18 kickin' electro tips
Blending electronic instrumentation and old-school funk, electro was born in the USA in the early 1980s. Now you can become a master of the genre with MusicRadar's essential selection of tips…
1. Whether you're making electro-influenced pop, rock, or dance music (á la Felix Da Housecat), full, expressive synthesized sounds are of the utmost importance. When creating your lead sounds, pitch or pulse width modulation can add a human (or at least humanoid) touch. By tying these functions to your MIDI controller's mod wheel, you can add appropriate emphasis when needed in good old 80s fashion.
2. Synth leads can be thickened up by adding more voices or by using unison functions. If your synthesizer has a built-in chorus effect, you may find using this is more efficient than applying a separate chorus plug-in, and could well yield better results. If your lead sound still requires additional beefiness, consider adding another voice tuned to an octave down.
3. Using envelopes can add a lot of character to your tracks. Try employing a filter envelope to create punchy bass sounds, or use a frequency modulation envelope to get harsher, more abstract effects that are perfect for punchy leads.
4. Many purportedly electronic acts expose their Luddite roots by using the distinctly un-robotic sounds of the guitar. Even if you're no axe hero, you can emulate this behaviour by running your synth through an overdrive plug-in. Saw or pulse waves tend to work best – just apply a bit of chorus, overdrive and delay or reverb and you're good to go.
5. Add that 'stretchy' quality to your saw wave-based basses and leads using a band-reject filter at about 100Hz. Turn up the resonance until it sounds suitably robotic.
6. For tearing synthesized sounds without an all-out rock flavour, use a synth with its own EQ, and turn up some of the bands so that they overload in a pleasant manner. You may find you have to do a bit of experimenting, as different patches require different EQ boosts for optimal effect. In addition, cutting certain bands helps bring out the sound too.
7. For those synthy atmospherics, you can't beat a bit of band-pass filtering. Try taking a regular low-pass filtered bass patch, changing the filter type to band-pass, and adding some delay or reverb. You can also turn up the filter's resonance or alter the decay time of the filter envelope for different effects.
8. Even if your synth doesn't have an arpeggiator, you can still create basic gated riffs using a pulse or square wave to modulate volume or cutoff frequency. This also means that you can use envelope or key-synced LFOs to sweep an effect over a whole passage without it restarting on each note.
9. If your bass lacks bottom, use a high-pass filter with a bit of resonance tuned to the bottom reaches. This should give those low frequencies a good kick up the backside.
10. If you need inspiration for a new riff or chord progression, try using your synthesizer's chord mode (which you'll find on such beasts as LinPlug's Albino and Korg's Polysix). This feature is a throwback to the days of keyboards like Roland's Juno Alpha, and enables you to create quick (albeit rather basic) chord sequences. The results often have that distinct 80s quality, especially when combined with the occasional bit of vibrato.
"Even if your synth doesn't have an arpeggiator, you can still create basic gated riffs using a pulse or square wave to modulate volume or cutoff frequency."
11. When creating music of any electro bent, one is obliged to use as much vocal processing as possible. Pretty much anything that doesn't make the words unintelligible is fair game, though the simplest approach is the classic lo-fi effect, achieved with some high-pass filtering and a bit of subtle distortion. Filter at about 500Hz, and when applying distortion, remember the golden rule of vocal manipulation – if you think you've added too much processing, you almost certainly have, so ease back.
12. Conversely, if you're stuck for an interesting sound then a bit of extreme vocal processing can come in handy. Try cutting out single syllables from a vocal, stretching or looping them, then running them through different kinds of effects. Pretty soon you should come up with something suitably bizarre and other-worldly to spice up your track.
13. For those sci-fi moments, ring modulation can work a treat. Low frequency values can add an unnatural robotic effect, with larger values turning vocals (and anything else you might put through it) into twisted alien splutterings.
14. As mankind stands on the brink of an ecological precipice, it's important to waste as little of our resources as possible. If you've got any old vocal takes lying around, snip out and save any breathing noises. These can then be used to add that kinky pseudo-sexual vibe to any appropriate moments of your track.
15. For that Kraftwerkian authenticity, try synthesizing your own drum sounds. This is not nearly as hard as you might imagine, and offers increased flexibility over using samples. Hi-hats are the simplest – all you need is a noise oscillator high-pass filtered at about 6kHz with a short decay, zero sustain amplitude envelope. Give it a shot!
16. For snare drums, again use a noise wave, although this time you'll need to add a couple of other tonal waves at different pitches as well. High-pass filter it at about 200-400Hz and remember the short amplitude envelope. If any of these synthesized drums sound like they're a little lacking, reverb and/or compression can help bring them out.
17. For a massive 808-style kick, you'll want a sine wave modulated with a pitch envelope. Use a decay time of about half a second for the amplitude and pitch envelopes and try adding another sine wave a few octaves up for added punch. Whack the whole lot through a low-pass filter or two and you're sorted.
18. For a shorter, more thumping 909 kick sound, try turning the decay times down to about 150ms. A sine wave pitched up a couple of octaves will give you a bit of a Euro effect, so get rid of it if that isn't what you're after.