Variety is the spice of life – and apparently the spice of music, too: in Daniel Levitin’s New York Times best-selling book, This Is Your Brain On Music, the esteemed neuroscientist outlines thorough research describing two fundamental synaptic reactions that correspond to our enjoyment of music.
On one hand, our brains love to successfully predict patterns in music: when we expect a change – say verse to chorus or breakdown to drop – and the change happens when we expect it, our brains light up. But this only works up to a point; if we successfully predict every change, we quickly become bored and distracted. So we also have a contradictory yet complementary synaptic pathway that sparks joy when music surprises us by defying our predictions – but again, only to a degree: if music is nothing but surprise, it registers as more of a jumbled mess than a song.
Pattern prediction is easy to implement: just create clips at standard Western phrasing of 2, 4, or 8 bars and let the loops roll, always editing on those standard intervals. But how can we harness the element of surprise? Live 11 makes it easier than ever.
In Live 11’s newly revamped MIDI clips, I can now edit the chance any note will play via its probability marker, viewable in the new chance lane, located below the familiar note velocity lane.
In these examples I’ll take a very simple 1-bar drum clip and adjust chance settings to make it much less repetitive. First, I’ll take all the 16th note high-hats and reduce their chance to 77% so most of them will play most of the time, but some will occasionally drop out.
This is working well enough, but I want to retain the upbeat high hats, so I’ll increase their chance to 100%, meaning they always play.
It’s starting to get more interesting, but now I’ll add a few snares with fairly low probability to produce occasional syncopated fills.
The 1-bar loop is no longer the same every bar, but to make it even more dynamic I’ll add some syncopated kicks with even lower probability.
This clip is now following an essential musical structure but every time around plays slightly different notes – but still feels a bit stale. This is mostly due to the high-hats all playing at the same velocity. To remedy this I’ll select all the high hats and click the Randomize button in the clip note settings to the left of the note editor.
If the probability lane is selected, this will instantly Randomize the chance of all notes – but that’s not what I want to do as I’m happy with my current chance settings. Instead, I’ll click at the left of the Velocity lane to make sure that’s selected. If you’re not sure which is selected, the number box to the right of the Randomize button gives this away: if it’s a percentage value, you’ve got chance selected, if it’s a number without a percent sign going up to 127, velocity is selected.
With velocity selected, I want to reduce the range from 127 down to 64 so that the range of velocity randomization won’t go all the way down from the current value to the lowest possible value. With that in place, I can click Randomize to instantly set random velocities for all selected notes within my target range.
With my high-hat velocities randomized, things are already sounding more lively. However, the velocity contour is still somewhat repetitive, even if the chance of notes played at those velocities results in a changing pattern.
Instead, I can create a range of velocity randomization for selected notes by adjusting the Velocity Range slider below the Randomize section of the note settings.
Bringing the overall velocity range down -34 for selected notes is reflected in the shader bars extending below each velocity marker in the velocity lane; if I select a range above zero, these bars would appear above the marker instead – either way, they visualize the range of possible velocities for each note.
I can do this individually for each note instead by selecting a note and dragging the range slider accordingly, or by hovering over the top or bottom of a note’s velocity range bar and adjusting it up or down, or, if no range has been imposed and the velocity value is fixed, I can simply drag the velocity line to pull a note’s velocity range up or down. To adjust the anchor velocity without changing the range, grab the velocity marker’s circular handle at left. A circular handle with a dot in it indicates a velocity deviation range has been applied.
By now you might be thinking, “Sure, this is great for drums and all, but what about other material?”
Of course these randomizations can be applied to any instrument, and are particularly effective on those with velocity assigned to control a variety of parameters.
I’ll do this with a fairly simple instance of Wavetable playing a synth bass line.
To spice it up, I’ll reduce the play chance of all the non-root notes; being in C minor, I can just select all the notes above C1 and reduce their chance, in this case to 64%. This way the root notes will sort of anchor the pattern – this isn’t meant to be prescriptive though, it’s just an example.
But I’m not done just yet: in Wavetable’s MIDI modulation matrix, I’ve assigned velocity to control Filter 1 Frequency and Oscillator 1 Position, along with the standard Amp volume.
With velocity assigned to control audible parameters, I’ll now create dynamic velocity deviation ranges for all the notes. Modulation ranges can always be changed in the instrument but it can be good to adjust velocity ranges while listening to the clip playback to set them up optimally for a given sound.