In this CPU-friendly tutorial, we will see how to create a complete arrangement with unconventional rhythmic structures within just one track: using one synthesizer (Terra), two sequencers in series (Moor), and some inspiration from… classical music. Eager to know more? Keep reading, and watch the video tutorial! Want to skip straight to the video? Scroll until the end of the page, or follow this link.
Voices v/s Instruments: The Curse of Multitrack.
Today’s music is essentially polyphonic, meaning that we often play more than one melody simultaneously: the various notes that end up together form the “voices” of our chords.
With any DAW, we can have access to a vast array of tools for creating sounds that will eventually become the voices of our composition: a sound for “the lead,” a sound for “the pad,” a sound for “the bass line,” and so on.
This “cumulative” approach to sound design has many undeniable advantages, especially flexibility and expressiveness. Paradoxically, however, it can sometimes show some limitations.
The first one is technical: having many instruments playing at the same time generates a large mole of data for our computer to process and may eventually slow it down. However, we can easily overcome this issue with common practices such as track freeze or bounce in place. (And also today, even an average laptop can easily handle medium to large arrangements.)
The other limit is more abstract, and it will be the focus of this blog post. The multitrack approach somehow leads us to identify a voice with a track: we have a track for the rhythm, the melody, the bass, the accompaniment… Sometimes we even use more than one track to achieve a single result (like parallel compression or layered timbres).
Such a particularization allows us to be extremely precise in sound design, but it also requires way more care in the mixing stage of our music production when it comes to glue everything together without losing any detail.
Identifying a voice with an instrument can even be limiting for our creative process because we may take for granted the fact that what’s missing in our song must be found in another track, with another device. Often, however, the solution might already be there: we just need some lateral thinking to approach the issue from another perspective. Today, we’ll seek some advice into two very different musical contexts: Baroque music and American minimalism.
“Bach” to the Roots: A Lesson from the Counterpoint Masters.
Counterpoint was a composition technique widespread in 17th century Europe. In counterpoint music, many different melodic lines play simultaneously, and the chords are almost a byproduct of this complex texture of melodies and rhythms.
There is plenty of contrapuntal music written for orchestra, but the most impressive pieces are perhaps those for solo instruments. Here the great composers were able to give the illusion of many people playing together, but there was just a single instrument. You can hear a sample of this technique by listening to Bach’s Chaconne, especially the section between 08:28 and 08:50
In this short segment here, we’re able to hear a “lead,” the “chords,” and the “bass,” all made by a single violinist. Of course, this kind of music is insanely difficult to write and perform, and composing a Baroque sonata isn’t our purpose. Still, what we can learn from counterpoint is the art of getting the most out of an instrument, which, in modern computational music, translates into a more familiar concept: optimization.
The best device to practice optimization is TERRA: with its dense architecture, it can generate a wide variety of timbres: bright plucks, massive basses, lush pads.
Before diving into the patch, another musical territory is worth exploring, which is very different from counterpoint, but which shares a similar optimization idea: minimalism.
Less is MOOR: a Lesson from American Minimalism.
Minimalism is a term used to describe a musical style that flourished in the 1960s in America. Even though each composer had their peculiar style, one of the common features of minimalism is the use of small, melodic patterns that looped, overlapped, or even drifted away from each other. The interaction of these “cells” leads to repetitive music that seems static, but which, in reality, is continuously evolving through subtle changes, until, by the end of the piece, we may be left with something completely different from the beginning.
The most famous example of minimalism is probably Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, where two pianos play the same exact line but at a slightly different tempo: the result is a piece whose rhythmic and harmonic structures are created by the melodies going in and out of phase.
What we can learn from minimalism is the idea of focusing on a single melodic cell and experiment with slight modifications. However, two pianos aren’t quite what we’d call optimization. Luckily, with computer music, we can replace two pianos with two control sources, like MOOR. Moor is a flexible sequencer that lets you work with the parameters that are often taken for granted in sequencer, like phase, curve, speed, ratios, and so on. In other words, everything that implies not just WHAT to play, but HOW.
Three Voices, Two Sequencers, One Synth.
And here’s how to put all of this into practice. For this demonstration, we will use a single track, supported by a beat. We want to achieve from this one track a bass line, a harmonic texture, and a sort of melody/rhythm on the top.
To do so, we will use a single instance of TERRA but three different MIDI sources: a piano-roll bassline and two MOOR units. Since MIDI messages are way easier to process for the CPU than the virtual instruments, this patch allows us to optimize the resources and achieve a complex structure with a minimal (pun not intended) computational effort.
TERRA has three oscillators, each with its dedicated ADSR envelope. We took advantage of this feature in a patch that can create different sounds according to the register in which you play and the notes’ duration.
The first and third oscillators have a fast attack, decay, and release, and no sustain. They are tuned to a relatively high pitch, and they provide a bright, crystal-like percussive sound.
On the other hand, the second oscillator has a high sustain level, balanced by a smooth decay and release. The tone is beefed up with a pinch of Boost and Phase Modulation, as well as an LFO, routed to the Phase Distortion parameter.
The two MOOR’s are identical: they play the same melody so that the subtle, “minimalist” variations that we’ll do will be more apparent.
Throughout the video, we changed those key MOOR parameters: Rate, Bend, Length, and Kind (plus some Phase here and there).
Even the smallest modification can create a world of difference: polyrhythms, polymeters, multitempos. The result will be an evolving rhythmic structure, creating some “hidden” melodies in the middle, thanks to the second oscillator’s slower envelope.
To add even more dynamics, we can take advantage of TERRA’s flexible modulation matrix and assign some “simple” LFOs to various parameters.
With this tutorial, we drew inspiration from two far-flung musical styles to show you just a tiny bit of what TERRA and MOOR can do together. Still, there is a lot to explore, and looking at different musical traditions may lead to unpredictable results. So, if you’re naturally curious like us, stay in touch for the next tutorial, and keep experimenting!