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You're a unique artist with ideas you want to express and music you have to share. So how do you make sure that you're keeping your tracks interesting and fun for your audience to listen to?
In this tutorial we'll look at some of the most common things that people neglect to keep interesting, causing their tracks to feel lifeless and dull, and how we can keep things lively and intriguing to hold on to our audience's attention.
- Start Off with a Bang
- Avoid Using Loops
- If You're Going to Use Loops Anyway
- Clean Up Your Mix
- Uneven Phrases
- Uncommon Time Signatures
- The Rule of Three
- Be unique, but not too unique
We all know that first impressions are everything, and the rule applies to music as much as anything else. The opening moments of your track can grab your listener's attention and get them excited to keep listening or make them completely unimpressed and bore them, so it's critical that the first thing your audience hears is compelling.
Songwriters will often mistakenly start their songs by playing a verse, or the opening 8 bars of a verse, with no vocal or instrumental lead. While I understand that this "introduces" the vibe of the song, listening to some chords strummed on the guitar is pretty boring. If you're going to start your song off instrumentally, use an exciting rhythmic pattern or a melodic hook. You don't even have to use material that exists elsewhere in your song.
The Beatles are masters at catchy introductions (like everything else I suppose). Consider the interesting beginning to the song "I've Just Seen a Face" which starts with a busy 12/8 guitar pattern. It's compelling, it has nothing to do with the actual song, and it works. Other examples: starting with a jarring but exciting chord or hit and then diving right into the song like in "Hard Days Night" or "Glass Onion"; starting immediately with a vocal chorus such as "She Loves You", "Nowhere Man", "Eleanor Rigby", "Help", or "Hello Goodbye"; starting with a unique instrumental hook like "Ticket to Ride", "Day Tripper", or "Drive My Car".
Consider these two examples, where each track begins with a quick flourish. The beginning of the song is immediately exciting and gives you the feeling that you want to keep listening.
One of the easiest ways to bore someone is to find a drum loop you think is cool and repeat it ad nauseum. It may be fun to listen to twice through, but if nothing changes it won't take long for our minds to begin to wander and stop paying attention to your music.
Another downside of commercial loops is that they can quickly become standard and cliche. Even if the listener can't say for sure where they heard it, if the loop has been used by someone else they're going to realize that it's familiar. Using custom beats and sounds keeps your music uniquely its own.
If you're reading this tutorial, the chances are pretty good that you know how a basic drum beat works. If instead of immediately looking for loops you instead load or create a drum kit you will be forced to start thinking more creatively. You will have to actually think about the pattern that you're creating, rather than relying on someone else to do it for you.
In this example I used an 8 bit electronic kit with a lot of unique and fun sounds. The resulting beat is varied and lively, and not something I could have come up with if I just searched through folders for a loop.
The next important reason to build your own beats is that it's very easy to customize and change them around. Even subtle changes like a shifted cymbal hit or a varied bass drum pattern will make your beat a lot more vibrant throughout your song than the same 4 beats over and over and over. Take a look at the MIDI for this particular loop:
The only things that are exactly the same throughout are the ticking hi-hat (the orange notes on G3 and G#3) and the 8 bit noise on the last beat (the yellow notes on G#0).
Everything else around those elements is constantly changing in small ways (the kick and snare which keep a somewhat consistent groove) or big ways (the sound effects and weird hits that spice things up).
By having down-to-the-note control of each element in the kit, we're forced to think of ways to keep the pattern more interesting which is a good thing for the strength of our beat. It's also much easier to make changes, we can just shift MIDI notes around and not have to try to deal with splicing up audio.
In spite of the advice to avoid using loops, let's be perfectly honest: loops are useful. And they're even kind of fun. Throwing down a good loop can be a great time saver and also a creative springboard for other ideas. But if we're going to break down and still use loops once in a while instead of creating our own beats, the least we can do is put in a little extra effort to make them good.
I already covered how to spice up your loops by automating EQ in another tutorial, so what we're going to do now is focus more on the actual beats in the loops themselves rather than slapping an effect on the whole track. Although you could achieve the same results by slicing up audio, this is going to be a whole lot easier if you're using something like Stylus RMX or REX files that have already split the beats of your loops up into individual MIDI notes.
The simplest thing we can do is work with one loop. Here's a loop which is pretty straightforward:
Just by looking at the MIDI we can see that it's very even and repetitive.
Let's make this more interesting by rearranging the MIDI notes to create fills. I'll do this by first identifying which MIDI notes make up the important or interesting sounds in the loop, using hard hits like kicks and snares for rhythms and small hits like hi hats are crackes for filler.
All it took was moving around a few notes but now we have a drum loop that is varied and lively.
Another way to use loops more interestingly is to constantly vary and blend different loops. This song was created using 7 different drum and percussion loops:
Here's an image of the loops used in the sequence:
Every track is a different loop and every color a variation. Notice that a lot of the same regions keep coming back, but the idea here is to keep things constantly varied. You use a small set of materials to give your song cohesiveness, but consistently change them up to keep the listener on their toes.
Here's the entire song that uses those loops, also built entirely from bass, guitar, and brass loops with the same concept:
One of the biggest mistakes I hear people make is to make their mixes too busy. While they may think they're achieving fullness, what they are really ending up with is clutter. If you have got drums, bass, acoustic guitar, both a lead guitar and piano playing chords and fills, a singer, and background vocalists all playing at the same time how in the world am I supposed to know what to listen to? Just because you've got it doesn't mean you should use it.
If you have both piano and guitar, one of the easiest things you can do to create variation is have them take turns. For example, have guitarist play the first verse and the piano the second. Or give them each a different function, such as having the guitar play chords and the piano only play licks and fills between the vocal lines. In either case, having both instruments playing on top of one another will cause a lot of harm to your mix.
Check out this example, which I built entirely from some loops that came with logic.
The "verse" plays through three times, but each time with a different pairing of instruments. While the drums and bass stay the same the entire tune, the verses feature either fiddle and electric guitar, banjo and acoustic guitar, or pedal steel and acoustic guitar. If the fiddle, electric, acoustic, banjo, and pedal steel were all trying to play on the same verse it would be messy madness. By spreading them out and giving each player their turn to shine the listener can focus on the instrument of the moment and not be forced to try aurally sifting through the mess.
A solo flute or a solo oboe can sound beautiful and lyrical, but as soon as you have them both play in unison you lose the uniqueness and color of each. Although you can create many interesting and effective sounds by using different instrument combinations, it is usually the simplest methods that will yield the best results and communicate your ideas in the clearest way.
Something is interesting when it tests our expectations. After years of listening to music we've all become accustomed to many conventions, a basic example of which is even phrases of 2, 4 or 8 bars. By playing around with the length of our phrases we can make things more interesting and break out from commonality.
In this example the A section of the piece plays mostly in three bar phrases:
The piece could have vamped for an extra bar for a nice even four bar phrase, but that would have been long and unnecessary. By shortening the phrase by an entire bar we keep the piece moving and slightly throw off the listener's expectations. Throwing us for another loop, the third phrase doesn't stop at three bars but keeps on going for 5 before starting the A section over again. Similarly, the last phrase of the second A section cuts the 3 bar phrase short to only 2 bars, causing the B section to arrive unexpectedly.
For comparison, listen to this example where the phrases have been stretched out to include that fourth bar. I don't know about you, but it makes me pretty impatient.
An important thing to notice in the original version is that although the phrases are unusual lengths the piece still has an element of flow. We're not using odd lengths to jar the listener or throw them completely off guard, but simply to make it more interesting to listen to the piece. It's the kind of subtle technique that a non-musician would never notice, and we wouldn't really want them to.
The majority of Western music is in 4/4, with the occasional track showing up in 3/4, 12/8 or 6/8. Using a less common time signature such as 5/4 or 7/8 can add a unique twist to your song, but only if it's done effectively.
Odd time signatures can be used to throw people off from getting into a comfortable groove. Led Zeppelin would use this technique often. Consider the song The Ocean, which has you bobbing your head along to the groove when all of a sudden a bar of three catches you off guard.
My all time favorite use of odd time in pop music is Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill". The song alternates between 4/4 and 3/4 (you could consider it 7/4) but is done in such a smooth way that you don't notice anything odd if you're not paying attention. He achieves the smoothness by keeping a very steady bass drum on every quarter note and a consistent shaker pattern. The groove is never interrupted so there's never a reason to feel like the time is unusual, but the phrasing is just odd enough that we can feel that something different is going on. Lopping off that 8th quarter note also keeps the song constantly pushing forward.
I've already written a tutorial on how to use The Rule of Three and Music. The concept basically says that if you've repeated something exactly the same once, it's time to move on. Check out the original tutorial for a more in-depth look.
The blessing and curse of music technology today is that we can achieve near "perfection" with our music. Rhythms can be inhumanely precise, pitches can never waver from a perfect mathematical frequency, and our mixes can respond to down to the millisecond automation. While all of these things can be helpful, it's very easy to end up with a track that sounds lifeless and heartless. One of the ways to bring back that "human" touch is by incorporating small instances of imperfection.
Check out the first minute of this piece:
Besides the piano, there is nothing going on but a long pad holding the same pitches the entire time. I had a string quartet play the same pitches very softly underneath the pad. The natural fluctuations in bowing, tuning, and the resonance of the strings added a flair of unpredictability that would have been impossible to achieve by simply holding my finger down on the pad. While I could have very easily stretched the MIDI out across the length of the introduction and left it at that, we would have been left with a boring and static sound. Instead by adding slight imperfections we can add some subtle interest. The pad/strings combo doesn't distract from the piano, which is the more important element, but it does have an organic feel that makes it feel a touch more alive.
Chances are you aren't going to have a live player at your disposal every time you want to add a human touch to your music, so what else could we have done with this pad? We could automate a filter, allowing different frequencies of the pad to pass through at different times. We could automate the volume so that the pad fluctuates and seems to "breathe" as it gets louder and quieter. We could layer a few different pads, having them take turns softly fading in or out overtop one another. All of these techniques would be employed for the purpose of keeping the pad from sounding like a machine, making it sound instead like an imperfect and organic element.
There's a fine line between innovative and eccentric. Often when someone is considered "ahead of their time", it's because people haven't yet bridged the gaps between what's standard and what the artist is expressing. Imagine if Eddie Van Halen tried playing a ripping solo, tearing through the guitar at a thousand notes a minute, in 1955. He would've been either laughed at or maybe even locked up. It took rock decades to evolve to set the stage for that kind of playing.
If you want your music to be interesting you have to be unique in your own way, but for people to pay attention you have to give them some sort of reference point. As an example, without the pounding string orchestra "Viva la Vida" would be just another Coldplay song. There is nothing revolutionary about the chord progression or melody, but the unique orchestration for pop music makes the song especially interesting.
It can be a fine line between "interesting" and "erratic", which is one of the reasons consistent subtle changes can be so effective. Minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich have made entire careers off of the concept that it doesn't take constant shifts in mood or color to make a great piece of music, but it does require that your music be just interesting enough to keep your listener engaged.