music that
was particularly dark, it just so happened that the brooding attitude of the music
often oozed a dismal feeling. Part of this may have been attributed to the fact
that they had all worked in the same circle. Massive Attack and Tricky originally
produced music together under the moniker ‘ The Wild Bunch,’ and Portishead’s
founder Geoff Burrow aided Massive Attack in producing Blue Lines.
On the back of this relatively new genre, more trip-hop artists began to emerge,
each putting their own distinctive twist on the music. Artists such as Red
Snapper, Howie B, Baby Fox, Lamb, Sneaker Pimps and the Brand New Heavies
mutated the genre by mixing it with break beat, ambience, house and acid jazz.
The vocals became more upbeat and lively to encapsulate a wider audience,
resulting in trip-hop being associated with more energetic music rather than
the dark and gloomy vibe. Indeed, because trip-hop is often associated with a
dark brooding atmosphere, many artists do not appreciate being placed under
the trip-hop tag and will describe their music as ‘Illbient’, ‘Ambient hip-hop’,
‘British hip-hop’ or ‘Jazz hop’.

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
Actually defining trip-hop for musical analysis is difficult because, as mentioned, most artists will flatly deny that they produce this particular style of
music. In fact, only Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky don’t seem to mind
being labelled as producing the genre. Nevertheless, it can be roughly summarized that trip-hop is commonly produced using an eclectic mix of acoustic and
electronic instruments, combining ideas from R ‘n’ B, hip-hop, dub, ambient,
industrial and jazz. This means that it often features instruments such as acoustic pianos, Rhodes pianos, upright basses, clavinets, horns and flutes, along
with electric and acoustic guitars. Principally, these are combined to produce
an often nostalgic or dark ambience which is helped along further with haunting vocals and samples taken from vintage radio and films.
On the subject of samples, in keeping with its original roots of hip-hop many
of the instrumental riffs, melodies and drums are commonly sampled for old
records. It’s this approach that is often accredited to the creation of ‘lo-fi’ since
these samples are not respectively ‘cleaned up’ and are often left dirty and gritty
even to the point that the vinyl crackle is left evident in the background of the
music. This approach has meant that even if the sounds are recorded from a
live instrumentalist (which is progressively becoming more common), it’s
quite usual to dirty them up a little (as mentioned, Portishead in particular are
renowned for recording all their instruments to old analogue tapes before submitting them to digital media for editing and mixing). This helps to retain the
‘old’ feel that is often crucial to the production of the genre.
When it comes to the equipment used by the artists, many of them are particularly nonchalant about what’s used, but Portishead are notoriously cagey about
both their production techniques and equipment. Nevertheless, producing

Trip-Hop CHAPTER 16

this style of music does require you to use the ‘right’ type of instrumentation
and effects to produce the atypical feel of the genre. The first of these is access
to a large collection of old vinyl records, particularly jazz, a decent record
player and a sampler. Due to legal reasons it’s immoral for me to suggest that
you should rely on sampling from records to produce music but it is important to note that much of this genre relies so much on sampling that many
record companies now ask which records have been sampled when the music
is submitted.
Of course, these samples are very rarely used ‘as is’ and it’s common to manipulate them in wave editors, or more specifically, sample slicing programmes such
as Wavesurgeon. This is predominantly the case with the drum rhythms as these,
more than any other aspect, are commonly sampled to help attain the feel of the
genre. Generally, it’s the break beat of the record that is sampled (i.e. the middle eight of the original record where the drummer goes off on one for a couple
of bars) which is then cut up, rearranged. If required, the tempo is reduced or
increased to between 100 and 120 BPM to form the basis of the requisite relaxed
feel. That said, it should be noted that while sampling and rearranging breaks is
the most common form of creating a loop, it is not the only method employed.
The rhythms can also be programmed in drum machines or sequencers. It all
depends on the artists working on the project and their methodology, so we’ll
examine the principles behind generating new grooves with both applications.
The most popular process, as touched upon, is to sample breakbeats from old
jazz records which can then be sliced, diced and rearranged sample slicing programmes, such as Wavesurgeon or they can be sliced and have each individual sample mapped to a key in the sampler to be played live from a keyboard.
Although sampling from vinyl will often produce quite dirty timbres, it’s often the
case that they’re not filthy enough, so when first sampling the breakbeats it’s advisable to sample at a much lower rate than CD quality (most trip-hop musicians use
the E-Mu SP1200 or the Casio FZ due to the poor sampling quality). The typical
resolution is 12-bit 22 kHz, but reducing the bit rate further to 8 bit may provide
even better results, depending on the source. Alternatively, when using sample CDs
in Wav or AIFF format you can often lower the rate in most wave editors.
While sampling at a lower quality will grit up the beats to a good degree, it’s
worth manipulating the sounds further using EQ, filters, transient designers
and distortion to acquire the sounds you need. The use of these effects is purely
down to experimentation, but it’s often worth inserting a compressor directly
after them so you can go as mad as you like without the fear of overloading the
mixers inputs/outputs.
Of course, sampling beats from old records brings up numerous copyright
issues, so it’s sometimes worthwhile programming your own drum timbres
and contorting them with effects into sounds that are more suited to the genre.
These timbres can be sourced from almost anywhere, including the jazz kit from
GM modules or more commonly a mix of the Roland TR808, TR909 and the
E-Mu Drumulator. As always, however, you can program all these timbres in any

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capable synthesizer and then experiment with the various parameters on offer
before applying effects to construct the atypical ‘trip-hop’ kit.
The trip-hop kick drum can range from being quite low and boomy to quite
bright and snappy: it depends on how you want the loop to appear. As a good
starting point, the kick can be produced with a 100 Hz sine wave that’s modulated with a positive pitch envelope set to an immediate attack and a medium
decay. If you need it to be a little tighter, then reduce the decay and place a small
transient click at the beginning of the waveform. A good way to produce this
click is to sample any of the GM drum kicks and, using a wave editor, remove
the tail end of the sample before dropping it over the top of the programmed
kick. Alternatively, it can be produced using a square wave with an immediate
attack and very short release for the amp envelope. Once programmed, this can
be laid over the top of the sine wave and can be tuned up or down to produce
the basic timbre. It’s important to note here that you’re only after a fairly basic
kick drum timbre at this point, since after the rhythm has been programmed it
will be affected further to produce the finished article.
Moving onto the snares, these tend to be quite bright and snappy, which
is often accomplished by filtering and augmenting the timbre with small
amounts of controlled distortion, but the basic sound can be produced with
nothing more than a triangle wave mixed with a white noise waveform. An
amp envelope set to an immediate attack with no sustain or release and a very
short decay is used to shape the triangle, while a second amp envelope is used
to shape the noise waveform. This uses the same attack, sustain and release
parameters but, by setting the decay a little longer than the triangle, the noise
will ring out beyond the triangle and gives you independent control over the
triangle and noise to create the timbre you’re after. As the final icing on the
cake, a band-pass filter can be used to remove the low-end frequencies along
with some of the high-end noise to produce a typical trip-hop snare. On the
other hand, on occasion once the snares have been created, the tail is removed
so that only the initial transient is left, producing a click rather than a thwack.
Massive Attack and Portishead have both used this technique.
This same sample cutting technique is also commonly employed on the high hats
to produce a timbre that ticks rather than hisses. In fact, some trip-hop tracks have
actually used samples of the ticking of a clock to produce the timbre. These can of
course be synthesized quite easily using any synth. Although ring modulation does
produce better hi-hat timbres, for trip-hop white noise is perfectly sufficient. To
create this simply select white noise as an oscillator and set the filter envelope to
a fast attack, sustain and release with a medium to short decay. Once this is done,
set the filter to a high pass and use it to roll-off any frequencies that are too low to
create a high hat. Once this basic timbre is down, lengthening the decay parameter can create open hi-hats, and shortening it will produce closed hats. By setting this very short you can also produce the typical ticking timbre. Alternatively,
if samples are used it’s prudent to either use the amplifier’s decay envelope in the
sampler or use a wave editor to remove the subsequent tail of the hats.

Trip-Hop CHAPTER 16

FIGURE 16.1
A trip-hop rhythm

Whether the grooves are sampled or programmed, the most fundamental
aspect of creating the typical groove lies with the pattern. All trip-hop derives
its feel from hip-hop and jazz and so relies on a relatively sparse drum arrangement with the laid-back feel produced by the interplay between the kick and
the snare. As a consequence, the often-used kick/snare/kick/snare pattern is
often (but not always) avoided. Generally speaking they commonly feature
more rhythmic kick patterns, which are augmented with the occasional snare.
Of course, closed hi-hats, ride cymbals and pedal hi-hats are also employed,
along with the occasional open hat or crash cymbal, all of which add some
syncopation and steadiness to the rhythm (Figure 16.1).
As mentioned, snares are not always used in the production of trip-hop and
any ‘clicky’ percussive timbre can be used in its place. What is important, however, is that the entire loop is quite reserved in terms of instruments and patterns. In many cases these are kept incredibly simple to allow room for the
delicate vocals, chords and lead instruments to play over. Also, it’s important to
bear in mind that many of these elements will sit just off the beat rather than
strictly quantized on it, so that the rhythm appears to be played live. In fact, the
real key to producing these rhythms is to keep the drums as simple as possible
and play them live from a workstation or keyboard, and then use functions
such as iterative quantize to prevent the pattern from becoming too wayward.
Velocity also plays a large role in the creation of the rhythm to keep the realism. The most common method of producing a live beat is to implement the
strong–weak–medium–weak syncopation on the kick drums, although the actual
velocities may stray wildly from this guideline depending on the sound you

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FIGURE 16.2
A trip-hop rhythm
using snares

wish to achieve. The snares too are often subjected to different velocities, with
the first and final snares using the highest values and those in between using a
mixture of different values (Figure 16.2).
On top of this, many trip-hop tracks also often employ small snare rolls in the
rhythms to add to the flow of the groove. These are often played monophonically, however, and very close together so that the consecutive snares remove
the tails of those that precede them. This can be accomplished by setting the
synth or sampler to monophonic operation. Alternatively, they can be programmed in audio by physically cutting off the tails of the snares and positioning them one after the other. For added interest these can also be subjected to
pitch bend so that the snares roll downwards in pitch. This downwards roll is
often preferred to pitching upwards since a movement down the scale tends to
sound less uplifting (Figure 16.3).
As always, these are only generalizations and are fully open to further experimentation. Indeed, after programming a typical loop it’s quite usual to use a
series of effects and processors to seriously grunge up the audio. The first of
these techniques involves speeding up the tempo of the rhythm from the usual
100–120 BPM to 150 or 160 BPM. This loop is then sampled at a low-bit rate,
typically 12- or 8-bit, set across the keyrange of the sampler and then played
in the lower registers so that not only does the tempo slow down but the pitch
also becomes significantly lower. Alternatively, the loop could be sampled
at the original tempo and then time-stretched numerous times by extreme
amounts each time. The more this is applied, the more the loop will begin to
degrade as each subsequent time-stretching algorithm will impart some degradation into the audio.
Another technique involves playing the loop through a speaker system and
miking up the speakers using a poor-quality microphone and pre-amp. This

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FIGURE 16.3
A typical trip-hop snare
roll augmented with
pitch bend

can often add sufficient dirt to anything that is recorded, and you can experiment by moving the placement of the microphone. You may also capture small
amounts of incidental sounds such as traffic outside using this method which
may actually enhance the overall lo-fi effect. Similarly, recording the loop down
to an old (and hopefully knackered) analogue tape machine will introduce
adequate hiss and sound degradation that can then be re-recorded into the
audio editor. So long as any of these techniques are followed by a compressor,
you should feel free to experiment wildly.
On the subject of compression, trip-hop drum loops benefit hugely from incredibly heavy compression. In many instances this contributes a great deal to the
overall sound. Although there are no definitive settings – depends on the loop
and the timbres being used – a good starting point is to set a very low threshold
with a ratio of approximately 10:1. Once these are set, experiment with the attack
and release settings. While generally the idea is not to create a loop that pumps,
you need to compress the loop as hard as possible by trying out various settings
so that the loop becomes as ‘heavy’ as possible.
With the basis for the drums laid down, it’s quite usual to follow these with the
chords or leads rather than with the bass. Since trip-hop draws its inspiration for
bass lines from dub (and in some cases hip-hop), they remain relatively simple
and only act as a basic underpinning for the chords and lead to interweave with. As
a consequence, it’s usually prudent to lay down the chord structure first, followed
by the leads and vocals before finally developing the bass to sit around them.
Generally speaking the chords and most of the overlaying instruments are usually written in a minor rather than major key since, as we’ve already touched
upon in music theory, these provide a more serious and sometimes dark feel
to the music. Naturally, the actual chord structure is up to your own artistic

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license, but generally chord structure does not involve large amounts of movement through the pitch range and tends to stay rather static, using simple inversions rather than jumping manically from one key to another. A good starting
point for these is to write a chord in A minor and then create some inversions
based around this. That said, it is often worth moving between consonant and
dissonant chords to produce a cacophonous feel to the music. Portamento
is also useful here, so experiment by overlapping notes slightly and using
it so that the pitch sweeps up and down between the notes of the consecutive chords. This will invariably produce more laid-back results than a chord
sequence that triggers suddenly on each new note.
The timbres used for the chords can range from samples of a real string section
(ensure that you write these in the right key – violins, for example, cannot play
any lower than the G below middle C!) to synthesized pads that are swept with
a low- or high-pass filter. If you decide to take the latter approach, the timbre to
use is down to your discretion, but we can nonetheless look at the construction
of a basic pad which can then be contorted further to suit your music.
Typically, the pad in trip-hop is fairly rich in harmonics, allowing it to be swept
with a low-pass filter if that is required to add some weight, or alternatively
swept with a high-pass or band-pass filter if the idea is to produce a ghostly
backing. A good starting point for this is to use either two sawtooth waveforms
or a sawtooth and a pulse wave. Detune one oscillator from the other by 5 or
7 cents and then set the amp envelope to use a fast attack with a short decay,
medium sustain and a fast release. If you want to sweep the filter (keep in mind
that a swept low-pass filter will use a proportionate amount of frequencies in
the mix) then set the filter’s envelope to a slow attack and decay with no sustain or release and set this to positively modulate the filter’s cut-off. Otherwise,
use a high-pass or band-pass filter or, to keep the timbre static (at this point),
use the same settings as the amp envelope with a slightly longer decay on the
filter and set the filter key follow to positively track the pitch. If the pad is not
being swept and consists of long sustained notes in the chord structure then it’s
prudent to add some movement to the timbre by using an LFO to augment the
pulse width or the resonance of the filter. The waveform, rate and depth to use
on the LFO will obviously depend on what you wish to achieve, but generally a
square, triangle or sine wave will produce the most ‘natural’ results.
Although any effects should generally be avoided this early since they tend to
occupy a significant amount of space within a mix, if the pad is to play a large
role in the music then it may be worth applying effects now to produce the finished timbre. Typical effects for this include heavy chorus or light reverb, but it’s
worth experimenting with other effects to produce the results you want. One of
the classic effects to use on a pad in trip-hop is a vocoder. If your employ the
tracks drum loop as a modulator and use the pad as a carrier wave, the drums
will impose a new character onto the pad, forcing it to flow in and out of the
mix with the drums. Alternatively, you can make a copy of the drum track,
move it forward in time and use this to modulate the pad through the vocoder.

Trip-Hop CHAPTER 16

This results in the pad ‘pulsing’ between the kicks of the original loop creating
a forced syncopation. And of course, as a final stage, the pad will need to be
sampled at 8- or 12-bit to produce the archetypal sound of the genre.
With the chord structures down, the vocals and lead melodies can be laid over
the top. Roughly speaking, the vocals are usually recorded before any lead
instrumentation since these instruments are often kept very simple to prevent
detracting the attention from the vocals. In fact, the vocals play such a fundamental role in trip-hop that it’s rare to hear of a track that doesn’t feature any.
Usually, mellow, laid-back female vocals are used, but occasionally they are
performed by male singers, although if this is the case they tend to be more rap
(i.e. poetic) based than actually sung.
The typical microphone for recording trip-hop is a large diaphragm model such
as the AKG C414, which is amplified with a valve pre-amp to add the requisite
warmth. It should be noted that this is not necessarily a requirement. Indeed,
since this genre relies on a gritty, dirty feel the vocals can be recorded with
pretty much anything so long as they’re decipherable. Even a cheap dynamic
microphone from the local electronics store recorded direct into a portable cassette recorder such as a Walkman can produce great results.
If this latter approach is used, then generally you will not need a compressor while recording as the cassette tapes will reach magnetic saturation before
clipping is introduced. But if you’re recording into a digital system, compression is vital to prevent any clipping. At this stage it should be applied lightly
since it cannot be undone later. A good starting point is to set a threshold of
⫺8 dB with a 3:1 ratio and a fast attack and moderately fast release. Then, once
the vocalist has started to practice, reduce the threshold so that the reduction
meters are only lit on the strongest part of the performance.
Once the vocals have been recorded (whether to analogue tape or hard disk)
they will invariably require more compression to even out the levels so that
they don’t disappear behind other instruments in the mix. As always, the settings to use will depend on the initial performance, but to begin with use a
threshold setting so that you have ⫺7 dB on the reduction meter, along with
a ratio of 3:1 and a fast attack and moderately fast release (approximately
200 ms). If you’re after a more commercial sound, then try increasing the ratio
to 5:1 but exercise caution and use your ears to decide whether it’s right or not.
Keep in mind that trip-hop is all about generating atmosphere, and much of
this is derived from the vocals. If these are too heavily compressed, the ratio
between the peak and average signal level will be seriously compromised,
which can remove all emotion from a recording. If they sound a little thin in
the context of the mix, then small amounts of reverb may help, but similar to
compression this should be kept to a minimum to retain the feel of the music.
In fact, reverb should be applied so lightly that its application is only noticeable when it’s removed. Alternatively, making a second copy of the vocal track
and pitching this up or down by 5 semitones can produce harmonies which
can help fill out the vocals.

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FIGURE 16.4
A typical Rhodes piano
lick

With the vocals in the track, it’s much easier to hear gaps in both frequency spectrum and arrangement, and these can be filled out with the lead instrumentation.
As already mentioned, lead instrumentation very rarely includes complicated riffs
so as not to draw attention, but simply adds to the atmosphere of the music. As a
result, in the majority of tracks leads consist of single hits at the beginning of the
bar or extremely simple melodies which appear as though they’ve been played
ad-lib over the chords and vocals. The old adage of ‘less is more’ is certainly the
case with most trip-hop. Fundamentally, these tend to be played with real rather
than synthetic instruments and a proportionate amount of tracks will use clavinets, organs, horns, theremins or flutes but more commonly Rhodes pianos and
electric guitars that are treated heavily to tremolo effects (i.e. pitch modulation),
phasing, flanging, distortion and a whole host of effects. In actual fact, as these
leads play such simple riffs it’s the effects applied that add to the atmosphere of
the music and so experimentation is the key (Figure 16.4).
Most artists rely on guitar pedals to produce most of the effects and ideally,
it’s wise to follow suit. Since these are essentially produced to be used live on
stage, they don’t have a particularly low noise floor, so not only are they powerful effects, they’re also pretty noisy. You can pick up guitar pedals new for
around £50 and they can change hands for as little as £20 on the used market. Generally, you’ll need tremolo, flanger, reverb and delay pedals to begin
with, as these are all suited and used in the production of the genre. You can,
of course, use digital or plug-in effects units in their place, but these tend to be
too clean so you’ll need to grunge them up a little.
Due to the sparseness of trip-hop, delay is the most commonly used of these
effects. This can be subsequently soiled by sending the audio out to a delay
unit set to a high feedback and sampling the subsequent delays. Once you have
these, import them into a separate track in an audio sequencer and, using a
mix of EQ and distortion, automate the EQ to gradually remove both the high
and low frequencies on each delay while increasing the distortion applied to

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FIGURE 16.5
A typical trip-hop bass
rhythm

each. Export this as another audio file and then use the scissors tool (or similar) to cut up the delays and place them where required in the arrangement.
If the sequencer does not allow automation (or you’re using hardware), you
can simply record the EQ and distortion tweaks to audio cassette (or DAT) and
then edit the results in the sequencer.
The final element of trip-hop is the bass, but before proceeding any further it
should be noted that not all tracks will feature a bass line, and many that do
will use an upright bass that can also act as a lead instrument. Trip-hop is a
descendant of hip-hop mixed with elements of jazz and ambient, and as such
it is totally unnecessary to fill up the entire frequency spectrum and arrangement with sounds. In fact, the relatively large spaces that are left between
instruments help in creating the all-important atmosphere of the music. This is
important to keep in mind when writing the bass since it can be quite easy to
get carried away and produce a bass with far too much movement.
Fundamentally, trip-hop draws the basses from dub, so on the whole basses are
kept relatively simple as they merely act as the underpinning of the track and
should not form a major melodic element in themselves. This is mainly to prevent
the bass from drawing attention away from the vocals. Consequently, a bass line
will often consist of nothing more than a few 1/8th or perhaps 1/4th notes per bar
that will tend to stay at one pitch or move by no more than 3, 5 or 7 semitones.
Simplicity is the solution here. More importantly, since the bass is often played
live, when programmed in MIDI, the notes should very rarely occur at the beginning of each bar. It’s much more natural for the bass to begin just a few ticks before
or after to offset it from the rest of the record. This not only emulates the nuances
of a real bassist but it also makes the drums appear to pull or push the record forward, helping to create a more flowing groove. Creating this relationship can form
an essential part of the music but whether to sit it before or after the beat is entirely
open to artistic license. After programming it’s worth experimenting by moving it
before or after the beat to see which produces the best results (Figure 16.5).

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For the timbre, real bass guitars, particularly upright and acoustic, are usually
chosen due to the resonant sounding strings which help it cut through the
mix. These sounds are best sourced from a sample CD or bass-specific module
such as Spectrasonics Trilogy since recording live guitars is difficult without good
equipment. This subject is beyond the scope of this book as it requires a whole
new set of production ethics. Nevertheless, provided that you have a good bass
module it is perfectly possible to emulate a real guitar with MIDI. While it does
involve a lot of work, it is only as much as is involved with recording a real
bass guitar – it just doesn’t take as much equipment. The details of emulating a
bass with MIDI have already been discussed in Chapter 15, but for the benefit
of those who’ve jumped straight to this chapter you can play the book- style
version of Dungeons and Dragons by jumping back and forth, depending on
what information you want, or just read on.
The key to programming any real instrument is to take note of how it is played
and then emulate this action with MIDI and a series of CC commands. In this
case, most bass guitars use the first four strings of a normal guitar E–A–D–G,
but these are tuned an octave lower, resulting in the E being close to three
octaves below middle C. Also they are monophonic, not polyphonic, so the
only time notes will actually overlap is when the resonance of the previous
string is still dying away as the next note is plucked. This effect can be emulated
by leaving the preceding note playing for a few ticks while the next note in the
sequence has started. The strings can either be plucked or struck and the two
techniques produce different results. If the string is plucked, the sound is much
brighter and has a longer resonance than if it were simply struck. To copy this,
the velocity will need to be mapped to the filter cut-off of the bass module
so that higher values open the filter more. Not all notes will be struck at the
same velocity, though, and if the bassist is playing a fast rhythm the consecutive notes will commonly have less velocity since he has to move his hand and
pluck the next string quickly. Naturally, this is only a guideline and you should
edit each velocity value until it produces a realistic feel.
‘Bassist’s may also use a technique known as ‘hammer on’ whereby they play a
string and then hit a different pitch on the fret. This results in the pitch changing without actually being accompanied with another pluck of the string. To
emulate this, you’ll need to make use of pitch bend. First set it to a maximum
bend limit of two semitones, since guitars don’t easily ‘bend’ any further than
this. Begin by programming two notes – for instance an E0 followed by an A0 –
and leave the E0 playing underneath the successive A0 for around a hundred
ticks. At the very beginning of the bass track, drop in a pitch bend message to
ensure that it’s set midway (i.e. no pitch bend) and just before the second note
drop in another pitch-bend message to bend the tone up to A0. If this is programmed correctly, on playback you’ll notice that as the E0 ends the pitch will
bend upwards to A0, simulating the effect. Although this could be left as is, it’s
sensible to drop in a CC11 message (expression) directly after the pitch bend, as
this will reduce the overall volume of the second note so that it doesn’t sound
like it has been plucked.

Trip-Hop CHAPTER 16

In addition to this, it’s also worthwhile employing some fret noise and finger
slides. Most good tone modules will include fret noise that can be dropped in
between the notes to emulate the bassist’s fingers sliding along the fret board. The
pitch bending is best emulated by first programming the notes to overlap slightly
and then recording movements of the pitch-bend wheel live and editing them in
the sequencer. Again, since the pitch-bend range is set to 2 semitones only the
MSB value will need editing if the live recording didn’t go according to plan.
Of course, you don’t particularly have to use a real bass guitar and, as ever, it’s
open to artistic license. Pretty much any low frequency sound can be used provided that it sounds dark, moody and atmospheric. As we all have different ideas
of what constitutes a moody, atmospheric bass, there are no real generic timbres
and practically any synthesizer can be used to programme the basic sound. As a
recommendation, the Access Virus, Novation Supernova or the Novation Bass Station
(VSTi) are particularly suited towards creating deep, atmospheric bass sounds.
Fundamentally, a synthesized bass for trip-hop should exhibit plenty of lowend presence (dub influence) yet at the same time not be so powerful that it
takes up too much of the mix (hip-hop influence). To accomplish this, a good
starting point is to use three oscillators: one set to a sawtooth waveform, the
second set to a sine wave and the third using a triangle wave. Transpose the
triangle wave up an octave and then adjust the amp’s EG to a fast attack, decay
and release but a high sustain. This will allow the bass note to sustain while
the key is depressed (many trip-hop rhythms depend on long notes rather
than short, stabby ones). If a resonant pluck is needed for the beginning of
the note, using a low-pass filter, set the cut-off quite low with a high resonance
and use a filter EG with a zero attack, sustain and release with a medium decay.
Finally, set the filter envelope to full positive modulation and then experiment
by detuning the sine wave downwards from the saw. The further away this is
detuned the deeper and more ‘full’ the bass will become. If the notes are sustained for a lengthy period of time then it may also be worth applying very
small amounts of LFO modulation to the filter or pitch of one or all of the
oscillators, depending on the type of sound you want to achieve.
As with most other instruments in this genre, the bass can also benefit from
effects, but these must be chosen and applied carefully. Any stereo effects such
as flangers and phasers will often spread the sound across the image (which
will in turn move the bass from the centre of the mix and consequently destroy
the stereo perspective) so generally only mono effects should be applied. This
can include distortion, EQ and filters, but if you are using any of these it’s useful to place a compressor directly after so that you can experiment by overdriving the signal without fear of actually overdriving the desk (although this can
be put to creative uses if it’s an analogue desk).
As touched upon throughout, the most fundamental aspect of creating trip-hop
is the dirty/gritty character that the whole mix exhibits. While this is certainly not
an excuse for poor mixing, it is a good reason to be experimental and push things
further to attain the character of the sounds. For instance, record everything to

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analogue tape rather than direct to hard disk, or create wild feedbacks by sending
an audio signal to one channel of a stereo effect then return the signal back into
two inputs of the desk and feed one of these back out to the other channel of the
effect. Alternatively, feed an effect as usual but return the outputs into a normal
mixing channel and then feed these down another aux send back into the effect.
Also feel free to experiment with very heavy EQ to thin sounds right down, or use
filters such as the Sherman Filter Bank to warp sounds beyond comprehension.
So long as each of these processes is followed by a compressor to keep the levels
under some control there should be no restrictions. What’s more, even if the elements of the record are not sampled, they should nevertheless sound as though
they are. This means gratuitous use of bit reduction, sample reduction along with
sampling the vinyl crackle from a record and applying this over the top of the
mix. For added hiss, a popular method is to record a source at a relatively low
level and then increase the gain so it comes up to nominal level, thus also increasing the noise floor. Furthermore, you may wish to play your final track through
a pair of poor-quality speakers and record the sound output with a poor-quality
microphone (as suggested for individual sounds). By importing this sound back
into your sequencer you will have further material to edit and add back to your
original track, creating areas of lo-fi double-tracked sound.
Once the basic elements are programmed, you can begin to lay the arrangement down. Since trip-hop relies heavily on vocals, the music tends to be
structured in a similar manner to most popular music songs consisting of a
verse/chorus structure. As such, it can roughly be broken down into four distinct parts consisting of the verse, chorus, bridge and middle eight. If we break
this down in a number of bars we can derive that the order of a song and subsequent bars are as follows:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Verse 1 – Commonly 16 bars
Chorus – Commonly 8 bars
Verse 2 – Commonly 16 bars
Chorus – Commonly 8 bars
Verse 3 – Commonly 16 bars
Chorus – Commonly 8 bars
Bridge – Commonly 1 bar
Middle eight – Commonly 8 bars
Double Chorus – Commonly 16 bars

This is, of course, open to artistic license and some artists will play the first two
verses before hitting the chorus. This approach can often help to add excitement to a track as the listener is expecting to hear the chorus after the first
verse. If this route is taken, even though there may be different vocals employed
in the verses, if they are played one after the other it can become tiresome, so
a popular trick is to add a motif into the second verse to differentiate it from
the first. Also, keep in mind that this is only a general guideline and as always
the best way to gain a good representation of how to arrange a trip-hop track is
to actively listen to what are considered the classics and then copy them. This

Trip-Hop CHAPTER 16

isn’t stealing, it’s research and nearly every musician on the planet follows this
same route.
The data CD contains a full mix of a typical Trip Hop track with narration on how it was
constructed.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, the purpose of this chapter has been to give some insight into the
production of trip-hop. There is, of course, no one definitive way to produce the
genre. Indeed, the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is to
actively listen to the current market leaders and be creative with processing, effects
and synthesis. With this in mind, what follows is a short list of some of the artists
who, at the time of writing, are considered the most influential in this area:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Tricky
Massive Attack
DJ Shadow
Portishead
Red Snapper
DJ Food
DJ Cam
DJ Kicks
Thievery Corporation
DJ Krush
Coldcut
Moloko
DJ Vadim
Herbalizer
9 Lazy 9

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Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

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CHAPTER 17

Ambient/Chill Out

’Ambient is music that envelops the listener without
drawing any attention to itself…’
Brian Eno

Ambient music has enjoyed a long, if somewhat diverse, history and its subsequent offshoots have formed an important role in dance music since 1989.
However, it only recently re-established itself to many as part of the dance
music scene when beats were again dropped over the atmospheric content and
it was relabelled by record companies and the media as ‘chill out’ music.
The roots of ambient music are nothing if not unusual. It’s believed that it first
came about in the mid-1970s when Brian Eno was run over by a taxi. While he
was recovering in hospital, a friend gave him a tape machine with a few dodgy
tapes of harp music. The result was that music didn’t remain at a constant volume and on occasion dropped considerably in gain whereby it mixed with the
rain hitting the hospital windows. This second accident formed the beginning
of ambient as Eno began to experiment by mixing in real-world sounds such
as whale song and wind chimes with constantly changing synthesized textures.
Described by Eno himself as music that didn’t draw attention to itself (go figure), it enjoyed some success but was soon relabelled as ‘Muzak’ and subsequently poor imitations began to appear as background music for shopping
centres and elevators, and to many the genre was soon written off as ‘music
suitable only for hippies’.
When the rave generation emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a DJ
named Alex Patterson began to experiment with Eno’s previous works, playing it back to clubbers in small side rooms who needed a rest from the fast,
hard-hitting beats of the main room. These side rooms were soon labelled by
clubbers as ‘chill out’ rooms, a place where you could go and take a break
from the hectic four to the floor beats. As these ‘chill out’ rooms began to gain
more popularity with clubbers, Patterson teamed up with fellow musician
Jimmy Cauty to form The Orb and they jointly released what many believe to

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be the first ever ambient house music for clubbers, somewhat strangely named
A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld.
Soon after the release of the album, Patterson and Cauty went their separate
ways. While Cauty teamed up with Bill Drummond to from KLF, Patterson
continued to write under the moniker of The Orb and to DJ in the chill out
rooms.
This form – ambient house – began to grow into its own genre and chill out
rooms became a fundamental part of the rave scene. Some DJs became VJs
(video jockeys), mixing not only real-world sounds with slow, drawn-out drum
loops but also projecting and mixing images onto large screens to accompany
the music. This was soon followed by a series of ambient compilations hitting the public market, and artists such as William Orbit and Aphex Twin soon
released their own ambient house albums.
In 1992, the genre was in full flow. As different artists adopted the scene, each
putting their own twist on the music, it began to diversify into subgenres such
as ambient dub (ambient music with a bass), conventional (ambient with a 4/4
backbeat), beatless (no backbeat but following the same repetition as dance
music) and soundscape (essentially pop music with a slow, laid-back beat). By
1995, ambient music was everywhere, as the larger record companies took the
sound on board and saturated the market with countless ambient compilations
(although thankfully there was never any Now That’s What I Call Ambient Music
Volume 390). Even artists who had ignored the genre before began to hop on
board in the hopes of making a quick buck out of the new fad.
As with most music that is encapsulated and bastardized in this way, eventually
ambient house became a victim of its own success. The general public became
tired of the sound. To the joy of many a clubber, it was no longer the new fashion and it returned to only being played where it had originated from – the
chill out rooms.
Fast forward to the year 2000. A small Balearic island in the middle of the
Mediterranean began to revive the public’s and record companies’ interest in
ambient house. DJs in Ibiza’s Café Del Mar began to tailor music to suit the
beautiful sunsets by mixing Jazz, Classical, Hispanic and New Age together to
produce laid-back beats for clubbers to once again chill out to. Now repackaged and relabelled ‘chill out music’ it’s enjoying renewed interest and has
become a genre in its own right. However, while chill out certainly has it roots
deeply embedded in ambient music, they have over time become two very different genres. Thus, as the purpose of this book is to cover dance music, for this
chapter we’ll concentrate on chill out rather than ambient.

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
As always, possibly the best way to begin writing any dance music is to find the
most popular tracks around at the moment and break them down to their basic
elements. Once this is accomplished, we can begin to examine the similarities

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

between tracks and determine exactly what it is that differentiates them
from other musical styles. In fact, all music that can be placed into a genrespecific category will share similarities in terms of the arrangement and/or
sonic elements.
Generally, chill out is music that incorporates elements from a number of different styles such as Electronica, New Age, Classical, Hispanic and Jazz. However,
it’s this very mix of different styles that makes an exact definition impossible.
Indeed, it could be said that as long as the tempo remains below 120 BPM and it
employs a laid-back groove, it could be classed as chill out. In fact, the only way
to analyse the music is to take Brian Eno’s advice in that it shouldn’t draw too
much attention and ideally be the type of inoffensive music that most people
could easily sit back and relax to. (Sometimes the best chill out can be derived
from just rolling up a fat err… cigarette and playing about.)
Defining exactly what this means is difficult, but we can settle for saying that
chill out commonly has a slow rhythmic or trance-like nature, combining
both electronic and real instruments which are often backed up with drop-out
beats and occasionally smooth, haunting vocals. Generally, many of these real
instruments will be recorded live or sampled from sample CDs, but in some
instances they can also be ‘borrowed’ from other records. Consequently, chill
out can utilize almost any time signature, from the four to the floor, to a more
swing orientated 3/4, and be produced adagio, andante or moderato. In terms
of physical tempo, this can range from 80 BPM and move towards the upper
limits of 120 BPM, but most chillout tends to use a happy medium, staying
around the 110–120 BPM mark. This, of course, isn’t a demanding rule but it is
important not to go too fast as you need to relax to it!
To better explain how this theory is applied in practice, we’ll look at the creation behind a typical chill out track. As always, any music is an entirely individual, artistic endeavour, and the purpose of this analysis is not to lay down
a series of ‘ground rules’ on how it should be created. Rather, my intention is
to describe some of the general principles behind the characteristic arrangements, sounds and processing. Indeed, in the end it’s up to the individual
(i.e. you) to experiment and put a twist on the music that suits your own
particular style.

THE RHYTHMS
There are no particular distinctions as to what makes a good chill out drum
loop. The only guide that can be offered is that the loop should remain
relatively simple and exhibit a laid-back feel. The kick drum can lie on the beat,
every beat, or it can be less common, appearing on the second and fourth, or
first and third beat, or any division thereof. This is simply because the laidback feel is often derived from the pattern and position of the snares in relation to the kick. Indeed, it’s the rhythmic interplay between these two elements
that creates the ‘feel’ of the drum rhythm. Additionally, closed and open hi-hat

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FIGURE 17.1
Typical chill out drum
loop

FIGURE 17.2
A more complex chill
out drum loop

patterns are invariably employed in these rhythms to act as a form of rhythmic
syncopation (i.e. not on the beat) to help the groove flow along (Figure 17.1).
As the diagram in Figure 17.1 shows, the closed hi-hats, unlike most other
dance genres, do not necessarily have to sit on every 1/16th division, and along
with the open hats they can play a pattern of their own. It is wise, however, to
remove any closed hi-hats that occur on the same position as the open hi-hat,
as this results in a frequency clash and can often loose a rhythm to sound too
‘programmed’. Auxiliary instruments such as congas, bongos, toms, cabassas,
triangles, shakers and tambourines also often make an appearance in chill out,
and similar to the hi-hat patterns these act as a form of syncopation to help the
rhythm flow (Figure 17.2).

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

This, of course, is only a general guideline to the drum patterns used and it’s
fully open to artistic license. The key is to produce a loop that does not sound
rigid or programmed through experimenting by moving the kicks in relation
to the snares to adjust the interplay between the two. If the tempo appears too
fast, reducing the amount of snares or auxiliary instruments employed in the
rhythm will often help slow it down and is preferable to physically slowing
down the tempo, since this will affect the rest of the instrumentation laid on
top. Additionally, as this genre occasionally follows a verse chorus structure
similar to most ‘pop’ music to denote the change between the two, it’s common to employ a couple of extra snare hits positioned together at the end of
the bar to create a skip in the rhythm.
Of particular note, the velocities of each percussive instrument should be
manipulated to help create a more flowing groove. Although this is entirely
open to interpretation, the kick commonly follows the typical strong–weak–
medium–weak syncopation. This is, of course, provided that there are four kicks
per bar. If there are three, then it could follow a strong–weak–medium or perhaps a strong–medium–strong syncopation. What is common, however, is that
the first kick of the bar remains the strongest so as to denote the beginning of a
new bar. Even then, this is simply convention and convention shouldn’t always
play a part in your music, so you should feel free to experiment by placing the
accents at different divisions on the beat. When you do this, the rhythm of the
piece can change quite severely, so it is worth experimenting.
With chill out, the sounds used for the rhythm often play a vital role in obtaining the laid-back feel. Once the basic sounds have been laid down it’s quite
usual to apply effects to the individual elements. The hits can be sourced from
anywhere, including other records, most drum machines (including the TR909
and TR808) or even the standard GM drum kits (particularly Jazz kits). It is,
of course, possible to synthesize a kit. This can often prove the best method
since the available parameters will allow you to modify each sound to suit any
particular rhythm. As we’ve already discussed the basics behind creating and
synthesizing a drum kit, what follows is a short overview of the three most
important elements (kicks, snares, hi-hats) with some tips on how the parameters can be used to create typical ‘laid-back’ timbres. Keep in mind that these
are only tips and above all, however you do it, if it sounds right then it most
probably is.

RHYTHM TIMBRES
Generally, the kick is quite deep and ‘boomy’ as tight kicks tend to add some
small urgency to the music. Thus a good starting point is a 40 Hz sine wave
with positive pitch modulation using a fast attack and a medium-to-longish
decay period. There is usually little need to employ a ‘click’ at the beginning of
the waveform since this makes it appear sharper, which isn’t generally required
but, as always, experimentation is essential. If possible, it’s also worthwhile
experimenting by setting the decay’s transition to exponential so that the pitch

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curves outwards as it falls, creating a ‘boomier’ sound. Additionally, it’s often
worth sending the kick to a reverb unit set to a medium pre-delay and short
tail to help lengthen the timbre and prevent it from dropping off too sharply.
If you decide to use a kick sample or a GM module and there is too much of
an attack on the sound, a compressor set so that it clamps down on the transient may produce the sound you require. That said, in the long run a preferred
option would be to use a transient designer such as featured in the Waves
Transform Bundle plug-in or SPL’s hardware transient designer. These can be used
to remove the front of the kick to produce a more relaxed-sounding timbre.
In direct contrast to the kicks, the snares often use a sharp transient stage, as
these dictate the rhythmic flow of the loop and need to be apparent in the loop –
more so if it’s a particularly busy loop packed with auxiliary instruments. The
typical snare can be created by using a triangle oscillator mixed with pink
noise. A high-pass filter across these generally produces the most common chill
out snares, but it’s also worth trying a notch or band-pass filter to see which
you prefer. The amps attack should be set fast while the decay can be set anywhere from medium to long depending on the sounds that are already in the
mix and how slurry you want the snare to appear.
Alternatively, if it’s possible with the chosen synthesizer, it’s prudent to employ
a different amp EG for both the noise and the triangle wave. The triangle wave
can be kept quite short and swift by using a fast decay, while the noise can be
made to ring a little further by increasing its decay parameter. The further this
rings out, the more slurred and ‘ambient’ it will become. If the snares are too
bright, brightness can be removed with some EQ or, preferably, try replacing
the triangle wave with a pulse and experiment with the pulse width.
The snares also often benefit from small amounts of reverb by sending, not
inserting, them to a reverb unit. A typical snare room preset that’s available on
nearly every reverb unit around will usually suffice, but depending on the loop
it may be worth reducing the decay slightly. Again, if samples are used in place
of synthesis, the Jazz snares on most GM modules produce a fairly good rendition which may be more suited to your track. Using a transient designer along
with sending the snare to a reverb unit will often help you achieve the typical
‘chilled’ feel.
Some chill out will benefit from a snare with a less prominent attack phase
which can be accomplished by using a transient designer to remove the attack
phase. On top of this, it may also be worthwhile introducing a small amount
of pink noise over the top of the snare to give the impression of a brush stick
used to play. Alternatively, you could just use a brush kit from the GM standard
or sample one from a Jazz record. For obvious legal reasons I can’t condone
this latter approach but that’s not to say that a proportionate amount of dance
artists don’t do it.
The hi-hats can be created in two ways: with noise or with ring modulation.
Typically for chill out, ring modulation produces better results. This is accomplished

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

by modulating a high-pitched triangle wave with a lower pitched triangle to
produce a high-frequency noise. As a starting point, set the amp envelope to
a zero attack, sustain and release with a short-to-medium decay. If there isn’t
enough of a noise present, it can be augmented with a white noise waveform
using the same envelope. Once this basic timbre is constructed, shortening the
decay creates a closed hi-hat, while lengthening it will produce an open hat.
As touched upon, not all chill out will use MIDI programmed loops and some
artists will borrow loops or at least elements of loops from previous records.
For obvious legal reasons I can’t condone this behaviour but nevertheless it is a
popular technique. These sampled loops are often imported into a sample slicing programme and messed around until it sounds nothing like the original.
Of course, you shouldn’t just settle with rearranging parts. After they’re remodelled, it’s worthwhile importing them into a wave editor and using a transient
designer to model the transients and releases of the drum hits. Alternatively,
another approach is to use two sampled loops and mix them together in a
sequencer. Time-stretch the loops so they share the same tempo, and play the
loops simultaneously, and any conflicting elements can be cut-out from one of
the loops (Figure 17.3).
This technique is useful if you wish to create particular poly-rhythms that are
difficult to accomplish any other way. On top of this, it’s worth experimenting
by moving one of the loops back in time to make some of the elements of the
loop occur in different places.

FIGURE 17.3
Lining up a series of
loops and removing
element to create a
basic rhythm

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With the loop laid down, you can then look towards effecting and processing
the rhythm, although roughly speaking, chill-out loops are not compressed for
numerous reasons, including:
■
■
■
■

They’ve already been sampled from a record and are already compressed.
They are from a synth and are already compressed.
They don’t need to ‘pump’ musically.
Second-order harmonic distortion from valve compression isn’t usually
required.

However, if the loop has been composed of numerous elements from different sources, compression may help to bring some of the levels under control.
Typically, as a starting point, set a relatively slow attack with a medium release
and a ratio of about 4:1. Then adjust the threshold so that the loop registers
approximately 4 or 5 dB on the gain reduction meter. It’s usually wise to ensure
that the loop doesn’t pump, so always experiment with the compressor’s
release to make its action as transparent as possible.
Although in many genres it’s usually worth avoiding applying any effects to
drum timbres, chill out is often an exception to the rule. While it’s unwise to
wash the entire loop in cavernous reverb, if it’s lightly applied to the snares and
kicks, it can often present a more laid-back feel to the timbres. That said, any
reverb or any effect for that matter must be applied cautiously. The drums form
the backbone of the record, and if an effect is applied too heavily it will often
destroy the transients, reducing the bottom-end groove to mush.

MELODIC LEADS
Although it isn’t unusual for a chill out track to be based entirely around synthetic instruments, most do tend to contain real instruments. These can range
from acoustic guitars playing Spanish rhythms, Classical strings, pianos, wind
or a combination thereof. Roughly speaking, these are best laid down before
the bass, as much of the attention of the track is commonly directed towards
the lead and the bass simply acts as the underpinning. Since most real instrument leads are commonly sampled from sample CDs or other records, it’s
much easier to form the bass around their progression, rather than to try to
re-programme a lead to sit around a bass. Although it is possible to cut up and
rearrange a lead in a sample splicing programme to suit a pre-programmed
bass, this can often result in the lead behaving unnaturally, so it’s prudent to
rearrange the bass instead.
Samples of real instruments do not necessarily have to be used (although in
the majority they do sound better when used for leads), and provided that
you have a good tone module it’s possible to programme realistic instruments
through MIDI. If you take this approach, however, it’s important to take note
of the key and the range you write the song in because every acoustic instrument has a limit to how high and low it can play. For instance, with an acoustic
guitar the (standard) tuning is E, A, D, G, B, E with this latter E a major third

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

above middle C. This is incredibly important to keep in mind while programming since if you exceed the limitations of an acoustic instrument the human
ear will instinctively know that it’s been programmed rather than played.

ACOUSTIC GUITARS
The key to programming acoustic guitars is to take note of how they’re physically played and then (provided the tone module produces an authentic
sound) emulate this with MIDI. Firstly, you need to take into account the way
that a guitarist’s hand moves while playing. If the style is Hispanic, then the
strings are commonly plucked rather than strummed; so the velocity of each
note will be relatively high throughout since this will be mapped to control the
cut-off (i.e. the harder a string is plucked, the brighter the timbre becomes).
Not all of these velocity plucks will be the same, however, since the performer
will want to play in time with the track, and if a note occurs directly after the
first, it will take a finite amount of time to move the fingers and pluck the
next string. This often results in the string not being accentuated as much as
the preceding one due to ‘time restraints’. Conversely, if there is a larger distance between the notes, then there is higher likelihood that the string will be
plucked at a higher velocity.
In many instances, particularly if the string has been plucked hard, the resonance may still be dying away as the next note starts, so this needs to be taken
into account when programming the MIDI. Similarly, it’s also worth bearing
in mind that a typical acoustic guitar will not bend more than an octave, so it’s
prudent to set the receiving MIDI device to an octave so you can use the pitch
bend wheel to create slides. In between notes that are very close together, it
may also be worth adding the occasional fret squeal for added realism.
If the guitar is strummed, then you need to take the action of the hand into
account. Commonly, a guitarist will begin by strumming downwards rather
than upwards, and if the rhythm is quite fast on an upwards stroke it’s rare that
all the strings will be hit. Indeed, it’s quite unusual for the bottom string to be
struck, as this tends to make the guitar sound too ‘thick’, so this will need to be
emulated while programming.
Additionally, all the strings will not be struck at exactly the same time due to
the strumming action. Obviously, this means that each note on message will
occur a few ticks later than the previous, which will depend on whether it’s
strummed upwards or downwards and the speed of the rhythm. To keep time,
guitarists also tend to continue moving their hands upwards and downwards
when not playing; so this ‘rhythm’ will need to be employed if there is a break
in the strumming to allow it to return at the ‘right’ position in the arrangement.
Finally, and somewhat strangely, if guitarists start on a downward stroke they
tend to come in a little earlier than the beat, while if they start on an upward
stroke they tend to start on the beat. The reason behind this is too complex to
explain plus it would also involve me knowing why.

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If you want to go even further and replicate trills or tremolo, it’s worthwhile
recording pitch bend movements onto a separate MIDI track and imposing it
onto the longer notes of the original guitar track by setting it to the same MIDI
channel. These pitch bend movements are recorded onto a separate channel.
Since once it’s imposed onto the notes it’s likely that the pitch bend information will need further editing.

WIND INSTRUMENTS
Although fundamentally there are two types of wind instruments – brass and
reed—in the concept of MIDI programming they’re both programmed following similar principles since they both rely on variations in air pressure to produce the timbre. As a result, if you’re planning on making music that contains
wind instruments, it’s prudent to invest in a breath controller. These are small
devices that connect directly to the MIDI IN port and act similar to any wind
instrument, albeit they do not produce any sound of their own. Rather they
measure changes in air pressure as you blow into them. They convert this into
CC2 (breath controller) messages that can then be used to control the connected MIDI synthesizer or sampler. These can be expensive, though, so if the
use of wind instruments is only occasional it’s worth programming the typical
nuances by hand into the sequencer.
Firstly, the volume and brightness of the notes are proportional to the amount
of air pressure in the instrument. All good MIDI instruments will set the velocity to control the filter cut-off of the instrument, so the brightness can be controlled with judicious use of MIDI velocity. The volume of the note, however,
is a little more complicated to emulate since many reed instrumentalists will
deliberately begin most notes by blowing softly before increasing the pressure
to force the instrument to become louder. Essentially, this means that the notes
begin softly before quickly rising in volume, and occasionally pitch. The best
way to emulate this feel is to carefully programme a series of breath controller
(CC2) messages while using a mix of expression controllers (CC11) to control
the volume adjustments. Alternatively, brass instruments will often start below
the required pitch and slide up to it; this is best emulated by recording live
pitch bend movements into a sequencer and editing them to suit later.
On top of this, many wind instruments also introduce vibrato if the note is
held for a prolonged period of time due to the variations in air pressure
through the instrument. While it is possible to emulate this response with
expression (CC11) controllers, generally speaking, introducing small pitch
spikes at the later stages of the sustain can produce better results. It should be
noted that these pitch ‘spikes’ only appear in the later stages of the notes sustain, though, and should not be introduced at the beginning of a note. Possibly
the best way to determine where these spikes should appear is to physically
emulate playing a wind instrument by beginning to blow at the start of the
MIDI note on and when you begin to draw short of breath, and insert some
pitch bend messages. Alternatively, if the synth allows you to fade in the LFO,

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

you can use this to modulate the volume by setting it to a sine wave on a slow
rate, modulating the volume lightly. As long as the LFO fade-in time is set quite
long, it will only begin to appear towards the end of a note.
On the subject of breathing, bear in mind that all musicians are human and
as such need to breathe occasionally. In the context of MIDI this means that
you should avoid playing a single note over a large number of bars. Similarly,
if a series of notes are played consecutively, remember that the musician needs
enough time to take a deep breath for the next note (wind instruments are not
polyphonic!). If there isn’t enough time, the next note will generally be played
softer due to less air velocity from a short breath, but if there is too short a
space the instrument will sound emulated rather than real.
Finally, you need to consider how the notes will end. Neither reed nor brass
instruments will simply stop at the end of the note; instead they will fade
down in volume while also lowering in pitch as the air velocity reduces
(an effect known musically as diminuendo). This can be emulated with a series
of expression (CC11) messages and some pitch bend.
As touched upon, some tracks do not employ real instruments and rely solely
on synthetic. If this is the case it’s often worth avoiding any sharp aggressive
synthesizer patches such as distorted saw-based leads since these give the
impression of a ‘cutting’ track, whereas softer sounds will tend to sound more
laid back. This is an important aspect to bear in mind, especially when mastering the track after it’s complete. Slow, relaxed songs will invariably have the
mid-range cut to emphasize the low and high end, while more aggressive songs
with have the bass and high hats cut to produce more mid-range and make it
appear insistent.
In MIDI programming, if synthetic timbres are used, then many tracks tend to
refrain from using notes less than 1/4th in length since shorter notes will make
the track appear faster. Additionally, with longer notes many of the tones can
utilize a long attack, which will invariably create a perception of more relaxed
music. In fact, long attack times can form an important aspect of the music.
It’s good to experiment with all the timbres used in the creation of this genre
by lengthening the amps/filters attack and release times and taking note of the
effect it has on the track.
Vocal chants are sometimes used in the place of leads as these can be used as
instruments in themselves. Typically, in many popular tracks these are sampled
from other records or sample CDs, but it’s sometimes worthwhile recording your
own. Characteristically, condenser microphones are the preferred choice over
dynamic as these produce more accurate results, but the diaphragm size will
depend on the effect you wish to achieve. As touched upon in the chapter on
recording real instruments, many producers will use a large diaphragm for vocals,
but if you’re after ‘ghostly’ chants, a small diaphragm mic such as the Rode NT1
will often produce better results due to the more precise frequency response.
Of course, this is simply the conventional approach and, if at all possible,

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it’s worthwhile experimenting with different microphones to see which produces the best results.
Vocals will also benefit from compression during the recording stage to prevent
any clipping in the recording, but this must be applied lightly. Unlike most
other genres where the vocals are often squashed to death to suit the compressed nature of the music, chill out relies on a live feel with the high frequencies intact. A good starting point is to set a threshold of ⫺9 dB with a 2:1 ratio
and a fast attack and moderately fast release. Then, once the vocalist has started
to practice, reduce the threshold so that the reduction meters are only lit on the
strongest part of the performance.
Similar to the drum rhythms, effects can also play a large part in attaining the
right lead sound and you should feel free to experiment. Reverb is the main
suspect here, but phasers and flangers can also work especially well if they are
lightly applied. A good (if often overused) technique to produce ghostly vocal
chants is to reverse the vocal sample, apply a large cavernous reverb and then
reverse them back the right way around again. This way, the reverb tail-off will
act as a build-up to the vocal chant. The key is, as always, to experiment.

BASS
With the lead laid down, the bass is often programmed next to form the basic
groove of the song. Generally speaking, this tends to be quite minimal, consisting mostly of notes over 1/8th in length to prevent the groove from appearing too fast. These are often derived from the principles encapsulated in the
dub scene, staying quite minimal to allow space for the lead to breathe without
having to compete with the bass for prominence. Indeed, it’s incredibly important that the bass is not too busy either rhythmically or melodically and many
chill out tracks borrow heavily from the pentatonic scale used in dub and R
‘n’ B. That is, they use no more than a five-note scale playing a single harmony
restricting the movements to a maximum five-semitone shift.
Naturally, the bass should interact with the lead and, as touched upon in the
chapter on music theory, this can be accomplished through using parallel,
oblique or contrary motions. In many cases, an oblique motion is the preferred
option since a majority of this music is driven by the melody and you don’t
want the bass to detract from it. Having said that, you should feel free to try
out both contrary and parallel motions to see which produces the best results.
What is important, however, is that the bass coincides with the drum rhythm.
Bear in mind that if the drums have been affected with reverb, the subsequent
tail-off between each hit will leave less room for the bass, so it will need to be less
melodic or rhythmic. Conversely, if the drums are left dry, it’s possible to employ
a more rhythmic or melodic bass without creating any conflicts (Figure 17.4).
Typically, most chill out basses are synthesized rather than real since the timbre
is often quite deep and doesn’t want to attract as much attention as the lead.
Analogue synthesizers usually provide the best results due to the uncontrollable

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

FIGURE 17.4
A typical chill out bass

yet pleasing phasing of the oscillators. Nonetheless, the beginnings of a typical
timbre can be programmed on most synthesizers. A good starting point is to
use a sine wave with a sawtooth transposed up from it by 5 or 7 cents. Unlike
most of the timbres used throughout the production of chill out, the attack
should be well defined to prevent the bottom-end groove turning to mush, but
there is usually very little decay, if any, to prevent it from becoming too plucky.
Indeed, in much of the music of this genre, the bass tends to hum rather than
pluck to prevent it from drawing attention away from the chilled feeling. The
best way to accomplish this type of sound is to use a simple on/off envelope
for the amp envelope. This is basically an envelope with no attack, decay or
release but a quite high sustain. This forces the sound to jump directly into
the sustain stage which produces a constant bass tone for as long as the key
is depressed. If this results in a bass with little or no sonic definition, a small
pluck can be added by using a low-pass filter with a low cut-off and high resonance that’s controlled with an envelope using a zero attack, sustain and
release but a medium decay. By adjusting the depth of the envelope modulating the filters or increasing/decreasing the decay stage, more or less of a pluck
can be applied. If you use this process, however, it’s prudent to employ filter
key tracking so that the filter action follows the pitch.
At this stage, it’s also prudent to experiment with the release parameters on the
filter and amp envelope to help the bass sit comfortably in the drum loop. In
fact, it’s essential to accomplish this rhythmic and tonal interaction between
the drum loop and the bass by playing around with both the amp and filters
A/R EG before moving on. This is the underpinning of the entire track and it
needs to be right for the style of music.
Since these waveforms are produced from synthesizers, there is little need to
compress the results – they’re already compressed at the source. Also, it’s unwise
to compress the drums against the bass to produce the archetypal ‘dance music’
pumping effect, as this will only accentuate the drum rhythm and can make

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the music appear too ‘tight’ rather than relaxed. Similarly, effects are usually
avoided on the bass timbre because they can not only spread the timbre across
the stereo spectrum but they can also bring too much attention to the bass.
Of course, that said, the entire track may be based around the rhythmic movements of the bass. If this is the case you should feel free to experiment with
every effect you can lay your hands on!

CHORDS/PADS
Slow-evolving pads can play a vital role in a proportionate amount of chill out.
Since many of the tracks are thematically simple, a pad can be used to fill the
gap between the groove of the record and the lead and/or vocals. What’s more,
slow-evolving strings often add to the overall atmosphere of the music and can
often be used to dictate the drive behind the track.
We’ve already covered the principles behind creating chord structures in the
chapter on compression, processing and effects, but as a quick refresher, the
chords here will act as a harmony to the bass and lead. This means that they
should fit in between the rhythmic interplay of the instruments so far without actually drawing too much attention (rather like the genre as a whole). For
this, they need to be very closely related to the key of the track and not use a
progression that is particularly dissonant. Generally, this can be accomplished
by forming a chord progression from any notes used in the bass and experimenting with a progression that works. For instance, if the bass is in E, then C
major would produce a good harmony because this contains an E (C–E–G).
The real solution is to experiment with different chords and progressions until
you come up with something that works.
Once the progression is down, it can then be used to add some drive to the track.
Although many chill out tracks will meander along like a Sunday stroll, if you
place a chord that plays consistently over a large number of bars, all of the feel
can quickly vanish. This can sometimes be avoided by moving the chords back in
time by a small amount so that they occur a little later than the bar. Alternatively,
if they follow a faster progression, they can be moved forward in time to add some
push to the music. It should be noted here, however, that if the pads employ a
long attack stage, they may not actually become evident until much later in the bar,
which can destroy the feel of the music. In this instance, you will need to counter
this effect by moving the chords so that they occur much earlier (Figure 17.5).
The instruments used to create these are more often than not analogue in
nature due to the constant phase discrepancies of the oscillators, which creates additional movement. Thus, analogue or analogue emulations will invariably produce much better results than an FM synth or one based around S&S.
What’s more, it’s of vital importance that you take into account the current frequencies used in the mix so far.
With the drums, bass, lead and possibly guide vocals playing along, there will
be a limited frequency range where you can fit the chords in. If the timbre used

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

FIGURE 17.5
Chill out chord
structure

is too harmonically rich it will be incredibly difficult to fit them into the mix
without having to resort to aggressive EQ cuts. This will change the entire character of the chords and in some instances may make it inappropriate for the
music; so it’s much better to programme the chords timbre to fit in now, rather
than when approaching the mix. Ideally, you should look towards producing a
‘mix’ that sounds right during this construction stage and not rely on the mixing desks EQ later to cure a host of problems. Keep in mind that the EQ on
a mixing desk is very subtle and usually kept aside for subtle tonal changes.
This obviously means that there are two programming possibilities for the
chords. They either need to be quite lush to fill out any noticeable gaps in the
mix or they need to be quite thin so they do not collide with the rest of the
instrumentation.
If the mix is particularly busy in terms of frequencies, then it’s prudent to build
a relatively thin pad that can then be ‘thickened’ out later, if required, with
phasers, flangers, and reverb or chorus effects. This is accomplished by using
pulse waves, as they have less harmonic content than saws and triangles and do
not have the ‘weight’ of a sine wave (plus, of course, they sound more interesting!). Generally only one pulse wave is required with the amp envelope set to
a medium attack, sustain and release but a fast decay. If this timbre is to sit in
the upper midrange of the music, then it’s best to use a 12 dB high-pass filter to
remove the bottom end of the pulse; otherwise use a low-pass filter to remove
the top end and then experiment with the resonance until it produces a general
static tone that suits the track. Following this, set an LFO to positive modulation with a slow rate on the pulse width of the oscillator and the filter to
add some movement. Which waveform you use for the LFO will depend on the
track itself, but by first sculpting the static tone to fit into the track you’ll have a

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much better idea of which wave to use and how much it should modulate the
parameters. If the timbre appears too ‘statically modulated’ in that it still seems
uninteresting, use a different rate and waveform for the oscillator and filter so
that the two beat against each other. Alternatively, if the timbre still appears
too thin even after applying effects, add a second pulse detuned from the first
by 3 cents with the same amp envelope, but use a different LFO waveform to
modulate the pulse width.
If the track has a ‘hole’ in the mix, then you’ll need to construct a wider, thicker pad
to fill this out. As a starting point for these types of pads, square waves mixed with
triangles or saws often produce the best results. Detune the saw (or triangle) from
the square wave by 5 or 7 cents depending on how thick you need to the pad to be
and set the amp attack to a medium sustain and release, but no attack, and a short
decay. Using a low-pass filter, set the cut-off to medium with a high resonance and
set the filters EG to a short decay and a medium attack, sustain and release. This
should modulate the filters positively so that the filters sweep through the attack
and decay of the amp but meet at the sustain portion, although it is worth experimenting with negative modulation to see if this produces better results for the
music. This will produce a basic pad timbre, but if it seems a little too static for
the music, use an LFO set to a sine or triangle wave using a slow rate and medium
depth to positively modulate the pitch of the second oscillator. For even more
interest, you could also use an LFO to modulate the filter’s cut-off.
Effects can also play an important role in creating interesting and evolving pads. Wide chorus effects, rotary speaker simulations, flangers, phasers
and reverb can all add a sense of movement to help fill out any holes in the
mix. Again, as with most instruments in this genre, compression is generally
not required on pads since they’ll already be compressed at the source, but a
noise gate can be used creatively to model the sound. For instance, set a low
threshold and use an immediate attack and release; the pad will start and stop
abruptly, producing a ‘sampled’ effect that cannot be replicated through synthesis parameters. What’s more, if you set the hold time to zero and adjust the
threshold so that it lies just above the volume of the timbre, the gate will ‘chatter’, which can be used to interesting effect.

ARRANGEMENT
As touched upon in the musical analysis, chill out is incredibly diverse, and
pretty much anything with a slow tempo and a laid-back feel could be classified as part of the genre. Consequently, the arrangement of the music can follow any structure you feel suits. In fact, as this genre is so varied, it’s difficult to
point out globally accepted arrangements, and the best way to obtain a good
representation of how to arrange the track is to listen to what are considered
the classics and then copy them. This isn’t stealing, it’s research and nearly
every musician on the planet follows this same route. As a helping hand, however, we’ll look at one of the popular structures used by this genre, based on
the same principle as most popular music.

Ambient/Chill Out CHAPTER 17

Most popular music is constructed of around five parts, consisting of the verse,
chorus, bridge, middle eight and occasionally a key change near the end. The verse
is the part of the song where the story is told and a good song will feature around
three or four verses. The chorus is the more exciting part of the music which follows the verse and is where all the instruments move up a key and give the listener something to sing along with. The bridge is the break between the verse and
chorus and usually consists of a drum fill which leads onto the middle eight of
the track. This, as its name would suggest, is usually eight bars long and is the
break of the track that is often the most exposed segment to the dance musician’s
sampler. Finally, there’s the key change and although not all records will use this,
it consists of shifting the entire song up a key to give the impression that it has
reached its apex. If we break this down in a number of bars, we’re left with:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Verse 1 – Commonly 16 bars
Chorus – Commonly 8 bars
Verse 2 – Commonly 16 bars
Chorus – Commonly 8 bars
Verse 3 – Commonly 16 bars
Chorus – Commonly 8 bars
Bridge – Commonly 1 bar
Middle eight – Commonly 8 bars
Double chorus – Commonly 16 bars

This is, of course, open to artistic license and some artists will play the first two
verses before hitting the chorus. This approach can often help to add excitement
to a track as the listener is expecting to hear the chorus after the first verse. If this
route is taken, even though there may be different vocals employed in the verses,
if they are played one after the other it can become tiresome; so a popular trick is
to add a motif into the second verse to differentiate it from the first.

The data CD contains a full mix of a typical Chill Out track with narration on how it was
constructed. Vocals by Tahlia Lewington.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, the purpose of this chapter is to give some insight into the production of chill out; there is no one definitive way to produce the genre. Indeed,
the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is to actively listen
to the current market leaders and be creative with processing, effects and synthesis. Chorus, delay, reverb, distortion, compression and noise gates are the
most common processors and effects used within chill out, so experiment by
placing these in different orders to create the ‘sound’ you want.
While the arrangement and general premise of each track is generally similar,
it’s this production that differentiates one from the other. With this in mind,

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what follows is a short list of some of the artists that, at the time of writing, are
considered the most influential in this area:
■
■
■
■
■

Aphex Twin (Selected Ambient Works)
William Orbit (Excursions in Ambience)
Future Sound of London
Ministry of Sound (Chillout Sessions)
Groove Armada

Drum ‘n’ Bass CHAPTER 18

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CHAPTER 18

Drum ‘n’ Bass

’It became the basis for drum-and-bass and jungle
music – a six-second clip that spawned several entire
subcultures…’
Nate Harrison

Pinpointing the foundations of where drum ‘n’ bass originated is difficult. In a
simple overview, it could be traced back to as simply being a natural development
of jungle; however, jungle was a complex infusion of breakbeat, reggae, dub, hardcore and artcore. Alternatively, we could look further back to 1969 and suggest that
the very beginnings lay with a little known record by the Winston’s. The B side of
a record entitled Colour Him Father which featured a 6 s drum break – the Amen
Break, taken from the title of the record, Amen Brother – that became the staple basis
for jungle and drum ‘n’ bass for many years. Or it could be traced back to the evolution of the sampler, offering the capability to cut and chop rhythmic material to create the resulting jungle and more refined drum ‘n’ bass.
Note: For those who are reading this book cover to cover, we have already discussed the history of jungle in Chapter 13 (UK Garage), so feel free to skip the
history and move onto the analysis.
We can roughly trace the complex rhythms developed in jungle back to breakbeat, whose foundations can be traced back to the 1970s. Kool Herc, a hip-hop
DJ began experimenting on turntables by playing only the exposed drum loops
(breaks) and continually alternating between two records, spinning back one
while the other played and vice versa. This created a continual loop of purely
drum rhythms allowing the breakdancers to show off their skills. DJs such as
Grand Wizard Theodore and Afrika Bambaataa began to copy this style, adding their own twists by playing two copies of the same record but delaying one
against the other, resulting in more complex asynchronous rhythms.
It was early 1988 and the combined evolution of the sampler and the rave
scene that really sparked the breakbeat revolution. Acid house artists began

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to sample the breaks in records, cutting and chopping the beats together to
produce more complex breaks that were impossible for any real drummer to
play naturally. As these breaks became more and more complex, a new genre
evolved known as hardcore. Shifting away from the standard 4/4 loops of typical acid house, it featured lengthy complex breaks and harsh energetic sounds
that were just too ‘hardcore’ for the other ravers.
Although initially scorned by the media and record companies as drug-induced
rubbish that wouldn’t last more than a few months, by 1992 the entire rave
scene was being absorbed in the commercial media machines. Riding on this
‘new wave for the kids’, record companies no longer viewed it as rubbish but
a cash cow and proceeded to dilute the market with a continuous flow of
watered down rave music. Rave became commercialized and this was taking its
toll on the nightclubs.
In response to the commercialization, in 1992 two resident DJ’s – Fabio and
Grooverider – pushed the hardcore sound to a new level by increasing the
speed of the records from the usual 120–145 BPM. The influences of house and
techno were dropped and quickly replaced with ragga and dancehall, resulting in mixes with fast complex beats and a deep bass. Although jungle didn’t
exist as a genre just yet, these faster rhythms mixed with deep basses inspired
artists to push the boundaries further and up the tempo to a more staggering
160–180 BPM.
To some, the term jungle was attributed to racism but the name was derived
from the 1920s. It was used on flyers to describe music produced by Duke
Ellington. This featured exotic fast drum rhythms and when Rebel MC sampled
an old dancehall track with the lyrics ‘Alla the Junglists’, jungle became synonymous with music that had a fast beat and a deep throbbing bass. This was further augmented with pioneers of the genre such as Moose and Danny Jungle.
Jungle enjoyed a good 3–4 years of popularity before it began to show
a decline. In 1996 the genre diversified into drum ‘n’ bass as artists such as
Goldie, Reprazent, Ed Rush and LTJ Bukem began to incorporate new sounds
and cleaner production ethics into the music. Goldie and Rob Playford are
often credited with initiating the move from the jungle sound to drum ‘n’ bass
with the release of the album Timeless.
Of course, jungle still exists today and by some jungle and drum ‘n’ bass are
viewed as one and the same but to most, jungle has been vastly overshadowed
by the more controlled production and deep basses of ‘pure’ drum ‘n’ bass.

MUSICAL ANALYSIS
Examining drum ‘n’ bass in a musical style is more difficult than examining its
roots since it has become a hugely diversified genre. On one end of the scale it
can be heavily influenced with acoustic instruments while on the other it will
only feature industrial or synthetic sounds. Nevertheless, there are some generalizations that all drum ‘n’ bass records share that can be examined in more detail.

Drum ‘n’ Bass CHAPTER 18

Typically a drum ‘n’ bass tempo will remain between 165 and 185 BPM,
although in more recent instances the tempo has sat around 175–180 BPM.
Generally speaking, a snare will remain on beats 2 and 4 of the bar to help
keep the listener or dancer in time, while the kick drum will dance around
this snare. The bass often plays at one-quarter or half time of the drum tempo,
again to keep the dancer ‘in time’. It should be noted, however, that the more
complex the drum rhythm is, the faster the music will appear to be. Therefore,
it’s prudent to keep the loop relatively simple if the tempo is higher or relatively complex if the tempo is lower.
Much of the progression of this genre comes from careful development of the
drum rhythms, not necessarily a change in the rhythm itself but from applying
pitch effects, flangers, phasers and filters as the mix progresses. Much in the
way that techno uses the mixing desk as a creative tool so does drum ‘n’ bass
with the EQ employed to enhance the rhythmic variations and harmonic content between them.
To the uninitiated, drum ‘n’ bass may be seen to only include drum rhythms
and a bass, but very few tracks are constructed from just these elements. Indeed,
although these play a significant role in the genre, it also features other instrumentation such as guitars or synthesis chords, sound effects and vocals.

PROGRAMMING
The obvious place to start is to begin by shaping the drum rhythm, and the
timbres are more often than not sourced from sample CDs or other records.
Single hits from sample CDs can be imported directly into the sequencer and
arranged, while drum loops are often imported and cut into individual hits.
It is important to note that not all the individual hits from a drum loop must be
used, and even if it only results in a single snare hit, it has served its purpose.
For this genre it is preferable to make your own kick and snare, since these can
be pitched up and down to help achieve the sound typical of the genre. Being
able to pitch these instruments up and down when the rest of the instrumentation is in place will also help to clear the mix. Nevertheless, you will need to
sample from a record (legally) or from a sample CD to later complete the loop
and give it the requisite feel.
Snares are possibly best laid down first, and these can be created in most synthesizers provided they feature white noise. Using a triangle wave in the first
oscillator, select white noise for the second and set the amp EG to a zero attack,
sustain and release and then use the decay parameter to set the length of the
snare. Generally, in drum ‘n’ bass, the snare is particularly ‘snappy’ and often
pitched up the keyboard to give the impression of a sampled sound having its
frequency increased within the sampler.
If possible, employ a different amp EG for both the noise and the triangle
wave. By doing so, the triangle wave can be kept quite short and swift with a
fast decay, while the noise can be made to ring a little further by increasing

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its decay parameter. This, however, should never be made too long since the
snares should remain snappy. If the snare has too much bottom end, employ
a high- pass, band-pass or notch filter depending on the type of sound you
require. Notching out the middle frequencies will create a clean snare sound
that’s commonly used in this genre. Further modification is possible using a
pitch envelope to positively modulate both oscillators. This will result in the
sound pitching upwards towards the end, giving a brighter snappier feel to the
timbre.
The kick can again be sampled or created in any competent synthesizer. Kicks
are initially made from a sine wave, but the frequency will determine the
kick’s body. Since the bass timbre is generally quite heavy in drum ‘n’ bass, the
kick is best programmed around 100–150 Hz. Using an attack/decay EG, modulate the pitch of sine wave with a maximum positive depth setting and an
immediate attack and short release. The timbre can be further modified by
adding a square wave pitched down with a very fast amplifier attack and decay
setting to produce a short sharp click. The amount that this wave is pitched
down will depend entirely on the sound you want to produce, so it’s sensible
to layer it over the top of the sine wave and then pitch it up or down until the
transient of the kick sounds right for the genre. The timbre will also probably
benefit from some compression; experiment by setting the compressor so that
the attack misses the transient but grips the decay stage. Increasing the gain of
the compressor can make the timbre more powerful.
Whether sampled or synthesized, the snare is generally placed on bars 2 and 4
of the loop, and the kick can then be programmed to play around these snares.
A good starting point is to place a kick on the first beat of the bar, followed
by a beat just before the snare and two beats directly after. Adding two kicks
on the next bar, followed by another kick before the snare and one after can
produce a good place to start. It is a case of experimenting with placing kicks
around the snares. But bear in mind that the more kicks that play around the
snare positions the faster the rhythm will appear, so it is a case of experimentation until you produce an initial loop that capture the essence you’re looking
for (Figure 18.1).
Although this generally provides a good starting pattern, any further loops
should generally be sampled for either a sample CD or another record (legally,
of course). It is unusual to sample a loop from another drum ‘n’ bass record
but rather from a record of a different genre such as rock music. The amen loop
sampled by so many artists in this genre was never a drum and bass rhythm; it
was simply employed and mixed with a pre-programmed loop to produce the
feel of the music. If you do use a sample, you will not require the kick in from
the sample. Contrary to popular belief, drum ‘n’ bass does not use multiple
layered kicks but instead relies on just one kick and derives much of its complexity from differing hi-hat/percussion rhythms. Generally speaking, it is not
unusual to layer 5–6 differing percussive elements under the kick and snare to
produce the feel.

Drum ‘n’ Bass CHAPTER 18

FIGURE 18.1
The beginnings of a
loop

FIGURE 18.2
A drum ‘n’ bass loop

The kicks in any sampled loops can be removed via wave editing/sequencing
software; however, a better approach is to employ an EQ unit to roll off the
bottom end of the loop. This removes the body of kick and much of the body
of the snare just leaving the higher percussive elements to the mix and allowing the originally programmed kick and snare to take prominence in the loop.
A typical example of a drum loop is shown in Figure 18.2.

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Note that in the above example, many of the sampled loops actually land on
the beat, rather they are all offset slightly. This helps them to combine more
freely with the initially created loop, creating thicker textures as the sounds
play slightly earlier or later than the first loop, thus preventing the loops from
becoming too metronomic and adding a more breakbeat feel to the rhythm.
The principle is to create a series of loops, each of which focuses on a different
timbre to carry the loop forwards. It is also worthwhile experimenting by mixing loops with different time signatures together. For instance, two 4/4 loops
mixed with two 3/4 loops can produce results that cannot be easily acquired
any other way.
Although for this example we’ve only discussed a limited number of loops, you
should feel free to programme and layer as many loops together as you feel are
necessary to accomplish the overall sound. This can range from using just three
to layering over eight together and then progressively reducing the content of
each until you are left with harmonically rich and interesting rhythm. The layering of these should also not just be restricted to dropping them dead atop
one another, and in many cases moving one of two of the loops forward or
back in time from the rest can be used to good effect.
While some producers frown on using compression on a drum ‘n’ bass rhythm,
there is certainly no harm in applying it, either creatively or naturally. Applying
compression how it is ‘supposed’ to be used can often aid in controlling the
rhythms and result in a more well-produced loop, aiding the various elements
to sit together as a whole. Generally compression of this nature should be
applied lightly, with a threshold that just captures the transients, a low ratio
and a quick attack and release. If applied in a more creative way, it can often
breathe new life into the rhythm. A trick sometimes employed is to access the
compressor as a send effect.
With a medium threshold setting and a high ratio, the returned signal can be
added to the uncompressed signal. You can then experiment with the attack
and release parameters to produce rhythm that gels with the rest of the instruments. If you do not have access to a valve compressor, then sending the signal
to the PSP Vintage Warmer or Sonalksis TBK3 Uber Compressor can often add
more harmonics to the signal.

THE BASS
The second, vital element of drum ‘n’ bass is the bass. Generally speaking,
the bass consists of notes that play at either one quarter or half the tempo
of the drum rhythm. This is accomplished through using length bass notes,
set at one quarter, half or full notes and sometimes straddling over the bars
of the drum loop. The notes of the bass usually remain with an octave and
rarely move further than this to prevent the music from becoming too
active and deterring the listener from the rhythmic interaction of the drums
(Figure 18.3).

Drum ‘n’ Bass CHAPTER 18

FIGURE 18.3
A typical bass line

In the above example, the bass remains within an octave, exhibiting a slow
movement to counteract the speed set by the drum rhythm. Note also in the
above example a secondary note overlaps the first. Using pitch bend, this creates a timbre that rises into the next note, and it’s this type of movement that
creates some interest in the bass.
Indeed, since the bass notes are kept quite lengthy, it is not uncommon to
employ some movement in the bass to maintain interest. This is often accomplished through filters or pitch modulation. Since the bass in this genre is supposed to remain deep and earth shaking, a sine wave makes the perfect starting
point for this timbre.
If you programmed your own kick drum, as described earlier, try copying the
preset over to another bank and lengthen the decay and release parameter of
the amp envelope. If you sampled the drum kick instead, use a single oscillator
set to a sine wave and positively modulate its pitch with an attack/decay envelope. Then experiment with the synthesizer’s amplitude envelopes. This should
only be viewed as a starting point and, as always, you should experiment with
the various modulation options on the synthesizer to create some movement
in the sound.
As an example of a typical drum ‘n’ bass timbre, using a sine wave, set the
amplifiers attack to zero and increase the decay setting while listening back to
the programmed motif until it produces an interesting rhythm. Next, modulate the pitch by a couple of cents using an envelope set to a slow attack and
medium decay. This will create a bass timbre where the note bends slightly as

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it’s played. Alternatively, you can use an LFO set to a sine wave with a slow rate
and set it to start at the beginning of every note.
Experimentation is the key, changing the attack, decay and release of the amp
or/and filter EG from linear to convex or concave will also create new variations. For example, the decay to a convex slope setting will produce a more
rounded bass timbre. Similarly, small amounts of controlled distortion or very
light flanging can also add movement.
Alongside the synthetic basses, many drum ‘n’ bass tracks will employ a real
bass. More often than not these are sampled from other records – commonly
dancehall or raga, but they are also occasionally taken from sample CDs rather
than programmed in MIDI. Provided that you have (a) plenty of patience, (b)
a willingness to learn MIDI programming and (c) a good tone or bass module
(such as Spectrasonics Trilogy, EW QL Collosus or any professional MIDI tone
module), it is possible to programme a realistic bass that could fool most listeners. This not only prevents any problems with clearing copyright but it also
allows you to model the bass to your needs.
Programming a realistic bass has already been covered in detail within the
chapter on house, but if you’ve jumped directly to this chapter what follows is
a rundown on how to programme a realistic sounding bass instrument.
The key to programming any real instrument is to take note of how they’re
played and then emulate this action with MIDI and a series of CC commands. In this case, most bass guitars use the first four strings of a normal
guitar E–A–D–G, which are tuned an octave lower, resulting in the E being
close to three octaves below middle C. Also they are monophonic, not polyphonic, so the only time notes will actually overlap is when the resonance of
the previous string is still dying away as the next note is plucked. This effect
can be emulated by leaving the preceding note playing for a few ticks while
the next note in the sequence has started. The strings can either be plucked
or struck and the two techniques produce different results. If the string is
plucked, the sound is much brighter and has a longer resonance than if it
were simply struck. To copy this, the velocity will need to be mapped to the
filter cut-off of the bass module so that higher values open the filter more.
Not all notes will be struck at the same velocity, though. If the bassist is playing a fast rhythm the consecutive notes will commonly have less velocity
since he has to move his hand and pluck the next string quickly. Naturally,
this is only a guideline and you should edit each velocity value until it produces a realistic feel.
Depending on the ‘bassist’, they may also use a technique known as ‘hammer
on’ whereby they play a string and then hit a different pitch on the fret. This
results in the pitch changing without actually being accompanied with another
pluck of the string. To emulate this, you’ll need to make use of pitch bend.
First set the pitch bend to a maximum limit of 2 semitones, since guitars don’t

Drum ‘n’ Bass CHAPTER 18

‘bend’ any further than this. Begin by programming 2 notes, for instance an
E0 followed by an A0 and leave the E0 playing underneath the successive A0
for around a hundred ticks. At the very beginning of the bass track, drop in
a pitch bend message to ensure that it’s set midway (i.e. no pitch bend) and
just before where the second note occurs, drop in another pitch bend message to bend the tone up to A0. If this is programmed correctly, on play back
you’ll notice that as the E0 ends the pitch will bend upwards to A0 simulating the effect. Although this could be left as is, it’s sensible to drop in a CC11
message (expression) directly after the pitch bend as this will reduce the
overall volume of the second note so that it doesn’t sound like it has been
plucked. In addition to this, it’s also worthwhile employing some fret noise
and finger slides. Most good tone modules will include fret noise that can be
dropped in between the notes to emulate the bassist’s fingers sliding along the
fret board.
As the rhythmic movement and interaction with the bass and rhythms provide
the basis for this genre, it’s recommended that you also experiment by applying effects to the bass timbre. While most effects should be avoided since they
tend to spread the sound across the image, in this genre the bass is one of the
most important parts of the music. Small amounts of delay can create interesting fluctuations, as can flangers, phasers and distortion.
As with the drum rhythms, creative compression can also help in attaining an
interesting bass timbre. As before, try accessing the compressor as a send effect
with a medium threshold setting and a high ratio. The returned signal can be
added to the uncompressed signal. You can then experiment with the attack
and release parameters to produce an interesting bass tone. Alternatively, try
pumping the bass with one of the rhythms. Set the compressor to capture the
transients of a percussive loop and use it pump the bass by experimenting with
the attack, ratio and release parameters.

CHORDS
Many aficionados of the genre recommend only using minor chords to act as a
harmony, although more recently major chords have been making an appearance. This, as always, depends upon your artistic interpretation, but it is generally accepted that minor chords produce better results than major which can
tend to lift the music too much.
Generally speaking, chords in A minor can produce good results. The movement of the chords can often work well when contrasted with the bass line.
This can be accomplished by copying the bass line down to another sequencer
track and converting this new track into a chord. Once created, when the
bass moves up in pitch, move the chords down in pitch and vice versa
(Figure 18.4).
If you’re struggling understanding how to build a minor chord, what follows
are some typical minor chords to get you started:

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FIGURE 18.4
A minor chord
progression

G–Bb–D
A–C–E
B–D–F#
C#–E–G#
Eb–Gb–Bb
Gb–A–Db
Ab–B–Eb
Bb–Db–F
With a general idea of the chord structure down, you can programme (or
sample) a string to fit. A good starting point for programming a drum ‘n’ bass
string can be created by mixing a triangle and square wave together and detuning one of the oscillators from the other by 3–5 cents. Set the amps attack to
zero with a medium sustain and release. Set the filter envelope to a long attack,
sustain with a medium release and short decay. Set the filter cut-off quite low
and the resonance about midway, then modulate the pitch of either the triangle or, square wave with a sine wave set to a slow rate with a medium depth. If
the string is going to continue for a length of time it’s worthwhile employing
a sine, pulse or triangle wave LFO to modulate the filters cut-off to help maintain interest. As always, this should only be considered as a starting point, and
experimentation is the key to gaining good results.
Effects can also play an important role in creating interesting strings for the
genre, although these should be used conservatively so as not to detract from
the bass rhythm. Often, wide chorus effects, rotary speaker simulations, flangers, phasers and reverb can all help to add a sense of interest. A compressor can
also be used creatively to model the sound. For instance, if you put a threshold
to capture the kick drums transient and use an immediate attack and release,

Drum ‘n’ Bass CHAPTER 18

the pad will pump in volume on every kick, producing an interesting ‘sampled’
effect that cannot be replicated through synthesis parameters.

VOCALS AND SOUND FX
One final aspect yet to cover is the addition of sound effects and vocals. The
vocals within drum ‘n’ bass more often than not consist of little more than a
short vocal snippets; however, there have been some more commercial drum
‘n’ bass mixes that have featured a verse/chorus progression. It seems to be a
point of contention among many drum ‘n’ bass producers as to whether a verse/
chorus is actually part of the genre or is in fact diversifying again to produce a
new genre of music. Others, however, believe that it’s simply a watered down,
commercialized version of the music made solely for the purpose of profit margins. Nevertheless, whether you choose to use a few snippets of vocals, some
ragga or MC’ing, or a more commercialized vocal performance is entirely up to
you. It’s musicians pushing boundaries that reaps the greatest rewards.
The sound effects can obviously be generated by whatever means necessary, from
sampling and contorting sounds or samples with effects and EQ. For contorting
audio, the Mutronics Mutator, Sherman Filterbank 2, the Camelspace range of plugins and Steinbergs GRM Tools are almost a requisite for creating strange evolving timbres. The effects and processing applied are, of course, entirely open to
artistic license as the end result is to create anything that sounds good and fits
within the mix. Transient designers can be especially useful in this genre as they
permit you to remove the transients of the percussive rhythms which can evolve
throughout the track with some thoughtful automation. Similarly, heavy compression can be used to squash the transient of the sounds, and with the aid of
a spectral analyser you can identify the frequencies that contribute to the sound
while removing those surrounding it. Alternatively, pitch-shift individual notes
up and by extreme amounts, or apply heavy chorus or flangers/phasers to singular hi-hats or snares, or try time stretching followed by time compression to add
some digital clutter and then mix this with the other loops.

ARRANGEMENT
Drum ‘n’ bass arrangement can follow a number of diverse paths, from the
typical verse/chorus structure of the more commercialized music to the adaptation and interrelationship between all of the elements together to create the
arrangement. The latter approach consists of dropping different rhythms in and
out of the mix, along with the bass, vocals and sound effects. The ideals are not
so much to create a track that builds to a crescendo or climax but rather stays
on one constant rhythmical level that warps from one rhythmically interesting
collective to another. This is accomplished through filters and effects and not
by introducing new melodic elements.
The more commercialized approach is to use five-part arrangement typical of
most popular music tracks: verse, chorus, bridge, middle eight and occasionally a key change near the end. The verse is the part of the song where the story

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is told, and a good song will feature around three or four verses. The chorus is
the more exciting part of the music which follows the verse and is where all the
instruments move up a key and give the listener something to sing along with.
The bridge is the break between the verse and chorus and usually consists of
a drum fill, which leads onto the middle eight of the track. This, as its name
would suggest, is usually 8 bars long and is the break of the track that is often
the most exposed segment to the dance musician’s sampler. Finally, there’s the
key change and although not all records will use this, it consists of shifting the
entire song up a key to give the impression that it has reached its apex.
This is, of course, open to artistic license, and some artists will play the first two
verses before hitting the chorus. However, with so much diversity in the genre
and arrangements, the best solution is to listen to what are considered the classics and then copy them. This isn’t stealing, its research and nearly every musician on the planet follows this same route.

The data CD contains a full mix of a typical Drum ‘n’ Bass track with narration on how it
was constructed.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING
Ultimately, as with all the chapters in this section, its purpose is not to tell you
how to write or produce a specific genre. Rather it should be seen as offering
a few basic starting ideas that you can evolve from. There is no one definitive
way to produce any genre, and the best way to learn new techniques and production ethics is to actively listen to the current market leaders and experiment.
With this in mind, what follows is a short list (and by no means exhaustive) of
artists that are considered influential in this area:
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Goldie
2 Bad Mice
4 Hero
Adam F
Alex Reece
Aphex twin
Aphrodite
Aquasky
Benga
Crystal Clear
Cyantific
Crossfire
Current Value
Danny Breaks
Danny Byrd

Drum ‘n’ Bass CHAPTER 18

■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■
■

Dara
Donny
Doubleclick
Fabio
Goldie
Gridlok
Grooverider
Hyper on Experience
Hype
Lamb
LTJ Bukem
Phase2
Photek
Reprazent
Resonance
Dope Dragon Labels
Roni Size
Jumping Jack Frost
DJ Hype
Andy C

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Mixing & Promotion

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Mixing CHAPTER 19

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CHAPTER 19

Mixing

’The ideas for “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain
That Rules From the Centre of the Ultra World” were
there weeks before, but the mix itself took twenty
minutes…’
Alex Patterson

Mixing is viewed by many as the most complex procedure involved in producing a dance record, but the truth of the matter is 99.9% of the time a poor mix
isn’t a result of the mixing process but a culmination of factors before anything
even reaches the mixing desk.
If you’ve taken care in producing the track throughout, then when it eventually
comes to mixing you’ll find that the music has more or less mixed itself and all
that is required is gentle use of EQ, volume and effects to polish the results.
It is incredibly important to bear in mind that the mixing desk is simply a tool
used to position instruments in the mix and allow you to add a very small final
sparkle. So, before you even touch the desk the only problem should be that
you can’t hear some of the instruments too clearly. Apart from that, the mix
should otherwise sound just as you imagined it would. Thus, before we even
touch upon the use of faders, EQ and effects in mixing, you need to go back and
examining what you have so far.
Generally, a poor ‘pre-mix’ is created by one or all of the following:
■
■
■

Poor recording, programming or choice of timbre/sample.
Poor-quality effects, or use of effects when programming.
Poor arrangement or MIDI programming.

We’ve touched upon the importance of all of these in earlier chapters; at this
stage you should go back and check everything one final time to ensure that
everything sounds the best it possibly can. If you’re unhappy with any of the
timbres, re-program or replace them. It is vital at this stage that you not settle

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for anything less than the very best – it may be an overused analogy but you
wouldn’t expect to make a great tasting cake if some of the ingredients were
out of date!
Perhaps, most importantly, before you approach the mix you need to ask yourself one final yet vitally significant question about your track. Close your eyes,
listen back to the music and ask yourself ‘can you feel it?’
Above the arrangements, sounds, processing and effects this is the ultimate
question and the answer should be a resounding (and honest!) yes. Dance
music is ultimately about ‘groove’, ‘vibe’ and ‘feel’ and without these fundamental elements it isn’t dance music. A track may be beautifully programmed
and arranged but if it has no ‘feel’ then the whole endeavour is pointless.

MIXING THEORY
At the outset, it’s important to understand that mixing is a creative art: there
are no right or wrong ways to go about it. All engineers will approach a mix
in their own distinctive way – it’s their music and they know how they want it
to sound. A unique style of mixing, provided that it sounds transparent, will
define your creative style as much as the sounds and arrangement do. Despite
this, there are some practices that you can employ that will put you on the right
track to producing transparent and detailed mixes.
The first step to creating any great dance mix is to understand the theory
behind mixing and how it can be adapted in a more practical sense to suit your
own particular style. This means that you need to comprehend how the soundstage of a mix can be created and adapted, how frequency ranges are grouped
together and how to come to terms with our natural hearing limitations. We’ll
look at each of these in detail.

HEARING LIMITATIONS
Our hearing is far from perfect because not only do we perceive different frequencies to be at different volumes but the overall volume at which we listen to a mix
also determines the dominant frequencies. This inaccurate response can be traced
to a time when we lived in caves. Since talking (or more likely grunting) to each
other in a cave resulted in vast amounts of reverberation, our hearing adapted
itself to concentrate on the frequencies where speech is most evident and decipherable in this situation – approximately 3–4 kHz. This means that at conversation level, our ears are most sensitive to sounds occupying the mid-range and any
frequencies higher or lower than this must be physically louder in order for us to
perceive them to be at the same volume.

At normal conversation levels it’s sixty-four times more difficult to hear bass frequencies
than it is to hear the mid-range and eighteen times more difficult to perceive the high range.

Mixing CHAPTER 19

110
100

100

90
80

80
Intensity (dB)

70
60

60

50
40

40

30
20

20

10
0

0
20

50

100

500

1000

5000

10 000 20 000

Frequency (Hz)

If, however, the volume is increased beyond normal conversation level, the
lower and higher frequencies gradually become (albeit perceivably) louder than
the mid-range. This again is related to when we lived in caves and it played a
part in our survival. It allowed us to understand when something was shouted
rather than spoken – not many people are in the habit of casually telling you
there’s a hungry-looking bear behind you.
In the 1930s, two researchers, Fletcher and Munson from Bell Laboratories,
were the first to accurately measure the uneven response of the ear and so we
refer to the Fletcher Munson contour control curve.
It’s absolutely vital that you keep this contour control in mind while mixing
since it means that the bass energy produced will depend entirely on the mix
volume. For example, if you balance the bass elements at a low monitoring
level, there will be a huge bass increase at higher volumes. Conversely, if you
mix at high levels, there will be too little bass at lower volumes.
Mixing appropriately for all three volumes is something of a trade-off as you’ll
never find the perfect balance for all listening levels, but whenever mixing dance
music you should check that it sounds okay at low and medium volumes but
great at high volume. That is, of course, assuming that clubs are your market –
they don’t play music at low or medium levels (Figure 19.1).

FREQUENCY BANDS
The second step is to become familiar with how frequencies are generally
banded together as these bands play a large role whenever we speak about subbass, bass, mid-range, etc. This isn’t as difficult as it may initially sound: we’ve

FIGURE 19.1
The Fletcher Munson
contour control curve

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been subjected to these frequencies since we were born; you just need to understand how they are grouped together. To help you decipher this, what follows is
a list of how frequencies are generally banded and described.

Sub-Bass: Under 50 Hz
At frequencies this low, it’s impossible to determine pitch; nonetheless this
range is commonly occupied by the very lowest area of a kick drum and bass
instruments. Notably, most loudspeaker and near-field loudspeaker monitors
cannot reproduce frequencies this low reliably, and in most genres of dance
music all signals this low will be rolled off to prevent loss of volume in hi-fi
systems or to prevent damaging the bass response in club PA systems.

Bass: 50–250 Hz
This range is typically adjusted when the bass boost is applied on most home
stereos, and where most of the bass is contained in all dance music mixes. EQ
cuts (or boosts) around this area can add definition and presence to the bass
and kick drum.

Mid-Range Muddiness Area: 200–800 Hz
This frequency range is the main culprit for mixes that are described as sounding muddy or ill-defined. It is often the reason why a mix is fatiguing to the ear.
If too many sounds are dominating in this area, a track can quickly become
tiring and irritating.

True Mid-Range: 800–5000 Hz
As previously touched upon, the true mid-range is where loudspeakers produce
most of their energy; human hearing is particularly sensitive to these frequencies. This is because the human voice is centred here, as are TVs and radios;
thus, even small boosts of a decibel will be perceived to be the same as boosting 10 dB at any other frequency. Subsequently, you should exercise extreme
caution when adjusting frequencies in this area.

High Range: 5000–8000 Hz
This range is typically adjusted when the treble boost is applied on most home
stereos and is where the ‘body’ of hi-hats and cymbals often reside. This area is
sometimes boosted by a couple of decibels to make sounds artificially brighter.

Hi-High Range: 8000–20 000 Hz
This final frequency area often contains the higher frequency elements of cymbals and hi-hats. Some engineers also apply a small shelving boost at 12 000 Hz
to make the music appear more hi-fidelity. This often adds extra detail and

Mixing CHAPTER 19

sheen without introducing any aural fatigue. It does, however, require plenty of
care as boosting anywhere in this region can intensify any background hiss or
high-frequency noise.
There’s much more to applying EQ to a mix than understanding the separate
frequency bands and to become truly competent at engineering. It’s also vital
to train your hearing so that you can identify timbres and the corresponding
frequency in hertz. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that you can pick up
just from reading about it but will only come with practical experience and
careful listening (Figure 19.2).

Pads
Organs
Woodwind
Electric guitar
Acoustic guitar
Leads
Strings
Piano
General percussion
Hi-hat
Snare
Kick
Bass

C D E F G A BC D E F G A BC D E F G A BC D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A BC D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B

Middle C
27.5 Hz

55 Hz

220 Hz

440 Hz

880 Hz

1.76 KHz 3.52 KHz 7.04 KHz 14.08 KHz

Bass

Treble
Mid-range

FIGURE 19.2
A chart defining the
general ranges taken
up by instruments in
dance music

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CREATING A SOUNDSTAGE
Finally, you need to be able to envisage the ‘stage’ on which the instruments
will be placed. When approaching any mix it’s usually best to imagine a threedimensional room – the soundstage – on which you can place the various
instruments.
Sounds placed on this stage can be positioned anywhere between the left or
right ‘walls’ using a pan pot; they can be positioned at the front or back, or
anywhere in between, using volume; and the frequency content of the sound
will determine whether it sits at the top of the stage (high frequencies), the
middle (mid-range frequencies) or the bottom (low frequencies).
The concept behind mixing is to ensure that each sound occupies its own
unique space within this room so that it can not only be heard but also fits in
well with everything else. To do this we can break the soundstage into three
distinct areas: front to back, horizontal and vertical. We’ll begin by examining
the front to back area.

FRONT–TO–BACK PERSPECTIVE
One of the primary auditory clues we receive about how far away we are from
a sound source is through the intensity of air pressure that reaches our ear
drums. As we touched upon in Chapter 1, sound waves spread spherically outwards in all directions from any sound source. The further these have to travel
the less intense the sound becomes. In other words, the further we are from a
source of sound, the more the sound waves will have dissipated, resulting in a
drop of volume.
The intensity of sound is governed by the inverse law which states that:

‘Sound pressure decreases proportionally to the square of the distance
from the source’
Roughly translated, this means that each time the distance from the sound
doubles it’ll become roughly 6 dB quieter.
If we interpret this in the context of a mix, we can say that the louder an instrument is the more ‘in your face’ it will appear to be. However, although many
dance mixes appear to have everything right in your face and at the front of the
soundstage, this is far from the case. Indeed, depth perception is the first aspect
to take into consideration when producing a good mix.
If every instrument were placed at the forefront, all the volumes would be at
equal gain; this would produce a cluttered image as every instrument fights
to be at the front. What’s more, the mix would appear just two-dimensional
because when listening to music our minds always work on the basis of comparison. That is, for us to gain some perception of depth there must be some
sounds in the background so we can determine that some sounds are at the
front of the mix and vice versa.

Mixing CHAPTER 19

This means that you need to determine which sounds should be up front and
which should be progressively further back in the mix but this isn’t as difficult as it may sound. Dance music, by its very nature, is based on rhythm and
groove because that’s what we dance to. Thus, in all genres of dance it makes
sense that both the drums and bass should take soundstage priority over every
other instrument.
The most obvious way to provide this depth perspective is with volume adjustment, as it’s natural for us to believe that the louder a signal is the closer it
must be. This only applies to sounds that we are familiar with, though, and
for dance music it’s quite usual to use unnatural or unrealistic timbres. We can
overcome this problem by taking advantage of the fact that how our ears and
mind perceive a sound depends on the acoustic properties it projects.
As touched upon in the very first chapter of this book, the higher the frequency
of a sound the shorter the wavelength becomes; therefore, we can assume that
if a high-frequency sound has to travel over a long distance, many of these
frequencies will dissipate along the way. This means that if a high-frequency
sound is playing a good distance away from a listener, some of the highfrequency content will be reduced.
This effect can be particularly evident with passing cars whose stereo systems
take up more space than the engine and shift enough air to blow out a candle
at 50 paces. You hear the low frequencies while the car is at a distance. As it
approaches, the higher frequencies become more pronounced until it passes
by, whereby the higher frequencies begin to decay as it moves off into the distance. We can therefore emulate this effect with some creative EQ. Cutting
just a few decibels at the higher frequency ranges of a sound makes the sound
appear more distant when it is heard in association with other sounds with
low-frequency content. Alternatively, increasing the higher frequencies using
enhancers or exciters can make a timbre appear much more up front.
Notably, this frequency-dependent effect is an important aspect to consider
when working with a compressor since if a fast attack is used the transient will be
clamped down, thus reducing some of the high-frequency content and pushing
it to the rear of the mix. This is often the cause of numerous problems, as most
usually you would like to compress to prevent clipping or to introduce ‘punch’
into a full mix. While you could always increase the gain to bring the timbre
to the front of the mix, it would not work as well as if they all had the highfrequency content intact. The only suitable way to avoid this is to use a long attack
on the compressor or to employ a multi-band compressor and set it to compress
only the lower frequency content, leaving the higher frequencies unaffected.
Another characteristic of the front-to-back perspective is derived from the
amount of reverberation the signal has associated with it. All sound has some
natural reverberation as the reflections emanate from surrounding surfaces,
but the amount and stereo width of these reflections depends on how far away
the source of the sound is. If a sound is far away, then the stereo width of the

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reverberations will dissipate as they travel through the air, and they will be subjected to more reverberation. This is important to bear in mind since many artists
wash a sound in stereo reverb to push it into the background and then wonder
why it doesn’t sound quite ‘right’ in context with the rest of the mix.
From this we can also determine that if you need to place an instrument at
the rear of a mix, it’s wise to use a mono reverb signal with a long tail and to
remove some of the higher frequencies. This will emulate the natural response
we’ve come to expect from the real world, even if that particular timbre doesn’t
occur in the real world. Most good reverb units will allow you to remove higher
frequencies with an on-board filter. If not, by returning the reverb effect into
a normal mixing channel you can use the channels EQ to remove the high
frequencies this way.
Of course, sounds that are up close or at the front of a mix will have little or
no reverb associated with them but in some instances you may wish to apply
reverb to thicken the timbre. On these occasions you should apply it in stereo;
you should also aim to keep the stereo width of the reverb contained to prevent it from occupying too much of the left and right perspective. Also, use a
short tail and a pre-delay of approximately 50–90 ms to separate the timbre
from the effect to prevent it from washing over the attack stage; otherwise it
may force the instrument to the back of the mix.
Always keep in mind that applying effects too heavily can make sounds very
difficult to localize and it’s absolutely vital that each instrument be pinpointed
to a specific area within a mix. Otherwise it will appear indistinct and muddy.

THE HORIZONTAL PERSPECTIVE
The next consideration in a mix is the horizontal plane – the distance and
positioning of sounds between the left and right walls of the virtual room. The
major audio clue that helps us derive the impression of panning and stereo can
be determined by (a) the volume intensity between sounds or (b) the timing
between sounds.
The principle behind altering the volume of sounds to produce a stereo image
was first realized by Alan Blumlein in the early 1930s. An inventor at EMI’s
Central Research Laboratories, he researched the various ways in which the ears
detect the direction from which a sound comes. Along with deriving the technique for creating a stereo image in gramophone records, he also figured that
to maintain realism in a film, the sound should follow the moving image.
This technique was first employed in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, when sound engineers asked Harvey Fletcher (of the same Fletcher Munson curve) if he could
create the impression of sound moving from left to right for the movie. Drawing
on Alan Blumlein’s previous work, Fletcher came to the conclusion that if
a sound source is gradually faded in volume in one speaker and increased
in the other it will gradually move from one to the other. The engineers at
Disney put this idea into practice by using a potentiometer to vary the volume

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between two speakers and labelled the process ‘panoramic potentiometer’,
hence the term pan pot.
Although this volume-intensity difference between two speakers is still the
most commonly used method for panning a sound around the image, we
can also receive directional clues from the timing between sounds. Otherwise
known as the directional cues, Precedence or Haas effect, this process takes
advantage of the Law of the First Wavefront, which states that:

‘If two coherent sound waves are separated in time by intervals of less
than 30 ms, the first signal to reach our ears will provide the directional
information’.
In layman’s terms, if a direct sound reaches our ears anywhere up to 30 ms
before the subsequent reflections, we can determine the position of a sound.
For example, if you were facing the central position of the mix, any sound leaving the left speaker would be delayed in reaching the right ear and vice versa
for the left ear, an effect known as interaural time delay (ITD). Considering that
sound travels at approximately 340 m/s, this effect can be emulated by setting
up a delay unit on a mono signal and delaying it by a couple of milliseconds,
producing the impression that the sound has been panned.
For this effect to work accurately, we also need to consider that our ears are
on the side of our head and therefore our head gets in the way of the frequencies from opposite speakers (an effect known as head-related transfer function). This means that, provided we are facing the centre of the stereo image,
some of the higher frequencies emanating from the left speaker will be reduced
before they reach the right ear, simply because sound doesn’t travel through
our heads, it has to travel around it. This effect can be simulated by cutting a
decibel at around 8 kHz from the delayed signal.
Naturally, to accomplish these types of effects you need to use mono sounds
within the mix. Here is where many practicing musicians make one of their
biggest mistakes. With all of today’s tone modules, keyboards and samplers featuring stereo outputs, it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of using stereo sounds
throughout an arrangement, but this only leads to a mix that lacks any real
definition.
A stereo image is formed by spreading any sound to both the left and right
speaker using one of the two methods: effects or layering. The results are then
panned left and right so that they play across both speakers. While this always
makes them sound much more interesting in isolation, it’s only to persuade
you to part with your money for the synthesizer.
If you made a mix completely from stereo files, they would collate in the mix
and all occupy the same area of the soundstage. Of course, you could narrow
the stereo width of each file with the pan pots so that they don’t all occupy the
same position, but this approach is not particularly suitable for making a
transparent mix.

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The soundstage for any mix should be transparent enough that you can picture the mix in three dimensions with your mind’s eye and pinpoint the exact
position of each instrument. Many dance mixes are quite busy, encompassing
anything from 8 to 12 different elements playing at once. If these were all stereo it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a pan placement for each.
This often leads to an inexperienced engineer resorting to unnecessary EQ in a
futile attempt to carve out some space for the instruments or start to ‘creep the
faders’.
Creeping faders is typical of most inexperienced engineers and is the result
of gradually increasing the volume of each track so that it can be heard above
other instruments. For instance, they may increase the gain of vocals so that
they can be heard above the bass, and then increase the drums so they can
be heard above the vocals, and then increase the bass so it can be heard with
the drums and then move back to the vocals and, well, you get the picture.
Eventually, the mixer is pushed to its maximum headroom and the mix turns
into loud, incomprehensible rubbish.
Unnecessary EQ and volume creep can be avoided by utilizing mono sound
sources, since if two instruments share the same frequency range they can be
separated by panning one sound to the left and the other to the right. There’s
little need to spatially separate them by panning them as far as possible in each
direction and, in many cases, a panning space of approximately ‘two hours’
will allow both instruments to be heard clearly. By ‘hours’ we mean the physical position of a pan pot on a mixing (i.e. 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, etc.) Thus, for
a 2-hour panning the right pan would read 1 o’clock and the left would read
11 o’clock.
This physical pan pot measurement is only mentioned in a theoretical sense.
You should always pan with your ears and not your eyes. All mixing desks are
not equal and where one may place the sound at a certain position at a certain
setting, the same setting on a different mixer may place the sound in a different
position.
There is yet another reason why you should avoid using stereo files throughout
and this is based upon our perception of stereo. Just as different volumes aid
us in gaining some perception of depth within a mix, the same is true of stereo.
It’s in our nature to turn and face the loudest, most energetic part of any mix,
which in many mixes is the kick drum. If this happened to be a stereo file,
it would be spread between the left and right speakers and the main energy
would be spread across the soundstage. If, however, mono samples were used
and the kick drums were placed centrally, we would perceive the position of
other sounds much more clearly, which would increase our overall sense of
space within the mix.
On top of this, when working with mono files on a stereo system we also perceive the volume of a sound by its position in the soundstage. This means that
if a signal is placed dead centre, the energy is shared by both speakers and it

Mixing CHAPTER 19

will appear louder than if the same signal, at the same gain, were placed in the
left or right speaker alone.
Typically, this perceived volume difference can be as much as 3–6 dB, so many
professional and semi-professional mixing desks (and some audio sequencers)
will implement the panning law. According to the panning law, any sounds
that are placed centrally are subjected to either 3 or 6 dB of attenuation, which
can be set by the user. It should be noted that not all mixing desks will implement the panning law, so after panning the instruments to their respective
positions you may need to readjust the respective volumes again.
Perhaps, most important of all, if you wish to pan instruments faithfully, your
speaker system must be configured correctly in relation to your monitoring position. Ideally, you should be positioned at one point of an equilateral triangle with
the loudspeakers positioned at the other two points. This means that speakers
should be positioned an equal distance apart from one another and your listening
position to ensure that the signal from each reaches your ears at the same time.
If there is just a few inches difference between these three points, the sound
from one speaker could be delayed in reaching your ears by a couple of milliseconds which results in the stereo image moving to the left or right. What’s
more, you also need to ensure that the volume from each speaker is the same
when it reaches your current listening position – even differences as small as 1
or 2 dB can shift the image considerably to one side.
A possible solution to producing an accurate soundstage would be to mix
through headphones, but this should be avoided at all costs. While they are suitable for listening to a mix without disturbing the neighbours, they overstate the
left and right perspective because they’re positioned on either side of your head.
Keep in mind that when listening to a mix from loudspeakers, sound from the
left speaker reaches your right ear and vice versa for the left speaker. If you mix
using headphones alone, you can easily over- or understate the stereo field.
Finally, any stereo mix must also work well in mono. Most mixing desks will
offer a mono button that, when used, sums the channels together into a mono
signal. This prevents any phasing that, while not immediately evident in stereo playback, can result in a comb filtering effect. While this may seem worthless when all of today’s hi-fi systems are stereo, most TV and radio stations still
broadcast in mono, most clock/transistor radios are also mono, and so are
many club PA systems.
This means that if you’ve relied entirely on stereo while mixing, then parts of
the mix can disappear altogether. This doesn’t mean you have to destroy the
stereo mix. When you switch the mix to mono, the image will simply be collated into the centre. When in mono, the general tone of the instrument and
their volumes should remain constant; if not, you will need to re-examine the
mix and check for what is causing mono compatibility problems. In the majority of cases this is caused by using stereo files or the application of too many
stereo effects.

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THE VERTICAL PERSPECTIVE
The final perspective of a mix is the top to bottom of the soundstage, with
higher frequency elements sitting towards the top of the stage and lower frequencies towards the bottom. Much of this positioning will already be dictated
by the timbres used in the mix. For example, basses will tend to sit towards
the bottom of the mix and hi-hats will naturally sit towards the top. However,
it should be noted that these, and any other timbres, will contain frequencies
that do not necessarily contribute to the sound when placed into a mix.
A typical case in point is that the basses used in dance music do not consist
entirely of low-frequency elements but also some mid-range elements and
possibly some high frequencies too. If you were to tonally adjust this type of
sound by removing all of the mid-range frequencies, the bass would move
more towards the bottom of the soundstage, making some space for instruments to sit in the mid-range. This ‘corrective’ adjustment is one of the most
fundamental aspects of mixing and is accomplished with the EQ on a mixing
desks channel.
EQ is a frequency volume control that allows you to reduce or increase the gain
of a band of frequencies contained within a sound, but it can be used for much
more than simply making space in a mix. Applied cautiously it can be used to
make insipid timbres much more interesting, add more definition to the attack
portion of a sound to pull it to the front of a mix or prevent the bass from
overpowering and ‘muddying’ the entire lower frequency range of the mix.
However, if you apply it without knowing exactly what affect it will have on a
sound and those surrounding it, a mix can fall apart within minutes and you
end up with nothing more than a muddy, ill-defined mess that doesn’t translate at all well on a typical club PA system.
To understand the concept behind using EQ, we need to revisit the first chapter
which explained that all sounds are made up of a number of frequencies that
are a direct result of the fundamental and its associated harmonics at differing
amplitudes. Also, that it’s this predetermined mix of harmonics that helps us
establish the type of sound we perceive, whether it’s an earth-shaking bass, a
screaming lead or a drum kick.
We only require all these frequencies present if the sound is played in
isolation. If it’s mixed in with a number of other instruments, we only need
to hear a few basic frequencies because our hearing/perception will persuade
itself that the others are present – they’re just masked behind the other
instruments.
This natural occurrence is one of the main keys to mixing. If frequencies that
we don’t necessarily need are removed, well have more room for the important
frequencies of other instruments that we do need to hear. This means that we
need a way of pinpointing a specific group of frequencies within a sound that
we can remove or enhance. In ‘professional’ desks this is accomplished with a
parametric EQ.

Mixing CHAPTER 19

Fundamentally, a parametric EQ consists of three controls: a frequency
pot, a bandwidth pot and a gain pot.
The frequency pot is used to select
the centre frequency that you want to
enhance or remove, while the bandwidth pot determines how much
of the frequencies either side of the
centre frequency should be affected.
Finally, the gain pot allows you to
increase or reduce the volume of the
chosen frequencies.
Suppose you had a lead sound that
contained frequencies ranging from
600 Hz to 9 kHz but the frequencies between 1 and 7 kHz were not
required. Using the frequency pot, you
could home in on the centre of these
(4 kHz) and then set the bandwidth
wide enough to affect 3 kHz either
side of the centre frequency. If you
then reduce the gain of this centre frequency, the frequencies 3 kHz either
side would be attenuated, too.
The size of this bandwidth is often
referred to as the Q (quality). The
smaller the Q number, the larger the
‘width’ of the bandwidth (Figure 19.3).

Q
Gain
cut

1 kHz

4 kHz
(Centre frequency)

7 kHz

FIGURE 19.3
Theoretical EQ

Q
Gain
cut

1 kHz

4 kHz
(Centre frequency)

7 kHz

FIGURE 19.4
Practical EQ

6 dB boost
3 dB boost

Such a precise bandwidth as shown in
the figure is entirely theoretical. In the
Q
real world the two extremes of the bandBecomes wider
width are not attenuated at right angles.
This is because, similar to synthesizer’s
filters, EQ has a transition period or ‘response curve’ that allows it to appear
more natural. Typically, this is around 3 dB per octave but can sometimes be
6 dB per octave (Figure 19.4).
The problem with this approach is that if you apply a particularly heavy cut
or boost and the Q does not remain constant, the bandwidth will increase in
size as you boost or cut further. Typically, the width of the Q is measured at
3 dB from the floor, so if the bandwidth were set to remove 2 kHz either side
of the centre frequency at an EQ boost of 3 dB and you were to then boost by
another 3 dB, the bandwidth would affect more of the frequencies either side
of the centre frequency (Figure 19.5).

FIGURE 19.5
Non-constant Q

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6 dB boost
3 dB boost

FIGURE 19.6
Constant EQ

Q
Remains constant

This action is known as a ‘non-constant
Q’ because the Q changes as you increase
or decrease the gain at the centre frequency. This creates an unnatural sound,
so many professional desks and external
EQ units will vary the response curve
as the gain is increased or decreased to
maintain a constant bandwidth. This
produces a sound that appears much
more natural to our ears and is the sign
of a well-designed EQ unit (Figure 19.6).

Q should only be used when discussing the theory behind EQ, and I wouldn’t
advise taking it any further than this book. In a studio situation you’re communicating with musicians, not techno freaks, so it’s usual to talk about the Q
in octaves. Otherwise you could find yourself laughed out of the studios. For
those with an unhealthy academic interest into how the Q value can be transformed into octaves, you can use the following math theorem:
(4 × Q 2 +1 )5 = B
⎛ B + 1 ⎞⎟
= Octave
log 2 ⎜⎜
⎜⎝ B − 1 ⎟⎟⎠
But for those who simply can’t be bothered, it’s worth memorizing this table as
it covers the most commonly used Q settings while mixing:
Q Setting

Octave Range

0.7

2 Octaves

1.0

1 31 Octaves

1.4

1 Octave

2.9

½ Octave

5.6

¼ Octave

Generally speaking, a bandwidth of 1/4th of an octave or less is used for
removing problematic frequencies, while a width of a couple of octaves is
suitable for shaping a large area of frequencies. For most work, though, and
especially if you’re new to mixing, you should look at always maintaining a
non-constant Q of 1.0. This is sometimes referred to by many engineers as the
‘magic Q’ since it commonly avoids any masking problems (we’ll look at this
in a moment) and sounds much more natural to the ears.
As of yet, we’ve only concerned ourselves with one form of EQ – parametric –
but there are shelving EQs too. These will, or at least should, be available on

Mixing CHAPTER 19

most semi-professional and all professional desks and consist of low- and highpass filters along with low- and high-shelf filters. These two different forms of
filters are often confused with one another due to their similar nature, but it is
important to differentiate between them.
Both low-pass and high-pass EQs are based on exactly the same principle as
the low- and high-pass filters used in synthesizers. The low-pass (sometimes
referred to as high-cut) will attenuate the higher frequencies that are above the
cut-off point. A high-pass (sometimes referred to as low-cut) will attenuate all
the lower frequencies that are below the cut-off point. Conversely, a low-shelf
filter will boost (or cut) any frequencies that are below the cut-off point, while
a high-shelf will boost (or cut) any frequencies above the cut-off point.
Of course, this does mean that if only low- and high-pass filters are available
on the desk, it is possible to emulate the action of a low- and high-shelf and
this is the reason why the two types are often confused. For instance, if you
need to emulate the action of a high-shelf, you could use the high-pass filter
and increase the EQ overall output level.
The specifications of the mixer will depend on how much control you have over
the filters and shelves but, generally, a shelving filter will have two controls: one to
select the frequency (often called the knee frequency) and one to adjust the gain
of the frequencies above (or below) the shelf. Some of the more expensive desks
may also offer the opportunity to adjust the transition slope of all these filters,
and this can sometimes be important when we need to ‘roll off ’ frequencies.
Since many speaker systems are incapable of producing frequencies as low as
40 Hz, they should be removed altogether and the attenuation of frequencies
above or below the cut-off point is often termed as ‘rolling off ’. Thus, if you
were asked to roll off all frequencies below 40 Hz, you would employ a highcut filter and position the cut-off point at 40 Hz. Or at least you would if the
transition slope of the EQ filter were more or less vertical. As we’ve seen, EQ
units will use a transition slope to make the effect appear more natural to our
ears, but we don’t necessarily need this when rolling off frequencies that are
not required; so it is useful to reduce this if it happens to be particularly long
(6 dB per octave and over) (Figure 19.7).
Naturally, all this control requires dedicated pots on a mixer and additional
circuitry to implement it; so many of the cheaper mixing desks will not employ
shelving or low/high-pass filters and in some instances may not even offer any
parametric EQ. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the cheaper the desk, the less EQ
control you’ll be offered. EQ can broadly be categorized into three areas: fixed
frequency, semi-parametric and graphic.

Fixed Frequency
Fixed-frequency EQ is possibly the worst type to have on any mixing desk as
it’s the least flexible, but as it is the cheapest to implement, many cheap consumer desks will employ it. Fixed-frequency EQ consists of two, sometimes

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Low shelving

F

(Harmonics/frequency)

High shelving

F

(Harmonics/frequency)

F

FIGURE 19.7
The action of shelving
filters

Fundamental
Filtered harmonics
Unfiltered harmonics

three, rotary pots that control the low, mid and high frequencies. To accomplish this, they commonly use low/high-pass filters with a fixed cut-off frequency at 12 kHz and 75 Hz for the high and low band, respectively. If there
is a third pot, then this controls the mid-band and is generally a notch filter
with a centre frequency that’s fixed at around 2 kHz and has a fixed bandwidth
of approximately two octaves (see the chart for the respective Q!). This type of
EQ makes precise, frequency-specific shaping impossible, and unless you have
an external parametric EQ unit it is far from suitable for creating a good mix.

Semi-Parametric
Semi-parametric EQs (sometimes known as sweep EQs) utilize a similar design
as fixed-frequency EQs with a fixed low/high-pass filter at 75 Hz and 12 kHz,
respectively. Rather than having a fixed mid-band, only the bandwidth is fixed
and you are free to sweep the centre frequency. This type of control is typical of mid-priced consumer mixing desks, but while offering more freedom
to select frequencies, the fixed bandwidth means that it isn’t versatile enough
for creative EQ. It can be particularly difficult to produce a good mix with this
limitation.

Graphic
Graphic EQs do not appear on mixing desks but are sometimes used by mastering engineers to set the overall tonal colour of a full mix. They’re also possibly the most instantly recognizable of all EQ units. Most home stereos now
have them fitted as standard, appearing as a number of faders, each of which
offers control over a specific frequency band.
The size of the bandwidth covered by each fader obviously depends on how
many faders it has. So the more faders available, the better the EQ, since each
bandwidth will be smaller. The reason these are referred to as graphic EQs is

Mixing CHAPTER 19

because you can often tell what type of music people listen to by the way the
equalizer is configured. Hence it’s rather graphic in nature.
With the intervention of computers and audio sequencers, this graphic nature
is not just limited to graphic EQs anymore, as many software mixing desks
and some of the latest digital desks will mix a parametric EQ with the visuals of a graphic EQ to produce a paragraphic EQ. This gives all the freedom
of a parametric EQ with the visual ease of using a graphic EQ. The immediate
benefit of this is obvious. Rather than having to determine the current EQ settings through a series of often cryptic pot positions, you can actually see the
frequency range being affected.
That said, keep in mind that your potential audience does not see EQ settings,
they only hear them and so you should do the same. One of the biggest problems with mixing on any ‘visually enhanced’ software desk is that you have the
tendency to use your eyes more than your ears and this can be disastrous. If it
looks right, it may not sound right; if it sounds right, it most probably is.

PRACTICAL MIXING
Armed with the theory of mixing, we can approach a mix on a more practical
sense, and it should go without saying that the first step to creating a good mix
is to ensure that you can actually hear what you’re doing reliably. If you don’t
hear the frequencies within a mix accurately, then you certainly can’t EQ or
affect them accurately. This means that you must use loudspeaker studio monitors to scrutinize a mix rather than placing your trust in everyday hi-fi speakers.
No matter how ‘hyped’ these are by manufacturers for having an excellent
frequency response, all hi-fi speakers deliberately employ frequency-specific
boosts and cuts throughout the sonic range to make the sound produced by
them appear full and rounded. As a result, if you rely entirely on these while
mixing, you’ll produce mixes that will not translate well on any other hi-fi
system. For instance, if your particular choice of hi-fi speakers features a bass
boost at 70 Hz and a cut in the mid-range, you’re obviously going to produce
a mix based on this. If your mix is then played on a system that has a flatter
response there will be less bass and an increased mid-range.
It’s impossible to recommend any particular make or model of studio monitor
because we all interpret sound differently, but generally you should look for a
model that makes any professionally produced music you like sound moderately lifeless. If you can make your mixes sound good on these, then it’s likely to
sound great on any other system. Then again, you shouldn’t aim for a totally flat
response, and it’s usual to look for monitors that are a happy medium between
coloured and flat. Indeed, most dance musicians will deliberately use monitors
with a vaguely coloured response, since 99.9% of people who are going to listen
to it will do so in a club, in a car or on a typical home stereo system.
Even with a good monitoring system, it’s important to also note that the
actual positioning of them will have an effect on the frequencies they produce.

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Placing any monitor close to a corner or wall will increase the perceived bass
by 3, 6 or 9 dB due to the boundary effect. This is similar in some respects to
the proximity effect that’s exhibited when singing too close to a microphone –
there’s an artificial rise in the bass frequencies.
With monitors this can be attributed to the low-frequency waveforms emanating from the rear of the monitor onto the wall or corner directly behind it.
This low-frequency energy combines with the energy produced by the monitor
itself and doubles the perceived bass. As a result, the general rule of thumb is
that unless they’re specifically manufactured to be used close to a wall (i.e. they
have a limited bass response and use the wall to produce the low-frequency
energy), they should be placed at least 3 feet away from any wall. Of course,
this may not always be possible, and if it isn’t then you’ll have to learn to live
with the increased response by listening to as many commercial mixes you can
and training your ears to accept the response they produce.
On that note, before you even approach any mix you should take time out to
listen to some of your favourite commercial mixes. We hear music everyday
but we very rarely actually listen to it, and if you want to become competent at
mixing, you need to differentiate between hearing and listening. This means
that you need to sit down and play back your favourite commercial mixes at a
moderate volume (just above conversation level) and try to pick out the action
of the bass, the drums, vocals, leads and any sound effects. Listen for how the
melodies have been programmed and ask questions such as:
■
■

■
■
■
■

Is there any pitch bend in the notes?
Does the drum loop stay the same throughout the track or does it
change in any way?
What pattern are the hi-hats playing?
Do they remain constant throughout?
What effects have been used?
Where is each instrument placed in the mix?

Although many of these may not seem related to mixing, listening this closely
for small nuances in drum loops, hi-hat patterns and basses, etc., will train
your ears into listening closely to any music and will help you to not only
begin identifying frequencies but also increase your awareness of arrangement
and programming techniques.
Most important of all, though, despite the huge array of audio tools available
today, the most significant ones are those that are stuck to the side of your head.
Continually monitoring your mixes at excessive volume or listening to any music
loud will damage the ears’ sensitivity to certain frequencies. A recent survey conducted showed that those in their late teens and early twenties who constantly listened to loud music had more hearing irregularities than people twice their age.
Also, keep in mind that dabbling in pharmaceuticals for recreational use leads
to a heightened sensory perception. Although they may have played a large role
in the development of the dance scene, they don’t help in the studios. Apart
from losing hours from fits of laughter about terms such as ring modulation,

Mixing CHAPTER 19

the heightened sensory perception makes (a) everything sound great or (b)
everything sound wrong, so you spend the next 10 h twiddling EQ on something that doesn’t need it.

VOLUME ADJUSTMENTS
The first step in creating a mix is to begin by setting the relative volume levels of each track, and this means taking the musical style into account. You
need to identify the defining elements of the genre and make sure that these
are placed at the very front of the mix. Typically for all dance music this means
that the drums and bass should sit at the front of the mix with everything else
that must be located centrally sitting behind them. This includes the vocals as
more often than not they will not be the truly defining part of the music.
It’s generally best to begin mixing by starting with these defining points, so
it’s prudent to mute every channel bar the drum tracks and commence mixing
these. As the kick drum is the most prominent part of a drum loop, set this so
it’s at unity gain and then introduce the snare, claps, hi-hats, cymbals and other
percussion instruments at their relative levels to the kick.
At this point don’t concern yourself with panning, EQ or effects but try to find
a happy medium so that the drum levels are close to how you imagine the finished product to sound. Follow this by adding the bass, then the vocals (or the
next important part of the mix) and gradually add each audio track in order
of priority, adjusting the volume levels until all the instruments are playing
together in the mix. It’s vital that you’re not concerned with masking, EQ or
effects at this stage. You need to make the mix work quickly before you start
jumping in with compressors, EQ or effects as these can quickly send you off
on a tangent and you can lose the direction of the mix. If you’re experiencing
troubles setting the volume levels, then a quick trick is to switch the mix to
mono as this allows you to hear the relative volume levels more accurately.
This form of ‘additive’ mixing is only one way to approach a mix, and some
users feel more at ease using the ‘subtractive’ method. This means that all the
faders are set at unity gain, and each is reduced to obtain the appropriate levels
required. Which to use is entirely up to your own digression and depends on
which you feel most comfortable with.
Whichever method you feel at ease with, an approach I often recommend is
that when adjusting any volume fader, do not listen to the instrument you
are adjusting the volume of, rather listen to the whole mix and how adjusting
the volume is affecting the mix. For instance, as you increase the volume of the
strings (if they are present), do not listen to the strings, rather listen to how the
other instruments are being affected by the strings’ increase in gain.

PANNING
With all the relative volume levels set, you can then begin to pan the instruments to their appropriate positions. This is where your own creativity and

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scrutinizing of previous mixes of the same genre will come into play, as there
are no ‘strict’ rules for creating a good soundstage. Of course, this isn’t going
to be much help to those new to mixing, so what follows is a very generalized
guide to where instruments are usually positioned in most dance genres.
Instrument

Pan Position/Description

Kick

Positioned central so that both speakers share
the energy

Snare

Positioned from 1 o’clock to 2 o’clock or central

Hi-hats

Positioned at the far left of the soundstage with a
delayed version in the right

Cymbals

Positioned central or from 1 to 2 o’clock

Percussion

Positioned so that the different timbres are in the
left and/or right of the soundstage

Bass

Positioned central so that both speakers share
the energy

Vocals

Positioned central since you always expect the
vocalist to be centre stage

Backing vocals

Occasionally stereo so they’re spread from 2 to
4 o’clock

Synth leads (trance)

A stereo file positioned fully left and right with
perhaps a mono version sat central

Synthesized strings

Positioned at 4 o’clock or stereo spread at 9 and
3 o’clock

Guitars

Positioned at 3 o’clock

Pianos

Commonly stereo with the high notes in the left
speaker and low notes in the right

Wind instruments

Positioned in the left or right speaker (or both) at
3 and 9 o’clock

Sound effects

Wherever there is space left in the mix!

Apart from placing the kick, bass and vocals in the centre of the soundstage,
note that this is a very general guide and the panning of instruments will define
your own particular style of mixing. Indeed, the best solution to panning
instruments is to have a damn good reason as to why you’re placing a timbre
there in the first place. Always have a plan and don’t just throw sounds around
the image regardless.

Mixing CHAPTER 19

In direct contradiction, in many dance mixes the positioning of instruments
is rarely natural, so you should feel free to experiment. In fact, in many cases
it may be important to exaggerate the positions of each instrument to make a
mix appear clearer and more defined. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t position a
sound in a different area of the soundstage just to avoid any small frequency
clashes with other instruments. In these circumstances you should try to EQ
the sound beforehand; if it still doesn’t fit, consider panning it out of the way.
After the instruments have been panned it’s highly likely that the relative volumes will have adjusted. You’ll need to go back and readjust these so that the
instruments are all at their appropriate volumes. Again, while panning the
instruments, listen to how the rest of the instruments are being affected, rather
than listening to where the instrument being panned is moving.

EQ
Although there are no rules on how to use EQ when it comes to mixing, some
generalizations can be made. Firstly, any EQ is essentially acting like a filter
and this means that like any other type of filter EQ introduces resonance at the
cut-off point and phase shifting. In other words, it applies small amounts of
comb filtering into the audio, which sounds like small amounts of distortion.
This is where the quality of the EQ unit being used plays a major role: less
competent/cheaper EQ units will introduce more comb filtering than the more
expensive units.
As a result, you need to exercise care while EQ’ing sounds so that it doesn’t
become too apparent; this is why many engineers will advise that you should
look to cutting frequencies rather than boosting them. This is because boosting
any frequency will make the phase distortion much more noticeable. To support this theory further, in the ‘real’ world our ears are more used to hearing
reductions in frequencies than boosts since frequencies are generally reduced
by walls, objects and materials.
Yet another reason to cut rather than boost lies with the recording of the audio
itself. To increase the signal-to-noise ratio, any audio should be captured as
‘hot’ as possible. If an audio file is already close to clipping, EQ boosts may
push the audio to distortion.
As mentioned, these are only generalizations and so in direct contradiction, on
occasion, boosting the frequencies that are lower in volume than the fundamental can be used as a creative sound design tool. Indeed, one of the most
common misconceptions about EQ is that you should never really have to use
it if the sound is recorded correctly in the first place.
The viewpoint stems from when EQ was first used as a means of correcting
the frequency response of a recording to prevent it from compromising the
recorded sound. This was because recording in the early days was carried out
with poor-quality gear when compared with today’s standards and, therefore,
frequencies had to be adjusted to reproduce the original recording.

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FIGURE 19.8
A spectral analysis of
the house bass sound

While many older engineers still stand by this view, it means absolutely nothing to the dance musician since a proportionate amount of the timbres used
will be synthetic anyway. Thus, apart from using EQ to help instruments sit
together and create space within a mix, EQ should also be seen as a way of creatively distorting timbres.
Since EQ is essentially a filter, it can be used to reduce certain frequencies of a
sound, which will have the immediate effect of increasing the frequencies that
have not been touched. As an example of this, we’ll use a spectral analyzer to
examine the frequency content of the bass sound that was created for the house
track (Figure 19.8).
Notice how there are a number of peaks in the timbre. If you were to listen to
this sound, you would primarily hear these four loudest frequencies. However,
using EQ creatively you can turn down these peaks to hear more of the entire
frequency spectrum of the bass. It then becomes much more harmonically
complex and can sustain repeated listening because the closer you listen to
it the more you can hear. Making a sound appear as complex as possible by
reducing the peaks is a common practice for many big-name producers. This
could be further accentuated by applying small EQ boosting to the lower peaks
of a sound.
On the other hand, simple ones can work as well as complex ones. This can
be accomplished by cutting all but these four peaks. This cutting can also
offer another advantage: as it is unlikely that you would be able to perceive the
lowest frequencies (harmonics) contained in the sound, there is little need to
leave them in; by removing them you would make more room for instruments
in the mix.
You shouldn’t simply grab a pot and start creatively boosting aimlessly since
you need to consider the loudspeaker system that the mix is to be played back
on. All loudspeaker systems have a limited frequency response and produce

Mixing CHAPTER 19

more energy in the mid-range than anywhere else. This means that if you
decide to become ‘creative’ on the bass or mid-range, you could end up increasing energy that the speaker cannot reproduce faithfully, resulting in an overzealous or muddy mid-range, or worse still, a quieter mix overall!
The main use for EQ within mixing, however, is to prevent any frequency masking
between instruments. As touched upon in Chapter 1, the fundamental and subsequent harmonics contribute to making any sound what it is, but if two timbres
of similar frequencies are mixed together, some of the harmonics are ‘masked’,
resulting in the instruments sounding different in the mix than in isolation.
While this can have its uses in sound design (hocketing, layering etc.), during mixing it can cause serious problems since not only is it impossible to mix
sounds that you can’t hear, the frequencies that mix together can make both
sounds lose their overall structure, become indistinct or, worse still, the confliction will result in unwanted gain increases.
Naturally, knowing if you have a problem with frequency masking is the first
step towards curing it; so if you’re unsure whether some instruments are being
masked, you can check by raising the volume of every track to unity gain and
then panning each track in turn to the left of the stereo field and then to right. If
you hear the sound moving from the left speaker through the centre of the mix
and then off to the right, it’s unlikely that there are any conflicts. This, however,
is about the only generalization you can make for mixing. The rest is entirely
up to your own artistic preferences. Because of this, what follows can only be a
very rough guide to EQ and to the frequencies that you may need to adjust to
avoid any masking problems. As such, they are open to your own interpretations
because, after all, it’s your mix and only you know how you want it to sound.

Drums
DRUM KICK
A typical dance drum kick consists of two major components: the attack and
the low-frequency impact. The attack usually resides around 3–6 kHz and the
low-end impact resides between 40 and 120 Hz. If the kick seems very low
without a prominent attack stage, then it’s worthwhile setting a very high Q
and a large gain reduction to create a notch filter. Once created, use the frequency control to sweep around 3–6 kHz and place a cut just below the attack,
as this has the effect of increasing the frequencies located directly above.
If this approach doesn’t produce results, set a very thin Q as before, but this
time apply 5 dB of gain and sweep the frequencies again to see if this helps it
pull out of the mix. Taking this latter approach can push the track into distortion, so remember to reduce the gain of the channel if necessary.
If the kick’s attack is prominent but it doesn’t seem to have any ‘punch’, the
low-frequency energy may be missing. You can try small gain boosts of around
40–120 Hz but this will rarely produce the timbre. The problem more likely
resides with your choice of drum timbre. A fast attack on a compressor may

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help to introduce more punch as it’ll clamp down on the transient, reducing
the high-frequency content. But this could change the perception of the mix,
so it may be more prudent to replace the kick with a more significant timbre.

SNARE DRUM
Generally, snare drums contain plenty of energy at low frequencies that can often
cloud a mix and are not necessary; so the first step should be to employ a shelving (or high-pass) filter to remove all the frequency content below 150 Hz.
The ‘snap’ of most snares usually resides around 2–10 kHz, while the main
body can reside anywhere between 400 Hz and 1 kHz. Applying cuts or boosts
and sweeping between these ranges should help you find the elements that you
need to bring out or remove but, roughly speaking, cuts at 400 and 800 Hz
will help it sit better while a small decibel boost (or a notch cut before) at 8 or
10 kHz will help to brighten its ‘snap’.

HI-HATS AND CYMBALS
Obviously, these instruments contain very little low-end information that’s of
any use and, if left in, can cloud some of the mid-range. Consequently, they
benefit from a high-pass filter to remove all the frequencies below 300 Hz.
Typically, the presence of these instruments lies between 1 and 6 kHz while the
brightness can reside as high as 8–12 kHz. A shelving filter set to boost all frequencies above 8 kHz can bring out the brightness but it’s advisable to roll off
all frequencies above 15 kHz at the same time to prevent any hiss from breaking through into the track. If there is a lack of presence, then small decibel
boosts with a Q of about an octave at 600 Hz should add some presence.

TOMS AND CONGAS
Both these instruments have frequencies as low as 100 Hz but are not required
for us to recognize the sound and, if left, can cloud the low and low mids;
thus, it’s advisable to shelve off all frequencies below 200 Hz. They should not
require any boosts in the mix as they rarely play such a large part in a loop but
a Q of approximately 1/2 of an octave applied between 300 and 800 Hz can
often increase the higher end, making them appear more significant.

Bass
Bass is the most difficult instrument to fit into any dance mix since its interaction with the kick drum produces much of the essential groove – but it can be
fraught with problems.
The main problems with mixing bass can derive from the choice of timbres
and the arrangement of the mix. While dance music is, by its nature, loud
and ‘in your face’, this is not attributed to using big, exuberant, harmonically
rich sounds throughout. As we’ve touched upon, our minds can only work in
contrast, so for one sound to appear big, the rest should be smaller. Of course,

Mixing CHAPTER 19

this presents a problem if you’re working with a large kick and large bass, as
the two occupy similar frequencies which can result in a muddied bottom end.
This can be particularly evident if the bass notes are quite long as there will
be little or no low-frequency ‘silence’ between the bass and the kicks, making it difficult for the listener to perceive a difference between the two sounds.
Consequently, if the genre requires a huge, deep bass timbre, the kick should
be made tighter by rolling off some of the conflicting lower frequencies and
the higher frequency elements should be boosted with EQ to make it appear
more ‘snappy’. Alternatively, if the kick should be felt in the chest, the bass can
be made lighter by rolling off the conflicting lower frequencies and boosting
the higher elements.
Naturally, there will be occasions whereby you need both heavy kick and bass
elements in the mix, and in this instance, the arrangement should be configured so that the bass and the kick do not occur at the same point in time. In
fact, most genres of dance will employ this technique by offsetting the bass so
that it occurs on the offbeat. For instance, trance music almost always uses a
4/4 kick pattern with the bass sat in between each kick on the eighth of the bar.
If this isn’t a feasible solution and both bass and kick must sit on the same beat,
then you will have to resort to aggressive EQ adjustments on the bass. Similar
to most instruments in dance music, we have no expectations of how a bass
should actually sound, so if it’s overlapping with the kick making for a muddy
bottom end, you shouldn’t be afraid to make some forceful tonal adjustments.
Typically for synthetic instruments, small decibel boosts with a thin Q at
60–80 Hz will often fatten up a wimpy bass that’s hiding behind the kick. If
the bass still appears weak after these boosts, you should look towards replacing the timbre; it’s a dangerous practice to boost frequencies below these as it’s
impossible to accurately judge frequencies any lower on the near-fields. In fact,
for accurate playback on most hi-fi systems it’s prudent to use a shelving filter
to roll off all frequencies below 60 Hz.
Of course, this isn’t much help if you’re planning on releasing a mix on vinyl
for club play as many PA systems will produce energy as low as 30 Hz. If this
is the case, you should continue to mix the bass but avoid boosting or cutting
anything below 40 Hz. This should be left to the mastering engineer who will
be able to accurately judge just how much low-end presence is required. As a
very rough guide for theoretical purposes alone, a graphic equalizer set to ⫺6 dB
at around 20 Hz, gently sloping upwards to 0 dB at 90 Hz, can sometimes prove
sufficient enough for club play.
If the problem is that the bass has no punch, then a Q of approximately half of
an octave with a small cut or boost and sweeping the frequency range between
120 and 180 Hz may increase the punch to help it to pull through the kick.
Alternatively, small boosts of half of an octave at 200–300 Hz may pronounce
the rasp, helping it to become more definable in the mix. Notably, in some mixes
the highest frequencies of the rasp may begin to conflict with the mid-range

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instruments, and if this is the case then it’s prudent to employ a shelving filter
to remove the conflicting higher frequencies.
Provided that the bass frequencies are not creating a conflict with the kick,
another common problem is the volume in the mix. While the bass timbre
may sound fine, there may not be enough volume to allow it to pull to the
front of the mix. The best way to overcome this is to introduce small amounts
of controlled distortion, but rather than reach for the atypical distortion unit,
it’s much better to use an amp or speaker simulator.
Amp simulators are designed to emulate the response of a typical cabinet,
so they roll off the higher frequency elements that are otherwise introduced
through distortion units. As a result, not only are more harmonics introduced
into the bass timbre without it sounding particularly distorted but you can use
small EQ cuts to mould the sound into the mix without having to worry about
higher frequency elements, creating conflicts with instruments sitting in the
mid-range.
If the bass is still being sequenced from a tone module or sampler, then
before applying any effects you should attempt to correct the sound in the
module itself. As covered in an earlier chapter, we can perceive the loudness
of a sound from the shape of its amplitude envelope and harmonic content,
so simple actions such as opening the filter cut-off or reducing the attack and
release stage on both the amplitude and the filter envelopes can make it appear
more prominent. If both these envelopes are already set at a fast attack and
release, then layering the kick from a typical rock kit over the initial transient of
the bass followed by some EQ sculpting can help to increase the attack stage,
but at the same time, be cautious not to overpower the track’s original kick.
Although most genres of dance will employ synthetic timbres, on occasion they
do utilize a real bass guitar, and if so, a slightly different approach is required
when mixing. As previously mentioned, bass cabs will roll off most high frequencies, reducing most high-range conflicts, but they can also lack any real bottomend presence. As a result, for dance music it’s quite usual to layer a synthesizer’s
sine wave underneath the guitar to add some more bottom-end weight.
This technique can be especially useful if there are severe finger or string noises
evident, since the best way to remove these is to roll off everything above
300 Hz. More importantly, though, unlike tone modules where the output is
compressed to even level, bass guitars will fluctuate widely in dynamics and
these must be brought under control with compression. Keep in mind that
no matter what the genre of dance, the bass should remain even throughout
the mix and remain consistent. If it fluctuates in level, the whole groove of the
record can be undermined.
If after trying all these techniques there is still a ‘marriage’ problem between
kick and bass, then it’s worth compressing the kick drum with a short attack
stage so that its transient is captured by the compressor. This will not only make
the kick appear more ‘punchy’ but also allow the initial pluck of the bass to pull

Mixing CHAPTER 19

through the mix. That said, you should avoid compressing the kick so heavily
that it begins to ring, as this will only muddy up the bottom end of the mix.
As ever, the compression settings to be used are entirely dependent on the
kick in question but generally a good starting point is a ratio of 8:1 with a fast
attack and release and the threshold set such that every kick activates the compressor. Ultimately, as all bass sounds are different the only real solution is
to experiment by EQ boosting or cutting around 120–350 Hz or by applying
heavy compression to conflicting instruments.

Vocals
Although vocals take priority over every other instrument in a pop mix, in
most genres of dance they will take a back seat to the rhythmic elements of a
mix. Having said that, they must be mixed coherently since while they may sit
behind the beat, the groove relationship and syncopation between the vocals
and the rhythm is what makes us want to dance. Subsequently, you should
exercise great care in getting the vocals to sit properly in the mix.
Firstly, it should go without saying that the vocals should be compressed so
that they maintain a constant level throughout the mix without disappearing behind instruments. Generally speaking, a good starting point is to set the
threshold so that most of the vocal range is compressed with a ratio of 9:1 and
an attack to allow the initial transient to pull through unmolested.
The choice of compressor used for this is absolutely vital and you must choose
one that adds some ‘character’ to the vocals. Most of the compressors that are
preferred for vocal mix compression are hardware units such as the LA 2A and
the UREI 1176, but the Waves RComp plug-in followed by the PSP Vintage
Warmer can produce good results. This is all down to personal choice, though,
and it’s prudent to try a series of compressors to see which produces the best
results for your vocals.
It’s worth noting that even when compressed it isn’t unusual to automate the
volume faders to help the vocals stay prominent throughout. It’s quite common to increase the volume on the tail end of words to prevent them from disappearing into the background mix. If you take this approach, you may need
to duck any heavy breath noises but you should avoid removing them between
phrases, otherwise they could sound false.
Once compressed, vocals will or should rarely require any EQ as they should
have been captured correctly at the recording stage and any boosts now can
make them appear unnatural. That said, small decibel boosts with a 1/2 octave
Q at 10 kHz can help to make the vocals appear much more defined as the
consonants become more comprehensible. If you take this ‘clarity’ approach,
however, it’s prudent to use it in conjunction with a good de-esser. This will
remove the sibilance boosting at 10 kHz but will leave the body of the vocals
untouched. This must be applied cautiously, otherwise it could introduce lisps.

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Alternatively, if the vocals appear particularly muddy in the mix, an octave Q
placing a 2 dB cut at a centre frequency of approximately 400 Hz should remove
any problems. If, however, they seem to lack any real energy while sitting in the
mix, a popular technique used by many dance artists is to speed (and pitch)
the vocals up by a couple of cents. While the resulting sound may appear ‘off the
mark’ to pitch-perfect musicians, it produces higher energy levels that are perfectly suited towards dance vocals; besides, not many clubbers are pitch-perfect.
It’s also sensible to add any of the effects you have planned for the vocals. As
these play an important part in the music, they must fit now rather than later
as any instruments that are introduced after them should have their frequencies
reduced if they conflict with the vocals or effects. For instance, it’s quite typical to apply a light smear of reverb to the vocals (remember the golden rule,
though!) to help them produce a more natural tone, but if this were applied
later in the mix you may find yourself EQ’ing the effect to make room for other
instruments, which can produce unnatural results.

Synthesizers/Pianos/Guitars
The rest of the instruments in a mix will (or should) all have fundamentals
in the mid-range. Generally speaking, you should mix and EQ the next most
important aspect of the mix and follow this with progressively less important sounds. If vocals have been employed, there will undoubtedly be some
frequency masking where the vocals and mid-range instruments meet, so you
should look towards leaving the vocals alone and applying EQ cuts to adjust
the instrument. Alternatively, the mid-range can benefit from being inserted
into a compressor or noise gate, with the vocals entering the side chain so that
the mid-range dips whenever the vocals are present. This must be applied cautiously and a ‘duck’ of 1 dB is usually sufficient; any more and the vocals may
become detached from the music.
Most mid-range instruments will contain frequencies lower than necessary, and
while you may not actually be able to physically hear them in the mix, they
will still have an effect of the lower mid-range and bass frequencies. Thus, it’s
prudent to employ a shelving filter to remove any frequencies that are not contributing to the sound within the mix. The best way to accomplish this is to set
up a high-shelf filter with maximum cut and, starting from the lower frequencies, sweep up the range until the effect is noticeable on the instrument. From
this point sweep back down the range until the ‘missing’ frequencies return and
stop. This same process can also be applied to the higher frequencies if some
are present and do not contribute to the sound when it’s sitting in the mix.
Generally, keyboard leads and guitars will need to be towards the front of the
mix but the exact frequencies to adjust will be entirely dependent on the instrument and mix in question. Nevertheless, for most mid-range instruments, it’s
worth setting the Q at an octave and applying a cut of 2–3 dB while sweeping
across 400–800 Hz and 1–5 kHz. This often removes the muddy frequencies
and can increase the presence of most mid-range instruments.

Mixing CHAPTER 19

Above all, try to keep the instruments in perspective by asking yourself questions such as:
■
■
■
■
■

Is the instrument brighter than the hi-hats?
Is the instrument brighter than a vocal?
Is the instrument brighter than a piano?
Is the instrument brighter than a guitar?
Is the instrument brighter than a bass?

What follows is a general guide to the frequencies of most sounds that sit in the
mid-range along with the frequencies that contribute to the sound. Of course,
whether to boost or cut will depend entirely on the effect you wish to achieve.

PIANOS
■
■
■
■
■
■

50–100 Hz: Add weight to the sound
100–250 Hz: Add roundness
250–1000 Hz: Muddy frequencies
1–6000 Hz: Add presence
6–8000 Hz: Add clarity
8–12 000 Hz: Reduce hiss

ELECTRIC GUITARS
■
■
■
■
■

100–250 Hz: Add body
250–800 Hz: Muddy frequencies but may add roundness
1–6000 Hz: Allow it to cut through the mix
6–8000 Hz: Add clarity
8–12 000 Hz: Reduce hiss

ACOUSTIC GUITARS
■
■
■

100–250 Hz: Add body
6–8000 Hz: Add clarity
8–12 000 Hz: Add brightness

SYNTH LEADS/STRINGS/PADS
■
■
■
■
■
■

50–100 Hz: Add bottom-end weight
100–250 Hz: Add body
250–800 Hz: Muddy frequencies
1–6000 Hz: Enhance digital crunch
6–8000 Hz: Add clarity
8–12 000 Hz: Add brightness

WIND INSTRUMENTS
■
■
■
■
■

100–250 Hz: Add body
250–800 Hz: Muddy frequencies
800–1000 Hz: Add roundness
6–8000 Hz: Add clarity
8–12 000 Hz: Add brightness

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PROCESSING AND EFFECTS
We’ve looked at the various effects in previous chapters, so rather than reiterating it all we’ll just say that you should refrain from using any effects during the
mixing process (bar the vocals) and only once the mix is together should you
consider adding any effects. Even then, you should only apply them if they are
truly necessary.
Always keep in mind that empty spaces in a mix do not have to be filled with
reverb or echo decays: a good mix works on contrast. When it comes to effects
and mixing, less is invariably more. Any effects, but particularly reverb, can
quickly clutter up a mix, resulting in a loss of clarity. Since there will probably
be plenty going on already, adding effects will only make the mix busier than
it already is and it’s important to keep some space in between the individual
instruments. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes made is to employ effects on
every instrument when, in reality, only one or two may be needed throughout.
Therefore, before applying any effects it’s prudent to ask yourself why you are
applying them – to enhance the mix? or make a poorly programmed timbre
sound better? If it’s the latter, then you should look towards using an alternative timbre rather than trying to disguise it with effects.
Above all, remember the golden rules when using any effects:
1. Most effects should not be audible within a mix. Only when they’re
removed you should notice the difference.
2. If an effect is used delicately, it can be employed throughout the track,
but if it’s extreme, it will have a bigger impact if it’s only used in short
bursts. You can have too much of a good thing but it’s better to leave the
audience gasping for more than gasping for a break.

COMMON MIXING PROBLEMS
Frequency Masking
As touched upon earlier, frequency masking is one of the most common problems experienced when mixing, whereby the frequencies of two instruments
are matched and compete for space in the soundstage. In this instance, you
need to identify the most important instrument of the two and give this the
priority while panning or aggressively EQ’ing the secondary sound to make it
fit into the mix.
If this doesn’t produce the results, then you should ask yourself if the conflicting instrument contributes enough to remain in the mix. Simply reducing the
gain of the offending channel will not necessarily bring the problem under
control as it will still contribute frequencies which can still muddy the mix; it’s
much more prudent to simply mute the channel altogether and listen to the
difference that makes. Alternatively, if you wish to keep the two instruments
in the mix, consider leaving one of them out and bringing it in later during
another ‘verse’, or ‘chorus’ or after the reprise.

Mixing CHAPTER 19

Clarity and Energy
All good mixes work on the principle of contrast, that is, the ability to hear
each instrument clearly. It’s all too easy to get carried away by employing too
many instruments at once in an effort to disguise weak timbres, but this will
very rarely produce a great mix. A cluttered, dense mix lacks energy and cohesion, so you should aim to mix so that you can hear some silence behind the
notes of each instrument; if you can’t, start to remove the non-essential instruments until some of the energy returns.
If no instrument can be removed, then aim to remove the unneeded frequencies rather than the objectionable ones by notching out frequencies of the
offending tracks either above or below where the instruments contribute most
of their body. This may result in the instrument sounding ‘odd’ in solo, but if
the instrument must play in an exposed part then the EQ can be automated or
two different versions could be used.
Additionally, when working with the groove of the record, remember that the
silence between the groove elements produces an effect that makes it appear
not only louder (silence to full volume) but also more energetic, so in many
instances it’s worthwhile refraining from adding too many percussive elements.
More importantly, though, good dance mixes do not bring attention to every
part of the mix. Keep a good contrast by only making the important sounds big
and upfront, and leave the rest in the background.

Prioritize the Mix
During the mixing stage, always prioritize the main elements of the mix and
approach these first. It’s all too easy to spend a full day ‘twitching’ the EQ on
a hi-hat or cymbal without getting a good balance on the most important elements. Always mix the most important elements first and you’ll find that the
‘secondary’ timbres tend to look after themselves.

Mixing for Vinyl and Clubs
When mixing a record down that will be pressed onto vinyl for club play, you’ll
need to exercise more care in the frequencies you adjust. To begin with, any frequencies above 6 kHz should not be boosted and all frequencies above 15 kHz
should be shelved off. On top of this, it’s also prudent to run a de-esser across
each individual track.
These techniques will help to keep the high-frequency content under some
control since if the turntable cartridges are old (as they usually are in many
clubs) it will introduce sibilance into the higher frequencies. Additionally, the
frequencies on the kick and bass should be rolled off at 40 Hz, while every
other instrument in the mix should have any frequency below 150 Hz rolled
off. While this may sound unnatural for CD, it makes for a much clearer mix
when pressed to vinyl and played over a club PA system.

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PART 3 Mixing & Promotion

Relative Volume
Analytical listening can tire your ears quickly, so it’s always advisable to avoid
monitoring at loud volumes as this will only quicken the process. The ideal standard monitoring volume is around conversation level (85 dB), but you need to
keep the Fletcher Munson contour control in mind during mixing. After every volume or EQ adjustment, reference the mix again at various gain levels. It can also
be beneficial to monitor the mix in mono when setting and adjusting the volume
levels, as this will reveal the overall balance of the instruments more clearly.

EQ
EQ can be used to shape all instruments but you can only apply so much before
the instrument loses its characteristics, so be cautious with any EQ. Always bypass
it every few minutes to make a note of the tonal adjustments you are making but
remember that while an EQ’d instrument may not sound correct in isolation,
what really matters is that it sounds right when run with the rest of the mix.

Cut EQ Rather Than Boost
Our ears are used to hearing a reduction in frequencies rather than boosts since
frequencies are always reduced in the real world by walls, objects and materials. Consequently, while some boosts may be required for creative reasons you
should look towards mostly cutting to prevent the mix from sounding too artificial. Keep in mind that you can effectively boost some frequencies of a sound
by cutting others as the volume relationship between them will change. This
will produce a mix that has clarity and detail.

Don’t Use EQ as a Volume Control
If you find yourself having to boost frequencies for volume, you should not
have to boost by more than 5 dB. If you have to go higher than this, then the
chances are that the sound itself was poorly recorded or the wrong choice for
the mix was made.

Remember the Magic Q
A Q setting of 1 13 octaves has a bandwidth that’s generally suitable for EQ’ing
most instruments and often produces the best results. That said, if the instrument is heavily melodic or you’re working with vocals, wider Q settings are
preferred and a typical starting point is about two octaves. Finally, drums and
most percussion instruments will benefit from a Q of 1/2 an octave.

Shelf EQ
Shelf equalizers are generally used to cut rather than boost because they work at the
extremes of the audio range. For instance, using a shelving filter to boost the low
frequencies will only accentuate low-end rumble since there’s very little sound this
low. Similarly, using a shelf to boost the high range will increase all the frequencies
above the cut-off point, and there’s very little high-frequency energy above 16 kHz.

Mixing CHAPTER 19

Fix it in the Mix
‘Fix it in the mix’ is the opinion of a poor engineer and is something that
should never cross your mind. If a timbre is wrong, no matter how long it took
to programme, admit that it’s wrong and programme/sample one that is more
suitable. The following chart indicates the frequencies for mixing:

Frequencies

Musical Effect

General Uses

30–60 Hz

These frequencies
produce some of the
bottom-end power but,
if boosted too heavily,
can cloud the harmonic
content, introduce
noise and make the mix
appear muddy.

Boosts of a decibel or so
may increase the weight of
bass instruments for drum ‘n’
bass.
Cuts of a few decibels may
reduce any booming and will
increase the perception of
harmonic overtones, helping
the bass become more
defined.

60–125 Hz

These frequencies also
contribute to the bottom
end of the track but, if
boosted too heavily, can
result in the mix losing
its bottom-end cohesion
resulting in a mushy,
‘boomy’ sound.

Boosts of a decibel or so may
increase the weight of kick
drums and bass instruments
and add weight to some
snares, guitars, horns and
pianos.
Cuts of a few decibels may
reduce the boom of bass
instruments and guitars.

125–250 Hz

The fundamental of
bass usually resides
here. These frequencies
contribute t