Subliminal Automation

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
Author:
Updated:
Original:
0110 Dance Step 1

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.

0110 Dance Step 1

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.

0110 Do It Dance Step 2

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.

0110 Do It Dance Step 3

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.

0110 Do It Dance Step 4

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.

0110 Do It Dance Step 5