As one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards states, “Repetition is a form of change.” For dance music, this isn’t merely a strategy, but a mantra. However, the fact of the matter is — unless your audience’s intoxicants are extremely good — too much repetition gets old fast. Too little, and you risk breaking the spell you’re casting on the dance floor.The most common technique for keeping a riff interesting is to dramatically morph the synths and effects, creating crescendos and peaks to enhance the listener’s journey. This is well-suited to progressive dance, some types of house, and of course, trance. But drastic or sweeping changes don’t always mesh with the tech and minimal genres.By applying what I call “subliminal automation,” you can hold listeners’ attention without resorting to abrupt shifts. The idea is to use very small brush strokes to keep a part changing continuously but subtly. To illustrate this, we’ll automate an analog-style square wave riff over a beat from Loopmasters’ Joey Youngman library. The end result is a cycling riff that keeps tickling the ear, while leaving sonic space for embellishments in the drums and other synth bits.
Step 1.Create a simple riff with a sound that’s not too complex and has a bit of room to morph subtly. Here’s the isolated square wave riff, created with FXpansion’s Strobe synth from DCAM Synth Squad (reviewed Nov. ’09). Click for audio.
Step 2. Let’s start with a touch of filter automation. In this example (using Ableton Live), we’ve lowered the cutoff ever so slightly, then put a slight peak at the middle of the eight-bar loop. Click for audio.
Step 3. To change the wave shape slightly, we’ll blend in a bit of sawtooth twice, with peaks at bar 3 and bar 7. Click for audio.
Step 4. Another useful parameter to automate is the envelope sustain level. Large shifts are great for building peaks and crescendos. A tiny amount adds just a dash of flavor.Click for audio.
Step 5. As a final touch, we’ll blend in a bit of noise. As with sustain and filter, a little goes a long way. For the peaks, you can get a lot crazier, as we’ve discussed in previous columns. Click for audio.