33 classic techno creation tips
16th May 2008 | 13:26
The sound of '80s Detroit is also the sound of now
Techno is back in a big way – and it’s funkier than ever. So, dig out your 909 (or your 909 emulation) and allow MusicRadar to advise you on how to start producing in this classic electronic genre…
1. A great way of sourcing percussion is to make it yourself. If the idea of sculpting hats and snares out of pure waves doesn’t appeal to you, try processing and applying amplitude envelopes to random samples and bits of percussion.
2. Plenty of the more esoteric techno artists, such as the legendary Future Sound of London, take noises from real life and twist them up. If you’ve got a microphone, record anything and everything you can and send to it in your soft sampler.
3. It’s possible to emulate the reversed tape effect from early techno classics such as Derrick May’s Strings of Life by exporting a section of your track as audio, then reversing it and placing it back in your tune.
4. Applying a tasteful delay effect to a synth riff can add depth to the sound and create complex little melodies if done right. Try setting the delay time to a quarter of a beat with a low wet level and high feedback. Experiment with the delay time until it sounds sweet.
5. Although chopping up percussion loops is a relatively quick and effective way to create techno beats, you can achieve much more flexibility and a more authentic sound by using one-shot percussion sounds. The Roland TR-909 kit is very much the standard, but try exploring other drum machine sounds, such as those from the Roland R8, when you need a little variety.
6. Though it’s tempting to constantly break out your most flashy effects plug-ins, techno demands proper understanding of core effects, particularly reverb and dynamics. Get to know your software’s native effects inside out. Most software samplers also feature their own effects, so make sure you check out all your available options.
7. If you’ve got a delay effect that gives you the option of turning the delay time all the way down to zero, make sure you experiment with these extreme times. Chorus, reverb and flange effects are all created with near zero delay times, so there’s plenty of mileage to be had from this particular effect.
8. At the more minimal end of techno, each sound needs to be as strong as you can possibly get it. If your synths feel a bit on the weedy side, try adding a sub-oscillator (ie, an oscillator an octave or two below the route key). Sine waves are ideal for this – other shapes may require filtering.
9. For that classic hard techno sound, place a clap on every other beat and stick it through a reasonably large reverb effect. Start at 100% dry and increase the wet level until the sound becomes a mangled shell of its former self. Experiment with the damping and reverb length controls until you're happy with how things sound.
10. Increase the pre-delay on your reverb unit to create interesting rhythmic textures. For maximum impact, use a short reverb. Longer times create more ambient effects.
11. The key to good techno is syncopation, and you can radically alter the feel of your percussion track by shifting elements forward or back. For example, try shifting your open hat or clap sounds by 16ths to see what alternative rhythms you can come up with.
12. Take a tip from US ghettotech-sters and juxtapose your four-to-the-floor 909 kicks with some electro-style 808 kick action. If you’re feeling flash you could pepper your 4/4 kick patterns with offbeat 808 kicks, though you’ll need quite a short amplitude envelope to ensure the beats don’t overlap.
13. It can be tempting to set your synth or sampler’s resonance really high for those scorching filter sweeps. However, this can cause peaks at certain frequencies. Remedy this with a sharp EQ curve at the offending frequency, or use compression or limiting to ensure a constant volume level.
14. Adding compression can add some vital punch to your rhythm track, but consider compressing your kick drum on a separate channel to the rest of your percussion to keep its volume constant. Alternatively, to save on CPU strain you could try using a pre-compressed kick sample.
15. If you’re attempting to create techno riffs with a pattern sequencer, such as Reason’s Matrix, try hitting the Randomise pattern function until you get something inspirational. This feature is available on every self-respecting pattern sequencer, and helps overcome all that human um-ing and ah-ing with a dose of pure digital dictation.
16.LinPlug’s excellent Albino is a good choice for techno sounds, particularly as it features a chord play feature. Select a lead sound, set the chord mode to Learn, hit a minor chord on your MIDI controller and set the chord mode to play: cordial indeed.
17. Arpeggiators can be useful for quickly creating rich synth washes, though not all synths sport this techno-friendly feature. You may be surprised to learn that most sequencers have built-in arpeggiators.
18. If you’ve got any old hardware, dig it out and integrate it into your setup. If you can’t be bothered with external MIDI (a grim prospect with certain sequencers), just try jamming sounds through appropriate plug-in effects via your soundcard’s audio input and recording the results.
19. FM synthesis is a tricky method that, unless done properly, often results in metallic banging noises. However, for our purposes that’ll do nicely.
20. Acid is always good for a laugh. If you’re using a TB-303 style synth (such as d16’s Phoscyon) and your sequencer has a built-in step sequencer, you can use the Glide and Accent controls for that authentic acid bounce.
21. Feel the need to add your own sleazy spoken word vocals, a la Green Velvet? If you haven’t got the most techno-friendly voice, try pitching the vocal down and running it through an overdrive plug-in for a bit more oomph.
22. If you’re the kind of techno purist that finds anything but drums unacceptable, try putting parts of your track through effects in different orders. For example, put a beat through a tightly synced delay then a compressor for some complex rhythmic hi-jinks.
23. For clinical rhythms, you can apply a gate to your rhythm group channel, or for yet more precise control, to each individual track. Experiment using gates before or after any compression used.
24. When you’re trying to make a certain percussion part stand out more, rather than adding EQ gain to its most prominent frequencies, try raising its overall volume and taking out any unwanted frequencies instead. This approach leaves in more frequencies, resulting in a fuller sound.
25. Preset junkies: bored of the same old sounds? Give flavourless leads a more organic edge by applying an envelope and LFO to the filter cutoff. By fine tuning the LFO delay amount you can create funky, syncopated licks.
26. The most important element of dancefloor techno is undoubtedly the kick drum. Make sure your kick drum sound goes nice and deep – if it hasn’t got any bottom end at about the 100-150Hz level it’ll sound weak no matter how much EQ you apply.
27. If your snare drum feels a bit too much, try lopping off some of the bottom end with a high-pass filter. This can be turned into quite a harsh effect with the resonance turned up. Alternatively, for a slightly more mellow feel, try applying a high EQ roll-off.
28. When applying distortion of any kind to a kick drum, it’s important to keep an eye on that bottom end. Consider applying a sub-90Hz high-pass filter to block out the super-low frequencies – fine tune the frequency until you hit the sweet spot.
29. To add a bit of a tribal vibe to the proceedings, grab a few conga, tom or bongo samples and set them up as different keyzones in your sampler. With just a handful of samples, you can create some suitably funky rhythms – try fine-tuning the velocity levels for different feels.
30. Percussion samples can be made to sound much more realistic by adding amplitude envelopes. You may find that it helps to have each sample saved as a separate instrument or group so that you can adjust the release time of each sample individually.
31. Some interesting polyrhythmic effects can be achieved by setting a sample’s loop length so that it’s out of time with the rest of the track. By sustaining the loop, you’ll encounter increasingly offset rhythms. If you wanted to develop this idea further, you could try adding a synced or free-running filter sweep to the loop.
32. If your synth has pulse width modulation controls, try assigning an LFO to the pulse width amount and sync its frequency to the pitch. By fine-tuning the frequency, LFO shape and amplitude amount, whole new rhythms can be produced.
33. Crazy and unexpected noises can often be created by pushing plug-ins to their extremes. For example, if your sampler features a real-time pitchshifting mode, try setting the pitch, speed and grain size values to ridiculous settings.