That Minimal Techno Sound

April 17, 2013
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Minimal techno is a genre that constantly percolates just under the radar of mainstream, but is a huge influence throughout the worldwide electronic dance music scene. Originally, this production style thoroughly lived up to its name, with long evolving drum grooves occasionally punctuated by fragments of sound—and little else.

More recently, minimal producers are incorporating a few more melodic components into their tracks, with one sound in particular dominating the current fashion of the genre. This sound, which used extensively by Daniel Portman and a slew of other like-minded producers, iss almost like a clave or wood block, playing slightly “cute” riffs that skitter around the groove with a bit of swing or shuffle added for good measure.

This month, we’ll deconstruct that sound using three items: a basic sampler, a touch of ambience, and a sample from a classic Roland TR-808 drum machine.


Step 1

 

 
The big secret of this sound is that it’s actually the TR-808 “Mid Tom” sound, transposed two octaves upward. So the first step—once you’ve located an appropriate sample—is to load it into a your software sampler of choice. Once you’ve loaded the sound into your sampler, either set the transpose parameter to +24 semitones or lower the root key of the sample by two octaves.


Step 2

 

Now play a simple melodic riff that’s one or two measures long. If you’ve set up your sampler correctly, you should be hearing “the sound” in all its minimal glory. From there, add a touch of swing to the sequence and you’re ready for the finishing touches.


Step 3

 

 
The last step is folding in some automated reverb to emphasize specific notes, which will add spice to your arrangement. Depending on your DAW, you can either do this as part of the sequence clip, or apply more intricate automation tricks as part of the song structure itself. Above is a screen shot of my reverb automation within one of Ableton Live’s clip envelopes.
 
 
 The Mighty TR-808
If you can locate a working Roland TR-808 for sale, they tend to get bid up past $2,000 for a mint specimen. Fortunately, the soft samplers included with any DAW from Logic to Reason to Ableton all include TR-808 samples in their stock arsenals, so you should have no problem finding the “Mid Tom” sound for this tutorial. Like the TR-808, many now-coveted instruments sounded nothing like what they were originally designed to emulate—for example, Roland’s TB-303 didn’t sound like a bass guitar, nor did the Hammond B-3 fool anyone into thinking they were hearing a pipe organ. But they had their own sound, and it caught on. When sampling drum machines became the must-have beatboxes (mid-1980s through early ’90s), techno and hip-hop producers with more talent than money scooped up the analog TR-808 and TB-303 for a song. The rest is history.
 
 

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