The Art of Synth Soloing: Pitch-Bending

February 21, 2012
By Jerry Kovarsky

Welcome back! Last month, we got a good sustaining envelope to our sound and learned to set up various forms of modulation. We’ll return to imgthat in an upcoming column to discuss performance techniques, but this month, let’s get right into pitch-bending.

Bend Me, Shape Me
I like to divide the analysis of pitch-bending into three concepts: direction (up or down), distance (maximum pitch range bent), and duration (the the time it takes to reach that destination). When you listen to great lead synth players (or great guitar players), try to focus your ears on these three aspects. For the following examples, we’re going to stay simple, and assume that your pitch-bend control is set to bend up and down two half-steps, which equals a whole tone. This is the most common default on synth patches, check for yourself on the sound you’re practicing with and be sure it is set this way. For all of these examples, we’re going to be playing some version of the riff in Ex. 1.

Positions, Everybody
If you’ve never used a pitch-bend wheel, you may not know how to hold your hand to operate it. One popular method is to use the thumb of your left hand on the wheel, resting your hand on the side of the case of your synth. The main advantage for the position is that your thumb is a strong, flat surface to control the wheel with, and it’s easier to “flick” the wheel, a technique we’ll discuss later. I’m actually not a fan of this method, because it forces you to move your whole hand over when you want to use the adjacent modulation wheel, which seems like a lot of wasted bodily motion.

I much prefer using my left hand’s index finger on the pitch wheel so that I can then put my thumb on the modulation wheel—I can keep my hand in this position without moving around. Try them both and get comfortable with the one that feels the best for you. If you have a joystick (as on most Korg synths) or pitch/modulation paddle (as on most Roland keyboards), place your left hand’s index finger on the left side of the lever and your thumb on the right side. With most joysticks, moving them left and right will bend the pitch down and up, respectively, where as moving the stick up or down will add modulation.

One more note: The following techniques assume that whatever pitch-bend controller your keyboard has, it’s of the “springy” variety that returns to the center when you take your hand away. That’s true of most synths but not all—vintage Minimoogs are a notable exception.

Bending Up to a Pitch
In this case we play a note a whole-step below the desired pitch and then push the wheel or joystick forward to bend that note up into the desired pitch. So, looking at the example we have two opportunities to bend up a whole step, using the G before the A on the second eighthnote of beat 1, and playing a D which we’ll bend up into an E on the first beat of bar 3. Look at it notated in Ex. 2. The diagonal line shows the bend between the notes, and the note with the diamond head is the pitch produced by the bend itself.

This also gives us a chance to see two techniques for bending. For the first bend we’ll play the G, hold it, and in time we’ll push the pitch-bend imgcontrol forward to bend up to the A, and then release the device to center to come back to the G. Try that first part of the phrase a few times until you feel comfortable with it. Then continue on, and for the first beat of bar 3. play a D and at the same time quickly move the pitch-bend control forward so you don’t hear the D, only a quick slide into the E. When you let off the note, also release the control so it returns to center in enough time for you to play the notes that follow it without any bend.

Bending Down to a Pitch
In this case you play a note a whole-step above the desired pitch, and then move the pitch wheel or joystick towards you to bend the note down a whole step into the desired pitch. Looking at Ex. 3, the best places to use this technique are to play the A on beat 2 in the first bar and bend it down into the G on the second half of the beat, as well as doing a quicker downward bend of the D on the second sixteenth-note of beat 4 into the C that follows it.

For the first phrase, be sure to let go of the pitch-bend control when you let go of the sustained G pitch (the bent A note) before you play the following E on the second half of beat 3. The second bend phrase is trickier; the C pitch is very short, and you have to let go of the pitch-bend control quickly enough that the Eimg that you play at bar 2 doesn’t sound like you’re “swooping up” into it. A little bit of this may be okay, but practice releasing the wheel or joystick so that you get it clean.

In both of these cases, I’ve chosen places to do the bend that don’t cause me to play notes that seem strange in relation to the riff—I’m choosing common notes from the scale, mode, or riff as my bend points. This is the easiest way to conceptualize when to bend for now.

The Bend as Grace Note
A bend doesn’t always have to be heard as a discrete pitch. Moving the wheel or joystick just below center before you play a note and then releasing it along with the note produces a small “scoop” that adds nice character to a phrase. Th is bend works well with almost any distance from below, but start with a very small movement, say, less than a half-step. It also sounds best on newly attacked notes, so you may have to break up your legato phrasing. Try it on the first note of the phrase, or the G on the second half of beat 1, the A on beat 2, the Eb on beat 4, or any note in bar 3. Don’t do them all in the same pass, just pick one each time and get a feel for it.

Doing the same thing but starting with the pitch-bend control slightly above a note before releasing it can also work; I find this most effective at the start of a phrase.

Flicking the wheel or joystick upward or downward and then quickly releasing it is also a very cool effect. In our example riff, flicking upward imgworks well on any note except the natural E. (That’s my taste—you may like them all.) Flicking downward works on any note in the phrase. As before, try the riff repeatedly, choosing only one note per pass to flick at. A common technique is to flick/bend the last sustaining note of phrase—be sure to grimace while doing it for the full effect! You might have caught on that I slipped in the concept of bend distance into these last few examples. We’ll continue with these techniques and more next month, and offer some more exercises to get your bend chops in shape. Enjoy!     
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