Digital Music - Lesson Two: New Sounds, Timbre, and Melody

In our first lesson, we learned how to build rhythmic patterns using a loop-based, music creation software program called Fruityloops. In this lesson, we will continue working with our rhythmic patterns, adding new sounds to our beats and learning how to manipulate a sound's timbre (pronounced "tam-ber"), which refers to the quality, or character, of a particular sound. We will also learn how to manipulate a sound's pitch, making it sound higher or lower, which is essential to composing melodies, such as basslines.

Fleshing-out Patterns: Adding New Sounds, Changing Timbres

Once one has created a percussive texture that one likes, the next step is to add other sounds to fill out the skeletal beat (unless one wants a particularly minimal track) or to replace the drum sounds one is using with different sounds--ones with more preferable timbres. In either case, one has to select sounds from Fruityloops' soundbank and move them into channels in the step-sequencer. Let's look at the basics of adding new sounds.

The easiest way to add new sounds is to drag them into the step-sequencer window from the browser (see below, on the left-hand side). One can drop a new sound on an existing channel if one wants to replace the sound it already contains, or one can drop a new sound in the space below (or in between) the existing channels, where fruityloops will create a new channel to hold it. In the illustration below, I have created a new channel to hold the sound, "bass04h," by dragging it over and dropping it in the empty space below the hi-hat channel.

As one can see in the browser above, I could have chosen to select a new hi-hat, a new kick, or a new snare from a number of options. Fruityloops allows you to click on a sound in the browser in order to hear it. You will find that changing the particular kick or snare drum, for instance, changes the sound and feeling of a beat rather radically. Experiment with different timbres to experience their effect.

Using the bass-sound in our new channel, we can create a bassline by dropping the sound on various boxes along the grid. One common and powerful way to add a bassline to a beat is to match the various drum attacks, both kicks and snares, with bass tones. Observe the way the bass mirrors the collective kick-and-snare pattern in the illustration below:

Fruityloops gives us the ability not only to place these new sounds rhythmically, but to manipulate their pitch as well, making them sound "higher" or "lower" to us. First, pick a channel to edit with the piano-tool, then click on the button directly to the right of the channel that you want to manipulate (see, above, that the button glows green next to "bass04h"). Nest, click on the "piano-tool" in the upper-right-hand corner of the step-sequencer (it looks like this: ), and a series of vertical keyboards drop down to match the grid:

The piano-tool allows one to manipulate the pitch of a sample--up and down for several octaves in either direction. (An "octave" is a basic unit of pitch, based on proportional frequency. The euro-art-music notational system, and the piano itself, divide the octave into a collection of eight-pitches, the major scale, which some may know in the form: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. If we include the black keys--the pitches in between the notes of the major scale--that gives us twelve pitches in between each octave.) Here is an example of an octave, as depicted in the figure above: . The piano-tool turns the keyboard sideways, so that each box has a corresponding vertical keyboard of its own. Despite this strange orientation, perhaps you can see that the octaves extend in either direction from middle-C, which is the pitch colored orange in the first box (and the default keyboard pitch in Fruityloops).

More on Melody

In the illustration above, I simply moved the 2nd and 4th bass tones up a half-step (to C-sharp, the black key directly above middle-C), which produces a nice effect, putting plenty of "pull" on the tone. After several years of musical experience, I am familiar with the various "push" and "pull" tendencies that certain pitches can have in relation to each other. I believe it is best for newcomers to experiment with the different notes of the scale in order to discover their own predilections.

Experiment by placing a bass tone at middle C on the downbeat (as in the picture above). Press play and listen to the beat cycle around, landing on your bass tone each time. Now, pick another beat, such as beat 2 (the first red box of the first red group). Change the pitch of this tone, going up and down the keyboard until you have a sense of how they relate to each other.

Move on to the next beat if you find a relationship you like. Before long, you'll have a full bassline chugging along:

Don't let yourself become too discouraged or mystified by the piano-tool. Just use your ears and decide what you like. You will learn the implicit "rules" of melody writing--or discover your own--simply by making music that you like the sound of.

Of course, as with the rhythms of drum beats, there are various conventions for composing melodies (pitches occuring in succession) and harmonies (pitches occuring simultaneously). Such conventions are helpful but not crucial to new digital music producers. The ability to edit as you listen, using your ears, eyes, sense of taste, and imagination, is enough to facilitate the creation of original and compelling music. Still, if you are interested in "music theory," which is simply a system used to describe the way people tend to write melodies and harmonies, you can find plenty of resources on the Internet and elsewhere. Be aware, however, that these "rules" are generally based on music composed by old European men hundreds of years ago, and that they will not necessarily produce the kind of tunes you like.

A Word of Caution: The Taste of Space

Fruityloops gives one an unlimited number of channels, so one can add as many additional sounds to the rhythmic foundation as one wants. At the same time, one should also be aware of the temptation to keep adding layers: one can build up a great deal of musical drama this way, but things can easily get too noisy. Appreciating and using space is one of the greatest lessons of music. All of the genres I discussed in lesson one--hip-hop/rap, dancehall, and techno--tend toward rather minimal textures, which serve to highlight the powerful rhythms and emphasize particular timbres. Take a cue from the masters: keep it tasteful--don't forget the power of space.

Next lesson: Form