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Creative Sequencer Tips, Part 1

Tips & Techniques
Published August 1998

PART 1: Your computer sequencer can do bewitching things with simple ingredients, creating the impression that you're a musical wizard even if you're just a one‑finger pianist. Nicholas Rowland works some MIDI magic... This is the first article in a three‑part series.

I think it was Brian Eno who was the first to put into words the idea that the recording studio was an instrument in its own right, and that you could learn to play it (in the sense of producing music or sound with it) in just the same way as you might learn the piano or violin.

I happen to feel the same way about sequencers. Although I'm interested in creating music — and have created hours and hours of it over the years — I'd be the first to admit that I'm not really a musician. What I do is use software tools to manipulate and edit MIDI data, the end result being a product that, on a good day with a following wind, you might just be able to hum along to. Some musicians might think this attitude is something to be ashamed of. But I've always felt that if you're interested in creating technically‑based music, yet don't happen to possess the genius of Mozart, you should make full use of any help you can get.

So what follows is a collection of hands‑on ideas and tips put together from my own experiences with sequencers. Like any article based on personal observations, it comes with the usual health warnings: first, these ideas are by no means exhaustive and second, be aware that the value of MIDI data can go down as well as up. The third thing to note is that these ideas are probably more applicable to riff‑ or loop‑based styles of music (my own so‑called .compositions. are in dance/ambient/techno territory) rather than formal songs as we know them, Jim.

Copy Shop

What I've always liked about computer‑based sequencers is that that they're able to do a lot of number‑crunching very quickly, and also that the results are not necessarily what you might have predicted if you'd sat down and thought it out beforehand. So if you're feeling lazy (or technically inspired, depending on your point of view) you can use even the most basic of sequencer editing functions to make a relatively small amount of musical input go a long way — particularly if, like mine, your music tends to be constructed building‑block fashion. In other words, if you've started with a riff or melodic sequence, it's relatively easy to begin generating accompanying material simply by copying and pasting the basic material to new tracks and then using the sequencer's powers to manipulate it in various ways. To kick off with an extremely basic example:

  • Copy your original sequence to a new track, then transpose it by an octave either way, or, if you're feeling more adventurous, a fifth or a seventh.
  • If you choose a complementary or contrasting voice for the copied track, then pan each one to opposite sides of the stereo spectrum, you've already started to fill out your burgeoning arrangement — and you haven't even expended any energy in thinking up something new.

Of course, this is all kindergarten stuff. But you can take things further — for example:

  • Double up a part and then delete alternate notes in each part.
  • Pan the two tracks left and right to give you a ping‑pong echo effect, which, again, may help to give some movement to your original sequence.
  • A further variation on this trick is to copy your original riff to, say, four or five different tracks and assign them all to different versions of the same type of sound (a selection of pianos, guitars or organs, for example).
  • Now delete notes such that your four or five tracks take it in turns to play each note — in other words, the first note of the sequence is played on the first track, the second on the second track, the third on the third and so on, until you come back to the first track again. You can now have fun introducing slight variations to the voices, perhaps in terms of their pan positions, their relative volumes, modulation or aftertouch.
...Madonna will be on the phone asking you to produce her next album before you can say "William Orbit".

If you're into dance music, this approach can provide an interesting way of building up and stripping down your basic sequence for intros, breaks and so on. Because you've effectively put individual notes on separate MIDI tracks, it's then easy enough to use the arrange page on most sequencers to mute different combinations of notes, creating new variations of your original sequence. You might even come up with a version which is actually more inspired than the original.

Doubling up tracks also takes you into the realm of MIDI‑created effects. For example:

  • Copy one track to another, then set both to play the same voice from your synth or sound module on the same MIDI channel. The result is a kind of phasing effect as each note double triggers.
  • Those with an enquiring mind will be interested in taking this a stage further with triple or quadruple parts — the more MIDI notes you have trying to squeeze down the cables all at one, the more potential there is for weird glitches that can help add some zest to tracks.
  • By introducing tiny pitch‑bend offsets to one or several of the tracks, you can also create a kind of flanged or chorus effect. This effect can be further enhanced by adding tiny amounts of MIDI delay between the different tracks' voices. (That's delay in terms of timing, rather than delay in terms of an echo‑style effect, by the way.) Again, most sequencers will allow you to easily offset the timings of either whole tracks or individual bars by varying amounts.

You can develop this approach in other ways. For example, a fairly common technique is as follows:

  • Copy a pad part to a separate track.
  • Assign the first to a sound with a fast attack and decay and the second to a sound with a slow attack and longer decay. (The second sound is usually referred to as a Halo sound — in fact you'll find an appropriately‑named Halo patch within every bog‑standard GM sound set).
  • Depending on what sounds you choose, and how you mix the relative volumes, the result can be a little like reverb, with the halo providing the equivalent of the reverb 'tail' for the more percussive sound.

Getting Horizontal

The copy and paste techniques outlined so far don.t have to be done 'vertically'. I've produced some interesting dance arrangements by copying the basic sequence to a second track (and often a third, too), then shifting it forward or backwards by, say, a sixteenth or eighth note. As you might realise, all you're really doing here is creating a simple delay effect. However, depending on the voices selected and their relative volumes, transpose values and so on, it can actually sound a bit cleverer than this. Things shift up another gear when you manipulate your 'ghost' part using other basic editing tools:

  • Try transposing it by a fifth or a seventh, or panning it to the opposite side of the stereo spectrum to the main riff.
  • Consider panning alternate notes from left to right while keeping the original sequence centred, so that the ghost part appears around.the main theme.
  • See what happens if you advance it by, say, a quarter or half a bar, chop off the end that's now sticking out beyond the length of the original pattern, then stick it back onto the front end. This gives you a new part which has the same notes, but earlier or later than the main sequence. Naturally, you may have to tidy up any clashes due to chord changes, but you get my drift.

As a general observation, which might as well be thrown in here as anywhere else, many of my most interesting melodic ideas have come from pasting a drum track to another channel and then using it to trigger a melodic voice. While some judicious editing is often required to get the results into a listenable form, this is one of those occasions when sequencers can be good at quickly throwing up ideas you just wouldn't have arrived at by any other means.


Another quick route to mangling MIDI is via the over‑quantise function. But even more interesting is the following:

  • Once more, copy your original loop to another MIDI track, apply different quantise values to the new version and then run the two (or more) together. The results will depend on the voices used, their relative volumes, and so on, but, as an example, I have created some quite inspired jangly guitar‑type arrangements by running a triplet‑ised riff alongside one based on sixteenth or eighth notes. You sometimes have to knock out a few notes here and there to avoid painful clashes (and I usually also transpose the new pattern an octave up or down), but it's not a bad trick to keep up your sleeve.
  • The higher‑end sequencers offer sophisticated quantise templates which purportedly turn your anthemic dance bassline into a Handel string quartet. These are worth exploring, particularly if you then run them against a 'straight' version.
  • Another technique, which can be used in conjuction with quantise manipulation or on its own, is to create a new pattern of either half or double the bar length of the original and then run them together. This is is quite easy to do with most sequencing packages — you simply click a function and your original two‑bar pattern is either stretched to four bars or shrunk to one bar. Once you start playing around with transpose, quantise, pan and note lengths, not to mention trying out different combinations of sounds, you can soon build up lots of variations on your original track.

Opening The Gates

Dance music makes lots of use of gated MIDI effects — in other words, notes which are turned on and off very rapidly, usually chopping in and out on the beat to make the track sound more punchy. Most sequencers offer an programmable note duration controller that, as its name suggests, automatically changes the length of a note to a fixed duration. Some sequencers can also automatically change the length of selected notes, from, say, 25% of their original length to 200%. Again, it's worth experimenting with both these functions, simply to see what it does to the feel of the music.

Short notes can also be used to more creative effect:

  • In Cubase, for example, it's easy enough to paint in runs of very short notes to create a stuttering effect, similar to those machine‑gun snare rolls you get in drum and bass.
  • Try them out on high‑frequency melodic sounds to create tent zipper‑like accents and runs.
  • Add in some gratuitous panning, volume swell and a touch of pitch‑bend, and Madonna will be on the phone asking you to produce her next album before you can say "William Orbit". Sometimes MIDI interfaces can't handle such vast amounts of data all at once, tending to stutter, but I prefer to see this as a special effect rather than a failing in the system.

In Reverse

One tool which I must confess to using a great deal when creating arrangements out of thin air is the Reverse control. When programming drum loops, I may well reverse the last half or quarter of a bar to create an instant fill. But this can work quite well with melodic sequences too. For example, if you want to create instant widdly‑widdly guitar or synth solos (where, let's face it, no one really cares which notes are played as long as there's lots of them), try this:

  • Take your original sequence, copy it to another track and halve its length (ie. so the same number of notes are now crammed into half the space.)
  • Reverse it out (though you may need to over‑quantise it to get the start points of the notes in the right place).
  • See what happens when you run it alongside your original loop.

And Finally

Most people's use of sequencers tends to be very 'goal orientated' — which is management‑guru speak for saying that people only use sequencers when they want to do something specific, like record a song. As a result, I'd bet that many advanced features sit there collecting whatever the software equivalent is of dust. It can be worth occasionally sitting down with the manual (remember the doorstop that came with the installation disk?) and simply working through some of the functions you don't normally use, just to see what they do and whether they might be useful. And I'll be doing that for part two of this feature, when I'll look at more advanced techniques for manipulating MIDI data from your sequencer screen.

Random Is As Random Does

One so‑called 'technique' for those whose well of creative juices has run dry is setting the sequencer to record, then getting to work on the keys of the synth with a duster and a can of Mr Sheen. The theory here is that you will create startling and strangely beautiful random sequences to rival the best of John Cage. Unfortunately, my experience with this approach (and I'm not ashamed to admit I've occasionally tried it) is that what you get out rarely sounds like anything more than it actually is — someone running a duster up and down a keyboard.

As a variation on this theme, I did once let my five‑year old daughter loose in the studio in the hope that she would come up with some gobsmackingly definitive dance riff. However, I have to say that the session ended in disappointment and not inconsiderable ear‑ache on my part. Still, she enjoyed herself.

A Permanent Record

Remember what happened to Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he woke up with this brilliant poem in his head, but couldn't recall it when he wanted to write it down? OK, so the bit of Kubla Khan he did remember wasn't that bad in the end, but think what might have happened if he'd had the poet's equivalent of a MIDI sequencer set to permanent record.

One pure housekeping tip for sequencer use — which I confess

I usually forget — is always to press record before you ever sit down to doodle at the keyboard. You never know when you might come up with something quite brilliant. If you think available sequencer memory is going to be a problem, punch in a loop of around 200 or so bars, with the sequencer set to record over the top each time it loops.