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The Music Challenge aka Creating Tracks from Samples — March 26, 2014

The Music Challenge aka Creating Tracks from Samples

Ok, so I just so happened to see a competition to create a song using only six provided samples by 13lfo on twitter.  That grabbed my attention, I did the same thing myself as a challenge to Caustic users to produce a song only using sounds produced by a VSTI called The Element of Surprise, which is effectively a synth with a random patch generator.  So I had to know more.

The rules, pretty simple. There are six provided samples. Process them in any way you want but you need to use all 6 (or bits of all 6) in the song. Timescales were pretty good too, about 2 weeks to submit the completed track to the Soundcloud group.

The great thing with these sort of challenges is the anticipation of what you’ve got to work with. So listening to the samples I find that the first one sounds like an analog synth bass, a sweeping sound like you’d hear in a sci fi film; The second is a glitchy loop; The third is a shortish piano loop; The fourth is a ringing sound which would make a good lead; the fifth is a bass drone; the sixth is the spoken expression ‘electric future collective’.

My first thought is that it might be quite difficult to produce something interesting. I haven’t really got percussion for instance which I tend to start with. I thought the glitchy loop could work as it is but what is the tempo and what will be the tempo of my song?  I was also torn between using a range of VSTIs to substantially process the samples or keep it fairly simple and do basic editing in Audacity and do most of the work in Caustic.  I decided to go for the latter and chop up samples into smaller pieces and use basic editing in Audacity then import them into Caustic to do most of the work.

My next thought was synth sounds. I find one shot samples are much better to use than loops but they can be limited if you have only got one of them. For instance, these sounds have some ‘movement’ which means if you change the pitch this will be quite noticeable. Usually for sounds like this I would resample each note to import to Caustic to minimise this. So the first sample I chopped up into smaller samples to use for effects.

Similarly I chopped the piano loop up into individual samples.

From the fourth sample, I selected a small section to loop and faded out the ending. Audacity suggested A6 was the root note, so I created samples at A and F notes at various octaves by changing the pitch. This is one of the samples with movement in the sound, presumably from a component oscillator, so changing the pitch this much will likely make this effect much more noticeable working from a single sample.

The fifth sample was similar to the fourth, except I only changed the pitch down one octave as I wanted it as a bass sound.

The sixth sample was chopped up into individual words; ‘future’ was run through a vocoder and each word was timestretched.  The sample was also chopped up into very short vowel sounds to use as an extra layer of percussion.

So that was the samples processed over 3 nights and about 4 hours in total.

The first part of the song I created was a simple percussive pattern using Skarabee’s mod delay4 preset for the modular synth.  One very cool new feature in the beta of Caustic 3.1 is the ability to use a machine as the input to the modular synth.  This means that you can have an extra 2 effect slots but also incorporate features like the arpeggiator, envelopes and filters to synths.  Skarabee’s mod delay4 preset is a panning delay with some modulation.

I then layered the short vocal sounds as an extra percussion layer.  Both of these were kept fairly simple and minimal with a bit of variation in the patterns.  After reading some excellent ‘beat dissection’ tutorials on the vocal patterns were changed at the very last minute.

I intended to keep the percussion pretty similar throughout with effectively a fill type of pattern to break it up a bit.  The idea was to create the track using 3 repeating sections with some variation between them.  So I then created layered bass sounds with the fifth sample and also with a second instance of a heavily filtered fourth sample.  The sections were created using the percussion, bass and other elements arranged to give a bit of variety.


This shows all of the machines in use.  Most of these are PCM Synths because you can load a lot of wav files into each one, set loop ranges, set note ranges etc.

Once I had the outline of the song, I started to the consider what effects I wanted.  Most used compression and a lot used a cab simulator.  I used a bitcrusher on the sample 1 effects and subtle distortion on the bass.  The percussion sound used compression, cab simulator and reverb.





These are the effects racks, two per machine.  Using the new machine input on the modular synth gives up to 2 extra effect slots (16 available effects)


Automation was added to the filter and I also added a second instance of the bass sound and ran this through a formant filter with automation.


Example of automation feature.  This can be done ‘live’ whilst the song is playing and then fine tuned in the editor afterwards.

On mastering the track I adjusted the EQ a little bit and added a compressor, then adjusted the volume levels of the component tracks.  A lot. Until I was happy with it.

That’s quite a lot of information.  But I really wanted to show just how good and powerful Caustic is.

You can check out Skarabee’s soundcloud page here:

Caustic :

13LFO’s page here:

And other entries here:

If you feel inspired, a new set of samples for music challenge 2 have been uploaded

Whole Tone Scales — March 20, 2014

Whole Tone Scales

I’m going to start by saying that whole tone scales are unlike any other discussed so far.  They are made up solely of whole tone intervals which results in 6 note scales which we tend to play in any sequence.  This means there are only 2 whole tone scales which are separated by a semi-tone.  Additionally this means they don’t have a fixed Key.

So you may be wondering what is the point of them – well, if you want your music to sound unpredictable, then these are for you, especially if you add in a large dollop of syncopation.  I haven’t used them very often, I tend to find them a bit unsettling.  So I guess they’re kind of like the H P Lovecraft of scales.

If we start with an E note and move in whole tones, we get  E  F#  G#  A#  C  D

Compared to the major scale  : E F# G# A B C# D# E this gives us 1, 3, b5, #5, b7, 9  (It’s probably better to consider the F# as a 9 rather than a 2)

If we start a semi-tone higher at an F note and move in whole tones, we get  F  G  A  B  C#  D#

Compared to the major scale : F G A Bb C D E  this again gives us 1, 3, b5, #5, b7, 9

This means they tend to be used over dominant chords with a b5 or #5 (or both).  Typically a dominant 7 chord will be used.  A dominant 9 can be used but they are not that common.

The reason I started with an E note rather than a C note is that it makes them very easy to play on a single string (audio here):


We can then move this pattern up a semi-tone to give us the F version (audio here).


Example chords to play over are an E9b5 chord (could also be called a Bb7 b5#5) and we can use the notes E F# G# A# C D E in any sequence we like so that we are not really determining a Key.  An example pattern is shown below the chord (audio here):

Chords 2-page0001 - Copy


A more common chord is D7b5:

Chords 2-page0001

Example patterns are shown below (audio here):


and also a second pattern (audio here):


If we transpose these chords up or down a semi-tone then the notes from the ‘F’ example will fit over the top of them.

An Improvisation Exercise — March 12, 2014

An Improvisation Exercise

So far we’ve covered a lot of ground with music theory covering Keys, chords, modes and pentatonic scales.

This post pulls together a number of these ideas into an improvisation exercise. I’ve included the above backing track for you to practice along with, I was thinking this is primarily for guitar but really, it would suit keyboard as well.

I’ve tried to keep it simple so this example is in the key of C and I’ve used a tempo of 100bpm.  I’ve used a slightly different progression – vi7 V IV iii  (Am7 G F E) and there are 4 bars of each chord repeated 4 times.

The backing track has a 2 bar count in and each set of 16 bars is separated by a 2 bar drum fill.  It has a bassline, drums and rhodes type keyboard.

Example sequences that you could play are shown below :

ImprovExercise2-page0001 - Copy

For the first set of chords, you could use a G mixolydian mode.  An example pattern is shown below:

G Mixolydian-page-0

For the second set of chords, you could use an A minor pentatonic. An example pattern is shown below:

A minor pentatonic-page-0

For the third set, I’ve given some example chords below that can be played.  These could be strummed, played as arpeggios, muted strum etc.


For the final set, you can mix things up a bit.  One option is to play the notes of the chord.  Phrasing is definitely important for this, you can slide, use tremolo, muted pick with delay etc.  With a major chord, you can play the Dorian mode a tone up.  You can also play different scales over each of the different chords.  I haven’t included examples of these, I’m sure by now you are more than able to start creating your own mode and scale patterns and of course don’t feel limited by these examples, it’s always good practice to create your own patterns, or work these examples out in different positions for instance.

Pentatonic Scales — March 2, 2014

Pentatonic Scales

As an alternative to modes, pentatonic scales are very commonly used for soloing.  The definition is often somewhat overcomplicated, pentatonic basically means ‘five tones’ so these are 5 note scales.

A lot of the time, this is the first thing you learn as a guitarist. It is a classic example of how patterns could limit your playing – many guitarists often learn the minor pentatonic scale early on without really understanding what it is and then get ‘stuck’ at the first pattern and either don’t learn the others or don’t progress beyond this first pattern.

So here’s the bit that doesn’t usually get explained very well. And also why I’ve left these until after the discussion of theory and modes.

The major and minor pentatonics in a given Key contain exactly the same notes but they have a different tonal centre and different intervals which gives them their unique sounds.

They are used very widely in blues, jazz, rock, metal, country – for instance B B King and Jimi Hendrix used them extensively.  The five notes used tend to be those which fit best over most chords so the advantage of pentatonic scales is that it’s easier to get a good sound as the notes that can be a bit awkward are omitted.  You tend to get a lot of 4th and 5th intervals.  There are also fewer notes to remember which is never a bad thing.

The major pentatonic scale uses the following notes from the major scale : 1 2 3 5 6 and has the intervals of T T T+S T (then T+S to return to C an octave higher).

For the key of C : C D E F G A B C   C major pentatonic is C D E G A

The minor pentatonic uses the following notes from the major scale : 1 b3 4 5 b7  and has the intervals of T+S T T T+S (then T to return to A an octave higher).  It is basically the natural minor scale from the same key with the 2nd and 6th notes removed   A minor pentatonic is A C D E G

Not only are there 5 scale tones but 5 positions as well with the added bonus that the major and minor pentatonic scales are easily interchangeable.  We can use the same patterns for both major and minor pentatonic scales – the difference is basically starting on the appropriate root note of the major or minor scale.  The diagrams have been annotated to show the root notes for each type of scale.  Of course once you get familiar with these patterns you can (and probably should) work them out for all Keys. The five positions are as follows – on the diagrams the open circles are the minor root note and the squares are the major root :

pentatonics-page0001 - Copy
pentatonics-page0001 - Copy (2)
pentatonics-page0002 - Copy

Hopefully you can see straight away how these scales overlap to cover the fretboard.  There are loads of ways you can put these together.  One example for the minor scale is to use a combination of the 1st and 2nd position as shown below.  It may only be a small number of notes but can be very useful for soloing, especially if you use a lot of expression through vibrato, bending etc.  I’m thinking of B B King as I write this.  Often only the minor pentatonic will be used for blues and rock, the major pentatonic has more of a country sound.


Another option is to play one pattern ascending and the next descending as shown below:
1st ascending / 2nd descending (audio here)
3rd ascending / 4th  desecending (audio here)

or a repeating pattern can be useful to help learn the patterns (audio here)PentatonicTAB3-page-0

Although it is fairly routine to use a minor pentatonic over the 6th degree of a major chord (i.e. same starting note as the natural minor) you can also use it over the 3rd and 7th scale degrees.  This will work over extended chords such as maj7 or maj9 chords.  So for instance over a Cmaj7 chord, the usual choice would be Am pentatonic (6th degree) but you can instead use Bm pentatonic (7th degree) or Em pentatonic (3rd degree).This is shown on the example below which has 6 bars of a Cmaj7 chord, the first two bars are Am pentatonic, the second two are Em pentatonic and the last two are Bm pentatonic.  They are different patterns but you should be able to hear the subtle difference in tone between these (audio here).PentatonicTAB4-page-0Similarly it is fairly routine to use a minor pentatonic over the root of a minor chord but it can also be used over the 2nd and 5th scale degrees.  So for instance over a Cmin7 chord, the usual choice would be Cm pentatonic (root) but you can instead use Dm pentatonic (2nd degree) or Gm pentatonic (5th degree).

As always, the best way to learn these is to experiment, and have fun