Secrets to holding a listeners attention
I wanted to talk today about music that is based on repeating loops. The challenge many of us have when making songs based on either premade or self made loops of 1, 2, 4 or 8 bars is that it can be difficult to keeps things sounding interesting and exciting. I run into this scenario quite a bit and I’d like to share some tip sand ideas to help you improve the flow and interest of your tracks.
Filters and resonance is probably the most obvious way to keep interest in a part that loops. Closing a hi pass filter can can create a feeling of tension or repressed energy and opening the filter creates a nice release. Depending on the part, this can be very intentional and noticeable or subtle. Either way it can keep the listeners attention as the ears are impeccable at distinguishing minor changes and fluctuations. 2 or 3 builds in your song can go a long way to keep your track interesting.
An LFO (or Low frequency oscillator) is a fantastic way to create subtle movement in your loop or midi part. If you are working with a synth, adding an lfo to panning, filter or pitch is usually possible directly on your hardware or soft synth. It doesn’t take much give a sound more life. Sometimes you can’t really notice exactly what is happening with your sound but you instinctually just know that it sounds more interesting. If you are working with a sampled loop, you may need to add an effect that offers lfo movement. Ableton’s built in effects offer alot of options in this arena. Adding something as simple as a chorus or flanger at a low “wet” percentage can really help. For more randomness I wouldn’t sync the lfo to tempo. A slow lfo that repeats out of sync with the tempo will keep the lfo’s themselves from being too loopy.
Duplicate and Layer
I use this technique alot. There are one of a few things I might do to keep things interesting. I will duplicate my loop and make the duplicate an octave higher or lower to introduce different frequency information. Often times I’ll go an octave higher and filter out most of the low frequency content so it doesn’t clash with the original part or other parts in the song. Then I’ll add some dirt with a type of distortion or saturator. Next I’ll automate the volume subtly so hints of it comes in and out of the mix. I may make it more noticeable during breakdowns and buildups. You can also add a layer that is a harmonic of the original. I like trying to repitch a dupicated layer 7 semitones above the original. See what works for you.
Also something to look into is duplicating your part and reversing it. Then find the parts that sound interesting and cut them up and strategically place them in interesting places. It will often assist and enhance the feel and movement of the loop if not overdone.
This can be similar to the last tip. You would simply create interesting fx chains on several return tracks. One might use bit reduction and erosion. Another might introduce an interesting delay or Reverb, while another has a chorus or phaser. Ableton has some really creative effects, so definitely mix and match. It’s best to put the wet/dry on 100% as you don’t want to send the original track back into itself in most cases. Once you have those chains, each of your tracks, including your loop track will have send knobs in your session view. Your track sends are just as automatable as volume or panning, so automate subtle hints of each effect in different points of your song. This is certain to keep things interesting. Just make sure not to get lost here. You were probably attracted to the original loop for a reason, so make sure you aren’t diluting what makes the part great.
Attack, decay, release times
This is another technique that can make a huge impact on your synth part. unfortunately, you won’t have this option with a sampled loop, but I’ll give you a tip that might still help. If you are using a synth, you are sure to have Attack, Decay, sustain and release. In most cases, I like to back off my sustain and release to the lowest setting and then tweak the decay between long and short times. It’s great to open the decay up during builds and breaks and then back it off when things kick back in. This can bring your sound from choppy to washy. Experimenting with the attack can create interesting results at times too. Just like I said before, make sure you don’t lose perspective of the loop that inspired you in the first place. If you are working with a sample, you can drag in a Gate effect and experiment with the threshold. Sometimes this can create a similar effect.
This is a dance producers secret weapon and can easily be overused but the movement and groove it can give a part can’t be denied. Subtly (or more noticeably) syncing a loop to the kick can certainly help keep things interesting. Naturally when the kicks drop out, so does the sidechain effect which is pretty popular in dance music. Whether you choose a standard noticeable approach or or something more subtle, the listeners ears will thank you. Also experiment with sidechaining to other parts in your song for interesting results.
Outside the loop
Although there are many many things you can do to make a repeating loop sound interesting, there is also something to be said about building interest outside the loop. In general, the listener is not going to want to hear a static loop for more than 8 bars. There are things outside the loop that obviously need to stay interesting as well. Filter rises, swells, evolving ambient sounds and high frequency sounds are some of my favorite ways to keep interest. Many songs, for example, will put a crash at every 8 to 16 bars. Surprisingly, that one sound can reset your interest in listening to a loop for another 8 to 16 bars (depending on how interesting the loop itself is). On top of that though, reverse sounds and weird noises run through reverb and delay can really create space and depth in your track. Another favorite trick of mine is stretching audio. Whether it be a vocal sample or, well, pretty much anything, you can really get some amazing drones with tons of subtle movement. Heck, even try stretching your loop itself. You can do some pretty massive stretching in Ableton but I prefer a fantastic free program called Paul Stretch which you may recognize from an earlier post of mine. It does some fantastic things and can bring endless fun!
I know there are ways to keep a track free from too many effects and dry sounding without losing interest as well, and that would have alot to do with drum programming, groove quantizing and knowing when to add another layer of hihats or when to drop the kick for dramatic effect. Hip Hop is really good at this, but remember, most hip hop is only a few minutes long and has vocals throughout. Getting the same results on a 7 minute track without vocals is much more challenging. I’m certainly not an authority on this approach, but I admire those who are able to take a minimal approach and keep things interesting and engaging.
Other things to note for keeping interest are counter melodies. Being able to change the attention from one melody to another can keep listener interest for a far longer time. Just make sure both parts have movement and have areas in the song where each is more noticable than the other as well as a part where both parts are layered pretty evenly. That alone gives you 3 movements for your track.
Last but not least, changing just 1 note in your bassline can make a dramatic effect if done in the right place. Don’t underestimate the power the bass plays on a melodic loop. Changing the key of your bass, or just a note here and there can do wonders to keep interest.
Use you best judgement
All of these techniques are simply suggestions and it’s really going to come down to your personal style and what you would like to accomplish. Some technique might not benefit your track at all, or perhaps you’ve found the perfect loop that needs very little to keep interesting. You are the master of your own craft and ultimately, you make the rules. All I am hoping to do is empower you to be the best YOU possible.
Below is a video I posted not long ago, but I thought I would add it to this post as it lead me to writing this blog and might give you some other ideas.
Creating Evolving Loops/Soundscapes
This is a simple way to take 1 boring midi loop and make it much more interesting through layering the same part through different effects chains. I also show you a trick of creating automation for each layer that loops at odd times. If you think of running several tape loops all at different lengths, when played together, the sounds never combine the same way twice. This makes things more pleasing and interesting to the ears.
Below is a video showing you this process in Ableton Live 8.
(Right click and Save as)
Feel free to download the song file to see exactly how I approached this:
Happy Music Making,
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The Mental Game of Music Production
The Process for Electronic Music Producers
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Happy music making!
Thanks Jason, your posts are always incredibly valuable and insightful.