By Jerry Kovarsky
LAST MONTH WE STARTED TO EXPLORE SOME REPEATED NOTE EXERCISES,
learning to play a “real” note and then repeating it with a bent note. This month, we’ll
expand on those concepts and, most importantly, begin to explore pitch-bend ranges
larger than the whole-step (two semitones up or down) to which most modern synths
are set by default. As you spend time learning these techniques, listening and transcribing
licks from your favorite artists, and learning them in all 12 keys, you’ll develop a
natural feel for making them part of your vocabulary.
Remember the three “Ds” of pitch-bending: direction,
distance, and duration. Until now we’ve
kept the distance to a whole-step (two semitones)
up or down. Increasing it further opens up a
whole world of possibilities that are fun to explore.
First, let’s try upward bending.
Go to the page on your synth where bend range
is set and change the upward bend range from 2 to
3. (Not all synths have independent ranges for up
and down—boo!) This is often clearly labeled as
“Bend,” but may be located in less obvious places.
For example, in Applied Acoustics Ultra Analog,
it’s in the preferences. In Arturia CS-80V, it’s the
“Ribbon Coarse” setting. In the ES-M synth in
Logic, you have to switch the plug-in to Logic’s
sliders-only “controls” view to expose the ranges.
And in Native Instruments Massive, it’s under the
OSC tab in the middle of the panel.
We’ll use the same blues scale in E from last
month, as shown in Ex. 1.With the bend range
set to +3, any note you bend up will travel
a minor third, so the best notes to bend from
would be the root (E), the minor third (G), and
the fifth (B), which just happen to outline the
root triad of the key. That’s a hint for when you
transpose the exercises to other keys. Try the
three simple riff s in Ex. 2 to get started.
Next, try going back to the repeated-note concepts
from last month’s column, but obviously
using notes a minor third apart, as in Ex. 3. We
can extend this concept to use every note of the
scale by adding some non-scale tones for the bent
note, making sure that we’re always bending into
a scale tone. The choices are outlined in Ex. 4.
Listen to some of your favorite players and tracks
and try to hear if and when they’re using an upward
bend range larger than a whole-step. This will
lead you to next important lesson of the art of
pitch-bending: You shouldn’t just “set and forget”
the bend range, always moving your controller its
full travel. Instead, you’ll want to learn to bend
intervals by feel and by ear. After all, you’ll still
want to articulate half-steps and whole steps as
well as minor-third bends. That’s what you’re
hearing in all the great performances.
Back when analog synths were the only synths,
the bend range usually wasn’t adjustable, and it
often traveled a flat fifth in either direction. Each
instrument was different, so when you saw a
player with a bunch of synths onstage, they had
to adjust their technique for each keyboard. In
my early playing days I had both a Minimoog and
a Prophet-5 (revision 2, thank you very much)
and they felt and were scaled quite differently
from one another. So I really had to get to know
their pitch wheels, and use my ears and muscle
memory to bend in tune.
With the upward bend range at three semitones,
try to reproduce all the exercises we’ve
done since the first column in the December
2011 issue. Notice how you have to find the
“just right” location to stop moving the wheel or
joystick—it’s not quite all the way. With enough
practice it will come to you.
A classic track that clearly exposes bend ranges
higher than +2 (or even +3) is the intro to Jan
Hammer’s “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun”
from his seminal album The First Seven Days.
(You can find it on all the major services, including
Spotify.) There’s also a great version on Jeff
Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live. You’ll hear
Jan using arching major-third bends up and diving
down to two octaves below. As I noted, not
all synths let you do this, but if you stay away
from strict emulations of vintage synths you’re
more likely to find this ability. Try setting your
downward bend range to –12 (one octave). Dial
in a small amount of portamento (a.k.a. glide)
and try the riff in Ex. 6, bending the last note
down an octave at varying speeds. Ex. 7 is a way
of extending that riff into a longer, repeating
phrase.Try changing the C# for a C natural to get
more of a Phrygian or Aoelian (natural minor)
vibe. You can then try the same phrases with the
downward bend range set to –24 (two octaves).
Many people call this a “divebomb” as it’s a lot
like guitar players using the whammy bar. Typing
“whammy bar technique” into Google will bring
up lots of video lessons and clips. Listening to virtuoso
guitarists like Steve Vai—his first gig with
Frank Zappa was billed as “stunt guitarist” for good
reason—Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen (especially
“Eruption”), and Michael Lee Firkins will prove great
source of ideas. So try everything from a Minimoogstyle
lead to a distorted gutiar patch and wail away—
headband, piercings, and tattoos optional!