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How it’s done
To demonstrate this difference in timbre between sampled chords and notes sequenced manually, let’s create a simple example of our own. We’ll sample a C minor 7 chord played on a piano.
Here’s the original chord:
Having bounced the chord to audio, the resulting file is then imported into a sampler (you can achieve the same result in absolutely any sampler – in fact, the more basic, the better). As the root note of the chord is C3, we’ve set the key to ‘C3’, with the key range extended so that the chord can be pitched up and down from its original position:
The resulting difference in timbre can be heard as the chord gets pitched up and down:
The harmonics of the sampled piano keys change as the chord is pitched up and down, resulting in the unusual pitch-shifted timbre. Sampling technology in the 80s meant that this was originally quite a rough effect. If you can get your hands on a 12-bit sampler such as an Akai MPC60 or S900 or an E-mu SP1200, the lo-fi sound will be perfect for this technique. To exaggerate the effect using software, you could also try deliberately sampling the original chord an octave higher than you want to play it back, or using a bit-crushing plugin like D16’s excellent Decimort to add a bit of that vintage sampler feel to the sound.
To help understand how our sampled chord sounds in context, we can make a chord progression using just minor 7 chords. The first two bars in the piano roll below (the notes highlighted in red) show the progression sequenced using the same piano from which we took the initial sample. The second two (highlighted in green) show the notes used to play exactly the same chords, but this time using the sample.
Keeping In Scale
In some ways, using this technique can be seen as restrictive. Having only one chord shape available for our progressions creates a potential problem if we want to keep within a scale. However, if we’re prepared to play outside the scale, this technique can create chord progressions and melodies we’d perhaps otherwise overlook.
‘Feel It’ is relatively simple, only using minor 7 chords at the 1st and 4th degrees of the scale – Eb and Ab – both of which are chords comprising notes in the natural minor scale anyway. If we want to start using more chords, or to create a melody using our sampled chord, things can become a little more complicated.
For instance, below we have the C minor scale in triads (that is, using the notes from the C natural minor scale) – Cm, Ddim, Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb, Cm:
Everything sounds normal and within scale.
However, if we play each of the notes as a minor triad (i.e. we change those major and diminished chords to their minor equivalents), we can hear that the resulting sequence of chords has a much more unusual sound. Here’s the result – Cm, Dm, Ebm, Fm, Gm, Abm, Bbm, Cm:
Even though the root notes still conform to the natural minor scale, the often out of scale 3rds and 5ths of each triad chord give the progression an unusual sound.
Next, let’s take a listen to some further examples which demonstrate the potential of this technique for creating unique chord progressions and timbres…
Passing Notes is sponsored by
Spitfire Audio is a British company founded by two film composers looking to revolutionise sampling.
They set about recording the world’s finest players in the best locations in order to capture samples of unrivalled quality. Used across the music, gaming and film industry, Spitfire has become the go-to for producers and composers looking to add truly authentic sounds to their works.
With offices in Central London and a growing workforce of experienced music, film and recording professionals, their revolution continues.