Digital Music Techniques #5

I’ve been working on the finishing touches to my track, which has included giving it a name – 1.5m.

Transitioning back into the ‘A’ section following the ‘B’ section was a bit difficult. I don’t know a lot about transitions, and I’m not really sure what this track needed. I ended up going with a “build-up” approach that gradually brings the ‘A’ section back.
The kick drum continues during the ‘B’ section, but more muffled, so I thought slowly bringing that up to volume was a good start. The melody plays alone with this just once, before the rest of the percussion joins again. I thought this was a softer way of reintroducing the main melody rather than immediately bringing back all the elements at once.

The melody playing once without percussion after the ‘B’ section, and the outro.

The second ‘A’ section has a tambourine part included to enhance the “fullness” of the sound. The clap/snare also has a different rhythmic pattern. A bass drone on C# that was featured at the beginning of the track is also running through this section.

I based the outro on the structure of Cataplexy, having almost everything drop out except the melody, one drum track and some effects. I think that was a really effective way to end it. I then used the stereo enhance master to touch up some of the loose edges.

The final version can be heard here:

Digital Music Techniques #4

I’m now working on the ‘B’ section of the track. Although the ‘B’ section is meant to contrast with the ‘A’ section, I decided I wanted the wurli to still be a major feature.
I wrote a new melody. It starts off tonally ambiguous, simply on a C#, before C# major becomes apparent, which then moves to F#m.

The ‘B’ section melody in Ableton.

I’m hoping for the ‘B’ section to have a very ominous mood, almost as if the song might end at this point, before gradually returning to the ‘A’. I have chosen a more deep bass sound that has less clarity than the one featured in the ‘A’ section. This is accompanied by a tap-dancing sound effect that pans around the head. A very distorted radio broadcast is played, which was featured only briefly during the beginning of the track.

Digital Music Techniques #3

My focus this week has been the foreground of this track. Deciding how to present the melody, and mixing it to sound “at the front” has been very challenging.

I started off by having the first iteration of the melody played by a ‘virtual keys’ software instrument. I doubled this so that one version was played and octave higher, but very quietly. I felt like it made this instrument sing by giving it a wide synth effect.
The second playing is one of my favourite plugins – Spitfire Audio’s hammered dulcimer. This needed some effects so it didn’t sound too detached from the rest of the track. It has some delay and EQ to bring down the sharp pitch. It has also been doubled with tremolo dulcimer, which is played an octave higher and is panning back and forth.
The last playing of the melody is by the principle instrument in this track – the wurli. I found it difficult to get this to ring out above the rest of the mix. Following advice, I doubled this with a grand piano instrument to give it some extra attack and resonance. I then doubled it again by adding a harp instrument that is playing an octave higher, just for an extra kick.
Below you can see the progression of the melody in the ‘A’ section of the track.

Progression of the melody in the ‘A’ section of the track.

Digital Music Techniques #2

I have been focusing on layering, mixing and fixing this week.
I have added many more percussive layers to my track that have really helped to complete the overall groove. My personal favourite addition was a hi-hat (from the same free lofi drum pack I started with) that is constantly panning back and forth throughout.

The percussion section in Ableton.

I have added multiple melodic fills that are really ‘filling out’ the space. One uses a marimba instrument, which is crisp and light compared to the rest of the sounds. The “loop effect,” shown below, has a lot of delay and pans back and forth throughout, which gives a great sense of space.

The melodic fills in Ableton.

The most major change I have made is with the melody. I was stuck on the idea of it being played by acoustic piano (since this is how I wrote it), but I realised through much frustration that this was the problem. I changed this to be played by Spitfire Audio’s electric piano (Wurlitzer) plugin, and it made a huge difference to the overall feel. The vision for this track seemed to come together after this alteration.

I was told my kick drum was “way too much.” The whole thing was becoming a bit too much with each layer that I added – peak levels were rising! To combat this, I have spent a lot of time putting EQs on each track to even everything out. It has been a great experience exploring each individual sound so intricately – it makes you really appreciate the work that goes into a good mix. Although, I am still having trouble perfecting the kick drum.

Various effects on the melodic fills.

Below is the second demo of this track. Tempo has been lifted a little more. I think the layering and mix is generally better in this version, but there is still more to be done.

Digital Music Techniques #1

I have begun composing a piece of digital music, using Cataplexy by Paul Mac as inspiration.

Official YouTube video for Cataplexy by Paul Mac.

In the past I have found jumping straight into the DAW can be a bit disorientating – it seems to stump the musical direction a little bit. So this time, I wrote the melody at the keyboard first. I wanted the melody to be beautiful (to my ears at least), and follow a versatile chord progression that would sound effective in a piece of electronic music. I’m far from decent at playing keys, so I transcribed the melody to MIDI using Ableton Live.

The melody transcribed in Ableton Live.

It’s not a very intricate melody, but it works. This follows a chord progression of C#m – A – B – F#.
Next was to write a fat bass line. To do this, I listened to the melody a few times, and hummed a bass line that sounded good, before then writing this directly to MIDI as well.

The bass line in Ableton Live.

The melody, chord progression and bass line are the foundation of the song, so everything from this point was bringing it to life! I initially thought “this is a lofi vibe,” so I added a minimalistic beat (using a free lofi drum pack), some atmospheric sounds (using Spitfire Audio plugins) and a little harp filler. It was sitting at 83bpm and had a pretty good feel.

The lofi version of this track in Ableton Live.

I didn’t mind this, until I had another listen to Cataplexy. I have never experimented with dance music of this style, and was interested to explore the idea of ‘using multiple simple layers to create complexity’. So I have scrapped this idea – it was time to add a kick drum.

Below is the first demo of this track. The percussion section is now lead by a consistent kick drum on every beat, with a clap on 2 and 4, and many other layers of syncopated rhythm. The feel of the song has changed a lot at this point, and is now sitting at 116bpm.

Guide to the Orchestra: an eBook

My first ever eBook is complete and ready for viewing!

Guide to the Orchestra book title.

Guide to the Orchestra is an educational eBook that gives the viewer an informative and interactive overview of all the main instruments featured within a modern orchestra. Complete with graphics, audio and quizzes.

As the eBook is pending being published on Apple Books, I have made it available for download via Google Drive. You will need Apple Books on your computer to view the file.

Download and view Guide to the Orchestra here:

Making an eBook…

Over the last few of weeks I have been compiling all of the elements that I need to make my educational eBook, ‘Guide to the Orchestra.’

I started by checking out various educational resources such as websites that provide knowledge on this topic. I found that while these websites are helpful, they often lack an interactive aspect. I am hoping that my eBook can be both informative and interactive.

I spent the next long while researching each instrument through the USyd Library. I want this book to feature relevant and important facts about each instrument, while still being short and sweet. For each instrument, there is brief historical background (e.g. date of invention), what materials the instrument is made of and how the instrument is physically played.

After this, I collected a series of images that would be featured in the book.

My collection of images for the eBook.

Perhaps most daunting part, was designing the book. Lucky for me, my housemate is a graphic designer, so I was given some valuable advice about page layout.

My first attempt is pictured below. I had an image in my head of something fancy and elegant to look at. After almost finishing the entire book in this template, I was pretty unsatisfied with it.
I thought about who this book was intended for, and what would appeal to those people. I needed something much more modern and easy on the eyes.

The original template/style of the eBook.

Pictured below are the improvements. It now has a more modern and easy-to-read font, larger images, chapter covers and better spacing.
It may not look like a lot, but the change made a big difference to the overall presentation of the project.

The new and improved version.

The final part of my eBook project is to add audio of each instrument. To avoid copyright problems, I have decided that I will make each of these audio excerpts using Sibelius. I would like the audio to sound as much like the real instrument as possible, so I am going to avoid using the in-built MIDI sounds. Instead, I am currently in the process of downloading Sibelius Ultimate Sounds to my computer, but it is taking an extremely long time. Hopefully it will have finished before Monday!

All Things Ableton

This week at Sydney Con we have participated in some seriously engaging seminars lead by Ethan Hein. Ethan is an expert in many things music education/technology related. In a couple of classes (‘Zoomed’ from America – thank you internet) and a scroll through his blog, I have many new ideas to ponder over.

A familiar name was mentioned today; Imogen Heap. I used to listen to her music on repeat when I was in high school and somehow I have forgotten her for a while. Imogen is a singer-songwriter and audio engineer, and an advocate for the use of technology in music.
The nature of Ethan’s seminars made me think of video below. Skip to 9:15 to hear Imogen talking about and performing with MiMu gloves – a live music technology that she took part in developing.

Ethan gave us a live demonstration of some extra Ableton Live tips and tricks.

The Ableton Live vocoder is an effect that modulates an incoming audio signal in a variety of ways. It adds synthesized melodies and harmonies to vocals and other musical instruments, but can create many other sounds as well.
The perfect example of using a vocoder on a vocal track is Daft Punk’s Around The World. Imogen Heap uses it to in her track Hide and Seek. I still have a lot of experimenting to do with this…

Vocoder audio effect in Ableton Live.

The Ableton Live Beat Repeat plug-in is interesting. I don’t understand it’s purpose for making music… yet. I probably just haven’t made enough electronic music.
Beat Repeat takes a part of the sample you have entered, preferably a drum beat, and repeats it. The different knobs are:

  • Interval: how often it repeats, e.g. every bar or every two bars
  • Offset: what part of the sample is being repeated, e.g. beat one or beat two
  • Grid: what rhythm it will repeat as, e.g. 1/4 notes or 1/8 notes
  • Variation: randomises the repeated patterns
  • Chance: a % chance of how often the beat repeat is triggered
  • Gate: defines the total amount of repeats in 1/16 notes

Turning on the filter also allows you to edit the amplification envelope of the repeated beat.

Beat Repeat plug-in in Ableton Live.

The option to convert melody or drums into new MIDI track in Ableton Live allows you to assign a push trigger for each note, or beat, of your sample. For example, entering a simple rock beat into Ableton Live and activating this feature would automatically assign a trigger button to the hi-hat, snare and bass drums. This can be especially useful if you have access to an Ableton Push, but can also work with a MIDI keyboard, or just a computer keyboard.

Drums to MIDI applied to sample in Ableton Live.

I think I need to go and watch more Ableton Live tutorials…

Auralia and Musition… and a new project!

This week at Sydney Con we were greeted by co-founder and director of Rising Software, Peter Lee. Rising Software is based in Melbourne, and are the team who developed Auralia and Musition. I was pleasantly surprised by this, as I have fond yet distant memories of practicing my aural skills using this software many many years ago…

Auralia is all about aural training for musicians. Various topics are divided into sections: Intervals & Scales, Rhythm, Pitch & Melody, Harmony & Form, Repertoire & Musical Elements, and Chords.
Musition is all about music theory. Various topics are divided into sections: Pitch, Rhythm, Terms & Symbols, Composition, Harmony & Instruments and General Knowledge.

Auralia and Musition is tailored for teachers in a music education setting. You can easily make assessment tasks, such as tests or quizzes, that are age and skill appropriate.
The program also incorporates a wide variety of syllabus requirements, so you can be sure that all learning outcomes are being addressed.
Tests and quizzes can be presented to students in a variety of ways, such as with multiple choice responses, or with direct note input. Students receive immediate feedback when they give answers, and it is easy for teachers to monitor their progress.

It was great to learn about Auralia and Musition from one of the creators. It is an intuitively developed program, and would be coming in handy more than ever for music educators during this period of online teaching.

Auralia. Image from
Musition. Image from

This week I also pitched my idea for my Creative Digital Project. I am going to create an educational e-book using iBooks Author. The book will follow an “Instruments of the Orchestra” theme. The target audience will be music students ranging from primary to junior secondary school.

I love the idea of e-books as an educational resource. They can incorporate engaging multimedia content and interactivity all in one digital package.
I was inspired to create an e-book for my project as it is something I would have thoroughly enjoyed learning from while I was in school (to be fair I have always been a music nerd…).

My idea is to take one of those typical “Instruments of the Orchestra” posters that I remember vividly from school music class, and bring it to life. The iBook will present informational graphics, diagrams and video representing each instrument and their position within an orchestra, as well as numerous audio excerpts so that readers can experience the sound of each instrument.

The main educational aspect of this iBook will be a focus on several musical concepts. With each instrument, there will be information provided about:

  • The clef that the instrument is played in
  • The key the instrument is in
  • What dynamic the instrument naturally plays at (pp, mp, p, ff, mf, f)
  • What timbral qualities the instrument has
  • Extended techniques/interesting things that the instrument can do

At the end of each instrument “section,” there will be a set of multi-choice quizzes that test instrument recognition, musical concepts and musical terminology that has been taught in the book.

Additional features may include:

  • Diagram of whole orchestra that shows where each instrument/section of instruments sit
  • Diagram of different clefs and how they connect
  • Explanation of transposing instruments and how they transpose to play in Concert Pitch
  • Explanation of dynamics, the Italian word and it’s meaning in English

To be continued…

Mixing and Mashing

Those electronic mixes that feature samples from your favourite artists are not as easy to produce as you may think!

I was completely unaware of all the fiddly bits and pieces to get your head around when producing a track of this nature. Thanks to James Humberstone from Sydney Conservatorium and the 90-day free trial from Ableton Live, I was able to tackle it!

There are a few types of software that can produce a mix-mash electronic track, such as FL Studio and Reason, but as Ableton Live is generally considered to be at the forefront of the EDM scene, as well as the experimental arts scenes.

I first attempted to mash up two samples from Lorde and Zara Larsson using Soundtrap, a program that is most definitely not intended to be used for this purpose. The outcome left a lot to be desired. Tempo and pitch matching was a tedious task.

I then tried to do the same thing in Ableton Live, and was able to achieve the right result a lot quicker. Tempo matching is done automatically, and changing the pitch of a track is as easy as turning a knob.

Pictured is the working space in Ableton Live. In the sample section in the bottom left you can see the transpose knob, where you can easily change the pitch of the sample.

The next thing to do was experiment with Live’s warp feature. Although Live automatically tempo matches each sample, the purpose of the warp feature is to make the sample perfectly in time with the metronome. Live places potential warp markers where it believes there is an important moment within the track, and you can then edit these so that it lines up accurately.

Pictured is the warp feature in Ableton Live. The grey and yellow markers above the waveform can be altered to make the sample perfectly in time with the metronome.

After that, I programmed a beat using the Step Sequencer on Ableton Live’s Learning Music website. When the beat was finished, I exported it into Live, where it became part of my mix-mash-making session.

Pictured is the Step Sequencer on Ableton Live’s Learning Music website.

The last step was to add a synth bass line to my track. This can be achieved by adding a new MIDI track, and then dragging over the Analog instrument from the Collections list. I manually inputted my desired notes, but this process can be much easier with a MIDI keyboard. Using the controls for the Analog synthesizer, I played around with the oscillator and the filter (among other things that I’m not entirely sure about) until I found a bass sound that I liked.

Pictured is the controls for the Analog synthesizer.

I added a couple of other touches, like a MIDI keyboard loop, because I was having too much fun making beats with this software. Below you can listen to the finished product of my experimentation.

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