Arranging Techniques: Enhancing a Song’s Feel

By Don Muro

 Rhythm, groove, feel – these words are used when attempting to describe the way music unfolds over time. Performers often can be identified by the way they express rhythm through phrasing, articulation and pulse in the context of a specific musical work. In most loop-based music production, however, this critical ingredient of music is neglected. While nothing can truly replicate a live performer’s dynamic shifts in time, there are a few simple editing techniques that students can use to alter and enhance the rhythmic feel of a song. I will demonstrate these techniques on both MIDI tracks and audio loops.

MIDI Tracks

Listen to Example 1. You can hear that it is a simple rock beat with all parts played precisely on the beat. Now listen to Example 2 and see if you can hear a difference. In this example the snare drum is slightly behind the beat – if you listen to the final beat of the phrase (beat 1 of measure 5) you will hear the snare drum coming in after the bass drum. This creates what can be called a different “time texture” – the drum beat is now smeared and has a thicker and heavier feel than the sound of Example 1. This delayed snare effect is sometimes used in ballads and slow blues based songs.

Now listen to Example 3 and see if you can hear what has changed. In this example the snare drum sound has been moved in front of the beat instead of behind it. If you listen to the final beat of the phrase, you will hear the snare drum coming in before the bass drum. This effect creates an edgy, nervous time texture and is often used in fast, driving songs. Go back and listen to Examples 1, 2 and 3 again – you should hear three very different grooves.

This time shifting technique can be performed in most sequencers. Since each drum sound is represented by a different MIDI note number, it is easy to edit individual drum sounds. To time shift the snare drum part, select only the MIDI notes for the snare drum and then move the selected notes forwards or backwards in time. (“Forward” means moving the notes towards the beginning of the song; “backwards” means moving the notes towards the end of the song.) Notes can be moved by using the “slide” feature available on almost every sequencer. On some sequencers you can also use the “offset” feature, which allows you to specify precise timing increments in clock pulses.

There is no fixed amount of time offset or slide amount – your ears must be your guide. (Please note that I have exaggerated the effects in Examples 2 and 3 so that they can be heard. When I use these techniques in my music, they are not as obvious.)

Audio Loops

The time shifting techniques used above in the MIDI drum tracks can also be applied to audio loops by layering different drum and percussion loops. Example 4 consists of two loops – a drum kit loop and a cowbell loop. If you listen to Example 4, you’ll hear both loops played precisely on the beat.

Now listen to Example 5 and see if you can hear a difference. In this example the cowbell loop is moved in front of the beat. This is the same technique used in Example 3 and it produces a rushed, nervous sound, as if the person playing the cowbell were more excited than the drummer.

(Note: since the cowbell clip starts on beat 1 of measure 1, you must insert a blank measure at the beginning of the song so that the loop can be moved forward in time. As an alternative, you can also shorten the cowbell loop to only the first beat, then insert another instance of the loop into the track and slide this loop forward. The first cowbell hit will be on the beat, but the remaining hits will be in front of the beat.)

The time texture effects demonstrated so far have been produced by sliding data forward or backwards in time. Bear in mind that this technique can be used with any MIDI track or audio loop, not just drum and percussion sounds. I chose drum and percussion sounds to make it easier to hear the variations in timing.

Example 6 uses a different technique – listen to it now and see if you can identify what is happening.

The syncopated cowbell part in Example 6 adds a new color to the sound. The effect was created by feeding the original cowbell part into a delay line and then varying the delay amount during playback. The delay time is set to sixteenth notes and therefore produces a higher subdivision of the beat. The blue automation clip in Figure 1 shows the control data for the delay amount. You can see that the amount increases to measure 3, then returns to zero and increases again in measure 4. (See Figure 1.)


Figure 1 – This screenshot from Propellerhead Reason shows the control data (in blue) used to control the amount of delay for the cowbell in Example 6.

Another way to create thicker time textures is simply to add real time, non–looped musical parts to a song. In Example 7 I added a bongo loop to Example 6 and then recorded synthesizer bass and lead parts. Both parts were played very loosely in time in order to counteract the rhythmic monotony of the looped sounds. I also added a MIDI tambourine part, playing the part slightly behind the beat. As always, our ears focus on the variables instead of the constants, and the result is a much thicker, dynamic time texture.

If your students have basic keyboard skills, have them add live keyboard parts to their songs. The keyboard parts can be anything – melodies, chords, bass lines, or even simple percussion parts. The inherent variables in their playing will give loop-based arrangements a much more organic and interesting feel. If your students are simply manipulating loops, have them slide a few loops forwards and backwards at different points in a song to break up the monotony of repeated, rhythmically stagnant loops. These subtle changes in time textures are one of the “X factors” that can make a big difference in a song’s impact.

©2008 Don Muro

Return to ARTICLES