Kim Lajoie's blog

Practice (and perform) your parts – don’t just sequence them

by Kim Lajoie on March 9, 2012

This post is a sequel to this post: Automation and expression.


It’s pretty easy to sequence.

You’ve got a computer chock-full of samplers, romplers, synths, loops and other sound sources. You start every project with an empty timeline that’s as inviting as a swimming pool on a hot still day or an untouched carpet of autumn leaves. It’s pretty easy to sequence – dragging in plugins and audio and placing them on the grid in neat patterns like lego blocks. And like lego blocks, it’s easy to arrange them neatly and be satisfied with the result.

But you can do better.

Sequencing can be dull and predictable. Notes and sounds come in exactly on the beat. Loops are the same each time we hear them. Section changes are stark and abrupt. The track progresses as a series of plateaus. Boring.

Life isn’t a series of lego blocks. Life is rich and colourful and fluid. Whether life reflects art or art reflects life, don’t sell yourself short. And don’t sell your listeners short. Lego blocks are a great starting point, and a useful way to sketch out a structure. But if all you’ve got is lego blocks, all you’ve got is a sketch.

So make your music breathe. Bring it to life. And I don’t mean layering a riser or stinger or drum fill or anything like that. I mean bring those lego blocks to life. Perform those parts. Bash out some drum beats on some pads. Play those chords or bassline or melody. Assign some MIDI knobs or sliders to plugin effect parameters. Don’t get ‘next step’, hit ‘record. Embrace the subtle performance variations that give the music some contour, some push and pull, some shape.

You might not get it right first time. Surprise! Don’t be discouraged. Practice it. Spend ten minutes, thirty minutes, two hours if you have to. Don’t be lazy. Put some of your self into the music. Are you the speechwriter or the speaker?

Right now there’s two kinds of people reading this blog post.

The first kind is those who are nodding and telling themselves “Yeah, that sounds kinda interesting, maybe I’ll try it one day”. And then they don’t. They get back in their studio and continue step-sequencing everything because it’s easier and they don’t care that it’s soulless. Expressing yourself with a mouse is like playing piano with one finger. And you’re only allowed to play at one volume level.

The second kind is those who are nodding and telling themselves “I don’t know if that’ll work for me, but I’ll give it a go and see what happens. And they try it out. On whatever track they’re working on right now. Maybe just one instrument. Maybe partially quantise (don’t hard-quantise!) the performance if it’s a bit sloppy. Maybe try another instrument on the next track. Maybe get a bit better at it. Maybe in the process learn how to make their music a little better.

So which one are you? If you’re kidding yourself that you’ll try it one day but know deep down in your heart that you’ll probably forget about it once you move onto the next blog post, you probably won’t bother commenting here. You’re just a grazer. A window-shopper.

On the other hand, if you’re really going to give it a go, leave a comment telling me the name of the track you’re working on, and what instrument or sound you’re going try performing. Make a commitment to trying something new that might improve your music.

It’s up to you.


19 thoughts on “Practice (and perform) your parts – don’t just sequence them

  1. Mr George says:

    Im a reader for a while now. I saw this subject on a other blog named flow if I remember correctly. I still dont have a mpc like device to play my noise glitch basses and growls live to give them a human feel. I think it would be totally awesome. But not only for making a track also for performing on stage. One thing bothers me tho. I heard a lotta of tracks and they use the lego block method or tetris method. most of those tracks have abrupt breaks in my opinion this is better and more accurate. Especially for heavy electronic music. I must agree that and acoustic instrument like a piano has much more feel if its played live. Excuse me for my english Im dutch.

  2. richard lowcock says:

    sound advice, and i’ll definately be giving it a go – in fact i have already started doing it since i just got a midi keyboard and a controller.. And what i can say is that even though i cant play the keyboard at all it’s already making a huge difference. Just being able to tweak synth parameters on the fly or tapping my beats on velocity sensitive pads rather than mousing them into the step sequencer makes a big difference…
    The first track i have attempted this on is simply called geartest, as its the project i started to get to grips with my new hardware.
    I used the drumpads for tapping the drumparts (which immediatly made them sound more human than anything i had done previously on a step sequencer) and i’m also using my 8 encoders to control an 8 step bass synth, as well as bringing parts in manually rather than just sequencing the track (thanks for your email advice re: Performing with Cubase).
    Great post as always, love this blog- it really helps me stay in the right frame of mind and not get lazy.

  3. Neel Daniel says:

    Good post, as it reflects much of the opinion I have when tracking.

    I just tracked bass to a song I had already tracked acoustic guitars for, but the guitars were guides, the bass I was going for keeper.

    The issue I had was I wrote this song for my new record too late for drums, all that had been in the can for weeks. So I took a beat that worked from another song and edited it to build a workable, even good track.

    Now to the bass and how that fits your post. I worked at it… took breaks… listened and wanted it to not only feel right but be a main instrument in the final song. Getting the first half was easier than the tag, the fade out. That needed to be special and fit behind the piano and sax parts coming later. It turned out great (for me).

    What I liked about the post you have here is the positive attitude to the reader to give it a go, work at it. Listen and work at it some more. I like to wait when I think I am done and before I submit my tracks for mix I listen and see how it feels. I know I can always do better, but sometimes there is the point of happiness where I know I will like it years from now.


  4. Rory says:

    As a guitar player for many years, i eventually invested in a bass so i can record basslines from a errr … bass. It makes a world of difference.

    Most times i’ll sit down with the track and jam along with it for 64 bars and then pull out the best performed riffs/lines. So i end up with a balance of lego block and natural flow.

    Most recently (last night) i decided a certain beat i had go would benefit from some cutting and scratching from some vinyl, so i spent at least 30 minutes scratching away over a section of the track … in the end i might only use less than 30 seconds of that, but it’s the organic rhythm of the sound that i’m shooting for.

  5. Dave says:

    I’m neither of the two types, because I’m old-school and DO play most of the parts in my recordings (except for drums, ’cause my neighbors wouldn’t like that). Of course, I quantize and edit the hell out of them after recording! hehe

  6. Kim Lajoie says:

    You could use any pad controller, or maybe even a MIDI keyboard. It doesn’t take a fully weighted 88 key keyboard – any controller will allow you to perform parts instead of sequencing them.

    Abrupt section transitions are certainly a useful composition technique. The problem is when the changes are stark – there’s no lead-in to the change and no tail out of it. There’s a lot that can be done to enhance a sudden section change.


  7. Kim Lajoie says:

    Sounds like you’re on the right track! Starting a project just for testing gear and exploring new techniques is an excellent idea. It’s a good way to try something new without the pressure of having to get it ‘right’ the first time. It’s something I do from time to time as well.

    How are you using your 8 encoders to control a step sequencer? Is that a plugin you’re using?


  8. Kim Lajoie says:

    Great to hear, thanks Neel. I love hearing about people being inspired by these blog posts!


  9. Kim Lajoie says:

    Interesting. I sometimes take a similar approach – but instead of recording lots of takes and then picking out the best parts, I prefer to ‘jam’ with it longer until I’ve written a full part that’ll work. It takes a bit longer, but it’s more fun to spend that time playing instead of mousing around editing audio.


  10. Kim Lajoie says:

    True – I didn’t mention the readers like yourself who are already doing it! Have you tried performing drums using a keyboard or pad controller? If you put in the time to get good at it, you’ll be able to play some convincing grooves and be able to adjust the modify the groove and rhythms in a very natural way.


  11. Robert says:

    It’s an excellent post!I do mainly hiphop but also dabble in house and techno and due to space constraints,I had to rock my laptop to make music but I was really tired of using the mouse and mostly the visual element,that I bought an sp-404sx and it’s pretty limited compared to a laptop full of nice programs like Fl Studio 10,Reason 5 and Geist…lol
    But I’m just having fun again and I appreciate the simplicity.I also have bought some controllers for my software and slowly but surely,I’m re-inventing how I make beats:)

  12. Kim Lajoie says:

    Great to hear! Music is physical, and it’s a lot more satisfying to create music with our whole bodies than just the tip of a single finger.


  13. st0w says:

    This is a fantastic tip! For ages, I’ve always read people suggesting that perfect quantization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And that the slight imperfections make music even more human. As an electronic musician, albeit I was a piano and guitar player first, I’ve always felt that imperfection still has a place in electronic music. If anything, it’s something we have to conscientiously put there, lest our music become solely the domain of machines. I write primarily trance and progressive, which almost always seems to be too perfectly quantized. Too machinelike.

    So while I knew this was a good idea, I never really practiced it. At best, I would use DAW swing quantization, which is still algorithmic in nature. Or I’d use a drum sequencer’s ability to randomly shift when an element is played. But still, that “random” pattern still feels machine-like.

    So after reading this post earlier today and playing in a simple piano melody atop a track I’m working on, I decided to forego the quantization and only adjust notes that were so far off as to be unpleasing. The end result is a variety of velocity and slight imperfections in timing that make the song feel more organic.

    I know it will be hard to always do this, but the timing of the post was perfect and I’m glad I finally gave it a shot! Thanks Kim, love the blog!

  14. Kim Lajoie says:

    That’s right – machine-generated ‘true’ randomness is different to human groove. I wrote about that in more detail a couple of years ago:

    Also, that was a clever pun – ‘the timing of the post was perfect’! Haha!


  15. Thrundal says:

    I use soft synths for everything while rewiring Reason into Ableton. I’ve been rewiring these programs together only recently but, doing this sped up my workflow a ton. I’ll usually use Reason for beats then mix Reason’s, Ableton’s and Max 4 Live’s instruments for basses and pads. Adding Ableton’s effects to Reason instruments helps too. I also find using Reason’s Matrix pattern sequencer to switch between LFO modulated bass and pad sequences is a nifty trick for getting quick yet smooth track transitions on the fly. In terms of physical hardware, one mini-sized USB keyboard along with some Audio-cubes are all I’ve ever really experimented with since I’m used to being mobile and always use a laptop for recording.

  16. Alex says:

    Well I tried this on a track that unfortunately has no title yet…its my current “work in progress” and thats still the title 😉
    I only have a “standard” cheap midi keyboard, so I tried to give it a go with a lead synth line. There I noticed that I just dont know the keys well enough and I am far too slow with finding the next right key and I often hit the wrong one…Not to mention the more than bad timing I have, but quantisation helps there.
    As this was not working so great I then tried to play my pad sounds manually….there were only some chords so I did not have the difficulty of so many different notes as I had with the lead synth…also the changes were slower so I had more time.
    This was pretty fun, worked quite good with a bit of quantisation and the fact that I was doing the automation (filter cutoff) with one of the knobs too was really bringing some more life to the pad.
    I have to admit though, that I realy need a lot more pratice to use this more often and with other instruments…knowing the keys and getting the timing right seem to be my biggest problems….

  17. Kim Lajoie says:

    Sounds like you’ve got a setup that’s been pretty well thought-through. Do you use the mini USB keyboard for playing parts live (instead of step-sequencing)?


  18. Kim Lajoie says:

    You’re absolutely right – practice is essential. When I record a lead part on keyboard or guitar, I usually spend some time playing along with the track (without recording) just so I can get the part right. I only hit record once I’ve played it enough that I know what I’m doing.


  19. Faheem says:

    Is always a pleasure and very inspirational to read your posts.

    I’ve been doing this for a while now but very now an then I forget to do it. I realize those are the times im most stuck musically and creatively. When I’m trying to construct the music in an architecture manner rather let it sculpt itself.

    I’ve also been implementing these ideas in a live set format using controllers and ableton live. The way I’ve set it up , I use a certain set of samples and instruments(armed to play on a midi controller) to allow for a very inprovisational flow along with loopers and live fx tweaking.

    Whats amazing is everytime I start with a single idea , I come up with something I would never have expected to come out of those set of clips and sounds. Ive recently started recording these long live sessions and its like a bank of ideas.

    IIm using this suggestion of yours in a live set format with great success.

    Thanks for the suggestions.

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