It’s not unusual for dance producers to spend days perfecting the beat. But it’s important to remember that drums never stand alone. Instead, getting a great groove is about combining the drum section with other instrumental parts in an interesting way.
The importance of the interaction between bassline and beat is well documented. The two parts form the rhythmic backbone upon which all else is built. But what about using other parts to add interest to the groove?
Something that works a treat in terms of originality and simplicity is adapting recorded vocal elements into short percussive bursts to use throughout the track. These can be untuned elements (the ones with more air and no discernible pitch), or pitched snippets form clearly sung lines.
The aim is extra rhythmic interest, so we should ensure that no specific word or phrase is recognisable after the deconstruction and reprogramming process.
Sampler vs Audio track
Deciding whether to work in the sampler or an the audio track is down to personal choice. Should you chop the vocals on an audio track or load them into a sampler to be mangled? In the ‘old days’ – anything more than about 10 years ago – it would have been sampler all the way. Load a big chunk of vocals, edit them into lots of slices, map the slices to different keys, and then program away. The advantage of doing it this way, even now, is that each individual slice can be filtered, pitched and tweaked easily (even in real-time). The other great advantage is that you can play the samples on a keyboard or drum pads and record the result. Samplers like Cubase’s Groove Agent ONE or Logic’s Ultrabeat (in sampler mode) will work a treat.
Here is the original untreated vocal line:
And here is the same line chopped into random slices and triggered using Cubase’s Groove Agent ONE.
Audio track vs Sampler
Using an audio track for vocal editing trickery can be a lot quicker, and offers a range of other editing options that can be accessed more easily on a note-by-note basis – pitch bending, time-stretching, reversing etc. Here you can see our chopped audio on a single track in Logic 9:
And here are the vocals chopped and triggered on the audio track:
Whichever approach you choose, the first thing you’ll need to do is import some vocal samples. The best kind of raw samples are ones that are relatively unprocessed, but that have interesting tonal qualities and feature a range of different words. When you’ve found some samples you like load them into an audio track. If necessary re-pitch what you have to make the vocals work (broadly) in terms of key. Use your DAW’s transpose or pitch-shift processes to make the results permanent.
In the first example here the vocals don’t sound as if they are in key:
We re-tune the vocals so that they fit the track:
Now it’s time to get the sample to work rhythmically as well. In this example we’ve done some rough chops of the original vocal line and pulled the starting points forward so that the line sits nicely in the groove. We’ve also done some glitchy chopping towards the end to lead into the next bar.
For the snip
Now listen through the vocal track and go crazy slicing it up into a number of tasty morsels. Depending on the kind of feel you’re after choose either breathy sections (the unpitched bits) or single tuned syllables. Mute (or even better, delete) any bits of dull audio. Now go through the whole lot again and choose no more than about 10 of them – the 10 most characteristic, interesting slices. These are your final audio sections with which you’ll create your glitched vocal groove.
This example shows how the raw sliced vocal sounds. It is now ready for further editing and programming:
Here are the chops in Cubase:
We now have a bunch of out-of-time, semi-random vocals. To make more sense of them create a 1 or 2 bar loop (with the existing drum track in the background). Drag the chunks into the loop area and move them around to get a feel of how they interact with the other elements. Experiment with different sound slices in different spaces. Try reversing a slice or two. In this image you can see the re-arranged slices in pink.
And here is how the newly edited vocal part sounds with the backing tracks (and then the beat).
Off the beaten track
When deciding where to place the different vocal slices, start by keeping them away from the kick and snare beats. They will have more impact if they hit on the down-beats. Use the DAW’s grid (with snapping to quantization grid enabled) to push the slices around until the groove starts to take on a personality of its own. Here’s how it looks in Logic:
Here’s how the glitched vocal line sounds with the slices shifted onto the off-beats:
Lift and separate
If things get too busy, then split elements onto different tracks. This allows you to mute different elements at different points, and means you can process elements separately. Try panning the tracks differently and applying varying amounts of reverb to help them sit in different areas of the mix.
Here’s how it sounds:
If in doubt – process
If your newly created vox-based rhythm section is too tame and lacks balls then it’s time to go to town with extra processing. Distortion plugins are great at generating lots of nice (or nasty) additional harmonics. If your mangling needs reining-in, apply a dose of filtering (low-pass and band-pass will both work well). For extra tonal shaping try some envelope controlled filtering?
In this example we send the vocal line through a distortion unit:
Here we get even more extreme with an autofilter (the amplitude controlling a band- pass filter):
And finally… we add some ping-pong delay to the signal chain for some truly messed up action.
Chopped vocals are a great source of interesting and unpredictable musical inspiration that can add a subliminal human face to any synth-led track. Have fun with them.
Thanks to Go Control for the vocal extracts used in the audio examples. www.myspace.com/gocontrol
Bruce Aisher cut his teeth at Cheeky Records with production luminary Rollo (of Faithless fame) and had much success (including a US Billboard Club Chart No.1 and a UK Top 40) as one half of house duo ‘Brancaccio & Aisher’. He has been a staple of Bedrock Records for many years and produced and remixed tracks for numerous labels – most recently under his solo club alter-ego ‘Gutterstylz’. He writes regularly for Future Music magazine.