Monday, September 15, 2008
As much as we all love synthesizers, samplers and other electronic noise makers, I think if we're honest, we have to admit that one area electronics often are lacking, is in expression. Of course, there are numerous ways to add expression, but even with these, it is tough to match the vast variety of sounds that, for example, a skilled guitarist has at his disposal. They can mute notes, play harmonics, slide, bend, pluck, or if you're Jimmy Page (and you're not), even play it with a violin bow. There are some ways to liven up synth lines, however, and today we're going to look at varying a note's gate time to add more of a groove to it.
Gate time simply refers to how long a note is held. If you listen to a really good funk rhythm guitarist, you'll notice that they add rhythmic drive to their parts by interspersing short, muted notes with more sustained ones. This essentially imitates the way a drummer's hi-hat works - when the hi-hat is closed, the sound is short and sharp, and when it is open, the sound sustains more. The drummer adds rhythmic interest by alternating between these two sounds in a musically meaningful way. Since you're a smart bunch, I'll assume you see where I am going here - we can add groove and rhythmic drive simply by varying the gate times of the notes. Here's how to do it:
1. The most important part is that you need a sound with no release to it. In other words, the sound cuts off sharply when you release the keys versus one that fades out more gradually. A Hammond Organ or a Clav sound would be a good example. Most synth basses fit this description as well.
2. This technique works best with 16th notes, so play or step program a bassline with straight 16th notes.
3. Quantize that mutha. (You can skip this if you step programmed).
4. Now open up the riff you just played and quantized in your DAW's 'piano roll' note editor. In Logic 8 , simply double click on the riff in the arrange area.
5. You should be able to alter the lengths of the notes by dragging the end of the little blocks that represent them. To start out, set them all so they are exactly one 16th note in length. No shorter, and no longer. If your bass sound is monophonic, make sure these notes don't overlap. If you step programmed, you can skip this too, as your notes should already be of a uniform length.
6. Now picture a hi-hat pattern in your head. Something that alternates closed and open hats in an interesting way. Start with something simple. Now, every time there is an open hat sounding in your imaginary hi-hat pattern, we'll leave the gate length as it is. But all of the notes that line up with the closed hat in your imaginary pattern we're going to shorten. You can do this by dragging the note ends until they about one 32nd note in length (half the length of the other notes, in other words).
If you done everything correctly, you should have something more dynamic and interesting than what you started with. It takes practice to figure out which notes to lengthen and shorten, but imagining the hi-hat pattern helps. If you want to make it even easier, program the hi-hat pattern into your sequencer to play along with the notes so you have an audio reference point to match it exactly. When you're done, you can simply erase the guide hi-hat track.
Below is a quick and dirty example. The first example features no gate variation at all, the second uses the technique detailed above, and the third also uses that technique, but also adds swing to the quantization to make it groove even harder.