When I first started making music, I began with a modest computer running Scream Tracker. I couldn’t afford any synths because I was 14 years old. There was no piano roll and definitely no plugins. Instead the notes were programmed in vertically. It felt more like coding than music, but it’s how things began.
The modern DAW allows us to compose music in a variety of techniques, but it’s time to go beyond the humble piano roll and look at some ways to use sequencers and arpeggiators to our advantage. They can inspire entirely new directions in your music, save you endless takes, and add essential movement to a song. This is where melody and rhythm collide, and there’s so many ways to pull inspiration from these valuable tools.
Here’s 4 techniques to make better music with arpeggiators and sequencers.
1) Let the DAW do the heavy lifting:
- Use it to get everything in time, then humanize it with velocity programming – I like to think of velocity as a mini sequencer within the piano roll. Slow down your session to make it easier to play melodies or chords.
- Use chord macros to assign triads or complex chords to single keys, like in Cthulhu. This is much easier than memorizing chord sequences and hoping you don’t stumble and make mistakes.
- Use layering to play complex parts. For example – try playing a chord progression as a simple triad, then keep adding additional MIDI layers to add depth and complexity to the chord voicings that would be difficult to perform in one take. Another technique is constructing single line leads than layer on each other and form chords, similar to how Martin Garrix composes:
2) Use arps and sequencers for rhythm:
Try using arpeggio chord modes to create rhythmic interest and experiment with adding multiple octave steps and adjusting the portamento speed. One of my favorite examples of a multi-octave chord arpeggio is Axwell & Dirty South’s “Open Your Heart.”
Use a repeating arpeggio to add another dimension to your chord progressions. This can heighten the emotion in your chord progression with the notes alone, but the rhythmic interest also helps propel the song forward.
Use an arp’s built in gate length to create automation rises, or pull back for cinematic pulsing sounds. See how much rhythm you can create simply with the syncopation of the chords and melodies. This frees up more bandwidth for drums as well.
- Use an automated arp on a drum sample to create 1/32 effects without the tedious piano roll pencil work (useful for trap), or automate regular note divisions to triplets for ear catching percussive transitions and fills that add tension and release to your arrangement.
- Try unlocking the arp to free time (un-synced) for denser note divisions and tones (Remember Swedish House Mafia’s kick that morphs into a lead in “One”?) and more interesting automation for transitions.. now it’s an LFO! Beyond automated moments, use the arp to drive the core of your track – providing the rhythmic “engine room” that propels the song along. I’ll often set the arp to 1/8th note chord stabs and 1/16 note bass lines. Also try importing groove templates to add velocity interest.
Sequence with LFOs: You can use plugins like LFO Tool in longer bar modes, rather than 1/4 notes or shorter divisions to apply “sequencer-like” automation, or use the stepper/shaper sections of synths like Spire or Massive to create complex automation that goes far beyond a mere step sequencer.
3) Use software arpeggiators to revive old hardware:
- Connect your arp to an old synth to discover fresh sounds and patterns. Embrace the limits of synth voicings to get creative results. Dig deeper into the arpeggiator in your favorite soft synth like Nexus, Spire, or Sylenth. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of your old presets. Often times I’ll forget to use these features and they can really free up CPU resources (for example, use the arp instead of another plugin for gating). Drag MIDI groove templates in Omnisphere for unique patterns and see what happens. Sequencing is one of the greatest strengths of the computer – use it to your advantage!
- Try running old synths and sounds through innovative plugins like Effectrix, which effortless pitch shift, crush, and gate any sound in any note division:
4) Link your studio:
Connect iPad apps like Fugue Machine (multiple playheads!) via Ableton Link to control hardware and software synths, or try out Xfer’s Cthulhu for constructing chord macros and elaborate arps. Keep an eye out for the Kordbot coming out later this year, which provides similar functions to Cthulhu but in hardware form (no software routing needed). Also make sure to try step sequencing both beats and melodies with Ableton Push 2. The modern studio will be far more interconnected than the past, with iPad apps, DAWs, hardware, software, and modular synths all communicating together in one language locked to tempo. Find out what interfaces work best for you.
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