If Michelangelo Were A Beatsmith

Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 6:42 pm

The first electronic music that I ever got into was repetitive 90’s dance music — Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, and the like. All of this music was largely loop-based, and dare I say it, recursive in terms of arrangement. A one-bar loop would repeat three times, then there would be a slightly varied version of that loop in lieu of a breakdown. This resulted in a four-bar loop that would repeat three times, followed by a slightly varied version of that four-bar loop in lieu of a breakdown… you get the idea.

You’d think this would result in mind-numbing robotic repetition… and it would, if not for the extensive use of layering. Oodles of loops would be going simultaneously. New loops pop in and replace old loops; old loops drop out before you get bored. Overall, the track winds up being somewhat like a patchwork quilt — an aesthetically pleasing pattern built out of regularly shaped blocks. You’ll only see it if you’re willing to take a step back and don’t get hung up staring at a single square, and some people aren’t used to doing that. They latch onto an individual loop and say, “this song is so repetitive!!” without noticing that, actually, no four bars of the track are completely the same — It’s a collage of loops. On the other hand, maybe some people just prefer paintings over collages.

I don’t worry about those people too much. The concept of a loop collage has always appealed to me. It’s just so straightforward and easy to get your head around. It breaks down a process that would otherwise be completely bewildering into manageable chunks. The first music I ever wrote was loop-based — I’d make the loops in all sorts of ways, then assemble them in Sonic Foundry’s Acid. Very quickly, I found myself focused on overall arrangements more than the loops themselves.

Ten years later, I don’t spend a lot of time making loops… but I still use the same arrangement techniques I developed through my first loop collage tracks.

Loop Sculpting

Michelangelo defined sculpting as the process of removing the stone that does not belong, in order to reveal the sculpture beneath. This nugget of wisdom comes in many shapes and sizes — “The funk is what you don’t play,” for example.

Imagine you had 4 loops to use in your song. You create 4 tracks, one for each loop, and paste the loops over and over until you have every loop at once playing for two minutes.

Loops playing during measures 1-4: ABCD
Measures 5-8: ABCD
Measure 9-12: ABCD
Measure 13-16: ABCD
etc. etc.

The loops all stack together pleasantly, but two minutes of the same thing over and over is as boring as… an uncarved hunk of marble. Let’s cut some of that marble away, and form an intro:

Loops playing during measures 1-4: A
Measures 5-8: AB
Measures 9-12: ABC
Measures 13-16: ABCD

But, where’s the drama in just revealing one loop after another? It’s like carving a rectangle into a pyramid shape — still pretty dull. Let’s try this:

Loops playing during measures 1-4: A
Measures 5-8: AB
Measures 9-12: ABC
Measures 13-16: B

The result is we get into the groove as A layers with B layers with C, then suddenly it’s just B and we snap to attention — where did those loops go? It heightens the tension; your instinct tells you to expect a major rush of energy come bar 17… simply provide that, and everyone will go nuts on the dance floor.

Measures 17-32: ABCD

After you’ve rinsed out measures 17-32, where do we go from there? Well, how about working through some combinations of loops we haven’t tried, yet?

Measures 33-36: AC
Measures 37-40:  AC
Measures 41-44: BC
Measures 45-48: BD

You get the idea. Those four loops can combine in 4! different ways — 4*3*2*1 = 12 different possible combinations. Most songs have more than four loops… eight loops gives us 8! = 40,320 possible combinations!! That’s more than anyone could work through in one track. Your job, as the arranger, is to work through the combinations of loops in a captivating manner — to wit, you want to repeatedly build tension and release it. You lay out a large block of every loop, and delete loops until you have a song.

Of course, there are details, lots of annoying details, that make the reality far less elegant.

Loops With Agendas

Our first step towards complicating the situation is to acknowledge that not all loops fufill the same purpose. A stereotypical dance track will have:

1. Bass
2. Kick Drum
3. Other Drums
4. Lead Synths
5. Harmonizing Synths

Some loops are basslines, some are lead synths. Layering lead synths and harmonizing synths without anything else to back them up doesn’t feel right. Fortunately, the sculpting analogy applies here as well. For example, let’s see our intro (the more interesting one) in this context:

Measures 1-4: Kick Drum
Measure 5-8: Kick Drum and Bass
Measures 9-12: Kick Drum, Bass, and Other Drums
Measures 13-16: Bass
Measures 17-32: Kick Drum, Bass, Other Drums, Lead Synth

With more loops, an arbitrary chunk of the song might look like this:

Measures nn-nn: Kick Drum, Bassline A
Measures nn-nn: Kick Drum, Bassline B
Measures nn-nn: Kick Drum, Bassline B, Other Drums A
Measures nn-nn: Kick Drum, Bassline B, Other Drums B

Detail Work

When you sculpt, you use a large chisel to remove the bulk of the unwanted stone quickly… but after that, you switch to smaller chisels, and after the smaller chisels, you bust out the sandpaper.

These days, It’s pretty rare for a (good) track to sound like Fatboy Slim’s piles of static, stacked loops. It’s still repetitive, but it has subtle variations, details, and accents.

So, after you’ve layed out the core arrangement of the song via cutting off large chunks — loops — you go back and do detail work. You play the track over and over, and things will start to come to you: Double-time the kick drum here to increase tension. Delete a few notes from this synth line to give it variation, and hammer home the remaining notes. Ramp up the send to the reverb here, add a little drum flourish there…  enough of this, and the track starts to drift away from being a mere pile of loops. It starts to become a detailed piece of art.

Of course, the analogy starts to fail a bit at this level. Unlike sculpting, you can put stone back!! I’ve wound up adding entire sections at this phase, and that’s fine — just keep an eye on the overall shape.

At The End Of The Day

The core point is to get a solid overall arrangement — shape — before going back and sweating the details. It’s easy to listen to a track by some genius god of electronic music and get terribly overwhelmed. “How could I ever write something that nuanced?” you wistfully mutter to yourself.

The answer is that you must create a framework on which to hang all the details, so you don’t lose direction and get lost. Loop sculpting is a great way to do that.

Categories: arrangement, songwriting

2 Comments on “If Michelangelo Were A Beatsmith”

  1. this is my new favourite blog. completely agree with everything you’ve written so far, and can’t wait to see what you discuss next. keep up the good work. also who do you release music as?

  2. You have opened my eyes. Thanks for writing this! Great post!

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