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
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.
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.
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.
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.