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How to Build Tracks So That Instruments Relate to Each Other

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Are your instruments fighting each other to get the main role of the track? This tutorial is about techniques for having instruments relate to each other in ways that will allow them to share time in the spotlight and work together. This tutorial also covers using note placement as a way to compensate for having multiple instruments in similar frequency ranges. Keeping with this theme, we'll also explore using melodic content that is already in the track to inspire new instrument parts, so that like characters in a play, the instruments will agree and disagree on points, but in the complete composition they'll work together to present a distinct theme.

1. Setting the Framework - Drums and Bass

First, here is the drum pattern so far, I layered three sounds to make the snare and two for the kick. One of the kick layers is a clean deep sound and the other is a higher grimy sound, note the slight pitch change I made to the "top" layer of the kick, it is raised by a semitone at one point in the pattern.

(For a tutorial on layering drums check out:
this tutorial

Next, here is the bass pattern. It has a distinct "A A A B"-style arrangement, meaning that it has three bars that are the same and then on the fourth bar it changes. This will become a theme that will be used on a larger scale later on in the tutorial.

(To learn how to make a synth bass like this check out:
How to Design Reeses and Hoovers

2. Call and Response - A Synth Conversation

I'm going to add a synth that is inspired by the almost-melodic content of the top-layer kick, so that it relates to the kick drums.

I'm going to add it in a way that it also works together with the bass synth and doesn't play at the same time as the bass synth. Since the synth won't be playing at the same time as the bass, we can get away with using a gentle sound, and the contrast will make the bass sound even harder. Note the "call and response" relationship, it sounds like the bass synth and higher synth are having a conversation, and since they're taking turns speaking, the gentler synth doesn't have to work as hard to be heard in the mix.

3. A Mediator Intervenes - Combining Melodies

For another part of the song I'm going to bring in a lead synth that will play a melody based on a combination of the previous melodies. In other words, this new synth will be summarizing the earlier conversation and giving his own input as well. On the first three bars, it's similar to the earlier gentle synth pattern, except that it bounces through the notes quicker, then on the fourth bar it is identical to the bass pattern.

Since this is a later part in the song, the listener has heard the bass synth pattern enough that having a new sound step in front of the bass will be no problem, but there should still be places where the bass is heard alone. In other words, even though the new synth melody agrees with the bass on almost every point, the new synth is polite enough to let the bass be heard on its own in some places.

One way to make it more exciting is have the melody play higher. So on the fourth and eighth bar of this new lead pattern, I'm going to stack it with notes an octave higher.

4. Becoming Intense - Raising Your Voice

As demonstrated earlier, raising a section of notes by an octave can be an easy way to increase intensity and interest. In order to prolong this melody 8 more bars, I'm going to make a copy of the pattern, except in the second pattern, the last four bars are going to be an octave higher.

This is inspired by the "A A A B" theme we've had in the song so far. That is, three blocks of time that are relatively similar and then a fourth block of time that is different. This is on a much bigger scale though, because here we're working with sets of four bars.

5. Bridging the Sections - Arrangement

Lastly we need a way to bridge the two parts, so some things were added. Among the additions are a filtered breakbeat, a tweaked cymbal, and a warm synth chord that occurs at the beginning and end of the chorus.

6. A Common Example - Kick versus Bass

For my next example, I'll be working with a different track, showing how to make a Synth and Pad work together, but first I'll illustrate the principle in a more common application of the technique using a Kick and Bass. First here's the drum loop:

Let's add a bass. On the previous song, the bass and kick play at the same time which means there will be a mixing challenge that will probably result in the kick not being as strong. I want to avoid that situation in this song, so by placing the bass synth notes in places the kick does not play, we can avoid having the similar deep sounds conflict. If they were playing at the same time, we'd need to divide the frequencies between them and have one be more prominent, but if they take turns this compromise can be avoided and they both can be as loud as we want.

7. Supporting Cast - Pad Enters

Now that the stage is set, we'll add a synth pad pattern playing a chord progression. The non-music-theory way to explain chord progressions would take a whole other tutorial, but to explain briefly, it's to start with a chord, and to change one or two notes in the next chord, and then continue to make small changes, moving back and forth through note combinations in a way that sounds good. For some excellent tutorials that can help with chord progressions that use Music Theory check out:
Intro to Cadences
Add Interest to Your Chord Progressions
, and Basic Functions of Harmony.

(For a tutorial about designing custom pads check out
How to Use Reverb to Create Your Own Pads

Also note that I added a delay effect to the bass synth to push it further back in the mix spacially.

8. Enter Protagonist - Synth Agrees with Pad

Now I'm going to add a Synth that will interact with the Pad in the same way that the Bass Synth interacted with the Kick. The Pad covers a lot of musical ground so in order to avoid having conflicting notes I'm going to use the notes from the Pad pattern as a guide for the synth pattern.

To make this easier, I'll copy the notes from the Pad pattern into an empty sampler channel in a new pattern. I'm doing this because FL Studio has a feature that allows you see notes that are in other Piano Rolls, if the note data is in the same "pattern".

When you open the piano roll of the new Synth in this pattern, you should be able to see grey notes that are in the Sampler channel. If not, turn "ghost channels" on.

From, here we can easily see which notes the Pad is playing while we paint in notes for the new synth, so we can experiment with making a melody that fits in those chords. In music theory these are called "broken chords". For note placement, let's apply the same principle we did with the Kick and Bass earlier. The Pad is playing on the beats so I'll have the Synth play in the space between the beats. This way, the attack of the Pad can be heard in most places.

9. Adding Variety - Not Just an Echo

At this point, the main Synth clearly agrees with the Pad, but I want him to assert that he's also an individual. To make it more interesting, let's add some variety in the timing. The changes are noted in the image below:

Sounds good, but let's give it some more rhythm in the second bar.

10. Expanding the Script - Completing the Scene

From here, it's a matter of copying and pasting throughout the pattern and adapting the notes to match up with the pad's notes. Although the notes will have the same rhythm for 8 bars, it won't seem repetitive because the notes will change. On the beginning of bar five I added a note to catch the attention of the listener to say, "It's changing." The screenshot below shows bars 5-8. In the screenshot, it looks like notes are everywhere, but if you notice that the notes match up with the pad's chords you'll see that making this pattern wasn't all that complicated.

11. More Scenes and Roles - Act II and III

The next steps would be to make a couple more parts and to add sounds that signal buildups and breakdowns, but here's a rough mix showing the parts we've made so far. For the last 16 bars I had a trance saw synth play the melody.

12. Curtain Closes - Final tips and Summary

  • Especially in cases where there are instruments playing in the same frequency range, allow each instrument to have a unique part of the timeline so that they will be heard clearer. It will be easier to mix.
  • Consider having the melodies of various instruments work together and support each other through "conversations", and through direct copying or imitating. This will establish a distinct theme that can be carried into other sections of the song, and if you wish to introduce a change of themes in other sections it will be more apparent and surprising to the listener.
  • Sounds in the same frequency range will need to compromise on some combination of volume (balance), frequencies (EQ), or time (arrangement & composition), and this tutorial focused on time.
  • One way to look at a song is that it's like a play, in which characters (instruments) must take turns presenting a story for it to make sense, and each character has its own territory (frequency range) and lines to say that contribute to the overarching message of the play.
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